Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom


Sometimes in life, you move to Asia. Sometimes in life, you move to Asia twice. Chronicles of Culture Shock continues the series detailing my adjustment to life in Canada by looking at my adjustment to life in China.

The tortoise drum

Scoot forth! Into the great beyond!

Brigitte needed a copy of PowerPoint. Apparently it was all the rage in Korean pedagogy, and people at the orientation were already preparing introductory slideshows about themselves, their nations, their interests and hobbies and families. Everywhere around us people were on the Office crackpipe, mainlining delirious helpings of star wipes and flashy, 1980s music-video dissolves. We all sat in a mind-bendingly tedious presentation, so she took to the hotel wifi and purchased a copy of Office, and began the download, thinking she might be able to begin the install some time around lunch.

Something strange was happening on her computer. A thin strip of grey was gradually filling up with blue progress, ticking along with an alarming speed. People began to gather around, marvelling all the while.

“That whole program downloaded in under a minute,” we cooed. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

What was this devilry, this witchcraft? What had this country sacrificed to the gods of the internet to allow for such unholy download speeds, for unlimited bandwidth, for constant, omnipresent wireless connection with five gleaming bars of full signal? What gods from the depths were summoned, what demons from beyond were called upon for such unfathomable agility and electronic prowess? I imagined a Korean Andromeda, chained to the rocks, the personified anima of the internet devouring her alive, cackling as he slithers back into the ocean, the boon of high-quality broadband and and impressive wireless routers left in his bloody, rupturous wake.

I was completely unprepared for this level of freedom, for this kind of limitlessness. I felt like a whole universe laid before me, pristine and untouched and waiting to be explored by whichever inter-naut proved brave enough to soar through the deeps. Streaming and downloading and thousands of tabs sprayed before my eyes in a liquid crystal orgy of 256 thousand colours at velocities beyond the comprehension of man.

The internet of my homeland is ruled by an oligopoly, a hydra of greed and hate. The three kings ruling over the fiefdom collaboratively ponder how best to gouge the populace, how easily they might squeeze us for pennies, as they provide more wanton and horrendous service. Speeds were slow, bandwidth caps were hilariously pitiful, and the sickening cackle of eventual victory seemed to always be heard – you might escape one company, but you couldn’t escape the others. They would set up a service appointment some time between the hours of 4:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., arrive twenty minutes after their window, punch you in the jaw and take your wallet, and expect thanks for the service.

On my brief return to Canada I was a pitiful wreck. The internet at home seemed to piteous and desperate a thing, a Dickensian serving of gruel leading always to plaintive, mewling pleas for more. Travel to less wired countries had softened the blow somewhat–dusty Lao internet cafes and regular, horrifying exposure to Internet Explorer fortified my spirit. But still my dreams thrummed with fibreoptics, still vibrated with the upload/download speeds of my once-adopted country.

I was prepared for China, as I heard over and over again the horrors of the Great Firewall, the stranglehold of service, and the different payment options for the fast or the slow internet (which was roughly the same internet). Anyone who knew anything about a computer had a VPN installed before ever setting foot upon Chinese soil, and indeed my righteous white star glows bright on my desktop, leading me safely to the familiar shores of Youtube and beyond.

I am not often exposed to the constricted vice-grip of the Chinese internet other than at school, where I mostly need to browse educational websites to look for reading material. Occasionally I will turn to Google, clenched and straining Google, which coughs and sputters at my various requests. With each query, the speed of response suggests an individual human somewhere, probably poorly paid and with terribly low job-satisfaction, tasked with manually searching out the warn, individually typed file-cards of the internet. His name is Gregory, he is 57, and he has a mortgage. He has no motivation to assist me in my search for “fun addition games” or “clipart lion,” and thus he trudges the long, ungainly halls of the internet with no vigour. Sometimes, as he toddles along, lost in the far reaches of the cyberworld, a 404 simply appears on my screen. Don’t bother, it suggests in lazy script, I’m on break.

Websites on every sort of subject are blocked or terribly strangled, lurching forward like cars with decaying engine blocks and moss growing inside the gas tanks. My email is available, but every time I check it at school I feel a tinge of pity for what I imagine to be the mid-level Chinese bureaucrat surely tasked with checking my dull, boring messages for hints of insurgency, for wafts of counter-regime thought. They are left disappointed, and must instead read about various family birthdays and what nerdy printed t-shirts I have just purchased.

And yet, when I ascend the ladder over the firewall, my internet is still throttled in some way or another. Lower speeds, server crashes, regular diversions to other IP addresses in far-flung places. Today I pretend I am in the United States, tomorrow in Australia, next Thursday I will be exotic and winkingly feign like I live in Peru. Every moment of my electronic life must be swathed in falsehood, cossetted in cloaks and daggers. I stagger now, where once I ran free. I can click and drag, but my life seems to be a lot more drag than click. I still have my precious internet, but it is chained and weak, a falcon hooded and barred from flight, a wounded cheetah watching the Savannah in the distance.

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12 thoughts on “Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom

  1. I still have visions of you sitting at the top of the basement stairs on your computer because the router signal would not reach the top floor of our house.

  2. In Australia before our election, we were gearing up for fibre optic wiring to the house. Because there was a change in government, however, they’re pursuing fibre to the node/hub and then using the existing (old) copper phone wires to get internet to your house. I am SO sad. Travelling through Korea was amazing- free fast Wifi in the airport, no logon codes or purchases needed 🙂 That’s living.

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