Phones in China: A Tale of Four Phones by Molly Oberstein-Allen

I came to China with a well-loved iPhone. It got me through an unexpected few days in Hong Kong with no money for a visa and a hostel reserved for the wrong week, and it helped me navigate the seemingly identical streets of Shenzhen during my first few weeks – okay, months – here. It was during the Shanghai leg of a multi-city tour of China that I parted ways with my iPhone for good, in a cab at the end of a night wherein I got a little too happy and then, after finding myself adrift and phone-less, a lot too sad.

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China Mobile, a popular service provider in mainland China

Following an adventure in which I made friends with a number of Shanghai police who were utterly unhelpful in locating my phone and navigated two Chinese cities “off the grid”, so to speak, I made amends with the fact that my phone was gone for good and settled in at the Futian China Mobile store. After waiting just under two hours to speak with an employee, I purchased the second-cheapest phone in the store for a cool 600 kuai. Although I initially couldn’t figure out how to install a VPN or any apps from the Chinese app store, with the help of lots of friends and many hours spent clicking buttons in vain, I finally got my phone in working mode, complete with all the social media, world navigation tools, and crossword apps that get me through my day.

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Baishizhou, a collection of several urban villages and popular destination for expats to experience what Shenzhen was like before rapid development and foreign investment.

It was just when I was coming to live with my phone despite its failings, as you get used to the farts of an old dog that you can’t help but love, that it was stolen from the water bottle holster of my backpack as I wandered the streets of Baishizhou on an otherwise lovely afternoon. I ran back to the shops I’d stopped in, scoured the streets, gesticulated wildly, and came to the verge of tears, but it quickly became clear to me that the phone was lost to the yawning maw of China.

The next day I trudged back to China Mobile with my head hung, and again performed my broken charade to the amusement of staff and customers alike. Fed up with my string of misfortunes, I bought the cheapest phone in the store, a 500 kuai YunOS device that, it turned out, would not take a VPN under any circumstances and also had the storage space of a Tamagotchi. The phone let me use WeChat and keep (if I was lucky,) as many as ten photos at a time, but eventually I grew used to it. I began to love my new Zen, pared-down existence, freed at last from the app loop I’ve fed on since I got my first smartphone in high school.

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Yun OS, developed by Alibaba Cloud, is a popular OS running on affordable devices. The YunOS app store is known for featuring many pirated versions of Android and Google applications. 

I shouldn’t have been so complacent. I’d had my YunOS phone for less than a month when it became diseased, stopped charging, started turning off at annoyingly inconvenient intervals. I stayed up late cradling it in the charging port in different positions, offering prayers and blowing on the battery as if it were a birthday candle and I still believed in the power of wishes. However, its death throes soon came to an end, and my phone grew cold, never to turn on again.

It was then that I gave up on China Mobile and turned to my friends for help. As it turned out, one of my roommates had a slightly broken iPhone 5 sitting in his room and had for some reason never thought to mention it to me. I now use his phone, and I guard it more carefully than I do the livelihoods of my preschoolers (just kidding, present and future employers!). I never again will be ungrateful to use an app, and hopefully will never again lose a phone in China.

Here my tragic tale comes to an end, but I leave you with a few handy tips for dealing with lost phones and other tribulations that you may encounter during your time in China:

  1. Don’t go for the cheapest phone. This may seem obvious, but take your time, do your research, and ask around, no matter how dire of straits you feel you’re in. And for the love of god, don’t buy a YunOS phone.
  2. Take full advantage of your VPN. Get your friends’ emails, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, whatever. Have a way to contact them that’s not WeChat or phone number-based so you’re not stranded when you find yourself lost with, god forbid, only a computer to aid you.
  3. Cell phone in Chinese is shǒujī. This information isn’t necessary, but stick it in your back pocket. Just trust me on this one.
  4. Don’t only save stuff on your phone!! Back things up to your computer periodically, and write down passwords, key codes, directions, and contact information on paper so you’re not down Shennan Boulevard without a paddle when your phone hits the fan. I had thankfully already memorized both of the electronic key codes to my apartment when I broke my third phone in China, but otherwise I would have been knocking down all my neighbors’ doors, desperately trying to mime ‘landlord’ without the help of Pleco, Google Translate, or any common sense to speak of.
  5. This may seem obvious, but don’t put keep your phone in the water bottle holster of your backpack. Or your back pocket, or your front pocket. Don’t leave it lying on a store shelf while you’re shopping, and don’t give it to a friend to hold while you’re peeing. Tie it to your person with lock and key. Kiss it periodically. Mold it to your very body.
  6. You are not going to die here. You are going to be okay. Whatever it is you’re going through, it could (probably) be worse.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Carolina says:

    Molly – you just wrote the story of my cell phone experience. Mine wasn’t left behind or kidnapped to be lost forever but died tragically, having lived only for three months as a new phone. May it (Sony) rest in peace. As you stated don’t buy cheap. You pay what you get, a very basic and very disposable Chinese cell phone. Though I hate writing things on paper, it has certainly saved me time and agony when Sony died. Yes, people should follow your great advice. I haven’t ever depended on a cell until I came to China .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Molly Allen says:

    Reblogged this on Nihao, it's Molly!.

    Like

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