Ho Wai-On 何蕙安 aka Ann-Kay Lin

Dear Wai-On,

Before you sent me your PhD I read another document you sent me about cross-cultural studies. This is a late response to that document. It's a subject I hadn't thought about much until you came along. Surprising, considering its relevance to my life. I guess it's been around so long right under my nose that I overlooked it. The general remarks I make here lead on to some examples of the cross-cultural perspectives in my own work – a quid pro quo, if you like, for the extensive insight you gave me into your own cross-cultural experience.

If you catch a child at the right age and in the right place – for example play groups in cosmopolitan populations you have in NYC parks – it can be taught half a dozen languages simultaneously and effortlessly, with optionals such as Swahili and Vietnamese thrown in for good measure. I've seen documentaries about this. Conversely, if that crucial learning threshold is for some reason missed, a child may never learn even its native language properly.

The advantages of being multilingual (3 languages + ) are obvious. Less obvious are the disadvantages of the multilingual child. For a start, it may never be as sleepwalkingly at home as the monolingual child in its single language. I reached this conclusion after tracking language development in two pairs of multilingual children from birth until thirty years later.

Perhaps there's an innate crosscultural ability locked into the innate language learning ability with which all people are born. You can learn simultaneously the cultures and the languages in which they grow. You absorb the culture naturally as part of absorbing the language. Thus I learned superstition and laughter, how to kiss by rubbing noses, to eat with my fingers or to believe in ghosts on automatic pilot, as it were, absorbing the culture in the process of absorbing the Malay language from the always merry Malay and Indonesian teenage girls who looked after us children in Singapore. On return to not so merry olde England I had to be untaught some of these pagan habits, which were considered undesirable.

Colonial children like you and me (if not on the same side of the fence in those days) go on in their lives – I would like to say almost as a matter of course – to give evidence of a cultural state of affairs in the world that is so naturally “crosscultural” to us that we didn't even need the word for it. It was introduced much later for a world that did have a need for it.

We now go a step further and speak of a global culture. Note that the advance of this so called global culture proceeds hand in hand with the advance of a truly global language, English / American. This advance is accompanied by an extinction of local languages and cultures. According to UN statistics I have read, one of the world's languages is dying every two weeks. I have experienced how this works in practice. I'll give you two examples.

The aboriginal language spoken by some ten to fifteen thousand people around the Lesser Sunda islands on the divide between Polynesia and Australia suffered its first displacement when the inhabitants of the islands began to learn Bahassa Indonesia (basically Malay) as part of the drive of the Indonesian government to unify a vast territory stretching five thousand kilometres from Sumatra in the west to Timor in the east on the brink of northeast Australia. While I was living on a remote island just across the straits from Timor I  witnessed the arrival there of the first TV set ever, broadcasting in Bahassa Indonesia. Just a question of time, then, until the younger generation begin to lose their aboriginal language altogether, and with it eventually their culture.

During my stay in the early 1990s in the territory of the circumpolar reindeer herders around the Arctic Circle, I was intrigued by the fluency of the local people's English. Among themselves they spoke their own native language, a dialect of Sami, in addition to the language of the modern state of Sweden, in which they meanwhile lived. They spoke fluent Swedish to non-Sami speakers (and the younger ones also among themselves),  having been required by the state to learn it at school for just the same reasons the people on the islands near Timor were required to learn Indonesian. How had they learned English, I wondered. And they told me they had learned it from watching the US TV series Dallas, making it as predicable that in the not too distant future there will be ever fewer people speaking Sami just as there will be ever less people speaking the aboriginal language of the Lesser Sunda islands. I made these observations twenty years ago, so I assume my predictions are in large part in the pipeline or have already come to pass.

Such is the development in our world in the 21st century. Indigenous languages and cultures are still in a cross-linguistic-cultural phase, but they are moving fast in the direction of a homogenous culture which comes into being under the hegemony of the increasingly dominant single global language English/ American. Chinese will survive intact, as will other large native-language groups speaking Arabic and the main Indian languages. In countries like Holland I expect Dutch to survive after a certain point only as a language in domestic use. A mathematician could work out a formula that predicted with some accuracy similar languages likely to share this fate. So I suggest that the cross-cultural phase may be in a transitional process of being replaced by a global phase.

Having been born into the Malay world and lived there long enough to still find imprinted in my consciousness memories of it that are now over sixty-five years old, and having departed while still at a very young and still very impressionable age, I may serve as a model if now anachronistic candidate for the effects of imprinting, as animal behaviourists say, or rather imprintings, of the multilingual, multicultural and multiselved individual. But this template already strikes me as doomed in the light of what I have said above.

I suspect such individuals as yours truly provide or at least have until now provided proof of the view that under the right combination of circumstances there can indeed be such a thing as innate crosscultural traits per se. That individuals like me are, and are likely to remain, people with an insufficiently nourished sense of belonging is the flip side of the multicultural child which I think needs to be stressed, and I do so in the accompanying attachment. But this is a generational differentiation likely no longer to apply in the foreseeable future.

It has been the problem of my ID as a writer. What am I foregoing when I choose to write in the idiom of this language rather than that one? The first draft of Pictures from the water trade was written in Japanese, and I was tempted to continue with this choice. Japanese offered possibilities of expression not available in other languages. Later I discovered that writing op-ed pieces in German allowed me a register which was not available to me in English, and conversely, that writing fiction in English allowed me a register I couldn't reach in German. As T.S.Eliot remarked, the mastery of a second and third language allows you to acquire a second and third personality different from the first. So culture does indeed seem to be locked into language.

Questions presented themselves to me in the wake of this discovery. Who was I speaking for? What was the nature of this I? Where was my natural community, my congregation? What language is written/spoken/ understood there? Is this problem connected with the lack of having an identifiable brand? Why is the next book always quite different from the last? And so on. Until not so long ago I would have said that my natural community, congregation, audience awaited me in the future, but now I am not so sure.

There was never a fixed niche in the bookstores for Pictures from the water trade. You might find it under Japan or the Far East, on the shelves for novels, for sociology, travelogues, history, adventure, you name it. Likewise there has never been a clear niche for me.

The last border for my borderless self to cross was the so called border between science and the humanities; specifically, in the transition from quantum physics to Buddhist philosophy. This undertaking is illustrated by the last extract in the accompanying attachment.

Judge for yourself in the following excerpts from the collage I've cut and pasted for you in the attachment, dwelling on the bits you like, skipping those you don't. Dr. Johnson's view was that life is too brief to read books all the way through. It's one I have come to share latterly in my life, a surprising inclination to read altogether less and less as time goes on. It happens to lots of people as they get older, it seems. Watching TV soap operas or football may be the natural thing to move onto.

Best wishes


23 July 2017

John David Morley to Mes

John David Morley was an English writer and novelist, the youngest child of the artist and sculptor Patricia Morley (née Booth), and grandson of Victor Booth, who was a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music.  He had written ten novels, including the bestseller Pictures from the Water Trade.  

View Ho Wai-On's BIBAC eBook Contribution (affliated with Cambridge University) – the article of J D Morley's response

John David Morley

Some more POVs on cross-cultural