Its been a while since I’ve written a blog post, and between me working on other essays and researching for my final project, I’ve gone back to the very first question that we looked at this semester: what does it mean to do Transnational History? Transnational History, for me, is about ‘meeting people in the middle’. This is, of course, a question historians spend years pondering about. So, although I am not an expert, and it’s likely that my answer will change the more I sit and think about it, I’m still going to try and justify what I mean by this.
To illustrate what I mean by this, I touch on a tension that I feel like we’ve highlighted persistently as a class: ‘belonging’ and ‘foreign’, and ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. We’ve mentioned this a lot in class. Owen and Izzy touched upon it in their blog posts. Quite a few of us are researching on identity formulation. Overall, this common thread means that I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to ‘belong’ to a place, and what it means to be a ‘foreigner’. In my own research (and from reflecting upon my own upbringing in Hong Kong), I’ve learned that you can occupy both positions simultaneously. Watching my classmates present this week helped fortify this thought.
Timo’s presentation, in particular, struck a chord with me. He highlighted how ‘regional identity was more powerful than racial or national distinctions’, even after a lot of ‘official’ national distinctions were demarcated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and also at the 1919 Versailles Conference. These regions worked together because various ethnic groups bonded over their difference, sort of akin to the metaphor ‘separate but equal’ (though, of course, that represented something entirely different in the US’ context). By acknowledging ethnic diversity, i.e. mutual ‘outsiderness’, these people were able to form their own borders and distinctions, creating and constructing their own ‘belonging’ in the form of regional identities. Regional identities thus functioned as a middle-way between ethnic diversity and national integration. I found this idea incredibly thought-provoking, especially for my own research, as it seems to suggest that people-from-below have much more agency in the construction of transnational identities than we think. As such, our conceptions of ‘transnational’ and ‘international’ ought to not be defined solely by the actions of Big Men, or Diplomats in fancy suits. Ordinary people have the power to not only deconstruct the boundaries between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, but, in some cases, also play with and manipulate them from within by changing their positionality. So, ‘meeting people in the middle’. In Timo’s context, it means finding that happy middle-ground, that bit of a Venn diagram where different people can bond over similarities in spite of their differences. It is the simultaneous coexistence of multiple identities at once.
However, ‘meeting in the middle’ can also be used as a euphemism for ‘interrogating contradictions’. In the Met Gala example Izzy and Owen wrote about, it means negotiating between your own image and culture and the cultural construction others have created for you. This thought, I think, is best expressed in one of my favourite TV shows: ‘I’m surprised you think you can choose your own image’. Racist stereotyping and cultural appropriation is frustrating, and the world would be better off without it, but we can’t forget that it does define us to some degree. What people think and see of Asians like myself, for instance, defines our interactions with the world, the kinds of tips and strategies we put it place and pass down to defend ourselves against prejudice. In order to understand Asians – or, more specifically for this example, Asians in the West – we can’t simply look at the way Asians understand themselves. We need to also examine how their image is seen by others, and examine the ‘middle’, where those two intersect and contradict.
So, by ‘meeting people in the middle’, we are interrogating points of contact between different groups of people, different contexts, and thus different worldviews. It’s imperative, before we even get to the middle, that we understand the contexts within their own frameworks. Only then can we examine the way they intersect, and fish around for similarities and ruptures. In particular, this heuristic is conducive to examining social structures: race, identity formation, power. All together, then, these combine to form the backbone of Transnational History, at least in the way I understand it.
Now what? Bear with me whilst I get cheesy. I didn’t expect to come out of this semester armed with a heuristic that just clicks with me. MO3351 is, undoubtedly, my favourite module that I’ve done so far. It’s uniquely interdisciplinary, and has allowed me to sharpen my methodological toolbox by incorporating in Philosophical, Anthropological, and Geographical techniques into my research. It has given me the drive to keep up with my languages, no matter how much Duolingo frustrates me. All-in-all, I’ve come out this semester with a fresh, new perspective on how we ought to understand human interactions with one another.