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?
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Immigrants say going to work and interacting outside their homes is how they integrate and learn about the US – not through television. Besides, many of the foreign programs on TV copy American shows like "American Idol." However, television available in their native tongue has slowed their English-speaking skills at the same time it has helped their children preserve the home language. Even if the kids watch English-language TV, they are still exposed to their native language when they join their parents on the couch.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures America's United Nations of Cable TV
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Parent-child TV-language divide
Mexican immigrant César Hernandez and his family of five rent a unit in the same complex as Majeed and Mr. Ahmadi. He has lived in the US for 15 years, but his English skills are still limited. His job is to pitch tents for festivals, and that's where he mingles with English-speaking Americans.
When he comes home, the father of three puts on his shorts and T-shirt, grabs the remote, and all he hears is Spanish. The Hernandez family has four television sets, one in each bedroom and one in the living room. The kids, ages 7, 9, and 13, watch American sports and programs in English on their own sets. Mr. Hernandez and his wife, Lily Betancourt, flip among the eight Spanish-language channels available to them through Comcast's $35-a-month program package.
Slumped comfortably on his blue velvet couch, Hernandez talks about the variety of channels. "This one's from Miami. This one from Cuba. I like this one from Mexico," he says, channel surfing. One channel shows a fit young man with big muscles advertising an American brand of deodorant. Hernandez says his favorite show is "El Chavo del Ocho," a classic Mexican comedy from the 1970s about an 8-year-old orphan, played by an adult. While many Asian families avoid American TV shows because they can be vulgar and sexual, Spanish-language TV is racier, Hernandez says. "The soap operas have a lot of sex scenes."
Hernandez and Ms. Betancourt tune in to these programs because they miss life in Mexico. "It reminds me of home. I remember the horses on our ranch, the farms, the big spaces of land," Hernandez says in a sentimental tone.
Living in an 'ethnoscape'
Majeed and Ahmadi, who have lived in the US for seven years and are both disabled, cannot return to Afghanistan because it's a war zone. Hernandez and his wife stay in the US for the economic opportunities here. But both families spend more time than they should in front of the TV for the same reason: to soothe their homesickness.
Fred Turner, an associate professor of communication at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who has researched media and the American culture, says these TV programs offer ethnic communities "ethnoscape," a phenomenon that explains how ethnic groups can psychologically live in a place without physically being there. He says cable TV was the beginning of this in the 1980s, but satellite and the Internet have amplified the process.