One of the pleasures of working with AFA is the opportunity to read outstanding papers by undergraduate and graduate students submitted for the annual competition for the Sylvia Forman Student Prize.  This year, the selection committee, Sophie Bjork-James, Lynn Kwiatkowski and Ellen Lewin, had a wonderful pool of applicants, representing beautifully crafted contributions to feminist anthropology.

The committee awarded the graduate student prize to June Hee Kwon, a doctoral student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, who examined the emotional contradictions that shape the economics of migration between China and Korea.  The undergraduate prize was awarded to Lilia Kilburn, an anthropology student at Amherst College, whose paper is an original analysis of how transgender women manage voice modification during their transitions.

We are pleased to present the abstracts for both papers here.

“The Economy of Remittances:  Sexual and Moral Tensions of Korean Chinese Migration in Yanbian, China, by June Hee Kwon, advised by Anne Allison and Ralph Litzinger, as co-chairs of the committee (Duke U)

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June Hee Kwon

Reflecting the preponderance of Korean Chinese transnational labor migration along with the marketization of post-socialist China, this paper explores the “waiting stories” of Korean Chinese migrants’ partners, examining the anxieties, anticipation, economies and temporalities generated by the influx of remittances from South Korea to Yanbian, China. Korean Chinese are an ethnic minority group that originally moved from the Korean peninsula to the borderland of China a century ago; but now they take advantage of their ethnic semblance to move back and forth between China and Korea as cheap transnational migrant workers in the Korean labor market. In this essay, I situate remittances as a particular form of money with complex characteristics, functioning not only as money but also as a gift. Highlighting the future-oriented temporality of remittances, my paper suggests that remittances entail periods of waiting and anxiety as a critical means to link the present to the not-yet-future in a setting of transnational migration. My ethnographic account also shows the contradictory work of remittances as both a means of economic prosperity and a source of moral crisis, disrupting traditional family values and stable marital relationships as a side-effect of “capitalist contamination.” I argue that this contradiction is a drive that has not only reshaped the intimate relationship but also maintained the flow of Korean Chinese mobility under the moral and sexual tension aggravated by long-term transnational migration.

“‘Trying to Be a Woman in This World’: Revisiting Feminist Responses to Transgender Body Modification,” Lilia Kilburn, advised by Deborah Gewertz and Christopher Dole (Amherst C)

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Lilia Kilburn

Scholars have long lionized those who engage in gender trouble through drag; this paper extends that conversation by seriously examining transgender women’s more subtle critiques of the gendered status quo. A transgender woman can alter her body over the course of hormone therapy, but (unlike many, but by no means all, transgender men) not her voice. As such, many transgender women grapple with the personal, political, familial, and aesthetic consequences of having a voice that is at odds with their hormonally feminized bodies, and turn to speech therapy, You Tube videos, and even surgery for vocal feminization. Drawing on in-depth interviews with twelve transgender women and two speech therapists, as well as participant-observation at transgender community events, this paper determines that the process of voice modification often convinces transgender women of the inadequacy of clear-cut models of male and female speech, a realization that then enables them to gain greater control over their voices. It critiques a strand of feminist thought that attacks trans people as complacent conformists whose subscription to an outmoded and oppressive gender binary is purportedly confirmed by their body modification practices, and instead adopts a feminist anthropological approach that can take into account the nuances of those practices—voice modification in particular, but also body modification writ large. In doing so, it illustrates some striking ways in which these women’s vocal strategies may subvert biological determinism, government regulation of gender, and the gender binary itself, while also helping them navigate a world in which those forces continue to carry significant social and regulatory weight.

Ellen Lewin is professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies and Anthropology at the University of Iowa.

Send communications and contributions to Damla Isik at and Jessica Smith Rolston at

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