On reproducing Chineseness as Diaspora: An Authoethnography of Transnational Pregnancy as a Chinese Immigrant Woman

By Lili Shi

On a morning in June 2012, after eight years of studying and teaching in the United States and securing a tenure-tracked college position in New York City, my husband — a White American whom I met in graduate school in Washington D.C.– and I found out we were pregnant. It was planned and my first. My mother, who was on Skype in China, in her middle of the evening, was overjoyed at the news. “Finally!”, she exclaimed. “Such a gift. Always remember to rest and always be careful of what you eat. Your American doctor may know a lot but not enough for your Chinese body,” she said, “ask your elderly Hong Kong neighbors when you don’t understand things or those Chinese immigrant women you are working with. And I will ask your aunt — she types better than me on the computer– to email you some highlights of Chinese medicine books I picked out for you on pregnancy.” My mother also announced that she would start applying for her passport and come to New York to help me “do the month” (zuoyuezi), the traditional month-long Chinese postpartum care. Immediately the joy I felt became mixed with unease.

From this personal intersection of transnational family, health, and medicine, I write my autoethnography of pregnancy as a Chinese immigrant woman in Brooklyn, New York. I want to articulate that the experience of maternity — which is known as one of the most profound and transformative moment for all women and their identities — is an especially important site to examine complex politics of race and gender for migrants. By exploring some personal “spurts” during my transnational pregnancy in three relational contexts — my local Chinese diasporic community, my White American OBGYN, and my American colleagues at work — I explore my hybrid spaces of “Chineseness” through “the performative possibilities of memory” (Calafell, 2007, p. 27). I explore my “thick intersectionalities” (Yep, 2010) as a transnational maternal subject of color and a pregnant college academic who also conducted ethnographic research with Chinese women diaspora in Brooklyn. Yep describes thick intersectionalities as the “complex particularities of multiple social positions (e.g. nationality, race, gender, etc.) in the material contents of macro-structural constraints” through which the “persons who occupy particular intersections inhabit and make sense of their own bodies” (p. 123). Yep proposes that to examine thick intersectionality is to “attend to the lived experiences (p.123).

This essay is oriented largely by three bodies of literature. First one, as I interrogate my intra-diasporic identity as an immigrant Chinese woman in Brooklyn, I situate my discussion within postcolonial and transnational feminists’ provocation of diaspora as a site of un-unified experiences, gaps, unevenness and hegemonies, of endless individuation within a larger whole, and of double-edged-ness of simultaneous support and confinement (Brah, 1996; Braon, 1998; Ang, 2001; Edwards, 2003; Grewal, Neptune, 2003; Campt, 2004; Campt & Thomas, 2008). By dealing with various – and sometimes conflicting – maternity health and affective discourses circulating around New York City’s Chinatowns as well as with my transnational family, I reflect on my different performative modes of Chineseness and belonging.

The second body of literature that I rely my discussion upon is postcolonial anthropologist critique on Western medicine and care, particularly how its inherited “bio-medical gaze” (Ong, 1995. p.92) takes its effect to impose a different “ethos of being” on non-Western bodies of color and disciplines the bodies into Western normative attitudes and identities as “modern biopolitical subject” and yet “cures the disease but not the person” (p.92). By remembering and analyzing my encounters with my then OBGYN, I discuss my struggles negotiating space to assert my maternal agency as a patient of color.

The last body of work that situates my essay is feminist affect theory, particularly Sara Ahmed’s (2005, 2014) works on the politics of happiness as an insidious perpetuation of Whiteness. By recounting the history of studies of happiness in Western epistemological tradition, she critiques the totalizing Western construct of “happiness” as “measureable” and “out there” with culturally specific “happiness causes” and “happiness duties”.  Migrants are thus inevitably obligated to get “oriented” to the moral economies of the West and those who failed are viewed and culturally disenfranchised as the “melancholy migrant”. Adopting that theoretical framework, I explore my affective space during pregnancy — a “happiness cause” in Ahmed’s terms — and my limited space to feel and express my happiness or not-so-happiness during my everyday encounter at work as a pregnant professional of color, and in the hospital setting.

Autoethnography framework

In this essay I use my firsthand experience as primary ethnographic data (Jackson, 1989) and adopt autoethnography (Ellis, 2004) as “a method to connect the tensions in the story to larger issues in society” (Hudson, 2015, p. 115), particularly tensions within diaspora, affective struggles under the biomedical gaze as a transnational pregnant body of color, and politics of happiness/feeling around Western hegemonic construct of planned pregnancy as a “happiness cause”. In such doing I hope to decolonialize White-dominated autoethnography as an inquiry (Chawla & Rodriguez, 2008) and assert my voice, my experience as to exercise “a radical democratic politics that is committed to creating (a postcolonial) space for dialogue and debate that instigates and shapes social change” (Jones, 2005, p. 763).

Negotiating diasporic Chineseness in my prenatal health

In my eight years living in the United States prior to my pregnancy, I never had any in-depth medical encounter with the American medical culture except one short visit to my university’s medical office for a stomach virus. In fact, I only purchased health insurance in one of my six years as an international graduate student. Every year when I went back to my hometown– a non-industrial and relatively non-Westernized city in Southwest China -my parents always loaded my suitcase a year supply of common medicine needed for my stay in the foreign land — from herbal teas and pills for colds, to antibiotics for stomach flu and other common infections. I even brought myself enough supply of birth control pills, as they were over-the-counter in China and a fraction of price than that in the US. I avoided paying $900 per semester – an astronomical price for me at the time – and avoided doctor’s visits as much as I could. My vulnerability as a non-citizen was fully experienced by my body’s lack of systemic care. My transnational body’s wellness and belonging were nationalized by the care I could have. Other Chinese students quickly taught me that in the event of me being sick but still able, I should refuse American services like the ambulance or the emergency room as we couldn’t possibly afford it – instead, calling the embassy or even pausing school and flying back to China for treatment was more economically viable and responsible. According to Ecks (2005, p.204), in an increasingly pharmacological world, underdeveloped and vulnerable often means to be “cut off from the circulation of pharmaceutical care… which brings the promise of ‘medical citizenship’ that works on redefining belonging, personhood, exclusion, and rights.”

At the same time, my parents firmly believed in authentic Chinese health that’s “distinct from Americans” due to our dietary structure and generations of culturally informed living habits. As a Western-educated person believing in social constructionism, I was always skeptical of the thought, and yet empirically very much aware of some of my health mysteries. For example, I am sensitive to the temperature of my food and drinks. Cold beverages and food, which are common in the United States always upset my stomach regardless of how much I enjoy them. Chinese medicine always works better on me for small, common ailments. I believed Western science doesn’t hold all the biomedical truths about the human body, and yet it’s a tremendous relief and privilege after I graduated and was granted health care in the US from my work. I thought my health then became a safer and more flexible space for national care technologies and for negotiating my transnational identity and belonging.

Yet when I became pregnant, my in-depth confrontation with the ethnocultural and biomedical differences began. My flexible space of health care choices was disrupted by an overwhelming information overload of “Chinese ways” of understanding and caring for my “authentically Chinese” prenatal health. Women members of my transnational family on Skype, along with women I’m working within Sunset Park Chinatown — constantly made sure that I have received the complete knowledge of Chinese prenatal care. Such care involves prohibited foods and activities that my American doctor hadn’t heard of, for example, no watermelon, peaches, bananas, contact lenses, nail polish, and limited time with electronic devices and excessive emphasis on bed rest, among other things. Out of my own ethnographic research on transnational maternity, I recognize many Chinese immigrant women use biology (i.e. authentic Chinese health needs authentic Chinese care) as agency to express resistance to white doctor’s color-blind biomedical gaze (Shi, 2016). Yet I intensely felt and struggled to be able to choose what I believe due to the fact that my community believes that I attended American schools and married a white American husband, and thus I’m more prone to adopt “Western ways”. My mother once saw my Coca-Cola can while we were on Skype and blamed me as being indulgent and irresponsible: “other things you can bend but this matters to yours and your baby’s health and safety”. In such powerful “cultural hailing”, I became increasingly resistant to that biological quintessential Chineseness and responded with pretended faithfulness to the Chinese ways merely to please my family, something mediated as possible by Skype. In doing so, I tried to secure my transnational social capital and maintain my diasporic ties.

Such cultural hailing also came from my local diasporic community. One day I was ordering food from a Chinese restaurant on 8th Avenue. The lady who managed the restaurant, let’s call her Aiyun, was an old acquaint of mine who also participated in my Chinatown motherhood studies. While I was waiting for my food, she warmly asked me about my birthing plan and if my parents were coming to America to help me “do the month” (“zuo yuezi”) for postpartum. I told her that I would probably skip a lot of the yuezi bed-rest rituals due to the fact that my husband’s work didn’t offer any parental leave and I had to help my parents get around since they didn’t speak any English.  She looked at me shocked and worried. Then she said, “if you don’t do your month, you will suffer later. Birthing is the most important thing for Chinese women. Our Chinese bodies are attended best by our ancestors’ wisdoms (laozuxian de nayitao). I had three children and I can tell you that the quality of “yuezi” determines the quality of a woman’s health after one turns 40.” She went on, telling me how her sister in Canada had chronic back pain which was caused by poor “yuezi” care. She went on to say that in China today, young mothers were not self-disciplined, and they copied Western lifestyle blindly. We as overseas Chinese should know better — that glamorized Western medicine has limitations on Chinese bodies, and that we had the duty to preserve Chineseness. She then in a sisterly and endearing tone, critiqued my painted nails as a sign of my self-indulgence on beauty over my baby’s health and implied that I was a little too Americanized.

This exchange was among many other similar ones in my diasporic community around 8th Ave Chinatown. Unlike my mom’s teaching on Skype – to which I mostly felt resistant – I find my local community’s “hailing” nurturing and alienating at the same time, and liberating and confining at the same time. On one hand, I have longed for New York’s prominent Chinese community after living in suburban university towns in the first few years of my life in the US. I remember how the sight and smells of 8th Ave were incredibly consoling and empowering when I first moved to New York. Aiyun’s chat extended me an unrefusable membership to her diasporic community with whom the history of my transnational body and health was understood and remembered. Yet at the same time, I disagree with her position that Chineseness could only be expressed as an opposition to Whiteness, that in order to belong, I need to dutifully perform tradition or else to receive coercion (e.g. poor health after 40, being viewed as too indulgent and adapted to Western lifestyle, etc.). I felt that my pregnant body as diaspora was (re)terrorized and rehistorized where my Chineseness is not for myself to claim but under community’s scrutiny and disciplinary power, due to its promise and futurity to reproduce Chineseness. It dawned on me that regardless of my education and my choice of marrying my white feminist husband, diaspora hails to nationalize me into a gender discourse where women as diaspora are mere adjuncts to the invisible patriarchal structure, where men being the pioneering migrants and bread-winners (Gallo & Scinzi, 2016), and women mere preservers of race, reproducing babies while maintaining traditional gender ideals such self-discipline and sacrifice.

Yet to complicate my sense of belonging, although I resist being nationalized in the authentic Chinese women’s health discourse in my community, I find myself with much more agency and visibility when I’m socializing my pregnant self in Chinese language. While I was being called and treated in English language as a “maternity patient” – by my doctor and at work (e.g. HR calls maternity leave as family medical leave) — I was being called and treated in Chinese as “pregnant lady” (yunfu) in my diasporic community which entails more dignity and understanding to women’s bodily history and subjectivity. To this end, diaspora as an emotional space as well as a materialized community performed as “a double-edged sword” in my belonging that is “simultaneously confining and liberating” (Ang, 2004, p. 9).

Encountering the biomedical gaze

Another site where I negotiated my maternal Chineseness was my bodily encounter with Western medicine’s “biomedical gaze” on health. Aihwa Ong’s (1995) well-known Foucaultian analyses on U.S. refugee medicine’s power over Cambodian refugees in California propose that Western “bio-medical gaze” as “a disciplining mechanism defines human life as facts of the body… socialize subjects into normative social identities and behaviors, … and into modern biopolitical subjects”, that when imposed upon non-Western subjects, cures the diseases but not the person”. (Ong, 1995, p. 96).

This very biomedical gaze was embodied in many aspects of my pregnancy. I intensely felt that my body was programmed to go through a standard process under the technology of biomedical gaze from the first appointment with my OBGYN when I shared my intention to get pregnant. At that appointment, a thorough physical exam was conducted, blood was drawn for tests, the prenatal vitamin was prescribed, and the method of calculating ovulation was advised. My visits after getting pregnant were meticulously timed by my doctor, and each appointment’s inquires and testing all standardized. I also discovered that I was linguistically poor when it comes to medicine despite my PhD education. I couldn’t easily identify feelings of “heartburn” or being “bloated” because I have no childhood or medical history in English. I had to pull out my phone and use Google Translate when my doctor talked to me about anemia and platelets levels.

I am not proposing that the biomedical gaze is absent in China or Chinese medicine but the dominating status of the biomedical gaze and non-existent space to speaking on alternative medical experiences for migrants in US cultural discourse of medicine. My pregnant body was treated as a generic biological mechanism that didn’t allow much room for race and cultural talk (and it’s this very absence of talk that I feel racialized as different) which was very much distinct from the medical care I received growing up in China. Instead of medical technology, the doctor — even one that’s trained in Western medicine — always asked about patient’s habits, diet, whether your body is balanced with masculine and feminine food (shanghuo and baihuo). As a result, although I find Western biomedical prenatal care thorough and advanced, my relationship with my body was somehow changed — that I have less intimacy or authority over myself under the biomedical gaze that my health has shifted from a “me” to an “it”.  For example, my doctor had a medical answer and “solution” to everything I addressed. When I told him “I just started feeling morning sickness this week” in response to his question “how are you doing?” during my first trimester, he immediately responded that he could prescribe me with an anti-nausea medicine if “eating crackers doesn’t help”. While I was trying to express that it was a novel and exciting thing to be “finally feeling it” as a first time mother — something I thought it’s sociable to say in response to his greeting before the routine “business” of checkups — he was all ears absorbing “data” and all business fixing my body.

I also experienced “race” throughout the medicalization of my pregnancy. To start, I followed Aiyun and other Chinatown women friends’ advice and chose an American OBGYN outside Chinatown to ensure better treatment “since my English is good enough to pretend as an Asian-American patient, not a recent immigrant patient”. They informed me that bilingual Chinese-American doctors near Chinatowns were scarce and that waiting times at their offices were usually incredibly long. I ended up with an OBGYN with a nice office in an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn recommended by a white woman colleague at work. I was almost always the only person of color in the waiting room. And when I consulted him about taboos like nail polish, contact lens, cold juicy fruits that I was nagged from my Chinese community, he smiled and negated the validity of all of them, and then he re-emphasized the prohibited food on the American list: unpasteurized milk, lunch meat, alcohol, and then suddenly brighten-eyed — “oh yeah, no Sushi” — as if he suddenly thought of something in great cultural proximity to my identity. Then in a very light-hearted tone, he shared that he was not totally unfamiliar with “cultural beliefs” of pregnancy and he “understood my concern” because his wife’s great Italian aunt used to “have similar beliefs.”

At that moment, I felt the erasure of the history of my body and deprivation of the ability to feel as a transnational subject. My doctor — although kind and tried to be sensitive – associated my living concerns right-here right-now with a space that’s anecdotal and in the past. Behind such remark, was the colonialist discourse in which docile bodies of color are from exotic worlds, whose concerns only existed in abstraction and bore little material or emotional validity merely as “lore” (Pathak, 2010, p.4). The only condition that led to its recognition was through re-scripting my distress into light-hearted small talk of multiculturalism (sushi) or lore, which redirected and re-centered the biomedical gaze to marginalize other alternative discourses as relevant. I will elaborate on this point further in my next section on Whiteness and happiness.

My Chineseness in this biomedical context is felt intensely by self, yet treated as nonexistent. My cultural identity was realized by my own “alienist self-recognition” (Riley, 1988, p.97), in which I – a transnational bilingual pregnant subject — felt that my “cultural resources (of medicine and knowledge) have been eradicated by the global imperialism” (Hook, 2005a, p.480), that I therefore experience a “nervous condition” (Sartre, 1963, p.17) in my medical encounter that is both political and psychological, that in order to assert my identity as a racialized subject, I must first accept the biomedical gaze to self-colonize and then to critique it, a paradoxical trajectory (Butler, 1997, p. 104) for patients from the Global South that leads to potential identity violence.

Decolonializing “happiness” in maternity

In this last section, I discuss the discourse of maternal happiness lived as affective hegemony by migrant women of color. Sara Ahmed (2005 & 2007 & 2013) in her works on whiteness and happiness eloquently problematizes the Western epistemological tradition of “happiness” and its research assuming its measurability, for example, ‘hedonimeters’ (Nettle, 2006, P.3.), and happiness’ objective locations.  She argues that this tradition of Western research develops a comparative model of happiness — “which individuals are happier, which groups and which nation-states.” (p. 6). Further, this research tradition fosters concepts such as “happiness indicators” or “happiness causes” (for example marriage and planned pregnancy), which  “function not only as measures of happiness but predictors of happiness… thus science describes what is already evaluated as being good as good… And if we have a duty to promote what causes happiness, then happiness itself becomes a duty.” (p.7). In other words, Western scientific discourse assumes and creates a hegemonic construct of “happiness” that dominates the global affect-scape that can be disenfranchising or creating “politics of happiness” (p.10) for non-Western subjects.

I encountered such affective hegemony much earlier than my pregnancy ever since I first arrived in the United States as an international student in 2004. I learned quickly that when responding to the greeting “how are you?” in American daily exchange, “good” “wonderful” “fantastic” were much more expected and preferred replies than anything truthful, lengthy or not-so-good. Bubbly and optimistic attitude signifies cultural competency and gains social capital for the individual. By the same token, I distinctly remember my complete bafflement towards some non-happiness causes in the happiness discourse. Doing laundry for example – something everybody in my Chinese college did by hand regularly – was always inevitably dreaded by Americans who use washing machines. To gain recognition and membership in the society, compulsory effective (re-)orientation becomes part of a migrant’s journey to.

Sara Ahmed in her discussion of “the melancholic migrant” (2014, p.11) highlighted that migrants face “affective differentiation” in specific moral economies that “to become oriented” is to find direction when we “enter our sphere with an affective value already in place, which means they are already invested with positive and negative value… and bodies that are not acculturated into such happiness orientation…simply do not inhabit in the right kind of body” (p.34). To this end, my doctor’s happy sharing of his great Italian aunt’s maternity beliefs to end our conversation illustrated Ahmed’s point that “happiness itself functions a technology of reconciliation, which is allowing us to leave bad feeling behind, enables us to embrace a common good” (Ahmed, 2014, p.11), and in my case takes away my agency to further speak or doubt.

During my pregnancy, the number of instances where I felt my transnational affective gap and my heavy happiness duty were beyond counting. After I purchased some maternity clothes on Target and Gap’s websites, I started to get bombarded by images and advertisements in my mail and on my social media page which reinforced the powerful Western cultural construct of maternal happiness. From clothing, prenatal yoga to maternity photography packages, these ads featured beautiful pregnant women (usually Whites) in their late stage of pregnancy dressed and groomed impeccably with happy smiles, engaged in active, social activities even with the glorious bump as hyper-visible. I am not arguing that women of color do not celebrate a pregnancy or celebrate it to any less degree. Instead, I’m arguing that planned pregnancy as a “happiness indicator” in Global North’s affective scape has been scripted with a specific discourse of images and pleasures (as in example of consumerism) that indicate a very narrow, even disenfranchising definition of gender modernity, a politics of feeling happy for women of color.

I do recognize that beyond consumerism, the public aesthetic endorsement or glamorization over a woman’s pregnancy bump is a feminist endeavor to claim maternal agency. Still, I find the repetitive, everyday small talk initiated by my American women friends or colleagues around my bump tiring and disenfranchising.  As fellow women academics, there were many other important issues beyond the bump that was worthy of discussion: my soon-to-be paused tenure clock, maternity resources on campus, childcare options, breastfeeding… Still, the bump seemed to be happiest and thus most mentioned in everyday exchange. Additionally, other not-so-happy issues when getting mentioned and discussed were usually contextualized or re-directed to a happy and optimistic tone. My doctor, for example, told me that I would be “much happier” after my first trimester as morning sickness usually declines by then according to research. And when I talked to my mommy friends about frequent bathroom run and severe cramps in the legs at night, they smiled and told me to hang in there and just think about a healthy baby in my arm at the end of it.

The most troubling kind of “happy talk” around pregnancy was one of Asian American friends who flaunted her active pregnant bodies still playing tennis and going to the gym as her successful acculturation into the “White active maternity — the can-do maternal body as enterprising, always on the move, confident, and never relies on anyone else” (Shome, 2014, p. 55)  — when she knew that I was put to bed-rest after my bleeding incident for a while. Also, I had a white pregnant friend at work who wanted to have a multicultural birthing culture conversation with me. She told me that as an academic she read quite some anthropological accounts on world’s indigenous cultural practices of maternity and invited me to take the role of a native informant of Chinese birthing culture, while I never had a baby in China. How could I feel happy with such conversation while my ethnocultural differences were reduced to Whiteness’ pursuit of cosmopolitanism while my lived experience of the differences was oftentimes my panic and my unease, along with my political struggle for identity and diasporic belonging?


Using my firsthand experience of transnational pregnancy as an able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class Chinese immigrant academic and first-time mother in Brooklyn New York as primary data, I write my autoethnography on my performative diasporic Chineseness. I politicize my intercultural encounters in three cultural and discursive sites where global and local politics of identity, medicine, and affect takes place and discuss my belonging and Chineseness in my intra-diasporic relationships, the Western biomedical gaze of health, and hegemonic Western construct of happiness. As I write my analysis, I re-experienced many ineffable moments of frustration that I struggled to feel to articulate. I also realized my immense privilege compared with many other maternal migrants that I encountered who are without supportive transnational family, protection of a local community, modern health care, or linguistic competency. As Gayatri Spivak powerfully proposes in her Can the Subaltern Speak (1988) that feminists are to build discursive infrastructure to condition the conditions for the subalterns to speak, I hope my essay in its humble capacity prompts a few thought towards that direction.


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