Doctor of Philosophy
Migration and Ethnic Relations
Identity formation happens at a crossroads of that which people believe they are and are not. Acknowledgment, reification, or subversion of identity frictions form powerful communicative patterns that I call ‘discourses of tension’. I argue in this dissertation that discourses of tension are foundational to the formation of transcultural identities—positionalities that emerge between or beyond perceived cultural boundaries—because they enable people to identify and express cultural complexities and expectations.
Based on ten months of ethnographic fieldwork and research in other relevant sites, this argument is supported by my analysis of how Hakka Chinese Mauritians express agency and identity within the affordances and constraints presented by historical relations, ideologies, policies, and sociopolitical developments in postcolonial Mauritius. This small Indian Ocean island state is lauded for its peaceful multicultural society while imposing restrictive ethnic classification into four groups (Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, and ‘General Population’) onto its citizens. Mauritian identity formation is anchored in raciolinguistic ideologies which view language and race as naturally linked. These ideologies produce expectations of people’s language use and identity expression, which often conflict with social realities in Mauritius.
Within this field of tension, Hakka Mauritians often find themselves having to reassert their identities as ‘authentically’ Mauritian, Chinese, or Hakka. This is further complicated by the recent ‘rise’ of China, which promotes Mandarin language education (instead of Hakka) and affects local perceptions of what it means to be ‘Chinese’. I present three key contexts in which discourses of tension become salient for Hakka Mauritian expression:
- Mauritian discourses of nation-building and ethnolinguistic community formation
- Shifts from Hakka to Mandarin in Chinese Mauritian heritage language classrooms
- Ideologies of ‘Chineseness’ in the semiotic landscape of Mauritian Chinatown
My research shows that Hakka Mauritians occupy constant ‘in-between’ spaces and engage in discourses of tension to (re-)examine their identities. My dissertation thus contributes to anthropology an account of individual agency in expressing fluidity and complexity in transcultural identities against the backdrop of discursive tensions.
Summary for Lay Audience
In this dissertation, I examine how Hakka Chinese Mauritians assert their identities in the context of the history, norms, policies, and political developments in Mauritius. The small Indian Ocean island nation is praised for being multicultural and living in harmony, although the state strictly classifies its citizens into four groups (Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, and ‘General Population’). In Mauritius, identities are often believed to be based on an alleged correlation between language and race. Such ‘raciolinguistic ideologies’ create expectations of how people speak and act, which often contradicts actual experiences. This creates tension for those who do not fit easily into the designated categories or want to identify simply as Mauritian.
Within this tense setting, Hakka Mauritians often feel that they have to advocate for their identities as ‘authentically’ Mauritian, Chinese, or Hakka. The political and economic ‘rise’ of China has caused an emphasis on Mandarin language education (instead of Hakka) and changes local interpretations of what it means to be ‘Chinese’. Identity can be understood as that which people believe they are and are not. When they recognize, reinforce, or challenge identity frictions, they engage in language patterns that I call ‘discourses of tension’.
Based on data from ten months of fieldwork in Mauritius, I argue that discourses of tension are central to ‘transcultural’ identities that form between or outside of supposedly separate cultures. Transcultural identities emerge in diverse societies such as Mauritius. In discussing tensions, people identify and express expectations which others may have of them and which they cannot always meet. I present three contexts that show the importance of discourses of tension for Hakka Mauritian identities:
- Mauritian discourses of nation-building and ethnic community formation
- Shifts from Hakka to Mandarin in Chinese Mauritian language learning
- Interpretations of ‘Chinese’ symbols in public spaces in Mauritian Chinatown
My research shows that Hakka Mauritians find themselves in a constant ‘in-between’ space. My dissertation’s contribution to anthropology is to extend our understanding of transcultural identities by demonstrating how individuals make sense of, accept, mitigate, and diffuse tensions through language practices.
Guccini, Federica, "Discourses of Tension in a Rainbow Nation: Transcultural Identity Formations among Hakka Mauritians" (2022). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9026.
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