In Southeast Asia, size matters. You enter one of the chain cafes in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Jakarta (if you are after foamy cappuccino or latte, one of the chains may be your only option) and you will be welcomed by the latest display of the bulky smart mobile phones. Their owners will make sure that you see their beloved gadgets from all sides: they will talk on them, take photos, play music, maybe even videos: they will simply make sure that you notice that they own the latest models and that they know how to use at least some of their features.
The new credo in Southeast Asia may well be: “You are what you have attached to your belt or what is sticking from your handbag” (there is definitely a gender equality in obsession with communicators and smart phones). Nokia E90 is what you want to be seen with these days, although you can also show-off with some latest multi-media features of N93. Sony Ericsson M600i is a bit too old; W950i is much more prestigious. And if the style and elegance is more important than the mega pixels in the camera, you should probably aim at LG PRADA.
In South East Asia it really does not matter too much what exactly you have to say, as long as you say it very loudly, in a place that is considered chic (mainly American-style chain restaurant or cafÃ© you wouldn’t want to be seen in New York or in London), preferably to the microphone of your latest expensive gadget.
In the Japanese train, you have to leave your seat and go between the cars to talk on the mobile phone. In Europe it is considered openly offensive to send text messages or to speak on the phone while you are meeting your friends for lunch or for a drink. But in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur opposite is the case. Ring tones set on high volume, screaming to the microphones, business people are announcing to the whole world how VIP they really are. They are, after all, the very same men and women who are delighted to drive their BMWs through the miserable shantytowns, observing children beggars, many suffering from malnutrition. It is all about being “different”, “cutting edge”, about humiliating the others, less fortunate (or more decent) ones.
My Sony Ericsson 750i broke down in Samoa, probably from excessive heat and humidity. I developed certain feelings towards it. It is simple and bulky and friendly. I managed to program old Cuban song as my ring tone, and then advanced even further, downloading as a screen background a photo of a round stone dragon from provincial Japanese temple from the area where I like taking long walks and to think. That’s all I needed: I could call and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages, find necessary phone numbers. Its sudden collapse left me in a limbo.
Jakarta Sony Ericsson service center couldn’t find necessary spare part to fix it, and as a temporary substitute I had to pull out of a closet old 610. This made me look, of course, quite impossible. Waitresses ceased to smile at me; my acquaintances were averting in embarrassment their eyes from the lovely but obsolete bulky “thing”, whenever it decided to ring. Books that I published, films that I made – it was truly irrelevant. What mattered in Southeast Asia was that my mobile phone sucked and consequently I sucked with it.
Humiliation was so complete that I eventually stopped combing my hair and trimming my beard. It was pointless: with my 610 I had no right to even aim at looking presentable. Then, one day, I saw the advertisement at the back of The Economist: Nokia E90, talk of town, the latest “must have”! It was elegant, manly and very expensive looking. It was in fact a small computer and the mobile phone and the movie player and who knows what else! I am sure it would massage my back if I would ask for it, and kiss me good night.
I abandoned the manuscript of my atheist play, as well as anti-globalization novel. I began the search. No “unlocked” version of iPhone was coming to Southeast Asia anytime soon and iPodTouch was a communicator, but didn’t have phone. Blackberry had no impressive entertainment features; Palm Treo kept crashing. Smart phones of Sony Ericsson had peculiar keyboards, sharing two letters on each key. Instead of researching my upcoming trip to Marshall Islands, I was browsing Amazon.com, reading reviews and desperate criticism of the smart phone users. Yet I was in Asia and I wasn’t expected to go to even a decent toilet without a smart phone.
Developers were burning big parts of Greece, proving that turbo-capitalism is willing to destroy everything, even one of the most beautiful countries on earth in order to satisfy its limitless greed. Yet I was still searching for the smart phone that would “fit my needs”. The West was moving closer to a war with Iran, while I was weighing my options: do I need bigger screen more than a bigger keyboard? Am I going to watch videos or listen to the music? And what operation system is really suitable for me?
Jakarta was, in the meantime, falling apart. City center was gone, replaced by outrageously ugly, suburban looking shopping malls that were not even interconnected by zebras or overpasses for crossing the streets. Pollution was unbearable, corruption reaching epic dimensions, Indonesian press going back to the dogs; to the dark ages when one didn’t even need censorship, as there was plenty of “self-discipline” on the part of local and “imported” editors. Poverty, misery and ugliness had already swallowed entire city, yet the press was still trumpeting to the world, as it did for decades, that Jakarta is beautiful, sprawling metropolis.
But the smart phones went never quiet. They kept ringing and ringing and mafia-style Indonesian elites kept screaming into them some ludicrous orders that were helping to bring true hell on earth to this unfortunate country. Cafes and restaurants, those clean ones built for the elites and expatriates, were offering free copies of dozens of flashy advertisement magazines displaying latest Nokia and Sony Ericsson models. Indonesia was brutally divided.
On one hand there was one percent of those with the smart phones; wrapping themselves in a luxury brand clothes from LV and Prada, playing golf on the courses built after criminal public land-grabs, driving latest European cars. There was Indonesia of corrupt officials, military top brass and businessmen (mostly unscrupulous gangsters with better PR), of religious leaders building hundreds of new mosques in the city that is lacking space, public parks and children playgrounds. On the other hand, there was misery, malnutrition, filthy water, collapsed educational system and medical care, more than half of the country living on lesser than 2 dollars a day, pro-market and religious propaganda.
But even in that “other” Indonesia of misery and fear and hunger, there was increasing number of mobile phones. People were not encouraged to think, to criticize, and to analyze their situation. But they were encouraged to “communicate”, to bark and to whisper pointless, meaningless phrases. “How are you?” “I am good. And you? Good. And children? Very good, happy!”
One month after my 750i broke, I am still with my 610. But I am getting used to it. It rings; it sends and receives text messages almost as well as my more advanced 750i used to do. I am still undecided about what new phone to buy, and when. And whether I should at all.
In the meantime, I am slowly returning to my writing. Periodically, I have memory flashes of all those brilliant photos depicting Nokia E90. I feel like recovering alcoholic or a person who recently quit smoking. I still want it, I want it very much, but I am resisting. If I would buy it, it would probably take one entire year of my life to learn how to operate it. Instead I am, once again, beginning to think and to write about Greece, and Iran and Jakarta.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist, playwright and filmmaker. Editorial Director of Asiana Press Agency (APA) (www.asiana-press-agency.com), co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), publishing house for political fiction. His latest novel “Point of No Return” is describing life of “globalized” war correspondents. He lives and works in Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]