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Professor studies immigrant families in China to aid Latinos in North Carolina

By Susan White

Shanghai and North Carolina may seem like a world apart, but from Mimi Chapman’s perspective, this bustling city in China and the Tar Heel state share at least one major characteristic: a growing population of immigrants. But have these two groups of newcomers experienced similar strengths and challenges? Chapman, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, hopes to address that question and others as part of a research project designed to compare the well-being of these migrants in their new homes.

Chapman, whose research focuses on children’s health and mental health, immigration and acculturation issues, is teaming up with Professor Meihua Zhu from East China University of Science and Technology (ECUST) on the study. The project is the first major collaborative effort between the School and East China University since both signed a memorandum of understanding in 2008 that promotes faculty and student exchanges. But for Chapman, the partnership is also personally rewarding as she and Professor Zhu have grown to know each other well over the years through the School’s study abroad trips to China. Zhu, who also directs a social service agency, has assembled a team of students and social workers to assist with the study.

Chapman was awarded an $11,000 grant from the Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund to pay for the project. In addition, the International Association of Schools of Social Work awarded her a $4,000 grant to develop course content on migration that is cross cultural. She is partnering with researchers at ECUST and from East China Normal University to develop this material.

The conversation over immigration in China and in America has been intensifying for more than a decade. While tens of thousands of Hispanics have migrated from Mexico and other Latin American countries into the United States and North Carolina, Shanghai’s growth has come from a “floating population” of in-country migrants shifting from China’s countryside into the city.

Both groups of newcomers have been moving for one primary reason—a promise of jobs. In North Carolina, new Latino immigrants have been drawn into the poultry and hog processing industries, as well as to opportunities in construction, manufacturing and hospitality services. According to the 2010 census, the state’s Latino population has increased 788 percent since 1990, with most of this increase coming from undocumented immigrants and their children.

Across the Pacific, a similar movement has occurred. China’s hukou system—or household registration system—once prevented people from the countryside from flooding cities and becoming legal residents of those cities. But following a growing need for labor in urban industrial areas, residents from the countryside began moving to the cities to work. Although the government tolerates this movement, the workers are not registered as legal residents within the cities that they move to, leaving them with little or no social safety net.  Many of these workers are recruited, just as many Latinos are in the United States, by employers in need of cheap labor.

“So there is this strange parallel,” said Chapman, who visited Shanghai in June. (Read more about Chapman’s trip and her project on her new blog.)

As of 2000, more than 3.8 million undocumented migrants, including mothers and children, were estimated to live in Shanghai. Many have moved into older and small homes in villages where Shanghainese residents once lived, Chapman said. Some 4,000 immigrants, 1,000 of whom are children, reside within the Tongi village where Chapman and the East China University research team are basing their study.

“These folks are renting spaces where you may have five people living in one room,” she said. “There is no indoor plumbing and no heat. It’s pretty decrepit.” Many Latino immigrants have faced similar living conditions in the United States.

Because both groups of newcomers are undocumented, their access to health or social services is limited. Until about a year ago, migrant children in China, including those born after their families moved into Shanghai, were not allowed to attend the city’s schools. But changes in government policy recently opened up Shanghai’s classrooms to these children, Chapman said.

“There is certainly more and more focus from the central government on the well-being of migrants, generally,” she said.

However, little systematic data is known about how young people and families both benefit and suffer because of their migration experiences in China, Chapman said. The joint project will look more closely at how Shanghai’s new migrants, especially youth, are faring compared to Latinos who have settled in North Carolina. Over the past few years, Chapman’s research has helped highlight the need for more supportive environments for new immigrant Latino youth, especially in North Carolina’s schools.

According to data collected from 2004 to 2006, a third of the state’s Latino youth, ages 12 to 19, showed anxiety symptoms, while 6 percent exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 8 percent showed signs of depression. The study also found that some youth have shown symptoms of PTSD related to their family’s immigration experience, especially when it involved a border crossing, Chapman said.
Her current study could help shine a similar light on the needs of Shanghai’s migrant families.

“One of the things we’ve already learned is there are a lot of concerns about what’s happening with kids,” she said. “Most of the parents in this village we’re focusing on work 12-hour days, so there are kids floating around. Or the moms are at home with really young kids, while the father is out working. So they’re just a lot of concerns around the parenting dynamic.”

The lack of older relatives to learn from and lean on exacerbates these worries, Chapman said. Although the Chinese traditionally depend on extended family members, especially grandparents, to help raise children, in-country migrant families leave these elders behind when they move.
“So for these families, they have lost this huge resource,” she said. “I realized that I’d never even thought about that loss of older family members within my own work (with Latinos). But again there is a similarity. Many elders are left behind in Mexico and other Latin American-sending countries. Those elders play a very active role in Latin American families as well.”

Chapman and the research team may soon know more about the personal challenges that Chinese migrants face. As part of their study, the researchers plan to use an innovative participatory exercise called PhotoVoice, which combines photography with grassroots social action. PhotoVoice participants are asked to take pictures that they believe represent their community, their own stories, or a point of view. Last month, researchers tested the idea by capturing photographs that they believe represent the migrant village where their work is centered.

“What came out of that was a lot of focus on children and a lot of potential that they could see in these children,” Chapman said. “They really want to work on fostering that in different ways.”

In the next few months, migrant mothers in Shanghai will be asked to use digital cameras to take pictures of “things they think make it easy to be a good parent in their village and things that make it hard to be good parent,” Chapman said.

The new cross-country collaboration offers a lot of promise, Chapman said, not only because the project crosses cultures and political systems but because of the potential to bring home knowledge that could contribute to the state’s Latino population.

“There are so many differences, and we have to take it one step at a time,” she said. “But I think when you go into places where everything is foreign, you don’t see everything with the same eyes. You simply see things in new ways, and it helps you to refocus.”