Excerpt of Communication and Conflict

This article is an excerpt of a paper I wrote a few years ago in which I explored a case study on the wave of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver in the 1990s and analyzed the role of communication in the case study. 

Hong Kong was handed over to Great Britain on August 29, 1842 during the First Opium War (1839-1942) under the Treaty of Nanking, which subsequently ended the war between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Qing Dynasty of China;1the Treaty was to expire in 1997. With the political uncertainties as Hong Kong was heading toward the “Handover” of the British colony to the Chinese communist government, many residents of Hong Kong slowly emigrated to Canada even before 1997, but as Great Britain confirmed the relinquishing of its control of the colony to China, thousands of Hong Kongese flocked to Canada. Many of them chose to leave because they were worried about the attempts by the Chinese government to restrict civil liberties in Hong Kong. The Hong Kongese targeted Canada largely because it was easy to enter the country due to their Commonwealth of Nations connections.2

According to statistics compiled by the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong, from 1991 to 1996, about 30,000 Hong Kongese emigrated annually to Canada. The majority of them settled in the Toronto and Vancouver areas because of the well-established Chinese communities in those cities.3This wave of immigrants is unlike most other groups in the history of Canada because of the scale and because of the wealth and the well-educated status of the immigrants. The result of their immigration into Vancouver has been a booming economy and social tension as it transformed Vancouver into the most Asian Canadian city.The transformation happened during a recession in Canada, and the result was that the city was being rebuilt with Asian money.4Vancouver enjoys the economic benefits of record levels of immigration, but the city’s visibly changing population prompted the question of non-European origin from the strong British heritage embraced for many years in British Columbia. Unlike the traditional immigrants of past decades where most of the immigrants arrived in their new home with little money and a willingness to take on hard labor or any work that was available, this recent wave of newcomers to the city of Vancouver came with both money and high expectations.5A senator for British Columbia was quoted saying “Immigration is okay when someone comes over to work as a domestic or in a laundry because the local people can feel superior to them, but it’s pretty hard to feel superior to someone in a Mercedes.”6

Due to the language barrier, the local residents could not interact with these new Chinese neighbors. With the ability to establish their own niches in their own communities, the majority of the Chinese immigrants were able to interact socially without even speaking much English. Those who speak English just didn’t feel the need to go outside their community to interact with the local residents.Whatever the cause, large homes were built and full-grown trees were toppled, the resentment had grown toward these new immigrants.Despite the obvious cultural differences between the Chinese immigrants and the local residents, neither group could accurately interpret the actions and reactions of the other party. The obvious different worldview would result in further separating the two groups.7

Having said that, there have been apparent benefits with these mass migrations of Chinese in Canada that could not be overlooked.The waves of Chinese migrants revealed the enormous positive impacts that the Hong Kong investors and developers had in providing capital and in shaping many communities in Vancouver. In fact, both the federal and provincial government in British Columbia supported the mass migration; the provincial government stated that immigrant entrepreneurs invested more than $195 million in 1995 and created 5,004 full-time jobs.But the most impact these migrants made on the communities was their enormous charitable giving and philanthropic contribution to the communities at large; from organizations and institutions close to home to mainstream hospitals, institutions and organizations.8

In my paper, I referenced various perspectives in cross-cultural communications including the dialogic perspective in communication discussed by Deutsch, Coleman, & Marcus. From the dialogic perspective, communication is a joint accomplishment of the participants, meaning is socially situated and can be understood only in the context of the circumstances. It is critical in a conflict situation where active listeners raise questions, clarify ambiguous declarations and take great pains to ensure their counterparts have the same understanding of what has been said. The Dialogic perspective views mutually cooperative efforts focus on the collaborative nature of communicative activity is the essence of a Dialogic approach to communication.9Even though there was no outright racism in Vancouver during the transformation, and even in tolerant Canada, such a large influx of people, with such different culture and values, tensions were bound to rise. The mass Chinese immigration into Vancouver took place over a fairly short period of time and offered very little opportunity for the new arrivals to have Dialogic communication with the existing residents; however, providing competent translators, the approach of the Dialogic perspective could really help improve the communication between the two groups. 

The wave of Hong Kong immigrants to Vancouver disrupted coherence in the existing communities where local residents felt challenged and concerned by the threat to local resources. There are some intervention methods that could help communities in conflict to deal with their differences and be able to transform what Littlejohn and Domenici describes as from “harm to value”.10Barbara Benedict Bunker stated that communities need to develop ways of having diverse groups of people co-exist, and acknowledge differences and ways to deal with them rather than suppressing them in an attempt to maintain homogeneity. Bunker promotes what she describes as Large-Group Methods, where communities have developed an intervention method of working with groups from fifty to several thousand to gather and work together.11I find what Bunker identified as the World Café concept particularly useful and practical. The World Café is a relatively new Large-Group method that provides a forum for discussion among diverse stakeholder groups. A theme for the discussions is introduced to each table for twenty to thirty minutes of discussion. Half of the people at each table will be asked to move to another table where the people that remain behind would explain to the others what was being discussed. This method intends to prevent people from clustering in their interest groups and able to continually explore different viewpoints with different people. 

When I was a planner working for a municipality in Arizona, I was involved in a multi-stakeholder meeting very similar to the World Café concept. The Café open house was set up in the same format as in the World Café. There were five tables set up in a large conference room, with approximately six to eight people per table. People were asked to rotate to a different table every fifteen to twenty minutes. Each table was covered by at least one city staff member to facilitate the discussion and to explain what was being discussed from the previous groups during each rotation and to record the issues being brought up by the attendees. The set up intended to help prevent any individuals from clustering in their own interest group and also to help expose them to other perspectives by mixing up the groups. The result turned out to be very much as we had hoped for with very little tension despite occasional heated debates between participants. But I think the most successful part of the open house was the willingness of the different stakeholders to brainstorm with ideas to help address concerns that were brought up at the open house. Despite the lack of consensus on some of the issues, there was consensus and compromises on most of the issues. 

Perhaps the World Café concept could be utilized on a regular basis in the greater Vancouver communities, to be facilitated by skilled neutral parties, possibly fluent in the Chinese and English language, to help identify issues and topics that are important to the participants. The World Café concept could offer a safe environment for the diverse groups of people to come together with an open mind, to brainstorm and to collectively work out their differences; if not, at least have the opportunity to gain different perspectives.Dialogue with genuine curiosity is a precondition for constructively addressing cultural conflict.12Many conflicts in our daily lives, more often than not, are signals for change; if well managed, especially through open and mindful communication, could in fact enhance life on many levels. 

1Wikipedia. (2011). Treaty of Nanking. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Nanking

2,3 Bookrags. (2007). Retrieved from: http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/History_of_Chinese_immigration_to_Canada

4.5 Essaysample.com. (2011). Hong Kong Immigrants in Vancouver- Uneasy Partnership. Retrieved from: http://www.essaysample.com/essay/001256.html

6,7 Anthony Depalma. (1997). Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/specials/hongkong/archive/0214hongkong-vancouver.html

8Vancouver Sun. (2007). Chinese Vancouver – A decade of change: How the Lower Mainland became the leading Asian metropolis on the continent. Retrieved from: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=493535

9,11 Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, & Eric C. Marcus (Eds). (2006). The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco, (2ndedition), CA: Jossey-Bass.

10Stephen W. Littlejohn & Kathy Domenici. (2007). Communication, Conflict, and the Management of Difference. IL: Waveland Press Inc.

12Michelle Lebaron & Venashri Pillay. (2006). Conflicts Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences.Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

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