Thursday, August 16, 2007

Multicultural vs Polycultural

I am home today with flue. This makes me tired, somewhat achey, but leaves me with a working brain, albeit somewhat fogged. So I am mixing some blogging with sleep.

Those who read this blog will know that I have problems with the word "multicultural". This has led to some thoughtful and useful exchanges with Neil (ninglun).

I have decided to stop using the word entirely unless its use actually fits the narrow definition of multiple cultures living together. However, this creates a need to find an alternative word that better fits my conception of the evolving Australian scene.

As always, my thinking here has been influenced by my writing across blogs.

On the Regional Living Australia blog I have been exploring different aspects of life outside Australia's metro centres. Then on the New England Australia blog, I look in more detail at one Australian area. This writing flows across into this blog with my on-going emphasis on the need to understand the variety in Australian life.

One of the challenges in all this is to find a way to encompass and link the variety in Australian life.

Let me try to illustrate by example.

On the Regional Living Australia blog I have so far written seven posts on the Kimberley Region of WA. Now compare this with the story I wrote on the Winifred West schools. One country, but two very different history, cultures and experience.

Now look at the story on Quong Tart and the Chinese in Australia on this blog, one of a number of stories I have written on the Chinese experience. Again, a very different slice of the Australian experience.

One of the interesting things in all this is not just the variety of Australian life, but also the continuity.

Take Quong Tart as an example. Here the story sweeps from the gold fields of 19th century Australia through to Ashfield in 2007. Quong Tart was one of Ashfield's leading citizens. There was a significant Chinese community in Ashfield. Today, that Chinese presence remains in Ashfield to the point that the main strip is an Asian (especially Chinese) Australian amalgam.

We can see the same continuity in the stories on the Kimberley's and Mittagong and the Winifred West schools. So how do we encompass all this continuity and change, making it accessible to people from Australia and overseas?

In a post on the Regional Living blog, I have suggested that we should use the word polycultural instead of multicultural as a descriptor. The word is not quite right, but it does better capture what I see as the dynamics of Australian life.

The area that would become Australia was already multicultural at the time the Europeans arrived in the sense that our indigenous peoples displayed considerable cultural variation.

The arrival of the Europeans introduced a new dominant force. The interactions between our indigenous peoples and the broader Australian community remains one of the continuing themes in Australian history. Today we can speak of multiple indigenous cultures changing and interacting with other cultural traditions.

Australia's new migrants quickly developed a culture that was seen by outsiders as distinct, different, from those holding in the original home countries. That culture has evolved into a strong and continuing core culture. We may debate the detail, but I do not think that anybody would argue that it does not exist.

Australia was and remains a migrant country. Each wave of migrants has added to the texture of Australian life not just through the visible differences, but also through their impact on Australia's core culture. So we have both continuity and change within that core culture.

There have always been variations in the core culture across the country, variations that I think have increased with time. There are also variations in the visible and changing migrant presence across the country, adding to and affecting variations in the core culture.

I like the word polyculturalism because, to me at least, it better captures the complexity and dynamics of the Australian experience than the word multicultural.


ninglun said...

Get well, Jim. I hope you also noted the new "Jim Belshaw" tag, a convenient way of finding all our conversations!

I could be a pedant and point out that poly is just Greek for multi, and that purists would object to such a blend -- the cultural bit being Latin.

Perhaps the older term "cultural pluralism" does the job?

I enjoyed the previous post on ads, by the way, and even went to the videos.

I am also wondering (are you?) how our South-Western Suburbs friends Thomas and The Rabbit will react to their Menindee adventure. I am sure that will be a whole cultural experience in itself...

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I did indeed notice the tag.I felt greatly honoured. I will reciprocate, but crikey there have been so many NW references that it will take me time just to find them all!

Now, I too, could be a pedant and point out the internal inconsistency in your remark. But then, I know that you have already grinned at the same point!

Pluralism doesn't capture it. I need a word that better captures the dynamics. I really think that polycultural does this better.

Yes, I have wondered how Thomas and The Rabbit will go. Perhaps better because they are from Sydney's south west.

A few years ago I tried to get my Eastern Suburbs daughters to go bush in western NSW. They might now, Helen has in fact been since, but then it was too far from civilisation.

On this trip we were standing outside the loo at Nowendoc, a standard stop on our way to Armidale, when Helen defined the minimum acceptable town size as a place big enough to have a Just Jeans store. I wonder where I went wrong?!

ninglun said...

I guess I could mention that I have no problem interpreting "multicultural" in a dynamic way... If we all did the term may continue to be useful. I still take comfort in asking if people really want monoculturalism. Most don't, when pressed...

Tagging those entries did take time. I searched under "Jim" (eliminating other Jims as I went) and then under "Belshaw" to make sure. WordPress search is pretty good.

ninglun said...

I also meant to say the current Chinese presence in Ashfield has less to do with Quong Tart (interesting as he is and there seem to have been some links between him and my Braidwood ancestors/relatives) than with the post-Tiananmen influx, of Shanghainese especially. M and I considered living in Ashfield at one point, but he decided against it on the grounds that he may as well have stayed in Shanghai... ;)

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I do understand your point re interpretation of multiculturalism in a dynamic way. In part, it's the baggage attached that is a problem.

Australia has never been a monocultural society, although I have no problem with the idea of asking people whether they want this. Part of my complaint wearing my New England hat has been the way in which past thought concealed difference.

I would like to see us search towards a new language that allows new forms of discussion independent of past divides.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I did laugh at your comment on M. He is not alone in this thought. While many Chinese in Australia cluster,many also want to access the broader Australian experience.

I may be wrong with Ashfield, but I think that if you trace this through you will find that it is the continuing Chinese presence that brings later Chinese groups there. Still, this is a surmise. I do not know without actual investigation.

Lexcen said...

Jim, my notion of culture is the "baggage" people carry around with them that is only discarded when it becomes too burdensome to continue carrying. Of course Australia has been and will continue to be a melting pot of diverse cultures brought to our shores by immigrants.
What we inherit as "culture" is what we consider desirable and what makes our lives richer. What is discarded is what we consider "baggage" that was relevant to to old country but is now an encumbrance rather than an asset. I know I have made outrageous statements against culture but truth be told, I love my cappuccino, my pizza, my kebab, my feta cheese, olives, Turkish bread, soy sauce, sushi, borscht, pasta. On the other hand I don't approve of many cultural practices such as cock fights, bull fights, honor killings, weddings by arrangement, tribal laws.

ninglun said...

I pretty much agree with you, Lexcen.

Came back on a minor point, Jim, about Shanghainese in Ashfield (Koreans in Strathfield, and so on...) I recall being told by a real estate agent at the time M and I were checking those areas that "Asians" tend to like 1) close to trannsport, preferably trains and 2) rather like high rise and having people around. There may be some truth in that.

Jim Belshaw said...

A clarification first. I wrote "Australia has never been a monocultural society, although I have no problem with the idea of asking people whether they want this".

I wonder what I meant to say here? The second part of the sentence does not really link to the first.

Interesting comment, Lexcen. I am not sure about the use of the word "baggage" because, I think,it understates the importance of culture in setting the frame through which we see the world.

The issue of what we accept, what we give up, is an interesting one. If you look at the list of things that you like and have added, they are all things. If you look at the list of things that you do not like, they are all (as you say) cultural practices.

It is, I think, much easier to adopt new things than it is new cultural practices. If you look at much of the discussion on changes in Australian culture, pretty much everybody can agree on the new things that we have adopted, there is much less agreement on new attitudes and cultural practices.

One of the difficulties is that cultural change takes place at different speeds and, to a degree, different directions among different groups. Just because you or I have dropped something as baggage, something no longer relevant to our lives, does not mean that others have done so.

I know that this is pretty self-evident, but it explains the tensions that can arise. Part of my interest in the process lies in the way in which what I have defined as the core culture acts to unify and integrate, accommodating change.

Over the Regional Living Australia blog I put up a story on Melbourne vs Sydney -

Now one interesting thing about this case is the way in which two apparently similar Australian students from different parts of the country found out about their own cultural differences when placed together in Montreal. The differences came as a real shock.

Now I could have told them this simply because I am older and have mixed nore widely. I suspect that the Melbourne student had not mixed much outside her own group in Melbourne and had therefore not seen anything to challenge the preconception that we all hold that our individual views are in some ways representative of the whole.

There is an obvious problem in all this for my own argument that we do in fact have a core if changing culture. If we do, how come people are so different? Indeed, some have rejected the idea of a core culture on this ground.

Because I have always rejected the idea that Australia has at any time been monocultural, I have no problem in being interested in and accommodating the concept of differing Australian cultures as well as differing overseas cultures living within Australia. In fact, and pretty obviously, the differences fascinate me.

At the same time, I see no conflict between the idea of different Australian cultures existing and interacting with a core Australian culture.

Now looking again at your comment, I have moved away a little, the question of what each wave of migrants give up, what they retain, is an interesting one because it involves individual and generational change.

The old paradigm stated that the arrival generation clustered,the next generations spread out in geographic terms as the migrant group in question was absorbed into the broader Australian community. I do wonder to what degree this is breaking down.

In saying this, I have in mind in particular the group that Neil mentioned,the Chinese. I think that Neil is right that many Asians, and certainly the Chinese, tend to cluster.

There are issues here with familiarity and family. Chatting to one Asian colleague, in this case an Indian, she felt very lonely in what she saw as an atomistic Australian society.In her case, and in a very short while, she became a sort of mother to the block of flats in which she lived, thus recreating part of the old life style.

Now I could surely empathise with this because I find the same sort of thing about Sydney.

But what I don't know with the Chinese is the extent of second and third generation mixing. My impression is, and I would be interested in Adrian's comment on this, that the Chinese tend to gang together more than past groups. So even when they spread out, they tend to congregate.

At a personal level, I have known many Chinese over the years and have got on with them pretty well. But I have had little contact with them outside student life and then work. Now I don't know whether this is just me or a social pattern.

I think that the test here will be my daughters' generation since this is a cohort that has grown up in an ethnically mixed school with significant Asian including Chinese presence. Not as pronounced as, say, Neil's Sydney Boys High, but still significant.

At parent level, I have met a number of the Asian parents at school activities and liked them.But there has been very little interaction beyond this, in part because they tend to be more self-effacing and do not play an active social organising role.

When I look at eldest's friends, there have been a small number with Asian backgrounds. However, what I have found is that the Asian kids tend to mix less in part because they are so driven and are less interested in things like sport. With extra coaching including things like Mandarin lessons, many of these kids have very little discretionary time.

With one exception that I will come to shortly, eldest's group is Eastern suburbs monocultural, kids from many different European backgrounds but with a common culture.The focus is very much Europe in a way that I would have found strange when I was their age.

Most of eldest's group are now at university, and here there is a worrying trend. At least it worries me. The heavy dominance of overseas fee paying students in certain classes, students who do not appear to mix with the Australian students creates very real resentment, resentment that can translate into ethnic comments.

Youngest's group is far more mixed in all senses of the word, reflecting personality differences. This is a far more academic, less sporting, group. It also has a real mix of cultures. Youngest has also spent time at various kid's homes.

Again, though, there is still to some degree a European focus although it is far less pronounced. At one level, travel simply reflects country of ancestry. But there now appears to be a love affair in Australia with Europe in a way not seen before.

I mentioned that there was one Asian country group that seemed to be different, and that is people from Indian background. Measured simply by the boys that I meet through my daughters, there have been a heck of a lot of Indian ancestry.

Being curious, I wonder why. Is it that there are more cultural similarities? Or are Indians just, as the older ethnic stereotype would imply, simply more gregarious and outgoing?

Sorry for the length of this comment.

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind my jumping in a year and a half later, I'd like to point you to some research done in response to multiculturalism going by the name of polyculturalism.

Kelley, Robin D. G. “People In Me: ‘So, What Are You?’ ” Colorlines 1.3 (1999): 5–7.


Prashad, Vijay. “Bruce Lee and the Anti-Imperialism of Kung Fu: A Polycultural Adventure.” Positions 11.1 (2003): 51–90.

--a fellow polyculturalist