Rural Migrant Men in Urban China: Masculinity and Compromise

By Yinni Peng

Mass rural-urban migration has been sustained in China for over three decades. According to data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, the number of rural-urban migrants reached 281.71 million in 2016. Rural-urban migration has not only contributed a vast amount of cheap labor to China’s rapid economic development and urbanization in past decades but has also dramatically shaped the lives of migrants and their left-behind family members in rural China.

In the current discussion of rural-urban migration and families in post-reform China, most of the attention has been paid to left-behind children and migrant women. How migration impacts rural migrant men’s family life and gender identity remains an understudied issue. To enrich the discussion of migration and masculinity, Susanne Choi and I coauthored a book entitled Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China that explores the reconstruction of masculinity of rural-urban migrant men in South China. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 192 rural migrant men in Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, we delineated how these men interpreted and negotiated their gender and family roles as lovers, husbands, fathers, and sons in an intersectional structure of gender, class, and the rural-urban divide in China.

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Despite being internal migrants, these rural-urban migrant men face structural barriers to employment and social welfare in their urban destinations under China’s household registration (hukou) system. Since the 1950s, China has used the household registration system to differentiate, and sometimes even segregate, its rural and urban populations. Inherited from one’s parents, one’s hukou status determines his/her access and entitlement to public resources and social welfare. When millions of rural people migrate to urban China, the majority find it hard to obtain urban hukou in their destination cities, and their rural hukou constrains them from accessing urban public resources and social welfare. As a result, most rural-urban migrants are stuck in the secondary labor market in urban China and must take on dirty, difficult, or dangerous jobs undesirable to urban residents. Long working hours, meager salaries, and limited access to social welfare not only make rural-urban migrants an economically marginalized group in urban China but also force them to leave their dependent family members behind in their rural hometowns. Their rural origin also makes them second-class citizens who are discriminated against by urban residents in their cities.

In rural China, patriarchy grants rural men power and authority in both the public and private spheres. They dominate economic activities, control various resources, and usually hold authority as the head of the household. Although rural-urban migration enables these rural men to earn more economic resources for their families, their socioeconomic inferiority and marginalization in urban destinations puts their masculinity in crisis. Migration exposes these rural men to a hegemonic urban discourse of masculinity that emphasizes men’s economic success and professional knowledge or skills. Compared with their urban counterparts, rural-urban migrant men have limited socioeconomic resources to play the role of a romantic lover via generous consumption or the role of a good husband/father who is able to provide his family with good economic support.

 Meanwhile, the discrepancy between rural patriarchal tradition and modernized urban ideologies of gender and family causes struggles, dilemmas, and tensions in their multiple family relations. In their romantic relationships, young migrant men have to strike a balance between their romantic desire for an urbanized lover with whom they share an emotional intimacy and spiritual communication and their parents’ preference for a filial local wife. In their conjugal relationships, rural migrant men have to negotiate with their wives about post-marital residence, the labor division of housework and childcare, and the allocation of family resources. In their parent-child relationships, they struggle between their paternal breadwinning duty and the emotional turmoil caused by their long-term separation from their left-behind children. They are also caught in the dilemma of being a responsible father/husband who provides for his nuclear family via migration and being a filial son who takes care of his elderly parents in rural China.

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Rural-urban migrant men use their masculine promise as a strategy to reconstruct their gender identity and deal with the discrepancy between the cultural ideal of men and their socioeconomic reality in a migratory context. They yield to their parents’ wish for a filial, local daughter-in-law; they participate in housework and childcare, either actively or selectively, and emphasize that they are helping their wives and making the major decisions in their families; they use material compensation and telecommunication to win their left-behind children’s hearts from afar; and they collaborate with their left-behind siblings on elderly care and redefine the meaning of filial piety by emphasizing their obedience to their parents. By making compromises, rural migrant men argue that they are sacrificing for the collective interest of the whole family or to maintain its happiness or harmony. Although they are not as economically successful as urban men, they reconstruct their masculine identity as good, honorable men by emphasizing their efforts to work hard and sacrifice for their families. Their tactical compromises in different family relations make some substantive contributions to the maintenance of their migrant families yet result in no ideological awakening on gender equality. Their masculine compromise is a pragmatic solution to structural constraints or oppression rather than an ideological challenge to or transformation of patriarchy.

Yinni Peng is Assistant Professor in Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include gender, family, migration, labor politics, and social media. She is the coauthor of Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China (2016; University of California Press).

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Gender & Society in The Classroom’s Guide for Syllabi on Immigration

This collection of articles provides analyses of how gender informs the migration process, produces new gendered outcomes and relationships, and how men and women navigate their lives as (im)migrants. Gender is central to all the research here, but gendered processes, outcomes, and experiences are shaped by the state, work, and family, as well as the intersectional identities of (im)migrants. Spanning research from several countries, these articles will prompt students to question conventional notions on how, for instance, migration leads to gendered empowerment or how human rights-based measures are automatically beneficial for immigrant women. This research also provides insights on how the consequences of migration also provide new gendered opportunities for experiencing masculinity, re-arranging care work, and creating more sustainable and supportive communities. Despite these opportunities, migration and immigration (enforcement) policies also have its costs; the article on immigrant organizing against deportation and research on migrant domestic workers underscore the enduring struggle for legibility and mobility.

Andrews, Abigail. 2014. Women’s political engagement in a Mexican sending community: Migration as crisis and the struggle to sustain an alternative. Gender & Society 28 (4): 583-608.

This article demonstrates how Mexican women’s migration to the U.S., and subsequent return migration creates new gendered opportunities for women to become politically engaged in sustaining their communities of origin. This article includes a wide array of data, including participant observation, 51 life story interviews with Mexican Mixtec men and women in Vista, California and San Miguel, Mexico, and survey data. Faced with the ‘crisis’ of living undocumented lives in the U.S., many migrant women returned back home to help build sustainable communities through civic participation, which was previously limited to men. Women’s increased participation in these spaces were successful, newly acceptable and often, necessary as many migrant men remained in the U.S. to fulfill breadwinning duties. This article lends insights on how hostile contexts of reception and subsequent return migration creates gendered consequences and new opportunities for survival.

Das Gupta, Monisha. 2014. “Don’t deport our daddies”: Gendering state deportation practices and immigrant organizing. Gender & Society 28 (1): 83-109.

This article focuses on Families for Freedom (FFF), a grassroots organization dedicated to assisting families that have deported or deportable immigrant fathers with criminal convictions. Das Gupta expertly outlines how researchers and activists have often relied on the affective pull of heterosexual family ties to challenge deportation. The data for this study includes personal narratives, or testimonios and interviews with members of FFF and the New York chapter of the New Sanctuary Movement. Das Gupta finds that FFF testimonios protest deportation by placing an emphasis on the emotional, care and parenting work that fathers provide for their families. Interviews with FFF leaders also reveal the strategies the organization must use to build solidarity and make criminalized fathers legible. Aside from the research and arguments presented, students will likely benefit from reading Das Gupta’s useful background on contemporary immigration and deportation policies.

Choo, Hae Yeon. 2013. The cost of rights: Migrant women, feminist advocacy, and gendered morality in South Korea. Gender & Society 27 (4): 445-468.

Focusing on frameworks of citizenship, this paper explores how feminist organizations in South Korea used a discourse of victimization and human trafficking to argue for human rights-based provisions for marriage migrants and migrant women working as hostesses. Choo’s data includes extensive fieldwork with Korean migrant advocacy organizations and Filipino migrant communities. Choo finds that migrant women in her study did not pursue human rights-based provisions because doing so would contradict the moral and stigma-reducing logics they have assigned to their relationships and work. Claiming victimhood to access human-rights provisions, in some cases, also appeared to make less economic sense. Highlighting immigrant women’s agency, this research illustrates how there can be a cost to accessing certain rights.

De Regt, Marina. 2010. Ways to come, ways to leave: Gender, mobility, and il/legality among Ethiopian domestic workers in Yemen. Gender & Society 24 (2): 237-260.

Recognizing the dearth of literature on migrant domestic workers in the Middle East outside of research exclusively on exploitation or violence, this article focuses on how gender shapes the migration trajectory of migrant domestic workers and how (il)legality subsequently impacts their mobility. Spanning more than a ten-year period, the data for this article includes extensive fieldwork and interviews with Ethiopian migrant domestic workers working in Yemen. Students may appreciate reading interview narratives that demonstrate how the pre-migration options have important consequences for migration. Migrant women recruited through family members often experience more mobility compared to women who are recruited through agencies as contract workers.

Schmalzbauer, Leah. 2009. Gender on a new frontier: Mexican migration in the rural mountain West. Gender & Society 23 (6): 747-767.

Challenging the notion that migration is always empowering for women, this article provides important insights on how the context of reception matters for how migrants experience their new lives and gendered relationships. Pulled from ethnographic data gathered in rural Montana, Schmalzbauer demonstrates that the process of migration and settlement in Montana reproduces gendered relationships between partners that typically impacts women in a negative way. The lack of available jobs for women means migrant Mexican women are relegated to the home, even when they may have had previous work experience. Women are further socially confined because of the geography of the area and limited public transportation. As a destination with few migrants, Mexican women also feel their presence is especially highlighted in public places which is an especially dangerous problem for undocumented women. Despite these issues, for those with children and experience living in high-crime urban areas, the area represents a safer place to raise their children.

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Organized by Cassaundra Rodriguez, University of Massachusetts. Comments or suggestions contact gendsoc@oakland.edu

Religious Women in the Transnational Era

By Gowoon Jung

How do individuals adapt to a changing multicultural society and negotiate the tensions and contradictions of macro-social transition? I pose this question within the context of South Korea (hereafter Korea) and focus attention on emerging, transnationally mobile and religiously conservative young women. The two religious organizations that have allowed me to have an insight into the way women adapt are the World Vision Church (an evangelical Protestant Church) and the Unification Church. Being in the field and talking to people in these churches for seven months meant I could experience how Asian societies are becoming ethnically and culturally more plural.GNS_GowoonJung

After an official preaching at 12:30 pm at World Vision Church in Seoul, ten new visitors gathered to introduce themselves in a large hall. One Korean woman, Sunhee Yang, had lived in New Jersey for five years and came to the church upon her arrival in Seoul. She had heard about the Vision vice-pastor Kim’s leadership from her church friends in New Jersey. Another woman, Nari, who had worked on Wall Street for more than six years, also visited the church. The stories of Sunhee and Nari exemplify those of many Korean Evangelical Protestant women who have travelled overseas for advanced education or careers. Continue reading “Religious Women in the Transnational Era”

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. Continue reading “Moral Dilemmas of Transnational Migration: Vietnamese Women in Taiwan”

“Go Back to Your Country!”: Migrant Women Challenging Migrant Containment in South Korea

By Hae Yeon Choo 

She seemed to come out of nowhere, and walked fast towards us. It was two weeks ago, and we—three Asian and Asian-Canadian women faculty members—had just come out of a meeting. As we were continuing our discussion on the sidewalk on campus, the stranger, a middle-aged white woman, shouted at us: “Do you not speak English?!” She then walked away, mumbling something about “thieves” and “stealing.” An encounter like this happens regularly enough that I have come to expect it. As a sociologist, it is not surprising. However multicultural my city may be—and I do claim Toronto as my city—I live in a place with a long history of treating Asian immigrants as “forever foreigners.” And certainly this is not just a story of the past. Consider the surge of recent impassioned responses from the Asian American community with the hashtag #thisis2016, after the publication of an open letter by Michael Luo (a New York Times editor) to a woman who yelled “Go back to China” to his family.

That night, I was thinking of Joohyun, a Vietnamese migrant woman who immigrated to South Korea with a spousal visa and changed her name to a Korean-sounding one. One evening, Joohyun recalled, when she was buying vegetables at the open market, a man wearing a beige jacket suddenly grabbed her arms from behind. Startled, she thought she was being robbed or, worse, kidnapped. She cried out for help, but the people in the market just walked by. It turned out that he was an undercover immigration officer, and her “foreign” look made her a target. Although she was freed after the document check, that day left a scar of fear in her. Since then, whenever she could, Joohyun avoided public places unless she was with her husband.

Joohyun was one of many migrants I met during my field research for my book, Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Koreachoo_book-coverIt’s an ethnography of three groups of migrant women in South Korea and their struggles for rights and citizenship: marriage migrants, factory workers, and hostesses in American camptown clubs. Being reminded of denied belonging was a routine challenge in their lives. From a South Korean husband shouting “Go back to your country!” during a heated argument, to a stranger on the bus calling the immigration office to report the sighting of an “illegal,” the list goes on and on. Continue reading ““Go Back to Your Country!”: Migrant Women Challenging Migrant Containment in South Korea”

Factory Girls After the Factory: Female Return Migrations in Rural China

By Julia Chuang

Journalists frequently argue that the rise of global outsourcing has generated countless jobs for women in manufacturing, particularly in coastal China’s famed Special Economic Zones. For example, in a 2000 New York Times op-ed, journalist Nicholas Kristof described a trip he took to a factory in the boomtown of Dongguan. There, he wrote, factory girls “seemed to regard it as a plus that the factory allowed them to work long hours. Indeed, some had sought out this factory precisely because it offered them the chance to earn more.”

There are a lot of assumptions packed in this statement. It is true that wages we consider abominably low in the U.S. go a long way for young women in China. But this is a dangerous line of logic. Today, factory managers – and global investors, for that matter – regularly make the assumption that young women are not only wiling to work for less, they should work for less. They reason that these women are often single, not supporting children. If they do have children, managers assume, then they also have a husband who is the primary breadwinner. Continue reading “Factory Girls After the Factory: Female Return Migrations in Rural China”

When Home is the Mouth of a Shark* : Gendered Consequences for Syrian Women Refugees

By Stephanie J. Nawyn

The war in Syria has produced the largest refugee migration since World War II. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, more than 4.8 million Syrians have fled into neighboring countries (with most experts agreeing that this is a conservative estimate), and are mostly entering Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In the last year many more Syrians have attempted to seek asylum in Europe. The conditions under which these refugees struggle to survive are not entirely unpredictable, as many refugees throughout recent history share sadly similar experiences. But the scale of the crisis and the socio-political climates in the countries providing (and not providing) safe harbor have created conditions for Syrians that are somewhat unique to their situation, with some having gendered consequences.

Crossing conflict zones to reach safe countries is always dangerous, but because of the size of this migration many surrounding countries are restricting access to their borders. This has increased the use of smugglers, particularly for Syrians attempting to enter Europe. The expense of using smugglers affects all Syrians, but for women the increased costs and dangers of crossing national borders are compounded by an increased vulnerability to sexual violence. Further, as the difficulty of travel increases, women with small children or without a male family member to provide protection are less likely to attempt the journey.

While not all women are more socially isolated than men, women who before the war had less education, were not participating in the labor market, or were caring for small children tend to be more socially isolated than men, and this social isolation affects their access to information. Information is a key commodity for refugees; social media is aflame with discussions among Syrians of how to find a smuggler, the increased restrictions on certain routes, and emerging routes available for travel. Women without good information are more dependent upon others to seek safe passage out of Syria. Good information is sometimes necessary to survival, as smuggling exploitation of Syrians is rampant; some of the bodies of drowned Syrians have been found wearing fake life preservers stuffed with newspaper.

Currently most Syrians have sought refuge in countries that provide them with limited opportunities to permanently settle, notably restriction of the right to work in the formal labor market. Given that material assistance to refugees is limited, labor exploitation of Syrian refugees is widespread. In Turkey, for example, there is a large informal labor market (with estimates ranging from 30 to nearly 50 percent of all workers employed in the informal sector) that provides almost no worker protections, and wage theft of Syrians is common. Legislation passed in 2013 intended to provide Syrians with work permits has not yet produced a mechanism for Syrians to work legally. Continue reading “When Home is the Mouth of a Shark* : Gendered Consequences for Syrian Women Refugees”