Making sense of one’s feelings: The emotional labour of Chinese international students in Canadian universities

Research Highlighted

Dr Jean Michel Montsion, York University Canada

Montsion, J. M. (2020). Making sense of one’s feelings: The emotional labour of Chinese international students in Canadian universities. Migration, Mobility, & Displacement, 5, 3-19. doi:10.18357/mmd51202019619

Since the early 2000s, Canadian state authorities have been promoting the economic benefits of international students and Canadian universities, similarly, have steadily increased their focus on recruiting and retaining Chinese international students. The focus of this article is not on how state authorities and universities benefit from these increases but on the international student migrants themselves and the role that emotions play in giving coherence to their study and migration journeys. In light of the work of Sara Ahmed (2004) and Arlie Russell Hochschild (2003), I seek to understand how Chinese international students feel and how they are asked to feel about studying at Canadian universities, which has led me to explore how Chinese student migrants are affected by and contribute to a shared affective atmosphere for their years of study in Canada.

This article is based on qualitative research, conducted with ethnographic sensibilities, in 2008 and in 2015 in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. It is based on 12 semi-structured interviews but the stories of four Chinese international students are highlighted more prominently. Insights from university personnel are used to shed light on the institutional expectations about this student group. This research is heuristic in nature, as it attempts to explore the usefulness of key concepts in the growing interdisciplinary field of emotion studies to highlight under-explored connections and social realities of Chinese international students at Canadian universities.

Framing emotions as an active and productive component of how one navigates one’s participation in society, this paper emphasizes emotional labour, or the ways in which people can support, hinder, or re-orient the feelings of others in ways that incite a desired reaction and state of mind (Hochschild, 2003). The emotional labour performed by some can be helpful to others in providing ‘feeling rules,’ which help individuals know the proper ways to act and feel in given situations, based on various ideological precepts or the prescriptions by authoritative sources.

For student migrants in particular, emotional labour is necessarily performed in ways that give coherence to a mix of positive and uneasy feelings that come with the contradictory stances occurring at the intersection of an international migration experience and one’s studies. How student migrants navigate such situations and related feelings is not only an individual reality – they also learn from and support one another as they are influenced by and actively shape a shared affective atmosphere (Anderson, 2009). The social dimension of this emotional journey connects to Ahmed’s (2004) notion of the ‘skin of the collective,’ as student migrants may have nothing in common other than a similar set of feeling rules and the performance of similar emotional labour in adapting to their new life and study conditions.

The key takeaways from this study are based on the stories of the student participants whose emotional labour contributed to a similar, broadly defined migration narrative of Chinese international students at Canadian universities. While the first-year students shared their anxieties and desires pertaining to their transition to and first months of studying in Canada, the more senior students highlighted how community involvement and leading peer support efforts ended up being key to providing meaning to their journeys.

In their emotional journeys, the definition of a shared sense of home started with these students developing social networks with other students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They emphasized a feeling rule of comfort in the cultural proximity they experienced through the various events they participated in or led. Spending time with other Chinese international students from the PRC resulted in associating cultural proximity with emotional closeness, as these students developed similar social boundaries and created a common history.

Through their emotional labour, these students all participated in reproducing with their peers expectations about how to feel as a Chinese international student in Canada, while also showing how their desires and anxieties can be reconciled. These shared expectations have led to the emergence of specific feeling rules. For instance, they all expressed how initial feelings of isolation and confusion had to be replaced by self-reliance, and they made it a point to interpret their own experiences in learning this lesson as a difficult emotional journey. As such, the performance of struggling and engaging with specific feelings becomes key to understanding the contours of the shared affective atmosphere, as students help to identify and interpret key academic, social, and emotional milestones in the student migrant experience and make them productive and meaningful in concrete ways, both for themselves and for others in the same situation.

Finally, it is important to note that various actors in positions of authority, such as university personnel, governments, families, and third-party recruitment agents, also contribute to shaping these feeling rules, including how Chinese international students should feel while studying in Canada. For Canadian universities, their interest is in transforming Chinese international students into mainstream students and into future alumni who contribute to Canadian society by possibly joining the Canadian workforce. As proximate actors, they come into contact in various ways with the skin of the collective and imbue the narrative of what Chinese international students want for themselves with a specific ideological bent. For instance, activities such as improving English language skills are framed as being closely connected to the support provided by the university for a successful post-graduate job search, preferably in Canada.


Ahmed, S. (2004). Affective economies. Social Text 79, 22(2), 117-39.

Anderson, B. (2009). Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society, 2, 77-81.

Hochschild, A.R. (2003). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Author Bio

Jean Michel Montsion is an Associate Professor of Canadian Studies at Glendon College, York University, Canada, and the Associate Director of the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR). His work is found at the intersections of ethnicity, mobility, and urbanity in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, focusing the experiences of specific social groups linking Canada to Asia. He is currently leading a Canada-wide team looking into the racialization of Chinese, Indian and Korean international students in five Canadian universities. He has published in Asian Ethnicity, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Geoforum.

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