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Photos help researchers learn about migrant life in China

The dark-haired woman loosely gripped the long-handled broom and stared directly into the digital camera. The simple image of someone at work might seem mundane. But to the pictured mother—a migrant worker in Shanghai, China—the snapshot illustrates her commitment and determination to help her family, especially her oldest son, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.

The personal photograph—just one of more than 150 capturing the lives of migrant mothers in Tongji Village—is part of a study that social work researchers hope may shed some light on the strengths that support and the challenges that confront both in-country migrants in China and Latino immigrants in North Carolina.

Mimi Chapman, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, and

Meihua Zhu, a professor at East China University of Science and Technology (ECUST), are collaborating on the research project, which began last year and is designed to compare the well-being of migrants in their new homes. Chapman, whose research focuses on children’s health and mental health, immigration and acculturation issues, received an $11,000 grant from the Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund to support the study. The International Association of Schools of Social Work also awarded her a $4,000 grant, which she and Professor Zhu will use to develop course content on migration that is cross cultural. Zhu is in North Carolina for a year to work with Chapman and to learn more about her research with Latino immigrants.

For the researchers, part of the early learning process is better understanding what life is like for the migrant families in Shanghai, most of whom left homes in China’s countryside in search of better jobs in the city. So late last year, a participatory exercise called, “PhotoVoice,” was incorporated into the joint study as a way of enabling migrant women to share their own perspectives. PhotoVoice gives participants cameras and encourages them to take photos that they believe represent their community, their own stories, or point of view. For this exercise, the researchers asked the mothers to capture pictures that illustrated “being a parent.”

In November, Chapman traveled back to Shanghai’s Tongji Village and along with Zhu sat down with 17 mothers who volunteered to participate in the exercise to discuss the results.

The photographs were intimate, sometimes slightly out of focus and in the case of the mother with the sick child, heartbreaking.

“She began her story by telling us that she couldn’t read or write,” Chapman explained, “but that she and her husband each work 12 hours a day to support their life in Shanghai and their son so that he can get the treatment he needs.”

Chapman isn’t sure such difficult details, which she said illustrates “some of the dilemmas that come up with this migration experience,” would have been revealed had the researchers relied on a more traditional approach to learn more about the mothers’ lives.

“Rather than doing a survey where we imposed questions that we think are important, PhotoVoice really allowed them to bring to the fore things that they think are important,” she said. “If I asked you what does it mean to be a mother in Tongji Village, you might say this, this and this. But when you actually take pictures of it, new things come up that you might not have given voice to. So when you look at your environment, it may be different than when you think about your environment.”

Each participant had one day to take photos that painted a picture of their lives. Among the various other shared snapshots were playful children in cramped quarters and mothers hovered over the shoulders of sons or daughters as they diligently completed homework.

All of the families are eager to give their children much more, Zhu said. That sentiment was particularly illustrated in the photographs from one mother who, rather than focus on life inside her village, chose to capture sunny landscapes in Shanghai and a bouquet of colorful balloons. Her images, she said, symbolized the happiness and better life she wished for her children, Chapman explained.

“The mothers always care about their children and their children’s future—that they can get a good job and earn more money,” Zhu said.

The mothers recognize that a good education is the bridge to a better future, Chapman said.

“I was struck by lots of people talking about education and how they expressed pride when their children were doing well and concern when they weren’t,” she said. “They worried when their kids didn’t seem as interested or motivated by school.”

Over the past few years, Chapman’s work has helped highlight the need for more supportive environments for new immigrant Latino youth, particularly in North Carolina schools.

As more and more children from the Tongji Village migrant into Shanghainese schools, they, too, may need additional support, Chapman said. “There are certainly tensions in our schools when kids from immigrant families start moving into schools that have not traditionally served that population,” she said. “So, I’ll be interested to see if those same kinds of tensions emerge (in China).”

At the same time, Chapman is also learning that just because people from different cultures share similar challenges doesn’t mean that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

“Every context is really different,” she said. “I think I’m learning that local solutions are good solutions, and that you can’t necessarily import themes from one place to another, although it certainly informs your thinking.”

What is promising, Chapman and Zhu agreed, is that their collaborative study and the recently completed photo project have raised awareness among the migrant mothers of the needs within their own community. Most were struck by the challenges their neighbors faced and were eager to support one another.

“They talked about getting together just to talk, to eat together and to share experiences with one another,” Zhu said. They even discussed the need to build a playground so that their children have a safe place to play, she said.

All of those ideas are likely to be among the topics discussed this spring when the Tongji neighborhood leaders participate in a forum to consider solutions and advocacy work within the community, the researchers said. Hearing more of the migrant families’ thoughts on potential ways to address their own needs is vital, Chapman said.

“We want to be very mindful and really think things through before we propose some huge research agenda that doesn’t necessarily make sense,” she said. “We really want the ideas to come from this village.”