In the 1930s, the retired British governess Mary O’Neill lived in Florence in the company of her female co-nationals. A close-knit diaspora of English aristocratic intellectuals and bohemians, they sought to spread English cultural traditions to the Italian masses. They tried to help ordinary Italians enjoy Shakespeare and Renaissance art, not only to dream about glamorous cars and other pleasures of the Jazz Age. Mary O’Neill and her friends greatly contributed to the upbringing and the artistic rise of the young Franco Zeffirelli. But did they manage to gain prestige within their Italian community? Known for their poignant wit, those expat women, whom the locals sarcastically called ‘Scorpions’, were, in fact, totally alienated from a wider Florentine community.
Depicted in Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini, this story of cultural resilience finds a lot of resonance with diasporic reality today. In the large volume of studies on diaspora, an issue of concern is that many expats who speak culturally and civically on behalf of their homeland find zero reciprocity within their local community (Nye 2004; Watanabe and McConnell 2008).
Why do highly intellectual expats, who seek to morally enrich their host society, often fail to be accepted by their local communities? This question is explored in-depth in our Identities article, ‘Reflections on diaspora and soft power: community building among female US expats in Southern Europe’, which looks at life experiences of highly educated US-national expat women in Italy and Greece from the 1990s to 2015. They all hold degrees from leading US universities. Many of them are married to local men. And all of them seek to spiritually invigorate their local communities by showing them how to take care of the public space, such as to clean streets from litter and set up shelters for stray dogs and cats. They see these as typical ‘North American civic values’ that they are teaching to their ‘unenlightened’ neighbours.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 in the Soviet Union. Children born before and after 1986 were at risk of developing different health conditions. For example, instances of thyroid cancer increased 40 times due to release of radioactive iodine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, borders opened and many Western charities offered recuperation to affected children in host families abroad during summer. The idea was to take children out of contaminated territories and provide them with an environment free from radiation. Belarus was the most affected, having 23.5% of its territory contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium. Italy was the most active in these recuperation programmes; it has hosted more than half of all affected children from Belarus.
The goal of my Identities article, 'Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy', was to uncover what happened to these children and their host families over time. I demonstrate that one of the unexpected outcomes of Chernobyl children’s recuperation in Italy was their educational migration to Italy for further education as they grew up (some went on to attend high school in Italy; the majority of these went on to do their Bachelor and/or Master’s degrees in Italy, as well). I argue that educational migration became possible due to kinning – strong emotional bonds developed between the Belarusian children and their Italian host families over their repeated encounters during the humanitarian programme of child recuperation abroad. The concept of kinning has been used in the studies of transnational adoption (by Signe Howell) and domestic and institutional care work (by Loretta Baldassar and colleagues). My article applies kinning to the studies of disasters, migration and humanitarianism.
By studying a Hmong community located in a rural village in Laos and their transnational families and relatives residing in California, I have learned that the surname-based, clan kinship system is not only critical for them to maintain their cross-border economic relationships and promote cultural traditions, but it has become hegemonic despite the salient generational and national differences between the two countries. For example, Hmong's clan identification has been the basis for the remarkable hospitality Hmong extend towards strangers and unexpected guests who are members of the same clan.
Many Hmong jokingly told me that I am technically 'Korean Hmong', because the English pronunciation of my Korean surname sounds identical to one of their eighteen clans. I came to wonder what makes Hmong clan kinship, based on a surname system, so dominant and inclusive that it allows Hmong to consider complete 'strangers' as family members and kin. Moreover, the strong emphasis on clan-based kinship causes Hmong to strictly adhere to the principle of clan exogamy (members of the same clan cannot marry or even become romantically engaged) and ethnic endogamy.