One of my contractors did some extra work for me. As thanks, I took him out to dinner. Naturally, I took him to a place that serves only Western food, has an English menu, and there isn’t a single chopstick in the place. It’s nice to reverse the equation once in awhile and land on my home turf. He adapted with good humor, although he really hadn’t figured out a fork by the end of the evening and kept trying to use the knife to pick things up onto it.

Anyway, on the way back to the subway, we went through a street food market. This is popular with the Wudakhou student crowd, and as we passed a 名词 (kebab) place, I was struck by the number of varieties. Most places only have two, beef or mutton, but this place had a list of at least a dozen different items.

I asked my contractor what the most expensive item on the menu was, because at 8 kuai, it was unusually expensive. He looked embarrassed and broke into a giggle and didn’t want to tell me.  Eventually I pried it out of him.


As in meat balls. As in ram testicles.

Oh well. At least I know where to find grilled ram testicles in Beijing.

“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.

Fee Frenzy

When you travel overseas, your bank is there with one hand in your pocket and another with a gun to your head. There is nothing worse than being caught in a cash society with no cash. Don’t look to the US embassy for help–they have little sympathy for messes you got yourself into, and will generally only assist (for a fee) with things such as repatriating your remains. Make sure you have plenty of options and be ready to pay through the nose. Never, ever, ever be caught without cash. You are nothing without it and nobody will help you. Sorry, Charlie, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Here are the fees you can be charged for taking out cash from an ATM overseas:

Your own bank: They can charge you a fee at their option. None of my credit union cards charge a fee. Most commercial banks (Chase, WF, etc.) do charge a fee. This can be quite high; for example, it’s $5 at Wells Fargo.

Withdrawal limits can be fairly low at ATMs in Asia outside Japan, and your bank may have a low withdrawal limit set per transaction and per day. Multiple withdrawals means you will pay this fee over and over and over again.

Interbank ATM network: You will likely withdraw money using the network of either PLUS (operated by Visa) or Cirrus (operated by MasterCard). These networks give you the interbank rate, although it’s the worst intraday interbank rate across a 3 day period (naturally, they pocket the spread). Additionally they charge you a 1% “because we can” fee on top of this. In most cases, this is still better than the cash exchange rate, although not always.

Some banks charge an additional percentage fee on top of this. This goes to the executive bonus fund, and by the way, thanks for the bailout.

The ATM owner: Most foreign banks don’t charge a fee for foreign cardholders, but this annoyance is becoming increasingly common in Canada. This adds another $1 to $3, depending on the ATM and the bank.

Hot Bargain: This will nearly always be your friendly local member-owned credit union. They do not pay shareholders dividends or large bonuses and salaries to executives, so the savings are passed on to you. I use BECU, School Employees Credit Union of Washington, and Prevail Credit Union and they all offer the same hot deal.

Card Craziness

Credit cards can be used in some places, but nearly all credit cards charge “because we can” fees in excess of the 1% Visa/MasterCard network fees. American Express charges 2.4% although they’re more fair with the conversion rate (giving you the worst intraday rate on the day your transaction was actually processed, rather than a 3 day float).

  • Hot Bargain: Most credit cards issued by credit unions just pass along the 1% fee charged by Visa or MasterCard. My School Employees Credit Union of Washington card does this.
  • Hotter Bargain: HSBC absorbs the 1% fee charged by MasterCard if you have a HSBC Premier account. However, you must have 100K on deposit (brokerage, cash, or some combination) to get this card. Unfortunately, MasterCard isn’t widely accepted in Asia, but this is very useful in Europe and Canada where MasterCard is more widely accepted than Visa.
  • Hottest Bargain: Capital One absorbs the 1% fee charged by Visa. With some cards, they also provide 1% cash back on your transactions, meaning you effectively get a 1% discount to the (unfavorable) rate Visa gives you. This can help cushion the blow of Visa playing games with exchange rates. Visa is gaining broader acceptance in Asia, although Visa is different than Visa Electron (which is a smartcard and PIN based system). In Japan, you have a roughly 50/50 chance that they’ll be able to accept your US-issued Visa card rather than just Visa Electron cards.

Notify your banks before you leave. If you suddenly start withdrawing large amounts of money (something you have never done before) in China (somewhere you’ve never been before), the banks will block your account assuming fraud. The same goes for using your credit card. Of course, this will happen right at the beginning of a holiday weekend, and you can’t expect the banks to be troubled enough by you being out of money in a foreign country to answer the phone on weekends. This has even happened to me, and I am a frequent international traveler. My conversation with School Employees Credit Union went something like “can you please tell me any year in the past 5 years that I *haven’t* used my card in Japan? Why is this suddenly unusual?”

By the way, expect that even if you notify your banks, they’ll still block your cards anyway for random reasons or no reason. Be sure you have a cushion. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why. Access to your money is at their option, and don’t ever forget it.

When Things Go Sideways

First of all, carry a few hundred US dollars for emergencies. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this. Most places in Asia (and many other places around the world) are cash societies, and it can be difficult or impossible to use credit cards. US dollars are readily convertible at any bank or high-end hotel. Never, ever change money on the street or with taxi drivers; in most places it’s illegal and you are likely to get ripped off and/or be passed counterfeit bills.

I’ll probably be accused of being a shill for American Express. Trust me, I’m not. I use my American Express card as little as possible overseas, because they charge an extortionate 2.7% currency conversion fee, and they’re not widely accepted anyway. However, I always recommend you carry an American Express card and have their international collect number. Know how to make collect calls in the country where you’ll be traveling. If you get in a jam of any kind, they will reliably bail you out–for a price. Especially if you get in trouble with the police, don’t call the embassy, call American Express–they have local staff everywhere in the world, have government, legal and business connections and they will do whatever it takes to help. For a price. And you will be glad to pay it. Of course, for less dramatic situations like needing a hotel reservation when all the local hotels are full or needing emergency cash and a replacement card, they also provide excellent service. For a price. And you will be glad to pay it. The magic is never free, but it’s well worth it when you’re in a jam.

Update: Someone at work sent me a terrific page from the Flyer Guide wiki which lists practically every bank in the country and their international rates and fees. This is updated frequently and is probably the best resource I’ve ever seen on this subject. Click here to view.

Seemingly every time there is an article published online concerning Chinese government policy–whether in the Chinese or foreign press–an army of Netizens comes out to comment on it. By reading the comments, most Westerners would be surprised at just how many people fully support the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Chinese people, like Americans, have a very strong nationalist streak–they’re especially patriotic around National Day, which is their equivalent of the 4th of July. And yet, some Chinese Netizens are openly skeptical of the motives of their patriotic brethren. “Wu Mao,” is the online whisper. Far from grassroots nationalism, it’s said, the comments are actually bought and paid for. “Wu mao” means just that–a rate of .5 RMB per comment (about 8 cents).

Surely there is no astroturf online. You can believe everything you read on the Internet, can’t you?

And then I went to read CNN, the Seattle Times, and some other US news sources. Practically every article I read, no matter what the topic, had multiple comments blaming Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama for the problems of the day, even those involving misbehaved pets. If you believe Web comments, there’s a groundswell of conservative Tea Party populism just waiting for the election to “take our country back.” Take it where (or from whom) isn’t explicitly stated, of course, so who knows. Maybe to Shaanxi.

“Wu mao,” I thought. It seems plausible. In a society where $300 per month is a good salary, that’d be excellent pay to leave identakit right-wing blog comments, many of which are completely off topic, looking like they were cut and pasted from a collection of boilerplate. Either that, or the right wing of our population is disproportionately online with a disproportionate amount of time to comment in disproportionate unity. Either way, maybe I should start a side business.

I’ve adopted a new way of shopping, and it’s almost become automatic. Go to the specific place where I think something is for sale, circle warily around the area where it’s sold until I figure out whether it’s available (and if so, which one I want), and then when the time comes, snap up the item quickly. Move slowly, but always keep moving and never, ever make eye contact with a salesperson.

This strange behavior results from the Chinese Hard Sell. Nearly every salesperson in China is paid on commission, and they’re paid larger or smaller (or no) commissions depending upon what you buy. This extends even to things we’d consider very unlikely, such as laundry soap. And Western consumers are, for whatever reason, the recipients of even more enthusiastic Chinese Hard Sell than usual.

What this means: imagine every shopping experience is like buying a used car, but a whole lot more aggressive. For example, suppose you’re looking for a bottle opener, a small item on an aisle of all sorts of kitchen stuff where you have absolutely no choice but to stop and look. Well, you might as well be a picnic next to an ant hill. Three seconds after you stop to look at something, a salesperson will tug at your sleeve trying to lead you somewhere else, or will shove some random item in your face. “Yes, that octopus juicer is very nice,” I’ll reply (in English, lacking any other language), “but I don’t drink octopus juice and all I really want is a bottle opener.” This results in a shrug and a giggle and a tug on your sleeve to show you a really nice and expensive wok, which is all well and good but it doesn’t open bottles. This led to a fairly unorthodox (but ultimately successful) method of obtaining a bottle opener, which I’ll write about at a future time.

Interestingly enough, waiters and waitresses and bartenders aren’t paid on commission and they don’t get tips (tipping is not expected in most Asian cultures). These are very low paying jobs, with wages ranging from 1,300 to 2,000 RMB per month (this is roughly $200 to $300 per month). Service and attitudes tend to be lax as a result.

Will China ever master the soft sell? Unlikely. The hard sell is apparently effective, at least in this culture, so why change… unless you’re trying to sell to Westerners?

Nearly everyone knows the success story of China’s economy, growing at a double-digit annual rate for the past several years. There is a dark side to this picture, however. China has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted countries on the planet. Ordinarily, this topic is addressed in technocratic seminar topics at environmental forums and the occasional press article, all of which are more or less the same. China is usually presented as a wanton polluter, unwilling to sacrifice economic growth for a clean environment.

The reality is somewhat different, and like in all things, China is a land of contrasts. Often-unfiltered (and always controversial) incinerators and steel plants using dirty coal operate side by side with electric bicycles, cruising the bike lanes present in every city. There are more operating electric vehicles in China than any country in the world, Chinese batteries from the China Aviation Lithium Battery Company being a favorite of do-it-yourself electric car enthusiasts. You’re as likely to see windmills as coal plants in China, sometimes operating next door to dubiously licensed electronics recyclers dumping heaven knows what into adjacent waterways.

China is not a first world country, and it’s not a third world country either. It’s both at once, and is rapidly industrializing. In a similar stage of American development, an Ohio river caught fire. Despite that and the Love Canal disaster, we still haven’t learned. Still, pollution is a real problem here. No matter how you measure it (official monitoring here is less rigorous than that performed in the US and Europe), the air quality is bad and getting worse. Beijing has some of the dirtiest air in the world. The Asia Society has an excellent Web page outlining the challenges, and the visuals are stunning. Watch the video and check the “Room With A View” tab for a day-by-day view. The US State Department also runs an EPA-certified air monitoring station at their embassy in Beijing. This device samples air quality data hourly and posts it to their Twitter feed. In all fairness, this is only representative of the air quality in the immediate vicinity of the US Embassy which is located in a busy commercial area. Still, I use this as a personal resource to decide whether it’s safe to go outside.

Despite it all, China is making significant and rapid progress. They’ve jumped on recycling in a very big way since my first visit here six years ago. Thousands of cars are staying at home due to fast, clean and cheap subways. The government just started a program to lure highly educated diaspora in specific, targeted industries (mostly related to green technologies) back to China with offers of startup capital and generous tax incentives. A recycling and environmental theme park is even opening at the former site of the 2008 Olympics. The pace of change here is head-spinning to those accustomed to the paralyzed, partisan ways of Washington DC. Just this week, several significant and far-reaching policy changes were announced, any of which would have required months or years of deliberation in the US.

President Obama says “China is not a friend, and they are not an enemy. They are a competitor.” I agree, and I tend to favor upstarts when it comes to wagering. No country in the world needs green energy technology more than China; the economy simply cannot continue to grow by double-digit percentages built on last century’s energy infrastructure. At some point, it just becomes unsustainable. If China wins the race, the US is in big trouble. But if China loses the race, the world is in big trouble. For America to win, China doesn’t necessarily have to lose–but I think we’ll all need to agree on a different set of rules soon. The planet can’t afford the status quo any longer.

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