I met Eerika in the autumn of 2015. November was back then as it is always: dark, gloomy, and stuffed with tasks that felt the heaviest, perhaps due to the lack of warmth and sunlight. We had the chance to become friends, but the friendship never materialised. Everything felt hard; November is never a good month for starting something new. Five years later, in the middle of a global pandemic with the self-imposed social isolation and with bars, cafés, and libraries closed, we reconnected over Instagram almost by chance. I saw a friend’s picture in where she was tagged; there she was, smiling. Soon afterwards we started chatting little by little, untangling what over long online conversations that might have possibly happened those years ago: Why couldn’t we be friends? And, could an online friendship be a good space for us to reconnect? We also exchanged books, talked about the weather, wished each other a happy Midsummer. Our conversations felt and feel full of loving possibilities, even if for the time being they only happen online.
I wrote an email to a friend in the summer of 2018. I said, ‘Soon I will be in Finland for eight years, and as close I am to Russia, I have never visited. Maybe I should go someday’. This was a filler sentence: I was working too much, I was saving money, and all my trips were spent in visiting my family in Spain. Russia was out of the question. Soon after the email and as everyone has experienced, I started seeing ads popping up more and more frequently in the middle of my Facebook or Instagram scrolling, or on the sidebars of the web pages I visited. Visit Russia, Train tickets to Russia, Learn Russian language in three weeks. Either unconsciously or quite deliberately, I ended up asking my partner if it would be a good idea to do the Transsiberian route together and cross Russia from West to East. It led us to an unforgettable trip. A month or so before departing, I was writing an article about childhood memories, and as a way of finding inspiration I leafed through my old diaries. I stumbled upon an entry of my twelve-year-old self where I had written about my dream of travelling “by train, for days on a row”. I had just read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Until I read that journal entry, I had been convinced and even joked about the Transsiberian trip being the result of the ‘harassment’ that the internet had done on me. I was surprised to realise that at the end, it was as well a forgotten childhood dream, long overdue.
I have known Jessica for about two years. Jessica lives in Canada, and I live in Finland, but we share a home country down in South America, in where no-one fears November and its darkness. I haven’t ever met Jessica, but I know her a little bit. We are what I have coined ‘Insta-friends’. I cannot say exactly who stumbled first on whose account, but through a friend of hers we started following each other. I follow her beautiful handiwork, she follows the recounts of my daily small adventures here up north. We have chatted about mundane things, we have told each other somewhat personal confessions, and we have encouraged each other to follow a way of living that feels true to ourselves, even if we have never met. And maybe we never do, maybe we never meet. But if I look at the personal relationships that nowadays form my life, she is part of them. And I do not find this odd: I find it enriching.
In my history, I probably can find a dozen more of these examples in where my real life, formed by my past, my memories, my expectations, merges with my internet life. As I unveil the forgotten childhood wish of wanting to travel by train for days on a row, I also unwrap other wishes I had back then, and I wonder: how far are they from where I am now? What is left from those childhood dreams, when I had no Instagram? What parts of my current reality have been shaped, sustained, and in essence defined by my constant contact with social media? I am certainly not alone, within my generation, in having had significant online encounters that have ended up transforming radically my life. This begs the question: have I chosen my direction, or has the online world that wraps me guided me onto it? Sometimes on a close look it seems as if the internet has indeed largely shaped my adult interests, over and over, as if I would have no choice. But do I? Do we?
How much agency have I had in crafting my adult life?
I reflect on this question under the light of my own story of migration, and how years ago I became a first-generation immigrant in the 21st century.
Ever since I was a child I wanted to live in a capital with a metro, tall buildings, and winters. When I see, then, the life that I am shaping as an adult, I like to think that nowadays I indeed live in such a city because I had the necessary determination for it to happen. But the truth is that back then, as a twelve-year-old, a girl could only dream, and I only had the television and few magazines to inspire those dreams. When the time came, at twenty-something, to actually act on them, I had something else: I had Google at my disposal; the whole world wide open in front of me. Who did really play a hand on this, then, at the end? Where would I be if it wasn’t for the internet? It seems exaggerated, but it’s a valid question.
My father recently told me that he read that over three million of Latin Americans are scattered around Europe at present time. In the process of becoming one of them, I used social media and in general the internet not only to choose my destinations but also to keep connected to my roots, and at the end, to choose between left or right in many crucial intersections. My mother, on the other hand, always remembers how back in the 1950s her parents crossed the Atlantic ocean in the opposite direction, seeking new opportunities in South America. They did not have the world a click away just as I do: the path they crafted for themselves, their generated destiny, depended at the end purely on the dreams they had inside their heads, without unwanted or unnecessary added content. Who of us, them or me, was freer to choose which way to go? Even though my grandparents and I call ourselves first-generation immigrants, even though we crafted our lives in the diaspora, the differences in the tools that enabled the materialisation of our fate are immense. I always thought that, compared to them, I am the privileged one: how could I keep the bond alive with my homeland if it wouldn’t be for the infinity of virtual ties that are presented to me, almost on a silver platter? These virtual connections have even a name: internet diaspora. They allow me to connect with my roots whenever I want and in whatever format: by finding long forgotten food recipes that nourish me on November days, by ordering books in my mother tongue, by online buying the soap bar with the scent of my childhood. The internet diaspora also soothes the deep saudade I feel at times. Originally from Portuguese language, saudade can be defined as the recollection of feelings that once brought excitement and joy and that now trigger a bittersweet sadness in us. It is a sort of nostalgia that we feel when we think about the moments we once lived which will not ever come back. How did my grandparents, far from all they knew, handle the strong waves of saudade when they were filled by them? Was it them, at the end, the ones with the advantage, when they built face-to-face connections, genuine physical friendships that carried them vicariously through the nostalgia? Might it be that nowadays my only possibility is to create a edulcorated version of what a more genuine nostalgia, and in essence, a life, could have been?
These questions are not new for me; they have accompanied me for as long as I have lived ‘abroad’, far from my family, far from the friends who knew me as a child. Yet, the global pandemic that hit us in the year of 2020 forced me to take a new look at them and at my lives: the one I wanted as a child, and the one I’ve been meticulously constructing. Throughout this past ‘pandemic spring’ I was pregnant. In order to keep connected with the friends and family I couldn’t properly see, or hug, I used my phone almost endlessly on a daily basis. What I needed when I navigated social media, what I craved for, was to be surrounded not only by my loved ones and their updates but also by positive content: positive birth experiences, empowering feminist stories of raising children, affirmations that could lovingly support the journey I was about to embark on. Looking at those needs I had an epiphany: another common denominator for my grandparents and I in the threading of our fate was the presence of community and the idea of serendipity: trusting that a lucky star would make us find whatever we needed behind every (virtual or physical) corner. For them the manifestation of this serendipity was clear: generations ago they left by boat, arrived to a warmer weather, and built with their own hands the destiny their lives are now resting on. For me, due to the times I inhabit, serendipity is a bit more complicated.
Serendipity is always good. It is defined as the phenomenon of finding valuable things that one is not particularly looking for. One can have good or bad luck, but serendipity will be always something nice that’ll happen out of coincidence, and that will end up determining one’s actual fate. For my grandparents, serendipity materialised in the form of fellow immigrants who spoke their language and understood their jokes, in the form of helping hands. For me, I wonder: can serendipity exist in an age where every single one of my clicks predetermines the content I see next? For years I’ve left the question open, but I realise that it is close to an oxymoron: the serendipity of the internet, does such a thing exist?
For many of us, 2020 will be the embodiment of a year we don’t want to relive. For me it was as well the year of reexamining the question: who steers the wheel that drives me towards my dreams? Most importantly, what are those dreams made of in the era of endless internet? They are not anymore as simple as travelling by train for days in a row. They get overly complicated the more I click; this I realise while scrolling endlessly. My expectations, my goals, my thresholds, get higher and higher. I dreamed living in a capital with tall buildings, but at present time living in one seems not enough. The more Google redirects me onto new content, the more I see, and the more I want. The picture of my destiny gets overwhelming, and therefore at points unachievable. I take a break from social media, I inhale and exhale, and ask again the question: who steers the wheel that drives me towards my dreams?
As long as I keep present my childhood dreams and google my way towards them, as long as I reassess my relation with the thousands of clicks I make everyday, as long as I make November brighter by searching and finding what brings me light, what serves me, what saves me, then I want to believe that it is me behind the wheel. 2020 was the year where I reconnected with people I had thought long gone, in where I searched and found the support I needed to have a wonderful pregnancy, in where I discarded stuff that was no longer serving me, in where I birthed a human onto this accelerated planet. My grandparents trusted the simple stuff: what they had in front of their eyes was what existed, no more no less. Two generations later, I have grown up in a world where what I don’t see can still happen, if only I know how to look for it online. I can only wonder now, for the generation after me, for my child, what kind of agency will she have, a couple of decades from now, when building the fate she will soon start dreaming with?
Text: Lois Armas
Picture: Lois Armas & Haliz Yosef