Longer musings

Infinite Affinities: An Unbounded Identity


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

dear diary...

Don’t Lose Yourself

You spend hours in front of a computer

till your eyes begin to water.

Cherry-picking words

that you think best flatter.



Do they make me sound hip enough?

Exotic places

Underground bands

Book titles so unheard of,

you’ve got them penned down on the back of your hand.



The bigger the word, the bigger the impression, right?

An eclectic taste in music

A Flexitarian foodie

A sapiosexual nerd who embraces all things geeky.

You take the bits and pieces of your life

and your self

Curate them

Examine them

Process them

Until they don’t look like you no more.

Arrange them in order,

like pieces of artefacts in a museum.

And you,

play the docent who walks them through.

Exhibition after exhibition,

room after room,

spinning stories that you know aren’t always true.

A haphazard patchwork of tales.

And like a chameleon,

your opinions turn from red to purple to blue

Sand down the rougher edges,

the distressed voices,

the disagreements.

Polish the panes till they glisten

with a glare

a little too bright

for those who stare.

When you get back home near midnight,


and hollow;

after being touched all over,

scrutinised and


and the ice of the marble flooring slowly bites away

at the antecedent warmth of

loveless cuddles,

you peer at the three strangers in the mirrors,

and wonder,

“Who the hell is this?”


Just quotes

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: On the inextricability of life, pain and identity 

“‘A life without pain: it was the very thing that I had dreamed of for years, but now that I had it, I couldn’t find a place for myself within it. A clear gap separated me from it, and this caused me great confusion. I felt as if I was not anchored to the world — this world that I had hated so passionately; this world that I had reviled for its unfairness and injustice; the world where at least I knew who I was. Now the world has ceased to be the world, and I had ceased to be me.'” — Creta Kano