VPNs and the Great Firewall

For foreigners, life goes on as normal until a national holiday or politically sensitive anniversary rolls around. That’s when the VPNs stop working.

I never could get used to how eerie that felt – you think the VPN is the workaround, the sneaky backdoor around the Great Firewall, but then you find out they can close it whenever they want.

The Great Firewall is the nickname for China’s internet censorship of any data that it does not want its roughly 1.4 billion people to know. VPNs are technically illegal but are common practice among foreigners living in China who still wish to access websites like Facebook, Instagram, Google, gmail, and even Netflix and Pinterest, not to mention independent news outlets.

How does a VPN work? It routes – forwards, so to speak – your phone or computer’s internet connection through a private server, so that you can securely, remotely connect to a different network through a third party. Cheaper ones aren’t as secure, but many foreigners use them as a temporary backup for when the government targets the other ones.

You download the app, pay for a good one before coming to China, and enjoy the glitchy, slow-working, but mostly dependable way to have the same internet you’ve always had. Youtube will give you ads tailored to the location where you connect – I heard a lot of Japanese and Cantonese in between my rock and roll playlists. Google suggested auto-complete search results that were hilariously different in Tokyo versus Los Angeles. I was disappointed to realize I could only access the first 5 seasons of Supernatural instead of the full show. (Netflix doesn’t like U.S.A.-based VPN locations – it gives you a message like “oops, you’re watching through a proxy, please turn it off and try again” – so, ahem, a pirating website was visited. Fair is fair; I pay for these shows already!)

When one location stops working, you choose another – Tokyo 1 was the default fastest location for many months, maybe a year. After each government-led, targeted shut-down of the most common VPNs, the app bounces back and recommends a new location – I remember Hong Kong, Los Angeles 2, then Los Angeles 5, and finally Santa Monica, etc. UK Wembley worked seamlessly for many months – I watched every episode of the old BBC show “Porridge” on Netflix.

If VPNs are illegal, how do so many foreigners have them? Shedding black and white thinking is necessary here in order to understand the situation. It’s not acting in extra-legal ways that’s seen as a problem most of the time; it’s all about context. Many, if not most, major companies use VPNs and sometimes even require their employees to use them on their personal devices in order to do business and communicate on foreign websites.

The government cares about the things it chooses to care about, which do not always correspond to every little thing it tells you to do or not do. Sure, it tracks everything and everyone, but out of that massive mound of data, only certain things actually matter enough to do something about. A fellow foreigner explained this to me early on, when we were walking down the street and discussing jaywalking. Expats have been deported for traffic violations (footage easily obtained, without a warrant, from any camera in the country), but only because their real offense was getting too political on social media or pissing off the wrong person.

Self-censorship matters a great deal in China. Discussing sensitive, China-related topics such as Tibet, Hong Kong, or the Uighurs is an absolute no-go online (and often in person). Your VPN will not protect you.

The Apple Store, packed for a National Week Sale

“Just don’t flash it around” was the advice I received about VPNs from more seasoned expats. As long as you’re not spreading information that would be damaging to China, and you are foreign, you’re probably in the clear. China knows that foreigners have always had access to global media and websites. It chooses to look the other way when they maintain that web presence in China as long as they aren’t critical of China on social media.

For now.

At the times that matter most to the Communist Party – National Week, the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a week of particularly intense Hong Kong protests – the VPNs go down. All of them, pretty much. You think yours is just being slow, so you message your friends, ask if theirs are working. The answer is no.

It’s unnerving for an entire nation to suddenly shut off accessibility to so much of the internet. Teams of computer whizzes leap into action, working round the clock somewhere in an office, all to restore your ability to access the news. And Netflix. And Youtube. Whatever the world is saying about China, whatever is going on in China, you won’t hear about it until the week is over.

Those strong servers, that withstand every attempt to assail them the rest of the year, are shot down so quickly (and seemingly easily?) that you realize they always had the power to do it. Even your secret little freedom existed purely at their pleasure. You thought they didn’t know, but they did.

They can take it away whenever they choose.

Nothing is guaranteed.

What’s Suzhou Like? (Part 2)

The last post discussed Suzhou in very general terms, so here’s the good stuff – inside details on where to go, what to do, and where everyone hangs out on the weekend! (The focus here is on places that are maximally accessible to non-Chinese speakers like myself.)

Suzhou Center is so obvious it has to be discussed before anything else – this flagship shopping mall lies at the base of the city’s most iconic building. All of us foreigners called it the “Pants Building”, which hopefully makes a lot of sense once you look at it. It has a north and south wing, several coffeeshops, a Toys R US, designer clothing shops, a spa, a movie theater, afood court in the basement, better restaurants on the higher levels, a movie theater, miniature pony riding of all things on the highest floor, and an ice skating rink.

I definitely recommend Suzhou Center, but then, it’s unavoidable! If you’re trying to make plans with a friend to hang out on your day off, and one of you lives near the city center, the odds are pretty high that you’ll start off at Suzhou Center, given that it has the most options. I have fond memories of speeding around that wonderful ice skating rink, watching the water and light show on the upper levels in the evening, walking around the bookstore, lunch at the Greek restaurant with work friends, trying the Italian, Mexican, and both Thai restaurants, getting an excellent haircut at the expensive salon on the second floor, and going in the French nightclub with two other unattached white women when it had just opened and getting free drinks from the staff.

The city’s coffeehouses are good for instagram feeds but not for coffee connoisseurs. Most coffee in China really doesn’t taste that great, but I can heartily recommend the ambiance of my two favorite places – Cagic Coffee, between Central Park and Xinghai Square, and Unico Coffee by Jinji Lake. If you’re going to hang out for an afternoon, those are the places to do it. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Starbucks is on almost every street corner; it tastes exactly as you would expect, is exactly as expensive as it is everywhere else in the world, and is of course still every bit as popular as it is everywhere else in the world. For those just looking for something drinkable, Luckin Coffee is a chain almost exclusively for delivery only. It tastes better than any other chain and is a little cheaper. Download the app and you’re off to the races!

Remember the bird’s nest arena from the Beijing Olympics? Suzhou has an arts center that looks like that. It lights up in different colors at night, which is great. The night view of Suzhou from anywhere on Jinji lake is just special. Jingi Lake in general is great to walk around – you can start from Suzhou Center and stroll along the wide paved walking paths, with trees, flowers, statues, restrooms, and parks along the way. Unless you’re from a big city, it will probably impress you just a little. Something about such a scenic view feels so good and right.

In nice weather, you will see dog walkers, families (with one young child and perhaps a baby, given the recent switch to the two-child policy), the ubiquitous elderly landscapers/sidewalk sweepers employed by the city, young couples with their arms all around each other, groups of young women taking selfies, grandparents out for exercise, and the occasional foreign family or pair of friends out for the same stroll as everyone else. Central Park is nice too – all the parks are, and they are well-used and spotlessly maintained.

Suzhou is largely a city of transplants, so you will meet a good variety of born-and-bred locals, who probably know all the good spots and make local dishes at home, and people from all other parts of China. It’s always fun to ask someone where they’re from because you just never know how far away their hometown is. Within the expat community, there are many students and medical doctors from a variety of African countries as well as Pakistan, India, etc.

English teachers are mostly American, British, and (as of the last few years) South African, with a few Australians in the mix. This is because the latest government regulations make it almost impossible for any foreigner from a non-English speaking country to legally get a job teaching English in China, regardless of skill level. Curiously, I don’t remember ever meeting anyone from continental Europe, although I must have heard Russian, French, or German spoken at some point. I met one man from El Salvador, a graduate researcher like so many other foreigners, but no one else from Latin America that I recall.

Speaking of being foreign, there are plenty of swanky upscale western restaurants for a nice evening out. (Morton’s comes to mind.) Be aware that McDonalds’ and KFC’s menu choices are not exactly in Kansas anymore, Toto. I liked to get omelets, burgers, or pancakes at After Hours, an American restaurant in the same building as Morton’s, right outside the Xinghai Square subway station. The Blue Marlin is excellent; it’s run by a British man who caters special Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners upon reservation.

Dozens of bars carry a variety of foreign beers, including German ones, (try going to World of Beer or Lenbach for starters) so beer lovers will hopefully manage to survive. Camel is a popular foreign hangout, with half-off burger night being the main attraction for those who can’t get behind its smoky love-it-or-hate-it vibe the rest of the week. There are also a handful of good Indian restaurants. Your friends and coworkers are your main source of information for the best places to go.

Thanks for reading, guys! I’ve barely scratched the surface of Suzhou here. I hope you all get the chance to go out and explore your own cities as much as possible. There’s always more to see and do than we know.

What’s Suzhou Like? (Part 1)

I lived in Suzhou from the summer of 2018 to March of 2020, and I heartily recommend it! Suzhou is located in Jiangsu Province, China, a 30 minute train ride or 2 hour drive from the happening metropolis of Shanghai. (Many of us took day trips there to see museums, art exhibitions, or go to Disney Shanghai.) Much of Suzhou was built within the past decade or two in one of China’s common growth booms.

The whole SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park) area, a prospering financial district with a Western feel and plenty of foreigners, was nothing but fields 10 years ago. I lived in SIP and relished the immaculate roadside landscaping and brand-spanking-new subway system. One American coworker who got her start in central China described Suzhou as “China lite”. She said, “To be honest, sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in China.” Many customer service workers have a tiny bit of English, (coffee? hot? iced?). Physicians and bank tellers are usually fluent in English as required by their employer. Outside of that…good luck!

On the older side of things, (this is the great civilization of China we’re talking about, after all) Suzhou is an ancient city, older than Rome itself. It used to be an important center of silk production and trade, and plenty of silk goods are still sold in both souvenir shops and upscale boutiques. I used to go in every qipao (traditional dress) shop I saw until my eyes swam from the bewildering array of shiny colors. There are also plenty of cheap qipaos of artificial material.

Along with the nearby city of Hangzhou, Suzhou has long been renowned in poems and proverbs for its beauty, which is largely derived from its many canals and traditional Chinese gardens. Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest, oldest, and most famous of the gardens, and has been depicted in paintings, poems, and literature for centuries. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with many other gardens such as Lingering Garden, Master of Nets, and Couple’s Retreat.

You can still visit traditional areas in the center of town, if you take the green Line 2 on the subway and get off at Donghuan Lu or Xiangmen station. Pinjiang Road is famous throughout China, and remains incredibly picturesque despite being touristy. Between buildings and sidewalks lie white-plastered walls, with traditional curved black slate tiles on top. The round ends have floral designs just like you would expect to see on a temple roof or museum reconstruction.

The water in the canals, which date back hundreds and thousands of years, is unfortunately a breeding ground for mosquitoes in the summer. Children and adults walk around all summer with legs that look like victims of a horrible rash, or perhaps scars from cigarette burns. I often rolled my eyes and called the canals “glorified storm drains” based on the gray-green shade of water and the direct polluting drainage I witnessed from houses, etc. But oh, if you saw the green willows that overhang the canals year-round, you would understand how the peaceful, enchanting beauty of that picture erases everything else. Suzhou and the surrounding area is rife with “water towns” like Tongli, where canals take the place of the street. Not for nothing has Suzhou been called the Venice of the East.

Taking Anxiety on the Road

Travel is amazing. It’s enjoyable, life changing, confidence building, and most importantly, it gives you cool stories to tell at parties.

It also tests you, which is exactly as it should be. You can’t grow unless you’re a wee bit out of your depth. When teachers take an Educational Psychology class, they learn Vygotsky’s theory of scaffolding, which says that learning can only happen when the brain is faced with a problem that is a little more difficult than everything it already knows how to do. This could reasonably be applied to almost any experience or area of life.

However, the challenges of travel can be especially trying for those who already have anxious tendencies. Diagnosed or not, you know who you are, and you know how hard it can be.

What does anxiety look like when you take it on the road? Here are some examples.

Procrastination – putting off the planning stage and avoiding details like booking a hotel or buying your tickets. (I book flights close to time to leave, instead of buying them earlier and saving potentially hundreds of dollars. )

Unable to sleep the night before leaving. Or maybe several nights.

Dread and a churning stomach, along with other physical symptoms of anxiety, when you think of the upcoming change.

Phobias being set off as your mind races of all the things that could go wrong.

Intrusive, recurring thoughts about something horrible happening. (I knew someone who was surprised to learn that her friends were concerned about her violent nightmares; she had no idea that they weren’t normal.)

A feeling of loss and danger when you think about being out of your comfort zone.

Mourning the end of a brief, newfound attachment to an area, people, favorite spot, or even hotel. Change is hard, after all, and you feel like part of your own self was attached. Perhaps that’s because it was such a feat for you to settle in and felt at ease in your new surroundings in the first place, and now those roots are being torn up. Your heart is reaching out its arms to anything that feels like home, like P.D. Eastman’s book about the little bird asking “Are you my mother?” to everyone he meets.

Feeling like you’re never going to get anything else as good as this, that no experience will top it, that the best times are behind you.

Or, if it goes badly, worrying that all travel will be this dangerous/disappointing/stressful. What’s the point, there’s no use, etc, etc. Fear of failure.

Guilt over anything that goes wrong – I’m a bad person for missing my flight, I’m irresponsible for not bringing enough cash, I should have studied the language more, I should have seen and done more, lost or stolen belongings are some kind of punishment, I’m not experienced enough, I’m not doing this right.

Hiding from planning, details, and arrangements. More than just procrastination, full-on avoidance. (I can barely bring myself to get online and purchase my flights, and I stay zen by staying in denial of my to-do list. As a result, I always end up with a nearly-empty itinerary.)

Or, hyper planning and obsessing over all the details. Any gap in the timeline, any activity not fully researched, booked, and paid for with receipts, will gnaw at you until it’s done.

If you travel with your partner, collegues, family, or friends, you don’t trust them to do anything ahead of time without clearing everything with you. You double check everything just to be sure, and you have to know all the details of all the arrangements ahead of time.

If you live as an expat, perhaps for study or work, culture shock might look less like “I hate this stupid culture/food/weather” and more like “I’m so down/overwhelmed/depressed, I can barely function. It’s all I can do to go through the motions each day.”

We all fight our own fight, so stop with the guilt tripping! This is how you’re wired; it’s what you face, so don’t bother acting like the fact that it’s “in your head” makes it somehow less real. You genuinely experience life differently than others do, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re defective, lame, unmotivated, or lazy. Lots of people can confirm what this feeling feels like. It’s not your fault!

(If meds help, then I hope you find a good one, that your insurance covers it, and that you stay on it till the day you die if necessary. There’s NO shame in medically filling in a missing part of your brain chemistry that other people produce naturally. Do anything and everything possible to care for your mental health. Just remember that medication is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a very important one. It helps. It can make a whole world of difference and give you back the reins of your life, but it is NOT a cure. Use it as a tool and don’t ask it to make you something you’re not.)

Give yourself some grace and go easy on yourself. Do whatever you can to avoid thinking too much when things go badly. Be gentle in the way you talk to yourself – that might be the biggest tip I can offer. Just ignore or argue back with the inner critic, and that voice will start to fade. Give yourself credit for successfully navigating challenging situations, and then reward yourself afterwards.

Don’t, for the love of Pete, tell yourself over and over to “calm down”, or say unhelpful things like “everything’s fine”. Focus on a long-term definition of fine – you will almost certainly live to tell this tale, so the details between here and there don’t really matter. You are statistically unlikely to end up homeless under a bridge, in jail, dead, starving, or permanently stranded as a result of whatever stressful situation you find yourself in. How will you ever find your luggage that’s gotten mixed up? Who knows, but you’re not going to have to go nude, this town has stores where you can buy things, and 10 years from now it won’t matter at all because that wardrobe needed updating anyway.

I wish I could give you a long list of secret life-hacks to make the yucky feelings go away, but I can’t. We are all so different and we have to work things out our own way.

That’s it, by the way. That’s the secret, if there was one.

That’s what opened all the doors for me – I stopped measuring myself by the “right” way, the neurotypical way, the Type-A way that I was taught to do everything. I let go and just went with the flow, and for me, it was liberating and empowering. The Hakuna Matata philosophy is what I’m all about, and those “Bare Necessities” from the Jungle Book. For you, it might be the opposite – buy all the planners and color-coded markers the store has to offer, and find joy in taking control and making order out of chaos. Do it your way, as Frank Sinatra sang.

There is no one right way to do life.

I remember how proud and emotional I was (and still am) every single time I learned that my own way could work for me. Look ma – no hands! The world’s most successful people face some of the same personal and mental challenges that you and I do – and it’s no easier for them. Some models have terrible body image issues. Some Oscar-winning actors get horribly nervous before performances, and they never cure it.

There Is. No. Cure. You don’t need one.

Like Po in Kung Fu Panda, who sees that the scroll is blank, please understand that there is nothing so fundamentally wrong with you that you can’t show up as yourself and succeed.

Katy Perry, “Rise”

I won’t just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can’t write my story
I’m beyond the archetype
I won’t just conform
No matter how you shake my core
‘Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire’s at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They’re whispering, you’re out of time
But still, I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don’t be surprised, I will still rise

Seoul’s Quarantine Experience

In late June I flew from the tropical, U.S. military-laden, coronavirus-free island of Okinawa to Seoul, capital and largest city of South Korea. You know, the place where all the planes fly in. I spent the next two weeks in a non-optional, government-designated quarantine facility, as did everyone who arrived in South Korea on a tourist visa since April 1st, 2020. (according to kr.usembassy.gov.) On the Asiana airline, masks were of course mandatory, and every middle seats was empty. Turbulence hit during the flight, which has nothing to do with anything but adds color to the story. Oh, and it was a bright and sunny day. 

     Upon landing at Incheon airport, past all the restrooms and moving sidewalks, there was a booth for handing in the health documents you filled out on the plane before moving on to the rest of customs and quarantine. Right before that booth were signs, each in a different language, about a self health check app that you had to download. So I connected to the airport wifi and used the Chinese messaging app, WeChat, to scan the QR code, because as a technology-phobic ancient great-grandmother of 29 years, I don’t know how else to scan something with my phone. 

     A lady in an official vest was hovering around; her sole job was to remind people to download the app and fill in the little card forms on the table to the left. Which had already been handed out on the plane, so I’m good, thanks. As I stood there trying to get my phone to download the app (poor thing’s never been quite the same since floating in a purse in the sea back on Okinawa), she kept coming over and inviting/directing me towards the upcoming booth, because the line was empty now.

(Yes, I know, lady, obviously the place is empty at the moment, trying to download the mandatory app here, and oh look – that booth is directly ahead in this corridor, where else would I possible go, back? I am aware that one continues to walk straight through checkpoints when one is in an airport instead of leaving to permanently camp in the restroom.) She just would not give it up. On the inside I was semi-shouting “I SEE, will you SCREW OFF now?”  

When I did finish the download and go up to hand in the forms, I decided to err on the side of honesty and checked the symptoms I had displayed earlier in the week, vomiting and headache. In hindsight, both were probably caused by not eating enough food and feeling anxious about leaving. Even though Okinawa seen no new cases for almost two months before I left, lying about symptoms in the midst of an epidemic is not the way to go. Also, and this was about 50% of the reason for my decision, I had just spent a day in close proximity to a new friend, and the thought of even a slight chance of passing something on to him made me want to get tested, as impossible as it would’ve been for me to have been exposed at any point. 

     The person behind the desk handed me a lanyard with a green paper card inside with a marker-scrawled “symptomatic” and told me to follow some guy in a white protective suit. Not wanting to cause mass panic and hysteria, I tucked the front of the lanyard under my arm while walking. Big sneak. From that point it was a not-unpleasant-if-you-knew-roughly-what-to-expect trek through the airport and a game of musical chairs from one makeshift waiting area to another.  People in full white protective gear sat behind folding tables and filled out their own paperwork based on my answers to their questions. I was handed a sturdy, uncomfortable mask to wear instead of mine.

The whole process moved smoothly and even quickly, relatively speaking. The tests were given in orange mobile pods in the asphalt behind the building. They were lined up like portapotties or shipping containers and there were maybe five or so that I could see. Inside was a window that opened into another trailer-type room with medical supplies and presumably the medical personnel giving the tests. It wasn’t a room at all, but a corridor to allow the test-givers to walk along to every pod, sticking the swabs through the holes in each window, rain or shine. Oh man, that test. Yikes. Once he snaked the swab back, it was only a 5-count, but I was squirming like crazy and not taking it very well. Afterwards I kept waving my hands and cursing and touching my nose. The throat swab did not hurt but I gagged the second I opened my mouth. Ever since having respiratory and throat issues in China, my gag reflex has been on a hair trigger, and it’s just ridiculous.

  Then back to the elevator, still swearing, into the building. Using my legs as a writing surface, I filled out the final paperwork for the mandatory 14 day quarantine in a government designated facility. This was non-negotiable for all tourists and anyone else without a Korean residence. We hit a snag, as a Korean phone number was required, so they got somebody to walk me down the hall to a table with a vendor of Korean SIM cards.As usual it took a while to get the cover off this rarely-seen-in-the-wild Motorola contraption. Finishing the paperwork was straightforward after that, and I quickly googled hotels to find an intended address to list. Not the first time I’ve done that; it’s basically my standard operating procedure. Haha. I don’t plan and you can’t make me.

Just like that, it was over and the other foreign passport holders (all Pakistani men, judging from appearances and a few passports) and I were led to customs, out the door, onto the bus, and into the hotel. Inside the lobby were those annoying pointless flimsy floor coverings taped down in a path from the revolving door through the lobby to the elevator. Check-in ended in receiving a room card and then a packaged meal from the man standing beside the elevator, with the instructions “You never leave your room.” (The elevator buttons were under a clear plastic covering, because that makes SUCH a difference with germ spread) I took a last long look up and down the hallway.  

  The room was nice and big, with a full bed and a recently-enough renovated/redecorated feel to be acceptable. However, upon further inspection, there were NO CURTAINS. Perhaps they wanted to save on laundry, given the extreme hygiene precautions? It was already after dark and other wings of the building outside were quite visible with their own lit-up windows not far away. What really compounded the privacy issue was that every light, even bedside lamps, was bizarrely on a single on-off switch for the whole room.  “Best” Western, my eye. The bathroom light was also on that switch, meaning that every time I came out of the shower into the brightly-lit room, anyone on floors 4-9 or so in the buildings adjacent and opposite could be flashed. Real life nudity. And I almost didn’t care at that point. The real problem was that even with a wall adaptor, none of my charging cords would work for my computer or my phone.

   Lo and behold, the next morning I got a call on the hotel phone, saying that my test results were negative and that I should bring my luggage to the lobby at 7:45.  We foreign passport holders were taken back to the airport, where a new bus came to take us to a different hotel to start the real quarantine period along all the other people on tourist visas (who hadn’t reported symptoms like we did). That first hotel was just for those waiting for test results – and those whose tests came back positive. No one explained that to me beforehand.

     After a long drive we waited in the bus for some time until a nice man in a full white protective suit stepped on and spoke to us in excellent English.  He apologized for the inconvenience and said that we had to wait until the previous bus of people had finished checking in. One guy to my right started playing “the Final Countdown” on his phone. Boy did I seriously consider chucking my little flight packet of earphones at his face. Not cool, dude.

  Once inside there was a new health tracking app to download. Miraculously for my dead phone, all manner of charging cords were provided!  Cue the slow download process again. One of the hovering white suits said, “Okay, I think your phone has some problems, so – ” and folks, I came right back with, “Yes, I KNOW my phone has problems.” (The ole fuse was running out of room so fast at that point, it was probably on a pirate ship leading to a power keg in a sword fight). Checked in, paid, dragged me and my suitcases to my new room, which was also on the seventh floor, but smaller, this time with both a twin bed and full bed. Linens were only provided for the twin bed. And there were curtains!

A big plastic bag was just inside, containing bath towels, soap, shower sandals (do people use them for the room sometimes? I’m using them for the room too. But only sometimes.), 6 ramens in cups, 3 one-liter water bottles, a couple Pepsis, chopsticks for the ramen, two sleeves of small paper cups, and – hallelujah! – a box of instant coffee packets. Saved! This was clearly meant to be the snack supply.  There was a paper with instruction about putting your meal trash in a plastic bag, spraying it with sanitizer (a spray bottle was provided in said big bag), tying it up in the big orange hazardous materials bag provided outside your door, and leaving it outside every morning after breakfast.

And thus the 14 days began. All of us residents were to take our temperatures twice a day, at 9:00am and 5:00 pm, and record it on the tracking app. It wasn’t creepy until about a week in, when they suddenly started making an announcement about it over a speaker system into the room – twice a day. At first I thought it was coming from the television just like in 1984! My room was missing a thermometer, so I just entered normal temperature on the app and never said anything about it. Couldn’t – the front desk wasn’t reachable by phone. Workers came by and dropped packaged meals in plastic bags outside the door at roughly 7:30 am, 11:30 am, and 5:30 pm. The knock on the door was heart-stopping amid so much silence and solitude. I was used to spending every day in my own company after three months alone in Okinawa, so I viewed it as a final test, an achievement – the crown jewel of isolation.

I did learn to enjoy kimchi despite my intolerance of spicy food, but occasionally lost my appetite for the repetitive meat-and-rice convenience store dinners. The National Geographic channel was in English, along with three or four movie channels, sometimes. I saw a bad movie about a giant shark attack and Jason Statham, an even worse abomination called CSI: New York, and a cute movie with Jack Black and Cate Blanchett about a brave boy raised by those two wizards. The Hobbit movies came on, which was nice. 

The room was too cramped to even pace easily, but I did do some push-ups, squats, etc. Mostly I just sat on the big bed during the day and switched to the other one at night. I watched some of Sir Patrick Stewart’s daily readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I had never read before. The videos were heartwarming. Every evening I showered, wanting to keep body odor out of the clothes I was re-wearing due to lack of a washing machine.  And every evening, I bundled the day’s accumulation of plastic food packaging waste into one of the plastic bags and set it near the door.

Here is an excerpt from my journal.

“It’s been three days or so, so far, and I can charge my phone directly into the USB-style port in the wall, thank God, but the computer is still a no-go. My adult ADD-having brain just lies on the bed and thinks all day, in between writing, scrolling social media again and again, and playing Candy Crush. Outside my window, I can see the world going by, aka traffic flowing consistently, smoothly repetitively, not too fast and not too slow, on the raised highway. It’s not noisy at all, even with the window open, and very peaceful to watch. The last two days have been gray and rainy, which looks misty up here from – guess where- the 7th floor again. This time with curtains, though.”

Diving In

Oh, man! The first few months in China were chaotic, and therefore a rousing good time. (Those are ducks in the picture above, by the way.) My definition of a good time, mind you, is sheltered and quirky and rather skewed, and if you haven’t met me, now is probably the time to warn you that I am easily impressed and amused. Change was what I craved, and I got it in spades, so of course I was happy. I relished almost every non-glamorous minute of it. (No, there aren’t any glamorous bits, sorry. It was too humid for that.) In lieu of a coherent narrative of my 2018 summer, which would be impossible, here is a birds-eye style memory dump, the scattershot happenings of a bird out of the nest trying to fly with the other birds far from home.

On the plane, I ate the cup noodle ramen for breakfast while trying to explain that fabled but very real Southern dish – grits – to the recently graduated young woman returning to China from Canada. All this was done while ogling the Arctic (!!!) ice out the window, which was not an experience I was expecting. I had envisioned flying over the Pacific, but geographically it’s much shorter to fly, from North America, up over Alaska and down through Siberia. Needless to say, my mind was completely blown when I saw our location on the in-flight map. I was probably squirming in my seat with delight. The light reflected off the ice so much that it was almost blinding, and everyone else was trying to sleep (boring), so I had to give it up and close the screen. The jet itself impressed me – I’d never ridden on anything with two aisles instead of one before.

After getting picked up at Shanghai Pudong airport by the company driver, who was a man of very few words, I got my suitcases and followed him into the parking garage. The bright pink van (yes, that was my new company’s trademark brand of color) finally convinced me that he was on the up-and-up and I was not getting kidnapped after all. Jackie’s being his nice, brief, uncommunicative self finally convinced me that conversation was not happening after all either, so I stuck to gawking at the fleets of high-rise apartment buildings we kept passing. Seriously, I cannot begin to convey the scale of those housing blocks. It’s like an orchard of rectangles, 20 floors each. Grids upon grids of them. Even in Tokyo, which I visited earlier this year, I never saw anything like it. I did see similar areas of housing once we got to Suzhou, but nothing on the scale of Shanghai. They just sit there in the middle of fields outside the city, in meticulously laid out clusters.

Two hours later we made it to Suzhou. Jackie took me to the Ibis Hotel, which had a cute lobby and not a soul from the company there to meet me as promised. He spoke with the desk clerk for a while, paid for the room with his company card, said “No breakfast!” and left. Well! I didn’t even have a SIM card for my phone, so I had no way to communicate now that I was in mainland China. However, I held it together and decided to not be worried, for which feat I give myself way too many toughness points for, but hey, I can do what I want. Someone was going to have to come by and get me eventually, and admittedly it was a relief when the school director knocked on my door to check in later.

The room had a cool, tiny bathroom pod and big, flat toggle light switches that would only work if you put your room card in the slot by the door. It’s an energy saving device, I think, so that everything switches off when you leave your room. Because of COURSE you would remember to take that key card with you at all times. Yeah. Had to chat with the front desk about that little oopsie when I accidentally locked myself out that way. One night I asked the hotel bartender for something sweet, and he poured me a small glass of a pink liquid that must have been straight grenadine. I had to cut it with drinking water from the dispenser in the corner before I could get it down. That was my first experience at a hotel bar.

Family Mart became my go-to for easy snack food because the restaurants were illegible and confusing. It’s a convenience store chain ubiquitous in China (seriously they’re on every corner), with chips, bottled drinks, drinkable yogurt, bread filled with red bean paste, and weird sushi sandwiches with egg and breakfast meat filling. My new school had an amazing dumpling place near it. I’ve never had dumplings like that since, actually. Sigh.

After a week the company placed me in Rachel and Caitlin’s apartment, in a half-bedroom with a questionably sturdy wooden slat bed slapped together from Ikea. Rachel was British. I never had any British friends before coming to China. She was also very motherly and organized and helpful and overall I nearly bonded to her like a baby duckling. They had gotten one of those happy cat statues that constantly waves one arm and put it in front of the TV in the living room. There were roaches and I kept killing them. And there were ants in the kitchen, but they were hardly as threatening. Oh, and the elevator to the 11th floor where we lived was not air conditioned, and one day a little girl pressed every button. Deep sigh.

After observing others teachers’ classes for a week I was sent to Shanghai to re-take the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) exam, because we hadn’t been able to get my particular online certificate authenticated for the work visa. I remember getting lost, being even more hot and humid, excellent egg and veggie “pancake” street food, and the lovely sycamore trees lining and overhanging the streets in the French concession area where I was. I don’t remember much of the class, as it was a repeat, except for the fact that the instructor was nice and everyone collectively loathed one man who just would not shut up. There is such a thing as a dumb question. We all know this, don’t we? Goodness gracious.

At the end of the week one of the guys took it upon himself to create a chat group, sans Annoying McLoudymouth, and we met for drinks in a Mexican dive to celebrate. I nearly missed it due to cellular data on the fritz, but I managed to connect to the wi-fi of a hospital I passed. When I finally walked in, the kind of worldly, partying people I had never fit in with were all happy to see me. What a confidence booster! I was just a recovering former homeschool kid, a graduate of a small Christian college with zero drinking parties, but people were accepting me and even interested in me anyway. My own ice was breaking, and I was diving in at last.

There, with a vaguely Scottish accented Norwegian-American guy nicknamed Thor, a South African rugby player, and a Mexican-American army vet (and a Chinese-American Christian woman present, thankfully for my cautious peace of mind), at the tender age of 27, I took my first shot of tequila. Actually, I tried to sip it, but they caught me doing it and made sure I finished it quick. Then I drank my first margarita, a frozen one that had melted. I do not count the Angry Orchard hard apple ciders I drank while watching TV alone in my parents’ basement; that night was my baptism into the world. No one had been there to initiate me on my 21st birthday, so this was it. It still makes me smile, the memory of shedding that much more of my old skin.

By all rights that should be the end of this article. Shedding my old skin is the theme of all my travels, and my current mission. It’s a good ending to the story, Grace riding off to the train station, buzzed in a taxi, finally exploring the wider world. It’s a good note to stop on. But something else happened.

I met God one evening on the streets of Shanghai, earlier that week.

I typed and erased this next part of the story so many times and still won’t give any more detail. It’s too personal and emotional. But he did meet me, uninvited, and what he gave me was sacred. Ever since I was a child, I knew I could never could be spiritual enough to “achieve” his presence, and after so many years, had almost given up on ever having it. That night, as we walked along the sidewalk, he showed me what it felt like to relax as a child with him for the first time, to let go and trust that the bigger one holding my hand knew the way. It occurs to me tonight that in all my travels, I’ve never been afraid of being lost since.

Welcome to the Story

Two years ago, I was in the too-early morning Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, with a backpack and two black suitcases as old as I was, looking with awe at one-way tickets to Shanghai with my name on them. I finished a Starbucks coffee and pastry on a stomach not ready for anything, waved goodbye to my parents, got quickly through security, and found a gate area with plenty of seats. The sunshine through the giant windows was blinding, which was just perfect, since the sunshine in my own heart was also blinding that day. Grateful happiness was welling up inside until it was all I could see. This day had been such a long time coming.

The last 6 months had been spent wrangling visa applications, document authentications, doctor’s visits, emails, and so much waiting. My dream of living in a foreign country had been around a lot longer – 5 years at least, possibly since early childhood. Upon graduating from college, I wanted to work for a nonprofit in a developing country, but instead listened to voices of money, reasonableness, and sameness. (Back then, the idea that what I wanted most out of life could actually be mine was a foreign concept. The knowledge that we can turn possibilities into reality is dynamite; it is power itself and will make you unstoppable. Back then, I was very stoppable.) When after a series of interesting, rewarding jobs, my last company downsized, my immediate thought was “time to finally teach English in China!”. I wasn’t devastated, I was free. I had a mental image of an open road stretching into the horizon.

The night before I left, my youngest brother came in my room and helped me finish the last hectic bits of packing in the early hours of the morning. I walked back and forth from the bedroom to the bathroom, trying to think what I would need for 15 months in a country with modern cities but probably not my shoe size. At the last moment, he said I should bring some washcloths. I grabbed some from the hall closet, and they’re still with me. The brown boots, bought to fit company dress code and have something to wear in the winter, are not. I walked holes into those soles over many other evenings. That night I stuffed them with tampons, since they’re hard to find in China and much of Asia. Per my request, Jordan drove me to one of the roadside overlooks there on Lookout Mountain where you can see city lights (okay, on the Georgia side, more like town lights) below and a wide scope of stars above. I pressed record in my brain, like Wall-E , and tried to remember what the night looked and smelled and felt like, in case the light pollution in the big city where I was headed would block out all the stars.

But no matter how much I looked, even hoped, for emotions in myself that would be fitting to this step, both excitement and nerves refused to hit in the weeks and days leading up to my departure. My stomach hadn’t done flip flops since I was very small. I wasn’t scared, but I was ready. So very ready. I had always been ready, but made excuses for too long. This plane had been idling on the tarmac for years, waiting for the chance to take off and soar, and today it was going to touch the sky. (And then transfer in Toronto to a really big jet.)

This blog exists because I want you to come along with me into that plane, to see what I saw, to feel the leaps and plunges of the painful, beautiful, intoxicating emotional roller coaster that I had just unwittingly set in motion. Mostly, though, I just really want you to be able to experience so much of what I’ve experienced in the last 2 years, and what I get to experience every day. It’s been interesting and difficult and satisfying and I’ve gained some great stories along the way. And a scar. And a few Chinese words. And a tattoo. And some calluses.

Welcome to the story. Thanks, really, personally, from me to you, for reading all the way to the end of this, the story’s introduction. I’ve wanted to share my story from the beginning, and now you’re here.

I won’t share, just now, what I wrote in my personal journal as I sat there, with a full heart, in the coffee-fueled Atlanta a.m., except for the last line. It’s Captain Jack Sparrow’s.

“Now…bring me that horizon.”