Wednesday, 4 November 2009

If you were with a Chinese person and this came up, how amused would your companion be? If they laughed, did it sound genuine or artificial? Did the conversation suddenly flag? Or did your interlocutor raise any of the - no doubt - thousands of cases in her culture where Western tropes are cause for hilarity?

To what extent does casual humour that brings attention to cultural characteristics add to or minimise the ongoing problem of racism?

Now, I've been guilty of this type of humour in the past. I even went so far, in the 90s when I lived in Japan, to send a photo showing the sign of a women's hair salon, to The Far Eastern Economic Review. I haven't seen or heard of FEAR for a good ten years. But I remember when Nuri Vittachi - who has been more recently involved in international literary prizes - ran a weekly column that brought our attention to the unwitting bloopers that occur at the cross-roads of the world's two dominant cultural highways.

It's due to the dominance of the Western ethos in the world. A store, like this one, that aspires to possess cachet will probably turn to writing its signage in Roman letters. A Chinese-language sign projects a lower tone. Asians aspire to the success of the West.

The person who sent this to me is a liberal mother-of-two who works in a library in New York. She recently became involved in blogging for a women's literature website, a fact of which she is deservedly proud. She's also enthusiastically web-connected, and I initially met her online when I was setting up an electronic library catalogue in 2006.

So when this arrived in my email inbox, I took it with a grain of salt.

Yet it points to the ease with which we make assumptions based on ethnicity. Recent studies conducted in Australia found that having a Western name is absolutely, positively an advantage when looking for paid employment. Statistics like this make me frown on my correspondent's email message.

We all need to examine why this is so funny before we let out that guffaw or even before we acquiesce to that pleasant sensation which derives from a feeling of superiority. It's a very small world we live in, today, and we need to be careful that what emanates from our private space is suitable for a very mixed company of neighbours.


Carmen Sisson said...

Excellent reminder and call for more cultural awareness and sensitivity. Well done.

Matt da Silva said...

Thanks Carmen.