Tell me, Mr. Anderson, what good is a phone call… if you're unable to speak? Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
Most dreams of the Middle Kingdom involve the country’s countless billions. Usually the vision is of endless consumers, ready to be sold on Western beliefs or gadgets. I came with the idea that there were a billion untold stories locked away behind the bamboo curtain. But I also was convinced that as I slowly unraveled some of those tales, the country would be a primordial etch a sketch where each day I could imagine myself anew. The latter conviction is perhaps the most accurate description of what coming to China as an Orthodox Jew is like (though the idea is pretty much true for any foreigner in China, or for that matter anywhere overseas). The possibility that China provides to effortlessly present oneself differently is worth dwelling on at greater length. At present I only introduce it because it is in some way really the larger story within which a small purchase I made on Thursday has a small role.
The purchase was a cellphone. And the cellphone was another step away from the ability to slip away into the anonymity of China. I had avoided obtaining a cellphone last summer. And with the exception of one memorable Saturday night when I somehow met up with three friends in the midst of Nanjing Lue, Shanghai’s busiest pedestrian mall, it never seemed a necessity. Without a cellphone, life in China sometimes had the magic of a run where no one can pressure you, no one can direct your path, you and you alone are responsible for the steps and the direction that you take. With a cellphone the other China—corporate, grasping and pressured—reasserts its way into my daily life. Perhaps the local phone’s saving grace is that it provides me with an alarm clock, ensuring that that other world still preserved in early morning runs is still available for the taking.