I am a planner. I make lists, I give myself deadlines and timelines and keep a Google Calendar which literally schedules time for laundry and going to the gas station. Project management and planning is in my blood, which means taking a break from being the process driver is an absolutely necessity once in a while. My vacation to China required virtually no planning on my part, before or during the trip. At first this terrified me, like a cat thrown into a swimming pool, it just wasn’t my environment and I freaked out. However, acceptance and acknowledgement of this led me to the realization that perhaps I needed to take that proverbial chill pill and allow someone else to lead once in a while.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bun
5 days before I was to leave for China, as my pointer hovered over the ‘buy’ button on kayak.com, I felt my lack of control slipping away. At this point, before I pulled all my hair out, I made the active decision to be Zen, and accept that I would be making no active decisions about the nature of this trip.
Reason Number One: I decided to tag along 5 days before the trip was set to begin. That’s right, I bought a ticket to China 5 days before I left for China. Everything was already planned.
Reason Number Two: Everyone on my trip was from Spain. This means my mates spoke Spanish with an accent from Spain, too difficult to process at the required speed to argue about dinner plans or when to wake up.
Reason Number Three: I don’t eat meat, and in China, I don’t read or speak Chinese. The aforementioned bun filled with pork and green onions that I scarfed down without realizing…well…Zen…
Reason Number Four: Perhaps the most life-altering experience for me was my almost complete lack of access to technology, and therefore INFORMATION.
The Great (Digital) Wall of China
Every day I advocate for nonprofits to appropriately incorporate technology into their business models. This may mean developing a useful website that helps to enhance and reach toward a mission, not only be a static billboard. It may mean incorporating databases, installing software, or simply training staff on how to manage and organize emails and online communications. I spend every day online and really love data. I am intimately connected to multiple social networks and more importantly, full access to information at all times. When is the bus coming? Where is the closest grocery store? How much does a ticket cost? How do you say toilet paper in Chinese? Answers that are so easily accessed in the States that it almost seems like a basic human right, or dare I say it, a natural step in human evolution.
This is not to say that technology is not readily available in China. EVERYONE had mobile phones, and used those phones to take millions of pictures of everything, just like in the States. To be fair, nothing can compare to the ubiquity of smart phone usage in San Francisco, and we were in plenty of locales where people (gasp) weren’t constantly tapping away, however in most places, usage rates seemed about on par with most ‘normally-obsessed’ areas of the US. Right upon landing in Beijing, stands offered temporary Chinese SIM cards, and encouraged visitors to utilize local mobile networks. We stayed with friends who had wifi, and accessed websites from all over the world. I bought airline tickets from local carriers online, and checked my email. At one point we even used Google Translate to communicate with a hotel desk clerk. But the obvious missing players? Social networks and sharing sites.
China just Shaghai’ed those pesky social networks
So where was Facebook and Twitter (and by the way Bing, LinkedIn, Hotmail, Youtube, Flickr, and some other Chinese networks)? And what’s the deal with blocking social networks? With internet aided government upsets in Iran, Egypt and Tunisia making headlines, we’ve seen that ‘twitter revolutions’ are possible. Some really cool services and tools have popped up recently to assist online activists and organizers, some inspired by oppressive governments. China is obviously hip to methods of communication control and monitoring, and have gone quite deep in their efforts to squash social networks to keep a lid on those who want to spread information.
There are Chinese micro-blogging sites, like Sina Weibo, which accounts for a huge amount of Chinese internet traffic. These sites, are closely monitored however, with the Chinese ‘Net Nanny’ regularly deleting and limiting accounts. Along that same line, we suspected, although did not confirm that China also limits communication and correspondence with countries in political turmoil. We bought a mobile phone SIM card that promised international texting, which worked perfectly when texting the US, but not while trying to communicate with friends in Spain. While I was abroad, Spain was experiencing protests regarding their economic instability.
However, social networks are also blocked here in the US. Many youth organizations that I’ve visited in San Francisco still don’t see the value in allowing young people to build their social networks as a way to gain permanency. Businesses use social media to communicate messages but may block their employees from using social networks on the clock. Clearly not everyone is in agreement that social networks have positive benefits, not just over-the-top paranoid, control-freak, repressive countries.
The 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests just happened on June 4th, 2011, one month exactly from when I visited. From all my research, I had expected grumblings of discontent, an air of gravitas or at least a large police presence. People in China must be upset, I’m sure. But if I were only to judge by the thousands of smiling Chinese tourists, pushing to get the best photographic angle on the huge communist sigil surrounded by flowers, I would never have guessed that an information war is brewing beneath the surface.