Mind the Gap Saturday: The mobile worlds of China and the West
Mind the Gap Saturday is a feature every Saturday where Blognation China tells its readership the differences - the gap - in the tech, mobile and enterprise worlds between China and the Western World.
Back in the early 1990s, the humble mobile phone was the exclusive realm of the rich few. Known as the dageda ("big brother big") for a full-scape mobile phone and the ergeda ("second brother big") for an outgoing-calls-only service, the mobile phone was prohibitively expensive, prepaid services were totally unknown of, and the mobile world we've come to know of today simply did not exist.
Fast forward into the 2000s. Well into the new century, mobile mania has gripped China - big-time - to levels that can only be compared with the keitai frenzy seen in Japan. Mobile phones have gotten thinner, smaller, and indeed, easier to lose. Even my cousin - just 18 as we speak - has a mobile phone. (Yours truly jumped on the mobile bandwagon at the young age of 16 in Switzerland.)
Everyone's going crazy about mobile phones in China. Yet, behind the frenzy, there are differences between how mobiles tick in the West and what makes them tick in the East.
The mobile for free: only in the West
Switzerland is absolutely chock-full of "gratis Handys", in essence "mobile phones for free". Sign up for a subscription with Swisscom (or Sunrise, or Orange), and you get the phone free - provided you can commit for at least a year or more. You kind of win at the end of this day - you're phoning away on a brand-new mobile phone - but it's the telcos who are winning at the end of every other day, sucking your cash away from your phone calls and SMS text messages.
In China, it's quite the opposite. There are virtually no free mobile phones at all - not even if you remain a China Mobile or China Unicom customer for life. The purchase of the mobile phone is almost always separate from the purchase of the subscription.
So which model is better? If you're strapped for cash in the short run, the model in the West may look more attractive. But at the end of the day, you'd want the Chinese version of the story. There are no real hidden costs - or, at that, unfree subscription limits - so if you want to hang up for good, you can just go ahead and do that without penalty in China.
China: land of the unlocked SIM cards
We all know how complex and irritating locked SIM cards can get. (They most often come with those for-free mobile phones locked on a year-long subscription.) Dumped your subscription? You wish you hadn't. Your phone won't really work any more if you dump your number - locked SIM cards are common currency in the Western world.
China, however, is totally foreign to the notion of locked SIM cards. Phones may cost a fortune, but you can phone in the total comfort knowing that no phone in China is sold with a SIM card lock in place.
Yours truly, being an advocate for consumer choice, prefers the latter. He thinks it is totally unfair that phones are locked to one carrier - and one carrier only. It's probably no wonder that people are decoding iPhones in China. In the end, it's about the free rights of the customer.
Going dual: CDMA and GSM in China
China is one huge resource-rich country. In the nation itself, there are GSM, CDMA and satellite mobile communications services. China Mobile is all-GSM; however, China Netcom does CDMA as well as GSM. The rarely-heard-of China Satcom populates China's airwaves (way up there) with satellite phone signals.
Phones on the market now are advanced enough to include a "G&C Dual Mode" status, where both GSM and CDMA mobile services are active at the same time. This is, no doubt, great news if you're travelling to a country that uses CDMA instead of GSM.
Mind that chatter: SMS limits
You thought 160 characters were bad (and Twitter's 140 were intolerable)? Get a load of Chinese SMS limits, where you're only allowed 70 characters per SMS message. Of course, Chinese is totally different from English - one character conveys a lot more letters than in English. Need a visual demonstration? Watch how I send a message in English and in Chinese:
- English: "I'll be late to the meeting tonight. My car just ran out of gas, and I need to refuel it right away." (100 letters)
- Chinese: "我会迟到抵达今晚的会议，我车没油了，要现在马上加油。" (26 characters)
And then it hits you: the Chinese limit of 70 chars probably isn't that bad after all. Sixty more letters in English, and I'd run into SMS 2. I could easily repeat the very same SMS in Chinese and hit only 52 characters.
However, there's a catch. If there is just one Roman alphabet letter in a forest full of Chinese characters, that's it. You're instantly down to 70 characters. A message like this:
- Mixed: "我要先去Georgina的家里取东西，然后才能陪你。"
(Translation: "I have to go to Georgina's home to pick up something before I can be with you)
...would be counted as 26 characters, but will give you only 44, not 134, more free characters.
Nobody said this was easy!
Wei? Wei? Wei? Shrieking down the phone
I longed for the relative peace and quiet I got when I sampled the best of Swiss cuisine back in Switzerland in September 2007. In Switzerland, an unwritten rule has it that loud conversations on mobile phones are a no-no. Swiss Federal Railways, in fact, has "silent compartments" where mobile phones must not make any noise at all. iPod user? Either your Pod is totally silent, or you'll have to seek refuge somewhere else. Even when you are allowed to use your mobile phone in Switzerland, you're supposed to be considerate and not bust every other living being's eardrums because you can't hear your girlfriend on the other end of the phone line.
Not so in China. Farmers, workers, and even rich businessmen have adopted the universally-accepted practise of perforating other people's eardrums by shouting way too loud down the phone. You'll hear folks yelling wei? wei? wei? (Chinese for Hello?) until Kingdom Come, and even then, the shouting won't end.
If you can't stand it - well, just move away from the guy (or girl) making the racket. He (or she) probably can't "get" the notion of toning down (just a little) his volume on the phone.
Numb fingers: phone, don't text
I discovered this with biz people in China. Meetings in Chinese companies can last virtual ice ages, so those trapped in a meeting text message their way out. Unfortunately, because that poor soul is so wired up, he or she gets replies in SMS text messages. To reply, the fingers are put to some serious work. At the end of the hour, the person's fingers give up the ghost. I tried it once - I ended up getting a phone call, not an SMS, back from my friend at a company. The reason: "David, I'm phoning you because my fingers gave up the ghost from excessive SMS text messaging." The excuse could not be more grounded.
The opposite is true for starving students. These people are on a mobile service menu that gives them a certain amount of SMS messages for free. Since they're entitled to those free SMS messages, you make their day by making your fingers spent fuel. I once tried phoning a Chinese student at my university. A nag came from someone next to me: "That's not the Chinese way of phoning your friends."
Prepare for the holidays: SMS deluge
Nearing New Years, Chinese New Years (Spring Festival), Mid-Autumn Festival or Christmas? Prepare for an SMS deluge of proportion you could only imagine. The deluge gets especially big around the two New Years (it can easily reach three, or even four digits in amount around Chinese New Years), as folks with your mobile number wish you a Happy New Year - certainly, in more ways than one.
The recent trend has been to nab some random greeting off the Web, add your name to the greeting, and send it off until the telco company comes over with your bill (the dimensions of which would make the Great Wall seem microscopic in comparison).
Yours truly, however, faints at the idea of sending some random copycat message (even though he gets them by the freightload). The David Feng way of greeting people has involved writing texts in traditional Chinese (on his Mac, then Bluetoothing the file over to his E62), personalizing messages for those close and dear to him, and if all fails - sending greetings in foreign languages, including the exotic Rhaeto-Rumansh. (A Chinese translation is often included at the end of the message.)
Between close friends, similar deluges can happen (without getting the Ministry of SMS Floods woken up in the wee hours) at May Day, National Day, Valentine's Day and on birthdays.
Making the whole thing tick: the number game
No mobile line works, of course, without those numbers. Time to give this one the West-to-East run-through:
The West: Avoid 13. The big number to avoid in the West is the number 13. In China, though, the number 13 is taken as "just another number"; some have even said it's one of the "better numbers". Also, 666, the Number of the Beast, is bad in the West; this very same number, though, is considered exceptionally good in China.
China: Go for six, eight and nine; Avoid four. The Chinese are no fans of the number four (which is pronounced like the word for "death" in Chinese), and they also don't follow a David Feng preference for the number seven. They do, however, fall in love with the number six, eight and nine. Six stands for success; eight for fortune; and nine for "power", since this is the largest single integer. Phone numbers ending in six, eight and nine cost a lot more than their counterparts in four and seven (favored by yours truly); numbers with suffixes to the tune of 666, 888 and 999 fetch four, five or even six-digit figures in price.
Next Week on Mind the Gap Saturday: We start a two-part look at forums in Chinese cyberspace. Whether it's dinging someone, or calling the banzhu for help, chances are, if it's related to internet forums in China, you'll hear from Blognation China next Saturday. See you then.
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This article first appeared on Blognation.