Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: March, 2014

Culture-less English?

English as a vehicular language is now big business. Countless Asians learn English as their passport to the Western world and all it offers, ignoring the fact that only a part of the Western world speaks English. After all, English functions as a vehicular language far beyond its natural borders. Asians even use it as a vehicular language to communicate with other Asians.

Non-English-speakers who have learned the language will often tell you that English is “no man’s language”, meaning that it is some sort of neutral territory, a language that belongs to no-one in particular and can be used by everyone. Yet the English speaker more than anyone else knows that this is not so. Every language comes with its cultural baggage, and English is no exception. In fact, because English is spoken in a number of countries geographically far apart, it now expresses not just one culture, but several.
Asian English learners are sometimes given cultural instruction about the English-speaking world. But it tends to be an amalgam. It propounds the mistaken idea that there is a uniform English-speaking culture. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. G.B. Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. What Shaw (who was an Irishman) meant by this joke was, of course, that the two countries have different cultures. The Americans are not like the English, and find it difficult to get along with Australians, who, in turn, cordially detest the English. Irish are different from Scots, Canadians from Americans, and so on. That is why English learners need to learn about the plurality of English-speaking cultures as well as the undoubted elements they have in common.

So much for the English-speaking world. But if you learn only English, you will often be dealing with people in the Western World who do not know English any better than you. When you use English as a “third language”, it may seem like a paradise of international communication, but be aware that you are adding layers of complexity. The other fellow has his own culture; you have your culture; and then there is the cultural baggage that goes with English.



Ireland for Asians

Today is St Patrick’s Day. Throughout the English-speaking world and even beyond, the Irish people are celebrating their national holiday – Irish-Americans most of all. The Irish government has started an advertising stunt of bathing famous buildings and landmarks in green light to mark the day – or the night before and after. This year, it seems, they have bathed the Great Wall of China in green light. The Chinese or other Asians are not likely to know what all this is about. They have no background as regards Ireland, a little-known small country on the edge of the European land-mass. Though at least Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in Ireland, so he knows something.

In the past twenty years Ireland became the Celtic Tiger and then suddenly lost its prosperity as a result of a crisis in the financial sector. There was little wrong with its economy, and it now seems to be successfully rebuilding. The unspoken Irish desire behind things like the greening of the Great Wall is to become the Celtic Tiger again.

Ireland is a bit unusual as small countries go. It is on the periphery of Europe, out in the Atlantic. Indeed, it is not only peripheral, but centrifugal. It is a member of the European Union, but it looks out rather to the Atlantic and to the English-speaking world. Historically it used to be bound to England, but now it is bound even more to the USA. “Fifty-first state of the Union” is not a bad summing-up.

Ireland is in fact where the US and Europe meet. Ireland’s prosperity has been based on large American companies having a foothold there at low corporate tax rates. It still is. Ireland is the back door to Europe. Not a bad place to be. It could be of advantage to Asians to be there too. And they can be sure of an Irish welcome. The Irish are hungry, and ready to sell their souls for economic benefit. Another advantage of theirs: they speak English, the language of business.

Ireland is part of the English-speaking world – but on the periphery of that, too. The country has its own language to which most of the population now prefer English, but there is something un-English, un-Anglo-Saxon about the place and the people that they can never quite lose.

That, if anything, is the secret of Saint Patrick’s Day.

Putin’s Eurasian idea

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has become known for his advocacy of a Eurasian Union, an economic bloc to rival the European Union. The EU and NATO have been making inroads in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet sphere of influence. The Russians would have liked to have kept this pressure off, but it has been unstoppable and has now got as far as the Ukraine.

We have almost forgotten what Soviet President Gorbachev said in the 1980s about the common “European house”. He saw Russia as belonging in Europe, and Europe as not complete without Russia. Yet Russia always seems to look two ways, Janus-like. Its Eurasian character cannot be denied. Geographically, Russia belongs in both continents, divided by the Urals. But there is also a question of mentality. Russians will sometimes tell you that Russia is more Asian than European. Perhaps that is an exaggeration. But Russia, given its huge landmass, seems to pull away from the continent of Europe with its compactness and its sharp geographical and national divisions. Russia is more like the countries of North America, and like them, much of its territory was explored and conquered in very modern times. It stretches out across the vast steppes to the East. It is open to Asia in a way that no other European country is. Could there then be a new “Eurasian” identity, led by Russia, but amounting to more than Russia?

Meanwhile Europe as we know it is bursting at the seams. Turkey wants to get in to the Union, but Turkey, despite its veneer of European-type nationalism, is more Middle Eastern than anything else. Yet Europe cannot afford to isolate itself either. Should it not be reaching out to adjoining regions at least? In the past, as we know, it did so with exploration, war and colonization. Could there not now be partnership, under the motto “Europe is not enough”?



On a beautiful island – together

Once upon a time there was an emerald-green island in the ocean. The British took over the place and ruled it as a colony. They found that there were two peoples there, who differed in religion and ethnicity. Eventually the British left, but when they did, they left the two communities to sort out the problem themselves.  And ever after on that island there was strife without end.

I could be talking about (Northern) Ireland. Or I could be talking about Sri Lanka. The similarities between the problems of the two places are striking.

Indeed, how wonderful to live on your own island. It can be a paradise. But the trouble is, the island is small, and you all have to get along. In a small space, away from the rest of the world and its problems, you may get on each other’s nerves. And whose island is it, anyway? Ours or theirs? Ours of course! And then the trouble starts…

Both Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka have been through decades of debilitating civil strife. In Northern Ireland, the two communities were exhausted in the end and agreed on a compromise. In Sri Lanka, one side defeated the other militarily, in an apocalypse of destruction. In neither place can the problem be said to be resolved. The situation has not returned to normal. Even though the shooting is over, the two communities still face each other with distrust and sullen hostility.

An island can be a paradise or a hell on earth to live in, depending on what you choose. You can try to live in harmony with the others who share the small space, or you can regard them as the enemy – always looking over your shoulder, wondering what “they” are up to this time. If it wasn’t for “them”, think of all we could be doing on this island… Strangely enough, we can grow to need our enemies as enemies, if only to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives and our own destiny.

Living on your own little island means, at its best, that the rest of the world leaves you alone. But you find that you are not alone after all. There are all kinds of people on any island who have arrived there at different times and made it their home. For better or worse, they are stuck with each other. The challenge of living on a beautiful island turns out to be having to share it.