Entry 3

Chinese name cards and a mobile phone; that’s what people told us you need to be a complete person in China. I’m halfway there, with a slim-line, dark red Nokia camera phone. “About halfway there” would apply to our tech life in general in China. The printer works only in color mode, the TV occasionally goes dark when the Party decides to censor a feature from CNN or the BBC, and the iron blows the main fuse in our apartment whenever I move its dial to “high.”

I love my mobile phone, but like everyone else in China, I rarely use it for phone calls. Text messaging is the preferred mode for communicating. It’s much cheaper, which is why everybody uses it. It’s also quieter, and in a country with 450 million cell phones, this becomes a factor. Today, my phone was useful once, invaluable once, and amusing once. The first was me texting about a lunch order (beef rendang, takeout); the second was a travel agent texting to verify the spelling of the name on a ticket (smart); and the third was my husband texting to report a personal best: He spotted a traffic decibel level displayed at 80, a record high for us.

The digital monitor down the street

Decibels? On our growing list of curious-and-remarkable high-tech phenomena in Shanghai is the giant digital monitor just down the street. It offers a rotation of the vital signs of the city—a clock with a ticking second hand, the date, the outside temperature, the number of open parking spots at various lots, and, most progressively, a decibel meter. I am developing the party-trick skill of guessing the decibel output of the sounds I hear around me. I know a city bus, for example, will raise the level from an ambient 58 or so to around 61 or 62. Cars have a minimal effect. Motorbikes cause spikes to 65, confirming their annoyance factor. Horns are the worst; a modest toot takes it to 70, and many horns at rush hour—well, fill in your own number.

High-tech gets muddled with low-tech all day long in our Shanghai life. We ordered Shanghai Airlines tickets to Shenyang from the very popular online site Ctrip.com. (Ever heard of Shenyang? North of Beijing, in Manchuria, above the border to North Korea, 7 million residents—almost as many as Sweden.) This Chinese travel site with an English version works very well until you get to the click-to-purchase button. You can get an e-ticket with a credit card, but only if you have a Chinese credit card, which are still fairly rare among Chinese and a terrible pain for foreigners to acquire. So, as a cash-payer, you are thrown back a few decades to arrange an in-person exchange of cash for paper tickets. But it works. A guy zooms up to our apartment reception on his motorbike, collects our wad of renminbi, gives us our tickets, and zooms off.

Gaudy lights of Shanghai

Another tech show plays right outside our windows. We can see two JumboTrons, probably three or four stories high. Today they featured ads for Hennessy whiskey, a coming Shanghai Expo, some noodles, and a YouTube-like video of little kids doing silly things. I watched this over morning coffee while waiting for the online papers to load. On a clear night, we can see about a mile all the way across the river to Pudong, where the whole face of the 37-story Aurora building comes alive as a JumboTron itself. Just this side of the river, the old Bund may be elegantly lit with strings of white lights framing the classic colonial buildings, but where we live, the nightly display of pink, blue, and green neon transforms the sophisticated architecture of Shanghai into what looks like a gaudy arcade of cheap carneys!

But back to the name cards. Most Chinese choose English first names to go by, which they seem to enjoy. In front of me are cards from the women I know: a Catherine, Nina, Ivy, Jenny, Sunny (also used by men), Jessica, several Christinas, two Fionas, a Lily, and a Winkie (not a great choice, there). I’m still stuck on choosing my Chinese name. This is a big burden with much consequence. It should sound nice in Chinese, look nice in Chinese characters, and preferably carry some relevant meaning. Unfortunately for me, the Chinese phonetics that come closest to my English name renders as “djye-bi” which means “borrow a pen.” This is not a possibility. My husband chose a Chinese name including two characters that mean, approximately, “flyboy,” which he finds amusing. I’m getting nowhere with this.

Oh, and the fake Rolex hawkers on my way to school this morning? I have no idea where they went. Maybe some police crackdown, or maybe they’re headed off in search of better waters.