Sander PassingShanghai HeiDok

Sander PassingShanghai HeiDok
zur Erlangung des akademischen Doktorgrades (Dr. phil.)
im Fach Ethnologie
an der Fakultät für Verhaltens- und Empirische Kulturwissenschaften
der Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Titel der Dissertation
Passing Shanghai.
Ethnographic Insights into Expatriate Youths’ Mobile Lives
vorgelegt von
Marie Sander
Jahr der Einreichung
Prof. Dr. Klaus Fiedler
Prof. Dr. Christiane Brosius
Die meisten Leute die hier herkommen mögen es erstmal überhaupt nicht.
Und dann mögen sie es.
Und dann wollen sie nicht mehr weg.
Und dann müssen sie weg.
Most people who come here at first don’t like it at all.
And then they like it.
And then they don’t want to leave.
And then they have to leave.
Antonia, sixteen years old
Acknowledgements ...................................................................................................iv
Preface ..................................................................................................................... v
INTRODUCTION ................................................................................................ 1
Shanghai and its Expatriate Community ............................................................. 2
The Current State of Research and Theoretical Frameworks ............................. 4
Research Questions ......................................................................................... 28
Methodologies and Materials ............................................................................ 34
LEAVING .......................................................................................................... 67
Retrospectives on the (Decision to) Move ........................................................ 68
ARRIVING ........................................................................................................ 75
Making Sense of Feelings: The Emotional Challenges of Moving ..................... 77
Making Sense of the City.................................................................................. 80
Making Home(s): Houses, Belongings, and Belonging ..................................... 91
Making Community: The Role of International Schools .................................. 126
EMPLACEMENT............................................................................................. 157
“My time is now”: The Role of Age ............................................................... 159
Nightlife: Going Out ...................................................................................... 165
The Shop: Hanging Out................................................................................ 188
“Guests stay guests”: The Lack of “Local” Friends ....................................... 197
DWELLING ON THE MOVE ........................................................................... 221
Negotiating Cultural Identity: Five Students’ Narratives of the Self ............... 222
MOVING ON ................................................................................................... 247
Farewell Rituals: Goodbyes and Graduation ................................................ 248
Conclusion: Passing Shanghai, Gaining Perspectives.................................... 266
An Afterword: Post-Shanghai Tales from College Life ........................................... 276
APPENDIX...................................................................................................... 279
Bibliography........................................................................................................... 280
Table of Figures..................................................................................................... 295
Transcription Rules................................................................................................ 296
Student Directory: Who Is Who?............................................................................ 297
I want to acknowledge the academic and financial support of the Cluster of Excellence
“Asia and Europe in a Global Context: Shifting Asymmetries in Cultural Flows” at
Heidelberg University, Germany, that helped me turn a dissertation idea into an
academic endeavor in the context of their graduate program. I am grateful for the
debates I have had with many of its members and their critical advice throughout the
three years. I want to thank especially my two supervisors, Prof. Dr. Christiane Brosius
and Prof. Dr. Barbara Mittler, for their guidance, Dr. Kerstin von Lingen, Dr. Oliver
Lamers, and Dr. Andrea Hacker for their encouragement, and my colleagues in the
graduate program as well as those of the popular culture group for travelling the
solitary PhD route together. I am also thankful to the many people who have
encouraged me to pursue this research project, among others: Prof. Dr. Maya Nadig at
the University of Bremen, and Casey and Michael Medlock. Of course I also want to
thank my parents, as well as Hartmut, Ben, and all my friends without whom I would
not have managed to believe in myself. Danke für Eure großartige Unterstützung.
Special thanks also go to all my friends in Shanghai who made my stay enjoyable,
especially Yanni Shen and Susan Dai who were never tired of explaining, translating,
and teaching. 我谢谢你们。I also want to say thank you to the school principals and
teachers who were interested in my research for their crucial support.
Most of all, however, I want to acknowledge and thank all the students and their
families in Shanghai who shared their stories and time with me, especially those whose
words, ideas, and actions appear in this ethnography and make it what I wanted it to
be: a work that focuses on your voices and perspectives. Thank you for letting me into
your lives despite having an agenda. Thank you for being patient enough to finally see
the outcome of our endeavor.
My parents still live in the village that I was born in. Whenever I visit them, I return to
my childhood home – the house I grew up in. Although my parents like to initiate one
renovation project after the next, it is a haven of continuity. When I reminisce about my
own childhood, I remember how everything back then seemed endless and continuous.
As a child and teenager my world felt stable. Nobody ever moved, and new students
were rare at my school. Working with teenagers from different parts of the world in
Shanghai has made me see my countryside childhood – one could maybe label it
idyllic in the sense of family movies on TV – as strangely outdated. Although, I assure
you, I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, not the 1950s. Moving to Shanghai and through a
social world marked by mobility – the expatriate community – turned my “normal”
childhood almost into something almost “exotic.” This look back onto my stable
childhood might not only have to do with spending much time with young people who
themselves or whose friends are continuously moving, but also with my own moves
later on in life. Although my parents always stayed put, I spent a high school year in the
US, a university semester in France, months of fieldwork in China, and I have moved
several times within Germany for education and career purposes. It is difficult to trace
how my personal life has influenced my research agenda, but I can say that my first
encounter with China in 2004, the expatriate community in Shanghai in 2007 – and
probably my own struggles of returning to Germany, to this world of stability, after a
year in the US as an exchange student at the age of seventeen – have left a few
ponderable life questions.
Partly emerging from the experiences described here, this research project asks: How
does it feel to live in a world of flux and high mobility? What kind of relations to places
and people do expatriate youths consequently develop? What kinds of everyday
practices do they follow in Shanghai? How do these teenagers look at themselves,
their lives, and their futures? In short, what competences and strategies are important
to pass Shanghai – to move in and out of the city over the time span of a few years –
and to cope with the experiences that come along, to pass the stay? In this dissertation
I offer some answers to these questions by exploring the perspectives of teenagers
that I have talked to, spent time with, and sometimes befriended, over the last few
years in Shanghai. Their perspectives of their own lives and experiences living in
expatriate communities contribute to a larger view on the interdependence and
contradictions between the aspired flexibility of twenty-first century identities and the
rigidity of cultural divisions, based on nationality, ethnicity, gender, or class that are so
present in our worlds.
Part 1
Figure 1: Gazing onto Shanghai. Photo by M. Sander
Children are affected by migration in all regions of the globe, but the
understanding of its effects is highly limited. Data collection, monitoring
and research are needed to better understand how migration affects
societies, families and children at countries of origin and settlement; to
inform policies to mitigate adverse impacts, and to enable families and
children to make informed decisions about movement.
This ethnography explores how children experience mobility by focusing on a specific,
yet heterogeneous group: expatriate youth in contemporary Shanghai. It illustrates
international youths’ subjective and collective experiences and ways of managing
migration processes. The young people, whose voices form the heart of this study,
grow up in a particular mobile environment, as they themselves or their friends are
continuously moving about every three to four years. They are young experts when it
comes to the affects of migration. They are also a very privileged group of migrants that
move with the (financial) support of their parents’ employers. Nonetheless, migration
unsettles. This ethnography describes experiences from the decision to move to the
arrival and processes of emplacement, the making sense of the stays’ purpose, and
the moment of leaving again and moving on. Highlighting international students’
everyday practices and narratives of the self, my work asks what competences and
strategies are important for young people to pass Shanghai – to move in and out of the
city over the time span of a few years – and to actively cope with the experiences that
come along, to pass the stay.
1. Shanghai and its Expatriate Community
Today, foreign tourists, university students, and transnational professionals, as well as
Chinese citizens returning from stays abroad, all contribute to shaping part of an
Appaduraic ethnoscape (1996), joining together various cultural flows in the mega-city
Shanghai. As these different kinds of transmigrants bring and follow transnational
capital and global enterprises to Shanghai, many of them become part of Shanghai’s
heterogeneous international community. They shape, integrate, and identify with its
spaces, and living and consumption practices. Shanghai, one of China’s most thriving
metropolises, hosts a considerably large expatriate community. The Shanghai
Statistical Bureau lists a total of 152,104 foreigners residing in Shanghai for the year of
1, last accessed on January 15
(UNICEF 2013)
2008, including 33,472 Japanese, 21,730 US Americans, and 7,264 German citizens
(Shanghai Statistical Bureau 2009). Sociologist James Farrer points out that unofficial
estimates are higher. Based on his personal conversations with consular and chamber
of commerce officials in 2006, he writes that “70,000 to 100,000 Japanese, 20,000 to
30,000 Americans, and 12,000 to 20,000 Germans were living in Shanghai on various
types of visas” (Farrer 2011). The expatriate families under discussion all enjoy a
privileged status. The parents’ postings to Shanghai are usually tied to high financial
benefits and packages that include fees for health insurances, travel costs, car leases,
housing fees, and private international schools.
This community commonly labels itself expatriate, a term that derived from the Latin
“ex patria” and refers to someone living outside their native country (Coles and Fechter
2008, 5). The term is commonly shortened to expat. In Shanghai it is understood as a
Human Resource description of employees who have been posted to Shanghai by
their companies; and, it is commonly used to refer to foreigners with a certain upperclass lifestyle in general. The actors of this study refer to themselves as part of this
community and even label themselves “expat children.” It is for this simple reason of
self-ascription that I chose to work with the term expatriates. That “[t]his term has itself
become an identity referent with a set of shared meanings understood by those who
adopt the label, manifest in particular practices” (Butcher 2009, 1361), will become
clear throughout the ethnography.2
It is difficult to pinpoint how many expatriate families come to Shanghai accompanied
by under age children, as the Shanghai Statistical Bureau does not offer age-specific
statistical data. However, if I take the student body of the largest thirteen international
schools with English, French, and German language curricula in Shanghai and their
different campuses into account, I estimate that there are 16500+ students for the
school year 2011/2012.3 All these students are of foreign nationality, as the Shanghai
municipal government does not allow Chinese nationals to enroll in international
schools. Although the majority of these schools offer education from kindergarten –
sometimes even nursery school – onwards, there are many international kindergartens
in addition to these schools. The actual number of children and youths with foreign
passports in Shanghai must therefore even be larger.
Some readers might wonder why I do not call these youths “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs). I will discuss the
concept and my critique of the term “Third Culture Kid” in 2.3. and 2.4.
The information was retrieved from the schools’ respective websites. If no numbers were given I relied on
the information provided on,
which I accessed on August 15 2012 (“International Schools in Shanghai - LittleStar Magazine” 2012).
In line with my ethnographic and thus qualitative approach I interviewed forty-three
students during my year in Shanghai, some of them several times. All the youths I
worked with were enrolled at an international school in Shanghai. The parents – or
mainly the fathers – of those children that I accompanied were employed
predominantly at foreign companies, ranging from logistics to the automobile industry,
while one father worked as a manager for an international hotel chain and one father at
a university. None of the youths I interviewed had parents working as diplomats or at
the consulates. Shanghai is the business metropole. While all fathers were employed,
only some of the mothers worked – mostly part-time.
Before examining the youths’ everyday practices and sharing their opinions throughout
the empirical parts of this dissertation, the following chapter, chapter two, briefly
summarizes the current state of research on (migrant) youth, expatriates, and so called
“Third Culture Kids.” In the same chapter I proceed to present the theoretical
framework around which the study is based, the theory and methodology of
transcultural studies. Chapter three describes my own research questions.
2. The Current State of Research and Theoretical Frameworks
Research on (Migrant) Youth
Conceptualizing and Researching Youth
Developmental Studies, Sociology and Cultural Studies, and Anthropology contribute
to today’s overlapping landscapes of research on the social worlds of youth, children,
and adolescents. Methodologies and approaches focusing on these groups are as
varied as the definitions of the groups themselves.
Developmental Studies
Developmental Studies, based on a variety of methods ranging from clinical studies to
survey studies to psychiatric interviews, are informed by psychological approaches
particularly interested in the development of children and adolescents. Many
psychoanalytic and neo-psychoanalytic theorizations, for instance the works by Peter
Blos and Erik Erikson, (Blos [1962]1966; Blos 1970; Erikson 1968) underlie the
discipline, setting foci on the universal development of children from early childhood
through adolescence (see Smetana 2010, 15–18). Hereby, ongoing debates on
defining “adolescence,” be it biologically “as the period encompassing the onset of
puberty and going until individuals are capable of sexual reproduction,” or
sociologically as “the period when individuals begin training for adult work and family
roles” (Smetana 2010, 11), inform their works. Smetana suggests following
conventions of practitioners, defining ages eleven to thirteen as “early adolescence,”
ages fourteen to seventeen as “middle adolescence,” and ages between eighteen and
twenty-one as “late adolescence” (2010, 12).4 In the 1990s, however, with a combined
focus on psychological and social development and influences by anthropological
studies, a more prominent discussion of diversity and consequently of “the universal
and relative features of adolescent development” (Smetana 2010, 26) emerged in the
discourse of Developmental Studies. This greater emphasis on diversity, according to
Smetana (ibid.), converged with a shift towards a much greater consideration of the
context of development.
Sociology and Cultural Studies
The context has always been the focus of study for Sociology and Cultural Studies.
Investigations into youths’ cultural practices from a sociological approach can be traced
back to the US-American tradition, the Chicago School, and the British tradition of the
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham. The US sociologists
in the early to mid-twentieth century focused on attempts to explain deviant activities.
Interested in crime, drug consumption, and gang membership, they looked for
collective normative behavior and moral codes specific to the groups (Hodkinson 2007,
3; Bucholtz 2002, 536). These scholars regarded youth as a difficult liminal phase, and
delinquent youth as victims and products of the deprived urban environment (Moser
2000, 17). Interestingly, the Chicago School took a strong ethnographic approach
(Bucholtz 2002, 536).
The Birmingham School originating at the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies
(CCCS), in contrast, favored textual analysis of media and semiotic analysis of cultural
form (Bucholtz 2002, 536). Although one of the most widely read studies of the CCCS
was Paul Willis’s (1990) ethnography of counterschool, white working-class boys,
“lads” (Bucholtz 2002, 536; Hodkinson 2007, 5), the CCCS’s specific focus was upon
subcultures based around distinctive music and style. Their “prevailing view was that
such subcultures represented an enactment of stylistic resistance; a subversive
reaction by young people to a contradictory situation in respect of both age and class”
(Hodkinson 2007, 4). The Birmingham studies therefore understood working-class
youth’s practices as responses to the conflict between their class-based position in
society and the “hegemonic values of capitalism and consumption” (ibid.). The
Speaking from a Developmental Studies’ point of view, my ethnographic work has thus mainly centered
on the age group of “middle adolescence” – although my youngest informant was nine years old, the
majority of expatriate youth I worked with was between fifteen and eighteen at the time of first interactions.
scholars, in particular the works of Hebdige (1979), saw the subcultures under
examination “carving out distinctive semiotic spaces for themselves” (Bucholtz 2002,
537) and regarded the creative practices of assembling the distinctive styles to be
symbolically relevant.
Both the Chicago School and the CCCS’s approaches are criticized today for their
tendency to “seek out distinctive or deviant minority groups and to place emphasis on
collective systems of norms and boundaries rather than to detail the complex
positioning and movement of different individuals in relation to these” (Hodkinson 2007,
7) – a critique we could also apply to the studies on “Third Culture Kids,” which will be
discussed in subchapter 2.3. Furthermore, young women were excluded from the
subcultural analysis in both schools, as Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber
([1975]1997) already pointed out in the 1970s (Bucholtz 2002, 537; Hodkinson 2007,
7). Another crucial point of critique is that the focus on the spectacular and the deviant
excluded everyday aspects of youth culture (Hodkinson 2007, 7) – a critique that has
also been raised in the field of studies concerned with transnationalism that now calls
for research foci on the “mundane” (see for instance Conradson and Latham 2005,
228). In response to this criticism, Hodkinson (2007, 8), however, stresses that detailed
research has continued to show that some youths actually do develop strong
attachments to “substantive and distinctive cultural groupings whose particular norms
and values dominate their identity and life-style for a period of time.”
Sociology and Cultural Studies today have therefore recognized that a focus on
collective deviance alone is too limited to understand the complex practices, values
and identities of youth culture. Fragmentation, fluidity, consumerism, and media
consumption have led to sociological studies’ rethinking of “subculture,” finding more
“loose-knit and ephemeral elective cultural groupings, characterized by partial
commitment and porous boundaries” (Hodkinson 2007, 10). Research on diaspora and
the role of ethnicity in youth culture has also led to more emphasis on the shifting and
“hybrid” nature of youth culture and cultural identities; most influential here might have
been the work of Stuart Hall (for instance 1990; 1994; 1996; [1996]2012). With a focus
on the fluidities, scholars have also noted the importance of locality (Hodkinson 2007,
12). Andy Bennett (2000), for example, shows that locality continues to play a role as
“a relatively stable base for otherwise unstable and transient […] identities” (Hodkinson
2007, 12). In addition to the focus on multiplicities and fragmentation of youth culture, a
burgeoning body of research about the everyday, unspectacular, activities of youth has
been called for. It sets out to understand more deeply young people’s lives. Studies of
this kind include Paul Willis’s Common Culture (1990). Studies on the everyday are
now “challenging the active subculture versus passive mainstream dichotomy set up by
some variants of the CCCS subcultural theory” (Hodkinson 2007, 14).
The category “youth” in Sociology and Cultural Studies, therefore, in contrast to
definitions of “adolescence” in Developmental Studies, is seen as a “discursive
construct” (Bennett 2007, 23). In his article, “As young as you feel,” Andy Bennett
describes the metamorphosis of youth from a social category, referring to the cultural
practices of young people, to “a discursive construct expressing an increasingly varied
and, in many cases, conflicting range of political and aesthetic sensibilities” (2007, 34).
Today’s media, fueled by the marketing of products and practices helping older adults
feel and look young, show that definitions of what it means to be young are contested.
Consequently, divisions in terms of leisure and life-style preferences and practices
across the generations become increasingly less obvious (Bennett 2007, 35). Despite
this fuzziness of the boundaries between youths and adults, Andy Bennett supports the
utility of the term by convincingly arguing that differences nevertheless remain. These
are obvious “in terms of youth's economic marginalisation and legal dependency, and
in the responses of the young and old to consumer goods and resultant patterns of
taste and leisure” (ibid.). Furthermore, the “distinction between being culturally and
physically young” (ibid., 34) is important, as the physical difference generates
distinctions in cultural practice. Bennett exemplifies this point by describing practices at
clubs and concerts, arguing, “the sheer levels of physical stamina they demand may
ultimately present their own obstacles to participation in particular forms of ‘youth’
activity beyond a certain age” (ibid.).
Anthropology, as Bucholtz (2002) points out, had established adolescence as an
important theme early in the discipline’s making. The classic ethnographies by
Bronislaw Malinowski ([1929]1968) and particularly by Margaret Mead ([1928]1929;
[1930]1963; [1939]1948) are examples of early investigations into the role of initiation
ceremonies and marital traditions in coming of age. However, Bucholtz notes that
research has usually approached adolescence from a perspective that emphasizes the
transition to adulthood. Anthropology, in contrast to the sociological and cultural studies
approaches, did not investigate “youth as a cultural category.” Rather, similar to
Developmental Studies, it investigated “adolescence as a biological and psychological
stage of human development” (Bucholtz 2002, 525); thus, it considered youth as a
process. Anthropology’s tradition of research on adolescence therefore focuses on
change and development at the individual and cultural level. It analytically focuses on
“the social staging of adolescence in particular cultural contexts in which the universal
developmental arc of adolescence is shaped by historically specific processes of
social, political, and economic transformation, as well as by existing cultural practices”
(ibid., 531). Bucholtz criticized these approaches because the teleology of the
developmental process from adolescence to adulthood dominates this research
tradition. While she agrees that the developmental issues are certainly part of the study
of youth, Bucholtz reminds us that
the lived experience of young people is not limited to the uneasy occupation of a
developmental waystation en route to full-fledged cultural standing. It also
involves its own distinctive identities and practices, which are neither rehearsals
for the adult “real thing” nor even necessarily oriented to adults at all. (2002, 531–
Hirschfeld, investigating the marginalization of children in Anthropologists’ research,
makes similar claims for the younger age groups:
By focusing on the adult end-state and adult influence on "achieving" it, children's
activities are cast as ancillary or subordinate. As a consequence, the
contributions that children make to their own development are often obscured if
not effaced. (Hirschfeld 2002, 614)
Hirschfeld criticizes the underlying socialization theory – that emphasizes how adults
intervene in children’s lives and teach them – for inviting researchers to overlook and
underestimate the contribution children themselves make “to the acquisition of cultural
sensibilities” (ibid., 614). German anthropologist Weißköppel (2001, 42), based on
earlier criticism on the “adult bias” by Baudler (1996, 146), argued that academia’s view
of childhood and youth and consequently its theorization of them, is based on
perspectives of and definitions by adults. Likewise, Andy Bennett (2007, 30) criticizes
the construction of youth by “empowered ‘outsiders’ – journalists and other social
observers with access to the ‘official’ and ‘authenticating’ channels of the media,”
emphasizing that youths’ voices, which are crucial for understanding youths’ lives, are
starkly absent from these portrayals.
This unreflected norm of an adult perspective is linked to the constant comparison
between the categories of adolescence and adulthood. Bucholtz (2002, 532)
consequently argues for a conceptional shift from the Anthropology of adolescence to
the Anthropology of youth, rejecting the term adolescence as it always refers to an idea
of “growth, transition, and incompleteness […], while adult indicates both completion
and completeness.” In Bucholtz’s view, the category youth therefore understands
age not as trajectory, but as identity, where identity is intended to invoke neither
the familiar psychological formulation of adolescence as a prolonged “search for
identity,” nor the rigid and essentialized concept that has been the target of a
great deal of recent critique. Rather, identity is agentive, flexible, and everchanging – but no more for youth than for people of any age. Where the study of
adolescence generally concentrates on how bodies and minds are shaped for
adult futures, the study of youth emphasizes instead the here-and-now of young
people’s experience, the social and cultural practices through which they shape
their worlds. (Bucholtz 2002, 532)
Suggesting to shift focus from adolescence to youth, Bucholtz (2002, 544) urges future
studies to “admit both the ideological reality of categories and the flexibility of identities”
and to continue to draw on “theories of practice, activity, and performance to
demonstrate how youth negotiate cultural identities in a variety of contexts, both
material and semiotic, both leisure-based and at home, school, work, and in the
political sphere.”
My brief outline of the current view of youth in Developmental Studies, Sociology and
Cultural Studies, as well as in Anthropology, has made clear that all disciplines have
recently undergone great shifts in their emphasis and perspectives on youth in their
research. In this context, this ethnographic study is framed in the Anthropology of youth
that investigates the everyday practices, the common culture, and hereby focuses on
the youths’ own narratives of the self. In this light of understanding age as a collective
identity and not as a trajectory, I privilege the experiences of the “here-and–now” over
the process of development.
Having framed the recent shift in the studies of youth, I turn now to closely look at the
state of affairs in Migration Studies concerned with children and young people.
Youth and Childhood in Migration Studies
Little is known about children's particular understanding of (migrant) life,
their concepts of their place of origin and their host society, their ways of
building identity for themselves. This is true despite the fact that children
make up a large proportion of migrants and despite the fact that children
take on important roles in mediating between their world of origin and
the host society. (Knörr and Nunes 2005, 14–15)
Knörr and Nunes (2005) acknowledge that recent approaches in the social and cultural
sciences have started to consider children’s own perspectives, their thoughts, feelings,
and views of their social world, in research on childhood. The authors claim, however,
that this shift has had relatively little impact on migration studies regarding children
(ibid., 14). Dobson (2009), in her article “Unpacking children in migration research,”
explains the reasons for this lack of including children’s perspectives in migration
research. She argues that perceptions of children in migration research have long been
based on ideas stemming from economic models, as a focus on economic aspects of
migration was prominent. According to them, only adults are of economic significance;
therefore focusing on children is irrelevant and therefore ignored. However, research
on family migration and transnational families in particular have received increasing
attention. It argues against the economic models, showing that children do in fact play
a vital role in the migration process and contribute to its (economic) success (Dobson
2009, 356). Orellana et al. (2001, 588), for instance, argue that children are “an
important reason why families move across national borders and sustain transnational
ties.” Children might sometimes even move without their families in order to gain
valuable education that might consequently improve the socio-economic status of the
whole family (Orellana et al. 2001; Waters 2005). This is, for example, the case for
“parachute kids” migrating from South Korea to the USA. These children attend schools
in the USA while their parents stay in South Korea. They not only work abroad “to
advance their families’ social and economic mobility,” but even play the lead role in “a
migration process that may eventually result in the chain migration of other family
members” (Orellana et al. 2001, 581). Family migration research has thus been “vital in
decentering a single ‘lead’ migrant” (Dobson 2009, 356).
However, despite the progress that has been made concerning the presence of
children in migration studies – “from silent belongings to visible anxieties and active
agents, demanding attention in their own right” (Dobson 2009, 358) – there are still few
studies that capture youths’ perspectives on the experience of migration. Dobson
(2009, 355) thus notes: “[M]ore could be done to foreground the perspectives of
children in their own right.”
A few new studies have focused on children’s perspectives. Dobson (ibid.) mentions,
for instance, the work by Sporton et al. (2006) on asylum seekers in Britain. In their
study, Sporton, Valentine, and Nielsen present insights into the underexamined
experiences of child asylum seekers, working with children aged eleven to eighteen
from Somalia. The authors skillfully highlight the children’s narratives of the self and the
role that their mobility plays in this process. Their work delineates the different
challenges posed by immigration policy, racism, social exclusion, and different age
expectations. It further demonstrates how elements that may provide stable identity
references, such as the Muslim faith, are consequently of particular significance
(Sporton, Valentine, and Nielsen 2006, 214). Sporton et al.’s work provides an
impressive example of migration studies concerned with children: it identifies how
“dominant narratives of childhood” (and asylum seekers) are constructed, and how
children then position themselves within these powerful narratives, “actively negotiating
and accomplishing their own identities in specific geographical sites” (ibid., 215).
Two other more recent contributions (Hatfield 2010; Hutchins 2011) have focused on
the experiences and perspectives of children in the dynamics of family migration. Both
studies address the cases of British households. These two articles are of particular
relevance for my study, as the children’s backgrounds are similar to those of my
research project.
Hutchins’s (2011) study explores the experiences of families who have recently moved
from the UK to Australia. Her ethnographic accounts privilege the perspective of the
children, aged five to seventeen at the times of the interview, and discuss the ways in
which they experience and make sense of the migration. Hutchins particularly analyzes
the decision-making process and illustrates how different unspoken conceptions of
childhood influence this process, as parents often argue to make decisions in their
children’s “best interest.” As “individual members of the family often have different
interests, […] family migration decision-making is based upon a process of negotiating
individual influence and power within the family” (Hutchins 2011, 1233). While her
article lays open the parental power in these negotiations and demonstrates how this
power often results in the young actors’ exclusion from the decision-making process,
Hutchins also identifies ways in which children actively attempt to influence the
decision or the overall migration process.
Hatfield (née Dobson) (2010) addresses the issue of return migration and presents,
through innovative fieldwork in domestic spaces in Britain, the experiences of “children
as equal movers.” The actors of her study are between seven and seventeen years
old. They are members of households headed by a highly skilled migrant and have
returned “home” after living in Singapore. Her work explores how the children
understand and negotiate coming “home.” Drawing additionally on photography by the
children, she highlights the significance of their everyday practices and demonstrates
children’s specific home-making practices, that she finds to be often more “mobile,
transient and smaller-scale” than those of adults.
Ethnographic Studies on Expatriates
Although Dennison Nash’s (1970) A Community in Limbo and an article by Erik Cohen
(1977) have already adressed the topic, a new field of research on expatriates and
forms of privileged migration has only recently (re)emerged within the disciplines of
Anthropology and Geography, at the beginning of the Twenty-first century (among
others: Beaverstock 2002; K. Willis, Yeoh, and Fakhri 2002; K. Willis and Yeoh 2002;
Yeoh and Willis 2005; Fechter 2007a; Coles and Fechter 2008; Butcher 2009;
Hindman 2009a; Hindman 2009b; Dobeneck 2010; Farrer 2010; Farrer 2011). This
new research focuses on everyday practices, identity negotiations, emotions, and
coping strategies and differs greatly from research in the field of Human Resource
Management that is mainly concerned with the performance and (successful)
management of expatriate professionals. Collective volumes such as Coles and
Fechter’s (2008) Gender and Family among Transnational Professionals, and Going
First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement edited by Vered Amit
(2007), exemplify this new focus: they analyze everyday spaces outside the
multinational company and also highlight the particular role of women in expatriate
circles, women who are not employed in multinational companies but accompany their
spouses abroad.
In the wake of these collective volumes, a range of articles have appeared, usually
focusing on specific practices of privileged migrants. Geographer Georg Glasze (2006),
for instance, brings the particularities of expatriate housing practices to the fore,
describing the role of gated communities among expatriates in Saudi Arabia. Katie
Walsh (Walsh 2006a; Walsh 2006b; Walsh 2008) focuses on British expatriate
identities in Dubai, examining cultural practices of domesticity, intimacy, and
consequent articulations of belonging and national identity. Heather Hindman (2009a;
2009b) pays detailed attention to the meaning-laden activity of shopping for expatriate
women in Nepal and reveals that behind the shopping for art objects and an interest in
cuisine lies the need for easily transferable elements in a world of constant movement.
Food and art, unlike language skills and local friendships, “can be utilized as anecdotal
parallels in future postings” (Hindman 2009b, 256). The collected objects at the next
destination “act as means of transferring knowledge and status between locations”
(2009a, 676), helping the expatriate women to recreate themselves. Willis and Yeoh
(2002; 2005) contribute a comparative angle, writing on British and Singaporean
Expatriates in Hong Kong and China based on material from 247 interviews that were
conducted between 1997 and 2001. They also provide insight into the gendered
experiences of privileged migration, a perspective they pursue further in their article on
single British migrants in China (K. Willis and Yeoh 2008).
James Farrer in his works (2008; 2010; 2011) examines expatriates’ nightlife activities,
sexuality and intermarriage and their relevance in encounters with the “local” in
Shanghai. In addition to his emphasis on the interaction with “locals,” Farrer also
broadens the view on expatriates themselves by investigating foreigners in Shanghai
who are staying longer than five years. Foregrounding their narratives of emplacement,
he questions the standard “equation of expatriates with highly mobile transnational
elites” (2010, 15) and points out the increasing diversity of the expatriate community in
social composition.
In addition to these writings with their particular foci, two complete ethnographies
focusing on two distinct expatriate communities have appeared. Fechter’s (2007a)
Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia and Von Dobeneck’s (2010) work Mobile
Eliten. Deutsche Entsandte und ihre Familien in São Paulo on German expatriates in
São Paulo both give detailed insights into expatriate communities’ structures and
expatriates’ everyday practices. Anne-Meike Fechter’s work particularly concentrates
on the boundaries present in expatriate life in Indonesia.
In the context of this increase in empirical works on expatriate communities, Fechter
and Walsh (2010) 5 have begun to discuss the necessity for further theoretical
conceptualizations of expatriates, calling for an integration and inclusion of studies on
mobile professionals into the Migration Studies mainstream. The authors propose to
link the subject theoretically with postcolonial theory, consequently integrating both
topics together. The authors argue that this integration of research on expatriates into
Migration Studies is necessary to contest limited notions of migration processes and
images of migrants. In their own words:
Consequently, one critique of mainstream Migration Studies literatures might be
that they are producing somewhat skewed notions of ‘who migrants are’, leading
to rather particular and limited notions of migration processes as a whole.
(Fechter and Walsh 2010, 1198)
Besides pointing out the necessity for research on expatriates and the need to link
them theoretically with other areas of study, the article also demonstrates the high
educational, occupational, ethnic, and cultural diversity among privileged migrants. The
authors stress that there is a class hierarchy within the category of “western expatriates”
and further argue that this diversity in class “also challenges us to think about
whiteness as negotiative, not as a racialised position that automatically awards a high
status within the globalising city” (Fechter and Walsh 2010, 1200).
In the dissertation, I comment on the issue of Whiteness and its significance in the lives
and experiences of youths. I address particularly the problematic, assumed equation
that western/expat equals White (see chapter 13.2. in particular). Some expatriate
students are from Asia or “look Asian,” despite being born in the “West” due to their
underpinning my research (see 2.4.) will enrich this discussion of linking experiences of
(young) expatriates to the broader field of migration studies. The framework of
transcultural studies supports my focus on the processes of negotiation of cultural
complexities in the international students’ lives, and particularly connects to theoretical
debates. Chapter eight, for instance, addresses students’ experiences and postcolonial
concepts of belonging and home; chapter fourteen in particular reflects on the youths’
narratives of the self and links their negotiations of cultural identity to theoretical
aspects from recent concepts of the burgeoning field of transcultural studies. In
addition to the need for such a theoretical framing of expatriate experiences, Fechter
The same collection of articles in this 2010 issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies have also
appeared in a collective volume entitled The New Expatriates Postcolonial Approaches to Mobile
Professionals (Fechter and Walsh 2012).
and Walsh (2010, 1206–1207) identify the “super-diversity of migrants,” the need to
“widen our focus beyond the relationships between Western expatriates and hostcountry nationals” as promising areas for further research. They suggest to also
“examine evidence of colonial dis/continuities in the relations between various
transnational migrant groups,” and point out the necessity to “produce research that
does engage with locals’ perspectives on expatriates in a variety of contexts” (ibid.).
This ethnographic study’s focus does not directly take into consideration Chinese
locals’ points of view. However, it is the called-for examination and acknowledgement
of the “super-diversity of migrants” that it can contribute to due to its attention to the
particular age group of fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds.
Although many of the qualitative research projects discussed above take ethnic, racial,
and particularly gendered experiences of privileged migration into account, most of
them neglect the age-specific experiences of children and adolescents. With the
exception of Fiona Moore’s (2008) contribution to Coles and Fechter’s volume on
gender and family (2008) that investigates the role of the German school for the
German community in London, none of the publications have centrally focused on
expatriate youth. However, even Moore’s contribution does not focus on the children’s
point of view. This might firstly be due to the general scarcity of research on children
and youth – especially on their own experiences and perspectives – in Anthropology,
an issue that I discussed already in depth in 2.1. Secondly, this lack might be due to
the difficult access to expatriate youths’ lifeworlds. The everyday lives of expatriate
youths are somewhat as difficult to explore as the expatriates’ workplaces that Walsh
comments on:
[T]here is a tendency to focus on women’s lives and the production of femininities
(as in Fechter’s chapter on ‘expatriate wives’), often due simply to the
methodological difficulties of accessing workplaces in sufficient depth and the
relative time-rich status of the ‘trailing spouse’. (Walsh 2010, 139–140)
The life of international school students is busy, similar to that of the working
transnational professionals. They have school, schoolwork, and extracurricular
activities to attend to throughout the day. Moreover, the private international schools
are often as, or even more, inaccessible as corporate workplaces for ethnographic
studies – a problem I will further explore in the methodology section under 4.2. While
there have been a few qualitative studies on the everyday lives of working expatriates
(for instance Butcher 2009) outside the research realm of Human Resources, there has
been no in-depth examination into the everyday practices and experiences of
expatriate youth.
Writings on Third Culture Kids (TCKs)
When expatriate children are the focus of studies, they are usually described and
conceptualized as “Third Culture Kids.” Well-received and popular among – at least the
Anglophone – expatriate circles today, the concept of “Third Culture Kids” was
originally introduced by John Useem and Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s (see Pollock
and Van Reken [1999]2009, 20; Knörr 2005, 53; Richter 2011, 20). Studying American
families living and working in India, the researchers described the parents’ home
culture as the first culture, the culture of the place of residence as the second culture,
and “the ‘Third Culture’ to them was the culture of the expatriate community, which they
understood as a ‘culture between cultures’ integrating cultural features of home and
host societies” (Knörr 2005, 53).
Later, van Reken and Pollock’s ([1999]2009) book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up
Among Worlds helped the concept gain its immense popularity. Their work is set out as
a self-help book, aimed for use by members of the expatriate communities. Their ideas
have been developed in various (parental) guidebooks (see for instance Pascoe 2006;
Pittman and Smit 2012), on special website forums dedicated to TCKs6 as well as in
the expatriate press circulating in Shanghai, such as That’s Shanghai and City
Weekend. The common definition of the term is as follows:
A third culture kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her
developmental years outside the parents‘ culture. The TCK builds relationships to
all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from
each culture are assimilated into the TCK‘s life experience, the sense of
belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (Pollock and Van
Reken [1999]2009, 19)
The findings of these studies, guidebooks, magazines, and websites (with a focus on
Western children) discuss how a life outside the parents’ home country and particularly
a lifestyle of constant moving affects children. TCKs are represented as a group
Numerous websites and blogs are dedicated to Third Culture Kids. is the oldest
website and presents itself as the “official home of Dr. Ruth Useem, who first coined the term “Third
Culture Kids”.” Signing up promises you access to services and resources, such as Useem’s study from
1960 to 1993. The website , co-founded by Paulette Bethel and Brice Royer, offers
material for teachers, educators, counselors, relocation specialists and others – a sign-up is also required.
Brice Royer is also the founder of the website This site is based on the idea of an online
community with individual accounts so people can share their views and experiences. It was founded in
2007. According to the website, that sees itself as “a home for Third Culture Kids,” the community has
about 21 000 members. The makers describe the aim of their site as “dedicated to help Third Culture Kids
connect and find a sense of belonging.” The Internet page is “an online magazine
and community dedicated to people who grew up in multiple countries, international school alumni, or
Third Culture Kids.” Interestingly this website, too, describes itself as an “online home” – a metaphor that
can be found on all of the sites. Offering help in the “struggle with identity, relationships, visas and careers
in our unique TCK way,” the website in its introductory text also praises Third Culture Kids as “the citizens
of the future.” A further example of the recent rise of online communities is the website that offers a platform for expatriates in general, but – after opening an account – also
offers information on Third Culture Kids. These websites were last accessed on March 18th, 2013.
(“TCKWorld: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids (TCKs)” 2013; “TCK Academy’s: The First TCK
Expert Interview Series” 2013; “TCKID: A Home for Third Culture Kids and Adults (TCKs)” 2013; “Denizen
- for Third Culture Kids” 2013; “InterNations: Expatriate Community for Expats Worldwide” 2013).
sharing many qualities, despite the different countries they grow up in. Pollock and van
Reken ([1999]2009, 39) argue that “for TCKs the moving back and forth from one
culture to another happens before they have completed the critical developmental task
of forming a sense of their own personal or cultural identity.” This quote reveals the
container-like, or as Homi Bhabha ([1996]2012, 53) has put it, “absurd notion of an
uncontaminated culture in a single country” that seems to occasionally underlie the
reasoning of the TCK concept. Based on such a notion of culture, the authors see how
the children’s upbringing results in the “the paradoxical nature of the TCK experience –
the sense of being profoundly connected yet simultaneously disconnected with people
and places around the world” (Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009, 38). The problem of
belonging and identity formation are presented as the central problem for youths
growing up as TCKs. This problem, they argue, is due to “an interplay of these factors
– living in both a culturally changing and highly mobile world during the formative
years” (ibid. 39). The general idea of development and identity building underlying all
these arguments – adults possess a stable identity, children are still developing and
somewhat adults-in-the-making – has been criticized by many scholars on youth in
other areas (see for instance Bucholtz 2002; Hirschfeld 2002). I addressed this
problematic conceptualization of adolescence as a “prolonged ‘search for identity’”
(Bucholtz 2002, 532) in chapter 2.1 in detail.
The authors also see other specific common challenges that many “TCKs” face, such
as issues of relational patterns (Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009, 131–143),
“unresolved grief” (ibid.,165-182), and “uneven maturity” and “delayed adolescence” or
“delayed adolescent rebellion” (Pollock and Van Reken 150-158 and Pascoe, 25).
They also describe the benefits of being a “TCK,” like having an “expanded worldview”
(Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009, 79–80), and developed “cross-cultural skills”
(ibid.,107-110), “observational skills” (ibid.,112-110), “social skills” (ibid.,112-114), and
“linguistic skills” (ibid.,114-118). Concerning the relational patterns, the frequent
experience of goodbyes, according to Pollock and Van Reken, can sometimes lead to
“patterns of protecting themselves” (ibid.,131) and struggles with a “fear of intimacy
because of the fear of loss” (ibid.,139). But the authors also describe how TCKs “will go
to greater lengths than some people might consider normal to nurture relational ties
with others” (ibid.,131). “TCKs,” according to them, place a high value on their
relationships and often jump into “deeper levels of relationship” (ibid., 136). Unresolved
grief is another issue that Pollock and Van Reken address, an issue that is related to
losses expatriate children experience by moving. However, these losses are often
hidden and unrecognized for a variety of reasons. The authors also attest that an
“uneven maturity” troubles “TCKs.” Although their experience with “TCKs” often lead
adults to view them as extremely mature, a maturity and comfort level with adults that
most “TCKs” also perceive in themselves (ibid.,151), according to Pollock and van
Reken, few spaces are available for “TCKs” “to test rules during their teenage years”
(ibid.,152). “TCKs” are therefore often unclear about which norms to rebel against. This
is an uncertainty that leads to a postponement in rebellion that usually manifests itself
later, in college. The benefits of “TCK” life, including the expanded worldview and all
the developed skills mentioned above are linked to the experience of difference and
having to learn to deal with it through observing and adapting.
Although it appeared in 1999, Pollock and van Reken’s book is based on surveys that
were conducted in the early and mid-1980s with adults aged twenty-two to twentyseven, who were asked to reflect upon their childhood and the impact that moving had
on their lives. These “kids,” in other words, were mainly born in the 1950s. Processes
of globalization and mediatization have surely led to changes in the experiences of
growing up abroad since then. The authors of the self-help book Expat Teens Talk
(Pittman and Smit 2012) have conducted an online survey that offers more current
results. The average expat teen respondent, according to their 248 questionnaires, is
fifteen years old, has lived in three countries, has attended four schools and speaks
two languages fluently. Based on the questionnaires, the authors also offer lists of
issues expatriate teenagers have most questions about (top issue: “general
worries/concerns/fears”), experimental behaviors they engage in (top behavior:
“drinking alcohol”), and things they worry most about (top: “grades”) (ibid., 175-176).
Expat Teens Talk, however, is less concerned with investigating expatriate youth and
offers only limited insights into expatriate youths’ social worlds, but rather offers
answers from parents, counselors, and other “TCKs” to pressing issues and questions
the authors received from expat teens.
All the guidebooks, Pollock and Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids, Pascoe’s Raising
Global Nomads, and Pittman and Smit’s Expat Teens Talk, are written from within the
community and offer to help expatriate youths facing problems of belonging and
identity by establishing a feeling of community. Based on these publications, the
concept of “TCKs” was also used and promoted in Shanghai’s expatriate community
centers and by school counselors. Ruth van Reken had even given a talk at the school
of one of my informants. It is this reinforcement of the sense of belonging to a special
“TCK,” “Global Nomad,” or expat community that the guidebooks and the talks in
Shanghai promote that raised my awareness about something I would later call “TCK
nationalism,” a search for other scholars who seek to complicate or investigate critically
the “TCK” issue outside the guidebook phenomenon.
Complicating the TCK Issue: Ethnographic Studies and the Concept
Academic writings (Selmer and Lam 2004; Franke 2008; Grimshaw and Sears 2008;
Greenholtz and Kim 2009; B. E. Peterson and Plamondon 2009; Walters and AutonCuff 2009; Richter 2011) have taken up the “TCK” category. One of the few
ethnographic works on “Third Culture Kids,” however, is Danau Tanu’s (2011) article
“Vignettes from another Perspective: When Cultural Hierarchies Matter at an
International School.” In it she updates and complicates some of the dynamics
described in the standard works on “TCKs,” criticizing former research for its limited
perspective – mostly Western researchers conducting studies on Western participants
– that is likely to oversee how “’race, ethnicity, culture, finances and even the name of
the country on our passport(s) impact upon our access to global mobility, ability to feel
at home in different places, and the way others relate to us” (2011, 224). Having
conducted ethnographic fieldwork at an international school in Indonesia, Tanu’s
accounts show how cultural hierarchies are prominent not only outside, but also inside
international schools. Different labels, such as “Indonesian” or “White” – that seem to
be linked rather to a native English speaker status and mannerisms than to actual
physical appearance (ibid., 230) – are prominent in everyday discussions at school.
While for the school administrators “the ideal student is the ‘global citizen’,” many of the
students with Asian backgrounds are seen as “add[ing] to the school’s overall sense of
visible diversity,” while “fall[ing] short on being ‘international’” (ibid.). Internationalism
renders the dominant Western culture invisible, establishing hierarchies of who is or is
not “international.” In Tanu’s words: “International schools may be a multicultural
bubble, but it is a bubble that is not immune to the dynamics at work in the world
outside the school gates” (ibid., 231). Tanu’s work highlights an aspect of my own
ethnographic work: Expatriate Youth – although often forming a “we” – are a
heterogeneous group. This heterogeneous group, as Tanu demonstrates, has inner
divisions and hierarchies:
Money and cultural hierarchies influence perceptions and interactions that take
place on the campus. Racial and other identity labels are sometimes used to
signify status and cultural difference, but their meanings constantly shift. Various
forms of social assets, such as language, accents, mannerisms, and money, are
used to make and vie for status. (Tanu 2011, 231)
In her work Tanu explains how these hierarchies influence familial relationships and
peer as well as student - teacher relations at the international school campus.
International school culture, she claims, is often westernized. For students with Asian
backgrounds “cultural dissonance” may arise between “‘Western’ culture by day and
‘Asian’ culture by night” (ibid., 223). Tanu finds that in describing feelings of “cultural
dissonance,” former writings on TCKs only address repatriation or “life after the
expatriate microcosm.” Observing these feelings (and I would add: the necessity to
creatively cope with the different cultural worlds at home and at school), she witnesses
“similar, though not identical” experiences of “Asian” TCKs and those “of second
generation immigrants growing up in Western countries” (ibid., 223). These groups
have seldom been put in the same context, and it is precisely in the reinforcement of
this gap between “immigrants growing up in Western countries” and those treated as
“TCKs” that anthropologist Jacqueline Knörr (2005) criticizes the concept of “TCK.”
While Tanu’s work has revealed the heterogeneity of “TCKs,” urging for a more
sensitive look at the inner divisions of the “TCK” community, Knörr (2005) goes even
further in her criticism of the “TCK” concept.
Knörr (2005, 54) notes that Pollock and van Reken have broadened the definition of
the term to include “all children who move into another society with their parents,”
making “TCK” a more inclusive term, not distinguishing between “a Sierra Leonean
refugee in the United States and an American son of an ambassador somewhere in
Africa.” Anthropologist Knörr, taking a long overdue critical stance against the “TCK”
concept, rightly points out that this broadening covers up ideologies connected with the
“TCK” approach and remains associated primarily with “Western children brought up in
the so-called Third World” and not to immigrant children in Europe or the USA (ibid.).
She criticizes the concept of “TCK” as an ideology that implicitly reinforces qualifying
distinctions between “TCKs” (Western Children) and other (im)migrants, as well as
between TCKs and the population in the “home country.” On this point, she argues:
[W]hereas the upper class of young, mostly Western migrants to - mainly - Third
World countries are likely to be considered "Third Culture Kids," producing
creatively a culture for themselves, the lower classes of young migrants - those
from Third World or poorer countries migrating or fleeing to mostly Western
countries - are likely to be considered immigrants with a cultural background,
which does not fit their new environment and thus produce problems for
themselves and their host society. There is an implicit - and qualifying distinction made between TCKs on the one hand and other young (im)migrants
on the other. With regard to the former, (appropriate) cultural creativity is
emphasized; with regard to the latter (inappropriate) cultural conservatism.
Academic approaches thereby largely and mostly implicitly reflect the - usually
not so implicit - qualifying distinctions made in society at large. (Knörr 2005, 54)
Knörr succinctly points out the difference in everyday life, as well as in academic
discourses, when it comes to the discussion of issues of cultural practices or cultural
identities among privileged migrants – expatriate youths – and migrants coming to
Western countries – immigrant youths. Whereas the “cultural background” of migrant
youths in Germany, for example, is seen to cause problems, expatriate youths – Third
Culture Kids – are associated with cultural creativity. While I acknowledge the
“appropriate cultural creativity” of the “TCK” concept in general and the help the “TCK”
concept might offer for expatriate youths to realize that they are not the only ones with
such experiences – especially after a move “back home,” I nevertheless, agree with
Knörr’s position.
One way to save this well-meaning concept, which acknowledges creativity and offers
support through creating a like-minded community, from its “ideology of difference”
might be a radical extension of its use: “TCKs” should not to be reserved to qualify
Western expatriates alone. Its broadening to include all migrant youths could aid to
acknowledge the full range of migrant youths’ creative practices and their universal
potential to create "Third Cultures.” When capturing (im)migrant youths’ experiences,
for instance in Europe or the USA, I suggest linking the “TCK” concept to approaches
in postcolonial studies, such as Homi Bhabha’s ([1994]2009) metaphor of the “Third
Space” that describes a chaotic meeting space, “the cutting edge of translation and
negotiation, the inbetween space” (ibid., 56), where migrants discuss and create new
multiple meanings and cultural affiliations. The “TCK” idea could help to simplify or
ground the cultural creativity that lies in such concepts as Bhabha’s. However, as my
own empirical focus is obviously not able to contribute to this broadening, and as the
concept is to me (still) containing ideologies of difference in its usage, I refrain from
using it.
This rejection of the TCK concept does not mean that I think one should hide the –
mostly implicit – ideologies of difference; on the contrary, such differences depending
on social status and origin clearly affect the migration experience. “Global migration is
far easier for highly-skilled workers and those with capital than it is for those without
training or resources,” wrote Massey (1995, 197). Other terms are more suitable than
“TCK.” For instance, the term “privileged migrant”7, openly address the inequalities that
“TCK” does not. Although “TCK” can be broadened and has the potential to address
young migrants’ creative potentials in dealing with mobility, I consider its current usage
too narrow and normative for the aim of this ethnography. By following the concept I
would a priori accept the children and youth under discussion as having “relationships
to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any” (Pollock and Van Reken
For a discussion of the term “privileged migrant” and on what “privileged” can mean, see Vered Amit’s
(2007) collective volume Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement, in
particular the contribution by Angela Torresan (2007) on middle-class Brazilian migrants in Portugal. While
Torresan argues that migration outflows have always been inclined to choose people with above average
access to resources, connections, or education in comparison to their fellow nationals, she also shows that
terms such as “privileged” or “middle class” are evidently related to migrants’ own “relative perceptions of
their own well-being” (2007, 106). Based on the self-perception of the migrants she worked with, as well as
their “ability to reproduce a desired middle-class status” (ibid., 121), Torresan found the term “privileged”
fitting for her case study. I think the term “privileged migrant” is also well-suited to emphasize the
expatriate youths social positions in my research, be it vis-à-vis myself, the average Shanghainese
household, or many other migrants, or also in respect to their former position in Germany, as the move to
Shanghai usually comes with additional financial benefits.
[1999]2009, 19). I argue that instead of choosing samples of self-defined TCKs, as
former research has repeatedly done (Franke 2008; Richter 2011), it is important to
look at practices of expatriate youth more generally – including everyday practices and
identity performances that might contradict such a definition. All these studies based on
the a priori TCK definition only investigate youth (or mostly adults on their past) that fit
into the category, therefore automatically finding “homogeneity within heterogeneity”
(Griese 2004, quoted in Richter 2011, 24). This might also be due to a methodological
problem, because former studies have been built on interviews, surveys (Pollock and
Van Reken [1999]2009), and have focused mainly on group discussions (Franke 2008)
asking mainly adult “Third Culture Kids” about their pasts. They have also been based
on the anecdotal fictional and biographic literature of those concerned (Richter 2011,
18). I think that these adult retrospectives may often be linked to established narratives
making sense of the experienced.
It is thus the ethnographic practice that examines everyday routines that further
distinguishes my study from former studies focusing on TCKs (with the exception of
Danau Tanu’s (2011) work mentioned under 2.3). My ethnographic work refrains from
using the TCK definition to show that positionings in terms of cultural identity can differ
in their features, meanings, borders etc. The term “expatriate” or its short form “expat,”
is better suited for my work. In chapter one I chose to deploy the term “expatriate” (or
“expat”) because the student interviewees at the international high schools in Shanghai
all identified with it, regardless of their parents’ occupation, nationality, or migration
trajectories. “Expat” can be seen as an immanent term. In comparison to the “TCK”
term, I want to add that although “expat(riate) kids” are often mentioned as a
subcategory of “Third Culture Kids,” next to “military brats” 8 and “missionary kids”
(Richter 2011, 20), I use the term “expatriate youth.” In my particular case, it conveys a
broader definition than the conventional usage of “TCK.” While “expatriate youth” is a
suitable replacement of the “TCK” label for my study, it does not, however, offer any
insights as an analytical concept to investigate international students’ mediations of
cultural complexities. I therefore suggest turning towards the notion of transculturality
and related ideas.
To my knowledge, the origin of the term “military brat” is unknown. Its popularity, however, traces back to
Mary Edwards Wertsch’s ([1991]2006) book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress.
Despite its pejorative nature, the term is used among people who grew up with parents in the armed
forces. The title of a thematic literature review by Grace Clifton (2004),“Making the case for the BRAT
(British Regiment Attached Traveller),” suggests its possible historic origin.
Thinking Beyond “Third Culture Kids”: Transculturality in Progress,
Practice, and Perspective
There seems to be a common standpoint that in the vastest sense “transculturation is
the process of individuals and societies changing themselves by integrating diverse
cultural life-ways into dynamic new ones” (Hoerder, Hébert, and Schmitt 2005, 13).
Transcultur/al/ation/ity is not a “given” concept, however, but has its own conceptual
history. Since Wolfgang Welsch coined the term transculturality (Welsch 1999), a
burgeoning field of transcultural studies has emerged. It has developed into an
interdisciplinary field that scholars of various backgrounds have approached from
different angles.
The philosopher Wolfgang Welsch (1999) developed the term transculturality to
challenge the classical idea of single cultures and the more recent concepts of
interculturality and multiculturality. He strongly criticizes these former concepts,
suggesting that cultures are not “constituted in the form of islands or spheres” (ibid.,
unpaged). He introduces the idea of transculturality to right the misunderstanding that
cultures have “the insinuated form of homogeneity and separateness” (ibid.). The
concept of transculturality, Welsch argues, “sketches a different picture of the relation
between cultures. Not one of isolation and of conflict, but one of entanglement,
intermixing and commonness” (ibid.). Furthermore, Welsch also acknowledges
transculturality not only on society’s macro level, but also on the individual level: “Work
on one's identity is becoming more and more work on the integration of components of
differing cultural origin” (ibid.). Unfortunately, as Gertraud Koch (2008, 14) already
pointed out, Welsch’s development of transculturation is rather generalizing and not
based on specific examples.
Aoileann Ní Éigearteigh and Wolfgang Berg (2010a) in their collective volume,
Exploring transculturalism, have taken up Welsch’s (1999) idea of transculturality on
the individual level and pursue a biographical approach to transculturality, presenting
texts “of a range of curious, open-minded protagonists who managed, through
perseverance and affinity, to adapt to new, alien cultures” (Berg and Éigeartaigh
2010b, 11). In the introduction, the editors explain that the volume focuses on
transnationally mobile persons. The aspect of cultural identity they pursue is based on
the underlying premise that certain individuals “find ways to transcend their native
cultures, in order to explore, examine and infiltrate new, seemingly alien cultures” and
that these experiences show that “it will become increasingly difficult to identify and
separate people according to previously accepted delineations” (ibid.). The chosen
protagonists, from their point of view, are defined as
transcultural personalities because of their willingness to rise to the challenge of
living in unfamiliar, sometimes even hostile, societies, and forge new, hybrid
narratives of identity for themselves, without compromising their own individuality
and cultural heritage (Berg and Éigeartaigh 2010a, 16).
Éigearteigh and Wolfgang Berg term these individuals “transculturalists” and argue that
looking closely at their experiences and narratives gives insights into “the conditions
under which cultural change takes place” (2010b, 11). The editors add a critical aspect
to their overtly positive portrayal of transcultural experience in their introduction. They
point out that Welsch’s (1999) optimistic outlook on transculturality as a state that “can
help the migrant to overcome feelings of isolation, dislocation and foreignness” (Berg
and Éigeartaigh 2010b, 12; in reference to Welsch 1999) ought to be regarded with
care, as “people who cross borders continue to struggle with unfamiliar social norms
and behaviours” (ibid., 12).
In a similar way, Nina Richter (2011, 117) has suggested transculturality as an identity
model that appropriately explains “Third Culture Kids.” Her work combines the rather
applied concept of “Third Culture Kids,” with a theoretical understanding of
transculturality. Richter draws on the conceptualization of transculturality by Welsch
and understands it as “jenseits des Gegensatzes von Eigenkultur und Fremdkultur”9
(Welsch 1995 cited in Richter 2011, 117). She argues that “TCKs” encounter diverse
cultural elements, span several cultures and are marked by being part of a third culture.
Consequently, Richter argues, “Third Culture Kids” represent and articulate different
cultures, cross-cultural values and norms (“kulturübergreifende Werte und Normen”),
international experiences and intercultural competences as, citing Welsch (1995),
“Fusionen bis in ihren Kern hinein.”10 Richter concludes that “Third Cultures Kids” are
thus “transcultural personalities” (2011, 117).
While the concept of “transculturalists” (Berg and Éigeartaigh 2010b) and the
understanding of TCKs as “transcultural personalities” (Richter 2011) both draw
attention to experiences and narratives of individuals, they fail to acknowledge
processes of change within “cultures” – and are unfortunately based on an
understanding of homogeneity that is problematic. This derives from Welsch’s
misunderstanding of transculturality, in its perception of cultures as having a “nucleus”
(“Kern”). For my work I find the terms “transculturalist,” “Third Culture Kids,” or
The English translation of Welsch’s essays translates “beyond the contraposition of ownness and
foreignness” (Welsch 1999).
Richter refers to the German article from 1995. However, I found the quoted citation only in the abstract
article:[showUid]=28. In the summary provided on the website
Welsch writes, “Vielmehr sind Kulturen charakterisiert durch vielfältige Verflechtungen, Durchmischungen
und "Fusionen" bis in ihren Kern hinein.” This can be translated as “Cultures are rather characterized
through manifold entanglements, mixing and ‘fusions’ reaching into their nucleus.”
“transcultural personalities” too static. They evoke borders towards essentialized
others. As Brosius and Wenzlhuemer (2011, 11) argue, “(t)he matter is even more
complicated since we must reflect on the role of local notions of, for example, beauty,
authenticity, or realism without essentialising them.”
My work, nevertheless, aims to follow Richter’s (2011) linking of “Third Culture Kids,” or
better “expatriate youths,” with transculturality. However, my approach differs greatly
from Richter’s, as I, firstly, pursue an ethnographic research method. An ethnographic
approach, in contrast to Richter’s account that is based on established narratives of
people who label themselves as “Third Culture Kids,” can be fine-tuned – also to
practices that contradict or impair the building of such “transcultural personalities” that
Richter sees. Secondly, to go beyond the rather static concept of “Third Culture Kids,” I
find it helpful to look for understandings of transculturality beyond Welsch’s notion of
transculturality as a state of being. In the following, I will introduce concepts that see
transculturality as a process, for instance Ortiz’s early idea of transculturation that
Welsch was unaware of when coining his term, and pay more attention to the dynamics
of transculturality.
Fernando Ortiz (1970) developed the concept of transculturation already in the 1940s
in his work, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, when analyzing tobacco and
sugar production in Cuba. Based on empirical evidence Ortiz describes the rapid global
spread of tobacco and assess the reasons for its change in “social significance as it
passed from the cultures of the New World to those of the Old.” He called this process
“the transculturation of tobacco“ (ibid., 183). He argued that transculturation defines
what he saw as “the highly varied phenomena that have come about in Cuba as a
result of the extremely complex transmutations of culture that have taken place here”
(ibid., 98). This term, he claims, more adequately describes these historical events than
“acculturation,” the term that had been until then frequently deployed in describing
similar processes (ibid., 97). Bronislaw Malinowski (1970, viii), supporting the new
concept in the introduction to Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, claims
that “acculturation” is “an ethnocentric word” that connotes the idea that “the
“uncultured” is to receive the benefits of “our culture”.” Malinowski argues that “by the
use of the term acculturation we implicitly introduce a series of moral, normative, and
evaluative concepts which radically vitiate the real understanding of the phenomenon”
(ibid., emphasis in the original). This phenomenon, which Ortiz defines as
transculturation, is in Malinowski’s explanatory words:
a process in which something is always given in return for what one receives, a
system of give and take. It is a process in which both parts of the equation are
modified, a process from which a new reality emerges, transformed and complex,
a reality that is not a mechanical agglomeration of traits, nor even a mosaic, but a
new phenomenon, original and independent (Malinowski 1970, viii–ix).
It is the emphasis on the “new, original and independent” realities that makes Ortiz’s
understanding of transcultural processes, as Koch (2008, 12) puts forward, an early
acknowledgement of the emancipatory potential that lies in the concept of
transculturation. It shows, according to Koch, that “the dominant culture” does not
remain uninfluenced in this process (ibid.). While Ortiz’s concept of transculturation
emphasizes the creative processes of new formations, it remains connected to the
dangers of essentializing “authentic” cultures that then merge to transform into new
Transculturality in Progress
Maya Nadig’s (2004) concept of “transculturality in progress” is highly sensitive to the
dangers of essentializing culture and describes migratory milieus, co-operative spaces,
and transcultural relations as the “frames in which people with different cultural
backgounds perceive the difference of cultures and negotiate their identity and selfdesign” (ibid., 9). Instead of talking about distinct cultures, Nadig suggests that
“experiences, emotions, perceptions of others and strategic positions are consciously
and discursively modelled along the forming of affiliations, the drawing of boundaries
and differentiation between the alien and the own, selves and others” (ibid.). If we base
our understanding of transculturality on a concept of culture that, as Maya Nadig (ibid.,
10) suggests, sees culture “as plural and in motion” and defines it “as a practice,” we
can use transculturality as a concept to investigate “the development and
transformation of identity constructs within the context of transcultural relations,” and to
focus on “the subsequently developed forms of translation, convergence, mergence,
the new boundaries and differentiation.” According to Nadig, transculturality leads us to
analyze both “the context within which individuals and groups interact” as well as “the
material, discursive and practical manifestations of cultural identity and their change to
the extent that mutual (transcultural) understanding is either made possible or
impaired” (ibid.). While many of the spatial practices I will discuss throughout my
dissertation are linked to practices of boundary-drawing that often impair exchanges
and understandings with local Chinese youth (see for instance the physical, social, and
cultural boundaries of the gated communities, or the international schools described in
part three, “Arriving”), the forms of belonging and identity positionings (discussed in
detail in chapter fourteen) demonstrate students’ own perspectives and identifications
with in-between positions and their need to make (transcultural) understanding
possible in various contexts. Focusing on such spaces of progress and in25
investigations in the same direction in cultural studies and in psychoanalysis. She
argues that concepts of in-between spaces in regards to cultural identity and the
intermediate spaces conceptualized in psychoanalytical approaches to identity both
entail “mediating between inner/individual and outer/cultural reality, or between selves
and others” (Nadig 2004, 17). The five exemplary individual self-reflective narratives
presented in chapter fourteen of my dissertation represent such mediations. Student
Arnaud (14.4), for instance tries to cope with differences between himself and his
parents by reflecting and opening up creative spaces by producing music, theater
plays, or writings. Xia (14.5) likewise tries to mediate the differences he perceives
between his school zone and his home zone. Antonia (14.3) is more concerned with
bringing together the shared values she experiences as Chinese and the shared
values she considers German, which she found both influential on her own life and
practices. Bjoern (14.1) is confronted with class differences between his social
networks in Germany and in Shanghai and tries to find a space in-between that he
finds comfortable in. In regards to the role of practices in these processes of
mediations, I suggest to further draw on another concept of transculturality, that of
“transculturality as practice” by Robert Pütz (2004).
Transculturality as Practice
Robert Pütz (2004), writing about entrepreneurs of Turkish origin in Berlin,
conceptualizes transculturality as practice, as a solution to the contradiction of the
theoretical standpoint of the non-existence of homogeneous cultures on the one side,
and the everyday codifications of knowledge through the use of signs and practice in
which such essentializations are permanently (re)produced, on the other. Pütz does
not consider cultural embeddedness as something fixed. He argues that it is created
through (communicative) practices in a specific situation. It is thus open to change
(ibid., 29). Pütz admits that the different cultural symbolic systems are important for an
individual’s social practice but understands these as a “repertoire” the individual has
access to and chooses from (ibid.). Using an interpretative and symbolic understanding
of culture, his concept of transculturality as practice leads us to ask questions about
the practice of drawing cultural boundaries (Pütz 2004, 11) rather than inquiring the
state of seemingly homogenous cultures. Pütz points out that concepts of
transculturality claim that individuals can articulate belonging to different imagined
communities in whose construction processes they are permanently involved (ibid.,13).
The self-positioning on both sides of certain borders can, according to Pütz’s view, be
seen as the ability of individuals to deal flexibly with codifications of identity (ibid.). He
takes up the idea of Wolfgang Welsch (1999) that individuals possess or have access
to different cultural frames of reference. In consequence, Pütz (2004, 27) points out
that with the help of the concept of transculturality the inner-outer differentiation that
comes with every border is conceptually being shifted onto the individual.
Pütz’s concept defines transculturality as a certain practice of specific subjects, which
can be divided into “everyday transculturality” and “strategic transculturality” (ibid.,13).
Pütz describes “everyday transculturality” as concrete routines with which the subjects
are able to position themselves in different frames of reference [“Deutungsschemata”].
If these frames of reference are reflected upon by the actors and used on purpose,
transculturality” is moving reflexively in the different symbolic systems (Pütz 2004, 28),
similar to what has been described by Vertovec (1997, 294) as “milieu moving,” which
student Xia, an actor in my study, illustrates (see 14.5.) in his discussions of moving
between school and home.
[“Beobachtungskonzept”] (2004, 13) or analyzing [“Analysekonzept”] (2004, 28), as a
methodological tool for the researcher. It is useful for sharpening one’s focus and for
shedding light on the cultural aspects of practices and their borders and
entanglements. This shows that transculturality, as Brosius and Wenzlhuemer (2011,
11) put it, “can be used to relate to a particular research topic as well as to an
analytical method.”
In his description of practices, Pütz (2004, 30) also considers the researched actors
themselves having self-reflective access to culture – a necessary premise to use
transculturality strategically. It is Pütz’s argument for self-reflective actors who
continuously – sometimes strategically – re-position themselves by drawing from their
“cultural repertoire” (ibid., 29) to simultaneous create this “repertoire” and the
boundaries, that I find more convincing than simply being a “TCK” (Pollock and Van
Reken [1999]2009) or a “transculturalist” (Berg and Éigeartaigh 2010b). It is to stress
the young expatriates’ self-reflexivity that I like to frame their mediations that I
encountered as “transcultural perspectives.”
Transculturality as Perspectives
Presenting and analyzing young people’s views and narratives of their experiences of
moving and consequent constructions of subjective cultural identities, I argue that one
coping strategy all youths share is their acquisition of a transcultural perspective to
reflect upon their own lives. I use the term “perspective” because a student himself
(see interview with Xia, chapter 14.6) introduced the term to describe his challenges
and desires to deal with difference in his immediate environment. I argue that many
students, especially those of bicultural marriages or parents with migrant biographies,
develop such a transcultural perspective on their own lives. A perspective that is highly
self-reflective upon their mobility, their positions, and the influences the family, the
school environment, or Shanghai has on them. Many students develop this
transcultural perspective, this self-reflexivity about their own entanglement as a coping
strategy for a lifestyle of constant moving – be it in their own moving or that of close
friends. This transcultural perspective on their own lives does at first sight contradict
their everyday spatial practices of demarcation and class-consciousness. However,
these actually go hand-in-hand: their own mobility might evoke a desire for stability on
the one hand, and a desire to broaden one’s point of view to manage the experienced
differences, on the other. Dwelling on the move does not erase but may even evoke
the desire to dwell and create familiar spaces – despite having the next move in mind.
It is thus a constant negotiation between drawing boundaries and trying to cross them.
A transcultural perspective sheds light on shifting and merging of different cultural
practices, positions, and creative formations of new subjectivities. It can also serve,
however, to inquire moments of boundary drawings and practices of distinction. I think
this dialectic relationship is well addressed by the term transcultural as well as the term
My presence might have triggered some of the students’ reflections and influenced
these. I argue, however, that transculturality as a method, a specific perspective, is not
only reserved for the anthropologist or the academic, but is a form of reflection
acquired by many of the teenagers that shared their lives with me. Transculturality as
perspective is a “heuristic device” (Brosius 2011, 28) for my own approach, as well as a
means for the expatriate teenagers to make sense of their lives.
Based on these understandings of transculturality as progress, practice, and
perspective and the recent research and calls for research agendas in the area of
migration and youth studies across the various relevant (sub)disciplines, ranging from
Anthropology, Sociology, Geography to Migration Studies, the ground is laid out to
unfold my own research agenda.
3. Research Questions
This dissertation examines expatriate youths’ everyday lives in Shanghai to determine
how and in what ways young people deal with the moving experiences. The
ethnography chronologically delineates the expatriate students’ experiences from the
decision to move, the arrival and attempts of emplacement, the rationalizing of the
stays’ purpose to the moment of leaving and moving on. Following this central
narrative, the transit space of Shanghai unfolds successively, allowing us for insights
into its various spaces and its meanings for expatriate youths. It highlights how the
majority of the teenagers understand Shanghai as a temporary place, a transitory
space, a liminal phase in their lives. According to seventeen-year-old Giovanni, after
having lived for three years in Shanghai, “You are only here for a temporary period.
Like a long vacation.”11
My study focuses primarily on the age group of fifteen to eighteen, but includes
participants as young as nine. How I got to know and interacted with the expatriate
teenagers of this study is described in detail in chapter four, where I reflect on my own
position in the field and introduce the two peer groups that I mainly worked with. In
addition to these two peer groups, I include many other voices as well to show the
heterogeneity – in respect to migration experiences and cultural identity – of expatriate
youth. The student directory at the end of the ethnography offers some help as it
introduces all the actors that appear throughout my work. I have spoken to many more
students, particularly at a Singaporean international school and a German school,
whose voices have informed my project but who are not visible in this study as
individuals. These students are not listed in the directory. Five students appear on the
center stage of this study in part five, where I discuss their specific experiences and
their perspectives on their own lives.
Three theoretical and thematic foci support this overarching main research emphasis
on the expatriate youth’s migration experience: firstly, a focus on the youths’ own
perspectives, secondly, attention to spatial practices and the importance of place, and
thirdly, an emphasis on questions of cultural identity, belonging, and mediations of
cultural complexities. These three foci shall enable me to understand and explain the
experience of “passing” Shanghai by simultaneously reflecting on theoretical aspects
and methodology.
Question 1:
How Do Expatriate Youths Experience the Move to
My first research aim is to understand expatriate students’ own perspectives on global
mobility, to determine the significance of their own experiences with moving. This focus
on the youths’ own points of view responds to the calls for new research agendas and
perspectives in studies of youth (see chapter 2.1.) and aims at understanding the agespecific experiences of the move to Shanghai.
German original: Hier ist man nur vorrübergehend. Wie lange Ferien.
In order to capture these age-specific experiences, my work, although focusing on the
lifestyle of a particular mobility, mainly addresses the everyday, rather unspectacular
practices – such as school life or housing and homing practices. Secondly, and most
important to me, this focus on the youths’ own perspectives and experiences has
informed my research perspective and methodologies (see also chapter four) and has
led to many passages in my ethnography, in which the students’ experiences are
described through the youths’ own words and testimonies. Thirdly, I focus on the
youth’s relations with each other rather than their relations with adults. I am well aware
underrepresented. Nevertheless, I think overcoming the “adult bias” (Baudler 1996)
and understanding youth’s own perspectives, will also contribute to the larger picture of
privileged migration. In this dissertation I examine age as a collective identity rather
than as a trajectory (Bucholtz 2002). I therefore use the term “youth” or “youths,”
“young people” or the age-specific term “teenagers,” and not the term “adolescent.” I
acknowledge processes of transformation, change and learning – as something that is
present in all our lives. As I have worked with youths that were all enrolled at
Shanghai’s numerous international schools, I also refer to my research-partners as
“students.” Furthermore, I occasionally use the term “children” not in contrast to “adult”
but in juxtaposition to “parents” similar to Hatfield’s (2010, 247) understanding. I have
done so to point out the young people’s dependency on their parents. At the time of
fieldwork, all of the actors of my study still lived with one or both parents. Recognizing
their dependency on parents, the second research focus on specific places will explore
youths’ (re)gaining of own agency upon their moves to Shanghai.
Question 2: What Role Does Place Play in the Young Expatriates’ Lives?
My second research focus on specific places in Shanghai stems from the research
tradition of Urban Anthropology. 12 While early ethnographers focusing on cities
investigated particular places within the city, later works in Urban Anthropology saw the
necessity of considering the city as a complete whole with a central function in global
The Chicago School of Sociology founded in 1915 laid the grounds for this field of study in particular
with its later monographs in the 1960s and 1970s focusing on specific quarters, districts, and communities
within the city (Wildner 1995, 6). Robert Ezra Park founder of the Chicaco School studied under Georg
Simmel in Berlin (Hannerz 1980, 22), whose progressive writings contemplating on the living conditions of
people in modern cities (Simmel 1903) could be seen as early stepping stones towards an Urban
Anthropology (Wildner 1995, 6). Urban Anthropology has always been influenced by History, Sociology,
and Geography (Hannerz 1980, 4) and for the beginnings in Chicago and the “remarkable pioneering work
in urban ethnography carried out there particularly in the 1920s and 1930s” the boundary between
sociology and anthropology can largely be disregarded (Hannerz 1980, 16). Only in the 1960s
anthropologists, habitually concerned with rural societies, increasingly turned their attention towards cities,
faced with urbanization in their “traditional fields” as well as with changes and so-called “urban problems”
in their cities at home (ibid., 1). According to Hannerz it was then yet a decade later for the term Urban
Anthropology to emerge (ibid., 2).
society (Wildner 1995, 2). My dissertation examines specific places, but aims to
connect these to the larger experience of Shanghai as a rising mega-city, as well as to
ties reaching beyond the city. With this emphasis I contribute filling the gap of research
on geographies of youth that scholars have recently turned to (see e.g. the founding of
the Journal Children’s Geographies), as well as attune my work to methodologies in
ethnographic studies that foreground the importance of place in a world of flux (see
methodology chapter four).
Expatriate children have often moved several times during their lives. Consequently,
strong global connections across multiple and large spatial scales are part of expatriate
youth’s everyday lives. The continuous presence of these places in the students’ lives
is obvious not only in narratives of migration experiences, but particularly through the
constant comparison of Shanghai to former places of living. Furthermore, daily
practices involve memories of other places that are constantly evoked through material
connections (clothes or furniture bought elsewhere), sensories (food from home), and
emotional paraphernalia (an email from a close friend abroad). Jennifer Robinson
(2010, 16) stresses the importance of the imaginary in connections between cities. She
calls for a perspective which examines "imaginative ways” through which people –
even those who physically stay in one region – are involved in the constant process of
connecting places. Robinson’s argument shows that ties to other places are vivid in our
everyday lives. “Within a topological imagination, making one’s way in a city commonly
entrains a wide diversity of other places” (Robinson 2010, 16). Her concept
demonstrates that moving through and living in Shanghai is thus constantly tied to
elsewhere. Acknowledging these strong global connections and the continuous
presence of other places, we have to admit that global processes and cultural flows
touch down somewhere. For children on the move with expatriate parents, this means
that even growing up transnationally results in living somewhere particular, if only for
limited time. Yeoh and Willis (2005, 270) point out that “transnational elites belong as
much to the ‘space of place’ as to the ‘space of flows’,” and so do their children.
Consequently, my second research aim is to analyze expatriate youths’ everyday
spatial practices and their (dis)engagement with the “local” to find out what role “place”
plays in their lives on the move. This is not an attempt to understand culture
geographically, but to find out how young people embed different global elements in a
host of particularities. The second research focus on “place” thus serves to capture the
experience of certain places. Furthermore, it aims to understand how expatriate youths
shape and use specific spaces as a source for identity and age performances. A
mixture of theoretical approaches from Urban Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and
Geography inform and support this focus on places and the investigations of students’
relations to the city of Shanghai throughout my ethnographic descriptions.
To understand the experience of specific places in Shanghai, Howes’s ([2005]2006)
idea of “emplacement” and MacDougall’s (2006) notion of “social aesthetics” are used
to highlight the sensorial and embodied experiences of the youths’ preferred spaces in
Shanghai. David Howes’s concept of emplacement, suggesting a “sensuous
interrelationship of body-mind-environment” ([2005]2006, 7), helps to pay particular
attention to sensories and enables to recognize and highlight the importance of
embodied and felt experiences in specific places. I understand emplacement as the
bodily and physical experience of places, as the processes of engaging with the “here
and now.” Filmmaker and ethnographer David MacDougall (2006, 98) suggests paying
attention to specific objects, such as “the design of buildings and grounds” or “the use
of clothing and colors,” and daily practices, “for instance the organization of students’
time,” to understand the “social aesthetics” of an environment. Understanding the
“social aesthetic field” as a coalescence of different elements such as “objects and
actions” (2006, 98), social aesthetics are “both the backdrop and product of everyday
life” (ibid., 108). Analyzing the social aesthetic field means focusing on a specific
community and its landscape. This includes its material environment and the humdrum
practices occurring therein. His ideas relate to my own fieldwork experiences. For
example, the concept explains how the social aesthetics of a classroom (the shape,
lighting, and seating arrangements of the room that for students are intertwined with
specific behavioral rules) are capable of influencing the range or depth of topics of the
interviews I conducted at school. In these discussions school-related issues were more
elaborated upon than leisure activities. In my own ethnographic work MacDougall’s
idea of social aesthetics thus helps to further understand how the materiality and
atmosphere of certain places foster certain practices or discussions among the youths,
whether it is the school premises (see chapter 9) that demand for certain behavior and
conversation topics, or a nightclub (chapter 11) that promotes certain ways of dressing
up. Examining these embodied experiences of particular places in Shanghai further
helps to trace the overall experience of mobility and moving to China – the processes
of arrival and emplacement. Furthermore, this focus demonstrates the students’ active
involvement in creating their own spaces as well as their roles in shaping Shanghai as
a world city and stage for their own identity performances.
To understand how expatriate youths shape and use specific spaces as a source for
identity and age performances, my dissertation draws on Doreen Massey’s (1995, 204)
argument that “space and place are never just the physicality of plans and bricks and
mortar,” but “products of our social interactions and imaginations,” which we construct
“in a constant negotiation with each other.” Space and identity constructions are
reciprocal. Massey (1998) has shown that this is particularly true for age identities. This
correspondence is strikingly apparent when looking at spatial ordering of the
population. For example, who is allowed on a playground, in a cinema or bar, and who
is not. In Massey’s words:
And indeed the very drawing of age lines and the definition of the spaces where
particular age groups are allowed, is part of the process of defining an age group
in the first place. The control of spatiality is part of the process of defining the
social category of ’youth’ itself. (Massey 1998, 129)
Massey’s argument of reciprocity helps to analyze relationships between the identity
constructions of the teenagers and specific locations in the city of Shanghai.
To find answers to this second research question that asks what role place plays in the
process of privileged migration, I specifically investigate the expatriate teenage
students’ movements through and sensing of the city (chapter seven), as well as their
housing, schooling (chapter eight and nine) and leisure spaces (chapter eleven and
twelve). These detailed investigations of expatriate youths’ spatial and social practices
will lay the ground to find answers to my third research question, which aims to
understand the youths’ collective and cultural identity performances.
Question 3: How Do Expatriate Students Experience and Negotiate
Belonging and Cultural Identity?
My third research aim is to demonstrate that expatriate youths live in a highly mobile
and culturally complex environment and to understand teenagers’ myriad ways to
negotiate, forge, perform, and contest their forms of belonging and positions in their
social worlds. Until now the “Third Culture Kid” concept has been commonly used to
grasp expatriate youths’ cultural identity positions. The concept addresses one aspect
of expatriate lives that my fieldwork and my in-depth interviews with expatriate youths
also reveal: growing up “on the move” and/or in a transient space – despite all its
privileges and opportunities – demands coping with constant changes and losses and
questions of belonging and identity. The “Third Culture Kid” concept answers the
question of cultural identity as follows:
The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full
ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the
TCK‘s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar
background. (Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009, 19)
This feeling of belonging “in relationship to others of similar background” will also
become apparent throughout my ethnographic work. Analyzing everyday practices,
ambitions, and aspirations (for instance chapter nine), as well as attitudes towards
Shanghai’s “locals” (especially chapter thirteen) my ethnography shows how students
are learning to perform a certain collective identity and to be part of an expatriate social
network. While this form of belonging, tied to the idea of an “expatriate class,” is visible
on the surface, however, my ethnographic works also inquires other forms of belonging
and identity positionings that are more subjective, individual, and mobile. For these
identity performances full of contradictions I have looked for concepts beyond the
“Third Culture Kid” ideology, which I already criticized under 2.3 for being based on an
essentialized idea of culture and for reinforcing the gap between “immigrants growing
up in Western countries” and those treated as “TCKs” (Knörr 2005). Based on a
transcultural perspective, which I introduced in 2.4, I aim to analyze ideas of belonging
and the contradictions and interdependence between aspired flexible identities and
rigid divisions based on class, nationality, ethnicity, or gender. Listening to expatriate
youths’ voices and gaining insights into their everyday lives and practices, my
ethnography shows that the teenagers maintain transnational connections through
media usage, friendships, the school, the expatriate community, or the family while
living in Shanghai. While sometimes all these connections help to establish a sense of
belonging, other times they also lead to confusions and contradictions. Using
transculturality as a heuristic tool for my dissertation project, I aim to unravel the
expatriate discourses on cultural identity and the cultural entanglements students
situate themselves in.
4. Methodologies and Materials
This dissertation is a qualitative study based on ethnographic fieldwork. While fieldwork
is usually tied to the idea of “being there,” it is less clear what and when “there” means
and what we can actually call “the field.” The idea to focus on expatriate youth arose
from the lack of ethnographic material available (see chapter two). The focus on
Shanghai had also personal reasons. Due to an internship and six months of prior
fieldwork on so-called “trailing spouses” in Shanghai in 2007, I already had
experiences of the city and moderate Chinese language skills. In addition to my
familiarity with the city, the amounts of international schools and the size of the relative
numerous expatriate community, suggested to focus entirely on the city of Shanghai.
This focus on one city, however, needs to be understood in the context of expatriate
youths’ strong global connections across multiple and large spatial scales.
4.1. Framing the Field: Transnational Connections and Grounded Research
Finally, there is a tension, evident in ethnographies of transnationalism
and globalization more generally, that is connected to the difficulties of
trying to use single-site research to trace the mobile practices of
transnationalism in everyday life. (Walsh 2010, 140)
Dealing with the subject of migration, the lives of the researched – as I will show
throughout the dissertation – are tied to and embedded in many locales and diverse
transnational spaces. Katie Walsh (2010), in a review of Fechter’s (2007b)
ethnographic work on expatriates in Indonesia, has thus pointed out the difficulties of
single-site research to trace such mobile practices. For the same reasons I was often
asked why I did not follow a more multi-sited approach (Marcus 1995). While this
sounds like a fascinating endeavor that could produce other insights, I agree with
Falzon (2009) on his critique of multi-sited work, where he has pointed out that
although a multi-sited approach at first sight seems to counteract a certain
“incompleteness,” the researcher’s reflective choices inevitably limit the field in any
approach: “Ultimately, both [single- and multi-sited approaches] are partial, because
both have their self-/imposed limits. Multi-sited ethnography is no more holistically
inclined than its predessor [sic!]” (ibid., 13). Ethnographer Hage, who researched
transnational Lebanese communities, showed that a multi-sited approach in migration
studies is often problematic.
In my first couple of trips around the world, I found it relatively easy to stop in
France, meet the family, leave for London, meet the other part of the family,
leave for Boston and so on. But after a while the issue of landing and leaving
became a far more difficult affair. It was not so easy to just land and leave as if I
were floating above the cultures I was researching: people’s problems, my own
relation to them, people’s expectations of me, my expectations of them, the
questions I was asking, the social relations I was becoming aware of, all of these
things changed and complexified the site. As they say, it was getting thicker.
Increasingly, it was simply becoming impossible to do what I was doing at first:
just hop around. In many ways thick ethnography is not a matter of choice but a
function of one’s degree of immersion. After a period of becoming more
immersed in certain social relations, they force you to be either a thick
ethnographer or no ethnographer at all. (Hage 2005, 465)
Choosing to ground my research in Shanghai, I therefore decided not to focus on the
relations of one expatriate community to another or the relations of family members
dispersed over the globe, but rather to see how these global relations touch down in
the everyday spaces of expatriate youth – to become “a thick ethnographer” as Hage
terms it.
Consequently, my methodological approach follows ideas of ethnography that promote
the idea of grounding ethnographic research in particular sites, such as Zsuzsa Gille
and Seán Ó Riain (2002) and Harri Englund (2002) have put forward. These
approaches argue that the focus on specific places, nonetheless, enables us to gain
insights into the global networks of its actors.
We have argued for a global ethnography that still locates itself firmly in places
but which conceives of those places as themselves globalized with multiple
external connections, porous and contested boundaries, and social relations that
are constructed across multiple spatial scales. (Gille and Ó Riain 2002, 290–291)
Similar to Gille and Ó Riain’s suggested perspectives on specific places as “globalized
with multiple external connections,” Englund promotes the methodological focus on
sites in recognition of the global connections. Englund (2002, 286), however, rejects
the concept of localization due to its inherent misleading dichotomy as the opposite of
globalization, and suggests a “postglobalist” perspective that works with the idea of
emplacement – a term Howes ([2005]2006, 7) has later formed into a full-fledged
concept that focuses on the “sensuous interrelationship of body-mind-environment” –
to enhance sensitivity to situatedness in a globalized world. Englund’s perspective
enables to stress the transformation of global elements in particular places.
This perspective is postglobalist because it both builds on earlier insights into
flows and circulations in a global space, and it recognizes specific sites and
terrains as the conditions of their existence and transformation. Even the
apparently most global phenomenon is continuously emplaced as it reaches its
new destinations. As such, localization is doubly disqualified to capture the
contours of emplacement. Not only does it evoke globalization as its logical
opposite, it also conveys a sense of closure in local appropriations. If persons,
institutions, and capital are always emplaced, the challenge is to understand the
variable capacities of places to act as springboards for traveling, whether by
people, ideas, or institutions. (Englund 2002, 286)
Englund’s (2002) postglobalist perspective promotes my focus on Shanghai and the
various specific places within the city and supports my theoretical and empirical interest
in emplacement and urban spaces that I have formulated in chapter 3.2. In choosing
specific sites within Shanghai, instead of following a multi-sited approach, I saw the
advantage of being able to produce a sense of the specific local texture of expatriate
youth culture(s), agreeing with Yeoh and Willis (2005, 270) who wrote, “transnational
elites belong as much to the ‘space of place’ as to the ‘space of flows’.”
The methodological approaches by Gille and Ó Riain as well as by Englund, however,
simultaneously ask to consider the global connections these places are part of: “Not
only is the so-called local an emergent property of nonlocal processes, the so-called
global also requires particular sites and terrains to operate” (Englund 2002, 266). Willis,
Yeoh, and Fakhri (2002, 506) have pointed this out for expatriate lifeworlds:
“[T]ransnational elites may be evidence of processes at a global scale, but this ‘global’
is constructed and understood by operations of particular individuals in local spaces.” A
postglobalist perspective is thus useful for my research to understand expatriate
youths’ ways of living not only as outcomes of globalization, but to see the teenagers
as mobile yet emplaced actors.
Ironically, in the end, I also conducted interviews and participant observation in
Germany after the move of some students to Germany. While Shanghai as the
research site and the age group of teenagers were roughly set from the start, the paths
I came to follow were often improvised. Coleman and Collins’s description of the
production of a field emphasizes the strong role the researcher as an individual plays in
the process of her work:
[F]ields are as much ‘performed’ as ‘discovered’, framed by boundaries that shift
according to the analytical and rhetorical preferences of the ethnographer and,
more rarely, the informant. (Coleman and Collins 2006, 17)
This shifting of boundaries and the performativity of the field that Coleman and Collins
describe is certainly true for my research project. It can be added that in addition to the
researcher’s standpoints, perspectives, and abilities, different gatekeepers can play a
crucial role in the researcher’s navigation through the vast field, allowing or restricting
access to certain sites, events, or people. Let me describe in detail how over the
course of three years I (and others) framed the field for this ethnography, how I chose
to interpret all these experiences, and how I arrived to finally create this narrative.
Anxious Approaches and Allotted Access
Eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork in Shanghai were conducted from mid August
2010 to early July 2011 with an additional short follow-up stay after the summer school
break in September 2011 and another two-week stay in May/June 2012. While this is
easy to write now, strategies to gain access to the “field,” fieldwork opportunities, and
durations and numbers of stays were less firm in the beginning.
Before moving to Shanghai in August 2010, I had contacted several principals of
various English-medium schools via email, sending them my research requests,
outlines of intended activities, and letters of recommendation. I tried contacting them
again when a conference visit took me to Shanghai in June 2010, two months before
my official fieldwork stay. When one principal of a British school was willing to meet up,
I took a ten-minute opportunity to pitch my research project and was able to gain his
support to conduct group interviews with students at his school – if the parents would
give their consent. Individual interviews would be impossible, as I was not allowed to
be alone in one room with students according to school policies. I was to contact him
again at the end of the summer break in August. I returned to Germany for my last
fieldwork preparations to finally leave for Shanghai in mid August 2010. I had not
managed to secure an apartment or room earlier and was lucky to stay with a Chinese
friend who I knew from my studies in France six years prior. It was then, in the heart of
Shanghai’s former French concession, in an old lane house, that my fieldwork started.
Sharing the kitchen in the hallway with Chinese neighbors and shopping on the local
wet market, I felt far away from expatriate Shanghai. I spent the days looking for
apartments, writing to schools again, and receiving no replies. The arrangements with
the British school proved difficult and I was waiting for the parents’ permissions to let
their children participate in the round of group discussions. I tried to reach out to the
expatriate community by visiting talks and mixers organized by various expatriate
organizations. Although it was in no way clear where my work would take me, I had to
look for my own place to stay. Torn between the expatriate locations and international
schools in either the far eastern suburbs of the city, or the far western suburbs of the
city, I finally decided (after having looked at twenty apartments) to take a studio
downtown. It was located just a few streets away from my friend, conveniently located
at a metro station with two lines, and one hour car ride to either side of Shanghai. This
way, I was free to work with schools and youth in Hongqiao (west) and Pudong (east).
My PhD scholarship did not allow me to live inside the housing areas the students lived
in – although renting a flat in close proximity, but outside the gates, would have been
possible. During my second follow-up stay in May/June 2012, with the help of a
student’s mother, I arranged to stay in the guesthouse of a housing compound. The
first months in Shanghai, however, I spent trying to get access to different international
schools, sometimes feeling stuck in my downtown high-rise building, gazing onto
Shanghai (see Figure 1, page 1).
Wanting to work with minors brought several challenges in regards to access:
permissions of headmasters and teachers to visit schools or classes, and parents’
consents to record interviews were required and often seemed impossible to get.
Writing to school principals or parent associations had proved unsuccessful except for
the British school. I visited a counselor and a teacher at two different American
schools, who both supported my research undertaking and tried to help me getting
access by introducing my project to their principals. However, these schools later
rejected my request to talk to students on unknown grounds. These were the same
schools that had ignored my letters earlier. Despite frustrating rejections, I kept
introducing myself to teachers, psychologists, and parents at publically open events
such as fairs or talks. Through these contacts, I was finally able to visit a Singaporean
international school for rounds of group interviews with students from the eleventh
grade of their IB program. At the same time, November 2011, the British school had
finally put together a list of nine students who I was able to meet for group discussions
at the school premises. These group interviews at the two schools contribute valuable
perspectives to my project on expatriate youth in Shanghai. However, I was reminded
of Hannerz’s description of “anthropology by appointment” (2006, 34), a term Hannerz
traces back to Luhrmann (1996). To Hannerz the term describes
the reality that often enough in modern life generally, although not least in
studying up or sideways, there may be less to participate in and observe fruitfully
even if we had total access, but also that access to people, to informants, is in
fact often limited, regulated and timed. (Hannerz 2006, 34)
I wanted to move beyond this regulated interaction and mere interviewing at the British
and Singaporean schools and was curious to finally explore expatriate youths’
everyday practices. This proved difficult because expatriate children spent most of their
days in school or at home, and both these spaces were difficult to enter as an outsider.
Contemplating my strategy on how to get in touch with teenagers outside the realm of
the school and home, nightlife spaces came to mind. Bars and clubs, though openly
accessible as physical locations, proved to be no solution either. This unofficial workaround would have meant to work without parents’ consent, which made me feel
uncomfortable about the whole approach and I never really pursued it. I tried another
path and went to charity activities teenagers were involved at. While this was a more
official and parent-accepted ground, these were only one-time events and I was not
able to establish enough rapport with teenagers to meet up for further activities or
interviews. However, these observations and communal activities – such as sorting
donated clothing together – helped me to get first insights into expatriate teenagers’
lives and helped me to overcome a certain shyness and insecurity in the interaction
with teenagers. This initial shyness was maybe normal field anxiety (see Lindner 1981;
Warneken and Wittel 1997), rooted particularly in my worries of how to talk to children
and teenagers, an age group I had hardly interacted with in the last years.
Finally, at yet another open expatriate event in December 2010, this time on the
premises of a German school, things started to change. I was able to introduce myself
to the school’s headmaster who turned out to be very supportive and allowed me to
observe during classes. He introduced me to a head teacher of an eleventh grade
class. This teacher then further introduced me to his colleagues who agreed to let me
join their Geography, English literature, German literature, History, and Ethics classes.
I finally had a chance to conduct fieldwork beyond “anthropology of appointment”
(Hannerz 2006) and interact with teenage students on a regular basis rather than at
one-time interviews. The students were between fifteen and eighteen when I first met
them and were one and a half years away from graduation. My days at school proved
valuable in becoming familiar with their everyday routines.
A Day at School – Based on Field Notes from February 17, 2011
It is six in the morning when my alarm goes off, a few minutes to seven when I
leave the house and run to the next metro stop. At this time of the day the metro
is still rather empty and I am lucky to catch a seat. But when I get off the subway
I have problems to catch a taxi at a busy intersection to drive me out to the
school. It is already eight when I finally arrive. I am afraid of being late for class,
but patiently wait at the entrance gate to put my name on the visitor list and to
receive the visitor pass to put around my neck. Meanwhile, the last students
arrive and are routinely entering the premises, opening the automatic doors with
their student ID cards. I spot Charlie in the crowd, and it calms me to see a
familiar face. I am not the only one running late for class. We wave. I point to the
desk officer at the front gate and signal that I will be inside soon. She waits for
me on the stairs and we hug to say hello. On our way to the classroom she
wonders when she has seen me last, reminisces about the Friday night at Mural
[night club] and asks me about my Chinese New Year break. She stayed at her
Chinese grandma’s place (which, according to her, was boring) and then went on
to Sri Lanka.
When we arrive at the classroom, just on time, I say hello to the teacher and drop
on the chair next to the washbasin, outside the U-shaped rows of tables that the
students sit at. The teacher says good morning, without the noise level going
down even a bit, and welcomes me to his English class. Students are to work on
group projects today, and freely mingle, talk, and laugh. I walk over to Karina and
Lara, say hello to Alex and Don. Asking them about the interview, they suggest
the fifth period as Ethics lessons are cancelled for today. I ask them if they know
someone else who wants to join the group interview and they suggest Bjoern. We
arrange to meet after the fourth period in the Piazza – which I now know to be the
big entrance hall. I walk back to the girls’ side of the room and fall down on the
new couch and simply listen to what is going on around me. I learn that the
comfortable sofa is borrowed from the senior classroom as they are gone on a
school trip for the whole week. I say hello to Antonia who seems to be lost in
thought, staring onto a red sheet of cardboard paper in front of her. I ask her
about her group’s topic – Shakespeare on the Screen – and we start chatting.
The two girls Charlie and Olivia join in as they are in the same group. Now
everyone seems busy working on posters and presentations covering different
topics on Shakespeare. Students are allowed to leave the classroom and there is
a lot of movement going on. Meanwhile, someone has organized the “media cart”
and every group takes out a computer to work on their handouts or to do some
research online.
I go to the little snack point in the Piazza and get a coffee. Slowly walking back to
the classroom across the long hallways, I realize how I learned my way around
over the past weeks. I somehow started feeling comfortable at school. The
endless stairs, corridors, and classrooms now seem familiar, the silence in the
building during class somewhat friendlier, the contact with students more at ease.
Back in the classroom I drop onto the couch again. How great that there is a
couch today! I look around and take some notes. As the popular International
Movie Data Base (IMDB) website is blocked in China and the school computers
have no VPN or proxy installed to channel them around the virtual wall, Olivia is
searching for another website listing numbers and information on Shakespeare
film adaptations. We start to discuss Internet blocking in China, as the blocking of
the movie database website does not seem plausible or comprehensible to us.
Olivia mentions the typical cases of facebook and YouTube. Antonia states that
she can understand the Chinese government hindering access to these. The girls
start discussing the trigger events for the blocking of these sites. Olivia talks
about Tibet and attacks. Antonia makes fun of her and corrects her that there
were no attacks but calls for protests online. The discussion goes on for a few
minutes until they focus again on their poster. It is interesting to observe how the
Chinese government practices and decisions become a topic within the German
school when it comes to the Internet.
When a boy from the group working next to the girls looks over to their poster, his
eyes squinted to examine their heading, Olivia asks with surprise in her voice:
“Can you actually see anything? Your eyes are so slender!” Antonia jumps in:
“Hey, are you dissing Chinese eyes?” Olivia responds: “No, I just find that
fascinating.” There is some mumbling going on between the boy and his group.
They want Antonia to paint the headline for their poster and Antonia agrees to do
so for 10 Kuai. She walks over to their poster and I join, somewhat still lost in
thoughts about the comment on the student’s eyes and the rigorous bashing of
comments that might be conceived as racist. Do students draw boundaries based
on the physical difference of “Asian” and “white” students? Olivia and Charlie
leave the room, shouting at us that we could find them in the empty senior
classroom across the hall. When Antonia skillfully finishes writing the headline on
the boys’ poster, we join the two girls.
The three teenagers sit on the couch and I sit down on a chair. Charlie has
almost finished eating an apple. This apple was the central reason for leaving the
classroom, as usually eating during class is prohibited and she felt it
inappropriate to eat in front of the teacher. I think about these rules and the ways
students’ behaviors are strictly regulated and immediately wonder if it is actually
okay for me to drink coffee in class. I remember that the English teacher is known
for always showing up with a huge Starbucks coffee every morning, and I see no
problem for me who strangely sits on the student side but somehow with
teachers’ rights. I ask the girls about their weekend plans. Nothing so far, except
a Star Wars night at Antonia’s for the weekend after. She knows all of the movies
by heart and can almost talk along. They are planning to start at eight in the
evening – after basketball practice – and watch until eight in the morning. A
coffee machine and the promise of hitting each other when one falls asleep will
help them stay up. Olivia thinks they also need “was lustiges” [“something
funny”], meaning alcohol. Antonia replies that this is impossible as here parents
are there. Beer would be okay, though. Charlie and Olivia, however, don’t like
beer. Olivia looks disappointed. Charlie says, that you don’t always need alcohol.
Other students start coming into the room for the next period. We get up and
return to their classroom.
I sit down again and scribble into my notebook. “A lot of anglicisms,” I write, and
“Does this have to do with Shakespeare and being in English class? Or is it a
general phenomenon among German expat kids?” Meanwhile, one student has
opened his flickr account and he and Olivia discuss a commentary someone
wrote beneath a picture of Olivia’s boyfriend. The question mainly seems to be
who wrote that commentary, but I can’t really follow their discussion being too
unfamiliar with flickr. When Olivia returns to her group to work on the
presentation, I join discussing their topic. I ask them whether they have
considered speaking about general difficulties of adapting theater plays to the
screen. They haven’t and Olivia immediately starts to google. Trying to restrain
myself from the discussion, I turn to writing into my notebook. I often have the
urge to participate, to help, whether it‘s a presentation or homework or even
during discussions in class. Writing this down helps me to step back and watch
them work on their group presentations.
Class is over. I still haven’t gotten used to the absence of a school bell that was
so prominent in my own school life. Students are shouting: “Are we eating at the
shop?” I walk over to talk to Kressi and Mia. Mia inquires about my dissertation
and I tell her that I am working on the overall structure, explaining the different
chapters and parts to her. Moreover, we talk about a Karl Lagerfeld Photography
exhibition that I went to see with a Chinese friend of mine. I know that Mia and
Kressi are interested in photography and fashion. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the
exact address of the gallery at the Bund. Then I walk over to Karina and Lara
again. Lara (who is busy kissing her boyfriend) and Karina agree to meet me for
an interview the following week. We exchange email addresses and phone
numbers. Karina seems very interested, Lara a bit unmotivated. I exit the
classroom to bump into Andrea, who I met two weeks ago on a Friday night at
Mural. We discuss my dissertation project and she is curious about the
differences I found to students at others schools in Shanghai. Andrea is
interested in giving an interview and has time when school is out at three in the
afternoon. That day I feel another interview is a bit much to me, but we notice
that we both live downtown in the former French Concession area and arrange to
meet at a café downtown in the next days. We exchange phone numbers. At this
moment, I see the door of “my classroom” shutting and quickly say goodbye to
silently sneak inside.
German class. I ask the teacher if it is okay for me to join his class today. He is
surprised to see me and comments: “Where have you been hanging around?” “In
Hong Kong, to get a new visa, and behind my computer to finish an article,” I
explain. He sighs, shakes his head and addresses his class: “This is why I have
dismissed the idea of a dissertation long time ago.” I know from earlier
conversation that his girlfriend is working on a dissertation as well. The teacher
officially starts class and addresses the upcoming exams. The students routinely
lament and then open their books. Communication analysis has been on the
lesson plan for a couple of periods already. Today we read a text on kissing. One
student reads the whole text out aloud. It addresses the famous study by
Margaret Mead that explored the interaction between US-American service men
and local residents in wartime Britain, focusing on the issue of kissing and the
different meanings attributed to a kiss. The textbook explains that while
Americans kiss early, a kiss only comes at a much later stage for British Women
in the 1940s. The students seem all very interested in the topic and the teacher
encourages them to apply Watzlawick’s communication analysis in order to
explain. But first he asks: “How do you flirt today?” As the text had explained that
kissing was according to Mead only step twenty-five for the British women, the
girls sitting close to me count: “eye contact,” “smiling,” “talking,” “drink,”
“exchange phone numbers,” “add on facebook,” “first text message,” “the first
date.” Bjoern, who has only been in Shanghai for half a year, jumps in and
seemingly agitated shouts: “No! First date? That’s only because they make such
a deal out of it in movies!” Other boys join in. The girls protest: “If it is important to
you, you put an effort into that first date!” Alex comments critically on the
romantic ideal of love at first sight and how this draws girls into the cinema. The
teacher takes up some of the remarks and asks: “If we watch movies from other
cultures, is that similar? How about movies from India or China?” The class
discusses and Antonia describes a Chinese movie that typically ends with the
first kiss in the last scene. Everybody in class now seems to talk simultaneously
and I can hardly follow, let alone take notes of all the comments. Antonia,
agitatedly, voices how you cannot just end a relationship after two months in
China. “You are immediately considered a slut!” The class reacts by shouting
“What?” Some students contradict. “Okay, this is how it is in my family,” Antonia
adds, indirectly referring to her latest break-up. The teacher draws the attention
back to the text and the responding exercises in the book: “Education, cultural
differences, what else is there in that text?” Students comment on the different
roles and role relations, the historical developments in the US and Britain and the
subconscious in Watzlawick’s theory. When the teacher asks them to take into
consideration that some cultures might even be more different than the US and
England, one student brings the example of sex before marriage – “This can get
really serious.” The teacher follows up on this comment and starts talking about
honor killings, which according to him happen when girls adapt but their families
stick to their traditions from home. I sigh upon this cliché example, but stay in my
role of the silent observer. A few students remark how this example is particularly
extreme. The teacher agrees, but holds to his opinion that “cultural conflict can
lead to death.” But by now I have learned that teachers use exaggerations and
provocations to trigger discussions. We move on to the next textbook exercise. I
do not have a book and distance myself from the discussion to take a close look
at the students.
There is a new student with long hair and a pullover that sports an anarchy sign.
Who is he? [I later get to know that Matthias is from the senior class and that he
has to repeat the eleventh grade.] I wonder again about the seating arrangement,
which is quite gendered, and Bjoern’s rolling R that so clearly points to his south
German origin, whereas everyone else speaks standard German that leaves no
clues on the geographic regions of their German background. I focus again on
the classroom discussion.
The teacher uses his drama skills to underline the idea of roles and role
expectations. He gives the example of a manager who seems unable to leave his
manager role behind when he gets home. The students analyze that this father
obviously doesn’t realize how he is trapped in his role and that his family has a
different role expectation. The students start thinking about what to do in such a
case. Olivia suggests clearly stating: “Listen to me.” Another student proposes to
“write a letter saying ‘Call me when you understand’ and then leave.” Olivia finds
that this drastic measure should only be used when other means have failed
before. It seems as if the students can identify perfectly with the scenario given to
discuss and I wonder about the manager fathers in their lives. Xia proposes
sending the father on a holiday. Kressi suggests to clearly state ”Your family isn’t
your office.” The teacher gives her credit for this idea and comments how the
meta-level is the key here. The class period is over and Watzlawick and his
communication theory are put aside. History is next, but I decide to make use of
my ambivalent role and to skip this one in order to prepare for the following group
discussion with Alex, Bjoern and Don (see field notes under 4.3).
I met students regularly over the next months at school and this was important for two
reasons. Firstly, my experiences and understanding of such everyday practices, I
argue, were essential to ground and contextualize the students’ verbalized reflections
upon their experiences of mobility. The value of experiencing students’ daily routines
became particularly apparent in later attempts to grasp abstract notions such as
“home,” “expatriate,” or “cultural identity.” The daily practices, which the two parts
“Arriving” and “Emplacement” focus on, were therefore an important basis for more
theoretical approaches and conceptualizations. In chapter fourteen, for example, where
I discuss students’ self-reflective ways of positioning in terms of cultural identity from a
transcultural perspective, those narratives that unfolded in interviews without the daily
context seem much more fleeting. Secondly, in addition to these valuable insights into
their school routines – the major aspect of their everyday practices – I established
closer relations. Students became curious about my project and eager to show me their
world and eventually invited me to come along to their favorite Friday night location. I
was excited to join. It proved to be an important moment for my project. I started to
understand the different peer groups, these groups’ main activities and interests.
Common nightlife experiences led to even friendlier terms at school again. And the
interaction at school and nightlife activities also led to more comfortable interviews,
which I was now able to conduct outside the classroom.
Interviewing Groups and Individuals
I conducted fourteen group discussions with thirty-nine different students and
seventeen individual interviews. Most of the individual interviews were recorded with
students who had already taken part in a group discussion. Four students only took
part in individual interviews. Several students were interviewed two or three times,
leading to a total of thirty-one group and individual interviews with forty-three students.
All of these were audio-recorded. I additionally conducted one expert interview with a
school counselor at an American school and discussed my research topic with a few
teachers, but decided to use these as background information only. My work is based
on a voice-centered approach that focuses on students’ own words and perspectives
as youths’ own accounts of migration experiences have largely been ignored until
today (see Dobson (2009) and chapter two of this dissertation).
The questions for the group discussions and for the first round of individual interviews
were the same. These accorded to my research interests addressing issues of moving
to Shanghai as well as everyday practices. Both the group discussions and the
individual interviews were semi-structured. This means that although a specific set of
questions was posed to the students, these could vary in order and emphasis as room
was given for the teenagers and myself to introduce and respond to other issues freely.
This approach therefore acknowledged my own research agenda to understand
specific issues from the teenagers’ point of view, as well as the students’ agency by
providing space for them to present new topics.
The second round of semi-structured interviews took up new questions and issues
underrepresented or unclear in the first round, for instance reflections upon the
students’ position/integration in China and the experience and meaning of specific
locations in Shanghai. These were conducted at the end of the school year in
spring/summer 2011 or after the break on my return visit in September 2011. A third
round of interviews with the same students focused on the topic of leaving and plans
for the immediate future and was recorded during the last follow-up stay in May/June
2012. One interview was conducted in Germany on the issues of returning with one
student in early 2012.
The first group discussions with students at a British and a Singaporean school were
held at the school’s premises. I always brought along cookies and good humor to ease
up the tension, as the school atmosphere seemed to imply that there is a correct
answer to a question. Although these interviews turned out to be interesting
discussions about moving and transitions to school and school activities, the
environment confined the topics. The city of Shanghai only starred as a theme when I
encouraged students at the end of the discussion to draw mental maps of their own
personal Shanghai. With these maps, homes, friends’ houses, Metro stations,
shopping malls, and clubs surfaced (see chapter seven). Narratives of exploring
spaces in Shanghai and the related sensories were more present when I interviewed
students outside school.
A Group Interview – Based on Field Notes from February 17th, 2011
I meet the three boys in the Piazza. They suggest the small French café next to
the school as a good interview location. The café sells all kinds of French bread,
pastries, and subs that enjoy great popularity among the students. It is a favored
place among French and German teachers, students, and parents. The boys are
obviously excited and like the idea of the interview being held in public rather
than in a classroom. We walk over to find all tables already taken. The boys,
however, steer towards a room behind the counter, which I did not even know
existed. It is the smoker room and all windows are open despite Shanghai’s
February damp cold outside. No waiter shows up here and we don’t order
anything. Bjoern and Alex light their cigarettes and continue to chain smoke
throughout the whole interview. I collect the consent forms their parents signed
and explain again the purpose of the group interview. When I put the voice
recorder in the middle of the table and the questionnaire next to me, it becomes
obvious that the students have a certain image of journalistic interviews in mind. I
ask them to introduce themselves and they do so in a very professional manner.
Don seems particularly nervous and Alex tries to sound particularly eloquent.
After the initial stiffness however, a lively discussion on topics such as the
difficulties of moving, gated community living, international schooling and
Shanghai’s nightlife follows. In the middle of the group interview a batch of
French students enters and occupies the only other table in the room, shouting
and laughing loudly. The boys are annoyed and I worry about the quality of my
recordings. However, afraid of coming across like a teacher I do not tell them off.
We try to focus again on the interview. I give the three boys space to freely
comment on issues that my questionnaire has not addressed and after ninety
minutes of discussion we all get up. The boys leave and I buy a French baguette
sub on my way out. Meeting them outside on the street again, we talk about the
French students that were disrupting our interview – maybe the boys expected
me to interfere in my position as interviewer. Bjoern then walks home, Don
returns to school and Alex hops on a cab. I take the next cab and spontaneously
decide to ride all they way straight home instead of to the next metro stop.
Like many other group discussions, the interview described above had started like a
TV talk show, but eventually turned into an involved and lively conversation. Close to
school, but nonetheless off the premises, the French café proved a convenient location
to have in-depth conversations. While a few interviews were conducted in the
schoolyard in the summer, the teenagers mostly chose similar European or American
style cafés in Shanghai. Further interviews, mostly individual, followed later in these
cafés. While I had only been allowed to conduct group discussions at the British and
Singaporean schools, I was now free to meet the students from the German school
and a few of their friends from a French and American school individually. After a first
round of group discussions, I met the students for one-hour-long in-depth interviews
that centered more on their own biographies and narratives of their moves and stay in
Shanghai. Only during the very last stay did I conduct a few follow-up interviews in the
students’ own rooms; the more private interview location responding to the now closer
relations between interviewer and interviewee.
This relation between myself and my discussion partners and its influence on the
narratives is of importance, as Way (2004) succinctly points out:
A relational approach to research assumes that the patterns that are “found” by
researchers are products of what occurred between two or more people – the
researcher and the researched. The narrative in an interview or responses in a
survey […] are jointly constructed. (Way 2004, 171)
Based on fieldwork diary entries, such as the ones displayed above, I continuously
tried to reflect upon my role during interviews and throughout my entire fieldwork. The
student directory in the appendix of this dissertation therefore not only introduces the
students but also comments on my relationship with them.
Negotiating my Role
A relatively youthful appearance is undoubtedly helpful when hanging
around street corners with teenagers. (Wulff 1995, 7)
I was incredibly nervous of the teenagers. I felt 12 years old again.
(Skelton 2001, 170)
Like other ethnographers working with youth (Weißköppel 2001, 75), I often found
myself thrown back into my own adolescence. The school setting – an environment I
had never been back to after my own graduation nine years prior – particularly evoked
my teenage memories. The whole routine of getting up early, trying not to be late for
class, sitting in the classroom and seeing teachers faces change throughout the day,
still felt strangely familiar. Listening to teachers’ explanations and student discussions,
scribbling into my notebook, I often got lost in the classroom situation, even finding
myself thinking “I hope (s)he doesn’t ask me!” This was of course never the case. My
own inner transformations back into a high school student came to an abrupt hold
when teachers asked me to contribute to teaching a lesson in Ethics class (at a
German school), or in Theory of Knowledge class (at a Singaporean school). In order
to get access I did not object, and even used the given opportunity to have students
produce valuable research material such as mind maps (in Ethics class) or mental
maps (in Geography class). Afterwards teachers in the teachers’ room – where I would
go to take notes while waiting for the next class – would talk about students’ behaviors
or abilities, drawing me even further to “their side.” This in-betweenness of my situation
that I perceived was part of my troubles to position myself in the overall field.
Being neither student nor teacher seemed confusing for students as well. In contrast to
Weißköppel, who during her research at a middle school in Germany (Realschule)
rejected students’ offer to use the casual “Du” in order to keep the age difference as a
form of managing distance that to her felt necessary (Weißköppel 2001, 75), I had
decided that I wanted to meet the students on the same level – as far as this is
possible in a research situation. It therefore seemed normal to offer my first name (and
in the German context the informal you) as the way of addressing me. However, while
some students, like Antonia, related to me on the same eye level from the beginning
on, others would fall back to addressing me formally again and again. To me it felt that
the way of addressing became a battleground of my status and role. Alex, for instance,
told me that he sometimes found it confusing to address me informally: “I will just keep
on mixing them [the formal and the informal form of address].”
It was through the interaction outside of school that the formal address disappeared
and a mutual “relationship of trust” developed. Joining the teenagers outside the realm
of the school, in particular during their nightlife activities, proved tremendously
valuable. Teachers actively tried to avoid such situations by making sure not to go out
to the same clubs or bars. Here, I could prove that I was someone to be trusted.
Students witnessed that I would not judge them for smoking marijuana and that I would
not reject to dance or occasionally drink along when they raised a glass – sometimes
provocatively to my dissertation and me. It became obvious that I enjoyed just sitting
next to them on the couches talking about music, school, or relationships. While the
practice of closely listening is most important to an ethnographic project, I experienced
that sharing is also vital to overcome hierarchies and distance that hinder the
ethnographer to capture youths’ own perspectives and voices. Through my
engagement with the youth outside school, through sharing my own story, my role over
the months became gradually similar to that of friends’ older siblings. This constant
negotiation of my role and closeness in the beginning and the later finding of a
temporary place in the group seem typical for ethnographic work. I was happy and
comfortable to occupy the place of someone’s older sister who reports from university
life in Germany, as this turned out to be my expertise everyone seemed interested in.
This was at least true for the two groups I worked with most closely.
Finding my role(s) meant that I did not only need to position myself between teachers
and students but also among the students. While I tried not to take sides in their
arguments, which was sometimes contradicting my own desires evoked by school
memories to be accepted and belong to a certain group, I inevitably established closer
relationships and friendships with some of the students. This was due to mutual
interest in each other’s lives. Moreover, it was also the desire to find my role and my
interest in students who were actively exploring Shanghai on their own, which led me
to focus on two groups in particular. These two groups that I engaged with most,
interestingly, were one all girls group and one all boys group. These friendships were
obviously based on gender, something I had already observed when looking at the
seating arrangement in the classroom. This was apparently the case in both the
eleventh grade classes at the German school I attended. Peter once commented on
the classroom division during an interview: “Like in prison, women and men separate.”
Although this division was altered for the senior year, gender played a crucial role in
the expatriate teenagers’ friendships and consequently in my interaction with them.
I often wondered about the implications of my own gender on my relationships and my
overall research. While I felt that being female was beneficial to the more intimate,
sometimes friendship-like relations towards the girls, I often experienced it as an
obstacle in the relations towards the boys, at least in the beginning. Niobe Way (2004,
173) and his research group inquiring adolescent boys’ experiences and concepts of
friendship, however, found out over the course of their project that many boys preferred
female interviewers. In order to shed light on my role(s) and relations in the field as well
as to give you a first impression of my “key informants,” the following section introduces
these two groups – “the girls” and “the boys” – in detail.
Fieldwork with “the Girls”: Real Ambitions and Fake Laboutins
“The girls” are Antonia, Mia, Kressi, Charlie, Olivia and Andrea. These girls were
between fifteen and seventeen years old when I first met them. Antonia played a vital
role in the interaction, as she was the first one to invite me to go out with them.
Antonia, child of a Chinese-German marriage, was born in Germany, but grew up in
Shanghai going to the same school all her life, something very rare among expatriate
children. She is a determined, smart young woman, who has high expectations for
herself and generally highly values intelligence and analytical minds. Other students
sometimes found her active and passionate participation in discussions in the
classroom annoying. Antonia and I got along great from the beginning on and with her
generous, independent and opinionated ways, Antonia became a key figure in my
research. It was her invitation to join nightlife activities that led to closer contacts with
many others at the German school. Her way to include me and openly state, “Marie is
one of us” definitely had its influence beyond her peer group. Mia, an ambitious and
eloquent girl, and her artistic friend Kressi were the youngest of the group as they had
both skipped a grade. As they were new to the class and first not allowed to go out as
often as the others, it was only over the course of the school year that they became
permanent members of the group. Mia had a typical expat biography with several
moves in her life. Kressi, in contrast, had moved to Shanghai at an early age. She was
born in Germany to Vietnamese parents with Cantonese roots and seemed to have
family all over the world. Charlie, born in Germany to Chinese parents and very much
liked by everyone at school due to her friendly and nice ways, and Olivia from Belgium,
admired for her great looks, arranged and participated in group activities on a regular
basis. Andrea, the only one of the girls attending another class, was one of the few
students who lived downtown. Andrea was a quirky, creative student who liked to make
people laugh and had a particular reputation for partying – especially dancing –
Shanghai’s nights away together with Antonia. I felt at ease with these girls right from
the beginning.
An Afternoon with “the Girls” – Based on Field Notes from May 16, 2011
A week ago, the Geography teacher invited me to join his class for an excursion.
The students are supposed to do photo walks through different parts of Shanghai
to document elements of globalization. Upon the invite, I arranged with “the girls”
(without Charlie who takes a different class) to join their group. I meet the teacher
and students at three p.m. at school. Andrea, Antonia, and Mia greet me when I
arrive just on time and inform me that we will pick up Kressi and Olivia at home
on our way downtown. However, one group only consists of two students and the
teacher asks me to join them, as there has to be a minimum of three in each
group for safety reasons. The girls protest. Luckily, another student shows up
and I can stay in “my” group. Antonia’s driver is waiting outside to take us. The
girls have chosen the area of Tianzifang, a block of old Shanghainese lane
houses that have been turned into small shops, cafés and restaurants. I am glad
to hang out with the girls who I know best, particularly as I do not feel too well
today as I have been vomiting all night due to food poisoning. I am also glad to
join in on some expatriate luxury and hop on the big air-conditioned van instead
of the crowded metro.
We drive onto two different compounds and pick up Olivia and Kressi. Although I
have been to several expatriate family homes for my research on ‘trailing
spouses’ in 2007, it is the first time I specifically see how these students live. Big
villas surrounded by suburban greens and big walls. The girls, of course not
startled by their friends’ houses, discuss Olivia’s romantic situation. Somehow,
maybe due to my presence, the discussion shifts all of a sudden to foreign
languages and language proficiency. Antonia shares a story from the last MUN
(Model United Nations)13 conference where she met a Korean girl who grew up in
Germany and England. This girl had offered Antonia to talk in German, in case
English was too difficult for her. Remembering this girl’s comment, Antonia
becomes furious and all the girls join in. Everybody sees this remark as
extremely belligerent. This protest is of course a form of friendly support and also
justified, as Antonia’s English is indeed quite flawless. However, I silently think
sitting among them on the back seat of the van, the Korean girl’s comment also
indirectly criticizes all of their cosmopolitan manners and thus calls for communal
critique. Andrea’s quick-witted attitude is demanded and she contemplates on the
right response to such an insulting and deprecatory remark. We further discuss
the topic of language skills and everyone shares stories on children in their
community who grow up bilingually. Olivia, who speaks Flemish at home, tells us
that she only learned German in fifth grade. Antonia feels she neither speaks
German nor Chinese really well. Andrea shares how she gave up studying
Chinese, to be immediately criticized by Antonia for it. One should expect that
after so many years in Shanghai, they should be able to speak Chinese, Antonia
declares, but that they cannot “because they live in the expat bubble.” I note that
the bubble metaphor is apparently omnipresent among expatriates in Shanghai.
Does my presence trigger such remarks? Andrea talks about the difficulties of
learning Chinese. I share that although I have taken numerous evening classes
in Chinese and just took lessons up again a few weeks ago, I myself am also far
away from going beyond simple everyday topics.
The girls plan a “Lord of the Rings” night and discuss what kind of (German)
candies their parents should buy. Antonia says that in no way she could send her
mom shopping. She has no time for that, owning three companies and sleeping
never more than five hours a night. Even her dad as a general manager has
more time. I silently guess that their ayi14 is getting all the grocery shopping done.
Asking about a classmate of theirs, I accidently trigger several stories on different
students, couples and feel like a whole world of gossip opens up. Who is wearing
inappropriate clothes or has inappropriate ways of ending relationships, who is
simply using girls, who is surprisingly getting along with whom, and who is
“setting back emancipation for at least 200 years.” In between all this gossip the
subject of conversation turns on me and about my boyfriend whom they met at a
concert, and my former relationships and why they ended. Fieldwork means
sharing. After all the gossip, Andrea laughs and wonders what I must be writing
about them! I sigh and tell them that I honestly do not know and that I sometimes
feel they could write it better themselves. They protest and encourage me. While
I am often worried tremendously about my research subjects reading my writing,
this is one of the rewarding moments of working with students who are truly
interested in and supportive of my work.
Meanwhile, the interaction with the driver is limited to navigating him onto the
right compounds and to the girls’ houses. He then is trusted to know the way to
Taikang Road – the street before the Tianzifang complex. When almost an hour
later he shouts “Dao le!” [We arrived!], all of the girls cry out that this cannot be
true. We note that we ended up in Taicang Road instead of Taikang Road. The
driver, without commenting, drives on and brings us to the desired destination. As
MUN, Model United Nations is a simulation of the United Nations where students critically engage with
global issues. First researching and discussing current topics, students later enunciate different (national)
positions on these issues through role-playing. The majority of the international schools in Shanghai held
Model UN classes. At the German school in Shanghai, a Model UN class was offered as an extracurricular
activity. Some students also took part in conferences in Europe. Such High School and University level
conferences take place all over the world.
The Chinese term ayi here means nanny or household help. The term ayi, however, is also a polite way
for children to address women, as well as meaning maternal aunt.
he cannot enter the one-way road, we exit at the crossroad. I get off last and say
goodbye to the driver. Antonia apologizes to everyone for her driver bringing us
to the wrong location at first. Nobody takes up on this.
When we arrive we gear towards the Kommune, a café known to the girls for its
delicious milkshakes. The Kommune offers outdoor seating in the midst of the
small alleys and, like all coffee shops in Tianzifang, is meant for an expat income
rather than the average Shanghainese – a milkshake is about RMB 38 (€4,18)15.
Gearing towards the chosen café, Mia, Kressi and Olivia are taking photos. I take
photos of them taking photos, but as we all have a research agenda today, it
feels okay. Drinking milkshakes, chatting and taking pictures keeps us happy for
a while. Mia and Kressi buy some of the well-designed drinking glasses from the
Kommune for their own rooms. Then we leave to explore the area further with our
cameras. We look at a stall offering earrings and Olivia, who always wears big
earrings, buys a pair. We then stop at a piercing and tattoo studio.
Antonia flips through a folder full of tattoo images. She already has a small tattoo
on her neck and is now looking for a nice image of a salamander as a second
tattoo. She remembers how she discovered the best image so far close to
Olivia’s place in Belgium. She does not find one she likes in this studio’s
catalogue, but shares that it is probably wiser to wait until she turns eighteen
anyway so that her parents cannot object. The girls discuss their favorite body
parts for tattoos. Andrea shares that her aunt in Germany runs a tattoo studio,
stressing that she does not do the tattoos anymore but manages the store. It
seems important to stress her aunt’s higher position in the business, I note. We
pass a store with ethnic clothing that I like and in the next store I spot a pair of
trousers. Mia then takes a photo of them so I can eventually get a pair made in
the same style, as this one is too expensive for me. We stroll along the lanes,
window-shopping and taking pictures for the photo documentation project of
globalization. In a small shop selling knickknacks, Olivia starts discussing her
situation with her ex-boyfriend who is leaving Shanghai. They have just
separated and the girls discuss if she should still give him the present she had
prepared for him – a ppt photo show with pictures of their time in Shanghai,
accompanied by “their” songs. The girls suggest she should simply ask him if he
still wants it. I silently think about the difficulties of first romantic relationships that
are constantly in danger of being torn by the parents’ decisions to move on. The
girls, on the contrary, seem quite pragmatic.
We move on, stroll through a shop selling leather bags and another one offering
all kinds of hats. Finally we all sit down on the pavement, exhausted from all the
impressions surrounding us. I take a few pictures. The girls talk about their prom
next year and their ideas of a talent night for the next term. We then hop on a cab
to meet the rest of their class and the teacher for dinner, discussion of the
excursion and the exchange of photos at an American diner.
As the excerpt of my field notes above illustrates, gossip about acquaintances, first
romances, but also school grades, language skills, and career ambitions was common
among the girls. The fieldwork vignette also demonstrates a popular leisure activity that
was intricately linked to these conversations: the shared practices of “doing fashion”
(Liechty 2003); buying, trying on, or talking about clothes. These common topics
According to the currency converter, the average exchange rate between August 1
2010 and August 1 2011 was RMB 1 to €0,11.
among the girls were familiar to me and I could easily join their conversations. On the
one hand, the moral implications of listening or even participating in gossip demanded
constant reflections about my role and obligations as researcher and remained difficult
for me throughout my fieldwork. On the other hand, gossip was an important element
for me to gain information about the students’ lifeworlds (see for instance Marie
Gillespie's (1999) work on how gossip about soap operas among South Asian youth in
London is linked to negotiating their own social networks), as well as to maintain the
on-going process of social access (Carmel 2011, 552).
While the girls were more interested in spending time together at Tianzifang than
taking their research project seriously, it was an afternoon that allowed me to feel
comfortable with my own research agenda. Generally, with the girls I sometimes felt
like being with friends, while at other moments my research agenda became central
again and my role shifted. When one night, for example, we were cooking together at
Kressi’s house and then were getting ready to go to a club downtown, I felt particularly
like a part of the group. When the girls, however, were discussing outfits and Olivia
mentioned her Laboutins (expensive high heel shoes) my facial expression must have
revealed my inner surprise of her having such expensive stilettos at the age of sixteen.
Antonia thus asked what I was thinking and whether I found something to write about. I
was a bit embarrassed, as I was dismantled again as the researcher, but then admitted
what had shocked me. Revealing my thoughts, the girls all started laughing, leaving me
confused for a moment, then shouting that these shoes were of course only remakes
from Shanghai’s fake market. It became a key moment for me to realize that shifting
from friend to researcher, though not easy for me, was okay for “the girls.” They always
met my research project with interest and continuously asked me about my latest
writings, findings, and ideas. While certain intimate topics gave me the feeling of
having passed a threshold towards trust and acceptance, other topics were obviously
triggered by my mere presence and research questions. The discussions about
language skills, nationalities, and the “expatriate bubble” on the afternoon in
Tianzifang, for instance, were in strong relation to my research themes, as the girls
understood them. Nonetheless, these topics did not seem new to the girls, but as if
having been discussed many times before. It was thus often the routine displayed in
certain conversation themes that often led me to conclude that these issues were of
importance to them.
Fieldwork with “the Boys”: Repulsive Moments and Aesthetic Jellyfish
The all boys group included Bjoern, Alex, Peter, Don, Marco, and Giovanni. Later two
students from the grade below and Bjoern’s brother joined. When I first interacted with
them at school, I was for some reason a little intimidated, particularly by Alex. During
the first interview with him, Bjoern and Don, however, I thought them all quite nice. I
recall that they were smoking heavily during the interview and particularly liked to
present their nightlife experience. Alex, even until the end sometimes would accidently
use the German polite form “Sie” to address me and our relationship remained friendly
but rather distanced. Although I have never conducted a follow-up interview with Don, I
had several casual conversations with him. Bjoern and I became closer mainly through
sharing music as we both favored the same reggae artists. I conducted two individual
follow-up interviews with him. The beginning of my relationship with Peter and Marco
was different. We first talked outside of school at the club Mural and then a first
interview followed. These two were in a different class than the one I was visiting.
Besides a long first interview with the two of them, a follow-up interview with Peter
alone was conducted in June 2012. Giovanni, although we had interacted before, I first
interviewed during my first follow-up stay in September 2011 and again in June 2012.
All the boys were self-reflective and interesting to talk to. They classified themselves as
the peer group that went out, drank, and consumed cannabis, found school was not the
most important issue and highly valued people who were equally cool, relaxed, or how
they would put it “chilled.”
The relations among the different students and student groups were gendered. The
two groups I accompanied, labeled by the other group as “the boys” or “the girls”
respectively, would sometimes unite their nightlife activities. However, the group of
boys was particularly keen on hanging out without “the girls” on a regular base. This
meant I also had to explore the boys’ nightlife activities without “the girls” with whom I
had already built a stronger relationship. I soon enjoyed accompanying “the boys” to
the club Mural on Friday nights. Having joined “the boys” at school, having dined and
partied and discussed their lives with them, I felt more and more comfortable around
them and found their company and outlook on life enjoyable. Just when I had arrived at
this point of easier interaction, I went out for a last time before leaving Shanghai after
the school year in July 2011.
A Night-Out with “the Boys” – Based on Field Notes from July 5th, 2011
While the boys and girls at first hung out together at Mural, the girls are now to
move on to a different club. I decide to stay behind with the boys and step
outside to get some air and to see what is going on. There are plans to change
the location and to go to another club called Shelter. Standing outside, talking
about music, location and the like, it becomes evident that everyone is waiting for
something. Listening to the ongoing conversations, I begin to understand that a
decision for the next location cannot be made without Alex who has disappeared
with a Chinese girl in the back alley. Bjoern’s brother who joined the group
recently goes back and keeps some of the boys up to date on what is going on. I
start feeling uncomfortable and I am unsure how to behave. Are the boys
bragging, joking? What is really happening back there? While I am trying to figure
out what is going on and to clarify my own position on the matter, an extremely
drunk Chinese girl appears on the scene. Staggering on her high heels she finally
opts to sit down on the stairs. I watch her as she leans back against Matthias
who has come along this night and happens to sit on the stairs. This leads to
much amusement among the group. The boys joke and tease Matthias. The
funny conversation and the light amusement, however, all of a sudden change
when one of the boys suggests to pee on the girl. Thinking this is a joke, I am
startled when the others join in the conversation and start to consider different
angles of this disgusting and humiliating undertaking. Shocked by this behavior of
the boys who I had considered so mature, I intervene and openly state my
disgust of the idea and that I will not allow it to happen. I go to get water and coke
for everyone, distributing the bottles while telling everyone that they apparently
need to sober up. When giving one bottle to the Chinese girl I start talking to her.
I try to find out her address to maneuver her into a cab. She vomits. I then put her
into a taxi and tell the driver her address. Bjoern tells me off, I would ruin all the
fun, I should stop acting like a social worker, and I would not be allowed to cite
his interviews any longer. I know I am for the first time stretching my boundaries
from participating to interrupting. I try to stay calm and stick to my opinion. He
finally asks me to get a sip from my drink, which I offer him jokingly under the
condition to let me cite his interviews again. He agrees. Crisis averted. When
Alex appears back on the scene everyone applauds, I am too tired [maybe read:
coward] to try to figure out what happened precisely and we go on to Shelter.
Some of the boys purchase marijuana and we sit outside waiting for the club to
stop charging at three a.m. Dancing only for a bit, I soon leave for my apartment,
still shocked to have seen such a different side of the boys. What has all this to
do with racism? Is this “adolescent” behavior? Is this the infamous “peer
pressure”? Or do we have to understand such behavior or fantasies in the light of
performances of masculinity?
I packed these ambivalent thoughts and all my belongings and returned to Germany.
When I returned to Shanghai for follow-up visits in September 2011 and June 2012, I
had great discussions with all of them again. However, the experience of that night
remained very present on my mind. In June, in the light of graduation, everyone was
reminiscing the good times they had in Shanghai and this night came up among them.
Other stories followed, about Marco falling asleep and the other boys forgetting him in
front of a club, where he would later wake up phone- and moneyless. Laughter joined
these stories. How someone else had fallen asleep and someone else had stuck his
penis in his ear. Laughter. I was startled again by the combination of tight friendships
and at the same time brutal practices of teasing, mobbing, and physical harassment.
Consequently, it were these more brutal sides and hierarchies that I became
particularly interested in during this last stay. “The boys” would regularly meet at Alex’s
place – but as “the girls” were not allowed to come to these gatherings and even
Bjoern’s girlfriend Kressi had called these regular gatherings “exclusive,” I thought it
impossible to join.
After an interview with Peter, however, he offered to contact Alex, Bjoern, and Don to
ask when they would have time to conduct another interview, and the boys apparently
agreed for me to meet them that evening at Alex’s place. I was excited to join them at
last one time for their ritual boys evening.
An Evening with “the Boys” – Based on Field Notes from June 4th, 2012
While being downtown for an interview with Andrea, I receive a text from Peter asking
me to join the other boys at an Indian restaurant and to conduct the interview there.
However, still being downtown in the middle of an interview it is impossible for me to
make it on time. Texting back and forth we agree for me to join later after dinner at
Alex’s parents, together with Peter. At ten p.m. I am waiting for Peter in front of a
Lianhua supermarket close to the compound gate. He calls and arranges Bjoern’s
brother to pick me up on his scooter. He pulls up a few minutes later, I jump on and we
ride through the dark, through the shiny new and empty lanes of the compound,
passing well-trimmed lawns and big villas. Mid-way I spot Peter, headphones on,
cycling on his bike. After several turns, left and right, we arrive. I jump off and open the
gate for the boys to ride inside.
I follow Peter and Bjoern’s brother inside, via the terrace, through the huge living room,
upstairs into Alex’s room. Here about ten boys are lying and sitting on the couch and
the big bed, smoking, drinking beer and watching a movie. A dog greets me and in my
unsecure situation, not knowing what to do, I focus on the dog and start to pet it. The
TV screen shows sharks tearing something or someone apart. Cuddling the dog to
keep my eyes away from the screen, I panic on the thought that I am stuck watching a
horror movie with a bunch of drunken and stoned teenage boys. Trying to calm myself
– thanks to the dog! – I soon realize to my surprise that we are only watching Deep
blue, a documentary on the earth's oceans based on very aesthetic film material that
was shot for a BBC series. This is at least one problem less for me, as I can’t watch
any movie that is judged suitable only for people over sixteen.
Some of the guys step out to the adjacent balcony (to smoke marijuana) and I get a
spot on the couch between Antonia’s friend – a former student at the school but a
temporary guest to the group like me – and Giovanni. Antonia's friend curiously asks
me why I am here or, he rephrases, whom I came with. Simply shrugging my shoulders
and mumbling something about my interview, I realize that my academic intention does
not answer the question. Usually hardly any girls are allowed to join and not all the
boys either. When I then respond that Peter invited me, everything seems clear. No
further questions asked. [Peter, I found out in a discussion with Bjoern, and also some
of the girls, is thought to be one of the heads of the group. He can therefore invite
anyone, even me.] I open a beer and try to grasp the overall mood. I realize that the
interview is a stupid idea for the night and decide that witnessing what is going on is
more important than interrupting their “boys night” rituals. I am startled how relaxed [or
stoned] everyone is, and how nice. Instead of the expected roughness and meanness I
find the boys lying next to each other on the bed, leaning onto each others’ bodies,
almost hugging, watching a beautiful movie and making loud remarks on the aesthetics
of waterplants and jellyfish. When the movie abruptly stops as only the first part has
been downloaded, the boys want to put on music. Bjoern, Don, and Peter are calling
for Dvořák’s 9th symphony. The symphony is played in high volume and everyone is
asked to be quiet. Peter is laying stomach flat on the bed with his head reaching over
the end, nodding along the rhythm. Bjoern moves his arms in a conductor’s manner. It
is beautiful: Ten rough boys, lying around humming along the tunes of Dvořák. They
discussed this piece over months in music class and now seem to love it. Alex
expresses how he finds the oboe a beautiful instrument. An indeed extremely moving
oboe solo has preceded his remark. After the symphony two boys leave to get food
from KFC16, Peter and Bjoern giving their orders. Hierarchies are somehow still visible.
We start to watch The Naked Gun 2½17. Bjoern is laughing out loudly at every joke. We
stop the movie for some reason. The boys with the food return. Some boys leave. A
few of them have to go to school the next day. Giovanni also leaves. Peter enjoys his
chicken wings. Don only talks about the news of the “Abistreich” 18 cancellation [he
received an email on his smart phone]. We watch a little more of The Naked Gun.
Peter and Don want to leave. I join them and we share a cab. I chip in twenty kuai, and
they drop me off in front of the guesthouse.
On the one hand, I very much enjoyed their company and their outlooks on life. I think I
was particularly intrigued by their ways, because their behaviors and relationships
towards each other were less familiar to me than those of the girls. On the other hand,
their behaviors troubled me and I felt more insecure about what was performed for me
and what was really going on in their lives. We always treated each other with courtesy
and respect, and over time the boys also grew curious in my person and my own
stories of growing up and I became more and more familiar and less intimidated with
their ways.
Interpreting Interviews, Images, Field Notes and Facebook & Co
Interviews and Group Discussions
I transcribed all recorded interviews and group discussions, also capturing fillers, sighs,
and laughter. For this task I relied on the computer programs f4 and f5. While most of
the transcripts encompass the complete interview, I occasionally summarized
passages of my own contributions during the interview.
The qualitative data analysis program Atlas.ti proved to be a useful tool to sort,
structure, and link all my textual and visual materials.19 This software also allowed me
to code my interview material based on keywords and themes. These codes either
accorded to my research interests or emerged from within the transcripts. Coding
KFC stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken, an American fast-food chain gaining popularity in China.
The movie, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, is a comedy from 1991 produced by David Zucker,
Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. It is the second movie of an American crime comedy film series that was
originally designed for television. The television series, Police Squad, however, was cancelled after six
episodes. All three films star a male police officer and a female protagonist who – after she falls for the
villain in The Naked Gun 21/2 – takes his side and eventually marries him. All crimes and evil schemes are
solved by accident, causing mayhem and laughter, making the film series a spoof comedy. The
information was retrieved from on February 20th, 2013 (“The
Naked Gun - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia” 2013).
The German “Abistreich” is a common ritual for high school students right after their examinations. The
ritual usually involves disrupting the school routine with numerous practical jokes, often ridiculing teachers.
For a summary of current debates on the advantages and disadvantages of computer based qualitative
data analysis see Séror (2005).
categories were not mutually exclusive and passages could be attributed to several
themes at once. Coding required several close readings of the transcripts. The field
notes I wrote after each interview and group discussion, attempting to capture the
interview setting and personal affect, helped me to remember the overall mood or
context of the interviews. Chapters and arguments were consequently developed
around prominent themes and codes in the writing process and interpreted further
against the backdrop of theories, personal experiences, and the visual materials.
Throughout the interpretation I worked with the original quotes and only translated
German quotes into English as a very last step in my text production. For the final
translations I also omitted some fillers, repetitions and pauses to secure better
readability. Due to my focus on youth’s own voices (see chapter 3.1) these interviews
form the centerpiece of my ethnographic work. In order to contextualize these reflective
narratives, diverse visual material, field notes, and impressions from media such as
magazines or facebook were included in the discussions.
Visual Materials
The majority of visual material consisted of pictures I took as “photo protocols” to
document the atmosphere at certain places. I also resorted to “visual note taking,”
whenever writing notes seemed awkward, for instance at bars or at the graduation
dance. On some of these occasions taking photos even turned out to become “my job”:
at the graduation party students came up and asked me to take pictures of them with
their friends – the choice of motif thus no longer only being mine. I directly incorporated
some of my digital photography in my dissertation to provide further insights into the
specific places the students and I moved through. As Sarah Pink (2011, 438) explains,
images of such places invite us to contemplate on the relevance of the experiences of
being “there”:
The photographs were important because the researcher took them when in that
environment. They invited me not to know first-hand what it was like to
contemplate the route ahead represented in the photo, but to imagine what it
might be like. Importantly it led me to consider that the experience of it would be
relevant. (2011, 438)
The images I chose to display in my dissertation aim to support my research emphasis
on the experience of the local environment and at the same time reflect my own
positionality in the overall field.
In addition to my own photography, I gained access and the right to use photos
students themselves produced. This was the case with images taken for a Geography
school project where students had documented elements of globalization in Shanghai’s
urban landscape (see field notes “A Day with “the Girls”” under 4.5). Some students
also shared their prom pictures with me.
I also had access to student artworks that were displayed on campus or in yearbooks.
These images were mostly relevant in triggering conversations with students about the
production and meanings behind them. One example that I chose to take up is
Andrea’s work “My time is now” (Figure 24 and Figure 25) which I discuss in detail in
chapter ten.
Two films produced by students at the German school, also found their way into my
media assemblage. One film was made by Kressi and a friend to be shown at a reward
ceremony in Germany. This film feels like a PR film for the school and is discussed in
detail in chapter nine (see Figure 15 to Figure 19). A second film shot by students at
the German school was shown during dinner at the graduation ball. In contrast to the
first film, this clip does not star the overall school, but shows the group of students that
graduated. This film contributed further insights into the meaning students attribute to
the moment of high school graduation as well as farewell rituals (see chapter fifteen).
Most informative for my work were the mental maps I collected at the end of several
group discussions and during a Geography class. Mental maps, a method common in
geographical research, are particularly useful in order to understand everyday spatial
practices. The method of mental mapping allows the research partner to set a focus
from her or his own perspective – and thus despite its guiding question leaves more
space for subjective experiences than interviewing (Ploch 1995, 24). Thirteen students
at the German school, three enrolled at a British school, seventeen students from an
international Singaporean school, and one student from an American school were
asked to record on paper their mental maps of everyday important places in Shanghai.
In addition to participant observation and interviews, these maps particularly form the
basis of chapter seven, “Making Sense of the City,” but also contribute to my
understanding of spatial practices throughout the whole ethnography (see Figure 3,
Figure 5, Figure 8, and Figure 33). These drawings of their Shanghai are understood
as subjective interpretations that are based on the students’ active reflections and
ways of giving meanings to their spaces (ibid., 25).
A total of eight mind maps on “identity” and “home” present further visual material to my
project. Students at a German school were asked to draw mind maps in groups of
three or four during ethics class to discuss their ideas of “Heimat” [“home” or place of
belonging] and “Identität” [“Identity”]. These discussions of the two terms were
conducted in silence, students writing their ideas on two different large sheets of paper,
replying to each other’s comments. The mind maps on “home” in particular proved
insightful and it became apparent that it is a term of many associations and emotions
for the international youth. The issue of “home” and the relevant mind maps are
discussed in detail in chapter 8.3. The mind maps on “identity” have informed chapter
fourteen discussing students’ self-reflective ways to think about the move as well as
their negotiations of cultural identity.
I also initiated a photo project during the last visit in Shanghai in 2012 for which I asked
students to send me photos referring to the theme “home in Shanghai.” The intention
was to gain another perspective on the subjective experiences of home and belonging
through students’ own visual approaches. Few students responded, most of them after
they had already left Shanghai. Instead of taking a photo specifically for this request,
many of them browsed through their pictures to then send me one or two images that
for them captured best the idea of feeling home in Shanghai. These images take up
various themes and give insights into students’ personal worlds, displaying family
members, friends, pets, or locations. The fact that some were chosen after Shanghai in
the end gave new insights into subjective experiences of moving and longing for a
place left behind. Two of the students’ images in which the German girl Mia captured
her own room in Shanghai before (Figure 11) and then prepared for the next move
(Figure 37) are displayed in the ethnography. These were chosen as they brilliantly
illustrate the experiences of home and moving by showing us the connected material
While visual materials are included throughout my dissertation, six images – my own
and students’ photographs, mental and mind maps – were selected to introduce each
of the six parts of this ethnography. These six images aim to open a certain space for
the ethnographic and theoretical arguments to unfold in each part.
Field Notes
Field notes as reflections of my own engagement with Shanghai and my field, and as
protocols documenting interviews, school days, and specific events in the community,
helped me to remember the overall stage for the voices of the young actors my work
centers on. Most of these notes are hand-written and I therefore abstained from sorting
or coding them in Atlas.ti due to time constraints. Close readings of them, however, let
me incorporate many of them indirectly via reflections and interpretations of interview
quotes. I chose to include a few complete field notes directly (see under 4.2, 4.3, 4.5
and 4.6) to shed light on the subjective practice of fieldwork, my own position in the
field, and the production of “data.” Simultaneously, these notes also provide insights
into students’ everyday lives and their attitudes towards my research project.
Facebook & Co
Numerous free English-medium magazines 20 circulating in Shanghai, as well as
advertisements, flyers, websites and online forums provided further insights into the
lifestyles of the expatriate community. Liechty (2003), inquiring middle class youth
culture in Nepal, read magazines targeted at Nepali teenagers as part of a “global,
intertextual media assemblage that constructs its own privileged world of reality-inimages.” He further writes, “[i]t is onto this transnational public sphere, the mediaassembled space of imagination, that local merchants project their dreams of a local
‘youth culture’” (ibid., 219). Following Liechty’s understanding, I read the media
collected in Shanghai in order to understand the creation of an expatriate culture or
community. His concept of media assemblage as “an intricate web of linkages that
promote and channel consumer desires in never-ending circuits” (ibid., 260) helped me
to see how the collected media fueled, as Brosius (2010, 37) phrased it, “a consumer
ethic that affirms and ‘naturalises’ cultural values and habitus of the middle class [in my
case: expatriate community].” Interested in the wider context of the production of an
expatriate community, the media assemblage as a methodological tool (Liechty 2003
and Brosius 2011) helped me to trace expatriates’ current places of consumption,
education, work, travel, and pleasure. It further facilitated understanding the
community’s current discourses during and after fieldwork and thus to contextualize my
focus on expatriate teenagers. The magazines and forums proved particularly helpful,
as their main purpose is to introduce newcomers to Shanghai and to the expat way of
living and consumption. Brosius (2010, 36), examining practices of the new middle
class in India, pinpoints this potential of introduction or guidance, writing: “These
intertwined forms of media are crucial when it comes to their capacity to educate
‘uncultured’ newcomers, creating immediacy and intimacy.”
Furthermore, the online social network facebook21 played a crucial role in my project. In
the beginning of my research, it had never occurred to me that facebook might become
part of my endeavor. It always manifested itself as rather the opposite: a distraction
from my work. I cannot deny that a lot of the time spend on the networking site was
mere procrastination, but facebook also became important as a methodological tool.
That’s Shanghai, City Week-end, City Week-end Parents and Kids, Shanghai Family, Enjoy Shanghai,
Time Out Shanghai, and several others.
The website Facebook enables its users to create his or her own personal profile in which he or she may
include pictures, texts, and videos. It demands of its users to enter abstract personal information such as
place of residence, employer, birthday or highschool – and through which you then establish virtual
networks by inviting people in the same network to be your “friend.” These friendship requests are
reciprocal. Within these networks the user has several ways to interact: through status updates, wall posts,
the commentary functions, and photo albums, a whole network can discuss their lives and negotiate their
relationship and identities. Through private messages, and an instant chat function members can
communicate privately. Events, groups, fan pages and online games are further applications on facebook.
After a round of interviews at a Singaporean international school, I surprisingly
received a handful of friendship requests from some students. I accepted them without
a lot of thought, and few further interaction via facebook followed. However, after I had
gotten to know the group of students from the German school closer than the ones I
had interviewed earlier, I started to think about sending out friendship requests to a
couple of them myself. At first I was reluctant, as this meant sharing my own profile,
friends, pictures, comments – maybe even about my research – with them. Further, I
was skeptical if I was allowed to “intrude” into their online lives. Then, I figured, this is
fieldwork. Negotiating how much one can “intrude,” how much one should “share.” So, I
sent out requests to connect with them. All of them confirmed, and after a while others
got in touch with me on their own initiative. I had no intentions to write about facebook,
I was merely using it as a tool to easily and informally get in touch with students.
Interview meetings or leisure activities, mostly arranged via phone texting, could now
be arranged through private messages as well. Facebook became a handy research
tool and a way for students to easily and informally contact me.
In addition to providing another way of communication, online social networks offer
social scientists a window into the personal visual and representational domains of its
users. They make communications between contacts, the networks of individual users
visible. These (semi)-public documentations therefore have the potential to articulate,
illustrate, and lay open social relations to others (Neumann-Braun and Autenrieth
2011a, 11). While this might seem like an ethnographer’s dream at first sight, the
entanglements and meanings are rather complex. Online and offline worlds are not
separable entities, but offline and online relations often operate hand in hand
(Neumann-Braun and Autenrieth 2011a, 18). Daniel Miller (2011), for instance, has
shown with his detailed study on facebook in Trinidad how through specific cultural
appropriations of these online communities, a heterogeneity has emerged even despite
globally successful social network sites such as facebook. His ethnographic account
makes clear that there is no facebook, but rather facebooks.
As facebook has spread, it has also become increasingly diverse. So, from an
anthropological perspective, it could be said that there is no longer any such
thing as Facebook. There are only particular genres of use that have developed
for different peoples and regions. (Miller 2011, x)
Having become online friends with the teenagers therefore helped me to understand
their offline worlds better, to remember stories they had told me. Sisters who lived
somewhere else appeared in pictures and comments, musical tastes and certain band
names we had discussed earlier were mentioned again on their sites.
The expatriate teenagers’ facebook usage, however, did not appear particularly
frequent compared to some of my own friends or to accounts on facebook usage in
Trinidad by Miller (2011). This might first of all be due to the difficulties imposed by
Chinese censorship, which blocked the entire site in China. Interestingly, all the
students I interviewed nonetheless had a facebook account. By using Virtual Private
Networks (VPNs) or proxy servers that re-routed the access to a blocked website via
the US or Europe, the youths went around what they often jokingly called “the Great
Firewall of China.” Some of the expatriate families had bought such services, whereas
other students were looking for free ways to access facebook and had to constantly
find new sites and ways. This was also true with the popular site YoutTube, which is
also blocked in China. A fact the schools interestingly appreciated, as there was no
longer the need to block YouTube on campus, which had been done earlier to protect
children from certain content. Access via such VPNs at home usually slowed down the
connection and one had to be patient when pictures on facebook were building up
slowly. For the same reason music videos on YouTube remained even with the help of
a VPN client mainly unwatchable. Links to videos thus were rare on the boys’ and girls’
facebook pages.
Consequently, it was particularly during times that I was in Germany that facebook
became the key way of communicating with the teenagers. While face-to-face
interaction in Shanghai had mainly been accompanied by phone text messages, now
facebook’s private messages were used exclusively to occasionally keep me up to date
on school or personal matters, as well as to inquire about my writing endeavors.
Facebook therefore proved a good way to keep in touch and maintain relations until my
next field visit. The last field visit in May/June 2012 was even organized entirely via
facebook – including the invitations to the graduation ceremonies and ball and my
accommodation in on of the compounds’ guesthouses. In addition to the exchange of
messages, I started to look at the pages and their content more closely. During these
days in Germany, I was thus somehow still “in the field” – although only in a particular
space. Similar to how I had followed my friends in Europe via facebook from Shanghai,
I now frequently browsed the pages of people I had met in China. Longing for some
Shanghai memories, I was amazed how much I found. As a result some of the
students’ representations of Shanghai and their online identity performances and
relationships found their ways into my work. However, a detailed analysis of
(expatriate) teenagers’ facebook usage remains an endeavor for future projects.22
Anthropologists and other social scientists have begun to study the place of social network sites in social
relationships and their impact on space and identity (among others Dalsgaard 2008; Westlake 2008;
Neumann-Braun and Autenrieth 2011b; Kneidinger 2010; Adamek 2011; Kirkpatrick 2011; NeumannBraun and Autenrieth 2011b; Miller 2011; Madianou and Miller 2012).
It is based on the description and interpretation of all these very different materials and
methodologies that I write this dissertation. The different voices and gazes could be put
into different assemblages to form very different kind of narratives. In the end, however,
I can only trace and engage with a few when producing my very own narrative of expat
students’ lives in Shanghai.
The Ethnographer as Author: Confidentiality, Subjectivities, and Scientific
Here what we might have called representation is no longer a process of
fixing, but an element in a continuous production; a part of it all, and
itself constantly becoming. This is a position which rejects a strict
separation between world and text and which understands scientific
activity as being just that – an activity, a practice, an embedded
engagement in the world of which it is a part. Not representation but
experimentation. (Massey 2005, 28)
My ethnographic practice has become part not only of my world, but also of the
teenage students’ world. While the practice of writing is surely the most solitary part of
the research process, it is still embedded in its larger context. Nobody who writes about
real people in real life can ignore the fact that words may have consequences for the
people they write about – and alter their images of Self, the labeling by others, their
relationships, or the politics structuring their everyday practices. What troubled me
particularly, was that the teenagers themselves, as well as their parents and teachers,
constantly commented on being keen to read my dissertation once finished or
published, or even before. What happens when they read what we write? – to them, to
me, to our relationship, and to ethnographic writing – is also the question Caroline
Brettell and other anthropologists pose in the collected volume When They Read What
We Write: The Politics of Ethnography (1993). While this question was unknown to
early fieldwork and ethnographers whose language of writing differs from those whom
they research (Brettell 1993), to me it certainly caused great concerns and much
contemplation. This problem arose in particular as securing anonymity proved difficult
in regards to maintaining my own scientific standards of truth describing specific
locations and practices. While many students were eager to appear in “the book” (a
term that puts pressure on me to actually publish this thesis) with their real names, I
objected. Somehow rather disappointed that their names would not appear, I proposed
that they themselves should choose their own code names. Several students then
suggested their common nicknames to replace their real names. I was reluctant to do
so and we finally agreed on a fictitious name, which at least rendered the teenagers
anonymous to outsiders. Having solved the name issue, however, did not mean I had
secured complete anonymity. My research focus on urban sensories required detailed
descriptions of places that make schools and locations traceable for the informed
reader. I addressed this issue many times to students, teachers, and principals, and
the community agreed to live with it. I faced a more severe moral dilemma when it
came to the fact that students, who knew each other, would always recognize their
peers. The students on whom my worked focused over the course of my fieldwork
almost all know each other and no anonymizing – at least if it is not completely fictitious
– can ensure that they would not recognize each other. I consequently very carefully
omitted all hostile or derogatory remarks that teenagers made against their peers.
Hostilities exist, but are not relevant in their concrete form to my work. I was able to
discuss certain issues with the students themselves and sincerely hope nobody feels
offended by my writings – if someone part of the project actually does become a
Another issue of great concern of this work troubled me already during fieldwork:
activities such as alcohol and drug consumption and skipping school. How to balance
my position? Although not being a designated social worker taking care of these
issues, I still worried about certain activities. While I decided to accept the situation at
hand and usually did not interfere, in a few occasions I spoke up to the teenagers and
took care people got home safely or not involved in behavior harming others. This led
to students teasing me as being a social worker. However, as I never involved parents
or teachers, the relationship of trust was not disturbed by these interventions. In
general, I chose a relationship of mutual trust, which meant I trusted the students and
their abilities and intellect to take care of themselves as well as their parents’ decisions
and rules. I decided to write frankly about these practices, but here wondered much
about the influences of my presence during such activities on the topic. Daniel
Goldstein (2002) commented on the impacts of the ethnographer’s presence as
(future) author in the field, describing how his informants in the Andes in Bolivia were
continuously concerned about “the book” he would write. Goldstein argues that
positively one can see ethnographic writing as a form of indigenous media, an
implement of self-representation.
Even in more ordinary sorts of fieldwork contexts, in which the final product of the
ethnographer/informant encounter is not a visual but a textual representation,
informants may regard ethnography as a resource that they can use for their own
purposes, and so seek to establish control over the ways in which they will be
represented by the ethnographer. (Goldstein 2002, 487)
In Goldstein’s case the informants strategically emphasized and performed certain
aspects they considered important and most likely to secure financial benefits in the
future, for instance by attracting NGOs. Consequently, he experienced a lot of mistrust
rising from the idea of the ethnographer later writing about the experienced.
While the teenagers in Shanghai saw no financial benefits arising from my presence, it
still became obvious that they were also highly concerned about my writings and how
this could represent their lives. Goldstein (2002, 496) argues that some fieldworkers in
response to mistrust, end up focusing “on ritual, or politics, or other public domains of
social life […] finding that, in addition to their accessibility, these are in fact the topics
that their research consultants would most prefer them to study.” Likewise, one can, on
the one hand, interpret the relationship between the participating teenagers and me as
a trustful one in regards to my presence during nightlife and illegal activities. I am sure
that to a certain extent my participation led to acceptance and offered the possibility for
students to also casually inquire about my own life and to get to know me better. On
the other hand, however, it became soon obvious that this invitation and willingness to
trust me had also to do with the fact that the youths liked to see nightlife activities on
the center stage of my work. Writing about nightlife for them was the right kind or
representation of expatriate youths, of their lifestyle, the one they wanted to be written
down. The eagerness to talk about nightlife activities was also present during
interviews. Emotional difficulties that the move to Shanghai brought to them, in
contrast, were often only mentioned on the side, not elaborated upon, and talked about
with more unease and careful wording. The depiction of difficulties was rather
In the end, however, I have no choice but to simply write from my point of view23,
carefully weaving the different narratives together. I decided to follow a narrative that
understands the students’ wish to stress their active ways in exploring Shanghai as
means of simultaneously dealing with difficulties the move to Shanghai brings along,
linking everyday practices and moving experiences.
My point of view, or in Gupta and Ferguson’s (1997) words, my “location,” however is not a stable point
of reference either. The “Location” as the fieldworker’s standpoint and position in society, as for instant
German, white, female graduate student, is not something “one ascriptively has” but one “works at” (1997,
37). Location is constantly shifting: “Rather than a set of labels that pins down one’s identity and
perspective, location becomes visible here as an ongoing project” (ibid.).
Part 2
Figure 2: Up in the Air. Photo by M. Sander
Expatriate children often have biographies that involve several moves in their young
lives. In order to inquire how the youths perceive and cope with challenges of growing
up abroad – or even on the move –, this part two, “Leaving,” of the ethnography offers
a chapter that explores the youths’ narratives of leaving and their recollections of
processes leading to the decision to move to Shanghai. In this chapter I, firstly, argue
that expatriate children have only limited agency in the family’s decision-making about
the move. Secondly, I investigate the idea of “best interest” that underlies many of the
arguments for the move. While the parents’ idea of making the decision in the “best
interest” of the child is mostly linked to future benefits, the children in the here-and-now
constantly feel like living in a liminal space where the last move is just – or not even yet
– fully coped with and the next move already lying in wait.
5. Retrospectives on the (Decision to) Move
I suggest that more could be done in migration studies to understand
‘the best interests of the child’ by taking account of his or her own
perspective. (Dobson 2009, 355)
When talking about the move to Shanghai with students in group discussions or
individual interviews, the expatriate youths described their experiences of the decisionmaking process that led to the move to Shanghai. Contemplating on these
retrospectives on the move, it becomes obvious that the moments of the decisionmaking are remembered vividly.
To Move or not to Move: the Decision-making
Examining the children’s reflection upon the decision that was taken months, or even
years prior to the interviews, it becomes clear that my interview-partners strongly
reflected upon their role in the process. Through our conversations three narratives of
their involvement in the decision-making process became visible: the children’s
exclusion, inclusion through a set of choices, and negotiation. As I only conducted
research in Shanghai, of course only those voices of children are included whose
families actually decided to move to Shanghai. Rejections of moving to Shanghai
therefore cannot be discussed.
The majority of my young interview-partners feels excluded from the decision-making
and describes the move to Shanghai as a non-negotiable announcement of their
parents. The children usually do not want to move but often feel they have no choice,
as Emily’s story illustrates. Emily, aged twelve, was born in her “home” country
Malaysia, but left when she was still too young to keep any memories of growing up
there. She arrived in Shanghai one and a half years prior to the interview and attends a
British English-medium middle school. When I interviewed her with fellow students in a
group discussion she introduced herself talking quickly and animatedly:
Emily: I am Emily. I am from Malaysia. I am, I have never really lived or had any
childhood in Malaysia. I moved when I was three and my brother was
only six months old. I moved to Beijing, China, and I lived there for
six years, six and a half years, close to seven. And then I moved to
Thailand for eighteen months, which felt like a really long time.
She recalls her moving experiences as a set of events that would simply happen to
her, leading up to a feeling of unfair exclusion when the recent move to Shanghai was
Emily: So I kinda started to realize, that is not fair mom, that is not fair that we
have to move. And then, but then I had no choice. I had to follow my
parents. So, I moved to Shanghai, and after Christmas would be my
second year here. Erm, it’s nice here, I will be disappointed if I do
leave next year, but yeah.
Karina, seventeen years old, has a similar story to share. She is half-Czech, halfGerman and she came to Shanghai six months before the first interview. When we sit
in the schoolyard, the voice recorder between us, Karina introduces herself by
narrating her migration story as follows:
Karina: I am seventeen years old. I come from Prague. I was also born there and
have lived there for five years, I think. After that I moved to
[Germany] and lived there for three years. Then I moved to [a town in
Northern China], lived there for another three years. […] Then I
moved back to Prague, and now I am back in China.24
Karina recapitulates her immediate strong reaction to the announcement of the move
to Shanghai: “I just screamed at my father.” I came across many such narratives of
anger, yelling at, or not speaking to the parents for a couple of days as reactions to the
sudden announcement of the move.
A few interviewees, for instance Britta from Norway, however, felt they had a say in the
decision by discussing at least certain options about their participation in the move.
When describing her first reactions to her father’s announcement, Britta, a seventeenyear-old girl who had just arrived in Shanghai a few months before the interview,
recalls how she could not believe it or take the idea to move to China seriously at first.
I wasn’t that mad; I was more like I didn’t think about it. I just said
sure, we move to China, NOT.
However, when she started to realize that her parents were seriously considering the
move, she found herself and her family on a short trip to China to explore the idea
further. Such look-and-see-trips, paid by the employer, are common. Yet, taking the
German original: Ich bin siebzehn Jahre alt. Ich komme aus Prag. Ich bin dort auch geboren, habe dort,
glaube, fünf Jahre gelebt. Bin danach nach Deutschland gezogen. Habe dort drei Jahre gelebt. Bin dann
nach [Stadt im Norden Chinas] gezogen, habe dort wieder drei Jahre gelebt. […] Also wieder nach Prag
gezogen und jetzt bin ich wieder in China.
children along is less common. Consequently, Britta considered herself lucky to have
been able to get to know Shanghai before the final decision. Furthermore, she explains
how her family explored alternative options:
Britta: I could have stayed at my friend’s house, lived with my best friend’s family.
But I chose to go anyway. So. Would be weird to just move in with
her family when my family is just experiencing new stuff, and I am
just like stuck in Norway.
The opportunity to see what her life might look like in Shanghai and the option of
staying in Europe with a friend made her feel included in the decision-making process
and led to a positive curiosity and willingness to explore new things with her family:
“They didn’t just decide, they let us choose.” Britta’s case can be seen as what Ackers
and Stalford (2004, 111) call the “Hobson’s choice’ or “children’s menu approach.” The
children are presented with a “limited range of options” (ibid., 113), these options are
typically “within parameters tightly defined by parents” (ibid.). Britta, for instance was
allowed to opt out of the move to Shanghai, but not allowed to influence her parents’
Only one student described how he successfully managed to negotiate the decision
about a move. Seventeen-year-old Paul, born in Brazil, has a Brazilian mother and a
German father. He grew up in Brazil and the United States and moved to Shanghai six
years prior to the interview and attends a US-American English-medium school. At the
time of the interview he had just refused to move on to Thailand. “I wasn’t gonna
move.” His father, nevertheless, went to Bangkok, but Paul and his mother stayed in
Shanghai. Paul had not wanted to move to China initially as he hadn’t “even googled it
before” and thought it would be all “mud houses” and “bamboo forests.” Paul
remembers his father telling him about the move to China in a very straightforward
Paul: So he doesn't try to butter you up or anything. He. If your dog dies, he won't
make up an excuse. <L> He would just tell you he ran over the dog,
you know. So he was kinda like: ‘Paul, we are moving to China.’ OH.
In contrast to the harsh announcement six years earlier, this time Paul managed to
state his own opinion about the move to Thailand and make his point. When I ask him
about the difference in these two decision-makings, he comments:
Paul: I am older now. Before I didn't really have a choice. And, erm, my parents
also thought it was a good idea to stay here. Cause of my last year of
school. You don't wanna move right before you are applying for
colleges and stuff. And your grades are really shit. It's not so good.
This time he influenced the decision-making and the family found common ground
when reasoning why staying in Shanghai was beneficial for his future. Interestingly,
Paul had learned to employ a future-benefit and best-interest narrative to argue for his
desire to stay, and his parents accepted it. The next section further examines the
common idea of best-interest that often underlies parents’ decision-making and family
Family Relations and the Idea of “Best Interest”
As my interview-partners’ narratives of the moving process show, individual family
members have different attitudes and interests regarding the move to Shanghai. While
some children rebel against the decision, others trust their parents to know what is
“best” for them. According to my young interview-partners’ accounts of the moving
decision, the idea of their parents acting in their “best interest” is also common. Teresa
Hutchins’s (2011) recent analysis of UK families’ experiences of moving to Australia,
showed that
(F)amily migration decision-making is based upon a process of negotiating
individual influence and power within the family, often at different stages in the
process. In the majority of families, children were active in their attempts to
influence adults, just as adults attempted to influence children. In some cases the
adults overrode the opinions of their children and in others the children were
successful in having their voices heard and acted upon. In the majority of
instances, parents justified their actions as being in the best interests of their
children. (Hutchins 2011, 1233)
The main difference between the experiences of Hutchins’s informants moving to
Australia, and the narratives explored in this ethnography, however, lie in the
experiences of Australia as a place of arrival and Shanghai as a place of transition.
Parents’ decisions to move are not only past events, but likely future announcements
as well. When talking about moving again in the near future and the emotions this
prospect causes, Allen, an eleven-year old US-American who had just arrived in
Shanghai after his father had been transferred to China three months earlier,
Allen: Well, it doesn't make me feel scared. Because I know my parents know all
of us very well and they will make the best decision for all of us.
Hutchins (2011, 1233), however, has pointed out correctly that this idea of children’s
best interests is problematic and that “little is known about how ‘best interests’ are
conceptualised, let alone operationalised, within families.” Hutchins further argues that
these varying conceptualizations of best interest are based on the “particular
conception of childhood held by [...] parents” (2011, 1233). In the expatriate community
in Shanghai, the underlying conceptions of childhood and adolescence often seem to
be linked to the idea of children as “adults in the making,” an influential viewpoint also
in academic concepts as already criticized in chapter two. My discussions with children
as well as my interviews with mothers conducted in 2007 show that expatriate parents
in Shanghai justify the difficulties they impose on their children by stressing and
conveying the – mainly future – benefits of transnational mobility. Parents are
concerned with their children’s adult lives, sometimes even more than with their
children’s current situation as the family’s move to China suggests. These aspired
benefits and the future-orientedness of the students’ lives are discussed in chapter ten
and partly in chapter nine of this ethnography. Ackers and Stalford (2004, 111) came
across a similar narrative of the decision-making in their studies of EU-internal
migration processes – that of “future oriented consent”:
[P]arents expressed the view that, even though it was inappropriate to attempt to
involve the child in the family decision at the point of migration, the child would, in
the longer term, see the value of the move and reflect upon it positively. (Ackers
and Stalford 2004, 111)
Often disregarded as an active part of the decision to move, it becomes evident that
students are caught between the desire to stay with their peers and the wish to be with
their parents. Hutchins (2011, 1233) assumes that “it is also possible that the different
conceptions of childhood operate in parallel and that particular conceptions may be
invoked at different times in order to support the interests of adults.” The powerful
discourse of “best interest” is linked to ideas of preparing the developing child for the
future and is often used to exclude children from the decision-making process. The
concept of “best interest” therefore strongly influences expatriate families decisions to
move abroad.
However, children also have their own “best interest” considerations for their parents,
as the excerpt from an interview with seventeen-year-old Lara shows:
Lara: On the other hand I felt bad for my dad. […] He wanted us to come along –
as a family. And that was an issue that made me think. I mean, you
can at least have a look at it. But, then there is not really a coming
back option. But also, that a father wants his family to come with him.
[…] He doesn’t want to go alone. And again that was, I don’t know,
something that made me sad. I could not just abandon him. Because
he is my father. He speaks up for me, he pays the school, pays this
and that. Difficult.25
Lara’s narrative illustrates how the moving decision for many of the youths feels like
being caught between their parents’ will and their own. For the intergenerational
relations this means that worries about the other exist on both sides. Often guilt also
plays a role in the family relations: My interviewee Karina explained to me that her
German Original: Aber auf der anderen Seite, tat mir auch mein Vater wieder Leid. Weil er war immer
drei Wochen weg, eine Woche zu Hause. Drei Wochen wieder weg. Eine Woche zu Hause. Also ich hab
ihn eigentlich kaum gesehen. Und er wollte, dass wir mitgehen. Als Familie. Und das war wieder so ein
Punkt, wo ich dachte hmm. Ich mein man kann das sich ja mal anschauen. Oder so. Aber, ein Zurück gibt
es ja dann eigentlich nicht mehr. Aber auch allein, dass ein Vater möchte, dass seine Familie mitgeht.
[Interviewer: Das kann man ja auch verstehen.] Ja, er möchte da auch nicht alleine hin. Und das war das
wieder. Also, weiß nicht, wo mich dann wieder auch ein bisschen traurig gemacht hat. Wo ich ihn einfach
nicht in Stich lassen kann. Weil das ist mein Vater. Der setzt sich für mich ein, der zahlt für die Schule,
zahlt mir das und das und das. Ja. Schwer.
mother often felt guilty about taking her away from her friends. Emily describes how the
family relations are strained by the emotional turmoil that a moving decision causes:
Emily: I think that one of the worst things to do is to actually panic, because
eventually you realize you have to move. You can’t just stay there.
Because, you know. Then, when I realized, you know, when my dad
said we are moving, I said ‘Okay, if we are moving, will there be a
chance that we ever move back here?’ He said ‘Erm, I don’t know.’
When you hear that ‘I don’t know’ or that tone where you just have no
clue, you just know that you have to move. You can’t say anything,
because your parents would get, like, not upset, but kinda feeling,
having second thoughts now. I don’t want my parents not to move
just because of me. But it’s for my dad’s job, so like, we just all have
to move. As a family. We can’t like stay here and my dad working
there, and then coming back for Christmas, that doesn’t make any
sense. So we just have to move.
Emily’s narrative demonstrates well how children try to actively negotiate the relations
within the family, reflect their own position and consider parents’ needs. Her thoughts
on moving go beyond her own wish to stay and explore effects on family relations and
her parents’ emotional well-being. She does not want her parents to worry about her or
have “second thoughts” and comes to the conclusion that opposing the move is not an
option. Emily’s inquiries about the option to move back also show how children wish to
have insights into parents’ plans and transparency about future moves. This might also
be necessary for children to (re-)gain trust into parents’ decisions.26
5.3. Caught in Limbo: Fearing the Next Move
Uncertainties of what to expect are obviously inherent to a migration experience. The
fear of suddenly moving elsewhere (and failing to make it there), however, seems
particularly common within highly mobile families. Emily’s description of thoughts and
past feelings surrounding the move to Shanghai show that moving can be
overwhelming. She even speaks of panic. Panic as a loss of control over the decision
to move and her emotions. Likewise, all the narratives of the decision-making process
show that the teenagers and children often confronted their parents with anger when
the move to China was announced. From Emily’s point of view, however, to panic is
“one of the worst things to do.” Her narrative shows that children have to cope with
fears and that moving requires them to learn to manage emotions. The fear of having
to move again despite one’s own will, however, remains present, even when the
For insights into adolescent boys’ own ideas about what constitutes trust with their parents, see
Jeffries’s (Jeffries 2004) comparative qualitative study of African American, Latino and Asian American
boys from low-income families. Jeffries study describes four themes of trust that young informants
expressed in their narratives, namely: obligation, sharing confidences, need fulfillment – both material and
emotional –, and reliability – a belief that parents are “always gonna be there.” Interestingly, the author
encountered differences in the conceptualization of trust between the different youths. Asian American
boys, for instance, did not reference the theme of “always gonna be there,” hinting at possible cultural
students turn the limbo of moving, the experience of living in a liminal space, into a
positive state, as for example seventeen-year-old Giovanni’s perspective shows: “You
are only here for a temporary period. Like a long vacation.”27 The implications of this
state of limbo for negotiations of belonging and ideas of home will be elaborated further
in chapter eight.
Honest inclusion of children in the decision-making and the moving process might help
to reduce some fears and feelings of powerlessness. Britta, for example, was
extremely happy to having been able to explore Shanghai before the move, which
made it easier for her to cope with the fear of being unhappy in Shanghai. But it is not
only uncertainty, but also unfamiliarity or even the parents’ stress that children sense,
which makes the experience fearful at first. The following part three on arriving in
Shanghai consequently also takes a closer look at the emotional challenges that
moving entails and demonstrates how the youths manage these upon their arrival in
Shanghai by trying to gain back agency.
German original: Hier ist man nur vorrübergehend. Wie lange Ferien.
Part 3
Figure 3: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by a 16-year-old Singaporean School Student
This mental map (Figure 3), depicting high rise buildings, a large elevated highway,
and masses of people, was drawn by a girl at an international Singaporean school, and
illustrates how impressive and overwhelming arriving and living in Shanghai can be.
The sixteen-year-old student annotated her map with the following caption:
The city, Shanghai is continuously developing. Everyday when I’m on the bus,
looking outside the window, I can always find new infrastructures. The buildings
are HUGE and the road is crowded. The map is what I see everyday on the bus.
It’s a busy Shanghai and is changing every day. People walk swiftly just like they
are trying to catch up the beat of Shanghai.
To me her drawing and annotation illustrates the unfamiliar urban environment, but
also the radical changes, losses, and new encounters that teenagers have to deal with
when moving to their new city of residence. It is the students’ ways of “catching up with
the beat of Shanghai” and their new situation that this third part, “Arriving,” aims to
examine. Firstly, chapter six identifies the emotional challenges that moving entails.
The following chapters seven to nine discuss how the youths manage these difficulties
and their new environment by outlining three important processes: exploring the city,
practices of home-making, and community building.
On the one hand, the ethnographic material I present supports Fechter’s (2007a)
observations of the importance of boundaries in expatriates’ lives and underpins her
argument that expatriates’
insistence on fortifying spatial and social divides challenges notions of a
transnational capitalist class which is claimed to be geographically mobile and
cosmopolitan in outlook (Sklair [2001]2003; Hannerz [1996]2001) – such
conceptions appear to be insufficiently grounded in ethnographic realities. (ibid.
80 – 81)
Similar to Fechter’s findings, the chapters illustrate how in the context of their mobile
lifestyles expatriate youths draw boundaries upon their arrival in Shanghai. Chapter
seven argues that expatriate youths practices of managing the city are based on
dividing the city in expat and non-expat places. Chapter eight demonstrates that the
home-making practices are also related to fortified housing complexes that protect the
inhabitants from the outside world. Chapter nine shows that the shared space of school
is crucial for community building processes and friendships among international
students. However, these community spaces also foster the performances of a
collective expatriate identity with distinct values and practices in Shanghai that also
serves to distinguish oneself from “locals” or those back “home.”
On the other hand, focusing on the subjective experiences children and teenagers face
when moving, the everyday spatial and social practices presented in this part three are
regarded as complex emotional work (Hochschild [1983]2003). This emotional work
means coping with the moving experiences through creating meaningful everyday
social spaces – places of pleasure and consumption in the city, a space where a notion
of home can unfold, a feeling of belonging to a school and/or expatriate community.
Friends and different (connections through) media, but also family, food, material
culture, and explorations of the new environment help the students to deal with the
move and develop ways to adjust to the new situations.
Before zooming in on the different coping strategies and their inherent processes of
boundary drawing, I first like to discuss the emotional challenges of moving from the
perspective of expatriate students, also drawing back on concepts of the anthropology
of emotions.
6. Making Sense of Feelings: The Emotional Challenges of Moving
The tyranny of distance and the particularities of place continue to
unsettle agents with a putatively global reach. (Ley 2004, 157)
Ley describes how moving abroad can be unsettling. During the interviews the
teenagers and I discussed their first reactions to the decision to move (see chapter
five) as well as the feelings the experiences of leaving, arriving, and adjusting caused.
Examining the reactions to the parents’ announcement of the move to Shanghai and
the students’ experiences of arriving, it becomes clear that their reflections during the
interviews revolve around and involve emotions. This is in agreement with Mattley’s
(2002, 365) argument that feeling and reflecting are not opposed to each other, but
emotions provoke and reply to reflection. Combining interactionist theories on emotion
and temporality, Mattley points at four dimensions we should consider when thinking
about the meaning of past emotions:
We often endeavor to understand present emotions, through referencing our past
emotions and the usual assumption is that past emotions are given — that they
are real. However, that is not necessarily the case. Again, drawing on Maines,
Sugrue, and Katovich (1983), it is reasonable to suggest that moving backward,
individuals may (1) symbolically reconstruct past emotion such that they have
meaning for the present emotion, (2) note how past emotion structures and
conditions emotions found in the present, (3) recognize the implied objective
emotional past, and (4) create a mythical past emotion to explain the present
one. (Mattley 2002, 370)
When discussing past emotions with the teenagers, Mattley’s link of emotions to
temporality helps recognize students’ emotional difficulties but also efforts to come to
terms with their moving experiences. Interactionist theories prove to be well suited
because these have conceptualized emotions as emerging within social acts within
groups, in our case within the family, among the new friends in Shanghai, but also
within the interview situations. “Emotions originate and develop in social relations” and
are “sustained by group processes” (Mattley 2002, 365). However, Mattley’s
interactionist approach needs to be expanded to include the bodily experiences of
emotions. Feelings have been discussed from different angles in the anthropology of
emotion. Leavitt (1996) summarizes the discourse as a long divide between positions
that explain emotions as bodily and universal, and voices that argue for emotions as
meaning. Consequently, Leavitt puts forward that emotions should be understood as
both – as acts of communication and bodily experiences – and calls for
conceptualizations and representations of emotions in ethnographic work that
overcome this meaning/feeling divide. Treating students’ re-interpretations of past
emotions during the interview as cognitive and communicative processes, I also
understand that the emotional events described are bodily, sometimes even to a
physically challenging degree.
The physical, cognitive and communicative aspects of emotions that might arise due to
international relocation become evident during all my group discussions and interviews.
Eleven-year-old Allen from the USA, reflecting upon his last move to Mexico, uses the
narrative of “culture shock” to explain this experience to his fellow students and myself.
Sitting in his school’s arts room, he summarizes the implications of moving and the
overwhelming emotions it brings along, telling me that he “pretty much got sick.”
Likewise, Britta, a seventeen-year-old girl from Norway who just arrived in Shanghai a
few months before the interview, vividly remembers how strange Shanghai felt to her:
Yeah, we were sitting, I just had such a sad image: we came, we
were really jetlagged. We come to the hotel, it smells weird, we get
this weird food, it is supposed to be toast and jam and they can’t
even make toast and jam. We were just like really depressed. We
look out the window it is raining, we can’t even see the street, it is a
cloud blocking our window. It was just like, I’m gonna live here. [I:
<L>] And after some days, it was like, clearing of the weather and it
wasn’t that bad and depressing. We saw nice apartments and
everything, so <L> we are like, okay.
Britta describes her discomfort upon arrival as not being able to see, and instead
smelling and tasting the new environment. She relates emotions like “feeling
depressed” to the new sensories, the unfamiliarity and seeming unmanageability of the
city. Other students, like seventeen-year-old Karina, also comment on how lonely they
felt in the beginning or still feel when getting homesick. During an interview, the
German-Czech teenager shares:
Karina: And with the move. I don’t know. My mom feels terrible, in the beginning
felt terribly guilty for taking me away from all my friends. And I told
her that it didn’t really bother me that much. That’s what I thought at
least in the beginning. Because we had moved so many times. And I
got used to it. I thought, okay, I will find new friends here, and I will
keep in touch with the old ones. But now that I am here I think: crap! I
am so far away. And in the first months I couldn’t stay in touch.
Because facebook didn’t work, nothing. I don’t know. I was so alone
here. […] On the other hand, you get used to it. I got pretty flexible.
But still, this void when you are gone. You don’t have anyone here.
Though you know what to expect. But still. You really can’t handle it
in the beginning.28
Like the introductory quote to this chapter by David Ley (2004, 157) puts forward,
Karina’s narrative shows that even having moved internationally before, does not
protect you from the inherent emotional turmoil. The new place and the distance to
friends “unsettle[s] agents with a putatively global reach” (ibid.). Karina also shares how
the moving experience strained the relationship with her mother. Moreover, her story
addresses how the lack of (connections to her) friends made it difficult to cope with the
emotional stress arising from the move.
Karina’s classmate Bjoern, likewise, recalls missing Germany and his friends in the
beginning. However, one and a half years after his move he remembers his strategy in
coping with these difficulties as one of limiting his contact to his old friends.
Bjoern: The first months were difficult with Germany. Even if it sounds pathetic.
The only way to get through that is to keep as little contact as
possible. The best is to not even use facebook, but instead to write
an email every few weeks; they reply again in a week. Then you also
have something to talk about again. But you aren’t so much involved.
Because if you chat, time and again you kind of think that you were
part of it and then it reminds you of the old days and that’s really bad.
Interviewer: And then you miss your friends even more?
Bjoern: Yes, and with the emails it actually worked well. I mean, they do their
thing. I do mine. And when I return everything’s gonna be fine again.
Interviewer: Hmm. So would you pass the same advice you received on to
others? Stay in touch but…
… as little as possible. [Better to write emails] than to try to skype
everyday, because then you are always sad when they don’t have
any time and you specifically took your time. And then you think, I
took my time just for him. And then you remember, I don’t have
anyone to do anything with anyway. Oh, over there everything was
better anyway; people were way cooler.29
German original: Und mit dem Umzug. Ich weiß nicht. Meine Mutter macht sich, die hat sich anfangs
Vorwürfe gemacht, dass sie mich aus Prag rausgerissen hat. Von meinen ganzen Freunden. Und ich hab
ihr eigentlich gesagt, dass es mir nicht wirklich viel ausmacht. Zumindest dachte ich mir das anfangs. Weil
wir ja schon so oft umgezogen sind. Und ich mich daran gewöhnt hab. Da dacht ich mir, okay, ich find hier
bestimmt neue Freunde und ich werde mit den alten in Kontakt bleiben. Aber, jetzt wo ich hier bin, denke
ich mir scheiße! Ich bin total weit weg. Und ich hatte in den ersten paar Monaten überhaupt keinen Kontakt
mit denen gehabt. Weil facebook nicht funktioniert hat und gar nichts. Ich weiß nicht, ich war hier so
alleine. […] Andererseits gewöhnt man sich dran. Ich bin jetzt eigentlich ziemlich flexibel geworden. Daran.
Aber trotzdem, diese Leere wenn man weg ist. Man hat hier niemanden. Man weiß zwar schon was einen
erwartet. Aber trotzdem. Man kann damit anfangs wirklich nicht umgehen.
German original: Die ersten Monate waren auch schwer mit Deutschland. Auch wenn's scheiße klingt.
Die einzige Möglichkeit wie du das überstehst ist so wenig Kontakt wie möglich mit denen zu halten. Am
besten gar nicht facebook, sondern einfach alle paar Wochen mal eine Email schreiben, die antworten
wieder in ‘ner Woche. Dann hat man sich auch immer mal wieder was zu erzählen. Aber ist nicht so drin.
Bjoern’s retrospective on his first weeks shows how complex and contradictory missing
your friends and loneliness upon arrival can be. He sought help by listening to
experiences others in Shanghai shared, as well as to eventually trust that his
friendships in Germany could endure the distance.
In summary, “culture shock,” an unfamiliar urban environment, new sensories, the lack
of friends and family, and problems within the family that may be enforced by the move,
all pose emotional challenges to the expatriate youths. Furthermore, I like to recall the
students’ experiences of powerlessness in the decision-making about the move and
the liminality of their stay that I emphasized in the previous chapter. The following
chapters explore the students’ strategies of managing these experiences and emotions
of powerlessness, loneliness, and unfamiliarity.
7. Making Sense of the City
Bjoern: The most difficult challenge was just this culture shock. To take
a taxi somewhere. To use the subway, I’d never done that.30
Family trips or activities with friends, consuming the city together, form a common way
of gradually discovering Shanghai. This learning to navigate through Shanghai’s urban
environment, as sixteen-year-old Bjoern’s comment suggests, is a crucial way of
coming to terms with the stay abroad.
The metropolis Shanghai has evoked and still evokes diverse images and its recent
high-speed development startles every visitor. Donald and Gammack (2007) describe
Shanghai’s growth in Tourism and the Branded City: Film and Identity on the Pacific
Rim, capturing the amazement it often generates:
Infrastructure development in connection with Expo is unprecedented, and is
positioning Shanghai for world competitiveness in several areas. A second
airport, a new satellite city built on mud flats, a dock for cruise liners and Lupu
Bridge, the world's longest arch bridge are some significant recent projects. The
superfast Maglev train from the airport gives international arrivals an immediate
sense of Shanghai's speed, while ongoing urban-rail development will see the six
Weil wenn man chattet, denkt man halt immer man war so dabei und so und das erinnert einen dann an
die alten Zeiten und das ist ganz schlimm. [Interviewer: Und dann vermisst man seine Freunde noch
mehr?] Ja und so mit den Emails hat das eigentlich super geklappt. Ich meine die machen ihr Ding, ich
mach mein Ding. Und wenn ich dann zurück komme ist auch wieder alles gut. [Interviewer: Hmm. Also
jemand anderem würdest du die gleiche Empfehlung geben die dir gegeben wurde? Schon im Kontakt
bleiben aber…] … möglichst wenig. […] [Besser Emails schreiben] als jeden Tag probieren zu skypen,
weil dann ist man immer traurig wenn die mal keine Zeit haben und du hast dir frei genommen. Und dann
denkst du ja, ich hab mir nur für den frei genommen. Und dann fällt dir ein ich hab hier aber niemanden mit
dem ich sonst was gemacht hätte. Oh, drüben war eh alles viel besser, die Freunde waren ja viel cooler
German original: [D]as Schwerste [war] eigentlich dieser Kulturschock. Mit dem Taxi irgendwo
hinzufahren. Mit ’ner U-Bahn zu fahren, hab ich auch noch nie gemacht.
or seven lines that were in place in 2006 more than doubled by 2012 (Chen
2005), and the total length of rail-track laid at present increase almost fourfold.
The metro systems of London and Tokyo are two world-city benchmarks which
Shanghai is seeking to exceed. (Donald and Gammack 2007, 151)
Donald and Gammack’s account of infrastructure projects in Shanghai links the city to
the idea of speed – reminding me also of the “beat of Shanghai” that the Singaporean
student described when annotating her mental map (see figure 3 in the beginning of
this part, “Arriving”). When I started researching foreign youth in Shanghai, the projects
described by Donald and Gammack in 2007 had all been completed and the city was in
the middle of hosting the 2010 Expo. This mega-event had given
both a deadline and a unifying purpose to the city's debut preparations […] on a
far grander scale than the construction of new stadia and exhibition halls typical
of what other cities might produce. The entire city [was] being reconstructed literally and metaphorically. (Donald and Gammack 2007, 154)
Sometimes overwhelmed by the speed and contrasts of this rapidly developing megacity, so fittingly exemplified by the 2010 Expo, I wondered how the teenagers made
sense of Shanghai. This chapter aims to answer this question and investigates the
young expatriates’ explorations of Shanghai by examining their navigation through the
city (7.1) and by highlighting the role (7.3) sensories play in the understanding of the
urban environment. The concluding section (7.3) points out how both the navigation
through Shanghai and the inherent sensorial impressions help students to manage the
city: through their explorations and sensorial experiences students’ give spaces a
social meaning and consequently divide the city into manageable familiar and
unfamiliar spaces.
7.1. Navigating the City
With the move to Shanghai, students have to learn to navigate through the city. While
buses hired by the schools provide transport to campus, students have to organize
their transport for other destinations on their own. For my part, I depended largely on
Shanghai’s continuously expanding network of subway lines, referred to locally as the
“metro.” The subway provides a convenient mode of transportation, but closes at
eleven p.m. – early for a city of its size. The teenage students, however, rather rarely
use the metro.
This avoidance of the metro system is mainly due to the ready availability of school
buses and taxis. With fares starting at RMB 12 (€1,32) (after summer 2011: RMB 14
(€1,54)), taxis are relatively inexpensive to the expatriate family income. Another
preferred method of travel is the parents’ private car with driver, sometimes provided as
a job benefit for senior-level expatriate employees. The following discussion on
navigating through the city, recorded between three fourteen-year-old students, Keith,
a boy from Singapore, Freda, a girl from Norway, and a Vijay a boy from India, shows
that taking the taxi, however, requires students to find ways to interact with local
drivers, who do not speak English.
It [speaking Chinese] makes life easier. Especially, if you want to take
a taxi, and you want to tell the driver where to go, it’ll be much more
I usually send a text to, like. You can send a text in English to, like, a
phone number and then they send it back in Chinese. And I just show
them. <L> [I: <L>] I can’t talk to them.
Interviewer: <L> Do you use that service a lot?
Yeah. <L>
Interviewer: Well, you have to find ways how to get through. So is that your major
way to move through the city?
I mostly take the cab, but we also take the metro. But we don’t know,
like, where it stops. We only take it if we are sure that we take the
right one.
Interviewer: Okay. Same for you?
Actually I have a car; my dad’s company provides a car. So
sometimes I use the car.
Interviewer: So you just use the driver because he is there anyway?
It’s just sometimes, when my dad needs the car businesswise, I just
use the cab.
Interviewer: How about you? How do you move through the city?
I use the car. I am not much exposed to public transport, like busses,
trains. I find it strange.
This discussion illustrates that students can either rely on transportation provided by
the school or the parents or find own ways of navigating through the city, for example
using text message services to communicate with taxi drivers. Despite language
barriers taxis are still experienced as easier to navigate than the metro. Some students
own motor scooters. These are, however, mainly used in the direct vicinity of their
housing areas. German school student Peter, for instance, owns a motor scooter, but
soon gave it up as a means of daily transportation from the downtown apartment to
school. Asking him about it, he told me he had driven it three times to school, twice
having minor accidents, and one in which only his helmet saved him from serious
harm. Own driving is therefore usually experienced as too dangerous.
To further understand the expatriate youths movements through and relations to the
city, thirteen students at a local German school, three students a British school, and
seventeen students at a Singaporean school and were asked to record on paper their
mental maps of everyday important places in Shanghai. Looking at the aspects of the
students’ recorded mental maps, one realizes that their visualizations follow a common
pattern. The following table lists the places that were referenced the most:
Own school
River or Bund
Oriental Pearl Tower
Friends’ places
Bars or clubs
Bottle Opener
Nanjing Road
Huaihai Road
People’s Square
Fake market
Other schools
Figure 4: List of Places Present on Students’ Mental Maps of Shanghai
The mental maps are clustered around important places such as school, home, and
friends’ homes, and leisure spaces such as cafés, restaurants or bars and clubs.
Furthermore, iconic landmarks found their ways onto the maps, probably to set the
scene and mark the city on the map as Shanghai. In addition to marking the map as
Shanghai, these city icons – such as the Oriental Pearl Tower or the Bottle Opener31 –
might also be included in many of the drawings as they offer a point of entry to explore
the city, or to identify with living in Shanghai. Eleven-year-old Allen, for instance,
developed a fascination for Shanghai’s skyline. Asked about his favorite places in
Shanghai, he replies with pride and enthusiasm:
Allen: I have the bottle opener. I have been up on the 91st floor, in it, and I had
dinner up there, once.
The visualizations of the city in forms of mental maps give insights into teenagers’
preferred spaces, forms of transport, and activities, as the following example, drawn by
sixteen-year-old Olivia demonstrates.
The bottle opener is the common name for the Shanghai World Financial Center. With 492 meters in
height it is currently Shanghai’s highest building and located at the Pudong side of the bund.
Friend’s home
Friend’s home
Figure 5: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by 16-year-old Girl, Olivia
Olivia’s map shows urban icons, such as the Oriental Pearl tower, the well-known
(tourist?) landmarks such as the Bund, the Yu-Garden and the People’s Square.
Concerning movement through and out of Shanghai the drawing refers to metro
stations marked with a circled M, a car in reference to a friend who lives outside the city
and the two city airports. The map understands the city as a space for satisfying the
individual needs. It revolves around places of consumption such as the Superbrand
Mall, Plaza 66, the Fake Market, the shopping street Qipulu and Pearl City.
Furthermore, the student even includes specific brand stores such as Zara and H&M,
Mango and Roxy on her map. While shopping here could be a family activity, the
teenagers, particularly the girls, enjoyed going shopping with friends. Miller et al. (1998,
101) suggest, that teenagers not only visit such commercial spaces for consumption,
but to express their “growing independence from their parents.” The school, friends’
houses (anonymized by myself) and the own home are also integrated parts of the city.
Another huge part form all the restaurants, bars, and clubs. The student even names
the clubs Mural, M2 (Muse 2), Paramount, Park 97 in an explanatory cloud. Her visual
representation of the city, the fixing of her spatial practices give insights into her
everyday life, but also into her image of the city, her aspirations about it, her stage for
her own identity performances. Chapter eleven will further elaborate upon these
reciprocal relations of age identity and spaces when examining students’ nightlife
While the importance of visual impressions when navigating through the city is
apparent at first sight when looking at the student maps with the exact shapes of
certain buildings such as the school, shopping malls, or urban landmarks that students
were able to draw, other sensorial impressions of the city are underrepresented. The
next subchapter aims to explore the role other sensories such as sounds and smells
and tastes play when exploring the new urban environment and making sense of
7.2. Sensing the City
When I tried to do what I had asked of so many students – to draw a map of all my
personal important places in Shanghai – I suddenly came to realize the skill of some
students recording visual impressions on paper; I myself was unsure how to draw it on
the map. What was the shape of the rooftop? How many sections was the school
building divided into? Sensories are personal, not only in the interpretation but also in
the use. When I instead started to write down sounds of the city in my fieldwork diary,
much more came to my mind: The metro beeping before closing its doors, the
squawking sounds of the honking but silent electro scooter rushing by, their squeaking
breaks, the elevator rings in my building, the shouting of the used electric appliances
dealers (“kongtiao, diannao”32), the spoken words on the streets that I tried to untangle
and sort into Shanghainese (the local dialect, understandable only by those native to
the city, it seems) and Mandarin (the official, common language of the country). What
are they talking about? The jingle playing when 7-11 doors glide open, the unpleasant
noises of Shanghai’s innumerable construction sites, my neighbor playing the violin,
the single CD my fitness center would play for months on end. When waking up in the
dark, these sounds would tell whether it was already morning or still in the middle of the
night. Scribbling into my diary I found out how I constantly made sense of my
environment through sounds. And when I was exhausted from the city’s voice, I would
put on my headphones to try to achieve some distance to it. With my huge
headphones, I reminded myself more and more of the students I had met throughout
my fieldwork, who plugged in their headphones as soon as lessons were over.
Sometimes we then talked about music, but unless it was about a concert in town
(German DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, for example), or about choosing a certain nightlife
space, we did not bring music and city sounds (or the blocking out of city sounds)
together, the discussion rather served to stage certain subcultural preferences. My own
contemplations show me that sounds are a vibrant part of the city experience and that
Air-Conditioner, Computer.
future inquiries about the sounds of Shanghai are worth to explore.33 While sounds,
however, seemed more important in my own navigating and understanding of the city,
tastes found their ways on all of the students’ mental maps of Shanghai.
Hongmei Road, for instance, the vertical street on the left of Olivia’s map (figure 2), is a
small lane in the western part of Shanghai and popular among expatriates for its
variety of foreign restaurants. The importance of restaurants in expatriate life is visible
on most of the students’ maps. The link of foreign food, restaurants, and leisure spaces
in the city, shows that tastes and the navigation of the city are linked. Scholars like
David Howes (2007) have pointed out the importance of all senses in making “sense”
of our environment and us.
Sensation is not just a matter of physiological response and personal experience.
It is the most fundamental domain of cultural expression, the medium through
which all the values and practices of society are enacted. To a greater or lesser
extent, every domain of sensory experience, from the sight of a work of art to the
scent of perfume to the savor of dinner, is a field of cultural elaboration. Every
domain of sensory experience is also an arena for structuring social roles and
interactions. We learn social divisions, distinctions of gender, class and race,
through our senses. […] sensual relations are also social relations. (Howes 2007,
Howes’s anthropological investigations explore that sensory experience may be
structured and invested with meaning in many different ways across cultures. While
this anthropological endeavor to study and theorize the cultural formation of the senses
is fascinating, my own interest is not a comparative angle or the cultural formation of
senses, rather it is the interest in how important senses are in exploring and
experiencing urban spaces. There is obviously a difference between being in a place
that we are able to experience at the same time with all our senses, and the virtual,
imaginary places, that are present in our lives. Howes ([2005]2006, 7) calls this
“sensuous interrelationship of body-mind-environment” “emplacement.” Walmsley
(2005) applies Howes’s concept of emplacement to different situations in Ecuador, for
example to the place of a market.
An Ecuadorian market […] draws attention to the role of intersensoriality in the
production of meaning through everyday lived experiences. Smells, sights,
tastes, textures and sounds signify each other according to the particular context
and the particular sensory knowledge of the individual experiencing them. This
points to a central theme in the study of culture and the senses, which is that of
‘emplacement’. (Walmsley 2005, 47)
Walmsley uses the concept of emplacement to analyze the associations between
place, identity, and sensory experience and to find out how racial categories in
Ecuador are produced with all senses. Her ethnographic case in point shows how
For an interesting project working with urban sounds in a creative and interactive manner, see Gaye,
Mazé and Holmquist’s Sonic City (2003) or projects by the Delhi Listening Group.
intersensorial experiences evoke feelings of strangeness and belonging. They play a
fundamental part in processes negotiating cultural (and in her case racial) identity.
Tastes and smells are mostly talked about when it comes to food. Walmsley (2005, 55)
notes: “Sensory knowledge is developed through the sociality of food practices, which
are produced through the sharing of tastes, smells and embodied culinary techniques.”
In today’s Shanghai, tastes, as sensory experience and culinary preference, are highly
diverse. Shanghainese would constantly point this out to me by simply saying,
“Shanghai dou you” (Shanghai has everything). With regards to cuisine, this may well
be true. Shanghai contains German and French bakeries, Italian restaurants, American
diners, numerous teppanyaki places as well as all kinds of Chinese cuisine; offering
everything from Sichuan spicy dishes to northern Chinese noodles. Imported food
stores cater almost everything the expatriate might miss.
Figure 6: German Bakery at the Outskirts of Shanghai. Photo M. Sander
The students from the German school include favorite Italian or American restaurants
on their mental maps, while students from the Singaporean school in particular list
Korean or Japanese restaurants. Names of international chains like Starbucks are also
written onto these maps. Additionally, students embrace new tastes from non-Chinese
sources, as a visit to a Japanese all-you-can-eat-Sushi restaurant with a group of
German students showed me. But as Walmsley (2005, 55) already pointed out: “[A]n
individual’s sensory knowledge is never fixed or limited but always capable of adapting
and expanding.” Sensories, like these experiences in the foreign restaurants on the
aforementioned Hongmei Road, connect the people in Shanghai with distant places.
Walmsley noted this for the stalls at the Ecuadorian market: “[T]hey also remind
customers of other places, times, and people” (ibid., 47). Olfactory experiences and
memories of places go hand-in-hand. Food and dining practices therefore also play a
role in the process of home making, as I will explore further in subchapter 8.2. Some of
these dining places turned into spaces for regular gatherings that over the time carried
a special meaning to those involved. “The girls,” for instance, would frequently meet at
an Indian Restaurant on Hongmei Road. “The boys” or others were not allowed to
accompany them, as it was a particular ritual for them to come here, to manifest and
communicate their friendships.
When in May 2011 I had the opportunity to join students from the German School in a
photo-walk project a Geography teacher had set up, I chose to accompany “the girls”
on their fieldtrip, an event that I already described to highlight my methodology under
subchapter 4.5. The group’s chosen research area was Tianzifang, a café-gallerysouvenir-shop-district developed in a few lanes of old Shanghai houses.34 Their task
was to take photos that document globalization in the city. Although the project was
designed around visualities, other sensories played a role, in particular taste. Students
first of all flocked to a café, which – according to them – sold the best milkshakes in
town. When further moving through the labyrinth of lanes at the Tianzifang area,
students pointed out restaurants at which they had eaten with their parents. They
touched jewelry and clothes; tried on hats, guiding them through the numerous shops.
Tactile experiences thus influenced the navigation through the area.
Figure 7: Student at Tianzifang: Documenting Elements of Globalization. Photo by M. Sander
Other areas chosen by the student groups included, the Bund, Xintiandi, Nanjing Lu, and Lujiazui. All
these places are particularly popular among tourists, and represent the city in travel guidebooks.
Although the visual engagement with the city in the case of the Geography class’s
photo-walk is particularly intense due to its requested visual, analytical approach, it
becomes clear that our experiences of urban spaces are always intersensorial.
The method of mental maps, however, might be prone to overemphasize visual forms
of understanding and conceptualizing the city and might miss other sensorial
experiences of Shanghai. Occasionally, students try to fit these non-visual perceptions
on their maps, as the following example demonstrates:
Figure 8: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by a 16-year-old Female Singaporean School Student
This student of a Singaporean school also includes iconic landmarks, but puts a strong
emphasis on how she seems to sense the city. The map is filled with people
demonstrating the crowdedness of the city, the traffic and the noises. The fume behind
the drawing of a car even evokes the smell of polluted air. Interestingly, the girl clearly
juxtaposes the city and the area her home and school is located in, as the two arrows
and the dividing line show. She annotates her sketches with “peaceful” and “quiet” on
the private side, and with “noisy,” “crowded,” and “busy” on the other side. This second
side is also labeled as “the city,” indicating that the school and home are not perceived
as integrated parts of it. These maps produced by the expatriate youths support
findings by scholars who have recently turned explicitly to the role of sensorial
experiences of cities. Melissa Butcher (2012), for example, studied the intersensorial
experiences of young people of different backgrounds in Delhi. Her qualitative study on
the relation between the city of Delhi and its inhabitants demonstrates that sensory
involvement with public spaces is used to affectively dissect Delhi into spaces of
inclusion and exclusion, pleasure and discomfort, similar to the division on the
Singaporean student’s map (Figure 8). Butcher’s findings suggest that inhabitants
individually and culturally link sensory experience of the city to judgments of civil and
uncivil behavior. The two maps shown (Figure 5 and Figure 8) thus not only highlight
the students’ everyday places, but also their perspectives on the city and their own role
and positions. With their maps the two girls deliver a message to themselves, their
peers and me as a researcher. Olivia’s map (Figure 5) foregrounds the image of an
active consummation of the city through nightlife and shopping. Her image is opposed
by the Singaporean student’s image of Shanghai, of retreating and being different to
the noisy – maybe even perceived as uncivilized – rest. Contextualizing the drawings in
the ethnic backgrounds of the students, being from Singapore and from Belgium, one
can see that the maps also point at differing positionings and understandings of youth.
However, their positioning towards myself, a German researcher, also plays a role. The
Belgium student demonstrating urban coolness, the Singaporean student maybe
feeling the necessity to point that, although she is Asian, she feels estranged by China
and the “noisy,” “crowded” city.
7.3. Concluding Thoughts on Managing the City
The different students’ urban geographies produced in the mental maps and explained
in the interviews transport the continuous process of making sense of the city, in terms
of navigations, sensorial experiences, but also in terms of positioning oneself within –
as consumers, inhabitants, or someone overwhelmed with the urban, sensorial
landscape of Shanghai. Managing the city means managing everyday life and the
migration experience, for instance, by learning how to navigate between spaces of
everyday practices and consumption, by giving spaces a social meaning, or by dividing
Shanghai into a manageable, familiar area and the “city.” “’Making sense’ does not,
[however], equate making clear rationality but rather working our way through things,
spaces, relations” (Crouch 2005, 31).
The following chapter eight on housing spaces will further exemplify the divide already
introduced – here the city and the gated communities are juxtaposed in a similar way. It
discusses practices of home making, including settling in the new house and various
material practices, as well as reconnecting and linking former places of living to
Shanghai and creating a new network of homes through travels or media usage.
8. Making Home(s): Houses, Belongings, and Belonging
Being grounded is not necessarily about being fixed; being mobile is not
necessarily about being detached. (Ahmed et al. 2003, 1)
This chapter is concerned with the two meanings of the word home as it commonly
describes both the domestic space we live in and “a space of imagined belonging”
(Walsh 2006a, 125). Popular or common ideas of home often see these two spaces to
coincide. Home is frequently linked to one certain place, usually encompassing
experiences of growing up or family living. It is therefore not surprising that the question
of what home means for children growing up abroad has been a common topic in the
literature that deals with expatriate youth from the angle of the concept of “Third
Culture Kids” 35 (Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009; Richter 2011; Franke 2008).
Parents 36 and researchers alike seem extremely concerned with the implications of
growing up without such one place. The original definition of a “TCK” thus is even tied
to a specific notion of belonging.
The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full
ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the
TCK‘s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar
background. (Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009, 19)
An article by Amelie Franke (2008), investigates notions of home and belonging among
“Third Culture Kids” on the basis of a qualitative study including a survey, in-depth
interviews, and group discussions.37 The author understands home as an interplay of
three major connections: Firstly, the connection to a place, which Franke links to
Tuan’s (1974) concept of “topophilia” 38 , secondly, social connections, and thirdly,
material connections. Franke finds that there are further variables that play a role in
establishing notions of home for children growing up abroad. She therefore
complexifies the interplay of place, social connections, and material connections by the
following aspects: a) “Emotive imaginations and time” – how long one stays in a place
in connection with “emotive imaginations” such as feeling safe –, b) the family and its
ties to c) the parental country and d) the significance of language and culture (Franke
2008, 139–142). Franke reaches the conclusion:
For a discussion of the concept of “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs) see point 2.3 and 3.3 in the introduction.
The Shanghai center for instance offered talks on “Third Culture Kids” for parents. I attended one such
event that was only visited by mothers. Many used the opportunity to voice their concerns about
adjustment difficulties they observed, for instance youths only being in front of the computer.
Franke leaves the age group she sums up under “young transnational migrants” (Franke 2008, 128)
unclear. From the one ethnographic vignette about a sixteen-year-old girl given in the end, however, it can
be assumed that the age group is similar to the actors of this study.
Tuan understands “topophilia,” the love of place, broadly as “to include all of the human being’s affective
ties with the material environment (1974, 93).
This melting-pot of cultures results in a confusion over feelings of home […]
Many TCKs have reported in the interviews that they find it hard to tell where
home is. At the one hand, they feel belonging to their parental country, but on the
other, they feel just as at home in their host country. [...] Hence, it can be
assumed that TCKs' notions of home are spatially distributed over different
countries. They feel belonging to their parental country and, at the same time,
feel at home in their current host country and identify with former host countries.
Thus, TCKs have 'multiple homes'. (ibid.,143)
While here Franke promotes the idea of “multiple homes,” she later stresses the
imaginative idea of home:
TCKs live in a permanent confusion about where they belong and where they
should locate their home. One could say, they live in a compromise: They cannot
adapt to every aspect of a certain place they momentarily live in, because they
have experienced it differently somewhere else and thus have a greater ability to
compare and weigh up the different aspects of home. The more mobile TCKs
are, the more abstract their idea of home becomes. They generally concentrate
their notions of home on the more continuous factors in their lives, such as the
family, relatives or the parental country. Thus, a TCK's home is rather an
imaginative idea than an actual location. (ibid.,148)
Franke’s findings and her conceptualization of home as a rather “imaginative idea than
an actual location” for children growing up on the move reinforces the original TCK
definition. However, instead of taking this definition and Franke’s related findings as a
priori given for the international children and teenagers in Shanghai, I like to take a
close look at their own ideas of home.
In order to understand the expatriate students’ perspectives and what home means for
the privileged migrant youths that are so often on the move, this chapter tightly links
the teenagers’ and their family’s housing and material practices concerned with homemaking, to broader concepts and imaginations of belonging.
The first part of the chapter discusses gated community living, a reality for most
expatriate youths in Shanghai, based on interviews, visits and my own two-week-long
stay in such a community. The second part addresses material practices within the site
of the home and pays attention to objects, food, and the surrounding practices, based
on interviews, a student’s photo and own visits to the youths’ houses. After the focus
on these housing and material practices in Shanghai, I then examine the teenagers’
(trans)local networks and their ties to places beyond the city, the “imaginative ways in
which places are drawn together or kept apart” (Robinson 2010, 16), based on in-depth
interviews. This third part of the chapter is concerned with places the teenagers have
lived before, regularly visit or find emotionally attached to – their network of homes.
This last section of the chapter further discusses and juxtaposes academic and youths’
conceptions of home and belonging.
8.1. Gated Community Living
Old and new, quaint and spacious, traditional and Mediterranean,
Shanghai’s villas come in all sizes and price ranges. The virtue of a villa
is that most are located in safe compounds with spacious swaths of
grass and even playgrounds for kids. They give families space to stretch
out and are comparable to houses in the West. Additionally, compounds
offer an instant community and make the transition to Shanghai easier.
(Sparling 2010, 14)
This passage from the August 2010 issue of the English-medium magazine Shanghai
Family is part of a cover story entitled “Where to live in Shanghai: Neighborhoods and
housing options” that showcases different families who chose one of the three
promoted housing options in Shanghai: lane house, apartment, villa/house. As the
majority of the youths I worked with lived in such a villa, located in a gated community,
this housing practice and its meanings forms a substantial part of teenagers’
experiences of Shanghai.
This phenomenon of gated housing has caught scholarly attention in the last years, for
example Glasze, Webster and Frantz’s edited volume Private Cities (2006), which sets
its foci mainly on the emersion of gated communities and the associated effects on
society in different countries. Sharon Zukin has even commented on the spread and
rise of gated communities in metropolitan areas around the globe as a source of
contemporary urban culture:
At the same time, strangers mingling in public space and fears of violent crime
have inspired the growth of private police forces, gated and barred communities,
and a movement to design public spaces of maximum surveillance. These, too,
are a source of contemporary urban culture. If one way of dealing with the
material inequalities of city life has been to aestheticize diversity, another way
has been to aestheticize fear. (Zukin 2005, 283)
Due to their economic resources, expatriates are in the position to retreat to such
enclaves and construct concrete spatial, social, and cultural boundaries, as
contributions by Fechter (2007b) and Glasze (2006) have shown. These practices and
perceptions of demarcation among expatriates differ in regards to different (age)
groups as a comparison between my interviews with expatriate adult women in 2007
and the discussion with teenagers allow saying. Although the choice for the refuge
from the city is often linked to the safety and wellbeing of children – my interviews with
mothers revealed –, no research to my knowledge exists on young people’s
perspectives and experiences. Here, I want to specifically address teenagers’ housing
experiences in the context of their overall engagement of making a home within the city
of Shanghai.
The spacious gated communities in which most of the international teenagers live fall
into the general definition of “privately governed and secured neighbourhoods” given in
the introduction to Private Cities (Glasze, Webster, and Frantz 2006, 1). Walls and
fences secure these green compounds at the outskirts of Shanghai. Inside, one finds
not only spacious houses with gardens, but playgrounds, clubhouses, swimming pools,
convenience stores, or other service providers. Even kindergartens and some of the
international schools are located on these compounds. Private guards, a common sight
in today’s Shanghai, watch the entrance gate; their practices varying from a friendly
nod to stopping visitors at the entrance to calling the inhabitant to be visited.
Figure 9: Compounds in Shanghai. Photos by M. Sander.
In order to embed my own and the teenagers’ descriptions of such gated communities,
I would like to give an understanding of the specific situation in China. I do not aim to
draw the whole (transcultural) history of gated communities, but to briefly shed light on
their emersion and immersion, as well as denotations and connotations in Shanghai.
The rise of luxurious compounds in China has been contextualized within the process
of socio-spatial differentiation that started after the 1978 reforms (Giroir 2006).
Geographer Giroir examined an upscale community in Beijing as an example of the
market-led urban development. His study considers the economic and political forces
leading to the creation of gated communities in China, and concludes that a rupture in
housing concepts has taken place due to western influence. Giroir (2006,143) sees
clear similarities to the gated communities in the United States and stresses “the
discontinuity between this kind of development and what existed before.” Webster, Wu
and Zhao (2006), in contrast, place emphasis on the continuity by pointing out
historical progression of walls in Chinese urban space, drawing on examples such as
the old courtyard houses or the emperor’s forbidden city in Beijing. In the beginning of
the communist era, the tradition of gated housing complexes had been taken up further
and gated complexes for work units (danwei) had been built. These housing complexes
still exist and gated residential areas are very common in today’s China (Webster, Wu,
and Zhao 2006). About the recent developments Wu writes that “from 1991 to 2000,
about 83% of Shanghai‘s residential areas have been gated” (Wu 2006, 1). Due to
these specific culturally entangled developments, denotations and connotations of
gated communities in China differ from those in the USA (Huang and Low 2008), in
particular because closed housing areas are self-evident and unquestioned in the
Chinese context (Hassenpflug 2009, 63). However, compounds and their attributed
meanings also differ greatly within urban China. Expatriates mostly live in the upperscale neighborhoods with green lawns, villas, and luxurious facilities. Giroir (2006,
147;149) found that such luxurious residential compounds are not only more spacious,
expensive or better secured, but often refer to exotic (“western”) images through
distinctly European architecture, rare flora, and even fauna. The different flows of
urban concepts and images meet here. Chinese traditions of living in an enclosed
neighborhood incorporate European architecture and answers to the desires for
security known from US-American gated communities.
Figure 10: References to European Architecture in a Shanghai Gated Community. Photo by M. Sander
Comparing my own investigations on expatriates’ reasons to move into a gated
community in Shanghai with a study conducted by Frantz (2006) on the motivations for
citizens in the United States, I find answers similar to his categories39. For the specific
situation of the transnational elite in Shanghai I can name: the desire for security, the
A study conducted by Frantz in the Unites States reveals six reasons for moving into a gated
community: 1. “Desire for Security and Fear of Crime,” 2. “Protection of the Private Sphere,” 3.
“Predictability and Property Values,” 4. “Retreat from Failing Government,” 5. “Exclusivity,” and 6. “Identity,
Packaging and Social Homogeneity” (Frantz 2006, 72–74).
protection of the private sphere and from the “other,” the retreat from traffic, noise and
air pollution, and the desire for a familiar standard of living. Very important to expat
parents proved to be ideas of identity and social homogeneity offered by gated
community living. Only Frantz’s findings that the predictability of property values is a
reason to move into a gated community for U.S. citizens (ibid., 73), proves to be
irrelevant in the case for expat families in Shanghai as the home is rented and
temporary. Although global motives to move into a gated community become
embedded in the local context, I can argue that many core ideas stay the same.
For Shanghai expatriates the impact of the employer on the choice of housing is also
substantial. For most families the company provides a certain housing allowance.
Some companies speak out suggestions based on experiences of former expatriates
or colleagues. Others even prescribe the gated community by offering financial support
for specific housing areas only.
From the aspects listed above, the social homogeneity is a major motive for the
expatriate interviewees to move into a gated housing complex, and “community” and
“neighborhood” are meanings some of the foreign elite in Shanghai attributes to their
housing areas. However, the points of view on this aspect differ, especially when
looking at different age groups. This is not only due to varying interests, but also to the
opportunity to position oneself and to stress one’s (age-) identities when reflecting
upon one’s housing spaces. As I will discuss in more detail in the part four,
“Emplacement,” particularly in chapter ten, age identities and images of spaces are
mutually dependent.
Mothers I interviewed during former fieldwork in 2007, for example, reported that on the
compounds the neighbors were easier to meet, because they are all in the same
situation and have common interests. For the interviewed stay-at-home-mothers, the
gated communities were particularly important, because in contrast to their children
they do not have the school as a zone for establishing connections and making
friendships. Willis and Yeoh (2002, 558) who looked at expatriates in Hong Kong even
understand the compound as the “key to the development of social networks,” although
pointing out that it is a highly gendered space that brings mainly expatriate full-time
housewives together.
My recent fieldwork brings to the fore that children usually benefit from the space to
roam around. The compound for the younger children is a zone where they can move
freely, a space where they are not directly under the eyes of authorities. For the older,
however, this positive aspect of “fenced freedom” becomes obsolete as they are
gradually allowed to move through the city on their own. For them the meaning
changes, turns from freedom to isolation and boredom, as a German teenager of the
age of sixteen, Bjoern, says:
And such a compound, that is something else than in a village. There
you are still a little, <L> village is not the best example, but <L\> [I:
<L>.], you are a little connected to the outside world. [I: Yes.] And a
compound is a compound. It is quiet, some children are playing. [I:
Yes.] But normally one lives completely isolated, I’d say, from the
Chinese world. You live in your European compound. [I: Yes.] You
really notice it. Some of them really withdraw. Actually you can’t say,
that we really; like when, if someone from Germany asks, like, what
do you do in Shanghai? I say, I sit in my isolated compound the
whole time and watch movies. And that’s about it.40
The desire for transgressing childhood boundaries – spatial and others – also becomes
clear in the relation to the aspect of “community” in a gated community. In contradiction
to the mothers I interviewed, teenaged Mia explains:
But it’s not a community. Well, back then it was. [I: Back then it was?]
Well, there is one compound close by, called jiushi. It is really big,
extremely huge. And a lot of Germans live there. And earlier it used
to really be like that; you knew a lot of people there, who lived close
by. But now the compound is a little old and not really nice anymore.
And meanwhile it’s not like that anymore. Back then it was really like
that. You had several people who you knew and always did things
together and so on. I used to live there. But now I don’t feel that way
Besides possible actual changes in the described compound’s population, it becomes
evident that growing up changes the perspective on the gated community. Her social
interactions have moved outside the realm of the compound as she is interested in and
allowed to enter new spaces.
Mia continues with a description of her current housing area:
Relatively many foreigners still live here, where I live, and also some
from the school, but I don’t really do a lot there.42
German original: Und so ein Compound, das ist was anderes als in so ’nem Dorf. Da bist du noch so ein
bisschen. <L> Dorf ist auch nicht das beste Beispiel aber </L> [I: <L>.], du bist ein bisschen an der
Außenwelt. [I: Ja.] Und ein Compound ist ein Compound. Es ist leise, ein paar Kinder spielen. [I: Ja.] Aber
in der Regel wohnt man ja komplett abgeschattet, sag ich jetzt mal, von der Chinesischen Welt. Du lebst ja
in deinem europäischen Compound. [I: Ja.] Das merkt man schon krass. Da ziehen sich manche auch
richtig hart zurück. Eigentlich kann man nicht sagen, dass wir richtig; so wenn, bei mir wenn die aus
Deutschland fragen, so ja, was macht man so in Shanghai? Ich so, ja ich sitz die ganze Zeit auf meinen
abgeschotteten Compound und schau mir Filme an. Und dann war’s das schon.
German original: Aber ’ne Community ist es jetzt nicht. Also früher war das mal so. [I: Früher war es
so?] Also es gibt einen so ’nen Compound hier in der Nähe, Jiushi heißt der. Der ist so richtig riesig, also
wirklich richtig groß. Und da wohnen halt richtig viele Deutsche. Und früher war das auch wirklich so, da
kannte man dann auch richtig viele Leute da, die bei einem in der Nähe gewohnt haben. Aber der
Compound ist jetzt auch schon etwas älter und nicht mehr so schön. Und inzwischen ist das jetzt auch
nicht mehr. Also damals war das wirklich so. Da hatte man wirklich einige Leute die man kannte und hat
mit denen immer was gemacht und so. Also ich hab da früher halt gewohnt. Aber jetzt finde ich, ist das
nicht mehr so.
German original: Hier wohnen, also bei mir wohnen jetzt auch noch relativ viele Ausländer, so, aber, und
auch einige von der Schule. Aber ich mach da jetzt nicht wirklich viel.
She mentions the social homogeneity as a basis for community life, but says that even
this does not make the compound the center of her social life anymore. Interesting is
her usage of “noch” [still], pointing at the perception that this social homogeneity of
foreigners might be under threat with upper class Chinese moving in.
When looking at the aspect of isolation, addressed by the German boy Bjoern above, it
is apparent that his reflection upon his situation and the practices of other inhabitants
(“some of them really withdraw”) point at the role the compound plays in drawing
boundaries to expat life. His descriptions support anthropologist Fechter who argues
that expatriates want to control their spaces, exclude the city, and erect boundaries. In
Transnational Lives she writes that expatriates “are fundamentally concerned with the
production and negotiation of boundaries” (Fechter 2007a, 61). The teenagers are
aware of these practices. For her case in Jakarta, Indonesia, Fechter does not simply
link this erection of boundaries to a fear of the “other” but to the loss of (bodily) control
and “expatriates’ discomfort with their bodily visibility as ‘Whites’ in a predominantly
Asian society” (2007a, 62).43 Living in a suburban enclave sometimes means keeping
the “other” outside. The experience of the sixteen-year-old German student of Chinese
descent, Don, gives insight into how real the boundaries of the compounds can be:
As a Chinese, if you look Chinese, you generally get less respect
from the Chinese44. They respect foreigners to the max. For example,
quite often they don’t let me into the compounds. [Two other
students: Fact. Yes. Right. True.] [I: Really?] That’s why I don’t like
the guards. Because they don’t let me in when I tell them I want to go
to this number. Then they say, ‘yes, but that’s a foreigner who lives
there.’ ‘Yes, I want to meet this foreigner.’ [I + other student: <L>].
‘Yes, but what do you want there?’ ‘Visit. Meet up.’ And then they just
let me wait. Then they call and often nobody answers the phone. And
then I think, crap, do I have to go back home now, or what? That was
frustrating. [I: Yes.] Frustrating at its worst. That’s why I have this
hatred against guards.45
I see a valid point in this argument and agree that bodily discomforts play a role. Chapter thirteen of this
dissertation elaborates on the role of bodily difference.
It is interesting to see how Don’s perception of the compounds differs from his white friends and how
bodily differences that evoke differences in nationality lead to contrasting experiences of the city. I will
expand on this issue in chapter thirteen. It is also noteworthy that Don started the phrase with “as a
Chinese,” to then correct himself “if you look Chinese.” This shows that in everyday life the international
students constantly have to negotiate their cultural identities; processes that I will discuss further in the
part six, “Dwelling on the Move.”
German Original: Als Chinese, wenn du aussiehst wie ein Chinese, hast du hier generell weniger
Respekt von Chinesen. Die respektieren Ausländer ja aufs Übelste. Zum Beispiel lassen die mich öfter
nicht in Compounds rein. [Two other students: Fact. Ja. Stimmt. Echt so.] [I: Echt?] Deswegen mag ich
diese Guards nicht. Weil die lassen mich nicht rein, wenn ich sag, ja ich will zu dieser [Haus]Nummer.
Dann sagen die, ja, dass ist doch ein Ausländer der da wohnt. Ja, ich will zu diesem Ausländer. [I + other
student: <L>]. “Ja was willst du denn da?” “Besuchen.” “Treffen. So.” Und dann lassen die mich einfach
warten. Dann rufen die an und meistens geht dann keiner ans Telefon. Und dann denk ich so, Mist, kann
ich wieder nach Hause fahren oder wie? Das ist auch frustrierend gewesen. [I: Ja.] Frustrierend aufs
Übelste. Ehm, deswegen hab ich einen Hass gegen Guards.
The thick walls around the communities are symbolic of the barrier towards Chinese
society that expatriates practices build. Gated communities reflect the fear of the
“other” and serve to stress difference and are vital in the processes of drawing
boundaries. Although some of the privileged migrants – mainly mothers – of different
national and cultural backgrounds might create a common community, a transnational
social space behind the compound walls, I deeply agree with Fechter when she writes:
The case of Euro American expatriates in Jakarta suggests that spaces created
by transnational migrants are not always “transnational” – as in fluid, malleable
and progressive – but that they can be bounded, rigid, and conservative. (Fechter
2007b, 51)
Although these transnational social spaces are not always hermetically sealed off, and
gated communities are nodal points for the transnational elite’s networks, the locale –
the city of Shanghai and Chinese society and culture – plays a limited role. This role is
mostly in staging difference – as the city outside, or the Chinese guard or housemaid –
and not as an integrated part. In the August 2010 issue of Shanghai Family a mother is
quoted commenting on life in a house on a compound: “Although the French
Concession46 gives you a better flavor of Shanghai, being here is like being at home”
(Sparling 2010, 11). A comfortable home is juxtaposed to the perceived discomfort of
the French concession representing the city of Shanghai. Male student Bjoern also
comments on this division into the spaces of gated communities and the city itself.
Actually you only experience the Shanghai-world on the weekend. [I:
Yes.] During the week you are only in your western world, you drive
from one compound to the next. And then you’re back again in this
world, with western people.47
The gated communities in Shanghai may be perceived as the norm in Chinese urban
concepts and relate to feelings of community (Huang and Low 2008), but for the
inhabiting teenagers they rather relate to the image of US American enclaves and
symbolize socio-spatial segregation.
Nevertheless, students also contemplate on the positive aspects of the segregations
and point out that these are their homes and places they enjoy, as the following two
quotes from a conversation with three male students (Don, Bjoern, Alex) from the
German School and from a German girl, Kressi, show:
The French Concession was a foreign concession within Shanghai from 1849 to 1946. Today it has still
a distinct character and is part of Shanghai’s most central districts. The part of the city has become
popular among young foreigners and I also stayed here during my ten-month research in 2010/2011. It is
interesting that this part of the city with its colonial traces is representing the flavor of Shanghai, something
that points again at the nostalgia described by Amada Lagerkvist (2007) whose study is summarized in
chapter 11.1.
German original: Man kriegt die Shanghaiwelt eigentlich nur wochenends mit. [I: Ja.] In der Woche ist
man nur in seiner westlichen Welt so, da fährt man von einem Compound zum nächsten. Und ist dann
wieder in dieser Welt, mit westlichen Menschen.
Interviewer: As we are just talking about housing and Shanghai, what are your
favorite places in the city?
Alex’s house.
Interviewer: <L> Alex’s?
There are Alex’s and Peter’s.
There are two, well, for example my place, and Peter’s, that is where
we are quite often, if we don’t go downtown, and then we chill out,
At Peter’s it’s not as great as at yours.
I think its relaxed at Peter’s.
It’s relaxed, too.48
In a different interview Kressi comments:
I feel safer if there is a fence around it and if there are guards
standing and running around, in the night. But in Germany nothing
happens either. Then I believe that at our [not guarded or gated]
house [in Germany] nothing has happened so far, in the house.49
Their interpretations of the space and its meaning in their everyday life differ from a
safe place, “a place to chill out”50 to a place of isolation and boredom. They are always
based on the juxtaposition of compounds and the city of Shanghai; the gated
communities do not form part of the city. However, for most teenagers, the outside city
does not only embody noise and dirt (see Figure 8, the mental map by a Singaporean
school student in chapter seven), but rather excitement and coolness, as the part on
nightlife activities (chapter eleven) will explore further. The city with its global
nightscapes gives the opportunity to transgress borders like the compounds’ walls and
those set by age.
In summary these housing areas for the globally mobile elites thus are suburban
enclaves with strong impermeable boundaries that give the opportunity to retreat from
German original:
Interviewer: Wo wir gerade über wohnen reden und über Shanghai, was sind denn dann so Eure
Lieblingsorte in der Stadt?
Alex Haus.
<L> Alexs?
Es gibt Alex und Peter.
Es gibt so zwei, also, ich zum Beispiel, und Peter, da ist man halt auch oft wenn man
jetzt, man nicht mal in die Innenstadt geht und dann chillt man, gemütlich.
Bei Peter ist’s nicht so toll wie bei dir.
Bei Peter finde ich es entspannt.
Ist auch sehr entspannt.
German original: Ich fühl mich da sicherer wenn da so ein Zaun drum ist und wenn da überall Guards
stehen und da rumlaufen, in der Nacht. Aber in Deutschland passiert ja auch nichts. Also bei uns ist
glaube ich noch nichts passiert, in dem Haus.
The english word “chilling,” or here adopted to German grammar as “chillen,” is a term to refer to specific
practices of “hanging out” and seems to have spread among various youths; see for instance
Vanderstede’s (2011, 175) investigations into the spatial practice of “chilling” among Belgian youth, and for
further associations of places to chill for German expatriate youth in Shanghai, see also chapter twelve on
“The Shop.”
the city. They give space to connect among each other. They provide the space and
stage for the performance of (age)identities, practices of demarcation and belonging to
a cosmopolitan elite. The gated communities of expatriates in Shanghai form a space
where one is cosmopolitan and the “other” is essentialized and kept outside.
It became evident that familiar images on living are taken along on the international
moves and that parents consider their children’s needs when choosing a certain
housing option, for example, the availability of green spaces and safe journeys to
school. The website of a German school, for instance, provides a map and list of the
compounds most students live in to facilitate the house search for newcomers. Many
families choose to settle in the vicinity of the school at the outskirts of Shanghai.
Sometimes, the students seem to have outgrown the considered needs and wish a
different housing option for themselves in the center. However, they admit that the way
to school might be too long when moving to the center. House and school, which have
been on all of the students’ mental maps, are evidently the most central places in their
lives. The next section thus investigates the domestic space of the house and its role in
the process of feeling at home in Shanghai.
8.2. Material Practices: Belongings, Food and Family
“Home is a process and, as such, involves continual practices of home-making to be
felt and experienced,” argues Katie Walsh (2011, 516) based on her ethnographic
research on homing practices of male British migrants in Dubai as well as former work
on homes by Blunt and Dowling (2006) and Miller (2001). The importance of homemaking practices is particularly true for the expatriate teenagers in Shanghai, for many
of whom home as a site of everyday life may differ from feelings and spaces of
belonging. This process of making home in Shanghai is often based on belongings,
food, and the connected family practices.
Personal Objects
It is only years later that that [sic!] I now understand the power personal
objects play in our lives, but at the time when I lost my shipment, I was
appalled at how much stock I put in material objects. I was
embarrassed, ashamed to admit how much they meant to me. It wasn’t
so much the individual objects that I grieved for, rather it was what they
represented as a whole; for me their value resided in where they were
from. Together, collectively, these objects told the story of who I was,
and this, as I gradually began to understand, was contingent on where I
had lived. (Burns 2011, 367)
In a very personal piece, Maureen Burns (2011) discusses her own expatriate
childhood experience and links these to a few theoretical reflections from the angle of
visual and material culture studies. Her article shows how any sort of documentation as
a means of representing and articulating identity is a common strategy for migrants to
deal with moving, remembering her own loss of a container shipment that included all
her belongings when she moved to college in the US. Feeling “stripped bear,” Burns
recalls that she had almost nothing left “to communicate a whole sense of self” (ibid.,
366) after the shipment went missing. Having only left the things she wore and the
clothes her suitcase carried, she remembers how her rings as objects she had
collected in her many stays during childhood “became great conversation pieces that
simultaneously piqued other’s interest and communicated [her] experiences.” She sees
these objects as “containers” of her life that protect her personal history, “ensuring
against the losses of the past,” when symbolically displaced (ibid.).
Heather Hindman (Hindman 2009a, 676) describes how expatriate women she studied
in Kathmandu, strategically shop for specific art objects to use these “as means of
transferring knowledge and status between locations.” The items displayed in the
homes, similar to the rings Burns (2011) chose to wear, invite the opportunity to
communicate experiences and share stories. As Hindman theorizes, “the objects
expatriates collect are actants in the social drama of Expatria, lurking in freeze-dried
form, ready to spring to life in a new location to impart status to their possessors”
(Hindman 2009a, 676–677).
Such meaning-laden objects, even furniture, from former stays were present in many of
the students’ homes as well, as most expatriate families take advantage of their
employer’s financial support and ship their belongings around the world. A certain
amount of container shipments are usually included in the so-called packages that the
employing organizations provide for their expatriates as part of their contracts.
Mia, whose case I here like to use to exemplify the role material culture plays in homing
processes, explains:
Mia: My home is simply where I live at that moment. No matter how long and no
matter how comfortable I feel. […] Because we always move with
[furniture]. Because some people only move with a few suitcases. But
we are really, well, our furniture is always coming with us.51
When, during my last stay in June 2012, I visit Mia at home, I move through a big airy
house located on a green compound. Upon entering the villa my attention is
immediately drawn to the walls of the hallway and living room. These are decorated
with Chinese calligraphy and a large framed painting displaying the harbor of their
German hometown. The painting, like those of English landscapes that Katie Walsh
found in British expatriate homes in Dubai, seems to make “a public claim to belonging
German original: Mein Zuhause ist einfach da wo ich wohne in dem Moment. Egal wie lange schon und
egal wie wohl ich mich fühle. […]. Weil wir ziehen immer mit [Möbeln um]. Weil es gibt ganz viele Leute die
ziehen immer nur mit ein paar Koffern um. Aber wir sind halt wirklich, also unsere Möbel sind immer dabei.
elsewhere” (2006a, 132, emphasis in the original). The living room hosts several
custom-made furniture in modern Chinese style, which I have come across in several
expatriate homes, as well as in advertisements in the local expatriate press. These
pieces seem to be favored objects to capture Shanghai memories. Mia’s own room
upstairs sports a similar collection of objects and images, however, more intimate than
those downstairs. It is therefore not surprising, that when I ask the teenagers from the
German school to send me an image documenting what “home in Shanghai” means to
them, Mia sends me the following photo of her room.
Figure 11: Home in Shanghai: Mia’s Room. Photograph by Mia
Stuffed with magazines, books, clothes, photos and souvenirs, her own room seems to
bring together all of Mia’s personal history.
Mia: Many people move with a suitcase. You know, in my case the furniture, [...],
my book, everything that lies in there [is here]. If you only move with
a suitcase, or with two, three boxes, then you don’t take everything
along, but also leave a few things behind. I have things, my
goodness, which I really don’t need anymore. If I moved right now
and opened a second room, I would leave a lot of things behind, but
would not throw them away. [...] But I could not live in an empty
room. Absolutely not. I think if I moved without my stuff, nevertheless,
after a month the latest, my room would be full. I don’t know, I just
need that. It has always been like that.52
German original: Viele Leute, die ziehen mit dem Koffer um. Weißt du, bei mir die Möbel, [...] meine
Bücher, was da alles drinne liegt [sind dabei]. Wenn du nur mit dem Koffer umziehst, oder mit zwei, drei
Kisten, dann nimmst du ja nicht alles mit, sondern lässt eben auch einiges stehen. Weil ich hab ja Sachen,
meine Güte, die brauch ich ja echt nicht mehr. Aber man kann sich dann eben auch nicht trennen. Wenn
ich jetzt umziehen würde und ein zweites Zimmer eröffnen würde sozusagen, würd ich halt viele Sachen
auch stehenlassen, aber die ja trotzdem nicht wegschmeißen. […] Aber ich könnte nicht in so einem
leeren Zimmer leben. Echt nicht. Ich glaube wenn ich umziehen würde ohne meine Sachen, trotzdem,
Objects and the associations they evoke make her feel home. The miniature Eiffel
tower, the hat from Vietnam, the pillow on the bed displaying Shanghai’s iconic
buildings, for instance, relate to places she has been to. An issue of the German
women magazine Brigitte hints at connections to German or global female consumer
culture. Photographs display friends, friendships, and memorable moments.
Mia: I think photos are really important. Photos are what I cling on to most. Oh,
one time, I lost all my photos. Well, I deleted all of them accidentally.
I was so desperate. <L> I was sooo desperate.53
Her narrative of loss of all her photos, which she could only partly regain through
friends and parents, reminds of Burns (2011) account of loosing her belongings and
thus reminders and markers of who one is. Mia’s room shows that some items, for
instance the Shanghai pillow, might already be purchased for the future, like the
objects of Hindman’s actors in Nepal, “ready to spring to life in a new location to impart
status to their possessors” (Hindman 2009a, 676–677).
Petridou (2001, 89), who in her article, “The Taste of Home,” studies Greek students
culinary practices in London, shows how food can create “the experience of home as a
sensory totality.” Exploring food culture Petridou sees home “away from its physical
structures of the house” but still linked to the material world, understanding “the home
as a practice and a combination of processes through which its inhabitants acquire a
sense of history and identity” (ibid., 88). I can relate to the importance of food in feeling
at home. While I enjoyed exploring my Chinese food surroundings by dining out in
restaurants, local eateries, noodle shops, and street food stalls, I occasionally prepared
“home” food54 at home. However, I was startled to find out that for many students these
clear place-taste relations were dissolving, or even the other way around. While I had
learned from the students’ maps and participant observation that the teenagers
enjoyed eating out in western style restaurants, I first underestimated the role of the
ayi55, the maid or nanny, until a discussion with Paul drew my attention to the issue.
spätestens nach einem Monat wär mein Zimmer voll. Ich weiß nicht, ich brauch das. Und das war auch
immer so.
German original: Ich finde Fotos sind soo wichtig. Also, Fotos sind immer das, wo ich mich am meisten
so dran klammere. Oh einmal, da hab ich meine ganzen Fotos verloren. Also ich hab die alle gelöscht,
ausversehen. Ich war so am Ende. <L> Ich war sooo am Ende.
I call it home food as I would not consider these meals specifically German or “authentic” of other
regions, but rather food that includes imported groceries which I or my research participants used before
and that are specialties in Shanghai, such as cheese, olives, Italian style pasta, bread, cream, wine or
others, or for Asian students ingredients imported from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand or India, such
as different curry pastes.
Among expatriate families and middle class Chinese it is common to have a maid that helps with
cleaning, cooking or child raising. The maid is commonly called “ayi” which literally translates into “aunt“
and may be used to address any woman of the age of the speaker’s mother. Teenagers, like everyone
Interviewer: Do you mainly go to western restaurants? Or do you go to eat
Well, my ayi can make Chinese food.
The students experience Chinese food at home, prepared by the family’s maid and the
city of Shanghai therefore often provides the international food they crave for. Of
course some of the students enjoy their native cuisine at home, as an ayi working for
several foreign families told me. Although she would cook Chinese food two or three
times per week, she was particularly proud of her skills preparing pizza, making
spinach pies and baking whole wheat bread. Not in all households, however, is the
preparation of meals left to the ayi. After one interview with three German boys, Bjoern
made everyone jealous by saying that his mom was awaiting him at home with a
homemade Bolognese sauce and pasta. Apparently this was noteworthy as many
expatriate families rely on their maid in the preparations of food. Generally, one can
note that “home” food is missed. Paul, who grew up in the States, for instance, would
crave for slurpees [Iced flavored drinks]. Most of the German boys commented on
missing Kebabs, or food they related to their grandmothers’ cookings such as potato
salad or roast beef. The category of home food, however, becomes questionable when
Chinese dishes become an integrated part of the diet at home and the “home food”
part of dining out in the city. Food for the expatriate students therefore rather relates to
broader ideas of home, as Mia’s account on the relation between certain food smells
and feelings of being at home illustrates:
Well, Germany is my home, but Germany as a country. This is
already the case when I step out of the airport and smell the bakeryaroma.56 That simply is home. That is not a specific place, but this
feeling that I only have in Germany.57
Certain practices surrounding food, however, can encourage the process of homemaking, as Bjoern’s joy and pride about his mother’s Bolognese show. However, the
fact that his mother prepared the dish was crucial to its value.
else in the expatriate community, have kept the Chinese term. For contemplations on the role of household
staff in students’ lives and its impact on understandings of class and class-consciousness, see Heather
Hindman (2009b) and chapter nine of this study. For the role of the maid in Chinese households see
Wanning Sun (2008).
For an understanding of the meaning of bread for German communities abroad, see chapter nine
“Vermissen, Organisieren, Neuentdecken” of Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich’s (2002) ethnographic study of
Germans in New Zealand Auswandern Destination Neuseeland.
German original: Also, Deutschland so ist meine Heimat, aber Deutschland so als Land. Das ist schon
so wenn ich aus dem Flughafen geh und den Bäckereigeruch rieche, das ist dann einfach Heimat. Das ist
jetzt nicht wirklich unbedingt ein spezieller Ort, sondern so einfach dieses Gefühl, was ich in Deutschland
nur hab.
Practices of Homemaking and Family Life
Mia’s, Bjoern’s, and their peers’ experiences show that material culture plays a
significant role in making home a meaningful place for teenagers in their everyday
lives. In order to understand the reciprocal relationships of materialities and human
practices in the process of turning a place into home, I like to continue with Mia’s case.
Mia, who has moved several times in her life, always draws a lot of strength from her
family. She and her two siblings have very close relationships and it seems to me that
communal family activities are an important coping mechanism for her. This impression
is confirmed when she tells me about her struggles when her father and older sister
both had to leave Shanghai due to job obligations and college. Mia, her mother and
brother stayed on in Shanghai, however, for Mia to finish her last year of school. A year
later she recalls during our interview:
Mia: There was a difficult moment when we got to know that my father had to
move. That really wasn’t great. Especially in the beginning, because
my father and sister both stayed on in Germany. And the three of us
came back to move into this house [in Shanghai]. We had lived in a
different house before. That was no easy time. I was really… The first
month, every evening, I was always sad, I cried a lot. It was okay
during the day when I was at school, but [difficult] in the evenings at
home. Our family life changed a lot. We all used to sit around the
dinner table, and now we are only three, and someone is usually not
there. Well, it really did change a lot. Sometimes we have to make
plans: Okay, lets all go out for dinner together, so we all can talk for
hours again. Otherwise you talk, sure, but only two of us, rarely all
Mia misses her father and sister, but she also misses the communal dinner as family
routine that is crucial in rendering the place of living into home. When I inquired about
her strategy to deal with the new situation at home she explains:
Mia: Well, since we have become such a small family, I plan a lot of activities. So
I am really out a lot, simply because... Well, I used to be happy to be
home alone once in a while, because it so rarely happened. If you
are five people, it rarely happens. And now I don’t enjoy being home
alone, then I am like, ‘Okay, what do I do now?’ So when I am home
alone I usually go downtown or just do something with friends. […]
My calendar is actually always full. That’s sort of my strategy. Well,
sure, I also think a lot. But sitting at home all the time and everything
German original: Da war bei mir noch ein schwieriger Moment als es hieß, dass mein Vater wegziehen
muss. Das war halt, das war wirklich nicht schön. Vor allem die erste Zeit, weil mein Vater und meine
Schwester sind dann ja gleichzeitig in Deutschland geblieben. Und wir sind zu dritt wiedergekommen und
sind in dieses Haus gezogen. Davor haben wir in einem anderen Haus gelebt. Das war keine einfache
Zeit. Weil da war ich wirklich. Den ersten Monat war ich jeden Abend so, oh nee, war immer traurig, hab
viel geweint. […] Also wenn ich tagsüber in der Schule war, war kein Problem […] Aber abends halt zu
Hause, hmm. [...] Das Familienleben hat sich schon verändert. Davor saßen wir immer alle gemeinsam am
Abendbrottisch. Und jetzt sind wir halt, dadurch dass wir zu dritt sind, ist eigentlich fast immer einer nicht
da. Also es hat sich schon sehr verändert. Wir müssen uns teilweise verabreden: okay, wir gehen jetzt mal
wieder zusammen essen, damit wir mal wieder stundenlang alle miteinander reden können. Weil sonst,
klar, man redet zu zweit, aber zu dritt halt seltener.
is kinda crashing down around you for the whole time, but you can’t
do anything about it, and you’re just sitting around stupidly.59
Since these dinners are not conveying the sense of home anymore, Mia rather likes to
spend time outside with her friends, establishing new practices of home-making for
herself in Shanghai. 60 Likewise, many of the expatriate students learn to live with
fathers often being absent. Eleven-year-old Allen, for instance, only sees his father on
the weekend when he returns from his work site in a minor Chinese city.
It is evident that the expatriate teenagers’ material practices of making home are
continuous negotiations, not only of home as a site, but also of processes of
emplacement in the city and of larger understandings of belonging, as Walsh succinctly
phrased it: “Domestic materialities can play a highly significant role in migrants’
negotiation of geographies of belonging, residence, landscape and place” (2011, 516).
Basu and Coleman (2008, 324) argue that material culture shows how migrants not
only change their place, but also “their place within the ‘world’ they have entered.”
Having laid open the connections between belongings and belonging(s), the next
section explores the latter and links theoretical positions to the students’ own
perspectives on their position in the world.
8.3. (Trans)local Ties: Theorizing Students’ Negotiations of Home and Belonging
Diasporic identities are at once local and global. They are networks of
transnational identification encompassing ‘imagined’ and ‘encountered’
communities. (Brah 1996, 196)
The questions of belonging and home are a central topic in migration studies and have
lead to various conceptualizations. Researchers across different disciplines have
analyzed and conceptualized transnational migrants’ practices and understood migrant
forms of belonging, often “through abstracted spatial tropes” (Walsh 2006, 124), putting
emphasis on the state of “in-betweenness” and the multiple ties migrants maintain.
Vertovec, for instance, in regards to these multiple ties, writes:
[M]any migrants today intensively conduct activities and maintain substantial
commitments that link them with significant others […] who dwell in nation-states
other than those in which the migrants themselves reside. Migrants now maintain
such connections through uses of technology, travel and financial mechanisms
more intensely than ever before possible. (Vertovec 2004, 970–971)
German original: Also seitdem wir so eine kleine Familie sind, nehme ich mir halt extrem viel vor. Das
heißt ich bin wirklich viel unterwegs, weil ich halt… Also früher war ich manchmal echt froh alleine zu
Hause zu sein, weil es kam echt nicht oft vor. Wenn du zu fünft bist, kommt es nicht oft vor. Und jetzt bin
ich nicht so gerne alleine zu Hause, dass heißt ich bin irgendwie so: “Okay, was mach ich jetzt?”
Deswegen, wenn ich alleine zu Hause bin fahr ich meistens in die Stadt oder mach halt was mit Freunden.
[…] Mein Kalender ist eigentlich immer voll. Das ist so meine Strategie. Also, klar, denk ich auch viel nach.
Aber so die ganze Zeit zu Hause sitzen und die ganze Zeit stürzt so alles auf dich ein, aber du kannst
eigentlich nicht wirklich was tun, sondern sitzt da nur so blöd rum.
The chapters under the part three, “Arriving,” further discuss practices of emplacement in the city
outside the site of home.
With the rise of multiple connections, Turner (2008, 1050) argues that
transnational migration and diasporic communities contain an inherent spatial
tension, as populations no longer ‘fit’ their territory - belonging to several places
at once.
Other concepts using “abstracted spatial tropes” to understand the complex processes
of linking places and people across borders and the migrant’s “position” in these
networks include “transnational social spaces” (Pries 2001), “ethnoscape” (Appadurai
1996) or “Third Space” (Bhabha [1994]2009).
Katie Walsh (2006a, 124) succinctly outlines the discourse on migration and home,
recalling that at the end of the twentieth century, theorists described “contemporary
social life and individual experience that privileged global movement.” Referring,
among others, to Castells ([1996]2000), Hannerz ([1996]2001), Chambers (1994) and
Robertson et al. (1994), Walsh summarizes that it was proposed “we live in a world of
‘flows’ and societies in which identities are destabilized and detached from place.”
These ideas that “privilege movement over attachment,” however, Walsh (2006a, 124)
points out, have since been contested and criticized for “their insensitivity towards the
continued importance of place, dwelling, and home.” According to her, Geraldine
Pratt’s (1992) 61 reflections on the “problematic nature of the hierarchical dualism of
mobility/dwelling established by these literatures,” inspired theorists to understand
home and migration in its interdependent relation, for instance, Brah (1996), Rapport
and Dawson (1998), and Ahmed et al. (2003) (ibid.). Increasingly, scholars – Walsh
(2006a, 124) refers for instance to Lamb (2002), and the geographers Jackson, Crang,
and Dwyer (2004), and I would call to mind again ethnographer Englund’s (2002)
postglobalist approach that I discussed earlier – now call for research on processes of
migration that is “’grounded’ through attention to the ways such processes are locally
lived and produced” (Walsh 2006a, 124). Katie Walsh’s critique of earlier
conceptualizations on the impact of migration on belonging as insensitive to place also
echoes Avtar Brah’s (1996, 180) warning: “[T]he very strong association of notions of
diaspora with displacement and dislocation means that the experience of location can
easily dissolve out of focus.”
The two preceding parts of this chapter have therefore stressed the experiences and
practices revolving around the concrete site of the home and its embeddedness in the
larger context of gated community living in Shanghai and the inherent practices of
Geraldine Pratt warns of an understanding of dwelling that only focuses on the dangers, as for example
in some forms of nationalism, and calls for understanding dwelling also as “the legitimacy and value of
peoples’ struggles to create their own places and memories” (Pratt 1992, 243). Pratt emphazises that this
focus needs to accompany “the rhetoric of movement that privileges detachment from place” in order to
“break down a new hierarchy of difference created through the seemingly fashionable mobility – dwelling
duality” (ibid.).
demarcation towards local society. But how are these practices of homing and
demarcation related to the movement of the expatriate youths and the global, flowing,
and shifting connections and identifications? Consequently, this last section
investigates students’ own perspectives on belonging, by investigating their relations to
places and people beyond Shanghai, to abstract or imagined ideas or emotions, as
emerging through their experiences of mobility as well as home-making.
Talking about Home and Belonging
Following the importance given to “belonging” in previous research, I discussed the
question of home during all interviews. Talking about home with students I sometimes
feared that the term refers to a quite hegemonic idea and that students would feel
obliged to position themselves clearly or felt forced to state alliances to nationality or
places of “origin.” However, I considered home as an everyday vocabulary still the best
choice. I then tried to open up the discussion by asking not only “Where is home for
you?” but by further asking: “What do you usually reply when someone asks you
‘where are you from?’?” I also initiated discussion of these questions themselves and
asked how they felt about them, whether these were easy or difficult to answer. It
became apparent that for many students these answers heavily depended on who
would ask them. This points out how performative and relational the politics of home
are. The following section presents these interviews and a discussion in form of mind
maps, which were produced at the German school. The students were asked to
discuss their ideas of “Heimat” [belonging/home] in written form in class. These mind
maps show that home is a term of many associations and emotions.
Figure 12: Section of Mind Map 1 on “Heimat.” Drawing by Four Students
Covering a variety of issues, the students refer to places of growing up and “childhood”
as well as “memories” and “experiences” in general. Among others they list “family,”
and the presence of relatives and pets. Likewise, the presence of friends is prominent
on all four sketches, linked to comments on community and trust. “School” also finds its
way onto one of the posters.
The teenagers also discuss sensorial experiences, such as climate and food, and
familiar cultural practices, such as festivals and language. Houses and apartments as
well as objects such as photos, videos, and music appear on the maps, too.
“Heimat” also evokes comments on patriotism, birthplace, nationality, nation states
(“Germany, China”) and mega-events like the World Cup (“Nation stands behind its
country  roots for it”).
Moreover all the sketches display discussions on media, listing social networks and
services such as Facebook, Gowalla, Twitter, Myspace and forms of communications
such as VoIP (Voice over IP) and instant messengers. Next to these ways to stay in
touch with friends and families, German online media as a way to relate to many of the
students’ passport country are mentioned.
Figure 13: Section of Mind Map 2 on “Heimat.” Drawing by Four Students
Emotions from feeling accepted to feeling safe play another prominent role in their
written discussions: “where I can be myself,” “People who really know you” or “home is
where the heart is.” Some remarks refer to the individual aspects and imagination of
belonging, such as “everyone imagines home differently.”
“Moving” is mentioned linked to the question “Belonging changes?”. Other comments
simply inquire “no home?” or “homeless?”. On one poster students ask, “what is
homeless?” to then answer: “When you feel you are wanted nowhere and have no
relations to any specific places,” and “neither place nor people.”
“Heimat” evokes various associations and questions and students make clear how it is
something they continuously negotiate in relations to “childhood,” “family,” “friends,”
“nationality,” through “media,” “everyday practices,” “experiences” “memories” and
“feelings.” It seems that through moving contemplating on the notion of home becomes
even more relevant. The next sections therefore look at several individual students’
thoughts and negotiations of their subjective ideas of home.
Students’ Positions on Home and Belonging
Home is often associated with stability and continuity, as the following quote of a
sixteen-year-old student from the French school demonstrates:
Arnaud: You think it’s gonna be the same all your life. And you want it to stay that
way and not change. I was nine years old and I had my friends and
my. Cause I was in France, in Paris, in a small city called, not even a
city, it’s just between a city and a village.
Interviewer: Yeah. A suburb?
Arnaud: Exactly. And so I knew lots of people around. It’s really, you feel like
home a bit. At nine years old. And then you come to China and it’s a
huge city, and you say ‘oh’. The style of life, there is a big change in
the style of life.
However, as the association of “everything staying a certain way,” of continuity is not a
given for children moving transnational, many of my interviewees have difficulties in
pointing out what home is to them. Japanese student Kazuo explains:
Kazuo: Home is like. When you ask that question in Shanghai, like, in Shanghai. I
have no home in Japan. So, I cannot answer my home is in Japan. In
Japan, I always, like, <x> grew up in other places. So I cannot say
where are you from? Japan. I am not sure.
Like Kazuo, the international students with their transnational ties and relations to
multiple locations have to negotiate the term to find a way to go beyond prioritizing one
place over the other. In the eyes of expatriate youths home is nothing fixed or easy to
Some students deal with the problem of defining home by claiming home as “back
home.” Nine-year-old Allen, who has already lived in several places, for instance, sees
his home tied to the current house his parents own in the US:
Allen: I’d say South Carolina, cause that’s the house there right now. But I am
originally from Chicago, Illinois, but I never actually, I don’t have any
memories in my brain about it.
This definition of home is related to the way his whole family conceptualizes their stay
abroad. His parents’ influence and how home is communally defined as the house in
the US can be seen in his account of traveling back to the US in the summer and his
consistent use of “we” in this narrative:
Allen: One other disadvantage for me is, living in China is very far away from my
home country. And where we have a house in the USA is the farthest
it could be away from us, in the US. Because it is east, of the US, so
we have to ride a fifteen-hours flight home, and we have to ride
another two-hour flight back to our house. And then plus drivinghours.
Interviewer: And plus the waiting hours in the airport. It feels like a whole day of
Allen: That is a long thing that we don’t enjoy. All the flying.
Interviewer: But that is still your home?
Allen: Yeah. I call it home.
For seventeen-year-old Karina, Shanghai is her fourth city of residence. However, she
prefers her relationship to Prague to other places, which she links to her friends’ and
family’s presence:
Interviewer: But you feel comfortable in both places, somehow?
Karina: I feel more comfortable in Prague. Because I have my friends and my
family there. And I was simply born there. I spent the biggest part of
my life there. And, yes, I have a much closer relation to Prague than
to Shanghai. Shanghai, I think, okay, I moved here because of my
father and I get my diploma and goodbye. And then I maybe come
back some time for my studies. But I always try to spend as little time
here as possible. I don’t know.62
Karina and Allen both actively maintain their ties to their home, Prague and the house
in the US. Shanghai is only a transitory space to them. Karina not only defines Prague
as her home, but also Shanghai as a place where she tries to spend “as few time as
possible.” She points this out during a follow-up interview that we conducted one year
after her initial move to Shanghai. Karina has difficulties in the homing process in
Shanghai and even after one year limits her relationship to Shanghai to her father’s
job. However, she had returned just before the interview from a summer in Prague and
was particularly missing her family and friends. We note that home is for some students
connected to elsewhere, to necessary travel, and missing.
German original: [Interviewer: Aber du fühlst dich in beidem wohl, irgendwie?] In Prag fühl ich mich
wohler. Weil ich da eben meine Freunde und meine Familie hab. Und ich wurde da einfach geboren. Ich
hab da den größten Teil meines Lebens einfach verbracht. Und, ja zu Prag hab ich eine viel engere
Beziehung als zu Shanghai. Shanghai, denk ich mir, okay, ich bin jetzt wegen meinem Vater hierhin
gezogen und ich mach jetzt mein Abi und tschüss. Und dann komm ich hier vielleicht mal wegen meinem
Studium her zurück. Aber ich versuch hier immer so wenig Zeit wie möglich zu verbringen. Ich weiß nicht.
Keeping the migratory experiences of the young actors in this study in mind, we are not
surprised to find that the transient relationship with Shanghai might make it difficult to
relate to Shanghai as home for some of the students.
Tamara: For me, I think I should call China home, because I feel more
comfortable here than <x>. Erm, but erm, I don’t really know if China
should be my home, because I think I will be moving somewhere else
after three or more years.
For Tamara the fear of leaving, of moving on, makes it difficult to relate to Shanghai as
home, although she “feels comfortable.” Shanghai can only be a temporary home, a
transit space. Giovanni has a similar understanding. He describes himself as “feeling
safe” and “a little bit like at home”63 in Shanghai. But when he further reflects on the
question of home, he argues that although he has not been living in Switzerland – the
country of his parents and nationality – for three years now he would, nevertheless, call
it home rather than Shanghai. His major argument is that he is only “temporarily” in
Shanghai, “like a long holiday”64. Again his quote shows how Shanghai is perceived as
a transit space, a temporary home.
Giovanni’s contemplations, however, also point to the idea of two simultaneous homes,
Switzerland and Shanghai, an idea many students present. Likewise, Avtar Brah
(1996) answers the questions of home in her writings about diaspora with
conceptualizations based on a distinction of “homing desire” and a “desire for
homeland” as two different simultaneous processes and discourses (1996, 16).
On the one hand, ‘home’ is a mythic place of desire in the diasporic imagination.
In this sense it is a place of no return, even if it is possible to visit the
geographical territory that is seen as the place of ‘origin’. On the other hand,
home is also the lived experience of a locality. Its sounds and smells, its heat and
dust, balmy summer evenings, or the excitement of the first snowfall, shivering
winter evenings, somber grey skies in the middle of the day… all this, as
mediated by the historically specific everyday of social relations. (Brah 1996,
Akin to Avtar Brah’s two notions of home, eighteen-year-old Matthias explains: “I think,
like, both is kind of home. Maybe right now I'd say rather here [Shanghai] than
Germany.” Only to contradict himself later: “For me. Germany.” This seeming
contradiction, two homes, is not surprising as students have the feeling they have to
choose, to decide. However, they maintain emotional relations to both places.
Sixteen-year-old Mia’s contemplations that are already discussed above are a further
fitting example for Brah’s conceptualizations of home: While Mia’s (reflections on the)
German original: Aber eigentlich fühl ich mich hier ganz sicher. Und eigentlich auch wie zu Hause. Ein
bisschen. Ich mag es eigentlich hier.
German original: Zuhause? Ist schwer. Weil ich war jetzt drei Jahre lang nicht mehr richtig in der
Schweiz. Dafür hier um so mehr. Aber ich würde trotzdem noch sagen, dass es in der Schweiz ist. Hier ist
man nur vorrübergehend. Wie lange Ferien.
material practices and home-making in Shanghai have shown that she clearly
considers the domestic space of living as home [“Zuhause”], her idea of space of
belonging or a “desire for the homeland” [“Heimat”] is tied to Germany as a country,
symbolized by the bakery smell. She comments on this dualistic concept:
Mia: Because you don’t have a place where you can say, this is where I’ve spent
all my life or big parts of my life. That’s where I belong. Because I
have lived here [Shanghai] the longest. But still I would, no idea... It is
my home, but it’s not my home [Heimat].65
Her German distinction and definition of “Zuhause” and of “Heimat” agree with Brah’s
(1996) two formulations of home. However, discussing the matter further, Mia stresses
that this being at home due to lived experiences, is not only tied to a single place in her
life, but multi-local.
Mia: It’s really like that! Also, if you go somewhere you have lived before. For
instance, when I go with my family to Singapore. Even years later.
You don’t even have to remember it that well. Just at that moment
when you are riding in a taxi and you look out the window and see
these palm trees. That is simply home. It’s as if you were coming
home! 66
Mia’s descriptions remind us that Brah’s definition, although tempting us to see a
dualistic form of home for migrants at first sight, mentions the “double, triple, or multiplacedness of ‘home’” (Brah 1996, 194). Brah’s definitions of home have to be
understood as possible for multiple locations. The dualistic view on home, however, is
widely spread in migration studies. When Steven Vertovec writes about the
transformation through transnationalism of “the everyday social worlds of individuals
and families in both migrant sending and receiving contexts” (Vertovec 2004, 974), the
communication and frequent travel“ (ibid., 974) among transmigrants under the
umbrella term of “bifocality” (ibid.). This “migrants’ orientational bifocality” draws from
German original: Mein Zuhause ist einfach da wo ich wohne in dem Moment. Egal wie lange schon und
egal wie wohl ich mich fühle. […]. Weil wir ziehen immer mit. Weil es gibt ganz viele Leute die ziehen
immer nur mit ein paar Koffern um. Aber wir sind halt wirklich, also unsere Möbel sind immer dabei.
[Interviewer: Hmm.] Und meine Heimat ist Deutschland, klar. Aber es ist auch irgendwie kompliziert. […]
Also wir haben ein Haus in Deutschland aber da wohnt jemand anders drinnen. Das heißt wir haben jetzt
nicht wo wir immer in den Ferien hinfahren oder so. Und das Einzige wo ich eigentlich immer bin, ist bei
meinen Verwandten. Zum Beispiel bei meiner Oma. Die wohnt ganz im Norden Deutschlands. Ich hab da
noch nie gewohnt, aber das ist trotzdem einfach Heimat, wenn ich da hin fahre, Keine Ahnung. Also,
Deutschland so ist meine Heimat, aber Deutschland so als Land. Das ist schon so wenn ich aus dem
Flughafen geh und den Bäckereigeruch rieche, das ist dann einfach Heimat. Das ist jetzt nicht wirklich
unbedingt ein spezieller Ort, sondern so einfach dieses Gefühl, was ich halt in Deutschland nur hab. […]
Das ist total komisch. Aber das ist wirklich nur Gefühl. Man ist wirklich in der Welt zu Hause sozusagen.
Weil man halt einfach nicht einen Ort wo man sagt, da hab ich mein ganzes Leben verbracht oder
Großteile meines Lebens. Da gehör ich hin. Weil ich hab jetzt am Längsten hier gelebt. Aber trotzdem
würd ich das, keine Ahnung. Das ist jetzt mein zu Hause, aber das ist nicht meine Heimat.
German original: Das ist aber wirklich so! Auch wenn man irgendwo hinfährt wo man vorher schon mal
gewohnt hat. Also zum Beispiel wenn ich mit meiner Familie nach Singapur fahre. Noch Jahre später. Man
muss mich noch nicht mal so sehr daran erinnern. Einfach in dem Moment wo du da fährst im Taxi,
rausguckst, diese Palmen. Das ist einfach zu Hause. Das ist einfach als würde man nach Hause kommen!
concepts such as “bifocalism” (Rouse 1992), “life world” (Smith 2001) and Guarnizo’s
concept of a transnational habitus which is linked to a “dual frame of reference”
(Guarnizo 1997, 311 cited in Vertovec 2004, 974). While Vertovec’s concept of
“bifocality” may hold for many cases of migration, it cannot hold entirely for all expat
youth due to their high mobility and bicultural families. While we note that for expatriate
youths “Zuhause” and “Heimat,” “home” and “belonging” do not coincide, the following
accounts will demonstrate the need for concepts beyond the “bifocality” (Vertovec
2004, 974) acknowledging this multiplicity.
Jennifer Robinson (2010, 16) stresses the importance of the imaginary in connections
between cities, the “imaginative ways in which places are drawn together or kept
apart.” She therefore includes people who physically stay in one region in the process
of connecting places when she argues that
the livelihood strategies and imaginative worlds of city residents in places such
as Doula and Kinshasa are entwined with other places elsewhere (such as New
York and Brussels) both practically and imaginatively, in the sense that residents
are always in the process of preparing to leave for an imagined elsewhere, that
they already know much about other cities, or live an imaginary world that is both
here and there. Within a topological imagination, making one’s way in a city
commonly entrains a wide diversity of other places. (Robinson 2010, 16)
Robinson’s argument shows that ties to other places are vivid in our everyday lives.
Moving through and living in Shanghai is thus constantly tied to elsewhere. However,
for expatriate youth, these ties are not only based on imaginations (such as future
places of travel or living), but on memories and sensorial experiences of elsewhere.
Due to their many moves the actors of my study are able to constantly draw from
embodied memories of many places. Marco, for instance, stresses his positive
relationships to a multiplicity of places. However, he also emphasizes the difficulties to
conceptualize these:
Marco: I have lived in Leverkusen all my life. But we were also often at my
grandparents, on the one hand in the black forest, on the other hand
in Brazil. Yes, there I have a lot, I feel very connected to, to both
places, because we really spent a lot of time there. Usually we’d go
there once a month, at my grandpa’s, in the black forest. And the
whole summer vacation we’d spend in Brazil.
Interviewer: In Brazil.
Marco: Yes, and there, erm, now, I don’t know. It’s really complicated.
Interviewer: <L>
Marco: I have been living here for one and a half years now. And, erm, I don’t
know. I don’t know where I feel more connected to. Or what I, now.
My home [Heimat] is actually in Leverkusen. Yes, but I am living in
Shanghai. I don’t know. Somehow I can’t express that.67
In this interview Marco openly voices his difficulties to explain his attachment to several
places at once. It reads like the question raised about home pressures him to make a
choice. At first restraining from using the word “home,” he makes clear that he feels
connected to former places of living as well as to the different places of his family’s
origin. He reluctantly uses the German term “Heimat” to refer to the city he grew up in.
However, only to immediately state his uncertainty about this choice and to make clear
he cannot state preferences or put his relations to places into words. His life is
simultaneously embedded in a network of places in which family relations play a key
Paul, also child of a nationally mixed marriage, has been similarly growing up in several
places, although he has moved more often with his parents. In contrast to Marco, Paul
describes his multi-local experiences by stating his non-attachment to places. He
defines home as to “wherever I am staying.”
Interviewer: So when people ask you where home is, what do you usually give as
an answer?
Paul: I don't. <L> I don't say anything.
Interviewer: You don't say anything? (silence)
Paul: Or I say wherever I am staying. If I live here, I say here is home. […] Yeah I
guess here'd be home, because I wouldn't wanna live anywhere else.
Interviewer: So are you sad about leaving?
Paul: Yeah I am a bit sad. But it is another experience. […]
Interviewer: But where do you imagine your future to be at?
Paul: Here.
Interviewer: Here?
Paul: Yeah.
Interviewer: So you are thinking about probably coming back.
Paul: I don't wanna live in Brazil ever again. I don't want to live in the US. I have
never lived in Europe so.
Interviewer: You can't judge that.
Paul: Yeah. I like it here.
German Original: Ich hab halt mein Leben lang in Leverkusen gelebt. Wir waren aber auch oft bei
meinen Großeltern, einerseits im Schwarzwald und andererseits halt in Brasilien. Ja da hab ich halt auch
so viel, fühl ich mich sehr zu verbunden. Zu den beiden Orten, weil wir da echt viel Zeit verbracht haben.
Wir waren da normalerweise einmal im Monat, bei meinem Opa, also im Schwarzwald. Und in den
Sommerferien eigentlich die ganze Zeit immer in Brasilien. [Interviewer: In Brasilien] Ja, und da, ehm, ja
jetzt, ich weiß nicht. Das ist echt kompliziert. [Interviewer: <L>] Ja, ich wohn hier jetzt ja auch seit
eineinhalb Jahren. Und ehm, ich weiß nicht. Ich weiß nicht genau wo ich mich jetzt mehr verbunden fühle.
Oder was ich jetzt. Meine Heimat ist eigentlich in Leverkusen. Ja, aber ich wohn halt in Shanghai. Ich weiß
nicht, ich kann das irgendwie nicht so ausdrücken.
Home seems a vague idea when talking to Paul, and he attributes his attachment to
Shanghai mostly to the fact that it is his current place of living. His world is greatly in
flux, with himself moving on to Germany a couple months after the interview, and his
parents settling in another part in Asia. This decision is mainly based on his wish to
experience Europe as well as being a German national without speaking the language
or ever having lived in Germany.
Other students see a status gain in their relations to multiple places and like to state
these to others:
Alex: Because that is also bragging a little. And simply interesting, I guess. I
would be interested in someone who has lived in Shanghai for three
Alex is proud of his many places of living and ties his experience rather to
cosmopolitan performances than to issues of negotiating home. As cosmopolitan one
could also describe Alex’s classmate Kressi’s outlook on the world as her home.
Kressi, who moved from Germany to Shanghai as a toddler, verbalizes her idea of
home by tracing her relations to relatives and friends in other places and by fixing
home as an emotion.
Kressi: It is this feeling. That’s why I say the world is my home. The whole world.
The world is my home, because there is something. America, that is
where my uncle is and where I like to go shopping. I love it there. And
in Germany are all my friends, who have now moved on.69
Her simultaneous attachment to many places is based on people, practices, and
emotions. These emplaced experiences of places lead to a whole network of homes.
This network of places that she considers home emerges from her family’s multiple
migrations over generations. We note that for the expatriate youths home is always
multiple, a connection of several places, people, and practices. These connections can
be understood as “rhizomatic.”
Hindman (2009a, 676) has already compared the way “the expatriate family can spring
from the soil again” – thanks to a collection of objects as these help to articulate and
recreate personal histories and positions in the new posting – to Deleuze and
Guattari’s (1987) formulation of the rhizome. This rhizome, the students’ comments
illustrate, is not only a connection of objects, but also of places, people, and practices.
The image and idea of a rhizome “as subterranean stem” has been put forward by
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987)in their book, A thousand plateaus: Capitalism
German original: Weil das ist so ein bisschen angeben und so. Und halt auch, das ist einfach,
interessant, denk ich mal. Also mich würde jemand interessieren, der irgendwie drei Jahre in Shanghai
gelebt hat.
German original: Das Gefühl ist es. Deswegen sag ich auch die Heimat ist meine Welt. Also das ist die
ganze Welt. Also meine Heimat ist die Welt, weil da ist was. In Amerika ist mein Onkel und da geh ich
gerne shoppen und ich liebe es da. Und in Deutschland sind meine Freunde, die jetzt weggezogen sind.
and Schizophrenia, as a way of thinking. They choose the image of the rhizome in
contrast to that of “roots and radicles” which they see as having dominated our
analytical ways (ibid., 6). Unlike to a tree or its root, “which plots a point, fixes an order”
(ibid.,7) the rhizome “connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not
necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes
of signs, and even nonsign states” (ibid., 21). It is in the same manner that the
rhizomatic home includes all the different regimes of people, practices, places,
belongings and belonging. The rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari argue, underlies the
“principles of connection and heterogeneity” (ibid., 7) and may be broken but not
stopped as ruptures are part of it.
Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified,
territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of
deterritorialization down which it constantly flees. There is a rupture in the
rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of
flight is part of the rhizome. These lines always tie back to one another (ibid., 9).
The ceaseless connection despite ruptures is also visible in the students’ perceptions
of home – moves as ruptures do not interrupt feelings of belongings to places or
people that at first sight seem cut off. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that with no
beginning or end, a rhizome cannot be traced but only mapped (ibid., 12), because it is
“always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (ibid., 25.). This inbetweeness of the rhizome, of the notion of home, is for student Kressi simultaneously
linked to challenges in cultural identity:
Kressi: The thing is, some people can simply say: ‘I am from Germany, but I live
in Shanghai.’ In a sense I am, yes, I am actually German. Because
my Chinese isn’t that good. I also have a German passport and I
grew up as a German. But the problem is that I don’t look German.
And I look like a Chinese or something, but I just live here. But then
Shanghai, nonetheless, somehow became my home [Heimat], just
because everything I really know is here.70
Feeling at home is also tied to questions of identity and rights to claim a place home.
“Not looking German,” as Kressi puts it, thus makes the claim to Germany as her
“Heimat,” or home – in Brah’s first definition as place of “origin” – difficult. Home is tied
to politics of identity and belonging, even for the affluent privileged migrants. In Brah’s
The question of home, therefore, is intrinsically linked with the way in which
processes of inclusion or exclusion operate and are subjectively experienced
German original: Das Ding ist, manche Leute können ganz einfach sagen, “Ich bin aus Deutschland,
aber ich wohn in Shanghai.” Bei mir ist es eigentlich so, ja, ich bin eigentlich Deutsche. Weil ich kann
chinesisch nicht so gut. Ich hab auch einen deutschen Pass und bin deutsch aufgewachsen. Aber das
Problem ist, ich seh nicht deutsch aus. Und ich seh aus wie eine Chinesin oder so, aber ich wohn hier halt
nur. Aber Shanghai ist dann doch irgendwie meine Heimat geworden, weil hier einfach alles ist was ich so
wirklich kenne.
under given circumstances. It is centrally about our political and personal
struggles over the social regulation of ‘belonging’. (Brah 1996, 192)
Kressi’s quote supports Brah’s argument that the question of home is tied to the “social
regulation of ‘belonging’.” She explains the difficulties her non-German looks, and the
fact that she does not speak Chinese or own a Chinese passport, causes her in terms
of defining home for others. Nonetheless, Kressi also explains how processes of
emplacement, “because simply everything I really know is here,” make Shanghai one
of her homes.
It bears repeating that the double, triple, or multi-placedness of ‘home’ in the
imaginary of people in the diaspora does not mean that such groups do not feel
anchored in the place of settlement. (Brah 1996, 194)
Kressi’s case as child of second generation migrants from Hong Kong and Vietnam in
Germany, born in Germany and growing up in Shanghai with transnational family ties
to several places also shows that the idea of a “back home” can become difficult.
For some of the students, especially those who move particularly often and/or have
parents of different nationality, Brah’s first understanding of home as “a mythic place of
desire in the diasporic imagination” (Brah 1996, 192) seems to become less important
and a source of conflict within the family. Nine-year-old Jacob, child of Malay parents,
for instant describes how he has difficulties to see Malaysia as a place he could call
Interviewer: So what do you consider home?
Jacob: Everywhere.
Interviewer: <L>Everywhere</L>. Yeah.
Jacob: Cause there is not a lot of places, except for Beijing, that I stayed long
enough to actually get really, really used to it. And also, maybe I
shouldn't count Beijing, because when I was in Beijing, for the first
few years, I was just a tiny thing and I wouldn’t remember anything.
And when we moved to a different place, besides China, like
Bangkok, I totally forgot all my mandarin. […]
Interviewer: So home is? (silence) Everywhere?
Jacob: Yeah [exhales loudly].
Interviewer: Does that make it hard sometimes that home is everywhere?
Jacob: I don’t know. Maybe I should say that home is Malaysia. Because, eh, I
actually have a house there. And once in a while we go back to our
house, and well, just do some cleaning.
Interviewer: So does it feel home when you are there?
Jacob: No. Cause I have never slept there. And I have never used anything.
Except I have seen all my old toys, when I was much younger.
Although Jacob was shown his birthplace and his old toys, he still could not relate to it.
For him home seems to be tied to the idea of feeling emplaced, of “having slept there.”
His sister Emily, has similar difficulties to consider Malaysia home. During an interview
she describes how she was looking forward to return to Shanghai during the summer in
Emily: Pretty much. Like, when I go back for holidays, like my my. I see my
grandparents, my family. And then like. Sometimes you don't actually
know where to go. Because you don't feel part of that place. Some
people go back and they are like: ‘Oh I am at home!’ And stuff like
that. But, then, you eventually miss where you actually live every day.
Like, I would miss coming. I would miss being here. So whenever I
go back, like for summer. I went back for, like, a month. After three
weeks I told my mom: ‘What's the date we are leaving?’
Interviewer: <L>
Emily: Mom tells me that day and I start counting the weeks. And my mom asks:
‘Why? Do you miss home?’ ‘Erm, yeah.’ And then my brother goes:
‘What do you mean home? We are home.’ My brother just has a
different concept.
She further discusses her relation to Malaysia during the interview:
Emily: So I basically never. Okay, I could say about myself I have never lived in
Malaysia. And I can't speak a word of Malay. And English is my first
Interviewer: Okay. So what do you usually answer when people ask you where
you are from? […]
Emily: I am from Malaysia. But, then. And then the next question that will come
every day would be like: ‘Can you speak Malay? Can you teach me
some Malay?’ Like: ‘Eeeeh, no.’
Interviewer: No. <L> So what would you yourself say? What is like home to you?
Emily: I always say home is wherever I have a roof, in whichever country.
Interviewer: <L>
Emily: So like, since now I live here, this is my home. I do have a house in
Malaysia, but.
Interviewer: It is not home?
Emily: It's not home. […] It is such a hard question to answer that. Where are you
from? Where do you live? Where is your home country? What is your
town? And, you can't.
Emily is not feeling “part of that place” that is supposed to be home. Based on Brah’s
concept Malaysia can be seen as constructed in the first category of home by the
parents, as a “mythic place of desire” (Brah 1996, 192). However, when Emily arrives,
she cannot call it home, because home for her and her brother alike, is linked to Brah’s
second conceptualization of home as “the lived experience of a locality.” When she
discusses this on the meta-level by stressing that her brother “has a different concept,”
she only refers to her brother still considering calling Malaysia home. That the siblings’
difficulties to accept Malaysia as home can lead to intergenerational difficulties, can be
seen in the following narration by Emily:
Emily: The worst thing is the international week here. And they ask you to write a
poem about your country. Or a story about your country. Sometimes I
have to go up to my teacher and ask: ‘I don't know which country to
Interviewer and two other students: <L>
Emily: <L> And then my teacher will ask me: ‘Well, where have you lived the
most?’ And then I say, ‘Beijing’. Then she said, ‘fine, then do it about
Beijing.’ And then I say, ‘but honestly I have, I don't really know what
I did when I was young. I was only three.’ And she says, ‘okay, where
do you remember the most?’ And I would say Bangkok. So, then I
would write about that. And then my mom would ask me, ‘why did
you choose that? You could have just come to me and ask about
Malaysia.’ I said, ‘yeah, but, it is not gonna be like my words, it’s
gonna be your words.’ And so my mom says, ‘yeah you are right.’
Interviewer: Maybe your mom was sad that you didn't pick Malaysia?
Emily: Yeah, cause I think. As a parent they have all lived in one country until
they grow up. And then they move. So, I think they don't really know
how it is like for the rest to move. And move and move.
The siblings’ discussion of their relationships to multiple places focuses on the
intergenerational conflict arising from the supposed home and their refusal of their idea
of a fixed home in their world of flux. We note that for expatriate youths their ideas of
home and belonging can be in conflict with family or nationality because of their
differing experiences, emplacement processes or because of constant rejections of
their claims of belonging, for instance due to their bodily appearance, as Kressi
Some students clearly see Shanghai as home. The two students from the German
School, Andrea and Antonia, for instance both refer to Shanghai as their home. Andrea
links this claim to having an everyday routine, to living here. She explains how she
feels returning from the summer break in Germany:
Andrea: I like coming back here. […] Now I can relax again. Now it is routine
again. Now I don’t have to live out of my suitcase anymore and so
on. In a way you come back home.71
Antonia’s point of view is similar to Andrea’s, even further emphasizing the “normality”
of coming home.
Antonia: How is it to come back from a vacation? Like for everyone else, I
believe. <L> I don’t think there is a big difference between us and
other people. Just home again. I go to my house and say hello to my
dog, my ayi, my house, my bed. [Interviewer: <L>] There is no
German original: [I]ch find das dann immer ganz schön hierher zurückzukehren. […] Jetzt kann ich mich
wieder entspannen. Jetzt ist wieder Routine. Jetzt muss ich nicht mehr aus dem Koffer leben und so. Man
kommt dann auch nach Hause zurück eigentlich.
difference. Well, I don’t know how it is supposed to be different from
other people.72
Andrea and Antonia both outline Shanghai as their home due to their current residence
and practices of routine in the city. Antonia’s statement “There is no difference. Well, I
don’t know how it is supposed to be different from other people“ demonstrates how she
sees no difficulties in defining the city as her home. Her answer also points to her
underlying annoyance provoked by the question. This might firstly be because she
senses that my position as a researcher is based on a latent assumption of difficulties
brought by the mobile lifestyle of expatriates, which she refuses. Secondly, this is
probably related to the fact that despite growing up in Shanghai, being fluent in
Chinese, and referring to herself as “Shanghainese,” as a child of mixed-marriage and
German nationality she might often not be accepted as such. She attributes diverse
notions of feeling at home to the city, although claiming belonging to Shanghai often
remains difficult as reciprocal processes of boundary drawing between “foreigners” and
“locals” remain prominent. But as Avtar Brah (1996, 193) has argued: “It is quite
possible to feel at home in a place and, yet, the experience of social exclusions may
inhibit public proclamations of the place as home.” Antonia thus emphasizes the idea of
Shanghai as her home, possibly also again feeling the need to convince me during the
interview as my questions were often considering the high mobility of students.
Antonia, however, mostly stayed put in Shanghai. This becomes obvious when she
distinguishes herself from other expatriate kids and repeatedly states that she grew up
in the metropolis.
Antonia: I think for me it is, I simply
Interviewer: You grew up here, didn’t you?
Antonia: grew up here.
Interviewer: Sure.
Antonia: Others are only here for one year. And, erm, I don’t think they are happy
about having a traffic jam again.
Interviewer: <L>
Antonia: For me it is simply, well, I totally grew up here.73
Talking about experiencing the city, I shared that I sometimes find Shanghai stressful,
but she emphasizes again:
Wie ist es aus dem Urlaub wieder zurückzukommen? So wie bei jedem glaube ich, also. <L> Ich glaub
nicht, dass da ein großer Unterschied ist von uns wie bei anderen Leuten. Ist halt wieder nach Hause. Ich
geh zu meinem Haus und sag meinen Hund hallo, meiner Ayi, meinem Haus, meinem Bett. [Interviewer:
<L>] Da ist kein Unterschied. Also ich weiß nicht was da anders sein soll als bei anderen Leuten.
German original: Ich glaube bei mir ist es auch so, ich bin halt hier [Interviewer: Du bist ja hier
aufgewachsenen, ne?] aufgewachsen. [Interviewer: Na klar.] Andere sind ja nur ein Jahr hier. Und ehm,
ich glaub nicht, dass die sich darüber freuen wenn es wieder Stau gibt. [Interviewer: <L>] Also bei mir ist
es einfach nur. Ja, ich bin hier total aufgewachsen.
Antonia: But, I don’t know. I don’t find it stressful. Because I am… I think that is
because I grew up here.74
As Andrea’s and Antonia’s positions show, everyday practices, the desire for routine as
well as (long-term) processes of emplacement contribute to students’ claiming
Shanghai as home, prioritizing the city to other places in their spatial networks.
However, we note that while many expatriate youth may feel at home in Shanghai,
public proclamations of the place as home remain difficult.
8.4. Concluding Thoughts on Home
A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up
again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. (Deleuze and Guattari
1987, 9)
Students’ narratives and practices have shown, home is not only anchored to a place,
but also tied to people (like relatives, friends and class mates), emotions (such as
“feeling safe”), objects (such as furniture, photographs, books), sensories (i.e. bakery
smells) and practices (like a family dinner). As Walsh succinctly put it, “The home is
experienced simultaneously as both a material and immaterial, lived and imagined,
localized and (trans)national space of belonging” (Walsh 2006a, 123). Home is
therefore not only a bifocal outlook on “homeland” and “current home” as former
conceptualizations suggest (see summary by Vertovec 2004), but a multi-focal one, a
network of homes. I have put forward that these diverse connections, can be best
understood as rhizomatic in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s (1987) understanding.
Unlike to a tree or its root, “which plots a point, fixes an order” (ibid.,7) the rhizome
“connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits
of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign
states” ( ibid., 21). It is in the same manner that the rhizomatic home connects all the
different regimes of people, practices, places, belongings, and belonging. My analysis
of the students’ rhizomatic home mapped the following aspects:
Firstly, concerning the localized and material space, the expatriate students
themselves are actively involved in the creation of home. They decorate their
bedrooms and sometimes other domestic spaces or they turn the house into home
through initiating and taking part in family activities. They transform the new site of
living into a meaningful space. These home-making practices help not only claiming
the current place of residence, but also serve to identify former places of living as
home. These different places are often still closely knit. For instance, I often witnessed
Aber, ich weiß nicht. Ich finde es nicht anstrengend. Weil ich bin. Ich glaube das liegt auch daran, dass
ich hier aufgewachsen bin.
that my informants’ friends who used to live in Shanghai still come to visit, tying their
new expat location to their old.
Secondly, the rhizomatic home is not a mere network of multiple postings, but the
former and current places of living usually coincide with the presence of the nuclear
family. It can therefore be said that regardless of how multiple and “uprooted” the
teenagers’ networks of homes seem, the underlying hegemonic idea of home as the
nuclear family staying together is prevailing in the majority of cases. Sometimes, as in
Kressi’s or Marco’s case, larger family can be important in the creation of the youth’s
networks of home as well. Melissa Butcher highlights the importance of transnational
relationships for migrants as tools to demarcate identity and claim belonging:
The shared meaning embedded in relationships reaffirmed the practices of
identity associated with that place. […] There is still an impulse to belong to a
place that is marked by characteristics of familiarity and comfort, including
elements of the national imagination. This is supported by the maintenance of
particular relationships to confirm that his identity and its associated practices
and values are shared and therefore of value. (Butcher 2009, 1369)
Besides the actual places of (former) living, home is understood as a feeling of
connectivity and belonging.
Thirdly, regarding these imagined and immaterial aspects of the rhizomatic home, my
discussions have shown that teenagers are continuously negotiating belonging in
relations to family members, peers, society, and many others – even objects. While for
some students imaginations of home coincide with their parents’ ideas or their passport
nationality, for others issues of belonging can also be a matter of conflict. These
conflictual feelings include negotiations such as claiming Shanghai home, but
remaining “an exotic animal” to Shanghai’s citizens, as Antonia described, or conflicts
with parents, as the siblings Emily and Jacob discussed. The problems of defining an
emotional space of belonging can also lay in experiences of exclusion due to bodily
differences, as Kressi has put forward in her difficulty of being German due to her
Asian phenotype. The idea of home for expatriate students is thus also rhizomatic as it
“always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (Deleuze and Guattari
1987, 25) and the concomitant feelings of belonging and positions of cultural identity
often are as well. I will explore these positions of cultural identity further in chapter
Fourthly, home can also be related to missing. Homelessness, as mentioned on all the
students’ posters, and homesickness, as described by Karina missing Prague and her
network there, or by Mia missing practices like the family dinner, were thus also seen
as part of the overall homing process.
Based on the idea of the rhizome, this chapter found that for many expatriate youths
home is always multiple and constantly in progress as well as negotiated in relations to
others; findings that can relate to the concept of “TCKs” (Pollock and Van Reken
[1999]2009) and Franke’s (2008) study mentioned in the beginning of the chapter.
However, the rhizomatic home it is also tied to concrete sites, belongings, and
practices. The privileged migrants might be used to a home in flux, nonetheless, place
takes an important role in their lives. One concept investigating the mediating
processes of belonging for migrants and the relations between their various spaces
that fits the experiences of expatriate youth better than the “Third Culture Kid” concept,
is Conradson’s and McKay’s (2007) theory of “translocal subjectivities.” Conradson and
McKay argue that mobility in particular “provides opportunities for new forms of
subjectivity and emotion to emerge” (2007, 168). In order to understand these
emerging emotions and understandings of self, the authors suggest the concept of
translocal subjectivities, based on Appadurai’s (1996) notion of translocality. The
concept aims “to describe the multiply-located senses of self amongst those who
inhabit transnational social fields” (Conradson and Mckay 2007, 168). The authors
understand translocal subjectivities firstly, as “emerging through both geographical
mobility and multiple forms of ongoing emplacement” (ibid.). Secondly, these translocal
subjectivities are often based on migrants relating to specific localities, rather than
nation states, their positioning, relations and experiences thus being more translocal
than transnational (ibid., 169). Thirdly, translocal subjectivities are shaped by “the
emotional and affective states accompanying mobility” (ibid.). All aspects describe the
expatriate youths’ subjective experiences.
Relating to the last aspect, the impact of emotions on the youths’ relations to the
concrete site of living, can also be traced in their home-making practices that can be
seen as coping mechanisms. Making and (re)imagining homes, collecting belongings
to produce belonging help to deal with feelings of loneliness, as ways to let the
rhizomatic home “start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (Deleuze and
Guattari 1987, 9).
When it comes to coping with feeling uprooted, children and youths also draw on the
resources of their new school. It is in these schools that they receive support,
especially by peers, to deal with the challenges. The following chapter nine therefore
explores the spaces of international schools and their role in processes of creating a
community for students and their families.
9. Making Community: The Role of International Schools
The school is actually the most important thing here. During the week
we spend our entire time here.75 (Giovanni, seventeen years old)
Here, friendships only form through school.76 (Bjoern, sixteen years old)
You only have this one environment, the school. 77 (Peter, eighteen
years old)
With remarks similar to these of the three teenage boys, all students confirm the
importance of the school in making friends, fighting loneliness, and offering a sense of
continuity. It provides the space to make new friends and re-establish a new social
circle outside the family. Eleven-year-old Allen explains the role of the school in the
following way:
Allen: Depending upon what your everyday life is, like, for instance, if you live
near lots of Chinese people and you go to a private Chinese school,
it makes a big impact. And then if you go to an international school, it
makes the moving a lot easier. Because everyone there, they’re in
the same, same space as everyone else around them, from moving
from their home country to somewhere other than their home country.
And also because of the communication, because it is easier to
communicate than with a lot of Chinese people.
What is this experience that Allen describes as everyone being in “the same space”?
What constitutes this liminal space that schools provide, where, according to Allen,
communication is easier and everyone feels unified through a common experience?
This chapter tries to answer these questions by examining the sites, values, practices,
and students’ experiences of international schools in Shanghai.
The chapter begins with a description of the international schools in Shanghai and their
common characteristics. Secondly, by using a short movie clip that was produced by
two students at a German school, it exemplifies the efforts schools make to create a
sense of community revolving around school. Thirdly, I argue that the different (school)
communities all see themselves as part of a larger unifying expatriate collective, where
everyone is in the “same space.” I show how this “expatriateness” is learned,
maintained, and performed along three aspects that were particularly prominent during
fieldwork: the common comfort lying in the norm of having a maid and a driver, the
social concern cultivated through practices of charity, and the distinctions maintained
through cosmopolitan cultural capital. Finally, I investigate the youths’ own experiences
of attending an international school in Shanghai by taking up their main narrative of
privilege and pressure.
German original: Giovanni: Die Schule ist ja eigentlich das Wichtigste hier. Wir sind auch unter der
Woche die ganze Zeit eigentlich hier.
German original: Bjoern: Freundschaft geht hier nur über die Schule.
German original: Peter: Man hat hier nur dieses eine Umfeld, die Schule.
9.1. Shanghai’s Landscape of International Schools
The private international schools in Shanghai are central places for expatriate youth.
Analyzing these schools, not in terms of academic curricula or achievements but as
particular places, they can be characterized by the five following attributions: Their
exclusion of Chinese students, the exclusion of foreign students without the financial
means to meet high tuition fees, their geographical locations in the suburbs, their strict
regulations and well-guarded gates, and their roles as expatriate community centers. I
will expand on these, in particular the last two aspects, to illustrate the role of the
school in (teenage) expatria:
The first main characteristic of the international schools in Shanghai is that students
with Chinese passports are excluded. International schools are a distinct sub-sector.
Within this sector, schools can be divided into foreign-run schools and divisions of local
schools. Both are targeted solely at foreign passport-holders. Shanghai’s numerous
international schools differ in curricula, teaching language, diplomas, the nationalities
of the student body of each, and their forms of organization. Yamato and Bray (2006,
79) found that “the English-medium schools were more international because they
used a language that has wide portability.” This agrees with my findings as the Frenchmedium and German-medium school had considerably less nationalities enrolled.
However, Chinese government regulations prohibit local children with Chinese
nationality from enrolling at any of these international schools (Yamato and Bray 2006,
64). In certain cases the Shanghai municipal authorities can grant exceptions to
Chinese individuals. During my research, however, I only met one student78 who had
been granted this permission. The resulting strong absence of locals therefore seems
to be a major difference to international schools elsewhere (see i.e. Dobeneck’s
descriptions of German-medium schools in Sao Paulo (2010, 115–118)).
The international schools in Shanghai are all charging fees. This is also the case for
schools that are run by non-profit agencies. Their tuition fees in 2010/2011 range from
approximately RMB 88,500 to 240,000 (9,735 € to 26,400 €) per year at the high
school level. In many cases, tuition costs are covered by the expatriate packages
provided by the parents’ employer. Some schools offer different fees for families paying
through private means. However, the second main characteristic of the international
schools in Shanghai is that they exclude students whose parents cannot afford the
tuition fees.
Yamato and Bray found that the schools find themselves in competition with each
other, in particular the English-medium schools (2006, 59;79). In consequence they try
Xia was the only Chinese passport-holder I met that was enrolled at the German school; his experience
is discussed further in chapter 14.5.
to find their own niches, sometimes also through location: “Schools can increase their
market shares by securing premises in the suburbs in which their potential clients are
concentrated” (ibid. 2006, 59). The choice of school and the choice of housing area are
connected. Thus a third main characteristic of the international schools is their location
on the outskirts of the city, in the vicinity of spacious gated communities as described in
the previous chapter.
Fourthly, international schools are highly regulated and sealed-off spaces. It is not
surprising that geographers of youth stress that the space of the school is underresearched (Valentine 2003, 42). Research involving minors and closed institutions is
complicated by difficulties of access. Many of my own email inquiries remained
unanswered, even though including letters of references, research outlines, my own
résumé and other information. Whenever I had opportunities to meet principals in
person, they were usually in favor of my research project, although the disruption of
school activities and regular classes was a concern. Some schools, like a British
international school located in Pudong, supported the project by contacting students
and parents and letting me conduct interviews in the schools premises. A German
school was even so kind to let me sit in on certain classes. A Singaporean school
principal and teacher were also supportive and found a solution that included me
teaching a Theory of Knowledge class and allowed me to conduct interviews. Being in
touch with an American school middle school counselor allowed me to see the school
facilities and meet teachers at a career development day for the staff. Interviews with
students, however, were denied as the school objected because of too much
organizational effort. The only other personal contact was with the principals of another
American international school. Here, although one language teacher and six of her
students were eager to participate, the school management objected. We had to
cancel the interviews despite students’, parents’, and teachers’ agreements. However, I
learned much about the school by visiting one elementary class in another capacity.
Although another British school never replied to my inquiries, I had the opportunities to
see their campus at a volunteer activity. For the students from a French school and
from a Christian American school, the path was different, as their friends whom I had
interviewed earlier introduced me to them. I took these interviews outside of school and
thus without any discussions with school management. As the German and French
campus are one, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the French school
setting. I did not have the opportunity to see the campus of the Christian American
school though. There are numerous other schools, from which I never received any
answers or which I simply could not include in my considerations due to constraints in
time and resources.
All of the schools are located at the outskirts of the city and are fenced off units that
regulate the access to their spaces. At every school I visited I had to get a visitor’s pass
before being allowed to enter, which I then had to wear around my neck for the day.
Policies vary from entering name, phone number, and the name of the person to be
visited, to identity checks and body temperature controls for health reasons. Some of
the schools even have a second wall around them because they are located within
gated communities, for example an American school I visited in Pudong. The following
image depicts this gated community. The photo is included to give an understanding of
international schools’ surroundings. However, as security guards in front of the school
interfered to prevent me from taking photos of the school and in order to keep
institutions anonymous, I cannot show the specific buildings.
Figure 14: A Gated Community Hosting an American School. Photo by M. Sander
These experiences of efforts to regulate access are of course less prominent for
students than for the researcher/outsider. However, schools with their dress codes
(some schools require school uniforms), schedules, and scheduled breaks are wellregulated spaces for students as well. Students from the German and French campus
have to enter and exit the school premises through doors equipped with card readers.
Only the upper grade students can exit these during the school day. However,
sometimes students sneak around these, risking working in the cafeteria as
Karina: Some for instance don’t pass through these check points, but through this
door instead. It is usually open. They just walk through it. The
Chinese that stand there, they don’t pay attention. That’s why,
because it’s open, you don’t need this card. They keep on introducing
new things, like blocking the cards, but the students always come up
with a new way to break out of school <L>.79
The fifth aspect of international schools in Shanghai is their role as community hubs.
Students’ lives obviously revolve around schools, the places of education, friendships,
and after-school activities such as sports or artistic hobbies. However, in many cases
the international schools in Shanghai seem to be not only the center point for children
but for the adult expatriate community as well. It is not surprising that a popular
parental guidebook for expatriates advises parents to become active at the school:
Finally, I want to stress again the importance of getting involved with your child’s
new school in an overseas setting. Not only will your child find this a positive sign
of your interest in them, but your involvement in the school community is a
wonderful way to help create a new “extended family” for celebrating holidays far
from home, traveling within the country, or just getting together with other parents
to compare notes on the weekend. If you stayed away from parents organizations
before you moved abroad (and let other parents handle all the volunteer work
that enhanced your child’s life), now’s your chance to repay that debt (Pascoe
2006, 142).
Many schools offer social activities for parents to meet or cultural activities for everyone
or at least everyone associated with the school to join. Some schools are more
ethnically focused in their activities and networks than others, but all have parents’
organizations and provide cultural activities, such as theater plays, dances, bazaars,
sport events or orientations. Schools also sell branded items such as yearbooks, Tshirts or school bags. Fiona Moore (2008) who examines the German school in London
(Deutsche Schule London) from an adults-only perspective found that it serves as a
center to the German community. “One of the DSL’s explicit functions is a site for the
adjustment and development of networks of the spouses of expatriates, with a
particular focus on female spouses” (Moore 2008, 94). She furthermore argues that this
important connection in the network for German expatriates in London “not only
educates the children, but also provides a forum for the expression of Germanness”
(Moore 2008, 91). 80 The international schools in Shanghai obviously form a similar
major knot in the expatriate networks, and their role can be described as what Simon
Turner described as a “safe haven”:
However, mobility does hold the potential for creating liminality: a space of
indeterminacy where established structures are put out of function. It is in these
situations of indeterminate meaning that some institutions – such as the family –
are put under pressure and forced to change […], while others – like some
religious and political movements – seem to flourish, lending themselves to the
German original: Aber manche die gehen zum Beispiel auch nicht durch diese Schalter durch, sondern
durch die Tür da. Die ist meistens immer offen. Die gehen einfach durch. Die Chinesen die da stehen, die
achten da ja nicht drauf. Deswegen, weil die einfach offen ist, da braucht man diese Karte nicht. Man führt
immer irgendwas ein, die Karten zu blockieren, aber den Schülern fällt immer irgendwie ein Weg ein um
aus dieser Schule auszubrechen <L>.
It is also my own German ethnicity that facilitated my access to the German School.
creation of new identities while guaranteeing some stability. Appealing to the
anxieties of mobility, such institutions may provide safe havens while being
immensely transnational themselves (S. Turner 2008, 1052).
The schools as “safe havens” and major knots in the expatriate networks have a strong
influence on expatriate ways of living. The British school I visited for example provides
a “Shanghai resident map” that in addition to the school campuses includes
compounds, foreign-run medical centers, churches, shopping locations, spas, cinemas
and favorite expat restaurants. The German school provides lists of popular residential
compounds online. While some school communities are strongly tied to national
communities – for instance the German school –, they all, however, see themselves as
part of the larger expatriate community. The expatriate experience is a unifying
framework based on the building up of an expatriate identity across national, cultural or
ethnic difference between the different communities in Shanghai. In the following I will
try to exemplify the schools’ pivotal and well-guarded roles as community centers
within the larger expatriate network in Shanghai, by zooming in on the German school
that I mainly worked with.
9.2. Image and Community
The international schools through various means actively support processes of national
as well as international expatriate community building and see themselves as major
centers in Shanghai’s expatria. One project that exemplifies the efforts schools make to
put forward the idea of a community revolving around school, is a short movie clip
produced by two students (Kressi and a friend) to be shown at an award81 ceremony in
Berlin. This five (4:49) minute movie clip opens with the school’s logo and claim
followed by a black screen and letters announcing: “präsentiert” [presents]. The next
shots are images filmed out of a car in motion that we recognize to be a typical
Shanghai taxi as the color of the vehicle and the driver’s taxi license reveal. Thereupon
a title is fading in to announce what the clip presents: “‘My Time Is Now’ Das
Zeitprojekt” [The time project] referring to a school art project for which the school won
a price, which is then announced in the next caption: “Kinder-zum-Olymp! –
Sonderpreis – Gewinner – 2011.” These images and texts are accompanied by
melodic whistling, the beginning of the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The
Magnetic Zeros. When the lyrics start “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa,”
the taxi ride changes to blurry images zooming in on Shanghai’s Bund and a Chinese
flag, a caption in white letters introduces “Shanghai, China, 上海.” Despite being
The competition “Kinder zum Olymp!” is organized by the cultural foundation of the German federal
states in coorperation with the Deutsche Bank Foundation. It awards individual art projects as well as
schools with strong arts-oriented profiles that manage to include the arts in everyday school life.
targeted at a German audience the Chinese characters are included in the caption,
presumably to emphasize the school’s special or even “exotic” location. The words
make room for the images. The flag and buildings become increasingly clearer. We
now definitely recognize the camera zooming in on the Bund with its iconic buildings.
While the Bund is still a blurred image we read: “21 Millionen Einwohner” [21 million
inhabitants], which then fades and reveals the full, and now focused image of the new
Pudong side of the Bund. A photo image of highroads and traffic signs with high rise
buildings in the background follows, the inserted text appearing and fading out simply
reads: “modern.”
Figure 15: Screenshots of a Student Video, Images of Shanghai, Minutes 0:19, 0:23, 0:25, 0:26, 0:29,
0:37, 0:42, and 0:45
The subsequent shot shows a temple yard with people burning incense, the capture
now reads: “traditionell zugleich” [traditional at the same time]. Images of the old lane
houses in Taikang Road follow, blending into a picture of metro signs and then again of
high rise buildings with the capture: “dynamische Wirtschaftsmetropole” [dynamic
commercial capital]. The white letters fade, the skyscrapers become sharp and then
quickly dissolve into numerous squares that turn around to lay open an image of the
school building. While the school building appears, blurs and is then again wellfocused, letters boldly announce: “Zuhause” [Home].
Figure 16: Screenshot of a Student Video, “Zuhause,” Minute 0:48
This image is followed by recordings of students entering and leaving school, played
fast forward with a new text line appearing, continuing the message of the last image:
“Für 1230 Schüler an zwei Schulstandorten” [For 1230 students on two campuses]. We
then, still in fast mode, enter the school premises. The music meanwhile makes us
almost sing along: “Home, HoOome, home, is wherever I’m with you.”
Figure 17: Screenshots of a Student Video, Entering the School, Minutes 0:53 and 1:00
Inside the school, we can observe for a few quick moments in fast-forward mode the
daily business of students running around and parents picking up their children. Then a
series of photographs follows introducing the viewer to numerous school projects and
events, such as music workshops, concerts, art projects (I will further explore one
project by student Andrea in chapter ten), yearbook awards, theater, and a graduation
Figure 18: Screenshots of a Student Video, Events and Audiences, Minutes 1:02, 1:17, 1:41, and 3:54
Four of the almost five minutes of the video clip present numerous activities, but no
daily routines or regular class room interactions that mainly shape everyday life at
school. Here, the school is presented as an active, arts-oriented, lively community, not
only depicting numerous projects and students, but also different audiences at these
events. In the very end, the video clip takes us back to the Bund, this time at night. The
city of Shanghai, depicted in the beginning and in the end, thus frames the images of
the school, staging the campus – that could be anywhere – as international. These last
shots are then headed with captions that wish us “Goodbye!” in Chinese and
“Greetings from Shanghai” in German, to then finally return to the school’s logo and
claim from the very beginning.
Figure 19: Screenshots from Student Movie, “Greetings from Shanghai,” Minutes 04:23 and 04:28.
In this short video clip the institution is staged as a lively community, framed by
recognizable images of Shanghai. When talking with student Kressi about the
production of the video, it becomes clear that it was filmed with the intention to
represent the school’s art life on the one hand, but the school as a whole on the other
Kressi: Everything had to be in it. The Fine Arts Center, all the events that took
place and some information about our school. So that we simply
show what our school actually does in terms of cultural life. What it is
generally like, how many students are here.82
Kressi and her friend were happy to shoot the movie on behalf of the school as she
enjoys being creative, but also because she and her friend this way earned the
opportunity to spend a weekend in Berlin. The movie therefore is not only a creative
product of two teenage girls, but is also a PR movie requested and somewhat paid for
(a trip to Europe) by the school. However, while the school ordered the depiction of
events and art and music projects, it was the two girls who chose to accompany the
images with the song. When I asked her about the choice of music she explains:
Kressi: Well, we looked through [our music] and then we just somehow liked the
song. The home, in fact. And. It was somehow, I don’t know, erm, it is
also somehow like... Shanghai is only like it is, because of the
people, or because of the people we know. And that’s why the song
just fitted really well. Well, we also liked the beat and we could nicely
cut the images along it.83
For Kressi school is tied to her friends and these friendships and connections mean a
feeling of home in the words of the song, or community. People, everyday practices
and imaginations, like these presented in the video, in a reciprocal process produce a
certain school image and/of community.
German original: Da musste halt alles drin sein. So Fine Arts Center, und diese ganzen Events, was da
halt war und auch so ein bisschen Informationen über unsere Schule. Einfach das wir mal zeigen was
unsere Schule eigentlich so an Kulturleben macht. Wie sie generell ist, wieviele Schüler hier sind.
German original: Also wir haben so durchgeschaut und dann hat uns das irgendwie sehr gefallen das
Lied. Das Zuhause eben. Und. Es war irgendwie, ich weiß gar nicht, ehm, es ist auch irgendwie so...
Shanghai ist nur so wegen der Leute, oder wegen der Leute die wir kennen. Und deswegen hat das
einfach mit dem Lied richtig gut gepasst. Also es hat uns auch gefallen vom Beat und da konnten wir gut
die Bilder zu schneiden.
In this process the school’s material culture also plays a role. Gerd Baumann and Thijl
Sunier (2002, 34–36) in their detailed description and comparison of four different
comprehensive schools in Paris, London, Berlin and Rotterdam already see in the
ways the school premises are decorated and managed, different national ideas of
citizenship reflected; the school gate in particular being symbolic for attitudes and
practices of the particular nation state’s ideas of managing ethnic diversity and political
engagement. David MacDougall’s (2006) concept of social aesthetics emphasizes how
this specific material culture, a school’s premises, the equipment, and the regulations
revolving around these, affects the students engaging with this environment on a daily
basis. With “social aesthetics” he describes “the creation of an aesthetic space or
sensory structure” (2006, 105). Aesthetics here do not mean notions of beauty or art,
but a “wider range of culturally patterned sensory experience” (ibid.,98). MacDougall
understands the social aesthetic field as a coalescence of different elements such as
“objects and actions.” Analyzing the social aesthetic field means focusing on a specific
community and its landscape – its material environment as well as the humdrum
practices taking place in this environment. MacDougall suggests, based on his work on
the prestigious Doon School in India, that societies “may find in the sharing of a strong
aesthetic experience a unifying principle” (ibid., 99). The social aesthetics in the spaces
of the German international schools therefore can also be seen as serving to create
students’ senses of belonging. MacDougall suggests paying attention to specific
objects in relation to daily practices.
The social aesthetic field is never mutual or random: its patterning creates forces
and polarities with strong emotional effects. Ordinary objects with which one
comes in daily contact take on a particular aura, and this aura is augmented by
repetition and multiplication. (MacDougall 2006, 111)
While this aura of repetition is not presented in the video clip that instead stresses
community events, it is omnipresent in the everyday school life for expat youths. This
aura of repetition is for instance evoked by the routine passing of the school gates with
the student IDs as keys in the morning, the seeking out of one’s place in the rarely
changing seating arrangement in the classrooms, or the habitual waiting for the
teachers. Specific structures further shape the social aesthetics, whether it is the
precisely measured units of lessons and breaks, the rules of where and when to eat,
the order of who is allowed to take the elevator or who must use the stairs – a big issue
at the Singaporean school I visited –, or the regulations about leaving the premises.
These routines provide a sense of community to the students. It is therefore not
surprising that only after comprehending all these rules that were somehow self-evident
for the students, I started feeling comfortable at school (see field notes of a day at
school under chapter 4.2).
The school events – such as those presented in the student PR film –, however, help
the school capture and present itself as a community and include parents and other
(German) adults. I myself, for instance, also gained access to the German school
through such an event. Fiona Moore, in her article on the German school in London,
shows that the networking revolving around the school actively aims at the creation of
a new generation of young German transnational actors, for example through providing
students with internships at prestigious institutions (Moore 2008, 97). Taking a more
sensitive look at the role of Shanghai’s international schools reveals that these not only
play a key role in creating a home or community for students, but also promote
identifications with an international expatriate community. Schools are powerful
institutions educating and shaping forms of belonging to a national or school
community, but also to a unifying expatria.
9.3. Learning and Living “Expatriateness”
The sense of an expatriate community is produced through various means under the
strong influence of international schools. The creation of and belonging to expatria can
be seen as diasporic forms of community creation and simultaneously understood as a
class or habitus
consciousness, rendered visible through everyday (material)
practices, identity performances, and the accumulation of cultural capital. Before
drawing on three cases in point from my fieldwork to support these arguments, I like to
briefly discuss the role of education in forming a community, class, or habitus and
explain my choice of the term “expatriateness.”
As Butler (2003) noted, education is inextricably linked to the existence and
recreation of a middle-class habitus that includes a closely guarded sub-culture
of ‘community’. (Waters 2007, 480)
In her article “’Roundabout routes and sanctuary schools’: the role of situated
educational practices and habitus in the creation of transnational professionals”
Johanna Waters (2007) examines the formation of transnational professionals in Hong
Kong. As children’s education has been a major reason for leaving Hong Kong, her
study focuses particularly on the role of (international) education and the complex
familial strategies centered on it. Her case studies in Hong Kong and Vancouver
suggest “the active creation of group boundaries and the cultivation and inculcation of
an exclusive identity through segregation and similar education and migration
Habitus, as defined by Bourdieu in “The Forms of Capital,” can be understood as a person’s
unconscious embodiment of cultural capital over time (1986, 244–245). Habitus, however, simultaneously
describes the formative relations between individuals and their socio-cultural surroundings, as Bourdieu
argues in his work Distinction - a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984, 170): “The habitus is not
only a structuring structure, which organizes practices and the perception of practices, but also a
structured structure: the principle of division into logical classes which organizes the perception of the
social world is itself the product of internalization of the division into social classes.”
experiences” (Waters 2007, 492). Waters’s description of the creation of group
boundaries provides a very different reading of the same phenomenon that the “Third
Culture Kids” Theory (Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009) so positively presents as a
healing experience of belonging for mobile children. Education and habitus among
transnational professionals in Hong Kong therefore create a group that is both spatially
and socially distinct. While international schools and overseas schooling “is clearly the
preserve of the wealthy and privileged,” Waters also argues “it is often used as a
means of avoiding failure in the local (and far more ‘challenging’ and competitive)
system.” Waters concludes that education “plays a pivotal role in the creation of an
exclusive and elite group identity” and that this distinctive group identity is “rewarded in
the labour market” (Waters 2007, 494). Michael Hartman’ research on social origin and
educational trajectories in the business elite in Germany and France (Hartmann 2000)
similarly found that a class-specific habitus is decisive in a direct sense in Germany
and indirectly through the attendance of elite universities in France for an individual’s
career. He argues that “it is a class-specific habitus that ensures the high stability of
social recruitment” and that it “can forge a sufficient internal bond even without such an
institutionalization of ‘cultural capital’ in education” (Hartmann 2000, 258).
The significance of a distinctive habitus in the creation of an exclusive class or
community of transnational professionals is evident in my research in Shanghai as well.
As for the group of transnational professionals in Hong Kong studied by Waters (2007),
the international education of expatriate offspring, I argue, plays a major role in forging
bonds and creating an exclusive group identity. The opportunity to attend an
international school is an argument for the move, as well as pride and status gain for
many families. A German mother of three children (age seven to fourteen), I
interviewed during former fieldwork in 2007, for instance, explains how the option for
international schooling has influenced her choice to move to Malaysia and later
German Mother: One reason to move abroad is always that the children have the
opportunity to learn English. Our children don’t go to the German
school, but attend an English school, an international school with an
English curriculum. And we always find this quite good. That there
they have the chance to broaden their horizon, to learn another
German original: Ein Beweggrund in’s Ausland zu gehen ist dann immer, dass die Kinder halt auch die
Möglichkeit haben Englisch zu lernen. Unsere Kinder gehen nicht in die deutsche Schule, sondern die
gehen auf eine englische Schule, eine internationale Schule mit englischem Curriculum. Und das finden
wir immer ganz gut. Dass sie da die Möglichkeit haben ihren Horizont zu erweitern, eine andere Sprache
zu lernen.
The young actors of my study, all in the process of formal education, are all acquiring
this distinctive habitus, best labeled as expatriate, drawing from their education and
different networks and contribute to the family’s belonging to the community.
I here keep using expatriate to refer to the network of mobile professionals and their
families. Most expatriates might simply be and see themselves as “middle class.” At
first sight Conradson and Latham’s term of “‘middling’ forms of transnationalism” 86
(2005, 229) seems fitting.
What is striking about many of the people involved in these kinds of transnational
travels is their middling status position in their countries of origin. They are often,
but not always, well educated. They may come from wealthy families, but more
often than not they appear to be simply middle class. In terms of the societies
they come from and those they are travelling to, they are very much of the
middle. (Conradson and Latham 2005, 228)
I can easily identify with and categorize my own movement in Conradson and Latham’s
term of “‘middling’ forms of transnationalism,” however, there seems to be a difference
to the expatriate families. While most of these families might be middle class “in terms
of the societies they come from,” they are certainly not in China where “they are
travelling to.” Their lifestyle includes the services of maids and drivers, private
schooling, regular international travel and vacations and their financial status is not
comparable to Chinese middle class.
The term “elite,” nevertheless, proves difficult as well. Firstly, I am hesitant to apply it to
my research group as it is “a term of reference, rather than self-reference,” as George
Marcus (1983a, 9) pointed out. Secondly, I find the term “elite” unsuited for my
research perspective due to its research tradition. 87 My focus on expatriate youths’
Conradson and Latham argue that research in transnationalism has overseen these people, while often
focusing on migrants moving between Central America, the Caribbean, and North America. The authors
therefore propose a few examples of other forms of transnational mobility that they term “middling” and
that “similarly involve repeated movement and the maintenance of enduring ties across international
borders,” such as studying or taking gap years or career sabbaticals abroad (Conradson and Latham
2005, 229).
In the 1980s George Marcus summarized the research on elites, whether taking a “’pluralist view’” or the
“’power elite’ view” (1983a, 13), as having “failed to pay systematic attention to the cultures and forms of
life of those indentified as elites” (ibid. 25). While, on the one hand, Marcus considered the anthropology of
elites suitable to fill this lacuna in research, he, on the other hand, regarded the earlier research
frameworks of contrasting elites to the masses as “the least adequate for empirical investigation” (ibid. 13).
For the ethnographer, relating elites to corporate systems, rather than to specific people, requires
the ability to define closely observed subjects as elites, not in relavistic terms which would be
appropriate for small-scale societies, but in reference to the total larger system in which they are
elites. Thus, selection of elites as enthographic subjects presupposes considerable prior knowledge
or guesswork about the nature of the larger system in which it is meaningful to label them as elites
(Marcus 1983a, 13).
Marcus also saw the term “elite” “in its manifestation as an Anglo-Amercian research tradition” (1983a, 25)
as an “uncertain guide” to how it can be applied to research on elites in a range of different societies.
Almost two decades later, Shore and Nugent (2002) edited another collective volume on the study of elites
in anthropology, which is still connecting to similar issues and questions as in the anthology edited by
Marcus (1983b). It further stresses the anthropology of elites as “an exercise in political reflexivity” since it
voices, which allows for the in-depth analysis of age-specific and subjective
experiences of transnational migration, cannot simultaneously center on the “nature of
the larger system in which it is meaningful to label them as elites” (Marcus 1983a, 13).
Therefore, I find the term “elite” misleading for my analysis of the processes of building
community, status, habitus, and class in the realm of the students’ schools and their
environment. These entangled negotiations of a community/habitus/class shall
therefore rather be described as practicing “expatriateness.”
The expatriate community in Shanghai is diverse in many ways and holds its inner
divisions of belonging to different classes, ethnicities, and nationalities. It consists of its
many specific groups revolving around certain clubs 88 – often tied to nationality –,
institutions, companies, neighborhoods, or other organizations. Here, the international
schools play a lead role. People connected to the German School for instance, despite
all differences constitute themselves as a group, one small community in expatria. Most
youths and their families would at the same time see a larger expatriate network
existing in Shanghai and, for example by labeling various places they frequent as
“expatriate,” consider themselves as part of Shanghai’s overall expatriate community.
The making of this expatriate community, can be looked at in the same way
anthropologist Cris Shore (2002) discusses the making of elites, drawing on Bourdieu’s
(1984) notion of “distinction”:
[I]n order to constitute itself as an elite in the first place an elite group must
develop its own particularistic set of interests, norms and practices to differentiate
itself from the masses. It must achieve ‘distinction’ […]. (Shore 2002, 2–3)
Regarding the distinction of elite groups, Shore sees the question of “how they do this”
and the examination of the “cultural resources they mobilise and the way they cultivate
functions” as important issues for anthropology (ibid., 3). In order to understand how
expatriate youths “do this,” or learn “expatriateness,” I investigated spatial practices but
also other forms of everyday activities that serve to create and perform a distinct
collective expatriate identity. There are many such subtle practices of creating and
maintaining this “expatriateness” – be it through sharing educational values or through
demarcation towards those “back home” or towards local Shanghainese. I like to use
three examples that appeared particularly relevant during fieldwork to tease out how
“expatriateness” is performed, maintained, and taught among expatriate youths: firstly,
obliges anthropologists to position themselves “more self-consciously in relation to the wider system of
power and hierarchy within anthropological knowledge is constructed” (Shore 2002, 2).
For detailed insights into expatriate clubs and their role in the everyday life, see Beaverstock’s (2011)
article “Serving British Expatriate ‘talent’ in Singapore: Exploring Ordinary Transnationalism and the Role
of the Expatriate Club”; for ethnographic accounts of expatriate associations and clubs in the lives of
female expatriates, so called “accompanying spouses” see Fechter’s (2007a) descriptions of the German
Women’s Association in Jakarta in Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia.
the common comfort lying in the norm of having a maid and a driver, secondly, the
social concern cultivated through practices of charity and social outreach work, and
thirdly, the distinctions maintained through their cosmopolitan cultural capital.
Example 1: Common Comfort
Antonia: When I hear expat children talk, ey, then I think what kind of shitheads
are they?! […] ‘My ayi, my driver.’ All these servants. <L> […] But it
doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t feel as if we were totally, no idea.
That’s not a chauffeur, with servants and so on. But it’s just simply an
ayi and a driver. It doesn’t feel particularly [special].89
Antonia, on the one hand, recognizes the privileged ways of living in Shanghai for
expatriate youths, but on the other hand, does not associate privilege or luxury with
staff at home, but quotidian, ordinary life. Her double perspective, maybe triggered by
my presence as researcher, reminds me of Conradson and Latham’s call to look at the
ordinary underlying transnational mobility:
Viewed from this quotidian angle, even the most hyper-mobile transnational elites
are ordinary: they eat; they sleep; they have families who must be raised,
educated and taught a set of values. They have friends to keep up with and
relatives to honour. While such lives may be stressful and involve significant
levels of dislocation, for those in the midst of these patterns of activity, this effort
is arguably simply part of the taken-for-granted texture of daily existence.
(Conradson and Latham 2005, 228)
The ordinary of quotidian comfort is usually put in perspective in comparison to life in
the (parents’) home countries. Giovanni, after his return from a summer holiday “at
home” in Switzerland, for instance, replies to my questions inquiring the experience of
coming back to Shanghai by stressing the comfort life in Shanghai provides.
Giovanni: I then realize that life is quite comfortable again. Because the driver
waits for you. Because in Switzerland you don’t have that sort of
thing. And then I actually realize again and again how comfortable
the life here is. That is actually the biggest difference, I think, that the
life here is much more comfortable. If you live in a city in Europe, you
just have to do a lot yourself, I think.90
His fellow student Andrea, during a follow-up interview around the same time, reflects
in a similar way about her stay in Germany and her return to Shanghai.
German original: [Wenn ich] Expatkinder reden höre, ey, dann denke ich was sind denn das für
Scheißkinder?! […] „Meine Ayi, mein Fahrer.“ Die ganzen Bediensteten. <L> […] Aber es fühlt sich gar
nicht so an. Also es fühlt sich nicht so an als wären wir so total, keine Ahnung. Das ist ja kein Chauffeur,
und mit Bediensteten und so. Sondern das ist halt so eine Ayi und halt ein Fahrer. Das fühlt sich jetzt gar
nicht irgendwie [besonders an].
German original: Ja, dann merk ich eigentlich, dass das Leben wieder ganz bequem ist. Weil der Fahrer
dann wartet. Weil in der Schweiz hat man ja so was nicht. Und dann merk ich eigentlich immer wieder wie
bequem das Leben hier ist. Das ist eigentlich der größte Unterschied, denke ich, dass das Leben hier viel
bequemer ist. Wenn man in Europa in einer Stadt wohnt, muss man halt schon viel selber machen, denke
Andrea: Well, I found life in Germany this summer quite exhausting. You have to,
well, life is just easier here. Life has much more luxury. 91
Marco, during an interview with Peter in May 2011, comments on the strong financial
situation of expatriate families by comparing students’ possessions of mobile phones in
his former school and his school in Shanghai.
Marco: You notice that the people here have more money. Well, I used to attend
a public school in Germany. And there, erm, for example nobody had
an iPhone. And here, about half of the class has one. That is a huge
difference. You notice the differences. That people who come here
are actually more like, like. The families who come here, the fathers
have higher positions and therefore more money.92
Marco’s comment directly addresses the privileged financial status that the expat
community shares and how this can be seen in expat students’ material culture, not
only at their homes, but also at school. Housekeepers, drivers, and expensive
electronic equipment turn the financial privileges of expatriate life visible and become
the norm of expatriate lifestyle associated with “luxury” or – in the quotidian practices –
with “comfort.” Marco, recalling how in the beginning he had objections to move
abroad, states that he does not regret the move as his life is “better” in Shanghai.
Marco: I think my life is better here than it would be in Germany.93
Bjoern, only about six months after his move to Shanghai, in a group discussion with
Don and Alex, voices that he sometimes feels uncomfortable with the expatriate
Bjoern: [I miss] acting a bit chavvy. <x> from my environment. I used to be…
Interviewer: Acting a bit chavvy? <L>
Bjoern: Yes […]. Especially among the Germans. Here, for example, teachers
[star at you/scold you] for coming to school in loose sweat pants <x>.
And in Germany that wasn’t a problem at all. One always wants a bit
of high life here. That’s the problem. I can’t deal with that.94
Maybe these reflections on the common comfort as “luxury” or “high life” are one cause
for the second element I observed as crucial for the building of collective expatriate
identities: the willingness to engage in charity work.
German original: Also ich fand das Leben in Deutschland diesen Sommer ziemlich anstrengend. Man
muss eben viel, also, hier ist das eben leichter. Das Leben hat viel mehr Luxus.
German original: Man merkt schon, dass hier die Leute mehr Geld haben. Also, ich war früher auch an
einer öffentlichen Schule. Und da war halt, ehm, zum Beispiel hatte niemand ein Iphone. Und hier, hat
ungefähr die Hälfte der Klasse welche. Das ist halt schon ein krasser Unterschied. Man merkt schon die
Unterschiede. Dass hier halt mehr so die Leute hinkommen, die auch so so. Oder die Familien
hinkommen, wo der Vater halt die höhere Position hat und insofern mehr Geld hat.
German original: Ich glaub mein Leben ist hier besser als es in Deutschland wäre.
German original: [Mir fehlt hier ein] bisschen asozial Getue. <x> aus meinen Umfeld. Ich war ja in …
[Interviewer: Asozial Getue? <L>] Ja. […] Gerade bei den Deutschen. Hier wird man zum Beispiel von den
Lehrern [komisch angeschaut/zurechtgewiesen] […] wenn man mal mit so einer weiten Jogginghose in die
Schule kommt <x>. Und in Deutschland war das überhaupt kein Problem. […] Man will hier immer so ein
bisschen high life. Das ist hier so das Problem. Damit komm ich nicht zurecht.
Example 2: Cultivated Concern
The illustrated connections through a common certain minimum of material wealth and
displayed class status contribute to the meaning of “expatriateness.” Meaning that will
dissolve if the relations are not repeatedly performed. “Expatriateness” therefore is also
a performance (Goffman 1966). One practice contributing to the performance of an
expatriate community is charity work. When very early in my fieldwork I consulted
different websites providing help for expatriates living in Shanghai, I registered for an
event in September 2010 called Interkom CityServe that was directed at teenagers.
Interkom is the youth program of the Community Center Shanghai that offers various
courses and activities for the expatriate community. For the CityServe different
outreach organizations were presenting their works at the community center in the
Jingqiao district and teenagers had the opportunity to contact these organizations in
person and to get involved in social outreach work in Shanghai. First impressed by the
high show-up, I later in conversations with students found out that community work is
part of the mandatory curriculum, if you pursue an International Baccalaureate. Social
outreach work is thus a must for all students at many of the international schools.
Consequently, I registered for a so-called “sorting party” organized by the social
outreach organization Rivers of Hearts in October 2010. The organization had been
collecting clothing donations over the last months. I spent six hours sorting clothes to
go to rural areas in China and hereby had glimpses at yet another part of expatriate
life. Working at a table with three teenage girls from Taiwan, I learned through short
conversations in between the shouts of “Men Winter? Women summer! Children
winter!”, “What do we do with towels? Shoes? Hats?” that many students were here
communally from their school and were awarded credit points afterwards. The students
from the school of the three girls I worked alongside were accompanied and
supervised by a social worker from their school. While constantly running to bring
clothes to the packing station or to get new piles of unsorted donations, I counted an
estimate of 200 people attending the event, mostly teenagers, although young children
from a girl and boy scout troop as well as a group of American college students on long
haul travel and a few older adults, mostly teachers, helped out as well. The clothes had
all been donated by expatriates in Shanghai and the event was entirely in expat hands,
too. Everybody was in high spirits in the beginning and convinced of the good cause of
the event. Only in the end, when the truck was packed and cleaning and tying shoes
together were the last tasks to remain, students started to leave, tired from the work.
Figure 20: Community Work: Teenage Boys Loading Donated Clothes and Admiring their Day’s Work.
Photo by M. Sander
While the German school I focused on pursued the German Abitur and thus social
outreach work was not mandatory, the role of charity had also become an integral part
of their community. When in spring 2011, for instance, the devastating earthquake hit
Japan, the older students organized a bake sale to collect money.
Figure 21: Bake Sale at a German School. Photo by M. Sander
While observing the older students selling and the younger students buying the homemade (mostly by students’ mothers) cake during school break, I learned that the school
principal himself had approached students to encourage them to organize such an
event. The role of the school in communicating the importance of social outreach work
becomes clear in this case as well. Cultivating concern for the social and ecological
problems of today’s world is not only part of schools’ lesson plans. This concern is also
expressed through charity work that simultaneously reaffirms collective expatriate
identities as compassionate donors and managers of global problems. It is this claiming
of a global outlook, however, that particularly unites and fosters the expatriate
Example 3: Convenient Cosmopolitanism
When visiting international schools I could not oversee the preference for decorating
school buildings with various national flags. Indeed, it were often even these flags that
let me recognize the school building at first sight.
Figure 22: Four Different International Schools: Flags as Decoration. Photos by M. Sander
The schools use flags, often representing all nationalities enrolled at the schools, also
in the inside to decorate corridors as the first and fourth image above show. These
banners are an element to the “social aesthetics” (MacDougall 2006) of all international
schools. The pride taken in the internationality of a school community, rendered visible
for every student and visitor in these flags, is also mirrored in the students’ narratives of
international school life. When during an interview in June 2012 just after graduating,
student Kressi comments, as I heard so often, on the internationality and diversity of
her classmates, I provocatively state that the German school might not even be very
international as most of the students have German nationality. Kressi, however, insists
and explains:
Kressi: The point is, it isn’t the[ir] cultures themselves, rather the cultures in which
the people have lived. And […] this is also what defines them. They
always had new knowledge. And there were always people who, so
many people who saw new things, something you didn’t know yet.
Many things you already know as well, all people know, but somehow
from other perspectives. And it is interesting how all this comes
together, through stories and so on. It is not necessarily cultures, but
everyone is so different here. You’ve simply had so many extremely
different experiences. In my old class, for instance, there were two
students who had moved almost every two years. And they were
sixteen, seventeen years young, and had already been I don’t know
where in the world.95
Kressi’s description of the different “perspectives,” “stories,” and “experiences” students
share due to the “cultures in which the people have lived,” illustrates how she sees
classmates not simply tied to one culture, but as individuals whose practices and
cultural identities are shaped by a plurality that relates to the ideas of transculturation
that I introduced in chapter 2.4. In the realm of school and education, however, I think
students’ experiences of processes of transculturation, of experiencing different places
as crucial of “what defines them,” are better conceptualized as “globality,” as defined by
Jana Binder (2005). The German ethnographer Jana Binder (2005) interprets and
summarizes backpackers’ travel experiences in Asia and convincingly argues that longterm travellers develop their narratives of the trip along their competence to deal with
the challenges of a globalizing world. She terms these experiences and their
representations, such as being in a certain place, experiencing oneself in a different
environment, meeting other nationalities, or changing one’s common lifestyle,
“globality.” She further argues that this “globality” should be understood as a cultural
resource in the Bourdieusian sense: as capital. Through the example of young
backpackers, Binder shows how knowledge of contemporary processes of change and
their associated discourses are turned into cultural capital and can be used
advantageously (2005, 215). Applying her understanding of “globality” of travelling
experiences as cultural capital that can be beneficial in the future, particularly with
regard to careers, to the moving practices of expatriate teenagers, brings similar views
to the fore. The accumulation of different place-experiences is seen by teenagers and
their parents to bring status and competences, “globality.” Similar to Binder (2005),
Desforges (1998), who explores the way in which British middle class youths negotiate
German original: Das Ding ist halt, dass, ehm, es eher nicht die Kulturen alleine sind, sondern die
Kulturen in denen die Leute gelebt haben. Und […] das macht sie auch aus. Und die haben immer neue
Kenntnisse gehabt. Und es gab immer Leute, so viele Leute die haben was Neues gesehen, was gesehen
was du noch nicht kanntest. Vieles kennt man auch, also kennen alle Leute, aber von anderen Seiten
irgendwie. Und das ist halt interessant wie das halt zusammen kommt und von Erzählungen und so. Also
es ist nicht unbedingt Kulturen, aber man ist hier so verschieden. Man hat einfach so extrem verschiedene
Erfahrungen gemacht. Zum Beispiel in meiner alten Jahrgangsstufe gab es zwei die sind fast jede zwei
Jahre umgezogen. Und die waren dann halt mit ihren sechzehn, siebzehn Jahren schon, schon ich weiß
nicht wo alles auf der Welt.
and build their identities through travel, claims that young people convert the cultural
capital they gather from their independent travels into economic capital in the
workplace upon their return. Desforges’s article demonstrates that through their travel
youths, as Valentine has summarized, “participate in a process of othering and
constructing first world representations of the third world, while simultaneously earning
themselves a privileged position in the West” (Valentine 2003, 45). As student Kressi
argues, the exchange of the experiences of various different places, cultural practices
and values within the school community provide students with a variety of “new things”
and/or “other perspectives” – or, in other words, “globality” as cultural capital. Binder’s
notion of “globality,” however, does not describe the degree of integration and
entanglement of global experiences – the processes of transculturation –, but looks at
them as experiences gathered to be beneficial in the future. Likewise, the experiences
described by Kressi are seen by many students as helpful to gain a privileged position
in the future. As sixteen-year-old student Lara phrased it:
Lara: And they [her parents] decided that an international school abroad, later in
your CV, will be well received. If you speak foreign languages,
several languages, this will go down well. Experience of life, that you
just see something different.96
Lara’s quote further substantiates that growing up abroad and receiving an
international education is linked to the idea of “globality” as cultural capital. Her way of
imagining a future CV proves this particularly well. Nevertheless, the age-specific
context has to be kept in mind, where parents play a major role in planning their
children’s lives and making decisions in their “best interest” (see for instance the
discussions about the move to Shanghai in chapter five). Some attributions to the idea
of “globality” drawn by Binder’s study on backpackers, such as the counterdraft to
everyday life and a special time for development and self-fulfillment are therefore not
part of the expatriate youth’s self-understanding. Youths consider being abroad as
everyday life. The conceptualization of “globality” as the awareness of cultural
resources that fit into globalized ways of living and subsequently serve as an important
identity resource, however, is applicable to expatriate youths in Shanghai. It is the
school that helps to provide, foster, and turn the youths’ global experiences into
“globality” as part of their educational ambitions as well as part of establishing their
community markers and values. An international school fosters an international
community that can see itself as open-minded, diverse, and cosmopolitan without
specifically including the local neighborhood, Shanghai, or China. These are only used
German original: Und [ihre Eltern] sind halt zu dem Entschluss gekommen. Internationale
Auslandsschule. Wenn man später, Lebenslauf kommt gut an. Wenn man andere Sprachen spricht,
mehrere Sprachen spricht, kommt's gut an. Lebenserfahrung, einfach, dass man mal was anderes sieht.
as yet another stage to experience difference contributing to their “globality.” While
expatriate youths and their families thus create their own communities, often revolving
around schools, they practice demarcation towards “locals” in Shanghai as well as
those back “home” – both perceived as lacking international experience. Similar to how
Brosius, investigating the everyday lives of India’s middle class, conceptualizes
cosmopolitanism as “a practice of status-creation” (2010, 26), the students and their
families use the educational environment and the surrounding network to mediate their
My three examples showed how “expatriateness” is performed, maintained, and taught
among expatriate youths under the influence of the international schools. Despite
differences in nationality, class, or ethnicity a distinctive unifying group consciousness
as expatriate youth is acquired and maintained through the networks of international
schools. Looking at the everyday dimensions of transnational mobility at an
international school, I highlighted the significant amounts of energy, resources, and
organization that go into building and sustaining a community with its distinct practices
and norms. It became apparent that acquiring the habitus of an expatriate, to claim
belonging to an expatriate community goes hand in hand with processes of
cosmopolitanism and diversity, demarcation is an essential part in claiming these
values and turning them into useful capital as “globality.” As David Ley has argued,
“cosmopolitanism itself is always situated, always imbued with partiality and
vulnerability” (Ley 2004, 162). The performance of a collective expatriate identity is
thus not only tied to aspiring and learning cosmopolitan values, but simultaneously to
practices of demarcation towards peers perceived as less mobile, globally connected,
and educated. For many students a school’s “nationality” does not necessarily
correspond to their own nationalities and the school is therefore seen as providing
international orientation.
Nationality, in addition to the choice of school, however, still also provides a major
marker along which various expatriate communities align themselves. It is therefore not
surprising that access to a German school and German expatriate community proved
easier for me than to other (school) communities. While I have set my focus on the
schools’ impact on the process of creating collective expatriate identities, it can
therefore also be said that sometimes among expatriate communities, in Fechter’s
words, “national boundaries are still anxiously guarded” (Fechter 2007a, 110). Despite
the efforts made to sustain a sense of community, the student body (as well as staff
and parents) at the different international schools is highly diverse and internal divides
exist. These internal dividing lines might be even stronger at schools with a larger
student body and a higher ethnic and national diversity than the German school I
worked at, as my discussions with teachers and students from British and American
international schools suggest. Danau Tanu’s article focusing on these hierarchical
divides and the ideal of being “international” at an international school in Jakarta,
succinctly summarizes these internal school dynamics:
Money and cultural hierarchies influence perceptions and interactions that take
place on campus. Racial and other identity labels are sometimes used to signify
status and cultural difference, but their meanings constantly shift and at times
bear no semblance to actual physical appearance. Various forms of social
assets, such as language, accents, mannerisms, and money, are used to mark
and vie for status. Thus, being “international” is not a straightforward matter.
International schools may be a multicultural bubble, but it is a bubble that is not
immune to the dynamics at work in the world outside the school gates. (Tanu
2011, 231)
As Tanu’s findings show, the student bodies of international schools are highly diverse
and crisscrossed by many dividing lines under the cover of a school community and
collective habitus.
The different stances of students on the experiences of international education that are
presented in the next section allow for a few glimpses into these dividing lines
underlying school communities. The section captures expatriate youths’ reflections
upon going to an international school by taking up their main narrative of privilege and
9.4. Privilege and Pressure: Youths’ Experiences of School
Paul: They have like a high standard of learning and if you don't have good
grades, you get kicked out of school. Or it depends in the schools.
There are warning systems and stuff. My school, if you have like a C,
all the parents get emails, all the teachers get emails, you are like
blacklisted. You have to have As or Bs to like do stuff at my school. If
you have a C, forget about it. Parents are called and stuff. It is really
a tough type. But on the other hand all the teachers are really nice.
“Tough type” but “really nice,” as Paul, student at a Christian American school in
Shanghai, puts it, succinctly summarizes the discourse about their schools among the
international students. It is a discourse I came across in various narratives revolving
around the privilege but also pressure of international education.
Fourteen-year-old Keith from Singapore for example praises the positive aspects, the
privileges of international education.
Keith: Well, I think, academic wise, the school is very open, to erm, every
student. Especially in the international school, because they are
dealing with very different cultures. So, for one the school is very
open. So, it teaches different things at different levels, for different
students. Like some are better in English, some are so-so. They split
them into groups, and just, I think it is very helpful and effective in
teaching them. And they also have lots of extra-curriculum activities.
Like sports and other forms of activities. And I think that is good,
because it helps, teach, and educate in a very different and
interesting way.
Keith, visiting an international British school in Shanghai, is clearly proud of his
educational institution and during the group interview continuously stresses its quality.
He describes his school as “open” and attending to the different needs of a diverse
student body. Many students described their educational experiences in similar ways.
German student Peter, reflecting on his education, regarded the privileged learning
environment as rendering school easier.
Peter: For me, school is easier here. Or rather, you simply study much better
here and that’s why it’s easier. […] It’s all much more efficient here.97
Peter bases his argument for school being “easier” on the privileged circumstances
under which lessons take place. During the lessons I attended I also observed small
class sizes, new equipment, and teachers who address students and their problems
individually to support them rather than simply giving a bad grade. Based on this
learning environment, Peter consequently argues that many of his fellow students
would not be able to succeed in the same way at other schools that would require
much more assertiveness. While some students thus rather experience private
schooling as privileged, a privilege that echoes the theme of comfort and luxury that I
presented above (Example 1: Common Comfort), others feel this privilege is tied to
pressure. Mia, for instance, who indirectly compares her school in Shanghai to elite
schools in Germany and thus stresses her privileged form of education, at the same
time relates her school environment to a communal pressure to perform well.
Mia: And it [school] is somehow taken much more serious here than in Germany.
I believe here they all want an average of 1.3 or 1.4 [straight A in the
German grading system] and in Germany they often don’t care. Elite
schools also exist in Germany, but in general, if you just ask around,
for instance when friends move and then talk about their school, then
you always think to yourself: ‘What? They are happy about a 4
[equivalent to a D or simply a pass]!98
The pressure to perform well, can surely be found among students elsewhere. Many
expatriate youths, however, depicted this pressure as particularly crucial to their school
experience in Shanghai. Norwegian student Britta and Charlie from the German school
German original: Für mich ist die Schule hier auch einfacher. Beziehungsweise man lernt einfach viel
besser und deswegen ist es einfacher. [...] Viel effizienter ist das hier alles.
German original: Und das wird hier ja auch irgendwie viel ernster genommen als in Deutschland. Ich
meine hier wollen alle einen Schnitt von 1,3 oder 1,4 und in Deutschland ist’s den eigentlich meistens egal.
Also es kommt drauf an auf die Schule. Es gibt auch Eliteschulen in Deutschland, aber so generell, wenn
man sich jetzt einfach erkundigt, zum Beispiel wenn Freunde wegziehen und dann von ihrer Schule
erzählen. Dann denkt man sich immer so: “Was? Die freuen sich über eine Vier!”
Britta: And also in IB, I pretty much have to do like homework at least two hours
every day. So, I don't really have that much, like, time after school.
Just have to eat, and then do my homework. And then I have to go to
bed as soon as possible after my homework. I get so tired. That is
also something I don't like here.
Charlie: I somehow feel the pressure at the German school in Shanghai is also
much higher. Actually, I can’t really say. […] But I experience the
pressure as very strong here.99
When talking to me students often drew comparisons to schooling elsewhere,
particularly the German teenagers, and stressed the high expectations of their school,
like Paul’s, Mia’s, Britta’s, and Charlie’s remarks demonstrate.
I want to discuss Charlie’s perspective on schooling and pressure in detail and use her
voice as one case-in-point to spell out the various factors leading to the (perception of)
pressure. Charlie was sixteen when I first met her. Her parents were born in China and
met in Germany during their studies at university. Charlie grew up in Germany and her
parents took on German nationality. In the beginning of her high school years her
family decided to move to Shanghai. One day, when I am interviewing Charlie out in
the schoolyard during her free period, she abruptly changes the interview topic – we
are discussing the rising taxi fares in China – and announces:
Charlie: I am scared of the Abitur [A-Levels, Final exams for the diploma].
Interviewer: What is it that scares you most about it?
Charlie: That in the end… Well, in the end I would really like to study medicine.
And I am afraid that I won’t succeed. Directly. I don’t want to wait for
six semesters or so to get in. Then I rather study something else.
Because medicine already takes so long, then I would already be, no
idea, twenty. And when I’m forty I would still be studying or so. Yes.
That’s why I sometimes put myself a little bit under pressure. And
Antonia also puts herself always under a lot of pressure, because
she, too, wants to study medicine. But her grades are really good.
She doesn’t even need to put herself under pressure. And then,
when I’m standing next to her and she starts to put herself under
pressure, ‘I won’t make it! I won’t make it!’ Then I think, okay, I can
just forget about it. 100
Due to her wish to go to med school in Germany, Charlie demands perfect scores and
grades from herself. While she already has doubts about succeeding, the fact that
German original: Ich finde irgendwie auch der Druck an der deutschen Schule Shanghai ist auch
irgendwie größer. Eigentlich kann ich es nicht genau sagen. […] Aber ich finde den Druck hier halt sehr
German original: Ich hab Angst vorm Abitur. [Interviewer: Was macht dir da am meißten Angst?] Dass
ich am Ende... Also, ich möchte am Ende voll gern Medizin studieren. Und ich hab Angst, dass ich es nicht
schaffe. Direkt. Ich möchte aber auch nicht so wieder, sechs Wartesemester oder so machen. Dann
studiere ich lieber was anderes. Weil Medizin dauert schon so lange, dann bin ich schon so, also keine
Ahnung, zwanzig. Und wenn ich vierzig bin, bin ich immer noch am studieren oder so. Ja. Da mach ich mir
manchmal ein bisschen Druck. Und Antonia macht sich halt auch immer sehr viel Druck, weil sie möchte
auch Medizin studieren. Aber sie hat so gute Noten. Sie braucht sich gar keinen Druck machen. Und wenn
ich dann neben ihr stehe und sie fängt an sich Druck zu machen, „Ich schaff das nicht! Ich schaff das
nicht!“ Dann denke ich mir, okay, dann kann ich es ja direkt vergessen.
others at her school are also fearing to fail entrance into med school, however, makes
her feel even more under pressure.
When I discussed the high pressure to perform with teachers at the international
schools, many pointed at the high involvement of parents in their children’s education.
During my fieldwork I also came across the idea of “tiger-mothers” (Chua 2011)
constantly challenging their children, from piano lessons to Chinese tutoring. There is
indeed a hyperactivity in many students’ lives that seems to go hand in hand with
expatriate (hyper)mobility; both seen as beneficial for the development of the child.
When I ask Charlie about her parents’ view on her med school plans, she explains:
Charlie: They always say it doesn’t matter what I study. But [...] I’ve wanted to
study medicine for a long time. And now they’ve already told their
friends. Like really proud, ‘Yes, my daughter wants to study
Interviewer: And now you almost feel the pressure that you have to do it,
something like that?
Yes. I would really like to do it, but I also don’t want them to... No
idea. I think it’s maybe not that important to my parents. But, I don’t
know. It’s somehow important to me that I don’t disappoint my
parents. No idea. It sounds really stupid.101
The pressure of parental expectations, as Charlie voices them, might be prominent in
many students’ lives around the globe. I feel, however, that in the case of the
expatriate teenagers in Shanghai, their parents as successful transnational
professionals set the bar particularly high. Charlie, a straight A student, however, thinks
her parents are not necessarily demanding too much. She explains to me that her
parents were rather conservative and her father had voiced his thoughts that if Charlie
were a boy he would be much stricter and his expectations of her grades much higher.
“I think he already gave a little bit up on it” 102 , Charlie contemplates during our
conversation in the schoolyard. When I voice my surprise about her father’s position,
she elaborates:
Charlie: Yes, they just meant, probably, that boys have to work and so on and
earn big money. And my parents just think that if I study medicine, I
should open a practice. Have a child. Just laid-back. […]
Interviewer: <L> That’s not that laid-back! <L> Med school, just opening a
German original: Aber sie meinen ja auch immer, es wär ja egal was ich studiere. Aber [...] ich will
schon sehr lange Medizin studieren. Und jetzt haben sie es auch schon ihren Freunden erzählt. So ganz
stolz: „Ja, meine Tochter will Medizin studieren.“ [Interviewer: Jetzt fühlst du dich fast schon unter Druck
gesetzt, dass du das machen musst, so ungefähr?] Ja. Ich würd es wirklich gern machen, Aber ich will
jetzt auch nicht, dass die das... Keine Ahnung. Ich glaube meinen Eltern ist es vielleicht nicht so wichtig.
Aber, ich weiß nicht. Mir ist es irgendwie wichtig, dass ich meine Eltern nicht enttäusche. Keine Ahnung,
das hört sich voll doof an.
German original: Ich glaube er hat es schon ein bisschen aufgegeben.
Charlie: No. But my parents think, well, university is really laid-back and so on.
But I think that’s also because they were in China before that. And
studying in Germany is likely to be more relaxed than school in
China. […] But my parents are actually pretty lenient. Well, for being
Chinese parents. <L> Because they also let me go party in the
evenings. Well, they don’t like it if I go out too often. But once in a
while is okay. And they support it when I do something with friends
and so on. Just now they think studying for the Abitur [final exams] is
the most important issue. But there are also parents who don’t allow
that at all.103
Like Charlie, expat youths generally consider Chinese schooling to be hard and
academic success important for Chinese parents.104 At school I consequently regularly
came across the prevailing conception among expat teenagers that those who have
Chinese born parents are automatically under more pressure than their peers from
other backgrounds. Although friendships between students with Asian or non-Asian
backgrounds were normal, I felt that having a Chinese parent was a dividing line
sometimes subtly criss-crossing the shared experience of school. Through the eyes of
the teenagers at the German school, for instance, high expectations from parents with
Chinese roots are normal and also thought to indirectly influence the overall pressure
to perform for all students in class. In school a student’s “Chineseness” is thus often
equated with diligent studying, learning to play an instrument, and abstinence from
nightlife due to parents’ objections. Students often play with these stereotypes and use
these as a base for teasing or joking. They see their own international education as
influenced by “Chinese” pressure and high expectations. Some students, mostly those
who are relatively new to the expatriate community in Shanghai, voice their annoyance
– sometimes by again “othering” students with Chinese backgrounds – about the
pressure to perform.
Lara: And we don’t have to say that it’s bad to be good at school, or to think
about the future. We do that, too. But we don’t say it. The strong
interest here [in school leads to] other things being pushed to the
back that are actually pretty important to enjoy life. I mean, I don’t live
only to have achieved something in sixty years. No friends, no
German original: Ja, die meinten halt, wahrscheinlich so Jungen müssen arbeiten und so und das
große Geld verdienen. Und meine Eltern meinen halt, dass wenn ich Medizin studiere, [soll ich] eine
Praxis aufmachen. Mit Kind. Halt so gechillt. [Interviewer: <L> So gechillt ist das auch nicht. <L> Mal ein
Medizinstudium, eben mal eine Praxis aufmachen!] Nee. Aber meine Eltern meinten halten, so ja, Studium
wäre voll entspannt und so. Aber ich glaub das ist auch weil sie vorher in China waren. Und in
Deutschland Studium ist bestimmt entspannter als in China Schule. […] Aber meine Eltern sind eigentlich
ganz locker. Also dafür, dass sie chinesische Eltern sind. <L> Weil sie lassen mich auch feiern gehen
abends. Also sie mögen es nicht so gerne, wenn ich so oft gehe. Aber ab und zu ist okay. Und sonst
unterstützen die das auch wenn ich was mit Freunden mache und so was. Nur jetzt meinen sie halt
Abiturlernen ist das Wichtigste. Aber es gibt halt auch so Eltern, die das gar nicht erlauben.
For urban Chinese youths’ perspectives on the role of academic success in developing personal
“quality” (suzhi) see Vanessa L. Fong (Fong 2007). Drawing from interviews and thirty-two months of
participant observation conducted in schools in Dalian between 1997 and 2006, Fong examines how urban
Chinese only-children negotiate the popular idea of “quality” by stressing the importance of different
aspects, such as morality, cosmopolitanism or academic achievement that favored their own strengths.
contacts and then I die. That’s not the meaning of life; I don’t think
Lara’s perception of the importance of grades in her school is also connected to the
feeling of being encouraged to work hard for future success. This emphasis on the
future is discussed in more detail in chapter ten, “My time is now.”
Privilege and pressure seem to have a dialectic relationship in the students’ narratives
and lives. The awareness of enjoying a privileged education and life style for some
students also comes along with the pressure to perform well. While the community is
heterogeneous and class-divides within Shanghai’s expatria of course exist, the
international students have no classmates whose parents have a working class
background; unemployed parents for instance are unknown. Furthermore, in all
expatriate families careers are valued as highly important as they are simply always
considered worth the move to Shanghai. However, as I observed during fieldwork at
the German school, students experience differences, in particular along the narrative of
pressure, between students with Chinese or Western backgrounds.
9.5. Concluding Thoughts on “Expatriateness” and the Role of Schools
This chapter examined expatriate youths’ shared experiences of belonging to an
international school community – an experience that student Allen in the beginning of
the chapter described as everyone being in “the same space.” I described how this
space is shaped by Shanghai’s specific international school landscape that does not
allow Chinese passport holders to enroll at any of these schools. These schools are
almost hermeneutically sealed-off spaces. At the same time, as the second subsection
illustrated, the schools put much effort into creating a shared experience for students.
This making of a school community is based on establishing certain “social aesthetics”
(MacDougall 2006) that involve a specific material culture and concrete everyday
routines for students. These school communities are all unified in the collective
experience of belonging to an expatriate network in Shanghai. The schools here play a
vital role in mediating what it means to be or act like an expatriate. This way the
schools not only affect students’ lives, but also their families’. They are community
hubs in Shanghai’s expatria and offer parents an entrance to an expatriate community.
I therefore argue that it is precisely in the spaces of the international schools that
collective expatriate identities are negotiated and mediated on an everyday basis –
German original: Und wir müssen jetzt nicht sagen, dass das schlecht ist, wenn man jetzt gut in der
Schule ist, oder über Zukunft nachdenkt. Das machen wir ja auch. Aber wir sagen das halt nicht. Dieses
starke Interesse hier [an Schule führt dazu], dass schon andere Sachen einfach in den Hintergrund
geschoben werden; was eigentlich auch relativ wichtig ist um Spaß zu haben am Leben. Ich meine, ich
lebe nicht nur damit ich in sechzig Jahren irgendwas erreicht habe. Keine Freunde, keine Kontakte und
sterb dann. Das ist nicht der Sinn des Lebens, glaub ich nicht.
through community events, the communal valuing of the school for the youths’
(cosmopolitan) formation, and through the admission process that requires the “right”
financial means or jobs, the “right” passports and the “right” grades. These negotiations
of collective expatriate identities do not always bridge internal divides – particularly
along the lines of nationality or ethnicity, as the student discourse of the privilege and
pressure of international education revealed – but still forge a common consent of what
it means to be an expatriate in Shanghai.
While the spaces of the schools are much shaped by the institutional framework, there
are also places that teenagers seek out and shape on their own. These places are
crucial for teenagers to gain meaning and agency in their migration experience. As
Massey (1995, 207) pointed out succinctly: “[The] making of place is part of
constructing the identity and coherence of the social group itself.” It is these reciprocal
processes of space and (age and/or group) identity performances that the next part, by
drawing on the concept of emplacement, aims to foreground to further understand
expatriate youth cultures caught in the dynamics of “uprootings and regroundings”
(Ahmed et al. 2003), “flows,” and boundaries.
Part 4
Figure 23: The Shop: Students Walking through the Small Alley, June 2011. Photo by M. Sander
Mia: It’s really like that, if you’re homesick, because you’re somewhere
in a foreign country or in a foreign city, you just have to do something.106
This part examines expatriate teenagers’ narratives and practices of emplacement in
Shanghai. While it continues to address the students as part of the expatriate
community with its processes of demarcation and detachment from local Chinese
communities, it zooms in on their particular age-specific spatial and social practices. I
chose to foreground the youths’ efforts of creating their own spaces, as I understand
these as crucial for teenagers to gain meaning and agency in their migration
experience. By drawing on the concept of emplacement by Howes (2007), this part
aims to further understand expatriate youth cultures in Shanghai unfolding in specific
everyday places, emerging in-between the dynamics of “uprootings and regroundings”
(Ahmed et al. 2003). Howe’s concept of emplacement stresses the importance of
sensory experiences in everyday lives and regards sensories as “a field of cultural
elaboration“ and “an arena for structuring social roles and interactions“ (Howes 2007,
xi). For this ethnographic work, emplacement is generally understood as the physical
experience of places, of being and engaging with the here and now. The process of
experiencing places is also understood as simultaneously shaping one’s environment.
In this sense the process of emplacement is, like Howes argues, the counterpart to
displacement – “the feeling that one is homeless, disconnected from one’s physical
and social environment” (Howes [2005]2006, 7).
I firstly discuss students’ conceptions of age identities (chapter ten) and then secondly,
move on to related spatial practices. The two subsequent chapters each provide a
specific example of youths’ agency in creating their own spaces, that of going out
(chapter eleven) and hanging out at the shop (chapter twelve). In contrast to the gated
communities and the schools presented in the previous part, “Arriving,” the teenagers
choose these spaces themselves. The analysis of these spaces and the related ageidentities also address the students’ overall imaginations and representations of the
city of Shanghai. The closing chapter thirteen consequently examines the teenagers’
relations to Shanghai and its local citizens.
German original: Es ist wirklich so, wenn du Heimweh hast, weil du irgendwo in einem fremden Land
bist oder in einer fremden Stadt, muss man einfach was machen.
“My time is now”: The Role of Age
The focus on children’s futures and adults’ investment […] can […] blind
us to their agency as social actors in their own right. (James and James
2008, 65)
Migration experiences are evidently age-specific, as the ethnographic vignettes on the
decision-making process in chapter five show. Older siblings, for example, choose to
stay, or at least consider staying, whereas younger ones often have no choice. This
part therefore discusses the role of age by investigating the reflections and age-identity
performances of the teenagers and ties them to current academic debates on the
concepts of youth addressed earlier in the introduction (chapters two and three).
Wrong Time to Move, Right Time to Be There
I am sitting outside in the schoolyard in a rather undisturbed corner on a few steps
behind the track, listening to Karina and Lara’s accounts of their move to Shanghai
about seven months prior. Although it is only the end of February the sun shines bright
and warm. While the three of us enjoy the first spring moments, the two girls, like many
of my interviewees, explain why they feel it was simply the wrong time for them to
move abroad.
Karina: The younger you are the less painful it is, I think. I don’t know. When I
was eight years old we moved to [a town in Northern China]. When
my mother told me about it I was really happy. Right? Everyday I
asked: ‘Has dad signed the contract yet? Can we finally go to China?’
and so on. Because, I was younger, and I wanted to experience
something. But the older you get, the stronger your relations to others
become. Somehow. I don’t know, you get used to them. When you
then get separated from them, I wasn’t happy any more. Yippee off to
China. Instead, I just screamed at my father. Because it just
Both Karina and Lara, seventeen and sixteen years old, believe that age plays a role in
the difficulties of moving, arguing that adolescence seems a particularly wrong time to
them. Lara explains:
Lara: It is more difficult. I just experienced that. At my age it just sucks. You have
your friends, your boyfriend, whatever.108
German original: Je jünger man ist, desto schmerzloser, ist es, denk ich so. Ich weiß nicht. Als ich acht
Jahre war sind wir nach [Stadt in Nordchina] gezogen. Als das mir meine Mutter erzählt hat, war ich voll
glücklich. Ja? Und ich hab jeden Tag nachgefragt: Hat mein Vater den Vertrag schon unterschreiben?
Können wir endlich nach China und so. Weil irgendwie ich war noch kleiner und ich wollte was erleben.
Aber jetzt, je älter man wird, desto fester wird auch die Beziehung zu den Leuten. Irgendwie. Ich weiß
nicht, man gewöhnt sich an die. Wenn man dann einfach getrennt wird von denen. Dann war ich doch
nicht mehr so glücklich. Juhu, nach China. Sondern ich hab meinen Vater einfach angeschrien. Weil ich
das scheiße fand.
German original: Ist halt schwerer so. Ich hab's ja jetzt gemerkt. Mit meinem Alter ist einfach doof. Hat
seine Freunde, Freund, wie auch immer.
Transnational mobility challenges not only relations to places, but also to relationships.
As both quotes from the discussion with Karina and Lara show, the two students argue
that because relationships to peers grow stronger over the years and one becomes
more independent from parents, the move abroad becomes more difficult. Both also
point out that school makes it more difficult to move in the mid- or late-teens. They
highlight that moving in the last years before graduation gives less time to adjust to the
new environment, since grades often already count for the final diploma – a major
issue that also Britta from Norway repeatedly stresses during her interview at a British
While most teenagers think of adolescence as the wrong time to move, it is the right
time to be in Shanghai. The mega-city offers numerous bars and clubs that commonly
do not enforce any age-based entry restrictions. The youths often take this opportunity
to explore nightlife to a degree that is usually impossible for their peers in Europe or
Northern America. Britta explains:
Britta: There is so much nightlife, there is so much fun. ‘Cause in Norway you
have to be eighteen or twenty-one to get into the club.
The absence of enforced age restrictions in China’s nightlife spaces makes the stay
attractive for teenagers to explore their age-identities. Chapter eleven will provide
detailed descriptions of these nightlife practices.
The youths’ perspectives demonstrate how my informants perceive and convey
adolescence as a difficult time to move. Moreover, they also show how students
conceptualize being a teenager as different from childhood by arguing that the losses
experienced by younger children are less severe and their integration in a new school
is easier. The students I interviewed seem to be familiar with conceptualizations of
children as part of families without social ties of their own, and even reiterate them.
This goes hand in hand with concepts that see children as not yet fully developed
human beings without social ties and have lately been criticized and re-conceptualized
in anthropology and related disciplines (Bucholtz 2002; Hutchins 2011). Hutchins
(2011), for instance, studying the experiences of children moving to Australia, stresses
the role of their own social ties. I argue that the older teenagers themselves emphasize
their difference to younger children in order to stress the importance of their own social
lives and to counteract being perceived without these.
The two seemingly contradicting discourses presented here – of adolescence being the
wrong time for moving, but the right time for living in Shanghai – actually support each
other. Both narratives serve to perform and manifest specific age-identities of someone
who gradually outgrows the realm of the family.
Future Benefits and the Art Project “My time is now”
As the subchapter 9.4 on students’ narratives on the privilege and pressure of
conceptualized as beneficial capital for the future: the hardship of moving will be worth
it for the sake of the children’s future. This focus on development for the future is
common when discussing young people’s lives and underlies the idea of adolescence.
Mary Bucholtz (2002) has argued that anthropological and sociological works on
adolescence have often conceptualized adolescence as a staging ground for
integration into the adult community. These conceptualizations have framed young
people’s own cultural practices solely in relation to adult concerns. She has
consequently called for a shift from the anthropology of adolescence to the
anthropology of youth. With the call for a theoretical (not only terminological) shift to
youth, she aims at research practices that focus on youth’s own perspectives and that
distance themselves from the conceptualization of adolescence as merely a phase
dedicated to leading towards adulthood.
Where the study of adolescence generally concentrates on how bodies and
minds are shaped for adult futures, the study of youth emphasizes instead the
here-and-now of young people’s experience, the social and cultural practices
through which they shape their worlds. (Bucholtz 2002, 532)
Bucholtz’s argument is also echoed by James and James (2008, 64–65) who find that
society’s (and often research’s) focus on children’s futures “detract[s] from the
recognition of the importance of children’s experiences of the present and the
significance of these experiences in shaping the adults they will become.” James and
James see societal reasons to secure people’s contributions in the future as the source
of this focus on children and adolescents’ future:
Thus the provisions that all societies make in some shape or form to ensure the
health, education and well-being of their children in the present – their welfareare also an investment in their future, as individual adults, and in the future of the
society of which they will form a part and to which they are expected to make a
contribution at some point in the future. (James and James 2008, 64)
In the group discussion with Bjoern and Don, Alex, for instance, explains his view of
grown-up life:
Alex: I am not in this world to work. I want to have fun.
Don and Bjoern: <L> Yeah.
Interviewer: <L>
Alex: I want to enjoy that and so on. And of course find a job that I enjoy. In any
case. My father, now, well, I observe that: He leaves at around the
same time when I leave for school. At about seven. And he sometimes comes home at ten. And then I think, that can’t be it! Then he
goes to his study and still does something. Locks himself in. And then
on the weekend, he takes my mother to brunch somewhere or
something. Phh. I don’t know. He looks happy, but I couldn’t do it. No
Alex criticizes the pressure to conform and work in later adult life, as he observes in his
father’s daily routine. At the same time he rejects the “investment in [his] future” (James
and James 2008, 64), which he is supposed to prioritize in his life now. It is a rejection
of the pressure he experiences in the future-driven environment and his own futuredriven social status of a teenager.
While I myself in the future-oriented status of a PhD candidate (“What do you want to
do afterwards?”) might have been particularly sensitive to the pressures of planning
and working hard on your future, the expatriate youths seldom directly verbalized this
pressure of the future. In-between the lines, their worries of what to study, what to
become, however, hinted at the future-orientedness that underlies expatriate youth’s
experiences of Shanghai. Pondering about the focus on what lies ahead, I was
irritated, provoked, and relieved when I discovered an art project by German student
Andrea – entitled “My time is now.”
Figure 24: Student Art Project “My time is now” (Sign). Photo by Andrea
The art project consists of several photographs showing children and teenagers
holding up or standing in front of a sign that displays endless lines of the text “My time
German original: Ich bin halt irgendwie nicht auf der Welt um zu Arbeiten. Ich will Spaß haben. [Don
und Bjoern: <L> Joa.] [Interviewer: <L> ] Ich will das genießen und und. Und natürlich will ich einen Job
finden, der mir dann Spaß macht. Dann auf jeden Fall. Mein Vater jetzt selber, also ich seh das ja. […] Der
fährt auch um so die Uhrzeit los wenn ich in die Schule fahre. So um sieben Uhr. Und der kommt dann
teilweise um zehn Uhr nach Hause. Und dann denk ich auch so, das kann doch nicht sein. Der geht dann
noch in sein Büro und macht noch irgendwas. Schließt sich da ein. Und am Wochenende geht er dann mit
meiner Mutter irgendwo brunchen oder so. Phh. Ich weiß nicht. Er sieht glücklich aus, aber ich könnte das
nicht. Auf keinen Fall.
is now,” as well as students wearing a white t-shirt with the same text. In many cases a
group of students or individuals look into the camera, laughing, enjoying. To secure the
anonymity of students, however, I am only able to include images of Andrea’s project
that do not reveal faces.110
Figure 25: Student Art Project “My time is now” (T-Shirt). Photos by Andrea
In the context of preparing for future moves, education, and jobs, the message: “My
time is now” seemed to me like a stop sign, an appeal to look at the “here-and-now”
(Bucholtz 2002, 532), the time in Shanghai. However, it was not until my last fieldwork
stay in June 2012, after having contemplated on these images during my months in
Germany, that I arranged an interview with Andrea to discuss her art project. When
sitting in a sidewalk café with Andrea, the voice-recorder between us, I ask her to
explain the art project and its context of production.
Andrea: It’s a tradition at our school to do such a project every year. And last
year it [the theme] was “time.” […] And then art classes are
requested to create a project according to the theme. An artwork, a
painting, it should have something to do with photography. […]
While the school had given the topic of “time” and her art teacher had prescribed the
method of photography to artistically engage with the theme, it had been her own idea
to link “time” to the experience of school.
Andrea: And […] I had let myself get inspired by American schools. They always
like to draw attention to their community and so on, their school life –
practically like a publicity campaign. That’s extremely embarrassing,
sometimes. Then I thought this would be appreciated at our school.
And it was, by teachers and so on. So I proceeded like this: okay,
now I do a project, [and] because I am not a good photographer, [it]
doesn’t need to be photographically convincing. But it can allude a
little bit to us being one school, ‘sheltered and grown together’
Other images displaying smiling students capture a more positive atmosphere than those included in
this chapter.
[referring to the school slogan] and so on. Because it’s not really
German to represent yourself like that, I thought my teachers might
take it up. And erm <L>, everything was indeed pretty cheesy. And
then I googled the Internet to see what kind of quotes exist, because
I wanted to do something with text and photography. Well and then
‘My time is now’ appeared, which is really perfect. And a bit too
kitschy. And then I made this t-shirt. I thought, okay, then they can
wear that or hold it […]. And this sign. And then I walked around
school and asked a few students to help me. And then I asked my
friends if they would help me, because I don’t like being like: ‘Hello,
my name is Andrea! We are <x>.’ Of course I put some effort into
involving some French students, because it refers even more to this
social inclusion that is so popular at every school in Germany.111
While I had interpreted the art project as a statement against the pressure to focus on
the future and as an appeal to look at the moment in Shanghai, the interview with
Andrea pointed into a different direction. Her approach to the project had been more
that of a designer working at a marketing agency, the customer – teachers and school
– clearly in mind when choosing the theme and producing the images: “I thought this
would be appreciated at our school.” However, the success of her images within the
school also shows on how fertile ground Andrea had planted her idea: her claim “My
time is now” was used for the whole school’s art project that would later even win an
state-sponsored award for her German school’s arts program (see chapter 9.2).
Andrea’s photography project rendered the future-orientedness in the students’ lives
visible to educators and the school community.
Rejecting “Old People” – Claiming Spaces
While the expatriate students like to emphasize their own social ties, as Karina’s and
Lara’s narratives in the beginning of the chapter demonstrate, one should not be
tempted into reading these as wanting to be “adult.” Their practices of distinction from
German original: Das ist ja an unserer Schule so eine Tradition, dass man jedes Jahr so ein Projekt
macht. Und letztes Jahr war es “Zeit.” […] Und dann wird halt […] im Kunstunterricht dazu aufgefordert ein
Projekt dazu zu gestalten. Ein Kunstwerk, also ein Bild, also mit Fotografie sollte es etwas zu tun haben.
[…] Und […] ich hab mich da so ein bisschen von amerikanischen Schulen inspirieren lassen. Die ja
immer sehr auf ihre Gemeinschaft und so, und auf ihr Schulleben anspielen, gerne auch - wie so
Werbeaktionen praktisch. Das ist ja voll peinlich zum Teil. Ich hab mir dann gedacht, das käme an unserer
Schule sehr gut [...] an. Also es war ja dann [so], also bei den Lehrern und so. Also ich bin dann so
vorgegangen, okay, jetzt mach ich mal ‘nen Projekt, muss ja jetzt nicht, weil ich kann nicht so gut
fotografieren […], muss ja jetzt nicht fotografisch überzeugen. Aber es kann ja mal so ein bisschen
anspielen, dass wir eine Schule sind, „geborgen und gemeinsam gewachsen“ [Anspielung an Schulslogan]
und so was. Weil das ja nicht so deutsch ist so was, sich da so selbst zu präsentieren […] dachte ich mir
auch, dass das entsprechen von meinen Lehrern aufgegriffen werden könnte. Und ehm <L>, war ja schon
sehr cheesy alles. Und hab dann im Internet gegoogelt, was es denn so für Zitate gibt, denn ich wollte
gern so was mit Text und Fotografie machen. Und ja dann kam da „My time is now,” was ja voll perfekt ist.
Und so ein bisschen sehr kitschig. Und hab dann halt dieses T-Shirt [gemacht], ich dachte mir ja, okay,
dann können die das tragen oder halten [...]. Und dieses Schild. Und dann bin ich in der Schule rum und
hab ein paar Schüler gefragt ob die mir da helfen. Dann hab ich meine Freundinnen gefragt ob die mir da
helfen, weil ich bin da nicht gerne so: „Hallo, meine Name ist Andrea! Wir machen <x>.“ Hab dann
natürlich, ehm, mir Mühe gegeben ein paar Franzosen reinzubekommen, weil das spielt ja noch mehr
diese soziale Integration an. Die bei uns ja in Deutschland an jeder Schule total beliebt ist.
younger children do not aim at being seen as “adult,” but rather to be seen as “youths.”
This becomes clear in the rejections of “old people” I came across during several
moments in fieldwork encounters and during interviews, as the following excerpt of a
discussion with the girls Antonia and Olivia on nightlife spaces illustrates.
Antonia: Occasionally we go to Zapatas after Mural. Even though there are a lot
of old people. But sometimes it’s fun to dance on the bar.
Interviewer: <L> As old as I am?
Antonia: No. They are even much older!
Interviewer: Sometimes I find it strange; sometimes I find it cool that it is really
mixed here, in terms of age. It’s not like that in Germany, I think.
Olivia: But sometimes that is pretty annoying, too.
Antonia: Come on, people between twenty and thirty are okay. But if there are
fifty-year-old men at the bar, then you think: aaah.
Olivia: I mean it’s okay for them to be there. I mean it’s their lives. If they want to
do that, then they should do that. But then they should a least leave
the young people in peace. <L> I mean it’s just like that. A fifty-yearold can’t hit on a, I don’t know, twenty-year-old.112
The girls voice their annoyance about “old people”; it is an annoyance, however, about
“old people” in spaces that the teenagers claim as theirs. The students, by claiming
spaces in the here-and-now, distinguish themselves from adults and simultaneously
find ways to counteract the focus on their future: nightlife is identified as such a space
of youth.
Nightlife: Going Out
This chapter shows that Shanghai’s nightscapes are a crucial platform for the identity
negotiations of expatriate youths. While not all students participate in nightlife
activities113, foregrounding teenagers’ clubbing practices is still pivotal, as these are
German original: Antonia: Manchmal gehen wir nach dem Mural auch ins Zapatas. Auch wenn da sehr
viel alte Menschen sind. Aber manchmal ist es lustig auf der Bar zu tanzen. Interviewer: <L> So alt wie
ich? Antonia: Nein. Die sind noch viel älter! Interviewer: Manchmal finde ich es komisch, manchmal finde
ich es cool, dass es halt so super gemischt ist, altersmäßig. Das ist ja in Deutschland nicht so, finde ich.
Olivia: Aber das ist manchmal ziemlich nervig. Auch. Antonia: Na komm, Leute zwischen zwanzig und
dreißig sind ja okay. Aber wenn so fünfzig-jährige alte Männer in der Bar sitzen, dann denkst du auch
schon aaah. Und dann machen die einen auch noch an. Und dann aaah. Olivia: Ich meine die können da
ja gerne sein. Ich mein das ist ja ihr Leben. Und wenn sie das machen wollen, dann sollen sie das auch.
Aber dann sollen sie wenigstens die jungen Leute in Ruhe lassen. <L> Ich mein das ist ja wohl so. Einer
über fünfzig kann sich ja nicht ranmachen, an eine was weiß ich zwanzig-jährige.
The students interviewed at the Singaporean school and a few students from the German school, for
instance, do not take part in the described nightlife activities. For the youths at the Singaporean school,
instead, a certain shopping mall served as their center for after school activities. Here they shop, dine, go
to the cinema, sing karaoke or play pool. Furthermore, watching DVDs and hanging out with family and
friends are common activities for all teenagers. For insights into differing practices of adult expatriates from
Singapore and Britain in China, see Brenda Yeoh and Katie Willis, 2002 and 2005.
central to their involvement with the city and an important form of dealing with the move
to Shanghai. Teenagers are claiming new spaces collectively without their families.
Firstly, this chapter analyzes Shanghai’s nightlife spaces in general (11.1), to then
examine the conditions for the teenage patrons (11.2): it puts forward that de facto no
age-based restrictions to enter clubs or bars exist in Shanghai, and examines the
resulting heated debates on teenage nightlife practices in the expatriate community, as
well as students’ accounts of negotiating parental concern. The next subchapter (11.3)
then gives a detailed description of teenagers’ ways of going out based on participant
observation as well as interviews. Based on the Friday night routine at a club called
Mural, it analyzes how going out is a break from school routine, a means to play with
and affirm age, gender, cosmopolitan, and urban identities, as well as to assure
Shanghai’s Nightlife Spaces
When entering bars or clubs in Shanghai, I often feel many of these could be in any
large city or tourist location. The menu displays the same cocktails, wines, and liquors
that are offered elsewhere. Occasionally, local beers, mostly Qingdao, are presented
along with the international beer brands. The music playing, although varying between
locations in Shanghai, is typical for mainstream party locations in Europe as well.
People’s attire depends on the locations’ silently expected or openly stated dress
codes, men often in shirts, women displaying more skin and make-up than during the
day. Everyone seems to be engaged in practices familiar to me from nightlife locations
in Europe: Chatting, drinking, and sometimes dancing. One finds the same tastes,
same sounds, same visuals, and same practices. Thus, Shanghai offers a very
internationalized dance club scene. 114 My own immediate familiarity with all these
sensories and patterns confirms Farrer’s (2011) conceptualization of Shanghai’s bars
and clubs as belonging to a “global nightscape.” The idea of such a global nightscape
is based on Appadurai’s (1990, 296) understandings of the global cultural economy
and its “dimensions of global cultural flow.” In Farrer’s (2011, 748) words, the concept
firstly “refers to the ways in which these local urban nightscapes are sites of
transnational flows.” Secondly, these global nightscapes, as Farrer describes based on
Chatterton and Hollands’s (2003) findings, are “constructed through globalising cultural
For a detailed description of the development of the internationalized dance club scene in Shanghai
see Andrew Field (2008). Field provides four in-depth examples of clubs in Shanghai and succinctly
illustrates the development, success, and failure of clubs in the context of the city’s economic development
and rapidly changing consumer culture between 1997 and 2007. For a brief overview of the earlier
developments of dance halls from the 1920s onwards, as well as the rise of discos in the 1990s in
Shanghai, see James Farrer’s Opening Up (2002), primarily chapter nine. Here, Farrer pays particular
attention to the links between dance and sexual culture.
and corporate processes that homogenise and stratify nightlife experiences” (Farrer
2011, 748). Farrer succinctly points out the consequences of emerging global
nightscapes for foreign visitors:
Pragmatically, nightlife globalisation means that anyone familiar with nightlife in
other global cities could pick his or her way through Shanghai's global
nightscapes with relative ease upon landing in the city, using the categories of
spaces learned already in similar settings [...]. (Farrer 2011, 748)
Occasionally, some locations in Shanghai such as Karaoke centers, or clubs with big
seating areas and small dance floors, beverages ordered by the bottle, and Chinese
drinking games based on dice rolling, offer new aspects to the foreign visitor and
challenge the notions of complete familiarity. However, the expatriate youths often
choose clubs that are very international in terms of sounds, drinks, and practices. At
clubs that they label as “more Chinese” they still pursue their familiar ways of partying.
In general, Shanghai offers many locations that follow such a globally distributed
pattern of nightlife and are easy to navigate for students and me alike.
Nightlife in Shanghai, however, is only easy to navigate if one can afford it: the drinks
cost as much as a meal for two in a local restaurant, the cover charges are high, and
taxi rides are necessary because the subway and most buses stop running at eleven
pm. In consequence, the majority of the clubs are only affordable to the upper (middle)
classes of Shanghai.115 Despite, or maybe even because of this stratification, I argue
that all the clubs and bars we visited fit into Chatterton and Hollands’s (2003) definition
of “mainstream” considering the spaces’ profit-orientation. In Urban nightscapes
Chatterton and Hollands argue that city nightlife today is characterized by “mainstream
production, through the corporatisation of ownership via processes of branding and
theming” as well as “regulation, through practices which increasingly aid capital
accumulation and urban image-building.” These practices simultaneously also heighten
surveillance, and “consumption, through new forms of segmented nightlife activity
driven by processes of gentrification and the adoption of 'upmarket' lifestyle identities
among groups of young adults” (Chatterton and Hollands 2003, 7). Chatterton and
Hollands’s analysis is concerned with nightlife spaces in Great Britain, however, the
processes of theming, urban-image building, surveillance and gentrification are also
prominent in Shanghai, not only for nightlife spaces. In light of the world expo in 2010
the city has been polished in particular, stimulating further gentrification processes in
areas like the former French concession.
As competitive and future-oriented as Shanghai presented itself hosting the expo, it
simultaneously shone brightly with nostalgia, particularly at night. High-end restaurants,
For the links between class and nightlife spaces in Shanghai, see again Field (2008). His article pays
particular attention to the promotion of class identities through dance club visits.
bars, and clubs in Shanghai are often located either in old buildings of the former
French concession or in those along Shanghai’s waterfront, the Bund. Thus, the
physical locations of nightlife spaces build upon the city’s colonial past. Some places
are even restored to its former glory, i.e. the premises of the former Shanghai Club
located at the Bund, the principal men’s club for British residents of colonial Shanghai
with its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, famous for its thirty-four meter long bar. The
Waldorf Astoria that now runs the building rebuilt the “long bar” after photographs from
1911 and re-opened it in October 2010 (McDermott 2010). Many of these places are
highly frequented by expatriates and thus show the relevance of Fechter and Walsh’s
(2010) call for a closer look at dis-/continuities to colonial pasts in expatriate spaces.
Amanda Lagerkvist’s article (2007) “Gazing at Pudong – ‘With a Drink in Your Hand’”
explores the particular relationship between Westerners and today’s Shanghai
discussing “how Shanghai is currently being scripted for/by Western travelers as a
multisensuous geography in a way that acts out overlapping temporalities” (Lagerkvist
2007, 186). Lagerkvist looks at travel writings and investigates into Westerners’
practices of consumption in Shanghai, in particular at the famous Bund area, lined with
buildings of the city’s colonial past.
[Z]ooming in on the restaurant, the cafe, and the villa garden as chronotopes of
nostalgic dwelling brings into view scripted spaces of Western cultural superiority.
In spite of the "semiotic skills" and "openness toward others" among the
cosmopolitans, in these spaces they act out remembrances of the affluent and
"golden" past. Consuming the city by consuming, for example, food, drink, views
and music endorses power and control. (Lagerkvist 2007,163)
Lagerkvist describes these immersions as “imaginary journeys into the past, as well as
into the future,” and calls this multisensous practice “time travel” (ibid., 161). The
incorporation of the past in the present urban planning serves the anticipated
reappearance of Shanghai as the most important international city in China’s future.
Based on Möckel-Rieke (1998), Lagerkvist acknowledges how “cultural memory can
only be established by media” (2007, 168), but points out how this remembering needs
foreign travelers’ active involvement (ibid., 167).
But reminiscing only comes into being through the appropriation of the memory
dispositif, and conversely, the "cosmopolitan visitors" come into being through
these mediatized performances. In other words, they are constituted by their
mnemonic acts and technologies. Hence, in the massive transition of Shanghai,
foreigners have roles to play that are very important, at the same time, highly
morally questionable. (Lagerkvist 2007, 168)
Lagerkvist’s argument about the role the foreign tourists (or residents) play in
reminiscing about Shanghai’s past is interesting in the context of Fechter and Walsh’s
call for investigating colonial dis/continuities in expatriate lifeworlds (2010). Although,
as this chapter will show, the high school students do not openly engage in
establishing connections to Shanghai’s semi-colonial past, certain nightlife locations on
the Bund or the former French concession inevitably open a connection to the city’s
past. Nightlife spaces in Shanghai are thus not only part of Farrer’s “global
nightscapes” (2011) and “mainstream” in Chatterton and Hollands’s (2003)
understanding, but at the second more sensitive look are also “Shanghainese,”
carrying along connotations and sometimes continuities of the city’s semi-colonial past.
Open Doors and Bars: Negotiating Access and Parental Concern
While nightlife spaces are often associated with freedom and experimentation, access
to commercial mainstream club spaces can also be regulated, stratified, and restricting
(Hollands 2002; Chatterton and Hollands 2003). Knowledge about dress codes,
financial means, and sometimes memberships or personal connections that put you on
a guest list, might be required to enter. Access to these spaces is often also regulated
on the basis of age. Restrictions of access arise indirectly through the availability of
financial means and of independent transportation, and directly through policies
(Valentine 2003, 38). For teenagers in the contemporary North, for instance, the law
usually prohibits their consumption of alcohol and consequently restricts their
participation in nightlife spaces. Accepting Valentine’s (2003) observations that the lack
of financial means and of independent transportation as well as laws and policies
restrict access to nightlife spaces for many youths, I like to look closer at these aspects
in China’s mega-city Shanghai.
Students in Shanghai stress that these restrictions are comparably fewer in China than
elsewhere. The lack of own money is less of a problem here. Many things are
inexpensive relative to their parents’ income and thus to the students’ allowance,
though not inexpensive relative to the local economy. Although some bars can be more
expensive than, for instance, in Germany. As I described in chapter seven, “Making
sense of the city,” access to transport is also comparably easy. Returning home late in
Shanghai – even after the subways system closes at eleven p.m. – proves easy, as
taxis are readily available and affordable for expat youth. Not only transportation, but
also safety, according to the two students Peter and Marco, is less of a concern than in
Peter: Generally the city is very peaceful, I mean the clubs. That is also due to
the police state.
Marco: I don’t know. I’ve never experienced that [nightlife] in Germany. I’ve never
gone out in Germany. And I don’t know what to pay attention to. I
heard such things as that the last buses go at twelve. And because
taxis are relatively expensive in Germany, everyone all of a sudden
leaves at twelve. Well, and here some leave at one, others at four.
Also because of safety: you can also just walk somewhere. You
could get lost and wouldn’t be robbed.
Peter: Yes, in any case you don’t need to be afraid here. 116
Most crucial, however, is that spatial restrictions on the basis of age concerning the
access to bars and clubs are almost non-existent. Although in 2006 the Chinese
government introduced the legal drinking age of eighteen (“China Bans Under-age
Drinking” 2006; International Center for Alcohol Policies 2010), I have never witnessed
an ID control at any club or bar in Shanghai. De facto, there are no restrictions if you
can afford entrance fees. The teenagers are all allowed to enter the bars and clubs,
and even gain unlimited access to alcohol at so-called “open bars.”
Without policy-based spatial restrictions on the basis of age and with access to
independent mobility and money, the only restriction to Shanghai’s nightscapes
remains parental authority. Parents do not allow their children to participate in all
activities, and for my research subjects the participation in nightlife has to be constantly
negotiated with parents. The teenagers report that one common reason for parents to
limit nightlife activity is considering their children too young for these spaces.
Kressi: Usually, on Fridays, some people want to go out. Because it’s always
someone’s birthday. But I’m only fifteen and therefore I’m not allowed
[to go out] every week.117
Another reason for restricting nightlife activity is the parental demand to focus on
school performance, as Alex in the group discussion with Bjoern and Don shares.
Alex: I don’t remember when that was. That was sometime last year. My mother
came into my room and said this sentence to me. I still wanted to go
somewhere during the week, and she said, ‘The week is only for the
school. And on the week-end you can go out.’ Because it had never
been like that before. […] That totally annoyed me.
All: <L>
Alex: Really! She entered, ‘Well, from now on you will use the week only for
school. Nothing else, only focus on school.’ And then a sort of protest
built up in me, a counter position.118
German original: Peter: Überhaupt die Stadt ist sehr friedlich. Also die Clubs. Das liegt eben aber auch
an dem Polizeistaat. Marco: Ja, also ich weiß nicht. Ich hab das in Deutschland nie so erlebt. Ich bin in
Deutschland nie weggegangen. Und dann weiß ich auch nicht worauf man da achten muss. Ich hab auch
so Sachen gehört, man. Um zwölf oder so fahren die letzten Busse. Und weil in Deutschland Taxi relativ
teuer ist, sind dann um zwölf auf einmal alle weg. Ja und hier geht der eine halt um eins, der andere um
vier. […] Eben halt auch wegen der Sicherheit: Man kann auch mal irgendwo hingehen. Man kann sich
auch mal verlaufen und man würde nicht ausgeraubt. Peter: Ja, also Angst braucht man hier auf keinen
Fall haben.
German original: Also meistens ist es so, dass freitags irgendwelche Leute feiern wollen gehen. Weil
irgendwelche Leute immer Geburtstag haben. Aber ich bin ja erst fünfzehn und daher darf ich auch nicht
jede Woche. Und jetzt in letzter Zeit war es eben öfter, wegen Olivias Geburtstag und wegen Semester,
und ehm, diesen Freitag noch einmal wegen Mias Geburtstag. Und auch in den Ferien, aber sonst so DVD
German original: Ich weiß nicht wann das genau war. Das war irgendwann letztes Jahr. Da kam meine
Mutter in mein Zimmer und sagte dann zu mir den Satz so, als ich nämlich noch während der Woche noch
irgendwo hin wollte, sagte so: "Ja, die Woche ist nur für die Schule. Und das Wochenende kannst du
weggehen." Weil das war vorher nie so. Das war. Das hat mich total gestört. [Alle: <L> ] Also wirklich. Sie
As Alex’s story shows, negotiations between the youths and their parents around
nightlife can be conflictual and leading to tensions. Some students report that they try
to avoid these confrontations by lying to their parents. During a group discussion the
three girls Charlie, Olivia, and Antonia, for instance, discuss their ways of occasionally
trying to go around parental objections to nights out.
Charlie: I am not allowed to go out that often, from my parent’s side.
Olivia: Hmm. Me neither.
Antonia: Me neither.
Olivia: Yes, but I don’t lie to them.
Antonia: Me neither. <L> Sometimes. One time. <L>
Interviewer: Sometimes you have to find solutions so you can still go, one could
say. How do you do that? I also used to do that.
Charlie: Sleep over at someone else’s place
Olivia: She always sleeps at [a friend’s] place.
Antonia: I usually say ‘Mama, I am going to friends and I will sleep at their place.’
That actually is half the truth, because first I go to friends, often
before [going out] and later I sleep over at their place. It’s only what’s
in-between <L> that’s missing.
Charlie: I don’t understand why parents have something against it. I mean they
don’t know that we’re drinking there. And they think we’re dancing. I
always say, ‘We’re going dancing.’
Antonia: Yes, I too, usually say, ‘Mama, I’m going dancing.’ Well, in Chinese
there is no word for clubbing or something. I just say, ‘Yes, Mama,
I’m going dancing.’
Charlie: I mean when I go to a sleepover, I’m also staying up late.119
While some students come up with strategies in overcoming parent authority with the
help of friends, a few students simply rebel and act against their parents’ guidelines.
Seventeen-year-old Paul, for instance, shares:
Interviewer: What do the parents say?
Paul: Well, my parents didn’t know. We snuck out. And eventually they started
letting me go out.
kam rein: "Ja, die Woche nutzt du jetzt nur für die Schule. Nichts anderes, nur auf die Schule
konzentrieren.” Und da hat sich bei mir selber, so eine Art Protest gebildet, ein Gegenwillen.
German original: Charlie: Ich darf gar nicht so oft von meinen Eltern aus. Olivia: Hmm. Ich auch nicht.
Antonia: Ich auch nicht. Olivia: Ja, aber ich lüg sie nicht an. Antonia: Ich auch nicht. <L> Doch manchmal.
Einmal. <L> Interviewer: Manchmal muss man Lösungen finden damit man trotzdem gehen kann,
sozusagen. Wie macht ihr das dann? Hab ich früher auch gemacht. Charlie: Bei jemand anders
übernachten. Olivia: Sie schläft immer bei [einer Freundin]. Antonia: […] Ich sag immer: „Mama, ich geh zu
Freunden und ich übernachte dann bei denen.“ Das ist ja eigentlich auch die halbe Wahrheit. Weil erstmal
geh ich immer zu Freunden, meistens vorher und später übernachte ich bei ihnen. Das ist einfach nur so
der Zwischenraum <L> der fehlt. Charlie: Ich versteh nicht was Eltern dagegen haben. Ich mein die wissen
ja nicht, dass wir da trinken. Und die denken, wir tanzen. Ich sag immer tanzen gehen. „Wir gehen
tanzen.“Antonia: Ja, ich sag auch immer: „Mama, ich geh tanzen." Also im chinesischen gibt es kein Wort
für clubben oder so. Da sag ich einfach: „Ja, Mama, ich geh tanzen.” Charlie: […] Ich meine wenn ich bei
jemanden übernachte, dann bleibe ich auch lange wach.
In the same interview, however, Paul also admits that for this behavior he was
grounded for a whole school year from any nightlife activity. These stories seem to be
the parental nightmares that circulate among the expatriate community and fuel images
of unruly teens.
Nightlife and alcohol consumption among teenagers are seen as a severe problem in
the parental expatriate community in Shanghai. While a full discourse analysis is
beyond the scope of this ethnography, I gained an overview based on local expatriate
magazines, discussions with the community organization Shanghai Lifeline, an
interview with a school counselor, and observations at talks targeted at expatriate
parents. The discussions on teenage nightlife practices in Shanghai can be seen as
oscillating between debates on health concerns on the one hand and moral panics on
the other.
The easy access to clubs and bars, health concerns and fear of possible alcohol
addictions, for instance, are discussed in detail in the article ”Teenage Drinking” in the
Summer 2007 issue of City Weekend: Shanghai Parents and Kids. The article teaser
warns: “Buying alcohol in a convenience store is as easy as buying soda. With alcohol
abuse on the rise amongst teenagers in Shanghai, a 16-year-old teen and his mother
share their story” (Cheng 2007). Many of the articles and talks in the community are
targeted at parents and I was not surprised to see the announcement for an event
entitled “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll” at an international school in Pudong in fall 2010.
The evening event, well attended by parents, hosted a social worker and a speaker
from the British Consulate. The two speakers gave insights into how to talk with teens
about alcohol and drugs, and about the legal consequences of drug abuse in China.
Parents were particularly concerned to clarify the rumors about possible expulsion from
Chinese territory for the whole family in case of their children being caught with the
possession of drugs.
Measures aiming to counteract alcohol abuse among teenagers have also been taken.
In 2010, a help-line telephone service targeted at expatriates called Shanghai Lifeline,
was at the midst of establishing workshops for youths to inform, counteract and/or
prevent alcohol or drug abuse. Likewise, the Community Center Shanghai established
a program called Interkom in 2007. They advertise Interkom as a program that
“provides alternative to the rise of drug and alcohol abuse and accessibility to high risk
activities to international teens in Shanghai” (“Interkom” 2010, 14). Parents, as I
learned in a personal conversation with a worker of the Shanghai Lifeline project, also
managed to influence certain restaurants in the Jinqiao expatriate residential areas to
refrain from giving out alcohol to minors by threatening to blacklist these locations –
mostly western family restaurants – in the expatriate community. Some of the
international schools have reacted to the open bars and the heated debate in
Shanghai’s expatria by introducing regular drug testing at school.
While these discussions very likely take place in other countries and environments as
well, these negotiations seem particularly present in expatriate families in Shanghai, as
parents are the only de facto regulating authorities. The Global Times China online
paper in an article entitled “Shanghai’s Tormented Teens” reviews a talk by Shanghaibased Dr. Tim Kelly on understanding teenagers and cites him: “Often families find that
whatever were vulnerable points before coming to Shanghai, like arguments about
curfews and homework, become exacerbated here” (E. Peterson 2011).
From the teenagers’ perspectives, however, nightlife is an active way to forge ties with
their peers. I observed that students who are not allowed (or willing) to accompany
their peers to nightlife activities at all are pitied by their classmates and sometimes
have difficulties in positioning themselves within certain peer groups or their class. It is
also noteworthy in this context that my relations to the teenagers who I joined regularly
in nightlife activities became closer and resulted to invitations to other activities.
Practices and Transformations: The Friday Night Routine
The last two subchapters described Shanghai’s nightscapes as global, mainstream,
and with links to Shanghai’s past, as well as the absence of age-based restrictions to
access clubs and alcohol and the resulting negotiations between parents and
teenagers. I now like to zoom in on one specific place popular among the groups from
the German school: a club called Mural. This place lends itself perfectly for a thick
description and analysis of the teenagers’ nightlife practices and their embedded
meanings. I discuss seven aspects that are relevant for understanding the teenagers’
nights out at Mural: 1. The social aesthetics of the club Mural, 2. The Friday night as
marker between school routine and weekend, 3. The club and its open bar as key to
play with age-identities, 4. The gendered ways of going out, 5. The nightlife practices
as group activity, 6. Nightlife spaces as stages for cosmopolitan performances, and 7.
Going out as an urban experience.
The Club Mural and its Social Aesthetics
Mural 120 with its open bar is the club of choice for the standard Friday night. The
regular visits to Mural bring along repetition of certain practices and a familiarity with
the material situation that heightens the creation of a particular shared aesthetic space
among the teenagers. Drawing again on David MacDougall’s (2006) concept of “social
While other bars, such Tera 57 (fair priced cocktail bar that sometimes lets guests put on music) and
Windows (cheap sports bar), occasionally serve as locations to warm up for further clubbing, for the two
groups these are merely substitutes for Mural if a change is needed for some reason.
aesthetics” that describes “the creation of an aesthetic space or sensory structure”
(ibid., 105), I here like to picture the material environment as well as the practices
taking place and shaping the experiences of a night at Mural. With aesthetics not
meaning notions of beauty or art, but a “wider range of culturally patterned sensory
experience” (ibid., 98) MacDougall understands the social aesthetic field as a
coalescence of different elements such as “objects and actions” and finds it a “physical
manifestation of the largely internalized and invisible ‘embodied history’ that Bourdieu
calls habitus” (2006, 98). While MacDougall applies his concept to a boarding school in
India, I see how we can similarly experience certain social aesthetics of a nightclub.
Malbon (1998), although not in relation to MacDougall’s social aesthetics, describes
how a shared space is created in nightclubs not only through sensuous experiences
(lighting, music, bodies) but also through the repetition of certain practices. Malbon
(1998, 276) argues: “Acting out certain roles, dressing in a similar manner, dancing in a
certain way, even drinking similar beers are all ways in which the affinity of the group
can be reinforced, the territory of the club experience claimed.” In this creation of
certain social aesthetics, Malbon (1998, 280) also sees the clubbers as actively
shaping the experience: “the club situation offers clubbers opportunities to inscribe
their own creativities upon a shared space to create a space of their own making of
which they are also the consumers.” What kind of social aesthetics with its patterns and
emotional effects does a Friday night at Mural hold for the expatriate youth?
The club Mural lies in the heart of the city, just off Hengshan Road, a popular bar and
boutique street that was already central to the former French concession and is
nowadays undergoing massive gentrification. The bar is conveniently integrated in the
web of the city with a subway station, restaurants and (still) some local shops around.
In the evenings, street vendors selling cigarettes greet you outside on the pavement,
right before you enter the club and follow down the stairs. Mural bar awaits its
customers in the basement. It is a spacious location with a long bar, a section of tables
and chairs, a section of couches and low tables and an elevated dance floor. The place
has no windows, is dimly lit, and tealights on the table add to the atmosphere. Mural’s
makers present the bar on their website with pictures of the empty location with wellarranged furniture in warm lights. The accompanying text informs the online visitor:
Welcome to 5000 Years of History !!! To the story of the silk road, to rumours and
legends, to mogao caves and their past. With its fantastic interior, its traditional
paintings and its cultural relicts, the bar will surely provide you unforgettable
moments, besides the interior the bar of course offers much more. Live-bands
and performances, exhibitions and shows, DJ Parties, Concerts,… All this will
come up with a mix of Chinese tradition and western new age!!! (“Mural Bar and
Restaurant | Shanghai” 2013)
I personally experienced the club differently. While the cave-like atmosphere is strongly
supported by the location being in the basement, the “5000 years of history” as a
theme are easily forgotten when the place is packed to its limits on a Friday night. The
attempted theming of “a mix of Chinese tradition and western new age” interestingly, is
pursued not only through old Chinese text on wooden tablets, but also through Sanskrit
words and Sutra pictures on the stonewalls. These wall decorations, however, seem to
regularly disappear behind bodies. Students could not recall the wall decorations in
detail, although regularly spending their Friday nights in the club. The social aesthetics
of the bar are also tied to specific events and their themes. Mural hosts a ladies’ night
on Wednesdays and a salsa night every Monday. It is, however, for Friday nights only
that the two befriended teenage groups choose Mural as their standard location.
Figure 26: The Club Mural and its Cave-like Atmosphere. Photo by M. Sander
Every Friday night Mural hosts an open bar and the website flyer announces this
weekly event as “Up Your Funk,” and underlines this with the call “Free ya mind … and
ya ass will follow.” This, the website assures its visitors, will be achieved by the “hottest
DJs” and the open bar. The music usually consists of a mix between, soul, funk, disco
and other genres, going through different phases as the evening progresses. A dress
code is not enforced and jeans, sneakers or t-shirts hinder no one from entering.
Guests are mainly in their twenties. I estimate the ratio of Chinese and foreign patrons
attending the club on Friday nights at roughly 1:2. The proportion of female and male
clubbers is about equal. The open bar means that the cover charge of RMB 100 (€11)
covers all drinks, from soft drinks and beers to cocktails and liquors. At the bar you are
served the first three kinds of drinks, while at a special table set up next to the entrance
and the cloakroom, guests get two different kinds of shots. “The boys” always book a
table with three couches in advance. This couch section serves as home base during
the evening for both “the girls” and “the boys.” Students come and go, moving back
and forth between bar, dance floor and a couple of stairs just outside the club. The
open bar ends at two a.m., usually leading to many guests going home or moving on to
the next location.
For the students the most important parts of the club are arguably, people, music, the
couches, and the special setting of the open bar on Friday nights. Their favorite club
Mural through its location, decoration, drinks, and guests’ practices of dressing and
socializing, produces a specific landscape that the students perceive as particularly
“relaxed.” It is only Friday nights, however, that the two teenage groups come to Mural.
Letting Loose: From Week to Weekend
Friday nights often mean nights out for my group of students. Drawing on Gusfield’s
(1987) symbolic interactionist analysis of ordinary American drinking practices, which
demonstrates “the symbolic meaning of alcohol in the temporal organization of daily
and weekly life for a large segment of the American population” (1987, 75), I see the
practice of going out, dancing, and consuming alcohol as a marker between the
school-week and the weekend. This is a common conceptualization of nightlife from
teenagers’ perspectives as well:
Lara: I party every Friday. That is a privilege. It is a must after that week. I
couldn’t do without. That would be too boring.121
Linked to this understanding of Friday night routines as rituals to mark the transition
from the tightly structured school-week to the weekend, teenagers also bring forward
the idea of reward for hard work in school.
The Friday night routine usually starts with a shared taxi ride to the downtown area – I
have never witnessed anyone taking the metro to go out. Sometimes, students also
dine out together before clubbing. For “the girls” the night often begins with practices of
communal dressing up. The appropriate party outfit is an important ingredient of the
nightlife experience and supports the break between week and weekend. When I join
my group for the first time on a night out in January 2011, meeting at Mural after having
texted with Antonia who had invited me, I feel a little bit out of place and have
difficulties to understand what topics and practices are appropriate. My early field notes
from this night out later remind of these beginnings:
The girls were also dressed accordingly: High heels, tight leggings, short skirts or
leopard printed dresses… I felt a bit clumsy in my jeans and sneakers next to the
German original: Also jeden Freitag geh ich feiern. Das ist Privileg. Das muss sein nach der Woche
einfach. Ich könnte auch nicht ohne. Das wär zu langweilig.
sixteen-year-old beauties, all dressed for the big nights out. (Field notes January
I naively thought youthful jeans and shoes appropriate for a rather casual place like
Mural. While Mural does not demand a certain dress code, the girls enjoy the ritual of
dressing up. The girls even share a photo album on facebook documenting this ritual
with photos of them with eyelash curlers in front of bathroom mirrors. I quickly learned
and felt I could blend in more easily when I joined them again throughout the following
months and the two later stays in September 2011 and June 2012. Through different
dress and drink the weekend is conjured up and the school world and its social
relations among the teens are transformed into the particular sphere of weekend
Acting Mature: From Teen to Club Guest
Friday nights at Mural, some students like to stay put on the couches, drink, smoke,
chat, and listen to music, while others hit Mural’s elevated dance floor. The students
get up in turns to stand in line at the bar to fetch beers or long drinks, or, occasionally,
to get a tray of shots at the small bar to throw a round for the group. Similar to how
Gusfield (1987, 81) describes that by buying rounds “each person takes responsibility
for payment of the drink of all members of the group, no matter his own consumption
will be or has been,” the open bar allows teenagers to provide their friends with drinks
and to show they care for their group without having to ask for money from their friends
or to strain their allowance.
Figure 27: Friday Night: Gathering with Drinks around the Table. Photo by M. Sander
The attractiveness of the open bar thus does not necessarily lie in the cheap possibility
of binge drinking or getting drunk, but rather in the way it allows teenagers to foster
their ties with their friends and the overall interaction within the group by allowing the
students to bring each other drinks. They do not have to worry about spending too
much on drinks, one person can always get drinks for everyone and a feeling of
sharing arises.
By enabling teenagers to “buy” drinks for others, the open bar at Mural also provides
the youths with a space to practice “typical” adult or patron behavior they associate
with nightlife spaces. This testing and practicing of “appropriate” ways to behave in
bars and clubs, is similar to Yuki Kato’s (2009) observations of teenagers’ practices in
US American suburban malls. By exploring the two different practices of “sitting cars” –
hanging out in the parking lot – and “browsing” – “a way of interacting with the
merchandise, as one contemplates a purchase, either by looking at or testing the
product” (ibid., 58), the ethnographer demonstrates how youths actively negotiate the
behavioral norms associated with various parts of suburban commercial spaces in the
US. Based on the observations of these spatial and social practices Kato argues:
Teenagers’ social in-between place may be embodied in their experiences of
locating and performing with their bodies in public space. While performing in
commercial space, young people share physical space with adults and explore
their positionalities vis-à-vis the norms associated with the space. Some adapt
eagerly and flawlessly to this performance, while others choose to avoid such
constraints by opting to spend time away from adults’ or authorities’ eyes. These
experiences of adolescents must be understood in the spatial and the social
contexts in which they come of age, as their daily encounters with opportunities
and constraints vary by place. (Kato 2009, 53)
This is similar for nightlife. While performing in nightlife space, teenagers “share
physical space with adults and explore their positionalities vis-à-vis the norms
associated with the space.” The young nightlife participants I joined in their clubbing
activities therefore often behave in ways that they associate with mature adults. As
Kato describes for the teenage customers in the shopping mall under study, accepting
and performing the role of a customer – or in this case a club or bar guest – “requires
one’s tacit knowledge of behavioral norms associated with being in [...] [a nightlife]
space” (Kato 2009, 57).
Similarly, regarding these negotiations of norms and practices in the light of the liminal
social space of youth, Northcote (2006), who investigated youths from eighteen to
twenty-four nightclubbing in Perth in the mid 1990s, sees in these nightlife practices
“self-made quasi rites of passage” (2006, 14). Likewise, nightlife practices for
expatriate teens in Shanghai can be seen as transitional pathways to a more “mature”
status in society.122 Discussing nightlife activities with the two boys Paul and Matthias,
seventeen and eighteen years old, confirms how teenagers themselves see the
nightlife spaces as tied to age-identities. The participation in these nightlife spaces is
described as self-made tests of courage.
Shanghai is a bit of a distraction. Really.
Interviewer: How come?
Well, like really easy […] Biggest distraction. Cause anyone can go,
any age. Really. Back in the day, like, kids didn’t go out clubbing. But
now it’s more and more common. We were probably the first kids to
go out. We were like thirteen, fourteen at the time. Now it’s even
younger than that.
Interviewer: What do the parents say?
Well, my parents didn’t know. [I: <L>] We snuck out. And eventually
they started letting me go out. But, erm. Yeah, before, back then.
When, like people went out, the young kids. It was actually kind of
cool, because there were so few of us. Like there were three kids in
my school that went out. And I was one of them. And all of the older
kids were like ‘Dude, you guys are awesome, this is so cool. We
gonna show you all the new cool places.’ Right?
Interviewer: Yeah.
Back then it was really cool to go out. But now, there is like hundreds
of twelve-, thirteen-year olds out, thinking that they are like really
bad-ass and stuff. It is just ridiculous, cause they don’t have any selfcontrol anymore; and it ends up the older kids have to look after the
young kids cause they are drinking too much
Way too much.
Can’t control themselves. Just, the age has gone down. I feel old at a
club now.
Interviewer: <L> Oho! How old do I feel now?
Just like the ages have gone down. The standard for being cool has,
like, changed.
The way Paul describes his early nightlife encounters at a very young age reminds of a
test of courage, a form of claiming new space, or in Northcote’s (2006, 14) words
again, a self-made rite of passage. Nightclubs seem like a space to conquer for the
brave, the “cool.” Conquering nightclubs means leaving childhood behind.
The relationship between identity performances and spaces becomes visible in this
interview passage where being young in a space for older people is interpreted as
“cool,” whereas if everyone is younger than you your “standard for being cool”
Valentine (2003) considers these self-made rituals and the perspective of youths themselves as central
for studies that want to understand the transitional process to “adulthood”: “In this sense perhaps rather
than applying adult measures of the extent to which children have achieved ‘adulthood’ we need to pay
more attention to the different ways young people themselves define and understand this boundary
crossing. As such we also need to question to what extent social categories such as gender, race, class
and sexuality actually have any meaning for young people as they grow up” (Valentine 2003, 49).
changes. While he remembers the older students calling him cool as he went out at a
very young age, he now finds these young kids “ridiculous” and without “self-control.”
Coolness is related to transgressions of age-based space restrictions. Therefore we
can understand expatriate teenagers’ nightlife practices as ways of establishing and
transforming age-identities; the nightclub provides the space for such transformations.
However, we can also see the performance and affirmation of gender and group
identities in these practices of “being cool” through nightlife participation.
Becoming Cool in Gendered Ways: Dressing Up and Downing Drinks
While “the girls” manifest their participation in nightlife and hence their coolness
through dressing up and dancing, “the boys” often display their involvement with cool
nightlife practices through drinking, smoking cigarettes and marijuana. The girls meet
before going to the club to communally get ready by putting on make-up and changing
clothes. The boys consume alcohol together before going out. Both practices are
regularly documented by taking pictures and can be seen as integral parts of the night
out. The preference for different locations can also partly be explained by these
gendered practices: the girls particularly enjoy going to upscale clubs (where a dress
code requires a more extravagant attire) and the boys prefer places like Mural (where
the drinks are affordable). These differences in practices often reinforce the gender
divide that plays a crucial role in the life of the teenagers I met. After having
occasionally witnessed the reluctance of “the boys” to spend the night with “the girls,” I
ask sixteen-year-old Bjoern – somewhat a mediator between the two groups – to
Bjoern: If we were out as [“the] boys[”], different things happened as if Antonia
and Charlie and all the others [“the girls”] were there. Because we
can let ourselves go much more. You know, in Germany it’s not a
problem. If you let yourself go and forty people watch, no harm. But
here it is enough if two people watch, who don’t know that you are
doing that regularly, and it makes its rounds at school. Because we
are such a small community.123
Bjoern is concerned with the issue of mutual surveillance, which he attributes to “the
girls.” He feels he and his male peers can “let themselves go,” behave against
expectations, if no one observes – and maybe later judges – them. While at first sight
the teenagers eagerly and flawlessly adapt to the common (adult) practices in the club,
at second sight forms of own nightlife routines and sometimes ways to avoid the
expected “mature” performance become visible. The students, for instance, like to get
German original: Wenn wir als Jungs weg waren, sind halt andere Sachen passiert als wenn Antonia
und Charlie und alle anderen dabei waren. Weil wir uns auch viel mehr gehen lassen können. Weißt du, in
Deutschland ist das kein Problem. Wenn du dich gehen lässt und das sehen vierzig Leute, ist kein Stress.
Aber hier reicht’s schon wenn zwei Leute dich sehen, die nicht eingeweiht sind, dass du das öfters machst
und dann geht das in der Schule rum. Weil wir so eine kleine Community sind.
outside and sit on the stairs in front of the club. The security team at the entrance
never makes any objections when you take your beer outside. Here students engage in
conversation more easily and get some fresh air. “The boys” often seek the privacy of a
nearby back alley to smoke pot. This is perceived as a boys’ zone and “the girls” do not
follow. I only witnessed marijuana consumption among “the boys,” which “the girls” in
the beginning of my fieldwork found rather annoying. During my last stay in June 2012,
however, “the girls” were less objecting and some of them had meanwhile tried out
smoking marijuana on one or two occasions. However, consuming drugs is a very
gendered activity. While both “the girls” and “the boys” drink alcohol, none of “the girls”
smoke cigarettes. “The boys” usually purchase their drugs by contacting a dealer via
text message to then meet up at a nearby McDonalds. Occasionally, “the boys”
spontaneously buy marijuana at some of the street barbecue stalls that set up place
after dusk in the lively areas of Shanghai.
Teaming Up: Nightlife as Peer Group Activity
“I flee to the teenage group; they are my protecting herd now,” I hastily write into my
field diary sometime in the morning hours after a night out at Mural. I describe my own
reaction to a man approaching me too closely on the dance floor. Feeling
uncomfortable, I simply leave the elevated dance floor, pass the crowded bar area and
retreat to the teenagers who are sitting in their usual couch section. It is one of these
moments that are commonly described in ethnographic writings as eye-opening,
moments that are stylized to demonstrate how the ethnographer feels achieving a new
level of insight. To me this moment of dropping down on the couch next to the teenage
students, reminds me of such accounts, as all of a sudden I experience the peer group
as something new, as protective.
Interested in the importance of the group – teenagers’ nightlife practices are almost
always group activities – I discuss the issue with Bjoern during our interview in June
2012. He shares that if one of his close friends and group members cannot afford
going out, the group will usually renegotiate their plans and meet at one of the boys’
homes instead. Nightlife activities can thus be seen as finding and displaying alliances
and friendships and as crucial for friendship and peer group development. Those who
do not partake regularly have a more difficult position in the class at school or find it
harder to become part of a group. The peer group also forms a basis for interaction in
class during the week.124 Establishing and belonging to a social circle of friends is a
For a complex study of peer groups at American high schools see Milner’s monograph Freaks, Geeks,
and Cool Kids (2004). For the role of the peer group in migration experiences see Wessendorf (2007) who
conducted a study on adult second-generation Italians in Switzerland. Wessendorf argues that besides the
migration experience and ethnicity forming their social networks, peer group formations during
process for youths all over the world. However, in an environment of constant coming
and leaving, the task to find friends to communally experience the stay in Shanghai can
be difficult. Bjoern recalls the beginnings of his time in Shanghai almost two years
Bjoern: It was difficult to find out which friends suit me best. In the beginning I
was hanging out with entirely different people. Because they had
taken me in first. And the friends with whom I am befriended now, the
ones I’ve spent the one and a half years with, they weren’t even
interested in the beginning.125
Bjoern’s comment shows how the teenage students constantly negotiate their relations,
trying to find friends that “suit best.” Nightlife here plays a crucial role.
The two peer groups I worked with, in addition to mutual interests and being in the
same school classes, are mainly based on gender. These gender divides are on the
one hand strengthened by peer group nightlife routines. On the other hand, nightlife
offers opportunities for the two groups and their classmates to casually interact. Sexual
interests can be articulated towards members of the other group while the safety net of
the own peer group remains intact. Several couples emerged within the two peer
groups and their extended network over the two years that I have worked with the
Flirting (with Cosmopolitanism)
Approaching girls or boys outside the network is seen as positive, but I rarely
witnessed such interactions. Paul, student at an American school, explains in an
Paul: I guess, it’s cool to date a chick at your school. But, people around my
school, they go for girls who are at different schools. Like, there is a
social stigma behind dating girls of your own school.
Interviewer: Okay, so it is more, erm, cool if you have a girlfriend at a different
Paul: Yeah. Pretty much.
Interviewer: Pretty much.
Paul: If you have friends from different schools.
adolescence were particularly influential and involved in her informants’ identity negotiations: “This is
especially prevalent during adolescence, a time when social affiliations and identifications are negotiated,
and when a clear sense of belonging to a specific group becomes especially important. Even if reflections
about belonging remain important as people grow older, the emphasis on affiliations to particular peer
groups and the need to be recognised as a member of the group become weaker“ (Wessendorf 2007,
German original: Ja, schwer war es wirklich herauszufinden welche Freunde am Besten zu mir passen.
Ich war ja anfangs noch mit ganz anderen Leuten. Weil die mich halt als erstes aufgenommen haben. Und
die Freunde mit denen ich jetzt befreundet bin, also die, mit denen ich die eineinhalb Jahre verbracht
habe, die hatten am Anfang gar kein Interesse.
Interviewer: How about locals? Because in my age group, like late twenties, early
thirties, a lot of guys date Shanghainese girls.
Paul: Older guys do, not younger guys.
Interviewer: Okay, <L>, that’s what I thought. […] So, the coolest thing is to have
a girlfriend at a different international school.
Paul: Yeah. […] Yeah, like the local girls are kinda too easy.
Paul’s comment on Chinese girls startled me for its derogatory content, however, it
seems to hint at dynamics in the expatriate community that I have come across during
interviews with white expatriate women in Shanghai in 2007 – processes of “othering”
Chinese women as exotic, erotic, white-men-hunting. These expatriate women, mostly
so called “trailing spouses,” during my first fieldwork in Shanghai’s expatriate
community perceived Chinese women and their possible encounters with expatriate
men (their husbands) as threatening their marriage and lifestyle. James Farrer (2011),
looking into these dynamics in the nightclubs, describes similar narratives of white
foreign women feeling “sexually disadvantaged in the clubbing scene.” Farrer (2011)
and Farrer and Field (2012) understand Shanghai’s contemporary nightscapes, based
on a term borrowed from Joan Nagel (2003), as an “ethnosexual contact zone in which
individuals find solidarity within their ethnic groups, but also seek contact across ethnic
boundaries, with one major form of cross-ethnic contact being sexual interaction”
(Farrer and Field 2012, paragraph 12). In the ethnosexual contact zones of Shanghai’s
nightclubs, spaces of both consumption and production of urban nightlife culture,
racialized and gendered competitions maintain the relevance of racial categories to
some extent (Farrer 2011; Farrer and Field 2012). 126 However, they also normalize
certain forms of sexual sociability (Farrer and Field 2012, paragraph 24).
Despite the complexities of these racial and gendered topographies of contact,
the ethnographic evidence here points to the continued relevance of postcolonial
racial categories in a gendered competition between a dominant but fading global
whiteness and a rising global Chinese racial identity. This mapping of a fractious
global nightscape challenges the idea of a seamless transnational capitalist
class, and instead describes racial and gendered sexual competition as an
important feature of the leisure culture of transnational mobile elites. (Farrer
2011, 761)
For a positive reading of such cross-ethnic sexual fantasies and contacts, see cultural historian Mica
Nava’s (2002) reading of British women’s attraction to foreign men in the early 20th century. Focusing on
commercial culture because of its responsiveness to the preferences of women customers, Nava
demonstrates British women’s interest in foreign culture, men, and cosmopolitanism. “Unlike the
exoticizing narratives identified by critics of orientalism – in which ‘other’ women are cast as objects of
sexual desire and the oriental landscape is represented rhetorically as erotic female – in the
cosmopolitanism of the commercial and entertainment spheres, women appropriate the narratives of
difference for themselves in contrary and even polemical ways“ (2002, 85). Nava convincingly argues that
these women’s “flirtation with difference, with the outside, the elsewhere, the other” (ibid., 94) underlies an
identification with the black male’s position vis-à-vis the dominant white man. Her emphasis on the
production of everyday cosmopolitanism in the first decades of the 20 century rather than racism,
“however politically imperative” (ibid., 85), demonstrates the complexity and the relevance of genderspecific experiences and practices of vernacular cosmopolitanism.
Farrer’s (2011) argument that nightlife spaces in Shanghai serve as ethnosexual
contact zones between locals and expatriates, simultaneously enabling encounters
across racial/ethnic divides and staging racialized and gendered competitions, does
not seem to be of great relevance for teenage expatriate nightlife experiences and
practices. Although flirting and seeking first romantic and sexual experience are part of
their nightlife experience, it mostly remains within their social network, or at least within
the network of international school students, as student Paul’s comment shows. Within
these networks romantic relationships across ethnic/racial divides, however, are
normal. The lack of flirting with “local” Chinese in the clubs is most likely due to age, as
“local” teenagers are usually not to be seen in clubs and bars.
However, the desire to meet people outside the group – and preferably of diverse
background – still exists, and might be linked to what Chatterton and Hollands describe
as lifestyle performance and distinction:
Motivations for engaging in nightlife activity have also changed. While immensely
varied, changes in the nightclub and pub/bar sectors mean that music, socialising,
atmosphere, dancing and lifestyle performance and distinction are now among
the main motivations for a night out (Hollands, 1995; Chatterton and Hollands,
2001), alongside more traditional reasons such as letting go, courtship or seeking
casual sex. (Chatterton and Hollands 2003, 69)
Cosmopolitan encounters are a beloved theme for nightlife stories to be told in school
during the next week – having met “crazy Australians,” “cool Canadians,” or generally
people from elsewhere – repeatedly stress the cosmopolitan possibilities of Shanghai’s
nightscapes. These encounters, however, in my impression were fewer than the stories
make them seem. The teenagers often stay in their group. Nightlife is a peer group
experience. What is more, it is also a strong selling point for Shanghai, because it
offers answers to the desires for urban and cosmopolitan identities. By conquering the
spaces of Shanghai’s nightscapes teenagers are not only repeatedly aspiring,
negotiating, and confirming their youth and independence, their friendships and gender
performances, but also express their “lifestyle performance and distinction” (Chatterton
and Hollands 2003, 69) as cosmopolitan and urban. The cosmopolitan aspirations or
“flirting with difference” (Nava 2002, 94), go hand in hand with a desire to be involved
in the urban imaginary Shanghai, the “flirting with space” (Crouch 2005, 23).
Claiming the City: From Suburban to Urban Identities
Interestingly, in the interview passage that I quoted earlier (page 179), Paul describes
the city as influencing his life, saying, “Shanghai is a bit of a distraction.”
Firstly, this comment reminds of Sharon Zukin’s point, that we not only claim spaces as
ours, but that we are “claimed in turn by them” (Zukin 2005, 284). It shows a strong
identification with the city and conjures up Ulf Hannerz’s ([1996]2001) description of the
city as spectacle. Nightlife is part of this “Shanghai spectacle” that the international
teenagers actually participate in and not merely gaze at:
[T]he spectacle of the world city is something people constitute mutually.
Everybody is not merely an observer, but a participant observer, and the
prominent features of the spectacle may depend on one’s perspective. (Hannerz
[1996]2001, 133)
Hannerz (2001) already pointed out this connection of world cities, such as Shanghai,
with other cities and peripheries and the possible role of privileged migrants – such as
the expatriates under study – in the processes of connecting and building up the image
of world cities.
The managerial elites, as people in strong organizations, may stand a better
chance than others to extend their habitats from the world cities into their other
locations; corporate cultures are exported, to become more or less conspicuous,
prestigious and influential in the periphery as well. The expressive specialists,
when and if they return to their places of origin, are likely to become noticeable
proponents of new styles in cultural commodities. Even if they go back to
operating mostly in the respective local cultural market-places of the periphery, it
is quite possible that their sojourns in world cities play a part, directly or indirectly,
in enhancing their reputations. […] Together, all these, and returned tourists as
well, may turn out to be conduits for the continued cultural flow from the world
city, with their attention habitually turned its way, and with some investment
perhaps at least emotionally in maintaining open channels. (Hannerz [1996]2001,
Hannerz’s description points to the fact that the young expatriate students also
contribute to Shanghai’s global nightscapes and global image through their
involvement in the nightlife scene and its representation to others. Based on Field’s
(2008) and his own findings (Farrer 2002), Farrer for example argues that
Expatriates – especially European and American and overseas Chinese – have
long been visible consumer market leaders in Shanghai, and even important
‘attractions’ in Shanghai‘s nightlife scenes. (Farrer 2011, 749)
The youths’ practices can strengthen or challenge the ideas/norms associated with a
certain nightlife space and the location’s distinctiveness as well as the youths’ own
Secondly, I like to point out that in his statement Paul uses Shanghai as a synonym for
nightlife practices. Here we have to remember that spending the week on compounds
and school territory, the clubs in the former French concession, Jing’an district and
sometimes the Bund are get-outs and provide the basis for their regular involvement
with the city. Northcote (2006) concisely points out how cities and nightlife are
inextricably linked. On the one hand “the nightclub itself amplifies the elements of
urbanity” – for instance “movement, sound and visual excitement” – and represents the
mythical excitement of the city (Northcote 2006, 7). On the other hand,
club-goers themselves see nightclubs as inextricably part of the urban scape.
Nightclubs are, along with pubs, cafes, restaurants and theatres, a prominent
component of city night-life, and club-goers themselves do not tend to treat
nightclubs as significations of an urban setting as much as intrinsic elements of
that setting. Hence, nightclubs have become something of what Baudrillard
(1983) refers to as a ‘simulacrum’ – originally the signifier, but now the signified.
Inside the nightclub, the carefree hedonistic excitement of youth and popular
culture merges indistinguishably with the freedom and excitement of life in the big
city. (Northcote 2006, 7–8)
Likewise, students regularly reduce their relationship to Shanghai to nightlife activities.
Nightlife therefore plays a key role for expat youth in identifying with Shanghai as their
city in the migration process.
Thirdly, Paul’s statement “Shanghai is a bit of a distraction” – through stressing
Shanghai’s luring attractiveness – also indirectly contrasts Shanghai to other places
that might not have the same tempting potential. Attending to this contrast in more
detail, German school student Andrea makes a clear distinction between “Dorfkneipen”
[country pubs] she knows from Germany and the restaurants she enjoys frequenting in
Andrea: But then again it’s so great that you can just drive up to the Bund, if you
want. […] And then you can go out to eat really lovely. In Germany
you have to, I don’t know, there are these kinds of country pubs
somewhere. It’s not that exclusive. Shanghai is exclusive. That’s
This juxtaposition of “exclusive” urban nightlife in Shanghai to “Dorfkneipen” [country
pubs] is often accompanied by comments on age-based restrictions to nightlife spaces
in Germany. All youths going to bars, concerts, or clubs are eager to point out that their
peers abroad are not allowed to enjoy these spaces as freely. The youths in this
context, however, admit that their friends abroad organize house parties instead.
Antonia: But there are [ID] checks, so there are more house parties. Also
because it is expensive. And so cheap in China. That’s why we go
out partying every weekend.128
French school student Arnaud, also comments on the difference between house
parties and club visits, contemplating about the different behaviors that come along
with the social aesthetics of these spaces:
Arnaud: On weekends I usually go out to bars, and erm, maybe sometimes to
clubs with friends. And I think in Shanghai it’s, it’s special, cause in
Europe its much more difficult to <x> in a bar or a in a nightclub. You
got home parties and I think it gets much more, like, fucked-up, I
think. [I: <L>.] Because you try to stay at least a bit sober when you
German original: Aber dann ist es eben wieder so toll, dass man eben an den Bund fahren kann wenn
man will. […] Und dann kann man schön Essen gehen. In Deutschland muss man dann, ich weiß nicht, da
gibt es dann so Dorfkneipen irgendwo. So exklusiv und so ist es nicht. Shanghai ist exklusiv. Das ist
German original: Also da gibt es Kontrollen, da gibt es dann mehr Hausparties. Auch weil es so teuer
ist. Und in China so billig. Deswegen gehen wir jedes Wochenende feiern.
are in a public place. To not to mess up everyone. [I: Okay]. And I
think it’s different in a house party.
This comparison to peers “back home” and their house parties129, evoking ideas of
domesticity, serves to highlight their nightlife experiences in Shanghai as particularly
urban and exciting. Arnaud also points out that nightclubs as public places require
cultivated behavior – an idea that underlines my descriptions of the routine practices of
club visits as practicing “mature” behavior. Nightlife experience hence proves to be a
major aspect the expatriate youths like about Shanghai and through which they identify
with the city.
After a few hours at Mural, usually when the open bar closes at two a.m., my young
informants enjoy another cab ride home or to the next location. Further clubs such as
Dada (a university student location), Shelter (Shanghai’s “underground” venue in an
old bomb shelter), Mint (a rather exclusive and expensive club at the top floor of a high
rise building that sticks to guest lists and strict dress codes), Park 97 (upscale location
in the heart of the French concession), Bar Rouge (upscale venue at the bund) or M2
(medium price range and a higher percentage of Chinese locals) are on the agenda.
The night out usually ends with a stop at McDonalds on the way home to the outskirts
of Shanghai, back to the compounds of the expatriate enclave.
Staging Youth Culture: Concluding Thoughts on Nightlife Practices
While the social aesthetics of Shanghai’s internationalized nightclubs prescribe certain
outfits, practices and financial means, the clubs do not enforce any minimum age.
Expatriate teenagers thus usually negotiate their access to these spaces, forbidden in
most of their “home” countries, with their parents only. The students successively
acquire certain routine practices through regular club visits with their friends. While
Farrer and Field (Farrer 2011; Farrer and Field 2012) have convincingly argued that
these nightlife spaces in Shanghai serve as ethnosexual contact zones between locals
and expatriates, the expatriate adolescents use Shanghai’s bars and clubs rather to
manifest age, gender, cosmopolitan, and urban identities, as well as to assure their
friendships. Furthermore, nights out provide the counterpart to structured school life
For insights into teenagers’ home parties, see Demant and Østergaard’s (2007) article “Partying as
Everyday Life: Investigations of Teenagers’ Leisure Life”
that explores the meanings behind such
practices among Danish youths. Conceptualizing partying and alcohol consumption as a rite de passage
on the one hand, but situating these events in everyday life on the other, their analysis suggests that at
such home parties the collective consumption of alcohol is a means to transform the parents’ living room
into an appropriate space for partying. Using both qualitative and quantitative material the authors
demonstrate that drinking alcohol collectively does not only mean to experiment with intoxication, but
“symbolises commitment to both the party and to the specific group of friends” (ibid., 517). Like nightlife
activities for the teenage subjects of my study in Shanghai, partying at home for Danish youths, then, is
also a way to reaffirm friendships. Therefore, Demant and Østergaard argue, it is an integral part of
adolescents’ everyday life. It helps to extend the network of friends as well as to continuously reassure
existing mutual attachment.
and its pressure. As Northcote (2006) has suggested, the youths’ nightlife practices
can be seen as small self-made rite of passages, nightlife offering space for
transformations through repeated practices in shared space with adults. These
transformations in nightlife spaces, however, are manifold and are not only concerned
with gaining adult or mature status. The communal process of claiming youth and
independence through partying is also accompanied by processes of claiming urbanity
– through choosing downtown nightlife locations – and cosmopolitanism – through
choosing to share a space with international clubbers. Moreover, gender performances
are brought to the fore and first romantic and sexual encounters take place. Here the
network of the peer group offers safety to fall back on. Simultaneously, these
friendships are strengthened through repeated collective experiences. Like a stage
offers room for performances but also for (temporary) transformations, Shanghai’s
clubs provide a space for teenagers’ practices of exploring new narratives of the self.
The meanings attributed to nightlife practices are central to their involvement with the
city and as a mechanism of dealing with the move to Shanghai by making weekends
special and by claiming new spaces collectively without their families. Shanghai’s
nightscapes therefore stage expatriate youth culture and its emplacement in the city
based on the participants’ own agency. It is mainly nightlife that helps teenagers to
transform their enclaved experiences in the schools and compounds to desired young
urban identities.
The Shop: Hanging Out
While the previous chapter has provided one example of expatriate youths’ agency in
creating their own routines and social spaces embedded in Shanghai’s global nightlife
culture, this chapter examines another space and its related practices: the shop.
Students above grade ten at the German and French school campus are allowed to
leave the school premises during the school day. The older students often make use of
this privilege during breaks and free periods and often have lunch outside.
Consequently, it is not surprising to find a French café/bakery and a German bakery
nearby, providing familiar tastes to the staff, students, and their families. Students,
however, are particularly attracted to a small street in campus vicinity, which hosts
Chinese eateries and small shops selling cheap dishes, snacks, and drinks.
“The shop is our place to chill”: The Shop as the Space for a Break
Here, in this small alley, a five-minute walk off the school campus, students like to get
cheap drinks, purchase a lunch of fried rice or noodles, or simply hang out. The street
differs from the surrounding gated communities and the café and bakeries that
otherwise are located in the school vicinity. The small alley is separated by a wall from
the main street that runs parallel to it. When entering the lane, a different atmosphere
all of a sudden welcomes the students. Shabbier houses, make-shift stalls, new and
broken pool tables, laundry hanging out to dry, women cleaning vegetables, and smells
of fried food draw one in into a world entirely different from the school campus one just
left behind. The students simply refer to this lane and its entire offerings and
atmosphere as “the shop.”
Figure 28: The Shop: Students and Locals in the Small Alley, June 2012. Photo by M. Sander
The shop has undoubtedly become part of their everyday life. Seventeen-year-old
student Karina, for instance, explains her lunch break routine in the last school year:
The shop close to the school is our place to chill. Well, at least it used
to be. We went, I went there five times a week during lunch break. I
bought something to eat, for example gongbao or something else. It
is incredibly tasty and pretty cheap. But a huge portion. They really
cook well. Although, if you closely look at the environment, pretty
shabby, then you think, concerning hygiene, you rather don’t want to
eat there. But it is really good. At the shop most students buy
something to drink, bread rolls, sweets, chewing gum. It’s our
The shop provides a space to “chill” during lunch break, a space to recharge for further
lessons and activities. The English word “chilling,” or here adapted to German grammar
as “chillen,” is a term to refer to specific practices of “hanging out” and seems to have
spread among various youths. Vanderstede (2011, 175), for instance, explains the
spatial practice of “chilling” among Belgian youth:
It refers to quite diverse activities and atmospheres. Most often it stands for
meeting up with friends in a very ‘relaxed’ ambience (sitting, hanging and often
lying on the ground). On the other hand the same word was used to refer to more
active behaviour, like wandering, roaming or cycling around in the city, physical
activity games (football, teasing each other, etc.), or even playing party games.
Essential for ‘chilling’ is that it is an activity you do with friends and not with
Likewise, “chilling” is a common term for German expatriate youth to describe their
communal leisure practices – mostly related to places such as their friends’ homes or
the shop.
The importance of spaces like the shop for teenagers has also been proven in other
environments. Vanderstede (2011) in his descriptions of spatial practices of teenagers
in the Belgium city of Mechelen, for instance, also points out the relevance of such
spaces for students’ relations to the school environment.
The presence of quality public space (traffic calming measures, comfortable
spaces for hanging around and sitting) and the availability of services (food
shops, snack bars, and public transport) around secondary schools are highly
important for teenagers. Where such public spaces were available near the
school, teenagers stayed much longer after school. School environments lacking
such public domain or surrounded by traffic spaces, were emptied within 10
minutes after the courses. (Vanderstede 2011, 180)
The shop as a chosen hangout place is thus first of all connected to the proximity of the
school and the space it provides for recreation and meeting friends during and
immediately after school. At the same time being at the shop confirms the expatriate
teenagers’ age identities as older students, which they can express through making
use of their privilege of being allowed to leave the campus during school time. The
shop is therefore also an age-specific experience and unlike the school cafeteria and
the schoolyard does not need to be shared with younger children.
“The shop is not expat”: The Shop as an In-between Space
Besides being frequented by expatriate teenagers, the small street also has regular
local Chinese customers who usually eat at one of the restaurants.
Figure 29: The Shop: Inside the Small Restaurant, June 2011. Photo by M. Sander
The shop-owners themselves, who also live in the buildings, also use the space of the
little street for their daily chores and leisure. Students thus also describe the shop as
local, Chinese, or in Antonia’s wording “not expat”130.
Antonia: These shops, the shop is not expat. These shops exist everywhere.131
While many students regularly eat out at foreign restaurants with their families or
friends (see chapter seven), the food in the small alley is for many expatriate youths
the only local food consumed except for dishes prepared at home by the ayi (see
chapter 8.2. on food). Students point out that the shop is obviously “more China” than
their other everyday spaces such as the compounds or the schools (see chapter eight
and nine). Here, some of them have their only regular contact with locals, as sixteenyear-old Bjoern explains.
Sure, you also meet a lot of Chinese. You get to know, or I know all
the shop-owners in person. They are all very open.
While it is true that the little street is frequented by Chinese locals, the fact that the
shopkeepers have responded to the desires of the foreign students is also visible at
first sight: their inventory, for instance, includes foreign candies such as imported
Haribo gummy-bears, which I have not discovered in any other small Chinese-run shop
in Shanghai.
Figure 30: The Shop: Inside the Small Shop, January 2011. Photo by M. Sander
On a side note, it is interesting to see how Antonia says “not expat,” making “expat” the unmarked unit
of reference.
German original: Die Shops, dieser Shop ist ja nicht Expat oder so. Diese Shops gibt es ja überall.
Furthermore, the shop-owners have set up pool tables that now cover the street and
put a small stereo outside where students can plug in their mp3 players to play their
favorite tunes. The European students themselves have actively shaped the spaces by
putting graffiti on the walls.
Figure 31: The Shop: Pool Tables, Graffiti and Laundry, January 2011. Photo by M. Sander
However, I want to point out that the local shopkeepers still use the spaces according
to their own needs. They often play pool themselves, use these tables to prepare food
or display wares for the local community, or hang their laundry to air-dry outside (see
detail of photo above).
Figure 32: The Shop: Use of Pool Table to Display Wares. Photo by M. Sander
This little street, called the shop, gives room for experiencing the locale. It is according
to the students also a place that is more in touch with Chinese than any of the other
places they occupy: They share the pool tables; they eat at the same restaurant. While
the relations between shop-owners and students clearly underlie that of customer and
service provider, the students and shop-owner and their families also share a common
leisure space, playing pool, sitting outside, eating, smoking, chatting and relaxing. The
shop is no longer neither “typically local” nor, as Antonia pointed out in the interview, is
it a well-groomed “expat” space, it sits in-between. It thus also requires site-specific
knowledge, which I myself as a researcher had to acquire as successively as the new
students. This included learning the menu of the little restaurant to order their dishes in
Chinese, knowing when and where to sit, or how much items cost in the small shop.
“The Shop is somewhat like a park”: The Shop as Open Space
Sharon Zukin’s (2005, 284) article “Whose culture? Whose city?” shows how “culture is
intertwined with capital and identity in the city’s production systems.” Investigating the
role of investors, urban planners, but also of minorities, Zukin points out that “people
with economic and political power have the greatest opportunity to shape public culture
by controlling the building of the city’s public spaces in stone and concrete” (ibid).
However, she finds that “public space is inherently democratic. The question of who
can occupy public space, and so define an image of the city, is open-ended” (ibid).
[Public Culture] is produced by the many social encounters that make up daily life
in the streets, shops, and parks – the spaces in which we experience public life in
cities. The right to be in these spaces, to use them in certain ways, to invest them
with a sense of our selves and our communities – to claim them as ours and to
be claimed in turn by them – make up a constantly changing public culture.
(Zukin 2005, 284)
Zukin’s understanding of public culture in the city as also “socially constructed on the
micro-level” (ibid.) points out that even small public spaces like the shop can be seen
as part of Shanghai’s larger public culture.
For the Chinese context, however, German geographer Dieter Hassenpflug (2009)
suggests using the term “open space” (“offener Raum”) instead of the notion “public
space” to describe such spaces as the little street of the shop. He finds the notion of
“public space” unfitting to the situation in Chinese urban politics, as it relates to western
norms of democracy, participation and civil society (ibid., 32). He puts forward that the
dualism of “open” and “closed space” is better suited to understand the urban
environment in China (ibid.). The “open space” is usually undefined space,
Hassenpflug suggests (ibid., 31), and is opposed to the “closed,” meaningful space.
The open space is treated with little respect (ibid., 33) unless it is claimed through
rather “private” practices and rendered meaningful (ibid., 31). Hassenpflug’s examples
of how “open space” is used and claimed are immediately familiar to every Shanghai
visitor: the laundry line on the sidewalk, people going for a stroll in their pajamas, or
people playing go – a Chinese chess game. All these practices probably fall into the
realm of the “private space” in Western cities. It is in the understanding of such “open
space” that the Chinese shop-owners use the little alley of the shop: cleaning
vegetables, drying laundry, or sitting outside with friends, neighbors, and family.
The dualism of “closed” and ‘”open space” is visible in the expatriate teenagers’ spatial
practices as well. Bjoern’s mental map, for instance, highlights students’ movements
from one “closed space” to the next.
[Super market]
[Street with
Peter’s house
[German school]
Figure 33: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by 16-year-old Boy Bjoern
I have anonymized the name of friends and annotated places that might be unclear.
The locations displayed on this map are almost all closed and demand either financial
means [nightclub, restaurant] or a specific purpose [housing areas, school] to enter.
The only two “open spaces” the student placed on the map of “his Shanghai” are the
People’s Square and the shop. Shanghai’s central People’s Square, however, is less a
space to stay in than a place of transit due to its many intersecting metro lines. Bjoern’s
use of arrows in his drawing, also suggests the transitory role of the square as the
arrow simply crosses through it, rather than pointing at the unit. If we contextualize the
experience of the shop in these larger spatial everyday experiences, the shop –
despite its own rules or access regulations by the school – appears as one of the few
“open spaces” the teenagers use.
I argue that it is this openness, the fact that this liminal space provides a flexible
freedom for simply hanging out, which attracts students most. Bjoern explains the
usage of the shop by comparing it to public spaces in Germany. In his comparison,
however, he chooses public spaces that – similar to Hassenpflug depiction of “open
space” in Chinese cities – can be claimed by hanging out communally, listening to
music or drinking beer:
For me the shop is somewhat like a park; or what a bus stop or a
playground is for youths in Germany. That is what the shop
practically is. There are no problems with disturbance or breach of
the peace. […] You come here, bring your stuff along. Sit down on
the pool tables and drink. You listen to music. Everything is allowed.
It’s like a public place in my opinion, where teenagers can just go.
Interviewer: So you don’t have to feel restricted here?
In any case, there are no guards here. If we all meet for example at
my compound, the guards pass by every two hours or so to see if we
are destroying things or something like that. And here, I’d say, here
you are simply free. 132
The shop, as Bjoern’s contrast to the guarded housing compounds suggests, is an
“open space” that for him comes with freedom and escape from strict rules or even
surveillance. The following three images that I took over the course of fieldwork depict
the various seating areas in the little street and provide insight into the students’ ways
of ‘hanging out’ and using the shop as an “open space.”
Figure 34: The Shop: Hanging out in the Alley, September 2011. Photo by M. Sander
German original: Für mich ist der Shop eine Art Park oder Bushaltestelle oder Spielplatz halt in
Deutschland für die Jugendlichen, das ist bei mir quasi der Shop. Wo es halt nicht die Probleme mit
Ruhestörung oder so was gibt. [...] Hier gehst du halt auch hin, nimmst dein Zeug mit. Hockt man sich halt
auf die Billardtische und trinkt da. Und hört halt auch Musik, weil darf man hier ja alles. Das ist eigentlich
einfach wie ein öffentlicher Platz meiner Meinung nach, wo man als Jugendlicher auch hingehen kann. [I:
Ohne das man sich jetzt eingeschränkt fühlen muss?] Das ist vor allem, hier gibt es auch keine Guards
oder so was. Wenn wir jetzt zum Beispiel alle bei mir im Compound sind, kommen die Guards schon alle
zwei Stunden mal vorbei und gucken ob wir was kaputt machen oder so. Und hier ist man einfach, sag ich
mal, frei.
Figure 35: The Shop: Places to Sit in the Alley, September 2011/June 2012. Photos by M. Sander
The students describe the shop as dirty, run-down, but chilled. It gives room for graffiti,
music, and pool games. It is a place more organically grown than the well-designed
schools, compounds, and nightclubs. Students do not do homework here or study, but
socialize in a way that is less restricted than interaction at school or in nightclubs. It is
the only space they visit during the week that is outside the school and the expat
compound. The street might be understood as a space of freedom, where the
teenagers can socialize, smoke, get a break from school and parents. As sixteen-yearold Bjoern further adds: “You’re not at home, but you’ re undisturbed.”133
Concluding Thoughts on The Shop
The shop is an “open space” (Hassenpflug 2009), which the Chinese residents of the
small street and the expatriate students of the German and French school campus
close by communally use and shape. The German students see this alley as an area
for having a break from school and for “hanging out.” The shop offers a feeling of
freedom and openness in contrast to the rather sealed-off spaces they spend most of
their time at: gated communities and school grounds.
If and when students are allowed to be at the shop, however, is still negotiated with
school authorities. At the same time, through these negotiations, the shop confirms
their age identities as older students who state they privilege of leaving the campus
during school time. The shop is a place for teenagers, not elementary school students.
The German teenagers additionally describe the shop as one of few spaces that they
share with local Chinese, or where they sometimes interact. In this way the shop is, in
the students’ words, “not expat.” The owners of the small eateries and little stores,
viewing the little street as “open space,” tolerate students’ behaviors of cycling,
listening to music or even spraying graffiti. The youths’ practices at the shop have
developed in compromise with the economic interests of the shop-owners, who see in
the teenage behaviors opportunities to enhance business and therefore provide pool
German original: Man ist nicht zu Hause, aber man ist halt ungestört.
tables, couches, the desired snacks or even a stereo for the youths to play their own
music. The students’ practices are thus not only negotiated with the school close by,
but also with the shop-owners, as the teenagers – despite all friendly conversations –
also remain customers.
The concluding chapter of this part on the emplacement processes of expatriate youths
in Shanghai further examines the students’ relations to Shanghai’s “local” citizens.
“Guests stay guests”: The Lack of “Local” Friends
Exploring, experiencing, and identifying with Shanghai is crucial for expatriate
teenagers to manage the meaning of their stay and to gain agency as the previous
chapters have demonstrated. At the same time Shanghai – despite being an
international metropolis – has been described by other scholars as rather excluding. To
be regarded as “Shanghainese,” for instance, is an almost impossible status even for
migrants from other parts of China, as Sonja Schoon’s (2007) work on the relations
between waidiren, citizens from outside of Shanghai, and shanghairen, Shanghainese,
has shown. Donald and Gammack (2007), in reference to work by Lu Hanchao (1999),
have commented on this divide and the inherent exclusion of Chinese and foreign
migrants from claiming urban citizenship:
The very criteria for being identified as Shanghainese are vague, in view of the
fact that neither by birth or language, yet definite identifications as Shanghainese
(or not) can be made […] The system of waiguo and waidiren (i.e. non-Chinese
foreigners and Chinese from outside the city more generally) as official excluding
categories is symptomatic of the sense of self that operates according to
principles of exclusion rather than according a positive welcome to the new city
strangers. In this Shanghai differs markedly from, say, London, where
newcomers declare themselves Londoners within a very few years of taking up
residence. (Donald and Gammack 2007, 153–154)
Donald and Gammack suggest a general atmosphere of Shanghai, a “sense of self”
that “operates according to principles of exclusion.” In the chapters of the previous part,
“Arriving,” I have shown that many of the places teenage expatriates routinely frequent,
like the schools and housing areas, are secluded and not even considered as part of
the city by the students themselves (see chapter six on managing Shanghai by dividing
it into “the city” and the familiar spaces). Students and their families draw strong
boundaries around their expatriate circles and their contacts to local Chinese are very
limited. Consequently, Shanghai’s citizens have remained rather absent in my
accounts tracing the youths’ everyday spatial practices. Is this absence only due to the
boundary drawings of expatriates as means of distinction and finding comfort and
community? What role do the “principles of exclusion” Donald and Gammack attribute
to Shanghai play in the lack of interaction between expatriate and Chinese youths?
To overcome a claustrophobic view on diasporas, Avtar Brah (1996) proposes the
concept of “diaspora space” to examine “the economic, political and cultural modalities
of historically specific forms of migrancy” and “the relationality of these migrancies
across fields of social relations, subjectivity and identity” (1996, 16):
Diaspora space is the point at which boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, of
belonging and otherness, of ‘us’ and ‘them’, are contested. My argument is that
diaspora space as a conceptual category is ‘inhabited’, not only by those who
have migrated and their descendants, but equally by those who are constructed
and represented as indigenous. In other words, the concept of diaspora space
(as opposed to that of diaspora) includes the entanglement, the intertwining of
the genealogies of dispersion with those of ‘staying put’. (Brah 1996, 208–209)
Brah’s term “diaspora space” aims to conceptualize the entanglement of the
experiences of “migrants” and “locals.” Applying her analytical concept to my work
means to focus on the relations of the two heterogeneous groups, expatriates and
“those who are constructed and represented as indigenous” (Brah 1996, 209). This
chapter investigates the “diaspora space” by asking the expatriate teenagers about
their relations to China and Chinese citizens to further understand the boundaries I
have observed and described throughout the ethnography. How do the students
perceive their (lack of) interaction with Chinese citizens? How do the expatriate
students see themselves in the context of Shanghai and China?
Since “diaspora space” as an abstract theoretical concept was ill-suited for the
interview discussions, I simply asked students if they feel accepted in China and the
teenagers self-reflectively commented on their relationship to Chinese society.
Thereupon, I brought the term “integration” into the discussion. It became obvious that
the term “integration” for many of the students had never been put in relation to their
own situations, but remained reserved for migrants in Europe or elsewhere. Based on
these new reflections upon integration and by tracing their view on the role of the
expatriate community and the expatriate status, the chapter investigates the young
people’s positioning in China (13.1). It then draws attention to a topic that emerged
during interviews – the teenagers’ experiences of “not fitting in,” of being a visible
foreigner in the city (13.2). Subsequently, to shed further light on the “diaspora space,”
I examine the barriers to integration that students perceive, the difficulties and
obstacles of connecting with Chinese youths (13.3). Finally, the chapter explores
students’ subjective views of Chinese authorities’ attitudes towards foreigners (13.4)
and shows how integration and feelings of being accepted in China, according to the
students’ experiences, can only be understood as being welcome as “a guest” (13.5).
Autonomous and Special? The Demarcation of the Expatriate Community
Chapter nine of this ethnography identified the international schools as hubs in
Shanghai’s expatriate networks and explored practices and values that foster the
sense of an expatriate community. These “inner” definitions are tied to distinctions
towards China that become visible when discussing the idea of “integration” with
expatriate students. During an interview in September 2011, seventeen-year-old
Giovanni whom I know from the German school explains:
Giovanni: In a sense you are integrated. But you actually don’t need the others.
You can move around quite independently. And that is why you
actually only need the taxi drivers.134
Giovanni’s description of independence from local Chinese, or “the others” in his
wording, is firstly based on a clear divide between “us” and “them.” Secondly, it derives
from the idea of relationships across this divide that center merely around service or
business, not around casual encounters or friendships as his usage of “need”
suggests. Giovanni’s statement also startles me, as he seems to show no curiosity in
regards to Shanghai’s citizens. When during our interview I inquire further about
processes of integrations, he comments:
Giovanni: Erm. Integrate? You try to adapt, a little. But when you are at home, in
your home or apartment, you are actually totally different again. […]
And when you are out with other foreigners, somewhere, like on
Hongmeilu, then you don’t adapt to China either.135
While Giovanni acknowledges a little bit of “adapting,” he sees most of the daily routine
– whether at home or eating out with friends – as “totally different.” Like Giovanni,
American school student Paul describes the expatriates in Shanghai as forming a circle
of their own.
Paul: Well, yeah, everyone here kinda sits in their own group. Like, in Jinqiao136,
where my school is at, it’s a, like, really international community.
There are very few Chinese people that live around there. So
everyone just stays in that bubble. They don't have to experience
China if they don’t want to. They just kinda stay in that group.
Both Paul’s description of the “bubble” and Giovanni’s comments on not needing “the
others” illustrate how from their experience the expatriate community functions almost
independent of Chinese society. This image of an autonomous community is based on
German original: Eigentlich ist man schon integriert. Aber du brauchst die andren eigentlich gar nicht.
Man kann sich hier eigentlich ganz selbständig bewegen. Und deswegen braucht man eigentlich nur die
Taxifahrer hier.
German original: Eh. Einfügen? Man versucht sich halt anzupassen, ein bisschen. An die andren Sitten
hier. Aber. Ja, wenn du dann zu Hause, in dem Haus oder der Wohnung bist, ist man eigentlich wieder
ganz anders. […] Und wenn man halt mit auch Ausländern unterwegs ist irgendwo, wie in der Hongmeilu,
dann passt man sich auch nicht groß an. An China.
Jinqiao is part of the newly developed Pudong area in the east of Shanghai. It hosts particularly many
expatriate housing estates, supermarkets and restaurants catering imported food as well as campuses of
several international schools.
the unifying and comforting experience for its members, but is simultaneously linked to
strong boundaries towards Shanghai’s citizens.
When Giovanni and I are further discussing his occasional interaction with local
Chinese, I ask him to assess the Chinese perceptions of foreigners. He answers by
describing a situation he has just experienced on his way to the interview:
Giovanni: I asked for directions, out there. But they don’t even notice you when
you speak English. They simply continue walking. And otherwise,
some have a lot of respect, because you are a foreigner.137
Giovanni’s use of “out there” to describe the interaction with Shanghai’s citizens while
sitting in a restaurant highly frequented by expatriates, again illustrates the strong
local-expat divide. Furthermore, Giovanni addresses his experiences of being treated
with respect due to being a (visible because white) foreigner. This being treated
differently and the inherent demarcation of the expatriate community also come up in
the discussion with his classmate Andrea:
Andrea: We actually kind of live in our foreigner bubble. Yes, we are here. They
don’t treat us impolitely. I wouldn’t say that. I also like it here. But it is
not that I have many Chinese contacts. Nor do my parents have
many Chinese contacts. Erm. I think we always have this special
status. I always find that the foreigner in China has a very different
status. [...] I wouldn’t say that the Chinese law applies in the same
way for us.138
Andrea, like Paul, uses the metaphor of the “bubble” to describe the expatriate
experience in Shanghai. Furthermore, she stresses that foreigners in China have, in
her wording, “this special” and “very different status.” Andrea, familiar with expat
postings elsewhere due to her networks of friends and family, considers this foreigner
status not only as “special” in comparison to local Chinese, but also to expatriates
Andrea: I don’t know, but I find the expats here are different from expats in
Singapore, or in Spain or somewhere. The foreigners, the German
expats. Because here it is still, here it is still very different. Here, you
still have a driver, here you also don’t have to learn the language. I
don’t know, but if you as a German go to Mexico, and you work there,
you have to learn Spanish. I think, in my opinion. And when I go to
Singapore, then it is not like that either. […] If you are lucky, you get
German original: Da hab ich nach dem Weg gefragt, da draußen. Aber die beachten einen eigentlich
gar nicht wenn man auf Englisch redet. Da gehen sie einfach weiter. Und. Sonst. Manche haben halt so
Respekt, weil du Ausländer bist.
German Original: Eigentlich wohnen wir so in unserer Ausländerblase und. Ja, wir sind hier. Sie
behandeln uns jetzt nicht unhöflich. Ich würd jetzt nicht sagen. Ich find es auch schön hier. Aber es ist jetzt
nicht so, dass ich jetzt hier viele chinesische Kontakte hab. Oder das meine Eltern viele chinesische
Kontakte haben. Ehm. Ich glaube wir haben immer diesen Sonderstatus. Ich find immer, der, der,
Ausländer in China, besonders in China, hat der Ausländer einen ganz anderen Status. [...] Also, ich
würde nicht sagen, dass das chinesische Rechtssystem jetzt so unbedingt auch für uns so gilt.
a car, I think. That’s what I heard, from friends, but not everyone gets
one. It is much more expensive.139
In Andrea’s view the status of expatriates in Shanghai is different to that of expatriates
elsewhere due to the financial benefits and clear difference to the local income. Andrea
argues that this status has influences on the relationship between foreigners and local
Chinese: expats do not even have to learn Chinese.
Her friend, sixteen-year-old Antonia, a Shanghai veteran and child of a GermanChinese marriage, admits she enjoys the lifestyle she has, but strongly voices her
anger about this perception of a “special status”:
Antonia: And many are sometimes a little disrespectful towards China. […]
Generally, how we live here. I don’t know. I think it is so… Yes, I think
arrogant is a good word. [I: Hmm.] As if we were something better or
something. And then we live our lives where we just have fun and go
She further expands her view during the same interview:
Antonia: And therefore we are always welcome. We come into the city. We are
the foreigners, we feel better than all the others. We spend loads of
money, are completely disrespectful towards money, because it is
actually so little, for us. And erm, we just have fun.141
Although I do not present my own critical stance on certain aspects of expatriate ways
of living, Antonia’s self-critique might be triggered by my presence and the questions I
raise about integration. However, reflecting on her own lifestyle and the implications of
status leading to expatriates “feeling better than all the others,” shows how she feels
uncomfortable with the relationship between foreigners and locals. She also identifies
the different financial means as a dividing experience and points out that expatriates
might be welcome mainly due to their high spending power. Although she criticizes
expatriates’ attitudes towards China as well as what other students present as a
“special status,” she can also relate to the experience of such a status. She argues that
from her experience Chinese always treat her as a foreigner in the sense of something
special and that this therefore also hinders friendships:
German original: Ich weiß nicht, aber ich finde die Expats hier sind auch was anderes als zum Beispiel
die Expats in Singapur, oder in Spanien oder so. Die Ausländer, also die deutschen Expats. Weil hier ist
das noch so, hier ist das noch ganz anders. Hier hat man noch einen Fahrer, hier muss man auch nicht
unbedingt die Sprache lernen. Ich weiß nicht, aber wenn du jetzt als Deutscher nach Mexiko gehst, und
dort arbeitest. musst du spanisch lernen. Glaube ich, meiner Meinung nach. Und wenn ich nach Singapur
gehe, dann ist das auch nicht so. […] Wenn man Glück hat, dann kriegt man ein Auto, glaub ich. Also so
hab ich das mitbekommen, von Freunden, aber nicht jeder hat eins. Das ist viel teurer.
German original: Und Viele sind auch manchmal, also, ein bisschen respektlos gegenüber China. […]
Allgemein wie wir leben. Ich weiß nicht. Ich finde es so. Ja, ich glaube arrogant ist schon ein gutes Wort.
So. [I: Hmm.] Als wären wir irgendwas Besseres oder so. Und dann leben wir unser Leben wo wir einfach
nur Spaß haben und ausgehen.
German original: Und dadurch sind wir auch immer so freundlich willkommen. Wir kommen halt in die
Stadt. Wir sind die Ausländer, wir fühlen uns besser als alle anderen. Wir geben einen Haufen Geld aus,
total respektlos gegenüber Geld. Weil es so wenig ist eigentlich, für uns. Und ehm. Haben einfach nur
Antonia: You are always regarded as a foreigner. Well. Not in a negative sense,
a bit in a positive one, as something special. But, then again you are
also not integrated.142
Antonia argues that the positive discrimination she experiences impedes integration.
This argument can be applied to the experiences by her fellow students as well.
Giovanni, who interned as a teacher at a Chinese sailing school, recalls how he felt
that his presence was welcome merely due to the status-gain the sailing club hoped to
achieve by displaying a (white) foreigner:
Giovanni: But the reason for us [he and his brother] being there, was actually not
to teach them, but rather, that they [the customers] see that there are
also foreigners. That was my feeling.143
This experience of being presented as a foreigner to make a Chinese enterprise look
more international goes hand in hand with the teenagers’ perceptions of being treated
with respect due to one’s physical appearance. Giovanni, however, would have liked to
pursue a more meaningful role at the sailing school.
In the following narrative Charlie, born in Germany to Chinese parents, contrasts the
different forms of reactions towards foreigners in Germany and in Shanghai that she
and her family experience.
Charlie: They [Expatriates] often see China as a country where they go for a few
years and then leave again. And I think people often don’t really
respect the country. They feel they can get away with things they
would never do in Germany. Because they think they have a special
status because they are foreigners. It is so different here. In
Germany, if you are a foreigner, it is not necessarily regarded as
positive. And here it is like that. They get excited about foreigners,
‘oh foreigners’ and so on, and are happy about it. And sometimes
even get special treatment or something. My dad caused an accident
once, a small one. And then he had to show his passport at the
police station. And then: ‘Oh my God, he is German.’ And so on. […]
And in Germany you will hear ‘ching chang chong’ or something like
German original: Man wird für immer angesehen als Ausländer. Also. Und nicht im negativen Sinne,
sondern im positiven. So als was Besonderes. Aber, dann ist man ja auch nicht wirklich integriert.
Aber der Grund warum wir da waren, war eigentlich nicht, dass wir das denen beigebracht hätten.
Sondern, dass die sehen, dass da auch Ausländer sind. Hab ich so das Gefühl gehabt.
German original: Oft sehen die China auch so als Land, da bin ich jetzt ein paar Jahre und dann geh
ich wieder weg. Und ich finde auch oft respektieren die Leute das Land nicht so richtig. Die erlauben sich
dann so Sachen die sie in Deutschland nie machen würden. Weil sie denken sie haben hier einen
besonderen Status weil sie Ausländer sind. Das ist auch hier total anders. In Deutschland wenn du
Ausländer bist, wird das ja nicht unbedingt positiv angesehen. Und hier ist das direkt so. Die freuen sich,
wenn Ausländer, „oh Ausländer“ und so, und freuen sich immer. Und kriegen vielleicht manchmal sogar
Sonderwünsche oder so was. Mein Papa hat mal einen Unfall gebaut, so einen kleinen. Und dann war er
auf dem Polizeiamt und da musste er seinen Pass zeigen. Und dann: „Oh Gott der ist Deutscher“ und so.
[…] Und in Deutschland kommt „Ching Chang Chong“ und so was.
Charlie’s account clearly shows how migration experiences are deeply influenced by
the larger geometries of power and the prevailing stereotypes in the mainstream “host”
Sixteen-year-old Don from the German school openly addresses his frustration about
the different treatment of foreigners in China. Himself looking Chinese, Don often
experiences differences in the way Chinese “locals” look at him in contrast to his white
friends who are immediately identifiable as foreigners:
Don: You get treated differently as, if you are... […] Well, last year and the year
before, I always hung out with German friends, so to say. They all
look, well, tall built and western. And when you walk through the
streets with them, and when we get in trouble, then it’s most often the
Chinese who gets dissed first. As a Chinese, if you look Chinese, you
generally get less respect from the Chinese. They respect foreigners
to the max.145
This section has shown that the expatriate students feel they have a “special status in
Shanghai” and are often treated differently to Chinese citizens. Some of the students’
descriptions could even be labeled as cases of positive discrimination. This is
particularly true for those who are already identifiable as foreign at first sight. Many of
the students echo Don’s account above of Chinese citizens’ “respect” for foreigners, in
particular for white people. The next section further explores the role of expatriate
students’ bodily difference or similarity to Chinese in regard to their experiences of
Shanghai. While it further elaborates upon the privileged status of whiteness, it also
examines the white high school students’ experiences of “not fitting in” as well as the
constant gaze of the “other.”
“We don’t fit in”: The Gaze of the “Other”
“[B]eing a migrant is, amongst other things, a profoundly bodily experience” (Fechter
2007a, 60). Consequently, for many expatriate students the body and their bodily
differences to Chinese, their whiteness, play a crucial role. Whiteness has recently
come into the focus of scholars, who explore the cultural construction of whiteness and
challenge it as an unexamined and unmarked category (Hill 1997). Whiteness as
examined in these white studies, as Donald (2000, 157) summarizes drawing on
Richard Dyer’s White ([1997]2008), “is a racial category; generally understood as a
construction of privilege in many political, social, and economic environments.”
Whiteness is not only seen as a bodily difference in regards to skin color, but the
German original: Man wird auch anders behandelt als, wenn man. […] Also letztes und vorletztes Jahr.
Ich bin ja immer mit, ehm, deutschen Freunden, so zu sagen. Die sehen halt alle, also groß gebaut und
westlich aus. Und wenn man mit denen halt durch die Straßen läuft, und wenn da, wenn wir dann Stress
bekommen, dann ist meistens der Chinese derjenige der als erstes angemacht wird. Als Chinese, wenn du
aussiehst wie ein Chinese, hast du hier generell weniger Respekt von Chinesen. Die respektieren
Ausländer ja aufs Übelste.
perceived difference includes height, body size, hair texture or eye shape. White does
not stand for skin color, but for an intricate web of aspects, as Dyer highlights:
A person is deemed quite visibly white because of a quite complicated interaction
of elements, of which flesh tones within the pink to beige range are only one: the
shape of nose, eyes and lips, the colour and set of hair, even body shape may all
be mobilised to determine someone’s ‘colour’. For instance, it has been
customary in the West to call the complexion of Chinese or Japanese people
yellow, yet it is by no means clear that their complexions are so distinct from that
of white Westerners; it is generally the shape of the eyes that is critical in
deciding whether someone is ‘white’ or ‘yellow’. (Dyer [1997]2008, 42)
The expatriate students observed that in China being white often means preferential
treatment, as in many cases it is synonymous with a financially strong background.
While the perceptions of racial superiority among expatriate youth in Shanghai are not
as extreme as the accounts collected by Jacqueline Knörr (2005, 60–64) of white
expatriate youth in Africa146, it seems clear, however, that whiteness is regarded highly
in China. 147 M. Dujon Johnson (2011) researching racism in Taiwan and Mainland
China sums up his encounters and discussions:
The line of reasoning of white racial superiority (that the most advanced societies
are predominantly white), exits today in most segments of Chinese culture and
the result is that mainstream society associates wealth, status, education and
power in the west with individuals of visible and identifiable Caucasian origins
(skin pigmentation). (Johnson 2011, 43)
The students’ feelings of being ascribed a “special status” in Shanghai is based, as
Johnson’s findings suggest, on the tight link of whiteness to “wealth, status, education
and power.”
Keeping the privileged status that is attached to being white in mind, this “special
status” as the students themselves labeled it, however, also means that blending in is
impossible. The expatriate youths’ “exotic” appearances – as student Antonia once put
it – provoke curiosity and stares from local citizens. Sixteen-year-old Karina remembers
this experience vividly:
Karina: When two friends of mine visited Shanghai, we were always out. We
went downtown every day. I think thousands of Chinese took pictures
Jaqueline Knörr (2005), writing about experiences of (re)migration of expatriate youth from Africa to
Germany, reflects upon the effects that the experience of whiteness can have for children. She describes
the link between whiteness and superiority in the following way:
The message the majority of white children growing up in "black" Africa get is that being white goes
along with being rich and superior. While blacks may also (be)come rich and advance economically
for different reasons, being rich appears to be an innate and natural feature of being white, a
feature of social class, which in most cases goes along with a feeling of cultural superiority.
Whereas white parents in most cases have experienced that being white does not have such
implications everywhere, many white children lack this experience altogether - and many of their
parents prefer forgetting it while in Africa. (Knörr 2005, 61)
For an historical account of constructions of race in China see Frank Dikötter (1992), The Discourse of
Race in Modern China. For a contemporary approach and a more personal account see Race & Racism in
the Chinas by African-American author M. Dujon Johnson (2011).
of us, or filmed us. It‘s probably simply this curiosity. Because they
have never seen foreigners. Especially small children. They just walk
up to you and always say ‘hello’. <L>. And are always extremely nice
and really cute somehow.148
German student Lara has similar stories to tell:
Lara: I can’t even count the times I have been filmed or photographed in the
metro anymore. Because they think I come from the moon or
something. Because blond is not the color here. Especially if you go
out. I mean you have to know that. You get stared at. […] In the
beginning I thought it was funny. Meanwhile I think it is a bit
Their whiteness causes the teenagers to stand out while moving through the city and
attracts a lot of attention. While some students can accept the curiosity, others feel
unsettled by the “‘gaze of the Other’” (Fechter 2007a, 62) and complain that they find
such treatment vexing and irritating. My own reactions to attracting stares depended on
the context and my own mood. Re-reading my field diary from 2007, where I had
commented more frequently on the gaze than in the time between 2010 and 2012, my
own desire to be able to blend in, to be not immediately visible as a “stranger”
becomes apparent. This relates to Stephanie Donald’s point that we are unaware of
our whiteness as ethnicity due to the norm and status it often brings along:
The bearers of whiteness so often pretend to neutrality. We refuse our ethnicity,
while playing on its potential for advantage in the main streams of money, power
and political clout. (Donald 2000, 157)
This becoming visible as white that I often experienced as disturbing can be
understood in the context of Richard Dyer’s argument:
Whites must be seen to be white, yet whiteness as race resides in invisible
properties and whiteness as power is maintained by being unseen. To be seen
as white is to have one’s corporeality registered, yet true whiteness resides in the
non-corporeal. (Dyer [1997]2008, 45)
Dyer’s description of losing power through being registered as white and becoming
aware of one’s corporeality explain my own and the teenagers’ unsettlement through
locals’ stares. Norwegian girl Britta, for instance, in similar manner to my early
experiences, describes how it can be difficult to deal with not blending in:
Britta: Also people staring, not being shy at all. Just like in the metro and stuff.
[…] And we are like, yeah I know I look like, weird. I know. We just
feel like, so, I don’t know, just trying staring back and they are still like
German Original: Als jetzt zwei Freundinnen von mir in Shanghai hier waren, waren wir immer
unterwegs. Jeden Tag in der Stadt. Wir wurden glaube ich von tausenden von Chinesen fotografiert,
aufgenommen. Das ist einfach wirklich diese Neugier womöglich. Weil sie einfach noch nie Ausländer
gesehen haben. Vor allem Kleinkinder. Die kommen dann zu einem hin und sagen immer so "hello" <L>
und sind immer total freundlich und voll süß irgendwie.
German original: So oft wie ich schon gefilmt wurde in der Metro und fotografiert und sonst was. Kann
ich gar nicht mehr zählen. Weil die denken ich komme vom Mond oder so. Weil blond ist hier ja eh schon
hier nicht die Farbe. <L> Vor allem wenn man abends weg ist. Ich meine, das musst du ja auch wissen.
Man wird so angestarrt. […] Am Anfang fand ich es lustig. Mittlerweile finde ich es ein bisschen nervig.
staring at [you]. […] There were like many weird things about coming
here. […] They laugh and smile and take your hair.
Seventeen-year-old Britta describes how she feels uncomfortable and tries to defend
herself by “staring back,” a strategy that proves unsuccessful.
In addition to the sudden awareness of corporeality, my ethnographic material on
expatriate women gathered in 2007 and an article by Willis and Yeoh (2008) on single
unattractiveness in China. According to Willis and Yeoh, the phrase “Bridget Jones in
China” was commonly reported to be a term by which women referred to themselves.
Some, for example, reported of Chinese people commenting on their “fat arms” (Willis
and Yeoh 2008). As Katie Walsh (2008) observed among expatriate women in Dubai,
increased physical activity – with fitness courses on the compound – and beauty
treatments such as manicures, pedicures, and facials are very common among adult
white women in Shanghai as well. The adult female interviewees I worked with in 2007
also reported feeling large and ungainly when talking about the difficulties of buying
fitting clothing.
While some of my female teenage informants share this experience, they – in contrast
to the adult women – seem not to feel threatened in their beauty. Nevertheless, buying
clothes in China heightens their experience of “being different” and literally not fitting in:
Lara: Shopping is an issue. You have to find your shopping area. H&M and such
things, that’s what I prefer.
Karina: Yes. C&A.
Lara: These Chinese shops, I don’t even enter them.
Karina: No. The fashion. Chinese fashion isn’t really
Lara: Doesn’t fit us. I must say I don’t fit into the pants. The tops don’t fit. They
are too tight at the bust.150
While these anecdotal accounts of physical difference first appeared to me as “typical”
teenaged girls’ attempts to stage their own beauty, I now see how these experiences of
physical difference play an important part in the migration experience. Evidently, white
youths’ experiences of Shanghai are significantly affected by the stare and the reaction
of Shanghai’s citizens. These local practices, a form of power, are something they
cannot escape because blending in is impossible.
This discomfort of constantly being seen as different and one’s own sudden awareness
German Original: Lara: Also, Shoppen ist so ein Ding. Man muss ja eigentlich seine Shopping Area
finden. H&M, solche Sachen. Da tendiere ich hin.
Karina: Ja, C&A
Lara: Also, diese chinesen Läden, da gehe ich gar nicht erst rein.
Karina: Nee. Die Mode. Chinesiche Mode ist nicht so, unbedingt.
Lara: Passt uns auch gar nicht. Ich muss sagen ich pass in die Hosen nicht rein. Mir passen die Oberteile
nicht. Die Oberweite ist zu eng.
of being white, as I described above based on my own experiences, might be one
reason for the students to seek out spaces they claim as expatriate, leading to further
boundary drawing. Eighteen-year-old Peter, for example, explains how he feels
exhausted and estranged in the urban environment due to the language barrier, but
also due to the impossibility to blend in:
Peter: I am annoyed. Well, I am not annoyed by it, but life is very exhausting
here. Well, in part it is really exhausting. Because of all the traffic, all
the people here. And that is inevitable. And the problem is also that I
don’t master the language at all. And I don’t like that. First of all
everyone looks at you. That might be normal. You look different from
them and many others in their environment.151
Peter’s remark that “life is very exhausting here” stands in stark contrast to the comfort
of expatriate life students usually describe (see for instance the narratives I take up
under “Example 1: Common Comfort” in subchapter 9.3). However, Peter’s account
here delineates life outside the “bubble” and at the same time points out the factors
that contribute to the withdrawal and maintenance of the “bubble.” Britta, for instance
explains this phenomenon:
Britta: Also it is nice when you go to places where you see other western people.
Like. You don't feel like the only one who is blond in the whole
building. You can like, look around and see, maybe they are
American or German.
The bodily experiences therefore clearly shape the space making processes of
expatriates. The physical walls that protect the gated communities or international
schools and the boundaries around the body – cultural constructions of whiteness –
often support each other. Fechter has similar findings for expatriates in Indonesia
(2007a, 59–82):
[T]heir movements through public space similarly reflect and shape their
experiences of, and attitudes towards ‘Indonesia’. In particular, many expatriates
feel rather uncomfortable being looked at by Indonesians, and their wish to avoid
this ‘gaze of the Other’ therefore informs many of their spatial practices. (2007a,
Thus, not only the own view of the city, but also the being viewed shapes the urban
landscapes and might be one of many motives to avoid certain spaces, for example the
subway, and to embrace others, such as nightlife spaces.
However, while expatriates are usually imagined as “western” – and this is often used
interchangeably to refer to whites – not all expatriates are white. Based on Bonnett
(2004), Fechter and Walsh (2010, 1204) emphasize that the usage of “western” for
German original: Mich regt auf. Also mich regt es nicht auf, aber, die, es ist sehr anstrengend hier auch
das Leben. Also teils ist es sehr anstrengend hier. Durch den ganzen Verkehr, durch die ganzen
Menschen hier. Und das lässt sich auch nicht vermeiden. Und das Problem ist auch, dass [ich] die
Sprache einfach überhaupt nicht beherrsche. Und ich mag das nicht. Erstens gucken einen alle an. Das ist
ja vielleicht auch selbstverständlich. Man sieht anders aus als sie selbst und viele andere in ihrer
white “may be true in both the imaginations of expatriates and those they come into
contact with.” While many expatriates in Shanghai are not “western” as they come from
other parts of Asia (for instance the majority of the students at the Singaporean school
I visited), even many of the “western” expatriate students are not regarded as white.
While I have not accompanied any black expatriate students in Shanghai, I have met
many students of Asian or racially mixed phenotype, because either one of their
parents is Chinese or their parents or grandparents migrated to Europe or North
America from Hong Kong, China or other parts of Asia decades before taking on an
assignment in Shanghai. These children form a great percentage of the students at all
of the international schools and their experiences of Shanghai partly differ from their
fellow white students – also due to their phenotype.
While Don, born to Chinese parents in Germany, for instance, voices his anger about
different treatment by guards in the gated communities (see chapter 8.1), other
students with Chinese appearance stress their ability to blend in as positive. French
student Arnaud for instance describes his freedom to play with being an expat or not:
Arnaud: Sometimes you want to, like. I don't know how to say this.
Interviewer: En francais?
Arnaud: Je fondre dans la masse.
Interviewer: Okay. Like, you go with the flow, no, you hide in the masses.
Arnaud: Yeah yeah. You hide in the masses. Exactly. When you see some kind
of French guy, you don't want to see. And you pretend you are friend
with the Chinese guy. [Interviewer: <L>] And then you just go, and he
doesn't see that. That is pretty cool, I mean I like the way to deal with
this. Yeah.
However, being able to fit in on the outside does not mean these teenagers feel they
are part of Shanghai’s society. Charlie, for instance, nonetheless states that she feels
like a tourist:
Charlie: I got used to the environment. But sometimes out on the street, when
there are a lot of people, then I feel that I am not a part of it. What is
strange is that when I am in the city, I almost feel like a tourist
Although the experiences of physical differences encourage the longing to seek out
spaces frequented by foreigners, the accounts of “Chinese looking” expatriates
demonstrate that this aspect alone is inadequate to explain the local-expat divide.
Investigating the “diaspora space,” the entangled relations between expatriates and
Shanghai’s citizens further, I like to turn again to students’ contemplations on other
barriers towards symmetrical encounters with local youth.
German Original: Also an die Umgebung habe ich mich gewöhnt schon. Aber ich finde es halt
manchmal auf der Straße so. Wenn dann, da sind halt ganz viele Leute. Also ich fühle, dass ich nicht
dazugehöre. […] Das Komische ist, wenn ich in der Stadt bin, fühl ich mich fast manchmal wie ein Tourist.
Barriers to “Integration” or the Difficulties of Making “Chinese” Friends
In 1969, Fredrik Barth ([1969] 1998) already proposed in his influential edited volume
Ethnic Groups and Boundaries that it is worth to take a close look at boundaries and
barriers as it is “the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it
encloses” (Barth [1969]1998, 15). While this might be an overemphasis, I agree that it
is interesting to investigate the perception and drawing of boundaries – a focus that
has also been promoted in the realm of transcultural studies. Both Maya Nadig (2004)
in her concept of transculturality in progress and Pütz (2004) in his idea of
transculturality as practice highlight the relevance of the processes and practices of
drawing cultural boundaries to understand transcultural relations. Consequently, this
subchapter explores the students’ articulations and perceptions of boundaries within
the “diaspora space” that hinder encounters between expatriate and “local” youths.
When I introduce the term “integration” during several interviews, it promptly triggers
contemplations on what “integration” might mean, and students often aim to apply the
idea to their own social worlds in Shanghai. These discussions at the same time
implicitly show youths’ perceptions of borders, as seventeen-year-old Karina’s
definition of “integration” demonstrates:
Karina: Integration, I would say, is when you move into a foreign country, China
for instance. Then I would integrate, in the sense that I, for example,
just learn the language. Or I should maybe also study their culture.
That I adapt myself a little to them. Not only do my own thing, my
own culture, so to say, again. That I maybe show interest in their
culture. That I start trying Chinese food. That I behave like a Chinese.
<L> That I tune to the same wavelength, so to say. I believe the
language is very important.153
When in September 2011 Karina and I spend the whole afternoon at a downtown café,
chatting and eventually recording an interview, she defines “integration” by applying it
to her own situation in China and by seeing it as the efforts she should make, such as
learning the language, getting to know Chinese culture, food, and behavioral practices.
Taking up the four barriers that Karina implicitly names – language, culture, food, and
behavior – this section illustrates expatriate youths’ experiences of these.
The majority of the students tries learning Chinese at some point of their stay in
Shanghai and all the international schools now offer Chinese language courses. While
some students keep learning Chinese, many find it too challenging and quit studying.
German Original: Also, Integration, würde ich sagen, wenn ich in irgendein fremdes Land ziehe, zum
Beispiel China. Dann würde ich mich integrieren, in dem Sinne von, dass ich einfach zum Beispiel die
Sprache lerne. Oder. Ich soll deren Kultur vielleicht lernen. Also, dass ich mich ein bisschen nach ihnen
richte. Also nicht immer so mein Ding durchziehe. Also, sozusagen meine Kultur wieder, dass ich mich
vielleicht auch für ihre etwas interessiere. Dass ich anfange auch das Chinesische essen irgendwie zu
probieren. Dass ich mich sozusagen benehme wie so ein Chinese. <L> Also mich auf deren Wellenlänge
bewege sozusagen. Die Sprache finde ich ist sehr wichtig.
Some students have proficient Chinese skills, as at least one of their parents is a
native speaker. Different dialects, however, can still make it difficult to understand
Shanghainese citizens completely. Furthermore, all parental native speakers of
Chinese usually have a good command of their children’s schooling language. Charlie,
for example, describes how her parents occasionally talk to her and her sister in
Chinese, but that the two usually answer in German. Don, who speaks a certain
Chinese dialect with his parents, judges his Chinese as “not so good” and considers
learning Chinese for foreigners in general extremely difficult:
Don: And I also believe that foreigners as such, that they cannot really achieve it,
to learn Chinese. Well, I myself had problems. In the beginning I
really studied a lot. Chinese. Nothing stays. It’s really. You have to
study every day. Every day. And no foreigner here at the school does
Many of the students at the German school actually enroll in Chinese language classes
the school offers as part of their curriculum. However, as Don points out, the time for
most students does not suffice to achieve a good conversational level or to learn
reading Chinese characters. Then again, other students who are proficient in Chinese
demonstrate that language skills – though helpful – do not necessarily enable
friendships across the local-expat divide.
Antonia: I can speak fluently, but I nonetheless don’t have any Chinese friends.
When I think about it, that isn’t normal, usually, living in a foreign
country and not knowing the people in that country. (silence) […] It is
even stranger if you, for instance, take [student’s name]. He has
been living in Shanghai for eleven years now. In China. And doesn’t
know a word, hardly any Chinese. He could live here perfectly for
eleven years without speaking Chinese. That shows how little we are
integrated. You don’t have to know Chinese. We are a group of our
own where you get by with German. Actually, I should talk to Chinese
people more often, when I think about it. It is really strange how few
Chinese friends I have. That is: none.155
Antonia argues that the extrinsic motivation to learn Chinese for some students is very
low, as they manage their daily lives successfully without any Chinese language skills.
When voicing her regrets about the lack of Chinese friends in her own life, Antonia
German original: Und ich glaub auch, dass Ausländer an sich, dass die das nicht wirklich schaffen
können. Chinesisch zu lernen. Also ich selber hatte Probleme. So am Anfang hab ich ja richtig viel gelernt.
Chinesisch. Es bleibt nichts mehr hängen. Es ist echt. Du musst jeden Tag lernen. Jeden Tag. Und kein
Ausländer hier in der Schule macht das hier.
German original: Aber ich kann ja fließend sprechen und so und ich hab trotzdem keine chinesischen
Freunde. Wenn ich drüber nachdenke ist das eigentlich nicht normal. Wenn man im Normalfall in einem
andren Land lebt. Und die Leute in dem Land nicht kennt. Also. (silence) […] Noch komischer ist zu
Beispiel [Name eines Schülers] wohnt elf Jahre in Shanghai. In China. Und kann kein Wort, kaum.
Chinesisch. Der konnte hier elf Jahre perfekt leben ohne Chinesisch zu können. Also das zeigt wie wenig
integriert wir sind. Man muss kein chinesisch können. Wir sind eine Gruppe für sich wo man mit deutsch
komplett durchkommt. Eigentlich sollte ich mich mal mehr mit Chinesen unterhalten, wenn ich drüber
nachdenke. Das ist echt komisch wie wenig chinesische Freunde ich habe. Nämlich gar keine.
furthermore demonstrates that language is not the only issue. She thinks she should
make a greater effort in talking to Chinese youths.
Paul, though not knowing any Chinese, also assumes that there is a further barrier in
addition to language:
Paul: […] We can't talk to those people.
Interviewer: Do you think it is the language barrier that makes it difficult to
Paul: A bit. Also it is the whole culture thing.
Interviewer: Hmm.
Paul: Unless you grow up here, it's hard to have like Chinese friends.
Paul readily labels the barrier hindering him to have Chinese friends as cultural – “the
whole culture thing” –, nevertheless leaving it unexplained. Norwegian student Britta’s
description of her first encounters with a Chinese family touches up on this and shows
how the cultural barrier can be understood as unknown practices, for instance eating
Britta: I like it so much more when I have western friends, or like, I don't know,
like international friends. Then they can just take me [along] and you
don't have to figure out the stuff. […] In the beginning we were with
this Chinese family, and they just took us to these really hardcore
Chinese food places and we are like: How can we eat this? We are
not used to this. And can't even use chopsticks. So I am like glad that
I find similar things to home then.
Britta experiences the necessity “to figure out the stuff” in order to cross the local-expat
divide apparently as stressful, uncomfortable, maybe even frightening. She thus
actively seeks out the company of, in her words, “international friends.” Therefore, it
can be said that the international high school students participate in the boundary
drawing of the expatriate communities. However, as Britta’s quote shows, the
demarcation also gives expatriate teenagers, who constantly move, a sense of
continuity through finding “similar things to home.” The tentative exploration of
Shanghai’s environment, the coping with emotional strains of moving and the
integration into the expatriate community are a host of experiences expatriate
teenagers already collect and deal with.
Sixteen-year-old Charlie, whose parents grew up in China, gives different daily
practices as an explanation for the difficulty of having Chinese friends:
Charlie: I think you can fit in. Especially, if you speak the language. But it is
difficult. I can’t speak from my own experience. But my friend [child of
Chinese parents, born in Germany, at the German school] for
instance has Chinese friends. And she also notes every time, that
there is a difference. And that they mostly have no time because of
school. Because they always have to study. And that they think
differently. It’s a little different.156
Charlie here argues that the separation of international and Chinese schools and the
extremely time-consuming Chinese schooling renders friendships to local Chinese
difficult for her. Based on accounts from her friend, she also assumes that they “think
While the accounts above, which I related to the four barriers stemming from Karina’s
interpretation of “integration,” mostly revolve around differences, some students also
reflect upon the lack of opportunities and too little effort made in getting to know
Chinese youth.
Antonia: But I had a Chinese friend. The daughter of my mom’s friend. We were
always close friends. And then, in fifth or sixth grade her school got
really tough. And then we couldn’t see each other anymore. And
since then we are hardly in touch anymore. That is a little difficult with
the people here, because they have so much school. But still, when
we go out for example, I like to talk to Chinese. They are mostly
university students, because then they have time to party. And then I
feel accepted. But I still feel like a foreigner at the same time.
Because they see me as a foreigner.157
Antonia’s statement also reveals the different schooling systems as a key factor in
impeding friendships with “local” students. She also points out that this divide through
school grows more intense with age. My own observations confirm that especially for
teenagers there is very little overlap in the everyday spaces, as I already demonstrated
in the chapters on gated communities and the international schools. Additionally, even
the spaces that are less demarcated – nightlife spaces (chapter eleven) and the shop
(chapter twelve) – present few possibilities to meet Chinese of the same age group.
In addition to their own drawing of (spatial) barriers to create comfort zones, the
language difficulties, the different practices surrounding food and education, and the
lack of spaces to meet Chinese youths, some expatriate teenagers also perceive the
Chinese state and its citizens as active agents in keeping foreigners foreigners.
German original: Also ich glaube man kann sich schon integrieren. Also besonders wenn man die
Sprache spricht, kann man das. Aber es ist schwer weil. Also man kann, also ich kann jetzt nicht so viel
aus eigener Erfahrung sprechen. Meine Freundin zum Beispiel, die hat ja auch chinesische Freundinnen.
Und sie merkt halt auch jedes Mal, dass es anders ist. Und dass die auch meistens keine Zeit haben
wegen der Schule. Weil sie immer lernen müssen. Und dass sie halt auch ganz anders denken und so. Ist
schon ein bisschen anders.
German original: Aber ich hatte eine chinesische Freundin. Auch die Tochter von einer Freundin meiner
Mama. Und mit der war ich immer sehr gut befreundet. Und dann fing sie an, ehm, so in der fünten,
sechsten wurde bei ihr die Schule richtig hart. Und dann konnten wir uns gar nicht mehr treffen. Und seit
dem haben wir kaum noch Kontakt. Das ist halt ein bisschen schwer hier mit den Leuten, weil die einfach
so viel Schule haben. Aber. Zum Beispiel jetzt beim Feiern, ich rede dann auch gern mit Chinesen.
Meistens sind es dann Studenten, weil die haben dann ja Zeit zum Feiern. Und so. Und dann fühl ich mich
schon angenommen. Aber ich fühl mich gleichzeitig auch ein bisschen als Ausländerin. Weil die mich als
Ausländerin sehen.
Youths’ Perceptions of Local Attitudes towards Foreigners
Some students also voice that they feel China, or Shanghai’s citizens, reject or limit
non-Chinese to be part of its society. Keeping the expatriates’ practices of demarcation
in mind, I still want to present three teenage girls’ perceptions of exclusion. Two
perspectives, that of the two white girls Andrea and Karina, comment on the emotional
level as well as on the state policies and its treatment of foreigners. The last exemplary
perspective is that of Antonia, whose parents are German and Chinese. She reflects
on her status in Chinese society and describes how Chinese people constantly ascribe
a foreigner status to her. It shows that her idea of urban citizenship – a claim to be
Shanghainese – can be be difficult to pursue.
Sixteen-year-old Andrea, who moved with her family into a downtown Chinese
compound, expresses her feelings:
Andrea: On an emotional level, I’d say that we are not really, well, we are not a
part of it. […] The Chinese also call us foreigners. That’s what we
are. I don’t think we will ever, I don’t know. Well, I don’t have the
feeling that they allow us in entirely. We have our special [status], we
are treated differently. I notice.158
Contemplating on her relations to Chinese society, Andrea feels she could never be
part of it. She also ties this emotional perception of being an outsider to questions of
Chinese politics:
Andrea: The state doesn’t permit it. I don’t think I would be allowed to attend a
Chinese school. With my views, politically. I think I wouldn’t be
allowed to. That’s why. That might actually be an example of us not
being integrated.159
While Andrea’s assumption is not entirely true, research by Anna Greenspan
(Greenspan 2008a; 2008b; 2011b; 2011a) demonstrates the extreme difficulties for
expatriates choosing local schools. Greenspan’s research comments on the difference
in Chinese and “Western” education, a debate that gained prominence in the USA, but
also in Germany, after the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
(2011). In her blogs and writings Greenspan discusses the cases of western families
choosing the Chinese education system. Investigating parents’ and children’s
challenges in adjusting to the different school system, Greenspan shows that
enrollment at local schools in Shanghai is possible, but only if parents and children
German original: So auf einer emotionalen Ebene würde ich sagen, dass wir hier jetzt nicht so. Also wir
sind kein Teil. […] [D]ie Chinesen, nennen uns ja auch die Ausländer. Wir sind es ja auch. Ich glaube wir
werden nie. Also, ich weiß nicht. Also ich habe nicht das Gefühl, dass wir komplett reingelassen werden.
Wir haben da schon unsere Sonder-, wir werden schon anders behandelt.
German original: Der Staat lässt es ja auch nicht zu. Ich glaube nicht, dass ich jetzt auf eine
chinesische Schule gehen dürfte. Mit meinen Ansichten, politischen, also. Ich glaube das dürfte ich nicht.
Deswegen. Es ist ja eigentlich ein Beispiel dafür, dass wir nicht integriert werden.
possess the necessary language skills and persistence. One mother interviewed by
Greenspan describes the difficulties in the enrollment process:
My husband literally banged on gates to get us in. He went to probably ten. He
would bang on the gates and say: “I want to come here” and they would answer
“laowai 160 , why are you here? Go away.” He had to go back a few times.
Eventually we ended up near Loushanguan Lu ditie zhan – that was the only one
we could get into. (Greenspan 2011b) 161
These extraordinary efforts foreigners have to make to send their children to a Chinese
local school become apparent in Greenspan’s interviews. At a joint talk with James
Farrer at a workshop 162 organized by Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence
“Asia and Europe in a global context,” Greenspan discussed cases of the few parents
and children who choose this option. She found teachers continuously ascribed a
foreign status to the foreign children, i.e. using them to shame other students who
performed less well in class than the foreigner. Many western parents, Greenspan
argued, also feel uneasy concerning the political education their children undergo at
Chinese schools, conflicting too strongly with their own values.
It is the political and legal situation in China that high school student Karina finds
affecting her experiences of Shanghai.
Karina: Here in China I feel safer. Because it is more strict. Here they still have
the death penalty. That maybe warns the people off a little. Erm, but
concerning the police, I always sidestep them. I don’t know. I am
afraid of them, I fear them somehow. That is different in Prague.
Because it is so dangerous there. I don’t know. There I always feel
safer close to the police. […] Here I avoid them. I don’t know why.
Interviewer: Just how you feel?
Karina: How I feel. Because I know how it works here. As a foreigner, you usually
get the short end of the stick, when you do something. Especially.
Here, one of my father’s co-workers had an accident. He went to
prison, although it wasn’t even his fault. The Chinese, they all stuck
together. They arranged something, discussed and then jumped on
him. And told him: ‘It is your fault.’ And then of course the police was
against him. […]
Interviewer: So on the one hand you feel safe
Karina: but on the other hand <L>
colloquial for foreigner
That’s Shanghai Magazine. “Local experiences: Anna Greenspan interviews Emily Meyer on her
experiences with the local education system.” Last modified April 21st 2011, accessed April 10 , 2012.
James Farrer and Anna Greenspan: “Raising Cosmopolitans: Expatriate Families Navigating
Shanghai's Local Schools.” The workshop “Growing up and growing old in Shanghai, Delhi and Tokyo.
Inter-generational stories from Asia’s global cities” was organized by the Cluster of Excellence: Asia and
Europe in a Global Context” of Heidelberg University, Germany and held in Shanghai from September 7th
to September 10th, 2011. Their work differs from mine as they look at the minority of foreign passport
holders whose children are enrolled at Chinese local schools. Moreover, it is mainly based on the parents’
Interviewer: on the other had the security forces are dubious to you.
Karina: Yes. It’s extreme. If you know how it works here. Especially: death
penalty? They still get shot here in prison. When I look at Ai Weiwei,
he disappeared without trace. Nobody knew where he was.163
While other students feel Chinese law would not apply to them, and find buying drugs
easy and the police not intimidating at all, Karina clearly states her fear of the Chinese
judicial system. Karina’s account of the police also differs from Charlie’s account of her
father’s preferential treatment due to his German passport (see page 202).
Experiences can therefore quite differ. Karina’s Czech family background and
discussions at home on issues like the Prague Spring, also contribute to her fear of
arbitrary state power, consequently making this more an issue to her than to other
students, leading to her perception of the Chinese state as hostile to foreigners.
Her classmate Antonia – child of a Chinese-German marriage – , in contrast, is one of
the few students who actually makes claims to being Shanghainese.
Antonia: I feel accepted in MY society. But I wouldn’t say that I am part of
Chinese society. Sometimes. In parts. Through my mom [who is
Shanghainese]. But that are all those who have studied together with
her. That is a different society than, erm, those who you see every
day. […] More educated. Not affluent necessarily, but very educated.
My mom and her engineering students.164
Antonia makes clear that “Chinese society,” as I provocatively named it during the
interview, is a diverse group. Antonia explains how education – or even education
abroad – plays a huge role in how Shanghai’s citizens encounter foreigners. She
further clarifies her own position in Shanghai:
Antonia: It’s not that I am being excluded or anything. But, you’re not really a part
of Chinese society.
Interviewer: Yes. I don’t know. If you’d use, for example, the term integration…
German original: Hier in China fühl ich mich sicherer. Weil das auch strenger ist einfach. Hier gilt auch
noch die Todesstrafe. Das schreckt die Leute vielleicht auch noch ein bisschen ab. Ehm, aber was jetzt
die Polizei angeht, da mache ich immer einen großen Bogen drum. Ich weiß nicht. Vor denen hab ich, vor
denen fürchte ich mich irgendwie. Das ist in Prag wieder anders. Weil es dort nämlich so gefährlich ist. Ich
weiß nicht, da fühl ich mich bei der Polizei immer sicherer. […] Hier mache ich einen großen Bogen drum
herum. Ich weiß nicht warum. Irgendwie. [Interviewer: Vom Gefühl her einfach?] Vom Gefühl her, weil, ich
weiß einfach wie es hier läuft. Als Ausländer hat man hier meistens eh die Arschkarte wenn man was
macht. Vor allem. Hier, ein Mitarbeiter von meinem Vater, der hat einen Unfall gebaut. Der ist in den Knast
gewandert, obwohl es noch nicht mal sein Fehler war. Die Chinesen, die haben sich alle zusammen getan.
Haben irgendwas abgemacht, besprochen und sind dann auf ihn losgegangen. Und haben ihm gesagt:
„Das ist deine Schuld.“ Und die Polizei war dann natürlich auch gegen ihn. […] [Interviewer: Also,
einerseits fühlst du dich sicher] aber auf der anderen Seite <L> [Interviewer: aber andererseits sind die
Sicherheitskräfte dir suspekt.] <L> Ja, das ist heftig. Wenn man weiß wie das hier vor sich läuft, vor allem.
Todesstrafe? Das ist auch ziemlich heftig. Die werden hier immer noch erschossen im Knast. Wenn ich
mir jetzt Ai Weiwei angucke. Der ist spurlos verschwunden. Niemand wusste wo er ist.
German original: Also ich fühl mich in meiner Gesellschaft angenommen. Aber ich würd nicht sagen,
dass ich so in der chinesischen Gesellschaft bin. Ehm. Manchmal schon. Teilweise. Durch meine Mama.
Aber das sind auch alle die, die mit ihr studiert haben. Das ist noch einmal eine andere Gesellschaft als
die, die, eh, man so jeden Tag sieht. […] Gebildetere. Wohlhabend nicht unbedingt, aber es ist eine sehr
gebildete Schicht. Meine Mama und die ganzen Maschinenbaustudenten halt.
Antonia: No, the people are not being integrated here. If, for example in
Germany, foreigners come, then normally many stay and the next
generation and so on. And then they should integrate themselves.
Start speaking German and so on. But here. The foreigners learn
Chinese to be able to communicate a bit. But they will always stay
foreigners. They don’t integrate. And this is due to them leaving again
soon. And because here you simply get by being a foreigner.
Probably, even precisely because you are German. You are here at a
German company. That is not really integration.165
Antonia expresses a distance to “typical expats” and her experience could be placed in
the context of long-term settler narratives. James Farrer (2010) interrogates narratives
of emplacement of foreigners, like Antonia and her family, who have been living in
Shanghai for more than five years. His interviewees differed from expatriates who are
in Shanghai on a temporary assignment, as they had made a conscious decision to
stay on. Farrer (ibid., 2) argues that the different narratives of these long-term settlers
are “claims to cosmopolitan urban citizenship in the emerging global city.” He explains:
These narrative typologies show that Western expatriate narratives of
emplacement cannot be reduced to a single postcolonial temporality, though
postcolonial imaginaries remain a useful expression of simultaneous belonging
and dislocation in the twenty-first-century Asian global city. Long-term foreign
settlers mix narratives that situate them in multiple temporalities – postcolonial,
post-socialist and post-modern – each implying a different fragile possibility of
urban citizenship. Reduced to their sociological content these stories are
symbolic claims to urban citizenship: a claim of cultural citizenship (as ‘Old
Shanghai hands’ or ‘New Shanghailanders’), a claim of social citizenship (as
witness to history and local residents), and a claim of economic citizenship (as
‘players’ in Shanghai’s global economy). Woven altogether – as they sometimes
are – they form an ideal of a culturally cosmopolitan, locally integrated and
economically contributing global/urban citizen, conveniently eliding the nationstate. Few settlers actually live up to this nearly impossible ideal, and thus these
narratives of emplacement often serve as claims to relative virtue or entitlement
in comparisons with other ‘foreigners.’ (Farrer 2010, 15)
Like Farrer’s informants’ “claims to relative virtue or entitlement,” Antonia’s claims to
being Shanghainese have to be seen as distinction to her expatriate classmates. At the
same time, however, Antonia, like Farrer’s informants, has a high ideal of being a, to
quote Farrer, “culturally cosmopolitan, locally integrated” citizen. Antonia’s reflections
show how it is difficult to, in Farrer’s words, “live up to this nearly impossible ideal.”
German original: Nicht dass ich ausgeschlossen werde oder so. Aber, man ist nicht wirklich ein Teil der
chinesischen Gesellschaft. [Interviewer: Ja. Ich weiß nicht. Wenn man jetzt zum Beispiel den Begriff
Integration benutzen würde, so.] Nee, die Leute werden hier nicht integriert. Wenn in Deutschland zum
Beispiel Ausländer kommen, dann bleiben ja normal viele leben und die nächste Generation und so. Und
die sollten sich dann eigentlich integrieren. Anfangen deutsch zu reden und so weiter. Aber hier. Die
Ausländer lernen chinesisch um ein bisschen kommunizieren zu können. Aber werden für immer
Ausländer bleiben. Die integrieren sich nicht. Und das liegt auch daran, dass sie bald wieder gehen. Und
weil du hier auch einfach als Ausländer durchkommst. Und, ehm, in deinem Beruf auch mit Englisch
durchkommst. Wahrscheinlich gerade weil du Deutscher bist. Hier bist bei der deutschen Firma. Da ist es
nicht so richtig Integration.
Being the child of a mixed marriage and even speaking Chinese, she still describes
how she feels she could never fit in.
Antonia: Well. I don’t see myself as a foreigner. I consider myself Shanghainese.
But others see me as a foreigner. They are nonetheless very nice to
me, but somehow, they always see me as this exotic animal.166
She further explains how this lack of acceptance of herself as Shanghainese by
Chinese society leads her to doubt her performance of a Shanghainese identity and
claims to Chineseness. To be regarded as “Shanghainese,” however, is also an
impossible status for migrants from other parts of China, as I briefly discussed drawing
on Schoon (2007) and Donald and Gammack (2007) in the very beginning of this
chapter. Antonia, consequently, sees herself also as a foreigner: “But at the same time
I feel like a foreigner, because they see me as a foreigner.”167 I further elaborate on her
identity performances in chapter fourteen of the dissertation. Nonetheless, her
descriptions are also interesting in the context of Shanghainese - expat relations. Her
own words put this relationship in a nutshell:
Antonia: Well, you are welcome and people are hospitable and so on, but you are
not integrated. […] Guests stay guests.168
Having shed light on the prominent divides between locals and expats, I nonetheless
like to state again that my discussions with the foreign youths generally agree with
Farrer’s findings in Shanghai that “some form of cultural and social integration is seen
as a desirable goal by most foreign migrants” (2010,16). Although a difficult pursuit‚
close moments exist.
Andrea: I am closest to China when I walk my dog, and, well, walk amongst
Chinese people, and the Chinese man next to me is walking his dog,
too. That is when I am close.169
Concluding Thoughts on the Local-Expat Divide for Youths in Shanghai
Expatriate teenagers turn towards the city’s transnational spaces aiming to be part of
Shanghai’s cosmopolitan image, as for instance chapter ten on nightlife has illustrated.
Further, the young expatriates explore and claim open spaces like the shop that sit
outside the glamorous image of the metropolis to simply hang out with friends. Their
German original: Also ich seh mich nicht als Ausländerin. Ich seh mich als Shanghainesin. Aber andere
sehen mich als Ausländerin. Die sind dann zwar total freundlich zu mir. Aber halt irgendwie. Die sehen
mich immer wie so ein exotisches Tier.
German original: Aber ich fühl mich gleichzeitig auch ein bisschen als Ausländerin, weil die mich als
Ausländerin sehen.
German original: Ja, also man ist zwar willkommen und gastfreundlich und so, aber man ist nicht
integriert. […] Gäste bleiben Gäste.
German original: Ich bin am nächsten zu China, wenn ich mit meinem Hund raus gehe, und, ja, und
durch die Chinesen laufe und der Chinese neben mir auch seinen Hund ausführt. Dann bin ich am
nächsten dran.
engagement with the city through such places is an important way to find a sense of
emplacement as well as to regain agency after the move that their parents have
brought onto them. In order to foster a sense of continuity, community and class and to
create comfortable ways of living (see part three, “Arriving”), however, the expatriates
draw boundaries towards Shanghai’s “locals.” The experience of emplacement and
locality is thus at the same time tied to expatriate practices that attempt to exclude
“China” to a certain extent from their everyday spaces – for example at international
schools, gated communities, Western restaurants, or imported food stores.
Focusing on the “diaspora space,” a “point at which boundaries of inclusion and
exclusion, of belonging and otherness, of ‘us’ and ‘them’, are contested” (Brah 1996,
208–209) by discussing students’ ideas about “integration” in Shanghai, this chapter
demonstrated that transgressing or even dissolving the strong local-expat divide is
generally difficult for expatriate teenagers. None of the students I accompanied in their
everyday routines have local friends. Youths often see their expatriate community as
self-sufficient or even “autonomous.” This lack of interest often has to do with the
transient aspects of their stay in Shanghai (see chapter five). This chapter, however,
identified further reasons the students see as causing difficulties to interact with or
even befriend Chinese youths.
Being perceived as different in physical appearance unsettles white students. These
experiences of bodily differences, of all of a sudden being consciously white, often lead
to spatial practices that are based on seeking out places with high numbers of other
whites. Teenagers are also afraid of barriers in language and cultural practices.
Furthermore, expatriate teenagers, who have been in touch with Chinese children
when younger, now experience Chinese teenagers as too involved with school and
having no time for friendships outside their schools. Neither the students’ school nor
their leisure spaces coincide. The problem is thus also related to the concrete lack of
meeting places. This lack of meeting places is interpreted by some students as the
Chinese government’s wish to keep Chinese and foreign youths apart. Chinese
passport holders are prohibited by the Shanghai municipal government to enroll at
international schools, and Chinese local schools are no – or at least a very difficult
option (see accounts by Greenspan (2008a; 2008b; 2011b; 2011a) that I summarized
above). Expatriate teenagers consequently perceive the Chinese state as either
intimidating or as not pertinent to them, emphasizing their different, even “special
status” as foreign passport holders. Furthermore, the expatriate teenagers that attempt
to cross such perceptions and borders of difference feel Chinese youths regard them
as “exotic” and Chinese society only accepts them as “guests.”
The lack of interaction with Chinese youths demonstrates that the most influential part
of the move to Shanghai for some students might thus not necessarily be exploring or
learning about their new cultural environments or specific cultural practices in
Shanghai, but rather the general experience of difference and the emotional challenges
of being uprooted. In the words of ethnographer Hage (2005) who studied Lebanese
communities in different national settings:
[O]ne should also be careful not to think that just because we feel we are
crossing international borders, the change from one national culture to another is
the most significant aspect of our move. (Hage 2005, 470)
The following part five, “Dwelling on the Move,” aims to investigate, following Hage’s
wording above, “the significant aspects of the move,” the meaning of the stay in
Shanghai for different expatriate teenagers. It traces five students’ processes of identity
positionings by closely listening to their narratives of the self and identifies the common
ground of these different subjective experiences.
Part 5
Figure 36: Mind Map on “Identity.” Drawing by Three Students
The mind map displayed (Figure 36) at the beginning of this part, “Dwelling on the
Move,” was produced by the three students Mia, Kressi, and Bjoern during Ethics class
at a German school in December 2010. The Ethics class teacher had asked me, after a
few days at school, to participate or teach in his class instead of merely observing. I
came up with the idea to discuss the topic of “identity” with students. The teenagers
were asked to exchange their ideas of what the term “Identität” [identity] meant to them
in written form, working in small groups of three or four. Their discussions, as the map
illustrates, revolved around “Prägungen” [influences], such as “Erziehung” [education],
“Freunde” [friends], “Kultur” [culture] or “Heimat” [home], as well as the idea of
“eigenständige Entwicklung” [independent development]. The students also discussed
and agreed on the “veränderbar” [changeable] nature of identity, for example “durch
bestimmte Ereignisse” [through certain events] in life. The mind map shows how the
students also think about how “viel nachdenken” [contemplating] or “philosophieren”
[philosophizing] helps to find one’s identity. Although the mind map project was
designed out of the necessity to maintain social access to the Ethics class, it later
proved to be very valuable. The mind maps inspired me to take a more sensitive look
at the students’ self-reflective ways of thinking about their positions in the world.
Anthony Giddens (1991) in his classic study Modernity and Self-Identity has stressed
the power of such reflexivity and conceptualized it as humans’ ways to forge “narratives
of the self.” The following chapter fourteen centers on such “narratives of the self,” on
expatriate youths’ own reflections on their lives. Zooming in on five student portraits it
aims to offer insights into the subjective experiences of dwelling on the move and aims
to embed these in the theoretical discussions on cultural identity.
Negotiating Cultural Identity: Five Students’ Narratives of the
Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of
identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history
and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. (Hall 1990, 226,
emphasis in the original)
In the realm of postcolonial studies many authors (see among others: Bhabha
[1994]2009; Hall 1990; 1994; 1996; and 1997; Brah 1996) have pointed out how the
cultural construction of (collective) identities plays an important role for people living in
the diaspora or in other forms of cultural complex environments. Likewise, my fieldwork
and in-depth interviews with expatriate youths reveal that growing up “on the move”
and in a transient space – despite all its privileges and opportunities – demands coping
with constant changes and losses. The inherent questions of belonging, and identity
are an ongoing and ever-changing process of “positioning,” in the words of Stuart Hall
quoted above.
On the one hand, the construction or performance of collective identities entails the
creation of cultural (and spatial) boundaries – sometimes entangled with racism,
classism, sexism or forms of fundamentalisms. On the other hand, the creation of such
collective cultural identities also opens up a (much needed) shared space that helps
the individual to deal with daily and emotional challenges when living in a cultural
diverse or unknown environment. They facilitate bringing forward claims for
participation and making one’s voice heard. My previous chapters have shown how, for
instance, the concept of “Third Culture Kids” (chapter 2.3), or the international schools
(chapter nine) aim to foster such collective identities.
This chapter fourteen now focuses on the very subjective level of these processes of
negotiating cultural identity and presents five students’ ways of positioning themselves.
The five examples demonstrate that expatriate youths are often walking along borders
that commonly mark collective identities, while rethinking, bridging, crossing and
shifting these to find their own position, their own cultural identity. The portraits are
based on multiple interviews with the students and aim to trace their “narratives of the
self” (Giddens 1991). These narratives have to be seen in the context of fieldwork and
the encounter between the students and myself out of which they emerged. As Nigel
Rapport (2000) points out, although not linking his concept to Giddens, narrative is
both an individual’s creation of own self and a fieldwork technique.
One of the most important stories to emerge is that of the individual’s own self.
The self comes to know itself through its own narrational acts. In narrative
constructions of past, present and future, of relations of sameness and
difference, the self is given content, is delineated and embodied. Moreover, while
the self is an ‘unfinished project’, continually subject to being rewritten, never
conscious of its story’s end, and while consciousness at any moment may be
fragmentary, narrative still holds together. Narrative transforms the inchoate
sense of form in our experience, transforms the temporal and spatial
fragmentariness of our lives, offering coherence: a sense that our lives may be,
at every moment, at least partially integrated into an ongoing story. Narrative
counteracts a sense of fragmentation, contingency, randomness, dislocation
(both temporal and spatial); even anomic happenings can be interpreted in terms
of established patterns, and to that extent rendered meaningful as routinized
departures from norms. (Rapport 2000, 76)
Rapport (2000, 74) argues that the narrative form acts as a “modus Vivendi,” a way of
living, for “fieldworker and subject of study alike,” as both seek “a place cognitively to
reside and make sense, a place to continue to be” in a moving world. I experienced
that in many conversations, interviews, and group discussions I shared such a space of
making sense with the teenagers – the informants meanwhile being constantly aware
that their narratives were becoming part of my anthropological endeavor and overall
narrative. However, their accounts were not only given to feed my story, but also to
make sense of their own experiences through narrative. As Rapport’s quote above
highlights, it is through such “narrative constructions of past, present and future, of
relations of sameness and difference,” that the young people’s “self is given content, is
delineated and embodied” (ibid., 76). While all people go through such processes of
negotiating their individual identities through narratives, the five following teenagers’
discursive understandings of self reveal that their identity practices are particularly
shaped through their experiences of mobility. Their moves bear various shifting points
of references and borders along or across which they have to find their own positions.
Antonia: “I consider myself Shanghainese, but others see me as a
In December 2010 I am nervously introducing my research project to eleventh grade
students at a German school. All of a sudden a girl in the back of the room suggests,
that if I want to know more about expatriate youth culture, I should study nightlife.
Indeed, in the coming days this sixteen-year-old girl, Antonia, invites me to come along
to a Friday night at the club Mural. Antonia turns out to be a key “gate-opener” to
leisure spaces and over the course of fieldwork often includes me in various group
activities. I record a first group-interview with Antonia and her two friends Olivia and
Charlie in January 2011. Later, two individual interviews follow – an extensive one in a
downtown café in September 2011, and a brief one at her house in June 2012. We
regularly spend time together during nightlife activities, dinners, or at school and even
meet three times after her move to Germany in summer 2012.
Antonia was born in Germany, but grew up in Shanghai and is one of the very few
expat teenagers who have been at the same school all their lives. Her father is
German, her mother a successful Chinese businesswoman who studied in Germany.
Over the course of fieldwork I came to know Antonia as a determined, smart young
woman, who likes to be in control of things, has high expectations of herself and
generally highly values intelligence and analytical minds. She enjoys discussions and
is known by other students for her vigorous argumentations, as well as for her
generous ways. Antonia herself often stresses her difference from other expatriate
children who only pass a few years in Shanghai.
Sitting outside in a downtown café in early September 2011, trying to converse despite
Shanghai’s street noises, Antonia tells me she only knows Germany from holidays and
reflects upon her recent stay in Europe four weeks prior to the interview.
Antonia: When I come to Germany, I have to get used to it. Every time. What I
also find annoying in Germany are things like inviting people, like,
they take the bill, ‘well, you have to pay 4.20’. But I don’t have twenty
cents right then. Such things. That’s much more relaxed with my
friends here.170
It is Chinese custom to invite your friends out and pay for everyone. While Antonia and
her friends sometimes also share the costs of eating out or going for a drink, she finds
practices such as splitting the bill particularly pedantic in Germany. Antonia generally
distances herself from such cultural practices that she considers typically German and
describes many incidents in Germany that she finds rather alienating. In the interview
that we recorded in June 2012, Antonia also voices her concern about the upcoming
move to Germany and her anxieties about being able to fit in (see chapter 16.3).
While not considering herself “really German,” she also talks about the experience of
being perceived as a foreigner in Shanghai.
Antonia: Others see me as a foreigner. They are nonetheless very nice to me,
but somehow, they always see me as this exotic animal. <L> Oh! A
foreigner who can speak Chinese well! It’s like that. […] Well, not
always. It’s not that I am being excluded or anything. But, you’re not
really a part of Chinese society.171
Antonia has spent almost her whole life in Shanghai. Her mother is Chinese and
Antonia speaks Chinese at home with her grandmother and her ayi. In the interview
quote above she, nevertheless, describes the impossibility to be “Chinese,” as she is
constantly being labeled as a “foreigner” or an “exotic animal” by Chinese citizens – for
instance local university students she occasionally converses with at nightlife settings.
Antonia’s life seems to oscillate between the two defining poles – “German” and
“Chinese.” Having a German passport and a German school education, but having
spent the last fourteen years in Shanghai, for Antonia, both models of cultural identity
are contested and not confirmed as fitting to her by others. Furthermore, being a child
of a mixed marriage and speaking both languages at home, also means that difference
is also present in the intimacy of the domestic home.172 Family life therefore does not
offer a clear point of reference to position herself either.
German original: Wenn ich nach Deutschland komme, muss ich mich dran gewöhnen. Immer. Was mich
auch immer nervt in Deutschland ist so Sachen wie mit dem Einladen, wie, die nehmen dann die
Rechnung, „ja, du musst 4,20 zahlen.” So, ich hab gerade keine zwanzig Cent. Solche Sachen. Da ist das
hier bei meinen Freunden viel entspannter.
German original: Andere sehen mich als Ausländerin. Die sind dann zwar total freundlich zu mir. Aber
halt irgendwie. Die sehen mich immer wie so ein exotisches Tier. <L> Oh! Eine Ausländerin die gut
chinesisch kann! Das ist so. […] Also nicht immer. Nicht dass ich ausgeschlossen werde oder so. Aber,
man ist nicht wirklich ein Teil der chinesischen Gesellschaft.
Anderson (1999), who analyzes the experiences of children from bicultural marriages in Athens,
Greece, illustrates how different and sometimes rivaling cultural ideas of child-raising have to be managed
in the intimacy of the domestic home. Based on ethnographic material from British-Greek families,
Anderson highlights the intra-familial “edges [such as] language, the body and certain aspects of social
protocol”(ibid.,18) in which parents or extended family experience and express their specific Greekness
and Britishness with respect to their children. Examining the ways these children deal with the differences
within the family, Anderson concludes that they “generate their own conceptual spaces and identities 'inbetween' culturally differentiated adult thoughts and actions through certain identificatory media and
thereby effect not merely a role of cultural brokering but hybridized identities in their own right” (ibid. 13).
When we discuss the expatriate lifestyle in Shanghai, Antonia shares how she sees
herself as part of the expatriate collective. However, Antonia claims to be “a little less”
part of the expatriate lifeworld “than others”:
Antonia: Actually I am also in the expatriate bubble. Maybe a little less than
others. But I am definitely in it.173
Antonia addresses the exclusion of Chinese locals by using the term “bubble” to
describe expatriate life – a point which I have discussed in more detail in chapter
thirteen. She simultaneously attributes a sense of community to her “expatriate
bubble,” as well as a difference to German but also Chinese society, which she
particularly notices upon every return to Shanghai after holidays in Germany.
Antonia: I do notice that it is a different group of people. Although they are partly
Chinese, partly Germans who’ve spend almost their whole life in
Germany, somehow you change here. Because it’s really a different
group of people. As if it’s a different nationality.174
While she rejects being entirely part of the “expatriate bubble” as a world of foreigners
mingling in Shanghai with the exclusion of locals, it is a new form of cultural identity
that emerges from the mixture of “Germanness” and “Chineseness” that creates her
subjective experience of Shanghai – her (expatriate) community that is almost a
“different nationality.” She looks at this community that she feels part of as an amalgam
– a perspective from which she also looks onto her own self and that I have
conceptualized earlier as transcultural (see chapter 2.4). Such a transcultural
perspective can shed light on shifting and merging of different cultural practices,
positions, and creative formations of new subjectivities, but can also serve to inquire
moments of boundary drawings and practices of distinctions. During our interviews
Antonia looks upon the different influences on her life, trying to grasp these and narrate
them from such a perspective to demonstrate that she feels uncomfortable to position
herself as either “German” or “Chinese.” Instead of simply making “expatriate” (or
similar “Third Culture Kid”) her main identity reference, she instead strategically claims
an urban citizenship as a hybrid form to express her narrative of the self: “I consider
myself Shanghainese.” This positioning is not about rejecting being Chinese, German,
or expat, but about embracing all these points of references in its amalgam. This is of
course her subjective positioning and does not necessarily reflect the common
discourse of being Shanghainese (shanghairen), which – despite the idea of migration
and westernization making up much of the discourse on Shanghai’s specific culture
Ich bin eigentlich auch in der Expatbubble. Vielleicht ein bisschen weniger als andere. Aber ich bin es
auf jeden Fall.
Ich merke schon, das ist eine andere Gruppe von Menschen. Obwohl das so, teilweise Chinesen sind,
teilweise Deutsche die fast ihr ganzes Leben in Deutschland gelebt haben, irgendwie man verändert sich
hier. Denn es ist wirklich eine andere Gruppe von Menschen. Als wär es eine andere Nationalität.
(haipai) (Farrer 2002, 88–92) – is usually tied to being born in Shanghai, speaking
Shanghainese, and having a Shanghai residence permit (hukou) (see Schoon 2007).
As Antonia points out in a quote cited earlier in this chapter – Chinese locals might not
accept her positioning as Shanghainese.
Drinking coffee and gazing at the passing cars, bikes, bicycles, and pedestrians on
Hengshan Road, Antonia explains her close relationship to the city:
Antonia: In my head Shanghai is always, I don’t know, this host of many things,
just all these impressions, the whole time. […] It makes me totally
hyper – every time I’m in the city of Shanghai, in this area. […] When
I came back [from Germany] to Shanghai I went shopping with my
friend, but we didn’t even get to the shopping part. We had
something to eat and simply walked through one street and were full
of energy and happy to be in Shanghai again. […] As soon as I am in
the city, or take a taxi from club to club, or go shopping… I am just, I
get… Well, it doesn’t seem like “Oh my God so much stuff,” but rather
as if I had more energy.175
Antonia enthusiastically speaks about moving through Shanghai and experiencing the
urban environment. She sees the city as a host of impressions that give her energy.
Antonia shares that she feels Shanghai is her home (see chapter 8.3 for a detailed
discussion). To sixteen-year-old Antonia the urban experience of Shanghai is a point of
identity reference that she uses to bridge the various notions of difference, as the city
for her includes all of these.
Antonia’s story shows, in the words of Stuart Hall (1990, 227), that “the boundaries of
difference are continually repositioned in relation to different points of reference.” While
Antonia stresses her ways of bridging the boundaries between German, Chinese, and
expatriate circles that she experiences as tied to certain cultural practices and
processes of labeling, Bjoern, the next student I want to present, positions himself as
someone who has to come to grips with boundaries along the line of class that
emerged for him with the move to Shanghai.
Bjoern: “Shanghai’s the best that can happen to you, if you’re a hick”
Sitting in class, listening to teachers and students, the first thing I particularly notice
about Bjoern is his rolling “R,” a hint to his upbringing in Bavaria. Bjoern is sixteen
years old when I first meet him in December 2010 at the German School and has only
come to Shanghai a few months prior at the beginning of the school year due to his
German original: Shanghai ist in meinem Kopf für mich immer so. Ich weiß nicht. So ein Haufen von
Vielem einfach. Einfach so, ganz viele Eindrücke die ganze Zeit. […] Mich macht das voll hyper. Immer
wenn ich sofort in der Stadt von Shanghai bin, so in diesen Gegenden. […] Also als ich zurück [aus
Deutschland] in Shanghai war, war ich mit meiner Freundin shoppen und wir sind gar nicht zum einkaufen
gegangen, gekommen. Wir waren essen und sind einfach nur durch eine Straße gelaufen und waren
aufgedreht und froh wieder in Shanghai zu sein. […] Sobald ich in die Stadt komme und in der Stadt bin,
oder mit dem Taxi fahre von Club zu Club oder shoppen gehe… Ich bin einfach, ich werd… Also es kommt
mir nicht so vor “oh Gott viel Zeug,” sondern dann so eher, als hätte ich mehr Energie.
father’s job posting. He has never lived outside the small village that he grew up in and
in a first group interview with two other boys, Don and Alex, he shares that initially he
was against his parents’ move to China.
From December 2010 on I regularly meet Bjoern at school, during nightlife activities or
school outings, where we chat or listen to reggae music on one of our MP3 players.
Bjoern is particularly familiar with German reggae artists, German popular culture, and
youth cultural practices outside the expatriate communities. We regularly exchange
reggae music and also bond over our common experience of having grown up in a
small German village. I observe how Bjoern quickly establishes friendships with his
new classmates, although one and a half years after our first interview, in June 2012,
he shares in retrospective that finding out “which friends suit me best” has been
difficult. Nevertheless, Bjoern seems to be the link between the two gendered peer
groups “the girls” and “the boys” (see chapter 4.5 and 4.6) in his class – interacting with
both. As I spend much time with “the girls,” it is thus not surprising that Bjoern is one of
the boys I feel most comfortable talking to and who becomes one of my key male
informants over the course of fieldwork.
Analyzing Bjoern’s narratives of the self shows that in our many conversations he
positions himself as someone who has to come to grips with boundaries along the line
of class. In contrast to many of his classmates, Bjoern has just experienced his first
move abroad and sometimes feels uncomfortable with the expatriate lifestyle. The
move to Shanghai has brought a certain awareness of differences in class to him. He
often describes his lifeworld in Germany and contrasts it to his new social circle in
Shanghai. During my time in Shanghai, he often states his preferences for places like
the shop (see chapter twelve) to high-end bars and occasionally voices his annoyance
about everyone in Shanghai wanting the “high life” and how he misses “acting chavvy.”
In June 2012, as we are sitting at the French café next to his school discussing what
being an expat actually means, he illustrates his view:
Bjoern: Expat. Expat is a little like the senator status at Lufthansa. You are
treated better. If you’re a senator or a first class passenger at
Lufthansa for instance, you get, for example, into this Lufthansa
Lounge and you don’t sit with all the others, the somehow ordinary,
down there on these nasty seats. Instead, you are sitting on a
massage chair, drinking your drink, eating a little caviar. That’s being
expat. Being expat is: ‘What does your daddy do?’ ‘He works this and
that.’ ‘Well, and what do you do here?’ ‘I drink up all the money that
my dad earns.’ That’s expat.176
German original: Expat. Expat ist wie so ein bisschen Senator-Status bei Lufthansa. Man wird besser
behandelt einfach. Wenn du Senator oder first class zum Beispiel bei Lufthansa bist oder so, dann kommst
du zum Beispiel in diese Lufthansa Lounge und hockst nicht mit allen anderen, den normalen irgendwie,
da unten auf diesen ekligen Sesseln. Sondern hockst auf deinem Massage-Stuhl, trinkst da deinen Drink
noch mal, isst noch ein bisschen Kaviar. So ist Expat sein. Expat sein ist: „Ja, was macht dein Daddy?“
Bjoern, by exaggerating the comfort expatriate lifestyle offers, emphasizes the issue of
class that preoccupies him. He chooses the metaphor of flying first class to describe
his expatriate life – a metaphor that for him is tied to class consciousness and
distinctions from the “ordinary.” Bjoern highlights a practice of distinction that
anthropologist Jacqueline Knörr (2005) has likewise found underlying the concept of
“Third Culture Kids” and led her to criticize the creation of a “TCK” identity as
unproductive in coping with the migration experience. Knörr, based on her study of
German expatriate youths having lived in Africa, argues:
[C]reating a "TCK" world and ideology of difference as a result of having been
brought up in an expatriate environment may well not be primarily a sign of actual
third-culturedness, but of a transformation of an expatriate ideology of "natural
superiority" over the local African population to a "TCK" ideology of "cultural
superiority" over the "ordinary" local German population - a transformation, which
neither supports a child's (re-) integration nor its further personal development.
(Knörr 2005, 75)
The expatriate youths I accompanied constantly experience how a high social standing
is attributed to them due to their financial means in respect to the local environment,
their private and international education, their many travels and their multi-lingual
proficiency. Everybody believes they will be the makers of the future. It is thus
tempting, as Knörr describes above, to feel superior to locals – whether in the “host” or
“home” country. The “TCK” ideology, and here I again agree with Knörr, channels this
superiority, gives it a form of expression and helps to maintain such feelings. The
“Third Culture Kid” concept seems to leave insufficient room for reflections and often
rather surfaces as a form of “TCK” nationalism that claims hybridity for their own “TCK”
nationals and essentializes others.
Bjoern, instead of using his privileged lifestyle as a major identity resource – although
his account might include some upgrading of his position through self-stigmatizing –,
self-reflectively contemplates and comments on the issue of status in his life. The
borders he experiences between his friends in Shanghai and in Germany might be
difficult to bridge, but the awareness of class is something expatriate life has brought
To me his comparison of expatriate life to flying first class therefore also offers another
interpretation. Flying can also be seen as a symbol of viewing the world from above
and of seeing and crossing borders. It is this dialectic of a class-consciousness – that
Bjoern finds disturbing and arrogant – and the great view he deeply enjoys that marks
the Shanghai experience for him. While feeling uncomfortable with the luxury and
privilege the environment in Shanghai brings to him, he simultaneously enjoys these
„Ja, der arbeitet das und das.“ „Ja, und was machst du hier?“ „Ich vertrink eigentlich nur das Geld, das
mein Papa verdient.“ Das ist Expat.
and considers the stay as a positive experience. Bjoern sees how the Shanghai
experience changes his outlook, his ideas about the future, and his self-confidence in
believing what might be possible for him to achieve.
Bjoern: Shanghai’s the best that can happen to you, if you’re a hick. You open up
to everything. Also to opinions. You are not stuck.177
He labels himself (or his pre-Shanghai-self) a hick [Dorfmensch] who learned new
ways and possibilities to live his life in the metropolis. In contrast to his peers at school,
for instance Antonia, Bjoern never talks about negotiating his cultural identity in terms
of questioning his “Germanness.” This might be due to his upbringing in a single village
in Bavaria. In contrast to the other students, the move to Shanghai has been the only
one in his life. It is rather the differences between rural and urban, and the status and
class consciousness, which came with the experience of moving, that startle and
unsettle him.
When it comes to ways of coping with this experience of taking off first class, Bjoern –
besides gaining a reflective perspective – develops plans for landing through the
search for “a little trouble.” During our last interview in June 2012, just after his
graduation, Bjoern talks about his plans to study in Europe (outside Germany) starting
the following year. He first wants to stay in Shanghai and take a Chinese language
course together with his girlfriend Kressi. Bjoern explains that he particularly dreams of
making his way on his own – without the help of his parents and their networks. His
parents suggested sending him for a few months to Peru where he could live with a
German family they know from Shanghai and intern at a German consulate.
Bjoern: I can live with them for free and work at the consulate. That would be it.
I’d arrive there and would already have everything made, somehow.
But that’s actually not what I want. That’s why I also don’t want to
study in Germany, because looking for an apartment will always be
easy, because you can speak German. I actually like to have a little
trouble. When I get it, I want to be able to say, it wasn’t that easy, but
now I got it. Now everything is good. And not like, I arrive, the
apartment has long been rented over the Internet, I only go in,
furniture is already there, because my mom has organized everything
for me. I’d find that boring. […] [The stay in Peru] would be like
having it got made, really.178
German original: Shanghai ist schon das Beste was einem passieren kann, wenn man ein Dorfmensch
ist. Man öffnet sich so zu Allem. Zu Meinungen auch. Man ist nicht festgefahren.
German original: Ich kann bei denen wohnen umsonst, kann beim Konsulat arbeiten. Das wär schon
alles. Ich käme dahin und hätte ein fertig gemachtes Nest irgendwie. Aber das ist eigentlich das was ich
nicht will. Deswegen will ich auch nicht in Deutschland studieren, weil da ist das mit Wohnungssuche
immer leicht, weil da kann man deutsch reden. Ich möchte es eigentlich mit ein bisschen trouble haben.
[...] Wenn ich das hab möcht ich sagen können, ja war nicht so leicht, aber jetzt hab ichs. Jetzt ist gut. Und
nicht so, ja, ich komm dahin, die Wohnung ist schon lange gemietet über Internet, ich geh da jetzt nur
noch rein, die Möbel stehen schon da, weil das meine Mama für mich gemacht hat. Das fände ich halt
langweilig. [...] [Der Aufenthalt in Peru] wär ein fertig gemachtes Nest, wirklich.
This quote again reveals how Bjoern processes his experiences of class
consciousness and class difference that create one aspect of the expatriate
community. His example of renting a furnished apartment via the Internet reminds of
expatriate packages that include services that help renting furnished villas in Shanghai.
Bjoern is looking for ways to “earn” his privileges in the future or to be treated more
equally with people of other social standings. Having met people from many different
places he wants to continue an international education to keep broadening his
perspective, but plans to do so by what he calls choosing a path “with a little trouble.”
While expatriate student Bjoern is coping with the borders of class between his friends
in Germany and his friends in Shanghai, the next student Arnaud is dealing with the
messy negotiations of difference in the intimate sphere of the family and with his own
in-between position.
Arnaud: “Sitting in-between, you can't be best at either one of them”
Arnaud is sixteen years old and enrolled at a French-medium school in Shanghai when
I first meet him in June 2011. Arnaud has been introduced to me by Matthias, as the
two know each other from jam sessions in the music room on the German-French
school campus. After several text messages, Arnaud and I agree to meet at a
Starbucks coffee shop downtown on Hengshan Road. When Arnaud, with his long
black hair tied into a ponytail, jeans, sneakers and the obligatory headphones, shows
up for the interview, I immediately like his polite and thought-through way of carefully
studying and answering the interview questions.
His Chinese parents immigrated to Belgium for his father’s studies and career. Arnaud
was born in Belgium and is a Belgian national. After his birth his family moved to the
Parisian outskirts. Here, he grew up until he turned nine years old and his family
decided to move to Shanghai because of a career opportunity for his father and to be
closer to a sick grandparent.
Arnaud, sitting opposite me and carefully sipping his orange juice at a little corner table
in the Starbucks on Hengshan Road, recounts his everyday routines. He particularly
enjoys talking about his band, theater, and current writing projects. When discussing
his moving experiences and his growing up in France and Shanghai, he comments on
one aspect of his migration story that he finds difficult to cope with: the influence of his
first years in France and his French education on his relation to his parents, particularly
his mother:
Arnaud: My parents are Chinese Chinese. They don't have, they didn't have a
French education. They are Chinese educat[ed]. […] My dad, he
went to a Belgian University. And he has a bit of European culture.
But it really affects me how different me and my mom are in the
head, in the mind. How maybe I am open-minded in some kinds of
talking, and she is not. And sometimes it can be the opposite. It
makes me a bit sad, cause, I feel like maybe we would have more
talking, with my parents, if I was Chinese. Maybe. It is mostly this.
Because I don't only have a cultural difference with friends, or just
everyone around, but also with my parents. And this really made me
sad for some time. Just to know that I am different from my parents. I
mean <L> everyone is different from their parents, but
Interviewer: Yeah, but I see.
Arnaud: But you have to have something from your parents. And I feel that by
living in the French way, erm, sometimes I can't, I can't really stick to
my parents. I gotta learn from [others], not from the parents. You
know what I mean?
Interviewer: Yeah.
Arnaud: And it really makes me sad sometimes. Cause I see. I got this French
friend, […], he is a drummer […] And when I go to his place, I see
how close he is to his mom. And how long they can have a
discussion. About everything and nothing. And I can't have this. I
mean. Cause. Of course I can, but it is not [the same].
Arnaud in a very impressive manner reflects upon his relations to his parents and
expresses the emotional turmoil that comes along with conflicts and misunderstandings
arising in the family that is marked by differences within. Anthropologist Michael
Anderson (1999, 18) in his analysis of family life in bicultural marriages in Athens,
Greece, calls these differences in “language use, bodiliness, [or] social protocol,”
“edges.” Although his mother and father share the same cultural upbringing, Arnaud
experiences such “edges” at home, and voices his fear of alienation from his parents –
particularly his mother – whom he, despite their international experiences, describes as
“Chinese Chinese.” Arnaud labels his mother as “Chinese Chinese” in contrast to his
own entangled position of cultural identity. I have not met Arnaud’s parents, but their
experiences as “reverse migrants” after their time in Belgium and France is likely to be
akin to the findings of a study by Sin Yih Teo (2011) on the flow of skilled migration
between Canada and the People’s Republic of China. Teo examines how the cultural
politics of identity unfold amongst Chinese immigrants in Canada in the context of
increasing reverse migration and illustrates the subsequently evolving hybridized forms
of cultural identification. However, Arnaud obviously sees a difference between his own
and his parents hybridized forms of cultural identification. These differences, or “edges”
in Anderson’s (1999) terms, have made him “sad for some time.”
Furthermore, Arnaud relates this strain on the family relations not only to cultural
differences within the domestic home, but also to his feeling “in-between” in general.
His comments demonstrate how difficult it is for him to position himself in terms of
cultural identity as he fears not to be “good enough” to identify or be identified as
“French” or “Chinese”:
Arnaud: Because we always want to be best at something. And with this kind of
sitting in-between, you can't. You can't be best at either one of them.
You know what I mean?
Interviewer: Yeah.
Arnaud: You can't be.
Interviewer: You can be the best at the in-between. <L>
Arnaud: Yeah, Right. Yeah, but.
Interviewer: Yeah, but it is maybe not satisfying sometimes?
Arnaud: Yeah, well. I wanna be better than the French guy. But he has this
background; he has the parents that are French. Eh, you wanna be
better than the Chinese one. Same.
Interviewer: Yeah, he has the Chinese school system and everything.
Arnaud: Yeah. So where am I?
In the interview Arnaud emphasizes his feeling that he, “sitting in-between,” cannot
succeed in either of the two worlds and often feels lost wondering, “Where am I?” He
expresses his ambitions to be good or even best at the things he does and how he
feels always one step behind his peers whose cultural identity and language is less
entangled and more supported by their parents. When I try to suggest a more positive
interpretation, he laughs, but cannot take this seriously. In contrast to the many
students I interviewed, who stress their pride and the positive outcomes of growing up
bilingually or in different cultural environments, Arnaud openly shares the difficulties of
his way of growing up. Only in the end of our interview, he briefly focuses on the
benefits of his culturally entangled life story and presents a more positive outlook.
The interview with Arnaud demonstrates how a shared space between ethnographer
and the interviewed has been opened up to discuss Arnaud’s narrative of growing up
and his experiences of difference and borders due to his specific upbringing. During
the interview Arnaud takes a perspective that aims to untangle and explain the various
influences in his life, for instance the labeling he experiences due to his Asian
phenotype and his French schooling, the difference between his and his parents’ ways,
or the difference between his and his friends’ relations to parents. He voices how these
experiences of borders make him fear alienation from his parents and a certain feeling
of “sitting in-between.” Arnaud has to cope with the constantly shifting borders in his life
that seem not to allow him to find stable position of cultural identity that is confirmed by
others, but lead him to speak from a position he regards as intermediate and
The sixteen-year old student deals with his position in the in-between by finding
creative outlets. When talking about his theater, literature, and band project, Arnaud is
speaking with enthusiasm, his eyes shining bright and with pride in his success.
Touring, publishing, making music – Arnaud tries to open up spaces for himself to
express his creativity. His high creative energy, being involved in school plays, bands,
and writing short stories, seems to be a strategy to cope with the entanglements of his
world. For his future he also dreams of a new space – creatively, culturally, and
physically. Instead of staying in China or returning to France, he plans to move to
Canada to study music recording and continue his search for belonging through
creatively and artistically bridging his different experiences. The following ChineseGerman raised student, Xia, is dealing with problems similar to those of Arnaud, but
instead of choosing artistic outlets, Xia sees education and achievement as his main
strategy to manage the boundaries he perceives in his life.
Xia: “I’d like to be like Einstein: citizen of the world”
When I attend classes at a German school from December 2010 onwards, I meet Xia
on a regular basis. We occasionally chat. Eventually, I ask all students under-age in
Xia’s class for their parents’ permission for interviews. One day at school Xia
approaches me saying he might after all not to be able to participate in an interview as
his parents think he does not fit the definition of students my research is interested in.
Due to the expatriate community’s familiarity with the idea of “Third Culture Kids,” I had
used this term to explain my research agenda on expatriate youth in a letter to parents.
Interestingly, Xia’s parents did not like to see their son as such a hybrid “TCK” and
doubted he should participate.
Seventeen-year-old Xia is a Chinese national who was granted exceptional permission
to attend a German school by the Shanghai municipal government. Born in China, Xia
moved to Germany with his parents after kindergarten to start his school career in
Germany. His father obtained his doctorate at a German university and started working
for a German company. After four years and one move within Germany, his parents
decided to return to Shanghai. Although having been trained in Chinese writing after
school and on weekends, Xia experienced difficulties in the entrance test to the local
Chinese schools in Shanghai, because the education system and its ways of testing
were unfamiliar to him. His parents therefore applied for a special permit and Xia could
attend the German-medium school. Here, Xia was an academically very strong
student. However, his fellow students always regarded Xia as different.
When Xia approaches me with his (parents’) doubts about fitting into my research
project, I explain that the term can be debated and anyone interested can join. A few
days later I am happy to see that his mother has signed the permission for the
interview. When we meet for a first interview at the French café close to school, his
parents’ initial objection to him participating are still on our minds, and we particularly
discuss the politics of cultural identity and intergenerational conflicts.
In this first interview in spring 2011, the voice recorder, our coffee cups and my
questionnaire between us, Xia shares, “my parents sometimes think I don’t think
Chinese enough.”179 He underlines his statement by giving the example of a discussion
he had lately with his parents over dinner about the Chinese space program. At this
dinner he contemplated on the usefulness of the program, which, he then suggested,
might as well be seen as a waste of money and resources. His parents got angry,
accusing him of not being proud of China. It is on the basis of this story and accusation
that we discuss his negotiations with his parents and his feelings about belonging
during our interview.
Interviewer: So they practically accuse you a little bit of lacking patriotism?
Xia: Practically. Well, my father, he is afraid. [He uses] a description of a plant.
Actually, my grandfather wrote such a poem. There is a plant that
glides on the water; it has no roots. And my father fears that I am just
like that, and that I will later have problems, and that I somehow
won’t know where the roots are.
Interviewer: And that is why he thinks, or tries, or suggests to you that China is
where your roots are. But you are skeptic if that works?
Xia: Well. I think the roots are actually where the people are that you like most.
And I know my friends from school. The problem is that they are from
different countries. [It is unclear] if I will see them again in the future.
Interviewer: Hmm. So they are all actually swimming a little as well?
Xia: <L> Or are swimming towards somewhere else. Yes. <L>.180
Aquatic plants as an image of rootlessness, of floating without a clear destination,
symbolize the worries of Xia’s parents about their son’s future. Xia himself does not
discard this image, but argues that his “roots are where the people are that you like
most.” He rejects the necessity of a fixed and essentialized feeling of belonging tied to
place or nationality, and ties feelings of belonging to his friends. In contrast to Arnaud,
Xia does not comment on the emotional effects the conflict with his parents evokes. I
think, however, that Xia’s parents fear is not only about lacking patriotism or fearing
German original: Also meine Eltern denken, dass ich manchmal nicht Chinesisch genug denke.
Geman original: [Interviewer: Dass heißt ein bisschen werfen sie dir quasi mangelnden Patriotismus
vor. Ja?] Quasi. Also mein Vater hat zwar so, so Angst. So eine Beschreibung mit einer Pflanze. Das hat
eigentlich mein Opa, so ein Gedicht, geschrieben. Und da ist eine Pflanze, die auf dem Wasser schwebt,
keine Wurzel hat. Und mein Vater hat Angst, dass ich auch so bin und dann später dann damit Probleme
habe und so. Und irgendwie nicht weiß, wo die Wurzeln sind, und dann, ja. [Interviewer: Und deswegen
meint er halt, oder versucht, oder legt dir nahe, dass China sozusagen für dich deine Wurzeln sind. Aber
du bist da ein bisschen skeptisch ob das so funktioniert?] Naja. Ich denke mal die Wurzel ist eigentlich da
wo die Leute sind, die du am meisten magst. Und meine Freunde habe ich ja von der Schule. Problem ist
dann, dass die immer… Dass immer, die viel aus den verschiedenen Staaten kommen. <x> Ob ich die in
Zukunft wiedersehen werde oder nicht. [Interviewer: Hmm. Dass heisst die schwimmen ja eigentlich auch
alle so ein bisschen?] Ja. <L> Oder schwimmen woanders hin oder. Ja. <L>.
their son’s rootlessness, but might also be similar to Arnaud’s worries of alienation. Xia
in his self-reflective narrative particularly highlights the role that the difference between
the world at home and the world at school might play in this conflict. He sees his
conflict with his parents as mainly arising out of their different educational upbringing,
for instance the encouragement at his school to question and think critically, which he
applies in the discussion of the Chinese space program. His parents have difficulties to
understand his way of arguing and interpret it as lacking patriotism.
During our interview in June 2012 – Xia is in a happy mood about just having finished
school and having done brilliantly on his A-levels – he describes how he manages this
experience of difference in his daily routine:
Xia: At school I speak German the whole time and at home I speak Chinese the
whole time. And at school I think in German and at home in Chinese.
The change is quite… Sometimes it works well, sometimes not really.
After the holidays, to switch from Chinese to German, sometimes that
doesn’t work out really well.181
When I inquire about if or how these different worlds require him to act accordingly, Xia
explains that there are many different contexts and situations with different degrees of
familiarity or unease.
Xia: Many situations exist <x> and some situations are eventually foreign to me. I
am quite familiar with what a Chinese family is like, or how it is at a
German school. But I am not familiar with how it is like for the
Germans at home, or for the Chinese at school.182
For Xia the various zones and differences he has to manage during his everyday life
have become normality. Steve Vertovec (1997, 294) refers to such competences to
improvise from various, sometimes crisscrossed cultural and linguistic systems as
“milieu moving.” Xia’s competences of “milieu moving” also bring along specific
challenges and he has to “navigate processes of identification” with different norms and
practices and “learn how to manage tensions between conformity and individuality”
(Sporton, Valentine, and Nielsen 2006, 214).
Danau Tanu (2011), showing that “TCK” literature has underrepresented these
experiences of ruptures in the everyday routine, recalls her own upbringing as an Asian
child in an international school abroad – which she experienced as a “highly
westernised one” (ibid., 223) – as a zoned life requesting different practices. Akin to
Xia’s explanations of his everyday life, she describes her upbringing:
In der Schule spreche ich die ganze Zeit deutsch und zu Hause die ganze Zeit chinesisch. Und dabei
denke ich in der Schule auf deutsch und zu Hause auf chinesisch. Der Wechsel ist ziemlich. Manchmal
klappt es gut, manchmal klappt es nicht so gut. […] Nach den Ferien von Chinesisch auf deutsch
überwechseln, dass ist dann manchmal nicht so gut.
German original: Es gibt viele Situationen <x> und manche Situationen die mir vielleicht fremd sind. Mir
ist es ziemlich vertraut wie es in einer chinesischen Familie so ist, oder wie in einer deutschen Schule.
Aber mir ist nicht so vertraut wie es bei den Deutschen zu Hause ist, oder bei den Chinesen in der Schule.
For me it was “Western” culture by day and “Asian” culture by night. I
experienced a sense of cultural dissonance which in many ways was similar,
though not identical, to that of second generation immigrants growing up in
Western countries. (Tanu 2011, 223)
While such milieus are not as homogenous as Tanu’s description lets them appear,
students like Xia certainly experience ruptures when moving between them. Xia has to
bridge different cultural practices in his everyday life – a practice Robert Pütz (2004,
13) calls “everyday transculturality.” Xia often reflects upon his shifting cultural frames
of references and his own positioning and acts accordingly. With these reflections Xia’s
practice is often turned into “strategic transculturality” that Robert Pütz (ibid., 28) has
conceptualized as the competence of moving reflexively in the different symbolic
When I am at school, I observe how Xia has difficulties to get along with some of the
students. These students, Xia explains, are different from him, as they came from
Germany to China, and not like him first from China to Germany. However, he says
that he has much in common with other students whose parents have Chinese origins.
Reflecting upon his relationship to his classmates, he puts forward that it is mainly with
these students that he gets along well.
Xia: Maybe because I only moved to Germany at the age of seven, I get along
much better with the Chinese people at my school, well, those who
have the same culture that I have. Better than with the Chinese who
are only here and with the Germans.183
Xia’s reflections allude to something I have come across overhearing conversations
among a few students who referred to themselves as GBCs – German Born Chinese –
in allusion to the much more common notion of ABCs – American Born Chinese.
Wondering about this potential form of collective identity positions, I ask Xia if and why
he feels more comfortable in the interactions with the Chinese-German teenagers.
Xia: [I feel] more comfortable in the interactions, then [it is] also less
disconcerting, and also because we share quite the same experience
so that we look at some things from the same perspective. For
example, we are put under much more pressure from early on. We
are being spoilt in a different way. Spoilt by parents’ attention.
Different than maybe, I don’t know, by getting gifts or something.184
One binding experience of these “GBC” students seems to be their parents’ outlook on
the importance of education and doing well in school. While the expatriate experience
German original: Vielleicht gerade weil ich erst mit sieben nach Deutschland gezogen bin, […] versteh
ich mich viel besser mit chinesischen Leuten an meiner Schule, also die, die die gleiche Kultur haben wie
ich. Besser als, als mit den Chinesen die nur hier sind und mit den Deutschen halt.
German original: [Ich fühle mich] wohler im Umgang, dann [gibt es] weniger Befremdliches, und
ziemlich auch [weil wir] die gleiche Erfahrung gemacht [haben], so dass wir manche Sachen aus der
gleichen Perspektive sehen. Zum Beispiel uns wird einfach, schon seit klein auf mehr unter Druck gesetzt.
Auf andere Weise verwöhnt. Verwöhnt durch Aufmerksamkeit der Eltern. Anders als durch vielleicht, ich
weiß nicht, Geschenke oder so was.
is a unifying framework and construction of an expatriate identity at the international
schools, as I have shown in chapter nine, Xia’s comment shows that this community
can be divided and that students with Chinese family background are sometimes
regarded as a distinct sub-group. Talking about these experiences shared among
students with Chinese relatives, Xia comments in-between the lines on the difficulties
he sometimes encountered with other students at his school. When I question him
about these difficulties, he does not expand the issue. I opt to inquire further, and he
Interviewer: So you think that is because of the different, not culture, well, but
Xia: Perspectives.
Interviewer: Perspective you’d say? Perspective on your own life so to say?
Xia: I see that… I like it when I look at people from my perspective, but I would
also like to look at things from their perspective.185
Xia experiences in his everyday life the different practices and views of students from
various backgrounds, which he terms “perspectives.” He voices his desire to (be able
to) look at things from such different “perspectives.” An ability he has to actually
demonstrate on a daily basis when gliding through the different “milieus” at home and
at school, but also a skill he displays when narrating and reflecting upon his everyday
life. As his accounts of discussions with his parents over dinner and his reflections
upon his position at school, illustrate, taking such different or even transcultural
perspectives is not an effortless or frictionless practice:
Xia: I personally think, well, my other Chinese friends have much better, actually
integrated much better or something. They’ve been longer than me
Interviewer: It is easier for them?
Xia: Much easier! I [moved to Germany] only at the age of seven. And there I was
a foreigner, too, and had to learn everything.
Interviewer: So you mean you’ve always stayed a foreigner a little bit?
Xia: Yes. And I also have a Chinese passport. That’s a foreigner. My parents
have often warned me. That is relational: Because I have a Chinese
passport, I know that I am legally a foreigner. And maybe will be
treated like that in Germany. And that’s why I also feel like that. […] I
think it’s right for my parents to teach me that.186
German original: Interviewer: Meinst du, dass es aufgrund der verschiedenen, nicht Kulturen, ja, aber
Rollen… Xia: Perspektiven. Interviewer: Perspektive würdest du sagen? Perspektive so auf das eigene
Leben sozusagen? Xia: Ich seh das. Ich finde das gut wenn ich Leute aus meiner Perspektive betrachte,
aber ich würd auch gern [auf] Sachen aus deren Perspektive heraus schauen.
German original: Also ich persönlich finde. Also meine anderen chinesischen Freunde haben sich so
viel besser, eigentlich viel besser integriert oder so. Sie sind auch schon länger als ich… [Interviewer: Also
denen fällt das leichter?] Viel leichter! Ich hab dann halt erst mit sieben. Und da war ich auch Ausländer
und musste alles lernen. [Interviewer: Dass heißt du meinst du bist immer ein bisschen Ausländer
geblieben?] Ja. Und ich hab auch einen chinesischen Pass. Das ist ein Ausländer. Meine Eltern haben
Only when reading this interview transcript I was startled by Xia’s descriptions of being
a “foreigner” – although he is a Chinese national currently living in China. It seems as if
he has taken the expatriate community as point of reference, positioning himself as a
minority. Furthermore, he is worried about his future experiences in Germany, where
he plans to study, and fears possible exclusion and discrimination due to his name,
appearance, and passport. Xia further elaborates upon this constraint of the passport:
Xia: I would love to have a world in which one would say internationality is a
human right. If you could live anywhere in the world and could freely
develop there. But the world simply hasn’t arrived there yet. And to
get by [in this world] despite globalization, despite these barriers, I
have to stay realistic. […] I then just have to live in this world.
Interviewer: And in this world the passport plays a role?
Xia: Yes, nationality plays a role. No matter how international you are […] I would
consider myself as international. But the other people, those who see
me for the first time. Employers. They see you as a Chinese.
Interviewer: You don’t have a passport that says “international.”
Xia: I’d like to be like Einstein: citizen of the world.
Interviewer: <L>
Xia: Yes. And I once thought that if I become really good, then I’ll become one
eventually. That’s why I put so much effort into it. If I didn’t achieve I’d
have less chances here in China. Sure. It’s just like that.187
Xia’s reference to Einstein is important for two reasons: firstly, it symbolizes his ideal of
high education, fame, success, intelligence, cleverness, genius, and approval;
secondly, it alludes to Einstein’s diasporic life on the move and Xia’s desire of being a
weltbürger, to be able to move around freely – something he understands as a goal the
world should be moving towards. Xia experiences cultural identity not only as a
position, or as performative, but also realizes how it is relational, depending on others
and on citizenship. Xia voices his understanding that, despite his own flexible and
creative outlook on cultural identity and belonging – “I consider myself as international”
mich darum auch oft ermahnt. Das ist dann halt gegenseitig. Dadurch dass ich einen chinesischen Pass
habe, weiß ich, dass ich legal ein Ausländer bin. Und vielleicht auch in Deutschland so behandelt werde.
Und deswegen fühl ich mich auch so. […] Ich finde es auch richtig, dass meine Eltern mir das so
beigebracht haben.
German original: Ich hätte gerne eine Welt in der man sagt Internationalität wäre ein Menschenrecht.
Wenn man überall auf der Welt dann leben könnte und sich dort entfalten könnte. Aber die Welt ist einfach
noch nicht so weit. Und […] um trotz der Globalisierung, trotz dieser Barrieren dann halt noch
zurechtzukommen, muss ich auch realistisch sein. […] Ich muss dann halt in dieser Welt leben.
[Interviewer: Und in dieser Welt spielt der Pass eine Rolle.] Ja, spielt Nationalität schon eine Rolle. Egal
wie international du bist. […] Ich würde mich selbst ja als international sehen. Aber die anderen Leute, die
dich zum ersten Mal sehen. Arbeitgeber. Die sehen dich als einen Chinesen an. [Interviewer: Du hast halt
keinen Pass, der sagt „international.”] Ich wär auch gern wie Einstein, Weltbürger. [Interviewer: <L>] Ja.
Ich hab mir auch mal gedacht wenn ich richtig gut werde, dann werd ich das vielleicht. Deswegen geb ich
mir auch so viel Mühe. Wär ich schlecht dann hätt ich hier in China weniger Chancen. Klar. Das ist einfach
–, he feels the weight and constraints of difference and being “othered.” He hopes to
be able to cross these borders through education and achievement.
Xia’s experiences of growing up in Germany and Shanghai lead him to realize the
difficulties of taking different perspectives and bridging differences. While this makes
Xia aware of certain borders in his life, the next students’ subjective experiences go in
almost the opposite direction: boundaries cross and blur in Paul’s subjective
experiences of growing up on the move, making them and the many shifting points of
identification seemingly impossible to locate.
Paul: “Home is wherever I am staying”
It is Saturday afternoon and I am supposed to meet Paul for the first time for a group
interview with Matthias at a downtown café on Wulumuqi Road. Matthias, who I know
from the German school, has introduced us via text messages a few days prior as I
have told him I am interested in meeting students from other schools to gain a broader
perspective on expatriate youths’ lives. I am running two or three minutes late and
Paul, who is already at the café, texts and then calls me. Shanghai’s street noise,
however, swallows the sound of my mobile phone and I only notice his call when I
arrive at the café. Matthias is nowhere to be seen and I do not know what Paul looks
like. Standing in the entrance of the coffee shop, wondering who this friend interested
in my research could be, I try to call Paul back. The phone of an athletic teen standing
outside the café rings and we introduce ourselves to each other. The weather is
beautiful, but we decide to go inside, fearing the street noise might make a
conversation, and especially a recording, impossible. We take a table close to the
window. The air-condition is humming and music is playing in the background. Waiting
for Matthias and trying to make conversation, I ask Paul how the two have met. He
shares the story of how he had repeatedly bumped into a friend of Matthias at various
nightlife activities and finally started hanging out with him and Matthias. They became
friends, “jammed” together and eventually founded a music band. Their band, however,
no longer exists at the time of the interview due to difficulties to arrange for practice
sessions, as the students live one and a half hours apart by car or metro. While
listening to Paul’s accounts of their band, Matthias texts he is running late and we
decide to begin recording without him. Matthias joins our conversation about thirty
minutes later.
Paul’s story entails many moves and growing up in a bi-national family. He is
seventeen years old and grew up in Brazil and the United States and moved to
Shanghai six years prior to the interview. He is a German national, born in Brazil to a
Brazilian mother and a German father. He helps me to understand his upbringing by
clarifying his language skills:
Paul: I speak Portuguese, I don't speak German. My mom is Brazilian.
Interviewer: Your mom is Brazilian, your dad is German, but you grew up in
Paul: And China. And Brazil. But I speak very little German. I can understand it.
Okay. But I can't speak it really. I can say like: hello, thank you,
please. <L>.
Paul’s different positions of living in China, being born in Brazil and speaking
Portuguese at home, having lived and being educated in US-American ways, but by
passport definition being German are hard to grasp for me during our first encounter.
Paul seems used to my confusion and also to being labeled differently depending on
the point of reference – place of birth, country of upbringing, passport, or others. When
we talk about his private Christian US-American school in Shanghai, for instance, he
mentions that only two Europeans are currently enrolled – including himself. Just
having heard, in perfect American accent, that he has never lived in Europe, I am
irritated by him being labeled “European.” His particularly flexible and ever-shifting way
of positioning himself in terms of national or cultural identity clearly depend on the point
of reference and seem to be responses to different labels others appoint to him. While
his story of high mobility at first sight reminds of those accounts that Pollock and Van
Reken base their concept of “Third Culture Kids” on, I find it difficult to see his flexible
ways as claiming belonging “in relationship to others of similar background” (for the
definition see Pollock and Van Reken [1999]2009, 19 or chapter 2.3 of this
ethnography). During this first encounter, he seems to make very few claims of
belonging at all. I already highlighted the ideas on home he expresses during our first
encounter in depth in chapter 3.4, where he attributes his closer relationship to
Shanghai mostly to the fact that it is his current place of living. Home seems a rather
vague idea to Paul. When he describes his multi-local experiences, it is almost a nonattachment to places that comes to the fore. His response to the question of home is
just a reluctant “wherever I am staying.” This flexible idea of home also relates to his
particularly flexible and ever-shifting way of positioning himself in terms of cultural
identity depending on the point of reference. Maybe his shifting positions seem so
fleeting and hard to grasp for me, because in contrast to the other students I only met
Paul to inquire and communally reflect upon his experiences and did not have the
chance to accompany him in his everyday routine. Maybe this feeling of flexibility also
arises from the fact that at the time of this first interview Paul is just about to graduate
and the end of his stay in Shanghai is approaching. His father has already moved on to
Thailand, his mother plans to follow after Paul’s graduation ceremony and Paul is
making plans to move to Germany for college:
Paul: So I wanna go there. I wanna learn German. I also have a lot of family
there. […] Plus I haven't lived in Europe yet. So, now I kinda wanna
go there.
In August 2011, a few months after the interview, Paul’s plans come true and he
moves to a German university town and enrolls at a private English-medium university.
I meet Paul for a second time in Germany, just after Christmas 2011. As he has just
bought a record player with his Christmas money, our meeting spontaneously turns into
a shopping tour for vinyl records, which we both enjoy. We end up in a café where we
discuss the day’s purchases as well as his first months in Germany. After our first
encounter and my impression of his shifting forms of positionings, I am curious to see
how he is doing in Germany. While we are drinking our hot chai lattes, he expresses no
worries about the move and stresses his ability to adapt anywhere – especially as his
private English-medium university is providing another “bubble.” Re-introducing the
term “bubble,” he describes his college campus using the same wording as for his
social world in Shanghai during his first interview. He seems to have quickly adapted to
the international environment. He found a job at the campus café, his rather basic
German language skills and the fresh move not seeming to cause difficulties. He
started to learn German and enjoys exploring the city outside the Campus. Generally,
he conveys a calmness and effortlessness about his many moves and his recent move
to Germany in particular. While he seems happy with his university life and learning
German, I wonder if his lack of strong ties to places could sometimes be strenuous and
unsettling for him. Enjoying the hot beverages after our shopping walk through the
German December cold, he tells me he considers himself Brazilian, although he has
only lived in Brazil until he was six years old. I am surprised by his new choice of
claiming cultural identity. While I wonder if my presence forces some kind of statement
of belonging, he lists his very pragmatic reasons for this choice by explaining why his
other places of upbringing are unsuitable to define himself: He simply does not want to
be American, and the way he looks he cannot be Chinese. I recall how during our first
interview he stated he does not want to live in Brazil again and I ask him about his
future plans. Not knowing where to move after finishing university in Germany, he
expresses his wish to find a girlfriend who would hopefully set the place to live for the
future. He feels he cannot make the decision.
Seventeen-year-old Paul’s experiences include growing up on the move and in a binational family. His and his parents’ nationalities, languages, and cultural practices
differ both from his school and from his country of living. He does neither speak the
language his passport is issued in, nor has he until recently ever lived in his passport
country. In one way his experiences of mobility, shifting borders, and differences are
one of the most extreme among the expatriate youths I encountered. In another way
his experiences are particularly difficult to understand from the transcultural perspective
I suggested. The transcultural perspective the students and I took to make sense of the
shifting experiences of difference and borders, here seems to be overstrained. The
“trans” invited us to untangle these experiences, assisted us to gain a perspective that
helped to open up a shared space to discuss these. It helped us to look at the borders
to unravel the shifting influences, the new creations of subjective positions of cultural
identity. However, the same “trans” now fails us as it tricked us into thinking we could
untangle the experiences, meanwhile forgetting about the second syllable of the
concept, the “culture.” However, this second part, “culture” should have warned us that
the everyday experiences are already an ever-changing set of practices, meanings in a
on-going process, “plural and in motion” (Nadig 2004, 10) – an understanding of
“culture” that in the discipline of anthropology has already been widespread before the
rise of transcultural studies, and as for instance, Gupta and Ferguson (1992) have put
forward by calling for a focus on the production of cultural difference rather than using
“culture” as distinct entities. While, with the help of a transcultural perspective, I have
described the experience and production of cultural difference in the four previous
biographic accounts, as well as in chapter thirteen when investigating the “diaspora
space” (Brah 1996) and the construction of difference of expatriates towards Chinese
citizens, I have difficulties to capture Paul’s experience. In Paul’s narrative of cultural
identity, where we find so many points of reference, it is impossible to understand the
experience of borders without a more detailed ethnographic investigation into the
“production of difference within [his] common, shared, and connected spaces” (Gupta
and Ferguson 1992, 16). Transcultural perspectives with the focus on the shifting and
transgression of boundaries require detailed ethnographic insights into the production
of cultural difference in specific sites.
Paul himself, like me, seems to have difficulties to grasp the production of difference in
his life. Instead of describing or contemplating on the differences that he experiences
or bridges, like the other students, Paul simply describes what has helped him to
emplace himself: the social worlds of “bubbles.” His descriptions of moving between
“bubbles,” from Shanghai’s “Jinqiao bubble” to the English-medium university campus
reminds of the accounts of transnational practices of mobile professionals by David Ley
who writes,
Foreshortened time and space create a circumscribed lifeworld around work,
bars, and sporting and expatriate clubs. [...] The outcome is a lifeworld that is the
opposite of the expansive and inclusive networks implied by ungrounded or
deterritorialized networks. Instead, the social geography of the transnational elite
may be highly localized, restricted to particular territories. As they are despatched
internationally from city to city, the transnational capitalist class are island
hopping from one expatriate enclave to another. (Ley 2004, 157)
This “island hopping” is a very local practice involving very concrete sites, as Ley
describes, but as also my own chapters on spatial practices have demonstrated. Paul
seems to be a master of this art of “island hopping,” of finding a place in expatriate
communities, as a way to cope with the “transcultural turbulences” (Brosius and
Wenzlhuemer 2011) of his way of growing up.
Transcultural Perspectives underlying/on Students’ Diverse Experiences
At different places, times, in relation to different questions, the
boundaries are re-sited. They become, not only what they have, at
certain times, certainly been – mutually excluding categories, but also
what they sometimes are – differential points along a sliding scale. (Hall
1990, 228)
The five students’ portraits and their reflections upon their social worlds and their
positions within them, show how heterogeneous growing up as an international school
student in Shanghai can be. Various factors influence the transient time in Shanghai –
whether it is the first time abroad or whether families are constantly moving, whether
there is a need to negotiate difference within the family or between family and school,
which is for example the case for children of Chinese-foreign marriages or Chinese
reverse migrants. However, it is not the aim of this ethnography to create a typology,
but to illustrate that underneath the students’ diverse experiences and subjective
narratives lies common ground that I conceptualize as the gaining of “transcultural
perspectives.” It is a perspective that reveals that mobility brings along the shifting of
various points of references and boundaries, as Stuart Hall’s quote above describes,
along or across which expatriate students have to find their own positions of cultural
Antonia, child of a Chinese-German marriage, formulated this experience of borders
between being “Chinese” and/or “German” and chose to claim Shanghai as her major
resource for her hybrid cultural identity. Bjoern, who grew up in a small village in
Germany, particularly highlighted his awareness of class and class differences when
contemplating about the influences of the move to Shanghai on his life. Arnaud, a
French-educated, Belgium national whose Chinese parents moved to Europe to
eventually return to Shanghai, in the shared space of the interviewer and the
interviewed articulated his worries about feeling different from his parents. Chinese
student Xia, enrolled at the German school, articulated his general awareness of
borders between himself and his fellow students who are European nationals,
particularly in regards to the constraints of his Chinese passport and family
background. He also reflected upon the difficulties of dealing with differences between
school and home. Paul, child of a Brazilian-German marriage with many international
moves, found it impossible to make claims of belonging to specific points of reference
or to formulate a narrative of cultural identity. His perspective seemed to pay little
attention to boundaries, or only to their absence in his life except the one marking his
“international bubble.”
The five biographic examples demonstrate that the teenagers were very interested in
sharing and discussing their views with me, opening up a shared space in which they
took a transcultural perspective, investigating the role of mobility, cultural practices and
difference in their lives. These transcultural perspectives on their own lives at first sight
stand in contradiction to their everyday spatial practices of demarcation and classconsciousness that I have, for instance, revealed in chapter eight on the housing
practices and in chapter nine when discussing the community of international schools.
However, these actually go hand in hand: the own mobility might evoke desire for
stability on the one hand, and a desire to broaden one’s point of view to manage the
differences experienced, on the other. Dwelling on the moves does not erase, but
maybe even evoke desires to dwell and create familiar spaces – despite having the
next move in mind. Only on the basis of the previous chapters that zoomed in on the
everyday life in Shanghai, however, this dialectic could become visible. While the
concept of transcultural perspectives proved valuable to understand the underlying
experiences of shifting borders and the emergence of subjective new forms of cultural
identity positioning, it also turned out to be too shallow without a detailed ethnographic
perspective that can bring the grounded experiences to the fore, an issue that came
apparent in my analysis of Paul’s narrative that seemed so fleeting. Groundedness
through the analysis of everyday practices is necessary to understand the gaining of
and their
backgrounds and migration stories might share similar questions and negotiations
about their positions in the world, but they still deal differently with their situations in
everyday life.
The narratives of the self the expatriate youths offered in regards to cultural identity
positionings during interviews were triggered by questions of home or inquiries about
challenges, but were often also introduced by the teenagers themselves. Their
narratives usually highlighted events that gave the impetus for change in their lives –
characteristically, their moves from one country or city to the next. These events are
what Giddens (1991, 112–114) calls “fateful moments.” “Fateful moments are times
when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a
crossroads in his existence” (ibid.,113). The next part is concerned with such a
crossroads in the expatriate youths’ lives: their high school graduation and move out of
Part 6
Figure 37: Home in Shanghai: Mia’s Room Prepared for the Next Move. Photo by Mia
This last part, “Moving On,” brings again the expatriate youths’ experience of Shanghai
as a transient space to the fore. The part consists of one final chapter that centers on
the students from the German school and analyzes their ways to manage the
impending move out of Shanghai.
Farewell Rituals: Goodbyes and Graduation
Peter: Well, it’s strange because I don’t even know anymore what it is like to live
in Germany. And you have, as I said, these stable points that you are
focused on and that you rely on. And you have gotten this routine.
And all this you have to rebuild again. Because every human being
needs some kind of routine, I think. And I also need that. <L> And
now this is… Because I live in a hotel and I don’t have my things.
And I don’t have my things anywhere else. <L> That means right now
I’m in the middle of nowhere.188
Peter, whose room a few hours prior to the interview probably looked similar to the
image (Figure 37) that Mia shared, describes his situation after days of packing as “in
the middle of nowhere.” Peter’s belongings are now in a container to be shipped to
Germany and he has moved into a hotel for the last remaining days in Shanghai. The
photo shows Mia’s room, likewise prepared for the move to Germany. Interestingly, she
sent this image to me paired with the picture of her room still fully set up (see Figure 11
in chapter eight) as a response to my question of what home in Shanghai means.
Evidently, home means both – the room and the move. This has been succinctly
“uprootings/regroundings.” I have already discussed the issue of home-making or
“regrounding” in chapter eight and throughout the ethnography. This final chapter is
now concerned with “uprootings,” the move out of Shanghai.
For the majority of expatriate youths graduation coincides with leaving China. While
some of the teenagers’ families stay in Shanghai, others waited only for their children
to complete schooling to then also move on. Consequently, for some students even
their place of return – the family home – is shifting and as a result will make visits ‘back
home in Shanghai’ impossible or difficult. Therefore, in comparison to youths whose
parents stay on in a more or less stable hometown, graduation also is a closing
ceremony for the “Shanghai-chapter” of their young lives, as student Olivia put it.
German original: Ja, ist schon komisch. Weil ich weiß gar nicht mehr wie es ist in Deutschland zu
leben. Und man hat, wie gesagt, seine festen Punkte worauf man sich drauf fixiert hat und wo man sich
drauf verlässt. Und halt diese Routine bekommen hat. Und das muss man erstmal alles wieder aufbauen.
Weil eine gewisse Routine braucht, glaube ich, jeder Mensch. Und ich brauch die auch. <L> Und die ist
jetzt erstmal… Weil ich wohn im Hotel und ich hab meine Sachen nicht. Und ich hab nirgendwoanders
meine Sachen. <L> Das heißt ich bin gerade irgendwie so mitten im nowhere.
I returned to Shanghai for this period of change for two weeks in May/June 2012 to
accompany the students from the German school. It was my own last visit to Shanghai,
and a final farewell for me, too. It was my goodbye to the city, my friends, and “my field”
that was slowly dissolving, because the majority of the actors of my study were about
to move on. During this very intense period of two weeks the students and I bonded
over this common leitmotif of saying goodbye, and over the mutual theme of our
situations revolving around the question: What next?
The morning after my arrival in Shanghai I go to the German school to find some of the
students gathered for their final oral exams. They are nervously going through their
notes, giving speeches to each other, explaining matters that might somehow be
related to their exam topics and trying to calm each other at the same time. This
madness repeats itself the following day for the other half of the students. I am happy
to see all of them again and to catch up with the latest news, especially all the plans for
the coming days: exams, the announcement of the final results, parties, dinners, and
club visits, their festive commencement ceremony, the much anticipated graduation
ball, the after-party, and a farewell barbecue at the shop. We go on final shopping tours
at the fabric or glasses markets and simply hang out at the students’ homes. Inbetween observing or even participating in all these joyful events, I meet ten students
for individual, about one hour long follow-up interviews, where we discuss their future
plans: their decisions to move away and their feelings about leaving Shanghai, their
thoughts about finishing school, their anticipation and anxieties of moving on to
university. These matters are presented in detail in the following three subsections.
Leaving Shanghai
Andrea and I are sitting outside on the narrow pavement in front of the same café we
met for the first interview, just around the corner of her parents’ apartment. It is the third
interview and by now she knows the procedure. The street noise level occasionally
requires us to shout at each other, but we enjoy our ginger lemon tea nonetheless.
Andrea also orders some fries that I steal one after the other off her plate. We start
talking about the stressful exam period, the celebrations surrounding graduation, and
her plans for the summer and beyond. When I inquire how she feels about leaving
Shanghai, it is apparent that she is still sorting her thoughts and emotions about
Andrea: It’s okay. I mean, it just normal that you move somewhere else for your
studies, that you somehow move on. And I’ve been here for seven
years now.
Interviewer: Seven years.
Andrea: Yes, quite long. And, I mean, it, erm, has been home, for seven years.
But I am, my opinion is… [silence]. Okay, well I am of the opinion
that… Well, yes, I will miss it. Very much. I will also cry, probably,
when I’m sitting on the plane.189
Andrea is still trying to forge her narrative of moving on – caught between the normality
of moving away from home for college and the sadness about leaving Shanghai
When Mia and I discuss her feelings about saying farewell to Shanghai, sitting on her
bed, drinking water, surrounded by a rather contemplative silence – very much unlike
the street noise in the background during my conversation with Andrea – Mia also
communicates a very similar view.
Mia: [Leaving feels] strange. […] I’ve lived most of my lifetime in Shanghai. […]
I’ve been gone in between and so on, but I’ve been here for six years
in total, and everywhere else I’ve only spent two or three years. And
that’s why this is really my home. It is… Here, I know my way around
best, I know the people, the people know me. Here, even though I
only speak very little Chinese, I manage. […] Yes, when I walk
through the city, I know where I am, I know how to get where I want
to go. […] Even if you’ve been here for a long time, it never gets
boring. […] And sure on the one hand, I’m also looking [forward to
new things.] On the other hand, nevertheless, I could stay on. I
wouldn’t have a problem with that. […] Actually, I don’t want to
Mia’s commentary on moving on illustrates the mixed feelings about the immanent
changes. Leaving Shanghai means leaving the familiar behind. There will not be a
family home in Shanghai to return to for Andrea and Mia, nor for Olivia who
summarizes her sentiments about leaving for me in an interview at the French café:
Olivia: Well, the school in Shanghai is the one I went to the longest, ever. That’s
why I find it hard. Because I have so many memories, especially
because I’ve spent my youth here. That’s what you always like to
remember. Yes, good friends, first love, bla bla bla – all that existed.
Yes, I will have a lot of memories here. And it is difficult to suddenly
… I mean, I can’t decide upon leaving now, I have to. My dad has to
German original: Auch okay. Ich mein, also es ist ja normal, dass man zum Studium dann woanders
hingeht, dass man irgendwie weitergeht. Und ich war jetzt sieben Jahre hier. [Interviewer: Sieben Jahre.]
Ja, schon lange. Und, ich mein, es ist ehm, Zuhause, gewesen, sieben Jahre. Aber ich bin, meine
Meinung ist. [silence]. Okay, also ich bin halt der Meinung, dass, … Also ja ich werd es schon vermissen.
Sehr. Ich werd auch weinen, wahrscheinlich, wenn ich dann so im Flieger sitz.
German original: [Wegzugehen ist] komisch. […] Ich hab die längste Zeit meines Lebens in Shanghai
gewohnt. […] Zwischendurch war ich ja weg und so, aber insgesamt war ich ja sechs Jahre hier, und
überall anders war ich so zwei, drei. Und deswegen, hier ist wirklich mein zu Hause. Es ist… Hier kenne
ich mich am Besten aus, hier kenne ich die Leute, hier kennen die Leute mich. Hier, selbst wenn ich
Chinesisch nur bröckchenhaft spreche, ich komme zurecht. […] Wenn ich durch die Stadt laufe, ich weiß
wo ich bin, ich weiß wie ich da hinkomme wo ich hin will. […] Selbst wenn man schon so lange hier ist, es
wird einfach nicht langweilig. […] Und klar freue ich mich auch [auf Neues] einerseits. Aber andererseits,
trotzdem, könnte ich auch noch bleiben, da hätte ich kein Problem mit. […] Also ich will eigentlich nicht
move because of work. That’s why I don’t really have a choice. And,
well, the farewell is difficult for me.191
Interestingly, even after graduation Olivia feels she has no choice of staying on in
Shanghai and decides to move to Belgium along with her family. Some students’
families for instance Antonia’s, Xia’s, Bjoern’s, Charlie’s and Kressi’s are staying on.
For some students, as in Giovanni’s case, one parent will stay on for the job and the
other return “home” with younger siblings. For the students whose families are about to
leave Shanghai, graduation is not only a goodbye to their peers and the school but also
to the house and the city. Plans of return for visits are rather uncertain.
Mia: I have no idea when I will come back here. And I know that until then
everything will have changed anyway. Well, I hope that I will make it
some time in the next school year, because then there will still be
people here that I know.192
Celebrating Twice: Graduation and Goodbye
The students put many resources and efforts into shaping their last weeks in Shanghai
and their final days at the school. Graduation for them involves preparing several
events and memorabilia. The major event here is the graduation ball – a traditional
event organized by the students themselves. Preparations include finding ways to fund
the event, choosing, and renting a suitable location, organizing a caterer and
decorations, and creating the program for the evening. Furthermore, the class is busy
writing, designing and getting printed their “Abibuch,” [a special graduation yearbook],
as well as preparing an after-party at another downtown location after the formal ball.
The roughly thirty students graduating spend, according to estimates given by
students, about RMB 300,000 (€33,000) for these celebrations – money earned
through the ticket sale for the ball (RMB 400 (€44) each), the yearbooks (RMB 100
(€11) each), bake sales and different events hosted at the school during the last terms,
and sponsoring by different foreign enterprises (RMB 160,000 (€17,600). All this is
done to accompany the official commencement ceremony that is organized by the
German original: Also [in] Shanghai ist die Schule wo ich am längsten drauf war, je. Deswegen, das
fällt mir schon schwer. Weil ich hab hier total viele memories, vor allem weil ich meine Jugend hier
verbracht hab. Da erinnert man sich ja immer gerne dran. Ja, gute Freunde, erste Liebe, bla bla bla - das
gab's halt. Also doch, ich werde schon viele memories hier haben. Und es ist schon schwer, das alles so
auf einmal... Ich meine ich kann es ja nicht entscheiden, dass ich hier jetzt weggehe, ich muss ja. Mein
Papa muss ja umziehen wegen der Arbeit. Deswegen hab ich ja nicht wirklich eine Wahl. Und, also der
Abschied fällt mir schon schwer.
German original: Ich habe keine Ahnung wann ich wieder hierherkomme. Und ich weiß ja, bis dahin ist
eh wieder alles anders. Also ich hoffe halt noch, dass ich es irgendwann im nächsten Schuljahr noch
schaffe, weil dann sind noch Leute da die ich kenne.
Although organized and taking place at the school, the students also shape the
commencement ceremony by contributing a few musical performances and a student
speech. The importance of this official ceremony that values students’ achievements
and celebrates their graduation, becomes already apparent in Mia’s anticipation a few
days prior to the event:
Mia: I am really looking forward to it. I am sure it will be really beautiful. I think I
will be absolutely sad. When you just notice that, well, school is over
now. Really! If you think back... It is the only thing you remember!
The time before school – [...] well, I personally don’t recall that. And
even if, you were in pre-school before and in Kindergarten before
that. So you had something every day. And the times before that –
you really can’t remember! That’s why. Really strange, I think. Really
Mia ponders about the loss of the school routine as something that has accompanied
her throughout her life. The end of this period is met with anticipation and joy as well as
sadness. However, it is not only the end of school, but also the end of their time in
Shanghai that the expatriate community celebrates with the ritual festivities.
Graduation ceremonies can be seen as a ritual, a rite of passage (Van Gennep
[1960]1992) that in my case in Shanghai is part of a larger farewell ceremony.
According to Van Gennep ([1960]1992, 11) who introduced the understanding of
important, life-changing rituals as “rites of passages” with their general aim “to insure a
change of condition or a passage from one magico-religious or secular group to
another,” such ritual processes undergo three different phases: the preliminal or
separation phase, the liminal or transitional phase, and the postliminal or incorporation
phase. Van Gennep, however, noted that not all rituals consist of all phases and that it
is impossible to “achive as rigid a classification as the botanists have” (ibid.).
The commencement ceremony that I attended at the German school can be seen as
an essential element of the first part of these rites of passage – the separation phase,
as well as of a process of change of status from high school to university student and
an opening up of the transitional phase – a phase that is celebrated after the
graduation ceremony at the graduation dance and the students’ after-party, for
instance. Although the commencement ceremony at the German school underwent in
a routined way that I – and seemingly everybody else attending – were familiar with
and had somewhat anticipated, however, it is not my aim to give a full analysis of the
German original: Ich freu mich richtig drauf. Das wir bestimmt richtig schön. Ich werde glaube ich total
am Ende sein. Wenn man einfach merkt, so, ja, jetzt ist die Schule vorbei. Es ist wirklich so! Wenn man
zurück denkt... Das ist das Einzige woran man sich erinnern kann. An die Zeit vor der Schule – […] also
ich persönlich weiß es nicht mehr. [...] Und selbst wenn, davor war man in der Vorschule und davor im
Kindergarten. Das heißt auch da hatte man täglich was. Und an die Zeit davor erinnert man sich ja wirklich
nicht! Deswegen. Richtig seltsam, finde ich. Richtig komisch.
ritual.194 Neither is this the theoretical focus for the graduation ball or the after-party. In
the following I rather want to illustrate the overall mood of the festivities I attended, as
well as the thoughts of the students and the school community to further underline the
challenges and emotions and possibilities this moment of leaving Shanghai holds for
the expatriate youth. Nevertheless, Van Gennep’s notion of the rites of passages helps
us to understand the importance of such festivities in guiding a transition from high
school student to university student, from Shanghai to elsewhere.
The Commencement Ceremony
I am sitting next to Bjoern’s brother and his family. The graduating students are seated
in neat rows of chairs on the two sides of the stage. They are all dressed up for the
occasion, the girls wearing dresses, the boys all in suits. Equipped with a camera and
my field notebook I wait among parents, siblings, and students’ friends for the event to
start. We all read in the small program, which the school helpers have distributed on
the long rows of mats that turn the steps in the piazza into seats. The evening
commences with music and a welcome by the school principal. A small group of
students from the elementary school lead us through the evening – their
announcements leading to much amusement among the audience. The school’s
musical stars (various prize winners) play and sing inbetween the various speeches
given. The German consul general talks about the high level of the exams, about the
opportunities and challenges of being an expat and cites the current federal president
of Germany, Joachim Gauck, calling for commitment to society. A representative for
the German industry and commerce in Shanghai follows with a humerous but also
political speech and – probably with an eye on his preceding speaker – thanks the
German ministry of foreign affairs, hereby stressing the importance of their financial
support, which is always contested. The two head teachers of the graduation class give
a speech that evokes much laughter and is accompanied by photos of all students from
class outings.
Then, after the obligatory musical intermissions, the school principal gives his full
speech right before the handing out of the diplomas. Starting with political explanations
and concerns about changes and less involvement and financing of German school
abroad through the German government, the principal appeals to parents and German
companies to make their needs for this support heard. After this rather political
digression, he announces the average grades and is proud of the results that are, as
he emphasizes, above German average. He then takes a short stroll along the memory
Magolda (2003) describes for college commencement ceremonies in the US, how these formal
celebrations follow a rather strict pattern.
lane of school events (trips, art and sport events) to stress the importance of the
involvement in such social activities besides the school grades. Finally, he arrives to
cite Goethe who according to him has said that one should give roots and wings to
children [“Wurzeln und Flügel soll man den Kindern mitgeben”]. He elaborates on the
different relation to different places the students have and that many will move to
Germany or Switzerland or elsewhere due to their roots. However, he declares “one
part of your roots is also our school” [“aber einen Teil eurer Wurzeln ist auch unsere
Schule”]. He lists the names of a few students who have been in Shanghai since
kindergarten to exemplify his claim. He then turns to the second part of Goethe’s
suggestion for educating children – the wings:
Your wings are – and not only because of all the miles that you all have already
passed up in the air – much stronger and more flexibly developed than in the
cases of your future classmates at university. They will carry you. You will realize.
You, as the graduates of a German school abroad […], are special. This should
not be a reason to become arrogant – and you aren’t. Public-spirited, cool, and
nice young people exist everywhere. You will nonetheless attract attention.
Because the experiences one brings along, the things you know and are familiar
with, stick to you like a second skin. And something different is sticking to you
than to most other youths – namely a certain familiarity with the world, a
familiarity with things that are different and foreign to others. Due to your
experiences in the world you are in some respects more independent, flexible,
and open and therefore you will see and grasp more opportunities. However, one
will maybe also have special expectations for you. I am sure, we are sure, you
will be able to meet these. We are sure you will fly.195
This section that I tried to reconstruct from my frenetically scribbled notes, marks the
end of the principal’s speech and is met with enthusiastic applause. Interestingly, it
mirrors the narrative of privilege and pressure that I came across in students’
descriptions of international schooling and that has been highlighted in chapter 9.4.
After the school principal’s speech that marks the separation phase of the ritual (Van
Gennep [1960]1992), the diplomas are handed out to all students in alphabetical order.
Applause greets the students when their name is called. Students step onto the center
stage: Handshakes, diplomas, gifts, and a photo. After receiving the diplomas, a few
parents gather on stage to sing a song (not as perfectly as their children) and finally
German original: Die Flügel sind bei euch – und nicht nur wegen der vielen Flugmeilen die ihr alle
schon zurückgelegt habt –, sind bei euch stärker und flexibler ausgeprägt als bei euren zukünftigen
Kommilitonen an den Unis. Sie werden euch tragen. Ihr werdet das merken. Ihr seid als Absolventen einer
deutschen Auslandsschule […] besonders. Das soll kein Grund sein überheblich zu werden – und das seid
ihr auch nicht. Engagierte, coole und nette junge Leute gibt es überall. Ihr werdet trotzdem auffallen. Weil
einen das was man an Erfahrungen mitbringt und was man kennt und was einem vertraut ist wie eine
zweite Haut anhaftet. Und euch haftet anderes an als den meisten anderen Jugendlichen – nämlich eine
gewisse Vertrautheit mit der Welt, Vertrautheit mit dem was anders ist und was anderen fremd ist. Weil ihr
aufgrund eurer Erfahrungen in der Welt in mancher Hinsicht selbständiger, flexibler und offener seid,
werdet ihr auch mehr Chancen sehen und wahrnehmen können. Man wird aber vielleicht auch besondere
Erwartung an euch richten. Ich bin sicher, wir sind sicher, ihr werdet dem gerecht werden können. Wir sind
sicher ihr werdet fliegen.
three female students (Mia and Antonia among these) give the last speech of the
The three girls first start recalling their last years as students. In the obligatory
humorous way, they refer to conflicts, discussions, as well as positive memories. Their
classmates all step one after the other onto stage according to their arrival in Shanghai
from kindergarten times until as recent as two years prior in 2010. After sharing these
memories the student speech climaxes in giving thanks to parents, teachers, siblings,
the school principal and the technician responsible that evening. “We all are only here
because of our parents, and at this point we want to say thank you for that.”196 This line
is met with laughter, applause, and euphoric cheering and shouting from the audience
– that consists of family mainly. The high response to that line in particular shows that it
is an important statement for many parents. It is a statement that smoothens out the
confrontations and feelings of anger and guilt that I have described in the chapters on
leaving for and arriving in Shanghai and the consequent emotional challenges (chapter
five and six). In their student speech the graduates combine their farewell from being a
student with the farewell from Shanghai. Contemplating on the uncertainties of the
future and the difficulties of choosing a career path, their speech finally ends with a
cheerful note: “But one thing we do understand. Namely, what we have to celebrate:
To have been a student yesterday, to be almost an adult tomorrow, but especially that
today we are young.”197 Applause follows the student speech.
This last line of the girls’ address can be seen as a transition into what Van Gennep
([1960]1992) conceptualized as the second phase of a rite of passage – the liminal or
transition phase. Victor Turner, who continued developping and inlusstrating Van
Gennep’s notion of liminality in the processes of rites of passages, describes the liminal
phase as a condition where persons “slip through the network of classification” and are
“betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention,
and ceremonial” ([1969]2008, 95). Likewise, in the student speech by the three girls,
being young is understood as being free of the responsibilities of a high school student
as well as of those of adulthood. Young here means celebrating without greater
responsibilities and the last line is a call for the start of these celebrations, now that the
youths hold their diplomas in their hands. Based among others on Van Gennep’s
([1960]1992) and Victor Turner’s ([1969]2008) understandings of liminality in the ritual
process, Allan Sande (2002) describes this phase of partying for graduates in Norway
German original: Wir alle sind nur wegen unserer Eltern hier und möchten uns an dieser Stelle dafür
German original: Aber eins verstehen wir. Ganz sicher. Nämlich, was wir feiern müssen: Gestern
Schüler gewesen zu sein. Morgen fast erwachsen zu werden. Vor allem aber, dass wir heute jung sind.
as a phase that allows youths to behave in ways that are against the cultural norm and
that break moral rules. Sande who particularly illustrates the role of alcohol and
intoxication in these graduation celebrations, suggests that the youths here become
detached from society to then after this liminal phase be ascribed the status of adults.
Following the graduation ceremony, a dinner is hosted for everyone at the school
premises. After eating at the buffet and conversing with parents, taking photos and
receiving felicitations the students leave for Mural. This is the first unofficial party that
everyone joins. It is also a reminiscing and farewell to their favorite party location:
Mural on a Friday night (see chapter eleven for a detailed description of nights at
Mural). Siblings and friends who used to live in Shanghai and – similar to me – came
from Germany to be part of the celebrations all join. Parents and teachers are not part
of this club visit. The next day’s program, however, includes them: The graduation ball
and the after-party.
The Graduation Ball and the After-Party
The next day I meet part of “the girls” at noon at a hairdresser that is based on the
same compound that Olivia lives on. Olivia, Charlie, and Mia have appointments to get
their hair done for the graduation ball. I take photos and watch them get styled. When
in the end there is still time left for me – the only one without an appointment – I join
the girls. Olivia and Charlie already return to Olivia’s home, Mia waits for my hair to get
done as well. I have to laugh at the towers of small braids and locks the stylist fixes on
top of my head. Unlike the three girls, I do not have a particular request or plan and
simply let the stylist cope with the situation in his way. Mia and I laugh a lot and then
finally join the others at Olivia’s house. The three girls and I put on make-up and we
slip into our dresses. There is some borrowing of mascara and eye shadow going on
and we are all getting excited for the evening. Olivia’s parents are also home and very
supportive. In the late afternoon their driver takes us to the location for the evening on
the South Bund. We have to be early as the students have one more practice for a
dance choreography they will be performing in the evening. I watch them practice,
while I scribble a few notes in my field diary and take photos. By now I am shivering in
my evening dress as the air conditioning has turned the still empty hall into a freezer. I
am glad to see the first guests to arrive and we all gather upstairs at the roof top bar for
a first drink. Here, the temperature of a Shanghai early summer evening feels
comfortable and the view of the Pudong skyline and the ships passing by on the Bund
leaves everyone in awe.
Figure 38: Impressions from the Graduation Ball: The View of the Bund. Photo by M. Sander
The sunset and the dressed up people invite practically everyone to take photos. I join
in and take numerous images, which the students later are grateful to receive. There is
also a professional photographer that the students hired for the night. The setting
clearly distinguishes the event from graduation balls in Germany. While the latter
mostly take place in gymnasiums or auditoriums, the chosen location in Shanghai is a
high-class venue. A former warehouse at the docks, it shines with nostalgia and simple
elegance that all the guests acknowledge. Many congratulate the students for their
great choice. The guests reluctantly move inside and are seated at large round tables
according to a seating order the students have discussed for months. I am seated
along with older siblings, friends, and former students of the school. The graduates all
sit at a long table in the center of the hall. The evening progresses with the buffet
dinner, several talks, the student’s dance, a few pranks – like a high heel shoe running
contest with teachers. The graduates also show a self-made movie that stars all of
them, talking about their classmates and future plans as well as saying thank you. I
mingle and take photos.
Figure 39: Students Posing for the Camera at their Graduation Ball. Photo by M. Sander
After dinner and the talks, some of the guests start to dance ballroom dances. Around
midnight, however, the students get busy to empty the location and invite everyone to
now move to the after-party location: a lounge style bar in the heart of Shanghai’s
former French concession. Here the graduates rented a private party space for
themselves and their guests. The ticket for the graduation ball came with a lace band
wrapped around. If you now wear the small lace band with the Chinese characters that
indicated your table earlier at the ball around your wrist, all the drinks at the bar are
included as well. To this event interestingly only student friends, siblings, and several
teachers come along. Parents are neither to be seen on the small dance floor nor at
the bar.
Now, the intoxication and partying, which Sande (2002) describes for graduates in
Norway as an important part of the rite of passage, is in full swing. Drinking and
dancing with (now former) teachers create a generally euphoric atmosphere. Old
barriers are torn down. The girls have all changed their long evening gowns into short
cocktail dresses and many pairs of high heels have been replaced by ballet flats. I busy
myself with taking pictures and after a while one student after another comes to ask me
to take photos of them and their friends. I am happy to replace the photographer that
has retired for the evening, but also use the time to chat with various students. Waiters
bring small baskets of fries – one needs a solid base for drinking. The later the evening
gets, the more students are found outside on a small lane behind the club, sitting on
the floor, talking to their friends, enjoying what is supposed to be their night.
Moving on: Anticipation and Anxieties
During my last stay in Shanghai, students and I were also bonding over the shared
feeling of an unknown future and the difficulties of choosing a career path. Mia’s
description of her struggle to make such a choice illustrates the feeling of the majority
of the students I talked to:
Mia: That was already a topic a year ago: ‘And what are your plans after
graduation?’ ‘Hmm.’ That is so… At least I always had an answer,
but it has changed a lot during the last year. […]
Interviewer: And why did you actually leave the idea of studying design behind?
Mia: I don’t know. […] It was always like, […] actually I shouldn’t mind, but there
were always to possible answers: Some always said: ‘Oh, great!’ And
the others always said: ‘Hmm. Well, you can’t really earn a lot with
that’ or something similar. It was not necessarily about money, but
simply like, you just can’t really… So many people do that [being a
designer]. Well, there were always these kinds of reactions and
somehow that had made me think again. And then, someday, I was
sitting, well, that was during Chinese New Year holidays, just before
the written exams… I was sitting downstairs with my mother and we
were talking and then I said, ‘Yes, actually I could also do something
else.’ A sheet of paper on the table I wrote down everything that I find
interesting. There were ten different things on it, some actually going
into very different directions. […] And then I thought, okay, I can have
a look again at what I want to do. There are so many opportunities.
[…] Shouldn’t underestimate that. And that’s why I am still looking
and then I will apply.198
German original: Das war schon vor einem Jahr so: „Und was hast du für Pläne nach dem Abitur?“
„Hmm.“ Das ist halt immer so… Ich hatte halt wenigstens immer eine Antwort, aber es hat sich halt
innerhalb des letzten Jahres stark gewandelt. […] [Interviewer: Und wieso bist du dann von Design
eigentlich abgekommen, so?] Ich weiß nicht. [...] Also es war immer so, [...] eigentlich sollte es mich nicht
wirklich stören, aber es gab immer zwei mögliche Antworten: Die einen haben immer gesagt „Oh, super
toll!“ Und die anderen immer so: „Hmm. Ja, da kann man jetzt eher nicht so viel mit verdienen“ oder so.
[Es ging] noch nicht einmal unbedingt ums Geld, sondern einfach so, du kannst halt nicht so... Das
machen so viele Leute. Ja, und dann waren da immer solche Reaktionen und irgendwie hat mich das
dann noch mal ins Nachdenken gebracht. Und dann saß ich irgendwann, also in den Chinese Newyear
Mia ways up her interests, the opinions of friends and parents, as well as later job
opportunities and possible income. Many explanations for youths’ career choices and
employment histories shifted their focus “towards poststructuralist accounts in which
individuals’ choices and their ability to judge and negotiate risk are seen as important in
shaping their biographies” (Valentine 2003, 41). Despite this individualization, social
networks as “product[s] of specific social and physical environments,” as Valentine
(ibid.) puts it, simply still play a major role in “providing information about employment
opportunities […] and in developing social and cultural capital.” This is, as Mia’s
account demonstrates, observable for expatriate teenagers in Shanghai as well. For
many of the students the choice of a university program also comes along with the
decision for a new location. Some of the students here set the priority on the
acceptance at a university, while others chose a town and then look at the different
options to study there. Olivia, for instance wants to move back to her parents’
hometown in Belgium.
Olivia: I’ve been abroad for some time now. And my parents have always hinted
at, pointed out that they would like it if I came with them to Belgium to
study there. And that I then would do the exact same thing that they
did back then – to study in [name of the city]. Well, I still know a few
people in Belgium. They are all going to [name of the city] as well, so
I will also see them again there. And the girls, the friends from
Shanghai, […] they also study close to where I will go. So I will get to
know Belgium a little. Because, I mean, I was very young when I left
Belgium. […] I would like to get to know Belgium a little, well, Europe
in general. And that’s why, yes, I want to move to Belgium.199
Olivia’s quote not only reveals the influence of the parents on the choice of the future
location, but also her own desire to reconnect with her past, her broader family and her
national culture and mother tongue. It is these manifold desires and influences that the
students now negotiate when leaving Shanghai and choosing the next step – and stop
– in their lives. Based on their ethnographic work with young people in Finland,
Lahelma and Gordon (2003, 381) put forward that “moving away from home is full of
Ferien war das, also kurz vor dem schriftlichen Abitur… Da saß ich so unten mit meiner Mutter und [wir]
haben uns so unterhalten und dann meinte ich: „Ja, eigentlich kann ich auch was anderes machen.“ So
Zettel rausgeholt und alles aufgeschrieben was mich interessiert. Da standen dann, glaube ich, irgendwie
zehn Dinge, die teilweise echt in verschiedene Richtungen gingen. […] Ja. Und dann dachte ich, okay,
dann kann ich ja noch einmal gucken was ich jetzt mache. Es gibt so viele Möglichkeiten. […] Sollte man
nicht unterschätzen. Und deswegen bin ich jetzt immer noch am gucken und dann werd ich mich
German original: Ich bin jetzt ja schon eine Weile im Ausland. Und meine Eltern haben immer so, so
kleine Anspielungen drauf gemacht, also immer so ein bisschen drauf hingedeutet, dass sie es toll finden
würden wenn ich mit nach Belgien käme und da studieren würde. Und dass ich dann halt auch genau das
mache was sie damals gemacht haben – also in [Name der Stadt] studieren. Und, ja, ich kenn ja auch
noch ein paar Leute in Belgien. Die gehen halt auch alle nach [Name der Stadt], dass heißt die sehe ich
da auch wieder. Und die Mädels, also die Freunde aus Shanghai, […] die studieren ja auch in der Nähe
von da wo ich hingehe. Damit ich auch ein bisschen Belgien kenne. Weil ich meine ich war sehr jung wo
ich weggezogen bin aus Belgien. […] Ich würd schon gern auch Belgien ein bisschen kennenlernen, also
allgemein Europa. Und deswegen ja, also ich will schon nach Belgien gehen.
ambivalence for young people. Most of them talk about it with terms of hopes, but also
with terms of fear.” This is true for the young expatriates as well and the following
sections will highlight their specific fears and hopes.
The Challenges of Everyday Practicalities
A few of the young people’s accounts suggest fears that their future homes may lack
the equipment for preparing food or doing laundry or that they themselves miss the
necessary skills. Many of the students grew up with housekeeping staff at home and
parents that demanded their children to focus on school rather than housework. In
addition to worries about housekeeping chores, the students are also nervous about
unfamiliar lifestyles, for example student life in Germany. Peter, for instance, uses our
interview to bombard me with questions about living in a shared flat with other students
in Germany.
Peter: How is it to shop as a collective? Do you label your things? […] Does
everyone clean all the rooms? Or does everyone individually clean
their own rooms? […] What about dishes? Does everyone bring their
Peter is not alone with his questions and concerns. When Xia and I are sitting in the
French café next to his now former school to discuss his plans for the summer, he
reports that he wants to get prepared for his studies. When I inquire what these
preparations include, he explains:
Xia: Searching for an apartment. And learning to cook.
Interviewer: Learning to cook? <L>
Xia: Actually I’ve been wanting to learn to cook for a while now. But I didn’t
manage to. I will try in the summer.
Interviewer: And who will teach you?
Xia: My mother. But I already thought: Well, I will get lunch at university. In the
mornings and evenings, I will eat rice and erm, I don’t know what
else. Bread and sandwiches, because that seems easier than
Chinese meals, where everything needs to be cooked. That is easier
to prepare.
Interviewer: Well, cheese, bread, stick it together – that is of course easier.
Xia: The food could be tasty. Earlier I couldn’t get used to cheese, but now I
actually like it, if it is well prepared, has a good filling. Sandwiches.201
German original Wie ist das in der WG einzukaufen? Markierst du da deine Sachen? […] Hat dann
auch jeder die Zimmer gemacht? Oder macht das Zimmer jeder einzeln? […] Wie ist das denn mit dem
Geschirr? Hat da jeder seins?
German original: Wohnungssuche. Und Kochen lernen. [Interviewer: Kochen lernen? <L> ] Eigentlich
wollte ich schon lange kochen lernen. Aber ich hab das nicht geschafft. Im Sommer werd ich’s mal
versuchen. [Interviewer: Und wer wird dir das beibringen?] Meine Mutter. Aber ich hab mir schon gedacht:
Also Mittagessen gibt es an der Uni. Morgens, abends, gibt es dann Reis und ehm. Ich weiß nicht was es
dann sonst noch gibt. Mit Abendbrot und Sandwiches. Weil das kommt mir irgendwie einfacher vor als
Chinesisches Essen, wo alles gekocht wird. Das ist einfacher vorzubereiten so. [Interviewer: Also Käse,
Brot, patsch zusammen – das ist natürlich einfacher.] Das Essen könnte ganz lecker sein. Also früher
When I comment that learning how to prepare Chinese dishes might be nice as these
might not be readily available in Germany, Xia shares his worries about missing China
and Chinese food by relating to the experiences of friends:
Xia: I am in touch with other people who graduated last year or the year prior
from our school. Mostly Chinese people. Chinese connection. And
one girl told me that after half a year she was homesick for China.
She found that in China people are much more open than in
Germany. And the other said she was homesick for Chinese
Vegetables. In Germany there is only salad. In China there are so
many different varieties of vegetables.202
His last story illustrates that Xia’s concerns about not being able to take care of himself
alone in Germany are not only about household practicalities but also about being able
to feel comfortable. For the expatriate youths moving on (or maybe in some cases
“back”) parallels with larger anxieties about missing familiar things and fears of not
being able to fit in.
The Fear of not Fitting In
Antonia: And I also don’t know how I will fit in in Germany, because I am not
really German. I am also not really Chinese, but I am really not
German. I think I will have a few problems. A few.203
Charlie shares Antonia’s fears about not fitting in upon her move to Germany. When
we sit in a noisy coffee shop over breakfast before our shopping trip to the glasses
market, Charlie describes how for her this fear is particularly tied to experiences of
racism and “othering” due to her Asian phenotype.
Charlie: We always think that in Germany everyone stares at us. […] But it could
be that we just simply imagine all that.
Interviewer: Sure, you stand out. <x> I do believe that there is still a lot of racism
in Germany.
Charlie: But I think that are the uneducated people. It will be different at
university. […] I am used to it. Kindergarten and elementary school
and so on. Although not actually in kindergarten. The small children
don’t notice. For them everyone looks the same. […] At elementary
school, like in fourth grade, it starts. With jokes and so on. Okay. But
konnte ich [mich] an Käse nicht gewöhnen, aber jetzt mag ich das eigentlich, wenn es gut zubereitet, gut
belegt ist. Brötchen.
German original: Ich hab ja auch Kontakt zu anderen Leuten, die letztes Jahr, vorletztes Jahr an der
Schule absolviert haben. Meistens auch chinesische Leute. Chinese Connection. Und ein Mädchen hat
schon gemeint, nach einem halben Jahr hatte sie schon Heimweh nach China. Sie meinte in China sind
die Leute viel offener als in Deutschland. Und die Andere meinte Heimweh nach Chinesischen Gemüsen.
In Deutschland gibt es nur Salat. In China gibt es so viele verschiedene Arten von Gemüsen.
German original: Und ich weiß auch nicht wie ich in Deutschland reinpassen werde, weil ich bin auch
nicht wirklich deutsch. Ich bin auch nicht wirklich chinesisch, aber ich bin wirklich nicht wirklich deutsch. Ich
glaub ich werd ein bisschen Probleme haben. So ein bisschen.
I think everyone has gone through something similar. Almost
Moving to Germany reminds Charlie of painful experiences of exclusion in her past. It is
connected to complicated negotiations of home and cultural belonging that I explored
in detail in chapter eight and fourteen. Simultaneously, Charlie’s anxieties of not fitting
in are also linked to fears about not being able to share the positive experiences of her
time in Shanghai:
Charlie: But I also heard that sometimes people at university are not really
tolerant when you say you come from Shanghai. They think that you
want to brag or something. That you want to get attention. Antonia, I
believe, has experienced this. […] She described how great
Shanghai is, maybe exaggerated a bit, but isn’t it normal that you tell
how beautiful the city is and so on? And then there are people who
are jealous or something. That is unfortunate.205
Nonetheless, anticipations are coinciding with the many concerns.
Hopes and Anticipation
While for some students leaving Shanghai comes with a greater distance to family, a
few teenagers look forward to reconnecting with family.
Olivia: On the other hand, I am really happy. I like changes. I like to meet new
people, new cultures, new cities, that’s what I’m looking much
forward to. I only know Belgium from holidays and having been there
repeatedly for two months and also the first seven years of my life. I
think I will get to know Belgium anew. Anyhow I’m very much looking
forward to it. New people. I’m also moving closer to my family. I will
see my grandparents more often, which makes them really happy, I
think. They miss us a lot, I believe.206
Olivia’s anticipation is about getting to know Belgium anew and to re-establish old ties
and make new friends. Peter similarly hopes to find new friends in his future university
German original: Wir denken immer in Deutschland schauen uns alle doof an. […] Aber kann sein, dass
wir uns das alles einbilden. [Interviewer: Klar, ihr fallt halt auf. <x> Ich glaube schon, dass es immer noch
sehr viel Rassismus in Deutschland gibt.] Aber das sind glaube ich die ungebildeten Leute. An der Uni wir
das anders sein. […] Bin ich ja schon dran gewöhnt. Kindergarten und Grundschule und so. Obwohl
Kindergarten eigentlich nicht. Die kleinen Kinder die checken das nicht. Für die sehen alle gleich aus. […]
An der Grundschule, so vierte Klasse geht es dann los. Mit Witzen und so was. Okay. Aber ich denk jeder
hat mal so was ähnliches durchgemacht. Fast jeder.
Aber ich hab auch gehört, dass manchmal so Leute an Unis halt auch nicht so tolerant sind, dass wenn
du sagst du kommst aus Shanghai, denken die halt, dass man sich wichtig tut oder so was. Dass man halt
Aufmerksamkeit will. Antonia hat glaub ich die Erfahrung mal gemacht. […] Und sie hat halt erzählt wie toll
Shanghai ist, vielleicht hat sie ein bisschen übertrieben, aber das ist doch normal, dass man erzählt wie
schön die Stadt ist und so. Und dann gibt es Leute die sind halt so neidisch oder so. Das ist natürlich auch
German original: Andererseits freu ich mich sehr. Ich mag Veränderung. Ich mag es wenn ich neue
Leute kennenlerne, neue Kulturen kennenlerne, neue Städte, deswegen, darauf freu ich mich sehr. Ich
kenn Belgien vom Urlaub und immer mal wieder da zwei Monate zu sein und meine ersten sieben
Lebensjahre. Ich glaube ich werde Belgien komplett neu kennenlernen. Also doch darauf freue ich mich
sehr. Neue Leute. Ich ziehe auch wieder mehr zu meiner Familie. Also meine Großeltern werde ich jetzt
mehr sehen, was sie glaube ich auch total freut. Also die vermissen uns glaube ich so sehr.
town. Sitting outside in the French Café, eating sandwiches, he answers my question
about what he looks forward to most, very pragmatically:
Peter: Well, for the short term [I am looking forward] to a fridge full of Edeka
[German supermarket chain] items. For the fairly long term I also
[look forward], as I said, to the city and what will come. Because
there is a lot waiting for me. I hope to make friends in [name of the
city] and to get accepted at university. That all this will somehow work
out. And that’s the biggest happiness I hope to find for now.207
Moving on also holds the possibilities to indulge in things that one missed in Shanghai
– as Peter’s mentioning of German groceries illustrates. It is also connected to the aim
of ending what Van Gennep ([1960]1992) described as the liminal phase, and to
become incorporated into a new social world that Peter associates with new friends
and getting accepted at university. Peter is aware that this is a process and hopes that
over the time “this will somehow work out.”
Moving on is a mixture of reconnecting to old memories, places, and people and of
opportunities to find new friends and to walk new paths – for the first time alone, with
the help of friends and family. Antonia, also sees in the move a way to escape from the
sometimes restricting expatriate bubble:
Antonia: Somehow the time has come to get away, not only from school, also
from home, from everything, from all the people. It is time somehow
to go away. It feels really great.208
15.4. Concluding Thoughts on the Farewell and the Next Move
The students all see the move from Shanghai as a crucial point in their lives and as an
ending to a certain phase. As the end of their time in Shanghai is related to their
graduation from high school, they have to make decisions for their future lives and their
career choices as well as their new places of living in particular. The young people
meet this move with mixed feelings. While some youths have parents who stay on in
Shanghai, others also experience their families moving on to other destinations and
their whole social worlds spreading out globally.
The traditional celebrations of the Abitur offer a great opportunity for students to
collectively deal with their transitions. Celebrating their achievements and the end of
schooling therefore coincides with celebrating their farewell. My ethnographic material
German original: Also, kurzfristig erstmal auf einen Kühlschrank der voll ist mit Edeka Artikeln. Aber
langfristig eigentlich auch, wie gesagt, auf die Stadt, und eben auf was kommt. Weil das ist ja wirklich
krass was vor einem liegt. Ich hoffe guten Anschluss zu kriegen in [name of the city]. Und einen
Studienplatz, dass das alles halbwegs klappt. Und das ist eigentlich das größte Glück, was ich jetzt hoffe
zu finden.
German original: Es ist irgendwie, es wird Zeit, dass man wegkommt. Also, nicht nur [von der] Schule,
auch von zu Hause, von allem, von den Leuten. Also, es ist Zeit irgendwie, wegzukommen. Es fühlt sich
echt gut an.
made clear that the collective rituals held to honor graduating from secondary
education are forged into simultaneous rituals of farewell that render moving on much
easier than for individuals leaving prior to graduation. The graduation ceremonies,
traditions, and parties hence evolve from a mixture of German school traditions and
Shanghai-specific memories. It is not surprising that the students chose their all-time
favorite club Mural, as well as a location with a great view on the Bund and a bar in the
former French concession to commemorate their graduation as well as their goodbye
to the city.
The move – for the majority of the students to Germany – is also met with a look at
what is to come next. The new destinations are often still vague until the responses
from universities come in and are awaited with anticipation and anxieties. University life
for many means making a dream – for instance to study medicine – come true, but also
evokes fears about feeling lost in the future location. Worries voiced by the young
people were particularly concerned with everyday practicalities and reservations about
being able to fit in.
The expatriate teenagers’ plans to move sound rather definite, and ideas of a possible
return to the parental home at some point were not articulated – although recent
research has shown the increase in young people who move back and forth between
own and parent’s homes (for the “boomerang phenomenon” see for instance Molgat
2002, 135). This is, however, not surprising as for the majority the parental home is
dissolving or on the move and not a fixed place. Ideas about returning to Shanghai are
mentioned but are never concrete and never involve any specific plans, but only the
idea of maybe receiving an expat post some day, too.
Conclusion: Passing Shanghai, Gaining Perspectives
This dissertation examined expatriate youths’ everyday lives in Shanghai to determine
how and in what ways young people deal with the moving experiences. I analyzed
several stages of expatriate youths’ experiences in Shanghai, from their retrospectives
of leaving the former place of living, their arrival and acclamation to their new home in
the city and their reflection of the move to the city, to their final goodbyes. Following
this central narrative, the transit space of Shanghai unfolded successively, allowing us
for insights into its various spaces and its meanings for expatriate students.
The introductory chapters one to four delineated and assessed the current state of
research on expatriate communities and young migrants, as well as the theoretical and
methodological framework of this ethnography. They furthermore highlighted the
dissertation’s three key research foci, which were: 1) the youths’ own voices, 2) the
youths’ experiences of place and the city, and 3) the subjective narratives of hybrid
forms of identity. It demonstrated how I see ethnographic fieldwork as an engagement
with the world and myself as an active part of the research process, “researcher” and
“researched” discussing their lives together and inevitably influencing each other.
Chapter five addressed the circumstances that led to the move to Shanghai from the
children’s retrospectives. Many of the teenagers recalled that they felt disregarded as
an active part of the decision-making process to move and were often reluctant, or
initially even against the idea, to move abroad. Students were caught between the
desire to stay with their peers and the wish to be with their parents. They were actively
weighing up their parents’ and their own interests. While the students were excited by
the possibilities to experience new things with the family that moving would bring them,
they also feared the unpredictable experiences of moving to a new, unknown city.
Many students therefore recalled having confronted their parents angrily, urging them
to forgo the move. Other students said that their parents felt guilty for moving them out
of their familiar environment, against their choice.
The next part, “Arriving,” described students’ everyday practices upon arrival in
Shanghai and their agency in making Shanghai their new home and community.
Chapter six, in connection to the discussion on leaving, delineated the emotional
challenges of moving to Shanghai. Based on the students’ commentary, it identified
their “culture shock,” their reaction to an unfamiliar urban environment, new sensories,
and the lack of friends and extended family, problems within the family related to the
move, as well as other new, negatively experienced, demands on the expatriate
youths. The different experiences of youths all made clear that the time of leaving and
arriving, the “uprootings” (Ahmed et al. 2003) were highly emotional.
Chapter seven presented different students’ ways of making sense of their new urban
environment – in terms of navigations, sensorial experiences, but also in terms of
positioning oneself within the city. The chapter demonstrated that managing the city
means managing everyday life and the experience of migration, for instance by
learning how to navigate between spaces of everyday practices and consumption, by
giving spaces a social meaning, or by dividing Shanghai into a familiar area and “the
Chapter eight was concerned with practices and notions of home. After providing a
thick description of expatriate housing spaces – gated communities – it identified
youths’ small-scale home-making practices, such as room decorating or family dinner,
as well as larger processes of locating “home(s)” in their transnational networks. It
demonstrated that due to the expatriate teenagers’ experiences of mobility, home was
thought of as multiple and fluid, but at the same time tied to various places, items, and
people. It became evident that making and (re)imagining homes, collecting belongings
to produce a sense of belonging helped the teenagers to deal with feelings of
loneliness and as ways to let the rhizomatic home “start up again on one of its old
lines, or on new lines” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 9).
Chapter nine examined the spaces of international schools and their critical roles as
important nodes of the expatriate communities in Shanghai. The schools were sites for
the continuous everyday routine for expatriate youths, as well as the place for meeting
new friends and for engaging in various leisure activities. The chapter identified how
these schools underpinned certain narratives of what it means to be an expatriate and
fostered the development of collective identities and a sense of community for many of
the students and their families. Conversations with students also revealed that their
perspective of being enrolled at an international school was linked to the dialectic of
privilege and pressure.
The following part, “Emplacement,” zoomed in on particular age-specific spatial and
social practices and foregrounded the youths’ efforts of creating their own spaces.
Discussions on age identities in chapter ten and ethnographic evidence from nightlife
practices in chapter eleven, underlined how the construction of collective age identities
and related spaces were crucial for teenagers to gain meaning and agency in their
migration experience.
Chapter twelve provided a further example of a teenage hangout spot close to a school
campus – the shop – a space that they shared with local Chinese. The youths’
practices at the shop developed in compromise with the economic interests of the
shop-owners, and the teenagers own agency and interest to shape such a “open
space” (Hassenpflug 2009, 31-33). For the youths the shop provided an everyday
space that, unlike the gated communities or the international schools where they spent
most of their time, was not characterized by explicit behavioral expectations or rules.
Chapter thirteen investigated the teenagers’ relations to China and Shanghai’s local
citizens. Based on discussions with the young expatriates on the issue of “integration,”
the chapter highlighted how the youths accepted or even strengthened the exclusion of
“China” from their everyday spaces. It also showed how many of the expatriate youths
experienced their bodily difference as whites, and how this promoted a preference for
locations in Shanghai that are mainly occupied by whites. It then demonstrated how the
teenagers lack of interactions with Chinese youth and the experience of special (often
preferential) treatment by Chinese citizens lead to their feelings of being “guests” in
The next part, “Dwelling on the Move,” centered on the expatriate youths’ own
reflections on their lives, and on the theoretical discussions of in-betweenness,
transculturality, and identity. Chapter fourteen assessed five student portraits based on
the youths’ own narratives of the self. The five stories described the diversity of
expatriate youth as well as the students’ individual challenges and ways of coping with
mobility. It contextualized these five narratives from the perspective of transcultural
studies. It identified students’ abilities to self-reflectively analyze their own lives and
subjectivities and then conceptualized these abilities as transcultural perspectives.
Finally, the chapter commented on the ethnographic project’s influence on these
reflections and the positive experience of opening a shared space where narratives of
the self could be negotiated.
The final part, “Moving On,” presented the last chapter fifteen that was concerned with
the “fateful moment” (Giddens 1991, 112–114) of leaving Shanghai. It investigated the
graduation festivities at a German school as a rite of passage (Van Gennep
[1960]1992) that prepared the students for the farewell and the transition to new social
positions. The collective celebrations helped the students to work through their
emotions about leaving – an amalgam of sadness, anxieties, and anticipation of what
was to come next. Together with the students I left Shanghai behind.
During this mutual journey through Shanghai, the experiences and narratives of the
teenagers have often touched me. Their simultaneous ignorance, acceptance, and
transgressions of boundaries irritated and their occasional lack of interest in Chinese
society shocked me. Their attempts to cope with constant change and difference
impressed me and their reflections upon their own lives enlightened me. This
ethnography has brought seemingly contradicting but overlapping and intertwined
aspects of expatriate youths’ lives to the fore, which I aim to summarize along the lines
of three dynamics:
1. The tension between dependency on parents and own agency,
2. The interrelation between spatial boundaries, transgressions, and the claiming
of age identities,
3. The dynamics of the transculturation of perspectives and the rigidity of cultural
and class divisions in the everyday performances of expatriate identities.
These three dynamics correspond to the three research aims delineated in the
introduction that constituted the point of departure for this study. Assessing these key
points throughout this dissertation has led me to conclude the following several points
regarding the characteristics and the varieties of teenage experiences of privileged
migration involved in youths’ mobility to and from Shanghai.
Youths’ own Perspectives: Dependency and Agency
My first research aim was to understand the students’ own perspectives on global
mobility, to determine the significance of their own experiences with moving and living
in Shanghai through their own words and testimonies. To conduct this research, I
placed students’ accounts at the center of my ethnography. These accounts illustrated
a very age-specific experience of privileged migration. Although teenagers experienced
their move to Shanghai in many ways similar to the adult community (as comparisons
to studies on adult expatriate communities allow to say), there were also a range of
different, age-specific experiences.
Firstly, unlike adults, the students were minors whose move depended (solely) on the
decisions of their parents. As their memories of leaving showed, in chapter five,
students’ dependence on the family and their lack of choice was clear. Furthermore,
their prescribed everyday school lives left little time and space for the expression of
individual agency. Secondly, students developed a social space distinct from the adult
community. Through their being regularly in a space – the international schools, for
example – with peers of the same age and with similar experiences, collective forms of
agency to deal with the move and the new environment were forged. The teenagers
claimed and frequented a variety of social meeting places including Shanghai’s
nightclubs, or spaces that lay in-between different social worlds and authorities, such
as the hangout place called the shop. Collectively exploring and shaping these shared
spaces proved to be age-specific ways of dealing with the move in the realm of
dependency from parents.
Spatial Practices and Emplaced Experiences
My second research aim was to analyze expatriate youths’ everyday spatial practices
and their (dis)engagement with the “local.” Dynamic relations between spatial
boundaries, transgressions, and the claiming of expatriate and age identities were
brought sharply to the fore in my examination of students’ everyday practices of social
space. My ethnographic accounts demonstrated that youths in Shanghai experienced
spatial and social constraints less than youths in Europe, particularly when dealing with
access to restaurants, bars, and nightclubs (see 11.2). Nevertheless and despite this
relative sense of freedom, Shanghai students experienced the everyday spaces they
frequented as highly regulated. This feeling of regulation was due to the strict
processes of demarcation that the expatriate community undertook in order to define
itself, as exemplified by the spaces of the gated communities and the international
schools (chapters eight and nine).
Students’ practices were diverse and contradictory. Looking at “diaspora space” (Brah
1996) in Shanghai – the encounters and moments of entanglement between the
privileged migrants and those who stayed put in Shanghai – it became clear that a
strong local-expat divide was maintained, making the transgressions difficult for
expatriate teenagers in general. Only few spaces, like the shop, provided a shared
space for locals and expat youths. While this space set outside the glamorous image of
the metropolis, it was mainly these imaginations revolving around a global city, which
led to identifications with the city. Turning towards the city’s transnational spaces and
aiming to be part of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan image, is in some ways, however, still a
specific engagement with the contemporary situation in China’s mega-city. My study
shows that the relationship between expatriate youths and their physical environment
shapes their everyday lives as much as the expatriate/national/class networks they
belong to. Their interaction with the immediate physical environment is used to cope
with the difficulties of the overall migration experience, but also to represent this
experience as worthwhile and successful. The urban environment provided the
backdrop for learning and claiming cosmopolitan identities that I have identified
specifically as “expatriateness.”
Performing Expatriateness: Globality versus Transcultural Perspectives
My third research aim was to acknowledge that expatriate youths live in a highly mobile
and culturally complex environment and to identify teenagers’ myriad ways to
negotiate, forge, perform, and contest their forms of belonging and positions in their
social worlds. To address this concern, I examined seemingly contradicting relations
between everyday practices and performances of expatriate identities. These practices
and performances were based on, firstly, rigid cultural and class divisions and hopes
for future benefits as well as, secondly, the emergence of translocal subjectivities and
the dynamics of transculturation of perspectives.
The first aspect became apparent in the spatial divisions of the city in expat and nonexpat places as for instance described in chapter six and brilliantly illustrated in the
student mental map (Figure 8), but generally addressed throughout the ethnography.
Despite these spatial segregation processes, expatriate youths claimed urban and
cosmopolitan practices. My findings compare to those made by Hindman in her
descriptions of expatriates’ social practices in Nepal. Like my study, her investigations
show that for the cosmopolitan elite “culture is important as a means of justifying their
presence abroad” (2009, 250), but difference is only allowed in a prescribed safe
“niche” and in a “commodifiable form” (ibid., 267). The urban environment only provides
the backdrop for learning and claiming cosmopolitanism or expatriateness. The skills
acquired through the bodily experiences of Shanghai bring status and competences, or
how Binder (2005) calls it, “globality” upon the youths. This “globality” should be
understood as a cultural resource in the Bourdieusian sense: as capital. Through the
example of young backpackers, Binder showed how knowledge of contemporary
processes of change and their associated discourses are turned into cultural capital
and can be used advantageously (Binder 2005, 215). Applying her understanding of
“globality” of travelling experiences as cultural capital that can be beneficial in the
future, particularly with regard to careers, to the moving practices of expatriate
teenagers, has brought similar views to the fore. Student quotes, for example, showed
that growing up abroad and receiving an international education were linked to the idea
of “globality” as cultural capital, an idea that echoed parents’ ideas about the benefits
of the move. The students’ ways of imagining a future CV proved this particularly well.
Similar to Binder’s idea of “globality,” Desforges (1998), who explores the way in which
British middle class youths negotiate and build their identities through travel, claims
that young people convert the cultural capital they gather from their independent
travels into economic capital in the workplace upon their return. Desforges’ article
demonstrates that through their travel, youths, as Valentine has summarized,
“participate in a process of othering and constructing first world representations of the
third world, while simultaneously earning themselves a privileged position in the West”
(Valentine 2003, 45). For the expatriate youths in Shanghai the international school
education contributes to their view of being abroad as a beneficial requisite for their
future. Nevertheless, the age-specific context has to be kept in mind, where parents
play a major role in planning their children’s lives and making decisions in their child’s
“best interest” (see Ackers and Stalford 2004; Hutchins 2011), as exemplified in youths’
retrospectives on leaving in chapter five. Some attributions to the idea of “globality”
drawn by Binder’s study on backpackers, such as the counter draft to everyday life and
a special time for development and self-fulfillment, are therefore not part of the
expatriate youth’s self-understanding. Youths consider being abroad as everyday life.
The conceptualization of “globality” as the awareness of a series of cultural resources
that fit into globalized ways of living and subsequently serve as an important identity
resource, however, applies to expatriate youths in Shanghai. The school helps to
provide, foster, and turn the youths’ global experiences into “globality” as part of their
educational ambitions and community markers and values. An international school
fosters an international community that can see itself as open-minded, diverse, and
cosmopolitan without specifically including the local neighborhood, Shanghai, or China.
The latter are only used as stages upon which students experience difference and
contribute to their “globality.” While expatriate youths and their families create their own
communities, often revolving around the schools, they demarcate themselves from
Shanghai “locals” as well as from those back “home” – both are perceived as lacking
international experience. Similar to Brosius’ (2010) investigation of the everyday lives
of India’s middle class, this study conceptualizes cosmopolitanism as “a practice of
status-creation” (2010, 26); the students and their families use the educational
environment and their surrounding network to mediate their expatriateness. The
performance of a collective expatriate identity is thus not only tied to aspiring and
learning cosmopolitan values, but is simultaneously connected to practices of
demarcation from peers perceived as less mobile, globally connected, and educated.
As transculturation means a process of giving space for difference (Hoerder, Hébert,
and Schmitt 2005), and not leaving difference outside the walls, putting it in a “niche” or
staging it at as the “other,” to me many “expatriates’ places” in Shanghai are not
spaces that particularly foster this process of transculturation.
Transcultural Perspectives
Because of these demarcation processes I was reluctant to apply the term
“transcultural” to the accumulation of experiences that I identified as “globality” in
chapter nine. “Transculturation is the process of individuals and societies changing
themselves by integrating diverse cultural life-ways into dynamic new ones” (Hoerder,
Hébert, and Schmitt 2005, 13). This understanding of expatriate youths’ moving
practices as a process of giving space for difference, seems not really fitting when
thinking of the strong demarcation processes that were discussed in the chapters
seven, eight, nine and thirteen. When spending increasingly more time with youths and
listening to their subjective experiences of their transient stays in Shanghai, I came
across many reflections that were concerned with culturally complex entanglements,
experiences, and challenges that forced students to position themselves in a world with
clear cultural divisions. When listening to these subjective experiences of hybrid
identities or in-between positions, processes of transculturation suddenly complicated
the processes of demarcation I had witnessed. The examined processes of identity
positioning and the meaning of the stay for different expatriate teenagers were
highlighted in the part “Dwelling on the Move” as well as in the fluid, translocal, and
multiple conceptions of home and belonging in the part “Arriving.” I showed that the
generation of expatriate teenagers I worked with was much more required to negotiate
difference than older expatriates were. This was due to their age-specific experiences.
In contrast to their parents, some children lacked a deep understanding of their “home
culture,” as some of the students had only been born in their “home country” and left it
at a very early age; others only knew “their” country from the occasional holiday spent
there with family. Furthermore, many of the youths came from mixed marriages or were
the second generation of migrants who had become mobile again and “returned” to
China for a certain period. Many of the expatriate teenagers I met were therefore
requested to bridge differences between parents, or school and parents on a daily
basis, from an early age.
Being in China evoked reflections on social practices and shared values. Some
students, like Karina, who after her stay choose to major in Chinese at college, or
those like Antonia, Charlie, Don or Arnaud, who continuously reflect upon their own
“Chineseness,” the specifity of China mattered. This was true for the identity
positionings of expat teens with Chinese background in particular. However, the
move’s impact on relationship networks triggered all students to reflect on the
significance of their identity – some reflected on cultural or educational influences (see
among many others for example the contemplations of the teenagers Antonia, Paul,
Xia or Arnaud in chapter fourteen), others reflected most heavily on their class (see
teenager Bjoern’s commentary in chapter 14.2). Investigating Australian transnational
professionals in Asia, Melissa Butcher succinctly described this process of reflection:
Transnational movement subsequently engenders a process of identity reevaluation as mobility, and inevitably contact with difference, disrupt the familiar
cultural frames of reference that underpin identities, including established
relationship networks. (Butcher 2009, 1354)
My ethnography therefore, corresponding to the practices of demarcations, recognizes
the students’ emerging abilities to deal with changes and difference as a development
of a transcultural perspective. Their transcultural perspective enabled them to reflect
upon the culturally complex environment and its meanings for and influences on their
own position and narrative of the self. As Butcher said:
The ability to move between relationship networks indicates the development of
more mobile subjectivities as a strategy to re-find points of comfort in new cultural
contexts.” (Butcher 2009, 1354)
For many students, this also results into very mobile and diverse social practices that
correspond to a strategic, self-reflective position – whether at an American or German
school, an expatriate nightlife location, or a mixed-marriage family life.
The youths considered passing Shanghai as gaining new perspectives. It remains
open to see if these transcultural perspectives will manifest themselves over time in
rigid forms, becoming a “Third Culture Kid” or an “expatriate”; positions that claim
“globality” for themselves, as Hindman described of expatriates in Nepal: “Actors
collaborate to codify difference in a way that distances it from the self, making
essentialized identity something that only others have“ (Hindman 2009, 250). Do
expatriates and their offspring in Shanghai claim to represent the global exclusively?
Will they choose to essentialize the “other” and the “local” (no matter where) and
position themselves as the (future) global elite, the ones with connections, and
“globality” as capital? Or, instead of creating a stable identity reference based on this
kind of “TCK nationalism” or “expatriateness,” will they be able to keep or develop
flexible and creative ways for incorporating difference, such as their transcultural
perspective? The highly diverse group of expatriate youths will walk on different paths
from now on.
Future Studies
While many questions remain open even after intensive fieldwork, there are three
points of interest that will be crucial for further research.
Now that I have traced the “here-and-now” (Bucholtz 2002, 532) and have witnessed
various forms of coping mechanisms and narratives of the self, the students’ future
paths could be explored. One question left open for future studies on expatriate youths
and their mobile lifestyles thus demands a longitudinal approach to trace the impact of
growing up on the move on their future careers and lifestyle choices. The social
situation’s influence on educational and career trajectories have long been caught in a
conundrum of structure versus agency (Milner 2004, 15–17). It will be a future
endeavor to see how my informants exercise their privileged upbringing and what kind
of rigid or mobile subjectivities they will choose to keep as identity references.
Secondly, the question “How does China matter?” remains partly unanswered and also
constitutes a significant concern for further research on the topic of expatriate youths.
To address this concern I suggest conducting comparative research on expatriate
youths’ experiences in other locations. Although Chinese or Shanghainese
particularities have been pointed out in the present study, it is not possible to determine
the extent to which the “host” country has influenced the age-specific experience of
privileged migrations. While the practices of demarcation and boundary drawing, for
instance, seem to be very similar for the adult expatriate communities whether in
Jakarta (Fechter 2007a; Fechter 2007b), Dubai (Walsh 2006a; Walsh 2006b; Walsh
2008; Walsh 2011), Singapore (Beaverstock 2002; Beaverstock 2011) Hong Kong
(Yeoh and Willis 2005; K. Willis and Yeoh 2008), Sao Paulo (Dobeneck 2010), or
Saudi Arabia (Glasze 2006), the youths’ experiences might differ greatly in respect to
the schools they attend and their mixing of “local” and expatriate youths and their
influences to rather underpin privileged expatriate identities. Shanghai’s municipal
government restricts Chinese nationals from enrolling at foreign schools. Because of
this it is safe to say that the demarcation between expatriate and “local” youths is
particularly strong and the spaces to interact are particularly limited in Shanghai.
Thirdly, another future concern would bring together experiences of privileged and less
privileged forms of youth migration in order to further understand strategies of children
to cope with family migration generally. This should be done in order to highlight the
strengths and capabilities of young migrants from less privileged backgrounds that are
often being marginalized because of their migration experiences. Comparing these
circumstances and the agency children and teenagers can develop in dealing with their
moving, will provide insights into policies and services they currently find supportive.
Insights from these comparisons could be used beneficially in providing adequate
support at schools or community centers and opening up a shared space that gives
room for self-reflection and the emergence of transcultural perspectives.
An Afterword: Post-Shanghai Tales from College Life
I met several of the expatriate youths after their move to Germany on various
occasions. With the exception of two boys who decided to carry out their military
service, and Kressi and Bjoern who opted to stay on in Shanghai for a Chinese
language course, all the expatriate youths enrolled at colleges outside China. The
majority decided to pursue studies in engineering, business, or medicine.
We met in four different cities for birthday parties, sightseeing trips, or conversations
over lunch or coffee. I witnessed holiday feelings and the joy to explore a familiar, yet
foreign country, reunions where we all would toast to Shanghai, as well as the
struggles of moving to a new place, most of them on their own. Two of these brief
encounters over coffee, with Andrea and Antonia, highlight the first joys and challenges
of the move:
I meet Andrea only a week after her return to Germany. We agreed to meet at a central
city square at four p.m. and she pops up right next to me a minute later, wearing a
fedora shaped straw-hat, her black frame glasses with the bamboo ear pieces, a grey
sports jacket over a white t-shirt with an image of the Beatles and a long necklace with
a cross dangling over John Lennon’s head, jeans, flat sandals showing her bright red
toe nails. We hug, and I immediately think of the yearbook text that commented on her
dislike of physical contact and hugging people. We stroll through the old town as she
shares her confusions about Germany. Andrea always has a way of telling things to
make others laugh. In her funny way she reports about her incapability to put an
address on an envelope in the proper German way and how she had to ask friends for
help. Her first round to the post office to send off four university applications was also
accompanied by much confusion. She had no idea how much posting the applications
would cost and when inquiring further, she was even more confused about the different
ways to send them. She was also surprised how expensive posting some letters could
be. Besides these enigmas, she shares how delighted she was to find out how cheap
cheese and sausages are at the Aldi supermarket around the corner of the place she is
staying in. [If you compare these prices to those in the imported food stores in
Shanghai, you probably only pay a third of it.] Her enthusiasm about cheese and
sausages reminds me of how Charlie and a friend in Shanghai were talking about the
delights of buying Kinder Penguin [chocolate and cream bar] and other candy en
masse when returning to Germany over the summer, or of Peter looking forward to a
fridge full of German supermarket products (see 16.3). Meanwhile, Andrea further
shares her bewilderment about life in Germany, particularly about “all the strange
people on the streets.” To illustrate her point, she describes an encounter with a
stranger who crept up on to her from behind to tell her she smelled nicely. She
shudders and confides to me that since this encounter a few days ago, she always
carries pepper spray in her purse. For Andrea being out on the street in Germany feels
insecure. She also comments on how safe one was out in Shanghai.
We find a small bistro, eat Falafel, and drink Club Mate [a new kind of beverage I had
already told her about in Shanghai when we jokingly discussed “hipster drinks”]. She
likes both. We talk about people from Shanghai, recalling numerous stories. We laugh
a lot. Andrea wants to hear everything from the nights out with the boys that she was
not part of herself. She even enjoys hearing the stories that I already told her on other
occasions and encourages me to tell them again. My stories turn more and more into
manifest narratives. Gossip and fieldwork always seem linked. I am curious about her
first week in Germany, and Andrea, recalling her experiences of private schooling in
Germany until fifth grade, talks about her encounter with old classmates in the last
days. She is annoyed about one of these teenagers ignorantly telling her “Shanghai
has no trees.” She does not seem to like these youths and remembers how they were
already “kind of snobby” back then.
Jacqueline Knörr (2005, 64) in her study on expat youth returning from Africa to
Germany, has observed similar processes of demarcation towards local Germans. She
traces the youths’ accounts of being different in Germany to the loss of superiority, a
superiority that was linked to being white in Africa. Knörr explains that upon their return
they “forget about being white and take on a different identity based on ‘being’ or
‘having been an expatriate’, or, more fashionably, on being a ‘Third Culture Kid’ and –
later on – an ‘Adult Third Culture Kid’”(ibid.). Attitudes towards “locals” abroad and
“locals” in one’s “home” country are therefore quite similar strategies of differentiation
and superiority. “Coming to Germany, being white suddenly does not mean anything at
all,” Knörr (2005, 61) comments. Returning can be tied to status-loss. Andrea,
however, has just “returned” and is still curious but amazed about her peers that grew
up in Germany.
Many children and youths experience themselves as different because they have
mixed more with children from around the world and because they are used to a
different group of people. Whereas they often only had little social contact with
their local environment, they were often exposed to different lifestyles of different
(other) expatriate individuals and communities. (Knörr 2005, 66)
Although moving on to a college town by herself, Andrea came back jointly with her
family. Knörr’s study here suggests that “[i]t is usually easier for those who come to
Germany with their parents – and all the more so for those who have siblings to share
their experiences with” (Knörr 2005, 59). Other students’ families stayed on in
Antonia, for instance, moved to Germany on her own to begin her studies in medicine. I
meet her in November 2012, a few weeks after the start of the semester and her move
to Germany. When I pick up Antonia for lunch at her new place, she does not ask me
to come in, as, she apologizes, her room looks too chaotic. She is studying constantly
and has no time to clean up. Besides, she admits, she has not gotten used to doing
such things yet, as her ayi always took care of housework. When after lunch we sit
over hot beverages at a Starbucks, she shares, that in general she thinks she moved
out too early [she just turned eighteen]. “Staying one year longer with my family
wouldn’t have been a bad idea.” She feels a bit overwhelmed with living on her own
and sometimes a bit lonely. I suggest that a shared flat with other students might be a
good idea. Concerning her studies, in contrast, she seems very happy, although she
complains a bit about having to learn so much by heart, and thinks her fellow students
are much better at it. This is also why she has to leave soon to go back to her
textbooks. There will be a test next week. Antonia tells me about all the many people
she has already met and how she just invites people to come along, if there is
something going on. I think of her kind ways to include me to her nightlife activities
upon our first encounter two years earlier in Shanghai. Her fellow students, she
recounts, are more interested in forming small groups. Here, she also mentions how
she often wants to make a comparison to Shanghai or mention life in China, but then
shuts up as she fears people might get annoyed by that constant reference to her
former place of living. Antonia is also much interested in my own plans and the
progress of my work. She suggests I could do a long time study, to see where they end
up. When I say that I am not sure about a career in research, she voices her concern:
“If not, will we simply be forgotten?”
Ackers, Louise, and Helen Stalford. 2004. “From ‘Best Interests’ to Participatory Rights:
Children’s Involvement in Family Migration Decisions.” In A Community for
Children? Children, Citizenship and Internal Migration in the EU, 97–123.
Aldershot: Ashgate.
Adamek, Sascha. 2011. Die facebook-Falle. München: Heyne.
Ahmed, Sara, Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier, and Mimi Sheller. 2003.
“Introduction: Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration.” In
Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, ed. Sara Ahmed,
Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier, and Mimi Sheller, 1–19. Oxford: Berg.
Amit, Vered, ed. 2007. Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and
Movement. New York: Berghaan Books.
Anderson, Michael. 1999. “Children In-between: Constructing Identities in the Bicultural
Family.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: 13–26.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.”
———. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Barth, Fredrik, ed. [1969]1998. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries : The Social
Organization of Culture Difference. Long Grove: Waveland Press.
Basu, Paul, and Simon Coleman. 2008. “Introduction: Migrant Worlds, Material
Baudler, Bernhard A. 1996. “‘Nobody will ever know what takes place in initiation
ceremonies.’ Das Schweigen der Jüngeren und die Macht der Älteren:
Beispiele zur Erwachsenenzentriertheit in der Ethnologie.” In Jung und wild: zur
kulturellen Konstruktion von Kindheit und Jugend, ed. Dorle Dracklé, 14:118–
151. Hamburger Beiträge zur öffentlichen Wissenschaft. Berlin: Reimer.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. New York: Semiotexte.
Baumann, Gerd, and Thijl Sunier. 2002. “Die Schule im gesellschaftlichen Raum.” In
Staat - Schule - Ethnizität. Politische Sozialisation von Immigrantenkindern in
vier europäischen Ländern, ed. Werner Schiffauer, Gerd Baumann, Riva
Kastoryano, and Steven Vertovec, 10:23–36. Interkulturelle Bildungsforschung.
Münster: Waxmann.
Beaverstock, Jonathan V. 2002. “Transnational Elites in Global Cities: British
Expatriates in Singapore’s Financial District.” Geoforum 33: 525–538.
———. 2011. “Servicing British Expatriate ‘Talent’ in Singapore: Exploring Ordinary
Transnationalism and the Role of the ‘Expatriate’ Club.” Journal of Ethnic and
Migration Studies 37 (5) (May): 709–728. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2011.559714.
Bennett, Andy. 2000. Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place.
Basingstoke: Macmillan.
———. 2007. “As Young as You Feel: Youth as a Discursive Construct.” In Youth
Cultures Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, ed. Paul Hodkinson, 26:23–36.
Routledge Advances in Sociology. New York: Routledge.
Berg, Wolfgang, and Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh, ed. 2010a. Exploring Transculturalism.
Wiesbaden: VS Research.
Berg, Wolfgang, and Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh. 2010b. “Editors’ Introduction: Exploring
Transculturalism.” In Exploring Transculturalism, ed. Wolfgang Berg and
Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh, 7–17. Wiesbaden: VS Research.
Bhabha, Homi K. [1996]2012. “Culture’s In-Between.” In Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart
Hall and Paul du Gay, 53–60. London: Sage.
———. [1994]2009. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Binder, Jana. 2005. Globality: Eine Ethnographie über Backpacker. Forum europäische
Ethnologie. Münster: Lit.
Blos, Peter. [1962]1966. On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation. New York:
Free Press.
———. 1970. The Young Adolescent: Clinical Studies. New York: Free Press.
Blunt, Alison, and Robyn M. Dowling. 2006. Home. London: Routledge.
Bönisch-Brednich, Brigitte. 2002. Auswandern: Destination
ethnographische Migrationsstudie. Berlin: Mana-Verlag.
Bonnett, Alastair. 2004. The Idea of the West. Culture, Politics and History.
Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction - a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
———. 1986. “The Forms Of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the
Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson, 241–258. New York:
Greenwood Press.
Brah, Avtar. 1996. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London:
Brettell, Caroline, ed. 1993. When They Read What We Write: The Politics of
Ethnography. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey.
Brosius, Christiane. 2010. India’s Middle Class : New Forms of Urban Leisure,
Consumption and Prosperity. London: Routledge.
———. 2011. “Love in the Age of Valentine and Pink Underwear: Media and Politics of
Intimacy in South Asia.” In Transcultural Turbulences: Towards a Multi-Sited
Reading of Image Flows, 27–66. Heidelberg: Springer.
Brosius, Christiane, and Roland Wenzlhuemer, ed. 2011. Transcultural Turbulences:
Towards a Multi-Sited Reading of Image Flows. Transcultural Research Heidelberg Studies on Asia and Europe in a Global Context. Heidelberg:
Bucholtz, Mary. 2002. “Youth and Cultural Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology
31: 525–52.
Burns, Maureen A. 2011. “Documenting Mobility.” In Writing Out of Limbo: International
Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids, ed. Gene H. Bell-Villada,
Nina Sichel, Faith Eidse, and Elaine Neill Orr, 356–370. Newcastle upon Tyne:
Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Butcher, Melissa. 2009. “Ties That Bind: The Strategic Use of Transnational
Relationships in Demarcating Identity and Managing Difference.” Journal of
Ethnic and Migration Studies 35 (8) (September): 1353–1371.
———. 2012. “Distinctly Delhi: Affect and Exclusion in a Crowded City.” In Urban
Theory Beyond the West : a World of Cities, ed. Tim Edensor and Mark Jayne,
175–194. London: Routledge.
Butler, Tim. 2003. “Living in the Bubble: Gentrification and Its ‘Others’ in North
Carmel, Simon. 2011. “Social Access in the Workplace: Are Ethnographers Gossips?”
Work, Employment & Society 25 (3): 551–560.
Castells, Manuel. [1996]2000. The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age:
Economy, Society and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
Chambers, Iain. 1994. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. London: Routledge.
Chatterton, Paul, and Robert Hollands. 2003. Urban Nightscapes: Youth Cultures,
Pleasure Spaces and Corporate Power. London: Routledge.
Chen, J. 2005. “City Gears up Development of Metro.” Shanghai Daily News,
December 27, quoted in: Donald and Gammack (2007, 151).
Cheng, Stephanie. 2007. “Teenage Drinking.” Cityweekend. Parents & Kids.
Chua, Amy. 2011. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Press.
Clifton, Grace. 2004. “Thematic Review: Making the Case for the BRAT (British
Regiment Attached Traveller).” British Educational Research Journal 30 (3):
Cohen, Erik. 1977. “Expatriate Communities.” Current Sociology 24: 5–90.
Coleman, Simon, and Peter Collins. 2006. “Introduction: ‘Being...Where?’ Performing
Fields on Shifting Grounds.” In Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in
Anthropology, ed. Simon Coleman and Peter Collins, 1–21. Oxford: Berg.
Coles, Anne, and Anne-Meike Fechter, ed. 2008. Gender and Family Among
Transnational Professionals. New York: Routledge.
Conradson, David, and Alan Latham. 2005. “Transnational Urbanism: Attending to
Everyday Practices and Mobilities.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31
(2) (March): 227–233. doi:10.1080/1369183042000339891.
Conradson, David, and Deirdre Mckay. 2007. “Translocal Subjectivities: Mobility,
Connection, Emotion.” Mobilities 2 (2): 167–174.
Crouch, David. 2005. “Flirting with Space: Tourism Geographies as
Sensuous/Expressive Practice.” In Seductions of Place: Geographical
Perspectives on Globalization and Touristed Landscapes, ed. Carolyn Cartier
and Alan A. Lew, 23–35. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Dalsgaard, Steffen. 2008. “Facework on Facebook: The Presentation of Self in Virtual
Life and Its Role in the US Elections.” Anthropology Today 24 (6): 8–12.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Demant, Jakob, and Jeanette Østergaard. 2007. “Partying as Everyday Life:
Investigations of Teenagers’ Leisure Life.” Journal of Youth Studies 10 (5)
(November): 517–537. doi:10.1080/13676260701594828.
Desforges, Luke. 1998. “‘Checking Out the Planet’: Global Representations/Local
Identities and Youth Travel.” In Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures,
ed. Tracey Skelton and Gill Valentine, 175–192. London: Routledge.
Dikötter, Frank. 1992. The Discourse of Race in Modern China. Stanford: Stanford
University Press.
Dobeneck, Florian. 2010. Mobile Eliten. Deutsche Entsandte und ihre Familien in S o
Paulo. Marburg: Tectum.
Dobson, Madeleine E. 2009. “Unpacking Children in Migration Research.” Children’s
Geographies 7 (3) (August): 355–360.
Donald, Stephanie Hemelryk. 2000. “Seeing White - Female Whiteness and the Purity
of Children in Australian, Chinese, and British Visual Culture.” Social Semiotics
10 (2): 157–171.
Donald, Stephanie Hemelryk, and John G. Gammack. 2007. Tourism and the Branded
City: Film and Identity on the Pacific Rim. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Dyer, Richard. [1997]2008. White. London: Routledge.
Englund, Harri. 2002. “Ethnography After Globalism: Migration and Emplacement in
Malawi.” American Ethnologist 29 (2): 261–286.
Erikson, Erik H. 1968. Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Falzon, Mark-Anthony. 2009. “Introduction. Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis
and Locality in Contemporary Research.” In Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory,
Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research, ed. Mark-Anthony Falzon.
Farnham: Ashgate.
Farrer, James. 2002. Opening up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 2008. “From ‘Passports’ to ‘Joint Ventures’: Intermarriage Between Chinese
Nationals and Western Expatriates Residing in Shanghai.” Asian Studies
Review 32 (1): 7 – 29.
———. 2010. “‘New Shanghailanders’ or ‘New Shanghainese’: Western Expatriates’
Narratives of Emplacement in Shanghai.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration
Studies 36 (8) (September): 1211–1228. doi:10.1080/13691831003687675.
———. 2011. “Global Nightscapes in Shanghai as Ethnosexual Contact Zones.”
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37 (5): 747–764.
Farrer, James, and Andrew David Field. 2012. “From Interzone to Transzone: Race
and Sex in the Contact Zones of Shanghai’s Global Nightlife.” Intersections:
Fechter, Anne-Meike. 2007a. Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia. Aldershot:
———. 2007b. “Living in a Bubble: Expatriates’ Transnational Spaces.” In Going First
Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement, ed. Vered Amit,
33–52. New York: Berghaan Books.
Fechter, Anne-Meike, and Katie Walsh. 2010. “Examining ‘Expatriate’ Continuities:
Postcolonial Approaches to Mobile Professionals.” Journal of Ethnic and
Fechter, Anne-Meike, and Katie Walsh, ed. 2012. The New Expatriates Postcolonial
Approaches to Mobile Professionals. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Field, Andrew. 2008. “From D.D’s to Y.Y. to Park 97 to Muse: Dance Club Spaces and
the Construction of Class in Shanghai, 1997-2007.” China: An International
Journal 6: 18–43.
Fong, Vanessa L. 2007. “Morality, Cosmopolitanism, or Academic Attainment?
Discourses on ‘Quality’ and Urban Chinese-Only-Children’s Claims to Ideal
Personhood.” City and Society 19 (1): 86–113.
Franke, Amelie. 2008. “A Transcultural Home? An investigation into Notions of Home
and Belonging among Third Culture Kids.” In Transkulturelle Praktiken:
empirische Studien zu Innovationsprozessen. St. Ingbert: Röhrig
Frantz, Klaus. 2006. “Private Gated Neighbourhoods: a Progressive Trend in US Urban
Development.” In Private Cities: Global and Local Perspectives, ed. Georg
Glasze, Chris Webster, and Klaus Frantz, 64–75. London: Routledge.
Van Gennep, Arnold. [1960]1992. The Rites of Passage. A Classic Study of Cultural
Celebrations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late
Modern Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gille, Zsuzsa, and Séan Ó Riain. 2002. “Global Ethnography.” Annual Review of
Sociology Volume 28: 271–295. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.140945.
Gillespie, Marie. 1999. “Fernsehen im multiethnischen Kontext.” In Widerspenstige
Kulturen, ed. Karl Hörning and Rainer Winter. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Giroir, Guillaume. 2006. “The Purple Jade Villas (Beijing). A Golden Ghetto in Red
China.” In Private Cities: Global and Local Perspectives, ed. Georg Glasze,
Chris Webster, and Klaus Frantz, 142–152. London: Routledge.
Glasze, Georg. 2006. “Segregation and Seclusion: The Case of Compounds for
Western Expatriates in Saudi Arabia.” GeoJournal 66: 63–88.
Glasze, Georg, Chris Webster, and Klaus Frantz, ed. 2006. Private Cities: Global and
Local Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Goffman, Erving. 1966. Behavior in Public Places Notes on the Social Organization of
Gatherings. New York: Free Press.
Goldstein, Daniel M. 2002. “Desconfianza and Problems of Representation in Urban
Ethnography.” Anthropological Quarterly 75 (3): 485 – 517.
Greenholtz, Joe, and Jean Kim. 2009. “The Cultural Hybridity of Lena: A Multi-method
Case Study of a Third Culture Kid.” International Journal of Intercultural
Relations 33 (5) (September): 391–398. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2009.05.004.
Greenspan, Anna. 2008a. “China Vs. America? Learning Strategies in the 21st
Century.” The Globalist.
———. 2008b. “China Vs. America? Learning Strategies in the 21st Century (Part 2).”
The Globalist.
———. 2011a. “Tiger Moms: The Benefits of Eating Bitterness. Battle Hymn of the
———. 2011b. “Local Experiences: Anna Greenspan Interviews Emily Meyer on Her
Experiences with the Local Education System.” That’s Shanghai Magazine.
Griese, Hartmut M. 2004. “‘Ich bin ein Wirrwarr von Kulturen - “Zwiebel” und
“Chamäleon”?’ Rezension zu: David E. Pollock, Ruth van Reken und Georg
Pflüger: Third Culture Kids. Aufwachsen in mehreren Kulturen.” socialnet.
Grimshaw, Trevor, and Coreen Sears. 2008. “'Where Am I from?' 'Where Do I
Belong?': The Negotiation and Maintenance of Identity by International School
Students.” Journal of Research in International Education 7: 259–278.
Guarnizo, Luis Eduardo. 1997. “The Emergence of a Transnational Social Formation
and the Mirage of Return Migration Among Dominican Transmigrants.”
Identities 4 (2): 281–322.
Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the
Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6–23.
———. 1997. “‘The Field’ as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology.” In
Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, 1–46.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gusfield, Joseph R. 1987. “Passage to Play: Rituals of Drinking Time in American
Society.” In Constructive Drinking. Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology,
ed. Mary Douglas, 73–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hage, Ghassan. 2005. “A Not so Multi-sited Ethnography of a Not so Imagined
Community.” Anthropological Theory 5 (4) (December 1): 463–475.
Hall, Stuart. 1990. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In Identity: Community, Culture,
Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford, 222–237. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
———. 1994. Rassismus und kulturelle Identität. Hamburg: Argument Verlag.
———. [1996]2012. “Introduction: Who Needs ‘Identity’?” In Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart
Hall and Paul du Gay, 1–17. London: Sage.
———. 1996. “New Ethnicities.” In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies,
ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 441–449. London: Routledge.
Hall, Stuart, ed. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying
Practices. London: Sage.
Hannerz, Ulf. 1980. Exploring the City. New York: Columbia University Press.
———. [1996]2001. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London:
———. [1996]2001. “The Cultural Role of World Cities.” In Transnational Connections:
Culture, People, Places, 127–139. London: Routledge.
———. 2006. “Studying Down, Up, Sideways, Through, Backwards, Forwards, Away
and at Home: Reflections on the Field Worries of an Expansive Discipline.” In
Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology, ed. Simon
Coleman and Peter Collins, 23–41. Oxford: Berg.
Hartmann, Michael. 2000. “Class-specific Habitus and the Social Reproduction of the
Business Elite in Germany and France.” The Sociological Review 48 (2): 241–
Hassenpflug, Dieter. 2009. Der urbane Code Chinas. Basel: Birkhäuser Bauverlag.
Hatfield, Madeleine E. 2010. “Children Moving ‘Home’? Everyday Experiences of
Return Migration in Highly Skilled Households.” Childhood 17 (2) (August 5):
243–257. doi:10.1177/0907568210365747.
Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New Accents. London:
Hill, Mike. 1997. Whiteness: a Critical Reader. New York: New York University Press.
Hindman, Heather. 2009a. “Shopping in the Bazaar/Bizarre Shopping: Culture and the
Accidental Elitism of Expatriates in Kathmandu, Nepal.” Journal of Popular
Culture 42 (4): 663–679.
———. 2009b. “Cosmopolitan Codifications: Elites, Expatriates, and Difference in
Kathmandu, Nepal.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 16 (3): 249
– 270. doi:10.1080/10702890902861255.
Hirschfeld, Lawrence A. 2002. “Why Don’t Anthropologists Like Children?” American
Anthropologist 104: 611–627.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. [1983]2003. The Managed Heart. Commercialization of
Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hodkinson, Paul. 2007. “Youth Cultures: A Critical Outline of Key Debates.” In Youth
Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, ed. Paul Hodkinson and Wolfgang
Deicke, 26:1–21. Routledge Advances in Sociology. New York: Routledge.
Hoerder, Dirk, Yvonne Hébert, and Irina Schmitt, ed. 2005. Negotiating Transcultural
Lives: Belongings and Social Capital Among Youth in Comparative Perspective.
Göttingen: V & R Unipress.
Hollands, R. 2002. “Divisions in the Dark: Youth Cultures, Transitions and Segmented
Consumption Spaces in the Night-time Economy.” Journal of Youth Studies 5
(2): 153–171.
Howes, David. [2005]2006. “Introduction: Empires of the Senses.” In Empire of the
Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, ed. David Howes, 1–17. Sensory
Formations Series. Oxford: Berg.
———. 2007. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Huang, Youqin, and Setha M. Low. 2008. “Is Gating Always Exclusionary? A
Comparative Analysis of Gated Communities in American and Chinese Cities.”
In Urban China in Transition, ed. John R. Logan, 182–202. Malden: Blackwell.
Hutchins, Teresa. 2011. “‘They Told Us in a Curry Shop’: Child–Adult Relations in the
Context of Family Migration Decision-Making.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration
Studies 37 (8) (September): 1219–1235. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2011.590926.
“Interkom.” 2010. Community Center Shanghai. Guide: Welcome (back) to Shanghai.
International Center for Alcohol Policies. 2010. “Minimum Age Limits Worldwide.”
“International Schools in Shanghai - LittleStar Magazine.” 2012. Accessed August 15.
“InterNations: Expatriate Community for Expats Worldwide.” 2013. Accessed March 18.
Jackson, Peter, Philip Crang, and Claire Dwyer. 2004. “Introduction: The Spaces of
Transnationality.” In Transnational Spaces, ed. Peter Jackson, Philip Crang,
and Claire Dwyer, 1–23. London: Routledge.
James, Allison, and Adrian James. 2008. Key Concepts in Childhood Studies. London:
Jeffries, Elena D. 2004. “Experiences of Trust with Parents. A Qualitative Investigation
of African American Latino, and Asian American Boys from Low-Income
Families.” In Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures in Boyhood, ed.
Niobe Way and Judy Y. Chu, 107–128. New York: New York University Press.
Johnson, M. Dujon. 2011. Race & Racism in the Chinas: Chinese Racial Attitudes
Toward Africans and African-Americans. Bloomington: AuthorHouse.
Kato, Yuki. 2009. “Doing Consumption and Sitting Cars: Adolescent Bodies in
Suburban Commercial Spaces.” Children’s Geographies 7 (1) (February): 51–
66. doi:10.1080/14733280802630908.
Kirkpatrick, David. 2011. Der Facebook-Effekt. München: Hanser.
Kneidinger, Bernadette. 2010. Facebook und Co: Eine soziologische Analyse von
Interaktionsformen in Online Social Networks. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für
Sozialwissenschaften / GWV Fachverlage.
Knörr, Jacqueline. 2005. “When German Children Come ‘Home.’ Experiences of (Re)Migration to Germany - and Some Remarks About the ‘TCK’-Issue.” In
Childhood and Migration: From Experience to Agency, ed. Jacqueline Knörr,
51–76. Culture and Social Practice. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Knörr, Jacqueline, and Angela Nunes. 2005. “Introduction.” In Childhood and Migration:
From Experience to Agency, ed. Jacqueline Knörr, 9–21. Culture and Social
Practice. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Gertraud. 2008. Transkulturelle Praktiken: Empirische
Innovationsprozessen. St. Ingbert: Röhrig Universitätsverlag.
Lagerkvist, Amanda. 2007. “Gazing at Pudong – ‘With a Drink in Your Hand’. Time
Travel, Mediation, and Multisensuous Immersion in the Future City of
Shanghai.” The Senses & Society 2: 155–172.
Lahelma, Elina, and Tuula Gordon. 2003. “Home as a Physical, Social and Mental
Space: Young People’s Reflections on Leaving Home.” Journal of Youth
Studies 6 (4) (December): 377–390. doi:10.1080/1367626032000162104.
Lamb, Sarah. 2002. “Intimacy in a Transnational Era: The Remaking of Aging Among
Indian Americans.” Diaspora 11 (3): 299–330.
Leavitt, John. 1996. “Meaning and Feeling in the Anthropology of Emotions.” American
Ethnologist 23 (3): 514–539.
Ley, David. 2004. “Transnational Spaces and Everyday Lives.” Transactions of the
Institute of British Geographers 29 (2): 151–164.
Liechty, Mark. 2003. Suitably Modern: Making Middle-class Culture in a New
Consumer Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lindner, Rolf. 1981. “Die Angst des Forschers vor dem Feld. Überlegungen zur
teilnehmenden Beobachtung als Interaktionsprozeß.” Zeitschrift für Volkskunde
77: 51–66.
Lu, Hanchao. 1999. Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early
Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Luhrmann, Tanya Marie. 1996. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a
Postcolonial Society. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
MacDougall, David. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Madianou, Mirca, and Daniel Miller. 2012. Migration and New Media: Transnational
Families and Polymedia. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.
Magolda, Peter Mark. 2003. “Saying Good-Bye: An Anthropological Examination of a
Commencement Ritual.” Journal of College Student Development 44 (6): 779–
796. doi:10.1353/csd.2003.0073.
Maines, David R., Noreen M. Sugrue, and Michael A. Katovich. 1983. “The Sociological
Import of G. H. Mead’s Theory of the Past.” American Sociological Review 48
(2): 161–173.
Malbon, Ben. 1998. “The Club. Clubbing: Consumption, Identity and the Spatial
Practices of Every-night Life.” In Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures,
ed. Tracey Skelton and Gill Valentine, 266–286. Routledge.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. [1929]1968. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-western
Melanesia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
———. 1970. “Introduction.” In Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, ed.
Fernando Ortiz, vii–xiv. New York: Vintage Books.
Marcus, George E.. 1983a. “‘Elite’ as a Concept, Theory, and Research Tradition.” In
Elites: Ethnographic Issues, ed. George E Marcus, 7–27. Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press.
———, ed. 1983b. Elites: Ethnographic Issues. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico
———. 1995. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited
Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95–117.
Massey, Doreen. 1995. “Making Spaces, or, Geography Is Political Too.” Soundings 1:
———. 1998. “The Spatial Construction of Youth Cultures.” In Cool Places:
Geographies of Youth Cultures, 121–129. London: Routledge.
Mattley, Christine. 2002. “The Temporality of Emotion: Constructing Past Emotions.”
Symbolic Interaction 25 (3) (August): 363–378. doi:10.1525/si.2002.25.3.363.
McDermott, Josephine. 2010. “Another Round: Shanghai Reopens 110ft Bar Fabled for
McRobbie, Angela, and Jenny Garber. [1975]1997. “Girls and Subcultures.” In The
Subcultures Reader, ed. Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton, 112–120. London:
Mead, Margaret. [1928]1929. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of
Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. 4th printing. New York: Morrow.
———. [1930]1963. Growing up in New Guinea: a Comparative Study of Primitive
Education. 5th ed. New York: New American Library.
———. [1939]1948. From the South Seas: Studies of Adolescence And Sex in
Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow.
Miller, Daniel, ed. 2001. Home Possessions : Material Culture Behind Closed Doors.
Oxford: Berg.
———. 2011. Tales from Facebook. New York: Wiley.
Miller, Daniel, Peter Jackson, Michael Rowlands, Nigel Thrift, and Beverly Holbrook.
1998. Shopping, Place, and Identity. London: Routledge.
Milner, Murray. 2004. Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids. American Teenagers, Schools,
and the Culture of Consumption. New York: Routledge.
Möckel-Rieke, Hannah. 1998. “Introduction:
Amerikastudien 43 (1): 5–17.
Molgat, Marc. 2002. “Leaving Home in Quebec: Theoretical and Social Implications of
(im) Mobility Among Youth.” Journal of Youth Studies 5 (2): 135–152.
Moore, Fiona. 2008. “The German School in London, UK. Fostering the Next
Generation of National Cosmopolitans?” In Gender and Family Among
Transnational Professionals, ed. Anne Coles and Anne-Meike Fechter, 85–101.
New York: Routledge.
Jugendkulturen. Recherchen in Frankfurt am Main und London, ed. Johannes
Moser, 66:11–57. Kulturanthropologie-Notizen. Frankfurt am Main: Institut für
Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie.
Bar and Restaurant | Shanghai.”
Nadig, Maya. 2004. “Transculturality in Progress. Theoretical and Methodological
Aspects Drawn from Cultural Studies and Psychoanalysis.” In Transculturality Epistemology, Ethics, and Politics, ed. Jörg Sandkühler and Hong-Bin Lim,
57:9–21. Philosophie und Geschichte der Wissenschaften. Frankfurt am Main:
Peter Lang Verlag.
Nash, Dennison. 1970. A Community in Limbo. An Anthropological Study of an
American Community Abroad. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nava, Mica. 2002. “Cosmopolitan Modernity: Everyday Imaginaries and the Register of
Neumann-Braun, Klaus, and Ulla Autenrieth. 2011a. “Zur Einleitung: Soziale
Beziehungen im Web 2.0 und deren Visualisierung.” In Freundschaft und
Gemeinschaft im Social Web: bildbezogenes Handeln und PeergroupKommunikation auf Facebook & Co, ed. Klaus Neumann-Braun, 2:9–30.
Baden-Baden: Nomos.
———, ed. 2011b. Freundschaft und Gemeinschaft im Social Web: bildbezogenes
Handeln und Peergroup-Kommunikation auf Facebook & Co. Baden-Baden:
Northcote, Jeremy. 2006. “Nightclubbing and the Search for Identity: Making the
Transition from Childhood to Adulthood in an Urban Milieu.” Journal of Youth
Studies 9 (1) (February): 1–16. doi:10.1080/13676260500523580.
Orellana, Marjorie Faulstich, Barrie Thorne, Anna Chee, and Wan Shun Eva Lam.
2001. “Transnational Childhoods: The Participation of Children in Processes of
Family Migration.” Social Problems 48 (4) (November): 572–591.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1970. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. New York: Vintage
Pascoe, Robin. 2006. Raising Global Nomads. Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand
World. Vancouver: Expatriate Press.
Peterson, Bill E., and Laila T. Plamondon. 2009. “Third Culture Kids and the
Consequences of International Sojourns on Authoritarianism, Acculturative
Balance, and Positive Affect.” Journal of Research in Personality 43 (5)
(October): 755–763. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2009.04.014.
Peterson, Erick. 2011. “Shanghai’s Tormented Teens.” Global Times, October 27.
Petridou, Elia. 2001. “The Taste of Home.” In Home Possessions: Material Culture
Behind Closed Doors, ed. Daniel Miller, 87–104. Oxford: Berg.
Pink, Sarah. 2011. “Images, Senses and Applications: Engaging Visual Anthropology.”
Visual Anthropology 24 (5): 437–454.
Pittman, Lisa, and Diana Smit. 2012. Expat Teens Talk. Summertime Publishing.
Ploch, Beatrice. 1995. “Eignen sich Mental Maps zur Erforschung des Stadtraumes?
Möglichkeiten der Methode.” Kea. Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 8
Stadtdschungel: 23–41.
Pollock, David C., and Ruth E. Van Reken. [1999]2009. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up
Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Pratt, Geraldine. 1992. “Commentary: Spatial Metaphors and Speaking Positions.”
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10 (3): 241-244.
Pries, Ludger, ed. 2001. New Transnational Social Spaces: International Migration and
Transnational Companies in the Early Twenty-first Century. Routledge
Research in Transnationalism. London: Routledge.
Pütz, Robert. 2004. Transkulturalität als Praxis: Unternehmer türkischer Herkunft in
Berlin. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Rapport, Nigel. 2000. “The Narrative as Fieldwork Technique: Processual Ethnography
for a World in Motion.” In Constructing the Field : Ethnographic Fieldwork in the
Contemporary World, ed. Vered Amit, 71–95. London: Routledge.
Rapport, Nigel, and Andrew Dawson, ed. 1998. Migrants of Identity: Perceptions of
Home in a World of Movement. Oxford: Berg.
Richter, Nina. 2011. Third Culture Kids:
Jungenderfahrungen. Marburg: Tectum.
Robertson, George, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, and Tim
Putnam, ed. 1994. Travellers’ Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement.
London: Routledge.
Robinson, Jennifer. 2010. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.”
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(1): 1-23.
Rouse, Roger. 1992. “Making Sense of Settlement: Class Formation, Cultural Struggle
and Transnationalism Among Mexican Migrants in the United States.” Annals of
the New York Academy of Sciences 645: 25–52.
Sande, Allan. 2002. “Intoxication and Rite of Passage to Adulthood in Norway.”
Contemporary Drug Problems 29: 277–303.
Schoon, Sonia. 2007. Shanghai XXL : Alltag und Identitätsfindung im Spannungsfeld
extremer Urbanisierung. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Selmer, Jan, and Hon Lam. 2004. “‘Third-culture Kids’ Future Business Expatriates?”
Personnel Review 33 (4): 430–445.
Séror, Jérémie. 2005. “Computers and Qualitative Data Analysis: Paper, Pens, and
Highlighters Vs. Screen, Mouse, and Keyboard.” TESOL Quaterly 39 (2) (June):
Shore, Cris. 2002. “Introduction: Towards an Anthropology of Elites.” In Elite Cultures :
Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Cris Shore and Stephen Nugent, 1–21.
London: Routledge.
Shore, Cris, and Stephen Nugent, ed. 2002. Elite Cultures : Anthropological
Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Simmel, Georg. 1903. “Die Grosstädte und das Geistesleben.” In Die Grossstadt
orträge und Aufsätze zur Städteausstellung, ed. Th. Petermann, 9:185–206.
Jahrbuch der Gehe-Stiftung Dresden.
Skelton, Tracey. 2001. “Girls in the Club: Researching Working Class Girls’ Lives.”
Sklair, Leslie. [2001]2003. The Transnational Capitalist Class. Oxford: Blackwell.
Smetana, Judith G. 2010. Adolescents, Families, and Social Development: How Teens
Construct their Worlds. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Smith, Robert C. 2001. “Comparing Local-level Swedish and Mexican Transnational
Life: An Essay in Historical Retrieval.” In New Transnational Social Spaces:
International Migration and Transnational Companies in the Early Twenty-first
Century, ed. Ludger Pries. Routledge Research in Transnationalism. London:
Sparling, Georgia. 2010. “Where to Live in Shanghai: Neighbourhoods and Housing
Options.” Shanghai Family, August.
Sporton, Deborah, Gill Valentine, and Katrine B. Nielsen. 2006. “Post Conflict
Identities: Affiliations and Practices of Somali Asylum Seeker Children.”
Children’s Geographies 4 (2): 203–217. doi:10.1080/ 14733280600807062.
Tanu, Danau. 2011. “Vignettes from Another Perspective: When Cultural Hierarchies
Matter at an International School.” In Writing Out of Limbo: International
Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids, ed. Gene H. Bell-Villada,
Nina Sichel, Faith Eidse, and Elaine Neill Orr, 220–231. Newcastle upon Tyne:
Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
“TCK Academy’s: The First TCK Expert Interview Series.” 2013. Accessed March 18.
“TCKID: A Home for Third Culture Kids and Adults (TCKs).” 2013. Accessed March 18.
“TCKWorld: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids (TCKs).” 2013. Accessed March
Teo, Sin Yih. 2011. “‘The Moon Back Home Is Brighter’?: Return Migration and the
Cultural Politics of Belonging.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37 (5)
(May): 805–820. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2011.559720.
“The Naked Gun - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” 2013. Accessed February 20.
Torresan, Angela. 2007. “How Privileged Are They? Middle-Class Brazilian Immigrants
in Lisbon.” In Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and
Movement, ed. Vered Amit, 103–125. New York: Berghaan Books.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1974. Topophilia: a Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and
Values. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Turner, Simon. 2008. “Studying the Tensions of Transnational Engagement: From the
Nuclear Family to the World-Wide Web.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration
Studies 34 (7) (September): 1049–1056. doi:10.1080/13691830802230323.
Turner, Victor. [1969]2008. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New
Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.
UNICEF. 2013. “Knowledges Pages.” Accessed January 15., last accessed on January 15th
Valentine, Gill. 2003. “Boundary Crossings: Transitions from Childhood to Adulthood.”
Children’s Geographies 1: 37–52.
Vanderstede, Wouter. 2011. “‘Chilling’ and ‘Hopping’ in the ‘Teenage Space Network’:
Explorations in Teenagers’ Geographies in the City of Mechelen.” Children’s
Geographies 9 (2) (May): 167–184. doi:10.1080/14733285.2011.562379.
Vertovec, Steven. 1997. “Three Meanings of ‘Diaspora,’ Exemplified Among South
Asian Religions.” Diaspora 6: 277–300.
———. 2004. “Migrant Transnationalism and Modes of Transformation.” International
Migration Review 38 (3): 970–1001.
Walmsley, Emily. 2005. “Race, Place and Taste. Making Identities Through Sensory
Experience in Ecuador.” In The Senses. Special Issue of Etnofoor; 18,1:43–60.
The Senses. Münster: LIT.
Walsh, Katie. 2006a. “British Expatriate Belongings: Mobile Homes and Transnational
Homing.” Home Cultures 3 (2): 123–144.
———. 2006b. “‘Dad Says I’m Tied to a Shooting Star!’ Grounding (Research on)
British Expatriate Belonging.” Area 38 (3): 268–278.
———. 2008. “Travelling Together? Work, Intimacy and Home Amongst British
Expatriate Couples in Dubai.” In Gender and Family Among Transnational
Professionals, 63 – 84. Routledge International Studies of Women and Place 8.
New York: Routledge.
———. 2010. “Book Review: Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia, by AnneMeike Fechter.” Cultural Geographies 17 (1): 139–140.
———. 2011. “Migrant Masculinities and Domestic Space: British Home-making
Practices in Dubai.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (4):
Walters, Kate A., and Faith P. Auton-Cuff. 2009. “A Story to Tell: The Identity
Development of Women Growing up as Third Culture Kids.” Mental Health,
Warneken, Jürgen, and Andreas Wittel. 1997. “Die neue Angst vor dem Feld.
Ethnographisches Research Up am Beispiel der Unternehmensforschung.”
Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 93: 1–16.
Waters, Johanna L. 2005. “Transnational Family Strategies and Education in the
Contemporary Chinese Diaspora.” Global Networks 5 (4): 359–377.
———. 2007. “‘Roundabout Routes and Sanctuary Schools’: The Role of Situated
Educational Practices and Habitus in the Creation of Transnational
Professionals.” Global Networks 7 (4): 477–497.
Way, Niobe. 2004. “Intimacy, Desire, and Distrust in the Friendships of Adolescent
Boys.” In Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures in Boyhood, ed. Niobe
Way and Judy Y. Chu, 167–196. New York: New York University Press.
Webster, Chris, Fulong Wu, and Yanjing Zhao. 2006. “China’s Modern Gated Cities.” In
Private Cities: Global and Local Perspectives, ed. Georg Glasze, Chris
Webster, and Klaus Frantz, 153–169. London: Routledge.
Weißköppel, Cordula. 2001. Ausländer und Kartoffeldeutsche: Identitätsperformanz im
Alltag einer ethnisch gemischten Realschulklasse. Juventa-Materialien.
Weinheim: Juventa.
Welsch, Wolfgang. 1995. “Transkulturalität. Zur veränderten Verfaßtheit heutiger
Kulturen.” Ed. Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen. Migration und kultureller
Wandel, Schwerpunktthema der Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 45: 39–44.
———. 1999. “Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today.” Spaces of
Culture: City, Nation, World: 194–213.
Wertsch, Mary Edwards. [1991]2006. Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the
Fortress. St. Louis: Brightwell Publishing.
Wessendorf, Susanne. 2007. “Who Do You Hang Out With? Peer Group Association
and Cultural Assertion among Second-Generation Italians in Switzerland.” In
Jugend, Zugehörigkeit und Migration Subjektpositionierung im Kontext von
Jugendkultur, Ethnizitäts- und Geschlechterkonstruktionen, ed. Christine Riegel
Westlake, EJ. 2008. “Friend Me If You Facebook: Generation y and Performative
Surveillance.” The Drama Review 52 (4): 21–40.
Wildner, Kathrin. 1995. “‘Picturing the City’: Themen und Methoden der
Stadtethnologie.” Kea. Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 8 Stadtdschungel: 1–
Willis, Katie, and Brenda Yeoh. 2002. “Gendering Transnational Communities: a
Comparison of Singaporean and British Migrants in China.” Geoforum 33: 553–
Willis, Katie, Brenda Yeoh, and S.M.A.K. Fakhri. 2002. “Transnational Elites.”
Geoforum 33: 505–507.
Willis, Katie, and Brenda Yeoh. 2008. “‘Coming to China Changed My Life’ : Gender
Roles and Relations Among Single British Migrants.” In Gender and Family
Among Transnational Professionals, ed. Anne Coles and Anne-Meike Fechter,
211 – 232. New York: Routledge.
Willis, Paul E. 1990. Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures
of the Young. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Wu, Fulong. 2006. Packaging a New Way of (Sub-)Urban Life: Gated Communities and
Chinese New Urbanism. Cardiff: Cardiff University Paper.
Wulff, Helena. 1995. “Introduction: Introducing Youth Culture in Its Own Right: The
State of the Art and New Possibilities.” In Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural
Perspective, ed. Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff, 1–18. London: Routledge.
Yamato, Yoko, and Mark Bray. 2006. “Economic Development and the Market Place
for Education: Dynamics of the International Schools Sector in Shanghai,
China.” Journal of Research in International Education 5: 57–82.
Yeoh, Brenda S. A., and Katie Willis. 2005. “Singaporean and British Transmigrants in
China and the Cultural Politics of ‘Contact Zones’.” Journal of Ethnic and
Migration Studies 31: 269–285. doi:10.1080/1369183042000339927.
Zukin, Sharon. 2005. “Whose Culture? Whose City?” In The Urban Sociology Reader,
281–289. The Routledge Urban Reader Series. London: Routledge.
Table of Figures
Figure 1: Gazing onto Shanghai. Photo by M. Sander ________________________________________ 1
Figure 2: Up in the Air. Photo by M. Sander _______________________________________________ 67
Figure 3: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by a 16-year-old Singaporean School Student __________ 75
Figure 4: List of Places Present on Students’ Mental Maps of Shanghai _________________________ 83
Figure 5: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by 16-year-old Girl, Olivia __________________________ 84
Figure 6: German Bakery at the Outskirts of Shanghai. Photo M. Sander ________________________ 87
Figure 7: Student at Tianzifang: Documenting Elements of Globalization. Photo by M. Sander _______ 88
Figure 8: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by a 16-year-old Female Singaporean School Student ___ 89
Figure 9: Compounds in Shanghai. Photos by M. Sander. ____________________________________ 94
Figure 10: References to European Architecture in a Shanghai Gated Community. Photo by M. Sander 95
Figure 11: Home in Shanghai: Mia’s Room. Photograph by Mia ______________________________ 103
Figure 12: Section of Mind Map 1 on “Heimat.” Drawing by Four Students ______________________ 109
Figure 13: Section of Mind Map 2 on “Heimat.” Drawing by Four Students ______________________ 110
Figure 14: A Gated Community Hosting an American School. Photo by M. Sander________________ 129
Figure 15: Screenshots of a Student Video, Images of Shanghai, Minutes 0:19, 0:23, 0:25, 0:26, 0:29,
0:37, 0:42, and 0:45 ________________________________________________________________ 132
Figure 16: Screenshot of a Student Video, “Zuhause,” Minute 0:48 ____________________________ 133
Figure 17: Screenshots of a Student Video, Entering the School, Minutes 0:53 and 1:00 ___________ 133
Figure 18: Screenshots of a Student Video, Events and Audiences, Minutes 1:02, 1:17, 1:41, and 3:54 134
Figure 19: Screenshots from Student Movie, “Greetings from Shanghai,” Minutes 04:23 and 04:28. __ 135
Figure 20: Community Work: Teenage Boys Loading Donated Clothes and Admiring their Day’s Work.
Photo by M. Sander ________________________________________________________________ 144
Figure 21: Bake Sale at a German School. Photo by M. Sander ______________________________ 144
Figure 22: Four Different International Schools: Flags as Decoration. Photos by M. Sander _________ 145
Figure 23: The Shop: Students Walking through the Small Alley, June 2011. Photo by M. Sander ____ 157
Figure 24: Student Art Project “My time is now” (Sign). Photo by Andrea _______________________ 162
Figure 25: Student Art Project “My time is now” (T-Shirt). Photos by Andrea _____________________ 163
Figure 26: The Club Mural and its Cave-like Atmosphere. Photo by M. Sander ___________________ 175
Figure 27: Friday Night: Gathering with Drinks around the Table. Photo by M. Sander _____________ 177
Figure 28: The Shop: Students and Locals in the Small Alley, June 2012. Photo by M. Sander ______ 189
Figure 29: The Shop: Inside the Small Restaurant, June 2011. Photo by M. Sander _______________ 190
Figure 30: The Shop: Inside the Small Shop, January 2011. Photo by M. Sander _________________ 191
Figure 31: The Shop: Pool Tables, Graffiti and Laundry, January 2011. Photo by M. Sander ________ 192
Figure 32: The Shop: Use of Pool Table to Display Wares. Photo by M. Sander __________________ 192
Figure 33: Mental Map of Shanghai. Drawing by 16-year-old Boy Bjoern _______________________ 194
Figure 34: The Shop: Hanging out in the Alley, September 2011. Photo by M. Sander _____________ 195
Figure 35: The Shop: Places to Sit in the Alley, September 2011/June 2012. Photos by M. Sander ___ 196
Figure 36: Mind Map on “Identity.” Drawing by Three Students _______________________________ 221
Figure 37: Home in Shanghai: Mia’s Room Prepared for the Next Move. Photo by Mia ____________ 247
Figure 38: Impressions from the Graduation Ball: The View of the Bund. Photo by M. Sander _______ 257
Figure 39: Students Posing for the Camera at their Graduation Ball. Photo by M. Sander __________ 258
Transcription Rules
= Interviewer
= Laughing
<L> word or phrase said while laughing</L>
= Laughing while speaking
= Inaudible
= Strong emphasis by speaker
Punctuation rules were largely ignored in the transcriptions, and instead full stops and
commas were set according to the rhythm of speech.
Student Directory: Who Is Who?
Alex, with his eighteen years, is the oldest boy in the German class. I interviewed Alex
together with Don and Bjoern. Alex enjoyed the interview situation, apparently relating
it to a journalistic interview that he associated with fame or importance. Alex was born
in Germany, before he moved on to Brussels with his family. After a few years at a
German school in Brussels, his parents made the decision to move on to Shanghai due
to his father’s career. Alex thus came to Shanghai at the age of almost seventeen.
Although always respectful towards me, and mostly using the German polite form “Sie”
when addressing me, I was a little intimidated by him, as I had seen him quite
confrontational. Nevertheless, we had interesting conversations on several nights out,
and Alex was particularly helpful in explaining the group dynamics to me. Alex,
together with his best friend Don (the girls would comment on this relationship as
“bromance”) was always very involved in nightlife activities, often being the initiator for
the Friday nights out. The boys hang out at his place quite regularly. Alex was the only
boy I witnessed having casual relationships with girls he met in the nightclubs.
Allen is an eleven-year-old US-American whom I interviewed at his British school in
November 2010. He had just arrived in Shanghai after his father had been transferred
to China three months earlier. Before his move to Shanghai, his family had spent over
a year in Mexico, leaving early, however, due to what Allen labels as “security
reasons.” Allen, in his school uniform (sports coat, shirt, and a tie), came across to me
like an adult. This appearance was underlined by the way he phrased every thought
carefully. When we waited for two more students (Jacob and Tamara) to appear for the
group interview, he simply opened his book and quietly waited reading. Although
sharing his thoughts on moving to Shanghai in a very reflected and careful way, his
position seemed to be copying his parents’ mantra of a positive attitude and of the
benefits of growing up transnationally. He made clear he thinks it is important to focus
on the positive aspects and refused to discuss uncertainties, difficulties, or
homesickness, stressing that he trusts his parents and their decision-making. However,
he recalled that he had gotten sick in Mexico and attributed this to the radical changes
of environment and the host of new impressions. Allen in his analytic and calm way,
embedded in what I have often experienced as a typical US-American attitude of
looking at the positive aspects, was someone I kept wondering about. I have
contemplated much about what really lies behind this positive attitude and if his
strategy of positive outlook and trust works. Unfortunately, I have not been able to stay
in touch with Allen.
Andrea, aged sixteen at our first encounter, is a quirky, creative student who likes to
make people laugh. During fieldwork, she had a particular reputation for partying and
dancing Shanghai’s nights away together with Antonia. Andrea was born in Asia, but
was too young to actively remember her first years abroad. Starting school in Germany,
she and her family left Germany again due to her father’s career and moved to
Shanghai when she was twelve years old. She remembered the move and the first
years at her new school as quite difficult. I interviewed Andrea three times individually,
in June and September 2011 and June 2012 at a café in Shanghai’s former French
Concession. I first met Andrea on a Friday night out. Andrea, the only one of “the girls”
attending a different class, was one of the few students who lived downtown. While it
took some time until Andrea and I got to know each other, we got along great towards
the end of my stay and afterwards in Germany. Andrea chose to study communication
studies in Germany and we have met several times after her move back from
Antonia, sixteen when I first met her at the German school, was born in Germany, but
grew up in Shanghai. She is one of the few expat students who had been at the same
school all her life. Her father is German, her mother a successful Chinese
businesswomen who studied in Germany. When talking about her relations to the city
and experience of China, Antonia stressed her difference to other expatriate children
who only pass a few years in China. Antonia speaks both German and Chinese at
home and likes to claim being ‘Shanghainese’. She is a determined, smart young
woman, who likes to be in control of things, has high expectations of herself and
generally highly values intelligence and analytical minds. Consequently, she can
sometimes be very rough and direct in her judgment of others and herself. She is
generous, independent and does not shy away from arguments. During fieldwork, the
other students sometimes called here Antonio, as they considered some of her
behavior as masculine. Antonia was a key figure in my research, not only as an
informant and friend, but also as a gatekeeper. It was her invitation to join nightlife
activities that led to closer contacts with many others at the German school that I
worked at. Her way to include me and openly state that ‘Marie is one of us’ definitely
had its influence in my acceptance as researcher and friend in her peer group and
class. I have visited Antonia a few times after her move to Germany and we are still in
touch. She is now studying to become a doctor.
Arnaud, sixteen years old, was enrolled at a French-medium school in Shanghai when
we met. His Chinese-born parents immigrated to Belgium for his father’s studies and
career. Arnaud was born in Belgium and is a Belgian national. After his birth his family
moved to the Parisian outskirts. When he was nine years old, his family decided to
move to Shanghai because of a career opportunity for his father, as well as to be
closer to his sick grandfather. I received Arnaud’s phone number from Matthias, as the
two knew each other from jam sessions in the music room on the German-French
school campus. After several text messages, Arnaud and I agreed to meet at a
Starbucks café downtown, where he showed up with his long black hair tied into a
ponytail, jeans, sneakers, and the obligatory head phones. After carefully studying the
interview questionnaire, he answered the questions in a similar thought–through way. I
had short conversations with him after that, when running into him at the school and we
exchanged a few messages via facebook. I particularly enjoyed the interview with
Arnaud as he was very self-reflective and openly shared the difficulties of negotiating
his position as an Asian-looking French-Chinese raised teenager, often feeling he
cannot succeed in either of the two worlds and fearing alienation from his parents,
particularly his mother. His high creative energy, being involved in school plays, bands,
and writing short stories, seemed to be a strategy to cope with the cultural
entanglements of his world. After his graduation Arnaud moved to Canada, to study
music recording. We are still in touch via the web.
Bjoern, is a German student, and was sixteen years old at the time of the first
interview. I met Bjoern because he was in one of the classes at the German school that
I was granted to sit in. At first I particularly noticed his Bavarian accent, which was
rather uncommon among the German students in Shanghai who had found a common
ground in standard German. While our origins within Germany differed, our taste in
music did not. Reggae music turned out to be our connection. We enjoyed the same
Reggae artists and exchanging music while in Shanghai established a tie between us.
Even after my departure Bjoern would send me YouTube links or names of bands he
enjoyed listening to. I always wrote to him when I had visited a concert of a band he
knew. It was this connection through popular culture that led to detailed discussions on
other issues as well. Bjoern had just come to Shanghai in the summer of 2010. He had
never lived outside the small village that he grew up in and expressed that initially he
was against the move to Shanghai. Nonetheless, Bjoern quickly established
friendships with his classmates. Bjoern in particular seemed to be the link between the
girls and the boys in the class. Maybe it was therefore not surprising that Bjoern was
one of the boys I felt most comfortable talking to and thus became, next to Matthias,
one of my key male informants.
Britta is a seventeen year old girl from Norway, and a student at a British, English–
medium school. I met Britta because she took part in a group discussion with two fellow
students at her high school, which had been organized by the school principal’s
assistant. Britta had just arrived in Shanghai a couple of months prior to the group
interview. This was her first stay abroad and she had come to Shanghai with her
parents and younger sister due to her father’s job. Britta found the adjustment
particularly challenging in terms of academics. She followed an IB curriculum.
Switching to English-medium education and a new school system had caused her
grades to drop. This worried her particularly as two years before graduation these
grades would determine which college she could enter. Consequently, she was
considering returning to Norway after the first term to stay with relatives or the family of
her best friend in order to obtain a high school diploma with a stronger academic
record. Unfortunately, I was not able to stay in touch with Britta.
Charlie was sixteen years old when I first met her. Her parents were both born in
China and met in Germany during their studies at university. They became German
nationals and Charlie was born and grew up in Germany. At the age of twelve she and
her family moved to Shanghai for her fathers’ career. Charlie can be described as
friendly, helpful, sunny, but getting angry quickly about any small injustices. Charlie
took part in a group discussion with Olivia and Andrea, but I also interviewed her twice
individually in September 2011 and in June 2012. During fieldwork, I felt that she often
underestimated her abilities and was often worrying about her high school diploma
(Abitur) and whether her grades would suffice to study medicine. Charlie and I always
got along great and also went on shopping trips together – for instance to Shanghai’s
glasses market. Charlie moved to Germany after her graduation while her parents and
her younger sister stayed on in Shanghai. She now studies medicine and we have met
several times since her move.
Don was aged sixteen when I first met him during class at the German school in
December 2010. A few weeks later I interviewed him together with Bjoern and Alex.
Don was born in Germany to Chinese-born parents and moved to Shanghai at about
the age of twelve. Although I did not conduct any individual interviews with Don, we
met regularly at school and nights out. Don and Alex were close friends and often
seemed inseparable. Don was particularly interested in electronic music and was an
active member of the peer group that students mostly referred to as “the boys.”
Emily, aged twelve when I met her, was born in her “home” country Malaysia, but left
when she was still too young to keep any memories of growing up there. Emily had
lived in Malaysia, Beijing, Thailand, and Shanghai. She arrived in Shanghai one and a
half years prior to the interview and attended a British English-medium middle school. I
interviewed her with fellow students in a group discussion in November 2010.
Freda was fifteen years old when I interviewed her together with Keith and Vijay. She
was from Norway, where she had lived all her life until the move to Shanghai with her
parents and sister in 2010, just a few months prior to the group discussion. She was
enrolled at a British school. Freda is Britta’s younger sister.
Giovanni, seventeen years old, was a rather quiet but always sunny character at the
German school. We hardly ever spoke in the beginning and all I knew about him was
that he was Swiss – his main characteristic when other students at the German school
referred to him. Although I had met him at school and during the peer group nights out
– he would regularly join Bjoern, Alex, Don, Peter, and Marco – it was only during my
first follow-up stay in September 2011 that we conducted an interview and I got to hear
his Shanghai story. Giovanni, born in Switzerland spent his elementary school years in
Istanbul, where his dad was on an assignment. After returning to Switzerland for a few
years, his family moved to Shanghai in his ninth grade, a decision his father had to
make within a few days. At the time of the interview Giovanni and his two brothers had
been living in Shanghai for three years and Giovanni had started his last year before
graduation. We also met for a follow-up interview just after his graduation in June 2012.
Giovanni currently plans to study economics after completing his compulsory training at
the Swiss army.
Jacob, aged nine, was the youngest student I interviewed. He took part in a group
discussion in November 2010 at an international British school, one and a half years
after his family’s move to Shanghai. Jacob had lived in Malaysia, Beijing, Thailand and
Shanghai. Jacob is Emily’s younger brother.
Karina, seventeen years of age, half-Czech, half-German came to Shanghai six
months before the first interview in early 2011. Karina was born in Prague where she
lived until her fifth birthday. Her family then moved to Germany for three years, followed
by a three year stay in the north of China, then moved back to her home town Prague.
In 2010 her family moved to China for a second time, this time to Shanghai. I became
acquainted with Karina at the German school. Karina, fluent in German and Czech and
eloquent in English and French, enjoyed studying Chinese, which she had started
immediately upon her arrival in Shanghai. However, despite her bicultural family and all
her former experiences of moving, Karina experienced her family’s relocation to
Shanghai as a tremendous hardship, away from family and friends in Prague. When I
first met Karina, her position in class was still that of a newcomer. Karina and her
classmate Lara used to be seatmates at that time and I first interviewed them together,
both feeling alienated from the other girls in class who had all been in Shanghai longer
than them. Karina sensed the school environment as highly competitive and missed
the kind of group support she had witnessed at her former international school in
Prague. Individual interviews with Karina followed and over the time a closer
relationship between Karina and me developed. Karina would share her problems
caused by the move to Shanghai as well as her holiday adventures over coffee. I
learned about the mobbing she had to go through in class, in particular from a few
boys, and how this had lead to an emotional outburst and the involvement of teachers
at school. Although the situation improved and she became friends with students from
the other eleventh grade class, Karina never really became part of any of the peer
groups in her class. Whether cause or consequence, Karina disliked the joint nightlife
activities all the other girls in her class would organize and therefore did not join in any.
During a follow-up interview a year after her arrival in September 2011, Karina still felt
homesick for her extended family and friends in Prague. Karina and I stayed in touch
via email and facebook throughout her last year in Shanghai when I had already
returned to Germany. When we met again in June 2012 she was excited to move on to
Germany for her studies, hoping to rejoin old friends. She had very much withdrawn
from school life, however, and did not find the time for another interview.
Kazuo, sixteen years old, Japanese, came to Shanghai one and a half years prior to
the group interview in November 2010. He had lived in Japan and Thailand before. It
was the first time for him to be enrolled at an English-medium school, which he
considered a great challenge for him in the beginning. His English had remains of a
Japanese accent and he only answered interview questions in a very shy manner.
Keith was fourteen years old when he took part in a group discussion in November
2010 at a British school together with Freda and Vijay. Keith came from Singapore and
had already moved to Shanghai at the age of three due to his parents work. He speaks
Chinese fluently.
Kressi, fifteen when we first met at the German school I was allowed to work at, had
moved to Shanghai at an early age. She was born in Germany to Vietnamese parents
with Cantonese roots and seemed to have family all over the world. Kressi had skipped
a grade together with Mia and was one of the youngest in the class. I regularly spent
time with Kressi, as she gradually became part of “the girls” group over the school year.
I also interviewed her twice together with Mia in February and September 2011, and
one time individually in June 2012. Interested in fashion and arts, it was her and her
friend who put together the film for the award ceremony in Berlin where the German
school received a prize for its outstanding arts department. Kressi decided to stay on in
Shanghai together with Bjoern, whom she started dating a year prior to graduation, to
take one semester of Chinese at Jiaotong University. She plans to move to Germany to
study something related to event management, PR, arts or fashion.
Lara, sixteen years old, half Dutch, half German, had grown up in Germany until her
parents announced the move to Shanghai in the summer of 2010. I met Lara at the
German school and conducted one group interview with her and Karina, the two new
girls in the class. A strong soccer player, Lara became captain of the girl school team,
which she enjoyed. However, Lara had difficulties in getting along with the girls in her
grade who seemed not to be tuned to the same wavelength. I quite often accompanied
her during nightlife activities, where she mainly joined “the boys” peer group that her
then boyfriend Peter belonged to. On several occasions Lara and I therefore were the
only females in the group exploring Shanghai’s clubs, leading to a friendly connection
between us. Although comfortable talking at clubs or during school breaks, Lara never
found time to agree on a second interview. Lara was very active on facebook and
managed to continuously stay in touch with her old friends. When difficulties in
adjusting to the academic environment at the end of the school year led to her
voluntarily repeating the eleventh grade, however, Lara found new girl friends in
Shanghai. In June 2012 she seemed to have finally made herself comfortable in
Marco, seventeen years old, is half-Brazilian, half-German. He grew up in Germany,
spending his summers in Brazil until he moved to Shanghai one and a half years prior
to the interview. Marco was enrolled at the German school, and I met him at Friday
night activities, introduced by the students I spend time with during class. We
conducted one long interview together with his classmate and friend Peter. After that
we held occasional small chats on school outings or during nightlife activities. Marco
and his family were one of the few families living in downtown Shanghai, in the former
French concession area. Although this made travels to school quite long, he enjoyed
the proximity to bars and cafés. Due to the distance to school he joined an international
capoeira group rather than extracurricular activities at the school.
Matthias. I met Matthias at the German School in spring 2011. With his long hair and
clothing relating to metal youth culture he looked quite different from most other
students, which led to his nickname Metalmatze. His in-ear headphones always
dangling from the collar of his black T-shirts, he was one of the rather quiet characters
in school. Only when we started talking about the several bands he was playing in, and
the jam sessions he enjoyed with French students, or how he was making some extra
money as a drum teacher, he started to open up and we started discussing his
Shanghai experience. Matthias turned out to be a crucial link to students from other
international schools and introduced me to several of his friends. Matthias had moved
to Shanghai at the age of twelve and now at the age of eighteen was about to return to
Germany. We frequently talked about his immediate future plans: After plans to travel
Australia had been put aside, and Matthias had to look for a career path, he decided to
join the army for one year. His parents and sister stayed on in Shanghai and he moved
back to his grandparents’ house. Joining the German army, however, he would mostly
be away at the barracks. We stayed in touch via facebook and I visited his new home
in Germany, where he proudly showed me around his new own flat, located close to
his grandparents. For a follow-up interview Matthias also visited me for an afternoon in
Heidelberg. Here we discussed how moving back to Germany felt. At this time he was
particularly grateful about his army experience, making his return easier by giving him a
new routine. Matthias also reconnected with old elementary schools friends in his
former hometown. Matthias and I both returned to Shanghai for the graduation
ceremony of his former classmates. He and his family helped me to book a room in a
guesthouse on their housing compound and thus made my last follow–up stay in June
2012 easier. Matthias stayed on in the army and is currently thinking about his future
Mia, age fifteen when I met her, was one of the youngest students in the eleventh
grade of the German school that I worked with. Born in Germany, she grew up in
Singapore, and then moved to Berlin, followed by her first stay in Shanghai. After a few
years in Shanghai her family relocated to Hong Kong for one year, to then return to
Shanghai again. Mia remembered this return as particularly difficult as everyone
expected her to be familiar with Shanghai. However, her social environment had quite
changed over her year of absence, as friends had moved on and new friendships had
been forged and altered. Back in Shanghai again, a year later Mia skipped one grade
together with her close friend Kressi. This was when I met Mia, friendly and open, but
always seemingly under pressure from her high expectations. Diligent, ambitious, and
well-organized, she was always the right one to ask about class schedules or dates for
school events. Mia only occasionally joined nightlife activities, as at the age of fifteen
her parents would not allow her to go out too often. With her best friend Kressi she
shared interests in fashion, arts, and design. Mia was active in the school theater group
and was commonly admired for her abilities with words – I found out why when we
stayed in touch via email upon my return to Germany. These emails were always a
pleasure to read. Besides our frequent interaction at school, dinners with “the girls” or
occasional nightlife activities, I talked to Mia about her Shanghai experience in two
group interviews with Kressi in February and September 2011, as well as in an
individual interview in June 2012. She and her family returned to Germany after her
graduation and Mia started college, living on her own. Unsatisfied with her choice of
studies, however, she returned to her family’s place and conducted an internship.
When chatting online she emphasized how she missed Shanghai and her community
there. Mia is currently thinking about alternative study programs and choosing a career.
Olivia, aged sixteen when I met her, is from Belgium. She had lived several years in
Germany before her family moved to Shanghai in 2007. Due to her upbringing in
Germany and her German-medium education she speaks the language at a nativespeaker level. In Shanghai she also attended a German-medium school. Additionally,
she had Flemish classes once a week after school to be trained to write in her mother
tongue. Olivia was part of “the girls” group and I consequently spent many days and
nights with her and her friends. I interviewed her once together with Antonia and
Charlie in early 2011 and conducted a further follow-up interview with her individually in
June 2012. Olivia was always friendly and supportive to my project. She knew many
students from other schools and also tried to help me arrange interviews with students
she knew from the French school. At school, everyone admired Olivia for her great
looks. She was active on facebook, and we often exchanged messages during my time
away from Shanghai and are still in touch today. After graduation she started studying
in her parents’ hometown in Belgium.
Paul was seventeen years old when we first met. He was born in Brazil and has a
Brazilian mother and a German father. He is fluent in English and Portuguese, his
German, however, is only basic. Paul grew up in Brazil and the United States and
moved to Shanghai six years prior to the interview in May 2011. At that time he was
just about to graduate from a private Christian US-American school and making plans
to move to Germany for college. His father had already moved on to Thailand and his
mother planned to follow after Paul’s graduate ceremony. Paul was introduced to me
by Matthias from the German school. The two had met through a common friend,
whom Paul happened to bump into on a regular basis in different bars or nightclubs.
They became friends and founded a band that both Matthias and Paul became part of.
When Matthias drew a mental map of Shanghai for me, I was curious about the
appearance of other international schools on his map. Addressing this issue he told me
about different friends from other schools that he would hang out or ‘jam’ with.
Consequently, through the binding powers of music, cross-international school
friendships developed. Interested in meeting students from other schools I asked for an
interview with Matthias and his friends. Paul, interested in my research, agreed and
volunteered to meet up for an interview at a coffee shop downtown. In August 2011,
Paul moved to a German university town and enrolled at a private English-medium
university. His grandparents and twenty-year-older half-sister are also living in
Germany, however, not in the same area. After the interview in Shanghai, I only met
Paul again one more time in Germany, just after Christmas 2011. We had stayed in
touch via facebook and exchanged phone numbers to meet up. Our meeting
spontaneously turned into a record shopping tour, which we both enjoyed, and ended
in a café where we discussed his arrival and emplacement in Germany and his future
plans. He currently still pursues his bachelor degree.
Peter, eighteen years old when we met, is a tall boy with a big fringe that always
seems to cover half his face. He was a student at the German school, in the same
grade, but in a different class than the one I was allowed to accompany. However, he
and his friend Marco spent a lot of time with the students from ‘my’ class. Being part of
“the boys,” Peter went out frequently and it was therefore not surprising that we got to
know each other during nightlife activities. I first interviewed him together with Marco in
May 2011 in a café downtown. For Peter, born in northern Germany, the move to
Shanghai was his first and only move abroad. By the time of the interview he had lived
in the city for almost four years. I met Peter again for an individual interview in June
2012, just a few days before he left for Germany right after his graduation. Peter,
always dressed quite individually, hardly seen without headphones or a beanie on, was
interested in young German street wear labels and we sometimes talked about new
labels and styles we had discovered. He was also always interested in my research
and student life in Germany and liked to discuss German politics. Although we had
gotten along fine throughout my fieldwork, I was surprised that Peter became an
important gatekeeper in my research during my last follow-up stay in June 2012 when
he invited me to several activities. At that time he seemed to have a particular strong
position among “the boys.” Peter is now back in the city he considers his hometown in
Germany and shares a flat with Alex. He works a student job part time, hoping to enroll
at the city’s university soon. We have met several times since his move back.
Xia, seventeen years of age, is a Chinese national. He was granted special permission
by the Shanghai municipal government to attend the German school. Born in China,
Xia after kindergarten moved with his parents to Germany, where his father obtained a
PhD. Xia therefore started his school career in Germany. After four years and one
move within Germany, his parents decided to return to Shanghai. Although having
been trained in Chinese writing after school and on weekends, Xia had difficulties in
the entrance test to the local Chinese schools in Shanghai, because the education
system and its ways of testing were unfamiliar to him. His parents therefore applied for
a special permit and Xia was allowed to attend the German-medium school. Here, Xia
was an academically strong student. However, his fellow students always regarded Xia
as different. I conducted an individual interview with Xia in spring 2011 and after that
met him on a regular basis at school, where we would occasionally chat. As I asked for
parents’ permission for interviews concerning all students under age, I was startled to
see that Xia first thought not to be able to participate in such an interview as his
parents thought he would not fit the definition of students my research would be
interested in. Due to the familiarity of the expatriate community with the term “Third
Culture Kids,” I had used this term to explain my research agenda on expatriate youth.
Interestingly, Xia’s parents did not like to see their son as such a hybrid “TCK,” but as
Chinese. I was glad when my explanation to Xia that the term can be debated and
anyone interested can join led to his parents’ agreement. Consequently, I discussed
the politics of cultural identity and intergenerational conflicts around this issue with Xia,
who was very self-reflective upon the matter. It was the conversation with Xia that
introduced me to the difficulties arising for students who have to negotiate between the
world at home and the world at school. I conducted a second interview with Xia in June
2012. After graduation Xia moved to Germany to study engineering.
Vijay was fourteen when he took part in a group discussion at a British school together
with Freda and Keith. He is from India and moved to Shanghai six months prior to the
Tamara was twelve years old when I hosted a group discussion with her and two other
students (Jacob and Allen) at an international British school. After her first move to
China at the age of two, she had been moving back and forth between China and
Singapore – her passport country – over the last years. Tamara was very active in the
discussion with the two boys. Unfortunately, I was not able to keep in touch with her.
Was this manual useful for you? yes no
Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the work of artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Download PDF