My First Visit to a Communist Country.
Well, from what I’ve heard from my internationally savvy friends, I should have probably chosen to visit Beijing versus Shanghai. “Will you see the Terracotta Army?” is the most commonly asked question of me. Next, it’s the Great Wall, both more accessible to Beijing than to Shanghai. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, other regional highlights are all in the capital of China.
I’ve also spoken to probably 8-10 people who’ve traveled to Shanghai and none have broken out into a big grin and claimed, “Oh!! You’ll love it!!” Not one. I’ve heard about the pollution and the throngs of people who push and shove as you pass through the streets. The drivers of cars who just as soon run over you as look at you. And the price hiking for American tourists. One friend accentuated his warning with, “You know where the term, ‘Shanghaied’ comes from, don’t you?” Ok, I don’t plan to buy a bunch of silk and pearls so maybe I’ll escape unscathed.
For me it’s not the history that intrigues me, nor the shrines nor the treasures I can bring home. Seeing great pandas would be great, but I’m much more curious about how people live day-to-day in a Communist country. I want to learn what children are taught in schools and how young people climb the corporate ladder in a restricted society. What do they wear and how do they worship? I’m really intrigued by the censorship of the media, especially since that’s my line of work.
My mental image of a communist country was formed in 1962. I was only ten, a fifth grader at Mary B. Austin School in Mobile, Alabama. Because of the Communists, I fell asleep at night afraid I’d never wake up again. I had nightmares about being disfigured by an atom bomb or worse, separated from my mother and father and sister. My family and my hometown on the Gulf Coast, were in the bull’s eye of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My Dad, who worked at the Air Force Base there in Mobile, was intimately involved in some sort of intelligence capacity. Even my mother was not privy to his classified missions.
As schoolchildren we practiced routine “Duck and Cover” drills to prepare us for an atomic attack from those dreaded Communists. A sharp horn would ring through the halls of my school and the teacher would lead us to the inner hallway where we’d cower down up against the walls, covering our heads with our hands, like that would protect us! Our church was a fallout shelter.
But years, even decades have passed. Those memories have dissipated. Been forgotten, really, until just shortly after I booked this trip to Shanghai. A friend who comes to China for business casually mentioned the Chinese ban on Facebook and Google. It had not occurred to me, a social media professional, that my work would be censored, or blocked. Once again, those childhood nightmares surfaced. I was facing Communism first-hand.
With a little investigation I found that not only Facebook would be unavailable to me, but also Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Google—the very tools of my trade. Even my email provider, gmail, is banned in China. And Wikipedia! At first glance, I was horrified that I would be digitally bound from communicating with my family and with clients. But this same friend quickly stepped me through VPNs, or virtual private networks, the “way around” this censoring. Illegal? “Yes, but you’ll need one,” he said.
Then I read reports of jailing dissident journalists, bloggers and activists. But, hey, I doubt I’ll get into any trouble writing about people, just normal stories I see.
As I sit here in the Toronto airport, waiting to board my plane to Shanghai, surrounded by a group of folks who look very different from me. Their hair is black, their eyes shaped differently from mine. Their language I don’t understand.
And then I laugh. Whether Chinese or American, Communist or not, we’re all the same in so many ways. All deeply engrossed in our laptops or phones and most of us laden with overstuffed backpacks, and dreading this 14-hour flight.
Time to board . . .