Transnationalism and citizenship in the pandemic: Alice’s journey

Brenda Wang and Cass Zheng, Singapore Management University

The pandemic has created new forms of immobility, and the situation is even more complex for those with multiple citizenship, such as 21-year-old Alice, who is ethnic Taiwanese-Chinese but is an Australian and Taiwanese citizen who holds permanent residency status in Singapore, where she grew up. Alice currently studies Dentistry in Sydney, while her parents reside in Singapore for work.

Alice’s parents possess Australian and Taiwanese citizenship, and they are ethnic Taiwanese-Chinese. They moved to Singapore before Alice was born due to its abundance of economic opportunities, while they saw Australia as a place for retirement. Referencing the case of Alice, this blog post seeks to offer an expansion to the bi-national nature of transnationalism and gives insight into how tensions between cultural and legal citizenship is further complicated by the pandemic.

Alice’s Experience as an Alternative to the Polarity of Transnationalism

Alice is embedded in a transnational social field intertwined between Singapore, Australia and Taiwan. Transnationalism posits that migrants can be simultaneously embedded in the multiple sites and layers in the transnational social fields in which they live (Levitt and Jaworsky 2007). However, for Alice, navigating her identity remains a challenge. As Alice said, “I feel like I don’t really belong to any country. Every country I go [to] I feel like a second-class citizen”. Alice notes that her migration trajectory was determined by her parents. As a result, her experience as a second-generation immigrant reveals the unique aspirations of those who end up in places physically and culturally far from “home”.

There was an air of helplessness as Alice recounted her experience of growing up as a non-Citizen in Singapore, such as paying more for education and the disadvantages she faced in applying for courses like Medicine and Dentistry which prioritized Singaporeans. Although Alice continues to maintain transborder connections with people in Singapore, she doesn’t feel like she truly belongs in Singapore or Australia. She feels even less connected to Taiwan, where ties to her extended family remain but her cultural similarities limited to her Taiwanese accent when she speaks Mandarin.

Although most scholars tend to explain transnationalism in cases where migrants can culturally belong in two countries, Alice’s story illustrates how migrants can actually be part of three or more countries. As Levitt and Jaworsky (2007) acknowledges, transnationalism is “too easily dichotomised as incompatible with assimilation and delineates three forms of transnationalism – bi-local, bi-national or pan-ethnic” (:131). Understanding that transnationalism is not merely bi-national is important to better comprehend the new complexities that migrants now face.

Additionally, while transnationalism tends to focus on migrants’ simultaneous cultural belonging in multiple places, whether these feelings of cultural belonging correspond to migrants’ citizenship in these places have not yet been fully explored. Alice’s story shows that cultural belonging and legal status can actually be at odds with each other in a single place.

Utilising “Cultural Citizenship” To Expand Our Understanding of Transnationalism

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Alice was “trapped” in Australia. She made multiple attempts to return to Singapore but was unsuccessful because of limited flights available and the cumbersome permits required by the Australian government prior to departure. When her permit was approved, her flight had already taken off, and Alice’s Singaporean housemates had left Australia. Alice eventually decided to remain in Australia. Cost of healthcare was important especially during the pandemic. By staying in Australia, Alice would have access to healthcare benefits as a citizen, whereas she would have to pay expensive medical fees as a non-Citizen in Singapore.

As an Australian citizen, Alice could also obtain a job at a dentist clinic in Sydney, which kept her busy and appeased her parents’ concerns that she would be lonely there. However, increased racism towards Asians in Australia during the pandemic made Alice feel unsafe in her own country of legal citizenship. Hence, Alice’s story highlights the need for distinction between cultural citizenship and legal citizenship in the study of transnationalism, as the latter often does not reveal enough about the motivations behind their trajectories.

The concept of cultural citizenship “considers citizenship beyond its legislative status and acknowledges the relationship between culture and citizenship” (Vega and van Hensbroek 2010 as cited in Beaman 2016) which focuses on societal inclusion and belonging (Pakulski 1997; Stevenson 2001 as cited in Beaman 2016). Therefore, while Alice is a legal citizen of Australia and Taiwan, she is a cultural citizen of Singapore. Her benefits as an Australian citizen informed her decision to study there and stay there during the pandemic. Yet, the racism she faced as an Asian posed a barrier to becoming a cultural citizen in Australia.

Furthermore, cultural citizenship offers an alternative explanation in expanding upon Lewitt and Jaworsky’s (2007) conception of cultural transnationalism. Alice’s conscious choice to live with Singaporeans where she “could be more like [herself]” and maintaining habits she practised in Singapore like picking the second item off the supermarket shelves was her way of maintaining cultural ties with Singapore, although these traits could not be said to be uniquely Singaporean. Thus, cultural ties with a country are more than just participating in transculturalized arts and cultural practices, but also social practices and habits that migrants’ bring from their cultural homeland.

The pandemic has further highlighted the need to consider how cultural citizenship frames and shapes the transnationalist identity. Alice’s experiences brought to light a more nuanced group of migrants who feel “stuck” in a country where they have legal citizenship and are unable to leave for their cultural homeland. For many like Alice, their home country is somewhere foreign where she had to “confront an entirely different racial hierarchy” (Lewitt and Jaworsky, 2007:139) as a minority.

If given a choice, Alice would have prioritised her cultural citizenship over her legal one but the pandemic made her reconsider her priorities. Evidently, her legal citizenship serves as a pragmatic explanation for migration, but it can sometimes overlook the other cultural struggles they face. Moreover, it is important to recognize the increasing complexity of migrants’ transnational social field, how migrants can be embedded in 3 or more countries at the same time, and the implications it has on their migration trajectories.

In conclusion, transnationalism is akin to a magnifying glass which is a useful tool for studying migration. However, it reveals much more when the focal lengths are adjusted to consider other aspects which might be left out in its initial conception. Alice’s story is apt in showing how this lens needs to be expanded to consider migrants who are part of more than two countries and the role of cultural citizenship in transnationalism.

References

Beaman, J. (2016). Citizenship as cultural: Towards a theory of cultural citizenship. Sociology Compass, 2016, 10(10), 849-857.

Levitt, P. and Jaworsky B. N. (2007). Transnational Migration Studies: Past Developments and Future Trends. Annual Review of Sociology, 3, 129-156.