Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Reconfigured Reciprocity: How Aging Taiwanese Immigrants Transform Cultural Logics of Elder Care

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Reconfigured Reciprocity: How Aging Taiwanese Immigrants Transform Cultural Logics of Elder Care

Article excerpt

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 4.3 million immigrants in the United States are age 65 and over (Choi, 2012). This figure represents an all-time high (Leach, 2009). Some researchers predict that with the rise of foreign-born populations migrating to the United States, the number of non-White elderly immigrants living in the United States will double, growing from 16% to 36% of the entire population of seniors by 2050 (Treas & Batalova, 2007). Among older foreign-born individuals, nearly two thirds have lived in the United States for more than 30 years (Brownell & Fenley, 2009). Despite this unprecedented increase in aging immigrant populations, the experiences of elderly immigrants remain under- studied in current analyses of both international migration and aging.

To date, scholars of migrant families have demonstrated how intergenerational relation- ships within those households are changed and challenged in the U.S. context (see Foner, 2009; Foner & Dreby, 2011). These scholars strive to highlight how values and practices within migrant families are consistently reconstructed across worlds and across generations (Chen, 2006;Lan,2002;Shih&Pyke,2010).However, most studies still treat older people as family dependents rather than empirically examin- ing how senior populations think about their relationships with younger generations (Treas, 2009). As a result, the processes whereby aging migrant populations actively fashion recipro- cal relationships with younger generations are empirically sidetracked and thus insufficiently theorized.

In this article, I use the experiences of older Taiwanese immigrants who migrated to the United States at an earlier life stage to trace the trajectories through which aging migrant populations reconstruct norms of intergenera- tional reciprocity. I argue that aging immigrants transform cultural ideals of aging and family in response to the changing contextual fea- tures of life that they observe in their own social worlds. Building on existing research on reciprocity (Hansen, 2005; Nelson, 2000), I offer the concept of reconfigured reciprocity to analyze how aging immigrants fashion logics of reciprocity-rationales that can be invoked to govern how group members perceive, give, and ask for support from each other-in order to remain self-sufficient and to sustain connec- tions with their children and their children's family.


The assumption that elderly persons are the keepers of ethnic culture often oversimplifies the myriad complex ways in which the older gen- erations negotiate and contest notions regarding aging and geriatric care across worlds. Studies of international migration tend to focus on how younger immigrants of later generations-who are often described as "the new second gen- eration" in the immigration literature-grapple with the tension between expectations from eth- nic communities and those from mainstream American society (Kibria, 2002; Portes & Zhou, 1993). In contrast, older migrants, even those who relocated to the country of destination at an earlier life stage, are often assumed to be oriented toward the culture in their coun- tries of ancestry, thereby functioning as the self-appointed guardians of the cultural heritage in their countries of destination (cf. Gardner, 2002; Treas, 2009). As a result, students of inter- national migration typically downplay, if not completely overlook, the possibility that aging migrant populations transform and attach new meanings to traditions.

Current research on migrant families also offers a limited understanding of the ways in which aging immigrants envision their later life in relation to their descendants. Prior literature on the family lives of aging migrant populations typically has highlighted how the worldviews of aging migrant populations are primarily informed by the ethnic traditions that they bring from their ancestral society, further shaping their relationships with later generations (Shih & Pyke, 2010). …

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