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Laowai: Contested Identity and Imagined Community among Shanghai's Expatriates

Considering their significance to the globalised economy, expatriate communities have attracted relatively little scholarly scrutiny. Much has been written about non-Western migration to the West, but there has been little attention paid to population transfers in the opposite direction. Shanghai has a long historical and cultural association with the West and, thanks to China’s continued economic growth, the city's Western expatriate population has more than tripled since 2001. This research utilises ethnographic methods to examine identity and community within Shanghai's expatriate population. Using data from participant-observation, as well as text gleaned from interviews and personal narrative, I document the construction, by expatriates, of small, tightly bounded networks of support as well as the broader imagined community of "Westernness" from which these fictive kinship groups were typically drawn. Analysing transmigrancy through a ritual lens, I argue that this imagined Western community is best understood as an expression of communitas and that expatriates are liminal figures themselves, stalled in the middle phase of the migration ritual. Indeed, expatriates frequently located themselves between China and the West, unable to become Chinese but also unwilling to be seen as just another tourist. Local Chinese constructions of self also position the Western Other on the periphery - entangling "whiteness" and Westernness with assumptions of class, cosmopolitanism and personal freedom. Walled compounds and private drivers allowed some expatriates to move easily from one comfortable enclave of Westernness to another, only engaging with the local Chinese Other touristically. However, many expatriates made deeper claims of local emplacement, stitching together patchwork cosmopolitan neighbourhoods out of scattered, often discontiguous local and expatriate spaces. These blended neighbourhood bubbles provided expatriates with a space for the performance of new, liminal, transnational identities - rooted in Shanghai but still comfortably Western.
Type of thesis
Foote, D. (2017). Laowai: Contested Identity and Imagined Community among Shanghai’s Expatriates (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11122
University of Waikato
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