Heroes of Postmodernity:
Review of Ien Ang’s On Not Speaking Chinese

Ned Curthoys


Ien Ang’s On Not Speaking Chinese, Living Between Asia and the Westbegins with a moment of dissonance and ‘cultural peculiarity’ in her recent experience (vii). Travelling to Taiwan in 1992 for a conference, she elicits puzzlement, repeatedly questioned as to why she cannot speak Chinese despite her ethnic characteristics. Ang, an Indonesian-Chinese migrant living in Australia, experiences her lack of Chinese cultural-capital and heightened visibility as an awkward dilemma:

In Taiwan I was different because I couldn’t speak Chinese; in the
West I was different because I looked Chinese (vii).

Her book, a meditation on the lived condition of in-betweenness, culminates her decade-long engagement with the ‘predicaments of "Chineseness" in diaspora’ (vii).

Though defending cultural pluralism in the Western world to which she now belongs, Ang argues for a critical assessment of the ambiguities of identity politics. While many people, particularly minorities within majoritarian nation-states, ‘need identity (or think they do), identity can just as well be a strait-jacket’, a limitation of free choice, an obstruction to experimentation (vii). Ang explains that her perspective is from a ‘hybrid point of view’, the ambiguous position of a ‘neither/nor’, or ‘both/and’, an argument beyond identity and difference. Ang writes out of a ‘dynamic concern’ for togetherness-in-difference congruent with the cultural politics demanded by the twenty-first century (viii).

As the prospective tone suggests, Ang’s embarrassment, frustration, and initial apologetics at her perceived identity deficiency are recuperated through the public wisdom of autobiography and the symbolic capital that the migrant condition now accrues:

"Not speaking Chinese", therefore, has become a personal political issue to me, an existential condition which goes beyond the particularities of an arbitrary personal history (30).

Ang interpellates her travel narratives and subsequent cultural-encounters into the theoretical apparatus of cultural-studies, not as the revelation of an authentic subject, but as the ‘reflexive positioning of oneself in history and culture’ (24). Ang’s writings about experience and memory are therefore deliberative, the rhetorical construction of a ‘self’ for ‘public, not private purposes’.  Ang’s work is  a strategically fabricated performance, the staging of a ‘useful identity’ (24). In this ‘thoroughly mixed-up, interdependent, mobile and volatile postmodern world’, essentialist genealogies of ethnicity and kinship might now segue into a new social contract: ‘In short, if I am inescapably Chinese by descent,I am only sometimes Chinese by consent.When and how is a matter of politics’ (36).

Ang hopes for the compatibility of her liminal subject-position with a postmodern Zeitgeistof non-essential hybridities, where idiosyncratic experiences complement ‘useful’ genealogies of reinvention in a globalised world. Ang tropes herself as Baudelaire’s artistic desideratum, a ‘hero of  (post) modernity’ rather than its victim. She is a public voice who can allegorise and emblematise postmodernity’s dynamism, speed, syntheses, cultural collisions, crises of value, without succumbing to the crassness and anomie of mass society.  She writes as an avant-garde of a new cultural politics, a ‘diasporic intellectual’ resistant to the pull of diasporic identity: ‘my ambivalent, if engaged, detachment prevented me from becoming an organic intellectual for the Chinese cause in Indonesia’ (59). Inorganic, ambivalent, detached yet engaged, the diasporic intellectual is resistant to the common diasporic temptation, that of an increasingly ‘absolutist ethnic identification’ (65). Ang foregrounds ‘complicated entanglement’ rather than identity, and she is ‘especially well placed’ to do so because it is ‘embodied in her own life trajectory’ (3).

One of the more theoretically challenging aspects of Ang’s book is her strong antipathy towards diasporic constructions of identity: ‘I have become increasingly reluctant to join the chorus of celebrating the idea of diaspora (sic)’ (12). Ang mobilises a descriptive arsenal designed to situate diasporic communitarianism and ideology squarely within a right-wing (‘absolutist’)  imaginary. Initially conceding that diasporic identity is ‘double-edged’, a ‘site of support and oppression, emancipation and confinement’ (12), Ang soon fixes on the limitations of diaspora, ‘its own assumed boundedness’, its ‘inevitable tendency’ to stress internal coherence and unity, set apart from its others (13).

With more than a hint of determinism, Ang stresses that ‘ultimately, diaspora is a concept of sameness-in-dispersal, not of togetherness-in-difference’ (13). We are told that the language of diaspora is ‘fundamentally nationalist’, producing an imagined community which, unlike majoritarian nationalism, is ‘deterritorialized’, but ‘symbolically bounded nevertheless’ (83). To put it another way, ‘ it is the myth of the (lost or idealised) homeland, the object of both collective memory and of desire and attachment, which is constitutive to (sic) diasporas, and which ultimately confines and constrains the nomadism of the diasporic subject’ (25, my italics).

Ang treats diasporic identifications as reactive, a ressentiment towards various forms of metissage,such as her own successes as a sophisticated migrant intellectual: ‘a narrow focus on diaspora will hinder a ... cosmopolitan imagination of what it means to live in the world "as a single place" ‘ (77). Diaspora’s belligerent interrogations remind us of the nationalist ‘citizen’ in Joyce’s Ulysses,‘overwhelming’ the reality of ‘where you’re at’ with the disempowering essentialism of ‘where you’re from’ (34). Ang, of an Indonesian-Chinese family who spent formative years in Holland, is particularly irritated with the normative ethnocentrism of the Chinese diaspora. She wants to ‘problematize the predominance of centrist and organicist conceptions of Chineseness, Chinese culture and Chinese identity in diaspora’ (45). Ang, the cosmopolitan flaneur, now makes her home in ethnically diverse Western Sydney, Australia. She refuses to respond to the call of the absent homeland, repudiating the dichotomy of centre and periphery that typifies diasporic nationalism - its insensitivity to complex cultural geographies:

overseas Chinese people often find themselves inevitably tangled in China’s elevated status as privileged Other to the West, depriving them of an autonomous space to determine their own trajectories for constructing cultural identity (32).

Her residual Chineseness ‘diluted, hybridised, and creolized’ (56) Ang will oppose the textured micropolitical spaces of hybridity to the imagined monocultural community in dispersion, which she terms the ‘concept’ of diaspora (13). Hybrid arts of self, appropriate to an ‘interconnected, intermingled world’ (5), can also work constructively against the managerialist ‘concept’ of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, the notion of living-apart together, is, for Ang, the state’s ‘desperate’ attempt to contain ethnic diversity within the boundaries of the nation-state. Multiculturalism acts as a ‘conceptual brake’ on the complex entanglements of ‘living hybridities’ (199, 16). As a phantasmatic response to globalisation, diaspora and multiculturalism ‘ultimately produce ... a closure’ (16), an obstruction, reaction, a vitiation of living and becoming.

Ang would like to be at the forefront of a cultural politics she sees as post-colonial. She celebrates a ‘hybridised world’, whose boundaries, after many centuries of contact history, have become ‘utterly porous’, though artificially maintained (88). Her elective chronotope or space-time nexus is a globalised world of intensified interconnections, relationships and cultural ‘flows’ (75, 155), a favoured metaphor. The ‘political and cultural erosion’ of the modern nation-state, a result of ‘postmodern capitalist globalization’, has given birth to the ‘global city’, where all identity and community have been put ‘under erasure’, in a world which is now a ‘single place’" (76-77). The imagined community of the internationalising global city is ‘principally unbounded and open’, for no one is ‘a priori excluded from its space’ on criteria of race and ethnicity (89).

Consonant with a chronotope of liminality, tactical intervention, mingling, creolization, is Ang’s privileging of hybridity, which has both an experiential, practical, and theoretical dimension. Situating herself in that ‘space of hybridity’ between Asia and the West (2), Ang informs us that hybridity belongs to the space of the ‘frontier, the border, the contact zone’ (16). Those whose experiences and daily interactions constitute a hybrid micropolitics are ideally placed, ‘as citizens of the world’, in the ongoing ‘construction of world futures’ (51), limning ‘co-existence in a single world’ (200).

Hybridity enables various positionings for the self-critical public intellectual, sometimes dynamic and prophetic, sometimes sober and materialist. For the hybrid intellectual intersects and interacts with others in ‘actual social space’. Actual social-space is not that ‘virtual’ or imaginary space where the Chinese diaspora form websites like ‘Huaren’ to consolidate a sense of identity in dispersal and attack indigenous Indonesians or pribumi over their treatment of Chinese-Indonesians (91). Ang argues that hybridity is not detached theoreticism (a ‘concept’) but an ‘urgent necessity in a postcolonial context such as Indonesia’ (70). So too in an Australia anxious about Asian migration and its proximity to the Asian region, hybridity is a practical political response, emphasising a re-formulated idea of a common culture, the 'unending, day-to-day hard work of managing and negotiating differences', the 'practical working out' of shared procedures (157).

To further emphasise hybridity’s materialist credentials, Ang interpellates herself again, not now as the subject of dilemma and misunderstanding, but as an active subject of new values and innovative cultural constructions. As a member of a ‘cosmopolitan and multicultural’ elite, Ang feels it her responsibility to ‘understand’ the Anglo-Australian fear of cultural loss and exclusion given voice by the ultra-nationalist Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party since her famous maiden parliamentary speech in 1996. Ang’s cultural politics of engagement rather than exclusion allows her to establish a cross-cultural rapport and sense of ‘social sharing on an everyday basis, however fleeting’ in shops, at the train station, and other quotidian microcosms (158). The ‘undramatic cadences’, the slow and ‘unsensational’ cultural change effected by  ‘ordinary hybridity’ (159, 72) can be carried over to similarly grainy locations, such as international cultural-studies conferences, which also require subtle translative media across different local idioms and experiences (174).

The micropolitical avant-gardism of a hybrid sensibility, however, can also aggressively ‘disrupt’ diasporic dichotomies between self and other, centre and periphery, homeland and exile (72). Ang the diasporic intellectual is on the cutting edge of a crisis of identity afflicting metanarratives such as feminism. As a woman of Chinese descent living in the West, Ang can break down the communication barriers between emancipatory white feminists and migrant women ambivalent towards their own communities as sites of support and oppression (181). Ang is well placed to recognise that many Asian women will deal with male dominance in far less confrontational or argumentative ways than white women (182), or that the complicity of white women in western hegemony over the third world deeply complicates the possibility of a single feminist subject-position (185). Ang notes that white feminism’s liberal pluralism can only be entertained by those ‘who have the power to include’ (192). In her concluding comments she maintains a need for hybridity to reflect on critical contexts and conditions rather than valorising itself ‘as such’, avoiding a depoliticization that reduces hybridity to ‘happy fusion and synthesis’ (197).

Some comments. Ang’s work is an important contribution to transdisciplinary and post-colonial engagements with questions of diaspora, ethnicity, and gender, forcefully arguing the shortcomings of a centre-periphery model of diasporic existence and displaying the value of hybridity and liminality as a culturally ‘useful’, genealogically sensitive critical speaking-position. In chapters such as ‘The Curse of the smile: ambivalence and the "Asian" woman in Australian multiculturalism’ and ‘I’m a feminist but ... ‘, Ang acutely dissects the  shortcomings of liberal pluralism, the dead hand of mere tolerance, the negations of hybrid creations that essentialist valorisation’s of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘woman’ often entail. In ‘Identity Blues’, cosmopolitanism is carefully rescued from the scorn of both the Left and Right as an ‘ethos’ working from below, involving modest but cumulative acts of cultural translation, dissolving the gulf between ‘where we come from’ and ‘what we might become’ (159).

On the other hand, Ang’s capacity for critical pluralism is open to question, indeed a crux in interpreting her work. On Not Speaking Chinese makes little contribution to the important transdisciplinary field of diaspora studies. Her monolothic and pessimistic conception of diasporic identity is  largely drawn from a 1991 William Safran article that treats diasporic communities in terms of a collective identity that maintains a ‘memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland’ and is therefore alienated from their host country.  As James Clifford points out in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century(1997), a more heuristic ethnographic approach would be to treat diaspora as a ‘polythetic field’, that should be tracked rather than ‘policed’ (250), differentially historicised rather than reified as a figure of a totalising modernity (266).

Ang’s demonisation of diaspora seems arbitrary, particularly when one considers its imitation/displacement of the Boyarins’ work on diaspora ideology as involving, in Clifford’s terms, a renunciation of universalism and national sovereignty, an embrace of arts of exile and coexistence, and an aptitude for distinction as well as daily converse with others.  The Boyarins’ valorisation of a layered Jewish diasporic sensibility as resisting the Zionist nationalist mythology of an originary homeland receives peculiarly little mention from Ang. Nor does Ang’s avowed materialism stretch to considering Clifford’s point that diaspora’s transregional sense of identity and cultural networks allow immigrant communities to refrain from staking their futures on the risky economy of a single-nation such as post-Fordist U.S.A. Clifford points out that women often undergo a significant experience of role-change and re-skilling under diasporic conditions (256, 259). As Clifford points out, diaspora is often about ‘feeling global’ under oppressive nationalist hegemonies (257). Ang elides a sense of diaspora as both modernity and counter-modernity, often nostalgic, yet elaborating non-normative histories and alternative public-spheres.

Ang’s work deploys schematic and totalising periodisations that lay her open to the charge of historicism. Meaghan Morris has recently discussed the methodological sleight of hand now common in cultural studies, which avoids discussing the uncertain status of its research objects by casting its problems of method as symptomatic of a broader cultural ‘logic’ or social condition, the postmodern, the postcolonial, the global.  Desiring a kind of avant-gardist congruence with vast, mythicised Subjects of history such as globalisation, Morris cautions that in contemporary cultural-studies there is little room left for historical practice or ‘unsettling empirical surprises’ of any kind (2). Ang’s analyses lack  a sense of temporal moments as palimpsestial or stratified, her fetishisation of global ‘flows’ lacks critical means for discussing innovatively anti-globalising public spheres, such as the no-logo anti-sweatshop movement for example. Nor does Ang, whose idea of the global and cosmopolitan is not a little utopian and aestheticised, develop modes of analysis which treat globalising forces as, in John Pilger’s new book, ushering in a ‘new imperialism’, resonant with the dominant structures of the ‘modernity’ she seeks to eschew.

Morris points out that often in cultural studies a routinised bibliographic frame of reference, in lieu of an object of evidential enquiry, is debated, in order to tell a story of hyper-eventfulness and accelerating change, producing a narcissistic and glibly generic brand of theorising (2). Ang’s practices of citation, where cultural-studies notables such as Stuart Hall and Rey Chow ‘rightly note’ or demonstrate a theoretical posture, do little to alleviate the dangers of orthodox manoeuvring. Many cultural-studies practitioners remind me of Nietzsche’s critique of another would-be critical avant-garde, the nineteenth-century neo-Kantians. Nietzsche could not accept their self-proclaimed ‘revolution in every domain of the spirit’, since the ‘active spirit’ of skepticism and relativism, a broad intellectual curiosity which can subsist in the bracing air of doubt, had nowhere really taken hold; no revolution in academic sensibility could be genuinely discerned.  Books like Ang’s similarly proclaim the pathos of difference while often lacking wide-ranging curiosity, historicity, and analytical nuance.

On Not Speaking Chinese, Living Between Asia and the West was published by Routledge, December 2001, ISBN: 0415259134, Paperback - 240 pp.


1 William Safran, "Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return", Diaspora, 1 (1) 83-99. Quoted from  James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997), 247.
2 Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, "Diaspora: Generational Ground of Jewish Identity". Critical Inquiry, 19 (4): 693-725. Discussed in Clifford,  Routes, 270.
3 See Meaghan Morris, Too Soon Too Late, History in Popular Culture (Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1998), 2.
4 ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’ (1874), in Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge U.K., 1997), 140.