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Monday, June 18, 2012

Tibetan Monks, iPhones, and Luxury in China

Yesterday, I visited this mobile phone store in Xining, Qinghai province:

mobile phone store in Xining, Qinghai, China

It included a variety of mobile phone brands commonly seen in China, such as Nokia, Oppo, K-Touch, and Apple. It also included some lesser-known brands, some with curious names such as Samzong. The most remarkable experience I had in the store, though, was meeting these three Tibetan Buddhist monks:

three Tibetan monks, one holding an iPhone, in Xining, Qinghai, China

In the photo one of the monks can be seen holding an iPhone. In fact, all three had iPhones. To be clear, many Chinese could not afford an iPhone. If monks with iPhones come as a surprise, it is worth noting that some of the store's employees appeared to be surprised as well. The monks were in the store so they could upload new apps to their phones. Behind the monks is a computer where for 60 yuan (about U.S. $10) one can purchase a set of apps for either Apple or Android mobile phones.

In various regions of China I have often seen monks using mobile phones. For example, four years ago in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, I had an excellent vegetarian dinner with this (non-Tibetan) Buddhist monk:

Buddhist monk talking on a mobile phone in Yangzhou, China

However his mobile was not an iPhone, and not I do not know for sure whether iPhone usage amongst monks is now widespread (I doubt it).

Although they may not be representative of other Tibetan monks, the three men I met in Xining highlight that more and more people in China have an iPhone. This is obviously a good sign for Apple. But some consumers in China (and elsewhere) are at least partly motivated to buy an iPhone due to a desire for "luxury" items that are fashionable. It will be interesting to see whether the iPhone's more widespread adoption impacts their choices.

Finally, the monks' iPhones were not the only thing that caught my eye:

Tibetan monk holding a DVD of the movie Colombiana in Xining, Qinghai, China
His newly purchased DVD of Colombiana is probably pirated.

iPhones and DVDs of Western movies -- both part of these modern Tibetan monks' lives in Qinghai, China.

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