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Disconnected: Notes from China

For almost two weeks, I was cut off from casual conversation and my usual channels of communication. I survived without my cell phone. I read clues with my eyes instead of my iPad. But there was never a moment when I felt unsafe or insecure. In fact, just the opposite was true.
September 28, 2011

While many of you were finalizing plans to connect and reconnect with new and old friends at MIP, I was halfway around the world in China, learning how to survive with few connections to our plugged-in world.

Let me just say it straight: China is far, far away. Plus, it has a 12-hour time difference. It took a day and a half to get to Shanghai, and 21 hours door-to-door to get home. When I landed in Shanghai, I knew no one, couldn’t speak the language, and despite paying extra for service in China, my smart phone didn’t have any smarts.  For the first time I can remember, I couldn’t even call home.  When I realized that the driver who was supposed to meet me wasn’t there, I knew I was really, really alone.  I felt like I was floating above Earth, invisible to all those around me. In most other countries I’ve visited, I can make out pieces of the language from the alphabet or similar sounding words. But in China, there were no recognizable clues.

Eventually a man arrived with my name on a sign in English and we headed to Ningbo, about 3 hours south. The ride was dark and eerie. We were driving along the coast and there were no lights on either side of the road. Then we went over the endless (22+ miles) Hangzhou Bay Bridge, the longest ocean-spanning bridge in the world. I imagined I was riding to the edge of the world. The driver didn’t say a word the entire way.

In Ningbo, my hotel was an interesting take on international luxury. Upscale, as evidenced by the Western-style bathroom, but hit-or-miss on the usual amenities: Instructions for the television were written in English, but the on-screen cues were in Chinese. (I managed to find HBO and cartoons.) There was tea service. But no sugar. The room service menu was a little intimidating…tiger headed fish with spiced salt…fried anchovy….eighteen mei????…nibe croaker???? Contacting the language-challenged front desk for a wakeup call took three tries until someone understood me. Once again, I realized how alone I was.

During the day, I worked with English-speaking associates and many multi-lingual people. I used my computer. I bantered with my co-workers. I Skyped with my family.  I could just as easily have been in New Jersey as Ningbo.  But out of the comfort zone of the office, everything was different. One night I cabbed home from a restaurant with a driver who got lost.  And I sure couldn’t tell him where to go. Another day I climbed solo to the pagoda atop a large mountain near my hotel.  It was magnificent. But I couldn’t share the feeling with anyone around me.

For almost two weeks, I was cut off from casual conversation and my usual channels of communication. I survived without my cell phone. I read clues with my eyes instead of my iPad. But there was never a moment when I felt unsafe or insecure. In fact, just the opposite was true.  Nearly everyone I met was warm and friendly, even if we couldn’t speak. Often at the mercy of strangers, I completely trusted their kindness, and was never disappointed. Relying on humans rather than technology was empowering in a way that I rarely experience anymore. As much as I love media, being disconnected for a while opened me up to a whole new world.

A group of local villagers taught me how to make dumplings. Food is a universal language.

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