Wild and Woolly Sects

The dangerous allure of Diaspora Chic.

Sometimes I think I will go to China to make my fortune. I am not alone, of course: Hardly a week goes by without a reminder that China is the business opportunity of the century. But the siren song that beckons me is not just the ring of a thousand cash registers opening. It is also the call of my Chinese ancestors. Come back, they cry, like spirits from an Amy Tan novel. It is your destiny.

All right, “destiny” is a bit melodramatic–and I don’t really hear those voices. Yet, as a Mandarin-speaking Chinese-American, I am made to feel about not doing business in China they way Ken Griffey Jr. might have felt if he had never gone into baseball: like someone who squandered an inheritance, who failed to capitalize on a rare alignment of circumstance and skill.

Why such regret? I have, after all, no particular knack for business. I have no million-dollar idea to test on a billion-plus consumers. That I should feel this way testifies, I think, to the magnetic pull of “Chineseness,” whatever that might mean–and to the growing allure of diasporan identity.

Consider the question of the “overseas Chinese,” which is how people in China and Taiwan refer to the 30 million or so ethnic Chinese who live elsewhere. The idea is simple: There is China, which is filled with Chinese; and there is the rest of the world, which, to varying degrees, is sprinkled with Chinese. The ethnocentrism is manifest, as is the essentialism. (“You can take a Chinese out of China, but you can’t take the China out of a Chinese.”)

In Southeast Asia, such willful distinctiveness has made the ethnic Chinese the so-called “Jews of the East,” a middleman minority parexcellence. In the United States, though, something quite different has unfolded. I am not an overseas Chinese. And the presumption that Chinese-Americans are merely Chinese people who happen to be in America, who could just as easily be in Indonesia or Malaysia, strikes me as fallacious, even dangerous. (The same presumption flavors the coverage of Clinton’s “Asian money” scandals, as Robert Wright recently argued in Slate.)

Yet I suspect that if I were ever to do business in China, I might change my tune. I might want to have it both ways: to impress my Chinese partners with an insider’s knowledge of America, and to impress my American partners with an insider’s knowledge of China. The second insider claim is much less true than the first. It is perhaps even false. Still, the possibility of having my identity and eating it too helps keep the China-bound entrepreneur in me astir.

T his ambivalence of self–and this flirtation with intellectual dishonesty–is at the very heart of a contemporary trend that I call Diaspora Chic. Everywhere we turn today, it seems fashionable to conceive of American minorities as communities in exile, sojourners who owe greater fealty to their racial kinfolk, wherever they might live, than to their own neighbors, whoever they might be. This attitude is associated with left-wing multicultural academics, but multinational businesspeople hold it too. In their shared view, the locus of cultural and economic sovereignty is now the diaspora; the unit of human agency, the race.

Thus, Joel Kotkin and others cheerily predict that a handful of “tribes”–the Chinese, the Indians, the Jews, and others–will make the global economy hum and whir. In geopolitics, the dour Samuel Huntington also sees tribes but predicts a tectonic “clash of civilizations.” On the airwaves, networks like Telemundo and Univision alchemize a Hispanic identity that transcends both region and country. And on our campuses, kente cloths, ancient tea ceremonies, and native dance performances signify not only a resistance to whiteness but also a yearning, among even the most assimilated, to be abroad at home.

T o be sure, there is something to be said for the emergence of diasporan identities. To the extent they reveal cultural connections across borders, they are illuminating. To the extent they are driven by the ever easier migration of people and capital, they are inevitable. But in the end, Diaspora Chic can only disappoint.

First, it’s based on a contradiction. Diasporan identity holds that the “motherland” is worthy of sustained loyalty. Yet in almost any diaspora–whether black, yellow, brown, or white –the dispersed are far better off, at least materially, than those “back home.” For most hyphenated Americans, a trip to the ancestral lands is enough to reinforce the point–assuming, that is, that there are ancestral lands to speak of. Where, after all, does one locate the home base for the “Asian” diaspora or the “African” diaspora?

When people speak of such pan-ethnic continental clans, they are merely regurgitating American definitions of race. For it is in America, not Asia, that a connection is presumed among people of Chinese, Thai, Filipino, and Pakistani descent. It is in America, not Africa, that an Ethiopian is interchangeable with a Ugandan.

Besides, once you remove the mystic overtones of blood ties and kinship, diasporan identity reduces to a piece of circular reasoning. What binds together the millions of Chinese outside of China? Why, it’s their Chineseness, of course. And what is Chineseness? That which binds together Chinese. Entire conferences and whole scholarly volumes have been devoted to this catechism, with roughly the same results.

Granted, there exists, in the form of a rich language and history, what Huntington would call a “core Sinic civilization.” That culture and those values, however, are not intrinsic to people of Chinese descent; they are transmitted–or not. And whether they are in fact transmitted to “overseas Chinese” depends on choice: on consent rather than descent. Which means that in the diaspora, Chineseness is not a more authentic way of being; it is just a decision to act Chinese. And the diaspora itself is not a foreordained grouping; it is, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s description of the nation, an “imagined community.”

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. We move, after all, in many imagined and invented communities–religious, ethnic, ideological. But self-styled diasporan idealists must also face the paradox that diasporas matter only in a world of states. The romantic dream of a world with no borders and only itinerant “tribes” is a luxury–indeed, a folly–that only the citizens of a liberal state could indulge. Those who have a tribe but not a liberal state–say, the Kurds–know well that a diaspora can do little to defend anyone’s rights.

Finally, Diaspora Chic suffers from this irony: Though it is partly a protest against white dominance, it surrenders American identity to the white folks. So long as minorities strike a pose of diasporan dispossession, they give tacit approval to a notion of “prior” Americanness that excludes them. After all, if everyone else is an expatriate, only “native” whites are real Americans. And that is a tragic concession.

It is tragic because it is so fundamentally at odds with the transformative character of this nation. Diaspora Chic ultimately fails not because it promotes national self-destruction–a little less Anglo-conformity won’t doom us–but because it promotes national self-deception. The diasporan ideal depends on the delusion that Americans can reverse the cross-contamination of our cultures, our bloodlines, and our psyches–that if we dream hard enough, we might return to a prelapsarian state of pure identity.

I suppose we will always be tempted to reconfigure our affiliations, to reinvent our identities. We would hardly be American if we did not. But the inconvenient fact remains: Americans have far more in common with one another than with our diasporan brethren around the globe.