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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
A couple of weeks ago, I made my first ever visit to China and I wanted to share some sociological observations with you about what I saw and experienced while I was there. My trip was under the auspices of my university’s International Programs Office (IPO) that’s in charge of all the study abroad programs on campus. From time to time, the IPO visits various study abroad sites around the world to make sure that they are high-quality programs for our students. Normally, the different staff at the IPO conducts these visits, but this time around, they asked me if I wanted to go to Beijing to check out the Council on International Educational Exchange’s (CIEE) programs in Beijing. It was an offer I could not pass up, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Specifically, the CIEE programs that I visited were based at Minzu University and Peking University. As the CIEE staff described to me, Minzu University was established in 1951 to basically assimilate members of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups (such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, Zhuang, Manchus, Hui, Miao, Yi, Mongols, etc.) into the majority Han culture. However, through the years, its focus and curriculum have evolved to become more tolerant and now promotes the retention of many aspects of culture and tradition among such ethnic minorities. Peking University is frequently called the “Harvard of China” and is considered to be the crown jewel of China’s university system. In its 2011-2012 ranking of universities around the world, the Times Higher Education listed Peking University as number 49 overall and as the top university in China.
Although I do not have anything to which I can compare these study abroad programs since this was my first such site visit, overall I found the CIEE programs at both universities to be comprehensive and impressive. There was a wide variety of academic and field opportunities for U.S. students at both schools to learn about Chinese language and culture inside and outside of the classroom. I found the staff there to be very friendly, professional, well-skilled, and enthusiastic about their programs. I also talked to a number of U.S. students currently studying abroad in these two CIEE programs and they all raved about the positive experiences they’ve had there. From what I saw during my site visit, I would certainly recommend these programs to my students.
While I was in China and in my conversations with the CIEE staff and with both Chinese and U.S. students, a recurring theme was that China seems to be at a crossroads in its history and that there are two important issues within which China is struggling to find its balance in terms of where it wants to position itself politically, economically, and culturally within the global community. Each of these issues that I’ll discuss in more detail below represent a paradox or set of interesting contradictions that are playing themselves out within modern Chinese society.
I am certainly not the first observer, analyst, or scholar to discuss these issues, nor can I claim to have comprehensive expertise on such issues. Nonetheless, I would like to share my observations as a sociologist who wants to apply my academic interest in how Asians (and China specifically) fit into the contemporary global community in the 21st century and how Asian Americans fit into these international dynamics as well.
The first paradoxical issue concerns the growing sense of nationalism in China. This nationalism was most recently manifested in angry and sometimes violent protests against Japan over some small islands that lie between China (Diaoyu in Chinese) and Japan (Senkaku in Japanese) and are claimed by both countries. More generally, nationalism directed against foreigners has been evident in China for a while and from time to time, flares up and can turn ugly.
In my conversations with different people in China, they mentioned that a famous Chinese philosopher named Lu Xun observed about a hundred years ago that China frequently see themselves as either superior or inferior in relation to foreign powers, but never equal to them — it’s either a feeling of superiority or inferiority. With this in mind, nationalist feelings of superiority or inferiority need points of comparison. In modern times, China has two main international points of comparison — in Asia, it’s Japan and in the western world, it’s the U.S.
My contacts also observed that in most cases, the average Chinese citizen will rarely express such nationalist feelings directly to a foreigner, there was one instance in which this nationalism was directly visible to me and other site visitors in this trip. Specifically, a group of us (all from the U.S. involved in the CIEE site visit) was walking through Peking University when a Chinese male in his mid-40s came up to us and started speaking Chinese to us. Unfortunately none of us spoke Chinese, but even after we said that to him in English, he still kept speaking. We then pulled a Chinese American study abroad student (let’s call him ‘Keith’) who was accompanying us while we were at Peking University into the conversation. The Chinese man then turned his attention to Keith and as Keith relayed to us later, went into a tirade against the presence of foreigners in China. Although this man was not shouting, he was obviously very assertive in expressing himself. Considering the recent protests against Japan, this was probably a relatively mild form of nationalism that we experienced.
The contradiction here is that China very much wants to attain a position of respect and status within the international community and wants to continue attracting international investment and promoting global trade. In other words, it needs to engage with the international community. But on the other hand, a large part of the national discourse within China emphasizes China’s superiority over foreign powers and in fact, advocates limiting or even eliminating the presence of foreigners inside China.
An interesting component to this emerging nationalism in China is that much of it was initiated and encouraged by the Chinese government, at least in the beginning. As other analysts have pointed out, when it comes to particular issues such as the disputes with Japan, Chinese government officials have tried to maintain a sense of diplomacy in public while behind the scenes, frequently allowed or even facilitated nationalist rhetoric and citizen protests to serve their political interests. The problem however, is that the Chinese government may be losing control over this nationalist monster that they’ve created. As one of my contacts noted, when you keep feeding the citizens ‘wolves’ milk,’ eventually they’ll grow up to be wolves.
I have written about this kind of “cultural schizophrenia” in China before. On the institutional and national level, this sense of fluctuating between two extremes while trying to find your identity is actually similar to what many Asian Americans face on the individual level as they try to balance the ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ sides of their identity. In China’s case, as it tries to solidify its position in the international community, it’s likely that such internal struggles will continue to take place and it remains to be seen how the emerging contradictions between the government’s ‘Dr. Jekyll’ and the nationalists’ ‘Mr. Hyde’ will play themselves out.
Where Do Chinese Americans Fit Into China?
The second sociological dynamic that I observed while in China relates to where Chinese Americans fit into modern Chinese society. Like a number of other Asian American scholars, I have a growing interest in looking at how Asian Americans fit into Asian societies and how they use both their Asian and American identities to potentially bridge the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. As such, I was very interested in hearing from Chinese American students and their experiences studying abroad in China.
In addition to ‘Keith’ (mentioned above), I also spoke at length to another Chinese American student; let’s call her ‘Kathy.’ They both described similar experiences of feeling caught in a “cultural limbo” while in China. That is, on the one hand, their physical appearance is Asian and more specifically, Chinese. But on the other hand, their nationality is American. This frequently means that upon first contact, most Chinese nationals assume that they are Chinese. But once they start talking, they are quickly seen as American, even though they speak Chinese pretty well.
Both Keith and Kathy noted to me that once this happens, more often than not, Chinese nationals lose interest in speaking to them. I asked them why and they said that Chinese tend to be more interested in talking to ‘regular’ Americans — i.e., White Americans. In other words, even within China, while they are treated generally as Americans (rather than as Chinese), Chinese Americans are generally not seen as representing the ‘normal’ image or perception of what Chinese think of as ‘American’ — i.e. they are not White.
Nonetheless, Kathy and Keith told me that once they got used to this cultural dynamic, they were eventually able to create and embrace their own “Chinese American” identity that is neither completely Chinese nor completely American, but a fluid combination of both. Upon doing this, they said that they felt more comfortable using this identity to begin bridging the cultural gaps between China and the U.S. in small ways during their stay in China.
This process of creating an ‘Asian American’ identity that combines and bridges two sets of cultures is what Americans of Asian ancestry have been doing for centuries. It is with this understanding in mind that I think Asian Americans are positioned to take make tangible contributions toward applying their globalized and transnational characteristics and experiences to bridging the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. In fact, scholars are beginning to examine and describe examples of Asian Americans in different social settings acting as ‘cultural ambassadors‘ in Asian societies.
Therefore, if countries such as China continue to pursue a position of respect within the wider international community while still retaining elements of their national identity, they can learn from Chinese Americans who have have years of experience and expertise in doing exactly that — integrating themselves into mainstream U.S. society while keeping elements their Chinese culture intact. This is not to say that it has been a seamless or smooth process and in fact, Chinese- and Asian Americans have been and continue to face suspicions and challenges regarding their ‘real’ identity.
Nonetheless, institutional changes taking place, such as the ongoing effects of globalization, greater transnationalism, and increased multiculturalism, have transformed the racial, ethnic, and cultural landscape of both U.S. society and the world in general. Within this new social environment, there are new opportunities for minority groups such as Asian Americans to assert an identity that legitimately incorporates elements of, and for the benefit of, different societies and cultures.
There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” From a sociological point of view, this is indeed a very interesting time for China and there are a number of interesting ways that Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans as a whole) can participate in forging a more inclusive path forward into the 21st century.
Today, March 8, is International Womens Day. To commemorate this event, The Daily Beast (an online magazine that is part of the Newsweek media corporation) has compiled a list of “150 Women Who Shake the World.”
Since this site focuses on Asians and Asian Americans, I am particularly glad to see that the list includes numerous women from Asia and a couple of Asian Americans as well, specifically Kamala Harris (Attorney General of California) and Ai-Jen Poo (community activist for immigrant domestic workers).
In reading their descriptions, it is clear that while many of their contributions may benefit women most immediately, their work uplifts us all as human beings. Keep up the good work and the good fight, ladies.
The following is a list of recent academic journal articles and doctoral dissertations from scholars in the social sciences and humanities that focus on race/ethnicity and/or immigration, with a particular emphasis on Asian Americans. The academic journal articles are generally available in the libraries of most colleges and universities and/or through online research databases. As always, works included in this list are for informational purposes only and do not imply an endorsement of their contents.
The latest issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies focuses on issues and dynamics of racial/ethnic diversity and multiculturalism in East Asian countries. As I’m sure you know, countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan tend to be rather racially/ethnically/culturally homogeneous. At the same, as a reflection of the ongoing evolution of globalization around the world, these societies have also become more multicultural in recent decades. In recognition of this, these articles looks at the political, economic, and cultural consequences of such societal changes.
Salazar Parreñas, Rhacel and Joon K. Kim. 2011. “Multicultural East Asia: An Introduction.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1555-1561.
Abstract: This introduction to the special issue of JEMS on multicultural East Asia underscores the nexus between national identity and multiculturalism in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Demographic and structural changes are assumed to serve as levers of change toward multiculturalism. However, the articles in this issue demonstrate the cultural and social challenges engendered by multiculturalism, and the salience of race, gender, ethnicity and class in the structuring of immigration policies and the social integration of international migrants.
Kim, Hyuk-Rae and Ingyu Oh. 2011. “Migration and Multicultural Contention in East Asia.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1563-1581.
Abstract: Japan, Korea and Taiwan have experienced rapid and dramatic demographic changes during the last three decades. In all three countries, changes of fertility decline, aging and sex imbalances preceded massive increases in international marriages and labor migration. In this article, we analyze how these demographic and social transformations affect policies of migration and integration in this region. Demographics are changing with the integration of foreign brides and professional migrants and with declining fertility rates. Despite this, the magnitude and speed of change within the policy provisions for migration and integration are still very limited and slow—Japan, Korea and Taiwan, for instance, all maintain ‘assimilationist’ or ‘passive multicultural’ migration and integration policies.
Kim, Joon. 2011. “The Politics of Culture in Multicultural Korea.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1583-1604.
Abstract: The South Korean government has demonstrated a strong commitment towards the social integration of international brides and the children of mixed ethnic heritage by establishing 100 ‘multicultural family support centres’ throughout the country. Given its record of opposing the long-term settlement of foreigners in Korea, this recent government announcement signals a very significant change in its policies concerning international migrants. Consequently, the proliferation of migrant support programs bearing the title ‘multiculturalism’ unwittingly suggests that Korean society is receptive toward the internationalization of families.
In this article I show that the establishment of these support centers represents a governmental response to the accumulated societal pressure from below that sought to improve the precarious social conditions of international migrants and to embrace multiculturalism as an inevitable, but positive, social force. Despite their impressive scope and resource allocation, the contents and approaches of the newly emerging multicultural programs reproduce, rather than minimize, the cultural hierarchy between Koreans and non-Koreans. I utilize the concepts of ‘cultural paternalism’ and ‘cultural fetishism’ in order to capture the manner in which the dominant members of Korean society define the terms of and approaches to dealing with cultural diversity, reduce the complex issues of social equality to cultural differences, and treat culture as a fetish by uniformly emphasizing the expressive dimensions of culture.
Ishiwata, Eric. 2011. “‘Probably Impossible': Multiculturalism and Pluralisation in Present-Day Japan.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1605-1626.
Abstract: This article offers a critical engagement with multiculturalism and pluralisation in Japan. While recent efforts to introduce multicultural policies such as ‘domestic internationalisation’ policies and the textbook reform movement are encouraging, I suggest that they are limited as they fail to address notions of exclusivity—those founded on the ideology of nihonjinron—that shape Japanese identity. Moreover, mere recognition of minority populations works to entrench rather than undermine ethno-cultural hierarchies. That is, if official engagements with the ethno-cultural ‘Other’ simply reinscribe notions of exclusivity, exceptionality and even superiority, the hierarchalised distinctions drawn between inside/outside and ‘Japanese’/foreigner will continue to persist and minority populations will be relegated permanently to a second-class citizenry.
Therefore, this contribution turns to the recently opened Kyushu National Museum as a means of addressing multiculturalism and pluralisation in Japan. Themed ‘Ocean Ways, Asian Paths’, the Kyushu National Museum is actually a transnational museum as it focuses not on artefacts specific to Japanese identity, but instead on the variegated ways in which Japan is inextricably connected with and indebted to its Asian neighbours. Thus, by exhibiting the miscegenated character of Japan’s national origins, the Kyushu National Museum stands as a concrete example whereby notions of exclusivity are refashioned into a more accommodating, and perhaps ethical, engagement with alterity.
Cheng, Sealing. 2011. “Sexual Protection, Citizenship and Nationhood: Prostituted Women and Migrant Wives in South Korea.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1627-1648.
Abstract: This article examines the making of two distinct groups of women—‘prostituted women’ and migrant wives—into citizen-subjects in South Korea at the turn of the twenty-first century. Though the lives of these women barely intersect, they become visible in the public sphere as victims of sexual violence and therefore in urgent need of state protection. Defined as such, prostitutes and migrant wives come under the gaze of the state and civil society through anti-prostitution policy and multiculturalism policy respectively.
I suggest that, through the language of protection, the South Korean state and civil society seek to redefine moral order and national borders through the regulation of a woman’s body and sexuality. For prostituted women, leaving prostitution restores them to the embrace of the nation as good Korean daughters. For immigrant wives, reproduction is their gendered path to citizenship as good Korean mothers. Through an analysis of the gender ideals reproduced in these policies, and their repercussions on the lives of women, I tease out the gendering of citizenship and nationhood and its tensions with the universalist ideals of gender equality and human rights in the modernising project in South Korea.
Kim, Denis. 2011. “Catalysers in the Promotion of Migrants’ Rights: Church-Based NGOs in South Korea.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1649-1667.
Abstract: The scholarship on Korean migration indicates that pro-immigrant NGOs are significant social actors who have influenced the formation and transformation of Korean immigration policy. Nevertheless, it has neglected the conspicuous impact of both church-based NGOs and the leadership of activist-clergy upon the promotion of immigrant rights and status. This article explores the origins of advocacy, its contribution and the unintended consequences. It argues that both the transnational characteristics of the church and the historical experience of church-based activism for democratisation have stimulated activist-clergy into spearheading the immigrant advocacy effort. Korea offers an exemplary case in which transnational religion has played a profound role in enhancing the social and political inclusion of immigrants.
Lan, Pei-Chia. 2011. “White Privilege, Language Capital and Cultural Ghettoisation: Western High-Skilled Migrants in Taiwan.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:10:1669-1693.
Abstract: Drawing on the case of Taiwan, this article looks at high-skilled migration from the West to Asia. I explore how Western high-skilled migrants exert agency to negotiate their positions as non-citizens, privileged others and professional workers. I have coined the term ‘flexible cultural capital conversion’ to describe how English-speaking Westerners convert their native-language skills, as a form of global linguistic capital, into economic, social and symbolic capitals.
Their privileged positions are nevertheless mediated and constrained by their class, nationality, race/ethnicity and gender. In the global context, whiteness is marked as a visible identity and the ‘superior other’. Such cultural essentialism functions as a double-edged sword that places white foreigners in privileged yet segregated job niches. Their flexibility in capital conversion and transnational mobility is territory-bound. Many experience the predicament of ‘cultural ghettoisation’ in the global South, and they often face grim job prospects on returning home to the North.
Ever since World War II, the Asian-Pacific political and military landscape has been pretty stable from the U.S.’s point of view — Japan has been the U.S.’s staunch ally while China looms as possible threat and enemy to the U.S. However, we might be seeing this situation change in opposite directions — China and the U.S. moving closer together while Japan starts to increase its distance from the U.S. In regard to the former, as Reuters reports, the Chinese military (no less) says it wants closer ties to the U.S.:
At the start of a visit to Washington, Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the People’s Liberation Army Central Military Commission, said military ties were generally moving in a “positive direction” and defended China’s fast-paced military development as purely “defensive” and “limited” in scope. . . .
Xu’s visit, which will include a tour of major U.S. military bases, including U.S. Strategic Command, was meant to give a boost to military-to-military dialogue, which Beijing resumed this year after halting it in 2008 to protest a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. . . . Last week, Gates said better dialogue was needed to avoid “mistakes and miscalculations.”
Xu said U.S.-Chinese military relations have improved since President Barack Obama took office in January and can be expanded further.
As an example of the latter development (Japan and U.S. relations moving farther apart), the Brookings Institute describes how Japan’s new government is looking to do things a little differently than its predecessors:
Among the changes sought by the [Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ] is a new approach to the Japan-U.S. relationship. In a statement made both before and after the election, [new Prime Minister Yukio] Hatoyama has pledged to build “a close and equal relationship with the United States,” which implies that the new government will re-examine the current relationship with Washington.
He has also proposed an idea to create a so-called “East Asian Community” . . . [that] would include such countries as China, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN countries, but would exclude the U.S. . . .
[DPJ co-founder and former leader Ichiro] Ozawa’s basic argument is that the [Japan's] overseas deployment for international peace activities should be carried out based on UN resolutions, rather than on alliance-based agreements with the United States. His basic idea is “Japan has to have an equal relationship with the U.S. It should have its own voice.”
This approach is already causing some concern in Washington, and it will certainly cause stress in the Japan-U.S. relationship when in January the DPJ will terminate the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling activities in the Indian Ocean which support U.S. and coalition activities in Afghanistan.
We should note that both articles make clear that the status quo is still in effect for now. That is, big differences and suspicions remain between the U.S. and China and that the overall political relationship between Japan and the U.S. is still strong. Nonetheless, these developments demonstrate that international relations can change rather quickly.
In fact, this rapid pace of international political and military evolution seems to be one of the basic characteristics of the Asian-Pacific region in the age of 21st century globalization. On the heels of apparent increased tensions between China and India, flux and fluidity are likely to be the normal dynamic of the region for the foreseeable future.
As always, such changes can create both dangers and opportunities for different actors and parties. This includes Asian Americans, who may have the chance to play a greater role in helping to shape these changing political, economic, and cultural landscapes.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. As always, please remember that I highlight them for informational purposes only and do not necessarily endorse their entire content or arguments.
This incisive, authoritative work offers a global perspective on the nature of migration flows, why they take place, and their consequences for states and societies around the world. Chapters provide up-to-date descriptions and comparative analyses of major migration regions in the North and South. The role of population movements in the formation of ethnic minority groups is examined, as is the impact of growing ethnic diversity on economies, cultures, and political institutions. User-friendly features include accessible boxed examples, tables, and maps.
New to This Edition: Fully revised and expanded with current information and analysis; New chapters on development and on security; Covers national and international policy developments; Incorporates new approaches, such as transnational theory; The companion website features an online-only chapter, additional case studies, migration studies links, and periodic updates.
The Migration Policy Institute has a sample chapter from the book, titled “Migration in the Asia-Pacific Region,” which gives a nice summary of recent migration trends inside of Asian-Pacific countries (as opposed to immigration of Asians to countries outside of Asia):
Since the 1990s, migration within Asia has grown, particularly from less-developed countries with massive labor surpluses to fast-growing newly industrializing countries.
Indeed, all countries Asia experience both emigration and immigration — and often transit migration. But it is possible to differentiate between mainly destination countries (Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan), countries with both significant immigration and emigration (Malaysia and Thailand), and mainly source countries (Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam).
Migration agents and labor brokers organize most recruitment of Asian migrant workers both to the gulf and within Asia. . . . Asian governments seek to strictly control migration, and migrants’ rights are often very limited. Policymakers encourage temporary labor migration but generally prohibit family reunion and permanent settlement. While most migration in the region is temporary, trends toward long-term stay are becoming evident in some places.
The sample chapter on migration within Asian-Pacific countries is quite informative and also provides a very interesting contrast with immigration (legal and undocumented) to the United States. As the chapter describes, in almost all ways, immigrants to the U.S. experience a much easier and prosperous experience than migrants within Asia.
I suppose that’s why so many people around the world want to immigrate to the U.S. and will try to do so through whatever means possible to make a new life for themselves and their family.
I received the following announcement from the well-respected Asia Society about a series of short videos they’ve produced on preferences for the upcoming presidential election among Asian policy leaders:
At the Asia Society’s 36th Annual Williamsburg policy conference in Bali, Indonesia, key Asia-Pacific leaders were asked to discuss the US elections and to comment on their preferred candidate.
Over 80% of all Asia-Pacific leaders interviewed expressed a preference for Barack Obama, arguing that he would be best for US foreign relations and would send a positive, hopeful message to the world.
Both videos are quite interesting and offer good information and advice for how our next President can maintain and develop closer ties with our Asian neighbors, many of whom are poised to take on a more prominent role as we move forward into the 21st century.