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A Convenient Truth

Now it’s easier to have Swiss chocolate and Scottish salmon delivered to my door than trying to find a remaining local grocery store or vegetable market

By Frank Hersey Updated Mar.3

China has to be one of the most “convenient” places in the world. It prides itself on convenience, in many senses of the word. Making things easy is part of the national psyche. But in some ways this focus on making life ever easier has come at a cost, in big ways and small.  

I remember when I started learning Chinese, many years ago, and first encountered the Chinese word for “convenient” as part of the word for instant noodles. “Convenient” is “fangbian” and instant noodles are simply“convenient noodles” (“fangbianmian”). Makes perfect sense. Instant noodles were a much bigger part of life back then (and still a favorite on long train rides) so it wasn’t surprising that the once almost staple food would provide my first contact with the concept of convenience in China. A bag of convenient chocolate raisins was not so convenient when it turned out this meant they were individually wrapped.  

After that, the word “fangbian” cropped up in more and more contexts. Beyond serving as a prefix for products, convenient also means willing, appropriate or even possible. Someone might politely turn down an invitation due to it not being convenient to attend, which would sound far ruder in English. Use it correctly and it softens a request or annoyance. Though euphemistically, it can also mean to do someone a favor or even to go to the bathroom.  

Nowhere in the world has been having a ball all through history, but it is fair to argue that China has had a particularly hard time. Even sticking to more recent history – say the 19th and 20th centuries – life had been punishing for the vast majority of Chinese people. Some may argue that it still is. Either way, it’s easy to see why striving for simplicity and comfort is so highly valued.  

Whether or not something is convenient is key to whether or not it will happen. If you want to arrange something for others, convenience is paramount. A visitor to China might believe it to be a difficult place to get things done. And it’s true: some things are frustrating. But if you know the system, then things have gotten remarkably, well, convenient. But at what cost?  

Some are easy to see. Roads and railroads have blasted their way through all parts of the country, linking cities to harbors and airports. They’re part of China’s economic miracle, and make life truly convenient. Getting from Beijing to Shanghai in as little as four and a half hours by train is a real thrill and clearly better for the environment than flying. But if you ever get a chance to visit the places through which highways and high-speed rail thunder, it’s also clear that the local population and wildlife suffer. 

Factories responsible for producing the trappings of convenience – cars, take-out containers, excessive food packaging, electric bicycles–generate further costs to the environment and pollution, costs which overseas buyers don’t have to foot.  

Living in China as its technology boom has taken hold has shone a light on a newer aspect of convenience: high-tech convenience as the frontier to win market share. Companies fight over themselves to provide services for customers. You can order virtually any service or product and have it delivered ever more swiftly. Get a car to pick you up anywhere at any time, have someone come to your house to give you a massage within an hour, get a single cup of coffee delivered or have a chef go to a market then bring the ingredients to you and cook you a meal in your own kitchen, all through an app.  

Life has gotten so convenient here now that leaving China for even short periods of time seems terribly difficult and unfair. As tech makes so much more of life so very fangbian, it’s easy to overlook some of the ways things are actually getting a little more difficult. Government policies on population control in certain areas mean that the very migrant workers who fueled aspects of more traditional convenience–small shops open all hours, hairdressers – are being pushed out. Now it’s easier to have Swiss chocolate and Scottish salmon delivered to my door than trying to find a remaining local grocery store or vegetable market.  

The struggle for Chinese convenience is now going international as companies at home and abroad go out of their way to make it easier for Chinese tourists. The tourism authorities of countries around the world are working out ways to make traveling in their countries easier and sites more accessible. Hotel chains are tweaking layouts, restaurants and booking systems. China’s mobile payment systems are signing deals to extend their networks across new countries to capture their Chinese users’ payments wherever they are in the world. But again, at what cost?  

Whether it’s food deliveries or mobile payments, at home or abroad, these conveniences are reducing human interaction, and making us lazy. China is going to be at the forefront of this intensifying battle for lethargy, so let’s hope it delivers what we really want.