Saturday, 18 March 2006

Thoughts on authenticity on St Patrick's Day weekend

The question of "authenticity" as it applies to nationality and ethnicity, particular as it applies to members of any diaspora, has always struck me as interesting, and a recent Slate article on the creation of "Irishness" was very fascinating in this regard. I knew Diageo, owner of Guinness, had thrown its weight behind the export of Irish pubs, but I hadn't known just how big its reach was. (Here's an NPR interview on IPCo, the Irish Pub Company.)

I'm always fascinated by disparities between how members of a diaspora think of their supposed ancestral homeland, and how people actually from the so-called homeland behave. I recall, for instance, reading in Boston magazine about how Irish-Americans in Boston derisively term new immigrants from Ireland as "FBI" (for foreign-born Irish), in part because those new immigrants - all cosmopolitan and working in high-tech industries - don't really fit the stereotype of pastoral Irishness.

So an "authentic" Irish pub is in many ways a fabrication or a simulacrum: I think about wandering around Temple Bar in Dublin a few years ago, and noting how many of the watering holes pretty much looked similar to bars elsewhere in modern cities - but are no less Irish for it, I would venture. And yet the success of the Irish pub export business means people do seek out these fakes, with designs such as "Country Cottage" and "Victorian Dublin"...

(All that, tangentially, reminds me of that Eddie Izzard joke in Dressed to Kill about castles in Europe: "We got tons of them cause you think we all live in castles - and we do all live in castles! We all got a castle each. We're up to here with fucking castles. We just long for a bungalow or something.")

So, really, what does "authentic" mean? I once gave an Asian-American friend an identity crisis by noting I thought of her as more American than Asian. But I didn't mean it necessarily in a bad way: I just meant I thought of Asian-American culture as a separate culture of its own. After all, the idea of various Asian ethnicities banding together would not necessarily fly on this continent: I'm watching the World Baseball Classic semifinal between Japan and Korea, and noting how much the fans on both sides really want to crush each other - now internecine struggle between Asian countries I understand.

Another example of the quest for authenticity is Oprah's claim to being descended from Zulus, despite the inherent problems of genetic testing for a group that may largely be a linguistic grouping - and the fact that the Zulu nation was probably founded after slavery. Ultimately, she may be right in saying she has some Zulu blood - after all, DNA testing can only tell us about 2 specific lines of descent. I can understand the desire to pin down the question of where one comes from. But in the end, the constant intermingling of people over millennia probably means any attempt to pin down ancestry into one group is pretty futile: as Steve Olson notes, we are all descendants of Caesar and Confucius, and, for that matter, of anyone who we can establish lived a few thousand years ago and had children.

Perhaps all these thoughts on the meaning of 'authenticity' are the natural function of growing up in a region historically open to foreign interaction such as South-East Asia. As I wrote for an anthropology class many years ago (I'll resurface that paper some day), to posit culture as fixed and any seeming intrusion as "inauthentic" is to deny how much cultures can change, and can absorb changes. So I guess, for me, the things that strike me as most inauthentic are attempts to fix a culture in stone: pubs extolling "Irishness", tourist-brochure perspectives of a country and its history...

Right - those are my disjoint thoughts on the subject at the moment.



This kind of obsession with cultural identity seems to be uniquely American. Once every ten years there is a government census sent out and each citizen is required to identify his or her ethnic background. Thre are some 60 ancestoral groups from which to choose and you may choose descent from no more than two. It's my understanding that "race" is considered a seperate issue from this and there are some 60 categories of race. There are 14 subcategories of Hispanic. Thinking along terms of race and cultural are frequently taught to young children in schools in forms of moral lessons which demonstrate to them that diversity of backgrounds is important in coming up with workable solutions in government and business. After years of this kind of exposure young people are almost hard-wired to think along these lines.I can see why your friend was disappointed that her perception of herself didn't match up with how others saw her. She has to go back to the US feeling "average" rather than unique.


On campus they celebrate this thing called "Unofficial" St. Patty's day, because the real deal always falls during Spring break. At least there's no doubt about its commercial, bacchanalian origins.


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