City Life


A short update, because I’m really busy:

– Things really hit bottom when I found myself living in a fly-infested motel room. Maggots dropping onto my bed from the ceiling at night was the last straw. I got really aggressive about looking for an apartment, spending an entire weekend looking at one place after another.

– I have finally rented an apartment. I will post more about this later, but it’s in a historic neighborhood of old Beijing. It’s (barely) affordable, although lots of things are broken and the furniture is a disaster, so I’m more or less taking it on blind faith that the landlord will correct the problems as promised. Still, it’s apartment, and it’s in a neighborhood I like, and it has plenty of room for my stuff.

– Customs agreed to release my winter clothes and other items not in dispute. Slowly, the typical Chinese answer of “I’m sorry, but this is impossible” is turning into well, maybe yes, this might be possible. Hopefully this will result in the remainder of my stuff showing up in the next month or two.

– I have gotten an unexpected reprieve at work, because one of the major projects I am working on became delayed (due to external reasons, nothing to do with me). This is good news, since it takes some of the breakneck pressure off of my job and will give me a little time to regain my sanity. 7 day weeks and 12+ hour days get old in a hurry, and after 2 months in a row combined with nowhere to live, they turn into thoughts of throwing in the towel.

    That’s it for now. I’m going to be busy over the next couple of weeks refitting my apartment with furniture and appliances that are more in tune with my preferences. Also might squeeze in a little travel over the slow period. Overall, things are looking up!

    I’m not the kind of guy who complains a lot, but wow. This sucks, and I need to make more than a few tweaks to fix it.

    I’m homeless. It’s not quite that dramatic–I’m not sleeping under a bridge–but I don’t have an apartment. The room I currently call home is a budget motel room with insects in the bathroom and a heater that sometimes works and all the propaganda I want from CCTV. It costs about $30 a night, hotels being ridiculously expensive like any housing in Beijing, and is barely bigger than a bed. Fortunately it’s in the Wudaokou neighborhood, which is a close commute to work. I need a close commute to work.

    Oh yeah, work. Shortly after I got here, one of the best techs on my team quit. He’d worked 6 1/2 years without a full-time offer, and a management change was as good a time as any for him to leave. He left for a much more lucrative job at another company. Meanwhile, my purchasing clerk left on maternity leave. I hope she comes back; she’s really good and it’s hard to find anyone that good. So, this leaves my admin doing 2 jobs and the rest of the team splitting another one and me ramping up in a new (and really different) job during the busiest period that the office has seen in the last 2 years.

    This has meant a month of 7 day weeks and 10-14 hour days. One week was so busy that I just slept in the office – there was no point in leaving, and I didn’t really have time to sleep but I did anyway. With so little time outside work, I lagged on finding an apartment, and then I had the problems I alluded to previously.

    Finally, I found an apartment that I could afford and was one that I wanted. I returned from yet another business trip to find out that the landlord had changed his mind, and was going to let relatives live in the apartment instead. Now I’m back to searching for a home–one that I’m unlikely to see much of anyway if the current pace of work continues. It had better not, because this isn’t what I signed up for and I burned out the last time I worked this hard and I’m really not having much fun (fun being a big reason why I took the job, the adventure, and the smaller paycheck). It was such a dramatic burnout that I didn’t think I’d ever work in this field again. I’m not there yet, but given my usual oblivious state of mind, when I feel like there is a problem it usually means it’s pretty far gone.

    Well, at least it’s winter, so the oppressive heat of summer is gone. Oh yeah. My winter clothes. They’re all in the cargo container I shipped in July. It’s now November and everything is still hung up in Customs.

    What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. At this rate, and with my luck, I hope I don’t get hit by a bus.

    When you live in China, there are days where you want to drop kick everyone in the country and leave on the next plane never to return. I call these Bad China Days. A good example of this has been my frustrating search for an apartment, which has taken over 2 months, resulted in 2 deals that have entirely fallen through, and currently stands with a semi-flaky agreement to possibly rent an apartment still under construction at an indeterminate point sometime in the future, but definitely after my temporary housing arrangement runs out. For awhile, I’m going to be living in a motel. Fortunately, I have a business trip coming up, and that will minimize my out-of-pocket expense. Meanwhile, though, everything I own is stacked in my office. Fortunately, I still have an office, although that’s going away in a few months–the result of another Bad China Day. This will happen on roughly my 11th anniversary with The Company (TM), and will represent the first time since college in my professional career where I have not had an office. Oh well, at least I’m making considerably less than I was in the US and paying higher taxes. Hey, wait a minute…

    Wow. That’s a lot of frustration, and believe me, you’re only getting a thumbnail sketch. What makes it all worth it? Good China Days, like today. And wow, today was a really great day. It was beautiful, sunny and about 72 degrees. After spending far too long in my apartment looking for tickets to other places and trying to get ideas on what to do, I looked in the Beijing Excursion Guide. And something leaped out at me: Tianijn. It’s only 30 minutes away by bullet train, and I’d never visited. So I jumped on a subway and headed to Beijing South Railway Station, a subway journey that takes nearly as long as the trip to Tianjin.

    Only one automated ticket vending machine was operating (this line is special and has automated ticket vending machines, something I wish all Chinese trains had). I lined up and easily bought a ticket, since the menus were in English and Chinese. Unfortunately, only standing room was available. No matter, it was only a 30 minute train journey. After buying a tuna sandwich and an iced mocha (at surprisingly high Western prices), I boarded the train.

    Every seat was full, as I expected. I made my way from car to car and eventually found a place to sit down. In between taking some video, a college student began talking to me. He was a freshman at Tianjin University, had surprisingly good English skills, and was interested in studying for an MBA at Wharton. We discussed his upcoming TOEFL exam, American politics, and President Obama. When we arrived in Tianjin, he offered to show me around since his bus back to the university wasn’t until several hours later.

    This began a whirlwind journey of Tianijn, a delightful city with a colonial past and classic Italian, French, British and American architecture. There has been a serious effort to preserve this history. Tianjin is a little bit cleaner than Beijing and buildings are better preserved, although the sewers still spew foul gas, litter still abounds, and random puddles of vomit are every bit as ubiquitous as in Beijing. Johnson, my new friend, called several friends from his university, and we spent the evening wandering neighborhoods I’d never have found on my own. Being just eighteen, they liked to eat–a lot–so we bounced in and out of various student-friendly snack outlets. Eventually, unable to eat nearly as much as they did, I had to explain that older people can’t eat so much. They were very surprised to learn my age, thinking that I was in my early twenties. Johnson said “I would never guess that. No Chinese businessman would sit on the floor of a train, they think they are more important!” American culture, it seems, takes at least ten years off your age in China. Another year having just flown by, I’m happy to see them go in reverse.

    Age in China is, like many things in China, viewed completely the opposite as in the US. When you get older in the US, you’re less desirable, less interesting, and eventually you’re shuttered away in some depressing place called Shady Acres, where your basic needs are met in a soulless setting entirely devoid of challenge or joy.  In China, middle aged people (or those approaching middle age) are considered experienced, and this is genuinely valued. Retirement doesn’t slow people down here, despite the considerable physical challenges. It’s not unusual to see a large group of people my parents’ age practicing tai chi or ballroom dancing in a park or square on a warm summer evening. China is still a very challenging place to live for everyone, especially those in their golden years. The attitude seems to be that if you must rise to the challenge that daily life presents when you’re an eighty year old person anyway, you may as well infuse the world with sunshine and smiles.

    Today was a good China day. I made new friends and enjoyed new experiences. I put myself into multiple situations that were risky and shady and totally inadvisable per the US embassy, but everything worked out beautifully. Days like today remind me why I turned my life upside down in the most dramatic way I have ever done, and make me glad for this decision. Here’s hoping for many more Good China Days.

    “Hello, how are you?” said a musical voice in perfect English. She stood outside the Dongzhimen airport express station, smiling, pretty and dangerous. The same woman approaches me regularly, never noticing the same person in the sea of humanity that is the intersection of the airport express, two subway lines and the biggest long distance bus station in Beijing. It’s a practiced, rehearsed, and breezy friendliness. And every day, I know exactly where it will lead: either my pocket being picked or a scam of some kind. I pretend not to hear, and just keep walking.

    In Beijing, certain neighborhoods attract lots of foreigners. Wangfujing, Tiananmen, Lama Temple, all of the famous tourist sites are populated with thousands of years of history and decades of practiced, accomplished scams. Most of the time in China, foreigners are simply overcharged. This is virtually guaranteed–wherever there is English, the price goes up. I’ve learned to demand both the Chinese and English versions of menus (I usually just grab a Chinese one after they hand me the English menu),  and by carefully comparing the characters (which I’m beginning to be able to puzzle out–although only for purposes of comparing maps to guidebooks and so forth) I can determine the correct price. Usually once I point out the discrepancy the waiter (“Fuyuan”) becomes embarrassed, starts charging me the correct price, and shows me the order ticket with the prices.

    And then there are the scam artists. The average salary in Beijing is about $6,000 per year. Like the guys holding signs at the end of American freeway off-ramps, these folks have figured out that they can make a better living either scamming (or begging from) Westerners than finding a job and working. Generally, their English skills are excellent. Considering that anyone with good conversational English skills can command a premium salary doing an honest job (such as in the hospitality industry), you can infer that there is a lot of money to be made running scams. There are several well-known ones. The scammers purport to be art students, and want to lead you to a gallery where you can buy high-priced knock-off reproductions of mediocre paintings. Or they lead you to a teahouse for a traditional tea ceremony, then disappear when the 1000 kuai ($150) bill arrives for two cups of tea. There are other variations on the same theme–but in the end, the result is the same. Lured with a smile and friendly words, but ultimately cheated.

    These scams are relatively transparent once you’re attuned to them, but they can become elaborate and sophisticated. Scam artists are charming and China is so disarmingly friendly anyway that it’s easy to forget that here, you’re rich.  Even if a perpetrator only scams 15 people out of $100 each every month, they’re still pulling in almost triple the average Beijing salary–tax free! So it’s definitely worth it to spend plenty of time, cultivating relationships with new “friends” over time, only to exploit them and disappear when they least expect it. A young woman can make more running scams than she could as a prostitute, and the work is a lot less unsavory.

    Fortunately, this is rare. China is by no means Nigeria. There may be little honor when it comes to business, but there is a bond of trust when it comes to both personal reputation and personal relationships.  The vast majority of Chinese people I’ve met have been honorable and kind. But not the woman outside the Airport Express station.

    Today, I flew from Shanghai to Beijing. I ran an event there all week, with each day packed from seven in the morning until after midnight. The venue was a hellishly disorganized and incompetent mess. By the end of it all, I was frazzled and needed awhile to decompress. And there she was, Angler Fish, with her musical voice–this time planted right in front of me saying “Hello, how are you?” Uncharacteristically, I exploded. “Every other day, you try to scam me. Why can’t you earn an honest living? Please don’t cheat foreigners!” I said, putting my hands in my pockets and wheeling around just in time to stare down her pickpocket confederate. I’ve developed a sixth sense for pickpockets since my first visit to Beijing, where I was pickpocketed in a market. “Nice try,” I said, to which she scowled and swore at me in Chinese. And then they vanished as instantly as they appeared, practically disappearing into a puff of smoke.

    Beware of scams in China. This article lists many more, and here’s another article on Shanghai scams.

    Every morning, I walk down a dedicated bus corridor toward the subway station. It’s the terminus of a large number of both local and long-distance bus routes, and literally thousands of buses a day–full buses–traverse this route. This is a relatively dangerous road, because even bus drivers are very impatient in China and attempt to pass each other in the wrong lane and other similar shenanigans. Oh, and due to an enormous construction project, there are no sidewalks. You take your chances dodging buses and always try to move in groups. There is safety in numbers.

    Thousands upon thousands of people pass through this place every day. The street is thick day and night with the constant movement of people. And where there are people, and there are buses, and the buses only stop at very limited places, you’re bound to have some sick people mixed in among them. And so it happens that the streets flow with vomit, because this is indeed the Great Hork of China.

    I’ve only been in my current apartment for 3 weeks, and already, the average is once a week that I witness someone puking their guts up on the sidewalk. While watching out for buses and bicycles and motorcycles and rickshaws you also need to watch out for random puddles of vomit and land mines of baby poop (people don’t use diapers here, babies and children just crap on the sidewalk in full view of everyone). While making my way toward the subway station, I dodged a pile of vomit. And just then, I heard something out of the ordinary… “hurrk… HURRRRRK…” and I wheeled around–making sure I wasn’t in the splash zone–just in time to see a guy a few meters away bend over and with a loud “HORRRRRKKKK!” puke his guts up all over the sidewalk. I’m sure to him, the loud splat was satisfying, but to the woman wearing stiletto heels and unfortunately in the splash zone, it was decidedly disgusting. For my part, I wondered why I had to be so lucky to get two vomit puddles for the price of one.

    Oh well. At least I didn’t get it on my shoes.

    After a welcome reprieve from high temperatures, it’s really hot again here in Beijing. One of the most popular ways to beat the heat is ice cream, and I picked up a quart of Dreyer’s Grand Cookies ‘n Cream. It was on sale for about $6 at the BHG Supermarket, and was right next to my $7 pack of frozen waffles. Pure decadence.

    The only way to live in Beijing without spending a fortune is to go local, eating Chinese food and taking buses and subways instead of taxis. I’m better at saving on transportation than food; when you can’t read the menus and the dishes are weird and alien, it’s just easier to eat Western. Having spent nearly $40 on a single bag of groceries, I wasn’t in any mood to spend more. I’ve been feeling more adventurous lately and decided to try riding the bus home, as I successfully did from the airport yesterday (saving about $4 in the process).

    Bus stops list the route of every bus, and buses stop only at fixed locations. Only one problem: it’s all in Chinese. Still, I thought I recognized the characters for Dongzhimen, which is near my apartment, so I hopped on the bus. Buses aren’t air conditioned, and the bus slowly made its way in the right direction in the blistering heat, passengers fanning themselves with anything available as the temperatures climbed into the upper 90s. And then the bus reached the end of its route: Dongsishitao, one subway stop south of Dongzhimen. The characters look sort of the same to my untrained eye, but it was definitely the wrong location. Still, though, no problem. I hopped on the subway and took it one stop north, only needing to wait about 10 minutes for a train, subways running less frequently on Sundays than weekdays. From Dongzhimen, the familiar walk back through a high speed bus lane combined with a hazardous construction zone, dodging buses, open manholes and cement trucks on the potholed road with no sidewalks. Just part of the charm of Beijing.

    And then, almost an hour in upper 90s temperatures later, I was at home. My ice cream had somehow worked its way to the bottom of my pack, the lid came off, and it melted all over everything. $6 worth of ice cream ruined, and a huge mess made of my pack, all in the name of saving a $1.50 cab ride home. I ended up taking a shower with my bag, Cookies and Cream swirling down the drain.

    When you live in a country of 1.4 billion people (give or take a couple of hundred million), it’s crowded. Just the city of Beijing has 22 million people officially, but the unofficial total is closer to 30 million people. More accurate figures will be available at the end of this year, because like the US, China is conducting a 2010 census.

    Anyway, some societies (like Japan) deal with crowding by building complex and hyper-cooperative societies. There are rules for everything in Japan. They’re conscientiously obeyed, and they’re strictly enforced (mostly by peer pressure). For example, if you use your cell phone on a train in Japan, people will look at you as if you just took a dump in the middle of the floor (in China, taking a dump in the middle of the floor wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows–at least if you’re a child). People line up in an orderly fashion for everything. And everywhere, it’s meticulously clean. Japanese people don’t even think of littering–it’s discourteous. If it happens by accident, it’s cleaned up promptly. And if you and a friend want to have a wild passionate screaming shake the walls lovemaking session, there are soundproofed love hotels for this. Incidentally, Japanese people have the craziest, kinkiest fetishes ever, possibly because they have this outlet for their inhibitions.

    And then there’s China. It’s even more crowded here than Japan, but instead of a complex and hyper-cooperative society, everything here is like a middle school cafeteria during the lunch rush. If there’s a line, you’d better push hard and be ready for someone to cut in front of you. This happens to me every morning at the subway, where people constantly try to jump ahead of me in the security queue. Getting off the subway requires you to push your way through a crowd of people who refuse to stand aside, because they might get on the subway three seconds earlier if they don’t cooperate. If a seat opens up on the subway in front of an elderly grandmother, a young slick business guy will slip into the seat while she’s still turning around to lower herself into it. And if you want to get rid of something, just throw it on the ground. Nobody will pick it up after you, but it’ll eventually find its way into a gutter somewhere, or maybe one of the gaping potholes that dot the pavement here. The only thing that China does the same is love hotels, although they maintain a veneer of propriety by renting rooms by the hour for “quiet study” or “business meetings,” depending on the neighborhood.

    On and off, the Chinese government tries to encourage its citizens to behave more cooperatively. There was a campaign before the Olympics, and on subway Line 10 videos are shown to encourage people to use the subways more efficiently. These efforts have varying degrees of effectiveness, usually tied to enforcement. However, it seems to be situational; the same behavior traits in the subway also apply at McDonald’s, for example. Enforcement campaigns in the subway don’t lead to better behavior in similar situations elsewhere.

    Will Chinese people ever cooperate? It’s hard to know. In this culture, behavior we’d consider rude and boorish is the norm. The important thing is to leave aside your expectations of propriety and decorum. If you want something here, you have to scrap to get ahead–and if you don’t, you’ll get run over.

    You see security guards everywhere in Beijing. There are lots of them, and they guard all sorts of unlikely things. Parking lots will usually have at least a couple of security guards. Each floor of my workplace has security guards, and there are security guards in the lobby as well. There is a bank in the lobby of the building where the office is located, and it has several security guards as well; these wear hard helmets and carry evil-looking spiky metal stun batons (most security guards are unarmed). Even ATMs have security guards; they are dressed the same as bank security guards.

    All of these security guards–and believe me, they are everywhere you could possibly imagine and plenty of places you wouldn’t expect – means some pretty dull shifts. It’s not a well-respected profession, the pay is only 1300 yuan per month to start (a little under $200), and let’s face it, there’s just not a lot that happens at the back entrance of an office building or the inside lobby of an apartment building at 11pm.

    Some security guards pass the time by reading or studying. It’s very common that they’re sucked into their mobile phone, texting away with friends on the QQ chat service. Some listen to music; many mobile phones here have FM radios so they tune in and listen over  the speaker (or download music and play it with the built-in MP3 player). Headphones don’t seem to have caught on here. By the way, it’s relatively commonplace for security  guards to have what we’d consider high-end phones in the US, even though they’re paid very poorly. This is the case with virtually every young person in China; young Chinese consumers don’t have much money, but when they spend it they like to buy high-end electronics.

    Other security guards–maybe the ones without mobile phones–spend their time asleep on the job. Countless times I’ve walked past a conked-out security guard, snoring away, drool running out of the side of his mouth (security guards are nearly always male, although any security job that involves operating an X-ray machine seems to attract women). They always seem to wake up when I start to take a picture, though, having the sixth sense to avoid getting caught.

    I walked by the parking booth one evening and noticed the windows fogged up. Just as I started to walk past, the door opened suddenly to reveal a security guard and his girlfriend rearranging their clothing. They gave me a sheepish look as I walked past, me with a knowing grin and a nod. I suppose that’s one way to pass the time, particularly in the crowded living situations that many workers here find themselves.

    So, the next time you’re in Beijing and don’t mind being deported, give the security guards something to do. It’ll be the highlight of their month, if not their year.

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