Emotion Work among Recent Chinese Immigrants to Canada

By Liu, Lichun Willa | Women & Environments International Magazine, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Emotion Work among Recent Chinese Immigrants to Canada


Liu, Lichun Willa, Women & Environments International Magazine


Fang is a mother with a college-age daughter. During the first few months in Canada, Fang's daughter felt very lonely, and insisted on going back to China. Although she herself did not have any friends and felt isolated and extremely stressed due to the difficulty of finding a job, Fang attended to her daughter's emotional needs by encouraging her to work hard at her studies, and by discussing with her the job prospects in Canada, and the benefits of getting a Canadian college education. Through long conversations and consistent reassurance, Fang gradually cheered her daughter up.

Emotion work is embedded in many household activities such as listening to someone else's problems or worries, giving advice or guidance, showing warmth and appreciation, and helping one's partner by sharing housework and childcare (Strazdins & Broom, 2004). Emotion work acts as the "glue" that holds families together (De Vault, 1999), and helps build intimacy and closeness between partners and between parents and children (Seery & Crowley, 2000).

Discussions about housework tend to focus on instrumental tasks such as cooking, cleaning and care giving. However, emotion work is another important facet in family life. Though emotion work can be seen as stemming from the concept of conventional "love", it differs in that it tends to include a level of "extra" or "optional" acts of affection not deemed necessary but seen as beneficial. This extra/optional level of affection is classified as "work" because it requires the administrators, whom in this article are the women of the household, to go beyond what they understood as their traditional roles as mothers, daughters and wives in order to keep their households at a functioning level.

I interviewed 20 recent immigrants from Mainland China about emotion work, and found that it is an indispensable part of household work, as many household tasks involve providing emotional care and support and managing negative emotions among family members.

Emotional Support for Children

Many Chinese parents with teenage children reported providing emotional support for their children to reduce their stress in adjusting to a new culture and school system. For example, Hua, a woman in her mid-40s, said she helped her teenage daughter in overcoming language barriers. "When we first arrived in Canada, my daughter couldn't understand English. She just cried. So I talked to her and spent a lot of time helping her with her school work."

Emotion work involves attending to both the physical and emotional needs of others. However, emotion work is different from childcare in that emotion work focuses on the "expressive" aspects of childrearing, whereas childcare pays more attention to the "instrumental" tasks.

Rong, a mother with a 14-year-old son, talked about how she helped her son adjust to the cultural shock he experienced during the initial stage of immigration to Canada. Rong was called to school one day and was advised by the teacher to take her son to see a psychiatrist because he was too quiet. As a mother and a paediatrician prior to immigration, Rong knew that the problem with her son was more cultural than psychological. "In China, when the teacher talks, students just listen. In China, my son was often criticized for being overactive in his class, but here in Canada, he is seen as too quiet, not talking or participating in class activities." To help her son adapt to the new culture, Rong adopted a cat for her son, then she hired a tutor to help him with his French, and later enrolled the whole family in a badminton club. Gradually her son became more active, regained his confidence, and improved his school performance remarkably.

Women in this study are predominantly responsible for providing emotional support and care for their children. Men focus more on the instrumental tasks such as helping their children with their school work rather than on the affective dimension of childrearing found in emotion work. …

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