Zhu Hua

Diggit profile: Zhu Hua

Jan Blommaert

Zhu Hua was born and grew up in Northeastern China and is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck College (University of London), and a Fellow of Academy of Social Sciences, UK. She will be heading the MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism at University of Birmingham from 1st April, 2020. She is one of the world's most distinguished scholars in the field of multilingualism and identity.

Who is Zhu Hua?

Jan Blommaert: Zhu Hua, I must open this conversation by pointing towards the uniqueness of your profile. As a Chinese-born scholar you spent the last couple of decades investigating the development of multilingual repertoires among – mainly but not exclusively – Chinese diaspora children in the UK. Your contributions in that field are both descriptively and theoretically compelling. The more since, as an ethnographer, you systematically contextualized your studies, and this brings me to the bigger picture.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel that one can read your work as a chronicle of changing global diaspora conditions. Concretely, the children with whom you worked two decades ago were by and large pen-and-paper learners in their schools, while the present generation of Chinese-heritage children carry smartphones, are on WeChat and are fans of popular artists and celebrities from China, Korea, Japan as well as the UK and the US. “Being from China” has changed as well, and quite profoundly, during the course of your career, hasn’t it?

Zhu Hua: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my research. What a great opening question. Indeed, ‘being from China’ means very differently today compared with 10 or 20 years ago. It reflects the tremendous changes in global geopolitics, my own experiences as an overseas research student to begin with and later as a transnational researcher, and of course the changing dynamics of the Chinese diasporic communities in Britain and beyond. My initial interest in language development of Chinese speaking children was a result of my prior training and research agenda of the time. As I gradually became a member of the Chinese diaspora, my interests also changed.

Amongst Chinese diasporic communities, there is a growing awareness and self-reflection (as well as some really funny self-deprecating jokes) of their identity experiences in the West.

I am no longer solely interested in individual languages, but more in multilingual practices. The children and their families that I have worked with have complex transnational trajectories. Technological advancements, especially in social media, have had a fundamental impact on the constitution of a diaspora and on individuals' everyday communicative practices. They connect families and friends and enable people to bring with them the social, cultural and linguistic capitals when they cross geopolitical borders. ‘Being from China’ has also become much more complex for myself and for the people I am working with: being visibly different brought extra challenges to children and teenagers in understanding who they are, appreciating their heritage and managing everyday multilingual and intercultural practices.

Jan Blommaert: I am intrigued by your final remark: how ‘being visibly different’ caused additional identity issues in a diaspora subject to rapid and profound change triggered by global geopolitics. Do you see new forms of racialization – an argument we often read in contemporary scholarship about minorities in metropolitan societies? New forms of ‘Chinese’ community building, perhaps more strongly oriented to the People’s Republic through the use of social media?

Zhu Hua: I certainly think that amongst Chinese diasporic communities, there is a growing awareness and self-reflection (as well as some really funny self-deprecating jokes) of their identity experiences in the West. The physical appearance side of things is undeniable but rarely addressed explicitly. For example, when we see a Chinese face in Britain, we tend to assume that they must be Chinese speakers. Well, many of them are British-born and operate in English most of the time.

The conventional ‘tick-box approach’ to identity, i.e., one has to choose one label, Chinese, British, or Dutch, no longer works in such contexts.

The relationship between language ownership/entitlement and race is a very complex issue. As I mentioned before, social media plays a huge role. One can find all sorts of stories of identity experiences by people who look visibly different from the 'majority' (e.g. Facebook groups such as Resonate and British Born Chinese UK). As a linguist, I was drawn to the media and social media debates on ‘nationality and ethnicity talk’ or NET, the kind of everyday discourse that either explicitly or inexplicitly evokes one’s nationality or ethnicity such as 'How long have been in Britain?', ‘Your English is so good!’. These NET talks reflect people’s folk theories of race, reproduce discourse of banal racism and can lead to exclusion and marginalization of certain social groups. Karen Chee (a Brooklyn-based comedian) once shared a short list of Dos and Don'ts for white people who would like to join in on the Heritage Month fun. The first advice is ‘Don’t ask me where I’m really from!’   The use of the tokenistic phrase ‘ni hao’ (equivalent to 'hello' in Mandarin) has also made the headline recently when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it to a voter who replied ‘I’m Korean’.  

Identities and power

Jan Blommaert: That’s funny and worrying at the same time, the more since it evokes things we’ve seen in work done by Li Jinling at Tilburg. She also investigated, in The Netherlands, online fora similar to the UK-based ones you mention, and what transpired was that young Chinese-heritage people experienced a real struggle, something truly uncomfortable about their identities. They articulated, for instance, strong pressures to become “more” and “truly” Chinese, from their parents in view of exploiting – if I can put it that way – their prima facie Chineseness in view of good and lucrative jobs in or with the People’s Republic. But this shift towards being “more” and “truly” Chinese involved acquiring features they did not possess – fluency in Mandarin, for starters. So for many of them, becoming this particular kind of Chinese clashed with a fundamental self-imagination of being, so to speak, “a special kind of Dutch”, and there was little pleasure in that process. Do you see similar phenomena in your field?

Zhu Hua: Indeed, I found your and your colleagues’ work on ‘enoughness’ and authenticity thought-provoking. In my own work, I have argued that placing identities in the context of border crossing reveals unprecedented levels of complexity. The conventional ‘tick-box approach’ to identity, i.e., one has to choose one label, Chinese, British, or Dutch, no longer works in such contexts. It is far too simplistic. The question is what and where is the alternative. Hybridity? Double belonging? Hyphenatedness? While these terms are helpful in asserting the existence of multiple identities, they are at the risk of losing the coherence of one’s identity. What’s more, these terms seem to be used primarily with a celebratory tone, which ignores the hidden social, political and economic inequalities in the process of identification. As researchers, I believe our task is to go beyond decoding the process of identification, ask the questions of ‘why’, ‘what consequences’, and ‘who’ll bear the consequences?’

Jan Blommaert: Can you elaborate a bit on these questions?

Zhu Hua: My questions are an appeal for more attention to be given to the hidden hierarchies and power dynamics which I feel have been under-explored in identity research in applied and socio-linguistics. For instance, in emphasizing agency, it is often claimed that individuals can have multiple identities and a say in who we are. But this seems to downplay the significance of symbolic power game of identification, i.e. what happens when your self-oriented identities do not tally with other-prescribed ones? Does everybody have equal capacity to construct and negotiate their identities? 

What happens when your self-oriented identities do not tally with other-prescribed ones? Does everybody have equal capacity to construct and negotiate their identities? 

So it is back to the questions of how far one can go in identity construction and who has the final say in identification. Going back to my work on ‘Where are you really from?’, the Nationality and Ethnicity Talk in everyday interactions,  we have analyzed the commentators’ response to an on-line blog where the blogger talked about her experience of being asked the same question many, many times. This seemingly harmless question puts the addressee instantly at a disadvantage and opens up the possibility of appearing to be over-sensitive. But the fact is that it occurs more often to someone who looks ‘out of place’. For the visible minorities, their identities are often ascribed and ‘racialized’, based on their physical appearance, and then placed in a devalued and minoritized social group outside the dominant group. The truth is that racial/ethnic hierarchies, where racial groups are put in a system of stratification with some groups believed to be superior/inferior to others, still exist and matter very much in today's world. Therefore it is part of our researchers’ responsibility to dig deeper and bring these hidden hierarchies to the surface.

Social change in the online sphere?

Jan Blommaert: Do you see online sites, in this respect, as separate spaces where new, almost experimental forms of identity work can be explored? Or do you see them as extensions of what is often called ‘the real world’ where the same rules, perhaps with some inflections, apply? I’m asking this because, as you know, this issue divides and defines camps in research on diversity and quite often an either/or logic is applied: either one works on offline data in search of fundamental identity processes, or one works on online data.

Zhu Hua: For some, the online world is a 'safe space' for them to be their true selves; they can say what they want to say and do what they want to do. But for others, it is a different performance platform where they can construct and display a completely different persona from the one in the real world. There are of course who do a bit of both, and those who do not operate on-line at all.  For us researchers, we need to pay attention to both. Digital identities exist, and are here to stay. We should ask why people construct different identities online and offline, if they do; what constraints and affordances the online and offline worlds have on identity construction and negotiation; and what are the implications for identity research in the context of diversity and mobility.

Jan Blommaert: … and, turning back to China now, whether it is a space for genuine social and cultural change?

Zhu Hua: I find it interesting that having lived and worked away from China for more than 20 years, I still get asked frequently things in and about China. But when I am in China and Asia, people ask me about Britain, about Brexit, etc.

I believe that most people in China don't need their government to tell them that this is not the kind of society they want China to be.

I do travel to China every year and have seen the tremendous changes there, especially in the economic and technological domains. There seems to be a belief in the west that economic changes will inevitably lead to socio-political changes, and market economy will lead to western style political systems of multi-party rule etc. I am not a political scientist and therefore not qualified to comment on this in any detail.  As an observer from a distance, and it is a rather long distance, I do see socio-political changes in China. Perhaps they are not changes towards the western model of government. But who says that the western style of government is the best that the whole world should follow.

People in China look at Trump, the hard-line Brexiteers, and the rise of racism in Europe and can come to their conclusions. I believe that most people in China don't need their government to tell them that this is not the kind of society they want China to be. There will be further changes in China, as in the rest of the world. What we need to do is to try and understand why social changes take place in different ways in different nations and what we can do to facilitate international and intercultural understanding.