• Tue, 6, Aug, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Cultural tribalism needs to end

All against one / Alexas Fotos /

I was first cast out when I told my fellow students in primary school that my family sometimes ate chicken hearts and pig brains, livers, eyes, trotters — pretty much any part of the animal that could be cooked or made into stock. In Chinese culture, food wastage is a big no-no. In New Zealand, such foreign cuisine raises eyebrows (and unsettles stomachs).

Since then, I’ve gathered that many people find eating other food sources like dog meat, insects and balut (developing fowl embryo) disgusting. But for others, these are dietary staples. Eating dog meat isn’t anymore ‘wrong’ than eating beef. Kiwis hate the former, other cultures hate the latter (and it’s important to note that neither is cruelty-free). The truth is, we’re not repulsed because it’s innately repulsive. We’re repulsed because it’s unfamiliar and different.

Tribalism is a loyalty or preference to your own people. As well as culture, it can apply to politics and sport. Cultural tribalism describes how, as a group of people with similar values, lifestyles and languages, we tend to favour our own ‘tribe’ above others. 

At a glance, tribalism doesn’t seem bad at all. Until you are on the outside of the tribe.

While a bit of teasing from my classmates was certainly survivable, the effects of cultural tribalism are still as pronounced (and sometimes worse) now that I’m an adult – from passing comments in conversation to the erroneous public broadcasts of world leaders.

From eating, speaking, walking, driving, people frequently turn each others’ differences into grievances.

For example, New Zealanders generally don’t invest in herbal remedies, and my Chinese-Kiwi mother hates using Panadol or antibiotics as a first line of defence. Asians are ‘bad drivers’ and Kiwis are horrendous pedestrians — this becomes more clear if you’ve ever visited a large city overseas. Even in Auckland, there are not enough people to implement the tacit rule of walking in unidirectional lanes that many other cities have, which can be frustrating on a busy day on Queen Street.

It’s not limited to East versus West, or any certain country. I talk a lot about the culture gap between China and New Zealand because I grew up traversing it. Cultural tribalism is the association of familiarity to being right, and difference to being wrong — and it is completely natural.

But where it can become detrimental is when it paves the way for racism. Then, we are obligated to unlearn what is natural and relearn what is right. We should acknowledge our tribalism if we react negatively to harmless cultural differences. (Note the word ‘harmless’; American police brutality, Chinese persecution of Muslims, and the Japanese whaling industry are behaviours that violate universal human or environmental rights, and thus are not to be excused as a cultural difference.)

Wearing a burkini at a public pool shouldn’t invite unfair treatment from lifeguards.

Being Asian doesn’t warrant being randomly attacked on the street.

Having a foreign-sounding last name doesn’t justify the President of the U.S.A. telling citizens to leave the country.

When we see racist agendas validating tribalism in any form, we should speak up; otherwise those who learn to single out people of other cultures will only be emboldened.

I’m not asking that we stop being proud of our Kiwiana (Go the All Blacks!) or saying that people should just forego learning about the country that they’re travelling to in favour of the life they’ve always lived. But when people have done nothing wrong except eat some ‘weird’ foods, pray to a different God or speak a language other than English, let’s aim to be more understanding and accepting of what makes them unique.


  • Tribalism /
  • Xenophobia /
  • Racism /
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