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Min Zhou comes full circle as a sociologist of diaspora communities

Min Zhou comes full circle as a sociologist of diaspora communities

Director of the UCLA Asia Pacific Center Min Zhou. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Min Zhou became a sociologist and scholar of Asian America by happenstance, her life coming to mirror the subject of her scholarly research. The Asia Pacific Center director's current projects bring a transnational perspective to bear on her lifelong interest in migration studies and Asian diasporic communities.

UCLA International Institute, October 8, 2018 — In her brief and touching professional memoir, “The Accidental Sociologist in Asian American Studies,” Min Zhou describes how she fell into a career as a sociologist of Asian America.

Zhou became responsible for her two younger siblings at age 10 in China, when both parents were sent to labor camps during the Cultural Revolution. She graduated from high school at 16 and immediately became a high school teacher in the countryside. After several years of teaching and working, she passed the first college entrance examinations held in China since the exams had been abolished in 1966.

Zhou graduated from China’s prestigious Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in English. Given a faculty position in her alma mater, she worked principally as an interpreter and tutor. It was then that she encountered sociology for the first time, interpreting for U.S. sociologists who traveled to China to teach graduate courses in a large-scale effort to revive the discipline in Chinese academia.

At a time when studying abroad was virtually unthinkable in China, Zhou applied to a graduate program in sociology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. Intending to do an M.A. and return home, she ended up completing a Ph.D. in less than five years.

But Zhou’s plans to return to China and spearhead a new field of Chinese diaspora studies there were derailed by the Tiananmen Square protests of June 1989 and the subsequent crackdown. After a brief sojourn in Europe, she took a job at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Four years later, she joined UCLA with a joint appointment in Sociology and Asian American Studies (before the program became a department), where she has been ever since.

From foreign student to Asian American to Asian Americanist

Over the course of her scholarly career, Zhou progressed from foreign graduate student to sociologist to Asian American to Asian Americanist. Today, she is an internationally renowned scholar of migration and development, diaspora studies and the sociology of Asian America. Yet, as she recounts in her memoir, her choice of sociology was mostly determined by fate: “If I had happened to be an interpreter for anthropologists, I might have been drawn to anthropology instead!”

Zhou entered the field of Asian American Studies rooted in sociology, not ethnic studies, and was an immigrant who spoke with an accent — causing her to be perceived as a non-American. “Then, I was viewed as a foreigner even by some of my own Asian American colleagues and students. Now I am accepted and fully assimilated into both the American and Asian American communities — it’s a process,” she remarks.

Today Zhou is the Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations and Communications at UCLA and, since November 2016, director of the Asia Pacific Center of the International Institute. She is a prolific scholar, having published 18 books and a multitude of journal articles and book chapters. She has won multiple book awards and, recently, a life achievement award from the American Sociological Association.

Zhou’s most recent publications include “The Asian American Achievement Paradox” (with Lee/ Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2015, which won four major book awards); “The Rise of the New Second Generation” (with Bankston/ Polity, 2016); and “Contemporary Chinese Diasporas” (ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Zhou is also the co-editor of two widely used collections in Asian American Studies: “Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader” (with Ocampo/ NYU Press, 2016, 3rd ed.) and “Asian American Youth” (with Lee/ Routledge, 2004, which won a major book award).

“Contemporary Asian America” (already published in a third edition) was based on the materials that Zhou assembled to teach an introductory course on the contemporary Asian American community at UCLA. When she first taught Asian American studies courses at UCLA, she faced a steep learning curve. “I remember teaching my first introductory Asian American Studies class — I totally blew it! Students hated it,” she laughs. “It was because I taught it from a typical demography/sociology approach, with lots of statistics on fertility, demographic changes, etc.,” she explains.

“Students didn’t want to hear those dry numbers; they wanted to take classes with rich content that they felt they could personally relate to.” Over time, she learned to weave her own experiences as an immigrant and mother of an Asian American child into her teaching, together with examples from her qualitative research — all of which resonate with her students and readers.

International teaching and research

In addition to teaching at UCLA, Zhou has taught courses in China, Korea and Singapore. As the Tan Lark Sye Chair Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore from 2013 to 2016, she also served as head of the sociology division and director of the Chinese Heritage Centre.

In Asia, Zhou says, “I very much focus on developing students’ analytical skills.” She explains that this can be a struggle for them, as most grow up learning by rote and can be mystified by the instruction to “be analytical.” The U.S. professor also enjoys showing her Asian students familiar things in a new light. While teaching a course in urban sociology in Seoul, South Korea, for example, “I took students around the city and visited a large squatter settlement," she says. "None of my students had actually been to that neighborhood before even though they lived and grew up in the city. [They realized that] it was not dangerous walking around there at all, and it was actually very well organized and fairly clean.”

The UCLA professor began visiting China regularly in the early 2000s and has forged enduring relationships with scholars and universities there. Although she writes in English, most of Zhou’s works have been translated (chiefly by her husband) and published in China. “I have found [publishing in two languages] a very effective way to inform both audiences. It certainly has an impact in China,” she remarks.

As an organizer of international conferences in Asia and the U.S., Zhou has brought together scholars around the world who study migration and diasporic development. The outcome of one such conference at held at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore with scholars from around the world (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Canada and the U.S.) was the edited volume, “Contemporary Chinese Diasporas” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). The book is now being translated into Chinese to be published in China.

“Diaspora Chinese communities around the world used to be more or less locally based and self-contained in the past," she reflects."Now, however, they are all becoming more transnational, more global and more integrated into their respective host countries.”

Zhou expects to publish another edited volume based on the recent public event — “The Global Chinese Philanthropists Initiative (GCPI): Tsinghua Forum” — held at Tsinghua University in Beijing in June 2018. The GCPI Tsinghua Forum was co-organized by the UCLA Asia Pacific Center and the Center for Chinese Entrepreneur Studies of Tsinghua University. The forum examined the giving patterns of first- and second-generation Chinese and Chinese American philanthropists and the relationship between diasporic Chinese philanthropy and higher education in China and the U.S.

From ethnic enclaves to Asian American achievement

Zhou’s first book, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave” (Temple University Press, 1992) used the case of Chinatown in New York City to argue that the ethnic community contributes to, rather than hinders, the mobility and adaptation of Chinese immigrants in American society. As a student from China, she remarks, “before I came to America, I had had this stereotypical conception of Chinatown as being poor and ghettoized. So it was kind of surprising to me that people in Chinatown did not perceive themselves as impoverished.”

The UCLA scholar has since written several books about diasporic communities of both Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants in the United States, including “Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States” (with Bankston / Russell Sage Foundation Press, 1998) and “Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity and Community Transformation“ (Temple University Press, 2009).

“Growing Up American” examined the trajectory of young students in a low-income Vietnamese refugee community in New Orleans. There, says Zhou, “The Vietnamese community was extremely underprivileged, as most of the refugees had arrived penniless with the support of resettlement agencies. But soon they built their own community and clustered around it.”

The ethnic enclave in New Orleans, she explains, remained the center of the Vietnamese community even when some of the co-ethnic members achieved middle-class status and moved out to surrounding suburbs. As a result, middle-class resources supported local churches, local businesses and neighborhood organizations, helping less well-off first-generation Vietnamese refugees to succeed, while creating an ethnic social environment conducive to educational achievement for their children.

“In Asian American communities, some new immigrants are kind of forced to be in ethnic enclaves because of their language limitations, but because of that, they build their own network of support and control and produce ethnic resources that are helpful for their mobility,” observes Zhou. “These are some of the things that you cannot take for granted when you go into a community — you discover them,” she adds.

Zhou’s latest work, co-authored with Jennifer Lee, “The Asian American Achievement Paradox” (Russell Sage, 2015), has won multiple book awards. The book dispels the “the model minority” myth by looking at how culture and structural components intersect to support achievement and how stereotypes affect Asian Americans.

The argument that Asian Americans succeed due to “Asian cultural values” has been widely criticized by social scientists as non-empirical. “The Asian American Achievement Paradox” puts those arguments into perspective via rigorous empirical research. “I feel that neither cultural nor structural arguments alone cannot explain their success,” remarks Zhou. “You have to analyze them together, especially where the two sets of factors intertwine.”

Ever busy, Zhou is currently working on several research projects. The first is a study of the impact of out-migration on the culture and economic development of migrant-sending communities in the Jiangmen region of China, from which the overwhelming majority (roughly 70 percent) of the Chinese immigrants to U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries originated.

Other projects include a retrospective look (“25 years later) at the concept of segmented assimilation, which Zhou originally helped develop in the early 1990s in her study of the children of immigrants, and a study of Chinese and Indian immigrants in the three gateway metropolises of Los Angeles, Vancouver and Singapore. (The latter project is funded by a grant from the Ministry of Education in Singapore, for which Zhou is the principal co-investigator.)

Asia Pacific Center: Programs and plans

Since Zhou joined the Asia Pacific Center (APC) in late 2016, the Center has continued to support a broad array of research, teaching and public programs. The center sponsors a number of programs and initiatives. The Program on Central Asia, an interdisciplinary and inter-regional community at UCLA for the study of Central Asia, sponsors lectures and an active graduate student workshop. The thriving Taiwan Studies Program organizes faculty and student exchanges, a lecture series on Taiwan and conferences and workshops.

In the past year, the APC has also begun several collaborative projects. A collaboration with the UCLA Center for India and South Asia on Chinese and Indian entrepreneurship includes workshops and a public symposium in which both scholars and entrepreneurs participate. A second collaborative project has a team of sociologists at Chinese University Hong Kong working with APC to study the impacts of migration and integration among both highly skilled migrants from mainland China in Hong Kong and professional migrants from Hong Kong in mainland China. Still another project involves faculty and student exchanges with the sociology department of Zhejiang University, China.

APC also launched a Hong Kong Studies program in November 2017, which Zhou hopes to expand through fundraising over the next year or so. The program focuses on Hong Kong, but extends beyond Hong Kong into Macau and major cities in the Pearl River Delta region, also known as the Greater Bay Area of South China. The idea, she explains, is to look at regional development in the Greater Bay Area more broadly and engage with scholars in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China through China’s One Belt One Road initiative. “That’s going to be exciting,” she comments.

Map of Pearl River Delta Area. Source: Croquant via Wikimedia Commons, 2007. CC BY 3.0.

In addition, APC is working collaboratively with the Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative (GCPI) to advance an information-sharing and networking “ecosystem” among Chinese philanthropists in China and the United States. APC helped create the GCPI website in 2017 and is currently working to build an academic research collaborative on Chinese philanthropy that will involve scholars from China, the U.S. and other nations with large Chinese diaspora populations.

In fact, Zhou hopes to eventually extend the scholarly component of the GCPI network to include Chinese philanthropists in South East Asia. “There are between 45 and 50 million people of Chinese descent living outside of China, and nearly three quarters of them are in Southeast Asia,” she points out. She is also passionate about community outreach to greater Los Angeles and proactively seeks partnerships and collaboration with the local community to enrich the center’s programming.

Given her rich experience in conducting research on international migration and diasporic communities, Zhou is thinking that she might eventually write novels based on the amazing stories that she has heard from her research as a scholar and her own lived experience as an immigrant. “But that’s for when I retire!” says the scholar with a slew of research projects already in the pipeline. 


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Published: Monday, October 8, 2018