Development and Urbanization
Drawing on an ethnographic study of young migrant workers employed in a café in central Shanghai, this paper expands recent theorizations of migrant aspirations toward self-development as “affective engagements with the future” (Rofel 2016) in a context shaped by both uncertainty and a pervasive rhetoric of the “Chinese dream” in public culture. Building on existential anthropology and recent work on hope, the paper conceives of aspiration beyond its content (here, becoming an entrepreneur, or material wealth), as fluid, impermanent and emergent modes of being unfolding through embodied and material encounters with the scenes, things, and places of the urban everyday: through the rituals and aesthetics of the workplace, or in-between the shelves of self-books in nearby bookstores. It shows how the city, both imagined and lived, affords aspirations as much as it has the potentiality to undermine or reshape these affective engagements with the future. Aspiring, in such circumstances, always coexist with different, sometimes explicitly contradictory orientations to the present and future embedded in the everyday. These ambivalences unsettle axiomatic connexions between youth, migration, and aspiration, and force us to think what it takes for young individuals – affectively, attentionally, mentally – to respond to the pressure to aspire.