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Intercultural couples

December 27, 2012

I saw this article (‘Constructing a fairy tale around intercultural couplehood on Chinese television’) and, even though it isn’t the direction my own critical interest went in when I read As the Earth Turns Silver, I couldn’t help thinking of that novel… (It is, in fact, an area of criticism I had thought of before and certainly an analytical direction Wong’s novel could be taken in.)

Introducing their work, Dervin and Gao write: “Even though it sounds increasingly counterintuitive to say that there is a ‘typical’ intercultural couple (Philippe, 2008, p. 117), intercultural couplehood is often viewed and represented as two national cultures ‘interacting’, ‘clashing’,’ ‘hyphenating’, etc. Just like other kinds of intercultural relations, this differentialistessentialist understanding is likely to be shared by ‘global common sense’ (Dervin, 2011a; Piller, 2002). It seems to be also largely the case in academia (Dervin, 2011b). Contrary to the current flow of anti-essentialism and anti-culturalism (e.g. Holliday, 2010), the majority of studies on intercultural couplehood continue to ignore the fact that [-p.7] identities are co-constructed, co-enacted and co-expressed by people  instead of cultures. This paper represents both a criticism of ‘canonical’ research on intercultural couplehood and a plea for change in the way couples are studied. In order to do so, we first need to spend some time examining critically two central concepts: interculturality and identity. In terms of research methodology, we have opted for a different approach. Studies on intercultural couples have often relied on interviews and/or questionnaires. Our study looks at media construction of the story of an intercultural couple, which was widely reported by Chinese media.” (pp.6-7)

In their conclusion, the authors “In this article we were interested in analysing the construction of intercultural couplehood on the basis of a Chinese TV show which presented the story of a Sino-Armenian couple, established in China. The most important finding is based on the fact that the programme was built on a narrative structure which had many resemblances with a typical fairy tale. The fact that W. Labov’s model of narrative structure (1997) fitted the way the show was organized is significant in this sense.

Like many other similar global media fairy tales (Livingstone & Lunt, 2001), the show tried to tell the story of a ‘propertyless and wordless’ village young man who ‘won’ his foreign ‘blonde beauty’, and then had a ‘happily ever after’ family. Like other fairy tales, the village young man and his beauty have also experienced many difficulties to ‘achieve’ the happy ending, only the difficulties here don’t refer to firedragons but to the so-called ‘cultural differences’ and the barriers between the self and the Other they bring about. By emphasizing cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences, the show and the protagonists (especially the wife) adopted a fully culturalist way to construct the ‘plot’  either in reference to countries or the city/village dichotomy. Certainly, for the purpose of audience rating, the television programme followed this ‘global common sense’ of understanding intercultural couplehood (Dervin, 2011a; Piller, 2002) to satisfy its TV audience, who probably wished for such constructed stories of the Self and the Other.

Regardless of culturalist discourses that cross the show, we have also demonstrated that identification is unstable as far as the wife is concerned. This is related mostly to the TV presenter’s own words and insistence on essentializing her. In the end, she is neither Chinese nor Armenian but a ‘Chinese foreign wife’  in between. But this is what identity and interculturality are about: when asked to position oneself in relation to nationalities, sense of belonging, etc. answers cannot be contextual and thus appear contradictory. When the twins are introduced in the show, this in-betweenness is more balanced in the sense that the TV presenter does not succeed in having them position themselves between the two spaces (EastWest) that the show asserts characterize them, in other words, they are the only ones who seem to ‘resist’ the identification game that characterizes this fairy tale.” (p.21)

Ref: Fred Dervin & Minghui Gao (2012): Constructing a fairy tale around intercultural couplehood on Chinese television, Language and Intercultural Communication, 12:1, 6-23

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