Cultural Exchange and Cultural Surrendering

I was born and raised in China before getting a high school scholarship to study overseas in Singapore. I continued attending a local university there. During my third year in National Unviersity of Singapore (NUS), I am now spending a semester abroad in Amsterdam Unvieristy College (AUC), The Netherlands. That means I am now studying abroad on top of studying abroad. When I was asked why I wanted to go to The Netherlands for a semester, I quickly considered cultural exchange as an important reason. I fantasised making new friends from different countries and learning their perspectives. I was excited about the idea of visiting Paris, the cultural centre of Europe, and reading philosophical texts from the continental tradition. My plans have been well executed so far, although I would rather re-consider whether cultural exchange is an accurate term decribing my semester abroad, or in general my experience of studying abroad away from my Chinese home.

I remember when I first started learning English at the age of seven, I was fascinated by the alphabetical language so distinctive from my mother tongue. There were fortunately grammatical rules that I could rely on to communicate my messages through English, although that strategy quickly failed me after I moved to Singapore. I learned, rather poignantly, that direct translations from Chinese into English, albeit grammatically correct, would very likely create funny expressions non-existent in the English language, and my classmates would laugh at those expressions while my English teachers did not know where those mistakes came from or how to help me correct them. That has in fact created much anxiety for my English learning process once I became extremely sceptical of the English phrases I wrote. ‘Am I subconsciously translating Chinese into English?’ I would ask myself, almost compulsively, ‘Will my Singaporean friends, whose first language is English, express the same idea differently and therefore more naturally?’

In the context of Singapore, there is also a weird sense of heriarchy among regional English variations, with the British English on top, followed by North American Engish, Australian English, and even Hong Kong English. The Singaporean English, or Singlish, a language that pragmatically mixes characteristics from English, Cantonese, Hokkien and Malaysian, appears in the bottom of the hierachy and is often deemed as inappropriate in formal situations in Singapore. If I put my Mandrind-influenced English into that hierachy, that will perhaps appear even below Singlish. Once in an English poetry class, my Singaporean classmate sarcastically questioned whether I was translating poetry from Chinese. To improve my expressions, I read Jane Austin, Time Magazine and many more books written in native English. I conform to the heriarchy present in the English language, and my despised expressions, or subconscious translations from Chinese, have encouraged me to keep doubting myself so that I can improve and use ‘purer’, ‘more original’ English.

I learned a bit Latin during my first semester in NUS. One interesting feature of Latin is that in addition to number and time, it also differentiates words based on gender. My mother tongue, in contrast, completely disregards the three. Each Latin noun has a gender, with an adjective of the respective gender describing it, like completing a rigid formula. I think that modern French has inherited that feature of Latin. That feature has intrigued me; it shows that western Latin-based language is gendered, with war, soldier, farmer clearly being masculine nouns and freedom, emphathy, love feminine. When there is gender, there is also power. Language use has also become a result of political power, and I still feel that imperial force today. The werid heriarchy of English in Singapore is a reflection of power and colonial legacy, with Britain being the formal coloniser and Singapore the colonised ‘savage’. Although Singaporeans nowadays enjoy a higher GDP per capital than their formal coloniser, the legacy of the colonisation can still be felt in everyday language. As I am from mainland China, a place which does not even have the ‘luck’ to be colonised by Britain, my Chinese-influenced English is understandably the lowest in the heriarchy.

Meanwhile, there is much admiration, if not worship, of English language in mainland China. English is one of the three essential subjects alongside Chinese and Mathematics in the education system, with every college graduate, irregardless of her or his major, passing a national test on English. There was no equivalent test regarding the Chinese language. Although mainland China was not really a colony of Britain, English has transformed the Chinese language thanks to the dominance of Anglo-American culture since the end of World War II. Chinese characters are simplied, and primary school students are taught to read Chinese in pingyin, an essentially Latin-based system that helps to pronounce Chinese characters. Young Chinese professionals love inserting some English words into their text messages, and state jounalists are judged based on their English capabilities. Not to mention countless celebrities dream of appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for even a short clip. Fast and Furious 8 has more than two billion RMB of box office while the domestic film Confucious proving to be a commercial failure. Every time I went back to my Chinese hometown, I got questions from friends and relatives on how to improve one’s English. I tried my best to tell them what I know, but there was a slight sense of hesitation within me. After all, my English is not pure enough; it is not original enough.

While I am in The Netherlands, I study literary theories and film philosophy in addition to Electromagnetism and General Chemistry. I encounter Euro-American names every day. Modern science and industrialisation were first accompalished in the west, and the west has dominated literary studies and philosophy too. In Singapore, the philosophy department of NUS follows a broadly analytic methodology similar to Anglo-American philosophy departments. I study Plato and am familiar with his Republic. I read Kant, Nietzsche and more classical texts in the western canon. In The Netherlands, I can join classroom discussions on western scholars and thoughts. I feel at home during those discussions. Looking back to my jouney of studying overseas, I even admire myself for accompalishing this. I have experienced the difficulty that others may not be able to sympathise. Others may not have the sheer idea about how much I struggle to learn another language and another culture that is dominating every aspect of the world today. I have struggled and worked really hard so as to give a non-awkward comment in my classes abroad. I may appear natural with English nowadays, but deep inside me, I am still extremely self-aware when I use the language. I guess I can speak for other Chinese students too, and even many more East Asians. We have been incredibly studious and committed to western culture.

But how many students in my class right now have read Confucian dialects or Taoist classics? Although Japan’s Zen Buddism has gained considerable popularity alongside Japan’s economic miracle, not many people in the west have read the original texts. War Warrior 2, the top Chinese film of 2017, was a commercial failure in North American, with press dismissing it as state propaganda. I start to realise that the cultural exchange that I have been fanticising, is inherently unequal. It is one-directional. Asians, Africans, Native Americans, South Americans are trying extremely hard to catch up with the western culture, but their cultures are not mainstream enough. While the Anglo-American culture has shaped, contributed to and even become an inseparable part of their cultures, their cultures belong to the lowest position in the hierarchy; their contributions to English are denied. I realise that there is no real cultural exchange in my studies abroad, there is only cultural surrendering.

I surrender the beauty of my mother tongue in front of an international language that demands a high standard of originality for its learners. I surrender the fact that my home country has its own rich independent literary and philosophical systems in front of a racist and sexist philosophy that predominantly features white males. I surrender my heart and my patriotic pride in front of my one-directional eagerness to learn the dominant culture and improve. As I reflect on myself, I am extremely embarrassed that I am excited about seeing Mona Lisa in Paris soon, but I do not even know which museums in China host the most treasured Chinese paintings. I am embarrassed that I have to write this post in English mot just to reach a larger audience, but also because I now feel more comfortable expressing my opinions in English. Cultural exchange today is a hypocritical euphemism: the dominating Anglo-American culture pierces through every continent while the European history is carefully studied everywhere; other cultures are deemed peripheral and at best complimentary to the mainstream Euro-American culture. The world economy has been gradually deimperialised in the last five decades, with various degrees of success. What’s crucial today is that culture, too, must be deimperilaised.

I hope that one day, British English, North American English and even Singlish are all deemed as English of equal importance. There should not be a hierarchy within regional variations of English because each regional variation contributes uniquely to the language in the age of globalisation. I hope that literature, arts, philosophy can become more accommodating and strive to explore humanity from a global and comparative perspective. I hope that when I attend another poetry class in the future, my classmates won’t judge my work negatively based on my cultural origin, but appreciate what my cultural upbringing can possibly offer. I hope that one day I no longer have to surrender my cultural but to engage in genuine cultural exchange.

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