Ellen was helping me send a text message on my despised cellphone. “You’re a little like my grandma,” she said.
Watch it, kid.
“She doesn’t want to learn how to do it,” Ellen continued. “She wants someone to do it for her.”
I didn’t ask how old her grandma might be, but I suspected she might be uncomfortably close to my age. And yes, I would have been just as happy if Ellen had just tapped out the message for me on those tiny keys. But Ellen is something of a rarity in my four sections of Oral English for majors in TCTF – Teaching Chinese to Foreigners. Unlike classmates who ended up in that major because they didn’t test well or didn’t know what they want to be when they grow up, Ellen explained to me that she truly loves the Chinese language and culture and wants to teach them (as she demonstrated when she chose a grammar point as the topic for her midterm). So she was determined that I would learn how to text.
And what could be more appropriate, given the central role of cellphones and texting in contemporary Chinese culture? Like many other developing countries – and Hunan province is still very much a work in progress – China has jumped from practically no phones just a few years ago to a cellphone in every hand today, without ever passing through the land line phase. Last month The New York Times reported that countries “from Kenya to Colombia to South Africa . . . have built cellphone towers precisely to leapfrog past the expense of building wired networks, which have linked Americans for a century. . . . The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union, an intergovernmental organization. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cellphone than the United Nations says have access to a clean toilet.” I can attest to that.
So I can understand how important cellphones are to the Chinese. They let Ellen keep in touch with her grandma, who can use them to pay bills directly from her bank account and maybe send Ellen a few yuan now and then. What I cannot understand, just as I cannot in America, is why people have become such willing slaves – or, in my case, an unwilling slave. I reserve the right to limit myself to the technologies I find useful. I love my multitasking laptop; I love e-mail; I love my DVR. What I do not love are the dozens of unnecessary, mindless conversations screamed into my ear daily by people who have no idea they are in public; the ringtones heard in concert halls that are not part of the program; the constant undercurrent in theaters and classrooms. So I have opted out of cellphone culture whenever possible, just as I have opted out of the credit economy that has shamelessly ripped off millions of consumer, including me.
“I do have a cellphone,” I answer haughtily when someone suggests that I really ought to get one. “It just doesn’t work in the United States.” I broke down and bought it two years ago when I was setting off for three months in Eastern Europe with no fixed address or advance itinerary, as a tool for making calls or being reached in an emergency. The British SIM card that came with it automatically screened my calls, sending them directly to voicemail unless the caller had a PIN code that I didn’t even know. I used the phone once or twice on that trip – for example, to call my friend Dmitri from the Budapest train to let him know I would be back in Vienna in time for lunch with his family. The following spring I used it to make an emergency call in Venice when a tour guide didn’t show up at the meeting place, and was shocked when it actually rang back with instructions on how to proceed. My ringtone, incidentally, is “Greensleeves’ — the most anachronistic of the selections that came free with the phone.
Here the foreign teachers are required to have cellphones, at their own expense, as well as pay for the apartment land lines that only The Boss ever uses. One of our first orders of business in arrival was to spend most of a day having ID photos taken, setting up bank accounts and setting up cellphone accounts – each of which takes much longer here than it would be in America. At China Mobile it involved filling out paperwork, choosing an 11-digit number from a long list (I asked for one starting with 158, my street in Manhattan, as a mnemonic device but somehow got 151 instead), and putting down a deposit of 100 yuan (about $14) that is supposed to carry me through five months of service. I was also asked to register for a raffle, and while I didn’t get the grand prize at the end of the month, I did walk out the instant winner of a big bag of laundry detergent.
The Chinese SIM card works better than the British one. It doesn’t make me sign in with a PIN, but it does ask me to “Please confirm switch on” and warns, “Max. volume! Keep off ear while ringing.” It’s quite efficient in sending and delivering text messages, which are crucial, since there is no voicemail here. If I miss a voice call, the phone records the number, but unless I recognize it or have the caller in my phone book, I have no idea who it was.
This was a particular problem in the early weeks, since the Chinese routinely demand your phone number almost as soon as they learn your name. (It took me weeks to learn my cell number, by the way, and I’ve never bothered to learn the land line’s.) Other teachers gave out my number to students I had never met, to the extent that people would call wanting to come over to my apartment right now, and I had no idea who they were. I discouraged that by saying how bad I was with the phone and texting, and that I couldn’t guarantee I’d get a message or respond. Instead I’d give them my e-mail address, which requires follow-through – not the strong point of this live-in-the-moment culture – and thus tends to cut down on the number of messages.
People who make it into my phonebook are either there by necessity or bona fide friends. Some foreign teachers have made it; some have not. My cleaner, Christy, has made it; so has Emma, the student who volunteered to help me buy Expo tickets. Erika, who is doing her dissertation on the American playwright Adrienne Kennedy despite never having seen or heard her work performed, is on the list. So are Mimi, who helps me order water and drivers, and Kenny, who took us new teachers around to China Mobile and the bank that first day and turns out to be in my junior lab class. On the other hand, some important people have never even asked for my number – chief among them Stevie Nicks, my volunteer assistant in the postgrad class. We e-mail about once a week and see each other in class, and we communicate just fine.
More than once I’ve told students in class to put away their toys – yes, in those words — and pay attention. They look shocked, puzzled – “What is she talking about?” – or just plain amused. During an oral midterm, I had to warn several times that I would deduct 10 points from everyone’s grade if those who had finished did not put away their phones and show their classmates some courtesy. Then again, the phones can also get my message across. A couple of weeks ago, I announced to the sparsely populated postgrad classroom that students who did not attend regularly would not be welcome at the final exam, and that those present should tell their friends. Within five minutes, rarely seen faces came streaming in. I meant before the next class, but the students apparently texted their friends to come right now.
Ellen’s jaw literally dropped when I explained that I don’t carry a cellphone in New York. Nevertheless, she persisted in her mission, and eventually she came to the missing piece of information, the one no one else had mentioned because they couldn’t conceive of my not knowing it, the one that made everything else make sense: that the phone contained a dictionary and could figure out, from the sequence of keys I pressed, what word I was trying to spell. It might not be evident to me from the line of gibberish on my screen, but sooner or later the magic word would appear.
Ellen was, unconsciously, right about one thing: technology is generational. I thought back to a visit from my friend Alice, then in her 80s, when I had just bought a new desktop computer almost 20 years ago. I saw her down next to me and proceeded to demonstrate something called the World Wide Web. “I could never learn to do that!” said Alice, a pioneer career woman who had worked her way up from the steno pool to programming director of WPIX, Channel 11, and could juggle a full day’s schedules in her head. I told Ellen that, 20 years from now, she’ll probably feel the same way about some newfangled gadget her kids are addicted to.
Personally, I’m waiting for the chips to be implanted directly in our brains. Ellen’s grandma and I might have a lot to talk about, if we spoke the same language. But I suspect it wouldn’t be by cellphone. Maybe the implants will help.