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The NRI Club: Non Resident Indians stay connected with Facebook

Shriram Venkatraman15 December 2013

NRI Club

NRIs (Non Resident Indians) are Indian citizens who have lived outside India for a period of 182 days or more in a year. Most South Indian NRIs in the last two decades are those who have left India for an IT career in the West. They normally get their permanent residency status and settle down in the country that they work in, some proceed to get their citizenship and thus lose their Indian citizenship, but maintain a status that they have an Indian origin. The last few years have seen quite a few of this segment return back to India for various personal and professional reasons. Some of them make a choice to return due to a pressing personal situation back at home (very often induced by their aged parents or parents-in-law) and work for a company here in India. At times this leads to issues and problems settling in India again. These people ruminate over their choice and relive their experiences and life in the West (mostly the United States of America) through their memories. One physical way of doing this is by looking through the pictures/photos they have of their life in the West. Another is to look at the lives of their friends through a combination of pictures, text, videos, friends’ reactions to these found on Facebook, in order to still be an active part of their lives. Facebook (or an equal social networking site, but in the Indian field site people most often use Facebook) acts and serves as a memory to their past lives. Further, it also helps in making sure that one can still live a life and be a part of that network that he/she always was, though he/she lives physically away in another network. Sometimes, this is true the extent that people create two different Facebook profiles-one to maintain their memories and the networks of the past (though a few similar NRIs may be added to this in the present, because only they would understand the situation) and one for today’s network. The following is a typical example of what was described above.

Raghu, aged 47 years, holds a very important top level position for an IT company in India. He took up this position around two years ago, after his return from the US. He relocated to India along with his wife (Prema, aged 43 years) and his two children. He had recently bought an apartment in a posh building here and has his children studying in an International School in this area. His wife works for the same American company that she was with earlier (while in the US) and works from home. Raghu travelled to the US just after his graduation at the age of 21 for pursuing a Masters in Computer Science. He then settled in the US and raised a family of his own. Meanwhile, his parents were in India and his sister was married and settled in Australia. Raghu, tried getting his parents to settle in the US along with him, but failed since they felt they were very comfortable in India. Further, for over 20 years his parents had been shuttling between the US and Australia and now felt tired of this yearly exercise and wanted to be in India. His parents weren’t really keen on moving anywhere. When his parents were travelling, Raghu and his family had weekly telephone calls with them and would speak on Skype maybe only once every two weeks or month. Raghu was always secure in his parents’ well-being as they were with him or his sister for most part of the year and were alone only for a period of a month or so in between trips.

With their decision to get settled in India with no more travel and with their increasing age, Raghu was not too sure of leaving them all by themselves in India. His weekly telephone calls now became proper Skype calls, where he was able to see his parents rather than just hearing their voice. Over Skype, Raghu helped them set up Bill paying services online, so that they never had to go stand in a queue to pay a bill. His sister from Australia also made it a point to come on Skype every week and talk to her parents and more than once every month all of them would get on a conference call. Further, Raghu arranged for his wife Prema’s parents and his own parents live near each other, so that they would take care of each other. As Prema’s parents had bought a brand new apartment and moved into a gated community, Raghu relocated his parents there too, by renting another apartment in the same community. However, even though this plan worked, recent medical issues with Raghu’s father forced him to consider a decision between appointing a nurse/caretaker to look after his parents or returning to India to look after them himself. The frequency of their Skype calls increased and the duration of each call increased too. Both his Prema and Raghu tried convincing his parents to appoint a nurse or to come to the US permanently. The conference calls with Raghu’s parents and sister increased, as did the frequency with which Raghu and his sister spoke on Skype. However, his parents were completely against the appointment of a nurse or moving back to the US and this left him with no choice but to relocate to India after very careful consideration.

Relocation was not easy as his US Company did not have Indian operations, so he had to find work in another IT company. He chose an Indian IT company that wanted someone with the US market experience and interviewed with them over Video conferencing and negotiated his salary and relocation package. He first moved into the apartment complex where his parents and his in-laws lived and later rented out a bigger apartment when his wife and children moved to India. He wasn’t too interested in investing in a house of his own in India, but looking at the boom in the real estate market, just six months ago he bought a huge 4 bedroom apartment in a posh apartment building very close to his workplace.

For the first year and a half, Raghu had a Facebook profile, which only had family, friends (from US) and colleagues (from his previous work connections) in the US. He was absolutely against friending anyone from India or his Indian workplace on Facebook, though he was fine getting connected to them on LinkedIn. His Facebook was exclusively for his US connections for two reasons. Though he had made a choice to relocate to India for his parents sake, his heart was still in the life that he led in the US. His Facebook profile allowed him to experience/re-live his life back in the US. So, Facebook served to rekindle his US memories. Also, through Facebook, he never was out of his US friends’ lives. He was still an active member of the US network that he had built on Facebook. He regularly followed his past community activity such as being a part of the local Hindu temple or giving suggestions to the neighborhood sustainability initiatives. Flipping through the updates and profiles of his friends enabled him to vicariously live the life that he was missing. Further, he wasn’t too sure if his family would like India or if he would himself like his work in India in the long run. So just in case he changed his mind and wanted to relocate back to the US, he wanted to maintain his connections on Facebook.

However, once he moved to the new posh apartment complex, his love for the game of cricket allowed him to socialize with his neighbors, specifically the men (around 15 of them) who played cricket over the week end mornings. Socializing with them helped him learn that almost all of them were like him. Most had returned from the US for the sake of their aged parents and most had their social networking preferences set exclusively for their US memories. Some even maintained two profiles (personal profiles as on Facebook)- one for US and one for India-and they made sure never to mix them. However, their LinkedIn profiles were much more open, as they reflect their professional networks. There seems to be a very clear distinction between their personal and professional choice of networks. While their professional networks seem to be rooted to their presence in physical space, their personal networks seem to be based on their emotional longing.

Social media and the sense of autonomy

Razvan Nicolescu23 October 2013

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the usage of social media among teenagers in the Italian fieldsite and in particular about the idea of self-autonomy. The first thing to say is quite obvious: that is, most teenagers’ usage of social media happens between two main forces that act simultaneously and most of the time in opposite directions. On one hand, their peers encourage an active usage of new technology and social media, and on the other hand, parents and schools tend to drastically discourage and limit this usage. While online friends require more online interactivity and participation, families and teachers encourage more offline involvement. These kinds of misunderstandings are largely discussed in the anthropological literature (see for example Livingstone, Ito, or the Digital Youth Project) and I will not dwell here on this topic.

Another important issue related to teenagers’ usage of social media is that, like when playing in the playground, social media provides the setting where they learn and practice sociality inside the various peer-groups they adhere to and with no significant help or guidance from adults. At the same time, the famous psychologist Jean Piaget argued that roughly between 12 and 14 years old teenagers engage on the road from an ego-centric to a de-centered understanding of the world. In social terms, this process corresponds to a movement from a rather concrete to a more abstract understanding of relationships. Whether it is driven by an individual fascination or by a social imperative for the newly discovered relationships, may be debated. What is really important, I argue, is that the individual is entering int0 a vast system of communication and relations with a large number of peers in a relatively short period of time. There seems to be little time and space to filter out ideas and to be very strict in following some pre-defined rules for communicating, in adults’ terms. Instead, teenagers seem to sort out these rules on the go, while being active on social media.

Paulina is a 14 years old. She has been on Facebook for two years. She has around 800 friends on this platform, her profile is public, and she does not differentiate too much between her online friends. She is usually online two to three hours a day and logged into her Facebook account. She admits she does many other things online, including homework, however, most of the time she is busy answering different requests or messages she receives on Facebook. She does that because she feels she has to respond to these requests and she has to be quick if she wants her own thoughts to be heard. She is not interested if other people look at her online profile and why they would do that.

Paulina’s mother opposes most of these ideas. She has had a Facebook profile for around two years, but she was never too active on it. She has around 80 Facebook friends, most of them mothers. Actually, one of the reasons many parents started using Facebook was to friend their children so they could watch over their online behavior. She could not understand why her daughter would just post ‘everything’ on Facebook. She is quite confused in particular by the fact that her daughter seems to not make any choices in what to post and what to not post online, or in differentiating somehow between the audience of these posts. A private quarrel could go online, as well as an important prize at school. After some time of trying to control her daughter online, she gave up and started to mind more her own Facebook friends.

This story is very typical for the Italian town: teenagers introducing their parents to Facebook and young people introducing their parents to computer and skype. In a way, this seems to correspond to the process described by the term polymedia. However, when teenagers started to be active on twitter, things changed dramatically: they suddenly evaded the more socially accepted peer-to-peer communication for a much stranger one. Most parents do not even bother to ask their children what they do on twitter, not to mention trying to go to the site. Meanwhile, teenagers enjoy their newly discovered autonomy that corresponds to a sort of abstractization of social relations as detailed above. In any case, many teenagers seem to think that while Facebook became rather normative and predictable, twitter allows them to be more autonomous and innovative. And rules seem to be more difficult to be enforced here.

QQ and education: children, parents, and schools and communication in China

Tom McDonald22 August 2013

'Summer Holiday Homework' textbook

Chinese textbook entitled ‘Summer Holiday Homework’ used by a middle school student in the North China fieldsite (Photo by Tom McDonald)

In the North China fieldsite, education makes a really neat contrast with Xinyuan’s case that she outlined in her earlier blog post, where she described how the migrant factory workers in her South China fieldsite often seemed to be having children specifically with the objective of sending them to factories at the earliest possible age.

The situation could not be more different here in North China, where education has presented itself as being an overwhelming priority for parents. Although people in the town and the surrounding villages are not in excruciating poverty, they are also by no means wealthy. Nonetheless, doing whatever they can to make sure that their child gets the best education seems to be at the front of parent’s minds. For example, here the summer holidays are not turned over the children’s play, as one may expect. Instead, many children attend tutoring classes (fudao ban). Most of the tutoring classes follow the normal school times of 8-11:30am and 2:30-5:30pm, except they take place an astonishing seven days a week.

Given the importance of educational achievement that parents place on their children, social media seems to play a role that would be best defined as somewhat antagonistic and contradictory to these educational aims. There is a discourse around QQ in the town that assumes it to be bad, and particularly threatening to children’s educational achievement of young people, and so it requires access to be restricted. This is then weighed against more practical benefits offered by the services that mean that they are in fact used by many student, parents and teachers alike.

One of the most common statements that emerged was that parents said their middle school children did not have QQ accounts or mobile phones. Almost every parent of children who did not have QQ or a phone would say ‘it affects study’ (yingxiang xuexi) as the reason for their children not having access to certain types of communication. For example, Mr Li bought a computer in the year 2003 when he was trying to make a go of his photography business. At this time Mr Li’s daughter was about 7 years old. Mr Li decided to setup a QQ account for his daughter. He saw that she was using it a lot and became worried she was playing too much, so he tried encourage his daughter to limit her own use, threatening to change the password if she did not comply. After two days Mr Li went to change the password, and realised it had already been changed. His daughter maintained that she hadn’t changed the password herself, saying to her father ‘hey, how can I not login?’. From this event Mr Li explained that he realised that young people caught on to new technologies very quickly.

Schools themselves also present a somewhat mixed set of messages regarding the use of social networking. Most obviously, the school rules prohibit the use of mobile phones. The reality is, of course, somewhat different. According to one middle school teacher, in a class of around 40 students, one might expect to find around 11 with telephones on their person. The most important reason for confiscating phones is the use of playing online games on phones or using it to send messages via QQ.

On the other hand, there were also examples of cases where schools had been incredibly pro-active in the creation of accounts. One parent explained their main reason for having a QQ account themselves was to hear from the school:

“I do not normally use QQ chat, I mainly use it for communicating with my child’s primary school teachers. My child has just started the second year of primary school, from the start of the first year, if teachers have some materials they just post it all on QQ, and you download it yourself.”

The final interesting twist to this story is that all this parental effort aimed at restricting young people’s access to QQ and mobiles is effectively then reversed when, at the relatively tender age of 15, most children leave home to read vocational college or high school in the nearby city district, about 20km away. This event changes a major part of parent’s views towards communication and it becomes more common for parents to condone the use of QQ or mobiles.

For example, Liu Ting has just finished her middle school examination, and has also managed to secure a place in the top high school in the nearby city. As a reward (jiangli) for her excellent results, her parents said they were going to give her 1000 RMB ($163 USD) cash. However her mother told us that Liu Ting said it was too much, so they came to a compromise of a 500 RMB ($81 USD) reward and a mobile phone for her to use when she started school in the city. Previously she had not been allowed the use of a phone.

These three quite contradictory examples all show different degrees of restriction or condoning of QQ and phone use, and reveal the nuances of shifting relationships between children parents and schools in China.