Thinking Television: Tales of Media and Communication

By Norbert Ruebsaat | May 5, 2013

In my Media and Communication Studies classes at Columbia College in Vancouver I ask the students to tell stories about their experiences with media. Since word-of-mouth face-to-face conversation of the kind one can still have in classrooms seems to me to be our only resting point when living in a universe composed by media I take the students’ accounts and the conversations they produce to be a kind of rear guard action against technocorporate global dominance.

The twenty-seven students in the summer semester 2012 Media and Communication 220 class, “Understanding Television,” hailed from China (PRC), Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Nigeria, Argentina, and Ecuador. Their stories varied, but they touched, at times, on similar themes. The narratives that came forth gave me understandings, not only of television, but of media in general, that I had not had before. I took to jotting down what I heard, and writing it up later. Here are some of the students’ stories.

New Television

A student named Gautham who was called Gomzi by his friends told the Mass Com 220 class that he and his little sister, when they watched television back home in India, always fought over which channel to watch. His sister wanted to watch the satellite cartoon channel and he wanted to watch the satellite sports channel. They would fight for a while and sometimes Gomzi’s sister won and sometimes he won, but one of them would always eventually give up and watch what the other wanted.

But when their grandmother appeared everything changed. Their grandmother watched only the local Indian cable channel, and when she came into the family room where the TV was she immediately took hold of the remote and switched the television from the satellite channels to her cable channel. There was nothing his sister or Gomzi could do about this because she was the grandmother, whom one needed to respect. Sometimes Gomzi’s sister squawked and demanded her cartoon channel back, and in such situations the grandmother would pick up the remote and beat her granddaughter with it for being disobedient.

Gomzi decided to get his own television, and he brought it home and put it in his bedroom where he could watch the satellite sports channel in peace whenever he wanted to. But on the first night of having his own television and watching it in his bedroom, his grandmother heard the sportscast leaking through his bedroom door, and she walked to the door and pounded on it with, again, the family television’s’ remote. She yelled at Gomzi, to come out of his bedroom and watch television with her and his sister where he belonged. Gomzi could do nothing other than obey and he sat down in the family room and watched the Indian cable channel. He gave up watching television in his bedroom after this, and a few days later he gave his new television to a friend.


On the topic of television’s effect on children, a student named Luther related a story about his young nephews and nieces who, when they were sitting and watching Dora the Explorer back home in Nigeria, jumped up and yelled out the answers to all Dora’s questions about her whereabouts. They told Luther that they wanted to go and live in the television where Dora also lived, and asked him how they might get there. When he grinned and told them that television was not a place but a machine they pointed at the screen and yelled out the answers to Dora’s questions even louder than they had so far done. Luther said his nieces’ and nephews’ behaviour proved to him that television was an interactive two-way communication medium, not a passive-audience one-way medium, which the Media and Communication Studies instructor kept insisting television was.

Pop Up

A young woman from Pakistan named Hira told the Understanding Television class that she had tried to teach her grandmother to use Google, and as she was doing so pop-up windows of half naked women kept appearing on her computer screen. The young woman’s grandmother grew upset and asked her granddaughter why she was making these half-naked women jump up and down on the screen when she was showing her grandmother how to use a new way of getting information and communicating with the whole world. Hira said she was not making these women appear on the screen, these were pop up ads that appeared automatically and she had no control over them. Her grandmother did not understand this and kept asking why her granddaughter was making half-naked women appear and jump around on the screen they were looking at together and trying to be modern with.

Black and White

When the World Cup Soccer Tournament was being broadcast, Nga Thi Hong Le, whose home is on the outskirts of Jakarta, sometimes left his bedroom, where he usually watched the World Cup, and joined his family’s maids and servants, who watched the broadcast in the yard in front of the house on a black and white television attached to an antenna the maids and servants had rented for the occasion. They watched in this manner because they could not afford regular cable TV service, which was morphing, in the richer parts of Jakarta, into fiber optic cable service. Nga said despite the fuzzy screen image and the unreliable antenna reception it was still possible to follow the World Cup soccer ball’s movements across the pitch, and he enjoyed watching it with the servants and maids, more than he did alone in his room.


On the question of media and culture, Derek Wei, from China, said clothing, ie. “what one wore,” was not a part of culture. Culture meant language and family, and it didn’t make any difference what you wore when you were speaking to your family members in your own language. They didn’t care what you wore. It was for this reason that clothes, or “fashion,” were not part of culture.

Culture II

Tejinder Singh, by way of opposing Derek’s claim that clothes and fashion had nothing to do with culture, said that his grandmother in Punjab had, in the past, sewn all of his family’s clothes and that each item of clothing was unique and reminded you, when you wore it, of your grandmother’s hands sewing the clothes. He said now, when industrial machine-made clothing was being sold in his village, his grandmother’s clothes were no longer wanted because everyone in the village was wearing what everyone else in the world wore, namely, the clothes you saw on American television. His grandmother, Tejinder said, no longer had anything to do, and having something to do was, in his opinion, a part of culture. Especially for grandmothers.


Rahul, from India, said it would be very difficult for a young person to explain to his grandparents all the things that happened on social media. For example, if a young person put a photo of himself with a girl on his Facebook page and his grandparents saw her there, they would ask a lot of questions about her and they would develop the misconception that the girl might be his girlfriend, even though she was just a friend. There would be nothing he could do after this to change the misconception.


Generation Gap

Rahul’s classmate Emir, from Ecuador, agreed and said that although there was an advantage to using an almost free medium like Skype to talk to your parents and grandparents back home while you were studying abroad, there was still the problem of the “generation gap,” which meant that sometimes, or even often, parents and grandparents didn’t want to understand how all these new communications systems actually worked. And when it came to social media there were often hoaxes and rumours about false events. And if one’s parents and grandparents saw these they would immediately believe them, and this would be a big problem.


Junjie Wei, who, before she went to Canada, taught her parents how to use Microblog, a smartphone application, so they could communicate with her while she was far away, discovered also that there was a generation gap between parents and a new generation of Internet users. Her parents in China did not understand Internet language like J, :) and LOL and BTW, she said, and they had a different sense of humour than she did. Her parents told her all the posts on her microblog were boring and didn’t make sense and were not worth reading.

Close Friend (Erving Goffman)

A student named Kevin, from Saudi Arabia, said when he spoke to his father back home on his mobile phone his father spoke softly and listened patiently to his son and acted like a friend, not a father. But when Kevin returned home to Saudi his father’s personality completely changed and became what it used to be when Kevin was a child. His father interrogated his son relentlessly about what he had been doing or not doing in Canada, and told him what to do and not do, and all Kevin could do after this was stand there and listen and say nothing. Then, when he returned to school in Canada and they talked on the mobile phone, his father turned into a friend again, who was both far away and close. Kevin said he explained his father’s different behaviours to himself by referring to American sociologist Erving Goffman’s differentiations between “front stage” and “back region” behaviours, a topic the Mass Com 220 class was at the time studying.

Weird Actions (Luther)

Luther said that his uncle was one of the coolest men in Nigeria, their home country, and he had always admired his uncle for his coolness and his ability to act like a pal for his nephew, who saw him as a role model. Then one day his uncle came to Canada and Luther looked forward to showing his cool uncle around Vancouver, where he was studying at an international college. But when his uncle arrived he started scolding Luther about his bad habits and thoughtless life in America and acted like the opposite of a pal and worse than Luther’s authoritarian father. Luther was shocked, and he agreed with Kevin that front stage and back region behaviours, as these different activities were described by Erving Goffman, might have something to do with his cool uncle’s weird way of acting in North America.


I recall, as I reread them, how candid and direct the students were when they told their stories. Although they got the humour in obvious places, their tellings made no attempts to muster big irony, or assume performative stances. They gave the accounts without affectation and linked them with good logic to the class discussions. “Being Cool,” seemed an aspect and value they understood, but its activities and self promotions did not come forth in the classroom conversations. I’m assuming this has to do with something like “respect for elders,” a behavioral modality that intensifies when the North American instructor appears in an item of clothing that might be labeled “cool,” but is in fact of course not. I’d like to thank the students from the summer semester 2012 “Understanding Television” class here for their open-eyed stories and the pleasure they gave me.



  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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