This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgMany of the people close to my heart are transnationals such as myself. Belonging is a frequently discussed topic in my circles, and often a topic that is surrounded by considerable angst. Where do we belong? Is it really worth it? What were we thinking when we were young adult students making our first international move which has propelled our international careers since and put us on a trajectory where home, at least in the singular, simply doesn’t exist?

These reflections are not unique to me and my circle of friends as I’ve just discovered when I read Youna Kim’s article about “Asian women on the move” (and, yes, the title was a major part of the attraction). Many of the interview excerpts with Chinese, Korean and Japanese women living in London sounded as if it was me and my friends talking.

All these women come from quite privileged and educated backgrounds and one of their key motivations to move to London had been to further their education and to free themselves from the traditional constraints imposed on women back home, including the imperative to marry. When they spoke about the reasons for their move they included the Western media who they had used frequently back home and  which had instilled a hope for self-transformation in them. Regular readers of Language-on-the-Move will know that this is also something Kimie Takahashi and I have found in our research with Japanese women studying in Australia (see, for instance, here and here).

However, additionally, Kim found that, once they had left home and moved to London, the women’s patterns of media consumption changed drastically. They lost interest in the Western media that had motivated them in the first place and started to use ethnic media. The reason for that change was not nostalgia, as one might expect, but rather an acute sense of exclusion, as expressed in these quotes:

In the first year I watched television to know this society. Now [after three years] don’t watch. The more I watch, the more I feel alienated.… There’s no connection. It’s too British. I liked the British accent before because it sounded posh, but now that accent feels alienating too. (Korean woman in London; p. 139)

No quality food, no caring for others’ feelings.… I stop fighting because it was my choice to move here, because my English is not good enough. I cannot even express frustration to outsiders as they say, ‘You live in attractive London!’ My friend depressed in Paris hears the same, ‘You live in beautiful Paris!’ (Japanese woman in London; p. 142)

I feel like a woman warrior of China. I feel the wall, whether that is racism, invisible hostility, coldness, or superiority in culture.… I am becoming more Chinese while living abroad. This feeling grows. (Chinese woman in London; p. 148)

One of the reasons for the boom in international education in general and for language study-abroad in particular is that study abroad and the proficiency in English it is supposed to confer are frequently touted as the high road to social inclusion, with social inclusion being defined as economic success and career advancement. However, as these women have found, this imagined form of aspirational social inclusion comes at the cost of actually being social excluded in a mundane, every-day sense. Transnational migrants often lose their connections with home or see real connections transformed into virtual connections. At the same time, they don’t find a way into the host society in a mundane sense, either: Kim’s interviewees speak about domestic discomforts (“no quality food”), their overall disappointment with (to them) surprisingly low levels of quality of life or the sense of marginalization that comes with not being able to share a joke. Above all, they trace their sense of exclusion back to linguistic difficulties: routine encounters become daily reminders that they are different and that they don’t belong.

Kim’s research is evidence of a perpetual dialectic that is at the heart of the intersection between language and social inclusion: while language learning and international education hold the promise of social inclusion as economic advancement, in everyday life they actually serve to marginalize and exclude (even relatively privileged) transnational migrants from a sense of home. Maybe that’s another explanation why Japanese students, at least, have started to choose home over learning English abroad. Kim, Y. (2011). Diasporic nationalism and the media: Asian women on the move International Journal of Cultural Studies, 14 (2), 133-151 DOI: 10.1177/1367877910382184

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Dionisio Franca

    Great text Ingrid.

    Its interesting to notice that some people have a hard time in order to adjust themselves to their homeland if they go back to their countries after living abroad for a long time.

  • Well said Ingrid. And I agree with Dionisio Francas comment – reverse culture shock is a natural outcome. One can never go back because the time and place has changed. The migrants almost live in a time warp; they retain an image of the home country as it was yet the people and places continue to march on. So when they return with their new found sensibilities yet expecting everything to be the same as they left it, they are greeted with the reality of a present day homeland. Both attribute to the reverse culture shock and there is no going back.

  • Jean Cho

    This reminds me of the days that I and my friends were into the “Sex and the City” series. We yearned for the kind of lifestyle that the glamorous New Yorkers were leading… without realizing that things might not be the same for wanna-be New Yorkers, those outside the circle. I always thought that it’d be a good research topc to investigate the impact that this drama has had on young Korean females – the fantasy inculcated by this drama played a small part in me deciding to come to Australia for an unrestrained lifestyle and I was lucky enough to meet my husband – happy ending, huh? 🙂

  • Hi Kim,
    I met you for a short while at the Chula Conference in Bangkok. Having lived in Thailand( originally from India) I feel like I have merged into the Thai culture and I feel like an alien from an outer planet when I go home.Yes, I love meeting my friends,eating good Indain food….but it stops there.I hate it when people start being judgemental about me! Of course I dont know how it feels when one moves from an Asian background to a Western Country.I havent taken that road yet.Just wanted to share this poem I wrote.

    I do belong.
    But now I can see
    The inside from the outside.
    Agree to disagree
    Accept to be different.
    The Land of Smiles
    Taught me
    To be or not to be
    To smile not cry,
    To live not die,
    To give not to gain.
    Gave me freedom.
    I feel complete
    I can find
    Richness in simplicity,
    Peace and happiness,
    Within myself.
    I know
    Where I belong.

  • Hailin

    Thank you for your post, Ingrid! We have the sayings: the grass is always greener. only when we are away from our home, may we fully realize the attractiveness of it!

  • Sheila Pham

    This is such an interesting post and I’ve had a lot of thoughts along these lines with people I’ve met…just curious, do things change when/if these women find a local partner? Because I imagine that would make a huge difference to a sense of belonging somewhere which is otherwise very alienating.

  • There is one quote from a Chinese woman with a British boyfriend in the paper. She says: “I live with my boyfriend [white British]. His mother says, ‘Take care of my son, you are so lucky!’ His friends are similar. From their views, I am so lucky to marry a British man, I should feel happy, not complain about anything.… I never cooked in China as my mother did, but now cook dinner two times – Chinese for me, Western for him. I thought Western men would cook. Is it because I am a Chinese woman? I am confused … do I really love him?” …. Quite poignant, isn’t it? A local partner can be alienating, too, I guess …

  • Wamut

    Another interesting post. I’m guessing there are parallels for many Aboriginal people who hear a lot of rhetoric about the need to develop English and/or academic skills and get good jobs, allowing them to somehow become more ‘acceptable’ citizens. But I’d say few are ever truly accepted by our Anglo-dominated society even after investing effort and energy in doing the ‘right’ things. (E.g. they could be perceived as holding tokenistic positions, or, if they’re assertive, they would be perceived as politicised trouble-makers). From Aboriginal perspectives, the threat of being labeled a ‘coconut’ by other Aboriginal people is real and of concern.

    On the other hand, there are many who do great things in education and employment but chose to put their energies into working for their own community (rather than trying to appease Anglo ideals of a successful Indigenous person), are often overlooked or under-acknowledged.