Understanding transnationalism

No discussion of the education-migrant nexus and its relation to individual Chinese student-migrants' lived experiences can be sufficient without an understanding of transnationalism. While Vertovec (2001, 2004, 2009) asserts the distinct lack of consensus surrounding 'transnationalism', the term, nonetheless, currently frames various kinds of global or cross-border connections, including the concerns of migrants. The notion of transnationalism has evolved through time. It was first used by Bourne (1916) in his chapter 'Transnational America' to stress the importance of the American immigrants on maintaining their culture since their move was a permanent settlement. Over the years, the term 'transnationalism' has been used with increased frequency, specifically looking at new trends in immigration patterns (Garrett, 2011; Vertovec, 2009).

The way activities are conducted and by whom has since been distinguished transnationalism (Vertovec, 2004). For instance, according to Basch, Schiller, and Blanc-Szanton (1994), 'transnationalism from above' refers to cross-border activities conducted by the multinational corporate sector, governments and elite-controlled macro-structural processes. In contrast, 'transnationalism from below' consists of activities of immigrants and grassroots entrepreneurs. In more recent times, as a consequence of the great advance in technologies and relative ease of travel and communication, transnationalism is now understood as an inquiry into the phenomenon of globalisation (Vertovec, 2004, 2009).

Ong's (1999) discussion of 'flexible citizenship' constructs it as transnationalism from the 'middle', a form involving increasingly more activities and mobility of people, such as Westerners teaching English in China (Stanley, 2010) or Asian international students becoming migrants in Australia (Soong, forthcoming). The increasing flexibility of citizenship arrangements, for these mobile individuals, has not created 'ungrounded' transnational individuals in opposition to the national discourse in their home country, but instead has grounded them to 'the conditions of cultural interconnectedness and mobility across space' (Ong, 1999, p. 4). In other words, transnationalism from the 'middle' has further

induced subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political and economic conditions. In their quest to accumulate capital and social prestige in the global arena, subjects emphasize, and are regulated by favouring flexibility, mobility, and repositioning in relation to markets, governments, and cultural regimes. (ibid., p. 6)

However, Ong's analysis covers only the visible tip of the iceberg. It is limited to the hyper-mobility of transnational capitalist class with high- incomes, high social class, and high social professional networks. Much more happens below it, particularly pertaining to the conscious, and unconscious, tenacity of the individuals, the question of identity and the subjective emplacement of the transnational lifeworld.

In other words, huge variations of transnationalism are experienced amongst individuals: on one hand, we have transnationals who are regarded as 'foreign talents' or 'expatriates' or 'rich business associates', mostly from developed countries, working as distinguished thinkers or managers or corporate owners in the host institutions. On the other hand, we have those transnationals known commonly as 'maids', 'construction workers' or 'abattoir workers', mostly from Third World countries, seeking to find work in wealthier and developed countries such as Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong and Australia. Even though their sojourn in the host country is transitory, it still has an effect on their future trajectories and global interculturality. Despite these variations, Ong's notion of 'flexible' transnationalism and her description of the transnationality of 'astronaut families', where heads of immigrant households place their spouses and children in countries such as Canada, while they are working back in Hong Kong, adds a perspective that could also have relevance for student-migrants.

Based on this complex view of transnationalism, Rizvi (2011) has used transnational space as an analytic lens to examine issues of global mobility and the cultural dynamics of an elite group of international doctoral students studying in Australian and American institutions. Rizvi seeks to understand how, through the process of transnationalism, the international doctoral students have negotiated the space they inhabit and become transnationals of a certain kind, and how they are impacted upon by national discourses to resolve tensions of living and working within a transnational space. While Rizvi's point about identity conditioning factors in a transnational space is vital to this study of Chinese pre-service teachers' transnational experiences, we differ in our views about the extent to which the authority of the host nation dictates how social relations are experienced in the lives of the participants. If Chinese transnational pre-service teachers can be thought of as a subset of migrants, some questions do arise: what makes the preservice teacher-migrants assume a transnational identity rather than defining themselves as just international students? Why would they adopt a transnational profile, and how long will they keep it?

A closer reading of 'Minor Transnationalism' (Lionnet & Shih, 2005) can offer a context to think about these questions. Lionnet and Shih assert that, 'unlike the post national and nomadic identities that are relatively unmoored to bounded territories' (p. 8), 'minor' transnationalism actually makes visible the multiple relations between the national and the transnational and highlights the difficulty that minority subjects without statist parameters of citizenship face when the nationstate remains the chief mechanism for dispersing and regulating power, status, and material resources. In other words, transnationalism is an experience that is part of the daily existence of a certain group of people living outside their place of origin. It is this level of transnationalism that this study is investigating.

Thus, the concept of 'minor' transnationalism not only problematises the prevalent notions of transnationalism as a homogenising force, it is also vital to this study because it explores a new field of meanings in theorising the inherent complexity of being a 'minor' transnational Chinese pre-service teacher in Australia. It raises questions about how each one is affected by the phenomenon of transnationalism, in particular how they position themselves between 'roots' and 'routes' within the 'empowering paradox' of their multi-locality that they find themselves in (Clifford, 1997, p. 322). Such connections between 'here' and there' or 'empowering paradox' are not only relevant to diasporas, they also are part of the lived realities of transnational subjects. In reading this way, transnational modes of consciousness for the Chinese participants in this study can be understood as how they are imagining placing themselves to be part of a whole world (Cohen & Kennedy, 2007).

 
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