How a dated cell phone challenged everything I knew about China

This article was originally published in SupChina on March 30 2021. The original article can be accessed here:

The Nokia 1110 can barely do more than send texts. But in 2009, it was the author’s only lifeline to the people of Taigu, a small rural town where he taught English.

Illustration by Alex Santafé

One touch of the END CALL button and the screen dissolves to white. I hold my breath. A logo momentarily flashes, and then, a five-note MIDI sequence trills. I shouldn’t be surprised that it still works. The same phone had, over the years, survived a drop from the window of a four-story building, nine hours on the sun-bleached deck of a Chinese cruise ship, and a blast from a firecracker over Lunar New Year. The display on the phone cuts to a pixelated image of two hands joining together for a shake.

I first inherited this Nokia 1110 in 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis, when my only prospect upon graduating college was a job teaching English in rural Shanxi province, 7,000 miles from home. I’d never been to China, and though my mom is Chinese, I knew as much about what to expect as I did about how to educate my would-be students. The blue, scallop-backed Nokia was in a box in the living room of my one-story flat when I arrived — along with three dog-eared paperbacks, stationary paper, and a pair of jellied house slippers — a parting gift from the outgoing foreign teacher whose life I had assumed.

With over 250 million units sold, the Nokia 1110 remains, to this day, the best-selling cell phone model of all time. It was marketed to first-time phone users in developing countries as a reliable phone at a low price. The keypad and front face were specifically designed to be as dust-proof as possible; its sides had a textured grip to prevent slippage.

I didn’t know any of that then, but I didn’t have high expectations. The Nokia 1110 performed its functional duties with aplomb — making calls, sending messages, saving memos — but did little else. No touchscreen. No camera. Not even a flashlight, though I did hold the phone’s keypad, which glowed a dull white, out in front of me at night to avoid tripping on the precarious tiled path to my front door.

In my two years teaching at Shanxi Agricultural University in Taigu, I was one of only six Americans in a town of 60,000. I’d come to China hoping to make sense of my Chinese-American identity and resolve the nagging insecurity I harbored about being mixed race in the U.S. Without ever stepping foot in the country, I knew that my relationship to China would always remain elusive, a part of me I would never fully understand.

Pretty soon, however, I discovered that cultural differences are difficult to overcome in any context. Living in Taigu, I was shocked at how removed I felt from the culture I had grown up with, raised by a first-generation Chinese mother. Nearly everything in Shanxi — from the customs to the diet — felt antithetical to the coastal town in Guangdong that my family left behind. My new world was too complex for me to make sense of on my own. I needed a way to communicate those differences, and I quickly realized that my graduate students — nearly all my seniors — would be my greatest potential source of help.

On the first day of class, I wrote my number on the blackboard. Most of my students were the children of farmers, and when we exchanged phone numbers, they held out a Nokia model not much different from my own. I saved my students’ contacts using the English names they’d chosen for themselves in class, and it wasn’t long before I was receiving messages from Elian and Alma and Duncan. The Nokia 1110’s 50-text limit was quickly depleted, and I had to regularly delete messages to make space.

Upset at the prospect of losing them, I transcribed my favorite texts into a notebook. There were messages like the one from Vilin (“You are my good brother”) or Rebecca after the Mid-Autumn Festival: “Hope you are happy everyday in China, and we are your family here.” On Teacher’s Day, Daisy, one of my best students, gave me a keychain charm of a pink apple with my name suspended on a grain of rice. She texted me later: “When you are back home, you can tell your friends that you have many hospitable friends in China!” The apple, truth be told, looks more like a heart, and the rice grain disintegrated, but the feeling of generosity never has.

There were messages for hotpot dinners, trips to hike Feng Shan, pick-up games of basketball near the school’s track. Each time we met up, my students shared with me something invaluable: a part of China as seen from their own experience.

Once a month, my roommate and I threw a dance party in our living room. On the Nokia 1110, there was no way to copy and paste text, so I invited each of the students in my contact list one-by one, thumbing out a new message on the T9 keyboard. I knew that, for many of them, the appeal of swaying to loud music with a roomful of strangers was not immediately apparent. But it was my own small attempt at showing them a part of American culture that they couldn’t get in the classroom. One of the texts I saved was from Maria, a first-year horticulture major. “Frankly speaking,” she wrote, “I like the way you live: happy and freedom to do whatever yourself like.”

It wasn’t only my students whose perspectives were broadened. Living in China’s rural countryside challenged everything I thought I knew about China — and what it means to be Chinese American. Even after I left Taigu and returned to the U.S., I went back to visit China as often as I could. Each time, I swapped out the Nokia’s expired SIM card and texted friends and former students on my new number. It was a clumsy system, one that forced me to appraise the vitality of each individual friendship anew.

But by 2014, when I returned to live in Beijing, the Nokia 1110 was a certified relic. The digits had worn clean off the non-slip keypad and the battery radiated heat like a campfire. Friends marveled at how I’d managed to keep it for so long. Smartphones were long ubiquitous in China, and I quickly gave up on the Nokia and joined the now-1.2 billion users on WeChat.

If the Nokia 1110 was aimed at developing countries, WeChat was designed for a rapidly developing China. Using WeChat, I could pay for breakfast, hail a taxi, transfer money to my bank, pay utilities. I added dozens of people I’d met once and would never speak to again; there was no longer any need to ration my messages. WeChat’s relentless optimization radically bolstered its reach, but not without a price. I knew, even then, that my texts could be searched or censored by the government at any time.

But I took the risk willingly, up until last year, when Trump issued a directive that could have rendered the app unusable in the U.S. The attempted ban was part of the former administration’s disengagement strategy with China, including shutting down the Chinese consulate in Houston, restricting visas for Chinese students, and canceling both the Peace Corps and Fulbright exchanges. Though billed as a national security measure, the ban would have done far more to hurt individuals — and especially Chinese Americans, who rely on the app as a lifeline to friends and family in China, where other Western platforms are unusable.

Since Trump’s attack on WeChat, I’ve found myself texting my friends in China again, this time to ask to add me on a different messaging platform. It’s not that different from changing SIM cards, but I’m embarrassed by the request. Even as the Biden administration places a hold on proceedings surrounding Trump’s attempted ban, Americans’ favorability ratings of China have plummeted to their lowest point in recorded history. As anti-Asian bigotry continues to sweep across America, activists and community leaders say it’s no coincidence that anti-China sentiment bleeds over into negative opinions of Chinese people, the Chinese diaspora, or anyone who “looks Chinese.”

What does it mean to love a culture and its people, and take pride in it, but not the decisions of its government? Without the means to communicate as individuals across cultures, we lose the ability to resolve differences or see the hypocrisy in our own rhetoric. At the end of the day, which is the greater infraction on freedom: Beijing reading my messages, or Washington preventing me from sending them at all?

I think about those messages now, and the few that remain fused to my Nokia’s decade-old internal memory. It’s strange to see them, all without the texts that preceded and followed them, like piecing together a story using only topic sentences. When I left Taigu in 2011, I sent messages to the students I knew I would miss most, equally unsure then as I am now when I would be able to return to China. Clark texted me back in Mandarin: “Don’t worry. Wherever you are, you have your students along with you.”

Communicating with peers in China has opened a portal to part of my identity: a country and a community that I’m unwilling to soon relinquish. Holding onto the Nokia — pink heart dangling from its side — I like to imagine standing in front of a roomful of new students. I would tell them about a time when texts were precious, when cultural differences were approached with respect, when misinformation could be countered with facts. A time when text messages could expand — and defy — how we understood our world.

Daniel Tam-Claiborne is a bilingual writer and international development professional, whose work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Huffington Post, Kitchen Work, and The Shanghai Literary Review. A Fulbright Research Scholar in Taiwan, Daniel is writing a novel about identity, migration, and belonging, set against the backdrop of contemporary U.S.-China relations. Read more

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