Privileged Daughters? Gendered Mobility among Highly Educated Chinese Female Migrants in the UK

Social Inclusion Volume 8, Issue 2, Pages 68–76

About the article:

Over the past two decades, the number of women from China’s one-child generation studying in the West has surpassed that of their male counterparts. In 2014, when the data-collection for this article took place, women comprised 51 percent of Chinese students in the United States, 55 percent in Canada, and 63 percent in the UK. Famous for its higher education sector, the UK has long been a popular destination for Chinese students, especially for those who want to do a Master’s degree.

Statistics from China’s Ministry of Education showed that in 2018 more than 90 percent of the country’s international students had private resource to fund their study. International students typically rely on middle-class parents for the cost their education and maintenance overseas. Among families that have only one child, there is little evidence to suggest that parents pay attention to their child’s gender when funding their education overseas. The one-child generation daughters born to middle-class Chinese parents enjoy the privilege of concentrated family resources and the opportunity for education overseas.

While we celebrate greater educational mobility for the one-child generation girls from China, we cannot assume that these “privileged daughters” will, therefore, enjoy the same social mobility after the completion of their education. The article focuses on the “privileged daughters” who have studied in the UK for a postgraduate degree and remained overseas as professionals. The British government established very selective work visa policies for foreign graduates, and this article’s cohort has demonstrated the motivation and capacity of successfully securing a place in a competitive British employment market. However, in this relatively “elite” group we discovered various forms of immobility influenced by the traditional Chinese patrilineal gender values passed on to the overseas daughters through their parents.

To elaborate this point, we use three cases of post-student female migrants who are of different ages and at different life stages, we situate their socioeconomic mobility in the context of intergenerational relationships and transnational social space. Dahong is single, Beiyao is just married and has a new-born baby, and Meilin has been married for more than ten years and has a school-age son. Their different life stages reveal the continuities and changes of the significant social factors that shape their life decisions. Each life stage from before, during and after their overseas education, illustrates the shifting gender expectation they experienced, particularly the parental influence throughout the whole process.

Dahong wants to become an entrepreneur, but her “traditionally-minded” father does not believe a “businesswoman” sounds “descent” in marriage market. Dahong has also given herself a “deadline” to get married and have children before she turns 35. Although appearing to be resistant to her father’s opinion, Dahong does not fundamentally challenge the socially expected female life course of marriage and motherhood.

Beiyao holds a PhD and respected job, her life path carries her mother’s dreams and hope to prove to others that it is not a misfortune to give birth to a daughter. Beiyao’s mother experienced gender discrimination herself because of failing to produce a son. This could be interpreted as a coping strategy to regain both the family and individual woman’s dignity in a society that continuously values sons over daughters.

Meilin is the oldest of the three women and had experienced greater conflict between career, marriage and motherhood. Her initial success in education and employment was largely the result of the support from her mother, who later also advised Meilin to compromise her career for her marriage and not become a “stigmatised divorcee”. 

Drawing on further interview data from the same project we argue that, although the “privileged daughters” have achieved geographical mobility and upward social mobility, through education and a career in a Western country, their life choices remain heavily influenced by their parents in China. Such findings highlight the transnationally transferred gendered burden among the relatively “elite” cohort, thus revealing a more nuanced gendered interpretation of transnational socioeconomic mobility.

It is important to note that we do not simply assume China and the UK as the “traditional” and the “modern”, rather, we would like to point out the contrast between pre-graduate educational upward mobility and post-graduate gendered (im)mobility. For these highly educated female migrants in the UK, gendered mobility has two dimensions: on the one hand the intergenerational continuity of gender norms; on the other hand, the ways in which individuals navigate gender expectations in transnational social space. Although the “privileged daughters” have achieved geographical mobility and upward social mobility through educational success and a professional career in a Western country, they are still being “pulled back” by their parents who are “left behind” in China.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Mengwei Tu, East China University of Science and Technology

Mengwei Tu (PhD) is a Lecturer in Sociology at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Kent (2016). Her research focuses on global movement of highly educated migrants, including both migrants from China and migrants to China. Her book Education, Migration and Family Relations between China and the UK (Emerald, 2018) took an intergenerational angle in understanding the human complexity behind overseas education and migration.

Dr Kailing Xie, University of Warwick

Kailing Xie (PhD) is Teaching Fellow at the Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick. Her work explores the role of gender in contemporary Chinese governance. Her publications include a monograph Embodying Middle Class Gender Aspirations: Perspectives from China’s Privileged Young Women and the journal article “Premarital Abortion, What is the Harm? The Responsibilisation of Women’s Pregnancy among China’s ‘Privileged’ Daughters” that was awarded the 2017 Early Career Researcher Prize by the British Association for Chinese Studies.

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