Field Notes: Dr. Chien-Juh Gu discusses gender, social psychology and international migration

Gu's book was published by Rutgers University Press in 2017.

As an immigrant from Taiwan, Dr. Chien-Juh Gu, associate professor of sociology, knows first-hand the prejudice immigrants often face. Her latest book, “The Resilient Self: Gender, Immigration and Taiwanese Americans,” examines how international migration reshapes women’s senses of themselves.

In the book, Gu taps into life-history interviews and ethnographic observations to illustrate how immigration creates gendered work and family contexts for middle-class Taiwanese American women. In turn, the women negotiate and resist the social and psychological effects of the processes of immigration and settlement.

Gu discusses the book here, as well as her vast research in gender, social psychology and international migration.

Q: What have you discovered from your research? What are the primary goals of your work?

A: My research examines the interplay of gender and immigration and its impact on individuals’ well-being. It demonstrates how immigration is a gendered process that creates varying settlement patterns and adaptation experiences of men and women. This gendered process often produces different social and psychological effects on individuals’ perceptions, attitudes and behaviors.

In the book, I choose to focus on “self” as the central point of analysis. I analyze how women’s concepts of themselves change during the process of immigration. My research grounds sociological understanding on women’s standpoints as individuals who experience the ups and downs of life in their immigrant journeys—just as how men are studied—rather than as wives and mothers.

Q: How would you describe your research to the untrained person?

A: My research examines how society creates unequal life opportunities for people in different positions (e.g., positions shaped by gender, race, social class, sexuality, religion, etc.), thereby constraining individuals’ choices and shaping their lived experiences.

For example, my subjects spent 2 to 12 years as housewives when their U.S.-educated husbands found professional jobs in the United States. These highly educated women could not work because of the restrictions of their dependent visa. Feeling bored and depressed about losing their careers in Taiwan, these women were forced to redefine who they were and what they wanted for themselves.

Many started over by taking low-paying jobs: a former attorney worked as a dish washer in a cafeteria; a former high school teacher worked as a babysitter; a former corporate employee cleaned hotels; and a former college lecturer waited tables in a Chinese restaurant. These women eventually found professional jobs years later, and many became managers in companies. In these drastic changes in their life experiences created by immigration, the women searched and found new senses of self. My book documents their struggles to find a balance between their own needs and their families’ prosperity in a foreign country, their search for meaning in their immigrant lives, and their incredible strength in pressing forward with creativity and positivity when life becomes difficult.

Dr. Chien-Juh GuQ: What interests you the most about your research?

A: Most studies of immigrant women focus on laborers, especially laborers from Latin America. This skewed research focus shapes a false impression that immigrant women are poor and uneducated. By studying middle-class immigrant women, my research contributes to the literature in a very important way because most of my findings differ significantly from other studies based on laborers’ experiences. It complicates and enhances scholarly understanding of gender and immigration, which excites me. As a sociologist, I strongly believe that the best research should be able to uncover complexities of society and human behavior, rather than simplifying the rich complexities of reality.

Q: How is your work applied to solving real-world problems?

A: I coin the concept "housewifelization" in this book to describe a major effect of immigration on highly educated women that initiates a series of soul-searching, meaning-making processes in their immigrant lives. While many previous studies report that immigration emancipates women, my study finds otherwise. I argue that immigration "housewifelizes" highly educated women. Because of the restrictions of their dependent visa, many married career women become housewives. This limits their life options to fully use their skills and talents.

Moreover, I document how the women overcome various obstacles to find new opportunities for themselves and develop new senses of self as they rebuild their lives in the host society. My research shows that when facing difficulties and pain in life, resilience is often built and cultivated when we keep pressing forward with positivity, hope and creativity. This is a life lesson we can take away from these women’s stories in my book.

Q: Do you involve students in your research activities?

A: I involve students in research as much as possible because it is a valuable opportunity for students to see and learn how research is done. This is what we call “getting hands dirty in the field,” which is crucial for developing good scholarship. I began my research involvement when I was a student, recording and transcribing interviews and compiling archives for professors. This experience has helped me establish a strong foundation for empirical research. I learned how to make keen observations with cultural sensitivity in the field and how to make good judgments in choosing research directions. Therefore, I always involve students in research and train them as I was trained.

Q: Do you plan to continue research in this area in the future? If so, what are your plans?

A: I have written two books and numerous articles about Taiwanese immigrants, so I decided to take a different direction about two years ago.

Since the summer of 2015, I have frequently traveled to Battle Creek to conduct ethnography and interviews in the Burmese refugee community. This project seeks to explore how a new ethnic group, Burmese Christian refugees, changes the social dynamics, economic development, job markets, and culture of Battle Creek. It documents Burmese Christian refugees’ paradoxical lived experiences in changing from an oppressed religious minority in Burma/Myanmar (a country with a Buddhist majority and controlled by the military) to a religious majority but a racial minority in the United States.

I have begun to work on a book manuscript based on this project, tentatively titled “From Religious Minority to Racial Minority: Burmese Christian Refugees in Battle Creek, Michigan.” I will be working on this book for the next few years.