The other day i had a drunken conversation with a migrant worker from Anhui province. We discussed the new middle class of China and he tossed out two terms that are direct translations from Chinese - "irrational exuberance" and "unreasonable prosperity". I introduced him to the English term "conspicuous consumption".
I commented on something i find very conspicuous here - internal combustion engines. There are scooters and cars and buses all over the place, but a lot of them are all-electric or at least hybrid. You don't realize how much noise and stink traditional engines make until you are in a place that has so few. He said it's hard to get a vehicle that isn't electric here because there is a strong government mandate, but people find ways to show off their wealth anyway - for instance buying import Teslas instead of local BYDs.
Although China is still one of the most polluted countries on Earth, it's clear that changing this is a major government priority. There are environmentalist stories every day in the newspaper here, something you rarely see in the west. When i talked about the upcoming National Congress (the 5-yearly meeting where the party gathers to discuss its leadership, policies and positions), i said it seems like Xi is pushing military achievements pretty hard. Certainly that's the impression we are getting in the west. But my drinking partner felt that this was more of an ongoing push that started way back with Jiang (Deng's successor). He said making China green again was Xi's big thing. From the perspective of an outsider, it does feel like the country is making strides in the right direction.
So, while we're on the topics of consumerism and waste... I bought a new phone even though my old one i bought a few months ago still works, despite several cracks in the screen and a thoroughly battered case. I tend to go through phones in bursts because i am a master of loss and destruction. Yesterday, though, i bought a phone for convenience instead of necessity. I feel a bit guilty.
I think my most expensive phone was the Nexus 4 i tried several years ago in the hope that a "pure" Android would suck less than the hodgepodge of custom apps and ROMs and launchers i previously dicked around with to try build a smartphone that wasn't full of adware and cruft. Eventually i just said fuck it and switched to Windows, which was a huge breath of fresh air. Windows phones do exactly what a smartphone should do and nothing more - browse the web, send email, instant messaging, the end. They also sync everything and (from Windows 8 onwards) provide a near-seamless user experience switching from phone to computer and back. It just feels simple, sleek and professional. But... no apps.
There are three Chinese apps in particular without which you might as well not have a phone at all - WeChat (instant messaging), AliPay (payments) and ofo/Mobike/etc (bike sharing). Everyone you meet asks for your WeChat. No one makes phone calls or texts or sends email. AliPay is the leading payment app, though you can now also pay from inside WeChat so the competition is getting heated. As a foreigner who spends money on "expensive" items like train tickets and hotel rooms, you can end up walking round with an embarrassingly fat wallet, since nowhere outside of a few ATMs accepts VISA. You feel like even more of a barbarian when you hand over a bill to a street vendor and they can't make change because most of their customers are using AliPay too. And the bike share. The bike share system here takes a huge dump on everywhere else in the world. It isn't bike sharing where you need to put the bike back into a dedicated dock in some inconvenient location. The bikes all have GPS, and you just leave them anywhere. Open the app, find the closest bike to your location, walk there, unlock it through the app, bike where you want to go, lock it back up through the app, done. It is fucking genius. But without AliPay or another local payment service, you can't pay for the bike. And without the app you can't unlock it. So... yeah, you need apps in China. So i bought a new phone.
It turned out buying a phone was as much an insight into the local culture as any other traveling i have been doing. There are tons of little cellphone stalls and markets around the place if you really want to get deep into refurbs and knock-offs and clones and bargaining, but i just wanted a cheap phone with no hassles, so i researched the models up front and walked into a large electronics store. Needless to say, nobody spoke English. A characteristic of many stores in China and other "poor" countries is that there is always way more staff than necessary. That's great when you need help, but it probably means the kids are massively underpaid or get commission, which made me sad i wasn't tossing more cash their way.
For the price range i wanted, there was only one real option and it was the 小米红米 (xiǎo mǐ hóng mǐ) 4X. The bigger Android nerds amongst you will recognize this as Xiaomi - the company that started out by building a custom Android ROM called MIUI that looked an awful lot like iOS. Eventually they branched out to making actual phones, and their iPhone-inspired holistic ecosystem ended up inspiring other Android manufacturers in turn.
It was a little disconcerting when i eventually handed over the cash. Unlike stores in the west, they don't give you the phone and then you pay at the counter. You give them cash, and then they walk away and leave you dangling. I have a sneaking suspicion that the phones may not even be in the same building. After about 10 minutes biting my nails, the other sales reps noticed my concern and offered me a seat, assuring me it was standard operating procedure. I sipped my bubble tea and waited. I imagined some guy zipping across town in an electric scooter to deliver exactly the model i wanted from wherever other warehouse or store had it in stock. Same-day delivery is definitely a thing when you order online here, so why not extend that to in-store purchases? Eventually my rep came back and helped me unbox the phone and switch the language over to English. I still didn't get a receipt, though it's not like i ever do anything besides chuck them anyways.
One of the most interesting things about buying an Android phone in China is that there is no Google. No Play Store, no Chrome browser, no Gmail, no nothing. Phone aside, this has caused me some difficulty due to that absolutely fucking miserable invention known as two-factor authentication. "Oh we noticed someone logged into your account from China. Don't worry, we'll let you back in just as soon as you type in the verification code we sent to your email address that you can't access in China. No need to thank us!" You fucking useless cunts. I have started the slow process of moving all of my accounts over to a non-Gmail address, but it's a struggle due to the flaky VPN connections. Fortunately none of my personal email was ever on Gmail. Unfortunately my work-related communication is via Gmail, and that includes banking and insurance data i still need to access while traveling. Sigh.
Anyway, when you get an Android phone in China, there is no Google Play, but there are dozens of app stores to choose from. Each app store has other app stores in it. Some of them have old versions of Google apps, but they're not likely to be very useful since the Google cloud is blocked anyway. This actually made the phone feel cleaner to me. When you start with bare MIUI it feels like bare Windows. The only apps that are there are the absolute essentials, and those essentials actually feel consistent and work nicely together. You don't even need to set up a cloud account at all, everything Just Works. Which is good for me, because Microsoft is my cloud provider of choice. Once i installed OneDrive, OneNote, Skype and Outlook pretty much everything bar bookmarks was the same as it was on my Windows phone. There are still some gaps (notably the mapping app is all hanzi and does not show pinyin names anywhere), but it was a lot less painful than pretty much every other Android experience i've had.
MIUI might be a clean and tight Android, but it's still an Android. I miss my Windows emojis so hard. Windows 10 has far and away the best emojis of all time. Google emojis are okay. Apple's are fucking hideous and make me want to vomit every time i see them. But, because Android is trash, every second app has its own font, and - most egregiously - the default Sogou keyboard uses Apple emojis. Actually, while we are on the topic, fuck custom keyboards. Windows only has one keyboard and it is sickeningly good. It is so precise. It doesn't take up too much space. Its autocomplete is amazing. Critically, it has emoji suggestions. Android has a dozen keyboards, and most of them don't support pinyin, but the ones that do support pinyin can't do English autocomplete properly. Or Google Pinyin, which is the least awful Chinese/English keyboard, doesn't support any other languages. And you need to long-press for an emoji. I mean, give me a break. Don't even get me started on all the redundant toggles and settings everywhere else in the OS... At least it has apps. I shed a tear for the loss of Windows' minimalist elegance every time i unlock the damn thing, but i suspect that will stop the first time i hop on one of those share bicycles or buy some fruit by scanning a QR code instead of fumbling with coins.
Anyway, if you need a simple phone, you could probably do a lot worse than the Xiaomi Redmi 4X. It's 720p, it's dual SIM, it's relatively small, it's under 125€ and MIUI is pretty slick.
Hey, guess what? Tomorrow i start Chinese lessons.