One of the reasons I landed a job in Beijing is my extensive experience managing data center moves. It’s showtime – we’re in the thick of things at work and for the next few weeks, it’ll be 7 day weeks. This doesn’t leave me much time to write. When this ends, I’ll be back to my more or less irregular posting schedule, probably from Guiyang which I’ll be visiting over the Spring Festival holiday.

On top of being a particularly busy time at work, I’ve started Chinese lessons – my weekdays start at 8 in the morning and I get home around 10pm. It’s intense, but I’m learning a lot. Expect most future updates (for the next few months at least) to be on the weekend.

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.

A few weeks ago, I bought an electric teakettle at Carrefour, a local French supermarket. Electric teakettles are cool – they can boil water in a ridiculously short amount of time. I figured it’d be useful for the filter-boil combination needed to make Beijing tap water at least sort of safe to drink. Being a professional cheapskate (I prefer to call it “thrifty”), I’ve learned to look high and low for a bargain. That is, look high on the shelf and at the bottom of the shelf, because this is where the bargains are. Good deals are rarely at eye level. This seems to apply everywhere in the world, no matter where you are.

And there, on the bottom shelf below all the brand-name products, I spotted it. What a find! An electric tea kettle for only 46 RMB, less than $7. It wasn’t the cheapest one, but I’ve learned that it’s generally a bad idea to buy the cheapest one of anything in China. It was shiny, looked nearly as well made as ones costing twice as much, and so what if it had a completely unpronounceable name? Pleased with my find, I threw it in my cart.

Fast forward to today. Freshly back from the States and armed with a Costco run worth of Brita filters, I was finally ready to execute my plan. I made a big pitcher of filtered water, poured it into the electric teakettle, and plugged it in.

A blue flash, scorch, and loud pop later, and the water heater stopped running. Oops. Looks like I blew a breaker, which I quickly confirmed and reset. Puzzled, I thought maybe the power draw was too much, since the water heater was apparently on the same circuit as the power strip I had plugged into. I walked over to another power strip, plugged in the base of the kettle (they come in two pieces, a kettle and a base), and no problem. Must have overloaded the circuit. Satisfied, I retrieved the kettle, dropped it onto the base, and … why is it so dark in here?

The power was out. All of it, every light, every outlet, the entire apartment. I walked over to the breaker box, and no breakers had tripped. Confused, I reset them all to no effect. This was strange. Did the building coincidentally lose power at the same time? It seemed unlikely, but I opened the door to the hallway, stomped my foot, and the corridor became dimly lit. Nope, obviously that wasn’t it. There must be a master switch somewhere, but where? Hopefully not behind the padlock on the meter, since I couldn’t really call anyone and ask them to open it. But maybe Gloria could! A quick call to my real estate agent. Nope, too late. Her phone was powered off, which she does at night (I don’t blame her, in her line of work, a phone never stops ringing).

The meter was from the early 1980s, a perplexing array of Communist engineering with dials and knobs and panels galore. I started turning dials and twisting knobs and pulling open panels and finally I found two large breakers, one up, one down. Hm, maybe that’s it? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Wait, don’t answer that.

Deep breath. Flip. Victory! The lights came back on. I hope none of those other things I did with the meter really mattered much.

My RMB 46 non UL certified electric teakettle with an unpronounceable brand name is now sitting in my trash can if anyone wants it. Free!

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.

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.

    Beijing has two English-language newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. There is also a weekly newsmagazine called Beijing Review. Most guidebooks and Web sites take a fairly dismissive attitude toward Chinese media, and to some degree this is deserved. Anonymous editorials reflect the position of the Chinese government, and never deviate from this position. In the China Daily, news articles often have no bylines and read like editorials. Once a week, there is a two-page spread on a second or third-tier city promoting foreign investment there. The Beijing Review mostly consists of mind-numbingly boring articles on how China is inexorably growing its GDP. In a society that loves to keep score, though, nobody really talks much about being #1 in metric tons of carbon emissions.

    You can learn interesting things by reading these publications (for example, you probably didn’t know that over 50% of the world’s cigarette lighters are made in Wenzhou) and the weather reports are mostly reliable. However, there are never negatives, and there are no opposing viewpoints. Smiling faces abound. In a harmonious society, who would ever disagree?

    And then there’s the relatively new upstart, the Global Times. It’s published by the People’s Daily, and is the official newspaper of the Communist Party. And this is really interesting, because while the government is controlled by the Communist Party, the Communist Party is not the government. Interestingly enough, the Communist Party maintains a fairly “big tent” approach to politics. This is pragmatic, because in a one party system, there have to be escape valves. You just marginalize them. It’s a remarkably similar approach to our own system, two parties, conservative and more conservative, both of whom serve only the wealthy and powerful, except in our system nothing that matters ever gets done.

    So today, in the Global Times, the headlines scream “Taboo Sex Raises Eyebrows.” This in the same issue as an article about the burgeoning gay scene in Beijing (which has a lot more burgeoning to do, incidentally), an article critical of a high school teacher’s arrest (for writing an online book about the plight of sex workers in Guangdong province), and an article replete with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm about Chinglish signs. And all of this in just one issue!

    Don’t get too excited. This is still a Communist Party newspaper, published in an authoritarian country. For example, every page contains a link to True Xinjiang. This is mostly a collection of self-congratulatory articles written by Han Chinese on the governance of a province almost universally described as “restive.” Still, only a few years ago, a newspaper like the Global Times would have been unthinkable. It seems to represent a new, more open left wing of the Communist Party of China–a wing willing to be more experimental, more open, and to some degree, more self-critical.

    In a way, I have mixed feelings about this. As an American, I hope that China clings to its backward system of government, because I am absolutely convinced that it makes them far less competitive than they otherwise would be. And if China were to become even half as competitive on the world stage, the United States would be completely doomed. In my view, most of our economy is based on hot air and bullshit, and our government is so consumed with winning the next election that it’s forgotten how to govern (or even that doing so is necessary). On the other hand, living here, I see the potential China has to become the world’s newest superpower. For 5,000 years, this was the world’s most advanced civilization. China has a long memory, and yearns to relive these golden times.

    How will it end? Only time will tell. The beginnings of an independent media, though, is an interesting and provocative start.

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