Chinese Yellow Pages and the digital divide

Photo by Kristie Hang of (626) Foodettes. “Many Chinese still use these because not all of them are Internet savvy.”

Kristie Hang of (626) Foodettes spotted this stack of Chinese Consumer Yellow Pages (華人工商電話簿) books in California’s San Gabriel Valley.

While paper business directories like these have essentially died out in “mainstream” USA, they continue to thrive in some immigrant communities. Media stereotypes might suggest that Asian Americans are super-wired computer nerds, but many Asian immigrants and refugees face high barriers to Internet and computer use. Low-income people might not have access to the Internet or to a computer. Most computers sold in the US are set to use English as the primary language. Input methods in many Asian languages are so difficult to learn that many less-educated, low-income people may not have the time or patience to use them.

Take my parents, for example. They have a computer, an iPad, and a broadband Internet connection, but they still prefer to use these big paper directories rather than searching for businesses on Google or Yelp. They both have little formal education (a result of displacement and limited opportunity structures in wartime Vietnam) and limited English proficiency. Though input methods in Chinese are now readily available on computers sold in the US, keyboard-based methods have a steep learning curve, handwriting input is slow and unreliable, and dictation often does not understand their accents.

While using a computer makes it easier for many of us to find the things we need, for my parents and others like them, using a computer actually makes it much harder. That’s part of the reason why the Chinese Yellow Pages are not likely to go away anytime soon.

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