It is one of the joys of having written a book like Intercultural Communication that readers like to meet the author and last week I had the opportunity to meet a group of undergraduate students at the University of Hong Kong who had been using the book in Professor Adam Jaworski’s class on intercultural communication. The students had prepared a list of questions they wanted to ask me and I learnt as much as they did.
The question I enjoyed the most started with the observation that my book was very different from what the students had expected in an intercultural communication text. Therefore, they wanted to know why my book is so different from other titles in intercultural communication.
There are many ways to answer this question and one of the most obvious is that my book is written from a different position than most other textbooks in intercultural communication, most of which emanate from communication and management studies at US universities. It’s written by a linguist and thus pays more attention to the role of language in intercultural communication and it’s written by a multilingual migrant who doesn’t find value in reproducing cultural stereotypes but examining their functions in context. Readers of the book will recall that my main point throughout is that much research in the field needs to be reconceptualised to address the fundamental research question “Who makes culture relevant to whom in which context for which purposes?”
In the book I’ve been critical of some of the existing literatures in intercultural communication, which – with their reproduction of widely-held stereotypes about particular national cultures – often seem to be nothing more than yet another exercise in banal nationalism. Thus, banal nationalism figured heavily in the questions, too, and one of them was whether I thought patriotic education was a form of banal or “hot” nationalism?
At that point, I had to turn the tables and ask questions myself because I had only the vaguest idea what “patriotic education” might mean. It turned out that patriotic education was a hot topic for the students because of the planned introduction of a new curriculum of civic studies in primary schools. That plan had drawn mass protests in September this year because the curriculum was widely perceived as undemocratic and as telling history only from the point of view of the People’s Republic of China. Following the protests, the plan was suspended and the new patriotic education curriculum is now voluntary rather than compulsory.
After the explanation, the question was back to me: What did I think of patriotic education? Well, history if always told from a particular standpoint and it’s usually the position of those in power. Under British rule, history lessons in Hong Kong apparently ended in the early 1800s, conveniently before the Opium Wars and the annexation of the island.
As an outsider, it’s not my place to comment on a particular version of history. However, as a global citizen it strikes me that all nationalist education poorly prepares young people for the challenges they are facing today: the big issues of our time, particularly environmental destruction in all its forms, are not national but global. As the slogan goes: Think globally, act locally!
With many thanks to all the students and colleagues I met in Hong Kong for all the local yet global conversations we had! I’ll be looking forward to coming back, particularly to conduct the workshop I had to cancel because Cathay Pacific left me stranded in Wuhan for 24 hours.