SHANGHAI – My adventure in China began only a few days ago. This is my first trip to mainland China. So, at this point, I can’t pretend to know much.
But I’m learning. It’s been a trip full of discoveries, pleasant surprises and humbling reminders of my ignorance.
I left Tokyo and landed in Shanghai Monday evening.
I was expecting China to be both exotic and ancient, so the Pudong international airport in Shanghai came as a shock. It reminds me of Aeroport Roissy Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Aerogare 2F — the new section (that didn’t cave in). Shanghai’s terminal is thoroughly modern, hip and beautiful (and it didn’t cave in while I was there).
While queuing up for customs at the airport, I quickly learned to play what has now become my favorite sport since I arrived in China: Reading signs in Kanji (Chinese characters) and guess what they mean.
The rule is to resist reading the ubiquitous English translation underneath. While hardly satisfied with my translation skills, I’m still surprised that I can guess right about 50 percent of the time.
Mind you, I’m still at lesson 10 in my do-it-yourself Chinese course I can order a coffee, ask for a menu and get the check. That’s about it. So, being able to puzzle out what those signs say in Chinese is… well, fun.
I remain frustrated, though, about not being able to understand what people are saying. But again, the rule of thumb of enjoying life abroad is to swallow your pride and enjoy being clueless. It only means that there’s always more to learn.
Looking out of a cab window, I see the sky in Shanghai overcast, thick with clouds. Couldn’t tell whether this is weather, or China’s notorious pollution.
To keep my mind busy (since it’ll be a while before I learn to carry on any meaningful conversation with a Chinese cab driver), I start counting the construction cranes shooting up all over the cityscape.This city, already full of skyscrapers, is still busy building. After a mile or so, I stop counting at 12. There are just way too many.
In Pudong, from my hotel, I see many high-rise buildings that are obviously apartments, rather than offices. I know this from the laundry hanging on every balcony.
I was thrilled to find out Chinese people share this custom with the Japanese. There’s apparently something Asian about using the balcony not for barbecues or cocktails after work, but for drying your underwear. Growing up in Tokyo, I used to hate the chore of hanging clothes. My mother always countered with the folk wisdom that nothing beats sunshine for both drying and freshening clothes. China agrees with my mom.
Being stuck in traffic is never fun, in Shanghai or Manhattan. While reading signs on storefronts and observing people on the streets of Shanghai, I realize that this is time I can use to tweet.
So, I start using TweetCaster, an app on my iPhone, just to share my naïve clueless first impression on China. I figured if I am not filing stories, this is the least I can do. That evening, I dared a Chinese colleague in Beijing to “follow me on Twitter” via e-mail. He immediately responded in his e-mail, “Junko, can you get to Twitter from your hotel in Shanghai?”
It suddenly hit me. What was I thinking? Twitter’s not allowed in China. Twitter, no. Facebook, no. YouTube, no wei, Hotei! Linked-In, well, actually, yes. Suddenly, I am brought back to reality: I’m not in Kansas anymore.
OK, but I am tweeting. I’m using a variation of twitter app, on my iPhone. So, what’s going on? While waiting for the Secret Police to break down my door, I realize that I just accidentally discovered a way around the government’s anti-Twitter policy.
Me, probably, and maybe a half-billion Chinese?
So, Chinese Reality, Version 2: Whatever limitations the government imposes on people don’t represent anything like air-tight control. The bureaucrats make things just annoying enough to discourage people from trying hard (and spending a lot of time) probing the chinks in the Great Firewall of China.
I realize what James Fallows wrote about it in The Atlantic several years ago still holds true. In that piece, he cited the American vision of democracy-through-communications-technology and then discussed the drastically different outlook of Chinese people who deal with China’s system of extensive, if imperfect, Internet controls.
He wrote: “Think again of the real importance of the great Firewall. Does the Chinese government really care if a citizen can look up the Tiananmen Square entry on Wikipedia? Of course not. Anyone who wants that information will get it – by using a proxy server or VPN, by e-mailing to a friend overseas, even by looking at the surprisingly broad array of foreign magazines that arrive, uncensored, in Chinese public libraries.
“What the government cares about is making the quest for information just enough of a nuisance that people generally won’t bother. Most Chinese people, like most Americans, are interested mainly in their own country.”
One Intel engineer I met in Shenzhen, who spent 16 years in Santa Clara on CPU design and architecture work and relocated to China two years ago, told me that the slow speed of the Internet access is one thing that still bugs him.
Sure, multinational companies operating in China are equipped with a proxy server or VPN, which allow them to send encrypted e-mails.
China’s Great Firewall doesn’t stop you because it can’t read the encrypted messages you are sending.
However, if one person in your organization has looked at something on the Web that the Chinese government doesn’t want people to read, the government can track down the traffic, and — regardless of what the content might have been — punish the whole organization by slowing down all Internet, said the Intel engineer. One troublemaker ruins it for everyone.
Yes, I know, this is grade-school stuff. But remember your grade school. That was a dictatorship, too!
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