Over the past thirty years, moving overseas has been a positively valued aspiration in China. On both a government level, and within popular discourse, migration has been propagated as a means to be better citizens, and a better nation, resonating with families’ desire for a better life. However, there are consequences for those who move, in terms of belonging and how they imagine their life projects. This article extends the established scholarship on mobility out of China by comparing the rhetorical construction of mobility with the experiences of Chinese migrants in Japan. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among educationally channeled Chinese migrants in Tokyo, I show how the imaginaries that shape migrant projects are constituted by conflicting aspirations and desires. The mismatch between daily experiences and discursively informed perceptions of what constitutes a “good life” and “success,” in many senses resemble what Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism.” Educationally channeled migration out of China is posited as a desirable object-idea that is “cruel” because the “cluster of promises” that constitute its “optimism” cannot be reconciled with the mobile lifeworlds of many Chinese transnational migrants. Due to the impossibility of simultaneously achieving the promises of success, pleasing one’s family, and attaining a sense of cosmopolitanism, many migrants resign themselves to the instabilities of mobile life. Their experiences are suggestive of the consequences of a world that increasingly celebrates mobility, with implications for how “being at home in the world” is imagined today.

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