Book Review: Chinese-British intermarriage by Yang Hu

Review by Daniel Nehring

Yang Hu is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK. He is also an early career fellow at the Work Family Researchers Network, USA. His research focuses on the sociology of families and intimate relationships, race/ethnicity and migration, and East Asian societies. His first book Chinese-British Intermarriage: Disentangling Gender and Ethnicity was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016 and nominated for the 2017 British Sociological Association Philip Abrams Prize.

With Chinese-British Intermarriage, Yang Hu makes a highly original contribution to family sociology in general and the study of interethnic intimate relationships in particular. The book focuses on lived experiences of ethnic intermarriage in Chinese-British families in the United Kingdom. Addressing the dearth of in-depth research into everyday practices of interethnic, cross-border and transnational intimate relationships, Chinese-British Intermarriage explores the dynamic construction and constant negotiation of intersecting ethnic and gender identities in Chinese-British interethnic families. The book offers remarkably nuanced insights into the intimate backstage of globalisation by exploring the family lives of an emerging “transnational middle-class”.

Chinese-British Intermarriage departs from the observation that research on ethnic intermarriage has remained limited by a failure to account holistically for family relations spanning sending and receiving places, across time, and the simultaneity of multiple identities within interethnic families — as migrant, member of an ethnic minority, intimate partner, and gender individuals. Addressing these conceptual and empirical lacunae, Hu relies on a comprehensive, robust and well-constructed research design. At its core lie 108 life story interviews with 29 families and 4 Chinese divorcées who had previously been married to a British partner. The interviews were conducted with both individual partners and couples, enabling the exploration of individual attitudes, perceptions, and experiences, as well as the moderation of individual life stories in dyadic couple narratives. Hu complements his interviews with participant and non-participant observation of the couples’ conjugal and social interactions, and analysis of media narratives and secondary survey datasets that document the socio-cultural and demographic context of Chinese-British ethnic intermarriage. The research design is thus characterised by its attentiveness not only to the life story narratives, but also the micro-, meso- and macro-level embeddedness of such narratives.

The book contains eight chapters. Chapter 1 sets out the book’s thematic focus and situates it in on-going academic debates. While Hu has opted for a fairly standard format to introduce his research, the impressive narrative quality of this book already becomes apparent here, as his writing manages to be both lively and conceptually sophisticated. Chapter 2 outlines the families that participated in Hu’s study, setting out a fourfold typology of families informed by the intertwining trajectories of migration and family formation. Chapter 3 takes a life-course perspective to theorise the intersection between gender and ethnicity. The chapter also develops a life-story framework to “disentangle” intersecting social identities; and the framework is then used to structure the presentation of the empirical core of the book in Chapters 4 to 7. 

Each of the empirical chapters examines one of the four types of Chinese-British families outlined in Chapter 2, namely Chinese-British families formed of working British husbands and homemaking Chinese marriage migrant wives (Chapter 4), dual-earner families with working professional migrant Chinese wives (Chapter 5), ‘off-tracker’ families formed of homemaking professional migrant wives and working marriage migrant wives (Chapter 6), and the small number of families with Chinese husbands and British wives (Chapter 7). In Chapter 8, Hu concludes the book and engages with academic and policy debates by putting forward a procedural model that underlines the dynamic construction of intersectional identities. Notably, the appendices of the book offer a detailed explanation of the study’s design and execution, which provides a fine illustration of the intricacies of researching family and intimate lives in a cross-cultural, transnational and multilingual context.

Going beyond conceptualising intersectionality as a fixated and static construct, Hu demonstrates the need to take a life-course approach to analysing the dynamic and distinctive social processes that are responsible for (re)constructing the intersection between gender and ethnic identities. Drawing on a detailed analysis of intertwining migration, work, and family trajectories, Hu manages to trace the intricate needlework that weaves in and out of gender and ethnicity throughout distinctive life histories of family formation and transnational, inter-cultural border crossing. In this analysis, a complex portrayal emerges of the diverse formation, resistance, and reinvention of intersectionality.

Hu also brings to the fore the subtle negotiations involved in shaping everyday lives in interethnic and transnational families. He offers a vivid depiction of how the women and men are engaged in making and re-making interethnic families in everyday life, drawing on and moving beyond socioculturally situated imaginaries of transnational and interethnic intimacy. Although Hu’s work focuses on the reception, reinvention, and reconciliation of these imaginaries among people who are in ethnic intermarriages, future scholarship may also probe how such imaginaries were made in the first place, and how such imaginaries are prone to dynamic changes in an ever globalising world.

Hu’s book provides a timely intervention into public debates about ethnic intermarriage and transnational families that all too often showcase the widespread and far-fetched stigmas surrounding the subject matter. At the end of the book, Hu writes that one of his aims was to highlight the extraordinariness of his participants’ ordinary everyday lives (p. 235). Such extraordinariness, according to Hu, arises not only from the complex negotiations over gender and ethnicity across social, cultural and political cleavages, but also from the extent to which the lives of cross-border, interethnic and transnational families are stigmatised and misrepresented. Offering instead a nuanced and sophisticated portrayal of such families, Chinese-British Intermarriage is a book that deserves to be widely read.

Review by Daniel Nehring, East China University of Science and Technology, China. 

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