Tag Archives: Diaspora

Where is the Nearest Starbucks, or, Globalization, Technology and Frontier Migration?

The global(izing) city contains several cultural time zones which are familiar to frontier migrants
Photo by DuBoix at Morguefile.com

Written by guest blogger Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

One early morning in New Delhi, a young American woman who had recently migrated to India said to me, “Thank God for Google Maps!…[My move to India] wouldn’t have been possible…[without] all these stores…Zara is here, Starbucks is here…”

Although India’s capital is a notoriously tough city for Westerners to live in – the pollution, immense income disparities, the everyday struggle to negotiate with vendors and autorickshaw-wallahs and so on – this woman, whose parents had left India before she was subsequently born and raised in the USA, described her migration as being made possible by globalization.

The migration experience for migrants, refugees and even tourists has been totally transformed by technology (Google Maps, Uber, email, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, and so on). My research on migration and globalization finds that technology makes it easier for those far away from their home country to feel closer to those left behind because communication technologies enable convenient and free communication with no time lag. But technology also makes them feel more at home in their new country.

The plethora of GPS navigation apps makes it easier to find one’s way in a new city. And the fact that the same apps are available in several countries means that the new migrant just has to flip on her smartphone and continue where she left off in her home country. Dating on Tinder or watching Netflix or shopping on Amazon or similar online retailers is now possible in scores of countries worldwide. Because of technology and globalization, crossing a national border into a new country does not necessarily mean a disruption in lifestyle. However, my research also finds that migrants from “developed” countries like Japan and South Korea and those in the UK, EU and North America have a significant advantage over other types of migrants when it comes to “finding home” in a new country.

“First World” Dominance

“Developed” or “First World” countries tend to dominate the process we call globalization and that means that migrants from these countries can find their home media, goods, food, apps, architecture, urban design and microspaces I call Cultural Time Zones (cafes, gyms, stores and so on) almost everywhere. For example, the top three most watched TV shows in the world are all American: The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones and then Grey’s Anatomy. These are “global” hits but often, when we use the word “global,” it refers to something that comes from a “developed” economy.

Often, during the course of my research on frontier migration – the move of people, capital, ideas and technology from a more “developed” economy to a “developing” one – migrants mention the foods that they miss most from their home countries. However, with the intensification of globalization in the 21st century, frontier migrants, more often than not, are able to find much of their traditional cuisine in their new countries.

“Global” Food

Starbucks, the well-known chain of coffee stores, operates in about 40% of the world’s nations. McDonald’s, the iconic hamburger chain, operates in over half the world’s countries. Coca-Cola is drunk in practically every country in the world. All these companies come from the USA.

The top ten companies that control the world’s food supply such as Associated British Foods (ABF) and Switzerland’s Nestlé have a common geographical origin. They are all American or European. For frontier migrants from the US, the UK and the EU, this means that they often encounter familiar brands and foodstuffs on their travels far from home. Frontier migrants from Japan and South Korea do not find as much of their home food although sushi is becoming increasingly popular globally but they do find other things that remind them of home.

“Global” Brands

Japanese and South Korean cars, televisions and phones dominate the market in many corners of the globe. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai which also owns Kia are some of the world’s most popular cars. South Korean company, Samsung, has some of the most popular smartphones in the world and Sony electronics are a dominant Japanese brand in several countries.

Other “developed” countries’ automobiles and smartphones are also ubiquitous in many economies. German cars like the Mercedes-Benz and BMW dominate luxury sales along with British Aston Martins and Rolls Royces. No discussion of the smartphone is complete without mentioning US company Apple’s classic iPhone but beyond food, vehicles and electronics, frontier migrants find the urban landscape of many of the world’s globalizing cities like Shanghai, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Moscow, and São Paulo deeply reminiscent of what they left behind.

“Global” Cultural Time Zones

Gleaming skyscrapers that are part of an impressive vertical skyline are increasingly part of a city’s claim to global status. Skyscrapers are an architectural form that was born in the USA in the second half of the 19th-century and now they are built in every country. For frontier migrants, this is just one example of the multiple “global” cultural time zones (CTZs) they will find in the globalizing urbanscape of their new cities of residence.

Western-style CTZs like the American Starbucks and the British chain Costa offer the same lattes and snack foods everywhere. Fast food American restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway are often present in middle-class neighbourhoods in globalizing cities offering familiar fare. When it comes to exercising, Planet Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Fitness First are some of the “global gyms” founded in the West but now operating in numerous countries. If a frontier migrant should want to buy new clothes, he will again encounter more familiar brands in any of the American-style malls which are increasingly popular in developing countries.

According to McKinsey’s Global Fashion Index, 97% of the world’s retail sector profit is dominated by ten European and American companies including well-known brands like Zara, H&M and Nike. After buying new clothes, the frontier migrant may want to show them off in a hipster bar, another US export to the world.

Or, he can just snap some pics on his phone to post on his social media feeds so that his friends and family in both his home country and his new one can offer their opinion.

Either way, globalization and technology have completely transformed the migrant experience, especially for frontier migrants from “developed” countries which already dominate globalizing processes.

Photo of Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is a research associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Wits City Institute. She was a 2017 Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study Writing Fellow and the recipient of a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award to conduct research in India in 2016, where she was affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Myambo has a PhD in comparative literature from New York University, and when the weather is warm, she lives in Brooklyn, New York. Links to her other writings can be found on her website. Her current research focuses on globalization, migration, and “hipsterification” (hipster-led gentrification).

Her latest article in Diaspora entitled “Bloody Diaspora Theory for the Twenty-First Century: African and Asian Heritage Migrants Return” is free to read for a limited time here.

Notes on Ethnographic Situations in Vietnamese American Communities

Written by guest blogger An Tuan Nguyen.

Four men standing for a photo outside. Southern California, May 2012: Standing in a parking lot of a motel where I stayed for several weeks during one of my field visits were three young informants and I. All three of them were my former students in Ho Chi Minh City between 2008 and 2009. They also introduced many other informants to my project.

My article “Global Economy, Citizenship Pluralism, Transmigrant Mobility, and the Sojourn-Immigrant Vietnamese Americans” in Diaspora is a part of a large and comprehensive ethnographic project that started in 2010 during my time in graduate school and is continuing until now. Unlike most scholars in the field of Vietnamese American studies, I came to the United States as an international graduate student and am still a [proud] Vietnamese national. My background profoundly shapes my perspective and decisively helps me probe Vietnamese America from different angles. Whereas this ethnography was mostly written in a small Midwestern college town, the research was conducted in multiple ethnographic sites from Vietnam to the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, and, of course, the beautiful state of California of the West Coast USA. I deliberately extended my project to include trans-community, trans-state, and transnational focus. The various ethnographic sites were intended to provide more comprehensive and inclusive analyses of the varied Vietnamese American/immigrant lived experience.

Doing ethnography in traditional Vietnamese American communities has always been treated as contentious and risky work. Many ethnographers, often academics who literally live in, and virtually rely on sites of Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves to develop both their research and their teaching career, have admitted their fear of being outcasts once their research reveals some uncomfortable truths and upsets the locals. Such fear might be coupled with a sense of betrayal to those who help them to do the research. This is particularly true when research touches on the controversial and highly heated topic of Vietnamese anticommunism. One researcher confessed, “I too am familiar with the fears […]. [I was] once afraid that my writings would cause me to be labeled a communist and therefore make it difficult to simultaneously research and be a part of the Vietnamese American community.”[i] Another admitted, “My fear of being dubbed a “communist” made me take a safer route.”[ii] Another expressed her anxiety after traveling to Vietnam with “a bunch of lefty antiwar peacenicks” and “spoke with officials of the Communist Party”: “I worry what he [one of her radical anticommunist informants], and other Vietnamese Americans, would think about my travels.”[iii]

In a tiny college town, I did not live in an actual Vietnamese community. Therefore, such fear did not affect me. I, in fact, lived in an imagined community, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term.[iv] My status, however, switched accordingly in each site. During my field research in areas of strong anticommunist fevers such as Dorchester, Boston, MA and Little Saigon, Orange County, CA, I was embraced by my entrepreneurial participants as a teacher (many of my informants were my former students, their parents, relatives, and friends) who attentively listened to their lamentations, confusion, and hopes in the foreign land. To the professional informants in many smaller cities, I was a fellow Vietnamese who was predictably following their trajectory: coming to America, striving for an education, and aspiring to be a researcher and a teacher at a US postsecondary institution. I was not a stranger ethnographer who arrived in a community, lived with the locals for years, learned their language and culture, and wrote a book. Neither was I an ethnographer who explored the local community and claimed my “insider” status to conduct a research. I was a site-hopper whose length of stays, ethnographic methods (including observations, participations, and interviews), and sometimes, means of survival, relied heavily on the goodwill of my people: the Vietnamese immigrants who trusted me with the job of telling their stories; the stories that otherwise would not be told and heard. Although their real names can never be revealed in any of my publications, by participating in the project, their bravery and willingness have rendered possible this article and will continue to shape other publications in the future. They in fact have taken all the risks while I took none; and for that I am forever grateful and indebted.

An Tuan Nguyen teaches in the Asian American Studies Center at the University of Houston. His research interests focus on how histories of Asian immigration forged the making of Asian American ethnic enclaves and identities and how globalization reconceptualized such communities and identities. His past and current research are community-based projects that explore the lived experience of contemporary Vietnamese immigrants living across the country in their socioeconomic struggle, political empowerment, cultural identity negotiation, and globalized transnationalism. His articles have appeared in DIASPORA and Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Amongst several other projects, Nguyen’s book manuscript entitled “Luggage to America: Professional, Entrepreneurial Immigrants and the Twenty First Century Vietnamese America” is under final revision.

Read his article “Global Economy, Citizenship Pluralism, Transmigrant Mobility, and the Sojourn-Immigrant Vietnamese Americans” in Diaspora Volume 20 Issue 2, free for a limited time here: https://doi.org/10.3138/diaspora.20.2.002.


[i] Kieu-linh Caroline Valverde, “Creating Identity, Defining Culture, and Making History from an Art Exhibit: ‘Unfinished Story: A Tribute to My Mothers,’ Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (2008): 60.

[ii] Thuy Vo Dang, “Anticommunism as Cultural Praxis: South Vietnam, War, and Refugee Memories in the Vietnamese American Community,” (PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2008): 220.

[iii] Karin Aguilar-San Juan, Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America, (University of Minnesota Press, 2009: 158.)

[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso, 2006).