Here I am again, trying to understand the terms ethnic and ethnic group. I'm not saying I ever really stopped wondering. It's a slippery one. Could the people who live in a town like the one I do eventually develop enough of a shared identity to be considered an ethnic group? Could the people of Detroit, who have a sense of shared loss and challenge and identity? How about the people of New Orleans? They certainly have a shared identity, customs, even language (e.g., Who dat?).
I began to ponder the question This Time because the past couple days, I’ve been listening to Michael Sullivan’s fascinating travelogue on NPR. It’s about his 3,000-mile journey along the Mekong river, starting in the Tibetan Highlands. So many amazing images. E.g., Tibetan monks dragging themselves over the frozen ground as they make a 400-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa (see photo on the NPR website). In the first installment of the journey, Sullivan stops in a village, and there he speaks with a young woman who says she is "troubled by the influx of majority Han Chinese that development has brought to the area." She also says that her father is from the ethnic Hui minority; she is a mix of Hui and Bai; and her husband is from yet another ethnic minority, the Lisu. The Bai view the Han with suspicion, and one interviewee says that there are more Han than the government reports. The ethnic minorities feel threatened by the Han. The older generations speak their own languages (Hui and Bai and Lisu, I assume), and the younger generation speak Chinese (Han?).
I will not pretend to be able to read this map, and Yunnan is not even the district being described in that part of the NPR story (I couldn't find an ethnicity map of the Tibetan Highlands). But by looking at it, you do get a feel for the complexity of the matter and the intermingled slipperiness.
So I turn to Dr. Phil Herbst once again and his encyclopedia of ethnic terminology, and here is his definition of ethnic group:
Any category of people within a larger society who possess distinctive social or cultural traits, shared history, and sense of their commonness, regardless of the group’s size, power, race (the perception of certain common biological traits), or time of immigration. The term is popularly used for such groups in U.S. society as Jews, who identify themselves in terms usually of common history as well as religion, or groups designated by national origin, such as Polish Americans or Japanese Americans.
So it's a pretty subjective matter (especially that "sense of commonness), really. No wonder so many people wonder what it means when they hear that some one is ethnic Hui or ethnic Bai or any of the rest of the ethnicities we've heard about as the media bring the whole world to our door in ever-more-vivid detail.