These days you rarely walk the length of a town block without seeing a person walking with a cell phone plastered to his or her ear. Everyone in China – from CEO to driver – is busy. On the phone.
Bride & groom, Guangdong, 2006
Face-to-face meetings are blithely interrupted when a cell phone rings, with not the slightest trace of apology. Your life is in your driver’s hands; all the while his hands are glued to his phone instead of the wheel.
Even drifting down the little Yulong River on a bamboo raft, our boatman’s burly voice on his phone blasted away our peace and quiet.
Boatman, Guangxi, 2007
It wasn’t always like this.
One morning about 25 years ago, in my early trade consultancy days, my partner and I took the earliest train from Shanghai to Hangzhou to visit a dial caliper factory on behalf of our British client. It was customary in those days for the translator of the factory to greet us at the train station (or airport, as the case would be), but this particular morning, scanning the hustling crowd of bodies in blue Mao suits and black heads all cropped short, we found no familiar face.
There must have been puzzled or searching looks on our faces, because it wasn’t long before a pretty young woman I’d guess to be in her early 20s dressed in the same Mao suit, the same bluntly cut hair as the rest, approached us and asked in hesitant English, “Can I help you?”
We briefly explained the situation and then said, “Perhaps you can help us find a telephone and call the factory?”
“Of course, I will do my best.”
Luck had it that there was a public phone not too far from the station, just across the street. Don’t imagine anything like a telephone booth. In those days this meant an old-style black telephone placed on a tiny wood table outside some commercial establishment, in this case a small filthy private eatery, the kind even I think twice to eat in.
She dialed, found the right person to talk to, spoke a few lines, hung up and turned to us to say, “The factory is only a few minutes from here. Someone is coming to pick you up. Please just wait a while.”
We thanked her, with our big western smiles, and then were stunned by her reply.
“Please don’t thank me. Today is a very special day for me. You see, today is the first time I ever use a telephone. So I must thank you.”
Another time, another reality. But just twenty five years ago.
Every now and then I still wonder what she is doing today. But whatever it is, I’d bet my last yuan she is carrying a cell phone.
This story joins Our World Tuesday and ABC Wednesday.