Why Do People Cross Borders?

East Meets Dress, Unsplash

Migration can’t be pinned down to a handful of factors. The process requires so many agents and actors, that it is befuddling. In East Asia, migration remains a complex issue. The legacies of the former Japanese Empire, transnational marriage markets and the search for supposed capital overseas are all salient elements of the migratory process.

In the West, debate centred around migration is commonplace. But what is conjured in our imagination when we, ‘civilised westerners’ hear this word, is usually a harrowing journey. Perhaps a family fleeing a war-torn land on a woefully inadequate boat, a mother and her child crossing the desert on a camel or a band of bold workers, huddled like sardines in the back of a truck.

These stories derail our conscience. They make us aware of how easy our own lives are, and leave us unnerved. Throngs of migrants, born in austere and unstable times, seek to pour into our societies to find safe haven. And the thoughts we have about this are seldom positive.

This is a cursory glimpse of attitudes towards migration in the West. But are there other reasons to cross borders? And who really is in charge of people’s capacity to move transnationally?

I have an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies. Whilst on that programme, I explored the whole of East Asia from my desk thanks to my elective in Transnational Migration. Without a doubt, it was one of the most interesting things I had ever studied. Migration is intensely complicated, rests on a multitude of independent forces, and is carried out by a mélange of humans, whose agency isn’t always clear.

We love reading about the Mexican family who trekked into the USA to set up the best taco restaurant in town, or the Syrian family who made it to the UK to cut hair better than the locals. The emotional value of immigrant success stories is peerless, but a lot of these stories have become so embedded in our minds as universal they are losing their significance.

Those who embark on those journeys are still tremendously brave, but I think it’s equally important to examine other approaches. So let’s look at a different story.

Marriage migration. While the particularly dated phenomenon does still occur in the West (chiefly, in Eastern Europe), it is more prevalent in Asia. In fact, when I lived in Shanghai, it was considered a tourist attraction to visit People’s Park on a Sunday, where elderly Chinese essentially bring CVs of their child or grandchild. Age, sex, job, education, height, weight — you name it, it was written down somewhere.

Matchmaking’s importance is fluctuating in China today. While it may have retained its conventional significance in rural areas, urban folk are much less likely to adhere to this tradition. That isn’t to suggest that they don’t still feel other pressures induced by this culture around marriage, but plenty of Chinese women in municipal areas can confidently kiss matchmakers goodbye nowadays.

Thanks to Chigusa Yamaura’s eye-opening fieldwork in China’s Dongbei (northeast) region, however, we know all about the transnational marriage brokering services available between young Chinese women and older Japanese men. Dongbei is known for being extremely cold in the winter (ever heard of the Harbin Ice Festival?), its many iterations of ‘bao buns’ and other bread-like items, tall people and once being the home of the Manchus, whose home was more famously known as Manchuria.

Back to the interesting topic of marriage migration — in short, wealthy men in Japan who exceed a certain age can become ‘un-marriageable’ by local women’s standards. And so, they look overseas, where a transactional arrangement can be sublimated into a marriage. But life in Japan, a first world country not lacking in any material sense, can still be harsh.

Chinese marriage migrants may find themselves as the victims of a forced assimilation, whereby they must, as humanly possible, become Japanese. Cultural agility, linguistic fluency, knowledge of Japanese cooking and dress sense are all expected. An ethnography that I will always remember spoke about how startling it was when a husband found his new wife rifling through a bag of watermelon seeds like a squirrel — behaviour unthinkable in sophisticated Tokyo!

This sort of story stirs us, but not in the same sense as the Western stereotypes. The type of woman wound up in this odd expression of mobility presumably travelled on an aeroplane, knowing that she’d soon acquire the coveted marriage visa and that a home with a financial provider was also patiently waiting for her arrival.

Yet I’m still left uneasy knowing that this happens. It certainly doesn’t feel like these Chinese women have much agency, even though it’s admittedly a far less dangerous form of migration. There’s still a sense of something becoming irretrievable.

Migration has wisely been described in the past by scholars as having both passive and active actors; senders and receivers of migrants. Women tend to be more on the passive side, whereas men move with fewer constraints across borders.

The culture of hypergamy (the idea of marrying into a family of higher economic status than one’s own) is the cyclone which blows Chinese women overseas in the context laid out above. And as you have no doubt correctly guessed, it is patriarchal systems of power back home that play a large part in sustaining things like hypergamy. Will that change anytime soon? Maybe, maybe not.

Hypergamy is thousands of years old. Empress Dowager Cixi knew exactly what she was doing when she performed for Emperor Xianfeng, then not even his concubine. And it’s stories like hers that perhaps inspire Chinese women to cross borders for marriage. Some women find happiness in Japan with equitable husbands who are willing to send money back to China. In a way, that puts those women in a position of power in their families; they become the person everyone has to ask for handouts.

But could you imagine if we had marriage brokers between the UK and France? It’s peculiar thinking about the motivations of both the one who is sent and the one who is received. It’s kind of like if a tinder gold subscription actually meant you got to take your pick out of a bundle, and keep them! Perhaps there are positives and negatives…

Seeing as women never had any involvement in choosing their partner, it’s hard to look at it from a feminist perspective and draw up too many positives. The process is littered with troubling organisational aspects that diminish female voices.

And yet. There is room to argue that it’s not all bad. How can people from the West really judge things beyond the limited scope of our culture? Interestingly, this idea is now becoming very popular in the context of ‘white saviour’ feminism or emancipation efforts in Africa and the Middle East. We can’t claim to know what different people from cultures entirely different to our own are actually motivated by or what they need.

In a culture where the family unit is so important, there is a huge honour in being able to financially support one’s relatives. Filial piety in Chinese is known as 孝顺 (xiao shun) and the first character depicts an old person resting comfortably on their child. It refers to the Confucian ethic of children looking after and respecting older family members. Unlike hypergamy, filial piety will remain an unimpeachable element of Chinese culture for many more years to come.

So why do people cross borders? We cannot fully understand the depth of struggle involved in any one individual’s decision to migrate, but different cultural factors and responsibilities align to make this debate much more complicated than we realise.

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