Satellite kids: negotiating two worlds

Mainland Chinese people have been emigrating from China for years, and yet, the recent experiences of mainland Chinese immigrant families have been largely ignored, says Henry Li.

[Mainland Chinese] make up the biggest group of incoming immigrants into Canada for the last 10 years,” says Li, a Master’s student in Simon Fraser’s sociology department who recently completed his thesis, Up in the Air: Examining the Experiences of Mainland Chinese Satellite Children in Vancouver.

It’s very important to understand this group that’s coming into the country, that’s changing everything, Li says, speaking about these predominantly middle class Chinese who have recently immigrated. “Especially right now, we need people looking into the narrative experiences of the mainland Chinese.”

The mainland experience

Although Li notes that the situation is changing, he also points out that Chinese in general and in particular the middle-class families who now form the bulk of the immigrating population are often not seen in tales of BC’s history. Telling these stories is crucial for the maintenance of cultural identity, Li says. “The [mainland Chinese] should have literature to read,” he says. It builds a sense of community, of history. When we don’t have [this literature], our experiences are not important. We’re just Chinese immigrants. We belong to that ‘Other’ category.”

Henry Li (right), with his twin brother James, has recently completed a Master’s thesis on mainland Chinese-Canadian immigrants. | Photo courtesy of Henry Li

One element that should be revealed is the cultural contrast between the mainland Chinese experience and that of other Chinese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong immigrants. These different cultures are usually combined into one, says Li. “By grouping everyone into this sino-centric field, it’s disingenuous to the actual experience. There are classifications of American-Asian-Canadians.”

An important aspect that sets the Mainland Chinese immigrants from others is their experience of living in a communist country. “[Mainland Chinese] carried with them memories of growing up unbelievably poor,” says Li. “Every one of my participants had stories to tell: ‘my dad slept in a bed with all of his siblings,’ ‘when there was a famine in the village, my dad had to steal pigs,’ and ‘my dad used to carry peanuts from Shanghai.’”

Astronauts and satellites

Another idea central to the Chinese immigrant experience is the notion of astronaut parents, who work in the country of origin and visit their wife and child or children (termed “satellite kids”) who reside in the new country. “Satellite kids” live with a “landed parent” who is usually the mother, while the primary breadwinner, usually the father, sees his family only every few months.

It is difficult to know how common this satellite experience is for Canadian immigrants, as such families often self-report as either single parent or complete families, Li notes. While immigrant children still have access to parts of their culture through their landed parent, the knowledge is incomplete. “When immigrant families move here, the family surrounds itself with aspects of home,” says Li. “With only one parent, the passing on of cultural knowledge becomes fragmented. One of my participants talked about when a family member died, [and] his mother told him to put a string around his arm, but he didn’t understand the significance.”

According to Li, this incomplete enculturation can lead to self-suspension. There is a conflict between the traditional cultural ways that the child is taught versus the differing Western values in which the child is immersed. “One participant’s father didn’t want her to work through school. She was very conflicted. She did work part time but she couldn’t work throughout the year, because studying was very important to the family.”

Despite their difficulties, Li comments that his satellite participants remain optimistic about the future for themselves and their families. “They say, ‘well, we’ll just work things out’,” Li adds.

Li himself, a former “satellite kid,” grew up in Vancouver with his mother and twin brother, while his father commuted from China. He, too, is hopeful about his future. “For the last couple of years, I learned Chinese and read Chinese books. I’m interested in reconnecting with China. That’s a large part of me that I missed out on.”

Li’s study of satellite children illuminates a little known Chinese immigrant experience, and helps bring some clarity to the Canadian-Chinese population. Yet Li stresses that many more mainland Chinese stories need to be told. “Not everyone can afford to be an astronaut family,” he explains. “We need more research [on this] unique group.”