After graduating with degrees in journalism (News & Media) and political science from UNC last May, I decided to go to a place where there was a fair and transparent political system, and the government valued and protected the fifth estate… so obviously, I was going to China!
Now, being a guy who studied media effects and mass communication, I was seriously infused with the Internet before arriving in Shanghai. Throughout college I lived in a house with 6 other guys (more like 10 if you count our unofficial tenants). By utilizing the open web we were able to access the various accounts we had with streaming services, which allowed us to avoid missing out on our Game of Thrones and Walking Dead viewings.
Seriously, I don’t think anyone of us will ever buy any of the typical cable subscriptions anymore. Thanks to sites like YouTube, Hulu, and Crackle you can watch a lot of things for free. And with accounts on HBOGO and Netflix you can be entertained like a king.
Side Note: Netflix must love the fact that their brand name is mentioned in such a popular phrase used by the millennial generation.
Even more, we managed to avoid missing live events like the Super Bowl or March Madness. With a good Internet connection and an HDMI chord, you can watch anything you want… if you’re in America. When I embarked on this journey, I went from being the guy who annoyed his friends with links to YouTube videos and articles, to someone entirely off the grid.
In all seriousness, I completely underestimated what the Great Firewall of China would be like. In the same way that seeing something in a cage is different from being in a cage, hearing about censorship is entirely different from being censored.
I’m not gonna lie to you, it was and is pretty cray (not a typo).
Upon my arrival, I immediately logged my devices in to the WiFi at my temporary lodging place. As it had been my routine for around 6 years, I sat down at my computer and typed a single letter “f,” at which point my wonderful laptop auto-filled in the rest, and I hit enter without a second thought.
When I would normally have seen a “friend anniversary” notification reminding me of that time I met that one guy at that place (and that I was thinner at that point in time), I saw two words I would quickly come to despise. “Connection Interrupted.”
I can tell you’re really worried about my Internet access, so you should know (as the mere existence of this blog post indicates) I found an alternative way of accessing the open web!
After a few weeks of no Google, no YouTube, no Facebook, I found out about Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. VPNs essentially make my cyber identity seem as though it is in another place… hypothetically, a country that does not have a giant firewall blocking all the good stuff. VPN services do this by using “tunneling protocols, or traffic encryption” (terms that for some reason remind me of Steve McQueen and The Great Escape)
As soon as I could, I purchased a subscription for AstrillVPN and downloaded the application. Astrill and another service called ExpressVPN are the two best services, and the longer you stay in Shanghai, the more and more you’ll hear expatriates debating this among themselves
While I am adamantly against this kind of censorship, there was one positive thing that happened as a result. During those disconnected weeks, I realized how often we use instant communication/entertainment as a crutch. Whenever we have a moment to ourselves, too many of us reach for our pockets in order to place our focus elsewhere. Rather than be alone, too many of us want to reach out to anyone who will respond promptly.
Without my social networking apps and sites, I no longer had a quick and easy way of avoiding any potentially saddening introspection. I actually had to feel my feelings.
I really did just sit there quietly thinking at times, which frankly tends to weird people out nowadays.
But this introspection is essential to our happiness and to our sanity. Sure, you can instantly tell me what your friend Jake did for his spring break, but how would you answer a question concerning your own thoughts and feelings? Your desires? Your motivations? Worse yet, your fears?
While gathering information is awesome, we still need to spend time developing our self-understanding and independent thinking.
UPDATE: I tried to publish this blog post 10 hours ago, but due to Internet issues I was only able to post the title… which makes total sense without any context…
Also, apparently the Firewall is getting even stricter.
ENOUGH ABOUT MY INTERNET CONNECTIVITY PROBLEMS!
So, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “If this guy loves his Internet so much, why the hell would he go to China?” And to that I would say, “Shut up.”
Just kidding. I would start by describing myself to you, or at least how I felt I looked on paper.
My first name is not only the default name used for any account you make (John Smith), but it is also how you would refer to an unidentified body (a John Doe). Or a toilet (THE John). My middle name is Joseph, as in average Joe. While only marginally more unique, my brothers’ names are Michael and Robert. Yup. It’s Mike, Bob, and John. My parents are CRAZY.
I come from a middle class white family in North Carolina, where I grew up playing baseball (America’s Past-time) and football (America’s Now-time). I lived in a diverse community, but had still not left the comfort of the continental United States. After spending four years with kids from all over the world, I understood how little I had seen. I realized that in order to do what I want to do and in order to be who I want to be, I had to become a member of the global community. I had to somehow spice up this plainness that I felt made me boring and ordinary. I wanted to have something to talk about at job interviews or parties, and frankly I wanted to seem more worldly and experienced in life. I wanted to go on an adventure.
When the opportunity to work in China presented itself, it just made sense.
While my personal motivations for coming may have been questionable when I left, I’ve learned a great deal during my time here and am glad I chose to come. It may sound cliché, but while I set out to improve how I look on paper, I really ended up improving how I look at myself. I’m not the man I want to be yet, but I’m heading in the right direction.
Still though, after spending just under a year in Shanghai I think I can confidently say that I’ve spiced up my life a bit… or at least added some soy sauce.