I can’t call this a post of “tech tips” because I am by no means expert enough to dispense advice about technology. I never did figure out how to get Google maps-type directions, and I never managed to search for restaurants near me using my phone when I was out and about. There are probably better, simpler, cheaper ways to do the things I did manage that I didn’t figure out. But here are 8 observations about how I kinda sorta got my tech devices to work for me when I was in China.
1. I bought a SIM card from the Unicom booth right in the baggage claim when we arrived in Pudong Shanghai Airport. I paid 200 RMB (about $33.70 at then-current exchange rates) for 1 Gb of data and 100 minutes on a local phone number for outgoing phone calls. Incoming calls were free. But I really only needed the data because…
2. Skype worked great for phone calls home. Google hangouts sometimes worked for texting the US, but sometimes it would get hung up and I couldn’t use it for hours. Rebooting the phone didn’t always solve the problem. Sometimes texts with Skype wouldn’t be delivered for hours, but it was the more reliable of the two. Between them, I could usually send a text home.
3. Buffer. At home I use this scheduling app to space out my retweets on Twitter. In China, you can’t access Twitter or Facebook. But you can access Buffer. I have my Twitter account linked to Facebook, so I could use my mobile phone to post to Buffer on the go, and the post would daisy chain to all my social media streams. Buffer still didn’t help me see my time lines or reply to comments on Facebook, though.
4. VPN. Before I left home, my husband set me up to use VPN. I could connect my laptop to the wired internet in my hotel room, then use VPN to log in to a remote computer in Seattle. It was slower than dial-up, but allowed me to see my Facebook page and Twitter stream and do Google searches, none of which was possible from a computer in China. (China has its own social media giant called WeChat. If you are going to spend any time there at all, you should probably get on WeChat. I probably should have tried it out, but never got around to it.)
5. I thought there was supposed to be all this outrage about Google selling out to the Chinese government, but if they have, they got ripped off. I had a ton of data on my phone, but Google didn’t work at all. Instead, I used the search engine that the Unicom guy brought up to test my sim card: baidu.com. When I typed search terms in English, I usually got English search results. Often I was unable to open the pages in the search results, but it was still a lifesaver because…
6. My translation app didn’t work in China either, and I couldn’t access the Google Play Store to find a new one. Fortunately, fanyi.baidu.com worked just as well. I could type in an address in English and get the Chinese characters with one click. I could show the result to a cab driver. Or I could type in a question, translate it, and then click the speaker button to learn how to ask it myself next time.
7. The app called “Currency” is awesome. I used to it to check prices all the time, and it was a great way to slow down the bargaining process when shopkeepers got pushy.
8. I used to have a mobile charger, and wish I still did. My phone churned through battery. I would leave the hotel with a fully charged phone after breakfast and by the time lunch was over I’d be at 20%. Fortunately, we usually felt like a quiet break by midday, and could return to the hotel to recharge, but if we wanted to do a full-day activity, it meant no phone for a big chunk of the day.