Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The ABC of Cultural Change

It is coming up on twelve months since I wrote my post on Quong Tart and the Chinese in Australia, a post triggered in part by a lion dance done to celebrate Chinese new year. In the post I also referred to the arrival of visitor 10,000.

Now we are coming up on Chinese new year again. Visitor 23,000 arrived this morning - someone from Holland searching via Google on Jeff Dunham: he/she only stayed for a mili-second. Still, welcome. And something has happened that made me laugh, while reminding me of the complexity of Australian society.

Last week I was chatting to a Chinese colleague. Active in a Church group, she had taken out two very different groups into the bush.

Now she had just started the story when she used the phrase ABC. From the context this seemed to be a phrase that I knew from my past, one that I had stopped using in this sensitive age because I wasn't sure that it was acceptable anymore.

Growing up, we used the phrase ABC - Australian Born Chinese - to describe a locally born Chinese as compared to one coming from overseas, an immigrant. Now the phrase was descriptive, but even so. So, very tentatively, I said do you mean Australian Born Chinese. The answer was yes.

Turns out my colleague was leading these two very different groups into the bush. The overseas born group in soft shoes straggled along, the ABC's strode forward.

There was a creek at the end of the walk. The ABC's waded over and set up on the other side. The oveseas born said why, let's stop here!

A little later I was listening to a radio discussion about Sydney's Chinese New Year festival. The two organisers were both ABCs, both used the term. So I guess its okay.

A postscript.

Last night was very wet in Sydney. My colleague and her mum and had spent the night bailing to stop water flooding the house. At lunchtime, she went out and bought a small pump! Her mum was not impressed.

I commented that she could always use the pump (it was very small) to spray people. She looked at me and said that Chinese people did not like water. There was a pause. Then she said maybe the ABCs would like it!


Anonymous said...

M, with his penchant for places like Cape Horn and Antarctica, must be atypical of PRC Chinese then! I think ABC is acceptable, Jim. You may have also heard the term "banana" -- perhaps not entirely acceptable -- used by some Chinese to describe some ABCs... I am sure your friend can explain if you haven't come across the term.

Jim Belshaw said...

I do in fact know the term banana, Neil, although I have never actually heard it in conversation.

I think that ABC appears to be clearly okay because both sides use it. M certainly does not support the presented stereotype! I suspect in fact its partly a city thing.

There are a lot of words around at the moment, slang terms, that carry very different connotations depending on who is using them, the context and (in response terms) the age of the person listening.

I come across them especially in conversation with my daughters or in listening to conversations among the young. I could not use them because of my age, it would be mutton dressed as lamb to use an old Australianism, my ethnic or social background or simply because I do not understand the nuances.

They remind me of how little I really know about the processes of change in modern Australia, even though I try to study and write about it.

I have asked youngest to write down all the slang terms she comes across to satisy my curiosity and because I thought that it might make for some interesting posts.

Mind you, it is already very clear that there are some terms I could not discuss easily because of the likely responses from readers.

Interesting example last night in a kitchen conversation.

Youngest and I were talking about all this, and my wife went ballistic at one word once it was explained because of what she saw as its racist connotations.

Now youngest is one of the least prejudiced people I have known. To her, the core word had simply changed meaning or, perhaps more accurately, acquired another meaning in a specific context.

All very interesting, at least to me. I must stop. I have to get ready for work.