When you request an Uber in Shanghai, chances are they’ll call or text to find out where you’d like to be picked up. This poses a problem for people who can’t speak Mandarin, like myself. What to do? Reply with a single word: Dǎoháng.
Supposedly, this means “just go where your mobile phone map tells you to“, which sounds like a lot to fit into a couple of syllables, but it worked for me.
There was a brief decade or so, beginning when I was around eight, when I was truly excited by international travel. I’d devise meticulous lists of what I should pack: socks, notebooks, goggles, multiple copies of hotel reservations, digital camera batteries, special ‘pop up maps’ that I could fit in a pocket. I’d count down the days and nights and hours and minutes until I left for the airport.
Today, a combination of work and familiarity has robbed me of the anticipation of travel. At the same time, the contents of my ‘pack list.txt’ file has inexorably shrunk to a scant few lines: a country-specific power charger and whatever clothes I feel like taking. That’s because wherever I travel, I feel confident that I can get by with my iPhone. As long as I have data and power, I stride the world as a god, summoning taxis and divining the whereabouts of moderately good restaurants by communing silently with my black slab. It matters not whether I can speak a single word of the language — with my phone, I can figure it out, one way or another.
This is not the most responsible or respectful way to travel, but neither is it the least responsible way to travel. And I find it refreshing to just hurl myself into a new land and have to figure it out on the fly. It’s like a game.
Until I visited Shanghai.
The whole trip was unusual. Earlier in 2016, I was invited to the opening of The Shanghai Project that September, a new arts festival that would be hosting an exhibition based on my book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects. Then the exhibition was pushed back to ‘Phase 2’ in April 2017, so I was dis-invited to the opening. And then I was re-invited in order to speak at a roundtable, with barely a couple of weeks’ notice. But hey, I won’t turn down a free trip to Shanghai!
So I was even less prepared than usual, and because I’d be in China for under 72 hours, I hadn’t bothered figuring out what I’d do for mobile data.
When I landed, nothing worked on my phone. I couldn’t connect to the airport wifi because it wouldn’t send me an SMS code. No Google, no Dropbox, no Slack, no Foursquare. I was Samson, shorn of my locks.
I’m being melodramatic. I got picked up from the airport by an intern, who kindly let me connect to her phone’s hotspot. And the hotel had free wifi that resided behind the Great Firewall, so I could get to my beloved Google and Slack. But I didn’t want to spend all my time cooped up in the hotel and I didn’t much like the idea of exploring without any mobile data (because, yes, I’m a child).
And then a staffer at the festival helped me get a prepaid China Mobile SIM. She actually persuaded the the China Mobile store to stay open later, just for me. I felt bad, especially since I can’t speak Mandarin and they had the usual baffled look of people who see someone who looks Chinese but inexplicably cannot speak Chinese.
I inserted the SIM card. The eclipse ended; the rays of the sun reached my body; my superpowers returned. I wandered the city, a god once again, in need of nothing and of no-one.
Note: I drafted this in 2016 and for some reason I forgot to post it, so here you go. I believe that Uber doesn’t exist in China any more…