Stuff I Really Kind of Like About My Life in China: My VPN

April 19, 2012

Since moving to China over a year ago, I’ve gotten lots of questions from curious friends, family members and random peoples I meet on the Internet about my life here.

Like, “What’s the food like?”

My answer: Hmm. Let’s see. I can no longer fit into any of my pants. Does that answer your question?


Then how about this:

Who cares about pants when there are dumplings to eat?

Also, “How much Chinese do you need to speak to be able to survive?”

My answer: Well, this really depends on your definition of “survive.” If by “survive” you mean walking around pointing and grunting at people and screaming out the few vocabulary words you know at random then I’d say about ten words will do it.

And, of course, “How’s a hot lady like yourself still single in a country of almost 30 million bachelors?

My answer: I know, right?

Okay, nobody really asks me this question, but, seriously, they should. Because, for real, people, this one’s a true stumper. I mean, have you met me? Honestly, what Chinese guy in his right mind wouldn’t want to marry this:

Hello there, boys. Call me.

Out of all the questions that I get asked on a regular basis probably the most frequent question I get is how I am able to use Facebook and Twitter when, you know, those things are kind of illegal here.

Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving to China it’s that you don’t get anywhere in this country without breaking a few rules.

Rules, schmules.

I’ve seen people smoking in front of no smoking signs and parking in front of no parking signs.

I’ve been practically mowed over by motorbikes driving on the sidewalk even though there is almost always a small vehicle lane right next to the sidewalk. (In their defense, there’s almost always a massive tour bus or some other decidedly unsmall vehicle in the small vehicle lane. So, really, where else is the motorbike supposed to drive except on the sidewalk?)

And, don’t even get me started on all the fashion rules that get broken in this country.

I'm not sure which fashion rules this outfit is breaking... but I'm pretty sure it's breaking a few of them.

Personally, I find all the rule-breaking a bit disconcerting at times as I’m a big fan of rules and following the law.

Mostly because I doubt I’d last very long in prison. I don’t know how to make a shiv. And I’d look really horrible in a jumpsuit. Especially an orange one. Orange is really not my color.

I think the only time I ever broke the law was when my college roommate dared me to steal a Christmas wreath from a huge bin outside of the Walmart. It took me about thirty minutes of moseying around nervously in front of the store to muster up the courage. Then while my roommate pulled the car around, I grabbed a wreath and dove into the backseat screaming, “Drive, woman! They’re on to us.”

I’m not entirely sure who “they” were as nobody had even noticed.

And if they had, nobody seemed to care.

Probably because it was after Christmas at that point, and, come to think of it, that bin was probably a dumpster.

So, yeah, I’m not exactly your typical law-breaker.

But, nobody gets between me and my Internet – not even China and its pesky laws.

Hands off my Internet, yo.

Before I moved to China, I asked some friends already living here how they got their Internets and was informed I’d need to subscribe to a VPN service.

VPN stands for Virtual Personal Network, which sounds totally awesome, right? Like, I have my very own little chunk of the Internet that no one else is allowed to use. I think I’m going to start yelling things like, “You kids get off my Internet.” And waving my laptop around menacingly at everyone.

Basically, the VPN service allows me to log on from an American IP address even though I’m in China. (Don’t ask me what an IP address is. I already explained VPN, and now my brain is tired. Do I have to do everything for you, people? Besides, I have no idea, okay?)

I’m not really sure how the whole thing works.

I suspect witchcraft is involved.

According to the website for the VPN service I use, there is something called an “encrypted tunnel”. Which sounds pretty witchcrafty, if you ask me.

Or, maybe, it’s like when you were a kid and you wanted to dig a hole to China. Except I’m digging a hole to America. With the Internet. Which is pretty awesome as I’m really not a fan of manual labor.

Digging a hole to America the old-fashioned way. Sucker.

All I know is one moment I’m hanging out in Wuxi.

Yes, this is a photo I took of my computer screen because I STILL don't know how to do a screen shot. One day. I promise.

And the next, I’m chilling in sunny Los Angeles.

LA, baby!

You’d think I’d have a better tan by now.

And since I’m logging on from an American IP address that means I not only get access to Facebook and Twitter and all the other sites banned in China, I also get access to sites that I usually can’t get when I’m outside of the States. Like, all the ones with TV shows on them and stuff.

This is kind of awesome since I really love bad reality television, and I’d hate to think what my life would be like without regular doses of The Bachelor or Dance Moms Miami.

It’s also kind of bad. Because, you know, if China ever starts cracking down on illegal Internet-getting gangsters like myself, the police won’t have to go very far to find me. As I’ll probably be sitting on my couch doing this.

Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.

Just in case I end up in prison, I should see if I can find a reality TV show that will show me how to make a shiv. And, umm, anyone know what color the jumpsuits are in Chinese jail?

Have you ever broken the law for a good reason? Like for the Internet?

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On April 19, 2012 at 8:59 am David S. Wills said:

    VPNs are a lifesaver here. I don’t mean for trivial crap like journalism or political and social activism, but for the real important stuff, like putting drunken photos on Facebook and then tagging your friends who don’t have VPNs and can’t log on to remove them.
    David S. Wills recently posted..Big Sur

    • On April 19, 2012 at 10:52 am Sally said:

      So true. So true. My friends have now become really wary of me on nights out as I ALWAYS bring a camera with me. So they make me promise not to post anything on Facebook without their approval. Party poopers. 🙁 (Granted, they haven’t made me promise anything about posting stuff on my blog… so we’ll see…)

  2. On April 19, 2012 at 10:46 am Kieu said:

    They should arrest that woman for her outfit first before they arrest you and your bad reality tv watching.. LOL

  3. On April 19, 2012 at 10:53 am Edna said:

    I LOVE my VPN. Watching Hulu as I type this haha. But funnily enough, I never bothered to get one until I moved to Singapore! For the 1.5 years I lived in China (2008-2009), those sites either weren’t blocked yet, or the block was so new we could still find different fb/twitter clients the government didn’t know about yet to access them. Oh the good old days…of three years ago…
    Edna recently posted..100 days.

    • On April 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm Sally said:

      I know! I’m planning on leaving China this summer & I’m sad that after that I really won’t have a reason to renew my VPN when it expires. What will I do without my Hulu? Get stuff done? Bah! I need my reality TV!

  4. On April 19, 2012 at 11:00 am paul | walkflypinoy said:

    you kidding me? i owe my life to VPNs when i was traveling through China. i’d break every damn rule they got if they ever get between me and my very own private internets. there are a few renegade hostels in china though, especially ones owned by foreigners, that use wifi tunnels to hongkong to penetrate the great firewall. and these hostels i salute with a raised fist. 🙂
    paul | walkflypinoy recently posted..Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: The Budget

    • On April 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm Sally said:

      Yes, I don’t think I could survive China without my VPN. A few of my colleagues don’t have one and will use mine to check their Facebook every once and a while… I really don’t know how they do it. What kind of life is that, I ask you? Really.

  5. On April 19, 2012 at 11:59 am Waegook Tom said:

    Hahahaha this made me LOL! Which isn’t a good thing right now as I’m at work and all the Korean teachers are working very hard preparing students for mid-terms. They told me I’m on “standby” as a tutor for the, erm, less-gifted kids.

    You’re right about the encrypted tunnel though…I mean who came up with that name? Black magic is at play.

    The motorbikes in Korea do the same thing as in China, but with ZERO excuse. They’re just crazy kids who flunked their middle-school midterms because their teacher was too busy reading blogs to help them.
    Waegook Tom recently posted..RTW Step One: Where to Go?

    • On April 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm Sally said:

      I think they send all the bad blog-reading teachers into the encrypted tunnel… just a warning? (But thanks for being bad & reading my blog, despite work!)

  6. On April 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm Dyanne@TravelnLass said:

    5 letters: prt sc

    Your welcome.

    But seriously, never a problem with twitter here in Vietnam, but yes, fb is another story. Curiously, the only other site I’ve not been able to access w/o a VPN is the BBC – go figure.

    Even more seriously – so what VPN are you using? I’m too cheap to pay for one so have been using ultrasurf, else proxymice. But both are a bit skittish. And I can’t get hulu with either – which I dare say is serious. Also, I’m desperate for my beloved Netflix.

    Heck, I’d even PAY for a VPN that could give me that.

    Any suggestions?
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Livin’ on the Cheap in Asia

  7. On April 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm Kristin said:

    I stumbled across your blog and have been laughing over your posts for the last hour. I moved to Shanghai in Feb and have experienced many of the same things as you. Only you tell the stories much better than I do.
    Kristin recently posted..Longhua Temple

  8. On April 19, 2012 at 2:36 pm Carmel said:

    I know what you mean about not being able to handle jail and such…I got a flipping parking ticket and almost had a nervous breakdown when I was forced to go to court for it. Serious panic attack. Apparently I am not fit for rule breaking.
    Carmel recently posted..Paella Night…Ole!

    • On April 20, 2012 at 4:49 am Sally said:

      Omigod, I had to go to court once because I had gotten a ticket for my rear headlight being cracked. I think I actually cried and said stuff like, “I’m not cut out for this life!”

  9. On April 19, 2012 at 4:38 pm Jeff Mac said:

    Sally, you make me laugh. Usually when I read a post on my phone, in public and generally loudly.

    Makes people look at me strangely…and cross to the other side of the street to avoid me.

    Screen shot on a Mac.

    Hold Command and Shift and hit the number 4 key.

    Draw a box around what you want to shoot (well, you know what I mean) and it will create a file on your desktop called something really helpful like:

    Screen shot 2012-04-19 at 11.37.51 AM

    As my daughter says “Viola!”

    • On April 20, 2012 at 4:48 am Sally said:

      I’m getting conflicting advice. Someone emailed me and said I need to hit the number 3 key. What if I hit the wrong key and my whole computer explodes? It’s probably best if I just don’t try. Besides, I’m kind of busy watching Hulu right now. 🙂
      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      • On April 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm Jeff Mac said:

        Yup, Command Shift 3 does the whole screen. Command Shift 4 lets you pick the area you want…not a big difference.

        Command Shift 5 will actually trigger the ejection seat on your couch so do please be careful.

        You may now return to your regularly scheduled Hulu!!
        Jeff Mac recently posted..Rickshaw iPad Messenger Bag Review

  10. On April 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly said:

    I’m in Vietnam too and the first week after I installed internet, Hotspot Shield (free) worked for getting Hulu. Hooray! But then Hulu found out (meanies!) and cut it off. They’re like drug dealers. They let me watch a week of Community and Dancing With the Stars and then cut me off cold turkey. I should totally invest in a paid subscription but am just afraid they’ll catch on to that and then it’ll be worthless. Any techno-geeks out there that can assure me that won’t happen? My happiness depends on it…
    James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly recently posted..Home, Sweet, Home Chi Minh City

    • On April 20, 2012 at 4:21 am Dyanne@TravelnLass said:

      Yes, James – hulu seems to be able to (sometimes) detect that I’m using a proxy (ultrasurf, free) here in HCMC. But it’s intermittent. Just this morning I was able to watch a recent episode of Modern Family (I swear, the writers of that show are BRILLIANT!) on hulu.

      Nonetheless, I’m now looking into biting bullet and actually paying some rubles (well o.k., dong) for a paid VPN. Thanks to all here for their several suggestions. All a bit confusing as I hesitate to pay and then not have it reliably work for hulu, netflix, etc. But presently I’m favoring Witopia ‘cuz A. their rates are quite reasonable, B. I was able to instantly chat with a rep there last night, and C. they have a generous 30 day unconditional money-back guarantee.
      Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Livin’ on the Cheap in Asia

      • On April 20, 2012 at 4:37 am Sally said:

        I did have a few problems with Hulu detecting my proxy when I first got here, but haven’t had a problem in a while. When I had those problems, I just switched the IP address I was logging in from. They have so many IP addresses to pick from (and if those don’t work, you can message them to find out another address which might work).

  11. On April 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm Joburg Expat said:

    I have to break the rules here in South Africa to get access to the Pottery Barn website, of all things. Can you believe it? Why Pottery Barn, I ask you? But like you I hate breaking the rules, which is why I refuse to pay bribes when the traffic cops stop me, which for some reason they love to do. I’m fully prepared to go to prison for that (I admit I’m secretly hoping I get to blog about it one day). And I have no idea what color jumpsuits they have here.

    • On April 20, 2012 at 4:43 am Sally said:

      Ha ha. Breaking the law for the Pottery Barn. Now, THAT is bad ass. And, yes, maybe okay, I do kind of want to go to Chinese jail so I can blog about it. But just for, like, a couple hours. I don’t think I could deal with even having to stay there overnight. Seeing as I can’t even deal with having to share a hostel room with strangers.

  12. On April 19, 2012 at 9:16 pm Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said:

    You are such a rebel, love it! 😉

  13. On April 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm Daisy said:

    Wow! A VPN sounds so cool! I wish I knew about that a few years ago when I was in Europe a lot. I could have totally used some good ol’ American TV (the best TV in the world) instead of just-dubbed-over episodes of Ally McBeal.

    It sounds so easy, it makes me wonder why even bother censoring people.

    And I’m glad to see that you enjoyed the most recent Bachelor. Wasn’t Ben the worst Bachelor ever?

    • On April 20, 2012 at 4:43 am Sally said:

      Ha ha, yes, I shiver to think about what I’d be stuck watching if I didn’t have my VPN. One of my colleagues who doesn’t have a VPN was super excited the other week because they started showing Friends on TV here. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love me some Friends… but I can’t imagine having that as my only choice of entertainment.
      Oh, and, yes, Ben was AWFUL. Although, awful in that can’t-help-watching kind of way.

  14. On April 20, 2012 at 3:56 am Andrea said:

    As usual, I laughed out loud several times while reading this–you are a hilarious writer! Thanks for sharing about what a bad ass you are 🙂
    Andrea recently posted..Beautiful and Complicated Berlin

  15. On April 20, 2012 at 4:17 am Mira @ NingboNights said:

    Remember, I was “one of THOSE people” without a VPN for a long time, now I don’t even know how I managed without one. I love how you can log into the US for Hulu, then I log in the UK to watch some good ol’ British comedy and then I switch off the VPN and go onto the Chinese sites youku or soku to check for the stuff that’s on HuluPlus. Or, on the days I feel totally bad-ass, I go to the fake DVD store!

    And how about this for prison life?
    (you might want to skip past the self-flogging and people living on graves)
    Mira @ NingboNights recently posted..Part 3: Ruth and Kenny in Beijing.

  16. On April 20, 2012 at 8:38 am Megan said:

    Yup, I used a VPN for the first time in Thailand, and I’m getting one for the BBC/UK shows when I head back to the US next month. TV makes you do all sorts of crazy things!

    p.s. I just tried Shift+Command+4 AND +3, and they both work! +4 is for just a part of your screen and +3 does the whole screen. I learned something already and it’s not even 10 a.m.! SCORE!

    • On April 21, 2012 at 5:13 am Sally said:

      Okay, I guess I’m going to have to actually try this the next time I need a screen shot rather than taking a picture. But I was just getting really good at taking pictures of my computer screen!

  17. On April 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm Priya said:

    Haha! I was wondering how you were accessing Facebook and Twitter in China. I’ve been meaning to ask but I’ve been lazy. I’ve broken a few laws in my day ( stuff that I probably shouldn’t mention. ahem).
    Priya recently posted..What I’ve Been Doing With My Life Since My Last Blog Post/ Almost Getting Evicted

    • On April 21, 2012 at 5:06 am Sally said:

      Of course, now I’m dying of curiosity to find out what these laws were that you broke? I have a feeling Mariah Carey might have been involved. Amiright or amiright?

  18. On April 20, 2012 at 8:02 pm Don said:

    Is nobody else flabbergasted that you stole during the Christmas season? What were you thinking? I’m pretty certain you get sent to hell for stealing at Christmas Sally…or at least an extended stay in purgatory. Didn’t the nuns teach you anything?

    • On April 21, 2012 at 5:05 am Sally said:

      It was AFTER Christmas. Plus, it was totally my roommates’ fault. If anything she should go to purgatory or hell or wherever people who peer pressure their wimpy roommates go.

  19. On April 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm Ceri said:

    Lately I’ve been thinking about Japan, China or Korea as options for my next teaching gig and I did wonder how you guys manage to get past the internet thing over there.

    Good to know you can get around things perfectly well… though if I was there I’d probably still be clueless as to hwo to set up a VPN (which initially I read as VPL and was like, ‘She likes a VPL?’)
    Ceri recently posted..Why Americans Never Leave the States

    • On April 21, 2012 at 5:04 am Sally said:

      If you do come to China, I’d suggest subscribing to the service before you get here as a lot of the VPN service sites are blocked once you get here.
      Good luck with the career options! Are you leaning in any particular direction?
      P.S. What’s a VPL?

  20. On April 21, 2012 at 12:17 am Ayngelina said:

    Two questions:

    1) How expensive is that?
    2) Why doesn’t everyone in China just get a VPN so they can access whatever they want?
    Ayngelina recently posted..Food Friday: How to make burrata

    • On April 21, 2012 at 5:01 am Sally said:

      1) The paid services usually cost about $60/year. There are a few free VPN services, but they’re pretty dodgy & slow… plus, they get found out pretty quick & the government shuts them down.
      2) Some people do — including a few of my students (Unfortunately! I prefer it when my students can’t find me on Facebook 🙂 ). But $60/year is pretty expensive for a lot of people here. Plus, they probably don’t really see the need. China has a lot of their own social media sites & services — like QQ & Weibos — that are pretty much the same as Facebook and Twitter (except for the fact that they are monitored). So, unless you want to keep in touch with international friends or market to an international crowd or get uncensored international news, there’s probably no point in having a VPN.

  21. On April 21, 2012 at 4:36 am Doc Wends said:

    this is an awesome post! I was in China for a month and got no way to get through my own travel blog. You are lucky for your VPN. awesome. While there, I even do not have access to my facebook. 🙁

  22. On April 21, 2012 at 4:05 pm Erik said:

    No better reason than the one you give here. I’m surprised more people don’t do it this way.
    Erik recently posted..Photo of the Day- Mount Shasta, California

    • On April 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm Sally said:

      I know. I’m thinking I may even keep my VPN after I leave China. It’s so convenient for traveling. And it, supposedly, is a lot more secure.

  23. On April 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm Jarmo said:

    Ah the Great Firewall of China. I do remember that it as a right pain in the back to get on social media from China… Why did I have to get to social media from China? Well, to post on Facebook how difficult it is on getting on Facebook from China! Oh well, rules are meant to be broken 😉
    Jarmo recently posted..London Marathon – it’s Total Mayhem out There!

  24. On April 23, 2012 at 8:48 am choi kum fook said:

    Special thinks to this post! It solved my doubt, about the ban of facebook and twitter in China and how are the “internetters” connect outsiders through VPN. Before I could not get a very clear answer at the farm when the Chinese Volunteers were asked. Even in case you were in jail, you also could write a lot of things happening in jail in China because you are a great writer!Miss Sally, just kidding!

  25. On April 23, 2012 at 11:19 pm Rachel said:

    Ah, I have heard of VPN’s although I never fully understood what they were. Your explanation was useful! haha Anything that allows one to watch your favourite shows and access facebook seems fine by me! Thank god people who actually understand technology exist and are able to create these devices! haha
    As always, enjoyed your blog 🙂

  26. On April 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm Heather said:

    I love that you included a screenshot of The Bachelor with a glass of wine on the side. Brilliant. You needed a glass to get through that season!

  27. On May 2, 2012 at 7:39 pm Jeremy Branham said:

    Wow, a VPN in China! That’s awesome. Makes a lot of sense though. I don’t know how any foreigner could do without one. Is using a VPN really against the law though?
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..In a land of giants, we put on our kilts one leg at a time

    • On May 3, 2012 at 5:37 am Sally said:

      Well, I’m not sure if they’re illegal, but the Chinese government does try to crack down on them. So it still kind of makes me feel like a bad ass. 🙂

  28. On May 3, 2012 at 1:44 am Tate said:

    I was in Beijing two years ago and that was one of the most frustrating things: not having internet to post photos of me eating street bugs. And since then I have been thinking about going back to China as my next destination for a year or so but the internet thing was killing it for me. Perhaps I will reconsider now after I leave Korea.
    Tate recently posted..5 reasons I will not eat dog meat while in Korea

  29. On May 7, 2012 at 7:17 pm Jill said:

    Love this post. It made me laugh. I had a VPN for awhile (I live in UAE) but forgot to renew it when I went home last summer. The only time I wish I still had it is when I do a search like “dinner party etiquette” and the site I want is blocked. I have no idea what about dinner party etiquette is so offensive, but I’ll have to wait until I go home to find out. Or when I want to watch TV online or download shows from Amazon. I’m trying to do it the legal way but it’s still illegal!
    Jill recently posted..The last of Vientiane

  30. On May 10, 2012 at 8:08 pm Marley said:

    We had to use that during our 10 day stay in China. But it was a different site. I think…hmmmm…..But then we got to India and it was all good! except Youtube didn’t work too well! Not even in our next stop of Abu Dhabi! But then we got to Turkey it everything WORKS! IT ALL WORKS SO GOOD! (i am kinda addicted to Youtube and Internt. it is my life and I am only 12!)

    • On May 11, 2012 at 3:36 am Sally said:

      Oh dear, I’m just as addicted to the Internet and I’m three times your age. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. 🙂 Sounds like you’ve done lots of traveling for someone so young! Rock on!

  31. On November 15, 2012 at 10:33 am James said:

    I also live in China, and I can tell you that if you want a decent speed you need a provider with servers close to China. I have a 4 Mbps line, and VPN/proxy connections to US or Europe are a stretch.

    Just my 0.13 RMB…


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