Saturday, December 06, 2003

Call Me
Well, I finally joined the 21st century in China today. I bought a cell phone, something I'd decidedly resisted and sometimes derided in the States. I caved because it was becoming clear to me that without one in a country that has the highest number of "mobile phone" users (they don't use the term "cell phone" here and I get occasional puzzled looks when I use it) in the world and in a city that has more cell users than fixed phone ones, that I was a pitiful, walking anachronism.
"You don't have a mobile phone!?" was the usual response, delivered in tones that implied I must also communicate with grunts and palsied hand gestures from my rude cave. Even foreign barbarian coworker Jeff was getting weary of my reluctance to communicate while on the go.
"I tried to call you last night, mate. No answer at your apartment. Your bloody bad luck, I'd say. Met a woman who wanted to pay to serve breakfast in bed to an American. Said her name was Michelle Yeoh or something..."
I exaggerate, of course. But you get the picture.
And it was Jeff's connection with a Chinese guy named Peter that snagged me a fine used Nokia for 170 yuan ($20.54).
Peter is a story in himself. He's got Shenzhen wired. You need it, he can find it. He's the ultimate fixer and a nice guy to boot. He's about 34, speaks decent English, lived in the states for several years and delivers non-stop speed monologues about his travels and life, kind of a Chinese Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady, though the names would mean nothing to him.
His experiences in the States make mine here look like I'm posting from Mayberry RFD. In one 5-10 minute speed rap he detailed living with 5 other Chinese in a NY tenament where they were the only Asians amid Dominicans, Haitans and some black Americans, then he fastforwarded to some road trip he'd taken across the US and how he wound up unwittingly picking up a Mexican transvestite in El Paso.
"Nice kisser. I thought she was best kisser I'd ever had. Beautiful, beautiful too! We kiss, touch, we go to the bed, then I reach down and touch her, oh no! Big, big lump! You know? Surprised! Very surprised! I had to leave very fast..."
He's also married to an American woman from Peoria, Illinois and has an 11-year old Amerasian daughter - but neither Jeff nor I have ever seen them and Peter's normal cumpulsion to spew information fades a little when questioned about them.
His "real" job is manufacturing bootleg video games and systems, something he's also a little vague about. I did ask him how business was, because the govt. has been cracking down, and he admitted it's been a little slow.
Well meaning moron that I am I asked if he had a website that might drive some business his way. He looked at me with a mixture of pity and just a little contempt.
"WEB SITE? Why I want to advertise on Internet that I sell pirate Sega or Sony? You would not be talking with me now. I would be in jail!"
Point taken.
Before we bought the phone, we had to buy a phone number. Phone numbers here are priced based on how many "lucky" numbers they contain. One with a bunch of sixes and maybe some eights can go for 800 yuan ($96.65). In the spirit of frugality while heedlessly tempting fate, I bought the cheapest, unluckiest one I could find. One with several threes that cost 110 yuan ($13.30).
He then took me to a huge indoor market stuffed with hundreds of cramped booths and vendors who do nothing but shill used and new cell phones. It was dizzying and the hawkers and booths all looked identical. Vendors screaming in Chinese, shoppers jammed at every booth shouting into phones they were considering buying. But he knew where to go and within 15 minutes found the right seller and hooked me up with a Nokia formerly used by someone in Hong Kong.
"Good phone, I think. Four years ago, maybe 5,000 Chinese dollars ($604), now you have for only 170. Just like buying a used car, you know?"
I took it back to the Lucky Number and began phoning friends crowing that I was finally hooked into the grid. Then I took it to work and showed it to Helen D., my Chimcom party member coworker.
She was pleased to hear I'd joined the human race but underwhelmed with my purchase. "I would say you should pay no more than 200 for this. But 170 is not too bad."
Then she pulled hers out. It was a sleek, silver tiny Sam Sung number that made mine look like a black rotary dial monster from 1943. Hers takes pictures, has a color monitor, a slew of video games and instant messaging. It also hooks up to the Internet and for all I know also washes the dishes and takes out the trash.
Oh, you can also make and receive phone calls on it.
"It was smuggled here," she said proudly. "You cannot buy it legally here yet. It is from Europe. I went to the same market as you."
Nice, but I've gone as far as I'm willing as far as cell phone technology goes.
Call me, sometime, though. I'm at 13715304037.

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