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Studies on overseas Chinese in a global context

ZHANG MEI | 2017-05-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Guo Shibao received his doctorate in Educational Studies from the University of British Columbia. He immigrated to Canada in 1993 and joined the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta in 2003 as a tenure-track assistant professor. In 2005, he moved to the University of Calgary. His research focuses on transnational migration and adult education in the context of globalization. He has been actively involved in a number of studies on the integration experience of recent Chinese immigrants in Canada and the role of community-based volunteer organizations in helping immigrants with their settlement and adaptation. Currently, Guo Shibao is a doctoral advisor at the University of Calgary and President of Canadian Ethnic Studies Association.


Research on overseas Chinese has become a global topic and the number of the group has surged because of China’s increasing influence in the world. The history of immigration to Canada extends back hundreds of years, and immigrants are playing an important  role in its social development. Professor Zhang Mei recently interviewed Guo Shibao to learn about issues pertaining to settlement and adaption of Chinese immigrants to Canada based on Guo’s proposed theories.


Zhang Mei: The experience of Chinese nationals overseas has been a popular area of research. What do you think of the Chinese studies on overseas Chinese?


Guo Shibao: An orderly research system has formed in China led by the Institute of Overseas Chinese History. People in China are increasingly interested in this field. There were only a few special research centers for overseas Chinese in China when I came back for a forum in 2005. Now, things have changed and a number of large institutes have been set up. However, current studies are constrained to the history of overseas Chinese. Though historical research is important in helping to form a clearer picture of current circumstances, at this point, broader research thinking, methods and frameworks will promote future studies on overseas Chinese.


Zhang Mei: You focus on the experience of Chinese immigrants in Canada. How do you define your research objects?


Guo Shibao: According to Canadian demographic statistics, there are currently about 1.5 million Chinese in Canada. I mainly study recent Chinese immigrants to Canada and community-based voluntary organizations. In the University of British Columbia, my doctoral dissertation investigated the S.U.C.C.E.S.S Social Service Center, a non-partisan and non-profit charitable organization in Vancouver, with its history as a starting point. Canada embraces diverse culture, so I adopted the theory of multiculturalism to examine aspects such as minority rights. I analyzed the root cause of its establishment, principles and service from the perspective of history, and during the process, I became interested in Chinese social groups. In addition, I investigated the Chinese community-based volunteer organizations in Edmonton and Calgary.

After that, I explored Chinese cultural centers in Canada of which those in Vancouver and Toronto are bigger in scale. The one in Vancouver emphasizes traditions while the one in Toronto, with modern elements, is more accessible to the public. Unlike most studies focusing on the metropolitan areas, I also looked at four Chinese cultural centers in the second-tier cities, such as Calgary and Winnipeg. At present, we are studying Chinese schools by tracing their development process, particularly their role in carrying on the legacies of Chinese language and culture. Also, we pay attention to recent Chinese immigrants to Canada and their “return” to China. I proposed two theoretical interpretations based on previous studies, namely the “triple glass effect” and “double diaspora.”


Zhang Mei: Many researchers mention diaspora and transnationalism when looking at immigrants, but you put forward triple glass effect and double diaspora. How should we understand these two theories?


Guo Shibao: Many scholars have adopted the “glass ceiling effect” to study integration of new immigrants but the theory has constraints. It was mainly used to refer to difficulties that American women faced in promotion in the 1970s, while my research statistics revealed that the first integration issue of overseas Chinese is employment. I found that immigrants would encounter two invisible obstacles before getting promoted, namely the “glass gate” and “glass door.”
A majority of recent immigrants have no educational background in Canada while their Chinese education credentials can’t be certified there, preventing them from becoming professionals. Obstacles of this kind are called the “glass gate.” When they overcome it through learning and exams, many employees may refuse them for their non-standard English or lack of work experience in Canada. Difficulties of this kind are called the “glass door.”

After overcoming these two hurdles, immigrants may face a “glass ceiling” at work, or they may suffer wage discrimination compared with their white-skinned colleagues. The result of these three difficulties leads to the “triple glass effect.” In circumstances like this, some immigrants can’t find a job and some fail to find one that is consistent with their ability, affecting their income as well as hurting integration of the whole immigrant group.

In terms of the double diaspora, returned overseas Chinese traditionally refers to a one-way migration. They were compelled to leave their homeland for various reasons and went back there after spending many years abroad. However, in the transnational context, many people return to their country but the return is temporary. They go back to Canada after retirement because they have houses and families there. In this sense, the return of overseas Chinese is only a short period of their immigrant life. Their dual role boosts cultural and economic exchanges between China and Canada, which serves the basis of the double diaspora theory.


Zhang Mei: How do you study this group? Also, what do you think of the phenomenon of Chinatowns?


Guo Shibao: Chinatowns have undergone great changes in Canada in terms of residents and community-based volunteer organizations. In the past, most people in the Canadian Chinatowns were immigrants from Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, and they spoke Cantonese. The Chinatowns’ residents and activities started to diversify after 1995 due to the arrival of a large number of immigrants from the Chinese mainland.

For example, Chinese settled in the Chinatown situated in Vancouver’s downtown, but many of them moved to Richmond, a part of Metro Vancouver. Though there is no official name, we can consider Richmond the second Chinatown of Vancouver because half of its population is Chinese. Also, people say that Toronto has six Chinatowns because Chinese communities have developed beyond Toronto and extended to its satellite cities.


Zhang Mei: As far as I know, land prices in America’s Chinatowns are extremely high, such as Flushing, New York. Many recent immigrants can’t afford accommodations there, so they choose instead to live in surrounding areas. Is there any change in regard to the function of Chinatown?


Guo Shibao: Yes, there is. Chinatowns served as a residential area of overseas Chinese in the past. As you said, many immigrants have moved to suburbs while Chinatowns have become centers for business, culture and entertainment. For example, there was a T&T Supermarket in Calgary, but it didn’t choose to operate within the Chinatown. Instead, the largest Asian supermarket in Canada opened a branch in the area outside it, where a growing number of overseas Chinese have gathered and live. In other words, Chinatowns still carry symbolic meaning, but more human activities take place outside them.


Zhang Mei: What are the prospects for studies on overseas Chinese?


Guo Shibao: I’m optimistic about it. I came back to participate in academic meetings many times, and I found that Chinese researchers are getting more interested in studying overseas Chinese. A variety of measures have also promoted the research, such as national supporting policies and project applications. However, research theories and methods still have room to expand based on the historical perspective.

It is crucial to emphasize applied studies because the overall research on overseas Chinese only can be facilitated by combining theories with practice. Also, more funding is required to aid the research. At the same time, measures should be introduced to encourage more experts and engage more people because different experiences and diverse opinions may invite new research perspectives. And stronger theoretical basis is necessary to guide practice.


Zhang Mei is a professor from the Executive Leadership Academy of Overseas Chinese Affairs Office under China’s State Council.