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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 5. Minorities, Homelands and Methods

Louisa Schein

Texte intégral

The relationship between nationalism and transnationalism

1As Zha Daojiong points out, there are different kinds of nationalism. We can talk about state or official or economic nationalism, which is primarily associated with government organs, official statements, official media, and policies. Or we can talk about popular or ethnic nationalism, which I want to deal with here. Nationalism shouldn’t only be associated with states and central governments; it can also be produced and disseminated by groups not associated with states and their boundaries. This is what I will call “deterritorialized nationalism.”

Zha on different kinds of nationalism
The term ”nationalism” is often prefixed with various modifications in order to differentiate the scope of inquiry in one particular study from reference to a broad, and indeed global, phenomenon as the term tries to capture. Such prefixes can be references to a research object, one component of a country’s foreign policy, sponsors of projects to foster national consciousness, or seemingly apolitical projects that can be understood as part of a nationalistic agenda. Examples include ”American nationalism,” ”economic nationalism” of many countries, ”state nationalism” and/or ”popular nationalism,” and connections between sports and nationalism (Fousek 2000, Bairner 2001). At one level, as is true in studies of ”security,” arguably the most enduring concern in IR, adding more prefixes does not necessarily lead to conceptual clarity. At another level, there are perhaps few other choices than going with more prefixes, both as a result of the context for research and in response to the demand for precision in elaboration.
When the prefix to ”nationalism” is reference to a state or a civilization, subjectivity easily sets in. This is true of not just the conceptual gaps in the debates over the so-called ”clash of civilizations” thesis (i.e., a purportedly Western civilization versus a Confucian civilization, which is understood to be in collaboration with an anti-West Islamic civilization). Research rhetoric about nationalism within the same geographic area—Europe—also makes a distinction between ”good” and ”bad” nationalisms. More importantly, such tendencies are not restricted to discussions about Cold War politics; they take on a far more historical dimension.
The situation is similar to studies of ”security,” another key concept in IR (see Miller 2001).

2The issue of scales is also important in describing different types of nationalism: In addition to official nationalism, we can identify the subnational and the supranational. The subnational includes minorities and other kinds of organizations that are below the level, or scale, of a certain state. Supranational refers to transnational identifications and movements.

The nation and the state

3American literature on nationalism sometimes refers to the problem of the hyphen between “nation” and “state.” Conferences and workshops in the US are devoted to “interrogating the hyphen.” This phrase is a shorthand way of suggesting that there may not be a one-to-one correspondence between states or countries and practices and productions of nationalism. So to start with, let’s look at the issue of the hyphen.

4One article concerned with the exploration of this hyphen is Arjun Appadurai’s (1993, reproduced in 1996) “Patriotism and its Futures.” It has both had tremendous influence and been very heavily critiqued.

Appadurai’s concept of transnationalism: loyalties that transcend or replace the nation-state

5If the territorial state has fixed political boundaries and a clear sense of the territory that belongs to it, questions arise about whether national loyalties are always associated with and directed at the territorial state. What other kinds of territories or nonterritories might be relevant in considering national loyalties? The first sentence of Appadurai’s article—a very famous sentence-reads, “We need to think ourselves beyond the nation.” By this, he indicates a “postnational” research agenda that will allow scholars to address other forms of nonstate collective identity. He wants to consider which of these should also be considered nationalism. He wants to retain the idea of a national form, but he wants it to be divorced from the territorial state.

6I think that Appadurai should have written, “We need to think ourselves beyond the state” (Appadurai 1996: 158), because this article talks about types of loyalty that are no longer attached to the political unit of the state. He says, “while nations might continue to exist, the steady erosion of the capabilities of the nation-state to monopolize loyalty will encourage the spread of national forms that are largely divorced from territorial states” (Appadurai 1996: 169). Thus he is not necessarily thinking beyond the nation, but he asks: If you are not referring to a territorial state, but to other forms of loyalty and identification, is it still appropriate to call it nationalism? This becomes very important when we start talking about minorities and migrant groups.

Chinese transnationalism

7What do we mean by Chinese transnationalism? Do we think about it as a national identity or as a deterritorialized nationalism? Or do we mean a translocal identity, which implies that we are talking about connections between places within one or various states, and not necessarily between the states?

8What kinds of terms might be appropriate to talk about Chinese transnationalism?

9We have a very strong state and a very bounded political unit that operates as a nation-state in relation to other nation-states around the globe. But then we have very strong Chinese communities in places like Singapore, where Chinese are in a majority, and in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, where Chinese are in the minority.

10Is nationalism useful at all as a way of talking about how Chinese both within and beyond China might experience or practice loyalty? From the perspective of the territorial state, you would only call it nationalism when Chinese overseas come back and give money to the development of the homeland, or follow Chinese politics. From the perspective of ethnic nationalism, it would be a loyalty to a sense of Chineseness, no longer needing the territorial state to constitute an identity, but rather the concept of a Chinese people. This is what some recent literature has referred to as “Greater China.” Of course, there is always a reference to the Chinese homeland, but what becomes more important is the sense of the Chinese as a people.

11Appadurai refers to the idea of a nation flourishing transnationally in relation to migrant communities: “Safe from the depredations of their home states, diasporic communities become doubly loyal to their nations of origin and thus ambivalent about their loyalties to America.” Further on, he speaks of “a delocalized transnation, which retains a specific ideological link to a putative place of origin but is otherwise a thoroughly diasporic collectivity” (Appadurai 1996: 172).

12One way of thinking about this double loyalty is as a sense of loyalty to the Chinese state, and also a sense of commitment to one’s own Chinese community. In the places I know about in America, Chinese often have strong organizations and think of themselves as Chinese Americans or Chinese Canadians. Much of this loyalty is not directed at the Chinese state. But at the same time, their double loyalty makes them ambivalent about their loyalty to America or other countries.

Ong on diaspora
I want to keep the integrity of the word ”diaspora,” which is a kind of involuntary exile. To assume that all Chinese out of China are in diaspora is totally absurd. I wouldn’t use it as an analytical category.
I did a test: I asked my Jewish American students, ”Are you a diaspora subject?” and the vast majority said: ”No.” The greatest diasporas are Europeans all over the world in the colonial context. For me diaspora is better to be talked about as a term of a sentiment. It is just a comment people use to describe how they feel, who they are; this is a personal, subjective feeling, a set of sentiments, a sense of being in exile. But to call anyone simply on the basis of ethnicity a diaspora subject is really a wrong use of the word.
I used to be blamed because I mentioned ”Chinese diasporas.” I came from a Chinese diaspora. For me it was a real diaspora. For a long time, people had the sense that they would have lived in China if not for specific reasons, and culture was always connected back to China. But that’s gone. So contemporary circulations are not automatically diasporas.

13For a lot of diasporas, the place of origin is putative or imagined. For many Chinese, this origin place does not necessarily have much to do with the Chinese state, its economic development, policies, or contemporary realities: it is more the idea of a homeland. And for some Chinese migrants whose families have been in, say, Thailand or Malaysia for many generations, this place of origin is not something that they have direct links to or experience of.

14Appadurai says, “no idiom has yet emerged to capture the collective interest of many groups in translocal solidarities, cross-border mobilizations, and postnational identities. Such interests are many and vocal, but they are still entrapped in the linguistic imaginary of the territorial state” (Appadurai 1996: 166). Many of these mobilizations and loyalties are not even organized around an ethnic or cultural group. Appadurai mentions transnational philanthropic movements, such as Habitat for Humanity, international terrorist organizations, international fashion, environmental movements, refugees, and the Olympic movement. The idea of postnational loyalties and mobilizations has to do with all types of connections, organizations, and identities that people might adopt at the supranational scale.

15One conclusion we can draw from this article is that territorial nations and deterritorialized identities can coexist, and that any one transnational actor can potentially be loyal simultaneously to a territorial nation and a deterritorialized or translocal identity: whether Chineseness or a green movement. Thinking beyond the nation-state does not mean making the nation-state irrelevant or obsolete. One of the key problems becomes to consider how the nation-state and the translocal, transnational organizations and collectivities interact and coexist.

16Why is the vocabulary of the nation so linked to territoriality? Duara talks about the rise of the nation-state as the globally dominant form, dominant to the point of being hegemonic, to being standard; to the point that you can only be a global player

17if you are a nation-state with an intact hyphen. Remember what Duara says about nationalism being controlled by those who get to claim authenticity.

Duara on authenticity see pp. 18–19

18Even now, with the recognition of so many different kinds of collectivities, both subnational and supranational, the nation-state is still the reference point for seeking legitimacy, authority, and respectability on the global stage. The real question is not so much whether we, the academics, do away with the label of nation for a state. Indeed, in some places nation and state have never been coextensive.

Gellner on the overlap between nations and states
In Nations and Nationalism. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1983; p. 4.
Not all societies are state-endowed. It immediately follows that the problem of nationalism does not arise for stateless societies. If there is no state, one obviously cannot ask whether or not its boundaries are congruent with the limits of nations. If there are no rulers, there being no state, one cannot ask whether they are of the same nation as the ruled. When neither state nor rulers exist, one cannot resent their failure to conform to the requirements of the principle of nationalism. One may perhaps deplore statelessness, but that is another matter. Nationalists have generally fulminated against the distribution of political power and the nature of political boundaries, but they have seldom if ever had the occasion to deplore the absence of power and boundaries altogether. The circumstances in which nationalism has generally arisen have not normally been those in which the state itself, as such, was lacking, or when its reality was in any serious doubt. The state was only too conspicuously present. It was its boundaries and/or the distribution of power, and possibly of other advantages, within it, which were resented.
This in itself is highly significant. Not only is our definition of nationalism parasitic on a prior and assumed definition of the state: it also seems to be the case that nationalism emerges only in milieux in which the existence of the state is already very much taken for granted. The existence of politically centralized units, and of a moral-political climate in which such centralized units are taken for granted and are treated as normative, is a necessary though by no means a sufficient condition of nationalism.

19But the point is that the states insist that they are nations. We are here talking about the claim, not really discussing any sort of reality, but constructs. The fact that Native Americans began referring to themselves as nations in the process of their struggles for recognition shows that the appeal of the nation is still very compelling. In the same way, the organization Queer Nation is about sexual identity rights and recognition for lesbians, gays, and other sexual minorities. Even though many of these transnational collectivities don’t aspire to creating a political unit with a boundary and a territory, the appeal of the concept of nation is still very strong.

20But this results in the word “nation” being used in an increasingly confusing way. The confusion comes from the fact that the hyphen is in crisis. It is in crisis because there are all these other deterritorialized groups, collectivities, identities that are also claiming or using the nation construct. Meanwhile the state also needs the nation construct to legitimize its existence. So there is a really existing tension in the world of identity politics that is being played out and reflected in the debates of academic literature.

What are the implications of deterritorialization for research?
How might deterritorialization work in and between varying sites in Asia and in Asian Diasporas? What specific research problems might these differing sites and circumstances pose?
For example, can we find examples of the Soviet State creating territorialized nations in Central Asia and drawing borders across ethnic groups? Was, for example, the Kazak nation created by the Soviets? Would there be a Kazak nation if not for the Soviet Union now? Or would there be a mixture or various ethnic and rural populations, speaking different languages and following ethnic and subethnic divisions? Are there any challenges to the nation-states, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, today in this region?

21And that is precisely one of the reasons Appadurai’s article continues to be critiqued ten years later. People still want to say that we are not in a postnational moment, that the nation is still strong. There is always confusion between nation and state when people talk about this article. I think Appadurai himself knows that the nation form is not dead. But somehow this article has come to represent the idea that it should be dead, that somehow we should see past it. Empirically it is not happening; the idiom of the nation is still very resilient. Scholars have shown that the way people think about identities is still very much tied to the authority of the nation-state form, even though it may not match very well with the reality of how identities are being experienced and practiced.

Diasporas and migration

22In recent literature, there has been a shift toward talking about diaspora studies instead of migration studies. This shift can be interpreted as a critique of the trend in migration studies to focus on the side of the receiving society: questions of assimilation, adaptation, and other issues of how people who left their homelands deal with being in a new society. Migration studies also connotes the history of how and why people left. The framework of migration studies is the move from one nation-state to another. The questions asked are: what happens to them there, how they form communities, how their culture change, do they teach their children their language.

Nyíri on what’s wrong with migration theories
What has changed with migration in the last 30 years?
The ”new migration” (Vertovec and Cohen 1999)
1. More migration. In the early 1970s there was a virtual halt to legal labor immigration for the purposes of permanent settlement to the more powerful industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America. This was not a real ”immigration halt” but political rhetoric to dampen nationalism and xenophobia. But seen at a global level, migration increased. With the collapse of the Communist world, most countries have abandoned controls on the exit of their populations, and some have encouraged it.
2. New labor migration routes. Legal labor migration took new avenues: e.g. from Asia to the Middle East, more developed countries of Northeast and Southeast Asia, and to a limited extent to Russia. Castles (1998) estimates that three million Asians were legally employed in Asia and another three million elsewhere (Gulf states) in the mid-1990s.
3. Undocumented labor migration. It is widely supposed that undocumented labor migration has taken the place of legal: from Mexico to the US; from African countries to South Africa; from Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia to Western Europe. This occupies a wide range from overstaying to illegal entry. It is often assumed that irregular entry is a domain of organized crime, but it is probably better pictured as a business with both legal and criminal avenues ranging from taking money for issuing a legal invitation letter to a person with all the legal documents to the forgery of passports and visas and clandestine crossing.
4. Independent female migration. Feminists in the 1960s declared that ”women were hidden from history.” This observation had largely been valid in migration studies. Many studies of migration either dealt with women only as part of those ”left behind” or studied them only as dependent migrants. The increase in independent female migration has been significant both numerically and sociologically. In part this has been elicited by demand specifically for female labor—from domestics to prostitutes—that could not be domestically satisfied at the same costs.
5. Highly skilled transients. Expatriate accountants, computer experts, lawyers, academics, doctors, managers, engineers, and consultants who move around the world as freelancers or corporate employees are also ”hidden from history,” albeit in a very different way. They have no local political or social rights in their temporary places of residence and do not usually seek them: instead of the state, they often deal with the employer, which provides insurance, education for children, and pension.
6. Investor-immigrant and skilled immigrant schemes. A number of countries, particularly Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but also the United States, have implemented schemes to offer permanent residence to people who are prepared to invest substantial amounts or who possess particular skills. Canada and Australia have linked immigration, labor, and economic policies so that immigration vacancies are in sync with employers’ needs. The United States has introduced special visas, the H-1Bs, to admit around a hundred thousand skilled temporary workers (most of them software engineers) each year.
7. Migration as business. Migration has developed into a complex and lucrative global business, which brings lots of money to governments, lawyers, universities, and other migration brokers, including criminal ones, worldwide. Each of these players attempts to regulate or influence migration in such a way as to maximize their profits (Salt and Stein-er 1997).
8. Increase in entry controls. Increased migration and the vocalization of xenophobia propelled a conspicuous increase in entry controls, directed even at asylum seekers. Recent calls to change asylum laws based on the Geneva Convention system created after the Second World War— such as in Germany and the UK—highlight the increasing difficulty of separating formerly clearly identifiable refugee flows from other migrant flows. Yet these barriers to the mobility of persons are being erected by the nation-state just as its sovereignty is being undermined by other, largely celebrated, global flows: of capital, goods, ideas, images, laws.
New trends in migration theories
1. Where classical migration theories fail. Applied to the diverse picture of today’s migration, accepted theories of migration, which focus on the reasons for leaving or staying, may work in individual instances but offer too little to tie together the multiplicity of flows that actually interact in the life of a society. In my own fieldwork with migrants from Fujian to Europe, I found that we would not be able to understand why migrants move in the ways they do if we had not seen all major settings and major actors in the social and economic space a migrant moves in. (The former here include China and the destination country, and often transit countries or countries where the migrant’s relatives live; the latter, persons regulating or facilitating migration at both end, family members, employees and employers.) This is particularly so since the same family’s recently migrated members are often found in different countries. Even for such traditional migrant homelands as Fujian, the concept of chain migration, which pictures migration as a product of socialization and collective economic dependence, is almost never sufficient to explain individual choices of migration strategies. Such strategies are made from a wider range and on the basis of more information than before.
2. New approaches to migration. Demographers and geographers such as Kritz, Lim, and Zlotnik (1992) and Skeldon (1997) retained the term ”migration” in a restricted sense but attempted to reestablish a holistic picture of migration by placing it within a larger picture of movements and networks thereby transcending the binaries of outward and return migration, sending and host country. They introduced the term ”migration system” to describe aggregate connections through migration between one or more places of origin with one or more places of destination. Anthropologists like Pieke (1999) took a similar approach, but instead of describing migration from the perspective of the outside observer, they attempted to describe the social reality that migrants themselves operate in. Instead of asking ”what migration does, or how it comes about, or how it is structured,” this cultural approach to migration ”is concerned with how migratory experiences are tied into the web of ongoing discourses of belonging, separation, and achievement,” power, nationalism, and transnationalism. Pieke proposed the term ”migration configuration” to encompass the movements of people, information, goods, money and other resources between the two or more loci of a transnational community, but also the institutions and networks supporting such flows and the niches carved out by migrants.
A migration configuration could include ”kinship and community ties, formal immigration barriers and commercial human traffickers, state agencies and individual officials, the configuration of ethnic groups migrants encounter, airlines, railways and shipping companies, and even law firms, human rights groups, and anti-immigration activists.” In this approach, a phenomenon such as chain migration is explained not only in structural terms but also in terms of the ”culture of migration” in the sending community that inculcates in its members a particular discourse of movement and achievement. Pieke argues that this cultural approach ”makes it possible again to look at migration ... in its own right rather than just as an adjunct of, say, the inequalities of the world economic system, modernization, or simply the workings of the national or international labor market.”
3. Problematic categories. Taking a contextualized, ethnographic view to migration, the problematic nature of certain commonly operationalized categories becomes obvious. This causes not only a conceptual problem but also a data-collection one, as governments and international organizations maintain the old, rigid boundaries between categories of people who move, with mostly incompatible databases. Where lies the dividing line between a migrant and a traveler, a legal and an illegal migrant, a political and an economic migrant, a migrant and a refugee, an individual and a chain migrant, push and pull factors? Reality has become more complex than to fit into these categories. Let us take a ”permanent resident” in a foreign country who spends half of his time in the home country and in third countries, a ”foreign investor” who gains that status in his home country after only a few months of residence abroad, and a ”tourist” who only makes short trips abroad but maintains a business network there. Is the distinction between them a useful one? Is someone who has crossed a border legally but had paid to obtain an invitation letter a legal or an illegal migrant? What about one who legally purchased a Dominican passport under that country’s ”economic citizenship” scheme and moved with it to the US? Is someone who goes abroad both to make money and to evade a regime of truth (Foucault) imposed upon her a political or an economic migrant or neither? Both voluntary and involuntary migration is characterized by a combination of compulsion and choice. Both ”migrants” and ”refugees” are motivated by a mixture of fears, hopes, and aspirations, and often follow the same routes and are in constant contact with each other en route and at the destination.
Movements of different type and duration, often determined by expediency, may look different from the standpoint of national statistics but create very similar transnational social spaces. Indeed, the cultural and economic significance of tens or hundreds of thousands of summer language students in Australia or Britain for either the sending or the host country has much in common with that of labor migrants. Likewise, so-called ”astronauts,” Hong Kong businessmen who deposit their families in Canada but spend most of their time in Hong Kong and China doing business, are no less ”migrants” in anthropological and economic terms than if they had stayed in Canada. The same goes for the peripatetic Chinese in Eastern Europe, for whom it is hard to define a country of residence, or even for those who reside in China but come to Europe several times a year for business and tourist visits.
While European and North American (and Asian) governments have come full circle from treating boat people from China as refugees fleeing to freedom to dismissing them as economic migrants abusing the system, it is clear that such a shift owes more to political expediency than to the feelings of the migrants themselves. Indeed, officials in sending states have been more realistic in abandoning these binaries—not just for their political expediency but also because they did not grow up with the UN’s migration paradigm. Chinese government figures published on ”new migrants,” reflecting a more holistic view of migration, generally put together those who have left on student visas and work contracts with those who have left on family-sponsored or investor immigrant visas as well as with illegal migrants. Recently, an important paper by Jeff Crisp (1999) of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appeared, showing that UN is beginning to question its categories. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) seems more conservative on the matter.

23In keeping with the move towards transnational studies, scholars now think more at the supranational scale. They think in terms of groups that can be thought of as translocal, transnational, or diasporic, rather than as migrants. It is a different set of questions, about how these people relate to their homelands, what kinds of ties, exchanges, networks, and ongoing movements are taking place between their places of residence and places of origin.

24In some ways, this is a reflection of what has been happening to diasporas in the later part of the 20th century. There is much greater access to transport, mobility, and communication, so there is a potential for groups to be connected supranationally, whereas in the past migration would have been a one-time move. In the past people might have written some letters home, or later they might have sent an audio cassette home, but they certainly wouldn’t have kept moving back and forth and calling on the telephone and creating the much more elaborate supranational organizations that they do now.

25Appadurai writes, “neither popular nor academic thought in this country has come to terms with the difference between being a land of immigrants and being one node in a postnational network of diasporas” (Appadurai 1996: 171). This quote is significant not only because of the shift in scholarship but also because it reflects the ways in which American scholarship might have been particularly conditioned by the idea of America as the prime desirable destination for migrants and by the idea of America as not building its nationalism on an ancient history but rather on a sense of identity that’s about everyone being immigrants. Focusing on “immigration” is another way of emphasizing the receiving society; it is about people coming in. Instead, we now hear more about networks of diasporas, and about America being one switch point for mobile populations.

26Appadurai talks about “the seductiveness of a plural belonging, of becoming American while staying somehow diasporic, of an expansive attachment to an unbounded fantasy space” (Appadurai 1996: 170). And here again, he describes something that is not just happening in scholarly conceptions but also in the experiences of migrants. Becoming American may be part of what their experiences are about, but not necessarily the ultimate goal. A transnational, supranational identity that includes the homeland and the networks with the homeland and diaspora communities in other countries becomes a greater goal than it might have been in the past. “Unbounded” is a very carefully chosen term here because it refers to the political border being less significant to your possibilities, to your sense of who you are. “Fantasy” is also highly significant because it denotes that political borders are in fact still more important than they may be imagined to be.

Migrants and transnational projects

27Basch, Glick Schiller, and Szanton Blanc’s concept of transnationalism refers to discourses and practices anchored in more than one nation-state. In Nations Unbound, Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc write, “often through the use of symbols, language and political rituals, migrants and political leaders in the country of origin are engaged in constructing an ideology that envisions migrants as loyal citizens of their ancestral nation-state (Glick Schiller et al. 1994: 3).”

28This again is a very big shift: the idea of citizenship as not necessarily singular and exclusive; that migrants could be citizens some place other than where they live and also potentially could be citizens where they are living. We are not really talking about a political designation any more. We are talking again about the idea, just as we talked about the idea of “nationness” no longer necessarily being tied to a political unit. Here we are talking about an idea of citizenship. Somebody might have a formal citizenship, but they might also think about themselves as citizens of another country. So we are also talking about a form of subjectivity.

29In many cases, we can still talk about a one-time move between one place and another. But much of the scholarship is going beyond that notion and employs concepts like movement, flexibility, links, flows, exchanges, networks, supranational social forms. All these are ways of talking differently about migration and diaspora. It is about a network of connections, rather than a dyadic emphasis on the sending and the receiving country—or in internal migration, the home site and the receiving site— and the relation between them. It doesn’t matter whether the movement is subnational or supranational. Glick Schiller et al. write, “Today immigrants develop networks, activities, patterns of living and ideologies that span their home and the host society” (Glick Schiller et al. 1994: 4). But the notion of network or supranational social form is not defined by the optics of sending and receiving. “Rather than fragmented social and political experiences, these activities spread across state boundaries and seem to constitute a single field of social relations” (Glick Schiller et al. 1994: 5). So dyadic becomes single. And again you are at the level of the transnation, where it is not the relations between two states and what the migrants do between them that define it, but a single field of social relations.

Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton Blanc on the deterritorialized nation-state
in Basch et al. 1994: pp. 269–270.
To conceive of a nation-state that stretches beyond its geographic boundaries involves a social fabrication different from diasporic imaginings. To see oneself in a Diaspora is to imagine oneself as outside a territory, part of a population exiled from a homeland. In counterdistinction is the deterritorialized nation-state, in which the nation’s people may live anywhere in the world and still live not outside of the state. By this logic there is no longer a Diaspora because wherever its people go, their state goes too.
The state controls a territorial homeland and operates within the ”community” of states. However, a large sector of its ”citizens,” perhaps even a majority, live their lives within other states to which they may come to belong in the sense of having legalized residency, naturalization, or birth. The national leadership of these deterritorialized nation-states claim their dispersed populations as ”citizens,” because the members of their Diasporas conduct economic, political, social and cultural transactions that are essential for the maintenance of the home state’s survival.

30Glick Schiller et al. “define ‘transnationalism’ as the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (1994: 7).

Discussion on the meaning of ”postnational” and ”transnational”
Nyíri: ”Postnational” refers to the emergence of real alternatives to the nation-state, not to the end of the nation-state. The nation is not gone. It is obviously there. It is alive. And, in fact, people will say that in these new transnational forms, the nation can sometimes become stronger. The state doesn’t relinquish that appeal to the nation: a deterritorialized notion of the nation can continue appealing to people, they can strengthen the nation, and they can strengthen the state.
A Chinese student in our course asked why we insist on using the term ”nation-state.” It’s wrong, she said, to call China a nation-state, because it is a multinational state. One level of this question is semantic, especially when you consider the problem of what minzu means in Chinese: it means both ”nation” and ”nationality” and also ”ethnic” or ”ethnicity.” But there is also another level to the question. The point is that the nation-state is not just an analytical category; it is also a legal and political category, it is the subject of international law. States believe that they have sovereignty over their nationals and these people constitute a nation. What we are talking about is when alternative affiliations of people erode this national sovereignty. Either because they are affiliated with several states or because they are affiliated with collectivities that are not states at all.
It is the latter case that I would call cosmopolitanism. People say: I am not a Hungarian, give me a break, I am an anthropologist. I don’t care where I was born. There are religious organizations—I guess the most commonly cited would be certain Islamic religious groups that have great international networks—that are organized purely along the lines of religion. For example the famous insurgent commander Emir Khattab in Chechnya— nobody cares or even knows where he is from. It doesn’t matter.
As to the term ”transnationalism,” people who come out of the Basch – Glick Schiller tradition, generally use some definition based on theirs: ”the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multistranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Basch et al. 1994: 7). Transnationalism in this view is a process that does not discard national categories but uses them flexibly. When I am in Hungary, I am, say, Chinese. It is important for me that this is the Chinese national holiday, I will participate in their festivals, I will go and watch their videos. But when I go back to China, I will say all the time: sorry, your rules don’t apply to me, because we in Hungary or in America don’t do this kind of things. Transnationalism is this kind of multiple attachment when you continuously, depending on the situation, make use of different national symbols.
Duara: Arjun Appadurai wrote his article in 1992, although it was published in 1993, and Basch et al.’s book in 1994. So there is a succession. Basch et al. clarified the use of the terms to some extent, but even there, there is a lot of confusion.
The problem with postnationalism is that there is a real (not just a theoretical) issue involved. What do we mean when we say nationalism? Because of our historical experience of nationalism with the territorial state, we tend to think that unless a phenomenon is bounded off territorially it cannot be a national phenomenon. So you can talk about it as postnationalism or transnationalism. But the fact of the matter is that nationalism has an ideology of bonding, which is theoretically separate from territorial boundary. Though, of course, in recent history most of the bonding has been by putting soldiers on boundaries. Premodern societies did not invest so much money in those boundaries or frontier zones. If we think of closure, of closing your own group off to the outside, as fundamental to nationalism, then what we see today is not postnationalism at all. It can be in fact a second version of nationalism.
In my book Rescuing History from the Nation (Duara 1995) I talked about the closing-off process as creating hard boundaries in place of soft boundaries. In premodern societies you had a lot of soft boundaries and people could have multiple identifications, sometimes they could be, for certain purposes, they could be, say, Muslim or Christian. What nationalism tended to do was create a single, supreme loyalty. Deterritorialized nationalism has a different reality from territorial nation, i.e. people in deterritorialized nations actually live in different places, they deal with different types of people, and necessarily feel the impact of all these different situations. So there is the opportunity for reopening, for turning hard boundaries into soft boundaries. In other words, the technology and the potential for hard boundaries to exist continue, but there is also new potential for soft boundaries.

31Glick Schiller et al. are doing similar things as Appadurai, but they have a special emphasis on figuring the nation-state in relation to migrants. They are interested in how that nation-state relates to people who are not living in the political state. And the nation that spans the political boundary of the origin state becomes very important to them. They write:

De-territorialized nation-state building is ... a form of post-colonial nationalism that reflects and reinforces the division of the entire globe into nation-states. ... To see oneself in a diaspora is to imagine oneself as being outside a territory, part of a population exiled from a homeland. ... In counterdistinction is the de-territorialized nation-state, in which the nation’s people may live anywhere in the world and still not live outside the state (Glick Schiller et al. 1994: 269).

32This, in some ways, is playing a word-game, because of course we are talking about the political states as territories; so if you migrate, you must live outside the state. What the authors are talking about is a kind of deterritorialized state. It is a kind of ideological reformulation that allows people to be a sort of citizen even though they live outside the territory. And if they can be thought of as citizens, then all sorts of claims can be made on them, for political loyalty or economic contributions and remittances. What the authors are talking about is nation-states making an ideological move to claim migrants as continuing to be part of the states. This is very different from the grassroots, unofficial, nonstate organizations that Appadurai talked about—Habitat for Humanity or Queer Nation. In his case we are talking about transnational organizations that are distinct from states. Here we are talking about a situation where the states themselves are trying to bring migrants back into the definition of who the state is.

Discussion on transnational politics
Nyíri: An extreme example is one recently related by Luis Guarnizo, another prominent scholar of transnationalism. In the United States in the early 2000s there have been several laws regularizing illegal immigrants from Central America, particularly the Salvadoreans. According to Guarnizo, the Salvadorean government basically assisted Salvadorean migrants to the US in claiming asylum, because for Salvador, as for many countries, migrant remittances are one of the largest economic inflows. And to a lesser extent, the Chinese state is certainly also doing this, because when there are Chinese people coming to Europe to claim asylum, on the one hand of course the Chinese state says that they are not true refugees, they are not persecuted, but on the other hand, it puts the blame not on the migrants themselves these days, but on the receiving states for having lax immigration policies. And when official delegations come to Europe, they sometimes visit these people who claim asylum on the basis they are persecuted by those very authorities. So I think this process of ideological forgetting that Louisa Schein is describing is accelerating. It is another aspect of time-space compression. And sometimes such acceleration actually results in a qualitative change, because, after all, human lifespan is limited. Something that happens very quickly within one person’s career is different from it happening over a period of decades.
Anna Urbanska (student): In the Tibetan diaspora in India, there are many people who have never seen Tibet. They live in India and imagine their Tibetan homeland that is very important in constituting their identity. Simultaneously many of them have links with people who sponsor them. Organizations supporting Tibet arrange for individuals to sponsor Tibetan children. This creates links with the US, Germany, and so on. What is the most important in that situation? How to conceptualize the space these migrants, who see themselves as a classical diaspora unable to go back home, live in?
Schein: My research on the Hmong from Laos shows a similar situation. Many Hmong, after having fled Laos during the Vietnam War, have spent time in camps in Thailand, which in refugee language is called the second country. And the third country is where they live today. In some ways India could be thought of that way, because people came out of Tibet and settled there with the idea that they would go on somewhere else but in fact many didn’t. And that is true in Thailand with the Hmong as well: they came out of Laos, they never got approval from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to go abroad, they never got accepted to a third country, so they settled in Thailand. Now there is another generation of children that is growing up in Thailand. It is not the homeland but it becomes the home country. I don’t know if you want to call it a triple loyalty, or if you really start to want to talk about supranational social formations that also connect them to Tibetans who had already migrated to third countries. So you got a very complex linkage.
In response to your question, another thing that happens is that the idea of exile is maintained longer than it is relevant. A lot of Hmong in Southeast Asia still have antipathy toward China, where their original, ancestral homeland lies. They have been out of China for many, many generations, but they hate China because China drove them away. And they are repelled by China because in Southeast Asia they fought Communism, and they still see China as a Communist regime. Even though they start to travel to China, they even invest money to help their coethnics within China, they still have this notion that China is a place of political exile.
So in parallel to forgetting, there is also the resilience of the notion of exile. And I would imagine a similar thing going on in Tibetans in India, with their notions of home-land—both loved and hated.

33Glick Schiller et al. give examples where a state lays claim even to those migrants who had left as refugees or exiles, because of some political conflict with those states. In many cases, the historical process that could be described as ideological forgetting takes place, in which, after a period of time, that form of the nation comes to supersede the political conflict that had pushed those people out. Certainly this has happened with many Chinese migrants, who had thought of themselves as anti-Communist, and then after the economic reforms were able to think of themselves as supporting the new economic regime and therefore able to be nationalists again. In this case, “Chineseness” came to supersede political conflict.

Minorities and subnational identities

Ethnically complex sending states

34Many discussions of migration assume a one-to-one correspondence between the cultural identity of migrant or diaspora peoples and the cultural identity of a homeland. This homeland is routinely described in the terminology of the nation-state. In other words, you can talk unreflexively about the Philippines and the Philippine diaspora, or Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. But the situation is not as simple as that. This way of thinking assumes that migrants come from a place where their people have a sovereign state, and people who migrate go through the process of becoming minorities from being a majority in their home nation. However, there are also people who were minorities in their country of origin and are traveling as minorities. These are the ones I am going to be talking about next.

35Likewise, sending states themselves often are complex multiethnic states. When we talk about the Chinese diaspora, does it include Tibetans, Miao, or Mongolians? China has 56 official minzu or “nationalities.” It includes the Han, who account for 92% of the population, and 55 shaoshu minzu, “minority nationalities,” such as Tibetans, Koreans, Dai, and many peoples in the southwest.

Dikötter on minzu
Many terms were proposed by early 20th-century Chinese reformers and then revolutionaries to mean ”race” and ”nation,” but the ones that stuck were zhongzu and minzu respectively. Minzu is often translated as ”nationality.” I would say that the meaning depends on the context. In the revolutionary context, Han minzu is a race or a nationality, which is distinct not only by culture, territory, or history, but by the blood that flows through its veins, up to the Yellow Emperor.
When we talk about notions of race in China we have got to bear in mind that in China and in many other countries, perhaps not so much in Germany, notions of race were seen as not just physical but a package of physical and cultural. A minzu has an ancestor, a territory, a history, a culture. Culture may change. Territory may be lost. History may be suppressed. But the blood, the ancestry does not change.

36It is interesting that the ethnic composition of China is sometimes quite absent from Chinese studies. Yet, I expect the shaoshu minzu share to go up because overall, minorities are allowed more children than the Han, and because of other benefits, such as special quotas in higher education, can make it advantageous to belong to a minority.

Dikötter on family planning benefits for minorities
By law, ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than one child, while the Han are normally allowed only one. But you have to be very careful to see how this is actually implemented. There is of course good research on the one-child policy. A number of books and articles have been published on how it is being implemented in this part or that part of China. Quite clearly, the government wishes to see itself as giving extra allowances to minorities, but the information that comes out e.g. from Tibet is really controversial.
And there is another problem. If you actually consider the one-child policy separately from the emphasis on eugenics, you are missing a crucial aspect. If you are Hui (a Chinese Muslim), for example, you should be able to have more than one child, but the Chinese authorities view endogamic marriages in a very critical light, and they accuse Hui people of marrying within the same village. They may, on the one hand, be allowed to have more than one child, but with the eugenic clause on the other hand, they may not be allowed to reproduce.

Latent multiethnicity within the Han

37Many scholars doing Chinese studies in the West also talk about multiethnicity within the Han. This “latent” multiethnicity becomes more explicit in migration. People come from different dialect groups, different regions; they are identified as Hakka or Shanghainese, and even among Han migrants, regional dialect and ethnic designations make a difference.

Dikötter on the ethnic continuum within and beyond the Han
To us now it seems very clear who is a Han and who is a Manchu. But human beings, being what they are, don’t wait for some government approval to move from one part of the country to another, intermarry, or have children. If you just look at the old heartland of Manchuria, these borders have been open for centuries. In other words, somebody classified as Han and somebody classified as Manchu may speak the same dialect, eat the same food, pray to the same god, and share the same economic niche. They may not have that much difference. On the other hand, if you take the same sort of person classified as Han in the north of China and near the Vietnam border, the differences in food, in dialect, in local gods may be quite big. What I am saying here is that the ”Han” is an artificial construct.

The Tibetans

38But ethnic differences are especially important for minorities. There is a different politics and consciousness that they travel with if they are coming from the sending state as a minority population.

39Tibet is, for several reasons, an untypical example for China. One of the reasons is that Tibet is such a clear territory. Although the boundaries of Tibet are contested, boundaries continue to be drawn, and the Tibetan homeland is something that is talked about. By contrast, many of the minorities in China do not have a notion of a clear territory that could be distinguished from that of China. On the other hand, the Tibetan case is interesting, because it is a group whose minority identity has been politicized to the point of the supranational organization being very important. For some, this has meant opposing China politically from within Tibet. But there are also many living in Tibet who consider themselves Chinese citizens at the same time.

40There are a few processes in the politicization of Tibetan identity that are very important to note. One of them is that it is not only Tibetans overseas who are involved in this supranational mobilization. Many Western organizations are also involved. So this particular movement is a combination of ethnic organization and Appadurai’s idea of transnational organizations that are based not on one’s own ethnic identity. The Tibetan independence movement has members with multiple nationalities or ethnicities in addition to Tibetans. And because of that multinational character of the movement, it has a much greater impact and can generate greater pressure on the Chinese state.

The Miao

41Another example is the Miao people, the fifth-largest minority in China, scattered over about ten provinces in the south and southwest. In the 1990 census, they numbered 7 and a half million.

42I was in college when I started working on these people. I was interested in their cultural identity as migrants. I started from a very migration-studies perspective, and it was the Hmong refugees in America that said to me that if I wanted to really understand their culture, I should go to China. At that time, Hmong Americans didn’t have money or citizenship documentation to go back to China themselves, so I went to

43China before any Hmong Americans had gone. It was because of my different citizenship, my different political status within the American state that I was able to do that, but it was at their suggestion.

44Miao is the official term for this people within the Chinese polity. And within the Miao there are multiple dialect groups, just the way there is Cantonese, Shanghainese and Mandarin (putonghua). Within the Miao there are dialect groups that are mutually unintelligible. They cannot speak to each other in their own language. They have been separated for centuries in different parts of China. But they are designated by linguistic and historical researchers as one ethnic group.

45Some people will debate that and say they should be considered different ethnic groups. But, at any rate, this Miao category has been in place for forty-some years now and has a lot of legitimacy within China.

46One of the dialect groups of the Miao people migrated out of China in the 19th—20th century into northern Southeast Asia and settled in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma. In their own dialect, members of this migrant group call themselves “Hmong.” Many of those living in Laos were recruited by the CIA in the Vietnam War. One of the reasons why they were willing to be recruited was their minority status in Laos. They hoped that they would improve their situation within Laos by allying themselves with a foreign superpower.

47There are many Miao in China who also use the term Hmong in their own language. But they are only about one third of the total Miao population. So Hmong only refers to a part of this larger Miao category.

48And this is a politically very sensitive subject. Hmong outside China have been criticizing me for twenty years for using the term Miao, because they feel this term has been imposed by the Chinese. Historically, the word Miao in Chinese had a much broader meaning; it included many other minorities.

49The problem is that within China the Miao people are much more complex. And then you get into questions of: is it a multiethnic group? If there are different dialects, are we really talking about different ethnicities, different minzu, or do we agree with the Chinese research in the 1950s that officially established the Miao category? This research is often critiqued as merely a state imposition of policy. It is noteworthy that many of the Chinese researchers were minorities themselves. Beijing would send native speakers of various Miao dialects to work on their own people’s languages and histories.

50Regardless of whether that research is ultimately reliable, what I found in my field-work was that by the 1980s and 1990s the term “Miao” had a lot of legitimacy. The Miao that I know in China use the term “Miao” and do not think of it as a racist or discriminative term. This is the historical process of political-linguistic change. One of the things I try to show in my writing is that imposing the Hmong term from outside makes people from other dialect groups within Miao invisible.

51The acceptance of the Miao umbrella category has had very strong economic ramifications because, to the extent the Miao elites are represented politically, they can make claims on the state. They can say, we have seven million peasants, why doesn’t the central state put more money into economic development for our people? But I don’t agree with many political science interpretations that say the Miao is a category they have adopted simply because this is an instrument for them to be accommodated within the state. I think it has a much broader significance for them.

52The Hmong outside China nowadays visit the mainland regularly. Cultural classes are offered in China for diaspora Hmong that come back. I met a group of them in Guiyang. They had stayed in Guiyang at the university there and been taken to Miao villages. Miao in Guiyang mostly don’t speak the Hmong dialect. And the visitors said “We were so disappointed because we couldn’t speak to the people.” They were trying to find their roots but they had a great many linguistic and cultural frustrations. Hmong American visitors also strongly dislike hearing the term Miao, since they interpret it as a derogatory term. But at the same time, they want to make connections with people who call themselves Miao but not Hmong.

53Some of the Miao who don’t speak the Hmong dialect have recently tried to learn to speak so that they can communicate with the Hmong abroad and so they can host them better and can make them more comfortable, because the Hmong from abroad do not want to deal with Chinese and English. They have a very strong minority consciousness, and they feel that having to use Chinese and English to communicate indicates their people’s being oppressed by dominant cultures. They want a direct connection with their coethnics.

54This is what I have called oppositional cosmopolitanism (Schein 1998). Minorities everywhere want to be able to circumvent the majorities—the Chinese, the Americans, or whoever—and be able to have that transnational but also subnational link. The language question is really important and very frustrating for them.

55A lot of change has happened since the 1990s when the Hmong started going back. One of them is a shift in the costumes. Costumes, unlike language, is not a sensitive subject, and the Miao in China were able to import a lot of costumes typical of Hmong outside China. Many young women are changing their styles to styles of other dialect groups, and that doesn’t really bother them.

56But when the Hmong cannot make their language intelligible, it is deeply frustrating, because it challenges their sense of identity. They are looking for roots, for cultural authenticity; instead, they find these complex differences.

57Two things to note about the complex situation of the Hmong, who have been a minority at all stages of their migrations. The Hmong in the West have multiple homelands. They have Laos, which is the country they came from. (Almost no Hmong in the West come from Thailand or Vietnam or Burma, because it is specifically the US employment of Hmong in Laos as part of the secret war that produced political refugees, and these are the ones that were allowed to immigrate to the US.) So they are very interested in Lao politics, and go back and forth to Laos all the time now. They also go back to Thailand, because many spent time in Thailand in refugee camps, and many of their people from Laos still remain there. Thailand is not really a homeland, but it is a source of cultural roots and cultural recovery. And then they also have this very fraught, complex connection to China.

58The second point to note is about the concept of oppositional cosmopolitanism. I have actually retreated from this idea, and I am not sure that I still agree with it. But the idea was that if we are talking about people who are minorities everywhere, who don’t have a sovereign state that they can appeal to as a homeland, then there is a connection between subnational and supranational identities that can potentially produce a kind of empowerment for these people who feel marginal, excluded, oppressed, or discriminated against by their home states, whether in China, the US, Southeast Asia, or the Western European countries.

59These connections are created not only through travel, because only a few Hmong are actually traveling back and forth to Asia, but also through the production of all kinds of networks of communications, media, and economic exchanges. Economic exchanges are very important, because Miao in China feel—and most of them are— very marginal to economic reforms, and they are not getting rich. They see the opportunity to connect with their people in the West, who by their standards are very rich, as a way to improve their economic position in China.

60When I talked about oppositional cosmopolitanism—or oppositional transnational-ism—I wanted to think about it not necessarily as a political consciousness or a mobilization against particular states. These connections are taking place legally within states, and the Chinese state is actually very happy to have Hmong from the West donate money and invest in Miao projects. It is rather the potential effect of these supranational connections that I wanted to emphasize. As I wrote,

I suspect that ethnographies attentive to multilocal linkages will turn up a great deal of subterranean activity which may not name itself as activism, may not focus around oppositionality, but may in fact have the effect of subverting the constraints of the territorially based state. As ethnographers, then, and interpreters of ethnographic data, let us attend not only to resistance per se but to oppositionality as an effect of translocal practices—especially those practices concerned with identity production (Schein 1998: 293).

61In some ways I was reacting here to Appadurai talking about very organized and conscious movements like the Greens or Habitat for Humanity, and I was thinking that there should be another way to formulate oppositionality. In this formulation, minorities would simply be circumventing the constraints placed on them by their respective states. We are not talking about Miao and Hmong organizing themselves like the Tibetans, in a very antistate organization. But the social, economic, or political consequences of Hmong and Miao having transnational linkages could have the effect of improving their position within the states of their residence, politically or economically or even culturally.

62The Chinese state is in a peculiar position vis-a-vis the Hmong Americans, because these are not migrants out of China, except that they had quietly crossed the border several decades or centuries ago. The big migration, the one that has political significance now, happened out of Laos to the West. China is in an ambivalent position because it wants to treat Hmong migrants just like overseas Chinese, huaqiao, who might come back and invest in their homeland and help the economy. But at the same time, it is sometimes apprehensive that overseas Hmong, like Tibetans, might be a political threat in some way. The Miao who want to go abroad from China never know whether they get an exit visa or not, because sometimes the Chinese state sees their ties as politically dangerous, and at other times as politically or economically advantageous.

Li Anshan on whom China now considers as the ”minority overseas Chinese”
Li Anshan on ”Ethnic Minority Overseas Chinese” (Ethnic Minority Huaqiao and Huaren, EMHH)
Li Anshan is a professor at the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University.
This text is an unchanged excerpt from Li’s paper A Survey of the Study on Huaqiao-Huaren in PRC (1950–2000)—With Reference to the Study on Ethnic Minority Huaqiao-Huaren, presented at the Migrating Identities and Ethnic Minorities in Chinese Diaspora seminar at the Centre for the Study of the Chinese Southern Diaspora, Australian National University, 26–28 September, 2001. It gives a picture of the increasingly wide scope of the notion of ”overseas Chinese.”
EMHH: the Criterion
Who are the Chinese? The Chinese are not only the Han; the Chinese are a nation including 56 nationalities (ethnic groups), the Han is one of them. Who are the EMHH? Tan Tianxing once outlined a definition: ”All the ancestors of the Chinese minority living within China who have migrated outside of China can be called Chinese minority Huaqiao (if they maintain their citizenship of China) and Huaren (if they have obtained the citizenship of other countries).” But how can we identify the EMHH? What is the criterion? Xiang Dayou also made it clear that the EMHH have two criteria: their Chinese origin and their emigration to the present state after its founding. Tan’s statement is clear only as a definition while Xiang’s criterion is important but not enough. We need more to identify the EMHH. A tentative criterion of the EMHH is listed below. In my opinion, the criterion should contain five elements: Records, Origins, Objective, Time and Subjective. This criterion of ROOTS would help us to identify the EMHH.
There must exist some kind of historical record to indicate that the ethnic minority group is originally from China; in other word, they belong to an ethnic group either originally from China or living in China now. There are three kinds of Record:
1. Oral Record, such as oral history, oral literature or oral tradition, ethnic poems or folklores, etc.
2. Textual Record, such as books, annals, Jiapu (family history), Zupu (lineage history), etc.
3. Structure Record. It has at least four aspects: belief (religious belief, social values, etc.), social structure, productive style and life artifacts (tools, tombs, gravestone, etc).
Record is very important to identify the EMHH.
There must be evidence to indicate that the members of the group are the descendants of the Chinese. This element is comprised of two major factors:
1. Home Town. Their hometown or home village is in a certain place in China. The group should know that place either through oral tradition, family history or some records.
2. Migration route. They should know the way of their migration. Some of them may have not directly migrated from China, but through other country (or countries).
Origin usually has to be supported by the Record.
Objective Chinese
There should be certain signs or cultural symbols that indicate the ethnic group are Chinese, and their ancestors used to live in China. The most important here is that they should keep some elements of Chinese culture.
1. Keep their language. They still speak the same language of the related ethnic group in China; or their dialect is identical with or similar to that language.
2. Keep Chinese names and signs. They keep some signs of their home village by means of their names, the names of their group, communities, roads, streets, residential areas, etc.
3. Retain Chinese customs. They still have festivals or social activities similar to the ethnic group in China, keep their customs of home village, etc.
Time of the Migration
The time of the migration is very important. The group must have moved to the present country (or location) only after the founding of the state there. We cannot consider the origin of an ethnic group as Chinese without time limit. Before the state was founded, although the ethnic group have the same origin as the one in China, they are indigenous, neither ”immigrants” nor ”overseas” (or ”overlands” for that matter). Therefore, they do not belong to ethnic minority Huaqiao-Huaren. Only after the founding of the state, the new comers had to either ask for permission from the polity to settle down; or fight with the aborigines for the right to settle down. They are real immigrants, and can be regarded as EMHH.
Subjective Chinese
The group should willingly claim they are descendants of Chinese. This can be shown through different ways.
1. Be aware or even proud of their Chinese origin, willing to visit their hometown or village once a while.
2. Try to maintain the relationship with their hometown. They use various ways to express their feeling towards their hometown, try to maintain the linkage with their hometown in China (donations, investment or help in other ways), and care about the development of their hometown.
3. Consciously seek roots in China. The second or third generations still remember their ancestor’s teaching and try to find or visit their hometown in China.
The five elements (Record, Origin, Objective, Time and Subjective) can be remembered by their initials ”ROOTS.”
EMHH: the Statistics
How many of the EMHH are there in the world? Both Xiang Dayou and Tan Tianxing have estimated that there are about 3,100,000 EMHH outside China. Some have become citizens of the countries where they have settled, some still keep their Chinese citizenship. Through a detailed study of the literature, I found there are much more EMHH than their estimation. My calculation is that there are more than 7,000,000 EMHH all over the world.
Finally, I have to stress two points. First, the EMHH have a close linkage with so-called ”cross-border ethnic groups.” The two groups have common as well as different features. There are altogether more than 30 cross-border ethnic groups in China. Some of them are EMHH, some of them part of EMHH, some not EMHH. For example, the Nung, the Hmong and the Yao in Vietnam and the Zhuang, the Miao and the Yao are cross-border ethnic groups. At the same time, the Nung, the Hmong and the Yao in Vietnam are also EMHH. The Gin is an ethnic group in China, their origin is the Viets in Vietnam. They migrated from Vietnam to China as early as the 1400s. Therefore we cannot count the Viets as EMHH.
More important, the Chinese is not equal to the Han. In China, there are 56 nationalities (ethnic groups), with the Han being the biggest, accounting for 91.59% of the whole population. The ethnic minorities account 8.41 per cent. The Chinese are not only the Han. The Chinese are a people including 56 nationalities (ethnic groups). Therefore, the Huaqiao-Huaren are not only the Han Huaqiao-Huaren, they also include the ethnic minority Huaqiao-Huaren. As the above-tables show, there are altogether 7,016,027 EMHH in the world. If we add those not included in the tables either by countries or by ethnic groups, they should be about 7,100,000.

Research methods and anthropological fieldwork

63The shift from migration studies to diaspora or transnational studies presents new research problems and issues of research design. What is your site? How do you territorialize your research object? How much should you territorialize your research?

64For anthropologists, this is an especially difficult issue, because we do fieldwork. We need to be in place physically and in person, talking to people, doing ethnography. How do you do fieldwork on something that is multisited or that appears, from a conventional standpoint, siteless?

65One of the resolutions to this problem of researching transnational or diasporic social forms has been the idea of multisite research (Marcus 1998). Instead of working on Chinese in Hungary you would work on a Chinese sending village in China and then you would track people to Hungary.

66Writing about researching multilocal grassroots activism in transnational contexts, community studies specialist Michael Peter Smith used the term “polyfocality” to describe the capability of people to think and act “simultaneously at multiple scales” (Smith 1994: 25). It is like a camera lens having more than one focal point. This is another metaphor for talking about multisite research. Not always about multiple physical sites but about different levels of looking at the same process. For example, Glick Schiller et al. (1994) in Nations Unbound look at state practices in regard to transmigrants, but also at the practices of transmigrants.

67In analyzing flows, exchanges, connections, anthropologists have become much more mobile as well. I have proposed the idea of a siteless ethnography of transnational practices. Extending the “multisite” method, such “itinerant ethnography” is a recognition of the deterritorialized character of the cultural politics that are under examination. In this research strategy, some venues are ephemeral, constituted by transient aggregations of people, such as festivals or international meetings (see Schein 1998a), or living rooms when the VCR is turned on. Others are mobile—such as those of videos, of video producers, or of returned migrants at a homeland site—and hence require the tracking of movements.

68The difference between multisited and siteless or itinerant ethnography is that the physical location is less and less important, though we try to retain a method of face-to-face ethnography. This idea is still very controversial, at least in American anthropological method. Many people are doing it, but they always worry about funding, job prospects, their legitimacy, and colleagues’ respect. It is very controversial not to have a long-term site where you can spend months and instead to go to many places. In my research on Hmong/Miao transnational ties, I've been to twenty or thirty American cities. I do participant observation at events or conduct interviews for a few days. And that itinerancy should be no less legitimate, because I am looking at the connections between places. I go back to places, I have long-term relationships with people. The scale at which I am working is not one local site, but a much larger, even supranational, network in which people move and communicate.

Nyíri on methodological problems of the study of transnationalism
The study of transnationalism raises methodological challenges both compared to sociological studies of migration—which typically deal with migration processes already completed—and for anthropological fieldwork. ”Fieldwork”—close observation of human behavior in a particular setting—has been the hallmark of cultural anthropology. Traditionally, fieldwork meant residing some considerable length of time among the group studied and participating in their activities. As people’s mobility increases and more attention is paid to studying people who move, the definitions of fieldwork are changing.
1. Tracing transnational connections requires going beyond a single site.
For example, if studying the Chinese in Hungary within the confines of Hungary’s borders, one would fail to uncover the social and economic spaces of the migrants as they frequently move, trade, and communicate between Hungary and other European countries as well as China. While it still makes sense to speak of the ”Chinese in Hungary” as a stable group sharing certain common characteristics, the individual members of this group are constantly replaced through an in- and outflow of persons. If we were to prepare maps of socioeconomic spaces, they would be different for each migrant. Chinese migrants resist and appropriate various local institutions, discourses and symbols in different ways in different places. To varying degrees, the same is true for all transnationals.
2. Basic underlying concepts of migration studies such as the distinction between migrant, traveler, and refugee or legal and illegal migrant have become obsolete.
Let us take a ”permanent resident” in a foreign country who spends half of his time in the home country and in third countries, a ”foreign investor” who gains that status in his home country after only a few months of residence abroad, and a ”tourist” who only makes short trips abroad but maintains a business network there. Is the distinction between them a useful one? This is not only a conceptual problem but also a data-collection one, as governments and international organizations maintain the old, rigid boundaries between categories of people who move, with mostly incompatible databases. Movements of different type and duration, often determined by expediency, may look different from the standpoint of national statistics but create very similar transnational social spaces.
3. Most quantitative data collected by national authorities reflect only part of migration processes and may be misleading
because (1) they use irrelevant criteria, such as household registration or residence of a half year, in defining whom to count as a migrant, and (2) they are unreliable. Figures on illegal migrant flows used by law enforcement and international migration agencies often circulate from publication to publication for years without changing, while the real situation is in rapid flux. On the other hand, useful quantitative data samples may come from unexpected corners. For example, asylum application data provide a good sample of migrants from Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces of China to Europe if one accepts qualitative findings that there is no separation between so-called legal and illegal migratory flows within that group. Solicitors or NGOs often maintain databases of asylum applicants that run into the thousands, and contain more information, for example, on place of origin or family relations than official statistics.
4. While anthropology is increasingly embracing the study of texts, this is particularly necessary in the case of transnationalism.
Migrants now often articulate their experiences, create public discourses of belonging and write their own history in an array of printed and broadcast media after they have migrated. In addition to a partly intentional process of identity construction and history writing, these media report on business opportunities, amnesties for illegal aliens, and other factors that influence migration and investment flows. Only ten years after the beginning of Chinese migration to Hungary, eight Chinese periodicals are published in Budapest, four novels and two nonfiction accounts have been written and two television serials created by migrants on their experiences in Hungary. Through such media and personal networks, a Chinese in Latin America is informed of amnesties for illegal immigrants in Italy early enough to be able to go there to benefit from them.

69American anthropologists are very concerned to be distinguished from sociologists, who might go to some place doing interviews for two weeks and then write something. For American anthropologists, that long-term engagement is crucial for their sense of professional identity. I can draw on twenty years of doing research with Hmong in the West and in China. It is cumulative and long-term, but also ephemeral or episodic. Mobility is not just a convenience; it is the most appropriate method to research the kinds of mobilities and linkages that are being made. Spending a continuous amount of time in one place is in some ways almost against the idea of trying to research the connections between them. But sometimes an event or a festival happens, and I cannot be there. Then I have to use what I call traces: interviews with people afterwards and promotional materials or documentation of the event. I don’t go to the Chinese culture classes that are offered for Hmong from America in China, but I do read the texts and see how the Miao in China are promoting these activities to the Hmong from abroad. I also have a major project of collecting, watching, and interpreting videos that Hmong Americans are making about Asia. I cannot go along with every Hmong who takes a camera to Asia and makes a documentary or a story, but I do watch the videos and interview the producers.

What does Schein mean by ”itinerant ethnography”? Does it differ from ”multisite research”? What are the methodological implications of these terms? How are findings affected by such approaches?

Media in research on transnationalism

70Cultural representation may be embodied with living people, or it may be mediated.

71Media are so powerful because they circulate so much further than their producers. Attention to media in research on nationalism goes back to Benedict Anderson

72and, before him, Karl Deutsch (see Deutsch 1961). There is a tendency to assume that

73media is a newly important thing, that it has become important with the rise of satellite broadcasting and instantaneous, electronic forms of communication.

Anderson’s Imagined Communities see pp. 5–6

74There obviously has been an explosion in the last few decades. There is time–space compression; an increasing number of people depend on instant access to media (cell phones, Internet). This means not just instantaneity but that there is much less importance of face-to-face contact, because media can create bridges that were not nearly so easy to create before: you actually had to have people physically move to form a connection.

75But according to Anderson’s idea, which has become very influential, media was instrumental at the very inception of modern nationalism. As Appadurai writes:

Modern nationalisms involve communities of citizens and the territorially defined nation-state who share the collective experience, not of face-to-face contact or common subordination to a royal person, but of reading books, pamphlets, papers, maps, and other modern texts together. In and through these collective experiences of what Benedict Anderson calls “print capitalism” and what others increasingly see as “electronic capitalism,” such as television and cinema, citizens imagine themselves to belong to a national society (Appadurai 1996: 161).

The importance of media for transnational spaces

76This distinction between face-to-face contact and contact via media with other members of the community becomes even more important when you talk about transnational, global spaces. If you have media to connect people, they don’t need to be face to face to think of themselves as part of a community. And it is not only because media connects people at the level of the content of what they see, hear, or read, but also because people understand themselves as consuming the same media in different places, and that practice of collective consumption also constitutes this community. Importantly, too, Anderson believes that nationalism arose through the capitalist drive to produce newspapers and books, as part of the capitalist process of producing commodities for sale. Nationalism being promulgated by the state through the official media’s discourse is a phenomenon that arose after this initial capitalist push.

77The argument has been made since Anderson that many of these ideas about the way that media produces a sense of community can also be applied to transnational, supranational forms of identity.

78Media is so key because it facilitates a sense of oneself that is not so tied to one’s physical location. So it is not only that Hmong Americans now have coethnics on the other side of the Pacific, and then they want to see movies about them. But rather, in my argument, Hmong Americans see a lot of movies about their people in China, and then come to imagine themselves as more of a collectivity. Their subjectivity about who they are and what the global scope of their ethnic group is is actually shaped by the media that they are consuming. It is key to how they understand themselves.

Duara on the importance of who controls media
The difference between more recent times and earlier is not so much that earlier there was no visual media but who controlled the media. It was the territorial nation-state, and if you look at it, outside mature capitalist Western societies, it still is. That is the situation Karl Deutsch described. How many people could have private resources for producing this media? I think what is different now is precisely the extension of Benedict Anderson’s point about media being pushed by nonstate actors: by technology and, chiefly, by the market. (There is a dialectic between technology and market, as the market also produces technology.)
The result is that media is no longer controllable by the territorial state, and all modern nation-states have to face that problem. Sometimes more acutely, as in a place like China, which wants to control it more. When the media gets market-driven, and more important in the construction of the self by virtue of its sheer quantity and spread, that makes the nationalism of this deterritorialized period more volatile, much more intense. And because it leads to a kind of decentralization of the discourse on the nation, it leads to the loss of state control over authenticity. You might say there is a loss of mystery. There is no mystery of the homeland any more when one can keep seeing pictures of the homeland: it doesn’t feel like anything special. This creates a kind of emptiness. And this loss of meaning drives producers to produce more images, and then those are exhausted too, and a kind of cynicism appears. When the ideal of authenticity disappears, what are you left with? Anything is possible. You can say or do anything. That is one side of it. At the same time there is also a desire, a passion to have things mean something. This produces incredible volatility, cynicism, and ever-greater desire to have something that has mystery.

79When we talk about the relevance of media to nationalism and transnationalism, we have to distinguish between official and unofficial media, elite and more amateur forms of media production. We can talk about state-sponsored newspapers and television channels, mass-circulation ones that reach the whole population. CCTV (China Central Television), for example, reaches most of the population across the Chinese territory and beyond. At the other end of the spectrum, we can talk about grassroots amateur production of videos that circulate within the Hmong communities. Then we can add print newspapers, other types of print materials, television, DVD, movies, music cassettes, radio, and Internet.

The power of images

80A final point about contemporary media is the power of images. The power of images was not there in the kind of print text that Anderson originally described as one of the vehicles by which modern nationalism arose. Many people argue that when you have an image, particularly a moving image, you have a much more powerful medium for imagination. People can transpose themselves into other spaces and other realities much more easily when there is the audiovisual effect of a movie or video.

Nyíri on the role of media in constructing the identity of ”new migrants” from China
Official narratives of new migrants as patriots contributing to the development of their home country are being promoted and amplified by the media. Chinese globalization may have been relying mainly on personal communication, but is rapidly becoming mediatized: in the second half of the 1990s, not only various commercial television channels but also China Central Television (CCTV) has begun broadcasting via satellite. In Hungary, nearly every Chinese I have spoken to regularly watches CCTV and Chinese Channel, the first Chinese satellite station broadcasting specifically for Europe.
Driven by higher education levels as well as greater access to news and multimedia, the growth of media run by new Chinese migrants has been much more rapid than in earlier periods. New migrant media share a remarkably standard content, style, and layout. The style of new migrant newspapers is strongly influenced by the ”ideologemes” of PRC officialese. Shared layout includes the wording and positioning of and choice of fonts for titles and subtitles, the kinds of photos (ranging from protocol pictures of leaders to soft-core pornography), and so on.
New migrant media contribute to the construction of a ”global Chinese” identity with shared values, raising cultural Chineseness and transnational modernity in importance above the immediate environment the reader happens to be in. By presenting a homogenized worldwide Chineseness, the papers simultaneously reproduce the Chinese/ foreign dichotomy and re-”other” the foreign. Chinese and Western globalizations are pitted against each other.

81In my Miao field site in China in the 1980s, there was barely any television or radio. They had a public broadcasting system via loudspeakers in the village, and people conveyed the news orally. Despite hearing these broadcasts daily, very few people had acquired standard Mandarin. But by the late 1990s, sixty or seventy percent of the households had television, and they watched movies and stories that were seductive and pleasurable. There has been an incredible change in how many Miao speak Mandarin. This is really decisive evidence of how different it is when you have consumption-oriented media that draws people in and gives them forms of pleasure that make them want to watch and identify or connect. One informant in a Miao village in China spoke to how television becomes her way of connecting with the world: “The rich travel, the poor watch TV.” The impact of media is a case-by-case empirical question. Those cases when media is not present are really interesting comparative cases, because you can tease out other bases for collective identification in the absence of media.

Working on media as an anthropologist

82Anthropologists, at least American anthropologists, have been suspicious of media. Some believe that if you work on media, you are not working on people, therefore you are not really an anthropologist; you become a literary-studies scholar. This is the big divide that American anthropologists draw between “positivist” social science research and “literary-interpretative” humanities research.

83I work on Hmong movies because they are so critical to the formation of Hmong transnationalism and because they are a central part of the cultural environment for diaspora Hmong. I argue that this is good social science research even though it is on media. Video producers, entrepreneurs, sometimes just tourists from America take the camera and shoot videos and then bring them back, edit them and produce videos with covers and titles and sell them through Hmong or Asian stores or festivals or mail order. This is a huge ethnic business, and it is also a transnational practice. A few Hmong have made themselves quite a living by doing this. These videos are all in the Hmong language, so they are distributed only to Hmong in the West. People who don’t have the resources, documentation, or time to travel to Asia themselves can buy these videos and watch them. In this way they too gain a sense of being more connected to their coethnics in other places.


84To research media, I look at production, distribution, consumption, and the texts themselves. When I study production, I interview producers, directors, and cameramen. I pay attention to the production relations too, because they themselves are also transnational and embedded in global economics. Often a team from America goes over, and if it is not a documentary, if it is a narrative drama, they'll hire Hmong actors in Thailand or in Laos, or have the tape edited or the soundtrack done in Laos or sometimes in China, because the labor is cheaper. They hire coethnic actors in Asia to make the production less expensive, so that they can make more profit through sales in the US. Thus, even within this Hmong transnational group, you have production relations that are structured by a global economy.


85Next, I look at distribution. I spend a lot of time in Hmong stores and at Hmong festivals talking to people about how the videos get circulated, watching people buying them and talking to people as they are talking to sellers. I track the distribution, finding out which videos are the most popular and who the audiences are. I make catalogues of individual viewers’ collections, and ask them how they acquired the ones they own.


86Then I look at consumption, watching videos with Hmong people, talking to them about the videos, finding out which age groups or other groups watch them. Sometimes I'll show Hmong viewers a clip, and we'll have long discussions about how to interpret it. Finally, I also do my own textual work, which is where many American anthropologists draw the line. I believe it is important to watch the video myself and do my own interpretations, separate from what I record from audiences. I not only recount the story lines and other objective contents, but also produce semiotic readings of the ways images and editing might work. This is related to the issue of the power of images to form subjectivities. The way images and texts are put together in a video is not necessarily straightforward; the producer has power because he can present a certain take on Hmongness or history as the authentic version.

87But a producer will not say: I am manipulating my audience. You might get that level of discussion in Hollywood, but not from Hmong producers who are face-to-face with their audiences. Unlike in Hollywood, they are in constant dialogue. Viewers call the producers and say, “I liked that” or “you should change that”; they are not likely to accuse the producer of trying to manipulate them. But there is definitely an awareness of the emotional impact of Hmong identity through this experience of collective history—even though only the Hmong from Laos have that particular history. One of the most famous producers wrote a war drama, a heartbreaking story of a love that is never consummated; and he said to me that it was so compelling that if you didn’t cry when you watched it you were not Hmong. In other words, the producer wants to elicit tears as a way to create a feeling of community.

Approaches to media studies

88There are at least four approaches to the media as a mirror of transnational processes and transnational production of nationalism.

Can media per se create a collective identity? What does it need to do so: some ”natural” common features, individual charisma of speakers, or some additional contact outside the media realm? What special methods are entailed in studying media?

89One has to do with the way that news media affects and reflects international politics because it is a form of representation of nation-states and of political interests. The second type of approach is what Pál Nyíri does in his chapter where he looks at how a “new migrant” identity is constructed by various media. Here we look at the actual content as representation of migrant identities or experiences. The same thing could be done for national identities within China or beyond China. The third approach, which is more relevant to social scientists who do fieldwork, includes the ethnography of the production and consumption of these texts. That is, you talk to the producer, the newspaper editor; you talk to the people who read or watch, or you watch with them. And you also talk about distribution: who reads these papers, how they get circulated.

90There is a fourth approach: reflecting on our own work as texts that also contribute to the production of identities. This would be particularly salient in looking at academi-cized texts that are commissioned by groups involved with ethnic, national, or regional identities.

91State representations of identity do not necessarily coincide with what an informant says in an interview. Talking to people and observing daily lives reveal the cultural environments and subjectivities of these individuals. You get a different take from interpreting texts.

The anthropological interpretation of text

Schein on mediated transnationalism
Louisa Schein: Mediated Transnationalism and Other Elusive Objects: Anthropology, Cultural Studies and Questions of Method
In the brief space of this essay, I want to stage two relationships and to delve into their implications for anthropological ethnography. The first concerns the paradigm agonisms precipitated by the encounter of anthropology with cultural studies. These ”culture wars” have been a source of much heat in recent years, of acrimonious vilifications and reciprocal otherings, and I want here to query where the fires are coming from. The second relationship is that of the much-discussed imbrication of media and transnational-ism. On the one hand, I suggest that media produce forms of transnational subjectification. That is, in the consumption of media, people may develop social imaginaries and senses of community and identity that are supralocal—even when they are not mobile themselves. On the other hand, media production and circulation also generate actual transnational mobilities and new types of transnational relations. Media is never only about meanings harbored within the actual texts: media’s webs of significance are immanent in its social consequences, its relations of production, and reception as well.
Anthropology, Ethnography, Cultural Studies, Media: Some Polemics
While explications of just what the difference is between anthropology and cultural studies continue to be churned out, what I want to pursue here is what makes that difference seem unstable to me, the blurring of boundaries that has, despite proclamations to the contrary, been taking place in practice. I think anthropologists are actually doing more cultural studies than they are willing to acknowledge—what is this about? To be sure it is largely explicable as an artifact of institutional divides, of the corralling of resources, prestige and students by the literary disciplines—a process that has embittered so many anthropologists. But I think it is also about what I call the ”dread textualism,” the impression on the part of anthropologists that cultural studies has favored texts, popular as they may be, privileging semiotic readings to the neglect of contextualized ethnography.
Is text to ethnography as cultural studies are to anthropology? Yet another boundary has been anxiously marked in the embattled American academy where the political-economy-inspired insights and methods of Birmingham were imported first—albeit selectively—by the literary disciplines. In English and Comparative Literature, the pressure toward textualist methods has precipitated a decided reshaping, what some would call a hijacking of what—to traffic in canonicity—could be termed the British Cultural Studies canon. There is the inevitable inertia of the disciplinary conventions that fawn over the textual object, and there is what Stuart Hall noted some time ago already, the swift and heady institutionalization and professionalization of cultural studies in the United States which spawned all manner of careerist aspirations, of academics doing ”what they think of as critical political work ... while also looking over their shoulders at the promotions, stakes and the publication stakes” (1992: 286), and often digressing, under the constraints of still-disciplinary gatekeeping practices, from the initial problematics of British cultural studies.
But, returning to US importing practices, as Hall put it, with an implicit sigh: ”I don’t know what to say about American cultural studies” (1992: 285). The beauty of being an anthropologist, and yes, I am speaking with irony here, is that I don’t really have to say much. I could just rail against it as a corruption of a more ethnography-based investigation of culture, one that anthropology has long cordoned off as its turf. Somehow, though, I cannot seem to get convinced of the grounds for—to say nothing of jumping on—that bandwagon. As Rosaldo consoles, ”Losing a monopoly need not be such a bad thing; maybe there is something to be gained from working in more rough-and-tumble arenas where conflict and misunderstanding reign alongside innovative transformations brought by fresh applications and the remolding of familiar terms” (1994: 529).
I want to turn for a moment, then, to the media object, that incontrovertible presence in so many of our field sites, the same one that so many anthropologists still de rigueur dismiss as outside our bailiwick. We have for the most part dodged coming to terms, in any real probing mainstream fashion, with whether and how media makes a difference in our work, no matter, in my case for instance, if that work is in Fresno, California, or in the highlands of southwest China. This is not a statement to the effect that all anthropologists should turn toward scrutiny of the media presence in our data. To the contrary, I want to risk making the statement, so that I can subsequently unpack it, that media—movies, television, print, music, advertising, etc.—cannot be an anthropologist’s primary object. It is the centering of the texts at the heart of research—whether it is to study and interpret them, or to strenuously expurgate them as tangential or supplemental to one’s data-that trips us up. Nor is the remedy to situate media products with reference to a context that is by implication not-yet-mediated. That separation is increasingly hard to make. Lila Abu-Lughod tells a story of an initial field encounter that makes this point eloquently. She talks of arriving in a village and of the ”pleasure of recognition” that a local woman and her children evinced when she professed an interest in television. ”They brought out their little television set ... They invited me to come watch with them any evening, pitying me for not having access to a television set of my own. Television,” she recalls, ”bonded us. And this bond began to separate me from other foreigners, people who generally, as the villagers knew, did not follow the Egyptian television melodramas they loved” (1997: 110).
It is not, then, that media needs to be contextualized, it is that media is the context: for most of us it is an ineluctable part of our field encounters and we make authorial choices at the level of interpretation as to how much to excise it from what we write up. I am not talking about selection of this data or that in the construction of ethnographic texts—I am talking about taking epistemological positions as to whether media is constitutive of the social formations and subjectivities we purport to evoke. And I am also talking about unsettling the text/context distinction, by situating media simultaneously within both, as does Faye Ginsburg when she suggests: ”If we recognize the cinematic or video text as a mediating object—as we might look at a ritual or a commodity—then its formal qualities cannot be considered apart from the complex contexts of production and interpretation that shape its construction” (1994: 6). What would it mean—in terms of research design and methods—to respond to this quandary by taking the phenomenon of media-saturation seriously? We have barely begun to entertain this question.
The exploration that follows draws upon two related aspects of my ethnographic research. I touch on cultural politics and media consumption in post-Mao China, especially among the Miao ethnic group of China’s southwest. I then investigate media practices of Hmong refugees from Laos, coethnics of the Miao in China. These immigrants to the United States have become avid producers and consumers of their own ethnic video, in multiple genres, and some have traveled back to Asia and have transfigured those voyages into the contents of their media productions. Both the immobile Miao villagers in China and the world traveling Hmong Americans are implicated, through their deployments of media, in multifarious forms of transnationalism.
Is it Ethnography or is it Celluloid?
I am doing fieldwork in rural China in the 1980s. The site is a community of the Miao minority in the mountains of the southwest. These are the mountains furthest from the glittering centers of China’s putative economic miracle, and these are the people on whose backs the much-touted prosperities of the coastal regions are being acquired. As evening falls, I call upon a family, an elite family in which each of the young parents has done a stint living in cities, she for teacher training, he for forestry education. I hope to talk about all the things we have been discussing for months, but talking is not happening that night. The room is darkened, and a tiny black and white TV with snowy reception commands the living area of their three-room abode. Tonight there is a rare broadcast of an American movie: it is Crocodile Dundee, the story of a rough-hewn chunk of white masculinity from the Australian outback who so entrances a blonde American reporter that she contrives to bring him to New York to get a sexy sensation out of his savage-meets-the-city experience.
I sit down and we watch together. As the New York scenes begin to play through the techno-snow, the dubbed Chinese-speaking voices superimposed on white bodies and only partially audible through the crackle, the room becomes more highly charged. The film becomes a chronicle, which my viewing companions take very seriously, of a first encounter with the western metropolis. There, catalogued for them—in a text that uses humor to mitigate the discomfort, but at the same time spoofs the alien initiate as he discovers the city’s charms—are the technologies, the conveniences, the displays of affluence that had once been vilified by Maoist asceticism, but under Deng had become the objects of a most acute envious desire (Schein 1999a). It is a place they do not envision themselves ever going, yet in my presence, somehow, imagining a visit there in the company of a sympathetic American native, becomes more, well, imaginable.
Is this the kind of imagining that Appadurai urges attention to when he asserts that ”More persons throughout the world see their lives through the prism of the possible lives offered by mass media in all their forms ... as the ironic compromise between what they could imagine and what social life will permit” (1996: 53–54)? This sort of translocal subject formation is critical, but cannot be bounded, confined to the dyadic articulation between media texts and viewer positionings. As Mankekar has pointed out in her analysis of television reception in India, ”the viewer is positioned not simply by the text but also by a whole range of other discourses” (1993: 557). Assuming multiple forces effecting subject positionings, how can I get a sense of what an American movie means to certain Miao in southwest China, of the forms of imagining it inspires or stifles?
I can surmise these things not because I could, through a mechanical interview methodology, elicit from informants a narration of their viewing subjectivity, but rather because
I am familiar with the shape of their worlds, the images and structures that constrain and incite their fantasies. I can sense this because I lived with them, because we talked about all manners of things, because the kinds of things that mattered to them were deeply impressed on me through myriad encounters and engagements. In some ways these things came to matter to me too, but not because of a kind of naive identification with Miao villagers, a going native, but rather because of the structures that made our worlds proximate. It is not so much because I got inside their heads, because, to cite a fieldwork great grandfather (Malinowski 1960/1922), I obtained the ”native’s point of view.” It is, more accurately, because I too lived in the ambience of China’s post-Mao public culture, that kaleidoscopic mass-mediated era in which the growth of material disparities spawned a thickening of desires, quests and frustrations. Watching Crocodile Dundee together in China at that historical juncture was not so much about getting at how it played for the other, but about the way it played for us, and about the intersubjective space in which its reception took place.
Is it a dodge for me to emphasize the media object in reflections such as these, displacing my own implication in the orders of difference that put me there and that actually render me a text of an other yearned-for world? Possibly; and I am not going to attempt a definitive resolution of these questions here. Rather, I want to return to the issue of the disciplinary border transgressions implied by attending to the media-saturated character of these field encounters, and of the kinds of ”knowledge” they might produce.
Field moments such as this one defy a forceful expurgation of their media contents. Moreover, they shake what is meant by the field, if the text of Crocodile Dundee is partially constitutive of it. Again, the quandary is not new, but harks back to earlier struggles over subjectivism and the literary: ”In a discipline nurtured in the hothouse of positivism, where ‘to see’ was more than a metaphor, to admit to the literary was tantamount to admitting to the subjective, and the subjective was, unlike the objective, essentially blind” (Daniel and Peck 1996: 5). To confound the metaphor of blindness and sight, then, might we think in terms of a kind of second sight for anthropologists, one nurtured in the age of mechanical reproduction and savvy about the subtleties of representation? Here I would think of the recent recasting of the notion of the field by Gupta and Ferguson: ”Genres seem destined to continue to blur. Yet instead of attempting to... seal off the borders of anthropology from the incursions of cultural studies and other disciplines, it might be a far healthier response to rethink ‘the field’ of anthropology by reconsidering what our commitment to fieldwork entails” (1997: 38). Likewise, I may be reiterating what Sherry Ortner advocates as a reappropriation of ”a larger anthropology in which ethnography, theory, and public culture are held in productive tension” (1998: 415). At the minimum, what my citing of these strategic reflections effects is another way of hinting that the cultural studies that anthropologists have been so assiduously othering is already here, and may have been so for quite a while.
Transnationalism in and through Media
I come to a concern with the very media that has raised anthropological hackles through the concrete conditions of my fieldwork, through the specific types of practices I encountered and my attempts to make sense of them in historical and social context. From 1978, I had worked with Hmong refugees in the West, beginning in the years when they were just arriving from overbombed, war-ravaged Laos after becoming political exiles from a regime they had opposed. They had assisted the CIA in a secret war to block North Vietnamese from stealing through the Lao jungle and to deter the rise of the Communist Pathet Lao. They'd hoped in the process to protect a fragment of territory for their own politico-economic autonomy in the Southeast Asian highlands. Instead, with US withdrawal they were rendered involuntary migrants, acutely concerned about the depths of their losses—of land, loved ones, lineages, and lifeways.
Hence Hmong migrants have continued to live out their lives and their identities in a diasporic space—one that increasingly involves participation in an imagined, and highly media-constructed, supranational community. By the 1990s, a few Hmong Americans were also becoming transnational border crossers, regularly voyaging to Asian sites, especially Thailand, Laos, and China, on the strength of their First World capital and their US citizenship. They were going for tourism and to visit relatives, they were going for business ventures, and to import goods especially longed for by Hmong Americans, and they were going for other types of social alliances. A search for homeland brides, mistresses, and girlfriends was key for many of the primarily male Hmong travelers. In the 1990s, there was also a boom in camcorder-toting, world-traversing Hmong Americans who in turn included many less mobile others in their privileged travel by means of the circulation of images garnered from their Asian voyages. Media practices, then, had become pivotal in securing, generating, and collectively processing Hmong transnationality.
Among the well over 120,000 Hmong in the US, not a few have taken up various technologies of cultural (re)production—for music recording, newspaper publishing, or video making. This burgeoning production of Hmong media is not only recreational and by amateurs, but also by entrepreneurs who have made it their livelihood. Videos, shot, edited and marketed all by Hmong, are in Hmong language and, like all Hmong media, targeted exclusively for intraethnic consumption. Shrink-wrapped and usually copyrighted, they sell for up to $30 a piece. Although usually produced for profit, they are not backed by corporate or other advertising interests.
It is in such a productive media environment that homeland video takes its place. There are videos that portray Laos, birthplace of almost all Hmong Americans and scene of the Secret War orchestrated by the CIA in which Hmong fought as guerillas during Vietnam. There are those set in Thailand, where Hmong sojourned in refugee camps before being granted permission to migrate to the West. And there are those that document a mythologized land of origins in the mountains of southwest China. Several genres regularly appear on the market: narrated travelogues on the order of homemade tourism videos, stories, and folktales enacted in ”traditional” homeland sites, historical reconstructions and tracings of migration routes, dramatic restagings of war and flight, martial arts action stories, contemporary (melo)dramas concerning Asian lives, documents of festivals, pageants and other events, and an avalanche of music videos.
These tapes invite, or perhaps interpellate, Hmong Americans into a globally diasporic sensibility, one in which they can sense a connectedness to newly fashioned ethno-kin not only in the lands they themselves left behind in their own lifetimes, but in more distant Vietnam, Burma, southwest China. Describing immigrant literature, Azade Seyhan has suggested that: ”By remembering, reappropriating, and allegorizing into language, the ethnic immigrant subject invents a new cultural space for her personal and communal self” (Seyhan 1996: 184). This cultural space, media-generated for Hmong, is not in the form of a discrete subnational niche but rather sprawls over the globe. To capture the reception effects of viewing such wide-ranging images, I refer to the process of transnational subjectification. But, to go further, I maintain that the transnationality that Hmong media effects is not only at the level of subjectification but also at the level of social relations, of actual mobilities. What is called for in tracking these processes is what I call a siteless or itinerant ethnographic method that extends beyond the multisite approach that has been outlined by George Marcus (1998). It entails a highly mobile approach to fieldwork, one that permits rapid movement between a range of sometimes ephemeral venues, and one that builds in deep engagement with the texts embedded in these circuits. In what follows, I pursue this discussion by provisionally disaggregating production, consumption, and text.
Production. Hmong media with homeland themes involves decidedly transnational relations of production. Not only are Hmong American producers themselves traveling to Asia with their camcorders and crews, they are also involving many Asian Hmong and Miao in their enterprises. These involvements take many forms. Hmong American producers may hire crews and actors on site in Thailand or Laos. They may choose a popular Hmong/Miao singer or dancer in any of these countries and promote them as a phenomenon with special allure for nostalgic Hmong American consumers. Of late, one of the most lucrative ventures in the industry is that of Hmong entrepreneurs buying the rights to feature films out of Hong Kong, Thailand, China or even India and dubbing them into Hmong language. In some cases they also subcontract the translation and voiceover work to their coethnics in Asia in order to save labor costs. Video pioneer Su Thao, of ST Universal Video, who studied in Hollywood and has produced dozens of videos in Asia, actually established an office in Thailand near a large settlement of relocated Hmong from Laos. This way he could take advantage of regular involvement of locals and also expedite his projects. Transnational Hmong media, then, is unthinkable outside of these complex supralocal production modalities.
Consumption. The most sizable US Hmong aggregations are in the California Central Valley, Minneapolis–St. Paul, and Wisconsin where the presence of tens of thousands means that Hmong ethnic businesses thrive. Not surprisingly, these are the locations of much of the Hmong media production, and of the outlets for most direct sales. In every large Hmong community, ethnic groceries have sprung up which market not only a range of Asian consumables, but also Hmong media products—cassettes, CDs, and videos. In Fresno, St. Paul, even Wausau, Wisconsin, there are video shops exclusively for Hmong, offering sales, but mostly rentals, of hundreds of movies. Hmong American festivals, especially the large scale ones such as Fresno Hmong New Year in late December, and the Fourth of July Soccer Tournament in St. Paul, are glutted with open air stalls where producers and their agents set up tables to display and sell media products. Hmong consumers both pride themselves on establishing longstanding collections, and also regularly exchange videos between friends and family.
I have spent a good deal of time hanging out at various sales venues, watching people consume and talking to them about their choices. I also spend time in Hmong living rooms around the United States, cataloguing peoples’ media collections, watching with them and talking to them about their consumption tastes. Among the many genres and viewing modalities, I have particularly followed the videos with homeland themes, whether documentaries, dramas, or music tapes, with an eye toward understanding what difference they made in what I've called the forging of transnationality. What desires, what identities and identifications, what alliances are generated in the Hmong reception of homeland images? The following vignette illustrates some of the viewing subject positions, the range of ways in which Hmong Americans engage homeland material, emphasizing that while its appeal is highly differentiated, video is nonetheless a powerful agent in creating transnational presence in immigrant spaces.
In 1999, I visit a Hmong American grandfather in Philadelphia to find two big crates of videos next to a large-screen television, the focal point of his living room. ”This is my history collection,” he tells me. ”I am thinking of getting all my videos on DVD, and my tapes on CD, so I can keep them longer.” As he places the first box on the floor for me to sort, his two-year-old granddaughter rushes over to do her own sorting. She extracts tape after tape, strewing them across the living room carpet, glancing with a discerning eye at each one she discards. Finally she finds the one of her choice. It is China Part 3 by ST Universal Video. Wordlessly nudging her grandpa, pleading to him with her eyes, she insists that he play the tape. She plunks down in front to watch a kaleidoscope of dancing, singing and costume with narration in her first language, one she is only beginning to understand.
The elder tells me that the toddler’s favorite videos are the China dancing tapes and those of Hmong beauty contests. ”All the Hmong babies like this kind of video,” comments the child’s 28-year-old Dad, returning from his class with a quizzical look on his face. His younger sister, a 22–year-old Temple University student, has just told me that she enjoys every genre of videos, except the cultural documentaries. ”I don’t know ... I wasn’t born there,” she demurs, defending her disinterest. Her brother concurs, emphasizing that the China tapes are simply not engaging. He watches his daughter sit riveted before the swinging skirts of dancing Miao girls, the crooned melodies of old-time courtship songs, the virtuoso dancing of bamboo reed pipe players. He is not drawn toward the screen, but speaks directly to me, imputing a nascent ethnic identification to his daughter with a touch of incredulity: ”It’s the culture, I guess.” Later I observe that the toddler will throw tantrums if she is not allowed to dress up in the costume of Miao from China. And she is most elated when family members playfully address her by the name of Mee Hang, one of the most famous of Miao singers from China. As is typical in so many Hmong households, while the young adult generation remains nonplussed, both grandparents and young children are employing homeland videos to effect a sense of unity with the most distant of their peoples.
Text. This kind of devoted fandom is one type of consumption, but I want to focus now on another type, one structured around gendered spectatorship. In the bulk of Hmong American media, homeland desire is distinctly gendered. Videos range over the youthful faces and ornate adornments of homeland women, they strategically place attractive women in nostalgia films as a focal point for the gaze of the homesick viewer, and they fashion scripts of courtship, sexual trysts and marriages to homeland brides. How specifically does the costumed, singing, smiling, traditional woman get constructed as an object of longing? How might her incarnations in media incite forms of eroticism not present, or only latent, before the moment of watching her in so many genres of text? Here I take up the third aspect of mediated transnationalism, that of textual contents. The semiotics of homeland representations and the dense intertextuality that characterizes Hmong migrant media becomes a crucial source of insight. To explore the dimension of textual interpretation, and to make the case for its imbrication with other aspects of media study, I turn to the consideration of one video.
Dr. Tom, Parts 1, 2 and 3, is a text in transnationality. In the late 1990s, the video was by almost all accounts, the ”most popular” out of hundreds that were being produced, circulated, and consumed among Hmong from Southeast Asia now living in the United States. It was hanging out in a Hmong-run beauty salon in Fresno that I first heard of the then two-part drama Yuav Tos Txog Hnub Twg colloquially referred to as ”Dr. Tom.” Shot in Thailand on the spur of the moment with a shoestring budget and an improvised script, the blockbuster is the creation of Ga Moua, formerly involved in the Hmong music scene, and a frequent traveler to Asia. The story combines time-honored Hmong folklore motifs—including the tragic orphan boy and the exquisite torment of unconsummated love—with newfangled themes of transnational relationships gone wrong.
Set in a refugee camp in Thailand, Part One showcases a beautiful saronged young woman who is just falling in love with a young man who has been raised as her stepbrother after the horrible murder of his parents by a predatory Thai gang as they crossed out of Laos. In jets ”Tom,” a Hmong American man, with slicked hair, sunglasses, a cowboy-booted swagger, a camcorder, and claims of being a highly paid ”Doctor.” Tom immediately begins wooing the girl’s family with money, and convinces them that it would be best for everyone’s future if she marries him. Despite her broken heart, the family gives her away, just in time for her new husband to run out of money and flee back to his vindictive first wife in the United States, leaving the girl to wait, wasting her life indefinitely. It is the pain of this waiting that is evoked in the title of the video, which translates roughly as ”When will be the day that I am waiting for?”
The more didactic Part Two reveals the gradual demise of the evil-doing Dr. Tom, who turns out to be nothing but a janitor in an American doctor’s office. Lying to an uncle-in-law that he needs a loan to start a farm, he garners enough cash to race back to Thailand where he learns that his second wife has abandoned her marriage to him and returned to her original boyfriend. Having been resoundingly rebuked by her now-savvy parents, he tries in vain to impress many other women, all of whom let him know that they are no longer to be duped by men from America. Humiliated, he returns home, violently vents his frustration on his wife, who in turn reports him for domestic abuse, and he ends up, in a dramatic climax, arrested, handcuffed, and carted off to jail.
What is the social life of this story as it circulates in Hmong America, focalizing issues of gender in transition, of sexual exploitation? The wide consumption of the text makes of a relatively small-scale practice of male homeland sexual adventuring, a near-universal concern that touches both men and women in the Hmong Diaspora. When I first began watching and thinking about this video, I was intrigued with the question of why the director, a Hmong man and a regular traveler to Asia, would have produced such a morally didactic text. Why would a Hmong man with the potential to access the gender power that homeland touring has offered to male returnees produce a text that comes off as feminist critique? There are, I think, at least two ways of looking at this question.
First, the creation of this story, and its wrenching treatment of the tragedies of the accumulation and abuse of patriarchal power in its border-crossing modality, plays to a female market. Some Hmong I talked to told me that women are the primary purchasers and viewers of the videos, since they are more likely to be at home with limited English and idle time. Indeed, the director says that the reason Dr. Tom was jailed in Part Two was because women wanted to see justice done. Meanwhile, he was berated by Hmong men for creating such an unfavorable portrait of them.
The director’s attempt to placate a female viewership is one possible explanation for why Dr. Tom's message should come off as so didactic, but there is another way of thinking about how such a gendered critique should emerge from the editing room of an American man. I want here to fuzz up the comfortable categories of production, circulation, and consumption that have been so helpful in cultural studies method to unsettle any facile binary between authorial intent and audience reaction. Can Dr. Tom, the movie, be thought of instead as a node and a site of condensation for the intersecting concerns of
Hmong in discrepant social locations, all nonetheless confronting the desire to forge unities out of radical disparities and finding pleasures and agonies along the way?
The idea of such a videotext as a site of condensation rather than a product of a specific authorial intent is supported by the polyglot and collaborative way in which Dr. Tom was made. As the director tells it, it was a Thai driver who suggested the central premise for the film while chauffeuring Ga Moua, camcorder on his shoulder, to visit family members. Ga Moua availed himself of his relatives’ help, recruiting a niece to act opposite him as the beautiful yet reluctant bride. Other friends and relatives played the other roles, and they improvised the story and the lines as they went along. After the release of Part 1, audience members, as we've seen, also played a role in the creative process. Their feedback was in large part what, according to Ga Moua, propelled the design of the subsequent scripts. Dilemmas over how the transnational relationship with coethnics in Asia was to be carried out, and in turn represented, as well as fractures over gender and geopolitical positioning, all came into consideration as the text grew, not only through the creation of Parts Two and Three, but in the communal conversations that began to ensue with widening viewership. Indeed, Part Three ends with letters on the screen, a direct address to viewers in the first person plural: ”Thanks to all the people who have helped us put this video together and to those who have financed it. If we've done anything that’s offensive, please everyone forgive us.” More than an author’s mechanical response to audience demands, we can think here more concretely of the kind of social space inhabited by the text—one in which the story itself is imbricated in social life—rather than thinking of it as a text in a dyadic relation with audience reactions.
The Dr. Tom story, and its resounding reception within the Hmong American community, shows that ethnic media has a role not only in bringing the images of coethnics in distant Asia into Western living rooms for entertainment, but also of working through current concerns in the ongoing development of Hmong transnationalism. Hamid Naficy has written eloquently of what he calls ”independent transnational film” produced by immigrants making texts of their exilic lives.
By linking genre, authorship, and transnational positioning, the independent transnational genre allows films to be read and reread not only as individual texts produced by authorial vision and generic conventions, but also as sites for intertextual, cross-cultural, and transnational struggles over meanings and identities ... More, this genre considers the relationship of the transnational filmmakers to their subjects to be a relationship that is filtered through narratives and iconographies of memory, desire, loss, longing, and nostalgia. Memories are fallible, playful, and evasive, and the narratives and iconographies that they produce—in whatever type of film—are palimpsestical, inscribing ruptures, fantasies, and embellishments as well as ellipses, elisions, and repressions (1996: 121).
At the same time that Dr. Tom works through concerns about community there is another aspect, an intangible domain of incitement, the filmic framing of the homeland beauty, her irresistibility. For the many men who have not returned to Asia, or are contemplating it, the video is the stuff of fantasy, the intimation of romantic possibilities.
This theme comes home strongly in other videos, both fictional and documentary, on homeland topics. One widely sold video entitled Vib Nais, after the main Hmong refugee camp—Ban Vinai—in Thailand, is a nostalgic revisit to a site that many Hmong American viewers remember as the place they came of age. Contrary to the mainstream image of the grimy and demeaning squalor of a holding settlement where Hmong were forced to sojourn, this tape explores the feeling tones of the highly charged locales that remain so deeply engraved on the memories of those who made the camp their home, sometimes for over a decade. Having cinematographically surveyed key sites such as the school, the United Nations office, and the water pump, the tape devotes an especially ample amount of time to the relatively deserted road where young people used to court. The male narrator talks softly, describing with affection the niceties of holding hands, of playing, flirting. In a poignant rehearsal of loss, he laments: ”Now, I don’t know where my lover has gone. Maybe she still remembers when I was holding her hand and we were together.” The effect is enhanced by the placement of a popular Hmong beauty, a stylishly dressed Hmong Thai singer and star of the transnational Hmong music scene, who voicelessly accentuates whatever is the focus of the image, like a retro Vanna White.
Intertextual perspectives on romantic/erotic video themes also reveal nostalgia for a particular kind of male privilege. It is not only gender power but also an intensity of desire that is captured in the evocations of longing for first loves. China Part Three is a widely circulated video that documents the voyage of a group of almost exclusively male delegates from the United States to attend an ethnic festival in Yunnan. Along the way, they pick up some exotically dressed Miao women (of the Hmong dialect group), who ride their bus with them to the festival like escorts. On site, the producer and other Hmong American men are seen in their western trenchcoats and athletic wear opposite a seemingly endless number of ornamented women much younger than they are. The camera zooms in close, peering voyeuristically at their faces, and depicts them with the men playing a customary ball toss game traditionally reserved for courtship among unmarrieds. Some scenes even show flirtatious dialogues between the middle-aged men and the demure women.
We can speak, then, not only of transnational subjectification, but of erotic subjectification, as male viewers consume, along with images of homeland beauties, representations of a remembered sexual culture that includes such specificities as access to very young women, and marriage by capture (both of which are out of bounds in the US legal code). Interestingly, in Dr. Tom Part Three, once Tom has reached the highlands of Laos, he is finally able to procure a bride through one of the traditionally sanctioned methods, a method that would have been transgressive even in the Thai refugee camps and towns depicted in Parts One and Two. After courting a Hmong village girl to no avail, he assembles some clan members to abduct her as she walks on a deserted path. Once she has been ”with” Tom for a short period, presumably losing her virginity along the way, her parents agree to the union. While for Tom this may be a desperate measure, Hmong viewers know that the video rehearses a time-honored mode of acquiring a bride, one which many remember from their own or their parents’ personal histories, but one which is now only legitimate in remote places such as the Lao countryside. What I am suggesting is that there is a special aura of desirability that surrounds the homeland woman, an aura born of the culturally particular forms of conquest to which she is subject. In other words, it is precisely these cultural particularities, in an atmosphere of loss and nostalgia that accrue to the homeland woman’s allure. She becomes a quintessential product of what Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin (2002: 10) following Miller (1995a: 18) refer as the ”strategic objectification of culture” through media.
A decade ago, two anthropologists sparred over what was then framed as the postmodernism controversy. Elizabeth Traube (1989) did a reading of the film Ferris Bueller’s Day
Off in terms of what it told us about American social life. Michael Moffatt (1990) rebutted with an avowedly anti-postmodern counterreading of the text. His conclusion, however, is in favor of a kind of disciplinary rectification in which he impugns Traube’s authority by asking ”What ... is an anthropologist doing publishing an article in a journal of anthropology about the meaning of certain cultural artifacts which is based on no ethnographically rooted evidence of what these artifacts mean to 'the natives'?” (1990: 371–2). Despite Traube’s quip in retort, to the effect that Moffatt is guilty of an ”overvaluation of reception” (1990: 378), we are left with a quandary, the still-nagging dilemma as to what, methodologically and interpretively, would constitute a viable encounter with the mediated form.
The debate continues to revolve around the binary of textualism versus social context. In making the case for figuring media as an anthropological object, Abu-Lughod, discussing a television show, makes a bold statement in favor of textualism: ”How can we study the encounter between some Upper Egyptian village women and this television serial? With television programs, one is forced to talk not so much about cultures-as-texts as about discrete cultural texts that are produced, circulated, consumed.” (1997: 114). Indeed, only by encountering media texts inquisitively, deploying with impunity the reading strategies that have been used for literary and other filmic texts, can we engage them with the depth required to situate them in social life. But my point for the purposes of this discussion is that anthropologists needn’t privilege the textual per se, but rather the sign-saturated social life of which media is one element. In the case of Hmong Americans, and of transnational Hmong community, media is implicated in so many ways—from the economics of transnational production and domestic distribution, to the actual relationships forged in production relations, to the involvement of audiences in shaping the scripts they want to consume, to the incitements to travel and sometimes to pursue erotic attachments across borders. Theorizing social practice, in so many instances, then, cannot be undertaken with the enforced exclusion of media.
Hmong American media, then, can be seen as a polyglot enterprise that reveals itself to be a major force in Hmong social life, identity formation and economic strategies. It is never exclusively the politics of the American site that shape Hmong media and this is how it differs from case studies in specifically national contexts (Abu-Lughod 1995, Mankekar 1999, Rofel 1994). Fruitful anthropological work has been done on the kinds of transnational imaginings enabled through the consumption of media products from within particular localities (Appadurai 1996, Miller 1992, Schein 1999b, Yang 1997), but the peripatetic character of the likes of Hmong media demands more complex methodologies. Generated within webs of diasporic linkage, such media is produced in, circulates in, represents, and structures relations across national borders. Yet it is far from being generically cosmopolitan. Anderson has pointed out that ”Not least as a result of the ethnicization of political life in the wealthy, postindustrial states, what one can call long-distance nationalism is visibly emerging. This type of politics, directed mainly towards the former Second and Third Worlds, pries open the classical nation-state project from a different direction” (1998: 73).
This is why I emphasize the imbrication of media with transnational subjectification. ”Globalization and image culture do not exist separately first and then interact with each other. Image culture has not merely been globalized, nor is globalization merely characterized by the ubiquitous dissemination of transnationally produced images ... on a fundamental level globalization and image are inseparable from each other” (Yoshimoto 1996: 109). It is not only that the relations precipitated by Hmong media—from the transfer of dollars, to the transfer of wives, to the movement of travelers back and forth across the Pacific—are materially consequential at the supranational scale. It is also that the specific meanings embedded in so many of the texts that are produced can be seen as interpellating Hmong consuming subjects into a kind of border-crossing sensibility, one that sites their identity in no one nation-culture, but only in the interstitial spaces they have carved out through millennia of wars and conflicts with dominant others. This becomes the substance of Hmong collective memory and the focus of all manner of pained reflections on the differences that their dispersal has generated and exacerbated.
A text such as Dr. Tom, then, has a palpable social reality for those it addresses. It inhabits and enunciates the transnational space in which Hmong Americans live. Asked about Dr. Tom, most Hmong I spoke to chuckled or smiled, with a glimmer of irony. Why did they think it was so popular? ”Because it’s true,” most of them said, ”It’s a real story.” Not that this particular story actually happened, they hastened to explain, but that this kind of thing happens all the time. Some talked disapprovingly about the calculations of Hmong and Miao families, situated in the Third World and willing to offer their daughters to secure that transnational alliance that would magically transform their economic fortunes. What the text condenses is a collective concern over emerging cleavages, a painful awareness that beyond horizontal solidarity, Hmong/Miao transnationality is fraught with pitfalls for identitarian aims—a minefield in which those from the West suspect those in Asia of economic opportunism, while those in Asia see their Western counterparts as sexual predators. Read at the level of its social life in transnational space, Dr. Tom might be seen as a call for ethnic self-scrutiny in which the wrenching realities of internal exploitation could be brought to light and expelled.
Yet even as the Hmong sense of collectivity spans the globe, augmented by media messages, those same media messages may also play a role in refashioning the most intimate of interiorities. Transnational erotics, such as we see in Hmong media, remixes sex and space, revealing that physical distance and proximity are complexly intertwined in the contours of homeland desire. My object is to situate erotics not simply in the personal or the psychological, but in a transregional cultural economy in which national, ethnic, racial identities are always implicated, and in which global geopolitics participates in shaping longings and fantasies. Such longings and fantasies in turn spur practices that become the stuff of certain transnational linkages.

92One might ask how an anthropological interpretation of a text is different from a literary-critical interpretation. It is not really a methodological difference. Anthropologists didn’t create something new here. Rather, it is the fact that you interpret the text in a social context, in the context of observations. Instead of treating the text as an entity in itself, you treat it as a tool to observe the production of culture. You treat producing, distributing and consuming texts as a social activity. This is what I refer to as an “ethnotextual” approach to media research. You bring the text in contact with the people, as it were. You can watch a video or a television program, or read an article, and then discuss it with your informants, or talk to its makers. You break down the boundary between the text and the field. You make connections between the text, the speaker, and the observed social situation.

93How do you recognize which media is more important than others in impacting identity? This is an important question as, obviously, Hmong in the US also consume mainstream American media. How much do the Hmong videos matter at all? Surveys on the consumption of ethnic or homeland media versus mainstream media have become quite common in sociology. For me, it is not a major research objective to determine which is more formative for the migrant, because my interest is in the transnational part of Hmong American identity, not in the weight of that part versus other identity processes that of course go on simultaneously, such as assimilation into the American mainstream.

94At the level of a family, it is obviously important for me to see when people watch television versus watching videos, as well as what other videos they watch. I meet teenagers and people in their twenties who, when they see me watching videos with their parents, say “I can’t stand those things, I like American movies.” Family collections usually include a few Disney videos or sometimes a history documentary about the Vietnam War; but they also have Hmong videos. I take note of the relative quantity of various genres. But I don’t spend a lot of time interviewing Hmong about television. This choice to research only certain dimensions of diasporic Hmong lives is one way my study differs from a more conventional immigrant study.


Louisa Schein is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She has published extensively on the Hmong/Miao in China and in the diaspora, on the construction of ethnic identity in China, and on sexuality, gender, media, and tourism in China, including Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics (Duke, 2000). Her interests include politics of difference, nationalism and transnational-ism, gender, and social change.

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