Tag Archives: Raymond Huo

Contrasting examples of cultural difference

Two very different perceptions of the way cultural difference operates. From Tauhei Notts, commenting on Kiwiblog’s thread about the guilty verdict returned against Taito Phillip Field:

I believe that the jury was not culturally sensitive. Many people in Foreign affairs who dosh out us taxpayers’ funds to Polynesian nations are aware that what Field did was par for the course. Indeed, Field was incredulous at the fact that charges were even laid against him. He could not, and would not, see that what he had done was wrong. This is because what he did had been done for decades by Polynesian leaders. Field is the first one to be found guilty of what most New Zealanders consider to be awful behaviour, but what Polynesian people consider okay. The natives of the South Pacific have always had a different slant on morality and I think it is our job to encourage them to join the 21st century world.

And from Raymond Huo, talking about the case of Danny Cancian, who is in prison for killing a Chinese:

With regard to business, Westerners are generally transaction-orientated. They walk in the door, figure out the deal, sign the contract and get out. Chinese, on the other hand, are relationship orientated. The Chinese concept of friendship, or guanxi, is vital. In a highly centralised state, the use of guanxi is sometimes the only way to get things done.
The core of guanxi is doing business through value-laden relationships. To some extent, guanxi is the counter-part of a commercial legal system. Don’t get me wrong – Asian people do respect contracts. They are ethical. The only difference is that they do business differently. Mostly, obligations come from relationships, not only pieces of paper.

I’ve spent no time in the Pacific islands, but plenty of time living in East Asia, where obligations attach to relationships developed in a more or less organic fashion between individuals, their roles and networks, and the censure of failing to fulfill obligations is rendered by those individuals, roles and networks rather than being imposed by external arbitration. I played the kibun game (I think) very well in Korea for three years, until the very last hurdle – severance pay in our final job. On our second-to-last day in the country, several days after it was due to be paid up, I lost my nerve and called my boss (who’d been good to us and generally trustworthy) and insisted that he pay us immediately. He did. An hour later he cancelled the meal which had been called in our honour for that night (and at which he was planning to present us with the money, all in good time).

Transculturalism is complicated.


Normalising diversity

May I echo the inimitable Queen of Thorns, and say how great it is that Māori Language Week is being so well observed. Labour MPs on Red Alert are posting in te reo; Nickelodeon has done Spongebob Squarepants in Māori; Lockwood Smith is reading the Parliamentary prayer in Māori and Te Ururoa Flavell on Tuesday raised a point of order during Question Time (in Māori, no less!) to insist that the Minister of Transport pronounce “Kamo” as “Kamo” rather then “Carmow”. Even David Farrar has a post in Māori, and on that count he beats me at least. Well done.

Such usage is the thin edge of a wedge of linguistic diversity becoming normalised in Aotearoa. The wedge was first driven long ago, but one of the more memorable blows was struck by the venerable Naida Glavish who (working as a tolls operator) got in trouble for answering the phone ‘kia ora’ and generated great and unexpected support. When returning sick and exhausted, with no money and a broken shoulder from a long and abortive road trip across Asia (more on which another time), I could have hugged the (Pākehā) Air NZ cabin steward who greeted me with ‘Kia ora, bro, welcome home’. The NZ Herald has redesigned their masthead in Māori (though I can’t find a copy of it on the website just now). Māori introductions on National Radio and other media are commonplace these days and everyone knows what they mean. I recall the Māori Language Week last year, or the year before, when they were formally instituted and then – the horror! – their usage continued after the end of the week. There was apparently a bit of a backlash against it, and Geoff Robinson read some messages calling for a return to English-only introductions. Robinson, bless his English heart, had one word for the complainers: “tough”.

And that’s all they deserve. My high school German teacher had a banner above her blackboard which read “Monolingualism can be cured”, and it can be. Other languages must be used to be known, and normalisation is the first part of usage. Raymond Huo, also on Red Alert, is posting in Zhōng Wén; it is wonderful.

It goes beyond language, as well. Cultures, norms and ways of doing, approaches and modes of understanding are not monopolised by English-speaking WASP culture. I wrote earlier this year about a book by John Newton about James K Baxter and the Jerusalem commune – it is called “The Double Rainbow” and has been published. The title is Baxter’s, and Newton explains it in the introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori – though few Pākehā have seen this more clearly or objected more trenchantly – but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place names and a great deal of plunder.’

Diversity is both a means and an end. It is a means by which people may understand one another and live in harmony and all such wishy-washiness; but more importantly, it is an end in itself because two heads are better than one, every culture has its own irrationalities and blind spots and deleterious foibles. Humankind has achieved its primacy as a species through the constant adaptation of cultural and biological systems which spread risk rather than concentrating it. Monocultures are vulnerable; they may be unified and may even be strong against certain threats, but against uncertainty, or against threats or challenges of an unknown or unpredictable nature, homogeneity a weakness rather than a strength. Diversity is resilience. If you won’t believe me, take it from Robert A Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Who wants a society of insects?