Mobile Sickness

The topic of Wednesday’s conversation class was fashionable illnesses as exemplified by “mobile phone dependency”. The signs, according to our textbook, are: 1. When you discover your phone isn’t to hand you feel distracted and anxious and can’t focus on anything else; 2. If your phone hasn’t rung for a while you feel out of sorts and subconsciously keep checking to see whether or not you’ve missed a call; 3. You constantly think “did my phone just ring?” to the extent that when someone else’s rings you think it’s yours; 4. When you’re on the phone you sense the radiation in your ear; 5. You often subconsciously feel about for your phone and occasionally take it out and look at it for no reason; 6. You’re often afraid that your phone has automatically switched itself off; 7. You keep it switched on when you’re asleep; 8. When your phone loses signal you feel anxious and helpless and you get irritable; 9. You’ve had the following symptoms: numb hands and feet, palpitations, dizziness, sweats, disrupted digestion (so it’s nothing serious, then). If you have five or more, start worrying.

Apparently far from being upset when diagnosed as overly attached to their phone people get quite chuffed since this indicates that they must be v important or busy at work. I’m talking about in China, incidentally, in case that sounds like it could be someone you know. I’m happy to say I’ve been weaned of any of those symptoms I had before I arrived in Beijing but it’s interesting that this is a fairly global disease.

In our small conversation groups we discussed some other modern societal issues suggested by our teacher such as make-up dependency (who knew? My groupies discussed the fact it was not something we understood though that didn’t help us weave in the day’s vocab), addiction to health supplements and obsession with looks. The energetic and entertaining American Chinese guy in my class was discussing the image issue and how, despite being self-confessedly blurry at the edges, he is considered really quite slim in the States. Plus, he said, it’s no shame to be large back home. “You’re fat? Yo, bro, I’m fat too! High five!” The largest Beijinger I’ve seen here so far was a girl heading into Burger King – thus ensuring I won a bet with myself – but even she wasn’t particularly large on a western scale.

I’m sure I’ve read there are more overweight people here than there used to be since that’s a statistic they like to roll out in the west when talking about the evils of fast food. A quick glance down a street says there are still a few million more burgers to be consumed before it’s a major problem. I’ve always found a Chinese diet quite agreeable from a weight perspective. Perhaps it’s that I don’t dig many Chinese puddings so my sugar consumption is almost non-existent. Or perhaps it’s that more often than not I’ve finished dinner by 6:30 or 7pm at the latest: if you hit most of the campus canteens any later the only food you’ll see is what’s being consumed by the chefs before they clock off. Either way I’m currently still getting away with eating a lot more rice and pasta than I could back home.

Another topic that has come up has been the transformation of society which I touched on in a previous post. I’ve had a couple of conversations now about the pressures on a family engendered by rising house prices, both people with whom the subject came up having been lucky enough to buy their flats at around rmb9k psm about 8 years ago versus a current value of more like rmb40k psm. Since they have to live in their apartments this doesn’t make them feel rich albeit they feel more fortunate than those trying to get onto the ladder now.

But not even the owner occupiers are really off the hook as the expectation is that parents will assist their children, most notably their sons, in buying their own place when they reach their 20s. This expectation is both self and peer-inflicted and most sons don’t seem to be refusing the help since they can’t really afford to. The relative shortage of women has seen their cachet rise, allowing them to make greater demands on a potential spouse and his family. Meanwhile their professional opportunities have also expanded and thus they can be more independently wealthy themselves. If a man and his family haven’t the means to set him up with a place then he’s probably not a contender. Even more so if the woman can buy her own property – why would she merge her assets with someone who has nothing to offer?

The government recently announced the introduction of a property capital gains tax. One woman I know felt this was a problem for her family. She has a flat, her husband has a flat and as a family they are only allowed two places. When the time comes for her to buy for her son they will have to sell one, most likely the one bought earliest as it’s the smallest. She’s not happy that she’ll have to pay 20% on the gain but has no choice if they are to upgrade.

I imagine she is a fairly typical middle class case. In one sweep you encounter the imbalances produced by the one child policy, the widening gap between those who can afford and can’t afford housing and the tightrope the government has to walk to ensure they can raise affordability without upsetting the middle class property owner. Quite a tall order.

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