Going even further where angels fear to tread

21 Apr

The post on the English and ESL blog On welfare issues with Korean-Australian students has had 43 individual visits so far. It has been, as I said to Jim Belshaw, a “Topsy” post with bits being added over two days.

  • The first part is my immediate response to questions being asked about possible cultural factors in the tragedy that occurred at Virginia Tech. It should be noted that I do not aim to “explain” that tragedy.
  • Then I present some other posts I have found that take up the same or similar questions. The most significant one comes from a Korean-American pastor.
  • In the third section you may read further thoughts based on my own observation of Korean and Korean-Australian students in Australia.
  • I conclude with reflections on the need to have a perspective shaped by something more than monoculturalism.

I have decided to mirror that fourth part here:

And so? Thoughts on the Virginia tragedy and our own flight from multiculturalism

The connection between what I have been exploring here and the recent tragedy in Virginia is tentative. I would argue that one aspect of this particular incident is that it may be in part at least a very extreme case of some of the issues and pressures discussed above. I am not pretending this is all that is involved.

Second, I can’t help thinking that the Great Blandness and Homogeneity being imposed from above here in Australia has done a disservice because it does not correspond to reality. The retreat from a productive multicultural discourse has been under way ever since the Howard government came into power, though there have been countervailing pressures from some, including, I would argue, Senator Vanstone, not to mention certain backbenchers, public servants, state governments, and public agencies like HREOC — and ESL teachers. But the Howard-driven rush towards homogeneity makes a nuanced consideration of intercultural migrant issues far more difficult, because it favours lack of reflection, lack of response to the lives actually lived by people and the values by which they live, and lack of empathy.

This is a diverse society, not a monocultural society. Teachers, especially ESL teachers, confront this every day. Sure, it is in the interests of all to negotiate integration and acculturation, but we also need to understand, and respect, the diversity that is out there. A one-size-fits-all approach is both lazy and counterproductive. The assumption that “our” way is normative and others should just shed beliefs, language, values, and entire ways of life when they step off the plane is a sure-fire way to cause problems, not a way to achieve harmony. On the other hand, migrants soon discover that they are indeed in a new environment where some of their former assumptions and values actually become disabling. This is a point I made in ESL and The Art of War back in 2000, with a cross-cultural reference to Sun Tzu’s dictum: “Even if you know the configuration of the land, if your mind is inflexible you will not only fail to take advantage of the ground but may even be harmed by it. It is important for generals to adapt in appropriate ways. These adaptations are made on the spot as appropriate, and cannot be fixed in advance.”

Koreans have a very strong cultural identity, for which there are very good historical reasons. They have maintained that identity against great pressure from more powerful neighbours for centuries. They have also taken on and transformed in their own way influences from elsewhere. The Korean church, which has only been in existence for around 110 years, is a case in point. Most Australian Koreans belong to protestant churches, often very strongly evangelical and often with clear Korean features. Confucian values have transferred with ease to Korean Christianity. They have also quite clearly taken on Western practices in many other areas, again transforming those influences in their own way. Fitting into the Australian “mainstream” can, as for many migrant communities with strong identities, be a very variegated phenomenon, not without its strains and conflicts.

I have also found Koreans and Korean Australians can be the kindest, most generous people you can imagine. I could illustrate that with many anecdotes. It is perfectly possible to be proudly and positively Korean while being a good and valuable Australian. Most no doubt are. But their Australian-ness may not always be exactly like yours or mine.

Surely, though, that is mostly good?

When we throw out the word “multiculturalism”, and the thought that word represents (however poorly), we lose the ability to deal with our society as it is. We are quite literally disabled when it comes to issues like those in this post. This is a tragic development, in my view. Populism in this case lets us down.

At the same time, the Korean community (or communities — I know of internal tensions there too) has to face the fact that their Korean-Australian children will vary enormously in the degree to which their Korean-ness manifests itself and what values and lifestyles might thereby emerge. This is an issue in many communities, of course. When all can accept diversity that problem too becomes less potentially painful.


Jim Belshaw made a comment over there on English and ESL which led to considerable template switching. It’s now settled, I think, after at least six transformations!


I won’t be putting this on English and ESL, but I will mention it here as I find it an interesting line of thought culturally, mingled with some really crazy stuff too, leading me to be interested in some of the references but to be very wary of the argument presented: Cho Seung-hui and the Not So Secret School. Read it with the comments for and against. “None of this proves anything about why” as the writer says. This is conspiracy theory territory of course, and sadly “the truth is out there” and is both messier and more mundane, though no less sad.

Tuesday 24 April

Eugene Cho, the Korean-American Pastor referred to above, has posted more. See one of our own.

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Posted by on April 21, 2007 in Aussie interest, Current affairs, immigration, Jim Belshaw, Multiculturalism and diversity, Politics, racism


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