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Elle Moxley

BEIJING — As basketball fans geared up for the U.S.-China pairing on August 10, a banner headline in the China Daily predicted more than a billion fans would watch the game. There were watch parties everywhere — at ex-pat bars, local dives, even the hotel room two doors down from me. And in the lobby, even the security guard working the graveyard shift could watch Yao Ming. For several hours, he kept one eye on the door, and one eye on his cell phone, which he watched for scores, play-by-play reports and even video highlights.

With the opening of the first Apple store in China, there’s been a lot of talk about when the retailer will finally negotiate an Asian contract for its iPhone 3G. But really, why all the fuss? The Chinese market is already saturated with hacked iPhones, complete knockoffs and, most importantly, domestic cell phones that can outperform Apple on its best day.

Internet browsing and email access, until recently only available to the elitist BlackBerry crowd, are standard-issue on most Chinese cell phones. Here, it’s not just wealthy businessmen and yuppie college students who feel a constant need to be connected. It’s people like Guo Jing, the security guard at our hotel watching Yao Ming on the very tiny screen of his cell phone. His position only pays about 2,000 RMB a month (around $300), and his phone cost almost as much. Jing is not alone, either. Almost all of the security guards at Renmin have made similar investments.

Phone-Driven Cell Market

With more than 360 million users, China Mobile does provide almost 70 percent of wireless service in mainland China, but like in Europe, the wireless communication market here is phone-driven, not plan-driven. As a tourist, you can walk into any one of a dozen mobile phone shops on the street and purchase a SIM card that works with the cell phone you already have.

In a truly bizarre blending of tradition with technology, how much you’ll pay depends largely on the cell phone number you’re willing to take. While the Westerner might scan the list for the number closest to his birthday, wedding anniversary or garage door code, the Easterner is looking for lucky number eight. Because the number is said to bring good fortune (08/08/08 at 8:08 p.m., anyone?), customers pay a premium for numbers that have a lot of eights.

Of course, the Beijing Organizing Committee-Olympic Games (BOCOG) had SIM cards waiting for us when we got on the ground in China. There are no eights in my new number, but there aren’t any fours, either. (Because the Chinese word for “four” sounds a lot like the Chinese word for “death,” the number is considered unlucky.)

Along with our new SIM cards, BOCOG handed us new Chinese cell phones as well, but they’re not quite TV ready. In fact, I half expected the tiny gadget to dispense candy, not to make calls. It didn’t help that the thing bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nokia S110 (you know, the one with the endless stream of colored face plates) my sister carried in high school. Even in a room of English-speaking Chinese volunteers, every request I got for help setting up voice-mail was met with a blank stare. Finally, someone explained to all of us that voice-mail isn’t popular in China. Our venue supervisors would be in contact with us via text message.

Here it seems a little odd to have your boss text you, especially when texts come at weird times. For instance, the Chinese concept of acceptable text times seems to be very different than that in America. Kevin, our manager, would often send us texts at one or two in the morning trying to change the time we were all supposed to meet the next day. This was fine if we were planning to meet in the afternoon and he wanted to push the time back an hour or two, but it was somewhat less effective when he’d want to meet at, say, 8:30 a.m. instead of 9:30 a.m. Unless you heard your phone go off in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t get the message until 8:30, when you had your alarm set for in the first place.

This, I’ve learned, is by far the norm in China. Every time I step on the subway, I feel like I’m entering a bizarre scene in some electronic catalog (with Nokia providing the largest number of phones by far) where able-thumbed passengers convert the Roman alphabet into Pinyin and into Chinese characters at rapid speed.

It’s not that I haven’t seen my best friend’s fingers work text message magic so quickly before, it’s just that she’s using a rundown flip phone that’s similar to mine. My Dad (businessman) recently bought his first BlackBerry, and my brother (yuppie) has had an iPhone since they hit the shelves last summer, but most of my friends still use a somewhat clunky cameraphone. Email and Internet access? Only if they convinced their parents to spring for an upgraded plan.

More Cell Phones Than Laptops

On the University of Missouri’s campus in Columbia where I go to school, you’re more likely to see students checking their email on their laptops than their phones. But here at Renmin, where there’s a campus-wide wireless network, only about one-third of students have laptops, so it’s the opposite.

Likewise, when I’m checking headlines online at the New York Times, my Chinese counterpart is probably skimming an SMS message with the same information from Chinese news sources. China Mobile users can pay a small fee to receive headlines on their phones, and during the Olympics, a separate dissemination service keeps subscribers up-to-date on Games news. The ads in the subway have me curious, but I’m not quite sure I’m ready for news on the tiny screen of my cell phone. After all, I held out for an entire month before getting a cell phone charm, an absolute Chinese must-have.

Plenty of students in my group have swapped their usual SIM cards for their Chinese SIM card because they couldn’t stand the stripped down model BOCOG provided. Journalists constantly complain about the lack of features and familiarity with the phones they’ve acquired during their brief stay.

I can’t blame them: I’ve spent plenty of time in the last year glancing woefully from my inexpensive Samsung to friends’ powerful iPhones. I’ve told myself a dozen times that as a journalism student, I too could benefit from 24/7 access to email, but at the same time, I know I’m sitting in front of my computer anyway nine times out of ten. I’ve always resisted the urge to upgrade, and in China, the tradition continues. Maybe I just haven’t had long enough to adjust to the 2 a.m. text messages from my work supervisor with instructions on where to go and what to do when I wake up.

Elle Moxley is a student at the University of Missouri pursuing dual degrees in journalism and sociology. Currently, she is living in Beijing, China, spending two months working for the Olympic News Service at the XXIX Olympic Games.

Photo of Chinese texters by Kimberli via Flickr.