Sunday, May 13, 2012

Politeness, Privilege, and Political Correctness

OK, here it is, my contribution to the Expatosphere dialogue revolving around Debito Aruduo's broadside in the Japan Times.

(My wife's opinion is here. I don't disagree with her, but I have a different take on it, because I am a different person from her and if we were the same person then the legalities of getting married would have been difficult and headache-inducing.)

I have never lived in Japan and will not opine about that country. I have lived in Korea and Taiwan.

First off, I've never once been asked if I can use chopsticks in five years of living in Taiwan, nor have I been complimented on my chopsticks use. I don't think I'm being too oblivious to notice it's happening, because I got it all the time in Korea. (But I'm not going to be the jerkoff who says 'That never happened to me, therefore it couldn't possibly have happened to you.' After all, human beings are funny and unpredictable creatures.)

If I ever actually got 'Can you use chopsticks?' here in Taiwan I'd naturally assume that I was being involved (against my will) in a piece of performance art concerning interactions between Asians and Westerners. And I would respond that I was uninterested in playing that role, I have my own life to live, sorry.

But that leads into the first point I want to make: people in Taiwan, Korea, and probably China and Japan (I haven't lived in the latter two places) have things they say to foreigners to be polite that aren't meant to be taken literally. Koreans are infamous for complimenting foreigners on their chopsticks use. It's a running gag among the expat population. But I never, ever felt that there was the assumption that, as a foreigner, I wouldn't be able to use chopsticks.

I used to joke that Koreans did this because they knew it was a national stereotype and, as patriotic Koreans, they felt they had to do their part to keep up appearances and keep asking foreigners if they possessed chopstick-utilizing skills. But in reality, it's all about polite conversation.


It's small talk. It's polite chatter. Koreans feel as if they're missing out on a useful conversational gambit if they see you using chopsticks and they don't compliment you on it.

I suspect complimenting a foreigner on being able to make themselves understood in the local language is done out of similar politeness. I always feel like I'm in the minority when I say so, because it seems to be an article of faith among many expats that East Asians are uniformly astounded when white people can speak their languages coherently. But I honestly believe that these expats are misunderstanding people due to cultural differences. (I discussed my feelings about this a little more deeply in a post last year; perhaps my next post will be to explain why I have an oddly strong set of views on this issue.)

But I'd like to turn to a more fundamental issue. I like to reduce what seems like cultural differences to first principles, perhaps unfortunately for people within earshot of my pontificating. I honestly get the feeling that the source of a lot of the 'microaggressions' aggravation stems from the fact that these Westerners, for the first time in their lives, do not have in-group privilege.


The notion of 'privilege' was clarified for me some time ago by a blogger (I do not remember who) who lived in a city somewhere in the USA. He was a white man returning home late at night when he was stopped by police. There was some kind of trouble in the neighborhood, and the cops wanted to make sure he wasn't up to no good. Afterwards, he reflected that because of his Euro-American looks, he didn't have to wonder afterwards if he'd been a victim of racial profiling. He didn't have to wonder if the cops had made assumptions about the kind of person he was due to the color of his skin.

That's privilege. And it's worthwhile to be conscious of being the beneficiary of it. That way, you don't respond like a jerk when you find yourself without it.

Nobody's talking about police in Taiwan racially profiling white people. But the concept remains. In-group privilege means, when a stranger makes an odd assumption about you, you don't have to wonder if it's because of your ethnicity (or other social group). On this point I suspect there isn't such a huge gap between countries like the USA and countries like Taiwan.

Yes, the USA is more multiracial, but I've heard anecdotal evidence of people not of the dominant racial group in the USA experiencing much the same kind of 'microaggressions' that expats here complain about. Not from everyone, of course. But from people. It happens. On the flip side, I interact with people in Taiwan every day who are probably interacting with me in precisely the same way that they would if I were native Taiwanese and had the ethnic features to match. And that's me with my pretty poor level of spoken Mandarin.

If someone starts talking to me in a way that seems to serve no purpose but say, 'Hello. You look like you're a foreigner, you know', then first I need to remember in-group privilege, and then I need to not smear my mental impression of that person across the whole of Taiwan and go complaining about how annoying Taiwanese people are.

And finally, I'd like to move on to my final topic...

Political Correctness.

'Political correctness' could have been a useful term if it hadn't been hijacked by culture warriors.

In the USA, we have a history of race relations which is fraught with difficulties I need not go into here. As a result, we've developed a vast and subtle set of taboos and social conventions around the public airing of race and ethnicity that are thought to minimize the possibility of racial strife (and I'm not convinced it does a good job of that). Don't believe me? Go to a culturally diverse American city, interact with people of differing racial backgrounds, find ways of overtly and klutzily bringing up the other person's ethnicity every single time, and just see how many friends you make.

There's so much tension surrounding race in America that we turn to comedy to relieve it. The USA's  full of comics who take our inability to squarely face the issue of race and turn it into comedy. It's a rare foreigner who possesses the cultural knowledge and understanding to fully understand what's so funny.

And that's an important point. Every culture is complex, and I suspect every culture has its own set of conversational taboos that surround difficult issues (that local comedians probably mine to be edgy). But they're different from culture to culture.

But the thing is, if you grow up entirely within a single culture, your culture's political correctness is invisible to you. You don't think it's something particular to your culture. You think it's just the way things are in this universe.

What I'm saying is, if you travel outside of the West with the idea in your mind that it's dreadfully rude to make reference to a stranger's racial background, even obliquely, then you've got a lesson coming your way.

And if you think you've reached enlightenment on this issue and you go around saying, 'Don't get angry at the locals if they say insensitive things about race. They don't know any better', then you've learned the lesson wrong. Differing cultural sensitivities do not constitute 'not knowing any better'. (Unless you're a culture of one.)

Differing cultural sensitivities do not constitute 'not knowing any better'. I want to take that sentence and repeat it in 96-point typeface, but instead I'll just end the blog post here.

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