The calming white star on my VPN had turned a venomous, disconcerting scarlet. Whatever electronic magic connected me to the outside world and the glorious outside internet had suddenly been snuffed out. As someone who has grown up with the internet, like a close friend or a long-term umbilical cord, this loss usually feels like being thrown into a well and trying to see the world from the miniscule circle of light above.
More disconcertingly, all attempts to access the regular Chinese internet, as constrained and manipulated and tightened as that is, were thwarted by a blue screen swirling in Chinese text. Upon clicking to investigate, I was whisked away to a page with “recharge” in the url. I blinked.
My internet had run out of money. Like a vibrating bed or an arcade game.
Like most problems involving my apartment and life and the vicissitudes of existing in China, I called my realtor, frantic and sweaty and weeping. Long-suffering, endlessly patient, my realtor noted that yes, the internet sometimes runs out of money in China, and you have to put more on. I could use the website: enter my address and my account number and my name and my bank information. Except the website is all in Chinese, and my realtor had snuck the account number away without ever letting me see it. I think he is trying to induce learned helplessness.
He would put some money on it on Monday, and I could pay him back? And then someone would swing ‘round my apartment to educate me in the ways of this strange, totemic exchange of money for services.
I waited for days, my computer idling in a nearby corner, jilted and unused. Occasionally I would put on some music, but mostly I left, horrified that the device had become so useless, so callous, so hard to look at without thinking of what it once did.
After school on Monday, I sat waiting with my shoes ready. A delicate pixie stood before my door, barely reaching the handle on her tippy-toes. This was to be my shepherd to the great beyond, to instruct me in the ways of the Chinese internet. She told me that my realtor had sent her, one assumes, by magic carpet or flue or dimensional portal.
At the foot of my building was her scooter, and our first obstacle. Being twice her size, I was concerned that the balance may be thrown off by both of us riding together, and as soon as I hopped aboard she let out a squeak and appeared to realize that we both might die.
Could I, perhaps, drive the scooter for us? As I have seen and heard enough scooter accidents in China already, I declined. Well, then could I go and rent a bicycle from one of the rent-a-bike stands and meet her at the square? No, because that would require another journey to a different centre to acquire a card to use the bicycles, and probably also another Chinese helper to guide my dullard ass through the necessary steps. I would walk.
Twenty minutes of soupy heat later, I scurried through Xinghai trying to find my shepherd, who had disappeared, or maybe returned to Lilliput, and said on the phone reported that she was waiting at the bus station, which did not exist. I tracked her, found her idling by the road, and we journeyed into the earth to the telecom centre.
We entered a physical store and I approached a physical desk. Behind the physical desk was a physical human, with pens and paper and a computer that might have dated back to the Palaeolithic era.
My concept of the world was shaken. The internet had always been an ephemeral thing, the stuff of dreams and electricity and cables and space. It was fairy dust in a series of tubes, but it was also invisible, intangible, impossible to grasp or clutch or go somewhere to visit. To be in an internet store, required to grub around with my physical money, felt horrific and plebeian and wrong. That I was even required to leave my home to deal with such quandaries seemed absurd and ancient and rustic. I expected to see several Chinese grannies churning butter behind the iPhone cases, or a bale of hay to rest upon while I waited.
Physical, paper money exchanged hands, rather than some sort of work-exchange situation where I would head out back and shovel manure to get my network turned back on. A number was shown to me: whenever my internet ran out again, I was to return to this embodied Paypal exchange, point to my account number, throw money on the desk, and continue grunting yes until someone made the internet happen and shoed me away.
I wandered back into the world, unsure of the era or the day or the time. The people at the telecom shop will grow to recognize my face, will know me as a loyal customer, will actually interact with me as a human. I will give them money, bartering for goods. And maybe next time I will wear a straw hat and some overalls to do it.