Whenever I travel I usually look with disdain at expat enclaves, shut off from local life, their denizens mingling only at work or when playing tourist on their off-days. But it is amazing with what speed things can change when you take a suitcase along instead of a backpack, move into an actual flat and hang your office garb up in the wardrobe.
At that moment you enter a dual existence, and I have found out that living a dual existence can be dangerous for those of us who are not either bi-cultural or superheroes with secret identities, or else have a very solid social base (hence the enclaves). This is because the two worlds will clash and the expectations of one will run up against the demands of the other. And this can affect a person's sanity.
For me, frustration was a daily experience, but the frustrations of finding my way around a different culture proved arguably less difficult than the frustrations posed by still being immersed in my own. I normally do not set foot into Starbucks, but I did it in Hangzhou because Starbucks had WiFi—which didn't work. It was some kind of imitation Starbucks, subtly different from anywhere else in the world, where people did not pretend to write novels on their laptops. Getting online outside of work was such a struggle that I eventually gave up. And while the locals quite happily frequent the many wang bas, I sat in the flat, staring at the wall and wishing that Skype would work. Because it didn't there, or if it did nobody could show me.
On the few occasions that we did manage to get internet (slow and fickle) I spent many hours doing battle with Chinese censorship. I managed to avoid the worst of this by simply not engaging with the idea of what proxies are or how to get SSH to work on PuTTY (whatever that is) and subscribing to an external service which worked at least some of the time (no LJ though). I saw my husband exactly once on Skype, for a few seconds, but I did not manage to talk to him or to anyone of my friends and rellies during the entire time I was there. Did I mention that time zones can be murder?
Almost everyone in Hangzhou has smartphones, so 3G should be fine. I pounded the streets for hours and conducted long communications in sign-language to track down one of the elusive China Unicom cards that should work in my Android phone. Only it didn't. It took me two weeks to find out that this wasn't a basic compatibility problem but a 'permission denied' error, and that is not thanks to the China Unicom website. Even when I finally tracked down a Western bar with working WiFi, I couldn't get the phone to connect. It wasn't until I physically arrived back home that the thing realised that I was no longer somewhere around Clerkenwell where I had last checked my position. This can be hard to take in a city the size of London where I got lost almost every single day.
I used a basic phone for texting which kept spamming me with messages that wouldn't display and flashed up a warning in Chinese every time I switched it on. Because the credit tracker showed zero, I tried to top it up: a process that took visits to ten different convenience stores over a period of three days and an hour-long negotiation at the end of it. The credit tracker continued to show zero. My colleagues were oddly reluctant to help me with these little problems. Perhaps they thought I was more stupid than a small child.
I'm glad that I didn't bring a Kindle or iPad with me, although—again—it's something that the students use. It is as if the whole technology that surrounds me had been transmogrified into alien devices that just happened to look the same as the ones I knew.
But then I was in an alternate universe where Chinese was the only language. As I said, I'm not getting into that side of things now, but it meant that I couldn't get the World Service on shortwave radio either.
So this, in a nutshell, are some of the problems that somebody used to relying on Western technology will have to deal with. None of these are big problems—or wouldn't have been, if my expectations had not been so high.
There are ways to get around these things. Maybe I could have found an enclave or a collection of niches where they simply don't apply (I made a start with that Western bar, even though I was the only customer and the damn phone didn't work anyway). Or I could have drastically lowered my expectations and my outlook. I was fighting, rather than 'bending like a bamboo stalk'.
"Don't fight China," John said. "You won't win."
Oh how I wish we could have talked about that before it was too late!
My personal solution is two-fold. I can either give up travelling and working abroad—not an option because, for me, that would be no kind of life at all—or I can go in for full immersion.
Back in the Eighties we didn't have internet, international phone calls cost a bazillion dollars per minute and mail was by poste restante, collected when you passed through a capital city every couple of months or so. Back then we didn't have expectations. To travel meant to leave and not look back until your return. We did not carry our home and our friends with us in our pockets. We didn't even have credit cards.
For me, lowering my expectations so that I can adapt to local life will mean no internet. No laptop, but also no futile attempts to climb over—or tunnel under—the Great Firewall from local internet bars. No attempts to stream radio. Ideally I should go somewhere where they don't have internet, if such places still exist.
No smartphone either. No MP3 player. No pining after 6Music or Iron Maiden.
No Kindle (but a few well-thumbed paperbacks for which I'm willing to leave my teaching materials at home).
And it means learning Chinese. I have booked a course and I'm going to see how fast I can get this to work once I'm combining classroom interaction with online learning (while I'm here I'm using every bit of technology at my disposal).
Do not even think about setting foot into China without at least elementary Chinese, both written and spoken.
More about that later.