Essays On Biculturalism
I recently wrote an academic essay on the topic of cultural identity, which is an actual account of my life story (in a way). It’s something that I’ve always wanted to share (and I’m sure many immigrants feel this way) but don’t know how to do it. So here we go.
The highly globalised world economy in recent decades sees an increasing number of people leaving their homelands to immigrate to different parts of the world since the 1990s. (OECD-UNDESA, 2013; United Nations, 2013) It has become only common to see people of different national backgrounds congregating at any random city, usually a developed one. This is a result of technological advancements and increasing opportunities across the globe, where moving from one country or city to another is not only limited to the rich and capable. (Stone, 1997:20; Du, Park & Wang, 2005) Flight tickets are much cheaper these days than decades ago (Thierer, 1998; Hanlon, 2007), and many multinational corporations (MNCs) have set up overseas branches in almost every continent to reach potential markets. (London & Hart, 2004) These are just some reasons to account for the increase in rate of migration around the world. Hence, the issue of cultural identity has become more important and relevant than before, since people who have moved to new countries would have to adapt to their host countries’ cultures and search for a new cultural identity for themselves.
My parents were one of the many immigrants back in the early 1990s, when they decided to move from Shanghai to Tokyo, and eventually to Singapore in search of better job opportunities and a better educational environment for their only child. They were not considered expatriates, but they were not low-skilled workers either; they were just an ordinary couple coming to Singapore to work average-paying jobs that were not popular with the locals back then in hope of a better future for the family. And that was how my bicultural identity started.
This is me at about 3 years old, before moving to Singapore.
As a toddler at the age of three who was obviously ignorant about the idea of immigration, I did not know what kind of life lies ahead of me. I was only told to stop speaking my native language, which is the Wu dialect (commonly known as Shanghainese), and to start learning Mandarin Chinese and English. My parents thought that it was the best way for me to adapt to my new environment, which coincidentally was in line with the Singapore government’s “Speak Mandarin Campaign” then. (Fishman, 1998:31) It was not long before I adapted to my life in Singapore, since I started going to preschool at the same age as my Singaporean counterparts. As languages were taught by local teachers, I could speak the Standard Singapore English (SSE) and the Standard Singapore Mandarin with no hint of a Mainland Chinese accent. I also picked up bits and pieces of colloquial Malay, and Chinese varieties such as Hokkien and Cantonese throughout my school years from my friends. As a result, I could code-switch fluently when I am speaking the Singapore Colloquial English (SCE). This has naturally led me to think I was a Singaporean, or rather to think that my emotional identity was as Singaporean as my native Singaporean friends.
At the infinity pool while celebrating my 21st birthday at the Marina Bay Sands hotel.
However, just when I thought I was comfortable growing up in my host country, I realised I was still not considered a “true” Singaporean to some of the people who have come in contact with me. There are three things that gave me away – my name, my passport, and my parents – of which I was immediately stereotyped as someone whom I did not think I was. Firstly, my given name is a single word. There has been a rising trend in Mainland Chinese parents using single character names for their children (Dai, 2006:1), and so when Singaporean strangers sometimes see my written name on an attendance sheet, I was asked if I was from China even before I could speak a word. Secondly, although I am a permanent resident in Singapore, I still hold on to China’s passport. The passport per se speaks a lot because people, myself included, use nationalities to classify others in general. This has unfortunately caused unwanted stereotypes for me because of the notorious and infamous things that some people of the said nationality had done in Singapore. This includes the China expatriate who crashed his Ferrari and killed a Singaporean taxi driver (Yahoo News Singapore, 2012) and the China family who told an Indian neighbour off for cooking curry (Moore, 2011). Both incidents had therefore led to anti-immigrant uproars, which targeted at the Chinese. Lastly, unlike myself, my parents moved to Singapore in their late twenties. Although they do not speak with strong Mainland Chinese accent, they do not speak with a notable Singaporean accent either. In other words, they do not fit in as much as I do on the surface. They have tried hard to adapt for more than twenty years but they could not acquire SCE as competently as I could since they have passed the sensitive age of second language acquisition. (Flege, Yeni-Komshian & Liu, 1999) With these, I occasionally would face unintentional stereotypes with a hint of prejudice against me, even from my friends. As much as my close Singaporean friends would claim that they see me as one of them, they would still jokingly annoy me when the news report about negative incidents that involve the Mainland Chinese such as those mentioned above. The notion of joking may seem harmless on the surface but deep down, it was questioning my sense of cultural identity and where I actually belong.
Sunset in Shanghai by the Oriental Pearl Tower, 2013.
On the other side, most of my extended family members still live in Shanghai. Whenever I return to pay them a visit, they would only speak to me in Mandarin Chinese, for fear that I would not understand them in the Wu dialect. However in reality, I still do comprehend this Chinese variety, albeit I have become a passive learner over the years. When asked to try conversing in the Wu dialect with my relatives, they would always exclaim how awkward and unnatural I sounded. Instead, they described me to be speaking with a “Singaporean accent” because it is unfamiliar to them. Just from a simple language barrier back in my homeland, I could feel that I do not fit in back in Shanghai as well. To my grandparents, I am raised in Singapore and therefore I do not possess the skills of a local Shanghainese when making transactions at the stores, which were described as aggressive and straightforward. This has again, made me feel slightly unwelcomed because I do not behave like one of them. I do know they still love and accept me like a family member, but they have already assumed that I am no longer a Shanghainese since the day I left for Singapore. To simply put this phenomenon, I do not have a home-country identity.
The issue of cultural identity is tricky, because there is no right or wrong to it, but only how one truly feels about himself/herself. Many developed cities, usually those with a relatively high population of foreigners, are described to be cosmopolitan. This supposedly meant that the people living in cosmopolitan cities have a high tolerance of foreigners’ behaviours in general because they are aware of the vastly different cultures that are present in this world. (Young, Diep & Drabble, 2006:1688) However, due to the nature of ethnocentrism, there will always be people who feel more superior just because they are born in that particular place. The recent rise in xenophobia among Singaporeans (Tai, 2014), especially towards people from Mainland China as a result of those sensitive incidents (Suhartono, 2011), has caused uneasiness for immigrants like me who have already developed a certain sense of patriotism for the host country. The dilemma of which ‘side’ to fend for always tears an immigrant apart because of his/her hybrid identity.
Until today, I am still in the process of creating a cultural identity for myself. Quoting the Pulitzer-winning writer in Newsweek magazine, Jhumpa Lahiri (2006), “Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.” I have come to terms that I do not belong to a specific country, and I should embrace both cultures as equally as I could. In addition, I have to admit that I am fortunate enough to immigrate to a country where my ethnicity is not a minority. There are many people elsewhere who are facing more serious identity crisis such as those who moved from Asia to Western countries (Benet-Martínez, Leu, Lee & Morris, 2002), and even third culture kids (TCK) who are always moving around the world. (Fail, Thompson & Walker, 2004:321) With these, I can only hope for more and more people to see themselves as citizens of the world so as to eradicate hatred and intolerance for cultures they deem inferior or wrong, and be more sensitive towards others. This would definitely help people like myself to feel better at all the homes we have had, or are going to have.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Benet-Martínez, V., Leu, J., Lee, F., & Morris, M. W. (2002). Negotiating biculturalism cultural frame switching in biculturals with oppositIonal versus compatible cultural identities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(5), 492-516.
Dai, L. (2006). Indexing personal names. Indexer, 25(2).
Du, Y., Park, A., & Wang, S. (2005). Migration and rural poverty in China.Journal of comparative economics, 33(4), 688-709.
Fail, H., Thompson, J., & Walker, G. (2004). Belonging, identity and Third Culture Kids Life histories of former international school students. Journal of Research in International Education, 3(3), 319-338.
Fishman, J. A. (1998). The new linguistic order. Foreign policy, 26-40.
Flege, J. E., Yeni-Komshian, G. H., & Liu, S. (1999). Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of memory and language, 41(1), 78-104.
Hanlon, J. P. (2007). Global airlines: competition in a transnational industry. Routledge.
Lahiri, J. (2006). My Two Lives. Newsweek. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from https://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/sslemon/engl315/lahiri001.pdf
London, T., & Hart, S. L. (2004). Reinventing strategies for emerging markets: beyond the transnational model. Journal of international business studies,35(5), 350-370.
Moore, M. (2011). Singapore’s ‘anti-Chinese curry war’. The Telegraph UK. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/singapore/8704107/Singapores-anti-Chinese-curry-war.html
OECD-UNDESA (2013). World Migration in Figures. Retrieved October 9, 2014, from http://www.oecd.org/els/mig/World-Migration-in-Figures.pdf
Suhartono, H. (2011). Singaporeans’ culinary anti-immigration protest: curry. Reuters US. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/22/uk-singapore-curry-idUSLNE77L01020110822
Stone, G. C. (1997). Interdependence in Dewey’s Theory of Community.Individual and Collective Contributions Toward Humaneness in Our Time, 19-39.
Tai, J. (2014). Concerns raised over racism and xenophobia. AsiaOne Singapore. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/concerns-raised-over-racism-and-xenophobia
Thierer, A. D. (1998). 20th anniversary of airline deregulation: cause for celebration, not reregulation. The Heritage Foundation.
United Nations (2013). International Migration Report 2013. Retrieved October 9, 2014, from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/migration/migrationreport2013/Full_Document_final.pdf
Yahoo News Singapore (2012). Ferrari crash fuels Singapore anti-foreign sentiment. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from https://sg.news.yahoo.com/ferrari-crash-fuels-singapore-anti-foreign-sentiment-193659157.html
Young, C., Diep, M., & Drabble, S. (2006). Living with difference? The’cosmopolitan city’and urban reimaging in Manchester, UK. Urban Studies,43(10), 1687-1714.
1: What it Means to Be Bicultural (This paper)
2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints
3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan
The words "bicultural" and "biculturalism" are occasionally used, but it is evident that their meanings are not clearly understood. In Japan "bicultural" is often a label in preference to "half" for children of mixed parentage regardless of their actual personality. For most basically, "bicultural" should mean that two cultures are operative in one person, or at least that one person can operate in two cultures. Then "biculturalism" can refer to either the academic study of cultures in contact or, as an -ism, the conviction that recognizing two or more cultures in individuals and society is beneficial. By comparison, "monoculturalism" can mean simply having no exposure to other cultures or, as an -ism, intolerance of people who are different because of fear (xenophobia) or assumed superiority of one's culture (a kind of chauvinism). Scholars may shy away from researching biculturalism because cultural factors cannot be precisely isolated or measured. Indeed, although one may read about it, "being bicultural" may be nearly impossible to understand unless one has experienced shifting gears between two cultures in oneself. Common misconceptions about bilingualism, plus monocultural politics seeping into education, have added to the confusion about cross-cultural terms. This article therefore aims to illustrate these issues and shed light on what it means for a child or an adult to be bicultural.
This article builds on a base of previous works that are mostly available online at the Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection: http://waoe.org/steve/epublist.html, or in Japanese: http://waoe.org/steve/jpublist.html. There are links to articles on Japanese and other Asian cultures as well as research on bilingualism. It may be particularly helpful to read McCarty (1998) on East-West biculturalism and McCarty (2003) on East-West cultural differences (see the References below).
A child is raised in a certain culture, an unconscious process termed "enculturation." Note that it is also quite possible to have two or more native languages and cultures. Then a person at any age can adapt to another culture ("acculturation"). In the latter case, an adult or young person able to compare the two cultures can consciously choose between characteristics of the two cultures. It could be a personality preference, but more likely it is the reactions of others that convince a person that the behavioral norms of one of the cultures work more smoothly or achieve goals more effectively in the given circumstances. Because of social pressures, a person's cultural identity, or what cultural set a person identifies with, may not reflect the actual cultural composition of the individual. Identity can change and should be encouraged to evolve, rather than being like loyalty to a brand. However, identity depends on social and psychological factors, some of which may be unconscious or beyond a person's control. As a result, a person may variously prefer a certain combination of the two cultures, or identify with only one side as if the person were monocultural.
The cultures of each parent or caregiver, and the proportion of time spent interacting with the child, determine the pattern of enculturation until a child enters the institutional culture of a school or day care center. Languages actually used with the child also carry cultural meanings. In the case of an international marriage in Japan, if the mother or main caregiver is from a foreign culture and willingly bonds with the infant in her native language, then the child can naturally absorb two different cultures. Japanese culture emanates from the Japanese parent, the community, and mass media in any case. Thus if the foreign parent goes to work full-time, it takes much extra effort to raise a child bilingually and biculturally. What seemed to work with an infant can stop working when the child enters a Japanese school and starts to feel social pressure. Therefore such families may need to regularly visit foreign relatives or live abroad so that the child has a personal stake in the other culture. A final factor is that children have genetic predispositions that match or clash with certain cultural norms. If parents try to determine the cultural identity of a child, it could have disempowering effects such as discouraging initiative. No outcomes such as bilingualism and biculturalism are guaranteed, so calling all such kids bicultural is unwarranted. Personality development, as a complex process of interaction among inborn factors, family, environment, individual choices and their consequences, needs to be allowed to unfold as a natural process.
Children develop coping strategies because they are vulnerable, not yet having body and mind fully integrated with a workable identity. It is a trial and error process because they cannot reflect on cause and effect, stand on principles or gracefully compromise, reason with self-consistency, and other thought processes which can be difficult even for adults. Before their personality is fully developed, children enter school where they are outnumbered by fellow students and subject to the power of authorities. Parents may have tried to teach their children right from wrong, but principles and parental examples may not suffice as coping strategies for children in school. If parental guidance were based on Western norms of self-esteem, independence, and openness, children might face cultural conflicts in a Japanese school. The East Asian emphasis is on playing a role in a unified group, such that children usually want to fit in well and avoid being singled out as different.
Recently in Japan, traditional pressures to conform have escalated, particularly due to camera-equipped and Internet-enabled mobile phones. It is so important to young people to stay connected with their peer group that they keep their mobile phones switched on even at night. If, as increasingly happens, they are harassed or bullied through ubiquitous networks, then even their own room no longer provides a sanctuary, which has led in some cases to suicide (Wada, 2009). Even more so at school, reading the atmosphere (kuki o yomu) has become an imperative for self-protection, with students and even teachers finding that the path of least resistance is to side with bullies. The English letters KY disparagingly refer to the inability to read the atmosphere (kuki yomenai), and a KY language of obscure letters and symbols has proliferated in short, frequent mobile phone messages. Kids themselves are hard-pressed to keep up with the ambiguous subtleties, so they stay connected and hasten to conform to expectations lest they be the next KY victim of bullying (Yoneyama, 2008). In such as atmosphere where principles of right or wrong are overruled by the need to flow with the current consensus, even genuinely bicultural children would be liable to hide or deny the side of their cultural identity that differs from the mainstream.
Besides appearance, language is most revealing of differences, whether it is a lack of fluency that marks one as a foreigner or a Japanese dialect from the countryside. A Japanese child who has recently returned from living abroad (kikoku shijo), or someone of Japanese descent raised abroad (Nikkeijin), like other foreigners cannot read the atmosphere, so they cannot avoid being different, at least until they adjust themselves. Even if they are toyed with as a sort of celebrity, they are marked by cultural and linguistic differences as outsiders, although most such children would prefer not to be conspicuous. Appearances trigger automatic assumptions about others, which can make communication difficult for someone with a Japanese face who is not fluent in Japanese, or for someone who does not look Japanese but is fluent in Japanese. Regardless of appearances, those who were raised in Japan and currently in the school system generally can, for better or worse, read the atmosphere. Any child who cannot act on behavioral cues as expected by the group would be vulnerable in any culture, dependent on the goodwill of others. They are liable to have stress, and might sacrifice self-expression for a safer silence, at the risk of appearing gloomy and prolonging their own exile. There are also children who naturally charm other people and can ride their celebrity status through an enjoyable childhood.
Cultures in Contact
The degree or kind of biculturalism possible is also affected by characteristics of the two cultures and the relationship between them. For example, if the two cultures are geopolitical enemies or rivals, it is difficult for individuals to go beyond instrumental motivation to integrative motivation where elements of the other culture could be incorporated into oneself. The permeability of cultures also differs, where some cultures are more open to acculturating foreigners, for instance because they value people for their individual qualities, whereas other cultures are tribal, valuing bloodlines, and feel that cultural allegiance is a matter of patriotism. In the latter type of culture, there may be no real conception of biculturalism or no acceptance of plural cultures in an individual. Where cultural allegiance is mutually exclusive, individuals are seen as either belonging within the fold of their culture or crossing over to the outside. Japan has tended to be a case of an impermeable culture, with a nearly insuperable wall maintained between the Japanese and non-Japanese realms. This way of thinking, strongest among public officials, affects education, with English fluency and internationalization subordinated thus far to maintaining Japaneseness. Thus Japanese individuals tend to fear being perceived as crossing over, for example being called a foreigner if they speak fluent English. Under such circumstances, bilingualism is not seriously considered the goal that it should be, let alone biculturalism.
Yet cultural crossings do take place between Japanese and non-Japanese, perhaps like an underground railroad at this stage. Young Japanese are changing, with more international contacts through travel and the Internet, while more foreigners are gaining fluency in the Japanese language and culture. Unsanctioned by officialdom, bilingual and bicultural people in Japan are gradually increasing. It is noticeable in media reports that innovative young adults are often those with more experience of foreign cultures. Take the following interview with Kazuhiro Soda, the director of popular documentary movies such as "Senkyo," for example:
Soda said dealing with two different cultures made him keenly aware of some characteristics in Japanese society that seem to drive so many of his fellow countrymen into the state of 'burnout,' including the tendency to be excessively meticulous and the inability to see things from diverse perspectives. "It seems to me that in Japan, people are very often in a situation in which they do things because they have to, not because they want to," he said. ... "As long as you can play by the rules of society, you are fine, because you are allowing yourself to be brainwashed to some extent. But when that 'spell' begins to loosen, exposing the gap between your actions and true feelings, you are very vulnerable," he said. (Murphy, 2008)
Multiculturalism and Politics
Even in Western countries there are prejudices and misunderstandings about languages and cultures in contact. Bilingual education has been attacked in the U.S. as a proxy for immigration. While mainstream students struggle with elementary Spanish and other foreign languages, immigrants are often encouraged to use English only, losing their native language and harming their cognitive abilities. Different languages and cultures are often seen as more of a problem for society than as a resource for international trade or a human right. In the U.K. a Member of Parliament wrote:
All around us, in our courts, in the oppressive liberty-destroying Bills being rushed through Parliament, we see the disasters of multiculturalism, the system by which too many Muslims have been allowed to grow up in this country with no sense of loyalty to its institutions, and with a sense of complete apartness. (Johnson, 2006)
Whatever troubles there may be with minorities, surely multiculturalism itself is not a problem but could rather provide solutions for conflicts between different groups constituting a society. In this case multiculturalism is being used as a political football and becomes a negative code word similar to bilingual education as targeted by monocultural purists in the U.S. But does such scapegoating of minorities and playing on prejudices work politically? The above author is now Mayor of the City of London.
Exposing prejudices and clarifying misconceptions about languages and cultures in contact is like being a fireman in a city with many arsonists and careless smokers. Languages and cultures as valuable resources and human rights should not need defending but just encouragement. But at the societal level, such biases exist and must be countered with reliable information, as popular views affect young people becoming bilingual and bicultural. Research on bilingualism published in Japanese is generally cautious but reliable, while public statements by authority figures sometimes repeat common misconceptions. Then biculturalism, with much less research and tied to minority groups, is not well understood or appreciated. But biculturalism can be experienced, whether or not individuals can prove it or even realize what they are. The documentary film director Kazuhiro Soda, quoted in the above section on Cultures in Contact, was well aware of the greater choices he had as a bicultural.
Bilingualism and Multiculturalism in Canada
Many countries in Europe and elsewhere show that governments need not be hostile to the diversity that results from the immigration that they need. A positive example is Canada, which has two official languages and a policy of multiculturalism. Canada has large groups of native English and French speakers, plus indigenous people, European immigrants, and conspicuous minorities from Asia and Africa. Canadian researchers have shown the benefits of bilingual education, particularly content-based immersion methods where over half of classes are taught in the children's second language. Shapson (1984) reports that multicultural education was defined in the Ontario Legislature as "education in which the individual child of whatever origin finds, not mere acceptance or tolerance, but respect and understanding (p. 8) ... cultural diversity is seen and used as a valuable resource to enrich the lives of all." It appeals to the better nature of people to see languages and cultures not as problems to be solved by assimilation but rather as human rights and resources for mutual enrichment.
Benefits of Becoming Bilingual and Bicultural
At the individual level, the author researched 195 Japanese and English native speaking informants who were bilingual to some extent in the two languages. Among the quantitative results, about 83% of both groups reported positive effects on their cultural identity. Most reported that their repertoire of thought and behavior had been expanded, while some enjoyed a completely positive bicultural identity. The qualitative results on how respondents were affected by the two languages and cultures in themselves were also almost entirely positive. The research was conducted bilingually and published in Japanese (McCarty, 1999). The author interprets the results as showing ethical as well as cognitive benefits of becoming bilingual and bicultural.
Even more than becoming bilingual, if not started as a small child, becoming bicultural seems to be both an advanced attainment and difficult to understand if one has not experienced it. Given positive social attitudes toward linguistic and cultural diversity, the second language and culture do not take anything away from one's native heritage but are additive and enriching. For someone bilingual to an extent in Japanese and English, for example, being bicultural is like being able to see the same situation through both Japanese and Western eyes, then having the choice of which way to respond. Having more than one language and culture is a resource for the society and gives the individual more choices in behavior and thought, therefore more freedom.
Johnson, B. (2006, March 23). The Shabina Begum case never had anything to do with modesty. London: The Telegraph. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from
McCarty, S. (1998). Cultural Liberation: East-West Biculturalism for a New Century. Multicultural Pavilion, University of Virginia. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/mccarty.html
McCarty, S. (2003). East-West Cultural Differences in Basic Life Stance. GLOCOM Platform. Tokyo: Center for Global Communications, International University of Japan. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from
McCarty, S. (1999). Nigengo nibunka heiyo no igi [The significance of becoming bilingual and bicultural]. In M. Yamamoto (Ed.), Bairingaru no Sekai [World of the Bilingual], pp. 133-159. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten.
Murphy, M. (2008). Filmmaker hopes to start debate on Japan's 'burnout' psyche. Japan Today. Retrieved January 12, 2009.
Shapson, S. & D'Oyley, V. (Eds.) (1984). Bilingual and Multicultural Education: Canadian Perspectives. Clevedon, England: Mulitlingual Matters.
Wada, S. (2009). Bullying! - Causes and Possible Solutions. Tokyo: Child Research Net. Retrieved January 17, 2009.
Yoneyama, S. (2008). The Era of Bullying: Japan under Neoliberalism. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 1-3-09. Retrieved January 12, 2009.
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