Mix 'n' match society: going 'transcultural'

Andrew Pham is on the cutting edge of culture.

Born in Vietnam. Escaped in 1977, at the age of 10, with his family. A boat person who wound up in Shreveport, La., before finally moving to California. A Buddhist who converted to Christianity. A sports fan who loves Italian food and gumbo. A man with an Asian face and family tree, who embraces Western values of independence and mobility.

He is, in other words, the very embodiment of "transcultural" identity. The term is increasingly being used - in literature, academia, even in public-policy discussions - to describe social changes wrought by globalization, increased mobility, and ethnic intermingling.

"We see ourselves in a different light," says Mr. Pham, referring to people whose sense of identity is being forged by a melding of cultures. "We don't say we have one foot in one world, and one in the other. We see ourselves

as a bridge, or as a separate group, that can move back and forth.

"People are trying to redefine themselves," says Pham, whose recent memoir, "Catfish and Mandala," traces his bicycle journey through his homeland and illumines his attempts to define himself. "It isn't Asian-American anymore, or African-American.... It's a sense of identity defined through what a person does, through how he lives his life."

If this is the wave of the future, Pham is ahead of the curve. Multiculturalism - the acceptance of and celebration of distinct cultural heritages - continues to reign as the dominant, politically correct framework through which ethnic identity is examined. But beneath the radar screen of popular culture, some social observers have begun to argue that multiculturalism must give way to new views of self and community.

"It seems to have reached a limit," says Rey Chow, a Hong-Kong-born and educated cultural theorist who teaches at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "The thing is, once you become aware of cultural differences, and respect and honor them, you can easily slide into a situation in which those differences become insurmountable. Every culture becomes an enclosure and no one else can touch it."

Transculturalism, on the other hand, casts identity in a new light: as a melding, or fusion, of ethnic backgrounds and cultural experiences. It's the kind of thing that has been almost inevitable for people like Pham, the Vietnamese-American engineer-turned-writer, who has drawn from a variety of cultural experiences. Or for the growing numbers of interracial couples whose children represent a literal blending of cultures.

"Transculturalism goes the other direction from multiculturalism," says Gregory Jay, director of the cultures and communities programs at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "It says, the only way I can understand myself is in part to get out of those boundaries, to see myself as made up of a confluence, a river of different things going through me."

A matter of degree

In one sense, transculturalism is a new name for an age-old phenomenon: Immigrants have always made new homes in new cultures, influencing those cultures even while assimilating values from them.

But what is different now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is a world that is more mobile - and more connected - than at any time in history. Today, cultural change happens more rapidly, and on a different scale.

In the past, immigrants may have made a small impact over time on the cultures they moved into. Today, it's more likely that mainstream culture itself will morph into new expressions, as people in essence create "fused" identities that mix and match cultural heritages.

"The important point is not that white people are going to be the minority in this country by 2050," says Mr. Jay of the University of Wisconsin. "The important fact is that racial categories as we know them will disappear. In fact, they will become incomprehensible as more and more people we meet are markedly fusion people. Those people will assert the right to identify themselves as they choose."

Resistance to blending

Still, observers say transculturalism isn't likely to be embraced on a widespread basis anytime soon. Ethnic wars, such as those in the former Yugoslavia, are all too vivid a reminder that for many people, culture is a matter of ethnic purity, to be defended to the death. On a less tragic level, countries like France have become notorious for resisting imported intrusions, such as Hollywood films, into their own cultures.

Still, say these social observers, the forces of globalization that are transforming the world economically - creating free flows of capital and information through increasingly porous national boundaries - are also transforming the world culturally.

"These forces are with us. We're on a global ride, and it's only going to get more global," says Barbara Bundy, executive director of the Center for the Pacific Rim. "Transculturalism is the transformation of culture as we have known it and as we know it now. It's about working toward the new. And we don't have adequate terms and policies to deal with this phenomenon."

Steve Clemons, senior vice president of the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, argues that public policymakers need to start thinking in terms of the forces of globalization - and how they will impact culture.

"When you get into these questions, you see that it's more than just Coca-Cola and McDonald's and MTV all around the world," says Mr. Clemons, who organized a recent conference in Washington on globalization and cultural identity, which brought together cultural thinkers from around the world and some 150 professionals interested in global policy issues.

"You've got to have deeper talk, more serious talk, about identity questions," he says. American public policymakers "are still assuming that everyone wants to be like us, when in fact the world is going in some really different directions, and that's something we need to consider."

Experts warn that globalization - and its domination by the United States - is already causing cultural inequities. They say the culture that is exported around the world, through Information Age technology, is all too frequently red, white, and blue.

And cultures of other countries can all too easily be turned into commodities - something for wealthy white people to buy and display at home. Such unchecked economic forces, warn these experts, work against true transculturalism.

In addition, they say, many people in poorer nations will remain locked in their cultures, financially unable to take advantage of the forces changing the world around them.

"Among many academics, there's a certain euphoria about transculturalism, about being mobile," says Ms. Chow, who teaches modern culture and media at Brown. "I'm not sure I like that. It's the euphoria of the privileged classes."

An inevitable change?

But like many of her colleagues, Chow believes that trans-culturalism is the next step in social change, an inevitable transformation in an increasingly interconnected - and interwoven - world.

"I think it will make us a better society," says Pham. "As is the case with any type of change, there's always growing pains. We will see great flashes of racism and violence and bigotry. But I have hope. I really believe this is the natural progression of society and the world. I think identity needs to be redefined for each group and for each time period of a society's history."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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