Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Last week's column

A lot of people got error messages trying to read ths one. I have no idea why. Anyhow, here it is. I've gotten a lot of response, email and on forum, from this one.

Drop by the forum and shake things up a bit.



How the Internet Shrinks
The Distance Between Us

March 16, 2007

Living 7,000 miles away from home ain't what it used to be. My parents moved from New York to Sitka, Alaska in 1964. I was born in Anchorage two years later. Their extended families were some 3,500 miles away in Pittsburgh and New Jersey, but my folks might as well have lived on the moon.

They spoke to their parents every other Sunday for five or ten minutes at a time, and occasionally had my brother and sister speak onto reel-to-reel tapes that they parcel posted back, so the grandparents could hear the kids' voices. The rest of the time, they existed in a sort of radio silence. That's just how it was when you lived on the other side of the world, until very recently. Now the tide has turned in some very profound ways. We live twice as far away but the distance is much smaller.

Not only do I talk to my parents and anyone else as often as I want, but a host of technologies allow us to live in China with one foot in America. My parents had to struggle to stay connected to their friends and families while we battle to unplug from life "back home" and live a fully engaged existence in China.

The linchpin of this shrinkage, of course, is the Internet. Everything else flows from those fiber-optic connections. When a December earthquake off the coast of Taiwan cut Internet service for millions of Asian residents, including countless expats, it highlighted both the fragility and the essential nature of this connection to the world. We were in America for the winter holidays and though service was restored by the time we returned, it was painfully slow for more than a month. The inability to watch videos or download podcasts and music was a bit of a wake-up call about how high my expectations have risen.

I spend virtually all day online. My Internet phone allows me to talk to anyone, anywhere for as long as I want, for about 25 bucks a month. Many people, especially those over 50, just can't understand how they can dial 10 numbers and reach me in China. I sometimes feel like a spokesperson for Vonage. I maintained my New Jersey office-phone number, so my calls include B-list publicists hawking obscure bands and awful products, telemarketers selling membership in the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police and wrong numbers, usually looking for New Jersey Plumbing Supply. (These calls have plagued me for nearly a decade -- the company once printed stationery with my number on it.)

We have regular Webcam chats with my folks, as well as select aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, nephews and nieces. Anytime I open instant-messaging software someone appears, eager for updates on life in China. This despite a regularly updated personal Web site which allows those who care to know far more about my family's daily life than ever before, when we lived in America.

Podcasts have also altered the expat experience. One American reader living in Switzerland wrote me about driving along Lake Geneva listening to U.S. newscasts on his morning commute. I know the feeling. Why struggle to listen to Chinese radio in my car, when I can listen to podcasts of my favorite NPR shows? Why practice my Chinese with a cab driver, when I can catch up on American politics or culture?

Why? Because it is wonderful to be so plugged into all things American, but it comes at a cost. As Robin, an American expat living in London, emailed me, "A downside to all these options is that being an expat has lost some of its allure. You can be anywhere and still be local with communication options, TV, and the Internet. I think the experience is devalued."

It is easy to envelope yourself in a virtual world and be blind to what is happening right outside your door. A virtual existence can never be as satisfying as real life. Reading a book review can't replace reading a book, watching the Food Network is no substitute for cooking and eating a great meal -- and simulating a fully lived American life can't compare to putting both feet on the ground in China.

That's why I usually leave my iPod at home and talk to the cabbies. And it's why I have thus far denied myself the beautiful, brilliant, insidious Slingbox. Slingbox allows you to watch a distant TV on your computer. I first learned about it from several readers when I wrote about the difficulties in watching Pittsburgh Steelers games here4. My friend and fellow Steelers lunatic, Eric Rosenblum, signed up last fall and watching games at his house has whet my appetite. A subscription is particularly appealing this week -- with the NCAA Tournament kicking off, I will be compulsively scanning the Internet for scores and updates. I fantasize about Slingbox and the round-the-clock basketball I could be watching. And that's why I need to avoid it.

One of the very best things about living here has been the sharp reduction of my entire family's TV-viewing time. In the case of nine-year-old Jacob, the change is remarkable. He was a zombified TV addict in the making in the U.S. We had to set strict limits on his viewing and he tested them daily. He never, ever turns on the TV here, absent his beloved (and our despised) Cartoon Network, which is the main reason we have shunned more expansive satellite options. Seeing me watch football and basketball, he would quickly realize that Yu-Gi-Oh lived in the same box.

I have avoided even learning more about Slingbox, because I know it wouldn't take much to seduce me over to the dark side. I am afraid to look into its eyes. Robin's email helped convince me that my instincts were right. He has Slingbox and wrote, "I find that instead of exploring London at times, I'll catch up on "Lost" or "The Shield.""

Robin says he's happy to have the option, but for now, I'm pleased that I don't have it. Technology is only as good as the limits you place on it – for example, the BlackBerry that frees you from your desk also ties you to your job -- and I know my own weaknesses. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll ride my bike over to the little restaurant around the corner and dig into a plate of dumplings.

How has technology shrunk your world? Do you see any downsides to being more connected and plugged in? Were you an expat in earlier, more remote times? I'm looking forward to hearing from you. Share your thoughts.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com or join the online discussion.