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The problem with stereotypes

Chinese community in Winnipeg is so diverse it's multicultural

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I am always made uneasy by questions that begin "Why do Chinese people do X?" or "Why do Chinese people like Y." Such questions generalize about a population that currently includes more than 1.3 billion people in the People's Republic of China, approximately 22 million in the Republic of China (Taiwan), and an estimated 46 million people in the global Chinese diaspora.

The desire to learn about people of a different ethnic, racial, or cultural background is, of course, not the problem. The problem lies with the framing of the question. And the danger is what we know about people and cultures we consider different from ourselves takes the form of stereotypes and clichés.

Stereotypes then become simplistic explanations about diverse groups of people.

Recently, the aggressively marketed and much discussed book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, sparked international debate about parenting and being Chinese.

Chua argues for extreme discipline as a mode of parenting that creates successful children. She asserts success in education and music are the basis for a good life rather than 'softer' concerns such as happiness found in lazy days, sleepovers, and unstructured childhood imagination.

I am not interested in joining these debates but rather in thinking about why Chua, marketers and commentators so easily took up the idea raising children with strict discipline and high expectations for success in school (particularly math) and mastery of the violin or piano was "Chinese."

Chua, herself, acknowledges she knows non-Chinese with similar parenting strategies, but then claims they practise "Chinese" parenting.

Such a statement should have led readers to see the fallacy of the marketing strategy and self-promotion, but it did not. Why not? One reason is the book was released in the immediate context of "The Rise of China." Another is long-held stereotypes of Chinese people as hard-working, determined and overly concerned with educational achievements over individual happiness.

Yes, during the imperial dynastic period, Chinese states generally used a meritocracy where success in the civil service examinations determined the social status of individual, village and community. With 19th- and 20th-century reforms and revolutions, 'modern' education continued to be a major focus of building a strong China, albeit with much debate about the relative merits of mass education or specialized elites.

The combined effect, in western minds, has been a belief Chinese people make educational success a fetish with complete indifference for other markers of personal wellbeing. But, the frenzy around Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom teaches us not so much about "Chinese" practices as about how things work in the current era of individual 'branding' within a celebrity culture.

Yet, readers and commentators did not approach this book as yet another tell-all memoir; they wanted to find in Amy Chua's book insider secrets and bizarre rituals of a Chinese world.

She obliged. Stereotypes were reinforced. The success of Chinese children apparently was explained. This then presumably helped explain the "Rise of China." Rather than engage in serious efforts to understand China, the "Tiger Mom" debate stuck with familiar (extreme) generalizations that captured the imagination.

Why are we content with this? Perhaps it is because more nuanced explanations might ask us to think about how some of the conditions of Chinese success are the result of shared economic, social and political projects around the globe. It is easier to rely on fixed racial and ethnic boundaries and presumed racial and ethnic otherness than to think about the ways communities are made in broader socio-economic contexts that include both 'us' and 'them.'

In Manitoba, the Canadian government began racial homogenization of Chinese people through the head tax and what became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1923). This shaped how Chinese immigrants in Manitoba lived and worked. From its earliest days, the relatively small Chinese community in Winnipeg forged strong relations with other cultural groups as well between different groups of Chinese coming to Manitoba. They blurred and extended boundaries as a means to build a strong community around a racial/cultural identity.

This continues to be a characteristic of the Chinese community in Manitoba, with individuals from various regions in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam; from diverse Chinese populations resident in South and Southeast Asia; as well as generations of Chinese-Canadians including multiracial families.

So perhaps one of the 'secrets' of the Chinese community is it is a multicultural community based on a long-standing commitment to cross-cultural co-operation as the basis for community strength.

Recognizing the Chinese community as a multicultural community does not erase experiences of racial discrimination, including the head tax, or of lived cultural practices by individuals, family and community organizations. But it does ask us to think differently about what we presume are the limits to a community.

So, if you are interested in what it means to be Chinese in Winnipeg, set aside stereotypes and come join us at the Chinatown Street Festival, Aug. 11 and 12.

You'll see the community, like so many other ethno-cultural communities in Winnipeg, is comprised of hard-working, dedicated volunteers. We don't all necessarily share common parenting techniques, language, educational backgrounds, social experiences, or even ethnic/racial identity.

What we do share is a passion for participating in various aspects of a broadly defined Chinese culture, promoting cross-cultural understanding, and enlivening Winnipeg's Chinatown as a historic and contemporary centre of the Chinese community.

And if you ever decide to take up martial arts, Chinese folk dance, volunteer with the youth group, learn a Chinese language, or participate in other activities offered by Chinese groups throughout the city, one day you too may find yourself identifying as a member of the Chinese community!

Tina Chen is associate professor of Chinese history at University of Manitoba, with a special interest in the politics of culture, film and international interactions. She also volunteers with the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J11

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