Ah, Beijing. The only place in the world in which I get in a car with two strange men and think nothing of it…
Okay, it sounds bad when you put it that way. But the best way home from the nearest subway station is in a san lun che (a three wheel motorbike/cart/pedicab hybrid sort of vehicle); those are pretty cold late at night so I take a black cab. And when there’s only one black cab sitting outside when a train arrives, it’s not uncommon for the driver to offer to take two passengers at the same time if they’re going in the same direction. You even get a 5-10 RMB discount on the fare, depending on how far you go. I know that for the uninitiated it might sound off-putting, or even un-safe, but in my local area I feel totally secure in this sort of situation.
I use various forms of transport in Beijing, especially taxis, black cabs and subway/light rail. I used to use buses a lot but hardly at all since moving up north. On the subway recently I was surprised by just how many people were attached to personal electronics, intently staring at hand held touch screens. I counted and discovered that 75% of the people in our full (but not crowded, at least by Beijing standards) subway car were looking at a screen – phones, tablets, and mp3 players. Most were playing games or watching TV dramas. A girl near me was playing Candy Crush which reminded me of my sister and my friend Joyce.
My regular black cab driver, Mr Shi, upgraded to a new smartphone while I was away over Christmas. His son bought it for him and he’s still getting the hang of it. I’ve heard that in some parts of the country, people jumped from no phone to a mobile without ever having a landline, as mobile telephone technology outpaced the installation of hard lines.
In some ways, touchscreen technology might actually make computers more accessible to Chinese users – because they offer new input methods. My phone allows me to handwrite characters on the touchscreen, which means a person could theoretically manage typing without a strong knowledge of pinyin (the Chinese romanisation system). Typing in Chinese requires the users to enter the pinyin romanisation of a word (using the Roman alphabet) then select the desired character from a list that could be 20 characters long, depending on the word. Handwriting directly onto a touch screen may well be simpler for many people. Mr. Shi always uses the handwriting function on his GPS when typing in an address.
Sometimes I use the handwriting function just to make myself practise a little. I almost never handwrite Chinese anymore – it’s all typing. This means that while my recognition has stayed excellent, my recall is getting pretty terrible. On an occasion where I need to handwrite, I find myself pulling out my phone and typing pinyin into it to remember exactly how to write the character I want. Considering how many years I spent drilling characters, writing page after page after page, that’s a little dispiriting. But as long as I have a phone nearby, I’m still quite literate!