Emotions and migration aspirations: western scholars in China and the navigation of aspirational possibilities

Dr Bingyu Wang, Sun Yat-sen University, China

Research Highlighted

Wang, Bingyu, and Jingfu Chen. 2020. “Emotions and migration aspirations: western scholars in China and the navigation of aspirational possibilities.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Advanced On-line publication. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2020.1764841


Drawing on qualitative research with western scholars working at Sino-foreign universities (SFUs), this paper highlights the emerging academic mobility trend moving from the Global North to South. With a theoretical focus on ‘emotions in migration’, the paper first asks how these foreign scholars’ migration aspirations towards China are initiated and nurtured before the move. Second, it explores after the move, how they emotionally encounter China in everyday life and perform agency, i.e. exercising specific ‘emotional labour’ to reframe their lived experiences and migration aspirations. Third, it examines how their capacity of materialising migration aspirations can be facilitated and constrained by a set of structural factors at the macro, meso and micro level, and how their migration aspirations towards the future are reconfigured accordingly.

Taking western scholars in China as a case study, this article has not only focused on the emotional dynamics and precarities involved in the process of mobile individuals generating and materialising migration aspirations, but also delved into how their agentive efforts are performed in relation to their biographies and structural conditions. On the one hand, this research shows that migration aspirations are subject to constant trans- formations, disruptions or discontinuities. That is to say, migration itself, as an inherently risky venture, is regularly interrupted by reality checks that bring into question the potentials of aspirations as individuals undertake and experience mobilities in the world. Yet, on the other hand, we argue that mobile individuals who live under emotional vulnerabilities, are capable of conducting emotional labour and navigating through their aspirational possibilities to secure more pleasant life and career futures. Critically, this research views migration aspirations as temporary, contingent and inherently emotional, emphasising the ways mobile individuals draw on different discursive frameworks from the past, present and future to narrate and navigate their aspirational landscape across diverse migratory experiences.

In this regard, this article makes several important contributions to advancing scholarly understandings of migration. First of all, theoretically, the article has built on the insights of literature on migration aspirations and emotions in migration to explore the quotidian and lived experiences of mobile scholars at an individual level, thus transcending beyond the conventional political economy and human capital framework that dominates academic migration studies. More importantly, by paying more specific attention to the emotional dimension of migration aspirations, this article has elaborated how aspirations are imaginative and mutable during migration, demonstrating that they must be examined as constantly generated, exercised and reconfigured across time by emotional encounters, emotional labour (agency) and structural forces. Hence, this article has introduced an emotionally-sensitive approach for mapping (academic) migrants’ reported aspirations in light of the interdependence between the memories of the past, the emotional encounters with present opportunity structures and the subjective yet agentive constructions of the future, thus extending the literature on migration aspirations and academic migration.

Second, empirically, the literature on academic migration has shown major interest in those academic mobilities from the Global South to North. Specifically, in the China context, the majority of the existing studies have been done regarding Chinese academic returnees (Wang 2019, 2020) and Chinese knowledge diaspora (Leung 2015; Yang and Welch 2010) while rather few attempts have been made to study those foreign scholars who move into China. In this respect, this article serves as an empirical extension and reflects the newly-emerged North-to-South academic migration trend. Moreover, academic migrants, especially those western ones moving to the Global South are traditionally seen as elite mobile individuals possessing high human and mobility capital, particularly in the ‘global academy where Western forms and outlets dominate knowledge production and research outputs’ (Wang 2020, 182). In the contrary, this article perceives these mobile scholars as middling transnationals who are positioned with an ambiguous status within international mobility hierarchies, thus providing in-depth reading towards the supposedly glorious moving process of the highly-skilled migrants in general.

Essentially, this article contributes to the rise of the renewed interest in the analytical promise of aspirations (Wang and Collins 2020), better unpacking ‘the forces and frictions’ (Carling and Collins 2018) through which migration is initiated, enacted and reconfigured. By acknowledging the irrational, imaginative and temporally-discursive nature of aspirations, we also respond to the growing scholarly attention to emotions, time/temporalities and futures happening in migration studies. Apart from the emotional and the temporal, future research can be done to address the infrastructural, to ask how individuals’ migration aspirations are embedded within, facilitated and constrained by those ‘taken-for-granted’ migration infra- structures (the institutional, the physical and the technological) and those seemingly mundane yet essential ones at the everyday level (including intermediaries of different kinds such as friends, colleagues and bilingual children). Besides, there has been ‘a mobility bias’ in migration research, we thus call for a need to focus on the ‘drivers’ behind the immobility aspirations amongst those who are ‘staying’ either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Related research on ‘time and migration aspirations’ can be seen at Wang and Collins (2020) Temporally distributed aspirations: New Chinese Migrants to New Zealand and the Figuring of Migration Futures.  Sociology.


Carling, J., and F. Collins. 2018. “Aspiration, Desire and Drivers of Migration.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44 (6): 909–926.

Leung, M. W. 2017. “Social Mobility Via Academic Mobility: Reconfigurations in Class and Gender Identities among Asian Scholars in the Global North.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (16): 2704–2719.

Wang, Bingyu. 2019. “Time in Migration: Temporariness and Temporal Labour Amongst Early Career Chinese Academic Returnees.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2019.1642741.

Wang, Bingyu. 2020. “A Temporal Gaze towards Academic Migration: Everyday Times, Lifetimes and Temporal Strategies Amongst Early Career Chinese Academic Returnees.” Time and Society 29 (1): 166–186.

Wang, Bingyu, and Francis Collins. 2020. “Temporally Distributed Aspirations: New Chinese Migrants to New Zealand and the Figuring of Migration Futures.” Sociology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0038038519895750.

Yang, R., and A. Welch. 2010. “Globalisation, Transnational Academic Mobility and the Chinese Knowledge Diaspora: an Australian Case Study.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 31 (5): 593–607.


Bingyu Wang is an Associate Professor at the School of Sociology and Anthropology of Sun Yat-sen University, where she was recruited as a member of the ‘100 Top Talents Program’. Her research areas include migration and mobilities, intercultural encounters, and cosmopolitanism, with an empirical focus on highly-skilled migrants and temporary migrants, and a theoretical focus on emotions, time and the everyday. She has published widely in high-ranked international journals and is the author of New Chinese Migrants in New Zealand: Becoming Cosmopolitan? Roots, Emotions and Everyday Diversity (Routledge, 2019). She is currently conducting research projects concerning Global North-South academic mobilities, specifically on returning Chinese scholars, Chinese knowledge diaspora and foreign scholars in China. Bingyu is on the editorial board of Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.  She can be reached at wangby29@mail.sysu.edu.cn or via her profile page at Research Gate.

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