Monday, December 21, 2009

On the “Cultural Reaffirmation” Effect

I want to talk about the “cultural reaffirmation” effect (which has been documented in cross-cultural studies) among multicultural individuals living in multicultural societies such as the United States. I have a Japanese friend, Master Baisho Matsumoto, who has performed shamisen for almost four decades. Shamisen (or samisen) is a three-stringed musical instrument resembling a banjo or guitar. Master Matsumoto has traveled extensively not only throughout Japan but also internationally. He has performed overseas such as China, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Singapore, and the United States. Since 2004, Master Matsumoto has appeared every May at the Hakone Festival in Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California. Master Matsumoto performs not only Japanese songs but also Western songs playing different types of shamisen and shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese bamboo flute). His performance is so energetic and exciting. He continuously conducts shamisen performances overseas for the purpose of introducing Japanese culture to school age children. When he came to the United States for the first time, he believed that Japanese people abroad and Japanese Americans must have experienced great hardships and gone through tough lives. Instead, he found that those Japanese and Japanese Americans had enjoyed cheerful lives and maintained positive attitudes retaining their cultural traditions or even their original cultural identity. Master Matsumoto said that he had received amazing “energy and confidence” from those people.

At San Francisco State University, I teach graduate-level linguistics courses: (1) a sociolinguistics seminar, which covers such areas as cognitive semantics, pragmatics, geographical linguistics, dialectal geography, cultural anthropology, and multi-cultural psychology, and (2) a second language acquisition seminar, which covers such areas as psycholinguistics, applied linguistics, and language education. One of the topics that I often take up in these seminars is the “cultural reaffirmation” effect. Studies on multicultural psychology have shown that the culture that a group of immigrants (e.g., Asians) have brought with them and which they have cherished in the United States is more traditional or even collective than their original culture. To understand that immigrants are more traditional than those in their motherland, we have to analyze the following issues: First, when people migrate, they also bring their culture into the United States. Their genuine culture is crystallized in their psyche so that their cultural model is transmitted to the next generation. The majority of immigrants maintain their cultural identity while learning how to survive in the new multicultural environments. They eventually find that their original cultural identity is the one they should respect and even be proud of. Because of this belief, they are able to live in a new land and admire their cultural traditions, customs, and heritage. To maintain their identity in the new culturally diversified society, therefore, they need to recognize their cultural background.

One of my students in San Francisco State University has a middle name, Otojiro (note that the second “o” is elongated and pronounced “oo”). I heard from him that this was a pedigree name succeeded from his grandfather, to his father, and to him. In Japan, however, “Otojiro” is no longer a common name these days, and I believe that today’s Japanese parents rarely name their sons “Otojiro.” This example testifies the fact that immigrants tend to transfer what they believe to be their genuine culture to their next generations. On the other hand, the culture in their motherland is constantly changing.” Even if their motherland’s culture changes, their authentic culture in the new land stays relatively unchanged. As I wrote above, we can easily speculate that when immigrant groups arrive in the United States, they bring with them the culture of their native group at that time. The immigrant group crystallizes their culture — the one that they brought with them at the time — and it is this psychological culture that is communicated across generations of immigrant groups. As they are immersed within a multicultural society, the stress from multicultural life in a different world contributes to the cultural reaffirmation effect. As time passes, however, the native culture group may actually undergo cultural changes, while the immigrant group is transmitting the original cultural system they brought with them. After some time, if you compare the immigrant group with the native cultural group on cultural values, you are likely to find that the immigrant group is more conforming to the original cultural stereotype than the native group is, because of the crystallization of their culture over time while the native culture has changed. Therefore, immigrants’ culture can be more traditional or more authentic than their original culture; or, the immigrant group is more conforming to the original cultural stereotype than the native group.

“Fossilization” is a linguistics jargon used in the field of second-language acquisition. This jargon refers to a process in which incorrect features become a permanent part of the way the second or foreign language learner speaks or writes the target language. The history of Japanese immigrants began in the 19th century. They built Japan towns in the West Coast and some other states. The city of San Francisco is also home to 12,000 Japanese Americans and Japantown, their former enclave. The year 2006 marked the 100th year anniversary for the Japantown in San Francisco, and since then symposia were held regarding the identity change of Japanese Americans. According to the discussion in the symposia, Japanese Americans obtained their civil rights by proclaiming the distance between Japan and themselves and promising loyalty to the United States. Nevertheless, their culture was based on the old Japanese culture in the Meiji era (1868-1912), which is described as “fossilized” culture, according to some presenters who appeared in the aforementioned symposia. In this case, the term “fossilization” does not necessarily connote any negativity; however, it still implies a situation in which no matter how much input and no matter in what form the input is provided, the person does not learn. Therefore, it may bother some Japanese people. Actually, in the field of second-language acquisition, the usage of the term “fossilization” is now avoided; a new term, “stabilization,” is used instead. Leaving aside the argument over these terminologies, we are able to see the issue that Japanese immigrants are more traditional — crystal of traditional Japanese culture — than people in their motherland.