Last week I tried to explain to a Chinese friend of mine why I hadn’t bought a cell phone until halfway through my senior year of college. I tried to explain that a cell phone is not always a positive force in my life. I tried to explain that I often felt compelled to answer my phone or respond to text messages when I’d rather be doing other things. Finally, I tried to explain that once you buy a cell phone, you’re become almost addicted to constant communication with other people, which starts to take over time that you had previously spent doing more rewarding activities.
“In the end,” I said, “there’s probably some value in being a little bit harder to reach.” My friend just looked at me with a blank expression. I wasn’t getting through to her, but at that moment I had caught onto a culture difference more telling about Americans than Chinese.
In the United States, technology is often seen as an intrusion into our lives. But other societies simply don’t have the same conception of having a real life and an imagined, technology-free life. Try think of the awkwardness of trying to explain that in reality we have two lives: our lives as they are naturally and the mess that gets created when technology intrudes and gums everything up. It’s actually quite an odd picture to create if you’re not used to thinking in these terms, and I believe that Chinese people don’t conceive of themselves as simultaneously having both an ideal, technology-free life and an actual, techonology-spoiled life.
Unlike China, America has a troubled relationship with technology. America is a country where pockets of Amish shun many forms of modern conveniences and where Emerson and Thoreau once called upon men to leave the binding ties of society and technology in order to live a more ideal life. Our heritage of New England transcendtalism is an idea that emphasizes the need to escape society and technology that still resonates today with many Americans, whether they’ve read Walden or not.
Yet China doesn’t have a tradition of Walden and Thoreau. As natural as the opposition to technology is to how I think of my life, it’s my suspicion that this buried contempt for technology or modern society doesn’t exist in China.
My students complained when I played The Beatles for them because “it was too old.” Perhaps in a nation that struggled to modernize while nations like South Korea and Japan modernized more quickly has left little room for time to cultivate a distaste for technology. In its place is a love for things that are new and modern.
Additionally, perhaps the cell phone is seen with less suspicion in Chinese society because it provides ample opportunities to check up and make sure others are OK, a practice I’ve found much more common in China than in the US. Perhaps it also represents the Chinese proclivity for being social and the happiness gained from being enmeshed with a large group of friends—a form of being social that I was often wary of in the United States.
In the end, though, I think there’s a deeper difference in attitude toward technology in general. The anti-technology Luddite movement to destroy technology that was making textile jobs obsolete was a British phenomenon, but I could imagine the history books saying it happened in the United States. I couldn’t, however, imagine the same in Guangzhou. In any case, I, the modern American, will still bring my clunky black CD player to play music for my students so that I can play them out-of-date Beatles songs, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll someday learn to enjoy, even though “its too old.”