This week, for the first time in fourteen years, we have mail in our mailbox everyday.
When we first arrived in China in 2000, I checked my email at a hotel, and discovered that my Yahoo address book and all of my archived emails had been erased. Everything was gone. The only emails I had in my inbox were those that had been sent that day. The most logical explanation was that we were under heavy surveillance, and whoever was looking over my shoulder when I logged in must have accidentally erased everything while they were trying to make a copy of what was in my account.
No matter, I thought. We still have my wife’s hardbound address book, which included both snail mail and email addresses. I’ll just use this to write and tell people that we arrived safely. However, we searched our luggage and discovered that this was missing as well. The only thing we could do was wait until people wrote us by email, so that we could reply and add their email addresses back to our now empty Yahoo email address book. Parents, relatives, and close friends were all waiting for emails from us, but we had no way to contact them. All we could do was wait until they wrote us first.
We went up to live in Changchun, China, and over time people started to contact us. Some wanted to send money, birthday cards, and letters. We sent them our address in China, but more often than not, their mail never arrived, and letters sent from us almost never reached them either.
There were two issues behind this, we think. First, we lived on a university campus, and all the mail went through the same post office box. It was thus up to some unknown person at the university to decide whether or not we deserved to get our mail. Second, there was China Post. We lived in a city with very few foreigners, where many people in officialdom were rather conservative, if not downright backward. When we went to the post office, the employees acted terrified, and would quiz us in great detail as to whom the mail was addressed to, and the contents of the mail. A Chinese friend suggested that we should not even seal our envelopes, but leave them open for the convenience of the postal workers. When we remonstrated, he explained that just a few years before everyone always left their mail open, to prove to postal employees and the government that they had nothing to hide. We had to leave our packages open if we wanted the post office to agree to send them. However, we refused to leave our private letters open, as we thought that it was none of anyone’s business what was contained in them. Consequently, the post office sometimes tried to refuse to let us send mail, and only complied after we protested vigorously.
But then, most of this mail never arrived.
We had tax forms in hand, and we used these to file with the IRS. These forms apparently never arrived. We requested new forms be sent to us for the next year, but these never arrived either. Indeed, we are unsure if the IRS ever received our request. We have two children born in China, and for years we have tried to get them Social Security numbers. However, as we had to apply through the mail, even as late as last year, according to the US consulate in Shanghai, they still did not have numbers. We applied again when we discovered this, but we do not yet know if we were successful.
Just as maddening were the missed birthday and Christmas cards, and complaints from people in the States that we never wrote. In the end, we decided that snail mail was a waste of time, and we just relied on email. We had strong evidence that our email was being monitored, and once or twice email did get lost in the system, or we would be in the process of sending an email and we would lose our connection, but generally the email got through.
With the loss of our email addresses and inability to send or receive snail mail, we were effectively quite isolated. Things changed in 2005 when we came to Shanghai and finally got our own personal mailbox, but in many ways the damage was done. Our only contact with the outside world were infrequent emails from the small handful of people now in our address book, and perhaps a birthday card once a year. We would go months without finding a single letter in or mailbox apart from the electric or phone bill. We rarely if ever even got junk mail.
Now, we are in our third week in Japan, and we have a unique problem: We get mail everyday, and we aren’t really sure what to do with it. We have no place to put the mail we receive. Worse yet, we find ourselves waiting for the postman everyday, something we did not ever do for the entire fourteen years we lived in China.
It is odd the things that we are now having to get used to once again.