Multicultural Challenges and Redefining Identity in East Asia

Multicultural Challenges and Redefining Identity in East Asia

Author(s):  Nam-Kook Kim

ISBN:           9781409455288

Publisher:  Ashgate Publishing

Year:           2014

Price:          $97.00

Reviewed by Adebusuyi Isaac Adeniran, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

Multicultural challenges and redefining identity in East Asia is an excellent collection of articles, edited by an outstanding scholar, who is well grounded in related discourses on East Asia – the focal sub-region of the book. The book explores the interpositions of multiculturalism, globalization and identity fluidity in ten countries of East Asia, namely China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Various chapters of the book present a succinct analysis of striking changes being experienced in the social structures of East Asia as a sub-region, especially notable changes in extant indigenous identity cleavages due to vagaries of the globalizing culture (and bolstering migratory behavior of the people). Related changes, however, have been depicted as being concurrently positive and negative; and in all, the phenomenon of globalization has played a pivotal role.

Ostensibly, two schools of thought, as to the propriety of the phenomenon of globalization in the functioning of contemporary nation-states (and by extension, in constructing existential identities for individuals or groups), have been identified: the anti-globalization and the pro-globalization categories. For the anti-globalization advocates, the advent of globalization has caused the weakening of the nation-state (that is, inherent obliteration of ‘methodological nationalism’) and, of course, the debasement of indigenous identity orientation, which is considered imperative to the life-long positioning of ‘self’ for a productive and ‘fulfilling’ existence. On the other hand, for the pro-globalization scholars, it is affirmed that rather than disparaging the essentiality of either the indigenous cultural/identity cleavages or the functionality of nation-states, the idea of a ‘globalized culture’ has further strengthened their relevance. For instance, individuals (or a nation state) who subsist within the frameworks of a supra-national configuration are bound to possess enhanced ‘voices’, especially within the realm of global socio-economic interaction.

Inferring from the foregoing contrasting view points on the phenomenon of globalization, this book, therefore, opines that for the case of the East Asia, the interpositions of international free trade, ‘westernizing culture’, international migration and identity construction/integration would present a high point of conflagrating tendency due to expected divergent stand points. Hence, the title of the book: Multicultural challenges and redefining identity in East Asia, which I consider perfect.

Chapter 1, ‘Foreigner Street: Urban Citizenship in Multicultural Shanghai’ by James Farrer, presents an interesting piece. Essentially, transnational migration (from different regions of the world) serves as the fulcrum of analysis for this field-based write-up. It examines the routine, incomplete socio-economic and political integration of mostly skilled international immigrants in Shanghai, China (with the number of those who are documented standing at 200,000) and the figure has kept increasing. This Chapter distinguishes between two forms of citizenships within the migrants’ communities in Shanghai, China. That is, an ‘urban citizenship’ and a full ‘national citizenship’; where the former is routinely restrictive and the later being all encompassing. Meanwhile, the extent of desirability of either an ‘urban citizenship’ or a full ‘national citizenship’ and what individual immigrants stand to gain or lose precisely with the status of an ‘urban citizenship’ or a full ‘national citizenship’ have been largely underplayed by this Chapter. Nevertheless, it has productively explored how a ‘sense of belongingness’ could be constructed amongst immigrants within the urban space.

Chapter 2, ‘Multicultural Challenges in Korea: Liberal Democracy Thesis vs. State Initiated Multiculturalism’ by Nam-Kook Kim, succinctly addresses the development of a multi-cultural social configuration in Korea through a three-stage process: “tolerance, legalization of non-discrimination and multiculturalism”. Notably, the current population of immigrants in the Korea is estimated at 2.8% of the total population of 50 million; which sums up to 1.4 million. The two approaches presented to buttress emergent multi-cultural development in Korea by the writer due to increasing immigration in-flow to the country (that is, state-led top-down and society-led bottom-up) have quite revealing. However, in affirming the centrality of the society-led bottom-up approach to the emergence of a multi-cultural Korea, the writer conspicuously de-emphasized the specific nature of social activism that has propelled the entire process. Yet, it made a timely projection vis-à-vis eventual emergence of a multi-cultural Korean society.

Chapter 3, ‘From Kokusaika to Tabunka Kypsei: Global Norms, Discourses of Difference and Multiculturalism in Japan by Petrice R. Flowers, has presented a formidable leeway towards understanding the dynamics of migrants’ integration and sustenance of a national socio-cultural configuration in Japan. While the government at the national level still feels reluctant towards embracing the notion of multiculturalism, various governments at the grassroots’ level have devised means of incorporating it through the practice of ‘tabunka kyosei’. “…. Japanese government’s…..‘no immigrant’ stance is at odds with what Japanese people see happening on the ground in their neighborhoods” (pp. 93). Either a cleavage towards Kokusaika (that is, ethnocentricism) or ‘tabunka kyosei (that is, multiculturalism), ‘place’ (that is, the realm within which related action or decision takes place) plays a significant determining factor. The Chapter is quite holistic.

Chapter 4, ‘Taiwanese in China and their Multiple Identities, 1895-1945’ by Shi-chi Mike Lan, explores the causes and consequences of identity manipulation by migrant Taiwanese (that is, the subjective construction of their individual ‘beings’) within a transnational and historical context. Significantly, the need for economic integration and social acceptability within the host society has necessitated such pattern of identification by the migrant Taiwanese with the native Fujian and Guangdong (with whom they share similar Han culture). Essentially, this contribution espouses real clogs inherent in the wheels of emergent multicultural Chinese society.

Chapter 5, ‘Successfully Misunderstood: the Untold Realities of the Thai-Chinese Assimilation Success Story’ by Wasana Wongsurawat, presents a veritable framework for grasping how initial misconceptions and mistrusts that usually characterize the process of integrating immigrants into a new culture could be managed for eventual productive co-existence of all involved (that is, members of the migrants’ group and members of the host community). “Misrepresenting oneself…. has become a sort of survival tactic from the ethnic Chinese community in Thailand” (pp. 138). Ostensibly, modern day multicultural inclination stands to draw a significant impetus from the day-to-day experiences of the Thai-Chinese descendants in Thailand.

Chapter 6, ‘Ethnic Minorities and the State in Vietnam’ by Horim Choi, focuses on how potentials that lie in cultural diversities could be utilized in enabling the process of nation-building. The case of Vietnam as presented by the Chapter, where peripheral ethnicities have become somewhat integrated into a pattern of mainstream national culture, could point to the possibility of transmuting hitherto autonomous traditional societies into a larger multicultural one. However, the nature of the ingrained process is capable of outright obliteration of indigenous knowledge of subsistence of the essentially rural minority ethnic groups.

Chapter 7, ‘Diverse and Divisive: Multiculturalism in Singapore’ by Cheun Hoe explores extant contradictions imbedded in such a “country of migrants” as Singapore, which has evolved into a multicultural society, especially since its independence from Great Britain in 1965. Significantly, due to few unresolved national questions, for instance, determining who is actually a citizen; who is actually a foreigner and who is actually a Singaporean Diaspora have remained largely contested. As such, multiculturalism in Singapore is still in a perpetual state of misconception.

Chapter 8, ‘Beyond Multiculturalism: Redefining Indonesian Nationhood in a Globalized Age’ by Melani Budianta, contextually situated multiculturalism as a practice that is indigenous to the Indonesian society because of its inherent cultural diversities. The Chapter explores how present day “multicultural” Indonesia would be able adapt to the popular “globalizing culture”. While the Chapter presented an interesting reading piece, it was unable to connect both “multiculturalism” and “globalization” as closely associated (and equally impacting) phenomena.

Chapter 9, ‘The Plural Society and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore’ by Daniel P.S. Goh, applies both historical and comparative approaches in analyzing the pluralistic and multicultural cleavages of both Malaysia and Singapore. While multiculturalism in Singapore has been largely corporatist (that is, elitist) in conception and implementation, in Malaysia, it has been constructed on the basis of indigenous (that is, communal) popular emancipation. To a considerable extent, related ideological differences on the basis of dissimilar versions of multiculturalism had actually caused the demise of the brief amalgamation of the two countries. Nevertheless, the affirmation of the writer that Malaysia should seek to transmute its version of multiculturalism towards “a new form of multiracial bargaining based on individualistic pluralism” (pp. 12) seems to be devoid of any convincing epistemological justification.

Chapter 10, ‘Gendered Migration and Filipino Women in Korea’ by Minjung Kim presents an interesting case of deployment of attribute of femaleness in realizing associated transnational goals of individual Filipino women migrants in Korea. Three categories of such female migrants have been identified. The first category consists of largely undocumented females working either in the factory or in the care sector. The second category is made up of shuttle female entertainers whose stay is usually on a temporary basis. And the third category is constituted by Filipino female migrants who are married to indigenous Korean males. Although each category of these female migrants as identified faces seemingly incomplete form of assimilation; nevertheless, members of the third category do derive some measure of leverage, when juxtaposed with others, due to their capability for eventual naturalization. Yet, such process of naturalization, often time, serves as a means of disempowering concerned Filipino migrant wives; since their voices are routinely passive in the day to day households’ interactions.

On a general note, all of the 10 Chapters that constitute this book have been quite relevant to understanding the emergence and sustenance of a multicultural East Asia. Significantly, the frameworks for utilizing related multicultural cleavages in driving the process of modern day development in East Asia have been succinctly presented. Indeed, the path for other sub-regions/regions of the world to explore in applying positive vagaries of multiculturalism in enabling sustainable socio-economic progress has been presented by the contents of this book.

Although few gaps have been noted in grasping how individual (or group) identities are constructed (and deconstructed) in the transnational process, this book is a must read for policy planners (who are involved in modern day nation building across the globe), academia, international development practitioners and indeed freelance readers.

Suggested citation:

Adebusuyi Isaac Adeniran (2014). Review of “Multicultural Challenges and Redefining Identity in East Asia”, by Nam-Kook Kim, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.17, Internet file: