Phoney Problems: Failing at Normalcy

I got my first phone at age 16. I got my first smartphone at age 21. These numbers make little sense unless I situate myself within cultural developments. So let me clarify: I got my first phone – a Nokia 6030 hand-me-down – almost 2 years after the release of the 1st generation of iPhones.

That placed me in the visible minority.

As a result, I was hyper-conscious about my phone. I spent more time looking at others’ phones than mine. Then, iPhones remained a luxury good, so most peers possess other brands of smartphones, like LG. Yet my attentions were fixated on those with traditional number-pad phones. In a class of 34, I counted only 2. One of them used it because his smartphone broke down. The other eventually switched in the latter half of the year.

Me? I kept mine nestled in my pocket. I took it out only in the absence of others.

Social Pressures
Academics point out that consumption of cultural goods serve as a means of social classification and exclusion. But no one actively discriminated against me for my electronic backwardness. Instead, my shame was caused by more subtle forces.

I didn’t actually desire a phone to begin with. But norms meant I had little choice. My secondary school years were peppered with the perennial question: When are you getting a phone? Few bothered about the why. One day, I was scolded by a teacher for not collecting stuff from his cubicle, unlike the rest. The reason: I was not contactable. I was being scolded for not having a phone.

Eventually, my first phone loomed. But right before it, I received that perennial question again. Then, I beamed. Finally I had something to report. Unknowingly though, my acquaintance misconstrued my joy. So happy, getting an iPhone is it? Instantly, my pride turned into shame. I thought all I needed was to get a phone, any phone. I realized that I also wanted normalcy. A smartphone would elude me till age 21.

Conscious Consumption
After spending my entire adolescence with this insidious self-inadequacy, I was keen to make an informed decision. After setting limits on my budget, I looked at all available options with and without a postpaid plan in Singapore. (I was on prepaid, of course.) I compiled their specifications in a spreadsheet, with further remarks on appearance, build quality, camera performance, etc.

None of the options stood out, since I was essentially confined to entry-level phones. The choice appeared between a Sony Xperia M2 and a Xiaomi Redmi 3. I sweared off Huawei because it was on promotion in MINDEF and used by many of my DXO ma’ams (haha). After a few months of wait-and-see, the third alternative emerged: Xiaomi Mi 3.

Oh, from what I have written you should know how much I’d love my Mi 3.

Still Not Normal
The belated acquisition of a smartphone came in time for University, and it instantly provided great utility. Remarkably, I was still abnormal. In my first two semesters, Mi 3 was my primary means for note-taking. Though it’s never overtly expressed, I could sense the scepticism of both laptop- and paper-using peers and the suspicion of lecturers. The exclusionary attitudes led to my post on Lessons in Lecturing.

Another point of departure is my propensity to scour and use productivity apps. It surprised me to find that many peers have never heard of – much less used – resources like Evernote and Quizlet. The joke is on me, actually, for not noticing the peculiarity of my inclinations. Such disjunctures remind me that cultural knowledge can only be gained when one participates. And that’s why it’s important to learn the rules, as I expressed in Finding A Fit.

Finally, as this post shows, I’m probably weird for thinking so much about consumption. Maybe the next 10 persons I meet will ask, when are you going to be normal? My response this time will be one of persistent pride. For I know now that it’s okay to not be normal. As long as I don’t exclude myself.

Turning 21 no longer unlocks adulthood. We use fingerprints these days.


Phoney Problems: Failing at Normalcy
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Socio Empath

Hi, my name is Eugene. I am a final-year Sociology major at the National University of Singapore. This blog is an invitation: To see our selves as colored by cultures, and to brighten the colors of our society. I promise not expertise, but an ethos of empathy and curiosity. May we all gain a little agency from reimagining everyday life with the sociological imagination!

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