Staying Connected While in China

Hello, friends! 朋友们, 你好!

This marks the first post in this new chapter of my blog, and if you’re reading this, it means the VPN I’m using must be working!

I left Hawaii about two weeks ago, right as school at the University of Hawaii (my home institution, known affectionately as UH) started. Because of my summer schedule, I didn’t really get a vacation until I flew out. Although it feels a bit strange to be on vacation while everyone else is going to class, I’m truly grateful for this small bubble of time.

During these two weeks, I spent half of it visiting my family in Macau and retracing the baby steps of my early childhood (a blog post to come soon) and the other half settling in Shanghai. I’ve only been in this grand city for four days, but I already feel more welcomed than I’ve ever been. (Still working on the language, but the food, the sights, the people, education, job prospects, etc. have exceeded my expectations. More on that in a later post)

But first things first. It is very, very important to know that the Great Firewall of China blocks all things Google. (Sad, I know.) This also includes your Gmail account, and even your university email, calendar, and cloud drive if your institution uses Google as the main online platform. UH, for example, uses Google. This also means that my favorite method of navigation – Google Maps, of course – will no longer work as well as it did for me in all my years of being on the internet.

Other important sites and apps of note that are also blocked/restricted include, but not limited to: Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. I have not tried Line outside of my VPN connection, nor do I have Kakao, so I do not know yet if those work. I’ve heard that GroupMe works, and although I’ve seen my friends’ messages coming from within China, I have not used it since I got here. However, Skype apparently seems to work, so yay!

So what are your options?

WORD OF CAUTION: There are many people who want to get pass the Chinese Intranet and have gotten quite creative, including some anti-Chinese government websites that have created free software to allow users to bypass the firewall. But I have not tried any of these, and especially for exchange students at Chinese universities, I do not – repeat – do not recommend even attempting them. I have no examples, but I’m sure those websites will definitely have enough English to make themselves clear.

Real deal: I’ve been using ExpressVPN that seems to work quite well for me so far. It’s one of the most highly recommended VPNs across multiple sites. A year’s subscription comes out to about $10 USD per month. A month’s subscription is about $13 USD. From my experience, the customer service is quite good. Also comes with a 30-day money back guarantee. Check out their website here. You can select from the many servers and cities ExpressVPN has. Since Honolulu isn’t on the list, I’ve been using New York or Los Angeles.

One well-kept secret of UH that I’ve just discovered, thanks to a friend of mine who recently went to Hong Kong for her exchange semester, is the fact that UH also has its own VPN. (What? I know; I wish I knew this earlier too.) Directions on how to how to get it are here. It also explains what a VPN is, just in case.

As for my Google substitute, I’ve been using Baidu as my main search engine and the 高德地图 mobile map in place of Google maps. It shows detailed directions by car, public transportation, and foot. It even shows where the stoplights are! You can also download voice packages and maps by city so you can access them offline. What’s the setback? It’s all in Chinese.

On the whole, your best bet is to use WeChat as the main form of communication. It’s totally free, and the whole country is pretty much connected on WeChat. Those QR code scanners get you everywhere. This cafe I just went to had no print menus, so I had to scan their code and follow them in order to see what I wanted to get.

As promised earlier, more to come very soon! I will be moving into my apartment tomorrow right across the street from Fudan University, Handan Campus (er, more like today because I’m a night owl), so I’ll be showing pictures of that and my school!

And I also hope this helps whoever is planning on making the journey to the Middle Kingdom!

6 thoughts on “Staying Connected While in China”

  1. Line doesn’t work well in china, couldnt use it when I was there a few months ago or maybe because it wasn’t updated (Google play failed). Go get wechat or something Chinese. If your in shanghai check out the largest mall in shanghai it looks like a palace on the outside (think its somewhere on zhongshan lu I forget what subway route). Oh and the UH VPN sucks it cuts you off a lot.

    1. Yep, I have wechat, but I know I’m not using it to its full capabilities. Those QR codes are everywhere! I was Line-ing for about 20 minutes before I realized I had my VPN off, so I guess it works sometimes??
      Cool, I’ll definitely check out the mall there! One of the malls by where I am has 10 floors, and I thought that was pretty big. And yeah, I don’t think there’s a VPN that works every time. There are a few times when the UH one couldn’t even connect, but it’s free.

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