Children in situations of transnational mobility

Principal investigator: Nóra Kovács

Period: 2018 -

Research questions and objectives:

The research project targets a specific sub-field of migration studies, namely the topic of transnational mobilities and their impact on families, with a particular interest in left-behind children, and in mobile children who move between different countries as a consequence of the labour migration of one or both of their parents or their entire families. Special attention is paid to labour migrant women who have to make the difficult decision of leaving their children behind or – as in the cases of some Chinese migrants – send their children back to their home countries to live with relatives.

The project aims to explore the views and narratives of the participating actors, parents, relatives, and particularly children involved in migration. In the case of mobile children, it explores the different aspects and multi layered experiences of transnational mobilities through a child’s perspective, including schooling experiences, peer-relations, relations with their carers, and growing up between several geographical locations, to give a few examples relevant to the life of a mobile child.

The situations of encounter between mobile children and their families, on the one hand, and schools and other institutions on the other hand are studied. How do teachers and schools manage or support migrant children and their families on the individual or on the institutional level? What are the challenges institutions have to face? How do institutions respond to migrant families’ needs? The research also aims to explore how gender roles change in life situations of transnational mobility; how traditional forms of child care are replaced by new solutions; whether and how transnational mobility transforms family roles and hierarchies.

Research history:

The study had as its starting point a previous piece of anthropological research on second generation Hungarian diaspora identity carried out in Argentina at the turn of the millennium. It was in Buenos Aires where the libraries of Hungarian diaspora associations displayed a formidable amount of print publications written and published by Francisco Badiny Jós on ancient Hungarian prehistory in Hungarian-language books and journals printed in Argentina and the US during the cold war period. Badiny made a formidable effort to construct an alternative to the officially canonized Hungarian ethno-history. Taking up a 19th century line of thought (see Ablonczy 2018, Romsics 2014) he, simply put, related Hungarians to ancient Sumerians. (This is a complex issue where clear distinctions need to be   but in Badiny’s work are not   made between linguistic, cultural and genetic relatedness, or historical intergroup contact.) The bulk of Badiny’s written work was produced during his years in Argentina; however, only after his return migration to Hungary did his ideas start to draw attention and flourish in his original homeland. It has been extensively studied worldwide how ethnic diasporas may interact with societies of their countries of origin and how they may influence the course of events there. Several of the ethnic diaspora groups of the formerly communist states of East and Central Europe have impacted on fundamental aspects of the post-socialist transition process or inspired specific political groups by qualities associated with diaspora ethnic identity.The previous research explored  Badiny’s life and work trajectory, diasporic existence and return migration. A the same time it traced the path and the complex process of the influence he exerted in Hungary on increasingly mainstream visions of fundamental principle related to the Hungarian ethnic group. It attempted to unravel the ambitions of political actors in Hungary to disseminate the ideas developed by Francisco Badiny and to employ them in the service of their political goals.

Research methods:

During the pilot period of the research project in 2019 I tried to respond to some of the research questions by the secondary analysis of the empirical data gathered within the framework of project titled „Chinese Person in the Family. Chinese-Hungarian relations in Hungary in the light of interethnic couple relations and Hungarian child care providers' experiences with Chinese families”. I used the data, interviews and observations about the childcare arrangements of a particular migrant population, Chinese migrant entrepreneurs, gathered between 2014 and 2017.

Based on anthropological fieldwork and interviews, the project explored the practices, experiences and narratives of the social groups involved: Hungarian carers, Chinese children and youth, and Chinese migrant parents. Interviews were undertaken with Hungarian caregivers, Chinese care receivers (both children and young adults), and Chinese parents who used the services provided by Hungarian carers. These data were complemented by further interviews made with Hungarian education professionals working with Chinese children, and also by paediatricians attending children of Chinese migrants.

Research results:

The anthropological research presented in this paper targeted the outsourced forms of child care of Chinese migrant entrepreneur parents working in Hungary, and migrants’ bonds with carers. The paper aimed at providing an ethnography of this phenomenon from the Hungarian carers’ perspective.

Fieldwork and literature suggest that the practice of live-in childcare arrangements dates back to the mid-1990s, coinciding with the formational period of the Chinese migrant entrepreneur population in Hungary. Literature on Chinese family relations and informal communication with Chinese migrant individuals outside the group of migrant entrepreneurs in Hungary or in Western Europe, however, has indicated a marked preference for caring for one’s own children personally. Field research has outlined the clear socio-cultural-economic patterns of carers, as well as migrant families who are likely to choose a childcare arrangement involving a child living at a carer’s home and/or living with relatives in China for years.

Hungarian carers were lower-middle class or middle-class women with a weak labour market position. Hungary’s post-socialist economy and social context are key elements that shaped the formation of this care regime. Parallels with this phenomenon can only be found in the East Central European region (see Souralová 2015). The Chinese parents involved in live-in care arrangements were migrant entrepreneurs. The migration of Chinese women, the Chinese female migrant entrepreneurship present in Hungary, and the opportunity for relatively rapid economic prosperity are also important factors in understanding the childcare practices discussed herein.

Data from this research, alongside studies on Chinese transnational enterprises in Hungary, suggest that the notion of family is constitutive in Chinese businesses. Parents’ practices and behaviour with their children in the carers’ presence and their instructions to carers about rigour and corporal punishment reflect a non-responsive, authoritarian parenting style. Literature suggested that more parents would have preferred a live-in childcare arrangement than could afford it.

In their carers’ homes, Chinese children not only learned Hungarian; they acquired another cultural code that contributed to their ‘banana’ identity. They experienced a style of parenting or care that had more elements of the authoritative parenting style, prioritizing socio-emotive development that helped them become intimately and affectively connected with their carers.

Trust, informality, and uncertainty are associated with important aspects of the relationship between Hungarian carers and Chinese families. This global migration-related care arrangement system suggests more balanced power relations between care buyers and care providers than the majority of cases of third-world female migrants who provide care services far away from their own homes to first-world white middle-class women. Chinese entrepreneurs’ economic standing and consumption capacity were superior to that of the carers, yet their situation was weakened by the negative attitudes of members of their local society. The space of care – the carer’s home – was located in her home country and controlled by the care-giver. All carers benefitted personally from their intimate relationship with Chinese children. Finally, power relations were also influenced by carers’ care ideologies and mothering strategies that they explicitly considered morally superior to those of Chinese mother entrepreneurs who outsourced the care of their infants and babies.

The parenting practices, many of which included alternating live-in childcare in the destination country, Hungary, with live-in childcare with close kin in China, represent genuine transnational practices. These practices are inseparable from the authoritarian parenting styles witnessed among some of the Chinese migrant entrepreneur parents; from the socio-culturally conditioned notions, norms and values of family that are not based primarily on intimacy and emotional ties between members of subsequent generations; and from the family-based transnational business model of successful Chinese migrant entrepreneurs in Hungary. Leveraging the geographical and spatial mobility of children is justified by the prospect of promoting the long-term good, and the economic and social mobility of entire family groups, although it does not target children’s individual success or happiness directly.


Transznacionális migráns vállalkozók gyermekgondozási stratégiái a gondozók tükrében: kínai gyerekek magyar otthonokban. REGIO: KISEBBSÉG KULTÚRA POLITIKA TÁRSADALOM 27 : 3 (2019) (FORTHCOMING)

Leslie K. Wang (2016) Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. INTERSECTIONS: EAST EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOCIETY AND POLITICS 5 : 3 pp. 68-72. , (2019)

Adela Souralova (2015). New Perspectives on Mutual Dependency in Care-Giving. Farnham: Ash-gate, 158 pp. CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPEAN MIGRATION REVIEW 7 : 2 pp. 233-236., (2018)

Transznacionális migráció és gyerekgondozás: vietnami gyerekek Csehországban. REGIO: KISEBBSÉG KULTÚRA POLITIKA TÁRSADALOM 26 : 3 pp. 244-251. (2018)

Transnational Migrant Entrepreneurs' Childcare Practices from the Carers' Perspective: Chinese Children in Hungarian Homes. In: Ducu, Viorela; Nedelcu, Mihaela; Telegdi-Csetri, Aron - Childhood and parenting in transnational settings. Cham (Switzerland): Springer International Publishing, (2018) pp. 25-42.