Law in Contemporary Society

The Stereotypical Foreigner

-- By MerryLi - 17 Feb 2016

As Trump rises to a political height no one thought he could have, his wall building proposal has gone from being unbelievably naive to being deceptively effective. The fuel for this "madness" is partially the deep fear for immigrants, as they "take over" jobs, settle in large numbers, supposedly commit crimes, and insert their foreign language and culture into what is perceived to be what pure America should be like. [1]

In America

A word that may come to mind in the English context when talking about foreignness and foreigners seems to be xenophobia - a sense of fear towards the foreign and the strange.

Why "subsequently"?

"Xenophobia" is a metaphor here, not a description. An actual phobic response to strangers is an exceptional intrapsychic condition described in the literature and met with by therapists, but the political or social condition of hostility to outsiders—whether permanent as in the culture of the Ifugao described by Roy Barton or temporary as in the Know-Nothing phenomenon in the US during the 1850s—is a universal recurring feature of human societies.

It is a much different sentiment from treating something/someone as exotic, which has romantic connotations under the foreignness.

Perhaps, but there are other ways of thinking about this phenomenon, as in Edward Said's famous conception of "Orientalism": a form of exoticization which is functionally linked to oppression and is easily converted into "xenophobia." And see Joel Kovel's famous White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970).

Frequently, whether something/someone is perceived to be exotic or invokes xenophobia is decided by merely how distant the foreign thing is. When what is foreign is also distant, there seems to be more curiosity than fear. The Anglo-Saxon culture is adventurous, and the people explore the unknown, finding it to be full of opportunities. When what is foreign suddenly demands the attention at home, by war or by settlement, the exotic became fearsome. 

This psychological change seems to be rooted in a sense of superiority. Historically, there was technological superiority that enabled one side to explore or exploit while the other side got explored or exploited. The imbalance of physical power easily turned into a sense of societal and moral superiority - one group’s physical advantages must mean that its intangibles are superior because they produced better results. This reasoning has been used quite often, in Germany, in Japan, and of course in America. Americans subscribe to the idea of America being the greatest country in the world because of the military advantage, the commercial domination, the scientific and technological wonder, and people attribute these achievements to the superiority of the system - democracy, liberty, Christianity or its values, the Constitution and more are all part of the American system that people believe to be the greatest in the world.

It's not clear who "people" are here.

It is not certain at all that this reasoning is correct, or even that the qualities people believe the system to possess are more than mere form and propaganda. Yet empirical observations suggest that it is both a fear of losing these qualities and a fear of providing the benefits of these qualities to those who used to be inferior that drives the fear of foreignness.

What observations, by whom, under what circumstances, recorded how?

But probably to the horror of some, America’s desirability continuously attracts foreigners to become immigrants, and immigrants to claim Americanness. And an irony lies between inclusiveness as an American value and the desire to keep America “pure.”

That would be irony if the feelings were simultaneous in the same feeler. But I don't know many people around me who have any interest in the "purity" of the United States, or even who would feel indifferent or positive feelings when the word "purity" is used in that context. What evidence shows that "purity" is a "desire" expressed by a broad segment or segments of US society?

In China

In contrast to the American dichotomy, foreignness is perceived quite differently in China. There are still two different attitudes, loosely one positive and one negative, though there is more nuance. The positive word towards foreignness may be 崇洋媚外 (chong yang mei wai), which translates to “worshiping the west and fawning the foreign,” or similar to xenophilia, as the modern coinage goes. This modern word emerged as a China in decline encountered the West, and found it to be more advanced than itself. Unfamiliar with inferiority, people swarmed to praise the desirable foreign, hoping to free ride on whatever amazing inventions the foreign could bring so that they would not fall behind. But ironically it was also because people were unfamiliar with inferiority, harsh criticism against those who are too intimate with the foreign quickly took hold. The word 崇洋媚外 may denote a positive impression of the foreign, but it is intertwined with a feeling of despise towards those who are willing to believe that the superiority of the foreign is unattainable. For better or worse, the word’s legacy goes beyond the time when the country was entrenched in war and poverty. It is very much still a prevalent sentiment today, which reflects the Chinese psyche that agonizes over the distance between the great China in imagination and the flawed China in reality.

The negative attitude towards foreigners belittles them, using words such as “小” (little/small) and “蛮夷” (savage foreigner). This attitude has a much longer history, which goes back probably all the way to the beginning of the civilization when the civilized people encountered the surrounding tribes. The usage of these words is still quite common today, with some changes in definition, and is used to describe not only the inferior but also the hostile. But what is not obvious in the words themselves is that there is very little, if any, fear behind them. Apathy, and occasionally pity, are what the Chinese feel towards those that may be inferior and hostile.

As a generalization, this is either linked to contemporary evidence taken from public opinion data, or it is a historical observation. As the latter, it doesn't account well for some periods and phenomena in Chinese history, including—for example—the Northerner/Southerner divide, the treatment of the non-Han minorities, attitudes towards Manchu at the beginning of the Ch'ing, etc. It does not very accurately describe the current views of Uighur people fomented by the CCP, etc. So it would be useful to have some precision.

So the difference

It cannot go unnoticed that the discrepancy between the English romanticized foreign and the Chinese one – the former is the unknown, the faraway, the simple and pure, while the latter is the known, the influential, the advanced and sophisticated. And the difference between the English disliked foreign and the Chinese one is that the former is imminent and threatening, while the latter is distant and harmlessly ignorant. Yet the similarity that may escape the attention of many is that neither culture wishes to change. For America, the foreign may be a temporary escape, but with that escape, the foreign is improved by the sheer presence of the superior; for China, the foreign may have characteristics that deserve recognition and imitation, but with the appropriation of those characteristics, the foreign remains foreign while China progresses to a better self.

The stereotypical foreigner in the eyes of some Americans is one whose own culture and society is inferior, in one way or another, and either finds America desirable and wishes to be a part of it, or is jealous of America and wishes to “bring it down,” and the Americans react accordingly. The stereotypical foreigner in the eyes of many Chinese is one who either represents a better life or a worse life, neither impacts what China thinks of itself.

The theme of the current draft appears to be that "Chinese" and "American" people think about "foreigners" differently. The draft summons no data, and gives no precision to the nouns involved, so we can't be sure that we have before us anything other than personal opinion, which would be a perilous basis for adopting any conclusions. One route to improvement is therefore to give some content to the generalizations.

A second, and to my mind more important, road to a better essay is to take the next step: what does the difference, assuming it can be shown more clearly in some ethnographic fashion, mean? As the late Clifford Geertz showed in so many ways throughout his long career, the central question of an interpretive anthropology is how cultures organize for the people who live in them their understanding of what it means to be a person. An evidently "near" question is what it means to be a person of this culture, looking outward at a person in another. See for example, his essay "Found in Translation: Social History of Moral Imagination," from Local Knowledge (1983).



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r6 - 05 Jun 2016 - 00:38:41 - MerryLi
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