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.
The Cruel Optimism of Mobility: Aspiration, Belonging, and the “Good Life” among Transnational Chinese Migrants in Tokyo
Jamie Coates is lecturer in East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield. He researches the relationship between technology, mobility, and imagination in the Sino-Japanese context, and is currently investigating how media and migration allow local imaginaries in the Sino-Japanese context to scale in new ways. He completed his PhD at the Australian National University in anthropology and has since worked at Waseda University, Osaka University, and Sophia University. His recent works include the ethnographic film “Tokyo Pengyou” in the Journal of Anthropological Films and the articles “Ikebukuro In-Between: Mobility and the Formation of the Yamanote’s Heterotopic Borderland” in Japan Forum and “So Hot Right Now: Reflections on Virality and Sociality from Transnational Digital China” in Digital Culture and Society.
Jamie Coates; The Cruel Optimism of Mobility: Aspiration, Belonging, and the “Good Life” among Transnational Chinese Migrants in Tokyo. positions 1 August 2019; 27 (3): 469–497. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-7539277
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