Home Sweet Home?

Cultural Transitions, Identity, and Stress in Hong Kong Chinese Re-migrants

The Fulbright Program provides grants for students, scholars, professionals, and teachers to travel and study around the world. Sponsored by the US government, the program is designed to “increase mutual understanding between people of the United States and the people of other countries.” Following are the first in a series of occasional articles written by APS Members who recently went abroad on Fulbright scholarships.

Nan Sussman at a Chinese New Year celebration

NAN M. SUSSMAN at a Chinese New Year celebration.

“Adjusting to life in Japan was not that difficult. But returning to Memphis – that was hard!” Counter-intuitive yet frequent, this was the kind of complaint I was hearing from families returning to the United States following an overseas living experience.

In the early 1980s, I was working as an applied cross-cultural psychologist, designing and conducting culture training for Americans departing for work, study, or living outside the country. Many individuals and families maintained contact with me throughout their overseas sojourn and upon their repatriation. I was perplexed by their comments. Why would returning to one’s home country result in high stress, negative affect, interpersonal strains, familial tensions, and dissatisfaction with the re-entry job?

These observations and questions triggered a 20-year investigative journey which brought me to Hong Kong as a Fulbright research scholar. I am affiliated with both the City University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong, and colleagues at both institutions have provided stimulating insights and logistical assistance that have improved my conceptualizations and the quality of my research.

A bit of background: With a few notable exceptions, psychologists have overlooked the effects of culture until rather recently. Theories have examined both the process of enculturation and its subsequent effect on motivation, cognition, and behavior. The outcome for most individuals is a person-environment fit, assuming that they live their lives within those cultural confines.

But both ancient and modern history document the never-ending movement of people. Modern cultural moves are often temporary, with these sojourners returning to their home countries after an overseas stay. Beginning my research with the end of the sojourn, I wanted to know the antecedent factors related to repatriation stress. Some of my early work led me to focus on identity issues and then on identity change as a consequence of cultural transitions and its subsequent influence on behavior and cognition upon repatriation.

One result of my research was the development of the Cultural Identity Model, or CIM, of cultural transitions (Sussman, 2000). The model posits four identity profiles relating to a significant cultural experience: subtractive, additive, affirmative, and global identities. The model has been tested among American sojourners (e.g. corporate expatriates, high school teachers of English, students studying abroad) and – in a test of the model’s generalizability – among Japanese returnees. An earlier Fulbright research grant funded the data collection phase of this study.

A key variable in the CIM is the level of adaptation to the host culture. Surely motivation and adaptation would be greater if the transitor anticipated a permanent stay – migration – rather than a temporary one – sojourn. What, then, would be the repatriation effect for migrants who returned to their home countries? While, historically, a small percentage of immigrants have returned to their home countries, the late 20th century has seen an increase in this pattern. To test my model among re-migrants I needed to find a country which had experienced large return migration. Hong Kong was just such a place.

As the specter of Hong Kong returning to China neared reality, “handover anxiety” gripped the city. Nearly one million people (one-sixth of the entire population) scrambled to immigrate and obtain passports from other countries. The 1997 deadline came and went with no cataclysmic political occurrences, the economy of Hong Kong improved, and Hong Kongers began to return. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 have returned to date. I had my population.

Fortuitously, the Fulbright Commission recently began offering grants to Hong Kong, although only one of the five grants was designated for a research scholar. It was also serendipitous that my two adolescent sons had been studying Chinese at their school in New York, and both welcomed an opportunity to live and study in Hong Kong. While the Fulbright application process is a lengthy one, and made longer last year due to the SARS epidemic, I was awarded the grant in June 2003 for the January – June 2004 period.

During the early part of my stay, I interviewed experts on the issue of Hong Kong identity. These interviews proved to be essential in understanding the situational nature of cultural identity and its layered structure stemming from the geographic and historical positioning of Hong Kong. The research design was a multi-method approach to examining the identity changes of contemporary Hong Kong Chinese re-migrants. In-depth interviews using a semi-structured interview schedule were combined with a series of scales measuring acculturation to the new country of citizenship, repatriation stress, satisfaction with life, and self-construal.

To narrow the research sample, only immigrants to Canada and Australia, the two largest receiving countries, were recruited. Due to visa requirements, these Hong Kongers were similar to each other in socio-economic status and education.

Recruitment became the first challenge. Random sampling was not possible. I placed ads in newsletters and distributed flyers, but I found that without a personal contact, returnees considered me part of the out-group and easy to ignore. I then instituted the snowball technique, starting the snowballs (personal contacts) from different points in the population. I also made “personal appearances,” speaking to groups where re-migrants might be found, and generally made a nuisance of myself to everyone I met. I had successfully used the snowball technique in Japan, and due in part to the collectivist nature of the culture, interviewees were able to recruit others. Hong Kong, however, is a mixture of both individualist and collectivist characteristics. Participants were agreeable to recruit their friends, but their friends felt comfortable saying no.

Once potential participants were identified, more challenges surfaced. Hong Kong maintains a frenetic pace of life, with the workday often stretching 12 to 15 hours, six days a week, and entertainment is available around the clock. In the pilot study, one interviewee commented that he was returning to Hong Kong because New York City was too quiet and boring. The requirement to spend one and a half to two hours being interviewed by a stranger was often met by incredulous laughter from potential participants. Fifty generous individuals ultimately agreed to participate, some after work (that might be 7:00 or 8:00 pm), on the weekends, or sneaking time out of a busy day. I’ve had a few sleepless nights wondering in what other ways these participants might differ from the rest of the re-migrant population. But real-world research is fuzzy in many ways, and I’ve had to live with these limitations. Sampling from two country-groups, males and females, and several age categories will provide some key analytic comparisons, though.

Where to hold the interviews became the next obstacle. Trying to make the process as convenient as possible, I offered the participant several choices: at their homes, their offices, my university offices, or a borrowed office in “Central” (the main business district). I had hoped to conduct the interview in their homes so as to take an informal inventory of their home furniture, decoration, etc. This would provide an unobtrusive measure of cultural identity. (Did they have posters of the Sydney Opera House, traditional Chinese furniture, or modern Hong Kong design?) I quickly discovered that none of the participants suggested their homes, which are small and tend to be overcrowded. Life for Hong Kongers takes place outside the home, in the streets, restaurants, and offices of the city. Interviews at the ubiquitous Starbucks proved too noisy, so I scuttle around Hong Kong’s subway system interviewing participants at their offices.

I am completing data collection now and a fascinatingly complex picture of identity is emerging. The identity profiles of these re-migrants differ both in distribution and content from American and Japanese returnees. Repatriation affect of the re-migrants is nearly universally positive, with no sense of being different from their compatriots – the opposite experience of American returnees. One explanation for the ease of transition may be due to the self-described values of Hong Kong as cosmopolitan, international, and the crossroads of East and West. Hong Kong Chinese have a broad and inclusive sense of appropriate behavior, and the behavior of re-migrants fit well within that range. The modal identity transformation is additive but split between hydribization (combining Hong Kong and host country behavior) and situational biculturalism (alternating behavior styles in appropriate situations). However, affirmative and global identities are also experienced by some returnees. Importantly, each identity profile appears to have idiosyncratic behaviors and cognitive styles or attitudes associated with them.

The Hong Kong sample differs culturally from United States and Japan samples, but also in the type of overseas stay. To overcome this confound, an investigation of a culturally distinct re-migrant population would be necessary. “Hey kids, how would you like to live in Ireland?”

Reference

Sussman, N.M. (2000). The dynamic nature of cultural identity throughout cultural transitions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 355-373.

Observer Vol.17, No.10 October, 2004

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.

Comments

Leave a comment.

Comments go live after a short delay. Thank you for contributing.

(required)

(required)