Sojourners and social exchange: Family and friends’ interpersonal ties across China-New Zealand borders
Permanent link to Research Commons versionhttps://hdl.handle.net/10289/14891
Sojourners are peripatetic, making multiple, open-ended circular trips to other countries for a range of purposes. Nonetheless, sojourners retain interpersonal ties with their families and friends who remain in the homeland, and may return ‘home’ in times of need. The pace and direction of continual international travel appears linked to the family life cycle, yet the mutual interdependencies of interpersonal ties are not well understood. A review of the literature suggests that this study is one of the first to explore the roles that family ties and friendships play in shaping the lives of sojourners and their ‘stay-behinds’ within the context of Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) travel. A key overarching question emerges to guide the research: What is the interplay of transnational interpersonal ties, wellbeing, and VFR travel in shaping the lives of Chinese sojourners abroad and their family and friends in China? Social exchange is the key scholarly perspective used to examine the nature and meanings of transnational relationships. The researcher’s positionality as a transnational sojourner locates him centrally within the researcher-participant continuum, so he was able to create empathy and inter-subjectivities which uncover social dynamics and cultural nuances. A hermeneutic methodology extends researcher’s positionality into the research design, enabling mutual reflection and synthesis of respective views regarding living transnational lives. Respective spheres of transnational family and friend interactions are captured in two samples: 44 sojourners (prolonged stay, freedom of movement permits) who had lived in New Zealand for more than three years, and 36 family members and friends resident in China. Paired roles in transnational interactions and nations of residence were obtained, although the initial intention had been to create family tie- and friendship-matched samples in both countries, but proved impossible to achieve. Consistent with Chinese cultural norms of respect and privacy, most participants refused to provide their paired counterparts’ contact details. Also, it would have been too costly in terms of field work time to track paired widely-dispersed participants. Although this is a study limitation, the knowledge that paired family members or friends were not in the same study encouraged open and free disclosure. The study used both video-recorded focus groups and audio-recorded in-depth interviews, conducted in the same timeframe to capitalise on the complementarities of each method, enlarge the depth and scope of study, and facilitate participation. Constant comparative thematic analysis was used to identify the themes, assisted by NVivo, a data management software package that helps researchers analyse emerging themes. The findings contribute to new knowledge. Chinese sojourners abroad and families and friends in China tend to preserve the over-stretched ties that are crucial to their wellbeing. Family ties and friendships played common, but also very different roles in shaping their lives, evidenced by the nature, meanings, and dynamics of social exchanges. This study also contributes to theory development, by indicating that social exchange theory is insufficient to explain all the dynamics behind transnational social interactions, in particular, VFR visiting and hosting. This study identified a range of emerging concepts that also influence the social interactions/exchanges between the two sides, and contribute previously unidentified dimensions that nuance social exchange theory for this context. For example, over time, a widening gap in the cultural backgrounds between the sojourners and those who remain in China develops, demonstrated by articulated conflicts and silences in their interactions, especially during actual travel periods. These potentially threaten the wellbeing of all parties. Also, the family life cycle plays a continual role in shaping family members’ needs and felt obligations, giving rise to the fluid and continual transnational support exchanges. Further, this study has implications for practice in an era, when COVID becomes the ‘new normal’. From a micro-level, the findings may help populations of Chinese sojourners abroad and their families and friends in China understand how their respective roles and the dynamics behind the social exchanges shape the wellbeing of all participants and transnational ties. From a meso-level, this study may help the Chinese and New Zealand tourism and hospitality industries identify VFR travel motivators, understand travel patterns, support the international traveling populations, and recognise the opportunity for developing domestic travel in a post-COVID, pandemic-aware world. From a macro-level, this study provides implications for future Chinese migration/sojourning patterns, identifies key issues Chinese families face, contributes to immigration policy making in host countries, and offers advice on looking after Chinese migrant families who cannot receive sufficient support from their homeland. Finally, the research limitations are discussed and some suggestions for future research were given.
The University of Waikato
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