A WeChat notification lit up my phone. I looked down from the piles of homework waiting to be completed over the New Year holiday. It was a text message sent by my grandmother: “Happy New Year! Let us bring all the luck (praying hands), health (a muscular arm), bliss (a smiley face), and happiness (a dancing penguin) into (a couple running) the year 2020.”
I stared at the message for a while, feeling puzzled. Not because I suddenly could not understand the Chinese characters, but because the message’s tone and style sounded very awkward to me. I subconsciously double-checked the message – it really was from my grandmother. A sense of unfamiliarity and distance poured out of the screen. The wording, the phrasing, the emojis, even the form of the message, were never, ever used in my daily conversations with my grandmother on WeChat.
The message would sound more natural from a professional woman wearing slim straight-leg trousers and a notched-lapel blazer with a delicate brooch on it. Written using formal language more suited to an office environment, it contained the kind of greetings usually sent between “white collars” to maintain the bare-minimum of social interaction required with unfamiliar colleagues sitting opposite them. It was the language of formality.
Needless to say, I could only picture my grandmother smiling at me from her bamboo hat while clutching some herbal medicines that had been picked in the garden at her countryside home. “It’s New Year, dear. Come and have your breakfast,” she may say.
Looking back to this notification and skimming from character to character, I had to admit that I could not sense any of the genuine joy or happiness that a New Year Festival should have. The message was merely copied, pasted, and sent coldly and emotionlessly, as though it had just rolled off from an automated factory line. No doubt, in this fast-paced, digital modern life, everyone wants to come up with an elegant and convenient New Year’s greeting with fancy expressions and a beautiful design that suits all of their contacts on WeChat.
With this in mind, QQ, another omnipresent communication platform in China, designed a function that allows users to send all of their contacts a uniform New Year’s greeting that is generated automatically. All users need to do is to select one specific type of greeting and click the “send” button. Unsurprisingly, this “brilliant” function has rapidly spread across the Internet, reaching millions of people who were tired of coming up with their own messages with a distinct voice to celebrate the year 2020. Though WeChat hasn’t launched a similar function, by copying and pasting the sentences generated by QQ, a lot of similar sentences appeared anyway, just like the one Grandmother sent to me. Gradually, people have condensed their sincere wishes and love into a series of mechanic actions: copy, paste, and send.
Greetings for a New Year have become a representation of formalism.
It was once reported by a monthly magazine China Comment that government officials should avoid “bureaucratic formalism” in their work-related chat groups. “The WeChat platform has become a place where empty things flourished.” Similar to how government officials would show-off their accomplishments, everyday people’s greetings have gradually become empty as well. As long as those so-called greeting messages containing grand wishes and fancy words are sent, no matter whether or not the message match with their identities, the people who send them feel as though they have completed an important task for the New Year in sending them.
After I received the “plagiarized” message, I replied with a message of my own.
“Grandmother, that doesn’t sound like you.”
My grandmother quickly replied with a familiar voice message; “I saw this in my group chat. I thought you might like this kind of message.”
My grandmother didn’t understand why the simple and plain language she often uses to speak to me through the microphone on her phone would always be way better than what she had sent me for the New Year. Though her words may sound shallow compared to the “official” language so commonly used today, the love and sentiment within those simple wishes had always complemented the emotion gap. She thought that the copied sentence would deliver more love and express more emotions. Even though this duplicated message didn’t effectively accomplish her intended goal, the action itself of sending it was enough to demonstrate her earnest wishes and the genuine love my grandmother has for me.
Scrolling up through the chat history between my grandmother and I, this copied message stood out like a sore thumb among a sea of voice messages. I looked at the message again, which I would definitely neglect or reply with a brief “thank you” to be polite if it had been sent by anyone other than my grandmother.
Do the receivers of these formal greetings really feel like they have received heartfelt greetings and are missed and loved? I pondered this question. In the case of my grandmother’s message, the answer is a definite yes!
With the understanding of her motivation to please me in the way she thought I might be pleased, the sense of coldness and distance from this “soulless message” diminished and evolved into an implied wish. Even though formalism is like a virus, spreading rapidly on the Internet and diluting the fervor people naturally feel for festivals, family ties can soften its secular shell and reveal its true essence – love.
“Don’t Use WeChat for Flattery and Corruption, Magazine Warns Officials.” Sixth Tone, 13 June 2018, www.sixthtone.com/ht_news/1002459/
Zixuan Zheng, 11th Grader of Huafu International, Guangzhou, G of China. Her pieces have been featured in magazines, newspapers and on websites since the 7th Grade. Three-time junior golf
champion in California. Making friends from all around the world by playing golf and writing powerful words are her greatest passions.