Internet in China

It has been a couple of weeks now since I returned from China. The people and country surprised me almost daily and I am excited to go back, whenever that happens.

But I feel obligated to present the yin and the yang so to speak, the enjoyable parts of travel and the “learning experiences” a country provides. The internet in China is one of those for me.

It’s not that China doesn’t have internet access. Connectivity is actually fast and there are tons of internet companies. The problem is the government blocks certain international websites from infiltrating into the public eye and replaces them with their own, government approved sites. The official reasons for this are threefold: blocking competition, sensitive content and national security. I have no comment on sensitive content or national security, but with eliminating competition I have something to say. I hate it, but I think it actually makes sense for China. Here’s what one blogger wrote:

Without blocking Google, Baidu cannot succeed. Without blocking YouTube, Youku cannot succeed. These huge International Internet Companies do not need to pay taxes to China’s Government, but the Internet Companies in China pay taxes. In addition, they want to “protect” Chinese websites and hence block successful International websites.

China has enough people and resources to find successful internet companies around the world and copy them, keeping revenues and tax dollars in China. If you want to communicate with people in Mainland China, you have to download WeChat, a Chinese version of WhatsApp that you can use anywhere in the world. It’s the perfect protectionist policy. Brilliant.

Now if the blocked sites were obscure Dalai-Lama sponsored hackers calling for Tibetan independence I would not care. I can live without reading up on my Free Tibet news for a couple of weeks. Not that the Dalai Lama would hack anything anyway…that’s besides the point. The websites that China blocks are much more intrusive to the average social-media reliant millennial like myself. As mentioned, Google (and all its branches like Gmail, Google Maps etc.), YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Amazon… you name it, there are over 3,000 websites blocked.

I had no idea just how reliant I was on these websites until they were suddenly, mercilessly yanked away. 90% of the websites I use became non-existent to me overnight. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t whittle away the time watching people wiping out on YouTube, I couldn’t stay updated on the comedic happenings at the White House. I felt like I could suddenly relate to the “land before time” series. Okay, I exaggerate. But it really is crazy how much I NEED the internet to exist in the modern world. I don’t even use it as much as most people my age. Maybe that’s just what I tell myself. I definitely don’t even support giant companies like Google, I think they need some competition or they will monopolize the industry. I’m just enslaved to they’re conveniences.

This is how I felt the first few days in country. It was the first time I seriously contemplated crossing an international border exclusively for internet hunting. Then I discovered a magical thing; the VPN or virtual private network. I’m not smart enough to describe how it works, other than saying it lets you use blocked websites in China. I was back in business, at least for the sporadic instances it worked. At least I could reassure the world of my existence via Facebook.

I would love to conclude this post with some meaningless saying about how I learned to rely less on the internet during my time in China and that as a result I became a better person or had some light bulb ah-ha moment. I can’t say that. What I do know is that the internet connects people but it can’t be our sole connection. We must use it as a means to an end of interacting with real people. It should be a catalyst, not a crutch. Yes, we need it in today’s world but it should never take the place of the real, face to face interactions with the always interesting, sometimes bizarre, often hilarious thing called humanity.

Thank you so much for reading.

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The Most Interesting Man on the Nakasendo

Over the last year and a half working for Walk Japan, mostly waking an ancient trade and pilgrimage road called the Nakasendo, I have met some fascinating people. They break the stereotypes of what Japanese people are like – working long hours, group-oriented, quiet, respectful etc. I like people who break stereotypes though. They are the ones who don’t need or want to be molded by societal pressures. Life is too short. Quite frankly they are just more interesting. I am meeting more of them in Japan, and being someone who can never quite fit in myself, I like it. I think it’s good for the country. And for whatever reason, compared to the cities I see so many more cool people like them in the countryside, which is partly why I like living in Nagano. Here are a few of their stories.

There are several people on the Nakasendo that consistently find their way into the most memorable of the trip. First, there is the boar-hunting inn keeper Hara San, who grows his own rice and with his wife greets you with a smile and waves until you’ve walked out of sight around the last bend in the road. Their genuine thankfulness for you staying with them is something Western countries could learn from. When we are staying there, after I get everyone settled into their rooms he always gets a glimmer in his eye, asks if it was a long day and offers me some “wheat tea”, his euphemism for a cold Asahi. At dinner, without fail I am offered a glass of “water” (sake).

Then of course, there are the cooks/musicians/conductors extraordinaire – Mr. and Mrs. Ando. After arriving at their log cabin/restaurant, you sit down to a full view of Mt. Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan after Mt. Fuji. They bring out miso pizza, margarita pizza and fresh-baked bread (this is the 8th day of the trip and almost everyone is happy to get away from rice). But lunch is just getting started. Mr. Ando plays – to the best of his ability – the Tsugaru Shamisen, a traditional 3-stringed instrument that is actually really cool when done correctly (check out this video). Then Mrs. Ando, who plays the harmonica beautifully, plays an old Japanese lullaby that often brings people to tears. At that point, it’s time for the unforgettable Kiso Valley folk song (see video) before the grand finale of it all, a demonstration of the model train set that Mr. Ando has built around the entire house. This couple breaks all the stereotypes and it’s awesome.

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Mr. Ando on the far right

But my favorite person of all has to be Mr. Suzuki. He is a 75-year-old retiree who runs an ancient tea house along the Nakasendo. He volunteers to run the place, dressing in traditional garb and singing his own version of the Kiso folk song for our entertainment. He’s also recently added a wedding song to his repertoire. He serves the group tea afterwards, communicating amazingly well for someone who speaks about 20 words of English (I help him out by translating too). His two favorite topics of discussion that almost always seem to come up are 1) you will live long by drinking more sake and 2) Japanese men are too “vegetarian” these days (they don’t get married and make enough kids). Needless to say, he is a fascinating old guy with stories and legends to tell about the valley that he has called home his entire life. I aspire to having that kind of dedication to a place and vitality when I am that age.

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Mr. Suzuki. Photo credit to Fernando Gros

People often wonder why I would want to live in Japan. Admittedly, it’s not as comfortable, communication is a little more difficult and it’s a long way from family. But it’s about the people. I am fascinated by their diversity and the rich culture/history that I get to live in. I feel like I learn something new every day. I never appreciated that as a kid. And on the surface, it might be harder to “get in” with people, especially ones who are in the rat race in the big cities. But there is a subculture of Japanese who are moving back for a better life and once you are in, you are in. Their loyalty and dedication to what they do is overwhelming. In the end, I think comfort is overrated anyway. At least in this point in my life, I prefer adventure.

The 11 Best Things About 7-11 Japan

Everyone knows 7-Eleven is an American company right? Well, sort of. What is now known as 7-Eleven was started in the US in the 1920s, changing its name in the 1940s to 7-Eleven to reflect its unprecedented hours of operation. It expanded to the Japanese market in the 1990s, where the Japanese subsidiary did so much better than the parent company that the subsidiary bought the parent. Japan now has around 19,000 7-11s, almost a third of the global total (that’s not counting any other convenience stores, there are around 50,000 total in Japan). Needless to say, Japanese like their 7-11s (and convenience stores). Here are a few things, especially food, that make them so great and must-visit places when traveling in Japan.

They are truly convenient

There are ATM machines at all 7-11s (and post offices) in Japan that work with international cards, giving you 24 hour access to cash (because not being able to pay for much with credit cards is a decidedly inconvenient aspect of Japan). You can also pay your bills, transfer money, buy bus or airplane tickets, and much more at 7-11 ATMs.

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They have Traveler-friendly appliances like chargers and adapters

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They Have Pretty much anything else you need

Toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, tissues, medicine, soap, shampoo, sunscreen, utensils, notebooks, pens, envelopes, batteries, disposable underwear and T-shirts, you name it – they’ve got it.

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Donuts

They are dangerously good, you should try them.

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The pancake Sandwich

Looking for a quick breakfast? 7-11 has “pancake sandwiches” that have maple syrup and butter inside! Such a good idea

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Drinkable Coffee

Okay, convenience store coffee is never going to be the best, but just lower your expectations and you will be completely satisfied! They  sell ice coffee cups with the ice already in them so you just take it to the register and after paying, push the ice coffee button (R or L) on the coffee machine.

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The wide selection of freshly made food

At 7-11s in America you get hot dogs past their prime and crusty pizza. In Japan, you have rice bowls, sushi, salads, curry, soup and a lot more that is all completely fresh.

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Rice Balls

Any convenience store in Japan is going to have a wide selection of these. You can try  classics like Tuna Mayo, Fried Rice and Salted Salmon to more exotic varieties like Cod Roe, Pickled Plum or Fermented Soy Bean. There are tabs marked 1, 2 & 3 on the plastic wrapping, follow them and you will open your rice ball flawlessly.

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Sandwiches

Sometimes Japanese put  weird things in sandwiches (and pizza for that matter) but usually they turn out pretty well. They always sell Western-friendly varieties like Egg Salad, Tuna and Ham/Cheese.

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These Potato Chips

Japan’s version of Kettle Chips are insanely good. The black pepper ones are awesome too.

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So many kinds of ice cream and popsicles for when it’s hot outside

I could only get half the varieties into the shot!

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