South China Morning Post: Children of rich Chinese home alone in Canada face challenges

I am grateful to the South China Morning Post‘s Ian Young for writing an article last Monday on the publication that Jo Waters and I coauthored in Global Networks on transnational youth transitions between Hong Kong and Vancouver. More on the actual article can be found here.

Illustration: Sarene Chan

After the piece published by Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun came out, Ian Young contacted Jo and me for a follow-up article in the South China Morning Post. While Doug went mostly with what our academic publication said, Ian wanted to learn more for himself about the phenomenon in a sort of boots-on-the-ground way. In addition to interviewing Jo and me (and props to him for noting that Jo is a fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford), he also interviewed a Taiwanese young man in order to round out the picture. This asymmetry between the Taiwanese and Hongkonger examples is only slightly problematic because Ian was cognizant of the difference and because he was suggesting that this phenomenon had more to do with a sort of Greater China geography than Hong Kong. The jury is still out on that, though the original theorists like Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini in fact presume it, and I would like to see more research on different Chinese transnationalisms (pace Weiqiang Lin) to provide even more differentiated portraits.

I am grateful to Ian for writing up this piece as a work of long-form journalism, which (as he tells me) is often hard to come by these days. I’m fairly happy with the way it turned out. My comments were based mostly on the literature and our findings, and references to the economic calculations of transnational migrants from Hong Kong can be found throughout the work of David Ley, Jo Waters, Katharyne Mitchell, and Kris Olds. I am also glad that Ian was fairly careful about not having Jo and me give definitive advice for those contemplating transnational family arrangements; far be it from us to tell any family what to do! Instead, both Jo and I were quoted as emphasizing the possible emotional consequences of split families as factors for consideration. Finally, my only regret with my comments has nothing to do with Ian, but rather in my forgetfulness to mention that this emphasis on material familial bonds has long been a subject of discussion in Chinese American and Chinese Canadian history, and the go-to work on that is Madeline Hsu’s Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home.

Again, I am very glad that Ian Young contacted us about this story. To reiterate my previous posts, I am finding that these connections between academia and journalism are proving very educational for me, helping me learn about issues that are both similar and different between academic conversations and what is happening in public discourse. What is fascinating about Ian’s work is that as he is based in Vancouver, he is interested in chronicling events in the transnational social field between Vancouver and Hong Kong as a public sphere of sorts, and I will be reading with interest how he will implicitly theorize this public. These public connections are never about private publicity; they are about understanding why academia is a public good that can collaborate with other sectors, such as journalism, to inform a larger public conversation. To that end, I look forward to working with Ian Young in the future as we keep the conversation going.


Vancouver Sun: The struggles of affluent East Asian youth in Canada

In this post, I’ll discuss the Vancouver Sun‘s publication of some of the findings in a paper that Johanna Waters and I co-authored in Global Networks. I’ve written about the actual article here, and that’s where I discuss our experimental methodology and some of our key findings.

I like the article that Douglas Todd has written about our piece. This wasn’t something that I set him up to do; in fact, I didn’t even know that he was working on it until he emailed me telling me that it was in that very day’s paper and that he had already gotten feedback on it. As I said, I have been on vacation, so I hadn’t seen a Vancouver Sun where I was vacationing and am relying on the online copy.

The article rightly situates our piece in a longer literature that includes pioneering work done by my supervisor, David Ley, as well as Audrey Kobayashi and Elaine Ho (who incidentally edited the first article I ever published). As those who have read this literature will know, our piece takes seriously this recent literature’s attention to the ’emotional turn’ in cultural geography, an approach to studying space and place that takes seriously how perceptions and constructions of geographies are constituted by emotions. In particular, our piece focuses on the emotional geographies of young people transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver. Todd reads our two empirical sections fairly and carefully. First, the young people we interviewed described their experience of their family’s supervisory practices as ‘sporadic’ and ‘fragmented’ because while they were grounded in Vancouver, their families often lived at a geographical distance. Second, the young people said that they felt attached to Vancouver, whereas Hong Kong often felt like a ‘hostile’ environment where they didn’t have friends and where they could imagine work hours being unbearable. I am happy with the way that Todd has read our article.

What I’d like to reflect on here is the relationship between academia and journalism. In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this, especially because Douglas Todd’s work and my work are starting to have points of convergence and because Sarah Pulliam Bailey has been doing so well covering the Asian American evangelical activism of which I have been a part. As I said when Todd first interviewed me, I felt that the relationship that we were developing was collegial, and I continue to feel that way. To work with journalists is not to seek publicity. It is to be committed to an academia that engages the public sphere and that demonstrates that academic freedom is vital to our democratic discourse. Working with my colleagues in journalism, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of why the press needs to be free, why it’s important that private entities should not control the press’s discourse (this includes when they read my work), and how the academic conversation is enriched when more public voices are brought into the picture.

For this article, I’m glad that Todd decided to give the article his own read without consulting me. I got a sense of why this research was important to our public discourse. Jo Waters and I had our angle, of course, and that was that our public discourse should not simply assume that children growing up in transnational social fields necessarily desire to live transnational lifestyles. But with Todd bringing it to the public sphere, I’ve been impressed by how important it is that this message gets out, especially in our public conversations about migration and citizenship. I write with gratefulness for Todd’s journalistic craft (and for Bailey’s, for that matter). They are teaching me so much about their trade and how we can work together between our different guilds, and I am grateful for their patience and for their collegiality.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I had the opportunity to read some of the comments about our research. I’m thankful for the many people who resonated, and I’m also grateful for those who posted critical comments that might help us refine our future endeavours. Two comments stick out for me, and I’d like to address them here. First, there is the observation that we ‘forgot’ to interview migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as the ‘astronaut’ phenomenon encompasses more than Hongkongers and there are Hongkongers who work in major cities on the mainland. Second, some noted that this research describes a long phenomenon that can be observed since 1990 (and perhaps before).

Allow me to respond to both, as both can serve as a teaching moment for what we do in academia.

Both Jo Waters and I focused on Hongkongers in our respective projects. This was a practical consideration, as we wanted to limit ourselves to one segment of the Chinese diaspora, and as Weiqiang Lin notes, there are many other Chinese cosmopolitanisms to explore (such as, for Lin, Singapore’s ‘global schoolhouse’). Moreover, we have colleagues who do work on PRC migrants to Vancouver, such as Elaine Ho and Sin Yih Teo. Our study is thus not a comprehensive one that looks at every facet of Chinese transnationalism; instead, academics work with literatures–whole bodies of work–and our contribution is partly to the literature on Chinese transnationalism (as well as literatures on unconventional youth transitions to adulthood, emotional geographies, and cross-border movements more generally). In addition, studying Hongkongers allows for interesting comparative work with the PRC migrants, as well as the ability to unpack how Hongkongers perceive PRC migrants, a theme that was very much part of my master’s work (see this article also) and that has made it obliquely into my PhD work.

We are also aware of how dated the phenomenon that we are studying is. However, it’s partly because we’ve had such a long time to reflect, including the time elapsed between our two projects, that we’ve been able to make some of the claims we make. Again, this provides good comparative material for the new research emerging from our colleagues as well as a call to our fellow researchers to pay attention to the voices of young people in these transnational social fields.

Global Networks: Transnational Youth Transitions: becoming adults between Vancouver and Hong Kong

I want to announce the publication of two papers today in two separate posts.  Let me take each in order.

The first is a collaborative paper that Dr. Johanna Waters (University of Birmingham, Geography) and I co-authored.  It is titled ‘Transnational youth transitions: becoming adults between Vancouver and Hong Kong,’ and is published in Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Studies. It is currently available in Early View. I will post again when it comes into a print journal version.

The genesis of this paper is quite interesting. Jo Waters is a leading scholar in transnational geographies in the United Kingdom. Jo and I both received our graduate education in Geography at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, and we shared a common supervisor, Professor David Ley. Jo wrote her master’s thesis on transnational Hong Kong family experiences in Vancouver (check out her pieces on astronaut women and transnational family settlement) and her doctoral thesis on how Hong Kong families strategized to send their children to Vancouver for education to gain cultural capital for future employment prospects in East Asia (it is now a book). Jo and I did not overlap in the department, but when I began to study Hongkonger migration as I wrote my master’s thesis on a transnational Hongkonger church, Jo’s work provided a very interesting launching point. I remember checking out both of her theses from the Geographic Information Centre in our department and reading them with rapid page-turning interest. At this point, I also contacted Jo, telling her how much I admired her work. She was very nice to me.

As I began my doctorate, Jo and I began talking about the common points between our data, especially as I had collected more recent data in Chinese churches in both Vancouver in 2008 and Hong Kong in 2010 that corroborated her earlier findings in 2002. Deciding to focus on what we found in common about young people’s experiences of transnational families between Hong Kong and Vancouver, we merged the data. We submitted the piece to Global Networks, from where we got very good feedback from the editors and the reviewers. Jo was then extremely generous in letting me take the lead on the revisions, as this gave me a chance to undergo some crucial professional development. We then revised the piece, and then sent it back to Global Networks with my name as the corresponding author.

The article sheds light on how young people become adults in families that straddle the distance between Hong Kong and Vancouver. It examines how these young people transition from youth to adulthood, combining the literature in social geography on youth and childhood (which is itself drawn from the new social studies of childhood) with the literature on transnational migration. We looked at how young people reacted to the ways that their parents and extended family attempted to supervise them and maintain contact with them at a distance, and we explored the young people’s own sense of place. One of our central contributions is that while many people predict that youth growing up in these families often return to Hong Kong for work, we have to be cautious about describing this as a norm, for young people were often critical of their own families’ transnational strategies.

We hope that this will be a helpful paper in transnational studies more broadly. We also hope that it will give back to the communities we have studied by accurately portraying them and by shaping conversations about them that are not overly determinative about their families’ patterns of migration. Moreover–and this is only implicit in the article–as I reflect on my own engagements with Asian American ethnic studies, my hope is that this paper will help empower Asian American and Asian Canadian families and young people by taking seriously their own sense of place instead of forcing them to constantly answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We thank Ali Rogers, the previous editor of Global Networks, as well as our three anonymous reviewers and the copy editors, for their very constructive feedback on our paper. For my part, the experience of working with Jo Waters has been phenomenal and a part of my graduate education and professional development that I will always consider valuable.