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

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

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

Here’s my reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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?