Close Calls

When remote family members are a touch screen away, the strange can become familiar and uncertain new worlds bearable

The frail blue airmail letter arrives every month or so, covered in spidery writing. My mother sits down with the letters, reads and re-reads, and writes her responses to her mother in Bangla. I watch, enjoying how the lines run above instead of below the script as in English, as she carefully summarizes for her mother the life she’s built in the UK and gives updates on how we, her grandchildren, are doing. Her ability to communicate with her mother like this feels to me like having access to a secret code, one that I would spend a summer years later learning to crack. The letter writing ritual is comforting, reliable, solid. The letters are weeks in transit, and their arrival is an exciting moment of anticipation.

It’s 5 a.m., and I awake to the sound of my mother crying. She’s on the phone with her mother. During these calls the connection frequently drops unexpectedly, cutting her off suddenly. This time the communication is instantaneous, but stilted — there’s a delay, they speak over each other. She hears her mother’s familiar voice, but she has to shout to be heard (or maybe she just thinks she does). The comfort you’d expect she felt from hearing a loved one’s voice is drowned out by the technical glitches, and the call leaves my mother sad. I’m confused at first, but then I realize: it’s almost like she correlates the quality of the call with the quality of her aging mother’s life on the other side of the world. When calls drop, she worries. What if something terrible just happened? That one monthly phone call is her way of finding out about her brother, her cousins, her sister in law, her nieces and nephews, her school friends and their families, and of updating them on how we’re all doing, too. Talking is worse than not talking, but hearing voices triggers an emotional response far beyond that of the written word, and the janky technology amplifies that, for good and bad.

My mother wants me to balance visibility and privacy, so our extended family members can see the young woman I’ve become, but not the extent of my “westernization”

Later, I decide to follow in her footsteps. My brother has gone on a round-the-world trip, and I haven’t seen him for months. I write him regular letters in my shaky childish handwriting, mostly the same content each time, but in better and better handwriting as the months go by: Dear Bhaya, How are you, I am fine. Love, Zara. I give each one to my mother to post to him. Years later, I realize this was an impossible task — he was moving frequently from country to country, continent to continent, with no stable address. The only direct contact we had with him was the occasional phone call to let us know he was okay, wherever in the world he was. Those phone calls were emotional and stressful, sporadic and shaky in their quality. After each call, my mother told my other brother and I: never do this to me, don’t leave the country, don’t leave me not knowing where you are and how you are. We said we wouldn’t.

I’m 12, and my mother has just got a mobile phone. It’s a Nokia 3310, and I love the novelty of it, a handheld computer almost, but smaller than my Game Boy. My friends love it too, and we take turns at playing Snake (but not for too long, because of the dangerous radiowaves, say all of our parents). Credit is expensive on the phone, but just the possibility of calling and texting people without being in our homes is enough. We’re among the early adopters though, so there’s not really anyone to text — texting to other countries is prohibitively expensive, even if they all had the technology.

Within two years, the cost of using the mobile phone has dropped dramatically. We have a contract which gives “free minutes to UK landlines,” and I use these to call my eldest brother, now in London, and give him the 14-year-old version of my baby letters — updates on school and my friends, my violin lessons. I get nervous calling sometimes, but I think about what to say beforehand. Like with the letters, it’s a ritual that happens every Friday evening. I use my mother’s phone to send SMS messages to other parents about logistics for driving me to and from sports classes, school pick-ups. She doesn’t like writing them herself, and I think it’s because she’s worried about making mistakes in English. She dictates, and I type.

I’m 18. Now I follow in my brother’s footsteps, and spend my summer after finishing high school travelling around Eastern Europe with friends. We have a book of all the rail timetables across Europe, and a pass that allows us to get on any of those trains. I have a Motorola flip phone, and I promise to text my parents regularly, no matter how much it costs. I get notifications regularly that they’ve put more credit on my phone, proactively worrying about me running out (I’m nowhere close to running out). I call them from the Croatian island of Hvar, sitting on the beach, toes dipped in the water. I’m amazed that I can do such a thing — speak to them and hear them in real time while they’re in their house, my house, and I’m sitting on a beach in another country. This time, the phone call comforts them and lets them know that I’m really okay. They know that though the SMS messages could fake my feelings, my voice could not.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve joined Facebook while at university, and slowly but surely, family members from various countries are joining too. My Facebook is for me and my university friends though, and not for my relatives — how would I explain photos of me dancing and drinking to my Muslim family members?

My mother wants me to balance a funny line of visibility and privacy — present enough on the platform that our extended family members can see photos of me, the young woman I’ve become, and that I’m happy and healthy. But not too visible — not showing the extent of my “westernization,” my male housemates, my parties with my friends. She’s glad, of course, that I’m happy and enjoying my early 20s. But, she says, they would judge me differently.

I defer to her judgment. It makes little difference to me, and I know how important appearances are. Success, integration, even the right amount of assimilation is key. Facebook’s “lists” feature comes in handy here. I accept friend requests from cousins I haven’t seen in years, decades even, and I curate what they can see by putting them on a special family list. My profile photos — yes. Photos friends tag me in — no. Comments on my wall — definitely not. They can see enough of my life that they approve, but not so much that they disapprove. Some of them share far more information publicly on Facebook, and the telephone calls my mother has with her cousins and family now include rumors that started with a Facebook photo or comment taken out of context.

The older generations of my family in Bangladesh comment (oh how they comment!), letting us know they’re really paying attention to what we post. Intra-familial surveillance at its best

Five years later, almost all members of my family, from Bangladesh, to Switzerland, the UK, Canada, Australia, the U.S., and beyond, have smartphones and regular access to internet at home. I live in Germany now, and Skype is my main means of communication with my friends and family back in the UK. We have regular Skype voice chats, on Sunday evenings. Skype is my mother’s only way of hearing our voices on a regular basis. My eldest brother, now settled in Switzerland, has children, and video becomes even more important for my mother to see her only grandchildren as they grow up. As toddlers, they understand the field of view of the camera better than she does — they dance into our view, and bring things to show us on screen. We have to keep reminding my mother, their grandmother, to point the camera to her face, not the ceiling.

Like the phone calls two decades previously, these are glitchy and often drop, and like before, the panic rises in her voice when she can’t hear us suddenly. We get her a “Skype camera” for her television to make taking those calls easier. One press of the button on the TV remote control and she can accept our Skype calls and we can see her in the living room at home.

Now, Facebook is omnipresent, including among the older generations of my family in Bangladesh. They post nostalgic photos and share cutesy memes with their children about love and the meaning of life. They comment (oh how they comment!) on photos and posts, letting us know they’re really paying attention to what we post. They give approval, tell us we look beautiful, and use it to observe and watch our friends and extended family members. Intra-familial surveillance at its best. I’ve gotten rid of the lists, more comfortable now in sharing more openly — or perhaps more able now to take responsibility for my life choices as they appear on social media, rather than deferring to my mother.

The content of our feeds reveals a lot about what we have remembered and what we have forgotten. Knowing what cultural cues to pick up on from the new culture, and which ones to drop or choose to maintain from the old one. Showing celebrations from Thanksgiving, but Eid too, opinions on the U.S. presidential elections, desi weddings, wearing saris, together form a combination of a comfortably integrated immigrant family, balancing that line between new and old lives. Showing that you’ve managed to bring diversity in a non-threatening way, being a good immigrant, takes skill and care online.

Use of social media is a spectrum, and my extended family spread across all sides of that spectrum. Some cousins use it intentionally to showcase their new life in a western country, their children and their friends, the way in which they’ve integrated (or assimilated) into the new society. I follow their progress, the birth of their children and their toddler years, and I feel like I know them. I can see from the photos they choose to share that they, like me, have been solidly westernized. They too enjoy concerts and dancing, they have friends of different races, they go hiking. I know we’ve taken similar approaches to our immigration.

But there are cousins who don’t use Facebook, who think more intentionally about the privacy of their children and who seek to keep them off social media until they are old enough to decide for themselves how their image is shared. I don’t know them. I don’t know how westernized they are, or to what extent they have stuck to Bengali traditions. I won’t know until I go and visit them, but paradoxically, I’m also unlikely to go and visit them without knowing more about them. We have weak ties to each other, and technology isn’t changing that.

In a way, social media for immigrant families has become a way of creating the life that you wish you had, the one that you gave up familiarity, comfort, and personal relationships for, the one that you want people back home to think you have. It had to be worth the sacrifice, no matter what the reality is. Social media gives us a way of making that true, or at least, as true as it needs to appear. We might not be able to lie over the telephone or using our voices, but we can lie on social media platforms.

When I talk to my mother, she gives me updates of people she’s discovered through looking people up on Facebook. She’s retired and has an iPad, so she has easy access to that information, and all the time in the world to filter through the data deluge. What was once a ritual has become a constant. Updates are everywhere and always, not just that one letter every few weeks. The information learned through those regular phone calls is now omnipresent, every spare minute spent scrolling through updates, writing short messages without premeditation.

We teach my mother about emoji, and she loves them. Now, there’s no need to worry about grammar mistakes in English. Clapping hands, smiley faces, hearts and flowers are all worry-free ways of showing her approval and, she knows, making us laugh. When the emoji are available in our skin color, too, it gives us an extra layer of nuance. White for my sisters-in-law, brown for the rest of us.

WhatsApp groups connect our communication regardless of location. As I write this now, the five immediate members of my family are in five different countries across three continents. Our family WhatsApp group is the only place we are all together, for real time conversation, photos when they happen, reactions from other family members. In spite of time zone differences, we can share life updates, links and funny photos from all corners of the globe. She writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh. I reply from New York City. My brother chimes in from a small city in the middle of the UK, all within a few minutes. The ease of these WhatsApp groups and the feeling of being constantly in conversation makes me feel more comfortable away from my family, and, I’ve realized, almost more likely to stay living in another country.

Social media for immigrant families is a way of creating the life that you gave up familiarity, comfort, and personal relationships for. It had to be worth the sacrifice

But navigating those these channels requires far more time and effort than it used to — knowing which platform to go when, and how to understand the information that is shared there. A certain type of digital literacy is emerging, but not one that prioritizes or features online privacy or critical thinking. Instead, it’s one where knowing what to communicate and how, to whom, and where to find them given what you know of their access and preferences, takes priority. It’s being able to navigate the various channels — the more public Facebook posts, the closed WhatsApp groups, video chats. Using emoji (brown, white, or the “default” yellow?), or transliterated Bengali into English, or even Bangla characters with a specially installed Bangla keyboard. These meta-choices, too, reveal a lot about how we have integrated into the new culture.

For those able to afford access to digital technologies, immigration is now less daunting than it used to be. We can move countries without worrying that we forgot to write down that recipe, or needing to be sure to ask all the advice that we’ll need for the next stage in our lives before leaving. The challenges that my mother faced in her first years in the UK, learning how to cook and look after a baby, and all in a new language and culture, have almost disappeared for me. I can easily call, get updates and advice, whenever I need it. When uncertainty hits, or the unfamiliarity gets to be too much, for the lucky ones among us, family members are just a touch screen away.

The consequence is that the home of our deeply personal information has gone from treasured letters stored in a box at our houses, to servers owned by corporate companies that we’ll never see. Those personal notes, the ways of showing our family that we’re happy and content in our new lives, despite what we’ve lost — they live online now. The more you share with that corporation, the stronger those family ties get. There is a third party in these relationships.

With rose-tinted glasses on, part of me appreciates the memory of slow communication, the letters, the anticipation. Knowing what I do about surveillance possibilities, and the role of corporations in that surveillance, slower forms of communication seem even more attractive: they allow me to own the information that is sent to me, and to know who has access to the information I send. But for people I’ve spoken to, as long as the instant communication factor remains, nobody really cares who else can see those messages, or where that data lives. In the future, what will these new forms of digital literacies result in? More power to the corporations, zero ability to know who has access to my personal updates? Given the huge benefits that these new technologies afford, especially to immigrant and diaspora communities for whom communication is literally life-changing, it seems unlikely that we’d ever give them up for issues of control and agency that are far harder to perceive or understand than what we gain back.

For people who are apart from their loved ones, social media and messaging apps provide us with a place to be together in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. They provide an antidote to the physical separation of immigration, a way of making those sacrifices a little less so than they otherwise might be. At a time with more global migration than ever before, these technologies are becoming ever more important to maintaining family ties. For these communities, communication technologies and social media are not isolating, they’re uniting.

Zara Rahman is a researcher, writer, and linguist who is interested in the intersection of power, race, and technology. She has traveled and worked in more than 25 countries in the field of information accessibility and data use in civil society. She was the first employee at OpenOil, looking into open data in the extractive industries, then worked for Open Knowledge, working with School of Data on data literacy for journalists and civil society. Rahman is currently a Fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City, investigating the bridging role between highly tech-literate communities and lower tech-literate communities. She is also a Research Lead at The Engine Room where she leads their Responsible Data Program.