#3 from China: The man looking over my shoulder

Mistakes that I have made on this trip:

1. I should have brought along some type of tablet device that supports GPS with both English and Mandarin prompts. With the excellent mobile service throughout China, people are using GPS and not maps anymore. I have not been able to find one good detailed map in English anyplace in China or Hong Kong. I imagine that they are not printing very many of them anymore.

2. I need translation software that runs on this same tablet. My friend Michael just demo’d one to me. You speak into it in English, and about 5 seconds later it repeats what you have said in Mandarin. Magic. It does it versa-vica too. Something like that would have saved me much grief (and many false turns) on the road.

3. It would have been better to take one’s bike past the coastal mega-industrial sites, away from the confusion and pollution. Pedalling thru 150 miles of congestion and traffic is not an ideal bike trip for me.

So what has gone right. Well, my bike is holding up well.  My body is feeling great. I can still pedal 100 kms a day on a loaded down bike (on the flatlands). I never know if I will be able to do the next trip until I start pedalling. The people are wonderfully kind and helpful and well-mannered (with the exception of the Internet cafes).

A daytime shot of an officially approved Chinese Internet Cafe. You are ID's and monitored. I had my own personal monitor. How thoughtful of them.

A daytime shot of an officially approved Chinese Internet Cafe. You are ID’ed and monitored. I had my own personal monitor. How thoughtful of them.

But there is something that is more disturbing to me. Communications and censorship. I knew about the ‘Great Firewall of China’ long before I came here. It would not have been difficult for me to set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and tunnel thru this firewall. But it is illegal in China to do this. I do not know what the repercussions would be if they caught me doing it. But I do know that I am the officially invited guest of 4 citizens of China, including former students of mine. I would not want to do anything to reflect badly upon them or their invitations. So I elected NOT to set up a VPN.

What does this mean, practically? I can live without Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, or streaming video while I am here. But taking away my Google tools suddenly gets serious. IF you can get Google Search to work here, it is throttled down so slow as to be near useless. Enter ‘google.com’ at an officially approved Chinese Internet Cafe, and what comes up? Baidu, the Chinese search engine. And all of it is in Chinese script. How nice of them. It does run much faster than the crippled Google runs. When I could get gmail to work, they were running versions that I had not seen in 8 years. There was no chat or instant messaging available. And without chat, I could not use Google Voice. My partner Susan and I had planned to stay in contact using Google chat. So they cut that off too. Damn them.

Now we would have to use Skype. I really like Skype. Susan and I can have animated conversations, make faces and such, and I can see my dogs. But wait? Skype doesn’t work either. It is not even installed in the Internet cafes here. I ask the manager and all he can say is ‘No Skype’. Double damn them.

So I have a lot of writing to do. I left my docs in the cloud of Google Docs. But wait again. I cannot access that either. How can I get my work done without access to Google Docs? Triple damn them. Between pedalling and resting, I was planning some writing.

So I go to an Internet cafe down the street in Jiangmen. It is full of young men playing video games, and very full of cigarette smoke.  They are surprised at my presence here. I must be the first foreigner to visit. The man asks me for my ID. I give him my passport. This will not do. They need a CHINESE ID. I start to leave. Then I turn and haggle with them some more. Finally they pull out a generic ID and let me use that. They give me a user ID and password. I sign on to the machine and the boot must take at least 5 minutes. It is an old XP box. The original digital virus media itself. But even for XP, this machine is SLOW. Many things pop over the screen. I can see that this machine is virused in major ways. There is no way that I am going to enter any confidential, important password on corrupted machines like these. I am sure that there are keystroke loggers running. Forget that the site I want to go to may itself be secure. If the client machine you are using is corrupted, they will own you. If the locals in the cafe have not virused (actually, Trojan-ed) these machines, the all-controlling state would do it as a matter of security. Now I am really blocked. Quadruple damn them.

But the man standing behind me does not leave. He continues looking over my shoulder. What for? He does not speak English. I assume that he does not read it either. Just what is his intent? Do I look subversive? I am shaking my head. This is not bullshit. This is censorship, a must-have tool with all oppressive regimes.

So all I do is check basketball scores and whatever news I can get.

Suddenly I feel I must reassess this trip. I can easily live without Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. But loss of Google Voice and Skype means it will be much tougher to talk with my partner, Susan. Lack of assess to Google docs means I have to save everything on a steal-able, los-able laptop.

I am going to have to make some adjustments, and quickly too.

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