Symposium: ‘Transnational Mobility in the Asia Pacific: Family, Friends, Facebook’ at RMIT

Two days into my life in Melbourne, Australia, and I attended the one-day symposium ‘Transnational Mobility in the Asia Pacific: Family, Friends, Facebook’ at RMIT University. Time to get to know the academic circles here…

Convened by Dr. Catherine Gomes, the symposium focused on technology, communication, connectivity and family and friends…the global nature of families, children studying overseas, parents overseas…the global space of families as part of everyday life. I actually met Catherine for coffee and cake on my first trip to Melbourne in September as her research transnational interests cross over (in part) with some of mine…looking forward to talking more with her soon!


The day opened with a keynote presentation by Professor Brenda Yeoh from the National University of Singapore, who spoke on ‘Transnational families, communication technologies and the negotiation of temporal orderings: Simultaneities, rhythms and ruptures’. 

  • Transnationalism optic from the 1990s, more recently the mobilities paradigm;
  • New spatialities and temporalities as borders are transgressed, rigidified or redrawn in the face of multiple mobilities;
  • The notion of the ‘transnational family’ is no longer oxymoronic. The scalar relationship between ‘family’ and ‘nation-state’ is now reversible;
  • ‘Nations’ can now be folded into the ‘family household’ while ‘family’ can be stretched across national borders.

Yeoh illustrated these points with the photographic series ’Be Here Now’ (2013) by John Clang, which depict a shared imaginary belonging – a way of uniting families that are miles apart.

Paris (and project, Singapore): Stephanie Chi-Weng Tsui; her mother, Alexia Wai-China Tye; Alexia’s partner, Pierre de Fouquet (2012). Photograph by and copyright John Clang.

Border crossing today is deeply embedded in global and local power politics…negotiated at a scale of everyday family life and gender identities. Yeoh defines the concepts of ‘global householding’ (Douglass 2006), concerned with the formation and sustenance of households is increasingly reliant on the international movement of people and transactions highlighting the links between migration, household reproduction and the reproduction of societies in the age of globalisation, and ‘transnational family’ concerned with the family continuing to share strong bonds of collective welfare and unity even though core members are distributed across national borders, as key theories in understanding border crossing. Integral to ‘global householding’ is the notion of ‘liberal familialism’ (Ochiai 2010) where the cost of core labour is borne by the family but where filial piety is outsourced to others whose services are bought from across international borders – a form of what Yeoh called ‘aspirational multilingualism’. Yeoh cites the film ‘Ilo Ilo’ (2013) by Anthony Chen as an example of ‘global householding’ where the latter also includes cross-border marriages.

The ‘transnational family’ can be understood through two themes: ‘Frontiering’ – ways and means transnational family members use to create familial space and network ties, and ‘Relativising’ – the ways individuals establish, maintain or curtail relational ties with specific family members. Transnational communities are a matter of choice and negotiations. The ‘transnational family’ can be further understood through ‘Asian astronaut families’ and ‘parachute kids’; ‘temporary contract workers’ where transience is not by choice it is by necessity. Asian ‘transnational families’ are shaped by an ideological infrastructure of patriarchal norms, created on an everyday basis through the experience of negotiating webs of relationships and developing intimacies across borders. Transnational communication may be uneven or deliberately ruptures as in the case of attempts on the part of a family member to exert power from a distance and manage a relationship through silence or withdrawn. Here, technologies are vital.

Finally, the concept of ‘strategic intent’ ensures economic survival or maximising social mobility such as through children’s education through overseas study, or Chinese “study mothers” (péidú māmā (陪读妈妈)) who inserts themselves and their children into the educational landscape to invest into their children’s education as the main route of social mobility and prestige.


Yeoh concluded speaking on ‘time, temporalities and transnational families’ as defining borders, stating they are as much temporal and spatial, demarcating ‘then and now’ as much as ‘here and there’, and can take the shape of actual physical borders, ‘paper borders’ or imagined borders of identity and belonging (Robertson 2015). This includes the notion of ‘permanent temporariness’…having to try to transcend the temporal lags between ‘here’ and ‘there’. As Cwerner states (2001) migration may be understood as a series of processes marking a transitional stage between different statuses, and particularly if the migration is deemed temporary, this ‘transitional stage or condition’ is often ‘suffused with liminality’. She stated the temporal dimensions of migrations need to be ‘embedded within and to work in concert with spatial structures and practices’ (Robertson 2014) in a fuller understanding of transnational families living across borders. She noted the importance of the rhythms of transnational family life, the liminal times suffused with ambiguous forms of temporality, and synchronous times where family life centres on a vivid sense of simultaneity.

Panel 1: Connectivity, Displacement and Everyday Life

‘Recent Indian migrants communicate with family and friends’ by Prof. Supriya Singh from RMIT University. She discussed:

  • Money as communication, money as a two-way exchange
  • Facebook and digital technologies as secondary communication
  • Recreating family life at a distance
  • “Open secrets” – things you understand but do not ask, parents understanding what the child needs
  • Money and language as two ways of communicating care
  • Changing flow of communication, changes the flow of money
  • Just because you can communicate doesn’t mean you’ll have a great relationship
  • Money as a preferred gift

‘HOMELANDS’ by Dr Raelene Wilding from La Trobe University looked into social media and the refugee experience, specifically how young people negotiate displacement in an age of connectivity. She opened by stating there are three forms of social media engagement through the project:

  1. Co-presence and intimacy – representations of extended kinship networks, curious repositioning of intimate relationships, extending the family imaginary
  2. Refugee identities
  3. Ethnic youth identities and belonging

‘Social media photography and intergenerational families’ by Dr Jolynna Sinanan examined social media not as platforms but as content. We conceptualise social media from a material culture perspective, embedded in the relationships that it’s part of…and the inflections of use of this social media. She cited her project ‘Locating the mobile’, an intergenerational locative media in Tokyo, Shanghai and Melbourne.


It is an in-depth and cross-cultural study of the use of mobile media including the family gaze, the use of family photos, documenting real experiences and the stories families tell themselves about themselves; family photography in the home, displaying and sharing bonding and relationships; photo albums and looking at the photo albums together as a performance; digital photography circulation, ephemeral not archival. She examined the rise of ‘Kodak culture’ meets ‘Nokia culture’ citing again the photography of John Clang (as referenced earlier in this blog post); the importance of ‘micro coordination’ and ‘archiving and exchange’. With the types of communication that happen with the shifts of technology and migration it is creating an increased obligation for exchange and visits. How to people navigate these obligations? Here’s a snapshot of the project…

Lunch was a delectable vegetarian buffet on the 7th Floor balcony of Building 80 at RMIT, overlooking the CBD area (North) of Melbourne accompanied by sunshine and academic chatter. Needed interlude to supposedly wake up my jet-lagged self, or at least a good attempt! I apologise to those people I spoke to if I was non-sensical! Looking back on it now, I definitely was…ina very big travel haze.

Panel 2: Mobility, Location and Identities

‘Digital Journeys: A perspective on International Students and their Digital Environments’ by Dr. Catherine Gomes from RMIT University, Prof. Shanton Chang from University of Melbourne and Prof. Fran Martin from University of Melbourne – it is largely the physical journey that is focused on during introductory programmes at university. What’s been missing is looking at the digital journeys that the international students make. ’The Digital Journey’ refers to the transition an individual makes online from relying on one digital bundle of sources to another new bundle perhaps based on the new host country or internationally (Chang and Gomes 2016). This links to the ‘translocal’, which refers to transnational subject whose everyday experience is marked by the interweaving of relationships, information and communication that are connected both to immediate (current geographic location) and distant (transnational) localities. In other words, the way of being in a place is where the experience of the everyday locality is constitutively interwoven by the co-presence of other localities that are transnationally removed.

“The transnational is always local, and the local is always transnationalised.” – Catherine Gomes

Focussing on Weibo/WeChat as a platform and its content…the use of the app before and after departure where the digital journey can happen within the app, and externally through other platforms. Weibo/WeChat is coined by Martin as ‘ethno-trans-media’ having both diasporic and transnational functions. Martin stated the importance of an individual learning the digital journey and digital cultures of their homeland, before learning what was going on where they are now – as such a reverse digital journey. The firewall influences these journeys. Other issues to consider are external influences outside the platform itself.

They concluded by talking about the notion of ‘digital customs’ questioning, how can we improve practice and what does this mean for practice? Does Chinese language social media hinder integration? Is it working as an umbilical cord to China, functioning to localise and cement ties in the diaspora? It is also a ‘polymedia’ concept, not as simple as originally outlined. Here, I questioned whether there is a self-reflective element to the research through using WeChat in a localised rather than homeland sense where Martin spoke of the importance to document the personal embodied use of the app, and the connectedness is instigates.


‘Female Facebook Use in the Malay Diaspora: Friction and Transnational Immobility’ by Dr. Monika Winarnita and Dr. Nicholas Herriman both from La Trobe University spoke on family friction through social media citing the work of Miller and Madinou (2011).  They cite friction as a metaphor for globalisation, diverse and conflicting social interactions, and aspiration for global connections (Tsing 2005), working in the margins of local/global cultural formations, not deviance from social forms, analysing constraining, oppressive cultural exclusion with the potential of rearranging social categories (Tsing 1994). Facebook in the Malay region becomes a space for local to global encounter, the space to fight back, and the space to rearrange social orders. Does the research require a diaspora to function online? Are there any offline ways this expression takes place and does it intersect with the online?

The final paper for panel two was ‘Perth Calling: Media, Mobility and Imaginaries’ by Dr. Susan Leong. She examined Singapore’s versus Australia’s social imaginary based on Charles Taylor’s work on the theme, defined as a loosely coordinated body of significations that enable our social acts. Social imaginaries are unique to the self. She focussed on two significations of the social imaginary – ‘meritocracy’ where progress is based on ability rather than wealth, and ‘multiracialism’ focussing on a distorted perspective of migrant travel and “foreign talent” in Singapore whereas in Australia it is the ability to adapt and change from being a majority to minority.

“Racial harmony is always on edge.” – Susan Leong


Panel Three: Diasporas and Social Media

‘Playing between the generations: A Transnational case study’ by Prof. Larissa Hjorth, Dr Jolynna Sinanan, Prof. Sarah Pink and Prof. Heather Horst from RMIT University. Focussing on affective labour and care at a distance citing an artwork recently collected my MoMA New York – a golden sculpture of an emoji poo…

Golden poop emoji sculpture by Mathew Lapenta at Axiom Contemporary Gallery, Scope Art Fair, Miami, 2015. Image copyright @marcleesutton

Hjorth then walked us through the history of emojis, invented in Japan in 1999 to address the complexities of mobile communication and the influence of this Japanese history. It is about ‘researching emojis ethnographically’, including ‘tactile ethnography’ as to how they use their hands as part of emoji use opening up sensorial and haptic experience. She cited the development from emojis to stickers on social media, which are crucial are propriety to each platform. The emoji like the original smiley is representing “cruel optimism”, where it is easy to get their use wrong. I wonder whether they have made reference to Xu Bing’s on-going ‘Book from the Ground’ project? I might email them about this.

The final paper of the day was ‘The Use of Social Media and Latin American Digital Diaspora in Australia’ by Dr Glenda Mejia from RMIT University and Miss Trinidad Espinosa y Abascal from Victoria University. At this stage, my jet-lagged brain had officially left the building. My apologies for not taking notes on this last paper. A good and guiding first insight into research into this transnational region with more academic reflections to come later this week.

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