No Place Like Home

Nancy Green & Roger Waldinger eds., A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and their Homeland Connections

University of Illinois Press, 292pp, £25.99, ISBN 9780252081903

reviewed by Susan Burton

I began reading this book in my dentist's waiting room. He's a Swede who commutes to the United Kingdom weekly to tend his NHS practice. Afterwards, I drove into town in my South Korean Hyundai car, which was manufactured in India. I bought some T-shirts in Primark, the labels of which say they were made in Bangladesh. Then I drove home where my neighbours, mostly health workers at the nearby hospital, are German, Singaporean Chinese, Nigerian and Albanian. In the evening, I watched a news programme in which British expatriates living in Spain and France spoke of their concern for their possible loss of benefits and healthcare after Brexit. We live in an increasingly interconnected world. This is transnationalism in action in our everyday lives.

The study of transnational phenomena is multi-disciplinary, and the term itself may be contested depending on the area of research. Historically, transnationalism is defined as the migration of peoples from one area to another – a country, a region, or a culture – and the cross-border links they forge between home and host societies, be they economic, political or cultural. More recently, it has been relabelled a modern concept created by the social and economic forces of contemporary capitalism, the global expansion of international networks forged by multinationals and by government organisations. In light of Brexit and Trump's immigration ban, transnational migration has also become a controversial political issue. A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and their Homeland Connections concerns itself with the first definition, the long-term historical perspective, offering evidence that a diverse range of migrant communities have been forging bilateral networks between their homelands and their new worlds for well over a century. It also examines the changes and continuities of these connections over time – how and why they strengthen, fluctuate or decline – and the impact of these connections on both the sending and receiving states.

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which looks at the role of the state – the sending and the receiving – in migrant stories. Chapters on China, Italy, Portugal, Japan and Mexico detail the efforts made by their governments to direct and control their migrants abroad, to monitor political activity, to channel financial rewards back home and, in the case of Italy, to encourage them eventually to return.

For example, Mônica Raisa Schpun's chapter on Japanese migrants to Brazil focuses on their abilities to prosper economically while remaining alienated from their host culture. Welcomed initially as cheap labour for the coffee plantations and farewelled by a Japanese state eager to ease a demographic and agrarian crisis, from 1908 to the 1970s, Japanese migrants utilised state support – both from Brazil and from Japan – to found successful businesses, Japanese-only schools and newspapers. But their lack of integration into Brazilian society, even over generations, attracted hostility from locals, particularly during the Second World War. When, from the 1970s, the situation reversed, Japanese Brazilians were welcomed 'home' on special visas to work in Japanese factories, only to discover that they were considered foreigners in their erstwhile 'homeland'. This reviewer has some direct experience of this phenomenon. Living in Hamamatsu in central Japan during the 1990s, I saw signs on the doors of bars, clubs and restaurants which read, 'No Brazilians'. Whilst ethnically Japanese, they were now 'too Brazilian' and no longer welcome. Consequently, they did what their ancestors had done in Brazil, they set up their own bars, shops and schools. When Japan fell into recession, the Japanese government offered them money to return to Brazil on the condition that they stayed there.

The Japanese were unskilled, low wage labour migrants. In contrast, from the late 19th century, the Chinese state began sending its educated elites to the USA to acquire specialist knowledge in western science and technology. Madeline Hsu's chapter notes the influence of returning students on the Chinese political and economic system, attaining high positions and directing the country's modernisation process. But some students assimilated (or 'denationalized') far too well into American society and refused to return, an historical example of a contemporary migration issue, a product of international student mobility, brain drain (or brain gain).

The second part of the book examines the periodisation of migration, and the ways in which migrants have mobilised to maintain links with their homelands. It also considers the changing nature of those links over time, often affected by economic and political developments both within the home and host communities. Thomas Lacroix's chapter looks at the historical evolution and transformation of cross-border voluntary organisations – religious groups, hometown networks, political organisations, groups based on ethnic, caste and kinship ties – which grew and transformed along with the growing and increasingly diverse Indian communities in urban England. Houda Asal on Arab communities in Canada, and Tony Michels on Jewish immigrants to the United States examine how they have mobilised to exert political influence on their homelands. Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaleard’s chapter on the oral histories of Algerian Souf migrants to Nanterre in France highlights the constraints placed upon them by both home and host states: by discrimination, by an inability to invest in the homeland, and by difficulties in re-adapting on returning to Algeria. These migrant stories emphasise the complexity of the term 'transmigrant' and the definition of transmigration itself.

As recently as 50 years ago, migrants departed their homelands not knowing if they would ever see it or their families again. British migrants to Australia, for example, the Ten Pound Poms, sailed halfway around the world at the Australian government's invitation and expense, believing it to be the one-way trip of a lifetime. They kept in touch with relatives by letter and became misty-eyed at the thought of a cup of Tetley tea and a trip to the football. Today's global migrants have Skype and Amazon and satellite television. Some keep homes in several countries, and regularly commute between them. With the advent of cheap air travel and new forms of communication it is almost possible to be in two places at once.

There is no denying that the process of migration and the nature of transmigration have altered. Yet A Century of Transnationalism presents a good argument that this is the expansion of a process that began long ago, that transnational migration is not simply a product of globalisation but of the continuing efforts of people sent far from home to maintain family connections and to support homeland loyalties. Being predominantly concerned with migrants to North America, this book may be of limited interest to scholars of other regions. However, as an historian with a particular interest in British migration stories, I was stuck by the recurrent shared themes between a diverse range of migrant groups. The chapters on the role of the state in transmigrant experiences are particularly timely in light of the news programme on British expatriates in Europe. Several interviewees stated that their communities were being used as pawns by the British government in the Brexit negotiations to secure a better deal for Brits at home.

A Century of Transnationalism is a thoughtful and useful addition to research on migration and diaspora studies. It explores the diversity of over a century of migration experiences while highlighting shared migration factors: the tug-of-war of loyalties between home and host culture and the push-pull forces of assimilation versus alienation. It's the continuing story of people trying to survive and thrive.
Susan Burton spent 14 years in Japan lecturing in Japanese universities. She is currently writing a book on the unusual lives and bizarre livelihoods of foreigners in Japan.