Aihwa Ong – Buddha is Hiding

Aihwa Ong, Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America, Univ. of Califirnia Press, 2003.

Aihwa Ong’s Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America is a book on the complicated process of transformation and the production of citizen-subject through the various modern technologies of government, including refugee camp, social workers, medicine, and other social institutions. This book depicts and describes vividly that process through the histories and lives of Cambodian refugees who were settled in the US in the 70s and the 80s, asking how refugee-immigrant citizenship is constructed in the interactions with American social services and government agencies, which are necessary in the process of adjustment to the new world.

As Ong is emphasized several times in the book, she examines “citizenship not in terms of legal status or according to a possessive criterion…, but rather in terms of what Foucault calls an ‘analytics of power’ that plays a role in shaping people’s attitudes, behavior, and aspirations in regard to belonging to a modern liberal society” (15). Thus, instead of considering “culture” as automatic or the most important analytic domain, she is more engaging on “the various domains in which these preexisting racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural forms are problematized, and become absorbed and recast by social technology of government that define the modern subject” (6). Following Foucault’s idea of “technology of government” in the modern citizen-making process, Ong seems to investigate the specific features of globalized migration of labor and the way by which (neo)liberal democracy maximizes and expands the capitalism of the U.S.

Part I of the book explores the experiences and memories of Cambodian refugees under the Khmer Rouge revolution and the Pol Pot regime as well as in the border camps. Along with the survivors’ testimonies, Ong tries to evaluate the political and historical implication of the Khmer Rouge’s communist utopia in terms of the way it employed in assessing its people—citizens or enemies. Although the people classified as enemies at the “killing field” could save their lives with the help of the relief workers in the refugee camps, those relief workers “introduced specific technologies of governing that orient and shape the everyday behavior of refugees… transforming them into particular kinds of modern human beings (bound for Western liberal democracies)” (52-3). It was just the preparation for the new lives in the new world.

The second and the third parts seem to deal with the “concrete assemblages” (10) which integrate the refugees in different and divergent social domains. While part II concentrates on how refugees are encountering diverse technologies of government, including medicine and welfare program, family reordering, and women and children’s struggles in the ambivalent environments, part III focuses on how the religious conversions and the economic activities have redefined and reordered the lives of refugees in terms of Protestant ethics and capitalist entrepreneurism. While examining the dynamics of the project of making citizen-subject, the author tries to describe the ambivalence of “contemporary micropolitics of social work” (144) and the negotiations of refugees in the “tensions between paternalistic compassion and self-reliance, spiritual discipline and racial subordination, and church regulation and the crafting of moral personhood” (197).

Compared to the previous chapters, the last part shows somewhat expanded views on the Asian immigrant and its relationship with transnational capitalism. With the development of the global information technology industry, the status of Asian immigrants in the US has been changed rapidly from the 1980s. But there has been a great disparity between Asian high-tech managers and venture capitalists whose intellectual capital and global networks are indispensible to expansion of Silicon Valley, and Asian low-paid women workers who combine the circuit boards in the sweatshop: “Asians come to be situated at both top and the bottom socioeconomic levels” (272).

In “Afterword,” Ong suggests the concept of “latitudes of citizenship” in order to depict this particular process of subject-making which cuts into “the vertical entities of nation-states and the intersection of global forces in strategic economic spaces such as Silicon Valley” (282). With this neoliberal process, the population—i.e. labor— flows relentlessly across national borders looking for freedom to work in the flexible and inferior working conditions. Global economic forces, often referred to transnational corporations, seem to deterritorialize the whole chains of production and reproduction across the world and reconfigure them under the neoliberal capitalism which is centered on but transcend the U.S. as a nation-state.

If this book is compared to the books for the ethnography of globalization such as Suzana Sawyer’s Crude Chronicle and Tsing’s Friction, what this book has done might be called as the most elaborated and best example of “anthropology of globalization.” The way that the author reveals the micropolitics of citizenship making is breathtaking and overwhelming, at least for me.


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