I’ve been playing a lot with QQ, an instant messaging platform that is really popular in China. By “really popular,” I mean that it has over 700 million users. Anyway, there is an English version, and if you sign up, you’ll soon be inundated with friend requests from random Chinese people. Most of them want to make foreign friends and practice their English. I like to make friends, I don’t mind speaking English, and I have met some really cool people this way.

Occasionally you get propositions of another sort. I have been offered the opportunity to purchase everything from insurance to apartments (come to think of it, mostly insurance and apartments). I have been the surprised recipient of earnest–but entirely random–marriage proposals. During times of political upheaval, I have been interrogated by young nationalists about my viewpoints on foreign policy. However, until Sunday night, I’d never been offered the opportunity to star in a movie. “Only need two minutes” was the pitch. “You’ll be advertisement. Pay you 500 RMB.” I couldn’t pry loose any details about the product other than it was music-related, but chalked the mystery up to the producer’s English level (which wasn’t great). After a lot of questions about my background, the dialect of English I spoke, and whether I had any acting experience, she asked to meet. I agreed.

After cancelling and rescheduling on me twice, we finally managed to meet this evening. I gave the producer a specific location to meet me after work but she got lost, so an hour and a half-dozen text messages later, we finally found each other. At this point I was hungry, so I asked her to wait while I grabbed a sandwich. When I returned, she pulled out four Post-It notes covered in English text. This, she informed me, was the script, which we’d shoot tomorrow night in Guomao, on the opposite side of Beijing. It appeared that two minutes was already stretching into two days plus a long commute. I took the script and reviewed it. Although it was in horrible, nearly incomprehensible Chinglish (and mind you, I’ve been in China for 2 1/2 years now and can comprehend most Chinglish), I managed to puzzle out the meaning. They wanted me to record an infomercial for fake Eddie Van Halen and various other counterfeit famous-name guitars.

“Is English OK?” the woman asked me, beaming. “I wrote myself!” I replied (in the measured, face-saving way that is necessary here) “It’s not bad, but is maybe more formal than we would use. I could suggest some small changes.” She nodded eagerly. “Yes, more advertisement, we make Web site! Internet!” At this point, I gently broke it to her. “In America, Eddie Van Halen is very famous. I cannot use his name on your product. He could sue me in the US. I’m an American guy, it is easy for him to do that.” The woman nodded gravely, clearly understanding my concern. In retrospect, I am guessing this wasn’t the first time she’d heard similar concerns expressed. “I will call boss!” she said. A flurry of numbers dialed, harried pacing, an animated conversation with either a person or dead air, and she eventually sat down again. Putting down the phone, she said with an air of finality, “Boss tell you must say this names.”

“Find someone else, then,” I replied, with my own air of finality. “500 RMB isn’t worth being sued by Eddie Van Halen.” A crestfallen look, some quick calculation, and then she shifted the conversation away from business. What was my job? How much was my salary? I really seemed kind, couldn’t I just help her with this small thing? Where does my family live? Do I like to eat Chinese food? Am I married? Was I really sure that she couldn’t persuade me to become an actor? Eventually I finished my sandwich, wished her goodbye, and made a beeline for the subway. My acting career, it seems, is finished before it even started.


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.

“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.

China has a different business culture than the Western world. Now, let me be clear: most Chinese people I’ve met have been upstanding and honorable. And the majority of Chinese people aren’t business owners. The distinction is clear, and it’s not especially complimentary.

This is a society where bending the rules (or breaking them outright) is acceptable as long as you don’t get caught. Western moral grounding is naive. If you put lead or cadmium in toys, well, there are lots of children. China has hundreds of millions of children, but far fewer rich people, so if you’re a factory owner it’s tempting to cut corners whatever the cost. After all, it’s more RMB in your pocket. The same thing goes for melamine in the milk–after all, laws only apply if you get caught. And it’s awfully hard to get caught. Odds are you won’t, and if there’s a bullet in the back of your head as a result, well, the chances are greater you’d have been struck by lightning. Absent the most egregious cases (which are swiftly addressed) product safety complaints are largely a business dispute.

The same applies to counterfeiting. You can buy counterfeit anything in China. Everyone knows about counterfeit software, movies, music, and brand-name clothing. It’s usually easy to determine real from fake. However, have you ever heard of fake Scotch whisky? You can buy it in China, along with any other kind of booze you might imagine. I  paid the equivalent of $45 for a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, but it’s not Johnny Walker. Whatever it is, it’s not bad (surprisingly) and tastes Japanese, but it’s not what I paid for. Cut-rate bars in Sanlitun (the expat bar haven) are more likely to serve rotgut, possibly laced with formaldehyde and methanol. Tsingtao is too cheap to counterfeit, and this industrial Communist beer is the safe–but unexciting–standby.

You can also buy counterfeit cell phones. The Inbocheer Pinapple PinPhone is sold in a case that is nearly identical to an Apple iPhone, but it runs a weird Linux-based operating system called MTK and is definitely not made by Apple. Want an Android-based phone? Pick up a Coogle, using the same font as the famed Google logo. Even HTC and Nokia phones–second-tier brands in the West–are faked.

More insidious are counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Scandal after scandal involves fake and/or watered down drugs. Vitamins? Fake. Even condoms have been faked, studies determining the counterfeit product to be unsanitary and ineffectual. Books sold from pushcarts on virtually every street corner? Fake. They’re mass-produced copies. Laptops? It may be running MacOS, but it’s probably not an Apple product. Even building materials are sometimes faked. Never discount the ingenuity of unscrupulous businessmen, and they’re nearly always men.

Counterfeiting was, until recently, seen largely as a problem affecting Western multinational companies. And the court of public opinion was (and to some degree, still is) not on the Westerners’ side–after all, a legitimately purchased copy of MacOS costs roughly the minimum monthly salary in Beijing. However, Chinese people (like all people everywhere) love their children, and the images of sick and dying infants in hospitals poisoned by tainted milk powder created a major uproar. Cadmium in toys has Chinese parents (like Western parents) concerned. Bad actors can get away with a lot in China, but the line, it seems, is drawn when it comes to poisoning children.

Do I expect any changes? Not really. There’s too much money to be made by being dishonest, what constitutes “dishonest” is nebulous anyway, and there’s just too little risk of being caught. When the equation changes, the market will respond. I’m not holding my breath for changes anytime soon, though. And in the meantime, ignorance is bliss when it comes to $1.50 bestsellers!