Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chinese Identities

One of my research interests focuses on heritage seeking in a study abroad context. Some time ago I came across the book Chineseness Across Borders: Renegotiating Chinese Identities in China and the United States (2004) by Andrea Louie. Following is a description of the book that I prepared:

The Author and the Evolution of her Research
Andrea Louie is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University. Her research for this book first began while she was a graduate student in 1992 when she participated in the Search of Roots Program and visited her paternal grandfather’s village. A subsequent return trip in 1993 with her parents led her to delve further into this research upon her return to graduate school. In 1994 she was again involved with the Roots program but this time as an observer and a final research trip in 1995 allowed her to conduct more research in the field.

The introduction is very detailed and begins with Louie’s experience going to China and visiting her relatives. It then dives into the “Roots” program and how it has discovered different perspectives and issues that Chinese from China and Chinese Americans have amongst each other. She then starts introducing each chapter in her book to give the reader a glimpse of what is to come.

Chapter 1
Louie begins by providing some historical context of the migration of Chinese from the Guangdong Province to the United States. She then begins to weave the concepts of Chinese identity and connections to the homeland into the development of the Summer Camp and Roots Program.

Chapter 2
Louie illustrates the experiences of the Roots program participants in China. She describes how the younger generations of Chinese Americans craft their Chinese identity through multiple contexts. They craft their Chinese identity from the mixture of family histories, family kinship ties, American urban hip hop culture, Japanese manga, Hong Kong kung fu movies and Asian American activism. They see Chinese identity through the lens of Chinese American, Asian and Asian American. Louie defines this process of forming identity by Chinese Americans as a socially, geographically and transnational process.

Chapter 3
Louie discusses the Chinese Americans’ identity construction within the context of U.S. multiculturalism. Chinese American culture is viewed as inherent within U.S. multiculturalism. Chinese Americans are voluntarily or involuntarily attached to the static representations of Chinese tradition and culture that is rooted in mainland China in the past. They are thus marginalized from U.S. mainstream culture. The narratives from the program participants reveal that American-born Chinese Americans have less or no direct ties to the concept of authentic Chinese culture in mainland China. In U.S. multicultural society, the identity construction of Chinese Americans coexists with multiple levels of identifications such as Asian American, Chinese American, or just plain American, middle class Chinese American who live outside of Chinatown, Chinese Americans from the upper class Hong Kong or Taiwan origins, first, second or third generation- Chinese Americans and family ancestors’ geographic regions in China. Louie concludes the chapter that Chinese Americans are creating their own contemporary form of identity based on their ancestral ties to China and their homeland the USA where they were born and grew up.

Chapter 4
The Open Policy has allowed increased exposure to foreign images, such as print and television media, which has allowed the mainland Chinese to compare themselves more to foreigners and China to the outside world. The mainland Chinese see these images as promoting the positives aspects of life in China. Some negatives of the other countries include: mistreatment of minorities, violence, requirement to work twice as hard for the same living standard, and the high cost of living. Not having to depend financially on oversees relatives is seen as a symbol of pride. Oversees relatives are seen as “assimilated (tonghua) to other less civilized cultures ... are not culturally suited for life in China or abroad (156)”

Chapter 5
Louis delves fully into the discussion of the Youth Festival, which is held in the Guangdong Province of China, that attracts over four hundred young people of Chinese descent (huayi) from across the globe including youth from Canada, France, Germany, Madagascar, Malaysia, Tahiti and the United States. The primary goal of the Youth Festival and Summer Camps is to “invoke connections of blood and culture for the huayi in order to reacquaint them with their motherland.”

Chapter 6
Louie provides a description of the Roots program and looks at how the Roots interns construct their own sense of Chineseness and in particular, their Chinese Americanness. The chapter ends with a discussion on the future of the program and who (the Chinese government sponsors, the Chinese American community sponsors, the Chinese American leaders, the interns or their parents) will lead it into the future.

Louie returns to visit her relatives in Guangzhou seven years after her last visit and notes first hand the changes she sees in the town’s infrastructure and her family's attitudes and situation. Some of the things she finds, for example, are that her relatives are more prosperous and interest in immigration has decreased in the larger and richer sections of China but the poorer farming communities continue to see America as a chance to become wealthy. Pursuing one’s higher education abroad is encouraged because officials and educators believe the students will return with the knowledge to help China instead of remaining abroad.

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