Beyond flexible citizenship: Towards a study of many Chinese transnationalisms

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Geoforum 43 (2012) 137–146

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Beyond flexible citizenship: Towards a study of many Chinese transnationalisms Weiqiang Lin Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, 1 Arts Link, Kent Ridge, Singapore 117570, Singapore

a r t i c l e

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Article history: Received 13 August 2010 Received in revised form 26 July 2011 Available online 30 August 2011 Keywords: Flexible citizenship Transnationalism Chinese migration Singapore Postcolonialism Migration policy

a b s t r a c t Over the last decade, flexible citizenship has contributed much to our understandings of how contemporary Chinese migrate across the world in late capitalism. This corpus has not only called attention to the manifold strategies that these migrants adopt to inhabit multiple spaces, but has also elucidated how transnational migration can be deployed for the purposes of capital accumulation and enhancement of one’s lifestyle. This paper argues that the current fixation on the flexible strategies of the Chinese ‘shuttling’ between the East and West inevitably occludes other logics of mobilities that may be more germane for other (neglected) segments of the ‘new Chinese diaspora’. Through its consistent rehearsal, the present preoccupation may have led to an inadvertent reification of flexible citizenship, as the paradigmatic model of modern-day Chinese mobilities. In an effort to move the discussion forward, this paper weaves a deliberately dissonant story with the narratives of 50 Singaporean Chinese migrants who are living in, or who have returned to Singapore from, New York or the Californian-Bay Area. The viewpoints offered by these less ‘conventional’ Chinese subjects not only diverge from the usual ‘strategic’ or ‘calculative’ storylines among the Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, but also uncover distinctive assemblages that span across multi-sited and transcultural contexts. Although this paper has no intentions to discredit flexible citizenship, it hopes to have begun the process of decentring the locus of our knowledge pertaining to the subject, drawing attention to the possibility of alternative realities within many Chinese transnationalisms. Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction For over a decade, flexible citizenship (Ong, 1999) has emerged as a key lens through which contemporary migrations among the Chinese have been understood and narrated. Arising as a curiosity over the ‘‘global reorientation’’ of this ethnic group in a time of late capitalism (Nonini and Ong, 1997, p. 4), this approach has arguably helped to forward fresh understandings of present-day Chinese mobilities not as mere statistical events, but inventive pathways that migrants carve out for themselves through various practices, logics and strategies. Such an agenda, focusing on the mobilisation of particular cultural discourses and agencies, has also rejuvenated scholars’ interest in recent generations of ‘overseas Chinese’. In particular, noting how they are faced with new, flexible demands in neoliberal times, academics have paid special attention to how these migrants undertake equally unfixed mobile projects that involve recurrent vacillations between their host societies and their ethnic homelands (Ley and Kobayashi, 2005). In short, these ‘new’ Chinese migrants are categorically different from their predecessors who ‘immigrate’, and are also distinguished by their tendency to pursue transnational means of organising their social, economic and familial lives. In forging ‘‘ungrounded empires’’ that thrive upon, not one, but multiple countries (Nonini and Ong, E-mail addresses: [email protected], [email protected] 0016-7185/$ - see front matter Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.07.011

1997; Mitchell, 1995), their mobilities radically challenge ‘traditional’ notions of citizenship and nationalism (see Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002), introducing a range of alternative spatial formations and modes of accumulation in different parts of the world. Like Ong, this paper recognises the merit of situating ‘new’ Chinese mobilities within such a framework of spatial fluidity and pluri-local geographies. Indeed, by elucidating how migration can be harnessed by individuals and their families to circumvent or take advantage of uneven politico-economic circumstances worldwide, a new light is shed on the alternative rationales for migration that have not only been previously neglected, but also depart from Western understandings of the same (Ong, 1999). Nevertheless, potent as this intervention may be in bringing to the forefront non-Western and tactical impetuses for mobility, there remains a perturbing problematic in this literature. Expressly, despite the fact that the ‘Chinese’ constitute an extremely large and variegated population to study, the literature seems to have been overly fixated on Ong’s original empirical explorations, failing to attend to the presence of other variants in the Chinese transnational experience. This has in turn caused the literature to become mired in unceasing efforts to refine and re-assess typologies such as families on the ‘Pacific Shuttle’, ‘astronaut fathers’, and ‘parachute kids’ (Ley, 2010; Tsang et al., 2003; Waters, 2003a; Wong, 2003; Zhou, 1998), at the expense of contrasting stories that may be able to offer fresh theoretical fodder (see however Huang and Yeoh (2005)


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and Ho (2008) for some exceptions). Of course, I am not suggesting that any one author, or group of authors, is responsible for such omissions; rather what I am arguing is that the scholarship, when taken as a collective whole, appears to be a little too conservative about its conceptual latitude, unintentionally leading to the narrowing of the scope of, and the re-colonisation of Chinese transnationalism as a distinctive cultural practice. This present condition of being overly preoccupied with the conduct of ‘flexibility’ is what the rest of the paper wishes to interrogate. One way of correcting this limitation is, perhaps, to return to Ong’s original emphasis on postcolonial agency and a plurality of outcomes. As she writes in counterpoint to unitary ways of thinking about ‘third-world’ development in relation to international migration, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on ‘‘the national and localization processes that actively negotiate new relations to capital and that make truth claims about distinctive modernities within local frameworks’’ (Ong, 1999, p. 36). This focus on specificity evidently challenges scholars to interpret migration, alongside modernity and capitalism, in more productive and contextual ways, rather than to belabour a few particular configurations and possibilities, and thus entrap the field within established frameworks. Herein lies also the contribution that this article hopes to make, namely to restore a sense of multiplicity and discovery to the literature on Chinese transnationalisms. Drawing upon my empirical work on Singaporean Chinese’s transnational mobilities between the city-state and the United States, I identify at least one such alternative expression in an attempt to begin diluting the present concentration on the ‘shuttling’ prototype. My reference to the Southeast Asian context moreover alerts one to the complexity and, indeed, diversity of the global ‘Chinese’ population (Wang, 2003), which cannot be fully captured within, or reduced to, a single migration story. Again, this is not to accuse scholars of being flippant or ignorant about this point, but rather a call to action to ensure that current associations of Chinese transnationalism with flexible citizenship can be meaningfully transcended. The theoretical aim of this paper is, in short, to plead for a less anticipatory stance in the conceptualisation of Chinese transnationalisms and mobilities. Its desire is to seek out alternatives to, presumably, already-alternative expressions of migration among the Chinese, while at the same time keeping an eye on the gross heterogeneity within this ethnic group. Indeed, it hopes to break the temptation to define systematically, or, worse, stereotype, Chinese migrants according to particular flow patterns. What follows are four accreting sections that build on these arguments. In Section 2, I review how literature on contemporary Chinese transnational migration has tended to be disproportionately fixated on the art of flexible citizenship, possibly to the exclusion of other paradigms and logics. In particular, I follow a postcolonial line of argument to question whether this may have constituted an (unwitting) over-extension, if not reification, of Ong’s (1999) original delineations of the modern Chinese capitalist class, to generate one of the most recognisable, yet ethnically loaded, storylines in migration studies today. It is in this context that I draw upon observations in Singapore for an alternative view on how transnationalism can be differently articulated in a relatively under-researched part of the contemporary Chinese world. After a short exposition on the city-state’s recent experimentations with diasporic strategies and a brief methodological note in Section 3, I turn to the narratives of 50 Singaporean Chinese migrants to evince a transnational story that is not only independent from the famed ‘flexible’ model, but is also able to (re)set the field on a new theoretical plane. In examining a range of different over-lapping logics and rationalities that guide the mobilities of these migrants, I hope to trouble dominant constructions of the shrewd, flexible Chinese migrant, as well as to show how modern-day Chinese transnationalisms are inherently plural and multi-sited, perhaps even eluding

fixed ethnic boundaries. Some bearings of these debates follow in Section 5.

2. Beyond flexible citizenship? Recent academic interest in the contemporary mobilities of those ethnically identified as ‘Chinese’ has been backlit by a growing curiosity about East Asia’s (particularly China’s) consolidating role as a major source of migrants to countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Pieke, 2007; Ley, 1995). Confirming the ascendancy of these new Pacific streams, Ip et al. (2006) note that Asian migrants, particularly the Chinese, had accounted for some 40–50% of the total immigration intake in the United States by the 1990s. A similar story is painted for Australia by Hugo (2003), who reports that ethnic Chinese constituted the second-largest immigrant group in the country after the Vietnamese in 2001, with the doubling of their numbers between 1986 and 1991, and again between 1991 and 2001. Remarkable as these numbers may seem, they however reveal only a partial story. Their significance is to be reinforced by the consensus that transnationalism features as a strong theme running through the lives of many of these migrants, whose high rate of mobility and engagements in temporary, cyclical and recurring journeys render them a new breed of (im)migrants (Castles, 2003). Arguably, it is this combination of quantitative and qualitative novelty that also makes the phenomenon of Chinese migration a noteworthy demographic issue from the perspective of the (Western) nation-state. In the following, I will interrogate how it is within this sensibility that flexible citizenship has been conceived, and later taken to be a hallmark of contemporary Chinese mobilities. While increasing global connectivity has demanded a greater sensitivity to the border-crossing nature of processes of social organisation, identity formation, cultural reproduction, and political engagement (Hannerz, 1996; Vertovec, 1999; Smith, 2001), expositions on present-day Chinese migration have arguably taken this notion of simultaneity to a new level of intensity. Not only do these studies seek to uncover the various social drivers that have motivated migrants to inhabit multiple national spaces, they have also sought to delineate the specific transnational configurations, pathways and networks that inform these itinerancies. As suggested earlier, much of this quest for a systematic understanding is traceable to a desire among scholars to locate Chinese transnationalism within an era of globalisation and radical economic structural shifts. While previous migrations were seen to be largely regional in scope and less elaborate (Pan, 2006), the period after the 1980s is particularised as a time when key realignments to the destinations (more global), calibre (more highly skilled) and strategies (more mobile) of Chinese migrants (Suryadinata and Lee, 2009) are being made. It is within this epistemological space that flexible citizenship also found its outlet, as a way of denoting the art of ‘‘work[ing] in one location’’ while maintaining ‘‘safe havens’’ in others (Ong, 1999, p. 214). Pitching this practice as constitutive of a ‘third culture’ subversive to Western ideas of capitalism, Ong (1999, p. 113) usefully interprets these transnational arrangements as strategies and effects that certain ‘‘elite’’ subjects adopt ‘‘to evade, deflect, and take advantage of political and economic conditions in different parts of the world’’. Through this stance, alternative modes of living are uncovered, with transnationality as its framework, ‘Chineseness’ as its cultural interface, and flexible citizenship as its outcome. Such a striking discourse is not lost on subsequent research, which has likewise been attracted to the transnationalisation of the ‘modern Chinese’. Accounting for its emergence in careful detail, this work has contributed much to the phenomenon’s understanding on several counts, of which I draw out three themes

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that have frequently been borne out. The first of these relates (unsurprisingly) to the impact that globalisation, or, more accurately, the discourse on the arrival of the Pacific century (Cotterell, 1993; Borthwick, 2007) has had on the shape and content of contemporary Chinese migrations. With the relaxation of immigration laws and attitudes towards ethnic groups in many of the ‘traditional’ receiving countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, scholars have noted the facilitative role that such discursive and material shifts have played in allowing new waves of middle-class Chinese (particularly those from Hong Kong and Taiwan) to reconfigure migration as extended avenues for capital accumulation (Lund, 2006; Wong, 2009), while affording states the opportunity to profit from any resultant business connections (Ley, 2003; Mitchell, 2001). In this regard, the successful integration of these migrants’ entrepreneurial operations in the West with those in their Asian hometowns (Mitchell, 1995; Hamilton, 1999; Douw et al., 2001) becomes a pivotal and desired outcome. From Silicon Valley (Saxenian, 2002; Wong, 2006) to small-scale enterprises spanning a few global cities on the Pacific Rim (Wong and Ng, 2002), the development of cross-border industries in, for instance, materials processing, media, new technology and tourism is seen to engender a new economic reality, supported by regular transnational travel and similarly global social arrangements. For this reason, scholars also assert that it is impossible to understand modern Chinese mobilities by merely referring to old scripts of push–pull factors, preferring instead to focus on their strategies of accumulation beyond the confines of singular political entities (Nonini and Ong, 1997; Lever-Tracy, 2002). A second, but closely-related, body of work takes this perspective further by thinking of Chinese transnationalism as more than purely a capitalist pursuit, being rather a contingent affair heavily imbricated with non-pecuniary considerations, family dynamics, and life course needs (Kobayashi and Preston, 2007; Ley and Waters, 2004). Enrolling now a wider swath of middle-class Chinese who may or may not be, strictly-speaking, capitalists, this literature promotes a richer reading of the different kinds of ‘actually-existing’ transnational formations that have been enacted by migrants between (usually a pair of Pacific) states in which they have obtained residency rights. While motivations to do business and/or invest have invariably been invoked in many of these cases, such justifications must be recognised for not always translating into increased entrepreneurial activities (Ley, 2003). Instead, other, more banal rationales may assert an equal influence on migration decisions, including the desire to acquire higher education credentials in the West in hope of better job prospects upon return to the East (Waters, 2006a,b, 2009a); the intent to obtain citizenship rights in anticipation of future retirement in the West (Ley and Kobayashi, 2005; Guo and Iredale, 2003); and even the tactic of holding dual citizenships as a form of locational insurance (Salaff et al., 2008). Practices of transnationalism are, as such, not abolished, but framed within a more robust set of strategies that are closely related to, and meticulously timed against, the middle-class life cycle mobility. Like a ‘‘game. . . played on a[n] expansive spatial canvas’’, the circulation of Chinese migrants do not simply reflect a series of uncoordinated uprooting and sojourning, but strategically activated movements tied to different ‘‘regions of opportunity at different life cycle stages within a transnational social field’’ (Ley, 2010, p. 249). Ostensibly, orchestrating such an elaborate project is not without its difficulties, especially when undertaken as a family project (Yeoh, 2005). A third corpus of work therefore steers the debate towards a more turbulent territory, attending to the experiences of these Chinese transnationals, and to how their East–West oscillations between countries can breed unintended consequences for themselves and their host societies. One familiar contention revolves around the issue of whether, by adopting a ‘flexible’ outlook


towards nationalism, these migrants are capable of developing a sense of belonging and commitment to the countries they have landed in. Fears of any parasitic behaviour, while convincing, are however quickly dispelled with evidence that many of these Chinese do in fact acculturate over time (Waters, 2003b; Pe-Pua et al., 1998), albeit at varying degrees among family members split across transnational space. Such tensions and potentials for domestic discord are not helped when the costs of transnationality are not shared equally within the family unit, disadvantaging those who have little say in their (im)mobilities, or are left to shoulder the stresses of disrupted lives (Zhou, 1998; Popadiuk, 2009), feelings of estrangement (Waters, 2002, 2009b), and reshuffled gender roles (Waters, 2009c; Hibbins, 2003). In this respect, ‘lone children’ often feature as one of the most vulnerable groups, having to grapple with not just the demands of adjusting to a new (schooling) environment, but also daily problems from personal safety to financial vulnerability (Waters, 2003a; Chang, 2006). For scholars, flexible citizenship is hence also not a plan that is always executed with seamless precision, but instead one fraught with risks and imperfections that can subject it to multiple reviews and amendments. Comprehensive and nuanced in their analysis, these three strands posit a compelling argument for the situation of flexible citizenship right in the heart of any understanding of Chinese migration today. Indeed, barring minor discrepancies and regional differences, the recurrent theme persists to be one of how contemporary Chinese transnationals engage in a ‘‘strategic making-do [that] seeks access to rights while evading responsibilities’’ (Miller, 2007, p. 61) through timely, if also testing, locational switches. Yet, the preoccupation with this particular geographical formula—of toing and fro-ing between countries—can be extremely occluding as well, leaving out other logics and configurations that may be more germane for other (neglected) parties. Notably, much of the discussion so far seems to revolve around the experiences of Taiwanese and (especially) Hong Kong middle-class families moving within trans-Pacific circuits, with relatively little emphasis—when compared to historical theorisations on Chinese migration (Wang, 2003)—on the rest of what is essentially a highly diverse global ‘Chinese’ population. In this context, some research reorientations are also urgently needed, if only to begin correcting this apparent academic ‘overdrive’ to perfect the knowledge of flexible citizenship at the expense of other travelling modes and ‘Chinese’ subgroups. Nevertheless, a few exceptions are worth mentioning, seeing that these can potentially provide a guide for the scholarship to move in a new direction. Huang and Yeoh (2005), for instance, alert us to some divergent dynamics at work in their examination of non-elite ‘study mothers’ from China who accompany their children to Singapore for the latter’s schooling. While the issue remains that of migration-for-education, the authors manage to underscore the presence of a different kind of transnationality that is sustained not just by migrants’ agencies, but also the city-state’s restrictive—rather than liberal—migration regime ensuring their transience and familial separation. Similarly offering a contrasting view, Ho (2008) finds in her study that choice of citizenship(s) among Singaporean migrants to London do not always gravitate towards an ‘optimal’ state of enhanced flexibility. Rather, aspirations for global mobility can be tempered by a slew of competing factors and attitudes, including those emanating from the sending country that encourage a re-mooring of migrants to their place of origin rather than towards circulatory and unending sojourns. This paper argues that it is precisely more of such ‘misfitting’ accounts that are needed to enrich, or perhaps even scuttle, our present understandings of Chinese transnationalisms. But rather than presenting them as case studies to be held up against an established analytical convention, more can be done to realise their potential as


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independent paradigms in their own right, and not just extensions of, or contradictions to, a ready-made migration (meta)narrative. In fact, Ong (1998) herself prefaces on numerous occasions that flexible citizenship is but only one ‘‘assemblage’’ out of many through which migrants and states cope with the turbulence of late capitalism. The continued rehearsal of her empirical focus with few ventures into other ‘‘constellations of capitalist processes’’ (Bunnell, 2004, p. 20) is, as such, an extremely limiting endeavour, susceptible to cultural reification and a return to discursive hegemony. To paraphrase a similar critique by Mohanty (1984, p. 334) about feminist theory, the academic practice of universalising a particular ethnic experience risks ‘‘coloni(sing) the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of [people] in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular ‘Third World [Other]’’’ that constitutes a form of ethnocentric reductionism. While, to be sure, this is by no means the intention of academics working on contemporary Chinese migrations, the consistency with which the literature has come to understand these flows as almostalways ‘strategic’, and productive of a transnational field in fact already codifies the same as (implicitly) a ‘Chinese’ trademark, to be distinguished from an unspoken (Western) norm preferring ‘adventure’ and ‘personal progression’ in migration (see, for instance, Beaverstock, 2002; Waters and Brooks, 2010). This re-capture of Chinese mobilities within the cultural orbit of the Other, through subtle acts of categorical distinction, is also what this paper hopes to problematise. In the remaining sections, I turn to experiment with a somewhat different articulation of Chinese transnationalisms in the Singapore context. Not presuming that mobilities in and out of the predominantly Chinese city-state should embody flexible citizenship in any way, I interrogate (anew) how transnational journeys among Singaporean Chinese are shaped by actions and reactions to a variety of movable regimes that converge upon this highly fluid context. More pointedly, I frame my story as just one instance of how people identified as ‘Chinese’ move, and demonstrate how transnational passages do not simply stitch up static spaces of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ (Lin and Yeoh, 2011), but are guided by rationales that evolve and exceed binaries of East and West; global and local. By taking such a transcultural and multiscalar approach (Oswin, 2006), I do not seek to replace one dominant/ethnocentric discourse with another, but rather show how migrant streams are best not thematised according to particular geographical or cultural logics. To heed Crang and colleagues’ (2003, p. 441) admonition against ‘‘‘fixing’ transnational space into overly. . . concrete forms’’, there are presumably sizable benefits to be reaped from re-conceiving of transnationality as a ‘‘multi-dimensional space’’ inhabited by all kinds of fluid networks, circuits and flows. In the spirit of restoring this multiplicity, I suggest that the last thing we researchers would want to commit is to define a few pre-determined, culturally marked canvasses on which predictable patterns and oscillations are expected to unfold. Some background to Singapore’s mobility story is now due.

3. The Singapore context As the outgrowth of an important port city of the former British Empire, Singapore is no stranger to diverse streams of human migration that today compose its medley of Chinese, Malay, Indian and other cosmopolitan influences. Its recent thrust onto the global stage as one of Asia’s premier world cities (Friedmann, 2005) has furthermore incited the affluent Southeast Asian country to become one of the most serious partakers in labour, expatriate, and other socially motivated mobilities (Yeoh and Chang, 2001), manifested through all kinds of tortuous pathways and complex interrelationships. Such has also been Singapore’s experience of, and

experimentation with, globalisation in the last few decades, to which the city has consistently responded by being ever more integrated and open to the world (Koh, 2010). Since the 1990s particularly, its government has embarked on an expansionist project to ‘mobilise’ the nation beyond its shores, in a bid to ‘‘extend [the city’s] economic reach and help [it] run as an efficient, high performance society’’ (The Straits Times, September 8, 1999). This extraterritorialising policy, supported by a slew of emigrationfriendly facilitations and enticements, not only sought to enlarge Singapore’s economic pie by riding on its citizens’ inquisitive forays into the world, but also became the answer to the competition the city-state was facing in an increasingly crowded US-led world economy. Such valorisations of emigration as ventures undertaken for the nation and personal enrichment (Singapore 21 Committee, 1999) must undoubtedly be taken into account in any study of transnationalisms emanating out of Singapore. Notwithstanding, while they may appear coherent as a discursive regime, their message remains incomplete without factoring in subsequent rounds of ‘truth’ interventions that further underscore the value of mobility and overseas experience to the 21st century worker. Indeed, Singapore’s present-day embrace of globalisation and international mobilities is not activated through simply a local, one-time call to economic expansionism, but is bolstered by an eclectic, but gradually evolving, range of justifications and clarifications that at times overlap with similar pronouncements shared on a worldwide stage (see, for instance, Weenink (2008) on the globalising Dutch). Going beyond the state’s original promotional efforts, arguments concerning the need to stay nimble in a globalising age (Kong, 2000), the prestigious role of ‘English-speaking cosmopolitans’ in an Anglo-centric world (Yeoh, 2004) and Singapore’s cultural-historical linkages with rising Asian powerhouses such as China (Tan, 2003) have all been deployed to fine-tune the case for a mobile and footloose society, able to ‘‘plug-and-play with confidence’’ in all corners of the world (Singapore 21 Committee, 1999, p. 45). Accordingly, personal decisions among Singaporeans to migrate must also be viewed through this variegated, but generally positive, cognitive lens, and be tied to the city-state’s commitment to globalisation and cosmopolitanism. More recently, with the realisation that the exodus of Singaporeans may have been excessive under previous discursive regimes, yet another round of palliative rationalisations encouraging the return of emigrants—as embodiments of foreign expertise—has emerged. In moves somewhat contradictory to former endorsements, mobilities worship is now being downplayed and replaced with subtle reminders to citizens about Singapore’s significance to them as ‘home’ and ‘nation’. Less frequently used now are acerbic criticisms towards non-returning citizens, who were once described as ‘‘fair-weather Singaporeans’’ and ‘‘quitters’’ (Goh, 2002), who could not be trusted to return when the(ir) country was in need. In their stead, emotional appeals pulling on emigrants’ heartstrings concerning their ‘left-behind’ families in Singapore, and to their ‘Asian’ responsibilities in discharging duties of filial piety towards their parents (Ho, 2008) are preferred. Arguably, these ‘soft’ appeals are a subtle re-application of the nation’s long-time (and widely-known) moral values to the wider discourse of globalisation and migration. Their recent introduction to these new contexts ultimately seeks to shape a particular (mitigated) vision of transnationality that thrives not only upon society’s glamorisations of overseas travel, but also firm beliefs in nationalism and family cohesion. In understanding Singapore’s mobile landscape, an active awareness of these contextual sensibilities meshing together the ‘global’, the ‘national’, the ‘cosmopolitan’ the ‘Asian’ and the ‘Western’, along with the changeability of these pastiche knowledges, must also always be assumed; if anything, it calls attention to the specific ‘‘lines that connect points, [and]

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to journeys and their continuous negotiations’’ in Singapore (Oswin and Yeoh, 2010, p.170), while discerning its unique assemblages that spawn new mobile configurations and subjectivities vis-á-vis the city-state. For the Chinese in Singapore, these manifold persuasions on how citizens are to go about leading ‘fulfilling’ mobile lives are familiar tropes too. Besides being, by far, the largest ethnic group1 in the city-state, their relative economic privilege in society has often made them likelier candidates for emigration, and, by extension, direct imbibers of the state’s globalisation logics. In this context, elucidating how they appropriate transnationalism—and the mobile meanings they have acquired/rejected in their country—as a way of navigating contemporary life, is a fruitful endeavour, potentially able to shed a different light from present (re)affirmations of the shrewd, flexible figure in Chinese transnationalism(s) studies. This is neither to suggest that their stories constitute paradigmatic models, nor to aver that their transnational practices are theoretically more insightful than those of ‘flexible citizens’. Rather, I rely on their ethnic identification—by the state, themselves, and (post)colonial conventions—as ‘Chinese’ to allow for the expression of another form of ‘Chinese’ transnationality that speaks to multiple transcultural frameworks. To be sure, I recognise the socio-historical forces that have made these ‘Chinese descendants’ long estranged from the Mainland’s politics and cultural affinities (Suryadinata, 1997), rendering them possibly ‘unrepresentative’ beyond Southeast Asia. But it is precisely this ambiguity, and the sheer impossibility of defining ‘Chineseness’ in any essential way, that makes their narratives a fascinating addition to the repertoire of ‘Chinese’ transnationalisms, going beyond what has so far proven to be the concerns of only a few (if not one) typologies. Set against this backdrop, I now draw upon fieldwork material that was gathered between 2007 and 2009, through 1–2 hour-long semi-structured interviews with 50 Singaporean Chinese migrants aged between 24 and 61. All of them had at one point or another lived and worked in the United States, a popular destination choice that not only makes liberal visa provisions for Singaporeans (including the exclusive H1B-1), but also hosts some 20,000 of such migrants out of a global diasporic pool of 150,000 (The Straits Times, March 2, 2008). As population listings were not publicly available, these participants were mostly identified through the snowball sampling method, starting from a few initial contacts provided by overseas Singaporeans associations in America, as well as informal, but similar, online communities. The sample was furthermore controlled to ensure a balance in vital characteristics including gender, age, and occupation, such that it mirrored the general profile of the population. To understand the transnational pathways of these overseas Singaporeans better, I also included in my study both informants who were still residing in America (30), as well as those who had returned to Singapore (20). Pseudonyms are used in subsequent analyses to protect the identities of these informants. Additionally, at a geographical level, the New York metropolitan area and the San Francisco Bay Area were selected as the ‘overseas’ field-sites I focused on, primarily for their large concentrations of Singaporeans , and the strong economic parallels—in finance and information technology (I.T.)—they share with the globalising city-state. Further, the pair also symbolised the success of the United States’ own pro-immigration policies, having contributed considerably to California and New York’s emergence as the top American importers of human capital with over 8.3 million economic migrants and naturalised citizens (36.9%) (Newburger and Gryn, 2009). The juxtaposition of these three well-oiled ‘mobile1 The Chinese in Singapore are descendants of Mainland immigrants who came to the island in colonial times. According to the 2010 census, they compose about 74.1% of the resident population of Singapore.


city’ (Oswin and Yeoh, 2010) regions arguably provides a fertile ground for the interrogation of these Singaporeans’ journeys. Besides gleaning their motivations for, and encounters in, transnational mobilities, I take this opportunity to examine also how the informants’ overseas sojourns in and/or return from America have altered their values and life trajectories, in producing contextual mobile stories that transcend both scale and any single cultural logic. 4. Exploring transnational alternatives in Singapore 4.1. More logics for transnational mobilities I begin my analysis by taking a closer look at the influence Singapore’s discursive environment has had on the way transnational mobilities are being perceived and performed by citizens. One of the most common threads that surfaced repeatedly in my conversations with my informants had been the value of an overseas experience to them. Many of them related that going abroad had afforded them career opportunities and life-changing perspectives that were previously unavailable back home in the tiny city-state. The narrative of Clara (in her 30s; married), who moved to Silicon Valley with her husband 3 years ago to take up a position in auditing, is an example of this sentiment: I came over [to California] in 2005. . . My husband and I made the decision to relocate, mainly for employment purposes. . . We want[ed] to widen our horizon. [At that time,] we [were] thinking [if] we want[ed] to experience what’s life out there, on top of just Singapore life, which we ha[d] been like, you know, [living in] since we were born. . . We kind of [wanted to] launch into the world. . . to experience something different. Clara shared with me how her move to the US was a joint decision she made with her husband over a period of 3–4 months. During that time, they both explored various options on how best to ‘‘launch’’ their new careers/lives beyond Singapore, which at one point even included relocating to China to take advantage of its economic boom. While (ironically) because of a ‘‘language reason’’ they have both chosen America as their destination this time, Clara’s story typifies the keenness with which many Singaporean Chinese aspire towards an internationally-oriented career. In ways that closely mirror the state’s call to citizens, especially Englishspeaking ‘cosmopolitans’, to venture beyond the city-state, Clara’s mobility not only suggests that transnationality has been viewed as a means for self-actualisation, but also shows how, through state endorsements, globalisation discourses have made their way into the everyday psyche of the citizenry. This desire to court a transnational lifestyle for the purpose of satisfying one’s curiosity and honing one’s professional skills and/or inter-cultural adaptability is in many instances mediated through the family as much as it is inculcated by the state. Among my informants, this observation is particularly true for those who first migrated to the US as college students, before subsequently finding employment there. The account of Patrick (in his 20s; single), who graduated from a prestigious Michigan college in 2007, and is now an investment banker in New York, is one good example of how familial persuasion comes into play with state visions: [S]ince I was a kid, my parents were. . . saving towards [my overseas college education]; it was only a matter of whether I [could] make it [and] whether there [was] security in being able to get a job [upon graduation]. . . [O]nce I got to. . . Secondary Three. . ., I was pretty convinced [myself] that. . . I would go out to see how other people learned, how other people developed. . . A large part of it had to do with my. . . dad. . . [H]e [saw] certain characteristics he liked about foreign-trained grads that he did not see


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in the local [ones], especially social skills. [So] he felt that. . . giving [me] the chance to [study overseas] would make [me] a better person. On at least two counts, Patrick’s account resonates with those of other US graduates whom I interviewed. First, an overseas education experience is considered a powerful way to expose a young person to valuable and (implicitly) superior foreign ideas and ‘‘social skills’’, typically denied to those who study and work in Singapore; second, while most of my informants accept, at least in part, responsibility in their choice to study abroad, parental counsel is often cited as a key influencing factor in their decisions. At first glance, this appears to resemble Waters’ (2006a,b) thesis about Hong Kong students’ strategic use of transnationalism and overseas education to augment their future employability. However, I suggest that there are a few contextual differences. One of the most salient disparities concerns the fact that many of these itineraries are not designed to help graduates achieve particular competitive advantages within specific, fixed markets; rather, they are more loosely guided, and are propelled by an almost taken-for-granted ambition to be ‘cosmopolitan’. Concurring with the state’s, or perhaps even the world’s (Weenink, 2008), assessment of the value of being well-travelled and globally-savvy, these mobilities are better seen as ‘rites of passage’ that (some) parents choose to put their adolescent children through, in equipping them with an outlook befitting of a globalisation-conscious society. Many of my informants reflect that their migrations were in fact driven by their parents’ desire to see their own positive overseas experience replicated in their lives now. Mei (in her 20s; single), a market researcher in the Bay Area since 2006, relates to this efficaciously: [M]y dad actually did his undergrad [in America] before, so he feels it’s a very good experience. . . So actually this coming overseas is an idea that my dad started putting in my head since I was [young]. Initially I wasn’t too keen to come, [because] most of my friends [were] staying in [Singapore]. . .. but after I came here I found that. . . it was a very good learning experience. Albeit having initial misgivings, Mei has, through her father and the state’s encouragement, come to accept the ‘fact’ that an overseas experience constitutes ‘‘a very good learning experience’’. But in equally pragmatic ways, she understands that, despite the benefits she has enjoyed in the process, including securing a stable job in the US, the time needed for such learning cannot be indefinite. She continues: But recently, [my parents] have [been hinting at me to return to Singapore]. I think maybe because it’s been such a long time. They didn’t expect me to stay so long. So, yah, they have been asking. . . oh are you coming back for Chinese New Year? You know, your grandma misses you. Such narratives pointing to an anticipation of closure to any transnational project, especially those sponsored by the family, are widespread among my informants. To them, it is common knowledge that the ‘departure’ they earlier embarked on is desirable only for its fleeting experiential value, amorphously found in the ‘exposure’ they gained, and the ‘perspectives’ they acquired through informal learning beyond the small island nation. More critically, these projects signal, on a deeper level, the infiltration of the state’s globalising ideologies into the family unit. Filtered through multiple layers of understanding, the geographical ‘liberation’—and eventual return—of the migrant, no matter how eyeopening the journey, pens a domestic script that visibly coincides with the Singapore state’s attitudes towards transnational mobilities, and its approximation of what constitutes the optimal 21st century worker.

This brings me to consider the notion of homecoming, a more recently politicised, and emotionalised, aspect of Singaporeans’ mobilities. If citizens’ departures have been incentivised by the promise of global exposure for both the nation and the self, return is more affectionately expressed through appeals to notions of ‘home’ and ‘family’. Naturalising his relocation back to Singapore on exactly such terms, Irwin (in his 20s; single) relates the comfort of being in Singapore with his ‘‘family and friends’’ again, after spending 5 years away studying and working as an investment banker in New York: After a while I just wanted to come back and. . . be closer to my family and friends. It’s a more comfortable environment. . . I feel more comfortable [now] being around with people of my own kind, being with other Singaporeans, rather than being in a foreign land. . . Irwin’s endearment to Singapore and ‘‘people of his own kind’’ is shared by Kang (in his 40s; married), an I.T. entrepreneur who similarly made the decision to move back to Singapore on account of such bonds with people and place. As with Irwin, the family factors crucially too in his equation of where ‘home’ is, to the extent that he would like his young children to grow up in this kindred atmosphere: Home is [where] your family, and your parents [are]. . . [So] I want [my children] to grow up [in Singapore too] because at least there’s a bond. . . If you grow up with your cousins, all your good friends,. . . your grandparents. . . at least that’s something [to take with] you for life. I mean it’s an experience, you know? Narratives of the 20 informants I spoke to who have returned to the city-state are replete with such examples of acceptance of homecoming as a natural proceeding from emigration. Conflating the ‘nation’ with ‘home’, the ‘family’, and (therefore) feelings of ‘comfort’, these discourses not only prove the resounding success of Singapore’s national education efforts in collapsing different units of belonging onto one another, but also indirectly fulfil the state’s vision to draw (embodied) foreign expertise into Singapore’s ‘‘high performance’’ economy. Agreeing with Ho (2008) on the significance of such home/family ties, this finding adds a new dimension to the way transnationality unfolds among Singaporeans. While a further state prohibition of dual citizenships ensures that commitments to return are kept to, these subtle logics to remoor citizens back ‘home’ are presumably Singapore’s defence against the brain drain it has simultaneously set in motion. At a more intimate scale, the family, apart from being an equivalency of the nation, can also be a locus where privat(is)e(d) responsibilities towards one’s kin are to be carried out. Here, the city-state’s long-time Confucianist ethic concerning filial piety, wrapped up in the language of ‘Asian values’ (Kuo, 1998), becomes pertinent, not just in reinforcing inter-generational duties, but also in the micro-disciplining of mobilities involving Singaporeans. Indeed, some of the returnees I spoke to cited feelings of obligation in their decision to return to Singapore, perceiving that their physical nearness to their parents was indispensable to the discharge of their familial responsibilities. Alex (in his 20s; single), another investment banker who worked in New York formerly, exemplifies this point: I have an elder brother who [also lived] in New York. . . That’s why I felt bad for my parents because they used to fly in and visit us every year. And as they get older, you can see that they don’t enjoy travelling as much. And New York’s not a very nice place for older people. . . [My brother]’s probably not as thoughtful in that way. . . Honestly if he had moved back first, I might not have moved back so early. [But] my parents were always lonely. . . At least one of us [must be] back.

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Alex’s narrative depicts a prevalent sense in Singapore that children are obliged to take care of their aged parents after having benefitted from their nurture. Despite his reluctance, his insistence to return to live with his parents is telling of the fact that he, like many others, takes seriously his duty as a filial and ‘‘thoughtful’’ son or daughter, echoing the state’s long-time valorisation of the family as part of the nation’s ‘Asian’/’Chinese’ core. In Singapore, the dilemma of transnational separation finds little place for alternative resolutions, as ‘left-behind’ parents seldom go on to join their children abroad. A contextual reading of such idiosyncrasies in Singaporeans’ (im)mobility patterns is hence also necessary to grasp why transnationalism regularly remains a fleeting endeavour among Singaporean Chinese, often ceasing after coming full circle. In this discussion, I have shown that what drives mobilities in Singapore is a highly complex government of multifarious, multi-scalar discursive regimes. Particularly, it at times subscribes to Western norms of cosmopolitanism, and at others devises its own national and ‘Asian’ strategies, living undecidedly in between the interstices of globalisation and invented local traditions. 4.2. More (Il)logics In this second part, I wish to debunk any illusion that the Singapore state’s injunctions are to be held wholly responsible for the way transnational mobilities take shape among Singaporean Chinese. Indeed, my intention has never been to construct such a model of logical or sequential flows. Rather, accounting for how transnational journeys are necessarily fraught with serendipitous detours, interferences, and distractions, I apply a keener sensitivity to the contingencies that have arisen while the migrants are in transit. Not so much viewing these as alterations to any original blueprint, I examine how they operate as coeval factors in the scripting of their transnationalisms. The account of Josh (in his 30s; single), a software engineer who has been studying and working in the Bay Area for 14 years now, perhaps can illustrate this point well: [Before my graduation, my] friends were all. . . saying, oh maybe you should stay over there and like work and gain experience. . ., which sounded like a fairly good idea. But that wasn’t just the only reason. I was doing some research at Berkeley. . . with one of the professors there, and when I was [finishing] grad school. . ., she was. . . about to take some of that research and. . . spin that out into a company. So she called me and said. . ., you’ve worked on this quite a while, so you’ve got most of the background already. You want to. . . start this company. . . with me? I thought sure, why not? This was. . . [when] the boom was at its height. While friends in Singapore had (in characteristic fashion) encouraged him to ‘‘work and gain experience there’’ in California, Josh stayed on arguably because a key contact he made in university helped him land his first job and opened the door to his nowmulti-year residence in America. Presently a green-card holder, his experience typifies a running joke among overseas Singaporeans that 5 years would be about the time needed to reach ‘‘a point of no return’’. While the discursive ‘truths’ spun by the Singapore state may prove influential, there are competing rationalities and opportunities, such as the ‘American’ promise of success through entrepreneurialism and a booming I.T. industry, that can invert priorities when one is situated within new contexts. These are also the kinds of developing contingencies that ostensibly tussle daily with the government’s rationalities, potentially muddying some citizens’ mobile trajectories. Not only do they engender alternative transnational stories, but, more importantly, they underscore the multiply inhabited nature of migrant networks, circuits and flows (Crang et al., 2003).


In negotiating these transcultural frames of reference patent between Singapore and America, many of my informants who have lived ‘abroad’ for extended periods of time have also suffered a recalibration in their conception of ‘home’. On a day-to-day basis, they often have to play different roles as US employees, participants in American culture and local residents, gradually obfuscating their previous singular identity as Singaporeans. Corresponding to these new lifestyle regimes, shifts in one’s geography of ‘comfort’ have occurred for some as well. Josh’s narrative is again indicative here: I like the Bay Area a lot! It’s a great place to live in, I’d say. The weather is pretty nice. . . and San Francisco is a pretty pleasant city also. You’ve got a lot of big state parks [nearby], [like] Tahoe [and] Yosemite. . . [It] would be a pretty big step again for me to go somewhere else, [including] back to Singapore. . . It’s not a transition that I take lightly. . . Certainly, I don’t think of Singapore the way I used to. . . I see it in a different light. I know that it’s not quite the utopian that I grew up believing. Privileged in that his parents in Singapore have still been able to pay him regular visits in California (and vice versa), allowing him to maintain that all-important transnational bond with his family, Josh is able stay in the Bay Area long enough for him to develop a deep sense of belonging there. Interestingly, the Singapore state’s constant refrain on the primacy of ‘home’ as a place to return to has been somewhat ‘misinterpreted’ in his mind to refer now to his current address, leading to a re-writing of his transnational geographies to one of making ‘return visits’ to Singapore. Among older emigrants who have been ‘away’ for longer, an even stronger affinity to the ‘home’ they have ‘‘built their lives from scratch’’ in is palpable. One of them (Hock, in his 50s; married with Americanborn children) told me that, with the passing of his parents, ‘‘there’s really not a central point that [he can] go back to anymore’’ in the city-state, while he has much to ‘‘treasure’’ in the Bay Area. What these accounts uncover is more than simply a form of (im)mobility that better resembles ‘permanent settlement’, but rather the tenuousness of Singapore’s fervent efforts to re-moor (all) its overseas citizens. For some of them, perhaps the dichotomies between home/overseas, origin/destination and sending/ receiving countries are never as clearly defined and resilient as what Singapore’s pragmatic leaders might have hoped, even as the city-state, over time, takes the place of the ‘foreign’ in their (re)assessments. It is however not just within ‘foreign’ contexts that the Singapore state’s logics on transnational mobilities are being diluted. The event of revisiting Singapore, through return, can also breed its own set of discontents, multi-sited comparisons and transcultural ways of negotiating between the ‘here’ and ‘there’ by migrants. In some ways, such a claim is not new (see, for instance, Flynn, 2007; Horst, 2007), but I wish to reiterate more deliberately here how such perceptual changes can also alter the paths and meanings of transnationalisms for Singaporean Chinese. To return to Alex’s story, his relinquishing of his enviable job in New York to move back to live with his parents is not without its later regrets. Reminiscing how he misses New York ‘‘with a passion’’, Singapore’s ‘‘stifling’’ environment, ‘‘cookie cutter’’ lifestyle, and its people’s lack of ‘‘basic human courtesy’’ have all become his greatest ‘‘gripes’’ about his present, seemingly self-inflicted predicament. When quizzed if going back to New York would then ease the disconnect he feels, he replies: I think I really want to [go back to New York], get a good job there, it’d be hard for me not to. But at the same time. . . having moved back, having seen how happy my parents are that I’m back. . . it would be hard to just pack up and say bye again, for as long as they’re around. Because they were a big part of the


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reason why [I returned]. . . So. . . although I really want to, I’d say probably not. While unlikely to take place now due to familial constraints, the prospect of embarking on a brand new transnational journey suddenly holds a different meaning than simply gaining ‘exposure’ for someone like Alex. Indeed, many of my informants who have returned to Singapore can (to different extents) relate to his urges to take flight again, looking to re-emigration as a means to reverse the perceived imperfections in one’s current circumstance, and to re-appropriate global mobilities through renewed lenses. This is not to suggest that Singapore is an inferior place to US cities, but rather that transnationalism is fundamentally a highly imprecise conduct, blending together different evolving discourses and realities to effectuate equally mottled and unpredictable (potential) outcomes. After accounting for personal interpretations, experiences and conflicting accounts such as those of Josh (who stayed) and Alex (who returned), this variance becomes more obvious, suggesting that, even within just Singapore’s context, a coherent transnational narrative is difficult to pinpoint. In this regard, the migration story of Cheong (in his 40s; married with children), an engineer living in the Bay Area, perhaps best sums up this pattern of indeterminacy. While his account is far from typical, its sinuous development is a shining example of what I have been arguing throughout this section, namely the incremental influence contingent logics, apart from official ones, can have on transnationalisms. To recount his story, Cheong initially migrated with his wife to Southern California for college in the early 1980s upon his failure to obtain admission to a local university. Later piqued by a desire to re-unite with his ‘‘siblings and parents’’, Cheong and his wife both returned to Singapore in 1993, at a time when the government was just beginning to encourage a more mobile and globalised citizenry. It was then, when Singapore’s economy was fast expanding and attitudes towards emigration were increasingly relaxed, that Cheong found the life he had returned to too ‘‘stressful’’, depriving him of the very time he had set aside to spend with his family. After trying to cope with this conundrum for about 5 years, he finally decided to relocate again, taking his wife and, now, two sons with him to start a new life in the Bay Area. It is here they have stayed ever since, maintaining transnational ties with their relatives through the latter’s yearly visits to California. Clearly, in more ways than one, his account differs vastly from the Singapore state’s prescription of how a meaningful transnational journey should look like. Setting out too early, and later taking hold of favourable discursive winds to ‘escape’ from a Singapore he could no longer live with, Cheong’s story elucidates the relational way past experiences, local and global knowledges, and transcultural ways of evaluating ‘quality of life’ are being drawn upon to direct his migratory decisions. Extrapolating this analysis, a similarly sensitive research agenda attuned to the multiple, contextual undulations that contour all (Chinese) transnationalisms may also be needed to move the literature beyond current fixations on only a few paradigms. Instead of adding to systematic understandings of how migrants (of a certain ethnicity) tend to structure and time their mobilities according to certain life events (Kobayashi and Preston, 2007), it may perhaps be productive to begin contemplating too the inherently plural scope of something as diversified and ‘flexible’ as many transnationalisms. 5. Conclusion The past two decades have seen a proliferation of studies endeavouring to give shape and tonality to migrants’ transnational practices. In particular, Chinese strategies of flexible citizenship (Ong, 1999) have stood out in the literature as one of the most coherent narratives in this direction, elucidating how transnation-

alism, besides being an act of simultaneity, can also be deployed by migrants for purposes of capital accumulation and enhancement of one’s lifestyle (Ley and Waters, 2004). Short of discounting the validity of such claims, this article finds potential merit in widening the focus of this literature, in enabling a less definitive take on how those culturally identified as ‘Chinese’ practise transnationalisms. Through an examination of Singaporean Chinese’s mobilities in and out of the city-state, I have drawn attention to at least one alternative governmental logic apart from flexible citizenship, as well as the multifarious ways by which the migrants in question assimilate, repudiate and modify accruing rationalities over time and space. By highlighting the transcultural and multiscalar ways in which their journeys overlap with motivations that may or may not be ‘indigenous’ to the ‘local’ culture, I meant not to replace one dominant account with another, but rather to tell a different story of Chinese transnationalism, in ways that underscore its multiplicitous and relational nature. Besides recognising the need to desist from speaking of the modern Chinese migrant as one coherent transnational community (Crang et al., 2003), my project also goes beyond just lending a polymorphous voice to current understandings of Chinese transnationalisms. More critically, I have addressed, too, the risk of discursive over-extension, if not reification, within the same literature, as particular transnational habits, applied consistently to particular groups, are continually being rehearsed. Indeed, if Ong’s (1999) intervention had been to propose an alternative way of conceiving transnational mobilities without essentialising the migrant as Other, her thesis on flexible citizenship and the ‘Pacific Shuttle’ has ironically become the very template by which contemporary Chinese migrations are being caricatured and discoursed presently. Though certainly not the intention of any author, I argue that the replay of a (near-)single storyline has had the effect of re-producing the ‘new Chinese diaspora’ in ways that prove to be mildly stereotypical, pitching a particular ‘strategic’ and ‘calculative’ tendency against an unspecified (Western) norm (Mohanty, 1984). What is needed therefore is also a more concerted effort to locate areas of commonality, instead of difference, between disparate factions of transnationals, in making visible again points of consonance between them, including the curiosity for travel, cosmopolitan ambitions, or care for the family. By blurring the artificial boundaries between groups, the ‘‘Eurocentric perception that Third World people travel for economic gain alone, while the search for adventure and experience is often reserved for First World travellers’’ (Kothari, 2008, p. 504) can also be categorically avoided. On a final and more general note, the arguments made in this paper debatably find relevance outside the remit of Chinese mobilities as well, extending to that of transnational migration on the whole. While the ostensible task for researchers is to continue acquiring a more holistic knowledge of the shifting and plural ways by which multiple transnationalisms are being realised, a more progressive agenda can perhaps be forged by revisiting the subtle way the academy has been dissecting, and rendering distinctive, different groups of migrants under the banner of transnationalism. Indeed, the abrupt transition of academic interest from immigration to crossborder mobilities in recent years seems to have momentously reframed non-white migrants as people of complex loyalties (Castles, 2003) moving against a parallel world of ‘smooth’, depoliticised travel occupied mostly by white elites (Beaverstock, 2002). While such a bifurcation may prove slightly simplistic, I suggest that more can be done to recognise that all migrants—from elites to the service sector migrant worker—travel along relative paths that are heavily implicated in each other, differing only because they are inequitably inserted into the epistemological spaces of globalisation. Maybe this is why Ong (1998, p. 157) herself intimates at one point that there may not be anything ‘Chinese’ about flexible citizenship after

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