Today’s world is characterised by increasingly mobile individuals and the widely normalised global phenomenon of transnationalism. China emerges as one of the largest sources of transnational subjects with its large and growing student populations studying abroad in foreign countries, its political and economic elites who hold multiple passports and coastal communities who yearn to seek their “true” homes abroad in diasporas. Places and communities, physical or imaginary, material or immaterial, constitute a significant part of an individual’s identity by virtue of their inseparability from the daily lives of individuals, the social networks bounded within them, and the standards, norms and values that in one way or another, influence individuals to be who they are today. Places are repositories of memories, associations, emotions, and identities uniquely experienced or envisioned by each and every individual.
Existing ethnographic literature on the transnationally nomadic subject predominantly illuminate the boundedness of their identities. They emphasise the importance of physical and imagined space in identity formation such that even when the identities of transnational subjects are increasingly deterritorialised and denationalised, they are still bounded by imaginary communities, their norms and sociocultural structures. In Paradise Redefined, Fong’s Chinese (primarily Dalian) transnational student subjects hold a very deeply embedded sense of filial nationalism towards their homeland due to their unwavering identities as Chinese citizens. However, they also aspire to reshape their identities to become modern individuals upon insinuating themselves into the imagined foreign community of developed countries (e.g. US, the UK and Australia etc), a community bounded by certain notions/standards of development, wealth, culture, and economic and political systems (Fong 2011). In Cosmologies of Credit, Chu shows how identities can be inadequately constituted even when one is rooted in one’s “territorial homeland”, like how many of the Fuzhounese in her study experience a sense of displacement even within the borders of China where they supposedly belong. As a result, many of them go abroad in search of the missing piece(s) of their identities in diasporan communities (Chu 2010, p.33). Chu’s transnational migrant subjects realise that their identities are not bounded spatially to their homeland, but they seek more complete versions of their identities abroad in other forms of boundedness in terms of, for example, social solidarities and migrant cultures (Chu 2010, p.33).
In this paper, I expand the possibilities of transnational identity formation by arguing that it is possible to construct one’s identity without being bounded to a certain physical space, or conforming to the norms, beliefs and standards of imagined communities. Instead, a transnational individual may selectively choose specific elements of a place or imagined community’s principles, values and sociocultural practices, and integrate them into an individualised identity that is valid in itself. The end product of this mode of identity formation is an ever-changing, personalised, multicultural kaleidoscope with infinite affinities to the greater world.
My ethnography is based on an interview conducted with Li, a friend of mine in Yale-NUS College. Li, 20, is the only child in her family. Her parents migrated to Singapore from Hong Kong, China when she was at the young age of 6. Both of her parents hold jobs in the trade and finance industry and consider themselves to be a middle-class household. In the sections that follow, I will elaborate on how Li tries to construct her identity firstly as someone from China, Hong Kong, and then as a Chinese migrant to Singapore. At each attempt to construct and relate her identity in the interview process, Li expressed that her identity strictly as a China Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, or Singaporean Chinese respectively, was inadequate. She did not quite fit in to any of these places, perpetually feeling like a tourist, even back ‘home’ in Hong Kong. While certain aspects of these societies comforted her with the warmth of familiarity, relatability and “some sense of belonging”, Li admitted to a constant feeling of tension, awkwardness and alienation, sometimes because of the very things that gave her comfort. Finally, in a moment of epiphany, Li concluded that since her identity as an individual bounded to places or imaginary communities has always left her feeling inadequate and lacking, foreign and liminal, she is better off constructing her own identity and being her own person, possessing various affiliations and affinities to the world at once.
Affinities to Hong Kong, China
“Being Chinese does not mean that I have to have a sense of attachment to or come from China. Mainland China is too big for me to even have an attachment to it. To be honest, I think it’s more accurate to refer to my place of origin as Hong Kong, not China. I’m from Hong Kong!” — Li
Li has a very distant relationship with mainland China, even though Hong Kong is politically and internationally recognised as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. To Li, her only link to the mainland is her Chinese lineage, her racial identity, and even so, Li further distances herself from mainland China by claiming that her Chinese identity is not bounded to the Chinese nation-state, and hinting at the possibility of individually fashioning her own unique identity as an ethnic Chinese. Li’s claim echoes the argument made by Chun who also argues for the possibility of a deterritorialised and denationalised sense of ethnic identity (Chun 1996, p.119). In resisting against the homogenising forces of a state-imposed, state-constructed conception of Chinese ethnicity that tethers individuals’ identities to the Chinese mainland, Li consciously unbinds herself from the confines of externally imposed identities. Her act of resistance suggests that it is possible to be and identify as ethnic Chinese despite one’s physical removal or perceived isolation from a particular bounded national territory.
Apart from Li’s belief in the possibility of a territorially divorced ethnic consciousness, her inability to closely identify as China Chinese is also partly due to her perception of China’s geographical vastness, ethnic and cultural diversity. She finds it almost incomprehensible and impossible to “distil an essence of China and Chinese culture” with which she could identify. In Li’s own words, “China is simply too big and I honestly don’t think the Chineseness that the Tibetans, Mongolians, Shanghainese and others subscribe to is the same one that I identify with”. Li’s sentiments resonate with those of Chun, who wrote about the ambiguities of Chineseness in his essay, F*ck Chineseness. Within the ethnic taxonomy in China, ethnically distant and different communities like the Uyghurs, the Mongolians and Tibetans, present a jarring contradiction or disruption to the predominantly Han cultural framework, undermining the supposed hegemonic structure of the Chinese cultural identity. Additionally, to further substantiate this point, even within the ethnic taxon of the Hans, the cultural identity to which different groups of Han Chinese (e.g. the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese) subscribe differs (Chun 1996, p.118-119). While historical factors do factor into the bifurcated cultural identities of Taiwanese Han Chinese and mainland Han Chinese, it nevertheless sheds light on the possibility of an incredibly fissured cultural identity, especially in such a geographically expansive, historically complex and ethnically diverse nation like China.
Li also cites characteristics of Hong Kong that she identifies more with compared to those of mainland China. Among them were her perceptions of Hong Kong as “a more dynamic and developed economy”, as “generally freer and more democratic”, as well as “a place with [a] distinct culture that seems to effortlessly fuse Eastern and Western elements together”. The comparison Li made between Hong Kong and mainland China, suggests that her identity as a distant and not-quite China Chinese is not just predicated on her understanding of a possibly denationalised ethnic identity, but also based on the perceived desirability and superiority of certain economic, cultural and political characteristics of Hong Kong in Li’s own perception or worldview.
“I have always been intrigued by Hong Kong. I come from there but I don’t feel like I belong there. And I think that a huge part of it is because I speak Cantonese with an accent and that I am not fluent in Cantonese… I migrated to Singapore since I was around 6 years old, and because of that, I don’t really have a substantial social network beyond my family members and relatives. As a result, I feel like my whole life, I only know a small part of Hong Kong.” — Li
As a Hong Kong Chinese, however, Li also experiences a sense of not-quite belonging. In Hong Kong, Li is what Trinh Minh-ha conceptualises as the Inappropriate(d) Other, an individual who is “both foreign yet not foreign” (Chu 2010, p.15-16). Li shares the same ethnic heritage as most of her Hong Kong co-ethnics, but certain behavioural traits betray her foreignness, and highlight her as an individual that does not quite belong. In particular, Li’s greatest insecurity about her incomplete identity as a Hong Kong Chinese was her lack of fluency in Cantonese, and that every Cantonese word she utters is “coated with a distinct Western accent”, attracting unwanted attention to her foreign identity whenever she speaks to someone in a society like Hong Kong. According to Li, although Mandarin (普通话) is one of the official languages of Hong Kong, informally, there exists an obvious in-group and out-group dynamic, a hierarchy formed along linguistic lines that determines one’s acceptance by Hong Kong society. In other words, there is a positive correlation between one’s Cantonese-speaking abilities, the degree of one’s integration into Hong Kong society, and one’s identification as a Hong Kong Chinese. At the apex of this informal hierarchy are the Hong Kong locals who speak Cantonese with the local Hong Kong accent, followed by those who speak Cantonese albeit with a Western accent (Li). Mainland Chinese nationals from outside of Hong Kong who either cannot speak Cantonese at all, or speak Cantonese with a distinctly non Western or Hong Kong accent, rank the lowest and are subjected to many forms of discriminatory and exclusionary behaviour.
The linguistic barrier faced by Li encapsulates Fong’s argument on the independent states of legal, social and cultural citizenship in her book Paradise Redefined (Fong 2011, p.13). Li’s identity as a Hong Kong Chinese is sanctioned and recognised legally by the state and is embodied in the form of these documents (Fong 2011, p.13). However, as Fong theorises, Li’s status as a Hong Kong Chinese on the basis of her legal citizenship does not necessarily translate into or grant her, in this case, cultural citizenship, as linguistic kinks get in the way of her recognition and acceptance by Hong Kong society as a someone who is one of them (Fong 2011, p.13). Friedman’s cross-straits subjects share similar experiences too, as they negotiate their identities as legally sanctioned/naturalised cross-strait spouses vis-à-vis “merely [being] ‘a mainland person with a Taiwan national identification card’” (Friedman 2015, p.22). To cross-strait spouses in Taiwan, a juridically sanctioned identity and citizenship “rarely defuses the deep unease they inspire among many Taiwanese, nor does it foster their own more substantive sense of belonging to local society” (Friedman 2015, p.21).
Lastly, Li’s lack of cultural citizenship and her falling short of wholly identifying as a Hong Kong Chinese is largely attributed to her lack of social network in Hong Kong due to biographical reasons. Li spent only the first 6 years of her life in Hong Kong. Besides the classmates in her kindergarten, the other people whom she interacted with were her parents and relatives. Li feels that having friends and acquaintances in Hong Kong is crucial in fostering her sense of connectedness to Hong Kong. Since she did not have the chance to establish/re-establish contact with the small number of friends she had made during her 6 years living in Hong Kong as a child, she feels extremely lonely whenever she returns to Hong Kong. In a place where strangers abound and language alienates, Li finds herself a tourist in her own city.
Affinities to Singapore
“I think that in terms of social connections, I definitely feel more of a sense of belonging to Singapore becauseI’ve spent my formative years here and I feel that the friendships and other social connections forged here play a huge part in shaping my worldview and attachment to Singapore.” — Li
Due to her transnationality, Li not only has affinities to mainland China and Hong Kong, she also has established affinities with Singapore. Her sense of connection to Singapore is mainly grounded by the social networks in which she finds herself to be embedded after spending majority of her life here. Li grew up like a local, middle-class Singaporean, attending local primary, secondary and high school since the age of 7. Due to the high percentage of Singaporean students characteristic of local schools, Li’s social networks consist mostly of Singaporeans. Through these constant interactions with Singaporean classmates and friends since young, Li developed a sense of social attachment to these individuals. By virtue of the embeddedness of her social circles to Singapore, Li grew connected to Singapore as a place as she associates Singapore with the memories and the social bonds that she has forged throughout her formative years with her Singaporean friends/peers. In contrast, Li’s socialisation and interaction with people other than her family members in Hong Kong was limited to the few years in an international kindergarten. Even then, the international kindergarten did not have many local Hong Kong children whose lives were deeply embedded in local Hong Kong society, and Li was arguably at an age where she was less able to process and make meaning out of her social interactions.
“Over time in Singapore, I became familiar with local customs, cultures and the Singaporean way of life. I am in the know of what’s going on, but I do not necessarily adopt these practices myself. Along the way, I picked up Singlish and learnt a bit more Mandarin so that I could understand and connect with the locals whom I met. I think being able to speak the local vernacular really helped foster some sense of attachment and belonging to Singapore.” — Li
Li’s ability to insinuate herself into Singapore’s social fabric and identify with her Singaporean peers stemmed from the efforts she took to understand and learn colloquial Singaporean English, more commonly known as Singlish. During the interview, Li expressed that she was happy to have made the effort to learn and keep up with the ever-expanding vocabulary of Singlish, because it is the linguistic modus operandi of her Singaporean peers, and it is easy to get left out when unable to understand the lingo. However, Li insists on speaking standard English rather than Singlish on a regular basis, reasoning that while her knowledge of Singlish enabled her to gain access to Singapore’s cultural intricacies and communicate better with Singaporeans, speaking Singlish does not feel normal or comfortable to her. She recognises that even though she may be included in conversations with her Singaporean friends due to her acquired vernacular vocabulary, her tendency to express herself with proper English at times creates a sense of awkwardness and discomfort amongst her Singaporean peers, in turn causing her to question her identity as a true Singaporean. While a part of Li yearns for a greater sociocultural identification with Singapore (particularly in the linguistic domain), she has also conscientiously cultivated her own identity by retaining certain characteristics (e.g. speaking proper English) that may have compromised her complete identification with Singapore.
Affinities to the World — not quite Hong Kong Chinese, not quite Singaporean
“Culturally, I don’t know. I feel like I can identify with both Hong Kong and Singapore culturally, but it’s only very specific cultural aspects of each culture. For example, in terms of daily self-presentation and dress sense, I feel myself to be quite out of place in Singapore because I am generally better dressed. And I think it’s because of how I have been socialised in Hong Kong, where people are very mindful and particular about what they wear on a daily basis to meet people outside. I also found the fact that Cantonese isn’t recognised as a Mother-tongue in Singaporean schools weird and oddly alienating. If anything, I would have chosen to learn Cantonese over Chinese in school. Some aspects of Singapore’s culture that I identify with would be that the English-speaking population here is much larger and being able to blend into this crowd makes me feel comfortable. It might also just be the kind of people that I interact with on a regular basis rather than Singapore society as a whole, but I feel that I identify more with the more Western outlook, values and practices of Singaporeans compared to Hong Kongers.” — Li
The previous two sections have shown how Li finds herself in a position of incomplete identification with the places in which she has been for extended periods of time (Hong Kong and Singapore), as well as those conceived from her own imagination (mainland China). Identifying more strongly with Hong Kong’s economic dynamism and democratic political landscape in comparison to that of mainland China, Li is quick to define her identity as a Hong Kong Chinese. At the same time, realising her indubitable ethnic ties to mainland China, Li concedes to her connection with the mainland, albeit adamantly distancing herself from politically, culturally and socially identifying as a mainland Chinese. Finally, between being a Hong Kong Chinese and Singaporean, Li positions herself as more closely identifying as a Singaporean by virtue of the more substantial social networks that she has formed in Singapore, and the greater sense of belonging engendered by her ability to linguistically blend into Singapore’s predominantly English-speaking population. Li also notes that meeting people who share similar values, principles and Western outlook as her has enhanced her sense of connection to Singapore, even if it is a function of her own social circles. Yet, her identity as a Singaporean does sometimes waver. Day-to-day, seemingly mundane things like sartorial preferences or fashion sense make Li question her Singaporean identity as more often than not, she finds herself overdressed compared to her Singaporean counterparts when she would otherwise have fit in perfectly in Hong Kong society. Her insistence on speaking in proper English, as mentioned in the earlier section, has also made her stand out uncomfortably amongst her Singaporean peers, despite her ability to understand the local vernacular.
As Li struggles to identify wholly with these places, she finds herself disaggregating and fragmenting sociocultural elements of these societies. Finding herself not quite mainland Chinese, not quite Hong Kong Chinese, nor entirely and comfortably Singaporean, she selects individual segments from within these whole societal cultures with which she identifies strongly, and integrates them into her individual identity. Li has the dress sense of a Hong Kong Chinese, the Western outlook of an English-educated Singaporean (Chinese) and shares the same ethnic identity with mainland Chinese. Li shares the love for Cantonese with Hong Kong Chinese, but unlike many of them, she is extremely comfortable in a predominantly English-speaking environment. Li’s identity is a self-constructed one that consists of ties and selective congruities to the places and cultures she has encountered thus far in her development as a transnational subject.
“I think [legal] citizenship for me is just a means for me to experience the world and does not encapsulate my sense of connection to each place. Personally, I identify as a millennial who belongs to the world rather than any place in particular. Being Hong Kong Chinese, China Chinese or Singaporean Chinese…they are only part of my identity. My dream is to be internationally mobile and travel around the world.” — Li
In her concluding remarks, Li ruminated on her status as a Hong Kong citizen and soon-to-be Singapore citizen, expressing that there is a huge disparity between her identity on paper (legal documents, passports etc.) vis-à-vis her identity as felt, experienced and embodied by herself. While legal documents and state-imposed identities may legally bind Li to a certain place, they cannot dictate her feelings and sense of connection (or disconnection) towards the place, both of which are influenced by her personal experiences at the place itself and in relation to her experiences elsewhere as a transnational subject. Li may currently be bounded to Hong Kong in terms of her legal citizenship, but she feels loosely connected to the place. As a soon-to-be Singaporean, Li feels that her personal identity as a Singaporean may be stronger than her identity as a Hong Kong Chinese. Nevertheless, her Singaporean identity is still one that is constantly infused with a sense of uncertainty and tentativeness, doubt and insecurity.
Unable to fuse herself into the real and imagined communities she has encountered thus far, Li has reversed the process of identity construction. Rather than binding her identity to the cultures, social norms and political ideologies of the real and imagined communities/entities, Li binds them to her, subsumes and integrates fragments of them into her self-constructed identity, hence her assertion that “[b]eing Hong Kong Chinese, China Chinese or Singaporean Chinese…[is] only part of [her] identity” (my emphasis). Li’s process of identity construction as a transnational subject suggests the possibility that an individual’s identity does not necessarily have to be rooted or bounded to certain spaces, places or imagined communities. Rather transnational identities could possibly be a hybrid or an amalgamation of the life experiences, cultural practices and values which have been selectively adopted by transnational individuals like Li.
Li, who finds herself belonging to nowhere, suddenly finds that perhaps, she belongs to everywhere she has been and everywhere else she will go. More importantly, Li has realised her identity as an unbounded individual, as her own person not bounded to any nation-state, cultural or social standards of any particular community.
Chu, J. (2010). Cosmologies of credit. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Chun, A. (1996). Fuck Chineseness: On the Ambiguities of Ethnicity as Culture as Identity. Boundary 2, 23(2).
Fong, V. (2011). Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Friedman, S. (2015). Exceptional states: Chinese Immigrants and Taiwanese Sovereignty. 1st ed. Oakland, California: University of California Press.