Growing up in a majority Chinese ethnic enclave in the Los Angeles has shaped the ways in which I approach my own research of discourses of Chinese culture and authenticity, minoritization, and language. Moving away from our culturally distant ancestral home in mainland China, my family migrated to Burma, to Hong Kong, and then to the United States in the early 1970s. Living in LA has molded how I articulate my own Chinese identity, but, at the same time, this articulation has been criticized as inauthentic because of its geographical distance from China, linguistic difference in the diaspora, and cultural creolization. Yet, such a claim about authentic identities has led to constructive conversations across class, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries in my research and teaching. My work seeks to radically transform our understanding of culture and identity politics as negotiations that can exceed national designations.
Closely examining how notions of authenticity define insider and outsider dynamics, culture and ethnicity are deployed as tactics in media to justify censorship and policies that exclude specific marginalized communities. Although there are shared understandings of Chinese culture on a global scale, the discovery of various media showed me that Chinese identities can look drastically different in various regions, such as Hong Kong and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Analyzing these different media representations, my research reevaluates claims where culture and ethnicity are reified ways to include, exclude, or disenfranchise individuals. My research diversifies the ways in which we can think about Chineseness. I foreground how the term “Chinese,” is not a static monolithic identifier devoid of political meaning, but it is already an inherently political tool that is open to reconfiguration in multicultural contexts. By highlighting the different forms that Chinese identity can take, the diversification of culture is at the center of my work.
At the University of Southern California, I taught for courses that also focused on how Chineseness was constructed and highlighted marginalized voices. In a class on Sinophone and transnational Chinese literature and cinema, I opened a discussion about the notions of Chineseness in different contexts from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Tibet. My students are a diverse group of learners, and making the classroom a safe and open space for discussion is imperative. Inclusive learning where each student can have their own voice in the classroom is imperative. For example, when I asked students to explain feminism in China, many students responded that it does not exist and that Chinese culture remains locked in a backwards system. The students from mainland China, however, remained silent. While I affirmed some of their points, such as the lingering dominance of patriarchy, I pointed out that this is not uniquely specific to China. I also explained that there are many groups in China today that work against such a system for women and LGBTQ rights. The students who were from China were then able to engage in the conversation and discuss their experiences in the People’s Republic, which further revealed the vast diversity within a place that was perceived as a largely monolithic and homogenous. It is essential for my classroom to be constructing inclusive conversations about the topic of diversity within society to address issues of cultural identification and negotiation.
Experiencing the critique of inauthentic identity first hand allows me to see the multiplicity of identity and encourage my students to examine closely the constructs of culture. It is essential that all students from different backgrounds have a place where they can express their opinions and be included in discussions. My work and teaching both reinforces my commitment to diversity and fosters open communication across different groups and identities.
——–Melissa M. Chan
Last updated: 12/10/2017