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Re-examining the Rhetoric of the "Cultural Border"
by Heewon Chang
Eastern College

This article was originally published in the Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education.

This essay examines the territory-based rhetoric of the cultural border, boundaries and borderlands. Critiquing the essentialist view that presumes fixed boundaries for a culture, the author suggests the constructivist view that assumes individuals power of defining and redefining their cultural identities in a multicultural society. The author illustrates different multicultural make-ups that a multiracial, an adoptee, a U.S.-born and an immigrant individual develop despite their common tie to Korea.

border: the extreme part or surrounding line; the confine or exterior limit of a country, or any region or track of land

boundary: a limit, a bound, anything marking a limit

borderland: land on the frontiers of adjoining countries; land constituting a border

(Websters New Universal Unabridged Dictionary,1979)

Constructing a topology of a multicultural society is never simple. Although cultural diversity is often defined by seemingly clear-cut categories such as ethnicity, race, class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and exceptionality1, sorting out "culture" intertwined with these multicultural categories is a complex process. I am not even sure whether anyone sees the value of taking on the challenge because different categories of people are considered synonymous with cultural differences. It is common to hear references to Asian-American culture, Black culture, Muslim culture, female culture, homosexual culture and ADD culture as if they have clear boundaries and are distinguished entities. It is also assumed that if an Asian meets an African-American their presumed cultural differences are expected to form a cultural border. Or if a White teacher has a group of minority children in her classroom, the formation of a cultural border between them is considered inevitable. However, if the focus switches from a society (or group) to individuals, the power of the cultural border rhetoric seems to lose its potency. For example, the Korean and the African-American may share many cultural traits, so their racial and ethnic difference may not have such an enduring effect.

In this essay I attempt to probe into the assumptions of the cultural border rhetoric and assess the underpinning view of culturehere I identify it as the essentialist viewin the context of multiculturalism. Then I will introduce the constructivist view of culture by switching our focus from societal culture to individual culture so that we may see the cultural differences as an embracing factor rather than as a divisive factor.

Cultural Border and Cultural Boundary

The terms "border" and " boundary" are physical in origin (Johnson and Machelsen, 1997). The original imagery is not quite abandonedand is even intentionally played outwhen the terms are used in reference to culture. Cultural border and boundary often connote the border and boundary of a nation, a state or a tribal community, which are clearly identifiable markers. The equation between a culture and a territory has dominated the discourse in anthropology (Erickson, 1997; Ewing, 1998; Goodenough, 1981; Lugo, 1997; Wax, 1993). The assumption is that as long as two distinct societies remain separate from each other, their boundaries exist and cultural distinctiveness is expected. It is further assumed that if two societies, identified with two distinct cultures, come in contact, a cultural border is expected to form between them. (Graphic Illustration 1: click here.2) If an individual from Culture A is to voluntarily or involuntarily3 become part of Culture B, she/he is expected to literally leave his/her own society, cross the border and enter a new society. This physical implication of the cultural border is fully entertained by scholars of Mexican immigrants, for whom crossing the border is a literal as well as a figurative experience (Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991; Johnson & Michaelson, 1997).

To many scholars a border is not a neutral demarcation line. It is a symbol of power that imposes inclusion and exclusion. The more privilegeddominant, hegemoniousside will actively control the border to keep border-crossers out. Erickson (1997) accentuated the political nature of a border by differentiating it from a boundary:

A cultural boundary refers to the presence of some kind of cultural differencecultural boundaries are characteristic of all human societies, traditional as well as modern. A border is a social construct that is political in origin. Across a border power is exercised, as in the political border between two nations. (p. 42)

A cultural border connotes a barrier that a more powerful side constructs to guard its own political power, cultural knowledge and privileges.

The cultural border rhetoric is grounded in the essentialist view of culture. This view makes several assumptions regarding culture: (1) a culture is viewed as a bounded system which is separate and distinguishable from others; (2) a culture is expected to be "homogeneous" (Lugo, 1997, p. 54); (3) a culture is expected to be shared by members of the society.

The first assumption is evident in the work of many anthropologists. The cultural boundary is viewed as coterminous with a nation, a state, a tribe, a community or an organization that is clearly defined by an identifiable markeroften physical borders. Goodenough (1981) attributed this notion of culture to Franz Boas, a pioneer German-American anthropologist:

At the end of the nineteenth century, Franz Boas began to use "culture" to refer to the distinctive body of customs, beliefs, and social institutions that seemed to characterize each separate society. (Stocking, cited in Goodenough, p. 48)

The notion of one-distinct-culture-for-each-separate-society suggests that one culture represents a society and vice versa. This close match makes the conceptual interchange of culture and society acceptable. Henze and Vanett (1993) further explore this assumption of culture in the metaphor of "walking in two worlds" in their study of native Alaskan and Native American students.

The second assumption of cultural homogeneity suggests that a homogeneous, patterned prototype of a culture can be abstracted. It implies that a "pure" form of a culture exists. Any variation from the pure form is treated as an exception, peripheral to "the culture." This assumption ignores the dynamic nature of culture, in which people of a society change at different rates for different reasons. The diffusionist view of culture argues against this notion of cultural homogeneity, for all cultures include elements borrowed from other cultures (Linton, 1937; Wax, 1993).

The third assumption of the cultural border is that a culture is "shared" by members of a society. The extent of sharedness is debatable, yet sharedness is considered a trademark of culture. This assumption suggests that people within a cultural system share a set of traits unique to their group membership. Sharedness is considered a product of cultural transmission and acquisition which often take place through personal interactions among members of physical proximity. In other words, an Asian is expected to share with other Asians traits unique to Asian culture. When a group is small and specific, the extent of sharedness among members may be higher. However, if a group presents a large, cross-sectional or cross-national cultural identity, such as "female culture," "middle-class culture" and "Muslim culture," the sharedness of that particular culture is blurred by other cultural identities. Ewing (1998) examined how the cultural identity of Muslims shifts relative to national borders and the gender line.

This territory-oriented rhetoric of culture, cultural border and boundary faces a great challenge in a multicultural society because intense contacts between various cultural carriers blur the clarity of demarcation lines.

Cultural Borderland

"Cultural borderland" is a notion created to accommodate a multicultural society. Foley (1995) explores the cultural borderland as a "space" created when two or more cultures and races occupy the same territory. He considers the space psychological and political: [According to Rosaldo and Clifford, the borderland] generally refers to a psychological space at the conjuncture of two cultures. A cultural borderland is also a political space in which ethnic groups actively fuse and blend their culture with the mainstream culture. (p. 119)

The borderland is viewed as a psychological space in which border-crossers struggle with their bicultural or multicultural identities. In this borderland individuals decide how much they want to identify with their cultures of origin or of adoption. Too much of either can be the subject of ridicule. Saenz (1997) compared two distinguished Mexican-American writers who try to come to terms with their ethnic identities. He argued that Gloria Anzaldua is "completely mortgaged to a nostalgia"a nostalgia to the Aztec origin of the Mexican culture (p. 87). Richard Rodriguez, on the other hand, "is completely mortgaged to an ideology that privileges the category of individual" (p. 87). In the eyes of Saenz, Rodriguez has taken too much of his adopted culture. In between lies Saenz's Mexican-American college student who refused to read "gringo" (White) poetry and Saenz himself who insists on his identity as a Chicano writer.

The borderland is also highly political. The borderland is never on center stage. It is often viewed as a marginal space for cultural hybrids--those who have adopted "foreign," distinctly different, cultural traits--who therefore do not fit the homogeneous prototypes of their original cultures. In Foleys Mesquaki Indian study the borderland is viewed as a threat to the integrity of the Indian culture. It was a space for Indian progressives (who proposed to modernize the Indian community and to collaborate with Whites), White "wannabes" (who tried to adopt the Indian culture) and "mixed-bloods" (biracial individuals of White and Indian parents). 4

The borderland rhetoric is still embedded in the essentialist view of culture. For example, Foleys notion of cultural borderlands creates an image of three separate zones: the "pure" Indian culture that is being guarded by "traditionalists" (Lets call it Culture A); the "pure" White culture that is distinguished from the Indian (Culture B); and the borderland between them, a space for border-crossers. (Graphic Illustration 2: click here.) Chang (1997) quesitons this essentialist presumption of culture by wondering, "just where the Indian culture ends and the White culture begins for border crossers" (p. 385).

How Real is Cultural Border

The cultural border and boundary rhetoric focuses on a societal culture. If cultural diversity is viewed at the societal level, cultural borders seem authentic and real. Skin color, national origin, gender, religious affiliation, identification of disability, and group membership all serve as identifiable markers for subgroups. Since these categories are socially constructed and validated, cultural differences are assumed and expected. But when the cultures of individuals are under scrutiny, it becomes clear that cultural borders do not hold their dividing power. Cultural boundaries within individuals become blurred as components from diverse cultures become incorporated into their individual cultural identity, instead of remaining separate from each other.

Let us take a close look at four multicultural individuals who had a close connection with Korea but who live in the pluralistic U.S. society.

Jean Kohl, a 9-year-old daughter of a German father and a Korean mother, was born and raised in the United States. Her parents, fluent speakers of German and Korean respectively, adopted English as the primary language at home. "I am an American," proclaimed she, but she often ended her proclamation with an addendum that she was also German and Korean. For several summers she traveled to visit her maternal or paternal grandparents in Korea or Germany, during which she was exposed to her parents native cultures and languages. The German, Korean and U. S. heritage blended in her cultural repertoire. For Jean, where does the "American" cultural border end and other cultural borders begin?

Carrie Baumstein, a 20-year-old woman, was born in Korea and adopted by a Messianic Jewish-American couple when she was 2 years old. She has lived in the States ever since. She was not exposed to much Korean culture and language when she was growing up, but was instead surrounded by her parents Jewish tradition. Despite her primary identity with the Jewish culture, she was often reminded by her relatives and neighbors of her Koreanor Asianlinkage. She was in an identity search for Asianness when she was attending a small Christian college on the East Coast. For Carrie, where do the cultural borders lie between the Korean and the American and between the Messianic Jew and the Christian?

Peter Lee, a 15-year-old, was born in the States to immigrant parents from Korea. His parents own and operate a dry cleaning shop in a suburb of Philadelphia. Their English is functional for the business but they prefer speaking Korean on all other occasions. Peters family attends a Korean church regularly, which usually serves as a cultural community as much as a religious one. Peters Korean is so limited that he usually speaks English, although his parents speak Korean to him. He is definitely an American in his mind and heart, perhaps a Korean-American occasionally. But his preference of Korean-American peers to others is a curious phenomenon. Where lies the cultural border that divides the Korean and the "American" for Peter?

Elaine Sook-Ja Cho, 50 years old, immigrated to the States 30 years ago to marry a Korean bachelor 10 years her senior. Her husband came to the States as a student and found employment upon completion of his study. Elaine was a housewife for 20 years before undertaking a small grocery business. She speaks "Konglish" (a mixture of Korean sentence structure and English words) but she seems to be at ease speaking English. She is Korean in her heart but "Americanized" in her own words and by her life style. For Sook-Ja how far does the Korean cultural border stretch to meet the "American" culture?

I wonder how I would map the cultural topology (again a physical metaphor) of Jean Kohl, Carrie Baumstein , Peter Lee and Elaine Sook-Ja Cho. How would I draw up the boundary of the Korean culture for each case? Would they cross cultural borders from the Korean to the German and so on daily? How cognizant would they be of crossing? Would it be possible for one to become culturally more Korean in the morning, German for lunch, "American" in the afternoon, and back to Korean in the evening?

The early illustration of an individual leaving his/her society, crossing the border and entering a new society may shed light on the problem with the cultural border rhetoric. Once you acquire cultural traits, whether in a certain territorial context or not, leaving the territory does not make an individual "lose" the culture. Sook-Ja is not any less Korean culturally now because she left her homeland 30 years ago. Carries minimal identity as a Korean is not surprising despite her origin. Peter and Jean who were born and raised in the States have acquired Korean cultural traits from their parents. In other words, the physical proximity or distance to Korea does not serve as an accurate gauge for their Koreanness in culture. It is also hardly imaginable that Jeans notion of the Korean culture is similar to that of Sook-Ja, although both claim to be Korean. What would Peter share about the Korean culture with others and to what extent? How would I compare these peoples Korean culture with that of Koreans who have never left the country? The essentialist image of culturein particular, the Korean cultureseems to lose the clarity of its boundary as I probe into each individuals personal version of culture.5


Everyone is cultural and multicultural (Erickson, 1997; Goodenough, 1976): "cultural" in that culture is not a property of an exotic people but "standards" that all human beings adopt for their daily operations; "multicultural" in the sense of being competent in multiple macro or microcultural systems.

In a pluralistic society in which people from diverse cultures come in constant contact, the cultural metamorphosis takes place noticeably in individual cultures. Thus the Boas-Benedict legacy of the "plural, separate, distinct, historically homogeneous" culture offers little help in understanding the multicultural society and its residents (Wax, 1993, p. 108). Rosaldo also critiqued the fallacy of cultural homogeneity, especially in the pluralistic setting:

[H]uman cultures are neither necessarily coherent nor always homogeneous. More often than we usually care to think, our everyday lives are crisscrossed by border zones, pockets and eruptions of all kinds. (Rosaldo, quoted in Logo, 1997, p. 51)

It also becomes clear that a culture is not bounded by a territory as earlier anthropologists believed. Rather, people are the carriers, movers, consumers, and inventors of a culture. When they move from one place to the other, they carry their culturestheir personal outlookswith them. Goodenough (1981) coined a term, "propriospect," to refer to the "private, subjective view of the world and of its content," which includes the various standards for perceiving, evaluating, believing, and doing that an individual attributes to other persons as a result of his or her experience of their actions and admonitions (p. 98). Wolcott (1991) elaborated on the meaning of the term "propriospect" to illustrate how individuals develop personal versions of a culture through personal contacts with others with different sets of standards. Through these contacts they acquire some of the new standards. As a result, they become increasingly multicultural.

This concept of culture sheds light on cultural differences. Since everyone has a unique cultural make-up, cultural differences are not really divisive and separable. Individual cultural differences are really different combinations of standards. Once different standards are embraced by individuals, the differences are incorporated into their individual cultures. In other words, the cultural differences are reframed into multiculturalism. It seems logical to me that we understand our individual multiculturalism as a pathway to understand our societal multiculturalism. The constructive view of individual cultures would be too useful and insightful to ignore.


** The earlier version of this essay was presented at the 1998 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, December 2-6. I acknowledge Dr. Harry Wolcott and Cynthia Tuleja for their careful reading of this essay and valuable comments.

1. These are frequently discussed topics in textbooks of multicultural education (Banks and Banks, 1997; Gollnick and Chinn, 1998).

* I give credit to my cousin, Konrad Kim, for creating the animation.

* Obgu differentiated between "voluntary" and "involuntary minorities" (Ogbu and Simons, 1998). The former refers to immigrants and the latter refers to historically oppressed minorities.

* Multiracial individuals (offspring of biracial marriages) also experience the politics of recognition in the borderland of U. S. society (Root, 1996).

* Goodenough (1981) and Wolcott (1991) call the individual version of culture "propriospect."


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Heewon Chang, Assistant Professor of Multicultural Education at Eastern, has studied adolescents from the U.S., Korea and Germany. Her Adolescent life and ethos (1992) is based on the U.S. study.

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