Digital media has shaped my understanding of place and space in how it brings together my international acquaintances. Having grown up overseas, I have a particular connection to the concept of the “shrinking world.” And having served part of my mission in the Chinese communities of New York City, I agreed, to an extent, with Eric Liu’s “Chinatown Idea” in The Chinatown Idea—the Chinatown communities do not change a bit. As a missionary, the nature of your work demands you to live in the “place” of your mission, and as a result, you become intimately acquainted with the areas in which you serve.
Over the winter break I was able to travel back to my mission area in New York City with my father, who happened to have business meetings in Manhattan. In the year that I had been gone from China from the summer of 2007 until the end of 2008, Beijing had undergone massive changes. I expected the same from the Chinatown-style communities of Dyker Heights/Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens after having been away more than two years.
But, just as Liu wrote, the communities never change. The streets are the homogenous streets of downtown Hong Kong recreated on American soil. The same eateries and stores hadn’t changed at all despite the dynamic nature of New York and the incredible quantities of transient Fujianese immigrants.
Indeed, serving there, it often felt like the communities existed outside the typical ebb and flow of the rest of America, and my return trip only validated this feeling. There was no rush to build bigger, better, or newer, merely to keep the satisfactory status quo.
What was also interesting with the trip was that with a quick message via facebook, I was able to notify most of the people that I knew that I would be coming into town. The medium has become so popular that Chinese immigrants manage their profiles, albeit usually in Chinese, and international and multilingual dialogue can take place in the virtual world.
Facebook has allowed me to keep tabs on my friends from high school. They are currently scattered from Hong Kong to Belgium, from UCLA to Oxford. With the slightest effort I can find out where they are, what they’re thinking, and can check out photos from their latest vacation to Rome.
Not only has social media played a part in my tracking friends across the globe, but also digital technology and software has allowed me to communicate in real-time with them.
When I worked in an office in Beijing, in the first half of 2009, I was doing remote research for the Genealogical Society of Utah office in Hong Kong. With the advent of Skype, I was able to chat directly with my supervisor, free of charge. I could update him on my recent findings, receive feedback for the resource analyses that I sent him, and chat about what was going on our lives.
Another example of the how technology has changed international communication for me: when my family first moved to Beijing in 1995, calling Grandma on her birthday was a process. We kids would sit on the floor and wait for ten or fifteen minutes for Mom to finally connect through to America. Nowadays, we have a Vonage line that has a local Utah number. Time zone permitting, I can call home to my family in Beijing whenever I please and not have to pay a long-distance charge. A continent thousands of miles away is no longer so far away.