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Mediating intimacies through mobile communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’

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Growing numbers of Chinese mothers relocate overseas with their children to puruse better educational opportunities. As de facto ‘single parents’ in the host society, these Chinese ‘study mothers’ have to overcome acculturation challenges while paving the way for their children to quickly adapt and thrive in an alien environment. Mobile communication serves as a critical tool in these women’s journey of transnational relocation and adaptation, helping them to micro-coordinate their daily routines with their children, at the same time performing their roles as wives to left-behind husbands. Like the romantic Chinese legend of the weaver girl and the cowherd who reunite once a year on a bridge formed by magpies, these women’s relationships with their loved ones hinge principally on the connections forged via mobile communication. Building on prior research on the role of technologically mediated communication in the enactment and experience of intimacy, this chapter features narratives of three study mothers in Singapore, presenting detailed accounts of their daily communication routines, showing how they utilise mobile communication to manage their relationship with their children and left-behind families and friends. An innovative ‘content-context diary’ cum participant observation method is employed to collect in-depth information on the role that mobile communication plays in these women’s mediated intimacies with families and friends, both distant and proximate, and to map the topographies of their mediated relationships.
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This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Mediating intimacies through mobile communication:
Chinese migrant mothers digitalbridge of magpies
Yang Wang & Sun Sun Lim
Introduction
During the past two decades, China has witnessed a steady stream of school-aged children
venturing overseas for education, accompanied by their mothers. Singapore is deemed one of
the most popular destinations for this purpose, due to its cultural proximity to Chinese
society, its bilingual education system and its incentive schemes for foreign students. The
mothers involved in this endeavour are commonly referred to as peidu mama (literally ‘study
mothers’), who accompany their young children abroad while leaving their husbands behind
in China. As de facto ‘single mothers’ in the host society, they must overcome acculturation
challenges and pave the way for their children to quickly thrive in an alien environment and
simultaneously maintain affective bonds with their family and friends back home. In this
context, mobile communication is of crucial significance for their daily micro-coordinations
and emotional exchanges with children and remote loved ones.
Similar to the romantic Chinese legend of the weaver girl and the cowherd who reunite only
once a year on a bridge formed by magpies, transnational families who are separated by
insurmountable geographical distance also ‘meet’ each other on the digital ‘bridge of
magpies’ forged by information and communication technologies (ICTs). From delayed,
asynchronous connections via tapes and telegrams to sporadic and costly conversations over
landline telephones all the way to synchronous communication with Internet-enabled mobile
devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, the range of options for international
migrants to maintain long-distance relationships has grown in line with the proliferation and
development of ICTs (Thomas and Lim, 2011; Wilding, 2006). In technology-mediated
spaces, transnational family members can remain involved in one another’s mundane
experiences and perform familial responsibilities from afar on a daily basis, thus
reconstituting family intimacies across national borders (Madianou and Miller, 2011;
Parreñas, 2005).
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Building on prior research on the role of technologically mediated communication in the
enactment of long-distance intimacy, this chapter features the narratives of three Chinese
study mothers in Singapore, presenting detailed accounts of their transnational
communication practices to demonstrate their use of mobile communication to manage their
intimate relationships with children and left-behind families and friends. Particular focus is
placed on the way in which contextual constraints shape their experiences of mediated
intimacy, and how in the face of these constraints they maximise possibilities for
mediated intimacy via all available resources. An innovative ‘content-context diary’ cum
participant observation and the visualised technique of culturagram (Congress, 1994, 2005)
were employed to map the topographies of the mothers’ mediated relationships, both distant
and proximate, and to identify the contextual constraints and dynamic strategies that were
employed within quotidian routines of transnational communication.
Chinese study mothers’ in Singapore
In contemporary Asian society, a ‘cosmopolitan’ educational background is increasingly
perceived as an essential pathway to upward social mobility (Huang and Yeoh, 2005; Waters,
2006). The overseas education of adolescent children, therefore, has become a top priority for
many middle- and upper-middle-class families in Asia, and these families brave painstaking
journeys to unfamiliar foreign lands and are prepared to weather the transnational split of
their households for this purpose (Chee, 2003; Huang and Yeoh, 2005; Lee and Koo, 2006).
In typical cases, the mothers uproot and resettle with their children abroad, while the fathers
are ‘left behind’ in the home country to continue working and to provide financial support for
the long-term transnational family situation. The phenomenon of the transnational household
has been witnessed in several Asian societies, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan (‘astronaut
families’) (e.g. Chee, 2003; Waters, 2006), South Korea (kirogi families) (e.g. Lee, 2010; Lee
and Koo, 2006) and Mainland China (peidu families) (e.g. Huang and Yeoh, 2005, 2011).
According to previous studies, mothers in these transnational families usually pay the greatest
price for the migratory journey, as they sacrifice opportunities for personal career
development and often experience an overwhelming sense of loneliness, helplessness and
insecurity due to a loss of financial independence and support networks of family and friends
(Ho, 2002; Waters, 2006). Moreover, as de facto ‘single mothers’ in the host country, they
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
tend to privilege ‘motherhood’ over ‘wifehood’ and ‘selfhood’, to the extent of sacrificing
conjugal relations and individual aspirations in favour of maternal obligations (Chee, 2003;
Huang and Yeoh, 2005).
During the past two decades, a considerable number of Chinese mothers commonly referred
to as peidu (literally accompany study) mama (or ‘study mothers’) have ventured overseas
to accompany their children as they pursue education abroad. Singapore is one of the most
popular destinations for Chinese families due to its incentive schemes for foreign students, its
high standard of public safety, its cultural proximity to Chinese society, its bilingual
education system and so forth (Huang and Yeoh, 2005, 2011). Chinese peidu families in
Singapore range from wealthy and upper-middle-class families to lower-middle-class
families (Huang and Yeoh, 2005). However, under the influence of the ‘one-child policy’ in
China (Fong, 2004), the pursuit of overseas education is no longer exclusive to wealthy ‘elite
families’. In contrast, growing numbers of middle- and lower-middle-class parents are
sending their children abroad, even at the cost of depleting their household savings (Huang
and Yeoh, 2005).
Mediated intimacies of transnational families A review of prior research
Over the past several decades, the increasing accessibility, affordability and rich functionality
of advanced ICTs (especially mobile devices and the Internet) have emancipated people from
temporal and spatial constraints and brought unprecedented flexibility to social interaction
and communication (Fortunati, 2002; Licoppe, 2004; Turkle, 2011). The enactment and
reproduction of intimacies be these at the level of the individual, community or even
society are increasingly shaped by this emerging media-rich environment (Hjorth, 2011;
Hjorth and Lim 2012). Nonetheless, this intensely mediatised landscape introduces
uncomfortable tensions and contradictions that individuals must negotiate. On the one hand,
mediated communication offers new and effective approaches to expressing affection and
building intimate relationships (Clark, 2012; Licoppe, 2004; Wajcman et al., 2008). On the
other hand, the wealth of technological affordances may also cause emotional burdens and
impair rather than nurture intimacies (Lim, 2014; Lim and Soon, 2009; Madianou and Miller,
2012; Turkle, 2011).
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
For transnationally separated households, mediated communication through ICTs assumes
particular significance, as it is the only viable way for members to keep family bonds alive
(Horst, 2006; Pham and Lim, 2016; Uy-Tioco, 2007). Extensive research has delved into
mediated intimacies within transnational households, with a major strand of literature
focusing on the renegotiation of parenthood especially motherhood in transnational
families in which children have remained in the home country (e.g. Chib et al., 2014;
Madianou and Miller, 2011; Uy-Tioco, 2007). Instead of forsaking parental responsibilities
after physical separation, migrant mothers often seek to reconstitute or even strengthen their
gender identity as ‘ideal mothers’ via virtual involvement in diverse facets of their children’s
daily routines (Madianou, 2012; Peng and Wong, 2013; Uy-Tioco, 2007). These mediated
mothering practices often include quotidian elements of everyday life such as waking their
children up and saying goodnight, reminding them to have meals, helping with their
homework and providing comfort when they are depressed (Chib et al., 2014; Madianou,
2012; Peng and Wong, 2013; Uy-Tioco, 2007).
Another important thread in extant research sheds light on the way in which transnationally
separated couples employ ICTs to reproduce conjugal intimacies across vast geographical
distances (e.g. Cabanes and Acedera, 2012; King-O’Riain, 2015; Neustaedter and Greenberg,
2012). In particular, distant couples have been observed to ‘hang out’ in mediated spaces
where they share mundane and bittersweet everyday occurrences, cooperate on family affairs
and express affection to each other (King-O’Riain, 2015; Neustaedter and Greenberg, 2012).
Mediated communication has been found to play a dual role, in that it can both enable new
practices of cooperation between husbands and wives (Cabanes and Acedera, 2012; Kang,
2012) and thrust migrants back into their family lives, allowing them to hold on to their
previous family roles (Cabanes and Acedera, 2012; Madianou, 2012; Uy-Tioco, 2007).
The majority of studies have noted the indispensable role of mediated communication as the
‘social glue of transnationalism’ (Vertovec, 2004: 219). ICTs and especially webcam
software such as Skype allow separated family members to ‘stream’ each other’s daily
routines in a mediated space of co-presence that enables information and emotions to be
reciprocated in a precise and ongoing manner as if the family were still together (King-
O’Riain, 2015; Longhurst, 2013; Wilding, 2006). Some studies have also scrutinised the
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
potentially burdensome implications of mediated communication. In particular, mediated
interactions mean far less than the immediate company of loved ones. Sometimes it is
precisely the simulated togetherness that reminds migrants and their families of the actual
physical distance between them and accentuates feelings of guilt, anxiety and loneliness
(Parreñas, 2005; Uy-Tioco, 2007; Wilding, 2006).
Although prior research has offered considerable insight into the multifarious roles of
mediated communication in remote family intimacies, the range of transnational families that
are studied is far from complete. Specifically, previous studies have paid exclusive attention
to the use of ICT by ‘mother-away’ transnational households, in which women have migrated
alone for financial benefits and left their children and husbands behind in their home
countries (e.g. Chib et al., 2014; Madianou and Miller, 2011; Thomas and Lim, 2011; Uy-
Tioco, 2007). However, despite the prevalence of education migration across Asia, ‘mother-
child resettlement’ transnational households and the migrant mothers involved remain
understudied in media and communication research.
Moreover, transnational families do not live in isolated environments but are located in and
shaped by a series of social and geographical inequalities (Parreñas, 2005). Many
sociocultural factors, such as gender, ethnicity, nationality and social class, may be
foregrounded and bleed into their experiences of mediated intimacy (Anthias, 2002; Parreñas,
2005; Plüss, 2013). However, to date, research has only examined ‘salient’ influential factors
such as gender (e.g. Hannaford, 2015; Kang, 2012), place of origin and destination (e.g.
Cabanes and Acedera, 2012; Peng and Wong, 2013) and working conditions (e.g. Parreñas,
2005; Thomas and Lim, 2011), while many seemingly prosaic yet crucial factors, such as
language proficiency, housing conditions and motivations for relocation, have been
overlooked. In this context, this chapter proposes a closer investigation of the quotidian
routines of mobile communication by Chinese study mothers and their families in their home
country, with a particular focus on the contextual constraints that shape their transnational
communication practices and, in turn, their proactive strategies of negotiating family
intimacies in the face of such constraints.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Research method
For this study, an innovative ‘content-context diary’cum participant observation was
designed and conducted with ten Chinese study mothers of diverse sociocultural
backgrounds. Each participant was shadowed by the same researcher for two days, one
weekday and one weekend day; in this way, the research covered as many contexts of her
daily life as possible within the limited research period. Each observation lasted for 8 to 12
hours, according to the schedule and convenience of the participant. During the observation,
participants were told to behave naturally while the researcher accompanied them and
observed their mobile communication practices. After completing the two-day observation
process, each participant was given a shopping voucher as a token of appreciation. The
detailed research protocol was approved by the National University of Singapore’s
Institutional Review Board.
Participants were recruited through a combination of convenience sampling and snowball
sampling from multiple sources, including the researcher’s personal networks, instant
messaging groups that specifically catered to Chinese study mothers in Singapore and local
churches with Chinese fellowship groups. Participants were selected in order to achieve
diversity in demographic traits (e.g. age of child, years of relocation, type of employment,
etc.). Thus, the final sample was representative of the social group.
A researcher-administered ‘content-context diary’ was employed during the observation to
record both content- and context-related aspects of mobile communication. Specifically, the
content-related aspects included the correspondent and platform of communication, details of
the content exchanged, the mode of expression and so on; context-related aspects
encompassed the temporal and spatial settings of communication, the attitudes and emotions
involved, special behaviours and their meanings during mediated communication and so on.
Since the participants primarily spoke Mandarin, diary entries were maintained in English,
Chinese or a mixture of both during the fieldwork, and later transcribed into English.
Informal interviews were also incorporated into the observation to gather background
information and elicit the subjective opinions of participants when interesting issues emerged
from the research process.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Qualitative data collected from participant observation was analysed through the visual
technique of the culturagram (Congress, 1994, 2005). The culturagram is a multi-dimensional
family assessment tool that is employed by social workers to understand and intervene in
culturally diverse families, and it has proven to be particularly effective in identifying the
impact of cultural values and practices on family functioning (Brownell, 1997; Congress,
2005). The prototype culturagram model embraces ten sociocultural dimensions of family
life, including legal status, time in the community, family values and contact with
cultural/religious institutions (as shown in Figure 1).
Figure 1. Culturagram. (Congress, 2005)
For this study, the culturagram model was adapted for the particular life situation of the
Chinese study mothers in order to identify crucial factors in their transnational life that could
affect their daily routines and strategies of mediated communication. The adapted model, the
‘transnational culturagram’, encompassed 18 dimensions of transnational life, including:
demographic factors, such as residential status; subjective factors, such as motives for
relocation; relational factors, such as social activities; and life transition factors, such as
significant life events that preceded and/or accompanied the relocation (see Figure 2).
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Figure 2. Transnational culturagram.
Findings
In this chapter, we present the experiences of three of the ten mothers in our study,
representing different socioeconomic profiles. We seek to demonstrate how transnational life
situations posed significant constraints on the migrants expression of intimacies, while also
showing that the migrants could be highly creative in circumventing these contextual
limitations.
Ms Zhang: Multi-sited householding by a ‘digital immigrant’
Having relocated with her son in 2002, 49-year-old Ms Zhang was among the ‘first-wave’
Chinese study mothers in Singapore. As a lower-middle-class family, the Zhangs had to drain
their household savings and even borrow money from relatives to support the move. After
relocating to Singapore, Ms Zhang managed to find employment in the service sector, which
guaranteed her sufficient income to cover all of her expenses in the host country. Several
years later, her husband quit his job in China and joined his wife and son in Singapore.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
However, the joy of the family reunion did not last long, as Ms Zhang soon discovered that
her husband had become addicted to gambling and had squandered almost all of their hard-
earned savings. Bitterly disappointed in her husband’s impenitence, she moved out of their
home and planned to get divorced after her son’s graduation from college. A full snapshot of
Ms Zhang’s transnational life is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Transnational culturagram of Ms Zhang.
Ms Zhang had two mobile phones: an old-fashioned cell phone that had been given to her by
her employer for work purposes and a smartphone of her own. As a ‘digital immigrant’ with
low proficiency in ICTs, she utilised only very limited functions of both devices, and showed
a strong preference for more ‘traditional’ functions on the old-fashioned cell phone over
‘new’ platforms that were available on her smartphone for daily communication.
Due to her strained relationship with her husband, Ms Zhang seldom spoke to him, either in
person or through technological mediation, even though they lived in the same city. At the
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
time of the research, she was living separately from her son, yet remained updated on his
daily routines and provided real-time help when necessary via mediated communication. For
example, when she was preparing dinner for herself one evening, she remembered the shrimp
and sausages she had bought for him several days prior and paused what she was doing to
remind him, over WeChat, to cook the food without delay (see the excerpt from the content-
context diary in Figure 4).
Figure 4. Diary excerpt: Ms Zhang’s communication with her son.
Such short and sporadic conversations characterised the mediated communication between
Ms Zhang and her son. Her working conditions as a tea lady and in-home cleaner rendered it
impossible for her to maintain continuous contact with him. Moreover, since she lived in a
small maid’s room and shared the apartment with several other tenants, she tended to avoid
prolonged mediated conversations at home. In view of these obstacles, she relied more on
regular face-to-face communication with her son to maintain their intimate relationship.
Mobile communication played a supplementary role and was only utilised occasionally for
coordinating schedules and spontaneously chatting.
Although Ms Zhang managed to maintain a close relationship with her son, she found it
difficult to get emotional support from him after he became an independent adult. As the
years went on, extended family members increasingly constituted her main source of
emotional comfort. Mobile communication enabled her and her left-behind family to share
personal experiences at length, and hence secured for her constant companionship and
support during her ‘tough days’. For example, after she discovered her husband’s gambling
addiction, she made many phone calls to her aunt in Shanghai to pour out her feelings and
seek suggestions in dealing with this thorny issue:
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
She [my aunt] is the only person who can fully understand me […] I called her
immediately [after I found out about my husband’s gambling]. I cried and scolded him
[my husband]. She talked to me for more than two hours, comforting me throughout. She
also suggested that I talk to my husband calmly before making any hasty decisions […]
I really appreciated her. Without her, I might have done something irrational.
Besides strengthening long-distance intimacy with her family back home, mobile
communication also nurtured Ms Zhang’s intimate relationships in the host society. In
particular, her regular sharing of useful information and mundane experiences with local
friends and colleagues in the mediated space not only helped her to resolve everyday
challenges but, more importantly, granted her a sense of ‘being accompanied’.
Ms Yu: Negotiating a hectic schedule of work-life blending at home
Ms Yu was a 40-year-old mother of two boys, aged 13 and 2 at the time of research. In 2010,
her entire family resettled in Singapore in pursuit of a better education for her elder son. One
year later, her husband returned to China while she and her son remained in Singapore.
Compared with Ms Zhang, who had to work to make ends meet, Ms Yu was from an affluent
middle-class family and received sufficient financial support from her husband. However, she
decided to take on some part-time work, including a job as a direct seller of health products,
in order to relieve the burden on her husband. As a Christian, she participated in many
activities and made many good friends in church. A full snapshot of Ms Yu’s transnational
life is shown in Figure 5.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Figure 5: Transnational culturagram of Ms Yu.
As a full-time ‘single mother’ and a part-time homeworker, Ms Yu was located in a situation
of ‘work-life blending’ (Clark, 2000), wherein her already hectic family life was constantly
punctuated by work-related demands. In this context, mobile communication assumed crucial
significance in her daily juggling of work and family obligations. Through strategic
deployment of her smartphone, she was able to maintain intimate relationships with family
members back home, stay in contact with networks of local friends and colleagues and reach
out to increasing numbers of customers without stepping out of her house.
Rather than comprising merely routine greetings or discussions of major domestic affairs,
mediated communication between Ms Yu and her husband usually went deep into mundane
daily activities and feelings, relating to dinner plans, anecdotes about their children, the
weather and other topics. Considering her tight schedule, Ms Yu tended to use all available
‘fragmented time’ such as during her younger son’s afternoon nap and while cooking or
waiting for the bus to exchange messages with her husband. For example, when she
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
browsed group chats on WeChat during cooking, she found a new reading group for
Christians and recommended it to him immediately (see the diary excerpt in Figure 6).
Figure 6. Diary excerpt: Ms Yu’s communication with her husband.
Since Ms Yu’s husband was also very busy with his job in China, the fragmentary yet
continuous trickle of mediated communication was optimal for the spouses to reproduce
long-distance family intimacy on a daily basis, while minimising interruptions to their regular
schedules.
Beyond using mobile communication in the domestic sphere, Ms Yu also used mobile
communication to seek various forms of social support from larger social networks in the
host society. In particular, as a busy mother who spent most of her time at home, she relied
heavily on a series of WeChat group chats with church friends for companionship and
emotional comfort. Rather than discussing or solving practical problems, most conversations
in these groups comprised daily greetings or affective expressions (see examples in Figure 7).
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Figure 7. Ms Yu’s group chats on WeChat.
According to Ms Yu, the simple posts of Amen and Christ be with you built strong and
intimate bonds between the group members and afforded her a strong sense of belonging and
togetherness despite her relatively isolated life. In her own words, these virtual communities
served as a second home for her and her friends, where they could express their feelings
freely, without reservations.
Ms Gu: Transnational companionship on the webcam
Ms Gu, a 42-year-old mother of a 13-year-old son, had been in Singapore for three years at
the time of the research. As she came from an upper-middle-class family, abundant financial
support from her husband and other family members spared her the toil of taking on
unsatisfactory jobs and allowed her to fully concentrate on child-minding while enjoying a
rich social life in the host society. As a former high school English teacher in China, she had
good English proficiency, and this facilitated her quick adaptation and creation of local
networks in Singapore. A full snapshot of Ms Yu’s transnational life is shown in Figure 8.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Figure 8. Transnational culturagram of Ms Gu.
For Ms Gu and her husband, mutual virtual presence in each other’s customary routines was
their ‘default state’ of daily life after the relocation. Continuous mediated communication via
the smartphone and iPad, especially on WeChat, bridged the physical gulf between them and
allowed them to enjoy family life as if they were still living under the same roof. Most of the
time, their conversations whether in the form of video, voice or text were prosaic ‘small
talk’ without any practical purpose. For example, every evening Ms Gu ‘showed off’ pictures
of dinners she had cooked to her husband via WeChat (see examples in Figure 9). Over time,
‘sharing dinner’ became a habituated ‘family ritual’ between them, and often served as
preludes to long mediated conversations over the webcam.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Figure 9. Ms Gu’s WeChat conversations with her husband.
Compared to Ms Zhang and Ms Yu, whose daily routines largely hinged upon work-related
demands, Ms Gu had generous space-time flexibility in her family life. Moreover, living in
an apartment that was exclusive to her and her son, she also enjoyed a high degree of privacy
and freedom in her mobile communication. In this context, she often left the webcam on for
an extended period of time while engaging in domestic chores and personal activities, such as
cooking, having dinner and reading. For both sides, mediated communication was more of a
companionship that replicated an environment of ‘togetherness’ than a pragmatic tool for
information exchange. This virtual companionship could take place almost anytime and
anywhere. For example, when her husband was travelling late at night, Ms Gu stayed up until
he arrived at his destination and talked to him via webcam as he settled down (see the diary
excerpt in Figure 10).
Figure 10. Diary excerpt: Ms Gu’s communication with her husband.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
Continuous mediated communication also allowed Ms Gu and her husband to coordinate
domestic affairs such as decisions, online purchases and schedule confirmations in real time
and in vivid detail, regardless of their physical separation. For example, Ms Gu described
how they would ‘sit together’ to purchase airline tickets on a Chinese website:
My Singapore phone number could not receive the verification code, so I changed the
reception number to my husband’s [and booked tickets again]. After he received the code,
he forwarded it to me immediately, and I completed the purchase […] It was very quick,
less than two minutes in all. It was just like we were sitting together [to buy tickets].
Owing to her strong English proficiency and relatively ample free time, Ms Gu was among
the most ‘sociable’ study mothers. She participated actively in various local activities both
online and offline and sought to expand her social circles in the host society. Mobile
communication, which afforded Ms Gu a diversity of mediated interaction, boosted her
ability to foster local networks of both co-national and foreign friends. Hence, she could
effectively maintain intensive communication with several groups of Chinese friends on
WeChat and exchange information with them on many aspects of daily life, such as cooking,
children’s education, shopping and so on. At the same time, she also participated in a variety
of WhatsApp groups and email lists to remain updated on the latest news about local
activities, such as hiking trips, lectures and religious activities.
Discussion and conclusion
The three cases presented above show that mobile ICTs particularly smartphones, which are
assemblages of early ICTs (Madianou, 2014) were woven deeply into the fabric of the
Chinese study mothers’ quotidian routines and constituted indispensable parts of their family
and social lives. Specifically, mobile communication served as a digital ‘bridge of magpies’
for these mothers, linking them to both left-behind family and local communities, and thus
facilitating the reconstitution of transnational family intimacies and the nurturance of new
social networks in the host society. In the face of various contextual constraints, these
mothers developed idiosyncratic strategies for mediated communication according to their
unique life situations, in order to perform multiple gender roles (such as mother, wife,
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
daughter and friend) and to properly negotiate the complexity of social relationships in line
with each of these roles.
In accordance with previous research, mobile communication was found to assume crucial
significance for the transnational families in recreating the warmth of domesticity and
maintaining affective bonds despite vast geographical distances (e.g. Parreñas, 2005;
Wilding, 2006). The trickle of ‘emotional streaming’ (King-O’Riain, 2015), although
piecemeal and prosaic, allowed information and emotions to flow smoothly across national
borders, and thus reproduced family intimacies on a daily basis. While there seemed to be a
universal desire for maintaining long-distance intimacy, routines and outcomes of
transnational communication varied according to economic and sociocultural backgrounds
(see also Parreñas, 2005). In the transnational context, in particular, each individual or
household has a unique social position from which a certain amount of human resources can
be accessed, while structural constraints are imposed (Anthias, 2002; Plüss, 2013). These
constraints, which derive from diverse axes such as gender, nationality and social class, both
delimit the possibilities for transnational families to practise mediated communication and, at
the same time, encourage them to develop novel strategies for articulating intimacy (Clark,
2012; Parreñas, 2005).
For the Chinese study mothers, in particular, the principal constraints of mobile
communication did not lie in economic concerns such as those relating to the availability
and affordability of ICTs (see also Madianou, 2014; Madianou and Miller, 2012) but rather
in a series of contextual factors tied to their daily routines. In this research, we identified
three main dimensions of constraints that created significant obstacles to mediated intimacy:
spatial, temporal and social constraints. Spatial constraints emerged when access to and the
convenience of using mobile ICTs were restricted by immediate spatial settings in which a
person was embedded. As in Ms Zhang’s case, her isolated work conditions and her shared
apartment rendered it impossible for her to maintain constant and unconstrained contact with
her loved ones. Temporal constraints became evident when the routines of mediated
communication were in tension with or interrupted by other obligations. For example, in Ms
Yu’s case, her hectic schedule as a mother of two children and part-time seller left her very
little time for daily communication. Social constraints were shaped by social norms, policies
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (2018). Mediating intimacies through mobile
communication: Chinese migrant mothers’ digital ‘bridge of magpies’. In R. Andreassen, M. N.
Petersen, K. Harrison, & T. Raun (Eds.), Mediated Intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and
proximities (pp. 159-178). London: Routledge.
and household power relations. For most of the mothers in this study, their primary role as
full-time mothers in Singapore and their difficulty in finding local employment confined
them to the domestic sphere, and this narrowed their range of mediated relationships.
Nevertheless, although these study mothers were initially circumscribed by various
contextual constraints, they did not remain so. Over time, they manifested strong agency and
creativity that enabled them to circumvent the constraints that were imposed on them and
developed strategies to maximise mediated intimacies with any available resource. For
example, in the face of spatial constraints, Ms Zhang established regular communication
routines with her son and sought to replace mediated interaction with face-to-face interaction.
Similarly, Ms Yu made good use of fragmented time to maintain a thin yet steady trickle of
conversations with her husband in light of temporal constraints. As for the social constraints
derived from their isolated life experiences, most of the mothers chose to actively approach
local networks of co-national friends online for instrumental and emotional support. Indeed,
the seemingly marginalised and powerless positions of these mothers actually compelled and
impelled them to explore more possibilities for nurturing diverse forms of mediated
intimacies and, as a result, led them to perform their roles as mothers, wives, daughters and
friends in the transnational context more successfully.
Through an in-depth qualitative research method and a comprehensive evaluation of the
panoply of factors that influence the transnational migrant existence, this chapter has sought
to shed light on an understudied transnational migrant population with very specific
sociocultural and contextual constraints. Our study has further identified the complex of
social-temporal-spatial constraints that significantly impinge on mediated communication
practices and personalised strategies for circumventing these limitations in order to build and
sustain intimacies.
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... going children to pursue education in Singapore (Huang & Yeoh, 2005, 2011Wang & Lim, 2018). ...
... Becoming de facto 'single mothers' after transnational relocation, they are faced with broadened parenting obligations and domestic workloads, while at the same time being expected to continue fulfilling family responsibilities and maintaining affective bonds with left-behind family members. ICTs, which enable the flow of information, emotions and care to straddle geographical boundaries, thus play a critical role in these women's everyday negotiation of transnational family relationships (Wang & Lim, 2018). ...
... Empirical data presented in the case study was collected from 40 study mothers through ethnographic methods including participant observation, semi-structured interviews and media diary (see also Wang, 2020;Wang & Lim, 2018). Analysis of qualitative data reveals that the Chinese migrant mothers studied were living a polymedia lifestyle where on the one hand, they benefit from technological affordances This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ...
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Transnational mothers working in foreign countries face the challenges of providing ?intensive? mothering to their children from a distance, and risk being subject to the ?deviancy? discourse of mothering. This paper investigates the role of mobile phone usage, via voice, text messages, and social networking sites, in dealing with the tensions and ambivalence arising from transnational mothering as a dialectical process. We surveyed 42 Filipina and Indonesian foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods. FDWs addressed tensions arising out of societal expectations of motherhood and their own anxieties about children?s well-being. The reluctant obsessive struggled to maintain a balance between an intensive nurturing style and a deviant mode of mothering that respected the growing independence of the children. The diverted professional had to balance the financial empowerment of being the primary breadwinner with the risk of surrogate motherhood for the employer?s children subsuming the care provided to her own. The remote-control parent shared mothering responsibilities with caregivers, usually relatives, who acted as a contradictory proxy presence for intensive mothering. The incomplete union of stressed marital parenting put further pressure on the romantic and sexual identities of migrant women. Transnational mothers utilized mobile phones actively as a tool to negotiate and redefine identities and relationships that created fissures in their sense of self. These included the management of third-party relationships, withholding of emotions or information, and engaging in counterintuitive phenomenon such as restricting, or actively dis-engaging from, mobile phone usage as a communication strategy. The paper calls for future research into the multiple, and interacting, social identities assumed and managed by transnational mothers, and the complex role played by mobile phones in the constant process of negotiation by agentic, self-relective and multifaceted women.
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