The Road to China

Chapter 12:

Just One Problem...

"I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep."

-Frank Sinatra, who clearly was not referring to China when he sang these words in “New York, New York”.


There was once an impatient farmer who couldn't wait for his crops to grow.  So each morning he would go to the fields and pull on his crops in an effort to get them to grow faster.  In time the plants died before reaching maturity, leading us all to this inescapable moral: Do not try to change the natural pace of things.  Everything happens in its own time, at its own pace.

This Ancient Chinese Parable holds true for many things in life, from project management to growing a business, raising children, personal growth, working a bureaucracy, or even getting your DSL service installed in your Beijing apartment.  While this should be no surprise to anyone (including me), the experience I had getting high-speed internet access to work demonstrated some unique things about Chinese culture that I think are worth writing about.  

The waiting list for getting DSL installed in your room in China is about one month, but two weeks into this waiting period I got a knock at the door at 7:00 PM.  Two technicians from China Telecomm were there to install and test the hardware!  Huzzah!  Now I can make backups of my pictures routinely and stay in touch with the world on a regular basis!  

Just one problem: when they installed the driver software, my laptop got trashed.  I mean completely trashed.  A good chunk of the c:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM directory was missing, along with some essential programs like HIMEM.SYS and WIN.COM, so Windows wouldn't boot at all.  And since my laptop had no CD-ROM or floppy drive, I knew instantly that the laptop would have to go back to Sony to restore these essential system files.  It took two computer experts from China Telecom (quickly dispatched once the problem occurred) until 10:30 that night to reach the same conclusion on their own.  

If this had happened in America, the story might have ended there, and the technicians would have shrugged their shoulders and left, noting how late it was getting.  (American communication companies tend to be very adamant about NOT wanting to touch your computer for fear of getting bogged down in these kinds of problems.  They install the equipment, verify that the green light is on, hand you a CD-ROM with installation software, and leave in a huff.)  China Telecomm, however, took total responsibility.  The next day they had a car waiting for me, my translator, and my laptop, and took us directly to Sony's Beijing repair facility to have the laptop fixed.  The Sony technicians (all wearing Sony uniforms -- China is very big on uniforms) were expecting us and took us all in to the back room, bypassing the long lines at the reception desk.  

Thankfully, my predictions about Sony having the right equipment proved true.  Just one problem: "We don't have the English version of the Restoration CD-ROM here".  AAAUUUGGGHHH!!!  My pictures were on that laptop!  My emails and addresses were on that laptop!  My student's grades and attendance records were on that laptop!  They wanted to reformat the hard disk and re-install Windows, wiping out all of my files and several thousand dollars worth of commercial applications!  

I had a better idea, but it would take longer to do.  Working together, we started restoring only select files and directories first, and seeing what happened.  The Sony technicians, like the China Telecomm technicians, were extremely competent and patient.  Evening came and the restoration was still not completed, so we agreed that they would continue to work on it this way while I tried to get a copy of the restoration CD, just in case.  

A week later I had my CD, and Sony had finished the restoration on their own.  The files had been saved, the but the applications had to be reinstalled.  GREAT!!  CT took me back to Sony to pick it up.  Just one problem...


No Tickee, No Shirtee

"Where's your receipt?" they asked when I got there.  Oh, no!  I had left it at my apartment, but I didn't think it would be a problem.  After all, I had made friends with all the technicians and the front counter staff the week before.  Everyone there knew me; they all knew the laptop was mine, so there should have been no problem!  Wrong thought. 

"You know the laptop is mine, right?"  

"Of course!"  

"So isn't that what the receipt is for -- to prove to you that something is mine?"

"You must have your receipt!  Without receipt, you cannot take it home."

"What if it was destroyed in a fire?  What if my dog ate it?  What would happen then?"

I was stared at with incredulousness.  It was as if I had asked "But what if the sun goes nova?" - an obscure hypothetical circumstance that would never happen in real life.  People in China are responsible; if they want their laptops back then they make sure that their receipts do not get lost.  Or maybe they just bribe somebody.  I don't know.  

I didn't have a spare afternoon until a week later, at which time CT drove me (with my receipt!) to Sony, installed the software there and made sure it worked this time, drove me back, and hooked up the laptop to the DSL connection.  Just one problem...

"Don't you want to test it before you leave?"

"Can't test", came the response.  "No password".

I'll fast-forward over the rest: the password could not be dispensed until one week after the paperwork had been signed that the hardware was installed and working.  They could not call in and ask for the password, claiming an unusual circumstance, for I have learned that their gluttony of rules do not allow for exception handling.  Once the week had passed, someone had to go to the phone company office in person to get the password, for it was considered secret and personal information and it would be a privacy violation to communicate it any other way.  

Okay, so now everything is installed and working.  And it only took a hare less than three months!  I can now back up all of my pictures to another server around the clock (I have to; my laptop is quickly running out of space!).  Although the speed of the connection is slower than dialup most of the time, I have no complaints.  You'll understand why after my next story...


Dear Pen Pal,

I've always thought that the Internet should be used to bring people together, and I had this great idea that writing a letter to a real person (as opposed to writing for Yet Another Boring School Assignment of No Consequence) might carry more weight, and make the students take it just a little more seriously.  So I paired up "email buddies" between my students at the Chemical Engineering School, and Mrs. Clapkin's 5th grade classroom at Calvert Street Elementary School in Woodland Hills, California (who have been following this travelogue since the beginning).  Students on both sides of the pond were very excited when the project first began, and indeed reading and writing these letters became "top of mind" for many of them.  They could not wait to begin!!  

But although everyone here plays computer games in their spare time, accessing the Internet in China is still very tough.  And getting access TO computers WITH Internet access is the toughest of all.  Just like it was in America 20 years ago, all the computers here are in locked rooms and their access is rationed.  Sometimes two or three weeks might pass by before my students could be squeezed in be allowed to access their emails, making for very disjointed conversations.  Worst of all was when we receive access on a Friday afternoon, for as the afternoon wears on the traffic on the Internet (not just in the school, but throughout all of China!) gets so heavy that by 4:30 nothing can come in or out.  We are as good as disconnected.  Many students would take more than an hour to compose and spell-check their email, and then when they hit 'send', the Yahoo(!) page comes up with a nondescript error - and they would have to start all over again!  Very discouraging.  Last week's session saw only two students able to get their emails out in time.  (Sigh!)


The Internet Here is Different

We have all heard stories about how China routinely censors the Internet.  Although it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a slow server, a "traffic jam" and intentional blocking, I can tell you that on two occasions I witnessed pretty bizarre behavior and was able to certify that it was, indeed, government-backed intervention.  Now I know most of you don't want to read a bunch of techno-babble (I think I've written too much of that already in this chapter!), so at the risk of oversimplifying everything, allow me to present two analogous scenarios which should help explain what's going on.  

Scenario #1: 

“Hi.  Someone I trusted told me you sell newspapers here.  Can you give me a copy of the New York Times?"

"Sure thing, mister!  Here you go!"

“Thanks…  Hey, this isn’t the New York Times!”  

“[Insert evil laugh here]  That’s OK, I don’t work for them either!  Bwa ha ha ha ha!”

In the internet world this is called "Web Site Hijacking".  Someone types in a website (like, and someone else goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that request gets re-routed to another server - somebody else's server.  Through tests that I won't bother going into, I was able to verify on two separate occasions that the requests were being routed to a server run by the Chinese government.  For two days Google and Yahoo! were redirected in this way; many other sites are simply blocked (which requires a lot less work on their part).  Examples of sites that are blocked all the time are and (the US News magazine); also two of my other websites ( and which I have verified can be seen in the U.S. but not from here.  I can't imagine that my websites would offend government officials; nor can I imagine how useful it is to block entire search engines intermittently.   

Okay, here's the second scenario: 

"Welcome to Bank of the Internet, sir.  How may I help you?

"I'd like to withdraw some money from my account, please."

"I'm sorry; sir, we’ve had a rash of bank thefts recently, so to put a stop to it we’re denying access to everyone."

“But I’m a paying customer!”

"That’s not our problem, sir.  I would advise you to switch police forces, since the one you’re subscribing to obviously isn’t able to stop these abuses from occurring.”

Sound ridiculous?  Not in the world of Internet!  "The Bank" in this case is the company that hosts my email server.  Since there has been a lot of subversive activity emanating from China and Thailand, and since it's too much trouble for them to decide who's legit and who's not, they have decided to block access to ALL IP addresses that come from those countries, insisting that those Internet Service Providers have all the incentive in the world to police and terminate their paying customers.  "If you're still having a problem, we advise you to switch Internet Service Providers, since the one you're using now is obviously too lazy to enforce the rules that we have pushed onto them."  (My ISP is provided by the school; it's not like I have a great many choices here!)


Meet the Students

I'd like to take a moment and offer my sincere thanks, gratitude, and full credit for this idea to my good friend (and outstanding web and graphic designer) Bonnie Felt, who was also responsible for convincing me to write this weblog in the first place.

My Life

by Chen Xiao Jing ("Mary")

"If let me say that what does my {day / week / year} life like, I can describe them in one word:

My day life like sugar water;

My week life like pure water;

My year life like bitter coffee.

Maybe someone asks me why I say that;

When I understand how to live, I find that everyday is interesting and now.  I could arrange my life very rich.  I often get up at 7:00, then have breakfast: bread and milk or egg and milk.  About 8:00, I go to school.  I can communicate with my friends and say anything.  I can play computer to know more things.  Until at 11:50, I have lunch.  After that go back classroom to watch TV.  At 1:30, I continue studying.  But I finish my class at 3:10.  After class, I could play with my good friends, such as, go shopping, skating, play badminton.  I can say that this is my day life.  Although, I don't have special day I feel it very rich.  In a word, my day life is like sugar water.

If you always do the same thing, you must feel boring.  I find that I always do the same thing during week, so I think my week life like pure water.

Only one week, I have felt bored.  If you do the same thing in a year, what's your feeling?  What do you think?  I think you feel very aridity so I use bitter coffee describe my year life. 

This is my life.  I hope my life will be better in future."


Until next time...

"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"

November 25, 2003

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