My life online has become a juggling act worthy of Cindy Marvell. As I write on my laptop, an iPod Touch and a Nook sit next to it, one trying to send out e-mail, the other to have handy just in case. At the moment each holds a tenuous connection to the outside world.
In 2012, I wrote about how dependent we’ve all become on electronic devices, and how many I packed for a semester in Vancouver: five. For this semester in China, I’m down to four, the three mentioned above plus a cellphone. (My iPad and Nook First Edition were stolen when my apartment was burglarized not long after Vancouver; they were jointly replaced by a second-generation Nook HD, already obsolete.)
In Vancouver all these devices worked, for a simple reason: the Internet did, on campus and at home. In China, nothing is simple.
When I taught in Hunan proivince in 2010, the wired connection at my apartment was laughable. The antique desktop computer sometime connected, sometimes didn’t. Five years further into the digital age, on a far more sophisticated campus in a major city, not much is different.
The day I moved into the Foreign Experts Residence, a staff member handed me a username and password, pointed out the Ethernet cord as a backup, watched me log on to the university wifi successfully and, satisfied, left. For two weeks, it worked. Oh, it was slow sometimes, what with 20,000 students, plus faculty and staff members, using it. But I could still teach Skype students in Poland for an hour at a time with only the occasional interruption in service.
At the same time, I was juggling devices to reach websites blocked by the government: Gmail, Google Chrome, The New York Times, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. What one device can’t reach, another sometimes can. Some sites, like my Chinese bank’s, are accessible only at the office, since I decline to download the “official” version of Chrome that would give me access at home — no more Chinese software on this laptop! But Gmail, The Times and other sites I’d like to plunder for teaching materials remain blocked without a VPN.
No problem, I thought: if I needed an article for class, I would print it at home and copy it at the office. Then, just as my bureaucratic troubles seemed to be over, my communication problems intensified.
One day the wifi not only stopped working but completely disappeared from my laptop. A message appeared onscreen: “This app can’t open. Your free trial period has ended. Go to the Windows store to purchase the full app.” Not long before leaving New York, I had taken advantage of the “free upgrade” to Windows 10. I thought of Windows 10 as Windows 10, a system I owned, not a collection of apps that could independently work or not at Microsoft’s whim. It’s not just the wifi; I can no longer search Windows for a filename or program; upload photos from my Nikon’s memory cards, which are filling up fast; or probably perform any number of other functions I haven’t thought about yet. The Windows 10 store is blocked – at least, in any language I can read. Windows customer service won’t even think about helping me unless I sign into my Microsoft account, which is “temporarily suspended” because I’m connecting from China, hacker heaven. It demands a verification code, which it sends to my phone number of record – in New York.
The wifi magically returned when I stayed in a hotel and worked, mostly, for my week in Sanya. Now, back in Guangzhou, it comes and goes. Every time someone else logs onto the system, I am pushed off. I was told I could get my own router, which it took a Chinese student in New York to provide. (Thank you, Yuxin.) It’s adorable – a petite aqua rectangle with two white rabbit ears sticking up and with four tiny blinking lights. Still, my connection apparently comes from that overtaxed university system.
The laptop rarely gets wifi, and the Ethernet backup works best between 6 and 9 a.m. (though today I couldn’t connect until 8:30). The rest of the time, I too often get the message Unable to get a connection: Still unable to dial tcp://doesnotexist.com:80 after 3 attempts. I have become a morning person to catch the connection before it dies for the day. The canary in my coal mine is WQXR.org, the New York classical music station. If the music streams at all on a given day, I know my time is up when it stops sometime around 9.
And those other devices? My smartphone works via the Internet, so that’s out; I’m back to my international dumbphone, its SIM card replaced by a local one for the duration. The iPod and the Nook connect, sometimes, to the wifi, when it’s working. The Nook’s browser is Chrome, which is sort of blocked, sort of not; it connects to banks, eBay and sometimes Playbill.com, but I have to log on again for almost every single page. To download e-mail, I need to log on to a web page, then read a book while I wait for syncing, and eventually another message flashes: 7 new messages, now 17, now 25 or more, mostly junk On the Nook I can read the daily “Today’s Headlines” e-mail from The Times, but clicking on the links is fruitless. To read a story, I have to go to the laptop.
The iPod barely connects at all. I carry it in my purse, mainly as an auxiliary camera, and sometimes try checking my e-mail around campus. A photo of a Beijing opera curtain call last Thursday night was still trapped inside until this morning instead of whooshing to the student who took me to the show. (Xie xie, Qing.)
So I juggle compulsively, wasting hours puzzling out how I could connect if only I could figure out the right thing to click on. Troubleshooting has become as addictive as the devices themselves.
In a couple of weeks, I’m going to Hong Kong – a special administrative region where blocking doesn’t apply and things still work – partly to tackle some of these issues, partly to honor a longstanding commitment as a guest speaker at New York University via Skype. I have yet to figure out how to Skype guest speakers in New York and Beijing into my own classrooms, since the computers there have no webcams or mics, and my laptop with both may or may not connect to the wifi. This week I wanted to show my class a Facebook post, which I couldn’t print at home and couldn’t call up at school. “Does anyone know how to get Facebook on this computer?” I asked the students – who can get anything. The answer was a resounding, unanimous “No!”
Recent news reports indicate China may unblock Google, but one step at a time, and not initially the ones that would solve my problems, like Gmail and Chrome. Mr. Xi, tear down this firewall.
For now, blog posts happen when they happen, like everything else. Skype lessons? What’s Polish for fuhgeddaboudit? If I seem slow in answering e-mail, I’m not ignoring you. If you get a message apologizing for not having answered when I already have, it means the first message was still sitting in whatever device when the second fought its way out. Please be patient, as I’ve had to learn to be. Maybe that’s the zen of the China Adventure of 2015. Or maybe it’s as Leslie Kandell (mother of Ms. Marvell, the eminent juggler) said this summer when she went offline to finish writing a Tanglewood review: “I want to be alone for while.” More and more, that’s OK, too.