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. Continue reading