If there is one clear line between history lovers and historians, or journalistic commentators and social scientists, it is probably the fact that scholars are extremely sensitive to any assumption of national characteristics. This also makes us allergic to the phrases like “tradition” and “cultural differences.”
Why do we feel disgusted by these ideas? One clear reason is the accuracy issue. We know a lot of what people consider traditional and culturally unique was created (or “invented” ) together with the modern nation-state. Speaking of which, most of us, including myself, doubt everything the nation-state does for its own sake. I don’t know about other people, but my reaction is quite instant and harsh, and it does feel like I have a real mental allergy to this whole area of thoughts, which I cannot explain just by the historical accuracy. Maybe because we encounter too many histories that are so badly tainted by nationalism, and are tired of it. Or maybe because historians do not want to repeat the same mistake of exoticizing foreign objects that they study as it happened in the past. We feel guilty for what our predecessors kept doing up until a few decades ago. Maybe that is it. I used to force my partner (a male caucasian) to say he likes me “despite how I look (=asian)” just to make sure this is not about exoticization.
I noticed, however, our allergy is making our lives (including my partner’s) harder than necessary. People love anecdotes and conclusions about national essences. They really do. People want to confirm with each other that North Koreans are absolutely bizarre by discussing how people wept on the street when their leader died. I also tell people that the Japanese eat fermented soybeans and seaweed everyday when I sense people want to hear something exotic. Japanese families keep asking foreigners what they think are unique about Japan and how difficult they think the Japanese language is — they love exoticizing themselves! Just recalling all these things makes me feel nauseous now, but they are just enjoying conversations in bars, and this is one of the most polite, and potentially witty, things to talk about with complete strangers. It is only us who feel weirdly distressed in this situation, not knowing whether we should argue back, or just go along with it.