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Small explores transnational gift giving in new book

By Kate Callahan ’14

If you’ve ever sent a gift to someone hoping it would improve their life, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ivan V. Small can relate. In his new book, “Currencies of Imagination” (Cornell University Press) Small looks deeply at gift giving, or remittances, as a cause of mobility in Vietnamese migrants and the families they’ve left back home. 

The book was born of both a personal and anthropological interest in “the complexities and complications of money in cementing and eroding social relations,” Small writes.

Small’s mother arrived in the United States in the 1960s as a student; his grandmother followed as a sponsored refugee in 1980. For migrants who made it to the west during these times, the practice of sending home material goods that could be exchanged on the Vietnamese black market for practical items like foodstuffs was common.

“The remittances are connected to a history of violence and exodus and uncover stories that were perhaps suppressed for many years,” Small says.

In the book Small writes, “As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I often watched my mother … pack boxes full of goods to send to family members in Vietnam who were living under harsh and largely unknown political and economic conditions.”

Small’s awareness of these remittances and their impact evolved over decades of academic study and several trips to Vietnam.

“Eventually I realized that the doctoral research topic I was searching for had been right in front of me, and that I had been participating in it all along,” Small says.

Small conducted the majority of his research for the book in Ho Chi Minh City and the coastal town of Quy Nhon.

“In a small coastal town, you can see the effects of remittances a lot more. Ho Chi Minh City is a big hub for international development and investments, so there’s money flowing in from remittances but there’s also money flowing in from intel and other investments,” Small explains. “In a small town you can see a house that’s been rebuilt by remittances quite clearly.”

Gift giving across nations has never been easy or straightforward. Remittances come with social and emotional ties that complicate the gesture. In his study, Small finds himself “intrigued by the many ways [remittances] work and are repeated even when they do not work.”

Small writes, “Transnational flows of money, goods, and services link people, communities, and societies in ways that shape new possibilities and provide new frames for imagining the world — including relationships not only between selves and Others but also between current and future personhoods.”

Small releases his book, here in Connecticut, amidst a backdrop of cultural relevance.

“It’s exciting for the book to be out here because Hartford has a very large Vietnamese community … after California, we have one of the largest Vietnam studies communities,” Small says. “We have Vietnamese scholars at Eastern Connecticut, Southern Connecticut, Western Connecticut, UConn, Yale, and Wesleyan, so there is a really vibrant intellectual community here that’s working in history and anthropology. It’s been nice to work with that community as I revised this book for publication.”

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