Dreams of Flight: The Lives of Chinese Women Students in the West

Sam Wong

This is an excellent book – both theoretically-strong and analytically-written!

I realise that this is not the conventional academic approach to begin a book review in this way, but I could not help containing my excitement about the topic and my admiration for the author. This book is about female, middle-class Mainland Chinese students (the author calls them student transmigrants) studying in Melbourne, Australia. The author followed 35 students between 2015 and 2019 to find out their complex motives in ‘choosing’ to study abroad (Chapter 1), the nature of their social lives and neighbourhood networks during their stay in Melbourne (Chapter 2), the role of social media in shaping their social interactions when they were studying (Chapter 3), their working experiences (Chapter 4), their sexuality and intimate relationships (Chapter 5), faith and religion (Chapter 6), their patriotic feelings  for  their homeland (Chapter 7), as well as their lives following graduation (Chapter 8).

This book is particularly relevant to me. Similar to these Mainland Chinese students, I left Hong Kong and took a Master’s degree in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s. Since then, I have worked as a lecturer at various UK and Dutch universities. Whenever my colleagues were puzzled about the behaviour of their Mainland Chinese students (such as: why were they so quiet in class? why did they always hang around by themselves?), they tended to seek advice from me. Now I can simply ask my colleagues to read this book for answers (although I have to stress here that Chinese students are not homogeneous, and this book focuses solely on female students from Mainland China).

This author adopts a qualitative research approach to examining how gender and cultures shape the lives and decision-making processes of these female students. Drawing on various theories, including gender politics, transnationalism, and the agency-structure theory, the author intends to find out why, and how, some students are able to exercise their agency in resisting patriarchal and inter-generational pressure, while others fail to do so. For instance, some students sought emancipation from their parents by studying abroad, whereas others have reinforced parental control by letting their parents make the decisions for them. 

Methodologically, the author takes a longitudinal approach and uses in-depth interviews as well as various participatory research methods, such as drawing and photo-taking, to track changes in the research participants’ attitudes and behaviour. A lengthy trust-building process has enabled the author to raise some very personal and intimate issues, such as abortion (in Chapter 6), same-sex relationships (in Chapter 5), and parental break-up. In writing up the book, the author draws on the direct conversations between the author and the interviewees to provide the contexts and narratives. As a result, this book is full of touching stories and experiences – so much so that it feels as though one is reading through the students’ private diaries. This narrative approach to an academic study makes for a very readable book. 

By combining rich and original qualitative data with a critical literature review, this book is excellent in highlighting the dilemmas and problems the students have encountered in building new lives in Australia, while maintaining the old social networks in Mainland China. This book has also touched on some timely issues, such as the impact of the newly-introduced two-child policy in China, as against the previous one-child policy. 

That said, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the issues raised. As mentioned earlier, gender is the key research lens in the book. However, the discussion of gender and femininity is highly uneven. Simply by using the word-search method, gender and femininity are overwhelmingly mentioned in Chapter 5 (sexuality) and Chapter 2 (place), but this is not the case in Chapter 6 (faith and religion) and Chapter 3 (social media), although these chapters are highly related to gender and femininity. 

To study and to learn are a part of the lives of all students. It may be true that some of the students involved in this research may not be too keen on academic pursuits. Some of the courses they have chosen, such as Business Management and Engineering, may not touch on philosophy. However, Western education, especially for those who have chosen degrees in Social Sciences and Arts and Humanities, would inevitably challenge their mindset. Questions as to who they are and what their identities are may force them to think about their own cultures and beliefs. However, this aspect has not been properly discussed in the book. 

Apart from gender, I wonder if the author could shed some light on class. Whilst it is absolutely fine for the author to narrow the scope of the research down to the middle-class female students, I am curious about what these students would think about their lower-class and upper-class counterparts. Do they feel that their overseas degrees may be of some use in challenging the upper-class when they return to China?   

All in all, this book is highly relevant to various social science disciplines, such as Sociology, Politics, Human Geography, and Education, especially in the field of gender studies, qualitative research methodology, and urban planning.