A brief exchange between two comment-makers Fox and ex-PSLE candidate amused me somewhat, because it illustrated a tension that is everywhere, yet not many people see it.
ex-PSLE candidate wrote:
I study [Mandarin Chinese] because I know that it is a basic responsibility on my part, as a Chinese. I would be really losing face if I said I was a Chinese and didn’t know how to converse, write or interact in Chinese fluidly!
To that Fox replied:
Why is studying Chinese a basic responsibility on your part? What is the moral impetus behind it? Will you be a bad person if you don’t study Chinese? Would you have been less honest, less charitable, less friendly, less sociable, less generous, etc if you hadn’t studied Chinese? Who put this idea in your head? What is a losing face situation? Millions of people descended from Chinese emigrants live in America, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc. Many of them cannot speak or write Chinese…..
In the human species, some variations are visible, others not so. The visible variations include skin colour, hair colour, build, age and pitch of voice. Because they are visible, we take them into account when we interact with others, or we use them to classify people. Personality differences are much less visible, and, failing to remind ourselves that these exist, we easily slip into a mode where we assume the other person is just like oneself.
I have long noticed that people can be put on a continuum, at one end of which are people whose sense of identity is very much anchored with a group; at the opposite end are those who would define themselves for themselves — the term “free spirited” comes to mind. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, and in any case, it may well shift with age.
The thing about belonging to a group — tribe, clan, ethnicity, religion, etc — is that it saves you a lot of trouble figuring out who or what you are, but it also means that you’re mostly signing on to a package deal. It’s not easy to pick and choose the values and beliefs, responsibilities and obligations, without risking your membership altogether. In return however, there are huge benefits. Groups are usually very good at providing social support, a mutual loyalty that can be extremely valuable.
Most of us never make any conscious decision to be part of this group or that group. We are born into one, or two, and we are brought up with the values and beliefs that characterise the group, though some individuals, from young, never quite fit; they have no interest in conforming. Other individuals when they grow older chafe at the constraints imposed by the package deal, ending up questioning the ethos of the group.
We all start as dogs with their pack instinct, but some of us wander out as loner cats.
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The comments I’ve excerpted above indicate that the parties used the word “Chinese” to mean different things, leading inexorably to a difference of opinion. For one, the word is an identity label, and like all identity labels, it brings in train a host of unstated markers and belief systems. Facility with the Chinese language is one such marker and failing to live up to it naturally entails feelings of guilt or inadequacy. For the other, the word is just a dispassionate descriptor of a genealogical fact and to him there’s a logical gap between the mere descriptor and all the other assumptions that the first speaker brings into play.
One wears skin heavily, the other lightly.
There’s also something very interesting about how Mandarin Chinese has been internalised as the mother tongue. The questioning sort would contest the validity of this, but to do so would be to fail to understand that the chief purpose of markers is to mark out a group, not necessarily to be true to history. Markers can change if need be.
How do they change? Sometimes circumstances force a change. Tiny ethnic Chinese communities in a sea of non-Chinese-speaking people (e.g. the Chinese in Jamaica) may not be able to sustain the language, so over time, they drop it as unviable and rely on other markers instead. Other times, authority figures within the group decide that there would be political or other advantage to switch markers.
This was what happened with the Chinese. As modern Chinese nationalism rose in the early part of the 20th century, there was a feeling that all the disparate peoples of the Empire of China should begin to see themselves as a single nation, instead of being a mere collection of imperial provinces and counties. Hence, in the spirit of the times, community leaders both in China and in the Singapore and Malayan diaspora gradually adopted the language created by Guomindang (Kuomintang) in the early years of the Republic as a badge of their new identity. This created language, though substantially based on the Beijing dialect, was in those days called Guoyu (the “national language”), now called Putonghua (the “common language”). In Singapore, we call it Mandarin.
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Ethnicity is not the only delineator of groups we can belong to. Religion is another.
One thing about religion though, is that it typically comes with enormous historical baggage. This presents adherents with a cornucopia of choices as to which articles of faith, texts, interpretations and rituals to prioritise. There’s no way one can do justice to the entire body of tradition; one has to pick and choose. Herein lie opportunities to select some for their marking value. Like all groups with an urge to make themselves unique, the choice will tend towards those beliefs or practices that set themselves apart from people of a different faith, even from those of the same religion, but a different sect. More time and energy has historically been spent searching for differences rather than universal values. The history of religion is replete with contests over markings.
And like how Mandarin came to be adopted as the marker language for Chineseness despite its ahistoricity, modern-day evangelical Christianity has argued that marriage has always stood for a monogamous union of man and woman in a willing and mutually loving relationship. They call it “traditional marriage”, except that it’s a pretty recent phenomenon too.
As Rita Nakashima-Brock argued in her Huffington Post essay Prop 8, Judge Walker and the Biblical View of Marriage Equality most marriages described in the Bible were nothing of the modern sort:
The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. “Traditional marriages” in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her — for this, she was supposed to be grateful.
Yet, her arguments will fall on deaf ears. These present-day churches’ stance on marriage is intended as a temporal marker of identity (despite language suggesting timeless truth). Church members subscribe to it as part of the package deal for belonging to the group. Asking members of these congregations to interrogate their positions on the matter is almost beside the point. Their sense of identity will not incline them to question the markers which their authority figures have laid down as important.
Those who are of a questioning nature will either have left these churches for others, or become non-Church-going Christians — people who value their spirituality more than the tribalism demanded by group dynamics.
This also explains why many lesbians and gays continue to stay within churches that regularly denounce their sexuality from the pulpit. They find it very hard to sever their identification with a group they have gotten used to. Like Chinese who feel guilty about not being able to speak Chinese, it’s easier to live with the guilt than to break bonds and turn their backs on something they consider fundamental to their sense of being — the group.