Beyond Family: Separation and reunification for young people negotiating transnational relationships

Jennifer E Shaw

This paper explores perspectives on family reunification and emergent forms of separation among young migrants. These young people lived apart from and later reunited with their migrant parents who moved from the Philippines to Canada for work. The author draws from 15 months of ethnographic, arts-based, and participatory research with ten participants living in Greater Vancouver. While reunification literature and child rights discourse often focus on the process of a mother and child coming back together, this can obscure the relationships that young people form with others in the meantime. Cared for by grandmothers, aunts, or siblings, as well as becoming close to best friends, romantic partners, and confidantes, meant that the time these young people spent apart from mothers was utilized to cultivate vital connections to others. These connections were often quite painfully ruptured upon emigration, paradoxically turning “family reunification” into new separations.

This paper explores how young people engaged in dual forms of relational work as they sought to foster a bond with their mothers while also maintaining—or grieving—connections with now-distanced loved ones in the Philippines. My findings, focused mainly on the emergent artistic and participatory methods, complicate family reunification discourse that stresses the importance of nuclear family bonds by calling into question who is family and who becomes family in a global economy that pulls such kindred apart. The young people I introduce speak creatively through poetry, story, and music to how familial separations are not resolved upon reunification but rather that reunification can give rise to new separations that navigated or even grieved in lesser-known ways.