Mornings here in Beijing start with at least one of us throwing a small tantrum.
“Fuckin’ hell,” a hand is thrown in the air.
“Jesus Christ, this is ridiculous,” a head is shaken disapprovingly.
“Are you kidding me?” an eyebrow is scratched in self-pity.
DD and I are, more than a little dramatically, yelling at our respective laptop screens, because yet again, this morning as the one before, the internet speed has all but ground to a halt.
“The page won’t even open now,” says DD forlorn.
“I’ve been trying to send this bloody email for 20 minutes,” I screech.
“God, I love this city.” My sarcasm has hit max by 9am.
Our eloquent despair aside, it is rather surprising that a city that likes to be seen as modern, with its forests of skyscrapers and palaces of luxury global brands, has such slow and unreliable internet access. When we travel outside China, for example to London or Tokyo, we find ourselves rejoicing like children because we’d forgotten how good it feels to have a page take less than 30 seconds to load, and we swear that our productivity in Beijing must be so greatly reduced because of the damn internet speed.
I suspect that not laying cables capable of connecting efficiently, particularly to foreign websites, is a deliberate political decision on the part of the Chinese government, to discourage roaming and discovering too much. Of course, foreigners here want to roam, and not only on those websites on foreign servers that are slow to upload, but also on those that are completely blocked by the Great Firewall (including WordPress and Facebook). And for this, we have to dial up a VPN client, illegal in China, which camouflages our real IP address and makes the internet think our computer is in South Korea or London, thus allowing access to forbidden sites.
Inevitably, dialling up to VPN slows down the internet even more to a speed that reminds me of the late 1990s, when I would check my Hotmail account on the clunky desktop computer in the living room, with mum shouting at me to get off as it was costing too much, or a few years later when I kept losing connection to MSN Chat, which I was addicted to during GCSE revision.
But I have no choice. I call up the VPN software, hit ‘Quick Connect’, then watch the faint grey words come up: “Building encrypted tunnel.” The circle whirs for anything up to five minutes, and in my head I imagine little moles digging the tunnel, giving up and stopping for a fag. Sometimes it connects but then it breaks off, losing work that wasn’t saved. And because the VPN makes Chinese websites slower, if I need to go between the two, I have to set the lazy moles to work every few minutes, with increasingly diminishing returns.
This situation has brought about small but significant changes in our behaviour. First of all, because Google is blocked, I often use Yahoo! to search online – something I haven’t done for at least a decade. And secondly, even though the VPN connects us to iPlayer and YouTube, they’re usually too slow to watch anything, so we keep up with British and American TV via cheap ripped DVDs from a local shop, which have a 50% chance of packing up half-way through.
When the green circle is turning and turning on the laptop screen, or the green line is refusing to extend, I’ve learned to do other things while I wait: pluck my eyebrows, drink a Yakult, play Candy Crush. Sometimes I try accessing from my mobile, since bizarrely, apps like Gmail and the Guardian work without VPN on smartphones and tablets. Or when the whole Internet Thing is proving really bad, I walk away and make lunch, take a shower or just give up.
I fret, and fret badly, because I’m impatient and hurried at the best of times, and so much of my personal and work lives is dependent on the internet keeping me connected to the UK.
But then, I’m reminded of something a very wise friend once said to me. We were sharing a house in Oxford, both doing our Master’s, and she asked me if I wanted to have a cup of tea. I emerged from my room bleary eyed, having been multi-tasking on a million things for the last few hours. I said, “Great, so what shall we do while we’re having our tea? Shall we sort out the bills? Or discuss next week’s dinner party? Or listen to the radio? Or just chat?” My friend laughed and smiled, and said quietly, “Let’s sit and have tea, because that’s what we’re doing.”
So we sat, and we drank our tea. It was my first lesson in enjoying a drink and not doing anything else, not talking, not browsing, not thinking. And now, when the Chinese internet is against me, I find myself just looking out of the window and watching the umbrellas down below, or gazing at my bookshelf and remembering that I love reading, or staring at DD and noticing he looks rather cute when he’s perplexed. They’re modest pauses in a very hectic part of the day, but I’m learning to appreciate them – and for that, I have to thank the lazy moles.
Copyright © 2014 followingdrdippy