Dreams of Flight: The Lives of Chinese Women Students in the West

Fran Martin (2022) Dreams of Flight: The Lives of Chinese Women Students in the West. Durham and London: Duke University Press

by A/P Fran Martin, University of Melbourne

My Dad once said to me […]: do you want to stay in Chengdu forever? Or do you want to have your own dream? He said, if you stay in Chengdu, then after you graduate you’ll work here, and find someone to marry, and that will be your life. And then he said: do you have a dream? If you have a dream, then you should follow it: go off and realise your dream yourself. […] Actually, he said all that very casually, but at the time, I did take notice. I thought about that question a bit. And then I said: I don’t want to spend my whole life there. I don’t want to be like ordinary girls and just pass my life in a very ordinary way, so I thought: I want to go out, I want to take a look around, take a look at this world [laughs]. […] Yes, I really wanted to see what this world is like, so I started to consider going abroad for study.

Suyin, 2015, author’s translation

Suyin, then 22, told me this story a couple of months after she arrived in Melbourne, in response to a question from me about what had motivated her to study abroad. Her narrative is striking for the way it links together the concepts of personal dream, familial support, transnational mobility, and gendered expectation. Suyin describes a mobile dream, supported by her father and fuelled by the hope that study abroad would not only broaden her horizons beyond the city where she had lived since birth, but also re-script the standard female life course that seemed inevitable if she stayed put.

I interviewed Suyin as part of an ethnographic research project I undertook between 2015 and 2020, which saw me follow a core group of fifty Chinese women born around the 1990s on their overseas study journeys in Australia. The project tracked participants from pre-departure in China, where I interviewed them along with their parents; through several years of study at universities in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra; and finally on to their postgraduate working lives in Australia, China, and beyond. The project aimed to shed light on these students’ extra-curricular lifeworlds in Australia: their subjective and emotional experiences of how it feels to study and live abroad at this time in their lives. Dreams of Flight, due to be published early next year, is the result of this study. It examines these women’s motivations for studying overseas and traces their embodied and emotional experiences of Australian cities, social media worlds, work in low-skilled and professional jobs, romantic relationships, religion, Chinese patriotism, and changed self-understanding after study abroad. The book illustrates how emerging forms of gender, class, and mobility fundamentally transform the basis of identity for a whole generation of Chinese women.

Dreams of Flight’s core claim is that understandings and practices of gender are inseparably entangled with middle-class Chinese students’ experiences of educational mobility. A key focus is how young Chinese women negotiate competing pressures on their gendered identity while studying abroad. On one hand, unmarried middle-class women in China’s single child generations are encouraged by their parents and the wider middle-class public culture to develop themselves as professional human capital through international education, moulding themselves into independent, cosmopolitan, career-oriented individuals. On the other, strong neotraditionalist state, social and familial pressures of the post-Mao era push them back toward marriage and family by age thirty. Dreams of Flight asks how time studying abroad affects young women’s negotiation of the contradiction between these competing models of identity.

The chapters demonstrate that, broadly speaking, the experience of transnational educational mobility tended to decrease their identification with neotraditionalist femininity while correspondingly increasing their attachment to mobile enterprising selfhood. Some were initially motivated to study abroad partly by their emerging critique of social pressures pushing women in their twenties toward marriage and family, and their negotiations with sexuality and intimate relationships during their years in Australia involved elaborating alternative understandings of gendered time that directly contested key aspects of normative femininity in China. Finally, participants concurred, after graduation, that their experiences of overseas education had opened up a gulf between the gender neotraditionalism that they saw as constricting the lives of female peers who remained in China, and their own developing understandings of themselves as more independent, self-focused, ambitious, consumerist, career driven, reflexive, and mobility oriented. Even those who rejected or felt disqualified from the upward-striving dream of enterprising selfhood found that overseas study had strengthened their disidentification with neotraditional femininity and their mobile aspirations.

As well as exploring the gendered social life of the Chinese student diaspora, Dreams of Flight also considers some broader, associated questions. How does the Chinese educational exodus reflect China’s economic rise and the attendant in-process transformations in the world order? Within this new order, what will it mean to think of oneself, many of my research participants do, as a global citizen and simultaneously a patriotic Chinese one? How do the massive and ever-growing numbers of mainland Chinese students studying abroad impact on the societies overseas where they live and study? How will Chinese students living in multicultural Western cities be interpellated, construct themselves, and interpret others around them in relation to discourses of ethnicity and race? Around the book’s central theme of the entanglement of gender with educational mobility are woven considerations of concomitant questions concerning the lives of China’s new middle classes, students’ negotiations of the ideals of cosmopolitan selfhood and global citizenship alongside loyalties to the Chinese state, and the ways in which China’s intensifying transnational reach through educational mobilities reconfigures aspects of urban social life, including the workings of race (and racism), in the Western cities where these young people study.

What emerges most forcefully from the book is a vision of a new generation of Chinese middle-class women: women for whom multiplied potentials for mobility—their capacity for dreams of flight—is at the very core of what it means to live.

Author Bio

A/P Fran Martin, University of Melbourne

Associate Professor Fran Martin is Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Fran’s best known research focuses on television, film, literature and other forms of cultural production in contemporary transnational China (The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), with a specialization in transnational flows and representations and cultures of gender and sexuality. She is currently working on a 5-year ARC Future Fellowship project that uses longitudinal ethnography to research the social and subjective experiences of young women from China studying and living in Australia (http://www.mobileselves.org). Fran received both her BA (hons) and her PhD from Melbourne University.

Fran is fluent in Mandarin, having begun learning the language in primary school in Australia. She later spent two years studying Chinese language and literature at Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute and East China Normal University (1989 – 1991). She then spent a further two years researching in Taiwan, including at National Taiwan Central University’s Center for the Study of Sexualities. Prior to joining Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Fran lectured in the Cinema Studies program at La Trobe University (2000-2003).

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