Navigating the educational pathway: Lifelong learning, Citizenship, Intergenerational dynamics and transcultural negotiations of immigrant Chinese in Luxembourg

Wu, Jinting. (2019). Transnational strategies and lifelong learning in the shadow of citizenship: Chinese migrants in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 38(1), 88-102.

Wu, Jinting. (2019, online first). Navigating the educational pathway: Intergenerational dynamics and transcultural negotiations of immigrant Chinese in Luxembourg. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education.


Dr Jinting Wu, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

These two articles are based on nine months of ethnographic study I carried out in 2012-2013 on schooling, community, and transnational strategies of Chinese immigrants in Luxembourg. The larger study examines the contested roles of education/learning in the family strategies and intergenerational dynamics of Chinese migrants, and highlights their pragmatic struggles and creative agency in navigating a Eurocentric citizenship regime.

In an article recently published in the International Journal of Lifelong Education, I draw from theoretical concepts on citizenship, coloniality, and lifelong learning to examine different modalities of learning and transnational strategies among three groups of Chinese migrants – temporary workers, visa overstayers, and restaurant owners. In analyzing their pragmatic struggles, creative agency, and unending hopes for better lives, the paper illustrates how they engage in what Aihwa Ong (1996) calls the dual process of self-making and being made, vis-à-vis the Eurocentric citizenship regime, knowledge hierarchies, and exclusionary labour market.

The first group “temporary workers” refers to those who entered the country without legal permission and live in precarious conditions. The second group “visa overstayers” refers to those who due to various circumstances stayed past the expiry of their visa permits. Compared to these two highly invisible and illegalized groups, the third group “restaurant owners” are successful business entrepreneurs who have gained financial stability and settled down as naturalized European citizens. The three groups represent the various modes of learning and transnational practices by which Chinese migrants negotiate the global cycle of coloniality and inequality.

In Luxembourg, there has been a shift from a permissive immigration policy motivated by the need for industrial labour, to a more restrictive policy to protect social and economic wellbeing of Luxembourgian citizens. Despite the country’s high immigrant ratio, a restrictionist citizenship regime persists to favor high-skill white Europeans (Valentova & Berzosa, 2012). In the context of transnational migration, the normative agenda of lifelong learning tacitly frames immigrants’ dilemmas in terms of deficit and lack, as remediable through continual learning. It, however, ignores the new forms of vulnerabilities associated with the move to a new country and the needs for social protection against linguistic, education, employment, and legal challenges (Guo, 2010, p.159). In addition, immigrants’ prior learning and experience are often devalued or undervalued such that the prospect of a better life is often reduced to downward social mobility (Wagner and Childs, 2006).

The article highlights how Chinese migrants’ efforts at language learning, skill improvement, and possible integration were rendered invisible, impossible, and even punishable in the ethno-cultural and linguistic hierarchies that delegitimize migrants’ multiple ways of being and knowing. Nevertheless, Chinese immigrants crafted their own transnational life with hope, creativity, and resilience: at times they transacted with “snakeheads,” overstayed visas, borrowed IDs to wire money or register for language classes, or contemplated a foreign marriage, with the hope of perhaps eventually settling down and feeling at home. Their modes of learning are driven by practical needs for getting by, obtaining legal recognition, managing trying circumstances, and making a home away from home. The paper argues that lifelong learning needs to be understood anthropologically as continuous cultural, social, and legal encounters. Until these embodied forms of learning and being are fully comprehended, the Eurocentric citizenship regime will continue to produce racial, cultural, epistemological divides and perpetuate the global cycle of inequality.

The second article, recently published by Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, examines a central question: what roles does schooling play in the intergenerational dynamics and transcultural negotiations among immigrant Chinese in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg? Drawing upon Bourdieu’s (1984,1986) theorization of capital, I offer an ethnographic account of how immigrant Chinese exhibited particular cultural orientations and social ties – alternative forms of cultural and social capital— that helped them gain collective wellbeing yet also produced intergenerational and cross-cultural tensions in childrearing and schooling.

Nicknamed “the heart of Europe,” Luxembourg has witnessed a lengthy historical influx of immigrants, guest workers, and asylum seekers as a center of global mobility, offering an effective lens for examining the complex landscape of immigrant education. With foreign-born inhabitants approaching half of its total population, Luxembourgish society faces a major challenge of social integration and equity. Understanding Chinese educational adaptation and school-family relations becomes a pressing issue for educators, policymakers, and researchers.

In this paper, I use “immigrant Chinese” specifically to refer to those in catering businesses or owning small shops, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population in Luxembourg at the time of the research. My sample consists of restaurant workers originally from Qingtian, a county in Zhejiang Province of China known for its rich emigration history, as well as their children born in Luxembourg and enrolled in secondary schools at the time of the study. Qingtian people are known for their entrepreneurship in specialized, small-scale family businesses and transnational kinship network which, through a “chain migration,” allows established immigrants to help newcomers with employment and social support. This migratory pattern reinforces strong kinship ties and delayed gratification, obliging even children to shoulder family responsibilities at early ages.

As I illustrate in this paper, the widespread criticism of the “restaurant problem and pressure problem” – that Chinese children contributed labour to family restaurants and were under parental pressure to achieve academic success – is in fact part of immigrants’ social and cultural resources in response to the challenges and deprivation of the host country. On the one hand, Chinese parents were keen on transmitting the value of discipline and hard work as imperative for immigrant survival. They blamed complacent teachers and their pleasure-seeking children for falling short of their sacrifice and expectations. On the other hands, second-generation youth were aware of the importance of education as the anchor of Chinese overseas wealth, yet anxious of their own marginalization in constantly juggling academic double standards and multiple achievement ideologies. Both generations faced a unique set of challenges, including an early sorting system of the schools, a complex linguistic landscape, a time-consuming catering life, and negative stereotypes held by the society.

As this study demonstrates, immigrant-specific social and cultural resources – as reflected in familism and high academic aspirations (even pressures) –are both a source of empowerment (alternative forms of capital allowing Chinese immigrants to compensate for lack of support and recognition in the host country) and a source of constraint (when not sufficiently understood by the schooling system and when producing stereotypes and intergenerational conflicts). Enhancing educational equality requires a more nuanced understanding of alternative types of social and cultural capital among immigrant families, as well as a strength-based, rather than deficit-oriented, view of culture in relation to teaching and learning (Ngo & Lee, 2007). On the other hand, it is important not to romanticize ethnicity and culture as rooted and unchanging, but take into account dynamic negotiations through intergenerational and cross-cultural encounters. This paper calls for culturally responsive schooling in order to better understand immigrants’ multi-pronged challenges, resources, and aspirations in negotiating educational inequalities.

Author Bio

Book coverDr Jinting Wu is Assistant Professor of Educational Culture, Policy and Society. She is an educational anthropologist with an interest in philosophy and cultural studies. Her research often deploys ethnographic field methods to critically investigate relationships among schooling, society, and culture; it also examines educational policy shifts both as lived experiences and as reflecting the larger spheres of cultural ideation, social (re)production, nation building and globalization. Recent projects have involved study of rural minority education, child disabilities and special education, immigrant youth and families, and educational meritocracy on the global stage. Prior to joining the GSE faculty, she worked as Assistant Professor at the University of Macau (SAR, China) and was a postdoctoral fellow of educational sciences at the University of Luxembourg. Jinting is author of Fabricating an Educational Miracle (SUNY Press, 2017 AERA Division B Outstanding Book Recognition Award; The Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award).


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