Language, Insults, Fractions….and ‘Being Real’

June 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Hmmm, I wonder you think.  I was in Malaysia recently and was invited to spend an evening with a French couple working in KL and a Malay Chinese friend of mine (Jin). Another couple joined us – he was a retired French businessman and she was Madagascan, had lived in France for two decades and was now a senior academic in KL. At one point in the conversation Ana asked Jin if she could write her language, Chinese. The reply was “Not well, not really, I tried, haven’t learned that much….”. Ana said “You should write Chinese, your position here is vulnerable, you’re nothing if you can’t write your language…..”. I was surprised, and leapt in ….”Jin is multilingual …she can write across a range of complex genres in English and Malay, that’s a very wide repertoire……the Chinese characters must be learned oen by one….” But the original assertion about inadequacy and vulnerability returned. I felt uncomfortable and wondered how I could effectively argue my position….

Later in the evening the topic of racism came up – Ana said the French are highly racist; comments had been made about her skin colour, and other comments she took as more indirectly racist “Where do you come from?” “Why are you here?”. I was then asked if people make racist comments about skin colour in New Zealand, and is there racism towards Maori. I thought about this and responded that such comments – in my experience – are very rare…..but that racism has gone underground, and can sometimes be the basis of such comments as “You don’t look Maori” “How much Maori are you – a quarter?” and, on occasion, “Can you speak Maori?”…I then added that questions about language and fractions (are you only one eighth Maori?) can be thinly veiled insults and a new form of racism . … they suggest the person does not have an authentic identity, they aren’t a ‘proper’ Maori, they aren’t being real, they are a lesser version of the group they claim to belong to…..

 Well, I’m still thinking about this…. I wonder what you think…what would you  have said in Jin’s defence, and about racism in New Zealand……

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