Findings and discussion
Identity negotiations in the hybrid space of XJTLU
The interview data showed a strong theme of ‘in-betweenness’ of participants in this study, or of being in Van Gennep’s (1960) transition/liminal stage. As part of their identity constructions and negotiation, they drew on strong and sometimes conflicting discourses of communal culture and individuality, which were expressed in references to family and related obligations (e.g. filial piety) on the one hand, and ‘rebellion’ against such obligations (expressed in the pursuit of individual choices) on the other. Thus, their transitional liminal position in a transnational environment was a recurrent theme across the participants’ responses, where they showed a de-centrcd attachment to more than one cultural identity. They felt, for example, that they had a Chinese self (e.g., in the figure of conformity) (Hwang, 1999) and an international student self, which would (or would not) overlap through embeddedness across a range of networks in the transnational context in which they found themselves.
Some participants exercised a considerable level of agency in terms of the identity they projected (Goffman, 1959). In expressing their social identities, they drew upon a range of discourses, as well as their own self-perceptions. Their personal identities, as an internalised view of the self as part of which they sought to ‘keep a particular narrative’ (Giddens, 1991), for
Figure 13.1 Xiao na’s representation of her identity
example when attempting to commit to cultural beliefs, were at times in conflict with a desired identity, which became more salient as they found themselves in spaces in-between.
The following quotation from Xiao na1 is an example of this, as she constructs ‘versions of reality’ through her discourse of conformity to avoid confrontation and in an effort to be accepted by both her family and her peers. This quotation is based on her drawing (Figure 13.1).
The grass seems to be the girl, who always listens to her parents and who is always under her parents protection and she knows her parents love her, and it’s like this blue glass bottle is not a bad thing, it’s a protection to this small grass, but the grass just doesn’t want to grow in a limited place, it wants to grow out of something... sometimes she has different ideas from others, and but she doesn’t want to tell them, she always agrees with others and, in fact, in her heart, I think she wants to show her opinion, in fact, she is always a good girl but sometimes she wants to break the rules...but maybe I am different now, I think she is much more independent and braver, and before coming to XJTLU, she was a bit shy, she is much more brave and she is becoming more and more independent.
(Xiao na, Female, Applied English undergraduate student)
She draws here on conflicting discourses of filial piety (‘who always listens to her parents’) and independence and individuality (‘she is becoming more and more independent’). However, she sounded uncomfortable and conflicted talking about her own identity, which is reflected in her use of the ‘detached’ third person, when she mentioned she wished to ‘break the rules’ and saw herself as a bit ‘braver’ than she used to be. In this sense, there was an implied discourse of boundaries or resistance (i.e. a desire to cross such boundaries) here.
Xiao na’s response showed a desire to put herself in a position of an active ‘agentive self-constructor’ (Bamberg et al., 2012). To ‘break the rules’ required Xiao na’s higher agency in order to construct an identity of a person who comes across as strong, in control and self-determined, which she portrayed verbally and through her drawing, the latter mirroring her complex linguistic account.
Some participants resisted identity change processes through their TNE experiences and tried to maintain a perception of a consistent self, based on dominant discourses of what it means to be Chinese (Hsiao & Bailey, 2017). For example, when Xiao xu was invited to reflect on how she perceived herself after 2 years in this particular transnational environment, she described how her peers seemed to have changed in the new environment, but she had not; although she sounded like she contradicted herself about her own changes, she did not believe/want her identity to be (re)shapcd in fear of not being ‘recognised’ or accepted by others, and in particular the people she knew and associated with prior to starting at university.
I would say I’m practically the same compared to others, who changed very quickly. They have changed their way of thinking because they have experienced a lot of different programmes [referring to their studies] ... but I haven’t had that experience, I wish I did; I don’t think they changed because of their experience, I think they have the courage to change... I can take more responsibility by myself now, but what if everybody just hates me? What if my old friends can’t recognise me as I was before, I mean, if they think I have changed but I actually haven’t changed...
(Xiao xu, Female, Applied Mathematics undergraduate student)
Xiao xu initially attributed her peers’ identity (reconstructions around her to being exposed to ‘different programmes’ at the university and experiences, and then, interestingly, she said it was actually an individual choice, which required courage that she felt she did not have. Thus, she drew on discourses of individuality (with an emphasis on agency and personal responsibility'), which are common, in the XJTLU context, among international teachers, staff and her peers. According to theories of student development (e.g. Evans et al., 2010; Chickcring & Rcisser, 1993), which involves a process of differentiation and integration, ‘students struggle to reconcile new ideas, values and beliefs’ (p. 35) in the new environment, where there are tensions between social expectations around cultural behaviour and perceived personal identities. Applying Turner’s (1967) concept of liminality as in-between positions, the reconstructions of identities (in which the sense of self can be significantly disrupted), manifested as persistently ambiguous, is illustrated here through Xiao xu’s resistance to show transformations in the new environment, perceiving her reshaped identity as negative for herself and her peers, in turn creating a fear of not being recognised any longer. Yet at the same time, she notes that ‘they have the courage to change’, suggesting that she has not.
Another example explicitly shows a student’s struggle and negotiation process to incorporate his cultural upbringing, as related to Confucian values, which surfaced through elements such as conformity and obligation to reciprocal favours (Hwang, 1999), and the conflicting ways in which he constructed his relationships and his desired identity. When invited to reflect on the person he thought he was, he drew a cactus (Figure 13.2) and responded:
mmm... I’m basically likable, but I don’t get too close to people...my mum...she taught me that...you can love everything and you hate everything, but there is something outside in the world you have to do... you know...Chinese people pay attention a lot to tradition.. .For example
Figure 13.2 Xiao wei’s representation of identity
I give you something...it’s appropriate for you to give me something back...and also when hanging out with friends2... I feel uncomfortable hanging out with ‘so called friends’... it’s how they act...I know some of them hate each other, but they mask themselves and pretend to like them...and I think it’s a Chinese thing...we are taught Confucius values... mmm... ‘no individualism’.... but I think everyone should have their own ideas, their own opinion and not be affected by others and.. .at home, I pay attention to that...because my parents arc very traditional...
(Xiao wei, Male, Financial Mathematics undergraduate student)
Xiao wei’s conflict in trying to accommodate his identity (e.g. likable... not getting too close to people) and social identity as a child, student and friend at the university was quite clear in his response, which appeared to impact on his interpersonal relationships. He drew explicitly on discourses of Confucian Chinese culture as a binary opposite to individualism (King, 2018). His relative intolerance of Chinese cultural values of conformity and giving/saving face (‘.. .1 know some of them hate each other, but they mask themselves and pretend to like them...and I think it’s a Chinese thing...’), for example, showed the spectrum of intcrsubjective values, implying ethical standards that differentiated him from others (‘Chinese people pay attention a lot to tradition and maybe... I think it’s a Chinese thing... it’s weird for me...I feel uncomfortable’), while conforming to cultural values when he is at home (‘at home...I’m very...mm...I pay attention to that...because my parents are very traditional... my family, they are all very traditional’). Some of this may have been about impression management, vis-a-vis both a non-Chinese researcher and his ex-teacher, a context which exemplified the liminal zone of the transnational university. XJTLU, as a TNE institution in China, enables intcrsubjective identifications with culturally different groups in a fluid and complex manner, but this does not occur without conflict. The cross-border education provision within China brings the local (as in China as a physical space) and the global (as in an international space) very close together. There was a stronger awareness of the participants’ ‘Chineseness’ when embedded in the liminal space of an international bubble in their home country, which created a need for self-reflection and developmental identity constructions.
Identity-related cultural discourses, for example the clear struggle with conforming to his cultural values, to which he referred to as ‘... a Chinese thing...with which he disagrees’, shows how his identity was situated inbetween fluid personal identity constructions, and a situationally negotiated one. Interestingly, he also identified with a young generation that seems to be attaching decreasing importance to Chinese cultural traditions: ‘...nowadays many teenagers don’t actually believe that... [referring to Confucian values]’. Yet, at the same time, he needed to negotiate his personal values when he was at home with his family with strong traditional values. His identification with a generation that does not appear to value traditional Chinese culture is part of a process of constant self-recognition (Hall, 1996) that could have been enabled by not only a local transnational context, but also a type of‘everyday transnationalism’ (Gu & Schweisfurth, 2015). The latter is aided by ubiquitous modern technology, through which various intcrsubjcc-tivities, networks and environments can be created and transformed, which was explicitly noted by another participant (Xiao yong):
Xiao yong: I’m easy going...and I’m inclusive for most things, and I respect people for what they want to be..I’m bisexual and I like this in western music, Lady Gaga for example contributed so much to the LGBT community...and maybe what shapes me is tolerance for different groups.
Interviewer: [...] And do you feel comfortable being open about your sexual orientation in China?
Xiao yong: My parents don’t know about it, maybe younger generations started respecting it, not older generations, but it’s the same in America [...] and I love China now...for Chinese government they do not show anything against it, they accept this, but they are not against it [...]. I’m proud to be Chinese, and it’s because we have a long history, our own cultural values [...] our old traditional values...but at the same time it has evolved.
(Xiao yong, Male, Information and Computing Science undergraduate student)
Xiao yong’s identity transformation was manifested through and from various sources and networks, enabled by globalised communication networks. Similar to other participants in this study, his identity construction was multidimensional, and included shared personal, enacted (i.e. an individual’s performed or expressed identity) and relational layers (Hctcht et al., 2003; Jung et al., 2007). Xiao yong was very open and appeared anxious to say as much as he could, while still sounding appreciative of his own culture.
Without having lived abroad, but in the context of increasing interconnectivity, Xiao yong’s reflexivity showed wider cultural knowledge and cosmopolitan values, as demonstrated in his openness towards his sexual orientation (which was not openly shared with his family) and an inclusive attitude towards diverse values in his individual experience, which all shaped his identity construction process. He also identified with a younger generation that ‘started respecting it, not older generations...’, and was aware of a broader LGBTQ+ community discourse worldwide (‘...but it’s the same in America’), which made him feel that China was no different in this aspect, reinforcing his pride to be Chinese, but positioning his Chineseness as being part of a global community. Yet, there seemed to be an identity threat (Segal, 2010) to being LGBTQ+ in China, exemplified by hiding his sexual orientation from his family, and the apparent prominence of non-Chinese role models that play a part in Xiao yong’s identity construction in this respect. Furthermore, the researcher (and first author) being non-Chinese further facilitated his eagerness to talk about his sexuality and other personal values, which may otherwise have remained concealed, and thus allowed him to explore the boundaries of his own identity construction. The latter may also be based on a sense of trust and confidence, developed over time, that it was okay to share such personal values in the liminal space that is the transnational university. As noted, the arts-based element of the interview process further contributed to the building of trust in this respect.
Although Xiao yong was speaking from within a transnational university context, his self-perceived identity was not explicitly linked to his university experience (as per his response), but was partly drawn from global sources and facilitated by technological interconnectivity.
In this sense, and for most participants in this study, not only the transnational university, but a broader context of embeddedness in a range of networks within and outside of China, enabled by technology, contributed to and even exacerbated the liminality of the spaces in which they constructed their situated cultural identities, even if participants showed differing levels of awareness of this process. However, the transnational university definitely legitimised and stimulated this global interconnectivity. This further points to the fact that HE institutions (transnational or not) should not be perceived as completely bounded environments, as students continue to be influenced by a range of significant others outside the university (family and friends, for instance) and virtual networks (e.g. social media and other Internet-related resources), but such institutions do provide a liminal space which forces students to engage with competing discourses in constructing (and re-constructing) their identities.