Annu Palakunnathu Matthew
The Virtual Immigrant
As I became an American citizen on a wet Wednesday morning in Providence, I was mystified on reading the brochure that I was given titled “A Welcome to USA Citizenship.” It stated, “Today you have become a citizen of the United States of America. You are no longer an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Pole. Neither are you a hyphenated American.” These words contradicted my experience and seemed to negate my own transnationality having lived in England, India and now America.
The disconnect I pondered that day is only heightened when I visit my cultural homeland, India and see the effect of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and 1-800 call centers on my hometown Bangalore, the heartland of these call centers. These centers receive international telephone calls (a large number from the USA) for anything, from customer service to technical problem solving. To work in these centers, Indians study American culture and become fluent in American idioms by watching American football games and episodes of sitcom such as Friends. They learn to either neutralize their Indian accents or adopt American ones.
These BPO and call center workers are what I call Virtual Immigrants. Remaining physically in India, these Virtual Immigrants become Americans for a workday. They exist virtually between cultures without leaving their country of origin. According to Aihwa Ong’s concept of “Flexible Citizenship,” the tangible markers of identity such as race, ethnicity, gender or class, are made more malleable and flexible for the Virtual Immigrant.
Expanding on this idea, the installation consists of lenticular prints and audio excerpts from interviews with the call center workers. My artwork explores the fluidity of this new type of immigrant, relevant as we debate the gains and losses created by the effects of globalization including the changing attitudes about the caste system, karma or fate, women’s roles and love (vs. arranged) marriages. The work also explores the magnified cultural dislocation caused by technology’s collapsing of borders and shrinking of distances. Pavan Varma writes in Being Indian, “Societies change, but there are limits to change. Certain traits, which are the products of centuries of conditioning, do not change and it is these that provide the distinctive cultural label to a people. Others can be diluted or modified. Some new ones can, perhaps be added, but they are mostly “add-ons” scaffolding on a largely unalterable edifice.” After contemplating the work, the viewer is left to decide on the extent and impact the current advent of Globalization has on the individual.