Review of Fong, V. L. (2011)

Fong, Vanessa L. (2011). Paradise redefined: Transnational Chinese students and the quest for flexible citizenship in the developed world. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Reviewed by Jenny Otting 

In the book Paradise Redefined Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World, author Vanessa Fong examines how Chinese study abroad students experience their interactions with developed countries and how their subjective “experiences transform the way they thought about the developed world, China, and their own hopes, goals, and concerns” (10). Fong uses the term ‘developed world’ to refer not to any specific ethnicity, geographic region, or nation-state, but rather to an imagined global community of affluent, powerful, and prestigious people. The primary focus of the book is to understand how Chinese students navigate the forces of the global community and how the global community shapes and reshapes their conceptions of citizenship. Drawing on fieldwork with Chinese students who studied abroad in diverse countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia , Fong’s main research question looks at how Chinese students purse developed world citizenship and if or how that could enhance or replace the Chinese citizenship they had before studying abroad.

To understand how Chinese students are negotiating their relationships with the developed countries they live in Fong utilizes theories of citizenship. First, she makes the distinction between legal (legal rights), social (status that allows access to education, health, income, etc.) and cultural (belonging to a community) citizenship. Fong draws on scholars like Aihwa Ong to illustrate how the processes of globalization and transnational migration allow social and cultural citizenship to operate independently of legal citizenship creating what Ong calls “flexible citizenship” (Ong, 2006). Fong builds on this by arguing that “cultural citizenship processes can transcend national boundaries, as individuals are made and make themselves in the context not only of the societies in which they live and hold legal citizenship but also of the global neoliberal system, which assumes that all who acquire developed world discipline, skills, and affluence can become social and cultural citizens of the developed world, regardless of where they live or what is written on their passports” (15). Fong also interrogates neoliberal governmentality to explain the global neoliberal system offers individuals greater opportunities for deterritorialization, flexible citizenship, and transcendence of state sovereignties. Individuals are no longer tied to geographic regions, but rather citizenship is located in easily portable skills, credentials, bank accounts, and citizenship documents.

To study the transnational students, Fong employs a multi-sited, global ethnography. The research in this book draws on a larger longitudinal mixed-method study of students from the Dalian schools where she taught English. Fong conducted a survey in 1999 from grades 8-12 from various schools and did participant observations from 1998–2000. After this research project, she kept in touch with 92 of the students and their families. The data presented in this book is primarily from her communication and visits with students in Dalian and the countries where students studied abroad from 2002-2010. Between 2003 and 2010, Fong conducted participant observation and interviews in the study abroad countries, sharing rooms, meals, and social activities with an unspecified number of transnational students whom she met in China.

Fong’s study found that what Chinese students wanted most was the prestige, comfort, geographic mobility, and high standard of living enjoyed by cultural and social citizens of the developed world; however, what Chinese students actually experienced from living abroad was opposite of this. The social, cultural and legal citizenship in the developed world was difficult to obtain and students spent much longer pursing developed world citizenship without ever reaching it. Instead, the students ended up working low paying jobs in developing countries without ever finishing college and thereby returning to China without enhancing their life opportunities. In returning to China, some realized that it was the paradise they were looking for all along; however, others felt it was a reminder of failure and in order to not “lose face” they continued to glorify the developed world. According to Fong, portraying the developed world as a paradise was and still is part of neoliberal discourse in which students were both the products and the producers of the discourse.

Fong’s study also revealed that nationalism wasn’t necessarily eroded by the forces of globalization and neoliberalism. Nationalism and a sense of identification with the imagined community of the global neoliberal system could coexist and that nationalism does not necessarily depend on a belief in the superiority of one’s own national culture. The students in her study believed that they did not represent the backwardness of China, and they often times defended their homeland against both Chinese and foreign naysayers. Her study also showed that China’s socio-economic status was not the most important reason for students to migrate. Instead, Chinese students went abroad to seek freedoms, resources and capabilities. Yet, Fong argued that while students did obtain freedoms that brought certain forms of happiness with it, they also lost freedoms and happiness that they had in China.

Fong portrays the imagined community of the developed world as it is seen through the eyes of students. As a result of her focus, the reader gets a very dated view of how students are feeling about their world- China and the developed world, but we don’t know the larger causes that create these feelings. This book details the life choices of Chinese study abroad students. The argument could be strengthened if the author helped her readers understand the economic, social and cultural reasons that make these choices possible in the first place. Fong does not interrogate the nuances or discourses creating the imagined developed world. As a result, she doesn’t fully analyze how the socio-economic (neoliberal) forces are shaping citizenship. Without a more thorough interrogation of the forces creating the developed world and stronger theoretical understandings of these forces and discourses, we cannot have a deeper understanding of citizenship.