Last week, I contributed yet another iPod to the developing Vietnamese economy. I suppose this is what’s meant by foreign aid. What I thought was especially smart about this one-off relief program was that I cut out the middle-man altogether, bypassing official government channels and seeing to it that my $300 investment went straight into the hands of those who wanted it most — in this case a hunched, toothless seller of pirated books and pilferer of valuables in the Pham Ngu Lao area. Just moments before my iPod re-entered the local economy, I had bought a copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for M. from this cringing, groveling bookseller for the equivalent of about $2.50. (I figured if you’re going to buy a photocopied book, it might as well be one that’s subversive, frequently banned, and whose best known idiom is the use of the word “phony.”)
While I was introducing M. to the cynical delights of Holden Caulfield and his famous first sentence, this bookseller saw to it that my iPod, resting just inches from my knee on the cafe table, precisely where it should not have been, found its way into his (her? I have no idea) pocket, where it no doubt shared space with several other electronic foreign investments. It was the single most expensive book I’ve ever purchased, and probably the most that’s ever been paid by anyone for an unsigned, badly-photocopied copy of The Catcher in the Rye.
In addition to now having to live with the bitter taste of my own stupidity, I’m out one of the most useful tools I’ve ever owned. At the risk of sounding like an Apple advertisement, that iPod had become a critical part of my everyday life. Naturally, I listened to music on it, as well as lectures and podcasts. I tracked my workout routines on it at the gym, and I used it, with a Nike sensor in one of my running shoes, to measure and record my runs. I took notes on it. It was my alarm clock. I used it as an e-Reader (the free Stanza app’s functionality is as good as anything I’ve seen in a Kindle, and the Vietnamese government’s propensity for shredding “objectionable” books brought into the country makes eBooks and pirated copies the only real options here for readers). It was my gamepad, my flashlight, my French language tutor, my universal remote control, and my reference desk. Losing it has been like losing a limb. I’m aware that I’m flirting here with personal technological determinism and that this all makes me more than a little cyborg, but I’m fully committed and I don’t care. It’s 2010. We were all supposed to be living on the moon and interacting with bionic playmates by this time anyway, so as far as I’m concerned I’m just trying to meet humanity’s own expectations for itself.
Obviously, I’ve been strategizing on how to replace this huge part of my life. My first thought was to upgrade — to bite the bullet and plunk down for an iPhone. Unfortunately, the only iPhones available in Vietnam for some time have been Chinese knockoffs, which tend to have the lifespans of mayflies. I had a look online at the prices for the new models in the U.S. and Australia, and once I’d picked myself up off the floor I reminded myself that shipping an iPod into Vietnam would, again, be the best conceivable way to help the local black market electronics trade. Besides, any new electronics brought into the country are subject to a crippling import tax. The only other option seemed to be to purchase a new unit in the U.S., have it shipped to a friend’s father who’ll be traveling to Vietnam in a month — a painful delay but, as M. reminded me several times, no less than what I deserved. She also reminded me that I’ll be just as likely to lose an iPhone as I was any of the three iPods I’ve had lifted from me, which I didn’t really want to hear, even though I know she’s right.
Yesterday, however, I learned that Apple has decided that the 87 million residents of Vietnam and the still-unpopular 3G network here need to be incentivized, as they say in the marketing department. What that means is that Vietnam’s three biggest cellular operators are going to be offering 3Gs iPhones starting this week — with contract or without — for prices a third lower than in the U.S. or Australia. In fact, as fate would have it, it looks like the three companies are about to start a bruising iPhone price war, with the primary benificiary being me. By this time next week, I may be whole again. But will I be satisfied?
As Holden would say, “Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”