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ICTs and Transnational Householding: The Double Burden of Polymedia Connectivity for International "Study Mothers"

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Abstract

In contemporary society, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are widely cherished for helping transnational households preserve a coherent sense of familyhood despite geographical separation. By virtue of the constant connectivity bestowed by ICTs, international migrants and their left-behind family members can remain involved in the mundane experiences of each other's everyday lives and perform familial responsibilities from afar on a daily basis. However, the same polymedia environment that serves as the 'social glue of transnationalism' can also bring about deficiencies and potential negative implications for family functioning and well-being of family members. Drawing on both literature review and empirical evidence, this chapter seeks to provide a comprehensive insight into the dual role of ICTs in shaping life experiences of transnational families. The empirical case study presented in the chapter is derived from a two-year ethnographic research on ICT domestication by a group of Chinese migrant mothers in Singapore.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
ICTs and Transnational Householding: The Double Burden of
Polymedia Connectivity for International “Study Mothers”
By Yang Wang
1
& Sun Sun Lim
2
Abstract
In contemporary society, information and communication technologies (ICTs)
are widely cherished for helping transnational households preserve a coherent sense of
familyhood despite geographical separation. By virtue of the constant connectivity
bestowed by ICTs, international migrants and their left-behind family members can
remain involved in the mundane experiences of each other’s everyday lives and perform
familial responsibilities from afar on a daily basis. However, the same polymedia
environment that serves as the ‘social glue of transnationalism’ can also bring about
deficiencies and potential negative implications for family functioning and well-being of
family members. Drawing on both literature review and empirical evidence, this chapter
seeks to provide a comprehensive insight into the dual role of ICTs in shaping life
experiences of transnational families. The empirical case study presented in the chapter
is derived from a two-year ethnographic research on ICT domestication by a group of
Chinese migrant mothers in Singapore.
Keywords: information and communication technologies (ICTs), transnational
communication, mediated communication, transnational householding, ethnography
1
Yang Wang, Singapore University of Technology and Design, yang_wang@sutd.edu.sg
2
Sun Sun Lim, Singapore University of Technology and Design, sumlim@sutd.edu.sg
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
Introduction
Over the past several decades, the growing accessibility of information and
communication technologies (ICTs), especially the mobile phone and the internet, have
emancipated people from temporal and spatial constraints, and brought about
unprecedented flexibilities in social communication (Fortunati, 2002; Turkle, 2011). For
transnationally split households, ICTs assume particularly crucial roles as they
constitute the only viable way to keep affective family bonds alive after physical
separation (Paragas, 2009; Vertovec, 2004; Wilding, 2006). ICT-mediated
communication, which enables information, emotions and care to transcend national
boundaries, allows distant family members to stay updated on one another’s emotional
well-being and provide instrumental help anytime and anywhere (Parreñas, 2005; Uy-
Tioco, 2007; Madianou & Miller, 2011; Baldassar, 2016).
Despite hallowed expectations around ICTs sustaining long-distance intimacy,
transnational communication via ICTs are not without burdens. Indeed, they may also
herald detrimental implications for family relationships. In particular, the “polymedia
(Madianou & Miller, 2012) environment imposes an obligation of constant availability
for mediated communication, and thus brings about emotional burdens and guilt of
family members who are unable or unwilling to maintain virtual co-presence (e.g.,
Baldassar, 2016; Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016; Peng & Wong, 2013; Wilding, 2006). This
constant connectivity afforded by ICTs also give rise to digital surveillance of one
another’s whereabouts and daily life routines between transnational family members
(e.g, Cabanes & Acedera, 2012; Chib, Malik, Aricat, & Kadir, 2014; Hannaford, 2015;
Madianou, 2016). Moreover, ICTs can also introduce new dimensions of inequalities
between transnational family members in terms of differential accessibility to
technological infrastructures, quality of communication digital skills and so forth (e.g,
Benítez, 2012; Cabalquinto, 2018; Horst, 2006; Lim, 2016; Parreñas, 2005).
In view of the equivocal implications of ICT-mediated communication for
transnational households, this chapter seeks to provide a comprehensive insight into
the role of ICTs in shaping life experiences of transnational families and their members.
The analysis draws on both literature review and empirical evidence. Specifically, we
bring together and review previous research on ICTs, mediated communication and
long-distance intimacy, with special focus on various efforts to stay in perpetual contact
with remote family members and the emergence of burdens, tensions as well as
inequalities during transnational communication. The empirical case study presented in
the chapter is derived from a two-year ethnographic research on ICT domestication by a
group of Chinese migrant mothers in Singapore.
ICTs as the ‘Social Glue of Transnationalism’: Virtual Co-Presence and
Polymedia Affordances
After transnational relocation, mediated communication through ICTs becomes
the only viable option for physically split households to keep alive affective family
bonds (Horst, 2006; Paragas, 2009; Wilding, 2006). By virtue of the constant
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
connectivity bestowed by ICTs, international migrants and their left-behind family
members can remain involved in the mundane experiences of each other’s everyday
lives and perform familial responsibilities from afar on a daily basis (Parreñas, 2005;
Wilding, 2006; Uy-Tioco, 2007; Madianou & Miller, 2011; Baldassar, 2016). Therefore,
ICTs are widely venerated as the ‘social glue of transnationalism’ (Vertovec, 2004)
which helps to preserve a coherent sense of familyhood characterized by collective
memories, goals and welfare (Bryceson & Vuorela, 2002; Bacigalupe & Lambe, 2011).
According to previous studies, mediated communication strategies deployed by
international migrants and their remote loved ones are largely determined by the
technologies available in the context of certain eras (Wilding, 2006). There has been a
transition from delayed and non-interactive connections such as cassette tapes and
telegrams, to sporadic and expensive interactions through landline telephones, and all
the way to synchronous and flexible communication via the internet and mobile devices.
With this evolving panoply of technological tools, virtual co-presence via ICTs has
become the habitual lifestyle of many contemporary transnational households
(Madianou & Miller, 2012; Madianou, 2014; Wilding, 2006). With advanced ICTs,
especially videocall software such as Skype, migrants and their left-behind families are
able to ‘live stream’ each other’s daily routines in a shared mediated space where
information and emotions are reciprocated in a rich and continual manner as if they still
live together (Wilding, 2006; King-O’Riain, 2015; Longhurst, 2015).
Research on ICTs and transnational communication has delved extensively into
the ways in which transnational family members incorporate a variety of ICTs into their
daily routines to reconstitute family intimacies. A major strand of current literature on
ICTs and transnational householding delves into the renegotiation of parenthood,
especially motherhood, in transnational families with children staying behind in their
home countries. For migrant mothers, geographical relocation is always accompanied
by the deviation from traditional gender ideologies of being major caregivers and
nurturers for their children, which not only brings about emotional pain and a sense of
guilt, but also causes tensions in their relationships with children and other family
members back home (Parreñas, 2005; Fresnoza-Flot, 2009; Chib et al., 2014).
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 on a
daily or even hourly basis (Uy-Tioco, 2007; Madianou, 2012; Peng & Wong, 2013). They
rely heavily on a variety of ICTs to carry out regular conversations with their left-behind
children so as to stay updated on their physical and emotional well-being. These
mediated mothering practices often go into extremely detailed aspects of everyday life
such as waking them up in the morning and saying goodnight before going to bed,
checking their dressing and appearance for school, reminding them to have meals and
take medicine on time, as well as providing comfort when they are depressed (Parreñas,
2005; Uy-Tioco, 2007; Madianou & Miller, 2011; Madianou, 2012; Peng & Wong, 2013;
Chib et al., 2014).
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
Apart from ritual and emotional interactions, migrant mothers also provide
instrumental and practical assistance in their children’s educational and professional
lives. Specifically, mothers with school-age children tend to take advantage of the
simultaneous communications enabled by advanced ICTs to provide real-time guidance
in their homework (Parreñas, 2005; Madianou, 2012; Chib et al., 2014). Mothers with
adult children, in the same vein, often share work experiences and provide practical
advice on professional development to their children (Peng & Wong, 2013). In the event
that their children get into trouble or encounter unfair treatment in their home country,
migrant mothers can also advocate for their children and safeguard their rights via ICTs
(Peng & Wong, 2013).
In a similar vein, transnationally separated couples are also found to employ a
variety of ICTs to keep abreast of each other’s daily activities and reproduce conjugal
intimacies across vast geographical distances. Specifically, they can ‘hang out’ and enjoy
daily conversations with each other in mediated spaces in which sharing mundane
bittersweet occurrences in everyday life and expressing love to compensate for the
missing ‘face-to-face’ contact (Aguila, 2009; Neustaedter & Greenberg, 2012; King-
O’Riain, 2015). Moreover, transnational relocation of one partner usually requires
couples to reconstitute long-standing familial obligations and routines. Simultaneous
communications via ICTs allow real-time coordination around family matters between
distant husbands and wives, and thus facilitate the smooth functioning of family life
despite the physical separation (Cabanes & Acedera, 2012; Kang, 2012; Peng & Wong,
2013).
With the wide prevalence of smart ICT devices and proliferation of digital
applications, transnational households are increasingly enveloped by an environment of
polymedia(Madianou & Miller, 2012) wherein ICTs of different functionalities
coexist and combine to offer integrated multi-faceted structure of affordances. Living a
polymedia life, transnational families can strategically mobilize a constellation of ICTs
to meet different communication needs and appropriately manage intimate
relationships (Madianou, 2014; Madianou & Miller, 2012; Wilding, 2006)
For instance, webcam software such as Skype and Facetime are particularly
suitable for intensive ‘deep conversations’ where distant family members participate in
each other’s everyday routines and provide real-time emotional support in a quasi-face-
to-face manner (Cabalquinto, 2017; Francisco, 2013; King-O’Riain, 2015; Longhurst,
2015). By keeping webcams on, they know that their loved ones are ‘right there’ for
them, ready to talk, listen and respond, even though they engage in different tasks
respectively without exchanging a word for hours (Francisco, 2013; King-O’Riain, 2015;
Longhurst, 2015). Meanwhile, text-based communication such as SMS, instant
messaging and emails, are used as complements for visual and audial interactions to
maintain continual greetings, updates and coordination (Peng & Wong, 2013; Thomas &
Lim, 2011; Uy-Tioco, 2007; Vancea & Olivera, 2013). In addition, many transnational
families also stay in ‘ambient co-presence’ on social network sites like Facebook and
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
Twitter to get a sense of one another’s quotidian bittersweet moments even without
direct interaction (Madianou, 2016).
ICTs without Guarantee of Positive Implications: Burdens, Tensions
and Inequalities
Despite hallowed expectations around ICTs strengthening long-distance
intimacy, some transnational households acknowledge the inherent technological
deficiencies and have concerns about their potential negative implications for family
functioning and the well-being of family members.
In particular, the constant connectivity afforded by ICTs means far less than the
immediate company of loved ones, especially when mediated interactions are reduced
to mere rituals without intensive emotional investment (Madianou & Miller, 2011;
Cabanes & Acedera, 2012; Vancea & Olivera, 2013). Even when transnational family
members manage to provide visual companionship to each other and engage in real-
time emotional exchanges with webcam applications, they still fail to enjoy full intimacy
in the mediated space since they cannot physically touch, hug or kiss each other
(Madianou, 2012; King-O’Riain, 2015). Sometimes it is precisely the simulated
togetherness that reminds them of actual geographical distances lying between them,
and thus engenders accentuated feelings of guilt, anxiety and loneliness on both sides
(Parreñas, 2005; Wilding, 2006; Uy-Tioco, 2007; King-O’Riain, 2015; Baldassar, 2016).
Moreover, while the polymedia environment grants migrants unprecedented
opportunities for constant connection with remote loved ones, it also brings about
emotional burdens of constant availability for mediated interactions (Horst, 2006;
Longhurst, 2015; Su, 2015). Typically, after long periods of physical separation, some
members of transnational families may have less motivation to share life stories with
each other (Thomas & Lim, 2011; Cabanes & Acedera, 2012; Peng & Wong, 2013). In
this context, over-enthusiasm and high expectations of reciprocity by certain family
members in transnational communications often become burdens for their remote
loved ones (Wilding, 2006; Baldassar, 2016; Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016). For example,
children of transnational families often lament that their parents constantly request
mediated communication and intervene excessively in their daily routines (Madianou &
Miller, 2011; Longhurst, 2013; Nedelcu & Wyss, 2016; Pham & Lim, 2016). In a similar
vein, migrant mothers were also burdened by continuous family responsibilities as
mother, wife, daughter, sister etc. due to the increasing availability of long-distance
communication (Rakow & Navarro, 1993; Thomas & Lim, 2011; Baldassar, 2016).
Virtual co-presence, instead of facilitating the re-negotiation of household power
relations and labour division, often renders migrants and their family members to be
virtually ‘thrust back’ into their family lives and hold on to their previous family roles
(Uy-Tioco, 2007; Cabanes & Acedera, 2012; Madianou, 2012).
The constant connectivity bestowed by the affordances of polymedia can also
descend into digital surveillance when transnational family members utilize various
ICTs to monitor daily behaviours of left-behind children or spouses. Specifically, some
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
migrant mothers tend to closely monitor the whereabouts and media use of their left-
behind children, even to the extent of scrutinising every corner of their rooms through
webcam, checking their emails and having access to their passwords to online
platforms, which children regard as an invasion of privacy and denial of autonomy
(Madianou, 2012, 2016; Francisco, 2013; Chib et al., 2014; Yoon, 2016). As for separated
couples, ICTs also served as watchful eyes for interrogation into their dressing styles,
physical movements, financial arrangements, social interactions and so forth, which
tend to exacerbate estrangement and tensions between them instead of generating
emotional closeness (Cabanes & Acedera, 2012; Hannaford, 2015).
Economic burdens of international migrants can also become aggravated due to
the increasing convenience of transnational communication via ICTs. Especially with the
prevalence of the mobile phone, migrants nowadays remain constantly accessible to
their left-behind children and other relatives in the homeland who keep making
financial and material demands such as asking for additional remittances or expensive
gifts (Barber, 2008; Peng & Wong, 2013; Tazanu, 2015). In this sense, the possibility of
real-time communication actually creates more burdens and anxieties to the already
stressful life of migrants instead of providing emotional comforts and support (Barber,
2008; Peng & Wong, 2013; Tazanu, 2015).
Apart from emotional and economic burdens, ICTs are also found to create new
inequalities within transnational households. Living in different geographical and socio-
cultural contexts, transnational family members often have differential access to and
experiences of using ICTs, which brings about various inequalities in mediated family
communication as well as household power hierarchies (Benítez, 2012; Parreñas, 2005;
Plüss, 2013). Specifically, previous studies have scrutinized different accessibility to ICT
infrastructures between migrants and their left-behind families, usually with the former
enjoying superior connectivity and higher quality of mediated communication than the
latter (e.g., Cabalquinto, 2018; Cheong & Mitchell, 2016; Madianou, 2014; Parreñas,
2005). Gaps in digital skills and competency are also widely noted within transnational
households where women and elder family members tend to be less technologically
savvy and consequently marginalized in family communication (e.g., Kang, 2012; Pham
& Lim, 2016). In addition, the increasingly convenient coordination of remittances also
contributes to establishing and reinforcing authority and power hierarchies in the
household (e.g., Madianou, 2012, 2014; Mckay, 2007; Parreñas, 2005). These
inequalities, either clearly recognized or remain unconscious to transnational families,
can trigger self-deprecation and sense of insecurity among disadvantaged family
members, which in turn, undermine family cohesion over time.
Transnational Householding of Chinese ‘Study Mothers’: A Case Study
To better illustrate the ambivalent implications of ICTs for transnational
householding, we will present a case study on ICT use and transnational family
communication of Chinese ‘study mothers’ (‘peidu mama’) who accompany their school-
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
going children to pursue education in Singapore (Huang & Yeoh, 2005, 2011; Wang &
Lim, 2018).
Study mothers originate from the burgeoning family arrangement of ‘education
migration’ among middle- and upper-middle-class households across East Asia. In
typical households undertaking education migration, mothers uproot and resettle along
with their children who receive education in more developed, typically English-
speaking countries, while the fathers remain in the home country to continue working
and provide financial support (Huang & Yeoh, 2005; Lee, 2010; Waters, 2002). This
trend is widely witnessed among middle- and upper-middle-class households across
Asia, including ‘astronaut families’ from Hong Kong and Taiwan (e.g., Chee, 2003;
Waters, 2002), ‘kirogi families’ from South Korea (e.g., Jeong et al., 2014; Lee, 2010), and
peidu families’ from Mainland China (e.g, Huang & Yeoh, 2005, 2011; Wang & Lim,
2017).
For peidu families, Singapore is one of the most popular destinations due to its
cultural proximity to Chinese society, bilingual education system (English with
Malay/Mandarin/Tamil), incentive schemes for foreign students and their care-givers,
as well as their relative affordability (Huang & Yeoh 2005, 2011). Chinese peidu mama
started to flock to Singapore in rising numbers after the Singapore government issued a
special type of long-term social visit pass to ‘Mother or Grandmother of a child or
grandchild studying in Singapore on a Student’s Pass’ (website of Singapore
‘Immigration & Checkpoint Authority’). This gendered immigration policy classifies the
study mothers as dependents but also nurturers of their children, and their legal status
terminates once their children quit the overseas education or enter college. Therefore,
unlike business or skilled immigrants who enter the destination country on their own
steam as citizens or potential citizens, study mothers mostly remain as ‘transient
sojourners’ (Huang & Yeoh, 2005) who are marginalized in the host society and prepare
to return to their homeland upon their children finishing studies abroad.
Compared to their husbands who retain their existing jobs and social
relationships, study mothers tend to pay a higher price for education migration as they
disrupt their lives and sacrifice their own career aspirations, social lives and conjugal
intimacy to care for their children (Chee, 2003; Huang & Yeoh, 2005; Jeong et al., 2014).
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). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
of various ICTs to maintain long-distant intimacy and seek emotional supports, while on
the other hand, also experienced multifarious emotional burdens and digital
asymmetries originating from transnational communication.
The bright side of ICTs: affective streaming, transnational coordination and
emotional compartmentalization
In the face of physical separation of households, the study mothers in this case
study relied heavily on mediated communication to ‘stream’ their quotidian life
experiences to their remote family members and properly coordinate multi-sited family
life. Multifarious ICT devices and applications, each providing different technological
affordances and deployed for different communication needs, were woven seamlessly
into the fabrics of participants’ transnational lives and helped them to negotiate family
intimacies from afar.
For most study mothers in the current study, constant ‘streaming’ of quotidian
life experiences to each other had become the default state of their transnational life
(Wilding, 2006; King-O’Riain, 2015; Longhurst, 2015). Specifically, they reported
continual or at least regular conversations via ICTs with their families back home,
especially their left-behind husbands, to stay updated with each other’s physical and
emotional well-being. Instead of merely routinized greetings or discussions of
important family events, these conversations mostly went deeply into mundane
activities or feelings in their everyday lives such as what they ate for dinner, interesting
stories they had heard, the weather and the like. The virtual presence of absent family
members allowed information and emotions to flow smoothly across geographical
borders, and thus reproduce and renegotiate family relationships on a continual basis.
Video calls were identified by many study mothers as their favourite approach
of mediated communication with their left-behind family members. The visual
affordances of webcams allowed participants and their remote loved ones to actually
‘see’ each other and engage in collective activities despite vast geographical distances
(Wilding, 2006; King-O’Riain, 2015; Longhurst, 2015). During the observations, many
participants were found to leave the webcam on for an extended period of time while
engaging in domestic chores or other activities at home. Instead of being fully
concentrated on the mediated conversations with their husbands or other close family
members, they engaged in sports, replied to messages, performed skin care routines,
undertook domestic chores and so forth along with discreet chatting, as if they were still
living together and talking to each other from time to time. For both parties, this ‘half-
hearted’ visual communication created the perceived reality of tangible involvement in
each other’s quotidian bittersweet encounters and a reassurance of togetherness
without disrupting their regular life rhythms (Wilding, 2006; King-O’Riain, 2015;
Longhurst, 2015).
Prolonged video calls were also supplemented by other mediated
communication approaches, including voice and text messages, photos, hyperlinks,
emojis and so on, to stay in continual or at least regular contact between study mothers
and family members, especially when spatial and temporal conditions did not permit
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
face-to-face or visualization interactions. A typical scenario is the tradition of ‘food
show’ practiced by many participants wherein they and their far-away family members,
usually their husbands, took photos of every meal they had and exchanged these photos
in a real-time manner (Wilding, 2006; King-O’Riain, 2015; Longhurst, 2015). Photos of
daily clothing, natural landscapes, public events and so on were also frequently
reciprocated via IM or SNS platforms, which allowed them to keep abreast of each
other’s mundane life experiences even without direct mediated interactions. Besides
photos, these mothers were also found to share interesting or useful hyperlinks, videos,
stories, riddles and so on with their remote loved ones. For transnational families like
them, more important than the specific photos or fragmentary information exchanged
was the continual existence of the interaction itself.
Apart from the aimless ‘small talk’ demonstrated above, transnational
households of study mothers also employed ICTs to coordinate family activities and
provide instrumental help for each other across vast geographical distances (Cabanes &
Acedera, 2012; Kang, 2012; Peng & Wong, 2013). Owing to the synchronized
interactions enabled by ICTs, the majority of domestic affairs, such as decision making,
online purchase, schedule confirmation and so on, can all be negotiated and solved
collectively between transnational family members in a real-time and precise manner.
During the participant observation, such transnational coordination process often
happened naturally and smoothly, without distracting other daily tasks of both sides.
For example, when a participant coordinated with her husband to buy airline tickets
back home, they virtually ‘sat together’ to solve a series of problems including selecting
the optimal air route, entering passenger information online, re-sending the verification
code, downloading a digital itinerary etc. The entire coordination process happened on
WeChat through a combination of video call and text messages. Neither of them sensed
any inconvenience despite the vast physical distances between them.
Unlike migrants from less-well-off backgrounds, such as refugees and foreign
domestic workers who could not always access or afford ICTs (e.g., Cabalquinto, 2018;
Parreñas, 2005; Wilding, 2012), the study mothers in this study hailed from relatively
well-off middle-class families and were unconstrained by such issues. Instead, these
migrant mothers were located in an integrated environment of ‘polymedia’ where the
social, cultural and emotional considerations of choosing between multiple ICTs are
more salient than prosaic issues of cost and access (Madianou & Miller, 2012). In their
transnational communication routines, these migrant mothers created idiosyncratic
personal repertoires of ICT use in which each ICT device or platform is attached with
unique symbolic meanings, and multiple available ICTs are strategically deployed in an
alternate manner to manage various relationships. In particular, they were found to
compartmentalize their mediated communication according to cultural inclinations,
potential audiences and technological affordances of different ICTs (see also Wang &
Lim, forthcoming).
In the context of mediated family communication, study mothers demonstrated
strong capabilities in identifying implicit emotional cues of different ICTs and selecting
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
the most appropriate communication approaches in different circumstances. For
instance, visual and voice calls, which are known to facilitate ‘focused interactions’
(Burchell, 2015), were commonly used by these mothers when they were eager to
express strong feelings and affection to intimate family members (see also Longhurst,
2013, 2015; King-O’Riain, 2015). By contrast, IM and SNS platforms, which often convey
‘frequent and short interactions’ (Licoppe, 2004) and ‘ambient co-presence’ (Madianou,
2016), were likely to be chosen when they wanted to exchange pragmatic and
fragmentary information without devoting intense emotions (see also Licoppe, 2004;
Köhl and Götzenbrucker, 2014; Longhurst, 2015).
Apart from choosing among multiple ICTs, the participants also made the most
of the polymedia affordances to adjust mediated communication routines in terms of
content, tones, gestures, form of expression and so on. For example, when a participant
shared photos taken at her and her child’s volunteer activity, she was found to share
dozens of unadulterated photos with her husband via WeChat on an ongoing basis,
while posting only three elaborately embellished photos in her family chat group
comprising more than 20 extended family members. Such compartmentalized photo
sharing routines allowed her to negotiate the most appropriate emotional distances
with different family members. With her husband, who was her most intimate family
member, she could freely ‘spam’ him massive amounts of ‘useless’ information without
concerns about timing and quality of sharing. With relatively less-intimate relatives, she
chose to project herself as a well-groomed and considerate person who was willing to
disclose her life experiences yet not inundate her friends with too many personal issues.
When ICTs backfire: emotional labours of constant connectivity and digital
asymmetries
Whilst ICTs and the polymedia lifestyle bestow unprecedented opportunities to
sustain long-distance intimacy, they also introduce new burdens and dilemmas (e.g.,
Horst, 2006; Parreñas, 2005). In the case of Chinese study mothers, physical distance
with left-behind family members did not exempt them from fulfilling family obligations,
but rather exacerbated their workloads of transnational coordination and multi-cultural
navigation. Therefore, many participants had experienced circumstances where
transnational communication with remote family members translated into burdensome
undertakings.
For these migrant mothers, the possibility of constant connectivity via ICTs
actually imposes an obligation of constant participation in or at least availability for
mediated interactions, and poses threats to family intimacy whenever an expected
interaction does not happen or fails to gain sufficient concentration (see also Burchell,
2015; Licoppe, 2004; Longhurst, 2015; Su, 2015). During participant observation, many
participants engaged seamlessly in family decision making and daily small chats with
their left-behind family members, especially their husbands, parents and siblings, on an
hourly basis with a combination of video calls, voice and text messages, photos,
hyperlinks and so on. Specifically, they were found to coordinate various mundane
affairs in real-time, such as buying new clothes, house renovation, itinerary planning,
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
and provide greetings, congratulations and emotional support whenever something
delightful or sad happened to their relatives. Such virtual companionship constantly
reminded study mothers of their family roles as wives, (grand)daughters, sisters, nieces
for their far-away loved ones, and brought about stresses when they were perceived as
‘incompetent’ in fulfilling related family obligations.
For instance, physical absence could no longer exempt these migrant mothers
from the obligation of emotionally supporting their family members due to the wide
availability of real-time mediated communication. It was not rare to see them suspend
work tasks or domestic chores to send congratulatory messages and digital ‘red packets’
(a function of WeChat for small amounts of monetary exchange) to relatives who
announced good news such as weddings, children’s entrance into good high schools and
moving into new homes. Failure in promptly responding to such joyful events would
relegate the participants to be regarded as indifferent and ungrateful by the entire
family. Similar stresses also emerge when the participants were constantly asked by
left-behind family members to help purchase commodities from abroad. Compared to
asking for remittances or gifts, which brings economic burdens to international
migrants (e.g., Barber, 2008; Peng & Wong, 2013; Tazanu, 2015), their new role as
‘purchasing agent’ tended to trigger more emotional strains and tensions to family
relationships, especially when they failed to find the requested items or to buy them at
the expected low price.
The constant connectivity bestowed by ICTs also gave rise to the emotional
labour of constant performativity (see also Wang & Lim, forthcoming). In particular,
many study mothers reported feeling burdened by the perpetual pressure of
appropriate self-presentation in transnational communication. Uprooted from the
homeland to venture into unfamiliar foreign terrain, these mothers often feel obliged to
display a strong and optimistic image in front of their left-behind kin, so as to gain
respect from them and alleviate their concerns and anxiety. As a result, they made
efforts to present the brightest and happiest side of their everyday lives during
mediated communication, usually to the extent of hiding all the negative emotions and
concertedly tuning their modes of expression. For example, in the aforementioned case
of compartmentalized photo sharing, the participant embellished photos before sharing
in family chat group to present remote relatives a well-groomed and happy
transnational life, even though she was indeed tired of such ‘face work’. Although
similar emotional labours existed long before the prevalence of advanced ICTs, the
increasingly convenient and synchronized mediated communication have made it a day-
to-day emotional undertaking for contemporary transnational households.
Another common challenge faced by study mothers concerns their efforts to
properly choose among and alternate between multiple ICT platforms for mediated
family communication. As previously mentioned, in the integrated environment of
polymedia affordances, different ICT platforms have different cultural inclinations and
potential audiences, thus engendering different norms and expectations of mediated
interactions. In this context, some study mothers can be trapped by ‘context collapse’
(Davis & Jurgenson, 2014; Marwick & Boyd, 2011) when they brought seemingly
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
inappropriate contents or expressions from one mediated context to another (see also
Wang & Lim, forthcoming). A typical example of context collapse was the ‘misuse’ of
English during family communication. Several participants complained about their
unpleasant experiences of being misunderstood by their left-behind kin as ‘show-off’
when she unconsciously mixed English words in their mediated conversations on
WeChat or other China-based ICT platforms where Chinese was perceived as the
‘appropriate language’.
Apart from emotional labours derived from the polymedia and perpetual
connectivity lifestyle, ICTs also created new dimensions of inequalities within
transnational households. Unlike many other transnational families suffering from
unequal access to ICT infrastructures and quality of mediated communication (e.g.,
Cabalquinto, 2018; Cheong & Mitchell, 2016; Madianou, 2014; Parreñas, 2005), the
study mothers and their remote family members were beleaguered by more invisible
and nuanced ‘digital asymmetries’ (Lim, 2016) characterized by gaps in routines,
emotional experiences as well as outcomes of ICT use (Wang & Lim, forthcoming). In
particular, digital asymmetries could emerge when a study mother resorted to asking
her adolescent child to set up video calls with remote family members (competency
asymmetry), while she waited a long time to receive a perfunctory greeting from her
left-behind husband (expectation asymmetry), and when she unconsciously arranged
every video call according to the work schedule of her husband instead of her own
preferences and needs (autonomy asymmetry). Whilst these asymmetrical mediated
routines sometimes remained invisible even to the participants themselves, they could
indeed trigger frustration and disappointment in certain family members, and in turn,
damage family intimacy in the long run.
Conclusion
In this chapter, we present extant literature and empirical data on both benefits
and burdens of transnational communication, which help to understand not only the
role of ICTs in maintaining long-distant relationships, but also potential emotional
labours and asymmetries that might emerge during mediated interactions.
The analysis reveals that ICTs, as well as the polymedia lifestyle they forge, can
contribute to either mobility or immobility of transnational family members. On the one
hand, ICT-mediated communication facilitates information, emotions and care to
transcend geographical boundaries in real-time, thus allowing international migrants to
bring their home along with them wherever they go (Horst, 2006; Paragas, 2009;
Wilding, 2006). On the other hand, the same virtual co-presence that grants migrants
greater mobility also anchors them to their previous family roles and obligations, which
renders them emotionally immobile albeit physically apart (Uy-Tioco, 2007; Cabanes &
Acedera, 2012; Madianou, 2012).
As far as the Chinese study mothers are concerned, despite physical separation
with left-behind family members, they remained intimately involved in their quotidian
bittersweet experiences and could dutifully fulfil family responsibilities as wives,
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
daughters, nieces etc. as if they never left. As ‘transient sojourners’ (Huang & Yeoh,
2005), these migrant mothers tended to devote more time and energy to maintaining
intimate ties back home than acculturate to and assimilate into the host society (Wang
& Lim, forthcoming). Therefore, they appreciated the polymedia affordance of ICTs,
which allows real-time coordination of family matters and emotional exchanges with
their remote loved ones.
However, the same polymedia connectivity can backfire when it imposes
obligations over these mothers yet fails to provide practical support for their pressing
needs. Due to the convenience of long-distance communication, these women are
expected to participate actively in family activities, respond promptly to requests of left-
behind family members, and provide regular updates of their own life experiences. As
de facto ‘single mothers’ after relocation, they took up additional parental tasks and
domestic labours, which could hardly be alleviated by virtual support from their
families. In this sense, ICTs actually conspire with geographical distance to create a
double burden for study mothers in which physical separation deprived them of hands-
on familial support yet these ICTs constantly conveyed the obligations of transnational
householding and reminded these women of their familial responsibilities.
This is the pre-print version of: Wang, Y., & Lim, S. S. (forthcoming). ICTs and transnational
householding: the double burden of polymedia connectivity for international “study mothers”. In M.
McAuliffe (ed), Handbook of migration and technology. Edward Elgar.
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