Being an international student in the nineties must have been frustrating – spending fortunes on phone calls and writing long letters to friends and family back home. And just after dropping the envelope in the mailbox, realising that you forgot to enclose those pictures you promised to send. Luckily for us, the internet has made its debut in everyday life. Now, Skype enables us to make free video phone calls. New songs and Queen’s Day pictures are shared at a click of a button by uploading them on Facebook, and sharing a good grade or a pay rise is a matter of a status update. Thanks to the internet, we can talk to our friends and family at any given moment.
However, the possibilities of modern communication do not necessarily make it easier to stay informed about the situation back home. A Nicaraguan International Business student at the University of Groningen complains that staying in touch with friends can be hard. “WhatsApp can be useful, but not all my friends have internet on their phone.” And what about Skype? “It’s great, but the time difference makes it hard to meet up.” It is eight hours earlier in Nicaragua, so when she has time to spare in the evening her friends and family are all at work or school. So why not arrange a certain time to go on Skype? “That would be a good idea”, she laughs, “but that’s just too Dutch. We’re more used to just letting stuff happen.”
Morimitsu Kurino, an assistant professor at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics from Japan, uses Skype to get in touch with his parents in law. “We skype once a week. My own parents don’t use a computer, so we phone.” Letters and postcards are not Kurino’s cup of tea. With a smile: “So tedious.” Emails are for friends, he says. And Facebook? “I don’t like Facebook. I don’t want to invest the time to figure out how to use it.”
For Aleksandra Stadniczenko and Magdalena Barszcz, both from Poland and both studying violin at Maastricht conservatorium, Facebook is the way to keep in touch with friends at home. “Emails are more like letters. I very rarely write one; they take a lot of time, you have to focus, give clear information. Sometimes I write a real letter to my grandma, but it takes two or three weeks before it reaches her”, explains Stadniczenko.
Modern communication is not only about staying in touch. Social networks like Facebook enable us to create an image of the life we are living thousands of miles away. A status update about a huge hangover or that amazing colleague is like a short letter to all your online friends. It paints a picture of a wonderful time abroad. More importantly, social networks give us the feeling of being in touch with a large group of friends, ranging from your BFF to a classmate from third grade. A self-described Canadian inactive user of Facebook – “I have an account” – says her online profile makes Calgary feel less far away: “I feel connected with my friends and classmates from the past.”
The all-time favourite correspondent is a figure who was important even back in ancient times: the mother. The student from Nicaragua laughs: “My mom sends me at least seven emails a day. If I don’t answer, she freaks out.” It’s just her mother’s way of communicating, she says. “If my mom didn’t send me an email for two days, I would freak out!” It would be one of the very few reasons for her to make a phone call to Nicaragua, the others being “an earthquake or a volcanic eruption”. The German International Business student, too, keeps in close contact with his mother: he talks to his parents every other day, “and I go back to Oldenburg to see them every other weekend.” Magdalena Barszcz, a first-year student in Maastricht, talks to her parents every day. Aleksandra Stadniczenko did that too in the beginning. Now she is in her second year: “It depends, some two times a week, sometimes every other day.”
The emergence of the internet has dramatically altered our way of communicating. However, one relic of the past seems to be impossible to eradicate: the postcard. Particularly on special occasions, a postcard still seems to be popular. “It’s more personal. I could have just sent an e-card, right?” says a Canadian student, who sends cards on Christmas and birthdays. The student from Nicaragua also sends cards from time to time: “It will be Mother’s Day in Nicaragua soon, and a postcard is just nicer than an email.”
Michiel Klaassen, Riki Janssen