Moral Dilemmas of Transnational Migration: Vietnamese Women in Taiwan

By Lan Anh Hoang

The unprecedented rise in female migration in the past decades has engendered profound social change within both host and origin societies across the world. At present, women account for 48% of the world’s migrant population and the majority of them are found in the South – North migration pathway (IOM 2013: 65). In Asia, where 75% of international migrants are from the same region, contract labour migration has made it easier than ever for women to migrate transnationally for work. Female migration, especially when it involves mothers leaving their children behind, tends to be fraught with disruptions and dilemmas. Migration and physical separation from one’s family challenge the universal ideology of womanhood and femininity with caregiving and nurturing duties at its core.

Drawing on an ethnographic study of Vietnamese migrant mothers in Taiwan, this article provides important insights into the women’s renegotiations of notions of motherhood and femininity in the context of transnational labour migration. Because care has been essentialized as a feminine vocation that makes a woman womanly, the migrant’s inability to perform care duties in the conventional manner inevitably subjects her to the social stigma of  “bad motherhood” and  “failed femininity.” West and Zimmerman have pointed out that gender is not ascribed but achieved through  “social doings” which involve not only perceptual but also  “interactional and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine “natures”. Migrant mothers defy the prevailing notion of an ideal woman not only by engaging in masculine pursuits of mobility and breadwinning but also by vacating what is considered central to the woman’s nature – caregiving. She is thus called to account for failing to do gender appropriately.

The study engages with and advances West and Zimmerman’s idea of accountability in gender doings. In particular, it underscores their view that social doings of gender are often designed in such a way that they would be characterized as in accord with culturally approved standards. Yet, it highlights at the same time the reflexivity and instrumentalism in such actions. In other words, seemingly compliant behaviors are not necessarily a passive enactment of social norms but may be a strategic means to other ends. What is often taken for granted as an oppressive gender regime could be exploited by those perceived as its perennial victims to further their interests.

With its analytical focus on hy sinh (self-sacrifice) and chịu đựng (endurance) – core values of Vietnamese womanhood – the article also reveals important changes in Vietnamese women’s subjective interpretation and practice of Vietnamese femininity ideals. It brings attention to migrant women’s embrace of the values of endurance and self-sacrifice does not, as it might appear, embody an inert internalization of patriarchal but is rather a conscious strategy.Because gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences (Butler, 2008), adopting compelled performances of dominant gender discourses is critical in a context where the woman’s social security is volatile and uncertain. Combating the stigma of bad motherhood and failed femininity is not just about reasserting one’s sense of gendered self but also about reassuring her access to the future support and care of the family. The study emphasizes intentionality and pragmatism in women’s social doings of gender and highlights moral dilemmas in gender politics.

Lan Anh Hoang is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies in the School of Social and Political Sciences, the University of Melbourne.Her main research interests include migration and transnationalism, sexualities and gender, children and childhood, marriage and family, social networks and social capital, and identities and belonging. Her current project looks at irregular Vietnamese migrants in Moscow, Russia. Her article can be found in the December 2016; 30 (6) issue of Gender & Society here

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