City Life

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.

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?

“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.

I wrote an article about Beijing for the expat magazine Tales from a Small Planet (registration required), which I’m republishing here.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? My home base is Seattle. There are easy 12-hour nonstops on both Hainan Airlines and Delta Airlines several days a week. Air China also has a daily nonstop to Vancouver with an easy connection to Seattle on Air Canada (you pre-clear US Customs in Vancouver, which saves time). Major Chinese international carriers have excellent safety records and fly new, modern aircraft. I am comfortable flying them. Beijing is Asia’s busiest airport and there really isn’t anywhere you can’t get from here.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country? If you enjoy Chinese culture and want to learn more about Chinese history, there is no better place than Beijing. It’s the capital and there are thousands of years of history here. Beijing is a great home base for exploring China and the rest of Asia. Nearly every country in the world has an embassy here, so it’s relatively easy (though rarely cheap for US passport holders) to get visas. With the incredible air, rail and bus connections here, it’s easy to find a change of scenery. All of the Western conveniences are available here (at roughly European prices), but you can live really inexpensively here if you want to. I traded my $200 car payment (and roughly the same amount spent on gasoline a month) for a clean, fast and efficient subway commute that costs only 60 cents a day roundtrip.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country? Oh, too many to list! Dancing while the sun comes up on a beach in front of the Great Wall with over a thousand people enjoying listening to some of the top DJs in Asia. Ringing in the New Year in a former Communist weapons factory packed with thousands of revelers and the most ridiculous sound system I’ve ever seen. Being instantly befriended by a bunch of college students in Tianjin and taken on a whirlwind tour of that city after riding there on a bullet train. Riding in a Beijing taxi at 2:00 in the morning listening to gangster rap, which the driver perfectly mimics (while understanding none of the lyrics). Having dinner with friends in a restaurant while a gang fight goes down in the room next door and pretending not to notice (eventually one of the gangsters came over and apologized–in perfect English–for the disturbance). Waking up every morning and looking out the window at the Confucius Temple, then walking through a narrow hutong alleyway that looks like it is straight out of a movie, but this is actually just my everyday life and it’s just my normal commute. Going to the little foreigners’ shop—you know, kind of like the Chinese or Indian market back at home: small selection, jammed shelves—except that it’s all full of American stuff because the tables are turned and you’re the foreigner buying weird stuff now. Too many more to list, and I’ve only been here a year!

What is the air quality like (good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy, with comments)? It’s actually all of these. Occasionally the air is clear and you can see the mountains. The clearest day here is like a pretty bad air day in Seattle. Usually the air quality (according to the US Embassy) ranges from unhealthy to very unhealthy. Sometimes it gets off-the-charts hazardous. The embassy described it as “Crazy Bad” when this happened just before Thanksgiving, which just about sums it up. Most of the time the air quality isn’t very good, so you don’t want to spend a lot of time outside. To give you an idea of how bad it is when it’s really bad, you’ll blow your nose after an hour outside and it comes out black. There is nothing anywhere in the US or really developed Western countries that could even so much as give you a point of reference for how bad the air quality can get here. So, don’t come here if your lungs are sensitive or you have asthma. On bad days, I lock myself in my bedroom with my Ionic Pro Turbo and I have to clean it every day (normally you have to clean it once a month).

What is the climate like? Weather patterns? Ridiculously cold winters, and very dry (it’s near the Gobi Desert, folks). You will need humidifiers in every room, and if you go to sleep without running one, you’ll wake up with a bloody nose. In spring there are crazy dust storms that blow sand in from the Gobi, and you can’t even see across the street sometimes. Summer is very hot and humid, just like most places in Asia. Fall is the best time to visit, but it’s really short (only 6 weeks or so).

What kind of insect problems are there, if any? Lots of mosquitoes in the summer (some places worse than others), also cockroaches and ants. There is no malaria here, though.

Are there any special security concerns? Beijing is the capital city of the world’s largest population and second largest economy. There are definitely special security concerns, but they generally won’t affect you. The Chinese government maintains excellent security in Beijing. I feel safe everywhere here. That being said, petty crime and small-time scams can be a problem in tourist areas.

Housing types, locations, commute time? Let me start by saying that housing is a nightmare in Beijing. The real estate market in China is white-hot (think California in 2005) and people are buying to flip. This is beginning to have a major impact on rents. Many landlords would prefer to leave a unit empty for months, hoping for an inflated rental rate, rather than set a reasonable price and rent their unit right away. So, you’ll see a huge amount of overpriced inventory and a limited amount of reasonably priced inventory that disappears almost immediately. Having a good agent is your only hope of finding anything reasonable. My transitional housing allowance ran out, and I ended up in a hotel for a couple of weeks before I eventually found a (not perfect) place because the housing situation is just that ridiculous. Start looking early and negotiate for 90 days of transitional housing in your relocation package if you can. So, let’s talk prices and areas. Most foreigners live in the Shunyi suburbs or on the east side of Beijing in the Chaoyang district. Shunyi looks like an American suburb, soulless and corporate. Families with small kids and embassy personnel like it. And that’s great for them, and I wish them well. You’ll need a car if you live there (although there is a new subway line park-and-ride that just opened last month, so commuting on public transportation is now an option for suburbanites). Rental prices start at around USD $3,000 per month and go up from there. Many other foreigners live in a few “international standard” complexes: Seasons Park, Central Park, Park Avenue, and a couple of others. These were built by US, Hong Kong, or European developers, and have international management companies. Corridors are bright and well-lit, elevators always work (and don’t have blaring advertisements outside). When something breaks you have an English-speaking management office to call, and someone competent will come fix it. And your apartment will be equipped with all the stuff you expect: stove, oven, coffeemaker, nice microwave oven, washer and dryer, etc. Of course, this comes at a price. You’ll pay upwards of $1,500 for a 2 bedroom. Okay, so you can’t afford that. You can try a Chinese “international” complex. These are usually Chinese developers and Chinese management companies. The management office may have someone who speaks English, but more likely not. Chinese companies usually have different standards of maintenance than American or European companies, and different ideas of what is acceptable. Be prepared for this. Some of these buildings are quite nice; Boya Garden, for example, has a Chinese management company but it was originally built by a French developer, so the amenities are good, and the Chinese company has maintained the building reasonably well (although the paint is peeling). Other buildings, not so much – Phoenix City is visibly falling apart and it’s only a couple of years old. You generally cannot expect the same amenities in a Chinese building as you can in an international complex. The kitchen will likely be tiny, and will not have an oven (make sure the thing that looks like an oven isn’t actually a dish drying rack). Electric clothes dryer? No way! You’ll have a balcony built into your apartment where you can hang your laundry for 3 days in the frigid winter until it dries. In a Chinese building, you’ll pay anywhere from somewhat less to considerably less depending how “local” the complex is. I am living in an entirely local, and older, but high-end building in the central Dongcheng district. I choose to live in a more local building and neighborhood since I wanted a better commute and a more historical area to live in. It’s away from the “expat bubble” and this limits my social life, but I don’t have much of one anyway in between work and Chinese lessons. Customarily, apartments are furnished, but everything is negotiable. I hated my landlord’s furniture (it was used and broken) and negotiated for him to get rid of most of it, and I paid lower rent since I’m buying my own furniture (cheap IKEA stuff – I can buy a whole house full of furniture for less than the differential in 3 months’ rent). Generally you will deal with an agent to find an apartment. They will not charge you a commission, but the landlord pays them a commission of an entire month’s rent. This in effect builds an automatic rent increase into the second year’s rent since they will be charging you as if the commission is bundled, but it will no longer be. So, you may be able to get a better deal if you pay the commission to the agent. Finally, you may need a fa piao (official invoice) if you have a housing package and want to claim the expense. Even if you don’t have a housing package, your tax situation can benefit by having a fa piao. You’re exempt from income tax on up to 30% of your income upon presentation of a fa piao proving rent payment in that amount. This is no small savings – you’ll save a minimum of 5% and up to 40% income tax depending on your tax bracket.

International schools: There are international schools, and parents here have the same complaints about the schools as they do anywhere else in the world (with some unusual ones like one school where a kid was run over on the playground by an Audi – no, I have no idea what it was doing there). I don’t have kids, so if you do, do your research. I’ve heard that the Chinese government allows children of foreigners to attend local schools, and this can be much less expensive than the private international schools.

Preschool/daycare available: These are available but very expensive.

What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids? No idea. China isn’t a great place to be for someone with disabilities or special needs.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples? Yes, for all of these. It’s a very diverse city and there is something for everyone.

From what you have heard, is it a good city for gay or lesbian expats? I am gay. There is a small but growing scene here. The government seems to be coming to grips with this and trying to figure out how to manage it – they don’t seem to particularly want to suppress it, but they also don’t want Beijing’s image tarnished by lots of public cruising or bathhouse orgies. A cruisy park and bathhouse were both busted this summer. So far, the happy medium has been Destination, the nexus of gay nightlife in Beijing. A couple of new gay bars just opened, and I expect they will be successful. There isn’t nearly as much gay culture here as other cities of Beijing’s size, although there is a very big arts scene and I expect that the two may intersect at some point in the future, when there is more clarity from the local authorities on what is legally acceptable.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices? Yes, definitely. You are laowai, and while Chinese are unfailingly polite in business and in friendships, you will never be one of them.

What difficulties would someone with physical disabilities have living in this city? Beijing made great strides toward accessibility during the 2008 Olympics, and major tourist sites and transportation hubs in Beijing are accessible. However, some of the infrastructure that was put in for the Olympics hasn’t been maintained since the events ended. There’s a big difference between being a tourist and living here, though. I don’t recommend living in Beijing if you are physically challenged; daily life requires an awful lot of stairs.

Interesting/fun things to do in the area: Great Wall, 798 Art Zone, the Summer Palace, Beijing’s many parks, the Forbidden City (which is worth seeing once or twice), Zhongguancun Electronics City, and … honestly, my favorite thing to do here is to take the subway somewhere I have never been and just wander around. There is as much diversity among the neighborhoods here as there is in New York. It’s a really incredible place and you’ll never get bored if you have a sense of adventure.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Yes, most of the high-end expat buildings have these. There are some private clubs as well, but beware: these sometimes go out of business with little or no notice, even if you just paid your annual fee yesterday. In cash, of course, because that is how you pay for everything here. Sue them? Hmm, maybe you can try. Good luck with that.

Are sports programs available for kids? There are soccer moms in Beijing just like anywhere in the US.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range? American chains McDonald’s, Burger King, Fatburger, KFC and DQ are all here. Except for McDonald’s and KFC, they all cost $1 to $2 more than the same thing would cost in the US. KFC is cheap but has a very different menu than the US. McDonald’s has a localized menu as well, but they have many American favorites (the Big Mac) and things cost $1-$2 less at McDonald’s here vs. the US. There are plenty of other great restaurants as well – Chinese people love to eat out, and being here in the capital, you can sample any type of Chinese cuisine from anywhere in the country. You could eat at a different restaurant every meal every day for 3 years and maybe sample 10% of the restaurants in Beijing. Chinese food is cheap, too, you can go with 10 people to dinner and the bill comes to maybe $3 each with drinks.

What is the availability (and the relative cost) of groceries and household supplies? Everyone says “you can get anything here.” This is true, except for Ivory soap. And what they don’t say is “…and it’ll cost you.” At the market around the corner from me, milk is $12 per gallon, butter is $1.50 per stick, and at Wal-Mart cheese costs $7 for a small block of Land O’ Lakes cheddar. Extrapolate accordingly. Obviously, your average Beijing resident who makes $600 a month isn’t paying these prices, they just eat entirely different things, some of which newly arriving Americans would consider weird and alien. You’ll either need to change your habits (and lower your standards – Chinese products are not the same quality you’ll be used to) or pay through the nose.

What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc? China is very modern, but is still a developing country. You may be able to find this stuff, but good luck.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs? This is mostly a cash economy, although an increasing number of merchants are taking local credit cards. The credit card system here is called Union Pay, and merchants need a separate machine to take Visa, MasterCard, etc. Most of them won’t have this, so until you have a local bank account, you’ll need to be prepared to pay cash. Many ATMs do not take foreign cards. Bank of China, HSBC and Citibank ATMs work with foreign cards reliably. Of the three, I trust HSBC the most. ATMs are sometimes stocked with counterfeit bills, and you have no recourse if you are cheated. For this reason, I always use the same ATM in the lobby of my office; it is always stocked with brand new fresh uncirculated bills.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of rugged terrain, lack of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc? Don’t bring a car here. The paperwork is an incredible hassle and you won’t be able to get parts for it (foreign-branded cars are manufactured through local joint ventures and have different designs in China even though they look the same). Beijing recently implemented a new system that makes it incredibly difficult to get a number plate. As a result, you will have great difficulty buying a car here. If you do get one, your reward is joining traffic-clogged streets that make LA rush hour traffic look fast. Take the subway or ride a bicycle (or electric bike) if you want to get anywhere.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable? Trains and subways are safe, fast and efficient—although often very crowded. Taxis are sort of safe; drivers are very aggressive here and do not follow the rules of the road that you may be used to. Petty crime is common on buses. One time when I rode one, a fight broke out and the driver locked all the doors, not letting anyone off the bus until the police came. Transportation is affordable. You can ride a taxi for 2.5km for $1.50. After that, it’s a 15-cent fuel tax and then 30 cents for each additional km. This is the most expensive option. The subway is 30 cents (this will get you anywhere in the system, well over 100km of track) and buses cost 6 cents.

Do you have any recommendations regarding cell phones? China Mobile has the best coverage but they don’t have international standard 3G service (it’s a local Chinese standard that only works in China with Chinese phones). China Unicom has far worse coverage but uses the same 3G international standard that AT&T does. China Telecom runs a network using the same 3G technology Verizon and Sprint do in the US, but you can’t bring your phone from home and use it here (except through roaming, which is very expensive). You will have to buy a local one if you go with China Telecom. I use China Unicom and the service is anywhere from bad to awful, but it’s a job requirement that I have a world phone, so I don’t have any choice.

How do you get and send your letters and package mail? The company has a lot of people traveling back and forth to headquarters, so I usually send things back with colleagues to mail, or have them bring me things when they visit. The local mail is inexpensive, honest and reliable, but you have to go to the post office in person to mail packages. This takes a long time because post offices are very busy (like everything in Beijing).

Items you would ship to this post if you could do it again? Drain cleaner. I haven’t found it here yet. Otherwise, I did pretty well – I made a big Costco run before I left and bought a bunch of stuff I knew I couldn’t easily find here or was prohibitively expensive (camping food and supplies, glow sticks, everything electronic I could possibly want for the next 2 years, good quality paper towels and toilet paper, spices). One thing I have had a heck of a time finding is an electric frying pan to make pancakes, so if you like pancakes, bring one of those. For the most part, it isn’t that you can’t find it here, it’s that when you do, you won’t want to pay $4 for a roll of paper towels even though they’re good and work and the local ones are terrible and don’t. Bring any supply of medication with you (prescription and non-prescription) that you will need for the length of your assignment. There are problems with counterfeit drugs and you may have trouble finding what you want (especially Pepto-Bismol).

Availability and cost of domestic help: My apartment came with a housekeeper. She’s worked here for the past 7 years for the previous 3 tenants and already had a key so just assumed she worked for me now. She is cheap (works for $3 per hour with a 4-hour minimum) and only expects to come once a week, and she’ll do things like come during the day and wait for deliveries. Seems to be honest, too. I am still not sure that I really need someone to do my laundry for me and clean my house, but that’s just an example of how cheap and available domestic help is, I guess.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living? You can get by without knowing any, because most signage is in English and Chinese. You won’t make many Chinese friends or get close to the culture, though. After 6 months of living here without language skills, I’m now spending 10 hours a week taking Chinese lessons. It’s sufficiently disruptive and isolating not to speak the language to merit this much of a time investment.

English-language religious services available? Denominations? Yes, just about anything you can think of is available here. However, I’ve been told that Chinese people are not allowed to attend religious services with foreigners and you have to bring your passport to church. I am not religious myself, so you’re advised to double-check this locally.

English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost? Global Times is the communist party’s newspaper. It costs 30 cents and runs a lot of local interest articles, some of which are pretty controversial. It’s important to note that the party isn’t the government; there are many factions, and the Global Times is left-leaning. China Daily is the official government newspaper, staid, dry and conservative. GDP is the big story, every day, inexorably marching to the moon and stratosphere in a great harmonious society, and by the way, won’t you visit Wenzhou, too? Here’s a dry profile about how they manufacture butane lighters. You can obviously tell which I like better. Some free-to-air satellite channels are available, although I think having a dish is technically illegal (there are tons of them everywhere, so this isn’t enforced if it is). Programming comes mostly from the Philippines. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t really care. The Chinese government has an English-language TV station called CCTV 9. It is very special. CCTV 9 is legendary in expat circles. Hope you packed your Pepto.

Is high-speed internet access available? Cost? There is a 10Mbps service shared with the entire building for $18.25 per month. I have this, but I also subscribed to my own 2Mbps ADSL line for $24.25 per month (so I have two connections in the apartment). Between the two, I have enough bandwidth to do what I want. Keep in mind I’m a very heavy Internet user and work in the high tech industry, and this is barely enough. Speeds are variable depending on the time of day – in Beijing, the Internet has traffic jams just like the streets. You will need a VPN to access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and many other sites outside China.

Size of expat community: There won’t be official numbers until the census results are out later this year, but official estimates are over 100,000. Keep in mind that nearly every country in the world maintains an embassy here, so many of these people are embassy personnel from small Asian and African countries. There are probably around 20,000-30,000 people from English-speaking developed countries. This includes a mix of students, professionals and embassy personnel.

Morale among expats: Depends on the expat. Some people are amazed every day that they are here, some can’t wait to leave. Sometimes it’s the same people and a different day of the week.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy? There are lots of jobs, but at local pay. Ever thought of being a model? You could be one here, and see your picture on the front of thousands of boxes of some product exported all over the world. Chinese companies always have a need for someone to provide English customer service. Or maybe you just want to wear a nice suit and go to a formal dinner where you have no idea what’s going on, but you smile and nod and shake hands and enjoy the very high-end cuisine, and get paid for showing up (some companies just need to have a white guy somewhere for whatever reason). Have a nice voice? Why not try making voice-overs? And of course you can teach English, anything from teaching adorable first graders how to say their names to helping Chinese businessmen improve their conversational English. Now let’s talk about the pay. The average salary in Beijing is $600 per month. If you aren’t working for a multinational company or an embassy, the most you can hope to pull in is about $2,000 per month.

Entertaining/social life: Practically anything you can imagine and lots of things that you can’t. You’ll never want for something to do in Beijing. From wandering the hutong of Nanlouguxiang late at night to dancing all night at the Great Wall to learning great Chinese cooking to trivia nights, the social scene is exciting and vibrant. Or try board games, tea and KTV with your new Chinese friends.

Dress code at work and in public: In my industry, it’s casual, but this is an exception. In China, people consider it important to look professional – suit, tie and slacks are standard professional attire for men, and women wear slacks and a blazer. That being said, as a foreigner you may be able to get away with a lot – people expect foreigners to be different.

Any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available? There is one JCI certified, international standard hospital in Beijing (United Family). It’s very expensive, for some procedures even more expensive than US hospitals, but it’s really your only option if you want the quality of care you’d expect in the US. A handful of international-standard clinics are also available, all much more expensive than local hospitals but more familiar environments. Local hospitals are very cheap, but 70% of people who show up there end up on an intravenous IV antibiotic drip (antibiotics are grossly overused here, to the point it’s scary – you can buy hardcore ones over the counter at the pharmacy). I try to avoid setting foot in any medical facility since I don’t want to be exposed to MRSA or other multi-drug resistant bacteria. The quality of care is OK, but if I could, I’d personally head back to the US, Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore for anything serious. Excellent quality and inexpensive dental and vision care are both available. Take advantage!

Do incoming pets need to be quarantined? One of my co-workers had to quarantine his cat on the way in, but it didn’t have to be quarantined on return to the US.

You can leave behind your: …expectations of traffic rules, propriety, and preference for uncrowded places.

But don’t forget your: Everyone says patience and sense of humor. You will need both of those, but also don’t forget the most important thing: your reason for coming here. This place will test your patience to the limit and then some, so have a really solid reason why you want to be here. Otherwise, after a Bad China Day, you’ll be on the next plane home wondering how to put your life back together.

Can you save money? This really depends on you. If you live in a high-end foreigner complex, eat Western food every day, shop at the foreign market for everything, have an ayi who waits on you hand and foot, insist on either having a car and driver or taking taxis everywhere, and buy lots of consumer stuff, no way. The ayi and taxis are relatively cheap, but you’ll be paying 3-4 times as much for everything in general vs. the US. Oh, and the bars. Many expats, unable to figure out that they’re living in an amazing city of 30 million people with virtually limitless possibilities, drink away their evenings to the tune of several hundred dollars a month (or more). Anyway, just come to accept that you’re not in the US anymore. You can have an American lifestyle here, but will it ever cost you. And it’s totally not worth it. If you’re going to be in China, do things the Chinese way! Take the subway most of the time, use local products, downgrade to a local complex (albeit a nice one), shop at local markets and buy local products, eat mostly Chinese food when you eat out, and take full advantage of your employer’s benefits and reimbursement policy (taking full advantage of your meal allowance and filing for reimbursement for any little thing you’re entitled to claim – it sounds weird, but locals do it so you won’t raise eyebrows). If you’re making a decent salary (more than 10,000 RMB per month), you’ll be truly amazed how quickly the RMB pile up in your bank account.

What unique local items can you spend it on? A society with 1.4 billion people makes few unique things. Settle for things that are definitely Chinese. The best gift I’ve found is silk bathrobes at YaShow market – real pure Chinese silk, very high quality, about $30. There really isn’t much to buy here, though – it’s all the same stuff you can get at Wal-Mart in the US, except lower quality and at higher prices (China has a 17% value added tax, and with incomes so low, the quality of items sold here tends to be either akin to dollar stores or super high end luxury goods). Of course, you can always buy a “Pravda” bag or a “Cucci” watch. If you’re a geek, head to Zhongguancun. The fake (aka “Shanzhai”) iPhones are hilarious, and you can buy incredibly powerful laser pointers with a 2km range.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there? Ask me again in 6 months. It’s been a blur since I got here (I transferred in at a very busy time in my job, so I’ve spent way too much time at the office) and I’m just finally starting to get my life together and get established here. I’m either going to love this place or hate it in 2 years.

Recommended books related to this city: Any Judge Dee mystery novel you can find. Or all of them.

Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city: There were a lot of DVDs produced for the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. While they’re in Chinese and hard to find outside of China, there is a lot of great cinematography showing off the city.

Any other comments: Beijing is at the epicenter of one of the most incredible transformations that has ever happened in human history. There are definite challenges and growing pains, along with an exciting new confidence and pride in a nation both young and old. There are skyscrapers juxtaposed with upper-middle-aged couples happily dancing in public squares on warm summer nights. The hyper-modern technology district of Zhongguancun sits side by side with thousand year old hutongs. Belching smokestacks point to smoking tailpipes idling beside orchards tended with donkey carts, with bicyclists always traveling faster than the incessantly honking Audi A6s. Everything in China is layers upon layers of complexity that you can hardly begin to understand, and everything is seemingly contradictory, but uncannily consistent in the context of five thousand years of history. Chinese people are inconsiderate yet warm, pushy yet polite, avaricious yet honest, and always eager with a “can do” attitude except when they’re saying mei you. Sometimes it’s enough to drive you to distraction, and then one of your Chinese friends calls and invites you to dinner just because and you have the most amazing meal of your life, except that you just had that last week, and you could have it every day here.

Never lose sight of how amazing your life can be if you just open your mind to the possibility, and you’ll do fine.

A reader wrote and asked me something that seems perfectly logical from the perspective of an American, but utterly perplexing from a Chinese perspective or even the perspective of someone who has lived here for awhile:

I’m in China for the next couple weeks and I’m trying to plan out interesting things to do.
I saw you moved over here a while back and might have a suggestion
or two. I’m in Yangshuo until the 4th and my flight back to Seattle
leaves from Shanghai on the 12th so I’ve got 8 days or so to fill with
stuff. I’m not a giant fan of tourist traps so I’m trying to avoid
things like the great wall and the terracotta warriors. Any suggestions
you might have would be greatly appreciated.

It makes a lot of sense, right? I hate tourist traps when I travel. If I wanted to see a tourist trap, I would have booked a trip to one. Except then it probably wouldn’t have been a trap, right?

Here’s my reply:

Given where you are, I assume you are in China for beauty and backpacking. You’re actually in one of the best places in the country, but do head west – take plenty of time in Guizhou, and then make your way through Yunnan. You can fly back to Shanghai from Lijiang. There is a lot to see, and the second highest waterfall in the world is in Guizhou.

A few words about crowds and tourist traps. China has 1.4 billion people. If you are anywhere without crowds, it’s because Chinese people don’t go there. Any place of historical, cultural or scenic interest is rapaciously commercialized. This is part of the China Experience (TM). It’s a very different culture than our own. If you are at all like me, you will hate this to the core of your being until one day, you accept that you’re in a very different place, a different society, one that operates with an entirely different set of values. This is a place where it’s OK to bulldoze an ancient hutong in the center of Beijing, thousands of years old, surviving the collapse of multiple dynasties and the cultural revolution, for the sake of building a KFC and a KTV. And, of course, another giant featureless housing development with an enormous parking garage that will be full of Audi A6s. Money is the be-all and end-all, and most old things have no value. China is about young and brash, new and flash. Nowhere is this more on display than in Shanghai. The country is the embodiment of all that I admired at the age of fourteen, and at 61 years of Communism, modern China is in the throes of adolescence.

Welcome to high school. Noisy, crowded and self-absorbed.

Taking a train from Beijing to Badaling on a weekend, when the Great Wall is teeming with thousands upon thousands of Chinese people from all over the country, littering and spitting all over the place with a kid standing in the corner pissing off the top, *is* the “real” China. Walking up and down thousands of stairs at Leshan with even thousands more Chinese people shoving and swearing and trying to cut in front of you after paying the third rip-off fee along the way makes it no less magnificent. Don’t worry about the money. It’s quick and easy to lose perspective. You’ll get ripped off (another part of the experience) but it’ll usually be for less than $5 each time, so don’t let it ruin your day. And don’t worry about the people. In a society where most people are very poor, and there are an awful lot of people, you have to scrap to get ahead.

Minority villages in Guizhou, in Yunnan and in Sichuan are awesome. You can buy some really incredible, unique art that doesn’t look Chinese at all. The Han people have complicated relationships with minority cultures and will act very concerned if you plan to visit minority villages. They will issue dire and exaggerated (but not entirely unfounded, so don’t be overly dismissive) warnings about venturing into minority areas uninvited. This means that you may end up in a tourist trap of a larger village, but it also means that if you time it right, you’ll get to see dance performances and they’ll have a Saturday market. Culture is, unfortunately, a luxury that goes by the wayside when you make less than $2,000 a year and food inflation is rampant, so you find that people have little time for that when you’re truly in the hinterlands. That aside, minority people tend to be very friendly and curious about foreigners, as long as you are respectful of customs that may dramatically differ both from our own and from the Han people. Be hyper-observant, it’s easy to offend. You’ll be surrounded by groups of children in no time, and may have been one of the first foreigners they’ve ever seen. Make a good impression.

Guizhou is the poorest and least developed province in China. Transportation is shared minibus taxis. They might have been sort of safe once but aren’t now. You can share these kinds of buses with live chickens and sometimes other livestock so watch out for hungry goats after your lunch. You can have similar experiences in Yunnan, wondering whether you’ll be later featured in a one column inch article titled “Bus Plunge Kills 29 in Yunnan, One American.” And you should have these experiences, they’re another part of this very complicated culture.

Make friends. They’re the key to an incredible experience. Chinese people are generally very friendly, except when they’re trying to rip you off. You have to take risks to figure out who is genuine. Make them calculated ones, but do take risks. You’d be amazed at the hospitality of the Chinese. They usually have their own ideas about the US, and they are shaped by Hollywood and pop culture. They will automatically assume you are rich. Do your best to demonstrate that the US is as varied and diverse as is China – actually, we’re much more so, but then it becomes a competitive argument and Chinese people love to win. 🙂

When children point at you and say “Laowai! Laowai!” you can make them laugh if you look at them, act surprised, and say “Zhong guo ren!” (They’re saying “Foreigner, Foreigner!” and you’re saying “Chinese person!”) And never underestimate how much goodwill a friendly smile and “ni hao!” will get you. If you enter a private home, always greet everyone individually with “ni hao” and take off your shoes. When you leave, individually tell everyone either “bye bye” or “zai jian.”

In Shanghai, you’ll be ready for Mexican food. The only good Mexican food I have found in China is at a ridiculously expensive restaurant called Mi Tierra ( Don’t worry about the prices, just order from the menu and pay the bill when you get it. Everything is absolutely authentic. It would be a good Mexican restaurant in Mexico. Otherwise, Shanghai is a place where you can’t drink the water (it’ll give you instant diarrhea) but you still pay US prices or more for everything. It’s glitzy glamorous, China’s financial center and the most expensive place you’ll visit.

Beijing – it’s the capital. You should see this. The Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace are all tourist traps but you can’t really come to China without seeing them. Or maybe you can. It’s a city of contradictions, a microcosm of the entire country. Both ancient and modern, rich and poor, young and old, fast-paced and a place where you can know your neighbors. Beijing is the center of culture, learning, and government. You really feel like you’re in the middle of something incredible when you are here. I live in a neighborhood that looks like it belongs in a movie, and every day I wonder how it is that I could possibly live in such an amazing place. There is a temple a block away from my apartment that is over 800 years old. Hit me up if you make it here – if you do not bring bedbugs, you can have the guest room.

Enjoy your visit to my temporarily adopted home. China is an incredible place, and I hope you can both enjoy it and get as close to the culture as you can.

Work has been really intense for the past couple of months. So intense that I’ve worked every weekend and have even had to put Chinese lessons (which I absolutely need) on the back burner. Finally things calmed down enough to take a weekend off. I decided to get out of the country. That way I had a reasonable excuse for not going back into the office over the weekend (it turned out that I needed that excuse, but that’s a story that won’t get posted here).

So, I went to Seoul. By accident.

Over the past month, I’d been planning to visit Seoul and visit Helena Meyer-Knapp, one of my former college professors who has a post-doc fellowship at a university there. Her area of study is the development of peacemaking, something that is definitely top of mind for the leaders of the Republic of Korea. Since the end of the Korean War, the Korean peninsula has been divided under an uneasy truce into north and south, and is separated by a DMZ. In 2005 I visited the northern part, and was one of the first Americans to visit the DPRK (as North Korea calls itself–“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) as a tourist. It seemed only fitting to visit the DMZ with someone whose life’s work is dedicated to erasing it. And who better to explore Seoul with – Helena, although many years my senior, is one of my favorite people in the world.

There was only one problem. We had gone back and forth in email to plan dates but were thinking about different months. I ended up booking the wrong month, April instead of May. No matter, the trip is not overly expensive, so even though my tickets were fully refundable and changeable (there’s really no such thing as a non-refundable plane ticket in China) I opted to travel anyway. Why not? The weather forecast was miserable in Beijing and I really needed a break.

I left on Thursday night, and booked the last flight of the day, which is on Korean Air, arriving in Seoul at 12:10AM. I arrived two hours early at the airport prepared for a long wait through immigration (you have to stamp both into and out of China), but was pleasantly surprised at how little wait there was. This gave me time at the airport Starbucks to wrap-up last minute business using the free airport WiFi. You can’t use WiFi in China without registering, and there used to be a very complicated process where you had to find a kiosk (there are only a few in the airport), scan your passport (which often doesn’t work correctly), and then get a username and password. Fortunately it’s a lot easier now. You can just register with your mobile phone and the airport will text you a username and password.

The service on Korean Airlines was typical for an Asian airline. Even though it’s only a 2 hour flight, there was a full meal service, free alcohol, and duty free sales. It somewhat softened the blow of the $400 airfare (one of the consequences of every trip being full service and all tickets being refundable is that the prices are often higher than in the US for a similar distance). There was a little turbulence since it was stormy, but nothing major.

Seoul customs and immigration was breezily efficient, although they didn’t give me all the correct forms on the plane so I had to go fill out an extra form and was required to go to the back of the line to do this. The more developed the country you’re visiting, the more forms there are to fill out for Customs and the more questions they ask. I was prepared for a US-style hassle (the US, Canada and the UK have unfriendly and intrusive customs and immigration) due to the substantial US military presence in Korea and the large number of Americans there. However, I didn’t get stopped or even asked any questions.

Helena had earlier warned me that the airport shuts down at night, and I hadn’t reserved a room. I went out to the airport shuttle area and was delighted to discover that there was one shuttle left, which was going to an area roughly close to where the Renaissance was. I would have to take the bus to a different hotel, then take a taxi to the Renaissance. My reservation at the Renaissance wasn’t until Friday night (with a 2pm check-in time, not a 2am check-in time), but given the distance from the airport and the time the bus left, it would be nearly 3 in the morning when I arrived at the Renaissance. I figured I’d just ask how early I could check in. Hey, if you don’t ask, they can’t say “yes,” right?

I needed money for the airport bus, and there was no ATM near the bus station. I’m glad that I always bring along a few hundred US dollars for emergencies, because it turned out that they only way to quickly get Korean won for the bus was to exchange US dollars with the airport 7-11 at an unfavorable rate. $100 got me 100,000 won, so at the prevailing rate I paid about $7 for the privilege. Still, this is only about double what an ATM fee would have cost me, so it wasn’t too absurd a gouge. I should have paid more attention to where the ATMs were on my way out.

The airport bus costs 15,000 won (the won is a very low valued unit of currency, so you have to divide by 1,000 and subtract 5% to arrive at roughly the dollar conversion). It’s a long ride to the part of Seoul where the Renaissance is, but the driver told me where to get off. And so it was that I found myself sitting at a bus stop at 2 in the morning with a bunch of teenagers. I was so tired that my contact lenses were about to fall out, so I busied myself with taking them out. The kids ignored me. They were busily using a giant touch-screen display attached to the bus stop to flip through satellite view maps of Seoul, apparently trying to figure out their bus route. I just stood and watched, fascinated by the spectacle. South Korea is one of the most technically advanced societies on the planet, and is probably the most sophisticated at this point.

After a few minutes of standing around watching the kids (who pointedly ignored me – a huge difference from Beijing, where if I’d paid attention to anything that teenagers were doing, I’d be quickly surrounded by them trying to practice their conversational English) I decided to try to find something to eat. Since I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be, there wasn’t any hurry to get to the Renaissance. Besides, the later I showed up, the more likely it was that they would let me check in early. I’d seen a 24 hour Internet cafe on the way to the bus stop, so I walked there through the rain. Walking inside, the owner was obviously asleep. One pasty-faced college student was absorbed in a game of World of Warcraft, and never even looked up. I felt bad waking up the owner, and didn’t really want to go online, so I walked back upstairs. Next door to the Internet cafe, there was a 24 hour restaurant. It looked like a greasy spoon, so I figured I’d give Korean food a try.

The waitress didn’t speak any English, and the menu was in Korean and didn’t have any pictures. Eventually, one of the patrons decided to help me. “This is a special restaurant, all the food is stewed pig’s guts.” When I said “Oh, like bacon?” he said “No, the other gut parts. It is very spicy and smelly, most foreigners do not like it.” His girlfriend, also an English speaker, nodded to indicate her concurrence. “The place next door has chicken, it is very good, many foreigners like Korean chicken.” I thanked him and left to go next door. Unfortunately, the restaurant had just closed, so no chicken for me.

To my surprise, as I was leaving, the friendly guy from the restaurant next door was coming in. “You are leaving?” he said. “It’s closed, but thank you anyway,” I told him. He asked the owner a question in animated Korean, nodded gravely, and said “They have closed.” Looking at my luggage, he said “Where do you stay?” “The Renaissance,” I told him. What the heck, he seemed friendly enough. “I’m not sure where it is, though. I just got here on the airport bus.” He replied “Oh, that is a very famous hotel, but it is not close to here. You had better take a taxi.” Having received the same advice from both this guy and the airport staff, I guessed I was probably going to end up in a taxi. “OK, thanks!” I said. “Do you know how much it should cost?” Crooked taxi drivers tend to overcharge me, so it’s always good to know what the price should be so I can argue it later. “Oh, very cheap, maybe 5,000 won,” he said while flagging down a cab. In Korean, he told the driver where I was going, shook my hand, and wished me a nice visit to Seoul.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. So far, Seoul was making a pretty good one.

The taxi driver took me straight to the Renaissance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t check in early. “The check in time is 2pm. We can’t extend your stay, though, because it’s a full house tonight. You can check with the concierge for things to do, and we can keep your bags for you.” I didn’t particularly mind. “Extend your stay” is hotel doublespeak for “charge you for another night,” and the Renaissance is a 4 star hotel that I’d booked for $88 per night through Priceline. I doubted “extending” my stay would be an inexpensive proposition.

I dropped my bags with the concierge and asked for some advice, explaining that I was very tired but the Renaissance was full and I couldn’t check in. “Would you like to go to a sauna?” he asked. If I didn’t live in China, I wouldn’t have any idea what he was talking about. However, Korea has the same spa culture as China. There are expensive, luxurious and well-appointed spas that have sleeping areas. You can have a deep soaking bath, get a massage, and then have a rest for as long as you like (the price you pay allows a full day stay). Best of all, it’s cheap. I have never gone in China, but I’ve read about these and it seemed like a reasonable option. “Sure, I guess, if there’s nothing better that you can suggest,” I said. The concierge didn’t have any other ideas, since there just isn’t much open at 3 in the morning. He handed me a map, told me how to get there, and sent me on my way.

Unfortunately, the map was really confusing and it was all in Korean, a language that I don’t have any experience reading. I’m actually able to recognize Chinese characters now, but the Korean written language is called Hangul and it’s so different from Chinese that the characters all run together (this was the case for me with Chinese too until I started learning a few characters – now I can at least match characters on a sign to something in a book, etc.). Try as I might, I couldn’t find the spa. It was pouring rain and I was getting soaked, so I finally ducked into the lobby of a business hotel in an effort to find the place.

I was so tired that my first question was whether they had any rooms available. They didn’t, and had no idea where the spa I was looking for was located, but one of the hotel employees literally left his desk and walked  me to another one nearby (there are spas all over the place in Seoul). I was truly blown away with the kindness; I wasn’t a customer and would never be one – I’d expect an indifferent shrug or “mei you” in China, so it was a little overwhelming to have someone go completely out of his way just to be nice. The spa wasn’t at all luxuriously appointed, but it wasn’t bad and was pretty cheap at about $10. It seemed like the kind of place that would attract students or recent graduates. The spa was very clean, though, and I fell asleep on a cheap plastic lounge chair next to the pool. For a few hours, it was quiet enough to sleep (not comfortably, but I didn’t especially care). Unfortunately around 6 in the morning some guy with a terrible cough started hacking up nasty chunks of phlegm and spitting them on the ground. This seems to be a less common habit in Korea than in China, but it’s still considered socially acceptable here. I tried to go back to sleep, but he just kept coughing, the lounge chair was uncomfortable anyway, and it was clearly time to wake up.

Now, here I am in a bathhouse full of nude and half-nude Korean guys, and I think Korean guys (unlike Chinese guys) are attractive, and this early in the morning they were almost all (except for Phlegm Dude) young and in really good shape. I’d never been in a bathhouse before, and I’ll probably never go again. Ron Jeremy thinks of disgusting things when he’s trying to avoid having an orgasm. “Korean dog meat soup, dog butcher, dead dogs” I thought, trying, erm, “hard” to keep blood from flowing to certain parts of my anatomy. If you need advice on control, take it from Ron Jeremy; it works. I got up and got the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

Not so long ago, I had just graduated from college and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. So I can totally relate to RJ, a reader who wrote in with the following questions:

I am a recent college graduate looking to try a new culture and try to sustain myself as a teacher in an open minded, intellectually stimulating society – a place in which I can try some new things while meeting nice people. What was it like? Good experience? Growth experience? Is China dirty? Repressive?
Thank you for your time, and I’ll look forward to your response.

Great questions, RJ! Here are my thoughts:

I am not an English teacher, but many Americans and other foreigners teach English here. To do so legally you will need to have the TEFL certification, and you will need to be at least 24 years old (you can’t get a proper work visa if you’re younger, and I don’t recommend working illegally on a business visa). Lots of the private language schools here are scammy garbage so look around on the forums like TheBeijinger, WeLiveInBeijing, and BeijingStuff to network with other English teachers and learn what to avoid.

Don’t come here for the money. English teachers make, on average, about $1,500 a month. This sometimes includes a housing subsidy, but not always. Chinese people have a different idea of housing than you may; your school may offer housing but then you find out you’re sharing a room with 3 other teachers and you’re a 1 hour bus ride away from the school, and another 1 hour subway ride beyond that to anywhere interesting.

Never give them your passport for “safekeeping,” no reputable school will ask you to do this and it’s a big red flag. Be sure to register with the US embassy before you come here – they are mostly useless, but at least the government will know you are here if you run into trouble with the police (which is incredibly rare unless you do something incredibly stupid).

Dirty – yes, China is one of the dirtiest countries on the planet, the environmental problems are severe here. You can’t drink tap water, washing your clothes is sort of a misnomer because they come out almost as dirty as when they went in (they’re stiff as cardboard from the minerals after they dry, don’t bring anything irreplaceable here and avoid any expensive fashion), and the air quality is so bad the US embassy called it “crazy bad” once until they thought up a better way to describe off-the-charts hazardous. Not every day is like this but you’ll wish you weren’t here on the days where it happens – you’ll be sitting in your apartment feeling like you’re breathing bus exhaust. I bought an Ionic Pro Turbo air cleaner and if I lock myself in my bedroom with that and the humidifier running on days like this, it makes the air quality breatheable (and I’m not particularly sensitive, some people have a really rough time). The cleaning of the unit that you’re supposed to do monthly, I have to do every other day when the air quality is hazardous.

On the other hand, it’s not like India where there are stories-high piles of garbage everywhere and urchins surrounding you on the street begging, and random cows all over the place. Beijing compared to Delhi is very, very clean and well-organized.

Should you come? If your goal is to get rich, probably not (with rare exceptions). Some people here are incredibly rich, but that game is mostly for well-connected Chinese businessmen and government officials. If you open a popular expat bar, that’s about the only way for a foreigner to get rich. If you are ready to work you will not go hungry in China (hope you like Chinese food) and there isn’t much to spend money on here, but you probably won’t make enough to pay back your student loans at any reasonable rate. In my case, I’m very lucky to be one of the top people in the world in my professional field (not DJing, I do crazy high-tech stuff for a living) so I was able to come here on a more reasonable salary.

Is your goal to learn more about Chinese culture and language, and experience daily life in a culture so overwhelmingly different than your own that it may drive you over the edge? China may be for you, just be sure that you go in with your eyes wide open. The culture here is ruthless and inconsiderate (but also incredibly kind and loyal, everything is a paradox in China). It’s enough to drive me to the edge sometimes, and I’m a very experienced world traveler who has visited six of seven continents. Nobody would ever argue that living in China is not a challenge, with the possible exception of folks who never leave the expat bubble in Shanghai (which may as well be California).

My advice is to come visit first. I don’t know you, but I’m happy to show you around town if you’d like (just schedule with me in advance, my job keeps me pretty busy and I frequently travel either for business or to DJ) and give you some advice on where to stay and what to see.

Many of my friends have had good experiences teaching English in Japan through the Japanese government’s JET program. This program has a very good reputation for high integrity, and most teachers have excellent experiences. Japan is a first-world country and while it can be a difficult place to live (and the working culture is very formal) it’s much more like the US than China. You will make much more money there, but everything is also tremendously expensive – you may have equal financial challenges as taking a job in China.

Good luck whatever you choose, and let me know if you end up in Beijing!

One of my friends asked me a ton of questions about daily life in Beijing, and I thought the answers might be interesting to a wider audience. Here are his questions:

China is a black box to me. A couple questions/observations…

– You mention the air is particularly bad in the Winter. Is it typical for natives to us…e air purifiers, or is that more rare? Humidifiers?
– How much equipment did you lose in customs? Is it just tied up, or completely disappeared? or?
– Is it typical to dry clothes outside? Are dryers an uncommon thing?
– If you don’t mind me asking, how much does the apartment cost each month?
– Your laundry room looks like a death trap – grungy exposed power strips with the possibility of random water 🙁
– You mention that paper towels, cleaning products, etc are weaker. That’s surprising to me for some reason.
– Is most public signage multi-lingual, or is it just the particular building because it has tourists?

Great questions, Jaime! Here are my answers:

  1. The air is really bad all the time, especially in the winter. Everyone has humidifiers, some people have air purifiers as well, although these are very expensive because there is a luxury tax, and good ones (e.g. German or American) have a high import duty as well. I brought mine from the US in my checked luggage, and I’ll probably buy another one on my next trip. It’s kind of a hassle that I have to run it on a voltage converter, but I would not have found the same type here and would have had to pay more than double for one that isn’t as good.
  2. Electric clothes dryers are incredibly uncommon – no apartments are wired for them and they’re nearly impossible to find. You only find them used commercially here (or in the homes of expats). Chinese people believe that the sun kills bacteria in your laundry and it isn’t healthy to dry your clothes other ways. Also, they don’t see why they should pay for an electric clothes dryer when you can hang up your laundry for free. Some things you can just chalk up to cultural differences and this is one of them.
  3. My apartment costs about $1,500 per month including utilities. Yes, it is a death trap and I don’t have fire insurance yet. However, keep in mind the neighborhood – I am two blocks from the Confucius temple, within walking distance of the Lama Temple (Yonghegong) and also within walking distance of Nanlouguxiang. You know those maps of cities that show the entire metropolitan area and you live somewhere in there and then there’s the central city on the other side with all the cool stuff and nobody can afford to live there? Well, I’m on THAT side of the map. I’m not really paying for the apartment as much as I’m paying for the location.
  4. Ever been to a dollar store where everything is made in China, and marveled at all the stuff you can buy for $1 that will fall apart as soon as you get it home? That is the typical quality level of everything in general in China, except for imported luxury goods which are top end everything (you can get your Gucci handbag and Prada clothes to wear while you drive your Audi A6) and cost double or more what they do in the US. There really isn’t anything in between. So, you can buy imported paper towels for $4 per roll (good quality ones from the US) or you can buy the local stuff at the prices you’d expect, except they are terrible quality and fall apart and don’t work well. Same with other paper products, cleaning supplies etc. That’s why I shipped all this stuff from the US.
  5. Customs didn’t seize any of my personal goods. However, there are still some difficulties in clearing certain items and this is an ongoing negotiation. I understand these things can take time, although it’s been about 4 months of negotiation so far. Hopefully the problem will be solved soon.
  6. Street signs and subway signs are mostly bilingual. Some other signs are as well – keep in mind, Beijing went to great lengths to make the city navigable for the 2008 Olympics. In restaurants, there are sometimes English menus (but if there are, check the prices against the Chinese version of the menu because English menu prices are often higher). When you get outside of Beijing and Shanghai, English signage becomes less and less common. Interestingly enough, in Xinjiang there is Chinese and Arabic (rather than Chinese and English) signage.

Great questions everyone – keep them rolling in! The details of daily life in other parts of the world are always interesting to me, and I’m happy to share my Beijing experience with anyone who is interested.

There are 67,000 legitimate taxis in Beijing. They are mostly honest and plentiful if not fast (traffic is so bad in Beijing that the government is planning to restrict car purchases), and the meters issue official government fa piao (invoice). These taxis are easily recognizable because they are always painted yellow and have the same logo on the side. In Beijing, they’re either Hyundai, Citroen or Volkswagen, depending on the taxi company.

And then there are the black taxis. By some estimates, there are an equally large number of these. Many, though not all, of these are black in color. They aren’t licensed, they aren’t bonded, they aren’t insured, and they aren’t regulated. While many are equipped with meters, the fares charged bear no resemblance to the market rate.

On Subway Line 5, the Beijing municipal government shows videos warning against taking these. There is a series of videos featuring an evil hippo who does all sorts of bad and illegal things. In one video, the evil hippo drives recklessly through a town running over old ladies and giggling maniacally, only to be caught by the police when a bystander dials 110 to report the crime (Beijing has a rudimentary 911-like system,  where you can dial different numbers for police, fire and ambulance). In another video, the evil hippo takes a job as a black taxi driver, driving passengers to remote areas and robbing them with a knife.

Having been to Africa, I can agree: hippos are mean and they take no prisoners. You don’t want to ride anywhere in any car driven by a hippo. The government occasionally tries to crack down (and is largely successful in central Beijing), but in a municipality roughly three times the geographic area of Delaware, it’s a huge challenge.

A few weeks ago, Ikea delivered a terrific piece of furniture I found. It was a beautiful Chinese-style red cabinet, a showcase piece (well, “showcase” is perhaps too strong a word for anything from Ikea, but my standards of fine furnishings are pretty low since moving to Beijing).  I really loved it, and it fit perfectly in my living room, but the delivery company totally messed up the assembly and left huge nasty gashes all over the front of one of the doors. And then, as is typical, they disappeared hoping I somehow wouldn’t notice.

My administrative assistant helped me call Ikea and explain the situation and ask them to help. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any parts in stock to fix the cabinet and couldn’t get them. They could refund the delivery fee, though, would that be OK? Obviously, this wasn’t going to work, so I asked them to refund the what I paid for the furniture and also refund the assembly fee and also come and pick up the item they’d damaged. Surprisingly, they agreed to all of this (!) and showed up to retrieve the item. They left behind an Ikea gift card, which wasn’t exactly what I had agreed to, but it was redeemable for cash.

OK, fine. I had some things to return to Ikea anyway, and I hadn’t had Swedish meatballs for awhile. I caught a taxi to Ikea. From my apartment, 23 kuai, about $3.50, teeth-grittingly expensive but an expense I was grudgingly willing to absorb considering the 20 minute walk from the Taiyonggong subway station, the 2 transfers necessary to get there, and temperatures well below freezing.

When I take a taxi somewhere to shop, I tend to make the most of it. I still think of taxis as an expensive rare luxury, even though they’re commonplace here, and hate paying for them. Most of the furniture in the apartment that belongs to the landlord is trashed, so I’m having them remove it and I’m replacing it with my own stuff. Given how cheap Ikea stuff is here, the economics trump renting a place with nicer furniture that costs $150 per month more.  So, after my meatballs, I went on a mission to find a desk and desk chair. $30 later for the chair and $45 later for the desk, I had stuff that would easily cost double in the US. And by the time I checked out, it was after 10pm.

Ikea runs a taxi line, and there were dozens of people in line. It was cold, down in the low 20s at this point, and the security guards who normally run the queue were huddled inside the Ikea doorway having some sort of security guard meeting. So no taxis came, and no taxis came, and gradually the line drifted away, people left to their own devices, hauling flat boxes full of furniture wherever they thought they could find a taxi. Stubbornly, I waited to the end with another couple, who finally turned to me and said “no taxi anymore.”

I nodded and grabbed my cart, blatantly wheeling it off the grounds of Ikea. The security guards couldn’t be bothered–normally they rush after you to retrieve the cart, and then they have a reason to get you a cab, but I guess Ikea doesn’t care about people taking their carts. A few blocks away, I finally came to a main street, one where I could probably find a cab, and stood with the young couple hailing one. “You get next one, was next in line” said the man, and although I refused, the couple was very gracious,  helping me hail a cab.

Two cabs stopped, looked at me, and drove away. “Why they drive away?” wailed the woman. “I am laowai. Many cab drivers do not like laowai,” I explained. And it’s true. Stopping to pick up a foreigner who can’t always explain where he’s going and will argue if he’s taken to the wrong place is just too much hassle for many cab drivers to deal with, and they don’t know the difference between me (with a specific and well-known address that I can both pronounce and is written in Chinese) versus a drunk English teacher who has trouble pronouncing his far-flung suburban address.

And then, out of nowhere, crept a taxi: a battered First Automobile Works saloon. Black, with a magnetic taxi sign at a haphazard angle stuck to the roof. The guy driving it wasn’t obviously an evil hippo, but maybe he was wearing a mask. It looked sketchy, and I was suspicious. The nice young couple looked at each other,  then looked at me. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged, and they huddled at the window and conferred with the driver. “It’s OK,” they said, turning back to me. “No problem.”

Well, I didn’t have any reason not to trust these people. And the trunk was big enough to fit all my stuff, which would have been a hassle to fix into an ordinary taxi. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen, other than being taken to a remote area and robbed with a knife? Well, robbed and murdered, but that happens rarely in Beijing, especially to foreigners. That would be bad for the city’s image. I tossed my stuff in the trunk and, swallowing the lump in my throat, hopped into the front seat.

The driver asked where I was going, I told him, and he started driving. Amazingly, he was going in the right direction and taking the shortest route and maybe this was going to work out and … hey, wait a minute, what the hell is the meter doing?

It was ticking up at an alarming pace. Easily 3 times the rate that it should have. I looked at the meter, and looked at the driver,  and looked at the meter again, and he turned and stared at me. At this point, he had all my stuff in his trunk, so I decided I’d probably better ask the question but not risk angering him to the point of throwing me out of his unregulated cab and driving away with all my stuff. I pointed at the meter, and gave him sort of the look of “is this thing on?” and he rather passionately said something which I assume meant “Dave, my meter is completely operational and all of its systems are functioning perfectly,” and wait a minute, my name isn’t Dave. But anyway, the driver took the exit (again taking the shortest route) and took a few shortcuts that I wasn’t familiar with and the meter started running at the normal speed again.

We eventually arrived at my apartment complex, and the meter was at 34 kuai, or 11 more than it should have been.  This is serious money, $1.75 more than it should have been. I didn’t say anything,  stepping out of the cab, grabbing a cart, and being grateful for the heavy security at my apartment complex who immediately began assisting me with unloading my items.

When I was done, I paid the driver 30 kuai. It was more than I felt I owed, but I didn’t have any smaller change and his trunk was bigger after all, and it was exactly half what it would have cost me to have the larger items I brought delivered. So a good deal all around. This unleashed a tirade from the driver and he pointed at his jacked up meter and he reached for something in his car door until seeing the glare of the security guard who was watching carefully at this point. A lot of important government officials, both current and retired, apparently live in my complex and the security guards are serious. It’s not like the half-asleep private security guards at most other complexes; these guys actually seem to be police. The guard looked at the driver and the driver looked at the guard and the driver lowered his voice and again started vehemently pointing at his meter.

It was my turn to point, and this time I pointed across the street at the police station that the driver heretofore hadn’t noticed. Mustering the best Chinese I could, I said “Gong An,” making it clear that I was happy to get the police involved if he wanted to press the issue. With that, the driver shifted into gear and drove away quickly, not saying another word.

While loading the stuff into my apartment, it occurred to me that I was willing to get the police involved in a dispute over 60 cents. Granted, I’m a cheap bastard anyway, but China takes this to a whole new level.

If you come to Beijing, avoid any taxis driven by hippos. I’m sure the videos are all completely true.

Chinese people really like to make stuff and build things. This is what the entire economy here is based on. A less developed field, however, is maintenance and repair (except when it comes to bicycles – for some reason, there are bike repair stands and shops all over the place). And the least developed field is customer service.

“Meiyou” is my least favorite word in Mandarin. Often delivered with an indifferent shrug, and if you’re lucky an eye-roll, it literally means “don’t have.” However, it has a greater meaning: “Can’t fix your problem, don’t want to fix your problem, don’t care about fixing your problem.” The English equivalent, usually delivered at five star hotels, is “I’m sorry sir, but this is not possible.” If you want breakfast in bed (not that I’d ever order that–one of my colleagues tried) it’s not just out of scope, it’s not possible.

Very often, reasonable things in China are somehow not possible. My job is to turn impossible things into reality.

I just had dinner tonight at a place with free wi-fi. The wi-fi wasn’t connecting, so I asked fuwuyuan to have a look. He pulled out his shanzhai iPhone clone and demonstrated that he could get online, although it seemed to me like he was connecting through 3G. But connecting through a phone was a good idea. I pulled out one phone, which didn’t connect, and then the other phone, which didn’t connect either.

Blank stare. Gesturing to fake iPhone and its Internet awesomeness. No effort to resolve the problem. Clearly there must be something wrong with my phone, my other phone, and my laptop. Rebooting the router is definitely not in order. Meiyou.

Anyway, when I rented my new apartment, I asked the landlord to replace the antique washing machine that had to have been at least ten years old. Surprisingly (I say surprisingly because even though the rent is absurdly high and at the top of my price range, it’s low for the area), he agreed. Rather than the piece of junk replacement I expected, Suning, an a local appliance store, delivered a high-end Whirlpool! By the way, like many American branded products here, it’s actually a Chinese washer inside. Still, it does a pretty good job, and a much better job than the old one did.

The first guy carried the whole thing upstairs all by himself–one small middle aged Chinese guy with a washing machine on his back, no safety equipment, nothing–and he gently set it on the floor of the living room. I wonder what an X-ray of his back vertebrae and ankles look like – that really can’t be healthy. He opened the box to demonstrate there was, in fact, a washing machine inside and left after collecting the requisite signatures. The installation man was to arrive later, he assured us.

“The washing machine is already delivered,” said the store when my real estate agent and the landlord complained that it wasn’t installed.  Appliances come with free delivery and installation, but only if you can convince the store to provide the service. Gloria, my real estate agent, is persistent. So is the landlord, so the guy showed up again. I’d done some investigation and decided that I wanted the washing machine on the balcony outside the kitchen, because any other location was too inconvenient, and asked the landlord to pass this on to the installer.

“Meiyou” was the answer, delivered through my real estate agent while I was at work. The washing machine was 60 centimeters across, and the doorway to the balcony was 55 centimeters across, no way it was going to work, impossible. So obviously I didn’t need to do laundry. He just left without doing anything, leaving the washing machine in the same place as it was before, still not connected. My laundry was starting to pile up at this point, and believe me, it’s in Beijing that I learned where the phrase “being taken to the cleaners” comes from. It’s over $30 to do a week’s worth of laundry here!

I bought a measuring tape and measured the washing machine. It was 60 centimeters in length, and 52 centimeters in width. It takes extra effort to measure both directions, and when you make your living carrying appliances on your back, you apparently want to conserve energy in any way possible.

Anyway, Gloria called Suning back, and so did the landlady, both apoplectic and getting a rapid response. They sent their best technician out. He was clearly annoyed, not only at me for wanting something so unreasonable as not having about 1/5 of my apartment being dead space, but also at the previous technicians who had failed to solve the problem. And so it is that I met an actual problem solver, that rarest of rare individuals in Beijing.

It turned out that my measurements weren’t right. Washing machines have all sorts of bulges and bends and appendages protruding from their frames, and when you have a leeway of 3 centimeters you actually don’t have any leeway at all. It would not fit through the door. The installer pointed at the door and shrugged and was getting ready to say “meiyou” when I pointed at the hinges and indicated that the door could, in fact, be removed. Nice try, buddy, now get to work.

Blank stare. Defeated look. Sigh. And then a glimmer of “hey, I accept this challenge,” and he set to work removing the door.

When I was a kid, I really liked to take things apart and put them back together again. Actually, I still do, I just don’t have much time anymore. This would have been the most fun project ever for me at age fourteen. The washer still didn’t fit. It had a clip protruding and a dial on its face and a door in the way and a weird plastic lip sticking out at the bottom and damnit, why do washers have to be so irregularly shaped?! But I’d met a kindred spirit. We refused to be defeated by Whirlpool. Even though we didn’t share the same language, I dug through my possessions, handing him tools that he didn’t have as he literally took apart the washer. We worked as a team, me finding the correct tools and pieces to be removed, and him stripping down the washer, piece by piece. After each major piece we’d try to fit it through the doorway, only to discover yet another piece in the way.

And then finally, we got the whole thing under 55 centimeters across. Victory! The installer wouldn’t high-5 me or accept a beer, but he did grin when I gave him two thumbs up. The washer went back together, the door was re-installed, and plumbing was busily run. And best of all, everything works! I can do laundry! It ties up the kitchen sink while I’m doing it because the water source is the kitchen faucet and the washer drains into the sink, but this is infinitely preferable to the prior arrangement.

In the end, the bill was 24 kuai, about $3.50.  The installer handed me my change, adamantly refusing a tip. And the one word he never said the entire time he was here was “meiyou.”

After I posted this article, the Global Times also ran a story on the topic.

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