Mobile phones are the main course of Shanghai suppers
Chinese dinner tables used to be places of great conversation and commotion, where the numerous dishes being served also served as a symbolism for the numerous subjects to be devoured. But all that has changed with the rapid modernization of our society.
A recent survey initiated by Eastday.com and Bright Food Group revealed that over 60 percent of Shanghai citizens play with their phones while eating. In a city with one of the highest rates of mobile user in China, this data should not come as a surprise to any of us who live here.
All you’ll see at local restaurants anymore are diners silently swiping their phones. Young lovers on dates at fashionable new venues are gazing into their smartphones instead of into each other’s eyes. Shanghai waitresses are notoriously surly, but now they can’t even be bothered to take an order because they are captivated by whatever soap opera they are watching on their digital device.
At home, Xiaomi has replaced xiaolongbao as the main course of Shanghai suppers: Baba checking his real-time stock quotes, Mama gossiping on WeChat and Mei Mei playing Candy Crush. Nobody talks about how their day went; they already know because their day was shared minute by minute on WeChat.
My friends are just as bad; when they visit me at my home, the first thing they ask is not how I am but what is my Wi-Fi password. It’s gotten to a point that if any of my comrades ever wants to go out for a bite, I insist that nobody be allowed to check our phones while eating. The first person who loses their self-control pays the bill. I save lots of money this way.
How did it come to this? In a culture famed for its interpersonal relationships and lively food culture, how has the classic greeting chi le ma (have you eaten?) been replaced by “have you Weixin’d?”
According to the latest data released by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, there are 1.2 billion subscribers of mobile communication services in China, accounting for 95 percent of the country’s population, with 889 million (69 percent) of them mobile Internet-access users.
If the first decade of the new millennium witnessed a cellphone revolution, then this decade is currently experiencing a smartphone insurgency. Where just being able to immediately speak with someone on a shouji (hand machine) was once seen as something space-aged, nowadays nobody can be bothered to even speak; text messaging is the preferred medium among savvy smartphone users.
In cities such as Shanghai where migrant workers make up a large portion of the popu- lation, mobile phones have become the modern letter; digital lifelines to their distant family members who only get to see each other once a year. But what happens when hundreds of millions of construction uncles return home for the holiday with a plaid peasant bag in one hand and an Oppo in the other?
Chinese New Year used to be an occasion spent eating all day and all night watching CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. But this year, the annual television extravaganza was taken over by social media during a promotional interactive giveaway of 500 million yuan ($80 million) in virtual hongbao (red envelopes filled with cash traditionally exchanged during the holiday) to viewers using WeChat’s “shake” feature. At one point during the Gala, a record-making 810 million users across China were simultaneously shaking their smartphones at the exact same moment. The year 2015 will forever be known as the year that tradition was tossed out of the touch screen.
Mobile phones were meant to connect people, but it seems that instead they are making us more isolated. We might allow smartphones and all their assortment of apps to consume our private time, but there’s really no excuse to also let social media destroy our social fabric.