Interview with Dr. Nicole Newendorp, Harvard University on Chinese Senior Migration to the U.S.
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
Interview originally done for Young China Watchers on 28 May, 2021.
Dr. Nicole Newendorp is an anthropologist who studies migration and family life in Asia and the United States and a lecturer at Harvard University. She is the author of the award-winning book “Uneasy Reunions: Immigration, Citizenship, and Family Life in Post-1997 Hong Kong” (2008). Dr. Newendorp received a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. This interview discusses her new book “Chinese Senior Migrants and the Globalization of Retirement” (2020).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Young China Watchers (YCW): Your new book “Chinese Senior Migrants and the Globalization of Retirement” thoroughly explores the issue of Chinese retirement migration to the United States. What prompted you to research this topic?
Nicole Newendorp (NN): My last project was based in Hong Kong and finished in 2007. I was looking for another project to get started on and was in the U.S. at that time, so I thought maybe there was something I could do with Cantonese in my local community. I decided to put my language skills to work as a volunteer in Boston’s Chinatown, interacting with older Chinese Americans, who I thought might need help with the English language.
I walked into a social service center in Chinatown and asked if they needed somebody to help teach English. They said yes, so I began teaching English to this group of older individuals on a volunteer basis. I was surprised to realize almost immediately that none of the students had been in the U.S. longer than a few years. Most of them were over 65 and had come to the U.S. quite recently. I knew from my previous research that migration is a challenging stage of life to undertake, particularly when there are such major cultural differences as one would expect from going from China to the U.S. I wanted to learn more about this particular group of senior migrants. What was it like for them to have made this decision to come to the U.S. at an older age? What kinds of experiences were they having here?
I first got to know my ESL students but then began meeting a wider range of older immigrants. I met many people who were not living with their Chinese American children or grandchildren. They were often living in subsidized housing and away from their adult children. That seemed like a surprise for anybody who knows about the importance of Chinese cultural ideals related to filial piety and taking care of elders. Other things about their lives surprised me as well, including the fact that many of them talked about having wanted to come to the U.S. ever since they were children in Guangdong. But overall, across my interviewees, among both those who spoke Cantonese and those who did not, a lot of them seemed content with their living situation and used the term xingfu (幸福) to describe their lives.
YCW: Do you see the choice of living out as a personal choice or a compromise that these older people have to make to come to the U.S. to stay with their children?
NN: Among my interview group, not everybody came to be with adult children. Some were sponsored by their parents or siblings. A lot of my interviewees talked about having a sense of freedom by living separately from adult children. Being able to see them from time to time and having weekend visits — or even daily visits but not actually having to live together with them — created a sense of freedom for people because it allowed them to have control over their own time schedules and to be able to engage in particular social activities they liked, whether it was to work as a volunteer someplace or to be out in the community. Many of them lived in senior housing and established strong networks of support among their agemates. They shared stories of how their neighbors helped with everything from grocery shopping, to cutting hair, to fixing computer software problems. At the same time, some of them did miss not having more time with their children and grandchildren both here in the U.S. and in China, where many of their family members still live.
YCW: How assimilated do you think Chinese senior migrants are? Is it more behavioral where they learn the English language and American culture, or identificational, where they develop a sense of peoplehood to the U.S.?
NN: I personally prefer the term integration to assimilation, as the latter fundamentally still implies the requirement of shedding of one’s cultural background and a forced entry into an American mainstream way of life. I would rather focus on possibilities for engagement with the community around them that take place whether someone speaks English or not.
For many of these older individuals, there were personal drivers for being involved more in the community, whether it was a way to keep busy or a way to learn something new. But there were also individuals who were very consciously contributing to community wellbeing, such as stepping up as a volunteer in a building to be a liaison for individuals in that building who did not speak English. The ones who could speak English and Mandarin in addition to Cantonese had particularly powerful roles in terms of being able to be helpful.
Many of my university students are involved with conducting classes for Chinese immigrants who are hoping to pass the U.S. citizenship exam, and in an early stage of my research I spent time helping with those classes. One key question you have to answer to pass the citizenship test is why you want to be a citizen. When we practiced for the test, the seniors always said their reason for wanting to be in America was in order to vote. For a long time, I was convinced that people were just saying that because it was the easiest answer for them to remember in English. But over time I began to realize that it was more complicated.
This generation of individuals who came to adulthood in the very early years of the PRC were very dedicated as young adults to the ideological goals of the Communist Revolution. That is, they believed in creating a more egalitarian society and having a sense of stability that would ensure that they would be well cared for in their old age. Despite having personally experienced traumatic events in the 50s and 60s, many of them still had a strong sense of nostalgia for a life that seemed simpler as part of an ideological system in which everyone, in theory, was supposed to be equal.
“Despite having personally experienced traumatic events in the 50s and 60s, many of them still had a strong sense of nostalgia for a life that seemed simpler as part of an ideological system in which everyone, in theory, was supposed to be equal”
Their perception was that by being in the U.S. they could achieve social equality and stability, because they had access to social welfare resources that allowed them to live in subsidized housing as well as to access healthcare, even if there were other impediments here in terms of social marginalization and being able to communicate. In case of a health emergency, they talked about being able to get care in the U.S. without having to worry about having to come up with money up front just to receive basic treatment. For them, that demonstrated the U.S. healthcare system was more humane. It was a paradox, for me, to listen to them talk about the sense of feeling that, in the U.S., they were able to achieve the kinds of goals that they had had for their older age that they had hoped to be able to have in China. Of course, I learned that many of them actually did vote, too, once they became citizens.
YCW: In your book, you mentioned that the stories of Chinese senior migrants are entangled with the U.S. and China’s national policies of restriction and structural disempowerment stretching back to the early 20th century that sought to affect the flow of Chinese migrants. At a time of restricted mobility and rising U.S.-China tensions, what implications does this have for today’s Chinese elderly people who wish to migrate to the U.S.?
NN: Since the book came out, there have been shocks to the system in terms of the disruption of being able to travel back and forth between China and the U.S., increased anxiety for older Chinese people in relationship both to COVID-19 itself, and the larger context of anti-Asian racism that has always been in the U.S. but has increased, both in an actuality and visibility, over the last 1.5 years. Despite all these issues, the social support networks and long-standing transnational ties for this migrant population are still in place. So post-pandemic, I can assume that people will continue with these pathways in coming.
That said, there are certain questions about the future. The first is the debate about family reunion migration in the U.S. and whether that form of migrant sponsorship should continue to predominate. With a Biden administration, there is more possibility of retaining some focus on the importance of family reunion categories moving into the future, but meanwhile, there are constantly calls to reevaluate the categories through which people are able to come to the U.S. If family reunion migration is decreased in any kind of future policy change, it will make it harder for many people, including those like my interviewees, to come.
The second issue is that there has been such a growth in applicants from China over time for certain types of visas. I am aware that many Chinese applicants have substantially longer waits for visas than in the past. This was an issue even before COVID-19 for certain groups and is now an even greater hurdle for Chinese people coming to the U.S. The third issue is around the heightened discourse around security concerns between China and the U.S., and it is unclear how the current administration is going to handle this issue in relationship to immigration concerns.
YCW: Against a backdrop of escalating anti-Asian hate crimes and having witnessed recent incidents where people of Asian ethnicities, including elderly immigrants, have increasingly become targets of racism and violence in the U.S., how would you describe the challenges this poses to the integration process of Chinese senior migrants in the U.S.?
NN: There has always been anti-Asian racism. What is new is the visibility, intensity, and number of incidents that have taken place specifically linked to COVID-19. This racism is also related to the long-standing view of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners”. For example, a woman I interviewed shared a story with me. She was one of the individuals I knew who had good English skills but still felt like she did not have a lot of opportunities to practice English. One day, she tried to have a conversation with a child at a bus stop. But the child was scared of her and threatened to call the Police if she didn’t stop bothering her. My interviewee thought she was being friendly and that the child would be willing to talk with her without feeling intimidated, but she was wrong. It is hard to figure out from this anecdote how much of the child’s response was racially motivated versus another kind of security concern, related to how children are taught to stay away from all strangers. But it is clear that there are so many challenges experienced by Chinese seniors’ integration through daily experiences of social and economic marginalization.
There has always been anti-Asian racism. What is new is the visibility, intensity, and number of incidents that have taken place specifically linked to COVID-19. This racism is also related to the long-standing view of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners”.
“There has always been anti-Asian racism. What is new is the visibility, intensity, and number of incidents that have taken place specifically linked to COVID-19. This racism is also related to the long-standing view of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners”
On the other hand, the increase in visibility does seem to mean that more people are paying attention to this as a problem. I hope that there will be greater resources attached to ensuring safety in ways that ultimately help people who are in areas where there is so much potential for violence.
YCW: Can you recommend some books or things in your field to our readers so they can understand topics surrounding Chinese senior migration better?
NN: There are two books I can recommend. The first one is Beyond Filial Piety: Rethinking Aging and Caregiving in Contemporary East Asian Societies by Jeanne Shea, Katrina Moore and Hong Zhang. It grapples fundamentally with the idea that our understanding of caregiving and aging in East Asia has been focused through the lens of filial piety and yet, how that works out in practice has been changing substantially over time. The book also pays attention to how seniors understand their own lives.
The other one is called Time and Migration: How Long-Term Taiwanese Migrants Negotiate Later Life by Ken Chih-Yan Sun. It is about older Taiwanese-Americans who came as professionals to work in the U.S. from Taiwan when they were younger, lived in the U.S. for many years, and are now deciding to return to Taiwan as senior citizens.
— Interview by Greta Lai