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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Flexible families? : the experiences of astronaut and satellite households among recent Chinese immigrants to Vancouver, British Columbia Waters, Johanna L.


This thesis examines the recent emergence of Astronaut and Satellite family forms in Vancouver, British Columbia. Evident in several cities around the Pacific Rim, these transnational arrangements, among economic-class immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, involve one or both adult members of the nuclear family returning to the country of origin to pursue a professional career or business. In the Astronaut arrangement, it is usual for the woman to remain in Vancouver - taking charge of all domestic and childcare tasks. In the Satellite situation, children are left without parental guidance for most of the year. Dominant media and academic representations point to two contrasting interpretations of these phenomena. Recently, academics have emphasised the financial vulnerability of these assumed 'wealthy' immigrants. Migrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan are understood to be "reluctant exiles," and the Astronaut situation reflects a failure to find work in the new country. A second, more common portrayal conceives of these migrants as part of a larger, "hypermobile" cosmopolitan elite, who utilise migration as a strategy of economic and cultural accumulation. Particular forms of capital are achievable at particular global sites; the Astronaut and Satellite arrangements epitomise the placement of different family members in different locations to this end. Through in-depth interviews with members of 42 such fragmented families residing in Vancouver, I established the generally strategic nature of these circumstances. Overwhelmingly, migration had been sought primarily for the education of the children, and the transnational arrangement was planned before migration. I was interested also in how the lone spouse and the Satellite children experienced their situation. A different body of academic literature has emphasised the way in which migration negatively impacts the female of the family, and also how the Chinese family remains significantly patriarchal after migration. For the female participants, practical and emotional difficulties were encountered during the first year of settlement - exacerbated by the loss of both the spouse and old support networks in the new setting of Vancouver. Women undertook all domestic tasks and commonly experienced feelings of boredom, loneliness and fear. After a year, however, many women reported a sense of freedom, clearly linked to the absence of the husband and their own agency in the creation of new support networks and stable surroundings. The Satellite children presented an ambivalent picture of freedom and aloneness. In the command of their daily lives and in the subversion of parental control and expectations (for example, regarding their strategic acquisition of 'cultural capital') they demonstrated significant independence. Yet they had little control over their placement in Vancouver. The negative implications of this family arrangement for the emotional well-being of the children were clearly apparent, and school staff in particular stressed the need to regard Satellite status as a social problem. The empirical data challenge many assumptions concerning the flexible Chinese family in the contemporary era of transnationalism and globalisation.

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