Moving to Changping from Shenzhen four years ago was a big transition for us. One change that helped us adjust was my husband Randy’s personal access to a car. In Shenzhen, we managed with buses and taxicabs, but we were seldom free to explore the region independently. Wanting to take full advantage of having a vehicle at our disposal, Randy pursued his Chinese driver’s license as soon as we were settled. At last, we could gallivant as we wished, discovering Beijing and beyond. That is, if we could only figure out where to go and how to get there. We were comfortable with the immediate area, such as the Ming Tombs and Badaling, but venturing further than that was daunting.
On a trip to the States after our relocation, Randy bought a GPS that happened to be programmed with Chinese maps produced in the lead-up to the Olympics. Unlike the Chinese brands at the time, this GPS unit offered English-language instructions that read the street names in Chinese. We couldn’t wait to try it once we got back to Beijing. As we started using our GPS back in China, our excitement was tempered by something unexpected.
I could not stand the voice of our GPS.
Randy chose “Jill, American Woman,” but I found the voice absolutely grating. She barked directions with a bossy, belittling intonation. After missing a turn, the unit launched into the standard GPS announcement, “Re-calculating.” I could sense scorn. We would need a voice to talk us through some downright stressful navigation, and Jill was less than ideal.
We tested other stock voices on the unit. “Jack, American Man” had nearly the same effect on my husband as Jill had on me. The Chinese voice talked faster that we could comprehend. At one point, I thought we could at least be amused by “Karen, Australian Woman.” I joked: Perhaps she would say, “No worries, mate” when we made a wrong turn.
What started out as a joke ended up being the solution. Karen never uttered, “No worries,” or addressed us as “mate,” and her voice was not at all off-putting. Neither Randy nor I had any miserable associations with her inflections. The blow of “re-calculating” was softer in Karen’s voice. Once we started referring to the GPS by the name, “Karen,” and using the pronoun “she” instead of “it,” it was clear we had not only settled on an agreeable set-up, but we felt we had an actual assistant in the car.
For us, Karen is more like an employee than a talking computer. When giving us directions, she is all business and respectful in tone, yet firm in her planned routes. We still hope that a future software update will include “no worries” or some other Australian colloquialisms. In the meantime, we know we wouldn’t want to manage without her.
illustration by sunzheng