Virtual community and the cultural imaginary of Chinese Americans

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With the advancement of information technology and the increase of users across different strata in American culture and society, the Internet has become increasingly important in our understanding and articulation of the changing senses of identity and community. According to the seventh-year study of the Internet released by the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future in January 2008, "the Digital Future Project found that membership in online communities has more than doubled in only three years." As the majority of Americans have gone online by 2008, this study further reports that the Internet has ranked above all other media as the most important source of information among experienced users and that three-quarters of online community members use the Internet to participate in community related to social causes. Indeed, in noting the expansion of the Internet across North America and around the world, the United States Internet Council, in its final edition of "The State of the Internet Report" announced that the online population had crossed the half a billion milestone globally and that online demographics have finally begun to reflect offline realities. What is most interesting about this report, however, is its declaration that English speakers have now for the first time lost their dominance in the online world, and represent approximately 45 percent of the total online population. Though the United States, the European Union, and Japan still lead the Internet in terms of technology and language content today, the council further observes, "several other nations such as China, India, and South Korea [have begun] to play larger roles." The latest development of the Internet and the emergence of the three Asian nations as new major players in the information technology industry have important political and cultural implications. To begin with, as the Internet continues to facilitate the free flow of information across regional and national boundaries, these three Asian national governments have promoted the technology as a means to integrate their national economies into the global one and bridge the gap between their countries and the more advanced ones such as the United States, even though it means that they have to wrestle with issues of authority, jurisdiction, and law enforcement in their traditionally defined nation-states. As a result of their efforts, the Internet and their native-language contents on the Internet have now flourished in these nation-states. Moreover, with the Internet continuing to grow at a phenomenal pace, Internet architecture has now expanded to accommodate new multilingual domain names as well as to develop new multicultural Top-Level Domains. What all these changes mean culturally and technologically is that the Internet has finally experienced transformation from an initial English-language-oriented and U.S.-centered environment to the present multipolar, multilingual, and multicultural one, the meaning of which remains to be determined and interpreted by scholars of technology and cultural studies. At this moment of change that has redefined the function and content of the Internet, how should we reconsider the generalization and speculation made on the Internet and virtual communities that have usually privileged U.S. Internet users as well as have been based primarily on English-language content? How should we assess the role that multilingual content on the Internet has played in prompting new social interactions and cultivating new cultural spaces? In this essay, I examine specifically the function that the Internet and Web-based Chinese-language networks have performed in informing and reshaping Chinese professionals and their transnational communities in the U.S. context. By the phrase "Chinese professionals," I refer specifically to the growing number of professionals originally from mainland China who either come to study and do research in the United States as students or scholars but wind up working in U.S. industries and academic institutions and traveling back and forth between North America and East and Southeast Asia, or are directly recruited by U.S. transnational corporations from mainland China because of their background in the information technology industry and their potential capability to open up the supposedly huge Chinese markets for these corporations and businesses. I use the term "transnational communities" to call attention to the emergence of Chinese professionals as a group in the United States whose legal statuses as naturalized citizens, permanent residents, and H-1B workers, and whose professional interests in both East Asia and North America, have frequently prevented them from fully participating in American public life. Though these professionals cannot articulate their interests and concerns within the parameters of the traditional Asian American identity politics c the 1960s, they have nevertheless been perceived by the general American public as foreigners and Asian Americans interchangeably, or both, and have to travel back and forth between East Asia and North America. On the one hand, unlike the traditional working-class immigrants from southern China in the early twentieth century, whose life and work revolved around the geopolitical space of Chinatown in the United States, these Chinese professionals usually hold advanced academic degrees in hard science and technology, speak functional English, and travel extensively worldwide for professional and business reasons. On the other hand, like the early traditional immigrants in Chinatown in many ways-even though the ethnic enclave itself has recently undergone significant changes and directly attracted transnational capital from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China-these Chinese professionals remain politically invisible and culturally irrelevant in the dominant American culture and society. The only moment that they make national headlines is when the few Chinese prodemocracy activists testify in congressional hearings as victims of Communist China and side, ironically, with the most conservative right-wing politicians in the United States. Recently, they have garnered more attention from the media because they have been singled out by the same batch of right-wing politicians as potential Chinese Communist spies who may someday steal high-tech secrets from U.S. military industries and research institutions and create a potential problem for U.S. national security. In foregrounding such political liability and cultural indifference that these Chinese professionals have been subjected to in American culture and society, I argue that the Internet and the Web-based Chinese-language networks have not only served as a medium of communication for the transnational professionals to negotiate their political power and cultural spaces in the United States, but they have also cultivated and performed a sense of "Chineseness," a cultural imaginary that allows these professionals to achieve what cultural anthropologist Aihwa Ong, in her work Flexible Citizenship, describes as "flexibility" across national boundaries and "visibility" within a global context.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAsian America
Subtitle of host publicationForming New Communities, Expanding Boundaries
PublisherTemple University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9781439905166
StatePublished - 2011


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