On September 7-8, I attended a thematic research workshop at the University of Portsmouth (UK). The theme of the workshop, quite vividly corresponding to the urban life in many global cities, especially in Asia, is transnationalism. A seemingly grandiose topic while very much down-to-earth, “transnationalism in the global world – contested state, society, border, people in between” takes place among a large number of families in Asian cities: Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Patterns of transnationalism vary: the bread-winner travels more than stays with the family; housemaids from another country living together with the employer family; family members scatter around the globe and are connected via media tools, and to name a few.
Time, in this setting, is polysemic and multi-layered. While the material bonds of collective life are dispersed, the shared imaginary of belonging to a community/family transcends spatial borders and also encompasses past trajectories and future continuities. In this regard, media tools play an essential role to sustain and realize such trajectories and continuities. The advancement of mass transportation facilitates the border-crossing travel which enables transnational experience in business, academics and a wide range of social life. The invention of optical cable and the internet blurs these borders by bringing in temporal simultaneity as family members could still share the Christmas together via Skype group chatting and collectively make important decisions via instant conversation tools.
However, the advantageous conditions above provided by media tools, to a large extent, benefit more on those enjoying social-economic privileges while unskilled labors (migrant labors) suffer from “time” – the mis-matching of temporalities in their lives. To put it simple, the simultaneous daily life of the transnational housemaids (e.g. Filipinos and Indonesians) is with their employers instead of their own families. The simultaneity of their family members far away in the home countries, in forms such as children’s entering of college, marriage events and even sickness and death, is out of control from the housemaids. A mis-matching of time in their life could hardly be solved by media tools but curbed by the cruel social conditions – the globalization of capital and manpower.
During this workshop, the critical topic of “transnationalism” could no longer be a simple illusion of optimism in terms of world travel or monetary flow. A bloody reality is at the door step, urging us to re-think and to re-tell of “fairy tale”.