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Friday, August 02, 2013

Decolonising yourself, recolonising yourself

(This was posted this morning in my Links post, but someone drew my attention to a comment on the post.

The other comments [especially the last one] are also good, so I am reproducing it with additions)


Decolonial Aesthesis: From Singapore, to Cambridge, to Duke University

"I always ask my students, grad and undergraduate, for the mid-term “exam”, to write a letter to whomever they wish. It should be an educated person who is a little bit familiar with the topic, or not necessarily. The question is to explain “in your own words” (and not to hide behind textual commentaries or statistics), your understanding of the concepts and issues discussed in the first part of the seminar...

Michelle K., from Singapore, wrote a letter to herself when she departed from Singapore to go to Cambridge...

You direct a play. You would have liked to act instead, but there are no Chinese women in Chekhov’s Russia. There are no Chinese in Ibsen’s Norway. There are no Chinese in the Germany of Carl Jung or in Chicago in the 1950s. There are no Brits either, but that doesn’t seem to matter. In three years of theatre you will see two black faces on stage. One is Othello. The other is a maid...

'You go bird-watching. There are several thousand bird species in the UK alone – robins, garnets, ravens, terns. You learn the names of trees and flowers – lilacs, magnolia, primrose, rosemary for remembrance, hyacinth for constancy, poppies, which mark the War Dead.It seems these flowers have a history that your flowers don’t. Poets write about them; they have meanings in books, and value in the flower shops.

No one writes about the ixoras that grew in your old neighborhood – dense stubby shrubs with blooms no bigger than a wink, but beloved for the single drop of nectar you could suck from the stems. Or about the hibiscuses, brilliant and brash with their long dangling stamens; or the bouganvilla, common, roadside-dusty, with their paper-thin petals. Or angsanas, with their space-ship seeds. Rain trees like vine-strewn umbrellas. Franjipanis. Pong-pongs...

These are all good things. They are the things that you went to Britain to acquire. But I am writing to you to make you see what you will be at pains not to see: that as you acquire them, there will also be parts of you that are lost. And I am writing to tell you that your gains are not innocent – that they come with the baggage of coloniality.

You will deny this at first, because you and your country are modern and free, and you will see your choice of university as precisely the expression of that freedom and ability. To think otherwise will seem almost absurd: you are at Cambridge; how could you possibly be oppressed?

But coloniality didn’t end in 1963, when the British let your country go... Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life."


My original comments:

1) This is more about modernity than colonialism/decolonialism
2) It would be really funny if the author got a white boyfriend
3) A catalogue for "Black Europe Body Politic" comments that "The letter that Michelle has written to herself is a superb example of both how coloniallity regulates and represses and disguises itself as ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’, and also of what kind of decolonial consciousness must be aimed for by decolonial subjects in order to liberate themselves ourselves from coloniality"
4) Liberate yourself from coloniality. Die from malaria while your husband is raping you even though you're a closeted lesbian


Comments from the post:

"I just wonder if the conclusion she draws, that her sense of cultural dis-ease stems from “colonialism”, is the only possible explanation. Comedy character Ali G’s catchphrase “Is It Because I’m Black?” comes to mind.

I suggest this because I am male, English, Caucasian and speak with “Received Pronunciation”. In short, I am about as good a colonial candidate as you could find. Yet shortly after I graduated from a “new” British university, I experienced something like Michelle K’s cultural dis-ease in my own country.

Getting my first job in the BBC was tough, not just because it was competitive, but also because I was up against the cultural arrogance of the overwhemingly Oxbridge-educated arts graduates who ran it at the time. In the end, rather like Michelle K, I got the vague sense that I had only been admitted because I was ‘exotic’ (a science graduate, very unusual in British media 25 years ago)...

The dis-ease Michelle K felt might have very little to do with her ethnicity or cultural roots. It might be because the world’s “greatest” educational institutions can sometimes feel like cults...

I will never get the opportunity to ask her why she turns the discomfort she felt outwards – pointing the finger at “colonialism” – rather than inwards toward her own expectations and those of her family."


"while the colonial aesthetic may be ‘true’ from your perception, it is not a conspiracy"

"“You study versification. Versification is the study of form in poetry. You learn that we all speak in iambs, like the Greeks. You write poetry, and learn the proper names for what you do: this is enjambement, this is anaphora, that is isocolon. You learn to paint with the textures that make up Britain: limestone, pipesmoke, lambswool, tweed; reckon, rubbish, brilliant, dodgy, quid.” Bla bla bla. As if, otherwise, one’d be well versed with 平平仄仄平平仄. Culture is constructed. You absorb and express what you feel like you must. That is all."

"To say that getting educated in the West is equivalent to supporting colonialism is wrong. That’s almost the same as saying that Singapore supports colonialism because it trades with European nations. Personally, I think she got a little carried away by the overwhelming culture and history of Europe, because there isn’t (as she points out too) much of that here in Singapore. This does not in any way go to point out colonial aesthesis or support for colonial rule. I would like to go to Japan as much as I would like to go to Europe to view the culture and history of those places... we humans tend to follow or accept ideas/notions/practices that we are used to... I don’t think this has anything to do with colonialism"


The best comment is from Anger from New Hampshire:

"The irony of it all is that Michelle has married a white dude from NC and is now a citizen of the United States.

She will have half-white kids, who will deny they have ANY Asian blood and would speak perfect American English. Michelle laments a culture she is only too eager to shed – not unlike the 84,000 Singaporean women who expressed that they will ONLY marry white dudes.

Thinking about it, she’s no different from Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame, who, sees herself as a heroine trying to ‘rescue’ and ‘revive’ Asian culture in her daughters. While at the same time, expressed overt racism towards Asian(s) (men) in general.

The only redemption this pretentious letter affords itself is the clean prose coupled with well-researched portions on colonial aesthetics. Remove that, she’s just another Asian girl pretending wearing a fake veil of lament, wearing a borrowed armor of righteous indignation."


Addendum: This has surfaced on r/singapore as "To my eighteen-year-old self, on your departure for Cambridge" – 2003 essay, still relevant (re: Singlish, culture, etc) : singapore

Comments from there:

"I'm not sure what she's done since school but, considering that she gets really bothered by trivial shit like not knowing how to use a fish knife, she's probably not a doing anything important. "

"A more cynical person might note that many humanities students are good at getting bothered by trivial shit, because for many of them their livelihood depends on them getting bothered by trivial shit and proposing 'solutions' for trivial shit."

"There are people within the government itself who are constantly pushing for NS reform."
"How successful do you think those people will be when a large fraction of the cabinet are ex-SAF generals whose careers depended on a large well-staffed (by conscripts) military organization and who never actually experienced any professional disadvantage and financial hardship from NS?"
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