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Tech behind the Great Firewall

July 11, 2016

I knew long before I signed up to study abroad in China that my internet habits were going to change. I signed up for about eight weeks of no Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, or New York Times— give or take a VPN. But what I didn’t realize was how much else the Great Firewall of China covered.


I haven’t been completely cut off from all of the outside tech world. Through various means, I’ve been able to get on all the major sites through my computer. Watching my favorite TV shows hasn’t been possible, but I can scroll through Facebook like normal. But the wifi has been a slow and painful process. Even to send simple emails from my Gmail account— all forms of Google are blocked— ends up being a battle of the wills between me, my wifi, and the VPN. As for my phone— forget it. I have a VPN app on my iPhone, but with a limited data plan I can’t do much other than WeChat and navigate in case of emergency. After six weeks, the lack of constant internet connection, a privilege I’ve grown used to back home, has been both a blessing and a curse.


I spend a lot of time online, but like biting my nails, at this point it’s just a bad habit that I haven’t really tried to break. I like seeing what my friends are up to, the current hotter trends, the best photos, and of course the news of the world. Not having instant access to my usual time killers and favorite apps means that I’m behind, and it’s not fun. New episodes of my favorite shows are streaming now, and I can only dodge the spoilers. My favorite actors from the musical Hamilton left with a big to-do, and I missed the lifestream of their final curtain call. Pokemon Go came out a few days ago, but it too is blocked by the Firewall and I’ve been dying watching all my friends race around back home living the 90’s kid dream.

Between social media— Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on the phone, watching YouTube videos or shows on Netflix, and reading interesting articles, I’m  probably well past three hours a day.  I didn’t realize how glued to my phone I was until Snapchat, Instagram, and Messenger were off limits. Not staring at a screen during my commute or at restaurants has been a really nice change of pace. I’m observing more about the people and culture and lulls in conversation aren’t as long when we’re not all looking at our phones. As frustrating as it can be to have to live in the shadow of the Great Firewall, it’s also opened up more of Shanghai.


But the hardest part of the technological cut-off has been watching the massive mess that America seems to have delved into. The shootings in Orlando hit me hard, and being an ocean away was a tough place to work through that. My friends here helped, and now we have to process what’s been happening in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas from a far too. I try to be a strong ally of Black Lives Matter, but being in Shanghai with limited internet access doesn’t make that easy. You can only offer so many “thoughts and prayers” through social media, so I’ve been reaching out to friends personally just to let them know I’m thinking of them. 


The Great Firewall of China is real, but it’s not impossible to work with— it takes some patience and a really good VPN. But it’s also a nice chance to look up from the screen and really take in that yes, you’re in Shanghai right now. Snapchat, Pokemon, and Game of Thrones can wait, they’ll still be there when you get home.


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