AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 586

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Session 586: Asian Border-Crossing Mobilities I: On the Road to Self-Development

Organizer and Chair: Pal Nyiri, Independent Scholar, Netherlands

Discussant: Biao Xiang, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Various forms of geographical mobility have long been linked to self-improvement. Today, boundary-crossing travels in particular are widely accepted as a desirable (not to say normative) path towards success, be it educational or scientific (student, faculty or staff exchange), occupational and financial (work experience abroad), religious (pilgrimage), or higher social status (tourism or lifestyle migration). Together with Asian Border-Crossing Mobilities II, this panel explores how voluntary mobility has become linked with various forms of self-improvement – economic, social, cultural, environmental or soteriological – across Asian societies. Where do the currently dominant imaginaries of success- through-mobility come from and which mechanisms and institutional regimes ensure their circulation? How are other- and self-improvement linked, and in which situations do both come into conflict? Contributions to this panel span a wide range of mobilities: the international wandering of Chinese artists as means to artistic and financial recognition; merit-making activities of Malaysian and Singaporean lay Buddhists in the monasteries of southern Thailand; entrepreneurs and workers flocking from the region to the “special economic zones” of Indochina; teachers coming to promote education at Lugu Lake, Yunnan; and Shan labor migrants who end up imprisoned in Thailand. The panel will encourage authors to think together about whether these widely varying forms of migration in China and Southeast Asia reflect shared concerns over (self-)improvement.

From Vagrants to Cultural Elites: Artist Migration in Contemporary China
Meiqin Wang, California State University, Northridge, USA

A contemporary artist in China could hold a permanent teaching position in a university in Chongqing, run a studio in an artist village in Beijing, frequent two art galleries that represents her/him in Shanghai and Singapore. Besides, this artist could stay one month for an artist-in-residence program in Seoul, attend a two-week workshop in New York, participate in a three-day symposium in Guangzhou. Still this artist could manage to attend several openings of exhibitions that she/he is part of in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Berlin, and other cities across the world. All these could be a typical itinerary that many contemporary Chinese artists conduct every year since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Their success has almost become inseparable to their ability to engage with multiple locations on a regular base. They are a group of people who constantly cross borders, regional as well as national, in seeking personal development and career success. Their voluntary migration has created new dynamism as well as new hierarchy in the Chinese art world. This paper explores the changing contexts, perceptions, and social responses of artist migration in China in the past two decades and asks: When and how does this immense mobility come from? In which ways has it shaped the landscape of contemporary Chinese art world? What is the particularity and significance of this artist migration amid the massive migration prompted by China’s rapid economic development and extensive urbanization.

Potency and Charity: The Moral Economy of Cross-Border Religious Interactions, Southern Thailand
Jovan Maud, Max Planck Inst for Ethnic and Religious Diversity, Germany

"Thai people are poor but they have faith", a Thai Buddhist monk announces to an audience of Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese who have made the journey to southern Thailand to participate in a Buddhist ceremony. He is explaining why the visitors should give generously to the monastery and support the development of the local community. He presents Thai people as both needy and worthy, but this reference to "faith" also indexes belief in the spiritual potency of the Thai, especially that of monks and other religious specialists. As one Malaysian participant of this ceremony confided, "If you want to find a superman, or to have bad luck erased, it has been established in Southeast Asia, Thailand is the place.” Based on ethnographic research, this paper analyses the dynamics of southern Thailand's burgeoning cross-border spiritual trade between local religious specialists and their predominantly ethnic Chinese Malaysian and Singaporean patrons. The paper focuses on the formation of a moral economy in which both notions of potency and charity, spiritual bolstering of the self and development of the other, intermingle in cross-border imaginations and interactions. It also considers the range of actors who produce southern Thailand as a space of spiritual potential and give moral complexion and meaning to commoditised cross-border ritual exchanges. As such, this is one account the relationship between markets, magic and morality, and how national boundaries produce zones of difference within Southeast Asia in which the apparent contradictions between modernity and spirituality form the ground for efficacious ritual exchanges.

Through Casinos to the Future: Special Economic Zones in the Burma-Laos Borderlands
Pal Nyiri, Independent Scholar, Netherlands

The highlands of mainland Southeast Asia have famously been the locus of "Zomia," polities resistant to the control of lowland nation-states, but this relative resilience has been due to their marginality. As even remote borderlands connect to the market economies of what has been labeled the "Greater Mekong Subregion," however, these semi-independent polities attempt to transform themselves from isolated drug enclaves to regional paragons of economic modernity, labelled Special Economic Zones. The main actors of this transformation are ethnic Chinese migrant capitalists, who embrace the economic rhetoric of mainland China's "growth model" to create respectability and to evoke images of an cosmopolitan future as they build casinos in the rainforest. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in two "special zones," this paper looks at how both investors and ordinary Chinese migrants -- traders and prostitutes -- reflect on their roles in the borderlands.

Educational NGOs and Cultural Branding in a Northwest Yunnan Tourist Zone
Tami Blumenfield, Furman University, USA

This paper discusses intersections of tourism, NGO-based educational development work, and celebrity packaging in the greater Lugu Lake zone, home to the Na people. Early Communist campaigns there sought to align Na marital and sexual practices with Han mores. As restrictions on individual mobility and state control of economic activity loosened nationwide in the early Reform era, local and extra-local entrepreneurs developed a tourist area at Lugu Lake. Visitors, concerned with the limited schooling available locally, responded with efforts to improve educational access and quality that urged children toward educational and employment trajectories that would lead them far from home. The agents of potential change often found themselves enthralled with Na lifestyles; meanwhile, Na began returning from time away from their home communities, counter to the urban-centered teleology of 21st century China, in part related to the cultural branding efforts of state agencies. The shifts described above circumscribe several waves of authority and power and invite several questions. Why were outside educational organizations allowed to take on such prominent roles in local schooling? What effect does the ongoing discourse of self-development have on cultural branding efforts? And finally, what futures remain for those whose cultural, linguistic and social fluencies enable them to dwell in both Na and outside worlds; what limitations will others face? These questions will be considered within the broader context of social mobility and cultural development in western China and examined through the lens of long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Na communities beginning in 2001.

Aberrant Mobility: Shan Prisoners and a Journey of Self-Improvement in the Thai Prison
Amporn Jirattikorn, Chiang Mai University, Thailand

Migration is often understood as the process of self-improvement. This paper looks at a very peculiar case of migration in which migration ends with imprisonment. It focuses on Shan ethnic nationals from Burma who migrated to seek work in Thailand but have ended it up in a Thai jail for drug-related crimes. Currently, there are more than 300 ethnic Shan men serving 15 to 25 year sentences in Chiang Mai’s men prison, constituting about 10% of the total inmate population. The paper traces the meanings these migrants are able to give to their own lives and fortune. It argues that these migrants-turned-prisoners represent an extreme kind of displacement where both identity and history have been stripped away. Hence, they engage to a greater degree in a construction and reconstruction of their identity and history as “people.” Through in-depth interviews with 15 long-term Shan prisoners in Chiang Mai’s men prison, the paper shows that Shan prisoners strive for self-improvement in response to their very condition of exile. In exploring the dark side of migration when a journey of improvement comes to an abrupt end, I situate these prisoner stories within the broader context of uneven transnational flows of people, capital, and Shan imaginations about Thailand.