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Mosaic "Eggs" and Their Connections to the Biculturalism: A Dissection of the Identity of White Americans Interested in Chinese Culture

Yuanheng Sally WANG

Perspectives, Vol. 3, No. 5

"Egg"-white on the outside, yellow on the inside-is a recently added item on the list of derogatory names for Americans who do not fit the established stereotype of their ethnic group. However, unlike "apple," "banana," and "Oreo," terms given to Native Americans, Africans-Americans, and Asian-Americans who are supposedly acting too "white", "egg" portrays the opposite scenario, where white Americans are acting overly "Asian". Although reflective of the intolerance and the prejudices that exist in the United States on the issues of race, ethnicity and culture, the emergence of the term "egg" is nevertheless an indication of the recent surge of individuals that have deep interests in Asian culture. Their love for Asian culture is not a result of shallow exoticism or blind fetish, but a genuine appreciation for the rich and sophisticated culture of these ancient civilizations. The profound admiration of these individuals for Asian culture, and the figurative meaning of the term "egg"-which should be modified to include Americans of all races-embody a very real process of cultural adoption and a state of biculturalism.

Surprisingly, there appears to be a paucity of literature that studies the experiences of Americans interested in Asian culture. The current array of scholarly works on the topics of multiculturalism and transnational relations focus primarily on two aspects: either the process of assimilation and adjustment of immigrants into the American mainstream or the confrontational model of racism, and attitudes toward minorities. This lack of literature is reasoned in The Social Psychology of Cultural Mediation, an essay written in the early 1980s by cultural theorist Stephen Bochner on the general model of cultural mediation. Bochner notes: "relatively little systematic research is available... most of the cultures-in-contact research has described the unidirectional impact of one group on the other, rather than the mutually reverberating influences."(p.12) My own research in the fields of cultural psychology and cultural anthropology confirmed that Bochner's assertion still holds true for the two decades since the publication of this article.

Could the lack of scholarly attention on the perceptions and behavior of Americans that hold a vast interest in another culture be a sign of its irrelevancy? Or is it a reflection that those individuals who claim that their admiration and learning of another culture has transformed their outlook downplay their own cultural state? Based on my interviews with two Harvard University undergraduate students who are currently taking Chinese language courses at Harvard, I venture to say no. By having interacted with them in a more personal manner well before their collaboration in this study, it has fascinated me that their interest in Chinese culture has in fact modified their Americanness [1]. My recent interviews with them probed more deeply into this issue and confirmed my views: the American birth culture of these bicultural American Sinophiles in the macroscopic fashion coexists with their adopted Chinese culture in a state of bilateral reinforcement, and modification. On the microscopic level, this two-way dialogue creates a cultural mosaic that allows the individual to select from two distinct sets of cultural elements in their perception and understanding of the world.

The mosaic cultural state of these "egged" Sinophiles results in alternations in their worldview [2], which is manifested mostly clearly in changes in their behavior and personal qualities. My model of cultural mosaicism attempts to fill the gap of current research on the issue of enculturation and is limited to qualitative analysis of the influence of biculturalism on the worldview of American Sinophiles. I will utilize scholarly works from cultural theorists to provide some background for my model by defining key terms, such as enculturation, worldview, and biculturalism, and then relating them to my ethnographical data prior to my discussion of cultural mosaicism. The idea of cultural mosaicism is two layered: on the microscopic level, there exists an ongoing individualized selection process between two sets of cultural elements, and on the macroscopic level there is a bilateral reinforcement and modification between the native and the adopted cultures. I am, however, not trying to prove quantitatively the relative degree of importance one culture has over another, for that would require more substantial research involving a feasible standard to measure the level of cultural adoption.

The pivotal idea of mosaic culture is a process of what social anthropologists refer to as enculturation. Ronald Taft in his essay The Role and Personality of the Mediator defines enculturation as the process where "a person acquires the specific knowledge and skills that are required to live in that culture."(p.62) Enculturation, however, is a very general term. It includes both the acquisition of a primary birth culture by an infant and a young child and the adoption of a second set of culture values as an adult. Taft establishes the distinction between the two kinds of enculturation with the simple but descriptive terms: early and later enculturation. Taft's theory of enculturation provides a useful general theoretical framework to evaluate the weaving of the birth and adopted cultures into a mosaic state of biculturalism, defined by him as the "possession of competencies that are relevant to each of the two cultures."(p.53) Taft's analogy of biculturalism as "two skills in one skull" is a particularly vivid description of the mosaic cultural states of these individuals.

Taft's concept of "two skills in one skull," from the point of view of a cultural mediator, parallels my description of the Sinophilic Americans as being in a state of cultural mosaicism. However, my analysis places the concept of biculturalism in a narrower and more immediate context of Sinophilic Americans than the umbrella discussion of cultural duality Taft provided. Against the backdrop of biculturalism, Taft posed the problem of social marginalization of an individual within the context of two distinct cultures: how does an individual interact with the original group and the new host group? Is he or she in a state of "isolation," "peripheral membership," "dual membership," or "pluralistic integration" in relation to both groups? (p.60) Taft's pictorial images of social marginalization give a clear visual representation of the possible channels of interaction between an individual and two cultures, two of which (Diagrams I and II) are applicable to the Sinophilic "eggs" that I have studied. Diagram I "peripheral membership", is defined by Taft as "the situation where a person is oriented toward joining the majority group but has not yet crossed the formal boundary to become a member."(p.60) Sam Levin, one of my interviewees, a Jewish-American who is taking second year intensive Chinese, would be a member of this category. Much assimilation has occurred, yet the individual's original membership is retained. Sam's experiences of Chinese culture have been limited to having Chinese friends and Chinese girlfriends, a father who frequently travels to East Asia, and studying a "great deal of Chinese history and culture in an academic setting." (personal interview, 5 April 2001) To sum up, his contact with Chinese culture has been predominantly secondary.

On the other hand, my other interviewee, John Green, who went to Beijing for nine months in the Junior year of his high school and every summer afterwards, seem to occupy a position in the dual membership of Diagram II. A member of Taft's second diagram is a "true bicultural person, who has dual membership and little difficulty in moving freely in either group, but still retains his membership in group A when he is participating in group B, and vice versa." (p.60) This diagram provides an accurate representation of a Sinophilic American whose first-hand contact with China has given him a deeper understanding of his adopted culture.

My reluctance to place Sam or John into Taft's third category (Diagram III) of "pluralistic integration", where the bicultural forms a "substructure within the larger group consisting of people with the same background" (p.61) taking membership in the new host group, is a result of my realization that the primary culture of these American "eggs" is deeply rooted. Their Anglo-American and Jewish-American traditions will not simply fade away. The establishment of birth culture that takes place from infanthood through childhood is a frequently discussed topic by writers of socialization and enculturation, who according to Taft, stress "the dominant and perseverant role played by the experiences in the first few years of life." (p.63) Taft himself later reasserted this claim that "the primitive concept of what is appropriate tends to persist even after considerable exposure to other ways." (p.64)

Taft's fear of the primary culture as an obstacle to the training of bicultural and multicultural individuals who play the role of a mediator between two cultures parallels cultural theorist Barre Toelken's frustration of birth culture persistence as the source of culture clashes between Whites and Native Americans expressed in the Folklore, Worldview, and Communication. Toelken argues that clashes of two dissimilar cultural views occur as an initial reaction "very much akin to paranoia," where both individuals feel "personally challenged."(p.267) However, we must be aware that Toelken anchors his inquiry into the cultural differences between Indians and whites at a different starting point than Taft's analysis of cultural mediation. Toeklen's discussion revolved around worldviews instead of enculturation. His concept of worldview, defined as "codes, structures, and cultural premises... that a society reproduces, through patterning on all level of expression,"(p.266) inculcated at a very early age offers a useful framework to analyze the effects of biculturalism on the hybrid individual. Toelken suggests a stagnant vision of worldview, where new cultural forces will only be rejected by the omnipotent birth culture.

The persistence of birth culture is the very reason that complete adoption of a culture is a virtual impossibility-the birth culture will exert an ever-existing influence on the individual's worldview. This perpetual influence will remain even if the individual were to forget his or her native tongue, become completely isolated from his or her primary culture, and forced to adopt a new set of cultural values. This was mirrored by the relatively lukewarm response given by both of my interviewees when I inquired whether or not they consider Chinese their adopted culture. John admitted that he "tried to adopt some elements of Chinese culture into [his] way of thinking," but he does not consider himself "completely an egg yet." (personal interview, 6 April 2001) Sam took even a stronger stand against the issue, denying that Chinese could be his adopted culture [3] "unless [he] were to actually move to and live in China for sometime." (personal interview, 6 April 2001) Sam's response demonstrates his adherence to his American birth culture, despite his deep interest in Chinese culture.

The power of birth culture, although emphasized by numerous scholars, should not be over-estimated. The process of adult enculturation that results in the uptake of a new culture beyond childhood is still a very real process. When individuals are exposed to elements of a new culture on a regular basis, there are two possible results: one is rejection, like the kind of "personal challenge" Toelken discussed in his theory of static worldview; the other is acceptance, similar to the process of adoption I have witnessed among American Sinophiles. Both of my interviewees spoke of their exposure to Chinese culture as having resulted in the absorption of certain Chinese cultural elements. Sam's cultural absorption is seen by him as augmenting his "experience, aspirations, knowledge, and thoughts," (personal interview, 5 April 2001) while John's cultural adoption has more profoundly altered his personality. For instance, John suggested that his trip to China and direct interaction with Chinese people has made him feel "more open-minded and liberal now than [he] was before [he] went to China." In addition, he observed himself: "having lived within Chinese culture for nine months, I could not help but be influenced by the wonderful tendency for generosity in Chinese culture." (personal interview, 6 April 2001) John's experience offers clear proof for the possibility of adult enculturation in the form of an adopted culture-incorporating certain elements of a new culture into the individual's cultural state. By embracing Chinese culture as a second set of values in addition to his original American values, John has attained a mosaic cultural state, where two sets of cultural values coexist to supply possible choices for the individual's perspectives and behavior. John can freely choose between different elements from two distinct cultures as he develops his own worldview. The hybrid character of his worldview in turn influences his personality and opinions, as more accountable manifestation of his biculturalism.

There is no lack of discussion on the topic of biculturalism among cultural theorists and social anthropologists. However, few have analyzed the interactions between two coexisting sets of cultural values in the form of internal selection processes. Most of the available literature investigates the state of biculturalism either as a single entity or as two separate cultural forces. Taft's theory belongs to the latter group. His outline of the concept of secondary idiogenic biculturalism-"secondary cultural acquisitions occurs as a result of exposure to the new culture after the primary socialization has run much of its course"-follows the same trend of thought as traditional cultural theorists. (p.71) He emphasizes the importance of the original culture, and sees it as unlikely to fade away completely even when "completely cut off from the primary culture."(p.71) Taft's analysis of secondary idiogenic biculturalism, however, lacks depth in the sense it only provides an outlined description of the process of secondary enculturation. The model of cultural mosaicism as a hybrid set of cultural elements participating in an individualized selection process attempts to break through the surface of the complex idea of biculturalism and provide a closer look at the microscopic interactions beneath the macroscopic entities of two cultures. But it must be remembered that Taft's The Role and Personality of the Mediator has a very different focus from this essay: it tries to suggest the conditions that will produce the most competent cultural mediators. Hence, Taft's brief treatment biculturalism as a process of enculturation is justified for his purpose.

Taft's approach of viewing the two cultural forces within a bicultural individual is, nevertheless, not without its virtues. The macroscopic analysis tends to simplify matters, therefore revealing important trends that might be lost in a more detailed analysis. I utilized this mode of reasoning to begin my study of the relationship between the two distinct cultural forces that are present in a bicultural individual. I intend to explain my finding in terms of the cultural element selection process. My analysis of the primary ethnographical resources revealed that the interactions between birth and adopted culture consist predominately of two forms: modification and reinforcement. Modification includes two opposing processes, substitution and rejection that on the microscopic eliminate some cultural elements of the birth culture or the adopted culture in the selection pool. Essentially, modification is a form of negative interaction, where the total number of active elements that participate in the selection process remains the same or decreases. On the other hand, reinforcement reflects positive change in that the elements that undergo this process will becomes more persistent and stable in the selection pool.

Is there a dominant-subordinate relationship between the two opposing forces of modification and reinforcement, considering that the two processes working against each other at equal magnitude could possibly create tension and cause clashes between the birth and adopted cultures? If one of these forces does occupy a more eminent position than the other one, what factors cause its dominance? To inquire more deeply into the issue of a possible hierarchical difference between the two trends, I reviewed my primary sources and found that my two interviewees produced contradictory results-for John the process of moderation seemed to be more important, while Sam the opposite was true.

Throughout his interview, John conveyed a sense of awe for Chinese culture. He seemed eager to incorporate many of its elements into his worldview. He enumerated a variety of ways that Chinese culture has changed him personally and socially. In the realm of social interaction, John expressed that he has become "more polite and held-back than [he] used to be." Even around his peers, he "tend[s] to be a little more of a consensus-builder... sometimes hav[ing] this strange desire to prevent conflict at all costs, to try to make sure everyone's happy." (personal interview, 6 April 2001) John made it clear that he obtained these qualities through his contact with China. For John, his biculturalism predominately takes the form of substitution of his American birth culture by the adopted Chinese culture as a kind of modification. The dominance of substitution partially results from and is enhanced by the very fact that he does not have strong primary culture. American culture "often disgusts [him]... quite a lot of American popular culture pisses [him] off as well." (personal interview, 6 April 2001) John's relatively weak attachment to American culture enhanced his readiness to adopt Chinese culture. His lack of attachment not only eliminates a natural initial resistance to change, similar to Toelken's concept of "personal challenge" by new cultural ideas, but also minimizes the internal tension between the two cultures after adoption.

On the contrary, Sam's primordial culture state prior to his contact with Chinese culture is very different from John's. Sam's identity and pride as being American and Jewish is quite evident. In a way, Sam can be considered a multicultural tri-hybrid with American and Jewish being the two primary birth cultures and Chinese being the secondary adopted culture. Because of his unique cultural state, Sam's response to the addition of Chinese culture into his set of cultural elements differs drastically from John's-the process of reinforcement defines his cultural mosaicism. His identification with Chinese culture is directly related to the similarities that exist between Jewish and Chinese values. He found that "many of the things Chinese culture emphasizes, from the importance of education, to modesty and respect for parents", are also values that he holds from being Jewish.(personal interview, 6 April 2001) For individuals like Sam, whose primary and adopted culture share many elements in common, there exists no reason to partially discard the birth culture. Therefore, the mode of bilateral interaction between the primary and the birth culture is most likely to be reinforcement.

In the view of the selection pool the presence of similar values and ideals in both cultures reinforcing each other is analogous to having two copies of the same element where an individual must choose one to support a part of his worldview. No matter how creative one gets with his selection process, one will end up picking one of the two almost identical elements. Yet, the profound effects of bicultural similarly do not end here. The presence of two copies of the same element from distinct cultures gives that element a legitimacy and importance in the operation of constructing and modifying the individual's worldview. Hence, the ultimate effect of bilateral reinforcement is multiplicative.

The contrasting examples of birth and adopted culture interactions provided by my two interviewees demonstrated an important concept in the study of biculturalism: the bilateral relationship between the adopted culture on the primary culture depends predominantly on the unique cultural background or experience of each individual. Different combinations of primary and secondary cultures or a different level of attachment to the birth culture are bound to produce different degrees of secondary enculturation and thus a different pattern of cultural mosaicism that is completely relative to the individual. This idea of individual relativism is precisely echoed in Bochner's essay The Social Psychology of Cultural Mediation of cultural-learning in the light of becoming a cultural mediator, where multiple cultural factors of the individual affect his or her effectiveness to bridge two cultures. Bochner outlines the parallel scenario in cultural mediation that it is "greatly influenced by the affective response of the person to the new knowledge, further modified by the person's feelings about his own culture." He later added to his main theory that "the affinity that persons from one group have for the cultural manifestations of alien societies, at a collective level is largely a function of the degree of similarity between the respective societies."(p.14) Bochner's analysis provides a seamless fit on a macroscopic level to my primary ethnographical data. His primary theory correctly predicted that the reason for John's readily uptake of various elements of Chinese culture in place of his American culture is his antipathy toward his own birth culture.

Furthermore, his conjecture again converges with Sam's experience, where the similarity between his Jewish birth culture and the Chinese adopted culture creates a bilateral reinforcement between the two sets of cultural values. Bochner's theory of cultural learning, although general, does, however, provides an accurate macroscopic picture of biculturalism as demonstrated its correspondence to my primary sources.

Through my fruitless search for secondary sources that directly focused on Sinophilic Americans, I have gotten sense that the paucity of literature is more than a coincident. There are plenty of scholarly works written on assimilation of immigrants to American culture and the globe export of American popular culture. However, the reverse is rare, regardless of the origin of the imported culture. Could this be a byproduct of same old evil-ethnocentrism-that causes most racial and cultural conflicts, yet is still advocated by almost every cultural and ethnic group? I would assume so. However, I cannot understand why cultural theorists and social anthropologists who are supposedly vehement critics of ethnocentrism could fall into the very trap they are scrutinizing. Maybe as members of cultural and ethnic groups, the rationale and consciousness of these scholars are also blurred by those prevalent and potent social pressures.

(The author is an undergraduate student at Harvard University majoring in Biology.)