Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 10 -- No Shitting in the Toilet

I found the note on the kitchen table:


The loo is clogged! You can't throw loo roll down the loo in China! The plumbing can't handle it. I've spent many an hour with the plunger. I'll talk to the landlady and get her to fix it straight away.

Until then, no shitting in the toilet!


So that was why the bathroom smelled so bad nowadays.

I maintained discipline for a few days, taking advantage of the facilities at work. There was a price to pay for that. The apartment took on the fresh aroma of a sewer. The bowl itself assumed the color of Jif Extra Creamy peanut butter.

One night we were eating takeout Chinese food. She had a vegetarian dish. I was pigging out on the shredded fish-flavored pork and steamed white rice.

At the end of the meal, it happened. My intestines were filled to capacity and had to unload immediately. Except our toilet wasn't functioning anymore.

Think man, think. I need somewhere to shit. Maybe I should take a risk and use the forbidden toilet. No, Elizabeth would never forgive me. I had to think like my hero.

What would MacGyver do?

I bolted out of my chair and ran into my room. I snatched up an old plastic shopping bag. This was a good start. I zoomed past a puzzled Elizabeth and grabbed a big red plastic bucket from under the sink.

"What are you doing?" Elizabeth asked.

"Drastic times call for drastic measures." I hugged the bucket to my chest and barricaded myself in the bathroom.

Elizabeth gasped.

I played the MacGyver theme song in my head as I went to work. The plastic bag went into the bucket, lining it perfectly.

Now to assume the proper stance. I couldn't sit right on it, putting my full weight on the bucket. Otherwise, I'd get up and have the imprint of the bucket on my ass.

The new obstacle was balance. I had to summon Superman strength and hold myself up. I held the sides of the bucket in my kung-fu grip. I was as solid as a statue. This was going to work.

My hand slipped off and I almost fell down, nearly crapping all over the floor. Motherfucking gravity!

I righted msyelf, this time distributing some of the weight to my feet. My aim had to be pinpoint-accuarate. I only had one shot. I had to remember all my hours of playing Virtua Cop 2 in junior high.

There! My aim was perfect. Everything landed inside the bag, nothing fell outside. I cleaned up and tied the bag with a tight knot.

I avoided Elizabeth's eyes as I made my escape from the apartment. While I was out on the street, I had the horrible suspicion that everyone knew what I was carrying. I held the bag with two fingers and as far away from me from possible, like it was a bag of . . . a bag of . . . my own shit.

I tossed my shame into a trash can, damning it to Hell for good measure. Now to face Elizabeth.

I burst into the apartment. She opened her mouth to speak. Before she could say anything, I blurted, "I'm so sorry! I had to go! The pork made me do it!" My breathing was ragged. "Okay, what do you have to say?"

Uncomfortable silence. Finally,

"Could you spare another bag?" Elizabeth asked.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 9 -- Undercover with the Fashion Pirates

"Good drums do not require hard beating."
--Chinese proverb

"Where can I buy fake goods?" Rose asked me.

We'd met on the subway when she asked if we were on Line 2. She had wanted to see the Bund. Rose came from Istanbul, Turkey. Ah, yes. I'd go there for the kebabs alone. The Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace would be a bonus.

Back to her question. That was easy to answer: the Xiangyang Fashion and Gift Market at the corner of Huaihai Rd. and Xiangyang Rd. Take the subway to Shanxi Rd. station.

As we got out of our taxi, hawkers besieged us with offers. They all shouted the same thing: "Watch? DVDs? Bags?" Any white person has to fend off armies of hustlers looking to sell to the rich foreigner. Since I look Chinese (read: poor), I can walk through a gauntlet of them without that much hassle.

Rose had fair skin and brown hair, so she was a prime target. There were so many of them that we couldn't even walk all the way to Xiangyang Market. She chose the only hustler wearing a suit and tie. He wanted to take us somewhere else.

"C'mon, let's check it out," she said.

"Uh, I don't think that's a good idea."

She won, so we followed the hustler into the underworld. He took us behind the Mason Hotel Shanghai into a maze of dark alleys. No people, no lights.

"Is this safe?" Rose asked.

I wish she had thought of that sooner. "We'll see."

The hustler unlocked a door that looked like a rusty bank vault. He led us into a dingy apartment complex. Inspired by Soviet architecture, circa Cold War. Grim gray concrete and cracked walls.

Far away, in a backroom, was another world entirely. Soft lighting emanated from the ceiling. Polished wooden shelves gleamed under the burden of so much merchandise. We could have been in any designer store on Nanjing Rd.

Mountains upon mountains of handbags! Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, all of them were represented. The hustler said that the LV bags were the most popular. He said I'd even see the poorest woman on street, wearing tattered clothes, but clutching an LV bag.

Rose dived into the fray, shuffling through the bags.

I walked over to the Prada shelf. To my untrained eye, they looked real. There was a tag dangling from a bag. I flipped it over: "Certificate of Authenticity." They get it down to the last detail, these Chinese bootleggers.

* * *

Later on, I checked things out with my class. They wanted to know what the hustler said the Prada bag cost. I conferred with one of my students, who's an expert on handbags. She's the housewife of a rich man. Here is the price breakdown for a Prada handbag:

Hustler's price for a fake: 300 RMB ($37)

Fair price for a fake: 70-100 RMB ($9-$12)

Price for a real Prada: 8000 RMB ($1000)

Chinese for Shopping

Rose asked for some useful phrases for shopping in China. Here's what I taught her:

How much? = Duo shao "dwoe shau"

Don't want it! = Bu yao "boo yow" = use this to fend off vendors

Too expensive! = Tai gui "tai gway"

I want one = Wo yao yi ge "woe yow ee guh"

When you ask them the price, they'll answer in Chinese. Make the motion of pressing buttons on a calculator. The vendor will punch the numbers into a calculator and show it to you.

Friday, December 2, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 8 -- Naming Names

"It is always easier to solve someone else's problem."
--Chinese proverb

My newest student wanted me to give her a name. While this seems unusual, it is a common request for foreign English teachers in Asian countries. Most foreigners find Chinese names unpronounceable, so they give their students "English names."

The catch is that most Chinese get their English names as children. As they grow up, Chinese people start to change their English names as frequently as they change shoes. Since I taught adults, all my students already had English names by the time they entered my class. Except this one.

Her name was Liang Lin. I wrestled with the naming process, because I thought it was such a huge responsibility. After we batted around a few possibilities, she chose Lillian. That one had the closest pronunciation to Chinese name.

My friends who teach English to children don't sweat this process. They've done it dozens of times by now. But I still saw it as a big responsibility. I've met Chinese girls with names like "Yo Yo" and "Moe" (as in the Three Stooges). They'll be humiliated mercilessly when they study abroad in English-speaking countries. The cruel foreigners who named these innocent Chinese need a severe beating.

Like many of my classes with new students, we spent the session getting to know each other. Lillian had spent time studying in Japan. Now she worked for a business consulting firm that helped Japnese companies enter the Chinese market.

After English, Japanese is the most popular language for Chinese to learn. China's biggest trade partners speak those languages, so that's very practical (European businesspeople use English as the default language). In fact, there's a Japanese language school next door to my English school.

I've met several women who've followed Lillian's career path. Get an undergrad degree in China, study Japanese in Japan, then come back to China as a translator. In the 1980s, around the time China started opening up, there was a big push to increase trade with Japan. Studying nihongo became a big fad. Being a translator was a hot job.

My translator students say it's a paradox: it's really hard to become a translator, but once you learn the language, the job gets boring. At first it's great, because translating is easy once you're fluent. But then reality sets in. Other executives get to work in production, marketing, and strategic planning, where all the action is. Translators do nothing but translate all day, all the time.

There's another danger. Translators accompany senior executives on business trips. Executives are often older men; translators are often younger women. They're stuck together in a hotel in another country, no prying wives in sight. That's a recipe for a soap opera.

I wrapped up the lesson, eager to get lunch from BreadTalk, the European-style bakery nearby. It's the Starbucks of bakeries. They have this awesome sandwich called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bacon." [insert sex joke here]

But Lillian had another request. She took out her name card (that's what the Chinese call business cards) and presented to me with both hands.

I accepted it with both hands. Name cards are usually bilingual, with Chinese writing on one side and English on the other. I turned it over. Blank. No English. Huh?

"Can you make an English name for my company?" Lillian asked.

I was dumbfounded. Naming a person was one thing. A company was something else. This career woman was going to place the fate of her company in the hands of a 22-year-old who almost flunked an economics class.

Not wanting to cause someone else's bankruptcy, I tried to talk her out of it. There are professionals who are much better at this sort of thing, I said.

Nothing would shake her. I was the right person for the job. Sometimes I'm too good at acting like I know what I'm doing.

We got down to work. The Chinese name of her company was "Zhiyou," (jee-yo) which meant "Intelligent Friend" in English. While this was good in her language, she thought it would not work in English. I agreed. Then she asked the impossible: to create a name in English that still had the Chinese sound and Chinese meaning.

How was I going to do that? I worked over endless iterations. She rejected every single one. I wanted to give up.

Finally, I decided to split the English name into two parts. One part would have the Chinese sound and the other part would have the Chinese meaning.

This was what I came up with: "Geo Knowledge Partners."

"What does mean?" Lillian asked.

"It means, 'Your friends that know the land,'" I said. My brain was fried by this point.

"That is perfect! Because we are business consultants! I love this name!" Lillian gushed. She promised to tell the CEO as soon as he got back from his business trip in Tokyo.

I imagined how he'd react: "Who came up with this piece of shit name?! If he worked here, I'd fire him!"

She made me give her my mobile number (like in Europe, the Chinese call it mobile phone instead of cell phone). Lillian wanted to invite me to meet the big boss as soon as he embraced my fabulous idea. I doubted that, but gave her my number anyway.

* * *

Later on, I told this story to David, one of my students. I thought he'd be interested, since he's an advertising manager.

"So how much did she give you?" David asked.

"Nothing. Why?"

"You did for free?!" He exclaimed.

"What? What?" I asked, worried.

"The name is the most important thing! It is the face of the company! Our clients give us a lot of money to give them names," David said.

So she hadn't thought I was capable, just gullible. A fortune in yuan (yoo-un, Chinese money) just slipped out of my grasp! I had pulled a major Homer Simpson.

Outside the classroom, students were booking classes at the front desk and using the computers. Suddenly, a sound ripped through the whole English school:


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 7 -- Raging Against the Machine

"Please wait a moment."
--the most frightening words a Chinese bureaucrat can utter

The situation was critical. My student loan payments began next month. I could either stick with the standard 15-year plan and its huge payments;

or I could apply for the 25-year Extended Plan and pay almost double my balance because of all the interest.

It came down to two bad choices: declare bankruptcy now or have a negative net worth till age 47. Funny how they schedule my student loans to end at the same time my kids start college. The vicious cycle never ends!

In my darkest moments, I'd imagine there was some big conspiracy to keep college graduates poor. People who want to teach, volunteer for worthy causes, pursue the arts, or travel around the world are forced to go corporate to stave off the dreaded loans. This advocacy group is trying to solve the problem, but I didn't expect sweeping changes any time soon. Sorry, I'll get off my soap box now.

I had to get the student loan forms to my Mom before the deadline passed.

I went into the office of the China Post fully armed. I had a receipt from the last time I sent something to America, my Chinese address written down, and my ultimate weapon. Her name was Miss Zhang, the young woman who's teaching me Mandarin.

Lucky for me, the International Service window had no customers waiting in line. I was going to mail my precious application via EMS (worldwide Express Mail Service). There was a different postal clerk than who had taken my mail last time. He also gave me a different form than I used before. That should have been my first warning.

I filled out the form and slid it back under the window. The postal clerk frowned, shoved a blank form at me, and grumbled.

"He said you made a mistake and have to do the form again," Miss Zhang translated.

I grumbled a bit myself and did the form again.

"He said you filled out the wrong form. This is the right form," she said as yet another form slid under the window.

"I filled out the wrong form?! He gave me that form!" I exclaimed.

Either the third time's the charm or three strikes I'm out, I thought as I slid the correct form to the postal clerk.

He blinked as he had just seen it for the first time. A torrent of words spilled from his lips. I only caught "bu" [No] and "Xie wei ii" [Hawaii, pronounced "Sha-wai-yee"]. Enough to know this was bad news.

"He said they don't mail to Hawaii," Miss Zhang said. "He said this is impossible."

"No way!" I said. "I mailed a letter to Hawaii before and my Mom definitely got it."

Miss Zhang leaned closer to me and lowered her voice. "I believe you. He most likely does not know how to process a delivery to Hawaii. He will say it is impossible rather than lose face."

She spoke to the postal clerk. Miss Zhang said had she known the difficulty of this task, she would never have wasted his valuable time. Maybe some other person could help us so he could get back to serving his customers?

Postal Clerk #1 got up and started to walk away.

"He said to please wait a moment," Miss Zhang said.

Customers came in after me, stood in line, and left. Three cycles of customers went by. An eternity later, Postal Clerk #1 came back with another postal clerk. In desperation, I gave them the receipt I had from my last mailing. The two clerks studied it intently and talked.

"They're going to find the postal clerk who processed your last delivery," Miss Zhang said.

"Can't they just put the receipt under the scanner and pull up the information on the computer?" I asked.

Twenty minutes passed. The phantom clerk never showed up.

Finally Postal Clerk #2 passed my receipt under the scanner. Instantly, all the necessary information popped up on the screen. Postal Clerk #1 sat down and typed. In the next 30 seconds, they input my new form, sealed my letter in an envelope, and tossed it in the mail cart.

I checked my watch. In spite of having an old receipt, no line to wait in, and a native Chinese speaker with me, the whole endeavor had still taken me a full hour.

Miss Zhang tried to make me feel better as we walked out of the post office.

"It's not you. China just has its own pace."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 6 -- In the Classroom

"All human nature is similar."

At various times, I considered each of these as a complete, stand-alone story. But I couldn't find a way to expand them to feature length. So here's a grab bag collection of war stories from the English-teaching frontier:

International Crime 101

It's surprising the things I get asked during my English classes. I find myself having to be an expert on many more subjects than just English.

In addition to my regular classes, I also have to teach "Global Club," a free discussion forum. Students meet together with an English teacher to practice their conversational skills.

One night, I was at a loss for a topic to jump-start the discussion. The students were sitting around the table with their notebooks and pens ready, faces expectant.

Finally, I had an idea. I said, "Tonight's topic is 'American Business Slang.' Is there anything your foreign colleagues have said to you that you just didn't understand?"

The reaction was immediate:

"Yes! What does 'card up my sleeve' mean?"

"Why do Americans always say 'Are we on the same page?' What book are they talking about?!"
"My partner says 'We have to go back to the drawing board' but I don't know where it is!"

It was like opening a floodgate. These Chinese businesspeople had been so confused for so long, that at the first opportunity for answers they buried me in questions.

I slogged through that session for an hour. But they didn't want to stop. I think they were afraid that if they didn't ask questions now, they'd never be able to get the answers again.

For the second round, they asked me to decipher the corporate-speak they read in American business magazines. I explained terms like horizontal integration, vertical integration, diversification, and core strengths. They had read American CEOs talking about these things and they wanted to know what they meant.

I usually keep this a secret, but I'm actually very interested in business and investing (My love of travel and movies is public knowledge). Talking about money can be distasteful to some, but my students had no such qualms. It was a lucky thing I had done reading in the areas my students were interested in.

Just when I thought I was done, a student blindsided me by asking, "What is money laundering?"

That caught me by surprise. I gathered my wits and said it was the process of turning illegal money into legal money.

"How do you do that?" the student asked.

"Uh, do all of you really want to know this stuff?" I asked.

A sea of heads nodded.

I shrugged; gotta give the customers what they want. I picked up a marker and started writing on the dry-erase board. I remembered what I'd read in spy novels and in a book on tax evasion.
I began by saying, "Drug dealers have traditionally been the pioneers in money laundering . . ."

Pens scribbled furiously on notebooks thereafter.

Dance, too much booty in the pants!

Although most of my students are working adults, there are a few younger people who attend. They're usually students preparing to study abroad in English-speaking countries.

Mandy is an 18-year-old girl getting ready to study in Australia. America was actually her first choice, but it's too tough to get a student visa there. England was too expensive, and Canada was too cold. So she's heading down under.

One day she came to class wearing a bandana that B-boys and B-girls wear. I got excited and said, "I didn't know you could breakdance!"

She blinked and said, "What is breakdancing?"

My heart dropped like a rock. Those were the saddest words ever. I tried to tell her about breakdancing, but she didn't get it.

This required drastic measures. I pushed the table and chairs out of the way. I told her, "It looks like this." I dropped to the floor and exploded into the six-step for the first time in months. I was wearing a starched shirt and tie at the time; I must have looked crazy.

Mandy bolted up out of her chair and exclaimed, "Oh yes! That's jie wu ["Jay woh"]!"

I still wonder if she pretended not to know, just so she could sample my skills.

The Great Wall of Babble

I was teaching adverbs of frequency (usually, frequently, etc.) when it came time for the discussion at the end of each class. The book suggested comparing what Americans usually do and what Chinese usually do. That seemed safe enough.

I should have known better.

I said, "Americans usually drink coffee. What about Chinese?"

Sibyl, another student gunning for Australia, answered, "Chinese usually drink tea."

It went like that for a while with each student getting a turn. Near the end I asked, "Do Chinese usually study English?"

"Yes," Sibyl answered. "Now Chinese children are even studying English from kindergarten!"

I was impressed. If they keep that up, they'll know English better than we do. Pronunciation was still their biggest obstacle, though.

I was about to move on when Sibyl asked, "And do Americans usually study Chinese?"

Dead silence. All the students looked at me. Oh crap, how do I answer that? I decided honesty was the best policy, another mistake.

"Um, no."

It was like throwing a switch. Resentment came off the students in waves.

"But we have to spend years studying your language!" Sibyl protested. "Why won't you study ours?"

I mumbled some lame answer about how most Americans will never visit China, and even if they did, their tour guides would speak English.

That went over really well. Now all the students were frowning at me. I wish I could describe how horrible I felt at that moment. Almost as bad as the time I vomited on my Dad's boss.

Finally, someone said something. "Can you speak any Chinese?" Sibyl demanded.

I meekly said, "Hui yidiandian Putonghua." [I speak a little Mandarin]

All their jaws dropped. They looked at me in shock. The ignorant waiguoren was studying Chinese!

Sibyl started to giggle. Pretty soon the whole room was roaring in laughter. They had forgiven me. Whew, that was a close one. I like to think I rescued China-U.S. relations that day.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 5 -- Meeting the Locals

"A chat with a friend is worth over ten years of schooling."
--Chinese Proverb

There's a Taiwanese restaurant close to my apartment that I eat at a lot (reason: the most expensive meal on the menu costs $1.25 American). They make box lunches like bentos. The staff are all kids in their 20's. They want to talk to me, but they can't speak English. I ordered the fish meal, like I always do. The kids behind the counter tried to talk to me in Chinese again. I didn't understand, so they talked to the old lady waiting next to me for her food.

She translated: "They noticed you always order this meal. They are very honored you think their food is so good."

I smiled and bowed to the kids. They loved that.

I was surprised at how good her English was. The prevailing rule when I travel is that for English, the best bet is to talk college students. Anyone older usually hasn't studied English.

We ended up eating dinner together at a table. I thought maybe she'd teach me some quaint Chinese customs. She educated me, all right; but not about that.

Her name was Hu. She studied at the Shanghai Foreign Languages University. In those days, traveling outside China was virtually impossible. Her plan was to become an interpreter; that was her way out. You couldn't apply for whatever job you wanted, though. The government placed you somewhere, end of story. If you didn't like it, you'd be blacklisted and never work anywhere again. Hu was lucky and got assigned to work for the Bank of China . . . in their London branch! It was a dream come true because her English improved rapidly after that.

(The following paragraphs get into heavy-duty technical jargon. I couldn't talk about what Hu taught me without covering that stuff. If this gets really boring, my apologies.)

When Hu returned to China after that stint in England, she had the top pick of jobs. Companies were clamoring to have a fluent English speaker on staff. She chose a high-profile job with CITIC Group (China International Trust and Investment Corporation). It was one of the first SOEs, a state-owned enterprise. Over the years, CITIC went through several transformations. First, it was a pilot project masterminded by Deng Xiaoping to introduce free enterprise into a communist system. Then, it became a magnet for attracting foreign capital. With the money in hand, CITIC became an engine for economic development, pouring funds into infrastructure and domestic businesses. Now it's settled down into a holding company overseeing the Chinese goverment's investments. CITIC might as well be called China, Inc.

It's the General Electric of China. Hu said they have over 40 subsidiaries in four continents. Their portfolio runs the gamut from natural resources, manufacturing, construction, power plants, aviation . . . it's hard to name a business they're not involved in. Lately they've been moving aggressively into financial services.

Hu got her wish of being able to travel. She flew all over the world as an advisor to the president of the company. She also was the lead negotiator in deals with foreigners. Her proudest accomplishment was selling CITIC bonds to foreign banks eager to build a relationship with China. I was amazed; she must have raised billions of dollars for CITIC. She said CITIC used the money in two ways: 1) make loans to Chinese businesses 2) Take over companies in industries that were vital to China's growth.

I guessed that CITIC's strategy was to keep key assets from falling into the hands of foreigners. Brilliant strategy: use the foreigners' own money to keep them from buying their way in!

There was one thing I didn't get, though.

"Why bonds?" I asked.

Hu explained that the only other ways to raise money were to sell stock or borrow from the West, namely the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Selling stock meant selling ownership and invited interference from stockholders. As for borrowing money, Western creditors attach "structural conditions" to their loans, often hijacking a country's economy. These conditions often included cutting government investment and opening markets before domestic companies were ready to compete with foreign ones. The problem with bank debt was that it was "callable," meaning the bank could suddenly demand the borrower pay back the full amount of the loan, crippling the borrower. The West could use the "call" option to force changes on a country.

It's different with bonds, Hu said. The issuer of the bonds controlled the loan. They decided what got repaid and when. Bonds were not callable, meaning that as long as the borrower made the interest payments, the bondholders couldn't force the borrower to repay. In the case of zero-coupon bonds, the borrower didn't even have to pay the interest. Bonds allowed the Chinese to borrow money on their own terms. She went into more detail, but I had gotten lost a long while ago.

She said restrictions were tight, even when she traveled. Hu always had to report to her superiors where she was going, who she talked to, the whole deal. That's why she said she would love to visit America. It was the one country she never got to visit. Smart thinking on the part of CITIC. One taste of American freedom and she might have defected straight away. Hu thought America would be so much more open and that people were more welcoming. (She found London people to be total snobs; she didn't like British food either).

She said she's jealous of young people nowadays, they're free to do whatever they want. Now Hu is retired. She plans to travel around with her husband. I told her a little about my studies and travels. Hu said I have a bright future and that I've made smart decisions. I bowed my head and denied the compliment (Chinese custom). Then she gestured for me to look over my shoulder.

All the restaurant kids were leaning on the counter, listening in rapt attention while we had spoken in English.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 4 -- Getting Legal

Update: There's a new policy requiring applicants to leave China to get a Z visa. I was wary of further hassles and expenses, so I ended up getting an F visa. That means in six months, I might go to Hong Kong!

"Thin ice is only a problem for those who choose to go skating."
--Chinese Proverb

Once I did get a job, getting a visa became the main priority. I absolutely had to get one before my tourist visa ran out. My employer offered two options: an F visa or a Z visa. The F visa is the business visa, which lets someone stay in China for 6 months as a "consultant." Not strictly legal, but I've heard of many people getting these and having no problems. The Z visa is the true work visa. It can easily be renewed for up to 5 years, making it a favorite for longer-term expats. For those who want the complete lowdown, I've written a detailed comparison at the bottom of this post.

Although the Z visa grants more rights, it's much more of a pain in the ass to get. In order to get one, I had to do a full medical examination. One English teacher told me not to worry: "You'll only fail it if you have AIDS."

My usual doctor in Hawaii got me scared about going to a hospital in China. She had warned me that I should have taught in Japan instead, because it's cleaner there. My worst nightmare was that the Chinese hospital would look like a biohazard zone, littered with the dead bodies of SARS victims.

I shouldn't have worried. Medical exams for foreigners and overseas Chinese (usually from Taiwan and Hong Kong) take place at the Shanghai International Travel Healthcare Center, a state-of-the-art facility on the west side of Shanghai.

Thinking I was smart, I made an appointment in advance. I also made sure of what I had to bring: passport, photocopy of passport and Chinese visa, 3 passport-sized photos, and a letter of introduction from my employer. (Hot Tip: bring a lot of 2 x 2 photos of yourself before going abroad to work)

I was totally prepared when the receptionist asked for my documents, one by one. When she was supposed to ask for the letter of introduction, she said something else:

"Where's the photocopy of your employer's business license?" she asked.

"The what?" I said. She never said to bring that when I called her.

She repeated the question.

I whipped out my cell phone and called the company office. Michelle was the one in charge of visas for employees. When someone got on the line, I asked for Michelle. Guess what happened. Yes, it happened to be her day off.

Time to think fast. I asked the person on the line to transfer me to someone who spoke better English. While he was doing that, I whispered to the hospital receptionist, "Could I get your fax number?"

A minute later, my company's business license sputtered out of the fax machine. I'd get to be a human lab rat after all.

I was surprised at how hi-tech the hospital was. While a nurse entered the info from my forms into a computer, she took my photo with a webcam. The weight scale was completely electronic. I stepped on it for a second and stepped off. When I get on a scale in Hawaii, I still have to wait for the nurse to balance the fulcrum by hand.

After that, I was shuffled from one room to the next. A blood sample here, a chest X-ray there. The EKG was the most fun. They strapped these bands of electrodes around my wrists and ankles. It was like I was Frankenstein! The one I didn't get was why I had to do an ultrasound. I knew I wasn't pregnant. Or was I?

* * *

The Visa Report

Disclaimer: Although I've read a lot of John Grisham novels, I am not a lawyer. The following information may be incorrect and is subject to change. A lot of it depends on the company sponsoring the visa and how good their connections are. Look for changes to this report if I get more updated information.

F Visa -- Business Visa

Pros: Easy to get, fast processing (about 1 week), and costs only 600 RMB. Very little paperwork. Just provide the passport, 2 photos, and temporary residence form (it's yellow).

Cons: Lasts only 6 months, unsure legal status, only 2 entries back into China, and cannot be renewed within China. That means a "visa run." It's only a 2-hour flight to Hong Kong, making it the most popular place to get a new visa.

Z Visa -- Work Visa

Pros: Full rights, official status, multiple entries, lasts for 1 year, easily renewed for up to 5 years.

Cons: Paperwork. Must provide passport, 10 photos, temporary residence form, original college degree, resume, employer's business license. Takes 3 weeks to process. Costs 2000 RMB. Requires a full medical exam, which costs another 702 RMB.

There is a third option: a 12-month, multiple-entry, business visa. With the rush of foreigners pouring into China to strike it rich, a lot of "visa assistance" companies have sprung up to meet the demand. They use their connections to get visas for foreigners. Or they set up dummy corporations that will hire foreigners as consultants, when the foreigners are really working somewhere else. Many of them have a more boring approach: they'll fill out the necessary forms in Chinese for you and hand them on to a myriad of government offices. One of my friends got a 12-month business visa. She said it was really expensive, much more than a Z visa would have cost.

Even Z visas aren't quite what they seem. Some of my friends were surprised when they got back their passports and checked their visas. Instead of seeing their ESL company, they saw the name of a Chinese school they'd never heard of. What some ESL companies do is partner with government-affiliated schools that have the authority to issue visas. They add their ESL teachers to the school roster when they're really working for a totally separate company.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 3 -- Job Search

"The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials."
--Chinese proverb

"Marcus, we can't give you a job," Andy said. He rubbed his forehead and leaned back in his office chair.

The weight of failure crashed on my shoulders again.

"It's not you," he added. "Your teaching was fine."

I had done a demo lesson at the elementary school earlier that week. Several of the school staff sat in to observe and evaluate me. The way a lot of ESL companies work was that they recruit the ESL teachers, develop the course materials, and send the teachers to local schools. The local schools make the final hiring decision.

"I remember some of the people observing me," I said. "Which one was the principal again?"

Andy sighed. "You won't remember her because she didn't watch your demo lesson."


"I know, it's balls. She saw you for like 2 seconds outside her office before the demo lesson. She based her judgment on your appearance."


I really wanted to work for this company. Andy and Mr. Chen would have been such cool bosses. They actively hired young, creative types as teachers. Three of the teachers were actors, one was a writer, and another did graphic design. I would have fit right in.

"We're going to take care of you, Marcus," Andy said. "We're not just going to boot you out. You have full access to this office: computer, printer, phone, everything you need to find another job. If you need anything translated, our Chinese staff will help you. You can use me as a job reference. The apartment with Elizabeth is yours to keep."

His generosity only made me more ashamed. They were bailing me out, and I was robbed of the chance to make money for them.

It was demoralizing to go back and look for a job again. By the time I had gotten that previous crappy job in Hengmin Xinzhen, I was almost at my wit's end. I had already been rejected by over 30 employers in 5 countries. I should have taken that as a hint to quit. Believe me, I came close a bunch of times. But I couldn't shake that need to travel. I knew if I stayed at home, I'd regret it. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering "What if I had gone abroad?"

I didn't trust the websites I'd used to find my former job. Instead, I went on Asia Expat: Shanghai. Interested employers often reply within the same day, or by the next day. One of the few smart things I did before I came here was to scan all my job documents and save them in my e-mail account. That way, I could access them from any computer and still apply for jobs.

I sent out so many resumes that I lost track of the different employers. So when Maggie, the manager of a school, e-mailed me about coming in for an interview, I couldn't remember which job was the one she was offering. I hurriedly said I'd do it.

When reporters talk about Shanghai being the center of China's business and commerce, they're talking about Pudong New Area. Specifically, the Lujiazui District of Pudong. That's where the Shanghai Stock Exchange is, as well as exchanges for diamonds, real estate, and practically everything else.

My first surprise was discovering my prospective school was there. What was an English school doing in a business district?

I got off at Dongchang metro station, and went out Exit 4 like Maggie had said. That exit put me on Pudong Road and Century Avenue. I came face to face with one looming skyscraper after another. I checked my directions again: the Pufa Tower, 12th Floor, Room B. I looked up and couldn't believe it: the Pufa Tower was the tallest building I'd ever seen!

I'm trying to get a job there? I've never felt so small as when I had to cross an 9-lane street to get to the Pufa Tower. Inside the lobby, the decor was cutting-edge modern: gray marble, steel, and glass.

I was wearing a button-down shirt from Costco and held a briefcase donated by my Mom. I felt very much like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I'd need an MBA from Harvard to work in a building this nice.

Maggie was a pleasant young Chinese woman who spoke excellent English. She ushered me into a spotless conference room and got me a cup of water. Showing me a textbook, Maggie explained that I would be teaching one of her Chinese employees a demo lesson on the importance of music.

15 minutes later, I was teaching Sophie, one of the office staff. I talked about music as national identity, music as emotional expression, and its educational value. Sophie liked the way I explained things, and we moved beyond the parameters of the text book. She was eager to learn different styles of American music.

I told her about rap and rock. Sophie wanted some examples of performers. I named Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine, since two of my favorite songs are "Fight The Power" and "Guerrilla Radio." I stopped myself. What was I doing teaching radical music in Communist China? Would I get shot for this?

The lesson in music for revolutionaries seemed to work. After the lesson, Sophie took me over to meet Mr. Kim, the owner of the school. She said I was young, energetic, and spoke excellent English. Mr. Kim smiled and approved the decision. I was employed!

Maggie gave me a quick orientation. The school specialized in teaching English and Mandarin to business executives in one-on-one sessions. When she said "business executives" I wondered if she really meant that, or if she was talking about regular office workers.

"And sometimes your lessons will be interrupted," Maggie said.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"They often have sudden business trips," she said.

That clinched it. The students would be middle management, maybe even upper management. The file clerk doesn't get to travel on company funds.

Since the executives were all working professionals, they couldn't be full-time students. That meant the school could only offer me part-time work. I said that would be fine. I felt lucky to have any job. She wrapped up the briefing and said I would start next week.

I was at home "cooking" microwave noodles when the phone rang. It was Maggie. Word had broken out about my English skills, and she said there were two students who wanted to start immediately. One managed the Shanghai branch of the third-largest bank in South Korea. The other was a Chinese woman who handled mergers and acquisitions in Japan. Would I be able to start tomorrow? I stumbled out a yes.

I hung up the phone. If someone told me I'd get a job like this, I would've thought they were nuts. I was amazed at how fast things were happening. Is it just me, or does everything in China zoom at warp speed?

Update: I later found a full-time job, also teaching adults. Visa sponsorship at last!

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 1 -- How NOT To Be an Expat

"May you live in interesting times."
--ancient Chinese curse

I've learned the hard way that traveling abroad and living abroad are two totally different things. When you travel abroad, your problems end when your vacation does. When you live abroad, problems are thrown at you constantly with no end in sight.

If I were smarter, I would have done it like this:

--Come to Shanghai without a prearranged job. Stay in a hostel for a couple weeks.

--Talk to other travelers for job leads and advice.

--Go out on interviews, check out employers in person, and pick the best job available.

--Find an apartment myself, rather than take housing provided by an employer. Get the employer to subsidize all or part of the rent after getting hired, which is common. That way, I can change jobs without becoming homeless.

I didn't do any of these things, so my crash landing in Shanghai was all my fault. I took an ESL teaching job over the Internet. I had no way of checking out my future boss. I didn't have a backup plan in case the job turned out to be a disaster.

The school I was going to work at said it was in Shanghai. Actually, it was 90 minutes away from the city. The house I lived in was dirty, rundown, and full of insects out for blood. There was no kitchen to cook food. The electricity didn't work.

I wasn't able to sleep the first week I was there. I would just lie awake, convinced that I'd made the worst mistake of my life.

Jason, an Australian from near Sydney, arrived at the school the day after I did. He was as appalled as I was. We immediately made a pact to get out together. There was still a few days left before the school year started.

We took a bus into Shanghai. As soon as we got off, we hit every real estate agency we could find. If we passed a window with photos of properties, we barged right in. Naturally, none of them spoke English.

Fear drove us forward. If the school found out about our plans, or if we failed to secure an apartment in time, the results would be unthinkable. There was a real chance we'd end up homeless.

While we were waiting in the conference room of real estate agency number God-knows-what, Jason turned to me and said: "We have no place to stay, no jobs, in a foreign city where we don't speak the language. Fuck! This shit is hard."

All I could think about was that I'm fresh out of college: I don't know anything, I've never done any of this real-world stuff before. We didn't even have work visas! How did I react to such overwhelming odds?


The last real estate agency, Whale Realty Co. Ltd., had an English-speaking staff (sort of). They looked like college students, young Chinese kids clad in t-shirts and jeans. We told them what we wanted: two bedrooms, close to the city center, with a monthly rent of 3500 RMB and below. Jason and I would split the rent.

They assigned a girl who barely spoke English to take us out to visit properties. The first apartment was off of Shaanxi Road. One grim, gray, crumbling tower after another. It looked like a place apartments go to die. I still have the image of the lobby stuck in my mind: I imagined a bomb had gone off in that building twenty years ago and no one bothered to clean it up. We got in the elevator. I looked up at the ceiling of it and had instant regrets: the ceiling was patched up with band-aids.

Traffic in Shanghai was insane, so we had to walk to each property. Jason and I trudged around for hours. We got depressed after seeing each new dilapidated apartment. They all looked like they were seconds away from a date with a wrecking ball. We thought we might actually have to stick with our original jobs out in the middle of nowhere.

Then we got to the last apartment. It was around the corner from Huai Hai Road, one of the major shopping streets in Shanghai. A smiling middle-aged Chinese businessman let us in. It was beautiful! Polished wood floors, two bedrooms, a small bathroom, a small kitchen, and a dining area (which we would convert into a TV room). About the only thing wrong with it was the view: we could look out at the bastard buildings we'd rejected. Seeing that we were young men, the businessman offered to get us two armchairs and a TV, no extra charge. The capper? This was the cheapest apartment of the ones we'd visited. On the spot, Jason and I told the realtor we'd take it! We had an appointment at the real estate office the next day. We could move in right away.

We left to go back to our original school for one last night. I told Jason, "I think that was their strategy all along."

Startled, Jason asked, "What do you mean?"

I explained. "They partner us with a girl who doesn't speak English, run us ragged around the whole city until we can't think straight, show us one architectural atrocity after another, then save the best apartment for last. We jump on it straight away. Pure genius."

He thought about it and nodded. "You're right, we got played by pros."

We just got schooled in the Art of War by teenagers! The lesson: wear down your target with frustration, then sell him the solution to all his problems. My Mom told me that the Chinese were outstanding merchants. They owned most of the businesses in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. I had a feeling I'd be learning a lot from them in my year here.

Moving day. I'd committed the greatest traveler's sin: packing too much. Jason was a real trooper when we were moving. He helped me haul my stuff into taxis and on trains. Here he was, lugging around a ton of junk that wasn't even his. Jason should get a medal for Best Travel Partner Ever. I actually told him, "We only met days ago and we're about to go through so much shit together. We don't even know each other!"

Jason laughed and said, "That's the way it is!"

Traditionally, what we were doing was called a "Midnight Run." Jason said that in Australia they called it "Doing a Runner." Same thing. We left on a day our Chinese employer was out of town. We didn't feel too guilty, since we both had paid our own airfare. The school hadn't lost any money. I'm not proud of what we did, but I felt we didn't have a choice. Staying would only make me bitter about travel.

Getting from Hengmin Xinzhen to Shanghai was a challenge of endurance. We jumped into taxis, trains, dodged lethal traffic on foot, and wrestled with the foreign language. It was like the TV show The Amazing Race, except we'll never be famous.

An eternity later, we staggered into the office of Whale Realty: exhausted, sweating by the gallon, and smelling like foul gym socks. The employees smiled and cheered for us like we'd crossed the finish line. I'd felt like I'd won the Olympics! We broke into big grins, waving triumphantly to the Chinese realtors.

They took us to our new apartment, where the businessman gave us the keys. He had another gift: a pair of furry house slippers for both of us! I was beginning to think I was dreaming this and I'd wake up in Hengmin Xinzhen.

We found out later that we were lucky to get an apartment at all. Most Chinese landlords are wary of renting to foreigners, since they have a tendency to disappear without warning. Not that we'd know anything about that . . .

Me and Jason went to the Allday convenience store nearby to celebrate with Vanilla Cokes. I still had to find a job, but this was a major step in the right direction. We stood outside the store, basking in our new, improved, and better located neighborhood.

Jason held his bottle aloft and said, "Phase 1 of Operation: Get the Fuck Out of Shithole is now complete!"

We toasted to that.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Marcus Gets Lost in Tokyo!

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Welcome to the first of my updates since I graduated from college! I hope you're all having a great summer. Mine was busy searching for a job. The uncertainty made it seem like forever, but I found a job only a month after graduation. It dawned on me that this summer was my last chance to travel before I started working. My job didn't start until September, so I used the end of August to go to Tokyo.

I actually tried to go to Japan through the JET program, but that fell through. Totally my own fault; I failed in spite of getting a ton of help from my awesome college professors. That made it easy to choose where to go for my last trip. If I couldn't go as a teacher, I'd go as a tourist.

Since Tokyo recently topped a list of the most expensive cities in the world, my choice of accommodation was critical. I felt I had too much luggage to risk staying in a hostel, so I looked for the cheapest hotel I could find. I finally settled on the Asia Center of Japan after reading a review in Frommer's. Although the review described it as college dormitory-style, the recent renovations made it nice enough to qualify as a real hotel. The review was right in how small the single rooms were. My room was about as big as my walk-in closet at home!

Before I went to the more Blade Runner-esque parts of Tokyo, I wanted see the old Japan. So my first stop was the Meiji-jingu Shrine.

Tokyo--Meiji-Jingu Shrine

It's in Yoyogi park on the west side of the city. I washed my hands in a big stone basin, walked up the steps to wooden offering boxes that blocked the inner sanctum of the shrine. I had to watch other people to figure out what to do: throw a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap twice, and then bow once more. There was a gift shop that sold charms for every occasion: good luck, recovery from illness, etc. The most expensive charms were these: "Charm for Passing an Entrance Exam."

The receptionist at my hotel told me about an international festival that would be going on in Azabu Juban, a big embassy district full of foreign representatives. During the subway ride there, I met Reiko, a Japanese girl on her way to the same festival. I complimented her on her excellent English. She was an American Studies major and had studied abroad in America for a year. Now Reiko worked as an advisor to foreign students studying in Japan.

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The streets of Azabu Juban were crowded with celebrants that night. A good portion of the people were dressed in traditional kimonos. Everybody had fans to keep themselves cool. All kinds of food were on display: fish heads on sticks, Turkish kebabs, Indian cuisine, etc. I drank Asahi beer while Reiko looked for something. I met her under the stage where taiko drummers were performing. She brought back Japanese food. I was so hungry I started eating immediately.

"This tastes pretty good," I said. "What is this?"

"Takoyaki," Reiko answered.

"What's that?" I asked, munching away happily.

"Octopus balls."

I guess that wasn't enough seafood for me, since I visited the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. It's a tourist attraction and it's not. There's no gleaming displays and a path set aside for visitors. I was just thrown into the chaotic, noisy, stinking real deal. Men whizzed by in little motorized loading carts. Fisherman carved up giant fish on cutting boards. Water spilled from wash basins.

I had met Estelle, a blonde American girl, when we were both trying to find the market.

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We went around to all the booths, amazed at the variety. A couple of times we couldn't recognize the animal we were looking at.

At one fish display, Estelle said, "Look at how fresh this fish is!" She started poking at it.

I heard a burst of yelling. I looked up. Nearby, a big Japanese man with a big knife was cursing us.

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As calmly as possible, I tapped Estelle on the shoulder.

"What?" she asked.

"That man over there, he says to stop touching his fish," I said.

Estelle caught sight of him, and we both quickly moved on.

After we'd escaped, she asked, "Wow! Do you understand Japanese?"

"Not really. His knife did all the translating."

On my last day, I went to Shinjuku. This was the full-on Tokyo I'd imagined: it was packed with neon lights, pachinko parlors, giant TV screens on buildings, and a tourist attraction I wasn't expecting.

As usual, I had gotten lost. Always happens when I'm in a new city. I wound through side streets trying to get back onto the main drag. I stumbled onto an alley where a bunch of Japanese men in suits were standing outside a run-down doorway.

At first, I thought they were just salarymen. When I took a closer look, I noticed that they seemed too big for the suits they were wearing. Bouncers at a club? I checked my watch: only 6:00pm. Too early for them to be throwing out troublemakers. Maybe they were Yakuza. I tried to see if they had cut-off fingers.

I stared for too long. One of them, a chunky one with an unshaven face, looked right at me. Oh shit! I did an awkward about-face and got the hell out of there. Your fearless reporter in action.

That's it for Tokyo. I have some disappointing news. This won't be the start of an all-out blitz through Asia like I did through Europe. Have to start working and saving some money! So the next country I visit will be a longer stay. I've never worked abroad before, so a lot of things can go wrong. I hope everything works out.

Take care,



I had just completed my latest bowel movement when I noticed a row of controls on the side of the toilet. At random, I pushed the blue button. A jet of hot water shot into my ass! I was so shocked I almost leaped out of the seat. I didn't think my hotel room was expensive enough to have one of those hi-tech toilets.