South Africa, like other multicultural countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, are known as rainbow nations, with immigrant communities dating back centuries and with legislation that promotes equality and dignity for all citizens.
It follows that we should feel comfortable identifying as just South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Brits or Australians, no matter our colour or creed. Yet, the hyphen in South African-Chinese, Asian-American, Canadian-Chinese, British-Chinese and Australian-Chinese persists to this day, suggesting that no matter the level of assimilation, East and West are perceived as unassimilable.
In a postmodern age that promotes universal citizenship based on equality and individual authenticity, I’m intrigued as to why the common theme of East-West in-betweenness, or hyphenated identity, repeats itself generationally, both locally and abroad.
As a person of Chinese descent, I have come to realise that it is not possible to resolve this issue as a community without considering the broader narratives playing out universally, which go back to struggles to find harmony in complementary dualities.
If one divided the globe into Eastern and Western hemispheres, it could be construed as the macrocosm of the human brain. The Eastern half, the right side, comprises the holistic, imaginative, and intuitive side — rooted in ancient China under the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The Western half, the left side, represents the logical, linear, reasoning side — rooted in ancient Greece under philosophers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.
Ideally, for a fully functioning brain, both sides must be integrated to operate at peak or optimal human efficiency, as per an East-West integrative philosophy.
Until the mid-19th century much of the world was conquered by the West under colonialism, with a Hegelian model of managing duality; in other words, with a left-brained linear focus. This concerned superiority over inferiority, with one difference superseding the other, as opposed to complementary opposites, with one supporting the other, as taught in the traditional Taoist Eastern philosophy of yin and yang.
According to Edward Said, Palestinian academic and author, in his work Orientalism, the concept of the East is defined as “Other” to the West, with the binary relationship of strong-West and weak-East reinforced through racialised cultural stereotypes.
The problem with a linear, left-brained view is that it forces one into either-or thinking. Only one view is right and there is no space for both to be correct. With this mode of thinking, one is forced into combat mode when a different view is presented.
This dominant worldview has produced slavery, hunger, greed, exploitation and aggression, prompting a universal movement towards an integrative global society based on values that promote harmony, peace and dignity for all. However, for this to work, East and West must be treated as equal and complementary.
Diffusion of Eastern and Western values revolutionised our world but, because of separate development and mutual distrust, this diffusion was experienced separately. Critics argue that much of the Eastern diffusion into the West took place through cultural appropriation, with the Eastern roots either lost or ascribed to Western figures and countries.
Likewise, the diffusion of Western culture in the East has improved its technology, road works, education, and healthcare, amid accusation and suspicion about to how some of this technology was acquired. Against this background, the East-West hyphen persists in the absence of mutual validation in how each society has contributed towards the holistic modernisation of the other and the embracing of duality.
Stereotyping is a form of othering associated with a model of duality, and it is used to influence public sentiment about East Asians. For instance, 19th century exclusionary laws were linked to the racist notion of “yellow peril”, namely the belief that the East is an existential threat to the West.
Another universal stereotype is the perception that Chinese and East Asian people possess positive traits such as being studious, industrious, intelligent, productive and politically inactive, and have elevated their socioeconomic standing through merit, self-discipline and diligence. Although perceived as positive stereotypes, these can also be used to silence minorities seeking equal rights, even today.
The effects of racial stereotyping show how interconnected we are, how quickly messages spread globally, and how people and institutions with influence (the invisible hand) can manipulate the masses through media and other instruments of power. During apartheid, for instance, a system of hegemony prevailed through which the National Party maintained control and perpetuated racial stereotypes using the media and education.
Unlike other immigrant communities that are eventually fully accepted and assimilated by the dominant culture, second, third and successive-generation children of immigrants from East Asian countries continue to experience stereotyping that mark them as either the “model minority” or “forever foreigners”.
It’s perplexing to see world leaders with a colonialist mindset in which conflict and competition are promoted as the basis of reality. Today, amid China’s rapid economic growth and with the current United States-China trade war, Donald Trump’s electioneering is based on making China the scapegoat for Covid-19.
Moreover, anti-Chinese sentiments are spreading rapidly around the globe, to the extent that it seems the mere presence of a Chinese person — regardless of where they come from or their level of assimilation — is sufficient to activate embedded stereotypes of yellow peril.
It is hard to fight this on an individual basis without being accused of being “oversensitive” or “petty”. Community awareness and activism are needed to challenge the hegemonic influence of othering stereotypes that have persisted over generations.
Every community has its bad apples, so it’s hurtful and perplexing to see how East Asian stereotypes are promoted to make one feel personally accountable for every Chinese person who commits a crime, does something considered offensive or who has eating habits in some remote village that are perceived as problematic.
Addressing the East-West hyphen is a global struggle to achieve harmony and balance in duality. This is mirrored in ethnic East-West minority communities such as South African-Chinese, Asian-Americans, and Australian-Chinese, among others. Global citizenship represents a shift towards the idea that our world is interdependent, underpinned by both Eastern and Western values. However, cultural and racial stereotyping continues to be divisive and to undermine the striving for holistic harmonious integration.
Sickness has a way of revealing one’s true character. Perhaps Covid-19 shows humankind the character of our values and their consequences.
Loraine Law Yuen is a third-generation South African