As a student in Beijing in 1983, Elvira Hammond’s primary communication with home was by letter. All mail, coming and going, was opened and read by the Chinese post office. Hammond once received a mix tape in the mail with the first hour of music erased and replaced with sounds of the post office. She received one international phone call all semester—the news that she had been admitted to Stanford University. This call cost $30.
This year CET Academic Programs—which sends roughly 650 study abroad students to China every year—will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in China. As we plan our celebration, we are reconnecting with program alumni and staff from decades gone by, which has made us reflect on changes in China over the past 30 years. One of those changes is how technology has dramatically altered how we communicate with program staff and students.
In the 1980s, we rarely used telephones to communicate with China-based staff. Ken Hammond, CET resident director in Beijing in 1983, would take a taxi to a hotel to use the telex machine to send messages to headquarters. Hammond would type the message on a typewriter-like keyboard, which would punch holes in a tape. Price was calculated by inch of tape, so messages had to be concise. If Hammond made a mistake, the tape had to be cut and taped back together. Phone calls were reserved for emergencies and CET staff sent program reports by regular mail.
Mark Lenhart, CET resident director in Harbin in 1990-91 and CET’s current executive director, said there was only one telephone in the guesthouse lobby for roughly 500 students and guests. “There was no privacy when calling headquarters, so I made it my goal to get my own telephone,” Lenhart said. Obtaining the necessary permissions to get the phone took four months and his request went all the way up to the president of Harbin Institute of Technology. A rotary phone arrived and a dedicated line was run from a telephone pole across a vacant lot directly to Lenhart’s office window. The conspicuousness of the line was awkward, but he appreciated the gesture. “The number of phone lines a danwei could have was limited, and it meant a lot to me that the university installed an extra line just for CET,” Lenhart said.
Even with the new phone, calls were rare and expensive. Lenhart sent written communications to headquarters by fax. He would type a page on his computer, print it, and ride his bicycle to the International Hotel to send the fax. In 1991, Lenhart achieved another victory when he got his own fax machine.
Jocelyn Flint was a student in China in the early 1990s. At that time, calling home was too cumbersome. Not only did Flint have to wait in line to use an international phone, there was a delay that made it impossible to have a normal conversation. Instead, Flint relied on letters. She wrote home on aerograms, blue pieces of paper that were lighter than normal paper and cost less to send. It took weeks for letters to come and go, but her mother still has them all. Any urgent news—like that of her parents’ divorce—came by fax.
When Flint returned to work as CET’s academic director in Beijing in 2000-01, China was a different world. Communications to headquarters were sent via email; it was a dial-up connection, so the phone and Internet could not be used at the same time. Fax was used as a back-up for important messages because email was unreliable. Flint recalls receiving news of 9/11 via fax.
A decade later, we have myriad ways to communicate with our China-based staff. We send several emails daily. If we need to speak to someone in China we can talk for free over the Internet, call their office or cell phone, or send a text message. In the 1990s, Lenhart recalls working autonomously and not consulting frequently with headquarters, but today we are in regular contact with our overseas staff and available for guidance at any time.
Though technology cannot erase the time difference between Beijing and Washington—a constant communication challenge for any US business working in China—it has fundamentally altered the frequency and ease of communication. But new technologies bring new challenges. Because we communicate more often now, we sometimes find that our staff is overburdened with emails and phone calls. Technology has also changed our students’ China experience. CET pushes students to immerse themselves in life abroad, and we sometimes struggle to get them to unplug from home. From an immersion perspective, the “good old days” of telex machines and public telephones had some advantages.
Ingrid Lombardo ([email protected]) is China programs manager at CET Academic Programs. She is based in Washington, DC.