I left Beijing a little over a year ago. You never really leave though. This place stays with you. Over time, it’s easy to be nostalgic and forget about the daily struggle that goes along with living in a place that is so modern, and yet so incredibly bureaucratic.

I have a Chinese bank account that was set up by my company, and it came with a company credit card. When I left the company, the card stayed open. This was great for me because I could pay for things in foreign currency, and pay for them with RMB. Given that most of my money was in RMB, this was incredibly useful. I paid the bill every month and didn’t think very much about it after that.

One day, my card was declined. I called ICBC, the issuing bank, to find out what the problem was. Eventually, having left my company raised a red flag with the bank and they froze my account. I asked them to reconsider; after all, I had an excellent payment history, and if I was planning to scam them I would have done so immediately after leaving the company, not a year later after paying my bills on time. No dice. My card would remain frozen and I would continue to be charged the annual fee until I returned to Beijing to close the account.

Wait, what?

Yes, this is a very typical Chinese problem tied to the hukou system. The Chinese population isn’t nearly as mobile as populations outside of China, and there is an automatic assumption that you stay in your city of residence–particularly if you’re living in the Paradise of Eden also known as Beijing. Why would you ever leave? I tabled the matter until returning to Beijing and finally set about to deal with it.

Many things have to be taken care of at the branch where you opened the account, so I went to the neighborhood near my old office and waited. Banking in China involves a lot of waiting. After waiting about an hour, I was finally able to see my banker, dressed severely as usual and proudly wearing her Communist Party member pin. She was unhelpful as always, finally making a few reluctant phone calls (after asking me whether I could just come back next week because it was by then the end of the day). She eventually said that I needed to visit a different branch to close the credit card account, saying the name quickly in Chinese and saying I should “just find it on Baidu.” Explaining that I had an American mobile phone with no Chinese-language capability, she eventually, and reluctantly, wrote down some reasonable semblance of instructions on how to get there.

Fast forward to today. After riding 3 subways and going all the way across town, I arrived at the single ICBC branch in Beijing that can close a credit card account. Except they couldn’t. My passport had also changed, so they’d have to update my passport before I could close the account. This, however, can only be done on weekdays, not during the weekend. So, they agreed to submit the paperwork on Monday, and I’d have to come back in person on Tuesday to close the account. I left frustrated after spending 2 days and several hours doing something that would be done in a 5 minute phone call anywhere else in the world (if even this much work was involved).

So, the next order of business was to register my presence with the police. I am staying with a friend in Beijing, and this requires going to the police station to fill out a form. We dutifully went to the police station to register. No problem. We’d just need to bring the landlord’s hukou with us. Of course, most apartments in Beijing are rented through real estate agencies, and the tenant never comes in contact with the landlord. Of course, this is the case with my friend’s apartment, so we left the police station defeated. I made an executive decision to not do any further efforts at registration. This really matters if you’re living in Beijing, but not so much if you’re visiting (assuming you don’t get caught). After all, I went to the police station and they had my passport, so I’m just going to assume they registered me.

China can be incredibly modern. The subway I took to both of these frustrating exercises in futility is an absolute marvel of modern technology and it’s amazing how it manages to keep a city of 30 million people safely on the move while continuing its expansion at a breakneck pace. And yet, there remain impenetrable thickets of bureaucracy and the Internet service is a disaster on the best of days, and virtually unusable without a VPN in any event. China is always a study in contrasts and contradictions. Frustrating days like today are like life in a parallel universe; one that mattered a great deal to my daily life a year ago, but matters increasingly less to me now. Visits to the Chinese Bureaucratic Twilight Zone are, I’m convinced, best kept as visits.

For nearly four years, I have seen the US mostly in snapshots. A week or two at most, a couple of times a year at most. During this time, I have seen a country in slow but heart-wrenching decline, a decline almost entirely of its own making. A lot of people are aware of this, and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth online, but no action seems to be taken. Nobody, it seems, knows what to do to even begin to solve the problems.

There are plenty of examples of wealthy but mismanaged countries around the world. Wealth and military power, as it turns out, aren’t enough. You need competent management too. In Africa, it’s easy to point to Zimbabwe and Nigeria as examples of mismanaging vast wealth, but Venezuela and Argentina provide excellent examples in our own hemisphere. Management of the US economy has become inept, with no adults in the room to make tough decisions.

Someone recently asked me how to fix things. The first step, I am increasingly convinced, is breaking the two party system. This will force politics back to the center. This will also allow a credible third party (I prefer the name Independent Party, and a platform of NO platform except to support credible independent candidates with ballot access) to be used as political cover for making some adult decisions that are long overdue. The key is rebalancing. Actually, the United States remains a fantastically wealthy country; it is just horribly mismanaged and corrupt, but in unpredictable ways. We need to rebalance military spending towards investments in infrastructure and education, but we also need to have a predictable environment for doing business and we need to be selling things that people want to buy.

China is plenty corrupt–I lived there for 3 years and experienced first-hand that the level of corruption is incredibly high. However, everyone running a business knows who they need to pay off and how much. The system works. In exchange for getting a free pass on corruption, the Chinese government provides a high level of education for its people, and excellent quality infrastructure. I think that nowhere else in the world will likely ever catch up to their manufacturing prowess again. Having become the world’s leading manufacturer, China is now interested in building additional pillars of their economy. None of this is a secret; the country has a published industrial policy. Actually, the future roadmap is increasingly clear to anyone who is paying attention (Washington DC is not, their collective and full attention is concentrated on a few lunatics in turbans camping in a Yemeni desert somewhere, along with spying on the American people).

If you want to sell services (and our economy is largely a services economy) you first have to make it possible in the first place (by streamlining our ridiculous overreactive security measures since 9/11) and you have to have services that people want to buy (moldy airports and dilapidated seaports and slow railways and bridge-falling-down highways aren’t that). Now, what products and services do we sell, exactly, that aren’t either substandard, untrustworthy, or some combination of both? I see this as a pretty huge problem and I am not optimistic that it’s a problem that will be fixed before it’s no longer fixable. It did not take long for the Soviet Union to collapse, and I really don’t understand why American politicians think the US is is so “exceptional.” Exceptionalism is earned, and it’s time to get to work.

Six months ago, I packed up my life in Beijing and sent it in two directions. The majority of my stuff went back to the US together with a friend who was moving there. It’s now in storage, and I’ll deal with it next year. The remainder went to the Netherlands, checked on an Aeroflot flight via Moscow and onward to Amsterdam. The following day (after a night spent in the infamous Sheremetyevo gulag prison transit hotel due to a misconnect), I arrived in Rotterdam to start my new life as a full-time MBA student.

It has been a blur ever since. The Program, as it is called, has completely consumed my life. There is a typical 8 hour day of class, followed by at least as much homework, followed by whatever sleep I can manage, lather, rinse, repeat. Weekends are packed with extra reading, so I have occasionally been able to get 4 hours of free time on one day during the weekend. This is what happens when you take an “intensive, accelerated” program. 2 years of material is squeezed into only eleven months and when they say “intensive” they mean it!

I have had a little free time, so I’ve seen quite a bit of the Netherlands. Ah, the Netherlands, home to legalized marijuana, prostitution, it must be a party, right? Actually, it isn’t. Dutch people are happy to make vices legal if a good business can be made from them, but they’re conservative with a Calvinist bent. When you live here, Holland is all about bad weather and hard work. Put on a nice smile for the tourists and then–the moment they are gone–go back to scowling and eating your stamppot.

A friend who is coming for a visit asked me what to do in the Netherlands. Here’s what I wrote, which just about sums it up:

Things to do in the Netherlands? Plenty! Buy a Dagkaart and spend the entire day on the NS railway looking at cows, windmills, and more cows. Fancy a taste of Dutch industry? Why not a tour of the Van Der Lande Industries baggage belt factory? Or how about fantastic shopping? Try the CAWI factory store, where you can browse a wide assortment of swine management equipment and hog feeding systems. And there is always just standing outside for an hour, in which you can experience howling wind, snow, rain, hail, 35 degree sunshine and a lightning storm in July. There is no end of exciting things to do in this amazing country.

Next month, I’m going on an academic exchange to Costa Rica. The weather will be better, but the Netherlands has actually grown on me a little. I may come back here after I finish, depending on the job situation.

Everywhere I go in Beijing, there are educational agencies, immigration agencies, and all manner of shady outfits advertising quick and easy access to the US. “Fastest American Visa Agent!” promises one. “All government documents, perfect quality, cannot distinguish from the real one!” promises another. Scam artists abound and they are expert at separating young, eager Chinese people from both their cash and their dreams, often blaming unnamed American government officials in the process. For so many who dream to reach the Gold Mountain, the closest they will come is helping a corrupt boss pay for gold to give his mistress.

Living in China, I was often asked similar questions by my Chinese friends. The conversation usually ended up going something like “I would like to live and work in the USA. You’re an American guy, can you tell me how to do it?” Over time, I became familiar with a lot of nuances of US immigration law, because friends would automatically assume I was an expert in it. You know, sort of like they were all experts in Chinese immigration law. Oh wait… there isn’t any way to immigrate to China, because China already has enough people. But I digress.

I always frame my response as follows:

  • • I am from Seattle. The US is a very large country and my knowledge is most focused on the software industry, computer security industry, and Internet services industry (companies like Google and Amazon) in Seattle. Although I may be a useful source of general information about life in the US, I’m sorry but I don’t have any detailed or specific information about the chemical process engineering industry in Chicago.
  • • My network of contacts is extensive… within my focus industries. I am a friendly guy but cold calling someone outside my industry on your behalf is likely to be more awkward than if you do it yourself, because I would have nothing job-related to talk about with that person. In the US, if you want to network with someone in your industry, just call. Personal introductions are always better but not essential like they are in China.
  • • I have only worked for one international company, so I only have direct knowledge of how they handle hiring.
  • • I have only ever worked in two countries, the US and China. And in China, my knowledge is most focused on the IT and online services industries in Beijing. So, although I can map really well between what opportunities look like in China versus the US, I don’t have detailed local knowledge of other markets.
  • • I have a pretty good overall understanding of my industry (described above) and the kind of people in it who are likely international hires. If you aren’t from my industry please refer to the first bullet point above.

Rude questions and answers:

Q: What is the easiest way to come to the US?
A: Are you lucky in love? Really lucky? Then charm an American into falling in love with you and get married! However, even if you do this, you cannot go to the US or work immediately. Marriage is still impossible if you are gay, and this is not likely to change for a long time. It is also impossible if you are already married to someone else, because Americans are only allowed to marry one person. This is not an issue in China but in some cultures it can be.

Q: Get married? To someone else?! Impossible! My girlfriend would kill me! And so would my parents! And American women are so…. CRAZY! Open! I could not accept that!
A: Americans believe that immigration makes us a stronger country and we encourage the best and brightest people from all over the world to come to the US not only for a better life, but to make our country better as well. However, the US has a very high unemployment rate and many qualified Americans are eager to fill the jobs. Are your skills (including your English level) as good as theirs? What can you bring to the table that is special and makes you better qualified than an American who is easier and less expensive for a company to hire?  Why would a company take all the risk to bring you to a country where you’ve never been before? They would spend so much money, what if you did a bad job once you arrive? Saving money isn’t a good reason to send you, because even though your pay may be slightly lower than American workers doing the same job, this generally reflects your lack of US experience. Companies are required to pay you comparably to a US employee and can be punished by the government if they do not.

Q: I am a top graduate from Tsinghua University! I was #1 in my class in high school! I have Beijing hukou!
A: All of these are things that are very special in China and essentially meaningless in the US. In the US, you will just be another laowai. Except we might call you “FOB” instead (means Fresh Off Boat). Don’t worry, we’re friendly to new neighbors and it’s all in good humor.

Q: There is an agency company in Beijing that promises to get me into the US. I just need to pay them up front, and they will take care of all the details because they have some guanxi with the American embassy. They said not to ask too many questions, just leave the details to them. Should I pay?
A: If you are so stupid that you believe this, then you should go onto Alipay site right now and send all your money to some bad Guangdong guy. I do not normally laugh at the misfortune of my friends, but who could be so stupid as to fall into this trap? There is no such thing as guanxi with the American government, except at levels so high you will never, ever, ever meet anyone with such relationships.

Q: My uncle knows someone who has some relationships with the Customs, and anyway, there is a “special” way to go on a cargo ship to the US. Should I have a try?
A: Maybe you should learn how to swim in the Hai River first before you play around in Tianjin port. I think you would sink and die because you have too many rocks in your head, and if you do, good! You will not cause the American police any trouble sending your body home! If you do not die in the ship on the way or fall into the sea and drown (many people do) you will be caught as soon as you arrive in the US and immediately sent back to China. The port police X-ray every container and you cannot hide from that. They also use CO2 sensors to catch people. And when you come back to China you will still have to pay the criminals who sent you all of the money that you owe them. Anyway, only very stupid people would ever try such things, no one with an education would ever consider it.

Q: Then how should I do it?
A: I usually recommend that you work for an American company with an office in China, or a Chinese company that is expanding in the US. Both of these options will give you an opportunity to do a good job and prove yourself in China where it is easier to hire you and easier to train you. If an opportunity for which you are qualified becomes available in the US, you could apply as an internal transfer. This is usually more attractive to a hiring manager—even if immigration paperwork is required—than hiring an unknown person from outside the company. At this point your competition is less because it’s usually other well-qualified internal candidates versus all of those and well-qualified local external candidates. You may also find that your career is rewarding enough in China that you lose interest in transferring to the US.

Q: The US is my dream! How would I ever lose interest in that? The pay is so much better there!
A: Look at the full picture. The cost of living is relatively higher in the US (aside from buying an apartment, which is much too expensive in most Chinese cities), and the rate of pay increases over time is lower than in China. A typical raise in the US may be only 3% with a small annual bonus, whereas increases of 15% every year and a Spring Festival bonus of up to 3 months’ salary is not uncommon in China. Also, you do not get as much time off, so you will lose money that way. There are also benefits in China that you do not receive in the US, such as the housing fund contribution, contributions to social insurance, etc.

Q: I followed your advice and I’m a finalist for a position in the US! Do you know anything about the logistics?
A: Make sure they are employing you legally on the correct visa. Big companies always do this, but smaller companies (especially Chinese ones) don’t always know how to do this correctly. You’ll need to find a company to sponsor you for a work visa and you need to arrive in the US on a visa that permits work. This isn’t the same as a business visa, which pretty much only allows you to come for meetings, training and conferences. The easiest visa type for Chinese people to obtain in Beijing seems to be the L-1 visa. These are issued to management and executive employees who a company wants to send for temporary work in the US. After living in the US legally for more than 5 years on an L-1 visa (renewed multiple times), your company can help you to apply for a green card. Keep in mind they are not required to do this! Some technical employees (such as software developers) qualify for an H1-B visa, but these are more popular for Indian employees. They allow staying in the US longer but have more restrictions. Both visa types only allow you to work for the company that sponsored the visa. Only when you have a green card can you freely switch to any other company.

Q: Can I bring my family?
A: If you are legally married in a conventional marriage, you can bring your spouse and children (or like most Chinese, the one child you are allowed by the Chinese government) under 21.

Q: Is it really true that if I have a baby in the USA, the baby is automatically a US citizen?
A: Absolutely true! Of course, you should be prepared to pay for the hospital charges and keep in mind that child care is very expensive in the US, so it will be hard to afford very many children. However, beware: US citizenship means a lifetime American tax obligation that follows you anywhere in the world!

Q: Once I already have a green card, can I apply for a US passport? How about my family?
A: Your family can stay in the US based on your green card. You have an eventual path to citizenship and based on this, your family can apply for citizenship. The details about all of this are very complicated and technical so you will need to hire a lawyer who specializes in the area of immigration to guide you through the process. You will need to pass a citizenship examination but anyone who passed Gaokao in China will have no trouble!

If you have finished reading and you are feeling sad at how impossible it all seems, I am really not trying to discourage you! I just think it is important to be realistic. Every year, over one million people come from all over the world to the USA seeking not only a better life, but a chance to join the American Dream. I think that anyone can achieve their dream with a little luck and a lot of hard work. I was just lucky to be born where I was, so I didn’t have to do all of the work. For many, the hard work is worth it and they live very happy new American lives. For others, it is too hard to accept living somewhere with such a different culture, and they finally return to their home countries. Do your research, learn everything you can about the USA, and don’t be afraid to ask your American friends and colleagues questions about life in the US. We are friendly, and it is no trouble. If you can come, I hope to someday welcome you as my newest neighbor!

I’ve been playing a lot with QQ, an instant messaging platform that is really popular in China. By “really popular,” I mean that it has over 700 million users. Anyway, there is an English version, and if you sign up, you’ll soon be inundated with friend requests from random Chinese people. Most of them want to make foreign friends and practice their English. I like to make friends, I don’t mind speaking English, and I have met some really cool people this way.

Occasionally you get propositions of another sort. I have been offered the opportunity to purchase everything from insurance to apartments (come to think of it, mostly insurance and apartments). I have been the surprised recipient of earnest–but entirely random–marriage proposals. During times of political upheaval, I have been interrogated by young nationalists about my viewpoints on foreign policy. However, until Sunday night, I’d never been offered the opportunity to star in a movie. “Only need two minutes” was the pitch. “You’ll be advertisement. Pay you 500 RMB.” I couldn’t pry loose any details about the product other than it was music-related, but chalked the mystery up to the producer’s English level (which wasn’t great). After a lot of questions about my background, the dialect of English I spoke, and whether I had any acting experience, she asked to meet. I agreed.

After cancelling and rescheduling on me twice, we finally managed to meet this evening. I gave the producer a specific location to meet me after work but she got lost, so an hour and a half-dozen text messages later, we finally found each other. At this point I was hungry, so I asked her to wait while I grabbed a sandwich. When I returned, she pulled out four Post-It notes covered in English text. This, she informed me, was the script, which we’d shoot tomorrow night in Guomao, on the opposite side of Beijing. It appeared that two minutes was already stretching into two days plus a long commute. I took the script and reviewed it. Although it was in horrible, nearly incomprehensible Chinglish (and mind you, I’ve been in China for 2 1/2 years now and can comprehend most Chinglish), I managed to puzzle out the meaning. They wanted me to record an infomercial for fake Eddie Van Halen and various other counterfeit famous-name guitars.

“Is English OK?” the woman asked me, beaming. “I wrote myself!” I replied (in the measured, face-saving way that is necessary here) “It’s not bad, but is maybe more formal than we would use. I could suggest some small changes.” She nodded eagerly. “Yes, more advertisement, we make Web site! Internet!” At this point, I gently broke it to her. “In America, Eddie Van Halen is very famous. I cannot use his name on your product. He could sue me in the US. I’m an American guy, it is easy for him to do that.” The woman nodded gravely, clearly understanding my concern. In retrospect, I am guessing this wasn’t the first time she’d heard similar concerns expressed. “I will call boss!” she said. A flurry of numbers dialed, harried pacing, an animated conversation with either a person or dead air, and she eventually sat down again. Putting down the phone, she said with an air of finality, “Boss tell you must say this names.”

“Find someone else, then,” I replied, with my own air of finality. “500 RMB isn’t worth being sued by Eddie Van Halen.” A crestfallen look, some quick calculation, and then she shifted the conversation away from business. What was my job? How much was my salary? I really seemed kind, couldn’t I just help her with this small thing? Where does my family live? Do I like to eat Chinese food? Am I married? Was I really sure that she couldn’t persuade me to become an actor? Eventually I finished my sandwich, wished her goodbye, and made a beeline for the subway. My acting career, it seems, is finished before it even started.


In two years of living in my apartment, the water company has only come once to read the meter. They informed us that the bill hasn’t been paid in more than four years, and that it was now at an astronomical amount. Fearing that they would shut off the water, I offered to pay the bill on the spot, pulling out my wallet to prove that I had the money (which, fortunately, I did). No dice. The bill, said the worker, was so high that it would have to be sent to the head office. However, he did say that he would note that rich foreigners were living in the apartment and could afford to pay the bill. Evidently that did the job because no meter readers ever showed up again and the water has still not been shut off.

Today, I came home–only six weeks from moving out of here–and found a scary-looking official notice on the door. It even had a chop (official stamp) on it, so it was clear that it meant business. “Oh no!” I thought. The water bill must have finally caught up to me, right when I was about to get away scot-free without having to pay it, and after overstaying my lease to burn up my remaining deposit. I couldn’t recognize the character for water (水) on the notice, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a water bill.

Scary Notice On Door image

A scary note that was pasted on my door.

Worried, I scanned the notice and sent it to a Chinese friend, who was helpful enough to translate. The cable bill for my nonexistent television was overdue. Evidently, when I asked the landlord to take away the television (because there is nothing to watch, and the TV took up too much space) she never bothered to cancel cable. If I didn’t pay the past due balance immediately, my cable will be cancelled as of December 1st.

Damn. What will I ever do without CCTV 9?

At Defcon in Las Vegas this year, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. Some dozen years ago, I went to his wedding in Michigan, making an epic journey from Seattle to Chicago to Lansing. It was a happy time, and was one of the most fun weekends I ever had.

My friend is, unfortunately, going through a nasty divorce. He loved his wife, and tried really hard to make it work, but in the end the differences were irreconcilable. He went on and on with all of the details, the extent of his heartbreak, and all of the pain that goes with discovering that the investment of so much time and energy was ultimately for nothing. Worse than any of that, my friend told me, was the fact that he has to completely start all over again. He really has no idea where to begin.

I just realized I’ve been telling all of my friends exactly the same thing this weekend about my life in Beijing and my employer of a dozen years. Probably in even more painful detail. And so, bearing this in mind, I am more understanding of my unfortunate friend. Breaking up is hard to do.

The modern air transportation system was invented in the United States, but is no longer a world leader. It’s easy to make such broad pronouncements, but the details matter and I’d like to share a story that shows just how far things have fallen in America since the days of Pan Am.

I’m writing this while sitting on a Delta flight from Beijing back to the US. There isn’t much else to do. Today’s flight started with a relentless upsell to a supposedly “enhanced” economy product that is essentially the same thing that economy used to be. I declined. Onboard, it’s been humorless flight attendants scolding passengers for the slightest perceived transgressions, followed by food served in such small portions that I‘d complain if it wasn’t so bad. The restrooms are none too clean on this flight, and the in-flight entertainment system is broken. This controls the reading lights, so the cabin crew just decided to leave the lights on for 11 hours on an overnight flight. And Delta, lest anyone think I am beating up on them, is one of the better US airlines. Flying Aeroflot is literally a better experience than flying US Airways and I’d fly even China Eastern (the worst of the Chinese airlines) over United.

If you live in the US, you probably think that this is just how flying is. That the experience of being groped and screamed at by TSA agents, scolded by airline employees, abused by arbitrary fees and overall being threatened and cajoled by petty people exercising whatever petty power they have to the maximum extent is just the way the airline industry works. If you fly in the US, or with US airlines, this is largely true. The story changes when you leave. In Asia, most airlines still have good service. Some have exceptional service. I’ve become accustomed to being treated like a human being when I fly in Asia, but the levels of courtesy and kindness I recently experienced in Japan makes me wonder why the US can’t be more like this.

At the end of my recent vacation to Palau, I stopped over for a few days in Japan. Since I’ve only ever spent much time in Tokyo, I decided to visit Kyoto and Osaka, places I’ve wanted to see for a long time but haven’t visited due to the high cost of travel there (a one-way train ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto, a 2 hour journey, costs about $150). This time, I decided that since I’d saved so much money on my trip to Palau by staying with a friend instead of at a hotel, I would take the plunge. I took a bullet train to Kyoto, enjoying a wonderful couple of days there, and then visited Osaka for an amazing two days of exploration. Reviewing my options to return to Tokyo for my flight, I discovered an amazing deal: American Airlines offered one-way award tickets for domestic Japanese flights for only 7,500 Aadvantage miles (plus a $75 fee). It’s always nice to actually be able to use miles (they’re easy to earn and hard to use) so I jumped at the chance.

Not really considering there may be more logistics involved than flying to the correct airport in Tokyo (there are two, Narita being the larger one), I went ahead and booked a flight. When I showed up at the Osaka airport, though, I discovered that there was a big problem: JAL does not have a baggage transfer agreement with ANA, the airline I was flying back to Beijing. I hadn’t really considered this as a possibility; nearly all airlines I’ve ever flown except for Southwest have baggage transfer agreements with nearly every other airline. “Nearly” was the operative word in this case and it looked like I was out of luck.

The JAL staff told me the bad news, and as is typical in Japan, just quietly waited for my response. Many Americans would have gotten angry, but I knew how to respond. “Well, I need to catch my ANA flight from Narita, since I am transferring to Beijing. Here is my itinerary,” I politely said, handing them a printout. “I won’t have time to check in my bag, claim it, and then re-check the bag in Narita. Can you please help me solve this problem?”

Business in Japan is done very carefully and deliberately. First, the JAL staff called ANA. If I cancelled my ticket with JAL and bought another one on ANA, they could check my bag through, and I’d make my next flight. However, this would cost over $300, and I’d also lose the fee I paid to book the JAL ticket plus a redeposit fee for my miles. This would push the overall cost up over $400. “I can’t really afford that,” I explained. “Is there a less expensive option?”

Furrowed brows, furious typing, a hushed phone call in Japanese, and then one of the ticket agents (there were two working at this point) came to the other side of the counter to look at my bags. “It’s OK,” she finally said. “The flight is not full, you can carry your bags on the plane. But you still may not have enough time to connect in Narita, you have to change terminals there. You will have to hurry when you get there, and there is no guarantee you will make your flight. I understand it’s expensive, but if you book with ANA they will guarantee your connection, we can only do our best.”

I had a bottle of scotch I’d bought at the duty free in Guam, and explained that carrying on my bags probably wouldn’t work because I had liquids in my bag. “Oh, that’s no problem. This is a domestic flight in Japan. If you don’t have any cigarette lighters, matches, or hair spray, you can carry that on board.” Of course! I should have guessed. Japan is a civilized country that makes rational judgments about risk, choosing to treat airline passengers as law-abiding citizens rather than potential terrorists. I smiled, bowed, said “domo arigato,” and collected my boarding pass. I wasn’t too worried about the risk. The worst case scenario was probably another night in Tokyo, and taking the next available flight back to Beijing. My ANA ticket was an award ticket, so it was flexible; I’d be able to stand by for their next flight.

Osaka airport security was quick, thorough, and friendly. The agent had a question about a can of shaving cream in my bag, and wanted to make sure it wasn’t hair spray. She was polite and efficient in opening my bag to check and the whole thing took less than a minute. In the US, the same situation would have likely resulted in a swarm of TSA thugs tearing my bag apart, playing twenty questions, and testing my shoes for explosives. The plane left the gate on time, but there was a ground hold due to air traffic control and we were late taking off for Narita. I wasn’t going to have much time to transfer once I got there.

Japanese flight crews are polite and precise, the service always impeccable, perfect English, and excellent food. Beverages and snacks were served even though it was only a 1 hour flight. Thoughtfully, the gate staff had seated me as close to the front of the plane as possible to allow me to disembark as quickly as possible.

When I arrived in Tokyo, I was surprised to see a uniformed ANA agent standing just inside the gate holding a sign with my name on it. I approached her and introduced myself. “Please walk quickly towards baggage claim. At the end of the walkway, there” as she pointed, “an agent will meet you and take you to your next flight.” 100 meters further, another ANA agent standing next to a whiteboard with my name on it. “OK, sir, we have notified ANA that you are coming, and you can check in for your flight. We need to hurry. Come quickly, you need to take a shuttle bus to transfer to their terminal.” I followed the agent, assuring her I could keep up if she wanted to go faster, which she did. We sprinted through the terminal at close to a dead run, arriving curbside, where an airport volunteer was waiting for me. “This man will take you to the ANA ticket counter. Have a nice flight!” she said, leaving me with a polite bow and returning to the terminal.

As if on cue, a Narita shuttle bus pulled up at curbside. I was the only passenger, and the bus drove straight to the ANA terminal, to the area closest to the check-in counters. “Come with me,” the Narita volunteer said, “I know the fastest way.” I followed him into the terminal, up an elevator I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, and to the ticket counter. The Narita volunteer, wearing all of the confidence of his yellow volunteer sweater, walked me straight to the front of the line and directly to the first class check-in counter. He told the agent my name, and she began furiously typing on her computer. I handed her my passport and bags, showing her my China visa. She tagged my bags, marked them “priority,” and handed me my boarding pass. “There may not be time today for duty-free shopping,” she said, “please go directly to the gate. If you do this, I’m sure you will make your flight.” She was right. I went through immigration, stamped out of Japan, and arrived at my gate during the final boarding call.

I booked an impossibly short connection, made assumptions about baggage transfers I shouldn’t have made, and showed up at the check-in counter a mere 45 minutes prior to an international flight. Instead of scolding me, lecturing me, and pointlessly enforcing petty rules on the number of carry-on bags, JAL and ANA did literally everything they could to help me solve a problem that was entirely my fault. And they did all of this for an absolute nobody, someone who has never flown them before and probably won’t fly them again soon, and traveling on a free ticket! The service was exact, impeccable, and remarkably considerate–even for Japan. I’m just trying to imagine how a similar scenario would have played out in the US. I’d undoubtedly have been stranded, and would probably have been charged through the nose to stand by for the next flight, and I’d have been berated and scolded and harangued every step of the way. No wonder people in the US hate flying. I think it’s no surprise that passenger numbers drop as people drive incredibly long distances just to avoid the humiliating experience of being groped and shouted at by the TSA, while simultaneously being berated by unfriendly airline employees and charged arbitrary fees in a petty manner. In the US, I’ve often had to open two bags and shift one or two pounds worth of items between them to avoid a $70 fee. At some point, it becomes simple harassment.

Nothing makes me look forward to returning to Beijing like a US airport. In China, immigration is always friendly, usually with a smile and hearty “ni hao!” Domestic flights are hassle-free. Tickets cost around the same as you’d pay in the US for equivalent distance, sometimes less, but every airline is full service. And I’ve never been yelled at, scolded, or groped by anyone in a Chinese airport. The story is the same in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, essentially everywhere I’ve been throughout Asia. The only country I’ve visited with an experience even closely approximating the US is North Korea. Meanwhile, US airlines endlessly lose money and complain that they need more fee revenue, cutting back service and benefits for even the most frequent fliers. People will put up with a lot of abuse from Ryanair or Air Asia if the fare was nearly free, but I can’t think of any industry in the world where high prices and poor service is a winning combination. Maybe what the industry needs instead of more fee revenue is a look in the mirror.


One of my friends, who is definitely in the upper 1% of the US income bracket, was grousing at the overall percentage of income taxes paid by upper income taxpayers. “It’s over 50%,” he said. “It’s absurd!” All of those poor people who don’t have enough income to bother collecting any income tax ought to be paying their fair share.

Maybe they could get a third part-time minimum wage job with no benefits. It still wouldn’t really amount to much.

If you’re part of America’s elite, I just don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for you guys. I live in China and pay a marginal income tax rate on my mid-5-figure income of ~39% (the income tax is graduated and tops out at a relatively low income scale) There are no deductions allowed whatsoever, and only the first $80 or so of my income (monthly) is exempt from tax. On top of that, I pay a 17% value added tax on everything I buy, and that’s if it’s a domestic item. Imported items have taxes of over 100% in some cases and average 80% tax overall.

And I still save more money than I did in the US, despite the higher taxes, and despite my (much) lower income. My standard of living is marginally lower (no car), but my expenses are substantially lower. The reason? Taxes here pay for things that I actually use. Rather than going to bank bailouts, a bloated military and interest on the national debt, they pay for infrastructure. There is even a budget surplus, which funds US deficit spending… at a price.

I ride the subway to work for 60 cents a day, and can take a bus for 6 cents if I want to save money. There’s a bullet train that can take me roughly the equivalent distance from SF to Sacramento in 30 minutes (Beijing-Tianjin) for $8, or the equivalent distance of SF to Seattle (Beijing-Shanghai) for under $40. Domestic flights are cheap, and regular trains (not bullet trains) are laughably inexpensive. China has infrastructure the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere in the world.

There are also heavy agricultural subsidies, in the form of state owned farms (no shareholders to pay dividends, no landlords to pay rent). This translates to much, much lower food costs than in the US. And the list goes on and on. There’s enough left over for me at the end of every month that I can afford to live in the absolute center of Beijing, in between two of the most famous historical sites in China, in a neighborhood that looks like it belongs in a movie but is actually just my backyard.

Does all of this drag down the economy, harming the so-called “job creators?” Nope! The economy here is growing faster than any other world economy, although it’s a relatively anemic 8.6% growth this year. And China’s new crop of millionaires and billionaires isn’t hurting either. America’s elite would doubtless be pleased to see all of the Audi A6s clogging the streets of Beijing.

While the top earners of America are hell-bent on avoiding a few extra percentage points in taxes and a corporate jet tax exemption loophole being closed, Joe Sixpack doesn’t really understand very much about macroeconomics. But he’s beginning to figure out that he’s getting screwed, and he has a gun or three. Hey, 1%ers, are you factoring bunkers, weapons, and personal security into your cost/benefit analysis? Check out South Africa with its bars on the windows and rampant carjackings, and tell me if you would prefer to live in the security climate there. Meanwhile, China is laughing all the way to the bank at our political system’s inability to accomplish essentially anything. Years later, when we discover that we’re no longer the world’s largest economy and wonder what happened, we may finally learn that cooperation pays.

“You must have a really tough life in Beijing,” many people outside of China tell me.  I recently spent three weeks in the US on a business trip, and although I was able to buy anything I wanted (Life cereal! Mexican food!) it was a tough few weeks of working double shifts. Business in Beijing doesn’t stop when it’s late at night in the US, and in my job, I often need to make decisions real-time. Sure, I could drink tap water and see friends and family. The air was clean enough that I didn’t even have to consider whether it was anything other than “good” air quality, something we rarely see in Beijing. However, given the grueling work schedule when I travel, it’s relatively more difficult to be in the US–at least when home base is China.

But tough? Not a chance. I’ve written a lot about how modern China is, and how wealthy it is becoming. That’s one side of China. However, there is a significant disparity, and it’s illustrative of the direction that the US is moving. Glittering skyscrapers above and abject poverty below.

There is an elderly couple that is responsible for taking away the recyclables in my apartment complex. Anyone their age would be comfortably retired in the US – even living on Social Security and nothing else, an American retiree who is reasonably frugal doesn’t have to work. This couple lives in a single room in a low-rise, poorly constructed building in the old city. There is no indoor plumbing. They live surrounded by trash. It’s stacked floor to ceiling. Every day, they ride a three-wheeled tricycle around to nearby homes and apartment complexes, meticulously sorting recyclables, stacking them so high that the old man has to stand on the pedals to make the cart move, his wife giving him a booster push from behind and walking alongside as he pedals. Once a week, a large truck comes and takes away the recyclables, paying the elderly couple for their efforts. For all of this work, living among rotting yogurt containers and crushed water bottles and stacks and stacks of cardboard, they make about $350 per month.

This is actually a reasonable standard of living for China. This is Beijing, the capital, offering one of the highest living standards in the country. Here, there is reliable electricity, access to a community medical clinic, public flushing toilets with running water that are regularly cleaned (although from the smell, you wouldn’t guess), and good access to public transportation. You can buy a wide variety of consumer goods here. These folks, in the sunset of their lives, have it made. Sure, they work 7 days a week, but I’ll bet their relatives in the countryside congratulate them on their comfortable retirement.

There are jobs in China so awful that you can’t even imagine them. Like the fertilizer dealer. His job is to pick up human feces off of the train tracks with his bare hands. It comes out of the toilets when passengers flush, and is best collected fresh for sale to farmers. They use it to fertilize their corn and soybeans. Or the pig farmer, who lives in a festering landfill with his diseased, feral pigs. Sure, everyone hears about factory workers who spend 100 hours a week making iPads, but what about the water deliveryman, who has arthritis in his neck by the age of 35 from carrying 60 pound bottles of water up 5 flights of stairs on his head? You couldn’t pay Americans enough to do most of these jobs. In China, however, the worst jobs tend to be the lowest-paying jobs. In Beijing, the minimum wage is 1,160 yuan. That’s roughly $180 per month, and many workers don’t even make that much. Laws are sometimes followed, but as in the US, usually not if someone who is rich and powerful can get away with not following them.

The guy whose job is to pick up dead animals by the side of the road in Gansu somewhere, who has a frigid leaky shack to live in and a hole in the ground for a toilet, has a difficult life. I make less than I did in the US, but I live in a 3 bedroom apartment all to myself, have a housekeeper, a washing machine, indoor plumbing, and I get to take a shower every day. My life can at times be inconvenient. It isn’t difficult, and should never be considered difficult. Until you see the poverty most people around the world live in first-hand, most Americans can’t even imagine how much of a struggle daily life can be for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Learn to stop imagining. In a generation, given the current trajectory of the United States, this may become the American condition.

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