Expatriate Keeps in Touch Via the Web
by Sue Church
At age 18, Ray Wallace left his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland bound for college in the United States. His is a familiar story: all over the world people leave their homelands to explore opportunities in other countries. The United States, as the quintessential melting pot, is a great example of people both leaving and coming. Like many people who leave their homelands behind, Wallace did not want to loose touch with his culture of origin. Through the World Wide Web, Wallace found a way to be a part of the world he left.
Wallace left his culture behind when he moved to the United States, but he didn't leave behind his love of his homeland. Staying in touch with his Irish background while in the United States originally proved difficult. Phone calls home were a bit expensive on his student budget and family news generally took precedence over news about soccer scores, the latest politics, and updates on all the information that a newspaper can carry. Occasionally, he was lucky enough to secure a copy of a British paper and would glean a bit of information about current events in Northern Ireland. Most often, he caught whatever news he could from short wave radio programs by the BBC.
Almost 20 years later, this model is outdated. The introduction of the World Wide Web has changed how Ray Wallace stays up-to-date about Ireland. Today instead of waiting for an occasional newspaper or sitting by the radio hoping to catch a news broadcast, expatriates can read newspapers from their homelands published daily on the Web. For Wallace, who decided to become a naturalized citizen after finishing his doctorate in English, the change is a welcome one. "From my experience on the Web," he says "there is an active community of expatriates and a new sense of belonging for those that left home that I, and others I have corresponded with, haven't had previously."
Before, an occasional British paper was the best Ray Wallace could hope for and now he has several different Irish and British papers to choose from. The Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News, the London Times and others are available online. In fact, according to Wallace, "he can now read the Irish News six hours before it is delivered to his parents doorstep in Belfast." Instead of hoping to find a British paper, he can start his day with the Irish paper of his choice. This means that reading about the current events of Northern Ireland are a part of his daily routine, just it was when he lived in Belfast.
For those connected via the Web, the term expatriate no longer applies in the traditional sense as it is now possible to stay connected to one's culture while becoming an active part of a new country. Wallace and others now have the opportunity to shun the isolation of previous expatriates or they can leave the homeland behind. The choice is theirs. If they choose to retain ties, they can access newspapers, read comments in Guest Books, research government archives, sign onto chat rooms focused on Irish issues, listen to radio broadcasts, and more by exploring the Web.
A Dutch person fell in love with Ireland on a visit and has created an extensive collection of Irish links on a homepage called Henry Street. If Wallace's interests include all things Celtic, he can visit a homepage centered around this. So far, Wallace "hasn't searched for a topic and come up empty." Home seems a lot closer than it did twenty years ago to Wallace.
A new sense of belonging has developed among those like Wallace who have chosen to get connected via the Web. The distance that separates Northern Ireland and the United States seemed to grow smaller for him. For example, when the Belfast Telegraph first went online, Wallace sent a letter to the editor via the electronic version of the paper. This letter was then printed in the next edition. Wallace "received letters, calls, and emails from around the world. Expatriates in Australia, Canada, and the United States responded to the letter, as well as some patriots from back home in Northern Ireland."
The Guest Books that are part of the online newspapers provided an easy way to move beyond the static version of the traditional printed paper. Online readers can leave messages in the Guest Books, breaking the one way communication model of the past. These messages can include links to homepages that people with similar interests might want to explore or an opinion about an article that has just been read, complete with an email address. Opening the lines of communication to include responses from readers has fostered a sense of participation in a way that previously was impossible. Wallace regularly returns to these Guest Books to check out new links, read what other Irish are thinking about the news that he's reading. When he was growing up, the family would discuss the news over a cup of tea. Now, Wallace reads comments from other people who have left messages in these Guest Books.
Wallace believes "we underestimate the community the Internet has built." The diaspora experienced by Northern Ireland and Ireland has been well documented. According to Wallace, "the population back home is a very literate one and because of this, the young intelligentsia who have left are obvious proponents of computer literacy." It seems only natural that people like him with a strong sense of history and patriotism would fully embrace the new technology presented by the Web. "In doing so, the community that has become reconnected is quite larger than most would estimate" according to Wallace.
Government has also assisted in building the community by going beyond simply putting newspapers online. Government records are now available on the Web. This allows people all over the world to access records that would have previously required them to fly home. These records are important for researchers, for those teaching classes on Irish literature or culture, and many other reasons. Augmenting the facts and fiction currently available in print by searching through government records on the Web has allowed researchers to add more current information to their research and instructors to add more current information to their classes.
Government records online also helped build a sense of belonging. Spending an afternoon in the living room learning more about Ireland can break down the distance that those abroad from their Irish homeland feel. Wallace researched the number of people with the surname of Wallace who were sent to the Irish penal colony in Australia in the 1800s, what their offense was, who petitioned the court in their behalf, and when they were sent to Austalia. This afternoon playing on the Web provided Wallace with information that he otherwise would have had to travel to Ireland to obtain.
Another avenue recently opened up to the those with Web access is the PaddyNet. This chat room welcomes those of Irish decent and anyone interested in Ireland to join in the conversations. Participants discuss everything from the latest successes and defeats of the soccer teams to peace, international politics, and social news. The best part is the common experience of growing up Irish provides a solid point of reference. Nowhere else can these people, spread across numerous continents, enjoy a conversation with so many others of the same background. Before, the best they could hope for was a conversation via the telephone, obviously limited to two people having a conversation. Now, entire groups can enjoy a conversation that reminds them of how it used to be at home.
For those interested in hearing the news instead of reading the news, they can access Irish radio (RTE). Daily, broadcasts are recorded in both English and Gaelic. Also, the Cork campus radio is one of Ireland's first college radio stations to establish a Web presence. This brings the expatriate full circle, back to the best option available 20 years ago. Now as the term expatriate gets redefined for those with Web access, the manner in which the radio broadcast is also redefined in terms of the Web.
The sense of community and belonging fostered by the World Wide Web for Wallace is just one example of how the Web is quickly growing beyond country boundaries. His experiences may not be that different from those of an American who is now signing on from another country to read American papers and to participate in American chat sessions. The ability to access American government records is also coming. Congress is planning to have many of their records online this fall. As the Web grows, this model of staying connected with a homeland from another country could easily become commonplace.
Copyright © 1996 by Sue Church. All Rights Reserved.