Phoning Home

Technology lets immigrants maintain connections with home. But what about their Canadian connections?

by Ruoyun Bai
people skype-ing

Given the impact of modern communications technologies on major global events—from the use of mobile phones by protesters in Madrid in 2004, to Twitter and Facebook at the core of the recent wave of political upheavals in the Arab world—it is abundantly clear that these new technologies have immense potential to spread information and redistribute social power.

In a less dramatic but more enduring manner, communication technologies facilitate social change by changing the ways we connect with the world on a daily basis. For immigrants and international students, for example, these developments have been profound. Immigrants are using the Internet and other communications technologies to maintain ties with their homelands in ways that previous generations could not. What remains to be seen is how this level of connection will affect the immigrant experience.

Just 10 years ago, intercontinental phone calls were so costly that few immigrants and international students could chat for hours with family and friends back home. Now, with instant messaging, video chat and Internet phone services, keeping in touch across the world costs little to nothing. This convenient and instant proximity to one’s homeland helps ease anxiety in a new environment.

Increasingly, immigrants can easily watch their favourite homeland shows and celebrities through satellite subscription or the Internet. YouTube is another major venue, as is DireTube, an excellent source of Ethiopian dramas, music videos and documentaries. Immigrants from mainland China now follow Chinese dramas on PPLive, Xunlei and Funshion. Many immigrants also use the Internet as a source of news and information. Though culturally attached to their homelands, they tend to dismiss news provided by official media organizations as biased or even as propaganda. At the same time, they are equally concerned about how their ethnicity and culture could be represented negatively in mainstream Canadian media. When following developments in events that affect their home countries, some immigrants turn to Internet news portals that they deem to be relatively objective. Others go to online forums, blogs, Twitter and various social networking sites.

Immigrants also use the Internet to establish ties with one another within the new environment. Websites targeting diasporic communities have mushroomed, hosting forums where immigrants share perspectives on a spectrum of issues, as well as solutions to problems they encounter in everyday life. For example, 51.ca and rolia.net are among the most popular websites for many Chinese immigrants. Moreover, effects of online activities frequently spill over into the offline world, as people use online forums to organize local events and activities.

It might seem that immigrants use the Internet as a mere stop-gap to cope with their feelings of disorientation and homesickness before they feel more confident about mingling with other local residents and communities. But my research suggests that their connections to their homelands via the Internet are lasting ones and an integral part of reshaping their identity and rebuilding a “home”—in Canada. In today’s world of globalization, it makes perfect sense to have multiple identities and national affiliations.

It is not uncommon that immigrants identify more with their home countries and cultures than with Canada. The challenge is to prevent this cultural identification from hindering interaction with people of other cultural backgrounds. Using the Internet helps immigrants reaffirm their cultural identity, but it has not necessarily brought them more in touch with other cultural milieus in Canada.

To help immigrants participate more in Canadian civic life, we should continue to ask mainstream media organizations for increased inclusive representation of different cultures, and to continue to support community initiatives to enrich intercultural understanding. Digital communication technologies will not obviate the need for such strenuous efforts, but they might be harnessed to achieve these ends.

Ruoyun Bai is a professor of global Asia studies/media studies at UTSC.