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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Pickleball and Language in China

I made it to China! I will be here for the next week and a half teaching pickleball in Dongguan (close to Hong Kong) to a group of coaches, college students and teachers. It’s exciting to be a part of starting a sport in a country as big as China and although it’s at the very beginning, I can see it growing fast.

I’ve been observing recently how language changes experience in another country. In Japan, I feel comfortable to the point of not knowing what to write about in this blog anymore. That might sound strange but living in Japan is normal for me. I can say anything I want, I have close friends, I can tell jokes and am confident that I can do things. I even sleep talk in the language. China is a different story. Today I bought food at a convenience store and asked the front desk for chopsticks. Unable to say “chopsticks”, I resorted to demonstrating my noodles and acting like I was eating them. Later, a student in the pickleball course insisted on taking me to McDonald’s (a cultural discussion for another day). I ordered a cheeseburger with no french fries, but he thought I wanted it without vegetables. On top of being a McDonalds burger, I ate it dry sans condiments… with fries on the side. Admittedly these are first world problems. I’m not saying “woe is me for not getting exactly what I ordered”. It’s just that communication is fascinating. In just a short flight, I have gone from literate and knowledgeable to basically having the oratory capacity of an infant. Maybe less so… when a baby cries we have a basic understanding of what it wants. When adult humans utter unintelligible gibberish to each other, they most often have no clue. Nothing is so humbling as this experience, but I believe it’s a good thing. When language disappears as a means of communication, I find my creativity and observation increases proportionally.

Somewhat related to this, a funny event happened to me while snowboarding before I left Japan. My friend and I like to find powder snow outside the boundaries of the ski area. We find some, but the ski patrol sees us and waits for us at the bottom of the run. I come down first and assuming of course that I don’t speak Japanese, the ski patrol says I’m not allowed in that area. I respond in English, “sorry”, wanting to remain a stupid foreigner and not someone who actually knows they aren’t supposed to be in that area. Then my Japanese buddy comes down and because he is with me, the ski patrol assumes he doesn’t speak Japanese either. My friend knows pretty much zero English so I know that if he says anything, we are busted. And I know that he knows that I know all this. After the ski patrol’s speech on back country safety (he was actually nice about it), my buddy just says “ok” and the ski patrol lets us go! He followed us the next run to make sure we didn’t get into any more fun… I mean trouble and I realized how convenient it is sometimes to be a foreigner. It goes both ways.

All that to say, I am seriously contemplating learning Chinese. The opportunities are huge. Even if it’s not with pickleball, Mandarin is something that will be beneficial forever. But it’s a daunting task filled with visions of trying to say ma 4 different ways and insulting someone’s mother by calling her a horse. Or something like that. Of course, my customers say that about Japan, which is not true, so maybe I am wrong. I find that things are always the most daunting before you start them.

The pickleball club here is serious about spreading the sport. I attended a media day the other day where almost a hundred people attended including the mayor, owners of companies and university professors. Other attendees came from Hong Kong and Singapore to take part. Li Na’s tennis teammate got silver in the competition: I have been teaching her this week and might play with here in a tournament in Taiwan. Things are moving, Asia is coming on the pickleball scene. It’s an exciting time.

The last thing I want to say is that China makes me feel tiny. I still can’t wrap my head around a number like 1.3 billion people. Colorado Springs where I went to high school has 500,000 and there are 800 cities in China with over a million people. I drove from Hong Kong to Shenzhen the other day, and for over an hour straight I saw tower after tower of apartment buildings and businesses. Dongguan where I am working is considered a “medium-sized city” with a paltry population of 8 million. China is mind-boggling and while I don’t want to live here, I want to learn more.

Thailand

I came to Thailand a few days ago, mostly to get away from Japan for a while and to relax. As my previous post suggests, I was a little tired after walking the amount I did and as the Japanese would say “using my care” (気を使う) with customers for so long. I thought I would get away, do yoga, dine like a king on my favorite food and get my scuba license. Here are some thoughts and observations of my time so far.

The largest pile of Pad Thai I have ever seen at the Chiang Mai night market

The largest pile of Pad Thai I have ever seen at the Chiang Mai night market

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but there are way more tourists here than I ever imagined. There seem to be two primary types: the long-term residents/retirees who soak up the sun, get daily massages and find Thai girlfriends (lots of old white dudes with Thai girls) and the young migrants who travel Southeast Asia for 3-6 months, party and stay at backpackers. There are a remarkable number of Americans, at least half of the people I meet. I’m not blaming them. Compared to Africa this is a ridiculously accessible place. It’s actually cheaper than Africa, it doesn’t have the stigma of disease and poverty, the food is better, the roads aren’t littered with potholes, it’s safe and it’s easy to meet people because there are so many backpackers doing exactly the same thing. I’m not surprised that people choose Southeast Asia.

Africa (at least the part I visited) does have English going for it though. For a country that relies so heavily on tourism, I am surprised at the lack of English ability. Everyone speaks a few preset phrases, but beyond that it tapers off to zero rather quickly. When I mentioned this to some German teenagers, they ridiculed me as a typical American tourist who expects the rest of the world to be like them. Now this bothered me because I think I have some credentials that distinguish me from that stereotype. I don’t expect the world to look or talk like me, I just mentioned that learning more English would only help Thailand. Even places like Japan and China with far more advanced economies understand the value of learning English.

For some reason this led me to looking up dominant world languages. English currently has 400 million native speakers vs. Mandarin’s 850 million, but English has over 2 billion non-native speakers and students, whereas Mandarin only has 1 billion. Mandarin is just too mono-cultural and hard for non-native speakers (tones and Chinese characters), which is why English, not Mandarin will continue to be the world language. This is only my opinion of course but because it’s my blog I can state it confidently as fact 🙂

Last thought, I never thought I would say this, but the young backpacker crowd is actually restoring my faith in travelers and to an extent in humanity. The ones I have hung out with completely reject and are repulsed by the sex tourism industry. They want to learn about the culture. They care about the humane treatment of elephants they ride on. Sex tourism especially is a huge issue in Thailand, but it is encouraging to know there is a strong movement against it.

But I digress. I’m enjoying Thailand but for some crazy reason Africa still holds a place in my heart. It’s now my measuring stick for comparing all other places. I’ve been in Bangkok and Chiang Mai so far, and tomorrow I fly/bus/ferry to Ko Samui where I am going to get my scuba license and check off an item from my bucket list. So excited. More stories to come from there I am sure.

Apparently I have only taken pictures of food so far! This amazing meal cost $1.20!

Apparently I have only taken pictures of food so far! This amazing meal cost $1.20!