I left Beijing a little over a year ago. You never really leave though. This place stays with you. Over time, it’s easy to be nostalgic and forget about the daily struggle that goes along with living in a place that is so modern, and yet so incredibly bureaucratic.

I have a Chinese bank account that was set up by my company, and it came with a company credit card. When I left the company, the card stayed open. This was great for me because I could pay for things in foreign currency, and pay for them with RMB. Given that most of my money was in RMB, this was incredibly useful. I paid the bill every month and didn’t think very much about it after that.

One day, my card was declined. I called ICBC, the issuing bank, to find out what the problem was. Eventually, having left my company raised a red flag with the bank and they froze my account. I asked them to reconsider; after all, I had an excellent payment history, and if I was planning to scam them I would have done so immediately after leaving the company, not a year later after paying my bills on time. No dice. My card would remain frozen and I would continue to be charged the annual fee until I returned to Beijing to close the account.

Wait, what?

Yes, this is a very typical Chinese problem tied to the hukou system. The Chinese population isn’t nearly as mobile as populations outside of China, and there is an automatic assumption that you stay in your city of residence–particularly if you’re living in the Paradise of Eden also known as Beijing. Why would you ever leave? I tabled the matter until returning to Beijing and finally set about to deal with it.

Many things have to be taken care of at the branch where you opened the account, so I went to the neighborhood near my old office and waited. Banking in China involves a lot of waiting. After waiting about an hour, I was finally able to see my banker, dressed severely as usual and proudly wearing her Communist Party member pin. She was unhelpful as always, finally making a few reluctant phone calls (after asking me whether I could just come back next week because it was by then the end of the day). She eventually said that I needed to visit a different branch to close the credit card account, saying the name quickly in Chinese and saying I should “just find it on Baidu.” Explaining that I had an American mobile phone with no Chinese-language capability, she eventually, and reluctantly, wrote down some reasonable semblance of instructions on how to get there.

Fast forward to today. After riding 3 subways and going all the way across town, I arrived at the single ICBC branch in Beijing that can close a credit card account. Except they couldn’t. My passport had also changed, so they’d have to update my passport before I could close the account. This, however, can only be done on weekdays, not during the weekend. So, they agreed to submit the paperwork on Monday, and I’d have to come back in person on Tuesday to close the account. I left frustrated after spending 2 days and several hours doing something that would be done in a 5 minute phone call anywhere else in the world (if even this much work was involved).

So, the next order of business was to register my presence with the police. I am staying with a friend in Beijing, and this requires going to the police station to fill out a form. We dutifully went to the police station to register. No problem. We’d just need to bring the landlord’s hukou with us. Of course, most apartments in Beijing are rented through real estate agencies, and the tenant never comes in contact with the landlord. Of course, this is the case with my friend’s apartment, so we left the police station defeated. I made an executive decision to not do any further efforts at registration. This really matters if you’re living in Beijing, but not so much if you’re visiting (assuming you don’t get caught). After all, I went to the police station and they had my passport, so I’m just going to assume they registered me.

China can be incredibly modern. The subway I took to both of these frustrating exercises in futility is an absolute marvel of modern technology and it’s amazing how it manages to keep a city of 30 million people safely on the move while continuing its expansion at a breakneck pace. And yet, there remain impenetrable thickets of bureaucracy and the Internet service is a disaster on the best of days, and virtually unusable without a VPN in any event. China is always a study in contrasts and contradictions. Frustrating days like today are like life in a parallel universe; one that mattered a great deal to my daily life a year ago, but matters increasingly less to me now. Visits to the Chinese Bureaucratic Twilight Zone are, I’m convinced, best kept as visits.

One of my friends, who is definitely in the upper 1% of the US income bracket, was grousing at the overall percentage of income taxes paid by upper income taxpayers. “It’s over 50%,” he said. “It’s absurd!” All of those poor people who don’t have enough income to bother collecting any income tax ought to be paying their fair share.

Maybe they could get a third part-time minimum wage job with no benefits. It still wouldn’t really amount to much.

If you’re part of America’s elite, I just don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for you guys. I live in China and pay a marginal income tax rate on my mid-5-figure income of ~39% (the income tax is graduated and tops out at a relatively low income scale) There are no deductions allowed whatsoever, and only the first $80 or so of my income (monthly) is exempt from tax. On top of that, I pay a 17% value added tax on everything I buy, and that’s if it’s a domestic item. Imported items have taxes of over 100% in some cases and average 80% tax overall.

And I still save more money than I did in the US, despite the higher taxes, and despite my (much) lower income. My standard of living is marginally lower (no car), but my expenses are substantially lower. The reason? Taxes here pay for things that I actually use. Rather than going to bank bailouts, a bloated military and interest on the national debt, they pay for infrastructure. There is even a budget surplus, which funds US deficit spending… at a price.

I ride the subway to work for 60 cents a day, and can take a bus for 6 cents if I want to save money. There’s a bullet train that can take me roughly the equivalent distance from SF to Sacramento in 30 minutes (Beijing-Tianjin) for $8, or the equivalent distance of SF to Seattle (Beijing-Shanghai) for under $40. Domestic flights are cheap, and regular trains (not bullet trains) are laughably inexpensive. China has infrastructure the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere in the world.

There are also heavy agricultural subsidies, in the form of state owned farms (no shareholders to pay dividends, no landlords to pay rent). This translates to much, much lower food costs than in the US. And the list goes on and on. There’s enough left over for me at the end of every month that I can afford to live in the absolute center of Beijing, in between two of the most famous historical sites in China, in a neighborhood that looks like it belongs in a movie but is actually just my backyard.

Does all of this drag down the economy, harming the so-called “job creators?” Nope! The economy here is growing faster than any other world economy, although it’s a relatively anemic 8.6% growth this year. And China’s new crop of millionaires and billionaires isn’t hurting either. America’s elite would doubtless be pleased to see all of the Audi A6s clogging the streets of Beijing.

While the top earners of America are hell-bent on avoiding a few extra percentage points in taxes and a corporate jet tax exemption loophole being closed, Joe Sixpack doesn’t really understand very much about macroeconomics. But he’s beginning to figure out that he’s getting screwed, and he has a gun or three. Hey, 1%ers, are you factoring bunkers, weapons, and personal security into your cost/benefit analysis? Check out South Africa with its bars on the windows and rampant carjackings, and tell me if you would prefer to live in the security climate there. Meanwhile, China is laughing all the way to the bank at our political system’s inability to accomplish essentially anything. Years later, when we discover that we’re no longer the world’s largest economy and wonder what happened, we may finally learn that cooperation pays.

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!

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.