Plight of the stranger

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2004, 12:00am

I was born a refugee, in 1950, when my family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Chinese people, was making its way from China to Hong Kong. My father, a self-made man and a major landlord in his village, lost everything practically overnight.

As a child growing up in Hong Kong, I experienced poverty, but not the feeling of being a refugee - in the sense of feeling far from 'home' and an outsider in society subject to discrimination and hostility - probably because there were so many like us. Also, my family had remained largely intact. In 1969, I left Hong Kong and went to Canada to study.

As a university student, I did not spend much time thinking or writing about the life of a 'stranger' and his or her encounters with society. I was interested in sociological theory, social thought and philosophy on the one hand, and literature, drama and creative writing on the other - or, to put it another way, ideas and emotions and their role in human conduct and society.

My interest was abstract and theoretical. I simply wanted to acquire the tools of my trade, to learn the theories and ideas that would help me become a sociologist. As a foreign student in a cold, unfamiliar, faraway land, who lived among other Chinese students in a kind of ghetto, I led a stranger's life. But I was not aware of it at the time and I certainly was not interested in examining the plight of the stranger in an intellectual manner.

I first began to think about what it meant to be a stranger when I became a practicing sociologist in 1978 and was doing fieldwork on Asians in Canada. My respondents and informants confided in me, giving details of racial discrimination and the anguish it caused them. I became interested in the stigma attached to racial characteristics, which, whether real or imaginary, are manifestations of 'difference' and 'otherness'. I also became curious about how people coped with the damaged sense of self that resulted from discrimination. This personal concern led, quite naturally, to a series of studies of Chinatowns. Feeling themselves to be strangers, migrants tend to gravitate towards each other, forming their own close-knit communities as an institutional defence against the hostility of outsiders. In that sense, Chinatowns are a self-defence strategy - migrants band together, keeping their distance from the outside world to avoid its racism.

Working with diverse groups such as miners, elderly women, community leaders and refugees, I pieced together a sociology of social response to racial discrimination, which is certainly a central aspect of being a migrant and a stranger.

During the 1980s, I turned to the subject of forced migration of 'boat people' from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I did fieldwork in Southeast Asian refugee camps in Hong Kong, a place of first asylum, as well as in various Indochinese communities and neighbourhoods of Montreal, Canada, a place of settlement. I studied forced migration from many angles - from the prison-like atmosphere and chronic stress, which might last for years, of the holding camps, to the loss, grief and mourning for family, status and place that occurred in the country of settlement.

My focus was on the condition of being a refugee and on how forced migration changed the refugees, for better or worse. Their stories revealed that many felt cut loose from their moorings, in the inner as well as the outer world. They were strangers everywhere, some of them even to themselves.

To survive their predicament, some individuals organised themselves into groups, associations and communities, both formal and informal. Families got together for meals regularly. Early migrants formed associations to help out the more recent arrivals. Out of these informal connections, social networks and solidarity arose. Like the Chinatowns, the social organisation of refugees was established partly in self-defence and partly as a way to hold on to a sense of identity and meaning.

It seemed that, as strangers in a foreign land, immigrants and refugees responded to racism and the other, inevitable hardships of settling in a new country with ethnic solidarity. In this sense, ethnic consciousness and cohesiveness may well be the unintended consequence of discrimination. One might argue that ethnic networks are a response to the hardships immigrants face. Such networks are conducive to the growth and development of ethnic or immigrant businesses.

But there seems to be an involuntary, even unwanted, element to ethnic entrepreneurship, as well as to ethnic capitalism. Many ethnic businessmen are 'reluctant merchants', who have realised that their access to the political and professional landscapes of mainstream society is blocked. Unable to participate in the host-society capitalism, minorities create their own, ethnic capitalism. Thus, the economic sociology of immigrant entrepreneurship needs to be placed within the larger context of prevailing race and ethnic relations.

In the past decade or so, I have found myself meditating more and more often on the subject of identity and ethnicity, concerning the Chinese in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada; Asians in the Asia-Pacific region, and the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in Quebec.

Such analyses of identity and ethnicity are central to sociology; these required me to rethink many of my former ideas about identity and the self. I discovered that there was a new kind of migrant, one who 'made up' a way of life out of moving between a place of departure and place of arrival, who built and maintained ties in both places and who set the stage for transnationality and cosmopolitanism.

Such migrants negotiate political, geographic, social and psychological borders, exploiting the resources of both places. At the same time, their very existence poses questions about such concepts as 'nationalism' and 'patriotism'. As well, I found that many contemporary migrants have managed to hang on to both cultures - those of departure and arrival - and alternate between them. Some migrants have gone even further, transforming their biculturality, or sense of a double identity, into cosmopolitanism.

What happens when strangers meet? There are indeed many possibilities, each one representing a particular way of theorising identity and its relation to the self and the other. Identity is an elusive thing. It has a knack of transforming and slipping away, even as one thinks he or she has grasped it.

I find the possibility of identity renewing and reinventing itself to be exciting. While it initially creates turmoil within the individual, the psychological entanglement of what is familiar and what is profoundly different, its flow - the ability to cross boundaries, break apart and then reintegrate - is positive, a sign of hope in a world that seems profoundly divided by unpassable boundaries, into opposing camps of 'us' and 'them'.

Despite the anguish of being a stranger and the sense of personal marginality, the beginnings of hybridisation within new migrants seem to offer a solution to the dangers of polarity, to suggest a way out.

I am now living in Hong Kong once again, having come full circle, so to speak. At this point, sociology has become, for me, more than an occupation; it is a way of understanding the various life experiences of many different peoples - through writing persistently, over more than two decades.

This writing represents my personal, sometimes self-indulgent, attempt to make sense of the stories of those who are 'strangers' - among whom I sometimes count myself. Through writing, sociology and autobiography have merged, becoming one. Meanwhile, the migrant and the sociologist continue to ask: Who am I? What am I? What can I be?

Chan Kwok-bun is professor and head of the Department of Sociology, and director of the David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies, at Baptist University