My cell phone, a chubby, stubby gray motorola W150i, is a window into Chinese culture. My W150i teaches me about Chinese culture because it’s kind of like having a Chinese spouse: it tries to finish my sentences for me.
Chinese is arduous to type, so when I type in a character in Chinese, it tries to guess what I want to type next. When I type in DRINK, my better half suggests ALCOHOL. When I type in EAT, my better half suggests MEAL.
These are straightforward follow-ups to two basic words, but there are other suggestions that strike me as representations of a strange order of preferences. Chances are that the words that we use more often are used so often because they’re central to our life and experience. These stanger suggestions offer a glimpse into Chinese culture.
By looking at what words pop up in my Chinese cell phone, we can see how the Chinese are likely to slice up the world of experience. For example, the word HOME or FAMILY is suggested far more frequently than I would suspect of an American phone. When I type GO, AT, RETURN, MY, LEAVE, or ARRIVE, my phone—perhaps with a tone of admonition—suggests HOME. On the other hand, my phone has never suggested, after typing GO, that I GO OUT. Here, I believe my phone’s suggestions are a reflection of the emphasis placed on the home and family in Chinese society.
Even more telling is what my phone suggests after I type VERY. When I type VERY my W150i cooks up the following:
FAST, GOOD, MANY, TALL, BIG …
Fast? Before good? This way of ordering values seems out of step with how I use English.
More interesting is seeing what happens after I type TOO:
BIG, SMALL, GOOD, EXPENSIVE, LATE, etc.
Of the 19 suggestions my phone gives, TOO FAST is nowhere to be found, yet TOO GOOD is right near the top. This difference in language reflects the fact that, in China, there’s a huge emphasis on speed, often at the cost of quality. Chinese goods are known around the world for being cheaply produced and unlikely to last very long, and it’s because they’re made so fast. In my experience doing research, Chinese colleagues were often more concerned with getting the research done in the shortest amount of time, even when this meant comprimising the quality. In China, if I’m riding my bike on the street and it breaks, I can reasonably expect to be able to get it fixed within the next 10 or 15 minutes by the guy at the nearest street-corner stand. The good part is that I can get it fixed incredibly fast; the bad part is it will probably break again next week.
At first, this emphasis on speed seemed more like a consequence of an economy that is still modernizing. The first time this actually struck me as a ingrained value was when I described my bike repairs to a first-generation Chinese friend of mine in Beijing. “That’s how it should be,” she said. “It’s just easier and simpler that way. People make things too complicated in the U.S.” This was the ideal, rather than an unintended consequence.
I’ve found the opposite to be the case in Japan. In Japan, things are carefully made and done right the first time. This makes things more expensive and things more of a hassle, but it also means I only need to buy things once. Japanese cars last a long time, mostly due to the care that is put into making them. Perhaps Japanese cell phones first suggest CAREFUL as a complement to VERY.
In any event, with my W150i better half at my side day and night, perhaps I’ll start to take its suggestions more often. I guess cultural osmosis is digital these days—and faster than ever before, just like my phone would want.