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.

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Gluttony in Motion: Livecast of All-You-Can-Dim-Sum

Xiaolongbao

Bring more, and don’t stop.

A fledgling tradition, a mutual love of face-stuffing quick set into ritual. Dim Sundays were birthed when a friend noted that she had the connect for a cheap smorgasbord at a nearby fancy hotel. We all piqued: with the ease of access to foreign foods, it was simple sometimes to forget the delights and variety available in Chinese food (particularly those parts of China or not-China not terribly close to us).

Immortalized here are the happenings of one such Sunday, my words drenched in soy vinegar and soup dumplings as they are.

-0:14 We arrive early at the hotel, taking a taxi from our apartment complex, which is a thirty minute walk away. A well-dressed hotel staff-member opens the door for us, beckons us inside. I already feel embarrassed at the deference with which I am being treated. I maybe regret wearing flip-flops.

-0:06 The first Dim Sunday, we arrived nearly half-an-hour before the proceedings technically began, and the eternally patient waiters allowed us to sit while they scuttled around us, furiously setting up for the coming onslaught of food, saying group prayers and hoping not to be devoured with the meal. Today we wait outside, our patience tempered only by the knowledge of how much we will consume.

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Existential Conundrums in a Chinese Supermarket

Trinket town

This is the Buddha head selection station. The Buddha head buying station is around the block.

I clutch the most boyish thermos I could find amongst the sea of shiny pink and purple aluminum. A Chinese mall thrums around me on all sides, and this one particular sector is dedicated only to mugs and coffee containers. A young saleswoman hovers around a laptop, scowling every time I turn her way, knowing our interaction will involve a lot of pantomime, frustration, and tedium. She awaits my dull, Mandarin-less grunts with dutiful stoicism.

When I move towards her and indicate that I have found my desired item, she asks me a few questions, to which I answer yes, as it is one of the few words I have learned thus far. She taps away at the laptop and then begins scribing an enormous, hand-written scroll of instructions and numbers and arcane glyphs, which I assume I will need as incantations to summon Pazuzu. She hands me the slip of paper, clutches my thermos loosely and waves me away with my desired possessions gripped possessively in her talons.

I stare around my surroundings, pondering my next step. Everywhere there are desks, laptops, angry and tired-looking staff waiting at the ready, taking things away from shoppers. I am more than a little dazed. I wonder if I need to go on some sort of scavenger hunt, if I am being summoned into a hero’s quest and will need to bring this woman back the Golden Fleece. Perhaps I will need to answer a troll’s riddle? Or slay a dragon. Or maybe this is an Ikea situation, and my theoretical thermos was only a floor model, and my little slip of paper was actually a map, a guide, a thorough set of instructions on how to spelunk the depths of the storehouse below us to find the shrink-wrapped and ready version of my cup.

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Adulthood and Meatballs: My Independence Begins in an Ikea

ikeapic

Two sacks and a basket full of grown-up, please.

The delivery man squinted. If he didn’t recognize my address, he was definitely beginning to recognize my face, and this had been the third time I airlifted food into my apartment that week. My beautiful, spacious, ramshackle and unfinished apartment had no knives. It had no pots or pans, except for the single frying pan given to me by the school, which came sans handle. My apartment had no towels, other than the travel towel I had slipped in my bag for emergencies. My apartment had no mats, no coat hangers, no spices, no sheets.

Of course, confronted by this sort of situation, I usually adapt comfortably. The bachelor lifestyle suits me like a velvet glove, and I can easily subsist in an apartment with a bed, two chopsticks, and a decent internet connection. That my new home had a couch and a television and a spare bedroom and working air conditioners was already beyond my expectations, accoutrements I barely knew how to fathom, let alone care for. Give me a barren concrete block with fewer things to clean and I will live my life in perfect, monastic peace.

Of course, the state of my living space was of some concern for the people whom I worked with, and for my friends. There was the growing concern that I was not eating properly, or not eating at all. Other humans heard the stories of my deliveries and imagined me splayed out on the hard tile, scooping fistfuls of pork and rice directly into my mouth and then, with no towels or water or anything to clean myself, simply smearing the leftover sauce in my hair, which as you know is nature’s towel.

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The Internet in Pioneer Times

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.

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China on Easy Mode

Dragon-dog

The dragon dog says: this attraction costs ten kuai!

I go to trivia on Thursday nights in a Mexican restaurant. The bar is loud, full of talking: English, Dutch, German. The beer is Belgian, and the questions are asked by a middle-aged British man in a fisherman’s hat. The guacamole is pretty convincing – real avocados were involved in its production, and cilantro is buried somewhere inside of the kitchen. The margaritas are margarita-y. Waitresses flutter by in Daisy Dukes and take your orders in pleasant, accepting English and ask if you want the burgers medium or well-done.

This is one of three Tex-Mex joints within walking distance of my apartment in mainland China.

It is hard not to have a strong heuristic for China in your mind: Great Walls down every street, terra cotta warriors planted on every street corner. Martial arts and noodles, ancient masters perched on craggy hills, people and smog and tight, contorted writing everywhere you look. Even with my previous visit to China, I had a fairly strong vision about what China should be. Ancient pagodas, old women with scarlet fans doing synchronized tai chi under moonlight, sculpted boreal trees in architectural gardens. Surrounding these tended, verdant patches of history would be enormous buildings, hundreds of factories under a soot-grey sky, marvels of the modern world.

There would be Chinese language everywhere, and not much else. There would be Chinese food everywhere, and not much else. Chinese culture. Chinese television. Chinese people. In a huge nation with a billion humans wandering around, you kind of don’t need the accoutrements of foreign culture, of foreign language: there’s enough of them locally to learn and explore and discover.

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The Conversion Rate Epiphany

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

A wad of damp, sickly looking coloured notes clung to the inside of my pocket like so much lint and gum wrappers. I pulled out said wad before a store clerk and considered the rainbow of wet paper, the cornucopia of meaningless money before me. I tried to peel a few sickly, soggy slips from the clump, as some simple offering, a meagre supplication before this strange new altar. There were numbers on each, and I could read, and I could add, and yet none of those things particularly helped me. Yuan meant nothing to me, much as won had once meant so little, as rupees and baht and euros.

I had no viable concept for local money. The relative values and exchange rates gyrated across my synapses in a disturbing conga beyond my comprehension, visions from only the darkest obelisks sent from the spookiest, least sensible parts of space. I know that six yuan is one Canadian dollar is one thousand won is fifty rupees is something like 98 American cents. I know this fact and can repeat it by heart, can confirm via apps and research, can mentally convert great sums of multiple currencies given enough time, encouragement, and chocolate milk. But when confronted with a shopkeep who would really like for me to stop staring dumbly at him, drooling all over his counter with my bottle of off-brand local cola, I am a little adrift.

Exchange rates are theory, rather than practice. They are factoids kept and shared, interesting anecdotes to tell people back home, numbers to spit out when you want to sound knowledgeable about your environment. But in an actual place that requires your attention, your involvement, and your money, numbers mean nothing without a sense of value. Six yuan to a dollar is all well and good, but what does it mean if a packet of strawberries is forty two yuan?

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Hooray for Jobs, or, The Month His Brain Exploded

The only flood damage photo to not include poop water. Consider yourselves blessed.

The only flood damage photo to not include poop water. Consider yourselves blessed.

It was a murky, gloomy Monday evening. Rain belched down from the sky in great greasy globs, slapping into the ground with inelegant heaves. The sky was black.

I was completing an assignment for a professional development class on teaching kindergarten, which is to say, I was probably cutting out little shapes out of felt or thinking about how best to provoke children into using Venn diagrams.  An email popped up: a school interested in an interview. And not just any school–the one in China where my friend works, the one in China I had already visited, the one in China I had written into the margins of my trapper keeper with little pink hearts all around it.

I sat in front of my computer for several minutes, contemplating how quickly I could reply without seeming desperate. My will-power allowed me exactly 19 minutes and 47 seconds, and suddenly I had an interview scheduled for days later.

Simultaneously, a gurgle emerged from the basement, several floors below. It sounded like the splash of water needing to be bailed, of a boat sloshing about in a slick black ocean during a storm. This was, of course, problematic, as our house was typically landlocked. I rose briskly and rushed to the basement to discover that the entire thing had flooded with roughly 30 centimetres worth of backwashed sewage.

I surged bravely into the deeps to rescue the power bar of the computer and the modem from total submersion, and hid them in a high place. In the bottom of our sudden submarine, water was now tickling halfway up my shins, and I refused to look at either the colour or texture of it.

Our power miraculously stayed on for several hours, at which point it zipped into silence and black for the rest of the night. Soupy heat was already filtering into our walls, and while the water down below was thankfully sinking back from whence it came, the carpets still swelled and bubbled with torrents of sewage lodged into every fibre. Placing one be-shoed foot on the basement level caused a burp of fluid to emerge, and so we decided to simply pretend we no longer had a basement and that no one would go down there.

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