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Imagination and migration in-progress

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The migrant’s perspective

There has been a plethora of academic interest in transnationalism, particularly in migration studies. The transnational migrant has been celebrated as a flexible citizen unbound by nation-state boundaries as he/she traverses the globe while maintaining lives here and there. However, who is this transnational migrant? What struggles does he/she deal with? What are his/her motivations for pursuing transnational lives? What are the circumstances that propel, inhibit, and circumscribe such mobilities?

 

In Imagined Mobility, Michiel Baas investigates these questions through the case of Indian student-migrants in Australia. By giving voice to this specific group of transnational migrant in-the-making, Baas seeks to understand their motives and actualized mobilities vis-à-vis (1) the Australian international education and migration industries; (2) the culture of migration in India; and (3) the culture of migration within the Indian community in Australia. The key question raised in this book is ‘how do Indians experience the process of migrating abroad, aiming for an Australian permanent residency, while being overseas students at the same time?’ (p.6) In order to answer this question, Baas offers three concepts: “imagined mobility” – how Indian student-migrants imagine themselves to be transnationally mobile in the future; “arrival points” – mental rather than physical moments of arriving at a transnational mobile stage in one’s life course; and “in-betweenness” – how these transnational migration projects are always in the process of becoming and thus are never quite complete.

In line with the focus on the Indian student-migrant’s perspective, the book is structured according to phases of their migration trajectory. Thus, the reader is invited to enter the world of the Indian student-migrant as he/she experiences the stages of pre-departure, arrival in Australia, life in Australia as international student and migrant, and finally staying on or departing from Australia. Portraying this trajectory as a learning process reinforces the argument that the migration project is continually negotiated and reconfigured as one’s imagined mobility (conceptualized before migration) collides with one’s real mobility (taking place during migration).

Imagining migration and moving in-between

Based on my reading, this book contributes to migration and transnationalism studies in four ways – all of which open up the notion of being in-between. Firstly, Baas’ notion of “imagined mobility” is powerful in conceptualizing the role of imagination as (1) a reason and catalyst for Indian student-migrants to embark on their migration projects in Australia; and (2) a pliable concept that enables Indian student-migrants to adjust and redraw their migration projects in anticipation of their ultimate “arrival” as transnational persons. For the former, potential student-migrants in India imagine that they would be able to attain transnational mobility, although these are often based on beliefs circulating in the mass media and success stories of acquaintances within their social network. For the latter, student-migrants in Australia actively shift the goal posts of “arrival” into the future as they realize their original imagined mobility may not be easily achieved at the end of their student migration. Thus, “imagined mobility” suggests the role of imagination in migrants’ migration trajectory – to rationalize previous migration decisions, and to continue the pursuit of a never-ending migration project.

Secondly, Baas’ work complicates the notion of permanence and temporality. As he puts it, “[w]hat starts out as a two-year stay abroad will in the end become an indefinite period” (p.176). It is this sense of indefinite temporality that accords the student-migrants a sense of being in control in exercising agency for transnational mobility. This challenges the assumption that migration begins from, and ends with, fixed points. Perhaps by embarking on the migration project, the migrant enters a field of permanent temporality. And by doing so, the migrant becomes perpetually trapped within an in-between space, leaving him/her not quite belonging to either social fields of his/her place of origin and destination.

Thirdly, and this is related to the second point, Baas’ portrayal of Indian student-migrants simultaneously as international students, migrants, and potential permanent residents critically questions the tendency in the literature to pigeon-hole migrants into neat categories. Baas argues that Indian student-migrants “wear different hats, assume different identities, which support and enable their desires to be mobile” (p.135). Thus, it is essential for migration and transnationalism studies to adopt new theoretical lenses that can transcend existing migrant typologies. This is to capture the real essence of transnationalism, in order to understand how imagined mobility is conceptualized, carried out and reconfigured as a life course project.

Finally, from a methodological perspective, Baas’ analysis of fieldwork issues in the Appendix highlights useful considerations for the positionality of the researcher – as someone caught in-between. Although this was written for anthropologists, I believe the issues raised have resonance for qualitative researchers in general. In academic writings, we seldom see upfront confessions of researchers’ struggles. Even if these do surface, they are rarely interwoven into discussions on how they may specifically shape, influence, and propel the research process. More importantly, they rarely examine how the researcher him/herself is shaped and influenced by being in, out, and in-between the field. Another dimension of the researcher’s positionality lies in the question of being physically in or out of the field. This is particularly relevant given the multiple ways of being virtually connected to the field while physically absent from the field.

Emphasising in-betweenness

The key strength in this book lies in its effortless crossings between ethnographic narratives (i.e., individual agency) and macro-portrayals of socio-economic contexts in Australia, India and globally (i.e., migration institutions and structural forces). For example, Chapter 5 starts with a description of how individual student-migrants engage in legal and illegal forms of employment as they struggle to meet financial obligations agreed to before their departure to Australia. This is then linked to how the “PR factory” operates as higher education and migration industry players in Australia and India walk the fine line between legality and illegality in capitalizing the Indian student-migrant and PR market. While in-depth descriptions bring out the uncertainties and paradoxes experienced and negotiated by the student-migrants, broader contextual accounts provide the essential background with which to ground these individual stories. In doing so, Baas successfully creates a space connecting individual migrants to macro-level forces, enabling an understanding of how the micro, meso and the macro co-constitute each other.

However, despite the strong emphasis on migration in-progress and the notion of in-betweenness, these were unfortunately not captured in the title of the book. Hence, any casual browser could have missed the important thesis of this book. Perhaps a sub-title that reads “Migration and transnationalism in-progress among Indian students in Australia”, or “Indian students in Australia in-between Migration and Transnationalism” could have helped in this respect.

The nation-state?

It is a shame that this book has not managed to address the questions raised in Chapter 8 in greater depth. Perhaps it is inevitable since Baas’ fieldwork for this book culminated at the point when racism sentiments towards Indian student-migrants in Australia started to take a turn for the worse. Thus, it would have been a tall order to expect this book to engage critically with the impact of these events on the student-migration trend, and on the individual migrant experience. However, the final parts of the book – Chapter 8 on recent racism sentiments, and the list of newspaper and magazine articles in the references – hint at two pertinent questions. First, will Australia continue to be viewed as a viable stepping-stone for Indian student-migrants, or will other countries become possible destinations? On a broader scale, this leads to the dynamic comparative positioning of countries as preferred imagined mobility destinations. Second, how can nation-states (both migrant-sending and migrant-receiving) strategically deal with the mismatch between national belonging and the increasing ability to pursue imagined mobility?

In conclusion, this book is not just an enjoyable read offering ethnographic details and migrant narratives. It is a timely contribution in light of the need for nation-states to juggle the fine balance between commercialization of higher education versus migration control – how student-migrants are welcomed as customers on the one hand, and feared as opportunistic “Others” on the other hand. This book raises important theoretical and methodological questions, and opens up future research questions for scholars of migration and transnationalism studies.

 

Sin Yee Koh is a PhD Candidate in Human Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science (s.y.koh@lse.ac.uk).

 

 

New Asia Books is an initiative of the International Insitute for Asian Studies