Diasporas: from the past or to the future? Jean-Baptiste Meyer Book Review of Asian Diasporas : New Formations, New Conceptions, by Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C.D. Siu, published at Oxford University Press in 2007 Asian Diasporas is an interesting book, easily readable by non specialists of either diaspora/transnational issues or topics relative to Asia’s developments. It is made of 12 different chapters, dealing with various countries and regions of the world. Most of the chapters are substantiated with abundant evidence, giving to the book a very informative content and to the reader a good material to think of and associate to proper investigations. Inevitably, empirical narratives sometimes turn to anecdotal stories but this is exceptional within the book. The descriptions made are, most of the time, directly related to theoretical and general considerations. These considerations are seldom too abstract though, because of a strong orientation of the book towards subjective formation, contextual conditions and concrete relational/emotional situations. Most of the contributions, including the introduction, insist on life experience and exhibit slices of fresh field work practices and results, protecting the reader from speculative conceptualizations and disconnected analysis. Rather than to summarize the book with the inevitable risk of reducing the diversity of approaches, it is worth pointing to some issues emerging from various contributions. Three have thus been selected here, for their relevance with regards to debates about globalization. The first deals with the permanence/obsolescence of the nation-state; the second has to do with power, hegemony and inequality; and the third revolves around the question of identity. Several contributions emphasize the complex though convergent current development of national diasporas with the countries of origin of their members or their ancestors. For Palimbo-Liu, the supposed homogeneity of bounded nation-states is enrooted in the very conception of diaspora, galut in Hebrew, with a unity (be it mythical or not) preceding dispersal. The people abroad are sometimes presented as national heroes conveying original specific qualities to the rest of the world, as Filipino seafarers for their courage and strength officially celebrated at home (Mc Kay). The ‘expats’ may even claim to be the actual representatives of a rising national unity for which the hardship of exile may be the forging pot, as for the Korean Congress in America after 1919 and the Japanese invasion (Kim). At some historical moment, the country government also feels entitled to call for some of its children lost during the times of poverty, like Korean adoptees strongly invited to get the citizenship of their biological ancestors in spite of complete acculturation abroad (Hübinette). At the opposite, the state government sometimes bet on cultural transmission to select among immigrants those with an ethnic background compatible with the country’s population and thus more amenable to smooth integration, like Japanese Brazilians returning to Japan after almost a century abroad (Tsuda). Among others, these contributions underscore the nation-states/diasporas combinations and mutual recognitions. It therefore confirms that diasporas are not post-national constructs while sharing features of transnational networks or communities. Interestingly, these chapters bring useful complements on states’ involvement, often seen in an instrumental manner by economists. Beyond unilateral remittances, lots of symbolic, political, juridical and communicational investments are made today by states to reach diasporas. Their assumptions may be naïve, based on organic visions, either with crudely essentialist principles (biological, ethnic links) or “naturalized” cultural attributes (language, beliefs, behavioural patterns). But
they do shape contemporary nation-state policy, in a globalized version, looking for efficiency in a competitive situation. The diasporas reproduce and translate in many ways the asymmetrical relationships prevailing at the international level, according to several authors. In parallel to the editors definite orientation not to fossilize Asia in an orientalist vision or in area studies traditional US academic categories (Parreñas and Siu; Ang), the idea of a global unequal system, using migration for exploitative purposes, is expressed, and converging evidence provided. The guest workers regime in Taiwan, where numerous migrants from neighbouring less developed countries often become illegal, is described as a sophisticated way to externalise costs of labour reproduction, for the benefits of a broker industry among others, prospering over costs distinction allowed by persistent national borders (Lan). The home and host countries are sometimes working hand in hand, with different though converging interests, for exporting manpower surplus (Mc Kay). But diasporic populations also learn to draw advantages, of the strategic objectives and positions, like the Chinese communities in Central America or nikkeijin in Brazil, gaining resources and legitimacy through their association to the ROC and to Japan. However, generally, diasporas appear subordinated to their amphytrion’s imperial expansion, their self-reinforcement being dependent on their host strength and world projection (Kim). Rather than the hybridization of both the colonizer and the colonized cultures, some current forms of transnational links and diasporas, like international adoption, may be seen as a “…triumph of the colonial project” with appropriation of foreign bodies and their complete acculturation (Hubinette). However, this approach exhibits in fact a definite essentialist vision considering that birth in one place and with biological parents from a specific country determine one’s identity more than education or subject’s life. The question of identity is addressed in several chapters. They show how much context dependent the shaping of identity is. Even though diaspora refer to a common origin, and ethnic traditions or religious rituals appear crucial in the identification of diasporic subjects, their interpretation is always situational (Parreñas and Siu, Tsuda). The meaning given to past references is tied to what is at stake in the present and therefore what engages the future. Two contributions mention the projection in the future as constitutive of diasporic identity with traditions providing the material for modernity building (Khan, Sen). Pushing the argument a little bit further and watching at the proliferation of diasporas today, each with a singular project, we can wonder whether what nurtures them most is either reference to a common past or, in a more constructivist perspective, their members’ collective aspiration to forge the future according to a definite project, hence around development issues. Asian dynamics could thus be connected to more general trends that can be seen in the developing world, in relation to centres of domination, where diasporas also appear as new actors with abilities to change contexts, therfore leading analysts to reconsider distribution and exercise of power in global relations.