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.