Contending with space and time: the navigation of class, marriage, and identity by Chinese temporary migrants in the UK
Andrade, Candice Hiu Yan
The dominant discourses on young Chinese middle-class transnational migration, especially in the form of educational migration to developed western countries, view such movement as part of personal and family strategies to accumulate various types of capital (Bourdieu 1986), maintain and enhance social mobility, and achieve “flexible citizenship” (Ong 1999; Ley 2010; Tsang 2013). Existing literature celebrates fluid hypermobility and considers it an essentially positive experience for young migrants. This thesis contributes a more nuanced analysis by exploring how visa-induced temporalities restrict migrants’ mobility, divert their plans and aspirations, and structure their everyday lives and life transitions, even for those who are considered to be relatively well-resourced. This thesis examines the complex trajectories of young middle-class temporary migrants from mainland China and Hong Kong to the UK, including their class-related aspirations and experiences of multiple transitions across marital and immigration statuses. It challenges common assumptions in scholarly work about the transnational mobility of middle-class young people, including that consolidating class status is merely a goal and expected outcome of their trajectories (Tu 2016; Tsang 2013; Waters 2002). It argues that class has a temporal element (Wright and Shin 1988); class is an embodiment of both the past and possible future in the present. The temporalities of migration and the temporality of class simultaneously shape Chinese temporary migrants’ class identity in the UK, where there are different rules of attaining class status, and different perceptions of the values of social, cultural, and symbolic resources than in China or Hong Kong. This thesis unpacks migrants’ reflections of class, their self-fashioning, and how this process of constructing class identity is constrained by a set of socially acceptable categories and definitions. Drawing on data from in-depth qualitative interviews, this thesis reveals that the ways in which migrants seek to build capital or achieve goals are highly gendered. It focuses on marriage as a migration and class strategy utilised primarily by female migrants. However, contrary to a significant number of studies centred on the entanglement of interest and emotion in the romantic relationships of migrants from a lower socio-economic background (Brennan 2004; Cheng 2010), this research contributes to discussions of middle-class sexuality as a site of ambivalences where love and pragmatism intersect (c.f. Charsley 2005). My research findings demonstrate that the British visa regime, the institution of marriage, and the Chinese state-sponsored gender discourse of sheng nu (“leftover women”) together shape migrant women’s desire for, timing of, and decisions relating to marriage and family formation. Moreover, this research advances empirical understanding of the intersections between institutional, biographical, and everyday timescales (Robertson 2018) in producing specific experiences for migrants. This study examines how the temporal dynamics of migration have a fundamental effect on the choices available to middling migrants in employment and life transitions, shaping the rhythms of romantic relationships, and accelerating discussions about marriage and the future with their partner. This thesis further argues that young migrant women’s negotiations of marriage and class status are related to the modern notion of Chinese feminine respectability, which requires them to fulfil familial, societal, and self-imposed expectations to become a respectable middle-class individual and family member. It discusses the paradoxes embedded in the feminisation of success (Lahad 2013) and migrants’ conflicted desires to achieve physical mobility, social mobility and security through transnational marriage and to become a liberal, independent, professional woman. It investigates how women resist the stigma surrounding the notion of “marriage migrant” and (re)establish their middle-classness through the discourses of love and sacrifice, and by asserting their cultural and moral ascendancy over women who they perceive as lower class. Moreover, it examines how migrants’ class background, lifestyle, and ability to draw on financial resources from family members are significant in negotiating power within their relationship and compensating for a potential status loss as a “sponsored spouse”, especially for those who also fail to thrive in the British labour market. This work joins the scholarly literature that addresses the contradictory demands on middle-class women today to construct successful portfolios in both family life and careers, and adds to broader knowledge surrounding their agency, dilemmas, and choices in a transnational setting.