Studying the culture of migration in modern times

By Sarah Fister Gale

Julie Chu, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences in the College

Julie Chu, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences in the College

Migration politics has dominated the spotlight in recent months -- but for Julie Chu it’s been a career-long interest. Chu is a sociocultural anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and she has spent the past two decades studying mobility and migration, and how economics and social trends influence these patterns.

Chu first became interested in migration politics in the 90s as an undergrad at the University of California Berkeley, where she witnessed a steady rise in anti-immigration rhetoric. In 1994, Californian’s voted Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to create a citizenship screening system that would block illegal immigrants from using non-emergency healthcare, public schools and other services. It passed, but was later deemed unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court.

“Proposition 187 left immigrant families with no access to healthcare beyond the ER,” she says. That spurred her to launch her first medical anthropology research project at a public clinic on New York’s lower east side to explore how immigrants were addressing their healthcare needs. In her research, she met a group of Chinese immigrants who the clinic referred to as “phantom patients” because they never showed up for appointments. “It turned out that they only went to the clinic to secure health cards,” she says.

That project lead her to continue her academic path in anthropology, and to eventually get her Ph.D. at NYU’s Program in Culture and Media, which strongly influence on the style and format of her future research.

Why take the risk?

Chu’s first field site, an emigrant village in rural Fuzhou, China

While Chu studies global migration trends, much of her work has focused on Chinese immigrants. Her first book, Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China (Duke University Press, 2010), looks at how immigration mobility happens by sharing the story of a woman in Fuzhou, China, who waits years to be smuggled into the US despite the cost, risk and limited job options she is likely to face.

Chu found that smugglers charge up to $70,000 to transport a migrant to the US. The trip can take months, is highly risky, and if they make it they often end up in menial restaurant jobs that barely sustain them. “It didn’t add up, why they would take on so much debt, despite knowing the risks and exploitation,” she says.

But through further ethnographic fieldwork and interviews she found a unique cultural and political history that shaped the desire among citizens in the coastal city of Fuzhou to go abroad at whatever the cost. Fuzhou is the capital and one of the largest cities in Fujian province, and is considered an industrial transportation hub, but after the communist revolution most of its citizens were reclassified as “peasants” despite having a history of diverse non-agragricultural occupations. “Going overseas became the desired trajectory,” she says. It was also wrapped up in a history of ritual life, and religiosity in the community. “There is a Buddhist-Daoist idea that cosmic debt is an inherent part of life as opposed to a source of consternation.”

Three women

A map for Chinese migrants showing their primary destination, New York City

During her early research for that book, she met three teenaged girls who were all preparing to migrate to the US, and she has been taping interviews with them for a decade. “It was longitudinal by accident,” she admits. She was taken with the young girls, and kept in touch to see how they were getting along.

The first was approved to go abroad at 13 and hoped to attend high school in the US, but she was scheduled to travel after 9/11, and ultimately had to wait three years to leave. “By the time she arrived she was so behind academically that she dropped out to work in a restaurant, and got married two years later,” Chu says.

The second made it the US and rejected her family’s desire for her to work in their restaurant. Instead she found a job in a nail salon, which is another common low-paying field for immigrants, Chu notes. Though the third went to college in China, worked in Shenzhen, then and moved to Hong Kong when she got married. “It was an unusual path,” Chu says, noting that her story reflects a shifting view among younger Chinese immigrants that they can achieve success back in Asia.

Chu isn’t finished tracking the women, but she hopes to one day turn the interviews into a film, documenting their journeys, and her own relationship with them over the years. “What we shared together is part of the story,” she says.

She is also wrapping up her latest book project, entitled, The Hinge of Time: Infrastructure and Chronopolitics at China's Global Edge, Which is based on three years of fieldwork among Chinese customs inspectors and transnational migrant couriers. This project analyzes the various legal, financial, cosmic, piratical systems in place for managing the rhythms of movement of people and things between Southern China and the United States.

UChicago students are the best

When she’s not conducting research, Chu teaches graduate and undergraduate courses, and loves that part of her job. “The students at UChicago are amazing,” she says. “There is a pure love for learning that’s different from other schools.”

One of her most popular courses is an ethnographic film seminar for undergrads and graduates that explores ethnographic film as a genre for representing reality. She is also excited about her spring semester seminar on The Immigrant as an American Prototype. “My work has always been transnational, and I felt really motivated by this political climate to think more historically about migration politics in the US.”