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Michael Blim

Committee Members

David Harvey

Jane Schneider

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My thesis is that, contrary to expectations that working-class Chinese immigrants would have less access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and fewer skills in using them, struggling immigrants to Brooklyn's Chinatown are skilled at using ICTs and do so on a daily basis, in ways that enrich their relationships and transnational participation. They are able to do this despite the severe limitations that ethnic enclave employment places on their time and opportunities, in part because of heavy use of affordable internet cafes in the neighborhood. Building on a growing body of literature on new media and diaspora, this thesis explores the implications for citizenship, belonging, identity, and kinship of the adaptive ways that working- class newcomers in Sunset Park find to acquire and use digital technologies. While the access they manage to achieve connects them to a larger circle of news, ideas, people, and learning opportunities than they would otherwise encounter, it does not eliminate the oppressive structural disadvantages they face.

Much of the existing research on overseas Chinese in the U.S. (as well as mainstream media) focus either on elites, especially on their high educational attainment, or, on the other hand, on the economic struggles and systemic obstacles faced by Chinatown residents. These miss some of the richness of the everyday patterns and strategies, the sacrifices and ingenuity that `downtown Chinese' -- in this case residents of Brooklyn -- use to squeeze more out of their limited resources and leisure time and to construct new lives that remain connected to the past. The high level of computer use and ownership I found is connected to the emphasis people place on nurturing family ties and ensuring the success of the next generation. The chain migration process links families, and sustaining the transnational ties that made immigration possible is a big part of the communication styles in this community. These include placing voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls at a higher rate than the national average and even buying computers with that purpose in mind.

This dissertation documents the intensity and sociality of ICT use in Sunset Park, which rarely occurs in the workplace, accentuating the importance of home ownership in the process, and of internet cafes, especially for young men. I also take up the censuring discourse about cafes, its connections to China and to the specter of internet addiction, analyzing the negative imaginary surrounding activity in these public spaces. There is an age and gender divide on evidence in the youth and masculinity of the internet cafes, but this does not reflect actual computer use in the home. That is documented with a `day in the life' portrait of a typical extended, three-generation household, which shows how sharing computers and using them in shared space can create a family bond. Statistical data from the National Science Foundation have previously shown that Asians have the highest rate of computer use of any ethnic group in the U.S., across all income levels, and this `portrait' demonstrates what that looks like by documenting the daily media practices of low-income Chinese in New York.

Levels of formal education in the community are generally quite low; many lacked the resources to complete a secondary school education, yet still learned enough to have a relatively high rate of digital literacy. Reading Chinese-language newspapers was the number one activity people reported doing online, and many read print newspapers as well. Other specific online behaviors are part of my analysis, including competitive gaming as a social experience and learning opportunity, along with the differences between the first and second generation in the ways they communicate. There are also some important limitations on how Sunset Park residents use computer technology, with more of a focus on entertainment and social media than national averages and less interest in cultural capital enhancing activities. This secondary digital divide is explored, along with related language issues. I found people to be very active on the Chinese social networking service QQ and avid consumers of Chinese language media, which help them stay informed and maintain close ties with friends and family but can also perpetuate a focus on existing social networks and limit development of English language skills. Heavy use of QQ's services may also limit exposure to information not readily offered by this `gatekeeper' portal, similar to the way that America Online did for English-speaking users during its dominant years in the early days of the internet.

Overall, I conclude with a cautiously positive assessment of the role of the internet in working-class immigrant Chinese communities. Notwithstanding the hurdles people confront in their everyday lives and employment - and the negative discourse surrounding the youthful clients of internet cafes -- my data from Sunset Park, collected in both these cafes and in homes, demonstrate a range of benefits from internet use. Informants reported daily online activities and computer-mediated communication practices that enhance their limited leisure time and personal relationships. This high level of ICT use is no panacea, however, for reducing a structured social inequality that is a fact of life in ethnic enclaves like Sunset Park.


Digital reproduction from the UMI microform.

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