Chinese Senior Migrants and the Globalization of Retirement
Nicole DeJong Newendorp




Ten years ago, I had just finished writing a book about Chinese migrant families in Hong Kong and was looking for a new project.1 I decided, as a temporary measure, to learn something about Boston’s Chinatown, where I figured I could use my Cantonese language skills to get to know older Chinese Americans, including individuals originally from Hong Kong.2 So one afternoon, I rode the T (Boston’s subway line) a few stops from my workplace in Cambridge to downtown. From there, I walked several more blocks and ended up in the waiting area of a local service organization, where I asked at the desk if there was someone I could talk with about becoming a volunteer English teacher. After ascertaining that I had some relevant teaching experience and collecting information for a routine CORI check, I was assigned to provide weekly English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction to a group of Chinese American senior citizens who were participants in a government-subsidized work training program aimed at helping low-income adults aged fifty-five and older learn skills to enter (or reenter) the workforce.3

At the time, I had no expectations about where my volunteer teaching would lead. My goal was simply to learn something about this community of Chinese-speaking older individuals—and, I hoped, provide some useful English language training for them in the process. What I had not foreseen was how attached to my students I would become. Despite having to wake up at 4:00 a.m. (or earlier) to take care of my other work and family responsibilities on the days I would leave Cambridge after lunch and head to Chinatown, I taught my classes on a volunteer basis for one afternoon every week for three years. During this time, I tried my best to help my older students learn some English, but—as they freely talked about—it was hard going, and I was frustrated (as were they) that despite our significant efforts, it was difficult for them to make much progress. Yet the conversations that resulted, in a mixture of English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and (although I don’t understand it) Taishanese, were fascinating.

One of the first things I learned about my ESL students, much to my initial surprise, was that most of them, in 2007, were relatively new arrivals to the United States. As I investigated further, I learned that one-third of all Chinese-born residents in the United States have arrived here since 1990, and Chinese are now among the three largest immigrant groups in the country, following Mexicans and Indians.4 Moreover, Chinese immigrants are on average older than all other foreign-born immigrants in the United States, and in recent decades, more than 30 percent of them have come at age sixty or older.5 Yet when I searched for ethnographic studies that would shed light on why senior migrants were coming in such numbers at the turn of the millennium and what life was like for them after migrating to a new country for the first time in the latter decades of their lives, I found almost nothing. It was this information that I cited to colleagues to justify my attention to this population once my data collection began in earnest in 2009. Yet the real fascination for me was their stories. Through the snippets I first heard in class and later through substantially more detailed narratives that I collected and recorded from 2009 to 2012, I was drawn to stories of hardship, hard work, good fortune, family stress, and desire—stories that helped me begin to understand why so many older individuals would pick up and move to a new country, leaving behind family, friends, and lifelong social networks to grapple instead with a new language, new ways of life, and a host of other obstacles just at the stage of life when many individuals also begin navigating the effects of mental or physical decline associated with natural processes of aging.

Emigration from China is not a new phenomenon. Chinese make up what is arguably the world’s oldest diaspora, dating from around 200 B.C.E.6 By 2010, overseas Chinese—that is, ethnically Chinese individuals who may be many generations removed from living in China—numbered over 40 million in 148 countries worldwide.7 However, recent migration trends differ from past practices in scale, scope, and intensity. Patterns of settlement outside China over the past 150 years have shifted away from original routes to Southeast Asia and are now increasingly oriented toward North America, Europe, and Australia, in addition to East Asia’s powerhouse economies of Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.8 Following the past several decades of rapid economic and social transformation in China, record numbers of Chinese now travel abroad every year, engage in investment emigration, enroll as university and secondary school students outside China, and move abroad to work, join family, or establish new citizenship claims.9 In 2015, almost 11 million Chinese citizens were living outside China.10 Over one-fifth of those individuals resided in the United States—the “top destination for Chinese immigrants” as estimated by the United Nations Population Division.11 The vast scholarly literature on Chinese migration, past and present, mostly predates this recent boom in international migration trends from China and, along with its basis in China’s long-standing diasporic networks, largely emphasizes Chinese migrants’ rootedness in territorial China. Whether viewed as “reluctant” emigrants, “sojourners” rather than settlers, or “flexible citizens” looking out for their own personal interests, Chinese migrants are depicted as maintaining a lifelong, primary orientation toward China, downplaying the possibility that they may also develop a sense of belonging elsewhere in the world.12

Chinese migration literature also makes clear that the desire to engage in global flows of movement influences individuals across the social and economic spectrum in China, including working-class and peasant women who marry across borders; Fuzhounese villagers who often follow clandestine networks to migrate to Europe and the United States; Chinese entrepreneurs who establish businesses abroad; and youth who work or study internationally.13 Chinese seniors are engaged in global mobility processes in significant ways. Rapidly increasing economic inequality in contemporary China has left many older Chinese financially insecure at the same moment that changing social and cultural values have destabilized Chinese seniors’ traditional place of authority in family life and opened up new possibilities of active aging oriented around “autonomy and intergenerational independence.”14 As a result, Chinese seniors with diasporic family networks, desires to fulfill lifelong dreams to “see the world,” and awareness of opportunities to experience idealized retired lifestyles abroad have increasingly been activating their family-based networks to engage in retirement migration beyond the borders of territorial China, including to the United States. In this way, their moves—whether within an Asian regional sphere or across the Pacific—are in line with those of increasing numbers of seniors worldwide for whom retirement migration has become an important means to navigate the challenges posed to their traditional expectations for retirement by increased longevity, demographically aging populations, and global neoliberal trends reducing state welfare support for aging individuals.

This book is about what I learned from listening to recent Chinese senior migrants’ stories about their engagement in transnational lifeways and global mobility processes—that is, how Chinese seniors made sense of relocating to the United States in the latter decades of their lives. I draw inspiration from a fledgling body of recent qualitative work examining ethnically Asian seniors as active contributors to—rather than passive recipients of—the migration processes of which they are a part. For example, Sarah Lamb focuses on the lifeworlds of retired Indian American seniors who follow adult children to the United States, and Ken Chih-Yan Sun traces the paths of Taiwanese American seniors who return to Taiwan for retirement once their professional working life in the United States ends.15 In both cases, seniors navigate familial and social ties in multiple locations, confronting challenging decisions to engage in migration trajectories, even as the possibilities they have for participating in contemporary mobility flows are directly related to a political and economic ease of travel between Asia and the United States that did not exist even a few decades ago. These works, like many other accounts in the anthropological scholarship of migration, reinforce our understanding of migrants as individuals with complex motivations, desires, and goals.16 This crucial interpretative lens seeks to disrupt many of the durable misconceptions that continue to haunt much popular writing on immigration today, including views that reduce immigrants’ complex lifeworlds to one-dimensional perspectives portraying them as drains on the U.S. economy, disrupters to social well-being, and otherwise undeserving of sympathetic treatment by the communities in which they reside.17

Of course, anthropologists have always aimed to humanize the actors at the center of our intellectual inquiries. As early as the 1970s, anthropologists portrayed migrants as multifaceted individuals strategically engaged in social and global processes of travel, displacement, and cultural interaction.18 My ethnography—which both builds on these long-standing anthropological humanizing portraits of migrants and also goes against predominant scholarly portrayals of Chinese overseas as forever rooted to territorial China—highlights recent Chinese senior migrants as complex actors with a strong sense of affinity to and active engagement in the United States, where they perform crucial roles that foster the well-being of American communities. Their lives have most often been filled with decades of hardship and political and social upheaval, but their outlook on life in the United States remains strongly positive, even in ongoing situations of significant daily challenges.

My interviewees’ stories are grounded in long-standing processes of global movement, including the deeply interactive histories of trade and transnationalism between the United States and China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.19 At the same time, their stories are also entangled with national policies of restriction and structural disempowerment that sought to curtail the entrance of Chinese migrants to the United States and the exit of citizens from China over that same period of time. As a result, these stories reflect the complexity of contemporary flows of movement—of people, information, and ideas—that make up an ever-changing backdrop to my interviewees’ long lives and to which my interviewees are active contributors. Overall, my approach foregrounds how paying attention to the life experiences of a particular group of relatively overlooked individuals, navigating unexpected delights and difficulties, sheds light on seniors’ strategies for achieving later-life goals within a context of rapidly aging population demographics and global neoliberal trends that simultaneously render seniors’ lifeways more precarious. Thus, I begin with a story that highlights some of the many seeming paradoxes involved with the migration processes of my Chinese senior migrant interviewees. It’s also the story that initially hooked me—transforming a more casual interest in my Boston Chinatown ESL students’ lives into a more serious academic project. This story challenged many of my preconceived ideas about my ESL students. It also highlighted for me the interaction between historical and contemporary processes of global mobility and migration and, in so doing, started me down the path of investigating how seniors’ memories and subjective experiences of movement within and beyond China in past decades have continued to influence their contemporary migration trajectories.


In 2008, I got to know a man I will call “Mr. Lee,” a member of the ESL class that I was teaching as a volunteer to Chinese-born senior citizens in Boston’s Chinatown. At that time, Mr. Lee was in his late eighties. Originally from Guangdong Province—like most other Chinese immigrants who have the longest historical ties to the United States—he was physically active and eager to learn. He was a diligent student who read English at a high intermediate level, all the while peering closely through a large magnifying glass. Each week, he came to class with meticulously prepared notes on vocabulary and grammar written in his careful and clear cursive writing. Like his classmates, Mr. Lee had trouble speaking conversational English, so our discussions took place in a patchwork of English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

Through Mr. Lee’s participation in my class, I learned that he had been sponsored to come to the United States by an adult child about a decade earlier. However, I also learned that his grandfather had migrated to the country during the period of Chinese exclusion, probably sometime in the early 1900s. Although most Chinese nationals were formally barred from entrance following the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, individuals found ways—both legal and clandestine—to immigrate despite the act’s goals to completely curtail Chinese nationals’ entrance to the United States. Because Mr. Lee’s grandfather lived in San Francisco, it’s possible that he arrived as a “paper son” following the destruction of the San Francisco public records office in the great fire of 1906, when the loss of public birth records provided an opportunity for would-be Chinese immigrants to prove through other means, including witness testimony, that they had been born in the United States and, as citizens, were exempt from the exclusion laws. While in San Francisco, Mr. Lee’s grandfather worked in a laundry, one of the few occupations available to Chinese immigrants in the early twentieth century. Later, he returned to China with deep resentment of the difficult labor and humiliating treatment that he had endured. As Mr. Lee explained, his grandfather’s arms and hands were covered in burns from the hot irons he used to press clothes, and he was in constant physical pain. Wanting to protect his descendants from the hardships that he had experienced in San Francisco, Mr. Lee’s grandfather forbade his sons, and later his grandsons, from ever going to the United States, an order that carries particularly strong weight in the Chinese cultural context and continued to influence Mr. Lee’s father throughout his life. Mr. Lee told me:

My dad remembered all the sufferings that my grandfather experienced. [My grandfather] said that the [Lee] family would never go to America ever again because he went through so much suffering, and he didn’t want anyone to ever have to go through what he went through. He was looked down upon. He had to pick up the clothes underneath people’s beds, and he had to crawl [on the floor]. He was kicked around. He was very embarrassed. My dad said that our family would never go back to America.

Nevertheless, here was Mr. Lee, almost one hundred years later, sitting in my class, intently working to build on his already substantial English language skills—at once smiling broadly when he was able to answer my questions correctly in English but also conveying his sense of deep distress at his grandfather’s experiences.20

The fact that Mr. Lee was living in the United States where his grandfather and father had forbidden him to go, rather than in China, where he had lived for the first seventy-five years of his life, was just one of many seeming paradoxes in Mr. Lee’s life. In China, Mr. Lee had performed important work as an engineer overseeing the development of China’s railways. In Boston, he lived in obscurity, unable to communicate many of his routine needs in English. Despite his advanced age at migration and relative lack of English fluency, Mr. Lee worked in Boston’s Chinatown for several years after his arrival, until he was mugged on the job and felt his physical safety was threatened. One primary reason that he moved to Boston was to be near his adult children who lived in the United States, but when I met him, Mr. Lee lived alone, in a small public housing unit in an urban area far removed from Chinatown, and he saw his children only on special occasions. Moreover, despite his low-income status, Mr. Lee traveled to China once each year to celebrate important milestones with his adult children and numerous grandchildren still living there as long as his health allowed him to make the long plane journey. Finally, despite the many difficulties that had accompanied his immigration to the United States in the latter decades of his life and his active acknowledgment of these difficulties, Mr. Lee described his life now in largely positive terms. In particular, his migration in his seventies fulfilled a long-held desire to see the world beyond China and experience its marvels firsthand—a sentiment many of my other interviewees voiced as well.21


1. That book is Uneasy Reunions: Immigration, Citizenship, and Family Life in Post-1997 Hong Kong (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

2. I thank the Blakemore Foundation for supporting me for a full year of Cantonese language study at the Yale-in-China Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 2000–2001. Because I could already speak and read Mandarin Chinese, which I studied in college and also in Taiwan from 1991–1993, I was able to complete most of the two-year Cantonese curriculum during that one academic year. Since 2001, Cantonese has been my primary field language, although sometimes I also conduct research in Mandarin Chinese and, of course, English.

3. CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) provides a record of any court appearances made in the state of Massachusetts. It’s routine to have a CORI check when doing volunteer or paid work with youth or other vulnerable populations in the state.

4. Zong and Batalova 2017.

5. Terrazas and Batalova 2010.

6. Poston and Wong 2016.

7. Poston and Wong 2016.

8. Kuhn 2008.

9. Xiang 2015.

10. Zong and Batalova 2017.

11. Zong and Batalova 2017. Other popular destinations are Canada, 939,000; South Korea, 751,000; Japan, 652,000; Australia, 547,000; and Singapore, 511,000. Zong and Batalova 2017. In 2010, the United States was ranked as the fourth largest country of residence in the world for overseas Chinese; this includes second-, third-, and fourth-generation ethnically Chinese individuals. The United States is the only non-Asian country among the top five. Poston and Wong 2016.

12. Skeldon and Wang 1994; Wang 1980, 2002. See also Yang 2000 and Ong 1999.

13. Newendorp 2008, 2011; Freeman 2011; Chu 2010; Pieke et al. 2004.; Fong 2011.

14. Zhang 2009.

15. Lamb 2007, 2009; Sun 2014a, 2014b, 2016a, 2016b, 2018.

16. See, for example, Faier 2009; Jackson 2013; Ossman 2013; Mahdavhi 2016.

17. See, for example, U.S. Chamber of Commerce 2016.

18. See, for example, Watson 1975; Myerhoff 1978.

19. See, for example, M. Hsu 2000, 2015; Chang 2015.

20. Although Mr. Lee first shared these details with me as a student in my volunteer ESL class, I include them here because he subsequently repeated them in recorded interviews that I conducted with him during the fall of 2009.

21. For a detailed discussion of this desire and its contribution to Mr. Lee’s migration goals, see Chapter 2.