“Life is an Internet Café”

A chance encounter in the middle of nowhere, by Cobus Block


I met her on a crosswalk in Yiwu, eastern China. Traffic was thick and we were both stranded between lanes. As I searched down the street for a gap in the oncoming vehicles, I noticed she was watching me. She caught my eye and, instead of looking away, smirked and shook her head.

“It’s crowded,” I broke the ice.

Most Chinese outside the main cities are taken aback when they hear a foreigner speaking their language. She only shrugged her shoulders and responded, “It could be worse.”

I laughed in agreement. She continued to look at me, but made no attempts to pursue the conversation. I saw a space between two small cars and stepped into the lane.

“Where are you going?” she asked as she moved in beside me.

I drew up short of a passing vehicle, moved around a motorcycle and replied over my shoulder. “I’m not sure, I just got here. What about you? Where are you going?”

“That way,” she pointed down the street to her right.

I reached the curb and slowed my pace.

“Where are you going?” she asked again.

“I really don’t know. I’m just looking around. Is there anything good to see in this town?”


I laughed at her terseness. “Well, what are you doing?”

“I already told you, I’m going that way.”

“What is that way?”

She gave me a strange look.

“I mean,” I said as I moved forward to allow an electric scooter around me, “Why are you going that way? Where are you going? Your home? A job? A location?”

“No. It’s a park, and it has a lot of people.”

I did not understand the attraction of a park with lots of people, but I had been honest when I told her I did not know why I was Yiwu. At the time I was studying Chinese in the nearby city of Hangzhou. To my eyes, everything about China was new and fascinating. I was eager to learn, to meet people, to make friends, and to see as much as possible. My enthusiasm, coupled with the warm spring weather, made classes increasingly unbearable, until one day I grabbed my jacket and passport and ran to the bus station. Something about the name Yiwu — which I translated as “Righteous Crow” — appealed to me, and I boarded the first bus bound in that direction.

“Well, may I come with you?” I asked. I decided I would rather go to a crowded park with company than stand on a crowded street with none.

She shrugged her shoulders and nodded.

As we walked towards the park we exchanged introductions. She was small, but something about her gait made her seem formidable. More than once as we walked she snapped at vendors and beggars trying to hustle the passing foreigner. In a voice too rough for someone only 23 years old she told me her name was Yang. She was living with her brother in Yiwu while working for a company involved in international trade. What exactly her job entailed, she never said. At first I had some difficulty understanding her strong Jiangxi accent, but she spoke slowly and deliberately, which made the conversation easy to follow.

After a few minutes of walking, we arrived at an open space with two or three trees, winding sidewalks and a number of benches. This, she announced, was the park. The park was full of boisterous young people and hawkers.

I spotted a row of hotels across the street and mentioned that I should find a room for the night. She shook her head and told me those were bad hotels, I should just sleep in a wangba. A wangba is one of China’s less than sanitary Internet cafés. The name literally translates as “net bar” — which is remarkably appropriate, as they have a knack for combining the worst attributes of both the Internet and a bar. I thought I could get a cheap room at one of the smaller hotels, and that might be more comfortable than a wangba.

“No,” she said in English, “no good,” then explained that those hotels were for “bad” things. I must have looked confused, because she clarified. “Whores,” she pronounced with severity. “Jinü. No good.”

“They are all just for prostitutes?” I asked incredulously.

She nodded her head. “Why not just spend the night in a wangba? You can chat with some people for a while, watch movies …”

“But it’s too loud,” I protested.

“No, no. There are a lot of people, but they won’t bother you.”

She saw I was unconvinced and promised to help me find a “good” hotel. I thanked her and asked if she would first like to get something to eat. She agreed, and we walked down the street away from the park. In one of the nearby alleys, we found a dumpling stand and sat down to an assortment of dishes. As we ate, she began to tell me her story.

She came to Yiwu a year before after staying a stint in her hometown Changnan, where she had planned to live with her widowed mother. When her mother passed away, Yang left to find her brother.

I asked her where she had been before returning to Changnan. Had she been studying? Working? She shook her head in response to both questions. She spent five years living in Taizhou with a man, who at the time was her husband.

“I was married to him when I was 15,” she explained, “My brother was in school then, my father had been killed in a knife fight, and my family didn’t have enough money to support everyone. His family did, and he was in business. I married him to support my mother and brother.”

“When you were 15?” I asked. “Isn’t that illegal?”

She smiled. “Things can be arranged.”

“Why did you divorce?”

“Because he was a stupid cunt!” she snorted and then laughed when she saw I understood this obscenity. “He had no feelings, no nothing. I had learned all I needed to know from him, so I left.”

She started to hum a melody as she lifted a dumpling and dunked it in a bowl of vinegar and chilli paste.

“So it was you who decided to get divorced, not your husband?”

“Me,” she confirmed as she finished the dumpling. “Is my getting divorced bad?”

“No, who says it’s bad? I’m just curious.”

“Curious? Why are you curious?” She stopped eating. “Chinese divorces are not easy. Once divorced, there’s no money, no food, no relatives. It’s the same as being a dead person. People stay married even if they have no feelings for each other, because it’s more difficult to be divorced.” She let her words sink in before reaching for another dumpling.

“Plus,” she added with a shrug, “it’s hard for my daughter.”

“Your daughter? You have a daughter?”

“She doesn’t like it,” she sighed.

“Where is she now?"

“His father and mother took her.”

“Do you go to visit her?”

“No. I can’t.”

“You can’t see your daughter?”

“I can. If I wanted to, I could go see her everyday, that’s the law. But it’s hard for her, and I don't have any reason to see her.”

“So, how many times have you seen her?”

“Three times.”

My eyes widened, “How old is she?”


I was stunned and for a moment silent.

“Wo de ge no baby, brother no baby.” She commented in partial English, attempting to shift the conversation.

“But your daughter,” I said, unwilling to let the topic go. “I think you should go see her more often …”

She shook her head defensively and leaned forward in order to ensure I understood her clearly. “I want to have a career. I have my own life, my own affairs. If I use all my money to go see her, will I have money later? Will I be able to support others? I have to do it this way even if I want to see her.” She broke off and leaned back against her chair. After a moment’s pause she continued in a more subdued tone. “So my life is miserable. I’m a miserable person.” She paused again and then started anew, this time in a voice that carried a tinge of pleading. “At that time I was fifteen years old, a teenager. If you give a little girl in marriage, she doesn’t understand anything.”

I could not think of any words that would be appropriate, so instead I took another dumpling and concentrated on chewing. When we finished our meal, Yang leaned against the table.

I put down my chopsticks and broke the silence. “So, will you get married again?”

“No. I’ll just live as one person. I don’t want to get married.”

“Already tried that, huh?” I asked as I got up.

She laughed, “Yeah, it was a disappointment.”

I never discovered whether the small hotels in Yiwu were dens of prostitution, as Yang claimed. None of the cheaper options would board a foreigner, and I had no money to pay for an expensive room. That night I slept in a wangba. It was hot and stuffy, and for a long while I could not sleep. Across the row from me a young man smoked a cigarette and pounded away furiously at the keyboard. In front of him two teenage girls typed instant messages to their friends thousands of miles away. On the wall a poster advertised a world where everyone can be a hero.

As I gazed across the room full of faces, intently focused on their own screens, I remembered what Yang had told me earlier. “Life is like a wangba. You can chat with anybody you want. Sometimes you find an old friend, sometimes you find somebody new, but in the end you’re still alone.”

Cobus Block is a Fulbright scholar based in Kazakhstan, and lived in China from 2008 to 2010