Being Buryat through the Eyes of an American Researcher
Reviewing Mixed Messages by Kathryn E. Graber (Cornell University Press, 2020)
When I began studying Russian in 2010, Americans were always advised by the US embassy not to conduct research on LGBTQ+ or minorities while in Russia. While queer studies may be more understandable given the rampant homophobia at the state, church, and local level, it was always unclear why American researchers were not allowed to study minorities. Perhaps it was rooted in Islamophobia, a projection of the poor treatment of our own indigenous communities, or colonial guilt. While living across Russia, I met many people proud of their minority heritage. I also met people in large urban centers who were unfamiliar with the ethnic republics within their own country, which is peculiar, but rarely did I meet anyone who actively wished minorities in Russia did not exist. Harmful stereotypes of minority groups certainly prevail, but I was always unclear how that translated into prohibiting the study of certain topics in Russia by Americans. Victory Day 2021 was celebrated virtually in almost all the native languages of Russia, so it seems like even top-down, the leadership nominally supports minority language revitalization attempts in the ethnic republics.
Katheryn E. Graber’s research for Mixed Messages: Mediating Native Belonging in Asian Russia is what exactly Americans were not supposed to do, so I found her research welcoming despite the status as a de facto taboo topic. In ethnic republics, titular groups live among Russians. Mixed Messages is about Buryat identity and both official and unofficial language use in the republic of Buryatia.
Her chapters about media are the most informative: “Both producers and consumers of Buryat media orient toward a standard that is not really anywhere to be found in practice. Buryat-language media are always to some degree multilingual… media institutions position themselves - and are locally interpreted - as monolithic arbiters of linguistic authority, encapsulated in a strong Buryat literary standard, they in fact manifest great diversity in ideology and praxis, shaped by the material demands of specific mediums… Media institutions are supposed to have been ‘indigenized’ as Buryat, but the forms they take are also assimilatory and hyper-institutional.” I found that the text flowed easily and is accessible to readers outside of academia.
Buryats do not claim indigeous status in the post-Soviet era, despite the political and economic benefits as they have always prided themselves as being conquerors. Graber’s book is the product of many interviews and current media samples. Her personal commentary on the differences between Buryat and Russian linguistics is insightful, as she took on learning Buryat as part of her field work. I found all her anecdotes on Buryat media a wonderful case study on how the state has used minority languages for assimilatory purposes, with journalists at an interesting, often paradoxical role.
Language as an ethnicity
Graber writes about a phenomenon in Buryatia: “One of the strongest language ideologies operative in Buryatia links your ‘native language’ to your ethnicity and race, which affects how people determine who counts as a speaker of Buryat… Yet Buryat is owned by - and ascribed to - many people who do not know or speak it.” She draws this distinction while listening to Buryat people describe themselves and others as Buryat speakers when realistically, the “speakers” do not possess the ability to do so.
This modernist condition is present when a minority group doesn’t outwardly present like the dominant group. Buryat people have mostly brown hair, small eyes, and present as the Asian phenotype. While Buryatia is geographically in Europe, the Buryats are an Asian group. Self-identifying as a Buryat speaker while Buryat is rooted in shame as well as having easily accessible answers ready for outsiders, in my opinion. Like the survey respondents who answered “Buryat” as a native language without knowing much Buryat, monolingual English speakers in my Asian family have also done that for official purposes.
Graber does a better job explaining this phenomenon with Russian-speakers who remain silent when asked to conduct interviews in Buryat, when she explains that “performance expectations are... tied very closely to race and ethnicity. You may be taken at any moment as a potential performer of the language by virtue of looking ethnically Buryat, and if you fail, you have failed not just as being an accomplished, polished, and possibly erudite state performer but also at being Buryat.” On the intrapersonal level, confounding ethnicity with linguistic identity is a means of self-preservation for many Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities in majority white countries.
Vocabulary and color
Academia lacks proper academic terminology for Asian-looking people. Some Asian American Pacific Islander activists have reclaimed yellow, despite the historic and racial charge within the United States, but it’s to distinguish from the blanket term Asia, meaning a geographical region. Yellow certainly can be problematic for some as it can be conflated with the colonial term Oriental, contains elements of dark-skin and Black erasure, and is sinocentric. In Mixed Messages, Graber uses the word Asian to mean both the location and phenotype, and doesn’t distinguish them early on.
The Introduction begins with a young Buryat girl, Badma, watching a Korean-American Olympic gymnast on television and saying “look, she looks like a Buryat girl!” Buryat is synonymous with Asian at this point, though when she turns to the author to inquire if Graber would personally describe the athlete on TV as American, she says “‘Yes sure, why not?’... not immediately certain what Badma was asking.” I am incredulous that colorblindness was her realistic initial reaction.
For producing over two hundred pages of research on Asian identity, I can’t help but notice that Graber uses a lot of stereotypes. She opens chapter one with a colorful anecdote about a “remarkable octogenarian whose wealth of knowledge about local Buryat culture was surpassed only by his presentational style. We whiled away several hours over steaming cups of milky tea as he spun tales of distinct kin, endless steppes, and Buddhist lamas of yore who could, he claimed, to cross all of Lake Baikal metaphysically, in meditation. My friends and I sat rapt, in the thrall of an accomplished storyteller. He spoke about the Buryat past in an admixture of fact and fiction, science and magic, historically verifiable event and legend.” While I don’t doubt that this exchange existed, I can’t help but be irritated with Graber’s coded language of this older Buryat man, as some elusive Confucian or Mister Miyagi character. Having tall tales at one’s disposal pretty much define the older generation and having an audience to perform oral tradition motivates them. Stories tied to geographical location are logical when the steppe is what the speaker has lived among for decades.
Later on in the same chapter, Graber writes about Katya, a twenty-something Buryat woman. Katya “gushed to me one evening about the importance of preserving her family’s traditions by going to the Buddhish datsan (temple). She had grown up in the city and had already traveled extensively; her Russian, English, and Chinese were far better than her Buryat. As Katya talked about how someone needed to stay in the village to preserve the language and culture, I listened to the click-click-clacking of her stiletto-heeled boots making her treacherous way across the hard-packed snow and ice, and I could not help but wonder how long her conviction would last. She did not control the local cultural knowledge of the authoritative myth-historical genre of our octogenarian. Young urbanites like Katya are the best acquainted with the paradigm of indigenous citizenship and the most likely to image their position as members of a global community of indigenous peoples, but they are also the least likely to fit its criteria of membership” Graber does what many non-Asians do which is equate Asian elders and their narratives as somehow more authentic than those of cosmopolitan millennials in terms of self-identity. She also uses language ability as a rating system for who is more or less reliable sources on identity. The inclusion of the “click-click-clacking of her stiletto-heeled boots'' and absolutely no other physical attributes certainly rubs me the wrong way.
Despite the rocky introduction to Mixed Messages, I enjoyed a majority of Graber’s research on Buryat media. My favorite chapter was Performance Anxiety, where Graber breaks down Buryat language use by media outlets. She thoroughly describes her interactions with many Buryat journalists that she follows in her fieldwork. Journalists have become “authoritative arbiters of language” and encounter issues doing so. I recommend anyone interested in minority language mass media to read this book.