In addition to her own mother, JinJin Xu ’17 has two other mother figures, distant relatives from rural China who moved to Shanghai to work as nannies for her family.
“They were my mothers, and they treated me as their daughter. I grew up hearing Ayi [Chinese for auntie] praying for her husband in the coal mines, and giving Mama my old school supplies to send home to her son,” Xu wrote in her application for a Watson Fellowship. “When Mama left me, at age 4, to go home to her own son, I cried for weeks until Mami sent me to live with Mama for a year in the village.”
The journeys of Ayi and Mama eventually led Xu to become curious about the lives of other migrants. As a Watson Fellow, she is now crisscrossing the globe to record the stories of similar workers, particularly women, who have traveled far from home seeking safety, employment or both, in many cases as refugees or asylum-seekers. She now plans to transform those interviews and stories into a book about dislocated motherhood.
In Bangkok, she got to know refugees from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia and China—asylum seekers who “do not have the right to work,” she explains, “and live in hiding and fear.” Traveling from China to India, Thailand to Germany, Xu met whole families who had been arrested and left in limbo in immigrant detention centers. She gained a new appreciation for how the economy of her native China, in particular, “rides on the backs of millions of migrant workers who leave their homes for years at a time to work in cities to send their minimal wages back to their own children.”
In a blog about her travels, she wrote about a Pakistani mother in Bangkok who went into premature labor: “When I pregnant, I crawl under the bed because police knocking the door,” the woman told her. “That’s why Moses born in eight months.”
During her time in Berlin, Xu observed women at Tempelhof—a former Nazi airport converted into a park, now home to Germany’s largest refugee camp—and gained a new awareness of the unspoken power dynamic inherent in interviewing people in crisis. Molly, a refugee there from Uganda, told Xu that no help ever came, no matter how many times she told her story to curious reporters.
I didn’t know that ‘mother’ was supposedly a singular role.
“She recognizes the exploitative nature of our listening, our intrusion into her everything,” Xu says of Molly. “I went from introducing myself as a researcher, writer, student, to settling with and becoming a volunteer, and then in time, a friend.” Such descriptions represented a “fundamental shift in my approach that now stems from a deeper understanding of collaboration and trust.”
All of her travels and her interviews have given Xu a better understanding of her own upbringing.
“I called the three women different iterations of the Chinese word for mother or auntie—Mami, Mama, Ayi—and to me, the names were not contradictory, because I didn’t know that ‘mother’ was supposedly a singular role,” she says.
Using her Amherst background as editor-in-chief of the student literary magazine Circus and writer for The Common, Xu continues work on a book, Mami’s Tail, which is named for her mother and will combine her Watson observations and childhood memories.
Sweet is a news writer at Amherst.