Field Work With Swiss Migrants in China

DiasporaMigrationStudies_Aldina Camenisch

Tracing mobilities and moorings in China – some reflections about my field work on Swiss migrants in Mainland China

It is May 19th, 2015, 23:00. I am sitting in a late train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, looking out at the many lights, busy roads and high rises rushing by. This research day-trip to Shenzhen marks the end of my one year-field research in China.

I am a social anthropologist specializing in migration research, and my PhD is concerned with contemporary self-initiated migration of Swiss people to mainland China and their migration experiences.

Looking back at my field research, I understand now that my initial approach to “the Swiss abroad” in the “field” of mainland China was informed by underlying assumptions shaped by my national, socio-cultural and academic background. Not surprisingly then, I had to adjust some of those perceptions during my fieldwork. Looking into the future and thinking of the upcoming in-depth data analysis, those “surprising moments” should thus be more thoroughly reflected upon. The following paragraphs will provide a first overview of them.

National identity
Being conscious of the pitfalls of methodological nationalism, and the contested nature of nationality, I struggled with whom I would count as Swiss. Shall I include other nationals originating from Switzerland who don’t count as “Swiss abroad?” After all, over 25% of all people living in Switzerland are foreigners, many among them second-generation immigrants. My data finally includes Swiss citizens plus other nationals rooted in Switzerland.

Correspondingly, and as a result of my studies and working as an expert for Swiss migration and integration policy before starting my PhD, I have come to understand cultural and national identity as hybrid and constructed. This goes hand in hand with a perception of national societies as ethnically and culturally diverse with shifting notions of in- and outsiders. Therefore, I assumed that many respondents would negotiate their national and cultural identity in ambiguous ways. This assumption is partly confirmed. But my data also reveals a strong, and sometimes clear sense of (Swiss) national identity that is reinforced rather than deconstructed through my respondents’ migration experience.

From (long-term) migration to (short-term) mobility
Trained in anthropological migration research and doing research about Swiss people living abroad, I have initially tried to distinguish between (potentially mobile and transnational) migrants and more mobile or short-term patterns of being in China. I thus decided to focus on Swiss people who have been living for more than one year in China trying to separate longer-term migrants from travelers and visitors.

In the course of my research, however, it became clear that this distinction is hard to keep up in a context as fast developing and dynamic as China and in an era of more and more blurring lines between migration and mobility in general. Many respondents, also long-term stayers in China, are still registered in Switzerland and often travel back and forth. Furthermore, being mobile in itself is a central topic in many of my respondents’ narratives and mobility is often as important in China as their place of residence – no matter how long they have been in China. Therefore, I came to include respondents who have been in China for less than one year because their experience proves to be as relevant for my research as the experiences of long-term residents.

Belonging and integration
My questionnaire includes open questions about my respondents’ feelings of belonging and inclusion, and whether they have Chinese friends or family members. I am from a Western, multicultural and democratic “nation of will”-country that – at least on a discursive level – seeks to integrate its long-term migrants. Even though being familiar with expat research literature (which often describes their lives in social “bubbles”), I still had the initial assumption that integration into whatever local context could be a desirable and possible outcome of living in China – both in the eyes of a migrant as well as the host state and society.

I was therefore initially surprised to find out that most of my respondents as well as many other foreign and Chinese people that I talk to draw a clear line between foreigners and Chinese. Apart from overseas Chinese, this distinction seems to be uncontested and immutable. It also permeates into the lives and social networks of most of my respondents, also those who are married with a Chinese or have studied and/or worked in China for many years and are well embedded into China. Most of them tell me that they feel foreign: most find it hard to become friends with Chinese people and they have mostly Western friends. Again, a longer duration of stay doesn’t seem to lead to stronger feelings of integration or belonging. On the contrary, some respondents who have been living in China for many years express the need to become “more Western” again and to extend their social network of Western people. This is justified by feeling more accepted by Western foreigners and by professional networking.

The professional and the private
Post-industrial and affluent lifestyles are common in Switzerland and they are often accompanied with a separation of work/professional and leisure/private and the stress of the latter for defining one’s lifestyle. This appears in my questions, asking my respondents about their hobbies and their professional and private networks.

Here again, the dynamic, business-driven and industrializing Chinese context where one’s personal network is of great importance for all areas of life influences my respondents’ experiences. Work and business seems to be the most important part of most lives and some tell me that they don’t have time for and also no need for hobbies. This could also be related to the fact that I focused on self-initiated migrants who work and often are entrepreneurs. The results would probably be different, was I interviewing trailing spouses of corporate expats. However, many respondents perceive this ambiguity between professional and private, work and leisure, as positive and feel that it enables them to develop quickly personally and professionally. Social networks of most respondents include a mix of people they work together or do business with no distinction between private and professional social spheres.

Concluding thoughts on methodology
In truly ethnographic style I hoped to spend a lot of time with my respondents, to do more than one interview with each one and maybe even visit them at home.  Another intention was to complement the interview with participant observations of private gatherings of Swiss people and their families or friends or meetings of Swiss associations in China.

I met 29 respondents altogether in China (and some more in Switzerland) and two of them more than once. Five interviews were held in private homes and this also gave me the opportunity to meet family members or friends of them. The meetings with all other respondents took place in shopping malls or in offices. I attended only one social event of which I produced a field note.

On the one hand, it was in most cases possible to hold an extensive interview and get a “feeling” for the participant’s life and personality in one meeting without requiring a follow-up interview. Furthermore, because my research took place in several places in China, I normally spent only a few days in one location and then went back to Guangzhou where I live with my husband and my children. This, plus the busy schedules of most of my interview partners, led to one-time meetings in places such as shopping malls or offices – which emphasised their temporary and fleeting nature.

On the other hand, what I didn’t expect before was the possibility to keep following my respondents’ activities over their “moments” on WeChat. WeChat is an application for digital communication similar to Facebook and widely used in China. It contains a “moment” function to share pictures, films or short texts with all one’s WeChat-friends. I am a WeChat-friend of 15 of my respondents and some of them regularly share moments about their life. I also joined a WeChat-group of Swiss people in Guangdong and have gained an insight into the communication and exchanges going on within this virtual group.

Overall, it became clear during the research that there is little community building among Swiss migrants living in China. As a result of this, and because I covered a big geographical area and traveled between various places in China, I did not have many opportunities for participant observation. There are two Swiss Associations in Mainland China, one in Shanghai and one in Beijing but there were no activities during my research trips to those cities. Furthermore, respondents in both places indicated that those associations do not play an important role in their social life. There is no Swiss Club in Guangzhou but the local chapter of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce organized two social events during my stay in China and I attended one of them.

Therefore, this train ride back “home” to Guangzhou is a special one and accompanied by ambivalent emotions of relief – I have accomplished my data collection in China after all – and sadness. Sadness because my time in China will come to an end soon and I will have to say goodbye to an enriching period of my life shaped by moving encounters, insightful experiences, and trips to many places in China.

Aldina Camenisch
PhD Candidate
University of Basel

Image: Entrance of the Consulate General of Switzerland in Shanghai, Picture taken by Aldina Camenisch, 31st of March 2015.

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