What Colour Is the Village Green?

Now I admit that, in the eyes of some FPR readers, I might seem the last person to be able to say anything credible on this topic.  I could be called one of those fearsome creatures: a rootless cosmopolitan.  I grew up across three countries and feel at home in all of them.  My cultural allegiances have little if any alignment with the political or social landscape of what the modern West has become.  Indeed, I often find far more of the ingredients of human flourishing intact in “backward” corners of the world.  I thus dwell less on preserving any one society’s essence, than on deep fault lines that recur all over the world.

I never know quite what to say, therefore, when I hear decent people bemoaning the moral decay of modern life, then sliding so easily into affirming national boundaries.  They say that “England does not look like England,” or that “This used to be our country, but not any more,” or that Enoch Powell was right in his 1968 speech warning against the tensions of an immigrant society.  Sometimes, when such people have lived abroad for years, I put it down to a harmless expat nostalgia.  Other times, it seems like a vexing distraction from the real issues.

I see this temptation of insularity in many places, and from many angles.  Chinese consciousness of who is inside, who is outside, and why it matters, is far more pronounced than in almost any other part of the world.  Many foreigners here feel that they have “foreigner” stamped on their foreheads more than common sense would dictate.  Xenophobia runs downward in far harsher ways.  Guangzhou’s growing African population is getting it the nickname of “Chocolate City.”  In a discussion of global migration last year, I asked my students what they thought about the prospect—judging from past European experience—that such a trickle might make Guangzhou a quarter African in forty years.  Their mouths dropped open.  One student announced that if it were, he would surely not go there.  Another said that such interlopers could be kept at bay because Chinese culture was “cohesive” enough, unlike Europe, to remember who was “really” Chinese and who was not.

Another instance highlighted what is at stake in our imagination of the future.  One of the many banquets that I attend here in Nanjing was for the visit of a well-known Chinese scholar, the brother of a cabinet minister.  He had given a talk earlier, replete with the usual optimism about China’s rise as a superpower.  During the dinner, the conversation turned to the experience of one Chinese-American student whose parents had migrated to America in search of economic opportunity.  Our guest promptly told her that he dreamed of a time when the wheel of history would turn, and her grandchildren’s fondest dream would be to get a green card to be able to move to China.

I couldn’t help but wonder why the goal for a half-century hence could not instead be the abolition of green cards in any direction.  But that vision would run against widespread sentiment.  It would abolish the idea of the “guest,” the perpetual outsider, the neat categories of belonging that affirm ownership of territory.

I confess I have never really understood the idea of “guesthood” and its converse, the ethnic “ownership” of a place.  It is one thing to have a strong ethnic identity, a connexion with the cultural heritage and folkways of one’s forebears.  The world has lost much ethnic diversity in its slide into cultural anæmia, and could benefit from a revival.  I should never expect a Punjabi family in Somerset to “become” English; nor, for that matter, should I expect their English neighbours to think of them as “really” English when they probably do not.  But that is quite different from calling them perpetual guests.  In any practical civic sense, there should be no difference whether the English and Punjabi neighbours meet in Somerset or in Sangrur.  After settlement, guesthood becomes a backhanded insult.

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