From Papeete to Phnom Penh

Barker Lectureship recipient Dana Bourgerie outlined his work documenting language and identity among Chinese diaspora communities in Tahiti and Cambodia.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 9, 2017)—On every continent in the world except for Antarctica, large groups of ethnic Chinese have established diaspora communities—communities of Chinese living abroad who share language and culture. The communities include recent arrivals from mainland China and those whose families have generations of history in their new home. The unique cultural and linguistic properties of these diaspora communities are what led Dana Bourgerie, Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at BYU, to study them. His research on two such communities in Tahiti and Cambodia won him the 2017 annual James Barker Lectureship. From history to demographics to linguistics, Bourgerie gave the audience a small taste of the diversity he found within the Tahitian and Cambodian Chinese diasporas during his research.

Bourgerie’s research focuses on ethnic identity within these two communities. He is interested in how ethnic Chinese groups are viewed by members of the cultures in which they live. He also researches how ethnic Chinese individuals identify themselves as members of the surrounding community, members of the Chinese diaspora, or a mix of both.

The history of how ethnic Chinese came to be established in Tahiti sheds light on why many ethnic Chinese there identify cross-culturally. The first wave of Chinese immigrants to arrive in Tahiti was in the mid-1800s, when Chinese men came to work in the coffee and cotton plantations. The men married Tahitian women and immediately established a multicultural heritage. Bourgerie explained that, “many, many Tahitians have a grandmother who is Chinese,” which connects the diaspora to the surrounding Tahitian community.

The experience of ethnic Chinese in Tahiti is a linguistically diverse one. Students and government professionals often speak French at school and work, but Tahitian is spoken in general society. Many ethnic Chinese also speak a Chinese dialect— Cantonese or Hakka—in the home. As a result, code-mixing, or mixing one or more languages during speech, is common among the ethnic Chinese community. Other types of cultural mixing in Tahiti are just as common, which Bourgerie demonstrated with picture of a French baguette sandwich filled with Chinese fried noodles for sale at a Tahitian restaurant.

The history of the Chinese diaspora in Cambodia reaches further back into history than that of Tahiti and is much more complicated. Zhou Daguan says in his 1296 book Customs of Cambodia, “Chinese sailors coming to [Cambodia] note that . . . rice is easily had, houses easily run, furniture easily come by, and trade easily carried on, so a great many sailors desert and take up residence.” Bourgerie explained that in those times “the diaspora community went where the trade winds went.” Today there are an estimated one million ethnic Chinese living across Cambodia speaking over five different southeastern Chinese dialects.

In Cambodia, Bourgerie distributed surveys to ethnic Chinese living in the capital, Phnom Penh, in an effort to discover more about how Cambodian Chinese identify themselves. He gave surveys to two groups of ethnic Chinese—students and non-students. The surveys asked participants about their language use and that of their parents , as well as their self-identified religious, cultural, and ethnic identities.

The survey showed that it was more common among non-students to speak both Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia, and a Chinese dialect, like Chaozhou or Cantonese, at home. In comparison, students were twenty percent more likely than non-students to speak Khmer as the primary language in the home. In addition, the primary language of parents of non-students, who were usually older than the student survey population, was more often a Chinese language when compared to the parents of students, indicating that older generations learned less Khmer in childhood than did the younger generations.

Before he conducted these surveys, Bourgerie was advised to collect religious data; traditionally, the Chinese practice Mahayana Buddhism, while Theravada Buddhism is traditionally practiced in Cambodia. Thus religious identification is believed to be a sure marker of ethnic identity. In reality, Bourgerie discovered this was not the case. He mentioned that many ethnic Chinese in Cambodia attend both kinds of temples, with the majority identifying as Theravada Buddhists, a sign of strong Cambodian influence.

Perhaps most telling of how ethnic Chinese perceive themselves are their responses to survey questions of self-perceived ethnic identity. Among students, almost eighty percent answered that they were both Chinese and Cambodian, but non-students identified with both identities just over fifty percent of the time. Bourgerie’s research shows that even though learning the language and participating in the religion of a country can strongly affect perceptions of identity, in Cambodia most ethnic Chinese retain their ancestry as part of their identity. Bourgerie admitted that identity among ethnic Chinese is still fluid. Bourgerie’s work in Cambodia documents the shift in attitudes toward powerful questions of family, self-perception, and the importance of identity.


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language ’18) 

Olivia covers news for the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.