Home(s) away from Home: Expatriates and the Internet
By Anne-Meike Fechter
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This book chapter was included in: People of the Screen. Helena Wulff and Christina Garsten (eds), Oxford: Berg, forthcoming.
Table of Contents
Much of the research on the Internet has focused on its transient, subversive and liberating potential. This often refers to a reified notion of 'cyberspace' as a realm separate from people's everyday lives. Highlighting a different dimension of the use of these technologies, this article explores the relevance of the Internet, especially Email, by Euro-American expatriates living in and around Jakarta, Indonesia, between 1999 and 2001. It is especially important for expatriate women accompanying their husbands and often unable to work. They are confined to an existence of being homemaker in a 'foreign' country, which can be experienced as isolating. In this situation, Email can provide social continuity and improve their lives abroad. It is thus not a source of transience and subversion, but of social stability.
This analysis is situated in a wider context of ethnographic research on the Internet. It has been suggested that the Internet causes problems for the social sciences as 'the object of ethnographic research finds itself eclipsed by the surfaces of electronically mediated identities' (Holmes 1997:7-8). This conceptualises the Internet as a separate realm, or as 'spaces or places apart from the rest of social life", as Miller critically remarks (2000:4). People's practices are examined as they enter and exit this 'space', while disregarding its embeddedness in their real life worlds. This is based on the assumption that, as Holmes claims, the "experience of a sense of place and the possibility of producing meaning are as decentred as they are in cyberspace" (Holmes 1997:18).
This assumption, however, can be misleading. In the analysis here, I follow Miller's contention (2000) that disconnecting the Internet from other aspects of people's lives proves ineffectual. As he claims, "social thought has gained little by attempting to generalise about ... ' the Internet' " (2000:1). The Internet does not render ethnographic research impossible. On the contrary, he argues, ethnographic approaches are able to make sense of people's Internet practices through viewing them in their social and spatial contexts. He maintains that
"we need to treat Internet media as continuous with and embedded in other social spaces, that they happen within mundane social structures and relations that they may transform but that they cannot escape into a self-enclosed cyberian apartness" (2000:5).
Based on these assumptions, I look at expatriates' use of the Internet as part of their existences in Indonesia. As it turns out, their Email practices specifically arise from their lives in Jakarta.
A prevailing feature of research on the Internet is its celebratory tone. The Internet, it seems, affords people unanticipated potential for fluidity and liberation, capturing the transience seen to increasingly characterise many people's lives, especially expatriates' physically mobile, transnational existences. Much of this is formulated specifically with respect to 'cyberspace', which is permeated by "the exciting sense of possibility" (Fernback 1997:38). Holmes, referring to Rheingold's utopian ideas (Rheingold 1993), similarly presents the Internet as harbouring "new possibilities of re-anchoring culture and identity in ways that pass over the complications of industrial society" (Holmes 1997:7). This especially concerns the liberation of previously fixed and static identities. As Robins remarks wearily, "in this accommodating reality, the self is reconstituted as a fluid and polymorphous entity. Identities can be selected or discarded almost at will" (1995:138). Holmes accordingly assumes that "cyberspace identities are experienced in much more mobile and fluid forms" (Holmes 1997:14). Fernback concedes that "the online collectivity does indeed reproduce existing structures", but maintains that "it also undermines them and raises new possibilities for resistance . against the culture writ large" (Fernback 1997:53). As Robins summarises, "the exhilaration of virtual existence and experience comes from the sense of transcendence and liberation from the material and embodied world" (Robins 1995:138).
Amidst these positive views there are critical voices. As Miller cautions, "discourse encountered on and about the Internet has been notoriously libertarian: . it has provided a screen on to which could be projected images of freedom, danger, transformation and transcendence" (2000:16). He also assumes that this enthusiasm is partly less to do with characteristics of the Internet itself, but more with social sciences" own research agendas. In particular, he suggests that the apparent disembodiment and deconstruction of identities enabled through or enacted on the Internet was feeding directly into poststructuralist projects such as Baudrillard's (2000:5) concerned with the abstraction of 'mediated reality'.
The appraisals of the Internet indicate a background against which to view the experiences of expatriates, especially women. A major feature is the potential for liberation in terms of fluid personal identities, and a creation of and reflection on transience. While I still consider the Internet's potential as ambiguous, I argue that expatriate women value the Internet not for its transience, but as a source of continuity of their social networks. This continuity is performed partly through maintaining social relations via Email, obtaining news and information from their 'home countries', and participating on an Internet forum specifically designed by and for expatriates. Using the Internet enables them to maintain a notion of 'home' even though they are living in Indonesia. Miller, referring to Trinidadians' use of the Internet, considers that "we are looking at how members of a specific culture attempt to make themselves a(t) home in a transforming communicative environment" (2000:1). This hints at a twofold process: acquainting oneself with the possibilities of the Internet, and utilising its potential for providing a 'home', or relating to it, when being dislocated from one's 'home country'. In the following, I trace various practices of homemaking in and through the Internet.
I take 'home' in this case not as a specific location, but as comprising more than one dimension of what it can mean to feel 'at home'. It crucially refers to a sense of 'home' created through social relations, especially with friends and family, which are conducted via technologies such as Email and Instant Messaging. It also recognises 'home' being created through shared discourses and experiences, as on Internet discussion forums and websites. It includes the role that information and services connecting expatriates to their 'home countries', such as newspapers and goods, can play. It might thus be more appropriate to speak of multiple senses of 'homes' rather than one 'home'.
An important feature of this homemaking is maintaining social relations, which is in contrast to the alleged transience and fluidity of identities available through the Internet. Miller explains, again with respect to Trinidadians that "what the Internet produces cannot be understood in terms of the liberation of new and fluid identities. Not only were older identities, such as religion, nation, and family, embraced online, but the Internet could be seen by many as primarily a means of repairing those allegiances" (2000:18). This is clearly the case with expatriates, who seem less intent on exploring new identities on the Internet, but use it to strengthen 'older identities' such as kinship ties and networks of friends, as illustrated below.
The expatriates I am referring to here are mainly North American and European nationals who have been posted to Indonesia by mostly multinational companies and could be described as 'corporate expatriates'. They usually stay in Indonesia between 2-5 years, returning afterwards either to what most refer to as their 'home countries' or move on to another posting abroad. They often maintain houses in their 'home countries' to which they return during home leave, and after the end of an assignment. In many cases, women follow their husbands to a posting and, due to visa reasons, are often unable to work in Indonesia. As 'trailing spouses', they feel confined to their own home and expatriates' wives communities, and can thus be rather isolated, especially if they held a job before moving abroad. I suggest that the Internet becomes especially vital for these non-working wives. Characteristically, the social networks they maintain via Email are 'binational', spanning mainly between their 'home country' and Indonesia. Apart from these accompanying wives, there is an increasing number of young, single, female professionals who have come to Indonesia independently to work there. It was often their own decision to move to Indonesia, and they mostly enjoy leading a mobile and 'international' lifestyle. This is reflected in their globally distributed social contacts, which they created over the course of different job assignments. The Internet is vital for these working women as well. They much appreciate Email as a means for gaining social support, and depend on it for sustaining their widespread social networks. I do not imply that the Internet is less relevant for male expatriates. Judging from ethnographic material, though, women seem much more appreciative of the Internet, at least for social purposes, rating its significance higher than men might do. Nevertheless, I have included data from expatriate men, although an emphasis remains on women's practices.
In the following, I first outline the importance of the Internet in expatriates' lives. It starts with tracing how many expatriate women only started using the Internet while on their posting, relating to the first aspect of Miller's dictum of people "making themselves a (t) home" in the Internet. In terms of making the Internet a 'home', I explore in which ways people are engaged in multiple social relations with their 'home countries', including the use of news and information from 'home' as a social resource. A particular focus is on 'traditional' social relationships such as kinship networks, which do not become irrelevant, but rather are sustained through the Internet even with greater emphasis. Another aspect are expatriate wives' websites, which work towards creating a 'home' in the sense of shared experiences as accompanying wives, but also perpetuate a rather conservative ideal of being an expatriate wife. The Internet also affords practical opportunities for receiving practical information before moving to a posting and creating a sense of 'home' through obtaining goods from Western countries. This partly happens for example through an Internet discussion forum called 'Living in Indonesia', which is geared towards expatriates. This forum presents another aspect of 'home-making' on the Internet. It reproduces a notion of 'home' through discourses referring to Euro-American countries such as the U.K. It also contributes to a specific sense of Jakarta as a provisional 'home' as encountered by expatriates. This includes discussing problems as a foreigner, exchanging queries and advice as well as experiences of Jakarta as a temporary 'home'. The Internet is significant as a medium since expatriates often have limited contact with the outside environment and hardly participate in public and street life. Exchanging views on the Internet is thus both indicative and productive of their secluded existences.
The use of Email and the Internet has a considerable impact on expatriates' lives- especially for expatriate women. Their lives abroad have been significantly changed, and in some ways even made bearable, by the use of these technologies. The focus of analysis here is especially on its personal and social relevance, as opposed to work-related purposes. This seems advisable since it seems to alter expatriate wives lives abroad much more decisively than their husbands. This is reflected by many wives almost celebratory appraisal of Email.
Most expatriate wives point out that Email has changed their lives immensely. This is because being able to 'keep in touch' with friends and family improves their quality of life as expatriates, while making their status as accompanying spouses more palatable.
Judging from many women's reactions, use of the Internet is not only important, but has also become a matter of fact. Comments such as: "Email is wonderful! It has totally changed my life in Indonesia" abound. Women's use of it, however, is often comparatively recent. Most importantly- this is especially true of the older generation- many have only started using Email since they came to Indonesia. While it had not been necessary to familiarise themselves with these technologies in their home countries, moving to Indonesia often prompted the decision to learn to use them. In triggering these learning processes, becoming an expatriate wife certainly has a 'progressive' aspect. Two tendencies are relevant here: among older expatriates, women seem to start using the Internet later than their male counterparts. In contrast to this, women's starting point seems less related to general trends in society but more connected to their personal needs. They are often prompted to use Email only as its personal relevance for them becomes evident, such as when living abroad. The correlation between moving to Indonesia and starting to use the Internet is thus much higher with women than with men. Presumably, men's uses of the Internet are more closely related to their job requirements. While women often start using the Internet later in absolute terms, they are more likely than men to take it up as they grow older. Interviews suggest that among elderly relatives introduced to Email by their expatriate children in Jakarta, it is mostly women who are more willing to be introduced to these technologies.
This does not reveal the difficulties and psychological obstacles often involved in this. Hilda, a wife of a senior manager of a German company in her late fifties, recounts how arduous she found the processes of getting 'online': "I haven't really learnt how to deal with it yet.. my husband always wanted to get me to use it, but I said, there also have to be things left that I am not capable of... but then my friends said, Hilda, there is no more letter writing- you have to write Emails! .. so my husband said, I'll switch on the laptop for you, and then you just type in your letter. So I sat down at his desk at home, and typed in my letter. You should have seen how our pembantu [household helper] looked at me, sitting at the laptop! And now I have learnt to send mails to family and friends". For slightly younger expatriate women, this does not only extend to writing Emails to friends, but is increasingly used for practical purposes, such as making travel arrangements and organising one's finances. Margarete, a German woman in her fourties, said: "I've been using the Internet for one-and-a half years now.. I bought a laptop when I was still in Germany and brought it here. And now I am casually Emailing with our tax advisor and my bank manager- and I've also started online banking". In contrast to younger professionals, for whom this often is not worth mentioning, Margarete and her friends still express some awe, as well as a certain pride and sense of achievement, to be able to make use of these technologies. Since expatriate wives seem to be increasingly 'online', I look at why the Internet has assumed such an importance, and in which ways it supports social continuities.
Expatriate women's response to the Internet is often enthusiastic. Karen, an American in her forties, stresses that "Email is my lifeline .. it has made living in Jakarta possible. It keeps my sanity- and it is cheaper than a shrink". The image of a 'lifeline' is recurrent - employed by older as well as younger expatriate women. As Karen summarises: "Without Email, I would be totally homesick and lost". There seems to be a strong feeling that using Email "breaks the isolation" that they find themselves in when coming to Indonesia. Similarly, Diane, an American in her fifties, summarises in what ways the Internet and Email are important for her: "It definitely improves the quality of my life abroad. I can correspond more with my children and friends than I would if I had to phone all of the time; I also correspond with people I probably would not keep in touch with otherwise. It provides access to information that I would not have without the Internet".
The present situation is thus very different from several years ago, when lack of communication facilities made it harder to overcome the 'isolation' that many expatriates refer to. Linda, who had been posted to Jakarta once before more than ten years ago, explains: "there was a great sense of isolation in 1989. If someone at home was ill, it could have taken them a week to contact me. All that has changed. I can read the Sunday Times now- I can pull up the gossip columns and see what Fergie is up to if I want to". Expatriate women with a long experience of living abroad draw up the extent to which expatriate life has been changed by the availability of Email. Mary for example had been working as a volunteer in Yogyakarta in the late seventies, and came back to live in Indonesia about ten years ago. She recounts: "It's so different from when I first came to Jakarta. We had a phone, but you had wait for half an hour till a tone came. In Yogyakarta in '79, I would go once a month to a wartel [telephone kiosk], and talk maybe for ten minutes. If you wrote a letter, you spent hours writing it, and it took two weeks to get there, two weeks to get back. So the distance to one's family has changed drastically. My mom says, when Mary went to Indonesia it was like she went to the moon- like, we lost her. When she got a telephone, it's like she moved overseas. And when she got Email, it's like she moved to Austin- that's two hours away from where we live."
While many women appreciate that using the Internet breaks this isolation, some go as far as considering that it has not only made their lives in Jakarta easier, but made it bearable in the first place. This applies especially to women who are accompanying spouses, such as Christine. She had been working in Australia before coming to Indonesia with her partner and stresses that "Email is essential; it is the main source of communication with friends and family at home. Plus, it alleviates any feeling of isolation, being overseas and sometimes not working". This even holds for single professional women. Sandra, a teacher at an international school, reckons that "without Email or Internet access I would have left Jakarta three years ago". Being cut-off is often felt more acutely by short and medium-term expatriates, as the loss of social networks can be sudden and requires initial periods of readjustment. This also presents a problem, though, for people who settle in Indonesia on a long-term basis, who equally use the Internet to maintain a social continuity. In some ways, people even describe it as intensifying relations that they have to sustain across long distances. Barbara, an American artist who has been living in Indonesia for more than five years, finds that "Email has drawn me closer to all my friends and family both emotionally and even physically. By feeling like I can 'drop in and say hello' to people on a frequent basis and they can do that with me, even though we are half a world apart, I think I'm right next door. Of course it does not take the place of seeing people face to face, but it sure helps ".
Apart from maintaining social relationships with people 'at home', Email allows expatriate wives to develop wider social networks. These often come into existence and grow during the course of their expatriate lives in different countries. While this is already common with younger professionals, older 'family expatriates' are only slowly becoming aware of the possibility of globally distributed social relationships. As Martha, who has connections with the German embassy, realises: "the people at the embassy keep being moved around, and you start making friends with people a bit. And suddenly you send Emails when they are posted somewhere else- for example, to New York, or Paris, or my husband still knows some people from his time in Africa, they are now in Brazil."
It becomes clear that the Internet can be rather important for married expatriate woman who, in the context of Jakarta, can feel confined to their homes and limited expatriate communities. Although younger female professionals often feel less isolated in terms of having a social life, Internet is important to them as it enables them to maintain their existing social networks they have built up over years of having a 'mobile lifestyle'. These often include friends living in different countries all over the world. The Internet then becomes instrumental in maintaining these relations. In addition to that, young professionals can feel 'dislocated' and 'lost' in their lives as expatriates; one woman describes herself and her friends as 'global orphans'. These imbalances are addressed through using the Internet and especially Email.
Julia, a young German working for a NGO, gives an impression of how important Email can be for people in her generation: "I'm hooked. I am a complete Email junkie. It's the most important thing after eating and sleeping". She describes her relation to the Internet: "We had this high-school reunion magazine, and they asked 'what is your favourite drug?' For me this is Email. I suffer from withdrawal when I'm unable to check my mail for two days. It is my social support system". David, a young Canadian employed by an Indonesian NGO, puts it succinctly: "Email makes me feel connected and happy. When staying abroad, it certainly helps a lot." Jon, a German working for an American company, puts it more drastically: "Without Email, my current life would not be possible-in practical terms, but also emotionally". The fact that young male professionals attribute the Internet with similar social importance as young female professionals also indicates that the gender differences in Internet practices are much less pronounced with the younger generation than with family expatriates.
Email functions as a social support system, especially when starting a life in Indonesia. Different from older expatriates, who often did not use Email before moving abroad, Julia stresses: "Email was important to me before I moved to Jakarta since it was the main channel to keep in touch with my friends all over the world. Its importance to me increased dramatically when I moved to Indonesia though. It became my lifeline. Later, at the end of my stay this key role diminished somewhat, but it is still a key priority". Joyce, a British professional working in Jakarta, considers that: "Our life is not normal in Jakarta in the sense that we are all orphans. There are no commitments to go see your parents at the weekends, you're cut off from friends and family. It is not a totally normal life". In this situation, Email becomes crucial: "I get at least two personal Emails a day and I am quite upset when I don't. It gives me a good feeling to be in touch with someone I care about. A day where without any personal Emails is terrible- I think people have forgotten about me". Joyce had been working as a development consultant for several years. As she realises, 'my live evolved along with Email, and it has changed it a lot. At the beginning, when I was just travelling, I didn't have Email, and it didn't bother me. But now, it really matters. I once was in Costa Rica for work, and couldn't get Emails for two weeks, and I was going mad."
Many emphasise how stability in personal relationships alleviates the disruption created by long absences and spatial distances. As Monika, a German consultant, points out: "It became clear to me after I had been gone for a whole year- when I came back, I realised, my friends are there just as before- but the important thing was, we didn't pick up things where we left them a year ago, we picked them up from where we were at the moment". Lack of this personal continuity is felt sharply, and a sense of shared past can be paramount. Joyce describes this: "some day I feel, I am in a place where nobody cares about me. They may want to go out and party with you, but who is there to really worry about you? In these situations writing Emails makes me feel good, because we share lots of references to the past and people that know".
Although many of these young professionals have rather itinerant lives in terms of changing places of residence and of jobs, this does not necessarily lead to an appreciation of transience in all aspects of their lives. Instead, many value highly social stability, which is reflected in their use of Email. Creating a 'balance', an 'equilibrium' or 'sense of home away from home' are terms frequently used to describe their situation. Although they often choose 'international lifestyles', many aim to limit the social disruptions it causes. The Internet becomes vital for achieving such a balance. It affords people with transient lifestyles a sense of 'home' by creating social continuity. Email provides an invariant backdrop for ever-changing locations. As Joyce puts it, "wherever you are you can open your mail and find letters from all over", or in David's words: "my Email address will always be the same, no matter where I am- home is where my Email is".
The question might arise as to how these senses of 'home' impact on people's actual lives in Jakarta. As these narratives show, the Internet effects a sense of being 'connected'. This can be paralleled with being disconnected in terms of locality, as Email can deter from efforts to engage with Jakarta. When asked whether Email helped her living in Jakarta, Joyce pondered: "maybe it is quite the opposite. If I knew I couldn't communicate with people abroad, I would have to focus more on being here. Maybe you go through a transition- you have an initial period where you need Email because it is like a lifeline, but it also makes you miss everything more-it is a two-way thing". While Email can foster a cocooning within this 'Internet home', there is evidence that living in Indonesia does have an impact on expatriates' social contacts. Many describe that living abroad has made communication with other expatriates more important. As Nicole describes it, "the focus of my Email-partners has changed over the last few years. Increasingly, Email-addresses in Indonesia become important, because sometimes it is very difficult to describe experiences that happened here, to people in Germany, so that I'd rather talk to people in the same situation'. Joyce has realised similar changes: 'I have different folders for Emails from the UK, from Indonesia and elsewhere- and Indonesia is now the biggest. My mailbox from Indonesia far outweighs anything else, it is about 3-4 times as much. The next biggest is from friends outside the UK, and then comes the folder with friends in the UK". This hints at the possibility that despite the permanence of non-local social networks, those within Indonesia become increasingly important.
A particular aspect of social relationships, especially for older expatriates, are ties to families in their 'home countries'. Karen, a mother of three, whose children are at college in the US, tells how being away from them worried her more than leaving her job behind when she moved: "without Email, I would totally miss my job, which I expected to. But Email made a difference, and I realised, this isn't too bad. But I thought I was going to miss my kids so much that it wasn't gonna work."
A particular aspect of 'homemaking' through the Internet is to reproduce kinship 'online'. This refers to the fact that many expatriate wives stay in touch with their family 'at home', including elderly parents as well as grown-up children. It suggests that living a transnational and transient life does not entail the abandonment of kinship ties. Seemingly faraway lives do not necessarily lessen their importance, nor do they seem to deter middle-aged expatriates from carrying out their 'family duties', as in caring for increasing elderly and frail parents.
While younger expatriates often maintain Email relations with their parents while living overseas as well, this issue becomes especially crucial for the generation of 'family expatriates'. Since most 'family expatriates' are between 45 and 60 years old, their parents are usually more than 65 years old, and often have to come to terms with frailty, illness and bereavement following the death of a partner. In addition to that, many 'family expatriates' have grown-up children, who do not accompany their parents on overseas postings any more. This can be a matter of concern for 'expatriate mothers', who are often anxious to keep in close contact with their children while on a posting in Jakarta. Consequently, many expatriate women maintain these relations and fulfil what could be seen as 'kinship duties' via Email and instant messaging. Far from kinship ties becoming unbound through their residence overseas, Email practices can strengthen these bonds.
While the importance of kinship ties might have remained the same, increased communication possibilities can enhance efforts to sustain them over long distances. This becomes obvious in many conversations with expatriates, especially for those with parents at home becoming increasingly frail. Hilary, who has been living in Indonesia for more than ten years, describes her communication pattern with her mother, who lives in California: "almost every morning, I get on the Internet and talk to my mom. My father passed away recently and now she is lonely. But I can say, what are you doing tonight, Mom, how was that dinner you were invited to last night? It's five o'clock in the afternoon there when it is eight o'clock in the morning here, so it is right at the start of the evening- and for a recently widowed lady, it is a bad time. Because you are all alone in your house and you dread the evening. So we talk a bit, and it is better".
Similarly, Regina, whose elderly mother recently had to undergo heart surgery, was rather concerned about the situation, and appreciated being informed immediately: "You certainly are more in touch with everything.. when my mother got ill and had to have heart surgery I was in constant touch with my brother.. you keep being informed, and also you know that you can be reached anytime- and that is very important in such a situation." This communication is important in terms of elderly parents as well as for grown-up children. Karen explains how important it is for her to keep in touch with her adult children in Texas: "my kids and I instant message daily.. It's the next best thing to talking on the phone. It makes us feel a lot closer than half way across the world! Mostly we message about 6 am in the morning my time in Jakarta, which is afternoon for them... so all four of us are connected by instant message.. and we send pictures back and forth. I also do that with my own family, but they are all in Ohio.. I actually don't miss my parents so much, but most of all my kids". The prerequisite for these exchanges is not only that elderly family members 'back home' have access to computers, but are able to use them. Subsequently, a 'chain introduction' to using Internet and Email takes place. This education is passed on from expatriates to their relatives or friends in their 'home country'. It emerged that many expatriates had introduced friends or family to the Internet specifically so they would be able to communicate with each other during the expatriates' stay abroad. They also admitted that they kept in touch less frequently or not at all with friends or family who did not use Email. This implies that the Internet at the same time introduces a new divide. While it strengthens ties between people who are 'online', it severely reduces contacts between expatriates using Email and their friends who do not.
As indicated above, there seems to be a gender divide with expatriates' parents using Email. Quite often, it is the female relatives instead of males who are being successfully tutored by their children in using these technologies. This implies that while men might take up new technologies faster and earlier while they are younger, men's capacities or willingness to learn, with increasing age is surpassed by their female counterparts. Sergio, a young Italian, describes his family communication, highlighting the difference between telephone and Email: "for my parents it is still impossible to make international phone calls and be relaxed. I have to teach my dad that it is ok for three minutes. My mum is ok- my mum became a computer whiz. She writes Emails.. she scans every letter that I get and sends it back to me.. she is 65 and I'm very proud of her. My dad? She has to open an Email for him and then he writes- he will not do more than that." Similarly, Florian, a German working in the banking sector, proudly told me: "I just got an Email from my grandmother-can you believe it? She's over eighty. God knows how she got near a computer. But then, she doesn't have problems with international phone calls either - she'll call me up in Jakarta and we'll chat for half an hour". Far from severing these 'traditional' ties, use of the Internet might not only sustain, but enable a renewal of these relations to a greater extent than was possible without these technologies. It becomes obvious, though, that expatriate wives mainly use the Internet in their traditional role as caretakers, as their Internet practices are often specifically geared towards sustaining these family bonds.
News, Information, and Practical Uses
Another way in which the Internet sustains a sense of 'home' is through news and information from and about 'home'. This is often not relevant purely in terms of their 'news' value, but in terms of its social significance. The continuity provided by access to developments in their 'home countries' can allow expatriates to live in 'two worlds'- maintaining a parallel sense of 'home'. As Nicole, a German woman, puts it: "through the Internet, I can live in 'two worlds', although of course it is no substitute for 'real experiences".
Another aspect of access to information concerns work. As Julia points out, "without the Internet I would feel cut off from what is going on in my professional field. Since I am not totally excluded from the news, I feel more comfortable living far away from New York where I had easy access to information". David, an Italian journalist, stresses his involvement with what is happening in Italy: "I read two Italian newspapers every day on the Internet-but also two Southeast Asian newspapers, like the Jakarta Post and the Straits Times". Information from one's home country is not only relevant in terms of its news value, but enables exchanges with friends. Nicole explains: "Email facilitates communication when I am on home leave- because I am always up to date with what has been happening there. When I am in Germany, I can take part in discussions, without people having to explain everything to me. Also, discussing issues in Emails helps me to not only think about it the 'Indonesian way', but also offers German perspectives on things". David also stresses the social importance of 'being up to date': "when I went home for Easter, I knew about everything. When talking with my friends, I knew, this minister resigned because of some scandal, and that singer had died- all that". Keeping in touch with what is happening 'at home' is not only relevant for home visits, but also fuels conversations with expatriates in Jakarta. Pauline explains: "Last night, we were out with a couple of British people, and they were like, 'does anyone know what happened to the Jill Dando murder?' and nobody was sure. So I thought, well tomorrow I can pull up the Times and see what is there."
The Internet also has practical advantages. Cheryl points out the benefits of being able to access the 'Living in Indonesia' website before moving to Jakarta: "what we are trying to do with our website is to list all the community organisations, so if somebody comes here new, they can find them. Like, when I want to find a German Catholic golf club, I can do that. There is the German Women's Association, so I can I can send Emails and have friends before I even get here". This is illustrated by the fact that their 'Living in Indonesia-Forum' regularly receives requests from people who are considering accepting a job in Indonesia. This includes questions such as 'Living in Jakarta- what is it really like? or asking for practical information to prepare for their stay in Indonesia. Typical concerns are for example whether "children [can] ride their BMX-bikes in Jakarta" or "Do Mac-laptops work there, and can you get service for them?" to basic matters such as "what do we have to bring that is absolutely not available there? Like, cling film?", which are usually answered by expatriates who have been living in Jakarta for a while. This also extends to vital information on expatriate visas, registration, property and business ownership, up to procedures for binational marriages. Expatriates often use online services to organise their personal finances, insurance and travelling arrangements and regard them as 'indispensable' for their transnational lives. Obviously, online shopping also contributes to creating a sense of 'home' through providing goods required for a Western lifestyle. As Patricia, an American consultant, explains: "Internet is important for me because I can still live out here and have certain luxuries, like my favourite creams or make of clothes, or good books at a reasonable cost". In the last few years, a few websites have appeared that are catering to especially to expatriate demand. For example, websites such as www.britishexpat.com allow expatriates to order their 'favourite groceries', such as Walkers Crisps, Newcastle Brown Ale or Marmite through the Internet, which will be delivered to their home in Jakarta.
As discussed above, the Internet is regarded as crucially enabling people to assume fluid, new identities and possibly engage in politically subversive strategies. With expatriate women's websites, however, the opposite seems to be the case. Instead of 'fluid' identities, they often propagate women's identities based on rather traditional, male-dominated gender relations. In the expatriate case, this translates as an appraisal of the position as accompanying wife, the importance of motherhood and its increased difficulties abroad, and presenting half-hearted concepts of 'mobile career' models for expatriate wives.
These websites are specifically designed for non-working expatriate wives, dispensing 'tips and advice' about life abroad as an accompanying spouse. One example is the website of Robin Pascoe, author of several books about 'women overseas'. On her site, www.expatexpert.com, she offers support to expatriate wives. Her book Women Abroad is introduced as a "practical guide to the perils of being a mobile wife, with comforting and light-hearted advice from those who have been through it before." A reader reviews her book as follows: "I am currently on my first posting as an expatriate wife. I only wish I had had this book before I arrived. It reassures you that all the emotions you are going through are perfectly normal - and reminds you that you are not alone in this. It is a funny, warm, well-written account of the highs and lows of life as an "accompanying spouse" and should definitely be read by every woman who has recently moved abroad with their husband for the first time, especially if you have potentially given up a successful career." These websites can possibly be regarded as a source of assurance especially for expatriate women suffering from their loss of job or career. The websites extol the virtues of being an 'expatriate wife', in selflessly supporting their husband and taking care of the family and household abroad. These sites thus reaffirm women's senses of identity and self-worth undermined by a possible loss of job and social networks. Euphemisms such as 'mobile wife' for 'dependent woman', however, barely conceal the reactionary ideology underpinning many of these sites.
With similar pretences, a related website, www.womanabroad.com, presents the existence as expatriate wife as full of opportunities, thus reaffirming the static, reactionary model of an accompanying wife. It discusses "careers to go: why writing can be the perfect portable career and the secrets of other successful writing women abroad". This is complemented by more domestic issues such as "International Adoption: True Third Culture Kids" and addresses "Healthy Living- the menopause for women abroad". The recreation of a traditional wife-and-motherhood ideology seems the objective of websites such as www.expat-mom.com. It demonstrates the emphasis on motherhood often found in expatriate wives' communities. The website's main feature in June 2001 is "An Expat-Mom Birth Story! By Holly Bandel, Expat-Mom", while forthcoming topics include "Expat-Mom- experience of having to leave a job for spouse's expat assignment', mastering the 'experience with Au Pairs and Nannies", and finally "Babies Abroad - pregnancy and childbirth experience in your host country". In the guise of being 'modern and progressive', these websites reaffirm traditional models of labour division and gender roles. Instead of 'new' identities, they are aimed at maintaining traditional ones. The Internet in this case offers not fluidity and subversion, but stasis and affirmation of proscribed, fixed identities.
Finally, homemaking practices on the Internet are performed within expatriate discussion forums, such as on the 'Living in Indonesia- A Website for Expatriates', at www.expat.or.id. This is a forum for people to post queries and discuss aspects of living in Indonesia. It becomes relevant in two ways: First I suggest that expatriates' discussions on this forum and references to their lives in their 'home countries' sustain a sense of a discursive 'home away from home'. Second, I argue that even the exchanges which are concerned with living in Jakarta ultimately contribute to a sense of Jakarta as 'home' as experienced by them as foreigners. The production of 'home' in the Internet as medium is important, as it feeds into and reflects many expatriates' distance from their physical environments in Jakarta. This becomes apparent in postings to this forum, which I now look at in greater detail.
An example for sharing experiences of 'Western' countries is an Australian woman living in Jakarta, recounting her recent trip back to Australia. In a posting to the forum she writes that "Since being back in Oz, I'm rediscovering all those things I used to enjoy & never really thought about before .1. Driving. God it feels good to get behind the wheel again! I never thought I'd miss this, but to be able to drive is sheer bliss. 2. Privacy. Ok, they do the ironing etc. but it still freaks me when they pop out of your bedroom unexpectantly. 3. Clean air. It's so light & fresh, like.. air! 4.The Doona. Nothing nicer than snuggling under a thick, fluffy doona on a cold morning. 5. Physical labour. Yes, I actually miss cleaning the house & getting into the garden. I'm sure this will phase will pass soon enough!" (beck, 06/06/01). These experiences might easily resonate with other expatriates living in Jakarta, thus reconstructing a sense of what it is like to live 'at home', in this case, in developed countries with temperate climates. It is often bodily experiences that become most salient in narrations of 'home', such as temperature, air quality and food.
In a similar way, expatriates communicate experiences linked to other times and places, as this exchange illustrates: "Does anyone know where you can buy English dry cider, or local equivalent? Since being here, I really miss it!', which triggers somebody else's memory: "Heentway, 70s, no festival was complete without gallons of Olde English Cider, nothing like Lindisfarne in the rain with a hangover that should have been on display in medical museum, Rod Stewart falling off the stage drunk, the long trek home with lots of good Olde English on the way". "Methinks we come from similar backgrounds- I remember my younger days going to watch the mighty Glasgow Celtic, where a bottle of Olde English and a half bottle of Seagers Cream sherry was the order of the day" (srh, 03/05/01).
The sense of a shared social and cultural background also becomes obvious in jokes. Many presume familiarity with life in the U.K., such as this brand-oriented one: "Imagine if all the major retailers started producing own brand condoms: Tesco Condoms: Every little helps. Sainsbury Condoms: Making life taste better. Safeway Condoms: Lightening the load. Pringles Condoms: Once you pop, you can't stop. Royal Mail Condoms: I saw this and thought of you" (firstname.lastname@example.org, 06/06/01). Some even refer to specific regions, such as Newcastle: "Height of the Gulf War and a British Destroyer is just over the horizon from Saddam's ragtag fleet. Captain calls up Geordie on the watch and says "Geordie, get your binoculars and a radio, shin up the f'orrard crow's nest and have a look and see what the ragheads are up to". Geordie complies and in less than a few minutes reports back to the Captain that he can see "a load of ships" "Are they war ships Geordie"? says the Captain. "Nah, they're theirs". (Colin, 08/06/01).
Apart from these recollections of Western 'homes', Jakarta as a temporary home appears as well, with many topics on the forum related to living in Jakarta. This includes exchanges on physical space. Somebody complains about the traffic problems in the notoriously overcrowded area of Kemang: "Try to drive through Jl. Kemang Raya (the road is only about 4 meters wide) between 12:00 until 15:00. It will be totally jammed mainly because of that school beside KemChick. The school has no parking space available but it seems that every selfish driver in Jakarta go there to drop off / pick up their young master everyday. Not to mention the hassles due to renovation of underground water pipes or telephone lines, roads, etc. Some people must hate the Kemang people that much! Sorry, I just have to unload this from my chest" (sierih, 31/05/00).
Local advice about shops and restaurants also abounds. For example, somebody asks where to find Japanese food, and gets a detailed response: "The Hilton used to be good. Sakura near Pondok Club Villas is reasonably priced and they speak English there too. The one opposite Kemchick is OK but the Japanese don't think so, it is full of rich Indonesians. Loads of restaurants in Blok M but I don't rate the one at the Hotel Gran Mahakam. Yuk" (greeneyed weirdo, 23/05/01). This kind of information is meaningful only for people with an interest in these places, namely Jakarta residents.
A major feature are experiences of 'Indonesia' as a foreigner, such as their views of the Indonesian beer, Bintang: "Can anyone tell me why I feel terrible the day after a piss-up on beer bintang. I usually get a really bad headache - much worse than a normal hangover headache. My friend says it is because they add special chemicals so that the beer can "keep" in the hot tropical climate. Is this true?", and in return is advised to "try to reduce your intake, that often helps to avoid headaches. With Bintang there is nothing wrong according to my own experiences of 10 years being thirsty" (londohm, 23/05/01).
As these exchanges illustrate, this discussion forum provides an additional dimension of creating senses of 'home' through the Internet. While some of it is clearly geared towards reproducing a sense of their 'Western homes', it also becomes obvious that there are efforts to come to terms with Jakarta as a provisional 'home'. The exchanges on this forum with other expatriates are indicative of and instrumental for this. 'Home' can thus also be the community of users on that forum, which are mainly real-live fellow inhabitants of the same city, Jakarta. One participant on the forum, Jellybean, explains the role the forum plays for her own existence in Jakarta: "New Expat Forum Gang welcomes information-and helpful comments from anybody who has any! TC's clinic is open all hours, Colins laffs can be a definate pick-you-up on a bad day, or Becks nights out for those who are man enough. This page definitely helps me to live in Indonesia!" (arnup, 18/05/01).
The Internet is often celebrated for enabling 'fluid' identities, encouraging subversive strategies and reflecting and creating the transience that characterises many people's lives. Looking at the case of corporate expatriates living in Jakarta, especially women, I suggest that many value the Internet instead as a source of social continuity and even ideological assurance. This is also formulated in terms of 'home-making'. This does not refer to a geographically fixed home, but rather to a sense of home, which can be realised through social relations and shared discourses on the Internet. The Internet then enables various practices of home making for expatriates. The most important feature are the reproduction of social relationships. While this is important both for accompanying wives as well as for young independent professionals, different aspects are foregrounded. In the case of expatriate wives, they often regard the Internet as a means to overcome the 'isolation' of their existences in Jakarta. This includes increased communication with family members in their 'home countries'. Younger expatriates value the Internet as a tool to maintain their already widespread social networks of friends which they have fostered over years of mobile living. At the same time, they appreciate the Internet, especially Email, for its social support function. A specific aspect of this is the maintenance of 'kinship online'. This refers to expatriates introducing parents and relatives to using Email, in order to stay in contact with them on their postings abroad. It is suggested that elderly women often seem more adept than elderly men in acquainting themselves with these technologies. This also implies that the Internet does not seem to weaken, but rather enable a strengthening of these kinship ties. It also becomes relevant in providing news, information and services such as banking and shopping, which all contribute to a feeling of creating a 'home away from home'. In terms of ideological assurance, it turns out that websites geared towards expatriate wives propagate a rather conservative ideal of being an expatriate wife and mother, in contrast to concepts of encouraging 'fluid identities'. Finally, I illustrate how an Internet discussion forum for expatriates is used for reproducing senses of home. This includes discourses about their 'home countries' as well as about Jakarta as a 'provisional home'. The online community evolving from this forum might similarly provide a sense of 'home' through sharing experiences of living as an expatriate in Indonesia. Internet practices are thus crucial for creating and maintaining multiple senses of 'home' in expatriates' transnational existences.
Baudrillard, J. (1994), Simulacra and simulation, United States
: University of Michigan Press.
Read Meike's book entitled "Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia".
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