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Cross-Space Consumption: Grassroots Transnationalism among Undocumented Chinese Immigrants in the United States


Drawing on existing studies of immigrant transnationalism, we develop a concept of the “social value of consumption” and use it to explain the phenomenon of cross-space consumption among international migrants. Based on a multi-sited ethnographic study of undocumented Chinese immigrants in New York and their family members in hometowns in Fuzhou, China, we find that, despite the vulnerabilities and precarious circumstances associated with the lack of citizenship rights in the host society, undocumented immigrants manage to realize the social value of consumption across national borders, and that they do so through conspicuous consumption, reciprocal consumption, agent-assisted consumption in their hometowns even without physical presence. As a type of grassroots transnationalism, cross-space consumption enables international migrants to take advantage of differences in economic development, currency exchange rates, and social structures between countries of destination and origin to maximize their expression of social status and to attain or regain social status in their hometowns. While it serves to support the economic well-being of left-behind families and hometown communities and to sustain family ties and social networks, this type of grassroots transnationalism also serves to fuel extravagant rituals, drives up costs of living, reinforces existing social inequality, and creates pressure for continual emigration in the hometown.

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