When I was five years old, I faked sick for the first time.
My kindergarten class had a field trip scheduled to the River Forest Police Station, and I was not about to subject myself to that. So instead, I told my mom I didn’t feel well – told her I couldn’t go to school today – and then stood in my backyard at the gate watching my classmates march excitedly from Roosevelt to the village office.
Looking back, I can laugh at this moment. I mean, really. The RFPD probably doesn’t even have jail cells (though I wouldn’t know – I’ve still never been inside). But at the time, I was serious. If I accurately remember my emotions at that moment, all I picture is pure terror.
Ready for another one of my deep dark secrets?
I am terrified – and I mean terr-i-fied – of getting thrown in jail.
When I was little – even before the kindergarten field trip incident – I had one recurring nightmare. It’s one of very few dreams I can actually remember, and I had it often. In it, I’d be chucked in the way way back of a jail cell, impossibly far away from anyone. I’d be screaming for my mom, my dad, anyone to come get me. But I was so far isolated and imprisoned that no one could hear me. And I hadn’t done anything wrong.
If you were a psychologist, I’m sure you could dig up all sorts of fun insights into my psyche from this one. Even I can see a few logical results – being a die-hard rule follower, for one.
Fast forward to my current world-traveling adventure.
My sweet friends who love me very much and never exploit my eccentricities gave me awesome travel advice like “Don’t get arrested” and “It’s really hard to get out of an international prison.”
Thank you, dear ones. I love you too.
For the first three months of my trip, I didn’t give jail a whole lot of thought. The rules basically boiled down to don’t smuggle drugs. Ok, got it. Easy.
I had a brief increased heart rate flying into New Zealand where they are VERY serious about biodiversity. I attempted to fill out the forms: “Have your shoes been in an outdoor environment?” Yes. No? Am I lying on this customs form? What does “outdoor environment” even mean?!
Thankfully, my immigration officer was kind and my spewing of “IhavenofruitsbutIhavegranolabarsisthatok?!” was met with a yeah, sure, go ahead.
In Singapore, I was conscious of gum and litter – or the conspicuous lack thereof, but I wasn’t particularly nervous.
And then I arrived in China.
If I’m 100% honest, I was the least excited about this leg of the trip before I started. I wanted to visit because I knew China was important. Because my parents have spent so long getting to know it. Because it is (and will increasingly be) globally significant.
But I was wary of smog and seriousness and way too many people.
I like having space and walking and parks and blue skies. I like outdoor coffee shops and easy transportation and patience and no pushing.
So, yes, I’m appreciating God’s humor as I’m writing this sipping an iced latte on a patio overlooking a lake with a beautiful blue sky overhead. In China. (And yes, I walked here).
It is crowded – for sure. And people do push. But overall I’ve been pleasantly surprised by China. It has far exceeded my (albeit low) expectations. It’s a beautiful and undoubtedly impressive country.
But there is something else I didn’t expect that has greatly influenced my time here: a general sense of nervousness of being watched. Of maybe doing something unknowingly wrong. Of the possibility of getting in trouble. Of jail.
On my first night in Shanghai, I was confronted with the infamous internet firewall. I knew this existed, of course, but I hadn’t really thought it through. Turns out Facebook, Instagram, and all Google products (all of which are blocked) are my entry points into the world wide web. It honestly took me a few days to figure out how to navigate the internet without using my usual starting points. (Also, the content Yahoo! aggregates for its mobile homepage, at least in China, is absurd.)
In my initial frustration, largely because I couldn’t get on any file-sharing sites (Box, Dropbox, etc.) and couldn’t use my email (gmail) to submit work files, I began researching VPNs and proxy servers. I know that tons of people use these services, but I am me and so I got nervous.
Who is watching me? Who is tracking my downloads? Is that hostel security guard going to catch me? (Yes, ok, irrational, I know).
And while an American using a VPN to access Facebook is certainly not the biggest deal (or probably any deal), it illuminated a bigger issue made all the more brighter by my pre-existing always-avoid-jail mentality.
I am being watched. And therefore, I am nervous.
You can feel the eyes – real or virtual – on you all the time. In some ways, it makes you feel safe – you know that they are paying a LOT of attention to catch the bad guys.
But in more ways, it makes you feel monitored. Which, I suppose, is the intention.
It’s big brother in real life.
As an outsider who doesn’t know the rules of the game, it has made me careful. As someone who can literally only say thank you and hello in Chinese, I’m trying to tiptoe around.
I love China – it’s beautiful and historic and clearly very powerful. The Great Wall is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
But I’m also not at ease. My don’t-go-to-jail spidey sense is on full alert because it feels like the kind of place where that could actually happen.
Maybe that’s my crazy talking. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been off social media for 10 days and am drama-deprived. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because it’s true.
(For those of you that are curious, I ended up opening a Yahoo! email address – which works in China – so that I could send my stories to work. It functioned. And for that I’m grateful. But gmail, you are beautiful and I’m so glad to be back.)