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On-Line Support Groups for Families in China

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Part of the WMU Studies in Maritime Affairs book series (WMUSTUD,volume 9)

Abstract

Seafarer-partners (seafarers’ wives or girlfriends) face a number of problems in everyday life, including consecutive long-term separations and social isolation. In the context that seafaring families are likely to be geographically dispersed, a virtual community provided Chinese seafarer-partners with a valuable space to talk about problems and to both offer and receive support. Despite the physical distances between community members they felt closely connected to each other in the community because they were all seafarer-partners and had similar concerns and experiences. By examining their interaction in this community, the chapter reveals the ways in which this virtual community may offer, essential, largely unseen, informal, support to seafarers by serving to protect their very vulnerable relationships in their absence.

Introduction

Seafarer-partners, which in this chapter refers to seafarers’ wives or girlfriends, face a number of problems in everyday life. The first and major one is long-term and intermittent separation between seafaring couples. During the separation period, which can be up to 1 year, seafarer-partners lose their intimate companions temporarily and are likely to suffer loneliness (Tang 2007; Thomas 2003). Furthermore, despite advanced modern communication technologies, the communication between the ship and the shore is neither convenient nor cheap (Sampson et al. 2018; Thomas 2003; Thomas et al. 2003; Wu et al. 2007). Another problem seafarer-partners face is social isolation. They feel that non-seafaring people are not able to appreciate their experiences and concerns, and for this reason seafarer-partners are likely to set themselves apart from people not linked to seafaring (Tang and Chen 2017; Thomas 2003). In the era of the planned economy, state owned (shipping) companies in China took ‘total’ care of their employees in the sense that they were responsible for their employees’ medical care, pension, and housing for a lifetime. These companies built seafarer villages—residential blocks—in the local port cities and allocated them to their employees. Those seafarers who did not live in the cities where their companies were located might be eligible for a one-off housing subsidy to buy a house locally. In practice obtaining a house or housing subsidy from companies was not easy and the waiting lists were usually long. With the reform of the economy, state companies gradually shed the function of housing their employees with the result that by the end of the twentieth century, seafarers working for state owned companies could no longer expect to be allocated a house and turned to the open estate market (Wu et al. 2007). In addition the transformation from a planned economy to a market one has encouraged the establishment of many non-state or non-local-government owned shipping companies whose employees also need to buy their own houses. As a result, most contemporary Chinese seafaring families live separately from each other rather than clustered as before in ‘seafarer villages’. The issues identified above, mean that although seafarer-partners may wish to meet with, and share their concerns and experiences with, ‘similar others’ (Tang and Chen 2017; Thomas 2003) they are likely to be geographically dispersed and isolated.

In 2003, a seafarer set up a website called Home of Chinese Seafarers (HCS). The website provided a platform for Chinese seafarer-partners to share their experiences and concerns and to facilitate mutual support. This chapter aims to reveal some of the problems they experienced and discussed on the website, it examines the ways in which they helped each other to cope with these problems and discusses what encouraged them to do so online.

In order to grasp seafarer-partners’ online experiences in more detail, I spent over 2 years observing their interaction on the website. During this period, I logged onto the website almost daily to view activity, taking notes of, and analysing, seafarer-partners’ postings. To complement the observational data, I interviewed 30 seafarer-partner participants from different parts of China. Among the 30 respondents, 29 had received, or were receiving, higher education; 25 were below the age of 30; and 11 were married. According to my observations, the profile of the interviewees reflected the general population of seafarer-partner participants on the website—relatively young, well-educated and living in cities.

Sharing and Managing Problems on the Website

According to Baumeister and Leary (1995), intimate relationships entail frequent and affectively pleasant interactions between the involved parties within a stable and enduring context of concern and caring. Seafaring couples, however, are often deprived of frequent interaction by separation. Even long distance communication is not available most of the time (Ellis et al. 2012; Sampson et al. 2018). Without frequent and caring interaction, couples are likely to suffer from loneliness and distress (Tang 2012). Perhaps more importantly, tensions may arise because a couple cannot provide one another with the necessary support they require, either emotionally or physically, due to the separation.

In this context, the interview data indicated that seafarer-partners liked to share these problems on the website and helped each other to manage them. One informant revealed:

I like to initiate, and respond to postings regarding emotions, for example, when seafarers’ relations with their lovers meet problems, when some people are not confident about their relationships in the separation period, etc. These emotions and feelings are very similar to mine. I feel empathy with them. I will try my best to comfort them, to encourage them, and to support them.

In order to illustrate further, I use three discussion threads below to show how they ‘comfort’, ‘encourage’ and ‘support’ each other. The first one was written by Bluesky who was experiencing difficult times while her boyfriend was at sea:

Example A: I have thought it over and over again. Maybe we should terminate the relationship, because I cannot sustain it any longer. I have not recovered from the illness… I just knew from a phone-call today that my father got injured in work and my brother has also been injured in the school. My mother has to take care of the shop, my father and brother alone, since I am not well and not together with them either. I feel so bad and useless… .

The second seafarer-partner, Lotus, revealed her frustration caused by her parents’ objection of her relationship with a seafarer. She wrote:

Example B: Several days ago when my parents knew that I was still in a relationship with my boyfriend, they admonished me. They are not happy with his job and family and are forcing me to terminate the relationship. What should I do? Please give me some suggestions!

The third posting was made by Lily, who was not entirely sure about whether her boyfriend loved her or not:

Example C: Having seen that most sisters’ lovers here are working in the deep sea fleet, I used to feel fortunate that I could keep in touch with him through messages and phone-calls… After he left, I make use of every little spare time to send messages to him. Gradually, sending messages becomes the main theme of my life and it is my source of happiness.… But he always replies me at the ratio of 1:3. This hurts me. I warned him several times. But after only few days, he would be back to his former attitude. This time I feel that I have had enough.… I sent him a message: Since it continues like this, we’d better break up.…

These three postings clearly indicate a sense of frustration. It is suggested that bad feelings signal a gap between the perceived reality and tacitly held expectations (Hochschild 1983; Tang 2009; Turner and Stets 2006). Bluesky’s (example A) bad feelings can be regarded as resulting from those unexpected and unfortunate events that she described. In example B, it could be argued that Lotus possibly expected that her parents would support her but this was not the case. While in example C, apparently, Lily hoped very much for reciprocation from her boyfriend only to be disappointed by his failure.

By revealing their problems in a public forum, the three seafarer-partners invited others, either explicitly or implicitly, to help them manage these emotional tensions and to provide support. Fifteen seafarer-partners replied to Bluesky’s posting, eleven to Lotus, and another fifteen to Lily. In those replies, the seafarer-partners did what Hochschild (1983) terms as ‘emotion work’ to help the initiators. An analysis of the replies suggested several strategies involved in the emotion work on the HCS website, although the boundaries between these strategies are not clear-cut. To avoid repetition, I only use some representative replies to illustrate these tactics.

The first one is acknowledgement that it is not easy to be a seafarer-partner. To posting A, one replied:

A1Footnote 1: Seafarer-partners do sacrifice a lot, especially in difficult times. I hope that together with your friends you can overcome the current problems. Problems are always fleeting.

One participant answered to posting B:

B1: There are lots of problems in our way. I think the best way forward for both of us and our parents is to move and change our parents, and to make them understand and support our choice. Maybe by that time, I think we will be the happiest persons in the world.

Both respondents first acknowledged the difficulties of being a seafarer-partner. By doing so, on the one hand, they offered sympathy and understanding; on the other, they suggested implicitly that hard times were common for seafarer-partners and thus normalised the problems. Acknowledgement, however, did not seem enough, since it did not give any practical suggestions to help solve the problems. Therefore, A1 went on to encourage Bluesky to overcome the problem; and B1 offered advice.

The second strategy of providing help is encouragement to the frustrated to be strong, as shown in A1. Another two also offered encouragement to Bluesky:

A2: Do not feel too sad. Things will be going better. Believe yourself, believe your love!

A3: The suffering will be over soon. The sun will come out after the rain.

One seafarer-partner replied to Lotus urging continuance:

B2: If you love each other, do not give up! I give you my best wishes and may you be happy forever!

By replying to different postings, all three seafarer-partners encouraged the initiators to overcome their difficult times: hold on to your love, do not give up; although there are problems, they are fleeting; happiness lies just ahead! Thus, the encouragement also served, on the one hand, to play down difficulties, since the latter were regarded as fleeting; on the other, to offer hope—suffering will end soon. These encouraging words arguably provided some strength and confidence to the initiators to tide them over the hard times.

The third type of response is a reframing of the situation for the initiators. For example:

A4: This is just your temporary feeling. In fact, you are blaming him, since so many things have happened but he is not with you! I can understand your feeling, for this happened to me before. In fact, you do not really want to terminate the relationship. Think twice and have confidence in yourself and him. Do not let yourself feel regret in the future.

This replier started her response by playing down the situation—it was temporary and thus was not as serious as the initiator had thought. Following that, she reframed the situation for the initiator. In this seafarer-partner’s view, Bluesky was blaming, rather than intending to break up with, her boyfriend and therefore the action of terminating the relationship should not be taken; otherwise, it would be costly. The fact that ‘this has happened to me’ justified her competence in doing this on the one hand, and normalised the situation for Bluesky on the other—you are not the only one and many of us have experienced this problem. In the end, this replying seafarer-partner served the purpose of encouraging Bluesky to ‘have confidence’ and offered advice—‘think twice’ and ‘do not let yourself feel regret’. The reframing strategy was widely used in replies to posting C:

C1: Do not mind this too much. In the past, we could only expect letters, which take several months. How fortunate now we are that we have mobiles! On board the ship, he cannot carry the mobile everywhere. He cannot receive your messages on time. Even if he can, he may not be able to reply to you immediately since he has got job to do. Moreover, not the whole coastal sea is covered by a network service. Some areas are not covered at all.…

C2: Many times, our environments and moods are not synchronised.… When you are full of passion, maybe he is busy with working; when you are sleeping, maybe he becomes passionate.… We are all different. Especially with those in distance relationships, synchronisation is very difficult.

C3: In the past, I also used to hasten my husband to reply to my messages. Only after I visited his ship did I realise how hard and tiresome his job is. There are always reasons for not responding to messages. Do not take it seriously.

C4: All men are careless. My partner only replies to me once after receiving one hundred of messages from me.…

These replies reframed and reinterpreted the situation from different perspectives. C1 first downplayed the problem: compared with the past, you are in a better position and should feel satisfied. Then the replier continued to give two possible reasons to justify the failure of Lily’s boyfriend: either he was working or there was no network coverage. C2 offered another reason—tempo-spatial dislocation and asynchronization. Based on her own experience, the third replier believed that seafarers had to work hard and therefore did not have much energy left for messaging. The first three replies also gave Lily a sense of what could be happening at sea. The last one generalised men’s ‘nature’ and suggested that it was ‘natural’ for men not to reciprocate women’s intimacy.

Reframing, as indicated by the examples, was at the same time normalising. It served to convince initiators that the situations were widely experienced and normal and therefore there was no need to feel unhappy or distressed. Playing down and normalising the situation, arguably, would change the initiators’ perception of reality and thus reduce the difference between the expectation and the perception.

Reframing also helped frustrated seafarer-partners to make sense of what was happening to them. The initiators’ bad experiences disrupted their lives and made them feel insecure about themselves and their relationships. In a sense, they felt a loss of control. Others’ reinterpretations threw a positive light on the situations and thus helped the initiators to understand things in a less threatening way. Orgad’s (2004a, b) study of breast cancer patients’ web-pages and online help groups suggests that their sharing of illness experiences and the knowledge gained from this served to empower patients in the sense that they were able to make sense of, and manage, the threat and disruption that cancer posed to their routine everyday lives. Similarly, reframing on the HCS seemed to make it easier for distressed seafarer-partners to reflect more upon, and to better manage, their disrupted lives and to regain a sense of security and control. Maybe for this reason, Lily came back to the thread and thanked others for their support.

The final support strategy which was identified was offering advice, which as indicated earlier, was sometimes intertwined with other forms of tactics. Here, I show more examples:

B3: Try your best to get your parents’ consent. When you become a seafarer’s wife, you will be home alone for a long period of time, during which you will need your parents’ support.

B4: If you are deep in love with each other, and if you are really prepared for the future difficulties of being a SP, take action to change your parents’ attitude.

C5: Do not hold it too tight. Learn to release it a bit sometimes. Like chocolate, it melts if you hold it too tight.

B3 not only gave a suggestion, but also pointed out the implication of not acquiring consent from parents. B4 advised Lotus to transform her parents’ attitude. Although the two suggestions were a bit different, the aim was the same—try to change the parents. Based upon her understanding of love, C5 offered her advice to Lily: give your boyfriend some freedom. These suggestions, arguably, helped the initiators to take informed actions.

The four strategies, as shown above, served to downplay and normalise problems, throw positive light on negative experiences, and offer hope and advice to seafarer-partners in distress. As such, they contributed to alleviating tensions for seafarer-partners and nurturing their well-being. Mermaid, a seafarer’s girlfriend aged 24, for example, said in the interview:

I feel that… since he is not home, there is a kind of longing. I want very much to talk to other seafarer-partners about my situation, the problems I experienced in work and everyday life, and my pressure. Then they would reply to me… some of them give me advice, which I feel gives me guidance in life. Their replies also help to remove some of my pressure [stress].

Nurturing Seafaring Relationships

The ‘emotion work’ performed on the HCS website between seafarer-partners is not new. Previous research revealed that friendship between women could allow them to share marital problems, reveal emotional vulnerabilities, and provide mutual support (Jerrome 1984; Oliker 1989). Oliker (1989), for example, in a study of friendship among a group of married American women, noted that through friendship, these women disclosed marital problems and helped each other to diffuse these problems and to sustain the marriage through emotion work. As such, it is argued that women’s friendship provides a safety valve, serving to discharge their discontent with, and strengthen their commitments to, marriages (Jerrome 1984; Oliker 1989).

The ‘emotion work’ on the website, however, was not performed face-to-face. Furthermore, it might be between anonymous strangers rather than friends. Nevertheless, it similarly had a positive impact on couple-relationships. Firstly, it diffused seafarer-partners’ dissatisfaction with the relationship. Snow, a seafarer’s girlfriend in her mid-twenties, stated in the interview:

It makes my mind more at peace. Having read others’ experiences, I feel that life should be like this. In the past, before I came to this website, I did not know how hard and tiresome his work is. I felt that he should make a phone call to me immediately once his ship was moored to a wharf. Otherwise, I would be very angry. Now I know that their job is hard and busy.

Thus, Snow’s anger and disappointment at her boyfriend’s failure to answer her phone-calls was abated. This seems to have been achieved because, after advice from others, Snow started to see the situation differently—the failure was not because her boyfriend did not care about her but because he was too busy and had little time outside of work. Online observation revealed that several seafarer-partner participants revealed, on the website, that reading others’ postings helped them to change the negative feelings created by their partners’ failures or faults in ‘doing intimacy’.

Secondly, the nurturance serves to foster seafarer-partners’ commitment to the relationship as illustrated in the following interview extract:

Interviewer: In which respect(s) do you think this website gives you help?

Breeze: I feel mainly in the respect of the relationship with my boyfriend.

Interviewer: How does it help in this respect?

Breeze: When I cannot see any hope, many people give me support and encourage me to stand firm. (Interview with Breeze, a 27 year old seafarer-partner)

As a result, the mutual support on the website helped seafarer-partners to release and alleviate emotional tensions, to reduce dissatisfaction and discontent with partners and to sustain and foster commitment to the relationships.

This does not mean, however, that seafarer-partners always nurture couple-relationships on the HCS. When they sense from a posting that the relationship has already broken down or mutual love does not exist anymore, for example, if one party has formed another relationship, seafarer-partners encouraged the posting initiator to move on and wished her good luck in the future.

A Specialised Community

We have seen that seafarer-partners were willing to share their emotional problems and provide support to each other on the HCS, even though they might be strangers. What made and encouraged them to do so?

For seafarer-partners, the HCS can be seen as a ‘specialised community’ (Wellman 2001). It is ‘specialised’, because community members tend to relate to each other through narrowly defined but shared interests or identities. This ‘specialised’ nature makes it easy for members to empathise and identify with each other (Bernardi 2016; Parr and Davidson 2008). Empathy encourages not only disclosure but also mutual support (Bernardi 2016; Wallace 1999).

This specialised community provided a vital space for seafarer-partners to talk about their problems. Such a space was not available offline for most seafarer-partners as they lived far apart and they felt that their non-seafaring friends could not appreciate their situation. One seafarer-partner explained:

They [non-seafaring friends] have little idea about seafarers; they cannot empathise with seafarer-partners’ feelings! Even though we talk, the conversations can never go as deep as I wish. Moreover, there are many things that they do not understand.

Similarly, another seafarer-partner, Yangtze-Girl, indicated that in real life she had difficulty in finding an opportunity to share her negative feelings with others and therefore she had to bear them alone:

In real life, I bear it alone! It is quite natural that my family members are not happy with my choosing of a seafarer. If taking this and that kind of unhappiness into consideration, probably, he and I would not come together today [if I complain to my parents]! Therefore, I can only shoulder pressures in work and unhappiness in real life alone!

By contrast, Yangtze-Girl seemed to feel ‘at home’ on the website, as she stated:

Since I entered the HCS, I discovered sisters who, like me, are waiting. Probably, sea and seafarers draw us very near; there is nothing to hide! I discovered that they also experienced what I did and we encourage each other. We are like sisters, family members!

It was common that seafarer-partners called each other ‘sisters’. They likened the HCS to their parents’ homes where they could always find support. Another seafarer-partner wrote on the website:

The HCS is our warm home. Here we should comfort each other, encourage each other, and support each other.

Therefore, there was a strong sense of solidarity and closeness among seafarer-partners in this community due to their shared experience and identity, even though they were physically far away from each other. This sense of closeness further encouraged them to reveal problems and provide mutual support.

Conclusion

This chapter has revealed some problems that seafarer-partners are likely to face due to consecutive long-term separations. It demonstrates how seafarers’ partners find it difficult to talk about these problems with their non-seafaring friends and family members even though they are physically close to them. In this context, the virtual and ‘distant’ HCS provided them with a valuable space to talk about problems and to both offer and receive support. Despite the physical distances between forum members they felt closely connected to each other on the HCS because they were all seafarer-partners and had similar concerns and experiences. The chapter reveals the ways in which such on-line forums may offer, essential, largely unseen, informal, support to seafarers by serving to protect their very vulnerable relationships in their absence.

Notes

  1. 1.

    A1 indicates the first quoted reply to posting example A. The same pattern is used afterward, such as B1, A3, and C4, for easy reference.

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Tang, L. (2021). On-Line Support Groups for Families in China. In: Gekara, V.O., Sampson, H. (eds) The World of the Seafarer. WMU Studies in Maritime Affairs, vol 9. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49825-2_15

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