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The rising demand for overseas television: America's United Nations of cable TV

Satellite TV lets immigrants cocoon in their own culture. Does it also alienate?

By Fariba Nawa/ contributor / June 27, 2011

Fremont, Calif.

Afghan immigrants Fatima Majeed and Naseer Ahmadi watch an average of eight hours of television a day in their suburban three-bedroom apartment while their four sons and daughter go to school, work, and carry on with their busy American schedules.

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The husband and wife sit next to each other on their couch glued to the tube, barely aware that their children are coming and going. Outside their home is America, but inside their TV set is Afghanistan, the country they long to live in but can't.

The programs on their television are broadcast via satellite and received through a box connected to the Internet. The channels they watch are based in Kabul but also in other areas where the Afghan diaspora have settled, like California. The shows range from Hindi soap operas dubbed in Farsi, one of the Afghan languages, to news programs and cooking contests. They provide a virtual reality for Afghan immigrants who want to escape the isolation of American life.

"I got sick and depressed from boredom and seclusion before we got these programs," says Ms. Majeed, taking a break from watching the Afghan movie "Promise to Love." The movie, about a modern-day Afghan Romeo and Juliet, was filmed in the United States.

In Pictures: America's United Nations of cable TV

Afghans are not the only ones in the US turning to foreign language TV to feel at home.

At the 152-unit complex where the couple lives, most of the families are immigrants, the majority from Asia and Latin America. Most of the adults do not watch American television. They own more than one television, one hooked up to their native nations' broadcasts and at least one set to regular cable or local networks with English language programs for the kids to watch.

Fremont, a 45-minute drive southeast of San Francisco, is a microcosm of a changing suburban California, one that is increasingly Asian and Hispanic – communities that want to hold on tight to their native cultures. Of Fremont's 214,000 residents, 47 percent are Asian and 13 percent are Hispanic. The hundreds of new channels offered daily through the Internet and satellite allow them to bypass mainstream American culture and stay connected to their native identities.

The hours of television they watch every day is time in which they can go home thousands of miles away – while sitting on the couch.


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