Study of expats in China underway

by Ray Clancy on November 23, 2011

Study to focus on how expats construct community in Shanghai

A student of anthropology from New Zealand is spending a year in Shanghai, China, to study expats.

Doctoral student David Foote previously studied the behaviour of anti capitalists in New Zealand and says there are similarities between the two groups.

‘They are both examples of urban ethnography, and they both deal with marginal identities. Expats in China are a marginal identity. They’re used to being in the mainstream and suddenly thrust into a marginal position in society. A privileged marginal position, but it’s marginal nonetheless,’ he explained.

He will look at everything relating to the expat life including what furniture they buy, their social life and what they eat.

Foote believes that by observing the expat community he will get a far better idea of who they are and what their values are, more so than any survey as people can easily give answers that they think the survey wants and even lie.

Foote, who arrived in August, will spend the first six months of his research period simply living the life of an expat in Shanghai, informally observing expats, making friends, catching up on the gossip and working out how the community ticks. Then he will conduct a series of formal interviews with expats to answer his key questions about community and identity.

‘I’m looking at how expats construct community, and why community is more important here than it would be at home. I’m also looking at the construction of a new identity in China, how being in China influences your construction of identity, and the role of community in that,’ he explained.

A key area he hopes to examine is that of wives who are sometimes referred to as the ‘trailing wives’ as they follow their husbands around the globe. He wants to find out if they are reluctant to move to China or find it stressful living in the city.

‘Back home, we’re more receptive to new ideas and experiences because we don’t feel they will threaten our identities. Whereas in this situation, the boundaries around our identity close down because they’re constantly being contested. We’re constantly having to face things that are outside of our comfort zone,’ Foote said.

‘And we still make choices about what we accept, but those are much more conscious choices, like okay, I like this piece of Chinese culture, so I’ll let it through,’ he added.

An example he says is an expat housewife buying a Chinese bowl to show that she is embracing her new country but that bowl might not be Chinese at all but made in Singapore to a Japanese design and is actually something that is rejected by modern Chinese people who would rather buy something from IKEA.

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