advocacy and the informed outsider

an experience that many have had and that some have written about has been providing expert opinion. I’m sharing here to see what people’s experience might be like.

last weekend, I attended a conference of ethnic Chinese professional people of various political identities, but all living in the United States. The conference made me anxious for several reasons: first, public gigs of this sort always give me the willies; second, the organization seemed tied to political interests and organizations toward which I am at best ambivalent; and finally the organizers wanted to have several talks on “indigenous education”—an issue that has been highly politicized and contentious on Taiwan. And I found myself both as a token “American” (meaning, in Mandarin Chinese white person) and as an anthropologist who has worked in Taiwanese indigenous communities, a token indigenous voice. I tried to decline the invitation several times, but one of the trade offs of taking money from the R.O.C. Ministry of Foreign Affairs / National Central Library is my participation on discourse on public affairs. When the organizer met me for dinner, the invitation also became personal. So I went across the river to Cambridge for the conference on Saturday. I tried to make it clear that I cannot represent an indigenous opinion, but of course, I did want to make some sort of critical response to the well meaning but misinformed positions presented by the other keynote speaker—an ethnic Chinese academic from Taiwan who now serves as a presidential advisor on education. This academic is well known for his charitable work as well as for his opposition to progressive policies. Because my talk was limited to an issue that I care about, challenges facing Taiwanese indigenous language renewal, I could engage in a bit of useful self-deprecation. Yet, language issues are ultimately about public space, media, and an entire system of values. What I had to say would be threatening to the ethnic Chinese audience

Sometimes, being the sort of liminal person that ethnographers who have worked long term in one place is a good thing. In the question and answer period that followed my talk and subsequent lunch conversation, the distinguished speaker gave me the cold shoulder; but the audience showed real curiosity about indigenous language issues and willingness to rethink their positions as members of the dominant ethnic group. Perhaps this willingness came from their long term residence in the United States, but many of the remarks that came from the audience were of the “I had never really considered that the media dominance of Mandarin was a problem,” or “it is true that the education system creates a hostile environment for indigenous languages” variety. Other than the student attendees, this was an audience that used a now discredited term, “mountain folk” shandi ren, to refer to indigenous people without a trace of irony or a sense that it might be wrong. But in the way of people who attend public lectures, they were a curious bunch who didn’t necessarily want their prejudices reproduced. The questions—about drinking, attitudes toward work, what kinds of policy they might support—sometimes came from ignorance and stereotype. They were, however, interested in knowing from someone who has experience living in an indigenous community about what that experience might mean to them. I had to overcome many of my own prejudices, I now knew

Yet, part of their curiosity—what made at least some of the audience willing to give my arguments a listen—actually came from the disjuncture between what they might read from my appearance and what they would hear in my voice. No one will ever mistake my Mandarin for Standard Taiwan Language School Mandarin, much less Beijing Mandarin. People are curious about the working class and indigenous trace in my speech: am I the child of missionaries or someone otherwise displaced to Taiwan as a child? (I’m not: I learned Mandarin the way most of the audience learned English). Usually this curiosity annoys me, but in this context it gets read as “this is someone who has spent a very long time living and studying on Taiwan.” And here is the interesting catch. If I were Chinese or Chinese American, I doubt that I could say what I said about ethnic Chinese people on Taiwan suffering from an acute case of cultural narcissism. I doubt that I could have said that one cannot blame indigenous heads of households for speaking Mandarin to their children; that eventually the reasons for the decline in indigenous languages derives from a value system, toward which everyone on the island must orient themselves, in which economic rationality trumps everything. I doubt that I could have said that ethnic Chinese people should stop trying to “educate” indigenous people. If I were Chinese, I would seem a traitor. At the same time, these words from an American without some form of cultural competence would strike the audience as misinformed and probably imperialistic. I wonder if part of the value of ethnographic work is in the creation of such liminal critics, informed insider-outsiders who have license to say what insiders might know but cannot articulate

deej / caraw is an ethnographer and sound installation artist currently working in 'atolan, taiwan. his research interests include indigenous labour histories, gender, and the ethics of locality

6 thoughts on “advocacy and the informed outsider

  1. Nice. And what about the other way? Would you have been accepted into your research fields by indigenous peoples if you had been Chinese or Chinese American? I get told over and over that only a foreigner could do what I do in Japan.

  2. Another side to this:

    Not being an linguistic insider-outsider, but currently working and residing in Korea, I feel that my outsider status provides my coworkers (Koreans) with opportunities to express thoughts and emotions that they would feel uncomfortable expressing to other Koreans. I’m foreign enough (read white) that I am not expected to act and behave like a Korean. My coworkers don’t owe me the hierarchical interaction that they do with co-nationals. The same goes for my kids (I’m a teacher). On a certain level, this possibly means I am not taken as ‘seriously’ as other Koreans would be – but that is something I am fine with. I encourage my status as an other, specifically because of the conversations it permits me to have.

    Otherness is possibly something we can take advantage of.

  3. Just chiming in to confirm and amplify what Mark and Ali have said. The amplification is to note that if you live a long time in a place (30+ years in Japan for me), the otherness mellows, in part, I suspect, because you internalize enough of the local communication habits that your approach when you address people or respond to what they say doesn’t scream nama gaijin (raw foreigner, and, yes, this is a common expression in Japanese).

  4. @mark in fact, there are a few ethnic chinese scholars who work in indigenous taiwanese communities. the relationship that they have with these communities seems to depend on the amount of time they are willing to commit. that’s fair

  5. As an anthropologist, I agree that sometimes we are in a liminal position to raise unpopular questions and can get away with it. However, I think in this case you probably think too much in this regard. I have many friends who do research among the indigenous people in Taiwan. They would be categorized by you as ‘ethnic Chinese’ . Most of them have the sincerity and take it pretty natural to speak against stereotypes of indigenous peoples to the ‘ethnic Chinese’ audience.There’s no taboo or too much difficulties about that. In fact they think that’s their obligation, to inform the public and officials when there are chances. I really don’t see why it could only be done by a foreigner.

  6. @malaita I think that your friends are also mine in this case. I don’t doubt their sincerity; in fact, a couple have been very active in important work. And I don’t think that _only_ an outsider can address such issues. To place my remarks in perspective, consider the context, which was of overseas chinese who have lived in the US many years and are blue leaning, and the other keynote–lee chia-tung. It was an unfriendly audience. While I don’t doubt the amount of or dedication to work by several taiwanese anthropologists, my questions were limited: how does the liminal status of anthropologists as peculiar insider-outsiders (or outsider-insiders) give us license for types of critical statements or gestures?

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