This study explores the meaning of transnational identity of Chinese student returnees from the UK-an under-researched group in the current context of international student mobility. Under the theoretical framework of transnationalism, the scientific importance lies in that it seeks to provide a new theoretical approach to international students and returnees’ changes, particularly on their identities. The research makes an original contribution by exploring the definition of transnational identity through an integrated conceptualisation between transnationalism and identity.
To explore the meaning of transnational identity on an in-depth account, qualitative semi-structured interviews were employed. 16 participants were interviewed three times each based on three different scenarios: their personal experiences in the UK, their personal and professional lives on return to China, and conclusions for their transnational experiences. Critical reflections between the researchers and the participants were conducted throughout this research to ensure trustworthiness.
The study finds that transnational identity was understood as a constant constitution of self across space, through which four major forms of transnational identity including intercultural competence, transnational habitus, diaspora consciousness, and diaspora values and attitudes were interacted. These four major forms were fluid, multiple and flexible, indicating the divergence and convergence between Chinese student returnees’ self and the negotiated socio-cultural contexts. In this process, transnational identity was developed in a two-way mobility. Horizontally, transnational identity was embodied by the changing physical localities and the corresponding socialisation and acculturation of self. Vertically, transnational identity challenged the traditional and social hierarchical status. With transnational identity, the social mobility of Chinese student returnees could transcend social compositional structures and national borders, having accessibility to a wider socio-cultural groups which possessed distinguished socio-cultural characteristics.
The findings not only nuance the theories of transnational identity, but also deepen our understanding of Chinese students and returnees in internationalisation. In addition, it also challenged the traditional assumptions of culture shock and reverse culture shock. The conceptualisation of transnational identity calls for a double perspectives on international students’ experiences, as well as the reverse trend of international student mobility.