The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Navigating and Negotiating Cultural Worlds: Mainland Chinese Immigrant Families in Canada

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 2:30 PM
Executive Center 2A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Lin Fang, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Jennifer Ma, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Carolyn Mak, MSW, Doctoral student, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Cindy Yi, BA, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Hattie Liu, BA, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Grace Zhang, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

The surge of immigration from Mainland China since the late 1990s has significantly contributed to the growth of Canada’s immigrant population. Given the limitations of assumptions behind popular acculturation models, where cultural negotiation is operationalized as a static trait, rather than a flexible state(Chirkov, 2009), this qualitative study aims to understand how Mainland Chinese immigrants navigate and negotiate their cross-cultural experiences in a globalized context by answering the following questions: (1) How do members of Mainland Chinese immigrant families perceive and negotiate previously learned and newly acquired cultural knowledge, beliefs, and practices within the family context? (2) How do members of Mainland Chinese immigrant families navigate, negotiate with, and respond to environments outside the family context?  


Drawing on the constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006), we recruited families that had at least one immigrant parent from Mainland China and at least one youth child born either in or outside of Canada, and conducted biographic individual interviews (Rosenthal, 1993, 2004) to explore the family member’s life experiences and transitions in the course of migration. In addition, we asked participants to map in a diagram where they freely draw cultural values and practices essential to them and their families, and to compare any changes or differences over time and across different contexts (e.g., family, school, work, the internet).



From June 2011 to March 2012, 15 youth participants (age range 16-24 years) and 11 parent participants (age range 41-53 years) from 12 families were interviewed individually. All parent participants immigrated as self-sponsored skilled immigrants with a university degree.

Participants discussed how they negotiated Chinese and Canadian cultures at home. While some families experienced increased conflicts due to post immigration stresses, other families become closer as “we don’t have anyone else but ourselves”. Adjustments of couple and parent-child relationships, as well as changes in parenting styles and parental expectations, were underscored in some families. Many participants maintained close contacts with their extended family members in China through the use of Skype, online instant messenger, and telephone.

As to how participants navigated and negotiated their extra-familial environments, most parents felt that their difficulties mastering the English language were a primary cause of their underemployment and unemployment, despite their university degrees. Some parents returned to school, while others took a minimum-wage labor position. Youth who arrived in their teens described their experience of alienation at school and with peers because of their accents. Participants also discussed how they maintained their social circles in both physical and virtual, online environments.

The mapping activities revealed that regardless if participants saw their immigration process as being challenging or if they were content with their current lives, their cultural negotiation experience is shown as an ongoing process, depending on what they do, who they are with, and where they are.


The study helps understand how immigrants traverse multiple contexts and how they navigate and negotiate geographic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. The results have potential to advance cross-cultural research and inform the future development of culturally-responsive practice.