Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Speech Communication

First Advisor

Bardhan, Nilanjana


Each year, thousands of Chinese international students come to the United States to further their education. Most of them need to adjust their identities in some degrees to adapt to U.S. American social and cultural contexts. One key transition that is significantly under discussed and often ignored is Chinese international students’ adjustment into a racialized system in the U.S. Because of different racial and ethnic contexts in China, Chinese international students have to disorient from the racial and ethnic identity of their home country and adapt to and accept the U.S. American hierarchy of race and ethnicity. Lacking sufficient social and intellectual support, this process often leads to struggle, depression, and ambivalence amongst Chinese international students in relation to their identity and communication in the U.S. society. As a Chinese international student myself in the U.S., my own experiences with the shifting of racial and ethnic knowledge, and the struggles these experiences have produced in relation to my identity (ies), leads me to investigate this topic further. Thus, in this study I examine how members of a socio-cultural group that I identify with, Chinese international students, negotiate and make sense of their/our new racial and ethnic identity upon entering the cultural space of the U.S. Race and ethnicity, as social categories of identity and power, play out differently on bodies located in different spatial, national/historical and cultural contexts. The meanings and hierarchies of race and ethnicity presumed to be commonsense in one national context are not so in others. At the same time, in today’s increasingly mobile and globalizing world, how we make sense of and communicate race are acted upon by complex transnational forces. In recent years, there has been a growing interest among critical intercultural communication scholars to theorize race and ethnicity as social constructions and relations of power, but this theorization has mostly happened in the U.S. and Western contexts. The transnational and globalized dimensions of race and ethnicity still largely remain under studied (Shome, 2010). Tomlinson (2007) points out that, under the conditions of contemporary globalization, the global-local dialectical relationship could be interpreted as the global’s entry into the local; the local’s identity in the global; and the “disembedding” of the local to the global. This global-local dialectical approach provides me with a conceptual lens to look at how race and ethnicity are constructed, understood, and communicated in the climate of today’s increasingly transnational world. In this dissertation, I use critical complete-member ethnography (CCME), as “an insider-looking-in-and-out-critical approach” (Toyosaki, 2011, p. 66), to study the racial and ethnic identity dis/reorientation process of Chinese international students in the U.S. Specifically, I used ethnographic observations, interviews, and autoethnographic journaling as my research methods to examine the direct, subjective, and embodied experiences of my 13 participants and myself, negotiate and make sense of their-our new racial and ethnic identities upon entering a global-local dialectical context in the U.S. I strategically categorize my analysis into “disorientation” and “reorientation” from a critical intercultural perspective, and use CCME’s consensual-conflictual and cultural-individual dialectical theorizations to study their-our dis/reorientation processes. My findings reveal that Chinese international students’ previous “Chinese” racial and ethnic identity become invalid and even problematic in the U.S. context. We often find ourselves struggling with sentiments of exhaustion, cynicism, and nihilism (Warren & Fassett, 2012), and interconnected yet ambivalent double consciousness such as insider–outsider, Chinese-–people of color, and majority–minority in the racial and ethnic identity dis/reorientation processes. In my findings, it is clear that Chinese international students have experienced and formed a similar sense of uncomfortable-ness, lost-ness, and struggle in our racial and ethnic disorientation process when we enter the U.S. context from the Chinese context. My participants all reported that after they were geographically relocated in the U.S., they have gone through the phase of being lost and confused because they were unable to find or construct a new racial and ethnic selfhood that made them immediately fit into the U.S. society. After their initial transition and adjustment, they reported experiencing certain forms of racial and ethnic discrimination in the U.S. that they had never faced in China. These lived and embodied discriminatory experiences in the U.S., which often turned out to be very direct, uncomfortable and stressful, forced them to consciously disorient their normative identity and reorient themselves to becoming a racial and ethnic minority for the first time in their lives. At the same time, they felt that the new and transformative outcome they reoriented to was a temporary state rather than a permanent identity. As a result, most of them became more open-minded, and felt the need to keep constantly reorienting their sense of their racial and ethnic identities, meanings, and presences in the U.S. My findings demonstrate that contemporary globalization not only produces different interpretations of race and ethnicity, it also constantly alters possibilities and conditions of our real racial and ethnic experiences in the world. As we try to respond to racial and ethnic issues and crises in today’s transnational world, simply recognizing that race and ethnicity are socially constructed rather than biologically innate does not make racial and ethnic conflicts and problems easier to solve. The relative nature of race and ethnicity in different local and global contexts are far more intricate than we ever imagined. Therefore, it is necessary and useful to study how race and ethnicity are understood and communicated through the direct, embodied, and performative experiences of non-Western and non-White bodies in transnational and globalized contexts. This study also shows the possibility that might lie in pushing the concept of race and ethnicity beyond the hegemony of the ways it is understood and deployed in the U.S. and other Western cultural and social contexts. In this regard, this study opens up a constructive approach for critical intercultural scholarship to more effectively engage in understanding and communicating race and ethnicity in the global-local dialectical context of globalization.




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