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Negotiating Family “Value”: Caregiving and Conflict Among Chinese-Born Senior Migrants and Their Families in the U.S.


Drawing on ethnographic research conducted since 2009 with Cantonese-speaking Chinese senior migrants in Boston’s downtown Chinatown and its satellite community in Quincy, MA, this paper contributes to a growing scholarly literature on the problem of senior support within the changing dynamics of contemporary Chinese family life by highlighting how the paid and unpaid caregiving work performed by Chinese-born senior migrants in the U.S. provides a means for them to act strategically to secure their own support in older age. The paper describes how these senior migrants work to negotiate their value within the family through caregiving while dealing with the familial conflicts that also arise in the process.

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  1. 1.

    The mandated retirement age in China is 60 for men and 50–55 for women. However, for Chinese seniors in rural areas, these ages may not matter, since many seniors need to continue to work in agricultural production to support themselves as they grow older.

  2. 2.

    Boston’s Chinatown serves as the regional hub, followed by Quincy, which has almost 15,000 Chinese residents, forming the majority of Quincy’s 24 % Asian population (City of Quincy 2013). My data collection has centered on Chinese seniors who have immigrated to the U.S. since 1990 at the age of 60 or older. All participant observation took place in Boston or Quincy Chinatown organizations and residential buildings in which Cantonese was the primary language of communication, and I conducted all research interviews primarily in Cantonese, although sometimes also in Mandarin or in Toisanese (with the help of a Toisanese-Cantonese interpreter).

  3. 3.

    In Massachusetts, almost 20 % of Chinese Americans aged 55–64 are low income, and that number jumps to almost 45 % for individuals aged 65–74 and 55 % for those over 75 (Lo 2006).

  4. 4.

    In Massachusetts (where in 2010 7.3 % of migrants were Chinese-born), recent Chinese senior migrants fall roughly into two groups. Migrants with longstanding family ties to the area tend to originate from rural areas in southeast China, speak a Cantonese regional dialect, have low levels of education, and live in Boston’s densely populated Chinatown or in nearby urban, lower class communities (like Quincy). In contrast, seniors who have migrated through the sponsorship of adult children often originate from urban areas across China, speak Mandarin, are educated, and have held jobs in government, teaching, and other professional capacities. This latter group tends to reside in wealthy, suburban locations and is rapidly growing. These two groups are not, however, mutually exclusive, and my interviewees are drawn from both groups (see also Newendorp 2011).

  5. 5.

    Some Cantonese speaking seniors also speak Mandarin, but many do not. Toisanese refers to the Cantonese regional dialect spoken by individuals from the Toisan (Taishan) area of Guangdong Province. This area was the primary sending region for Chinese who migrated to the U.S. beginning in the mid-1800s and continues to be an important sending area for Cantonese migrants to the U.S. today. (See Hsu 2000 for more details on the transnational connections between Toisan and the U.S.).

  6. 6.

    Many of my interviewees, particularly those from urban areas, had small pensions that they received in China from the work unit (danwei) to which they belonged as working adults. Pensions for seniors in China vary considerably depending on the size of the danwei and position held (see Davis-Friedmann 1991). My interviewees who did have pensions explained that their pensions were very small, generally not more than enough money to take friends to lunch on return visits to China or contribute to family caregiving expenses for grandchildren or elderly parents in China.

  7. 7.

    Mrs. Lung is a pseudonym, as are all names of Chinese senior migrants used in this article.

  8. 8.

    For the cultural importance of burial in China, see Watson and Rawski 1990. Burial is increasingly rare in contemporary China, where officially only cremation is now allowed (Ikels 2004b).


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Correspondence to Nicole Newendorp.

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As there is no person or personal data appearing in the paper, there is no one from whom a permission should be obtained in order to publish personal data.

Ethical Treatment of Experimental Subjects (Animal and Human)

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board of Harvard University. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Newendorp, N. Negotiating Family “Value”: Caregiving and Conflict Among Chinese-Born Senior Migrants and Their Families in the U.S.. Ageing Int 42, 187–204 (2017).

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  • Caregiving
  • Conflict
  • Chinese Migrants
  • US
  • Value to family