Monday, November 6, 2006

Channel to China! -- Lijiang

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A typical alley in Lijiang. Click on the photo to see the full album.

Lijiang was the China I dreamed about: peaceful canals, cobblestone streets, winding alleys, and red lanterns dazzling the night.

My first day was rough, though. I didn't have any accommodation booked when I arrived. I usually like to reserve a place in advance, but after Dali, I was starting to see the virtues of winging it. It's much better to see a place before booking it. The quality of cheap accommodation really varies.

I met Claire, a backpacker from England, on the bus to Lijiang. Once we got off, we searched for a place to stay. The Lonely Planet China was pretty useless. Every place they recommended was pure crap. Finally, we found a place on our own: the Old Town Long Yuan Hotel. The staff didn't speak English, but I spoke enough Chinese to secure rooms for Claire and I. We each paid 70 RMB a night for a private room and a Western toilet. I was happy. Here's a picture of the courtyard:

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While Dali was laid out in a neat grid pattern, the old town of Lijiang was a maze of alleys and side streets. A lot of the streets looked the same. The twisty turns made it impossible to see around corners. It took me a while to orient myself and start to find my way around.

One of the must-do things in Lijiang is to attend a Naxi orchestra. The Naxi are the minority people of Lijiang. During the Cultural Revolution, Naxi musicians hid their instruments underground to prevent them from being destroyed by the Red Guards. Now, their musical traditions are trotted out as a tourist attraction.

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I have this new obsession: I really like taking pictures of old people. They just add so much character and authenticity to a scene. So the Naxi concert was photo heaven for me. According to the host (who spoke in Chinese), some of the Naxi musicians were over 80 years old!

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Lijiang came alive at night. Claire and I walked along a canal that had restaurants in long rows of traditional buildings. Red lanterns were lit everywhere, casting China's favorite color all over the place. Waitresses in Naxi dresses and their customers had singing competitions with restaurants on other sides of the canal, trying to sing louder than each other.

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As well as old people, I also like taking pictures of funny signs. This last picture has both, so I couldn't resist putting it in. Whenever I see something like this, I just say, "Only in China."

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Channel to China! -- Dali

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Fuxing Road in downtown Dali. Click on the photo to see the album.

There are some places where backpackers go and never leave. Dali is one of those places. It vies with Lijiang and Yangshuo for being the top backpackers' hangout in China. Traditional architecture, beautiful natural scenery, loads of cheap guesthouses, and restaurants serving Western cuisine are the ingredients for a travelers' paradise.

Aside from Kunming, there aren't many trains within Yunnan province. There is a train between Kunming and Dali, but it's usually faster to travel by long-distance bus. I know some Chinese people who prefer deluxe buses to soft-seat trains. Deluxe buses have cushioned seats, TVs playing Hong Kong movies, hostesses, and sometimes even on-board toilets.

Travelers talk about the toilets in China the way soldiers tell war stories. Some of the worst toilets I've seen are at the rest stops during long bus trips. Probably even worse in remote villages.

Again, the possibility of finding a Western toilet in a hostel pretty much ends after Kunming. I stayed at the No. 5 Guesthouse (a.k.a. Old Dali Inn) my first night in Dali. It's really big and social, with a jungle treehouse atmosphere. The rooms were uninspiring: the beds consisted of a wooden board on chairs at each end, with a paper-thin mattress on top. Then I saw the bathrooms. The urinals were carved-out wooden barrels! The urine-stained squat toilets were the last straw.

I visited every hotel and guesthouse on Huguo Road, the main drag for bars and restaurants in Dali. I saw lots of clean beds at reasonable prices. The deal-breaker was always the bathrooms. The rooms with private bathrooms had Western toilets, but those rooms were too expensive. When an 80 RMB ($10 USD) - a- night hotel room was "too expensive," it meant that I'd been in China too long. I could have gotten a cheap private room and use the common bathrooms, but they had squat toilets. Unacceptable.

At long last, I came across the No. 3 Guesthouse. It's attached to a good Korean restaurant. The shared dorm rooms were spotless, with wooden bunks that allowed you to draw a curtain across your bunk for privacy. The showers were nice, with lots of shelves and coat hooks to put your stuff. The finishing touch was that the common bathroom had a Western toilet! All of this was mine at 20 RMB ($2.50 USD) a night. I moved in the next day.

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Now that I had proper accommodations, I could get on with enjoying the city. I booked a trip to the Shaping Market. One of the interesting things about Yunnan was the abundance of minority groups. The main minority in Dali were the Bai. Shaping Market was supposed to be a great place to observe them in action.

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I was walking around the stalls when I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. It wasn't some weird Chinese thing. Not snakes in a jar or little kids shitting on the street. No, instead it was a reminder of a place that was as far from China as I could imagine.

It was a girl wearing a university sweater. I could have been more polite when I said hello, but instead I said this:

"HOLY SHIT! You went to Redlands?!"

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She froze and said, "Oh my God."

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I was studying up in Beijing. What are you doing here?" Jenny asked.

"I was teaching English in Shanghai. How could this happen?" I wondered.

"Whoa," Jenny said. "Like the other side of the world!"

There were so many factors against me meeting someone from my own university. First of all, my university was small. The student population increased to over 2000 only recently. Second of all, we didn't stumble into each other in a major city like Beijing or Shanghai. We were in the Shaping market, which was an hour away from Dali and 5 hours from Kunming. This was in the middle of nowhere.

Once we settled down, we caught up on what what we'd been doing in China. Jenny talked about how she was into "social entrepreneurship," promoting local business as a way to preserve indigenous culture.

Luckily enough, we ran into her business partner when we got back to Dali. The woman took us back to her shop. The colorful patterns and designs of the Bai minority were a far cry from the usual Han Chinese things I'd seen.

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While Jenny and her talked business, I wandered around the shop. In a back room, I found the coolest blue shoulder bag.

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On the outside, it looked ordinary. But when I turned up the flap, it revealed an intricately-woven picture underneath. I wasn't planning on buying any souvenirs, but I had to have this bag. I needed a smaller bag anyway to hold a map, umbrella, and other traveler essentials when I walked around a city.

The woman gave the bag over to her older sister, so she could adjust the shoulder strap for me.

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The next day, I had lunch with Elmer, an American I'd met at the Old Dali Inn, before I moved over to the No. 3 Guesthouse. Elmer was one of those backpackers who came to a place and just never left. After we finished eating, he spotted a Chinese guy he knew and waved him over. Turned out that this guy knew kung fu. I told him I was interested in wing chun. Some of my friends who study kung fu recommended wing chun for its practicality. It's designed for little people fighting against big people. Maximum damage using minimum effort. The kung fu teacher agreed to give me a lesson.

We said goodbye to Elmer and he took me to a park. Some of the moves he showed me looked ridiculous, until he explained what they were for. There was this one hopping sideways move that looked stupid, until he said that it was one method of deflecting a kick. The one thing I learned from that afternoon was not to use high kicks. There were too many ways to take someone down if they tried to kick you.

The lesson went well, until he got too excited once and backfisted me in the face. NOT COOL.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Channel to China! -- Kunming

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Tourists dropping coins into a fountain for good luck at the Western Hills. Click on the photo to see the full album.
By the way, I think those Tibetan hats are awesome. Makes those guys look like Chinese cowboys!
* * *
Now I could relax. After Beijing and Xi'an, I didn't have to endure an endless marathon of sightseeing. Time to kick back and take it easy.

Yunnan province was actually the place I was the most excited to visit. If you could only backpack through one province in China, then Yunnan was it. It's one of the most culturally, racially, and environmentally diverse places in the world. The northern part of Yunnan leads into Tibet. The southern and western parts of Yunnan share borders with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma). In between you have a rich mixture of minorities to balance against the dominant Han Chinese.

The first stop was the provincial capital, Kunming. It's nicknamed "The Spring City" because it's supposed to have great weather year-round. It didn't live up to the hype. Rain dogged my entire visit there, but it didn't diminish the charm of the city.

On the surface, it looked like any other Chinese city: big billboards, department stores, etc. I stayed there a week to hide from the onslaught of tourists during the National Day holiday, so I had more time to appreciate the differences. People seemed more casual and laidback than Shanghai. I was grateful for the wide, relatively clean streets. That made Kunming much more pedestrian-friendly than good ol' SH. There were a lot of cafes and restaurants that catered to Western backpackers; later I found that this was a trend throughout some of the other main cities in Yunnan.

I stayed at the Camellia Hostel. It's actually a hotel with a floor in another building set aside for dormitories. I was relieved to find that it was clean and had good service. They're also a good place to get visas for Laos and Vietnam.

The best thing about Kunming was the backpackers. Kunming is the closest major city in China to Southeast Asia. I met tons of travelers going down to Southeast Asia or coming up to China from there. As cheap as I thought China was, I heard from my roommates that SEA was even cheaper! They were full of stories about their adventures: crappy sleeper buses where everyone smoked, finding strange animals in their soup, and motorcycle trips through the jungle. I was so jealous of them.

Although I swore off sightseeing after Xi'an, I did drag myself to a few sights. I went to the Western Hills first. It's a string of pagodas and temples on a mountain with great views of Lake Dian.

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Getting there was easy: take Bus No. 5 to the Yunnan Hotel, then switch to a minibus going to the Western Hills. Getting back to Kunming was a nightmare. There were a million tourists pushing into the cheaper buses. I almost wanted to give up and splurge on a taxi. Instead, my friends and I hunkered our shoulders and charged into a bus.
I slacked off for the next few days, afraid of having to deal with crowds again. On my last day, I summoned up the courage to see another local attraction: the Stone Forest in Shilin. I'm really glad I did. The scenery was beautiful and the rocks were different than anything I've seen before.

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Another interesting thing is that I'm meeting different kinds of backpackers. When I backpacked through Europe, it was mostly Australians, Canadians, and Americans. In China, I'm running into lots of Europeans. Many are French-speaking -- Swiss, Belgians, and well, French. It's a trend I've encountered before. When I go somewhere, I meet more travelers than locals. I've made more British friends in Shanghai than when I studied in England. Strangers in a strange land tend to flock together.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Channel to China! -- Xi'an

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The Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an. Click on the photo to see the full album.

I heard bad things about Xi'an, so I made my visit short. Just three nights. I was hoping that my friends were wrong.

Unfortunately, they weren't. Xi'an is an ugly industrial city, especially in the surrounding outskirts. As I rode into town on a bus, I saw demolished buildings, huge trucks hauling construction materials, and miserable weather.

Things improved at the border. Xi'an has a well-preserved city wall that encloses the city center. After Beijing and Shanghai, Chinese cities are all starting to look the same. I keep seeing the same big billboards and department stores everywhere. That's what happens with central government planning. I've heard Hong Kong has been the prototype for the modern cities springing up all over China.

I stayed at the Han Tang Inn. Big mistake! The outside looked nice enough, but the inside might as well have been a condemned building. Graffiti lined the walls, empty beer bottles littered the stair landings, and the concrete floors were dirty.

I took one look at the grim bunker that was supposed to be my dorm room and immediately switched to a private double room. I should have changed hostels altogether, but I was too lazy to find another one. The room was a little nicer. But the bathroom wasn't much of an improvement. There was no curtain to separate the shower from the toilet, so water would splash everywhere. When I flushed the toilet, water leaked out from the base of the bowl. Totally disgusting.

Going to the Terracotta Warriors lifted my spirits. In Beijing, an Australian backpacker told me it was better to go there by public bus instead of taking a tour. If I took a tour, I'd get up way early in the morning, be led to one tourist trap after another, and get only a little time with the Warriors.

The best way to see the Warriors is to take the green 306 bus. It picks up passengers across the street in front of Xi'an train station, near a China Post office. Costs 7 RMB for a one-way ticket and takes about 1.5 hours to get there. It's always cool when you can dodge the tourist vortex and bask in local culture on the cheap.

I met Sophie my last night at the hostel. She worked there part-time while studying to become an English teacher. When she talked about her aspirations, I was struck by how similar they were to Americans. She wanted to move to Beijing or Shanghai to find a better life. Going to the big city to make your dreams come true; that's a story everone can relate to. I guess the Chinese aren't always so different from us.

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Channel to China! -- Beijing

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Caroline and me at the Forbidden City. Click on the photo to see Beijing album #1.

More photos in Bejing album #2

I've finished up my contract teaching English, so I've set out to travel across China. Choosing the first stop was easy. Beijing has the classic relics of ancient China. At the same time, it's at the forefront of a nation modernizing in a hurry.

Part 1: New Friends

I always feel the same nervousness when I arrive at a new place. Not because I'm worried about my safety; Los Angeles felt more dangerous than any other place I've been. It's because traveling by myself it gets lonely sometimes. This is especially true on my first night at a hostel. Everyone else seems to be laughing together, talking, all the old-timers know each other. I'm the new kid with no friends.

I stayed at the Beijing Jade International Youth Hostel. The place was really nice, but there was still another important factor that wasn't certain. In the elevator, I actually crossed my fingers and prayed for cool roommates. The people you meet on the road can make or break your experience.

This time, I hit the jackpot! My two roommates were Ben and Colin, two cool guys from Scotland. The story got better. They were studying abroad in Singapore with loads of other students from all over Europe. A big group of them were visiting Bejing and staying at the same hostel! I was happy beyond belief. My first night, and I've already made like 20 new friends!

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The Singapore group, on our way to the Great Wall

Part 2: Beijing Roast Duck

One of the joys of China is the food. The flavors run the gamut from the fiery peppers of Sichuan to the refined cuisine of Hong Kong.

Beijing Roast Duck is one of the most popular dishes in China. I've found it on pizza, at Kentucky Fried Chicken, practically every restaurant has some version of it.

The place to go in Bejing is the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. The walls carry framed photos of Fidel Castro, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, and other world leaders who've dined on the best roast duck in Beijing.

The service is excellent. A dapper chef carves up a fresh roast duck at your table:

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Looking at these pictures makes me wish I could go back there!

Part 3: The Wall

"All those other places are okay, but it's really all about The Wall. It's such a fucking big wall!"
--Joe, roommate at my hostel

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The Great Wall is divided into sections, so you have to pick which spot to visit. Badaling is the most touristy and commercial. Jiankou is really remote and more authentic. A popular option for hardy trekkers is to walk from the Jinshanling section to the Simatai section.

Our group settled on Simatai. It's a good middle-ground choice. Simatai has the restrooms and conveniences of a tourist trap; but it also had considerably less tourists.

Most tours to the Great Wall go to Badaling and include a visit to the Ming Tombs. My friends who've been there said the Ming Tombs were empty and boring. Luckily, our group got around that by chartering a minibus and going on our own.

Bring comfortable shoes! There's a lot of walking up steep steps. Learn to say, "Bu yao [don't want]," because hawkers will try to sell you postcards, picture books, and other crap along the way. If there's one thing that almost ruined Beijing for me, it was the hawkers. They're lurking at every major tourist attraction.

At Simatai, you walk up a mountain pass. You make a turn into a rock building, and suddenly you're on the Great Wall!

I was so excited I never felt tired. Every step was like walking across the top of China. Just when I felt like stopping, there was a always another tower in the distance promising even greater views.

Finally, I felt the climb starting to catch up with me. Just one more tower! As I wheezed over the last step, here's the sight that greeted me:

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Another tacky souvenir shop! I couldn't believe it! I climbed up the Great Wall for this?!

I gave up and bought some ice cream bars. Food never tasted so good. It wasn't just the ice cream. My one year in China flashed in front of me: I spent my first month in Hell, studied one of the most difficult languages in the world, and finally made it to the Great Wall. This was the sweet taste of victory.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 20 -- Lap of Luxury

I've been too negative about Shanghai lately, so I'll dwell on some of the perks of living in the world's biggest construction area.

Westerners who come to the lower-cost destinations in Asia are often tempted to stay longer. Except for falling in love with a local, I think one of the big reasons is that things are just so much cheaper:

--Taxis. The meter starts at 11 RMB ($1.37 USD) for the first few kilometers. It's the total opposite of Europe, where'd I 'd feel my bank account draining whenever I took a taxi.

--DVDs. 10 RMB ($1.25 USD) max, if from a shop. Goes for half that if you buy them off the street.

--Travel. Long-distance trains and buses are insanely cheap compared to flights when traveling within China.

--Clothes. Choose the fabric and have your clothes hand-tailored at the Fabric Market on Lujiabang Rd. I've known girls to get dresses personally made before going back home.

--Housekeeping. We pay our maid 25 RMB ($3.16 USD) to clean our apartment for two hours, once a week. There's no way we could afford a maid back in the West.

A guilty pleasure many expats enjoy in China is massages. Legit ones, I mean! Not the whorehouses that pretend to be "barbershops."

My friends and I hit C's, a seedy hip-hop bar, a few nights ago. The air conditioner in the bar was operational, but the one in the dance floor was broken. So after dancing hard to one of my favorite songs, "Kimosabe," I was soaked with sweat. Time to relax.

Luckily, the group was planning to hit up a massage parlor nearby and get foot massages. They're cheap, only 30 RMB ($3.76 USD) for a 90-minute foot massage. Elizabeth has been trying to get me to go for a long time, but I've resisted. I felt weird about having some stranger touch me. That and I'm extremely ticklish.

Since it was Erica's last night before returning to England, I gave in. I definitely wanted to hang out with her before she left.

We went to Elizabeth's favorite foot massage place just down the road from our apartment. The women cheerfully greeted us in Chinese and got to work.

First, they plunged our feet into buckets of hot water. I'm really new at this, so I thought the water was too hot. My masseuse poured in some cold water to cool it a little.

I'm not sure if this was normal, but my masseuese dug her nails into my legs a lot when she was doing her work. This was supposed to be relaxing?

Elizabeth told me later that I'd gotten the worst masseuse in the parlor. That's why it hurt to walk afterwards. The Marcus Luck in effect.

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The Massage Crew (right to left): Me, Erica, Chantel, Melissa, and Elizabeth

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 19 -- Laser Tag Showdown

It took a long time for me to play my first game of laser tag. With my love of action movies, especially the bullet-riddled masterpieces of John Woo, laser tag was a perfect fit.

My company was sponsoring a laser tag match to reward the employees and say farewell to one of the departing English teachers, Anita (shown above). At first I didn't want to go. The venue was at Hongkou Football Stadium, which way far away from where I live.

But when Anita sent me a text asking whether I would come, I gave in. I didn't want to let down a friend who's so cool.

I have this problem: I'm chronically punctual. Usually, I'm anywhere from 15-30 minutes early for every occasion. It happened again for laser tag. I got to Planet Laser at 6:30pm, while the party wasn't due to start until 7:00pm. Even worse, I was the only English-speaking person there!

I was seriously sweating when sent a text message to Marie, a fellow English teacher from Australia. She had texted, saying she wasn't coming and that she hoped I had fun. I replied: "That's Mission: Impossible, but I'll try. I'm the only non-Chinese person here! :("

After an endless stream of Chinese staff, Anita finally showed up, along with Trent, another teacher from Australia. On a side note, I'll confess my jealousy of Australians and New Zealanders. The world loves Aussies and Kiwis. They can get working holiday visas for practially any country!

I've heard it's a case of reciprocation. We don't let anyone into America, so the rest of the world keeps us from staying too long. We can only work in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, and that's for less than 1 year. No wonder everyone else out-travels us.

An employee gathered us together and demonstrated how to play the game. Chest hits were worth 100 points, back hits were 150 points, and shoulder hits were 200 points. We wore these big flak jackets with sensors.

I was disappointed. I wanted to jump sideways, dive down, and roll across the floor shooting like I've seen in action movies. I couldn't do that when the jackets had lights the size of watermelons that could break. We only got one gun per person, so I couldn't bust out the two-fisted pistol action like in John Woo movies:

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Chow Yun-Fat looking badass in John Woo's Hardboiled

We were the Red Team and our opponents were the Green Team. When the siren sounded, we stormed into the shooting area. It was a dark maze of black walls, windows, and weird flashing lights. Feeling lazy, I positioned myself in a dark corner and played sniper, picking off everyone who walked by.

That's the cheap way to play laser tag. Eventually I got bored and went hunting for real. I pulled out all the SWAT-team moves I'd picked up from watching too many action movies:

--Run low to the ground

--Stand sideways when shooting

--Use available cover

--Peak around corners

--Match my eye movements with the sweep of my gun

I was creeping around when I saw my opportunity. A guy from the Green Team was standing in the middle of the doorway, with his back to me. It was too good to be true.

I checked both ways to make sure this wasn't some trap. Nobody. I snuck up behind him until I was within point-blank range. He was busy looking for enemies in front of him. I pumped ten shots into his back before he even knew I was there!

By the time he turned around and started shooting, I was already booking it and dove behind some walls. All that time in high school I spent playing Virtua Cop 2 finally paid off.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Hard Seat to Suzhou

I've finally gotten myself out of the Stone Age and bought a digital camera. It's so great, I don't know why I kept using disposable cameras for so long!

The great thing about Shanghai is that there's loads of interesting towns and cities nearby. Trains and buses that will go to most places at very low cost. My hard seat ticket to Suzhou was less than $2 USD!

Suzhou public transportation

There are four classes of comfort in Chinese trains:

Soft Sleeper
Hard Sleeper
Soft Seat
Hard Seat

The names are self-explanatory. Soft sleeper cabins are hotel-quality and cost about as much as a plane ticket. Hard seat cabins on long-distance trains can be a nightmare: crowded with dirty migrant workers eating, smoking, and playing cards, with no room to sit down.

Buying a train ticket can be a test of endurance. Long lines, noise, and ticket sellers trained in the Communist style of customer service: "Better a late train that's Communist than a train on time that's Capitalist."

The guidebooks recommend bypassing train stations altogether and buying tickets through hotels and hostels instead. Most of them have an in-house travel agency with English-speaking staff. There's a small service charge, but it's worth it for the convenience. Sometimes they have special contacts that can score tickets even during high season.

In addition, there are advanced-purchase offices that sell train tickets. This is the best option, since they're more conveniently located than the main train station, and have a lower service charge than a hotel. No English though, so bringing along a Chinese friend is a must. But sometimes these ticket offices are so well-hidden that even locals don't know about them! The one closest to my apartment is buried in the back of a tobacco shop. I used to wonder why I saw long lines there all the time!

It's also a good idea to buy an onward ticket or return ticket at the same time that you buy your initial ticket. Thanks to overpopulation, tickets get sold out fast on popular routes. That goes tenfold for Chinese holidays. The government only allows three 1-week vacations during the year: National Day (October), Spring Festival a.k.a. Chinese New Year (January or February), and Labor Day (May). This is the only time Chinese people can travel. They often to choose to go back to their hometown or travel to famous tourist sites. They don't have 2-week vacations they can take whenever, like America. So in high seasons, the tourist infrastructure is pressed to the limit.

Scalpers ("piao fanzi") make a fortune by buying up as many train tickets as they can for the holidays and reselling them at ridiculously high prices. They also do this for sports events and pop music concerts too. The most heartless scalpers buy up the wait-in-line numbers at hospitals and sell them to patients needing emergency care!

Since this was my first-ever trip into another part of China, I chose Suzhou ("su joe"). It's only an hour away from Shanghai by train. One of the most famous Chinese tourist blurbs goes, "In heaven, there is paradise. On Earth, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou." Suzhou if famous for its gardens and canals. Hangzhou is famous for West Lake, a huge lake that has cool old architecture.

When I polled my foreign friends and students, they unanimously recommended Hangzhou over Suzhou. The West Lake was big and had more stuff to see. They all thought Suzhou was too small, too boring, and not that great. While I thought it wasn't that bad, I definitely wouldn't stay there longer than a day.

I did like that the sky was clear and blue. The buildings didn't tower over me and block out the sky like they do in Shanghai. A lot of them had more traditional-looking roofs.



While I was wandering through the Garden of the Master of the Nets, I met Jessie, a girl from Beijing. When I told her I'd come to China without being able to speak Chinese, she gasped.

"You are so great!" she said. "You must be very brave to come to a country where you can't speak the language."

I brightened at that. Whenever I make a radical decision, i.e. to backpack through Europe, to teach English in China, I am never sure whether I'm being incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. The only way to find out is go for it.

Jessie from Beijing

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 17 -- Going for the Dream

"To know the road ahead, ask those coming back."
--Chinese proverb

One of my great pleasures is to give advice to future travelers. It's a big boost to your confidence when you know someone who's been there and can give you the straight story. The key person in my decision to come to China was a past graduate of my university. He visited my class and talked about his exciting career in the trading business, where he made money and got to travel around the world. Shanghai was his top pick in today's global economy. If I had slacked off and skipped class that day, who knows where I would have ended up?

Actually, I do know. I was very close to surrendering my dream of traveling to give up and become a real estate agent in Hawaii. A 6-week real estate licensing class vs. 3 years of law school, it was the easy way out. If I had gone through with that, I would be going to work every day dreading the coming downturn in the housing market. Instead, I'm studying Chinese and enjoying my front-row seat watching the fastest-developing city in the world.

Through my parents and friends who follow my adventures, I get inquiries from people about how to go abroad. In travel, there is no such thing as an unimportant detail. Every tip, every website can make a huge difference in someone's life. Know where to find the right information, and the impossible becomes possible.

The daughter of one of my father's co-workers was thinking of going to Japan. Here's my e-mail to her:

Dear ____ ,

Happy to help. The good news is that the JET program isn't the only game in town. Aeon and ECC are both supposed to be reputable companies. Nova has a really bad rep on the Internet, but they hire almost anybody. Despite the bad press, I have two friends who worked for Nova and liked it. Read the latest gossip on ESL Cafe. After a year in Japan, you can change to a better job. Gaijin Pot is where to look for jobs once you're in Japan.

The general advice is to avoid Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. They're the most expensive. If you work somewhere else, you'll be able to save more of your salary. Many teach English in Japan or Korea to pay off student loans. Insider tip: there are more people from Hawaii in Fukuoka than any other place in Japan. It's a medium-sized city in Kyushu.

I don't think getting a teaching credential is necessary. Most companies don't require it and will provide some training. The work itself is pretty easy once you get some experience. You'd be much better off taking a Japanese class for the summer. I wish to God I'd studied Chinese before I came over here.

Teaching English is actually only half your job. The other half is answering questions about America. Or many times, defending America. All they know is what they've seen in movies, so I have to constantly remind my Chinese students that not all Americans carry guns and take drugs.

I'm not sure how bad it is in Japan, but racism is a big problem in China and everywhere else in Asia. Most English-teaching companies in Asia require you to send a photo with your resume, a blatantly prejudiced request. Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians get turned down for jobs all the time. It might be a good idea to send your resume without a photo. Write on your resume that you're a U.S. citizen and native English speaker. That forces the company to call you or even better, interview you. Either way, they get a chance to hear you speak English before possibly rejecting you.

The first month in any foreign country will always be the hardest. Try to stick it out. That being said, ordering food by pointing at pictures gets old fast. The 4 priorities are: job, apartment, studying the language, and making friends. Once you get those four down, everything else will fall into place.

Japan is better than other places than Asia for a first-time expat. It's clean, developed, great food, companies provide health insurance, etc. I can give you advice on finding English speakers anywhere. This sounds really ageist and sexist, but if you need someone who speaks English, go for young women under 30. They're more likely to speak English than any other group. I've asked young men so many times, and they can't. Ditto for old people. Studying English is popular among the young, and I think women are better at languages than men. I was the only boy in a lot of my English classes. Most of my professors were women, too. I majored in English Creative Writing.

You can definitely make a career out of teaching. A lot of foreigners come abroad and never leave. Easy job, saving substantial money, the glamor of living abroad, and local celebrity status (especially if you're white and in a smaller town). On the flip side, there are a lot of foreigners who don't teach for long and move on to do something else. Part of it is the snobbery they get from expats with professional jobs, i.e. "English teachers are just backpacker trash."

Some of the foreigners who enjoy the benefits above are what one of my friends call an LBH = Loser Back Home. That's the ugly, gross, overweight, geeky guy that women back home would've deemed untouchable. But in Asia, he can score a hot girlfriend and a good-paying job just for being white.

You may not have thought about this, but dating can be a challenge for Western women in Asia. Almost every foreign guy I know has a Chinese girlfriend. Some Western women complain that they can't compete with the slim, ultra-fashionable, sometimes more subservient Asian women. Asian men can find Western women too strong and independent, so they avoid them. These are broad generalities, but I know plenty of single Western women as evidence.

My route to getting a job in China is a long, twisted story. Read my blog to get all the gory details:

My adventures in China start in September 2005. Scroll to the story on the bottom, and read your way upwards.

Feel free to ask me any questions. I'm all for helping people to travel. No education is complete without it!


Monday, May 15, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 16 -- English was his passport

". . . to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer.

"I must learn English," John said.

"Why do you want to learn English?" I asked. We were sitting opposite each other at the classroom table.

His shabby jacket and cheap pants concealed his true identity: a highly trained computer programmer for a state-owned enterprise (SOE).

"I must move my family to Canada for a better life," John said simply.

"Why not go to America?" I asked.

He shook his head sadly. "Is better, but not possible. No one can go to America now."

I winced at his dire opinion. It was right on the money. This was a recurring theme with my students. With America closing the gates, the foreign talent were skipping the States in favor of Canada and Australia.

John was on the verge of going to Canada. The papers were filed, his name was on the roster, the process was rolling.

That left the interview at the Canadian embassy. According to John, "The interview scares me the most." Like most of my students, he had solid reading, writing, and listening skills. It was his broken English that might blow this opportunity.

The responsibility on me weighed a ton. If I failed to prep him for the interview properly, it would take John a long time to get another chance. If he got another chance. Botching this would ruin someone's life. That haunted me.

So I overcompensated. Over the next few weeks, we attacked the interview materials John brought. I scripted answers to every sample question that John got from Canadian immigration. He took exhaustive notes of everything I said. We recited the answers together over and over again.

I wanted to change to simpler words, but John was convinced that my first-choice words sounded smarter. The words were great, but he couldn't say them without stumbling over the syllables. A lot of the sample questions asked the same things. I was getting confused. John's progress was slow. He was going to fail the interview and it was going to be all my fault. I started freaking out.

Then one day, John walked in.

"Hey John, how's it going?" I asked.

He looked at me and his voice broke. "Marcus, I'm going to Canada."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Time Out in Taiwan!

Note: My brand-new digital camera was stolen shortly after I returned to Shanghai. So you'll have to believe me when I say I had awesome pictures of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei 101 (the world's tallest building), Shilin Night Market, and cool Taiwanese girls.

Normally, I keep my language clean. But when I opened my backpack and saw my camera was gone, the call of "Motherfucking bastards!" carried far and wide.

I was looking up apartments on and got really excited when I saw they had dryers! In China, everyone hangs their clothes on poles that stick out from their building. They look like this:

(photo courtesy of Ed at the Aidohua blog).

Holy crap, if the thought of electric dryers is exciting, then I've been in China too long.

That's why I was so glad to be taking a vacation in Taipei, Taiwan. I envisioned it has having all the good stuff about China, with few of the bad things. I felt the same way about Hong Kong. Both were more Westernized and more Chinese.

One thing that intrigued me was how friends said that Taiwan and Hong Kong felt more "Chinese" than China. Huh? The reasoning was that all the people with money, culture, art, and talent fled the motherland with the rise of Communism. Many traditions in China were destroyed by the new regime. A Chinese student actually admitted to me that it was a good thing people escaped to Taiwan and Hong Kong, or the old ways would have been totally lost.

Having done a fair bit of traveling by now, I looked through my files for people I had met from Taiwan. A regular habit of mine is to collect e-mails. Never know when I'll be in their neighborhood . . . or their country.

I came up with a few names and zapped off e-mails. These were cool girls I'd met while studying abroad in England. I was looking forward to hanging out with them again.

The first reply was a disaster. Like an idiot, I bought my plane ticket before contacting the Taiwan girls I knew. Ashley was working on her Master's degree in England. She said that she'd be back in Taipei for vacation 3 days after I returned to Shanghai. I blew it. Game over.

Then the next response came in. Jessie was actually working in China! But she'd be home for vacation at the same time as my trip. Too cool! We'd definitely have lots to talk about. She said to call her up when I got into town.

The North Korea-South Korea thing gets a lot of press. I didn't know until I got here that there's a lot of tension between China and Taiwan (a.k.a. "cross-strait relations"). The short version is that China considers Taiwan a renegade province, a part of China. Taiwan sees itself as an independent country.

The residue of this political flack is that there's no direct flights between China and Taiwan. Flights have to go through Hong Kong, sometimes through Macau (a Chinese island famous for casinos). I ended up going through Macau. It used to be a Portuguese colony, so everything in that airport is in Chinese and Portuguese! That was so weird, like I was in some parallel world.

I flew on EVA airlines. I thought it was good, but my Taiwan students preferred China Airlines (not to be confused with Air China). China Airlines is the other major Taiwan carrier, but my Lonely Planet guidebook said they had a sorry history of crashes!

Riding the bus from the airport to downtown Taipei was surreal. Green mountains rippled around the city, lush trees tipped their leaves in the wind. If it weren't for the street signs in Chinese, I would have sworn I was back in Hawaii!

Somehow, I felt comfortable right away. The weather, the scenery, the Japanese cars, it all reminded me of home. I spoke some Chinese now, so I could get around without as many problems. Compared to the culture shock of Shanghai, Taipei was a leisurely vacation.

I called Jessie as soon as I checked in. We arranged to meet at the MRT station near my hostel. I got there early and just soaked up the atmosphere, as well as the exhaust from the million scooters whizzing around. While I waited, I conjured up memories of her. When we were in England, she had dressed simply. Casual sweaters and pants.


I turned and did a double-take. This was a new Jessie. She sported a denim jacket, cowboy boots, and a black skirt so short if defied existence. This wasn't the modest, sweet girl I remembered.

"Jessie?" When I meet someone I know from a while back, it's like all the time between the past and present are gone. The intervevening years disappear and it's as if they never happened.

We talked as she took me to a restaurant she liked. Her questions came hard and fast, all business: "What's your purpose in coming here?" "Which things will you see?" "What's your plan?"

I fumbled some words out and totally failed to impress her. She eased up on the interrogation when we got to the restaurant.

It specialized in Sichuan cuisine. It's a province in China with a famous saying: "In Sichuan, their girls are like their food: hot and spicy."

I asked her about work in China. She did marketing for a Taiwan company that had a factory in Guangdong province. Her company was near Guangzhou, a city that unanimously got bad comments from all my Chinese students.

So it wasn't a surprise when Jessie said she came back to Taipei because she couldn't stand it in China.

I told her some of my problems, and she was completely sympathetic.

"You don't like it, and you live in Shanghai!" Jessie exclaimed. "Shanghai is the most Western city in China." (not counting Hong Kong)

"That's why I'm visiting Taipei," I said. "It's part vacation, partly a trip to check out what it'd be like to live here."

She brightened at that, and went into a big move-to-Taiwan sales pitch. "Many foreigners teach English for a year, and go traveling."

That was my dream! "How long does it take to go to places from here?" I asked.

"Taipei is the core!" Jessie said. "Japan, China, Thailand, they all take less than four hours."

"Whoa!" It took me longer to fly to Los Angeles when I was in college.

Everything she said made me want to relocate tommorow. The only downside she mentioned was that my classes would be bigger, 10-20 students. I was surprised, because I had expected to have big classes when I first came to China, the world's most populated country. I lucked out in that my school capped the classes to five students each. Ironic that the smaller country would have the bigger classes.

After we finished off the spicy pork and fish with rice, Jessie took me to another restaurant for dessert. We had shin ren doufu, almond-flavored tofu in a bowl of sweet soy milk. Never ate that before.

I so intent on spooning up the great food that I didn't notice the pretty Taiwanese girl that walked up to our table. I thought she was one of Jessie's friends. But she was looking at me.

"Marcus!" Jessie whispered.

"What?" I looked at her and then up at the girl.

"Excuse me," the stranger said.

"Yes?" I took another bite of tofu.

"Did you study in England at the University of East Anglia?" she asked eagerly.

I almost choked on my tofu, I was so surprised! "Yes, yes I did! Have we met?" I asked.

She pouted. "Marcus! Don't you remember me?"

Oh no! Can't ever achieve pimp status if I forget girls' names. I looked at her closely. She had a nice tan. Back in England, we all had pale skin from the lack of sunlight. Forget skin, look at her face. She started to look familiar. Then I had it, she was at the International Party at UEA.

"Lucy?" I ventured.


"Oh." I was sad.

She broke into a big smile. "My English name is Lianne now!"

I motioned for her to sit with us.

Lianne and Jessie spoke in rapid-fire Mandarin, laughing and catching up.

"How did you recognize me?" I asked Lianne.

"Your shirt," she said.

I was wearing a surfer shirt that said Hawaiian Style on the back. Always gotta represent the 808 state when I travel.

"When I saw the Hawaii, I thought of Marcus," she continued. "You're the only person I've met from Hawaii. I had to come and check. I thought impossible!"

"Good thing you did," I said. I was still in awe at the serendipity of it all. In a city of 6 million people, what were the chances of visiting another country and have a girl recognize me?

Ashley, Jessie, and now Liannne. Three good reasons to return to Taiwan!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 14 -- Dialing for Dollars

"If you don't want anyone to know, then don't do it."
--Chinese proverb

I was in a bind. My vacation was getting closer, and I still hadn't found a way to convert my Chinese yuan into U.S. dollars. Every bank I hit said they couldn't do it. China is the roach motel of foreign exchange policy: dollars go in, but they don't come out.

I was wary of street currency traders, for reasons I detailed in an earlier story. But they seemed to be my only option.

Luckily, Xiao came to my rescue. She's one of my students, a Chinese businesswoman preparing to relocate to the United States. Part of that preparation included converting her money into dollars before the big move. Xiao offered to set me up with her money man.

So that was how I found myself in the lobby of a crumbling office building on a side street, wondering if I'd been set up to be robbed. Xiao was with me, answering her cell phone every few minutes to give the money man directions to the building. Her eyes flitted to everyone who walked in. Was she watching for cops?

Finally, a disheveled-looking man in tattered clothes walked in. Everything about him screamed "homeless bum!" except for the big, gleaming leather satchel he held under one arm. Totally shady. I felt like I was doing a drug deal.

Xiao introduced him as Yang Li. He grunted and got straight to business, opening up the satchel. Packs of cash nearly burst out of the bag. Yuan, euros, dollars, he had it all.

Through Xiao, I told him I wanted to exchange 1600 RMB. Yang Li muttered something.

"He says you pay 5 RMB for each 800 RMB you exchange," Xiao translated. "So for 1610 RMB, you get 200 dollars."

That meant his fee was like 50 cents for every 100 dollars! That was way too cheap. Now I was worried he'd pass me counterfeits.

Yang Li presented two crisp, new hundred-dollar bills to me.

Being prepared, I took out a hundred-dollar bill I'd brought from America. I held his bills and mine to the sunlight. Mine had a slightly smaller picture of Ben Franklin on the right side of the bill that appeared in the light. His also had them. I rubbed the paper between my fingers. Felt the same, too. Hard to believe such clean money could come from such a dirty man.

I nodded and gave him 1610 RMB.

Yang Li counted money the way all Chinese people do. He curled the bills around his middle finger and flipped down each bill with his other hand.

Business done, he closed up the case and left without saying goodbye. Xiao left soon after.

I was still feeling disoriented. My first foray into the dark side went entirely too fast. It was really easy too, which was frightening. I didn't want this to be the start of a trend.

Now that I had real money, I concentrated on happier things. My next destination offered 32 to the dollar, so I felt rich already!

For more on this subject, check out Lost in Transaction, an article by travel writer Rolf Potts.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 13--Mandarin in Action

"He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever."
--Chinese proverb

Although my company is an English school, they also offer Mandarin classes. As an employee, I get a cool fringe benefit: free Chinese classes!

As a foreigner, I constantly get offers of "language exchanges" from Chinese people, i.e. "I can teach you Chinese for free!" I've tried it, and it's always been a waste of time. The deal is supposed to be 1 hour of Chinese, 1 hour of English. But it usually works out to 1 hour and 59 minutes of free English practice for the Chinese person. As a result, it's usually a bad deal for a foreigner. The going rate for private English tutoring is 150-200RMB an hour ($18-$25). In contrast, private Chinese lessons can be had for 50 RMB ($6) an hour or less. The other problem is that the language partner is usually not a trained teacher, so they lack the patience and the ability to explain things clearly.

To be fair, some of my friends have been able to make language exchanges work. The key things are that the Chinese person should share time fairly and the foreigner needs to know what they want out of the exchange. I think they work better for an intermediate-level student who wants conversation practice. For a beginner, I think it's better to shell out the money and get lessons from a real teacher.

There are ulterior reasons for language exchanges, though. Some foreign men use them to meet Chinese women, and vice versa.

I've been studying Mandarin one-on-one with Miss Zhang for about 6 months. I realized right away that it's hard to study spoken Chinese and written Chinese the same way. Miss Zhang teaches them separately. With spoken Chinese, it's best to stick to pinyin, the system of writing Chinese with English letters. This allows a student to speak Chinese very quickly. When writing Chinese, start with the easiest characters to write, then increase the difficulty.

My Mandarin skills were put to the test when I went out for a job interview. An American company needed native English speakers as voice talents for their English-learning software. Part-time work. I sent in a resume and a woman named Lily e-mailed to invite me to interview. But she couldn't understand my request for directions to their office. I had the address, but they didn't tell me the cross-street. I needed both to tell the taxi driver where to go.

I got out my Shanghai Tourist Map and found the closest subway station to the address: Dongchang Road station. The road was pretty close to the station, I was hoping I could just walk to the office.

After a 15-minute walk from the station, I found the street I was looking for. The nearest building said it was 500. I checked my address: 1515 Zhangyang Road. 1515! I was miles away from the interview site!

I hailed a taxi and got in.

"Ni qu shenme difan? [You go to what place?]" the driver asked.

"Yao wu yao wu Zhangyang Lu [one five one five Zhangyang Road]," I said.

"Ah?" She scrunched her face.

Damn! Have to say it another away. "Yi qian wu bai shi wu Zhangyang Lu [one thousand five hundred fifteen Zhangyang Road]."

"Ah!" She started the taxi.

She dropped me outside a complex of apartment buildings. This was residential, not commercial property! Was I at the wrong place?

My pronunciation must have been off! There's 4 tones in Chinese. The same word said with the wrong tone changes the meaning. Say "strawberry milkshake" with the wrong tones and you say "fuck-your-sister milkshake."

The office was in building 7. I found buildings 8 and 9 easily enough. The next building was . . . 15. What?! I backtracked and found a yuppie-type reading a newspaper outside building 9.

I started to ask where building 7 was, then realized I didn't know the word for building. Need to improvise.

"Bu hao yi si [Excuse me]," I said.

The yuppie looked at me.

I pointed to the sign that said 9. "Jiu [Nine]."

"Dui [correct]." He looked at me like I was an idiot. Why would I state the obvious?

"Chi na lia? [Where is seven?]" I asked.

"Chi?" He drew a seven in the air.

I nodded.

He pointed behind me. I turned around. Building 7 was across a big-ass pond.

"Xie xie [Thanks]."

He shrugged. "Bu ker chi [You're welcome]." He went back to his newspaper.

I raced across the pond to building 7. The seconds ticked by the elevator swept me up to the 16th floor. I stepped into the office at the stroke of 10:30AM. Just in time, thanks to my brand-new Mandarin skills!

How to say an address in Chinese:

Like everything else in China, it's backwards. Say the street name first, the number (each digit), and the word that indicates a number (hao).

1515 Zhangyang Road = Zhangyang Road one five one five

Zhangyang Lu yao wu yao wu hao

"Yi" is usually the word for one, except in addresses and phone numbers, where it becomes "yao."

Monday, February 27, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol.12 -- Marcus the Great

"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names."
--Chinese proverb

"Marcus? He is a great man in China," Maggie said.

"Really?" I asked. We were chilling out in the office after work.

"Yes, Marcus was very important," she said seriously. "We all had to study him in school."

Wow. It'd be good to be associated with someone positive for once. Sometimes when I tell Filipinos my name, they're like, "Marcus? Marcos? You mean Ferdinand Marcos?!"

Then I have to say, "NO! I wasn't named after him! I was named after my great-grandfather."

I pressed Maggie for more details. She couldn't translate what she knew, but she promised to look him up on the Internet.

My imagination was fired by visions of grandeur. Maybe I was a great man in a past life. Ha ha ha!

Famous (and Infamous) Marcus's in History

Marcus Aurelius--the philosopher-king of ancient Rome. Celebrated as the last of the "5 Good Emperors" before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Marco Polo--Venetian merchant who was one of the most traveled men of his time. Even more significant, his writings became the Western world's first look into China.

His book inspired another young Italian to go to China--by sailing west in 1492.

Markus Wolf--East German spymaster nicknamed "The Man Without a Face" because no intelligence agency was able to photograph him. Novelist John Le Carre used Wolf as a model for Karla, the most fearsome enemy to the British Secret Service.

Herbert Marcus--co-founder of the Neiman Marcus upscale clothing store chain. He started NM with a store in Dallas, Texas.

Although it would have been cool to be a Roman emperor, globe-trotting merchant, super-spy, or retail tycoon, none of them seemed right.

The Foreign Languages Bookstore is one of my favorite places in Shanghai. It's on Fuzhou Lu (Fuzhou Road), famous for having acres of bookshops. The selection of English-language books at the shops leave a lot to be desired. It's either guidebooks or literary classics in paperback. Anything else is absurdly more expensive. Many books go for 200 RMB ($24.80) and up. Literary classics are 18 RMB ($2.23).

I know it sounds weird to complain about 25 bucks, but I'm thinking with my Chinese salary now. In comparison, DVDs here cost only 10 RMB ($1.24), down to 5 RMB ($0.62). It's a cruel twist of fate that the only books I can afford are the ones that bored me in school!

I headed to the classics display to see what bargains I could find. While I dug through pre-20th century literature, my mind drifted to how Chinese people kept mispronouncing my name. They always called me "Mark-suh."

There was a stack of a new book that hadn't been there last time I was here. I picked up a copy.

Suddenly, everything came together: an important man; the strong influence he had on China; the way everyone said my name wrong.

The book was

Friday, February 3, 2006

Shanghai on Film!

Shanghai Skyline--with Joe

By popular demand, here are some pictures of Shanghai! Click on the photo to go to the photo album. Special thanks to Joe (above) and Ed for lending their cameras to the cause.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 11 -- Money Matters

"The saving man becomes the free man."
--Chinese proverb

My Mom predicted that I wouldn't be able to save money during my first two months in China. I was sure she'd be wrong. With such favorable exchange rates, I couldn't lose. She said that didn't matter. The first two months in a new place always require heavy spending. Alas, she was right. Because everything seemed so cheap, I couldn't stop myself from buying whatever I wanted.

It took discipline, but I was able to save up a tidy amount. Now I needed to put it somewhere safe. Not that I worried too much about getting robbed. Shanghai is safe in the same way Las Vegas is safe: the government makes sure criminals don't scare away the money, I mean the investors.

I turned to the experts, my students. Which bank should I use? I thought Bank of China or Industrial and Commercial Bank of China would be best, since they had the most ATMs. The survey turned up the same answer:

"State-owned banks bad service, very bad service," they said. They cited long waits in line, unprofessional tellers, and outdated technology.

"Which ones are the state-owned banks?" I asked.

"All of them."

"D'oh!" I should have know it wouldn't be easy. Nothing in China is easy, except finding cheap DVDs. "There has to be at least one good bank in this country."

"Well, there is one."


"China Merchants Bank. Very good service."

"Why is that?" I wondered.

"Is not state bank. Is private bank." Ah, free enterprise at work.

Opening the account was relatively simple. I brought my passport and temporary residency permit. The teller filled out an application and gave me an ATM card.

I came back the next day to make my first deposit. I got a ticket from the ticket machine: #500. The display on the teller windows said it was serving customer #300. Damn! I was in for a long wait.


I turned around. It was a pretty young Chinese woman. She was dressed in a jacket, jeans, and high-heeled boots that go up to the knees. Very popular with Shanghai girls.

"Marcus! It is you. Do you remember me? I'm Lucy."

"Of course!" I nodded. Meanwhile, my mind was racing: where did I meet this girl?! A party? In class? Friend of a friend?

"You do a transaction in the bank?" Lucy asked.

"Yes, I need to put in money," I said.

"Oh, you needn't talk to the teller." Lucy took me past the ATMs to a jumbo-sized ATM. "This is a special machine. You can put in money."

Just like a regular ATM, I put in my card and typed my PIN. I selected DEPOSIT. A metal plate slid away, revealing a cash tray.

"Put your money in there," she instructed.

I arranged the bills neatly. The lid snapped shut, almost biting my hand off. A loud whirring sound powered up. It sounded like it was eating my money!

"Don't worry, it's just counting it," Lucy said.

The whirring stopped and the screen showed several options, asking me to select which account to deposit the money to. I chose CURRENT ACCOUNT. Lucy said to ask for a receipt. The machine spat out the paper. I was now solvent in China!

"That's amazing! We don't have deposit machines like that in America," I said. "We have machines to take money out, but not to put money in."

"Really? Chinese always save money [30-50% of their income]. Don't Americans save money?" Lucy asked.

"Uh, not so much," I said. Statistics said that Americans save between 0-1% of their income.

Later, I read this headline in the Nov. 2005 issue of Insight: the Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai:


Appendix 1: Living Costs in Shanghai

What does it cost to live in Shanghai? Mercer Human Resources Consulting compiles a list of the world's most expensive cities every year. There's a link to the complete list over at CNN.

Shanghai ranked #30 overall. This list is skewed, though. Companies hire Mercer to calculate compensation packages for the American executives they send abroad. The Director of China Operations for a multinational corporation will demand a higher standard of living than a poor college graduate on a student budget. Shanghai can be very expensive or very cheap, depending on the person.

Enough talk. Time to show you the money!

My Monthly Expenses (estimates in RMB):

1400 Rent
1200 Food
200 Utilities
64 Bus
80 Taxi
80 Subway
300 Clubbing (Drinking and Cover Charges)
80 DVDs
300 Books
50 Mobile phone
+100 Long-distance phone calls

3854 RMB TOTAL $477.58 a month, using the Universal Currency Converter

Comments on Costs

Rent -- Housing is the biggest expense, just like it would be anywhere else. Executive expats live in country club-style communities that can cost over $10,000 a month. Serviced apartments, which are basically long-stay hotel rooms, cost almost as much.

Younger expats usually share apartments. Asia Expat is the best to look for apartments (and jobs). Smart Shanghai, Shanghai Expat, and Craig's List Shanghai are also worth a look. If you are fluent in Chinese, you can find some spectacular deals on Anjia.

If you have one roommate and a 2-bedroom apartment in the city, your rent shouldn't cost more than 2500 RMB ($310). If you live further from the city, that much could get you your own 1-bedroom apartment. 3-bedroom apartments can be had for less than 8000 RMB ($1000). For more info, check out this rental chart.

The bigger the apartment, the better the value. 1-bedroom apartments are usually bad and overpriced. 2-bedroom apartments range from okay to somewhat nice. 3-bedroom apartments are huge, new, and are well-located. Not to mention cheaper, because the rent is split among three people. The difference in price between 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom apartments is not that much sometimes. One of my friends said, "When it comes to apartments, 3 is the magic number."

Emoo is an expat services company that has excellent move-to-Shanghai packages. For one price, they'll pick you up at the airport, put you in a hotel, find you an apartment, and even toss in an international phone card. They also help with visas. Click on "Traveling." The special offers aren't there now, but should be back up soon. You can probably find a cheaper apartment on your own, but I think Emoo is the most convenient way to move to Shanghai for the first time.

Food -- Good news for people like me who are too lazy to cook. I average 40 RMB ($5) a day on food, eating out three times a day. If you stick to water and stuffed steam buns (baozi), could spend less than $1 a day. I tend to mix Western and Asian food. Pizza is expensive, so most of my friends eat Hello Pizza, a cheap local chain.

The bad news is cheese. There's no cheese in China! Carrefour (Jialefu in Chinese) is one of the few places that carry a decent selection, because they're like the French version of Costco. The Chinese I talk to say they don't like cheese, it smells too bad. Ironic, since one whiff of their stinky doufu could knock out a rampaging elephant.

Utilities -- These usually don't amount to much, but paying them can be a pain in the ass. You have to go to a convenience store like KEDI or Lawson's. You give them the bill, they scan it, and you pay. Some of the clerks can be anal about only accepting utility bills at certain times of the day. I get the best service when I pay at the post office, so now I do all my business there.

Bus -- on old buses (no air-conditioning), it costs 1 RMB for a one-way bus ticket. New buses cost 2 RMB. An old woman will come along the aisle with a dirty purse, collecting money, making change, and handing out bus tickets. The newer buses have coin machines and card scanners

Taxi -- The base fee is 10 RMB ($1.25) for the first kilometer and 2 RMB each kilometer afterwads. After 11:00PM, the base fee is 13 RMB ($1.61) There's a ton of taxis in Shanghai, and the drivers are very professional. Typically, they wear suits, ties, and white driving gloves. They don't speak English, so you'll have learn a little Chinese. Lu ("loo") means road. Nanjing Road becomes Nanjing Lu. Give the driver the street and cross-street, and you'll be fine.

Taxis come in different colors (each with a different company), but 99% of them are Volkswagen Santanas. Volkswagen was one of the first companies to enter the China market, so their cars are everywhere. The Santana is relatively cheap and super-reliable. But it's almost impossible to get a taxi when it's raining.

The taxi companies are all pretty good. Always keep the taxi receipt, you can use it to recover lost belongings or complain about a taxi driver. You can call the taxi company, and they can use the receipt to resolve any problems. Stay away from abnormal-looking taxis. They're private taxis and generate the most complaints.

Subway -- Shanghai's subway system is clean and efficient, but there's only 4 lines right now. The good news is that they're planning to add 8 lines.

It's highly recommended to get a Shanghai Public Transportation Card. It can be used on the subway, taxi, and some buses. The lines at subway ticket booths can be really long during peak times. It's faster to just pass the card over the scanner at the turnstiles. The scanners are powerful; I've seen women hold huge handbags over the scanner and it still detected the card.

Clubbing -- Drinking is expensive compared to other living costs, especially if you drink in the trendy Xintiandi area. The clubs I've gone to so far charge about 60 RMB ($7.44) for entry and about 50 RMB ($6.20) for mixed drinks. That's why my friends and I always end up at Windows Too, which has 10 RMB ($1.25) drinks. So far, my favorite club is Guandii. It was founded by Hong Kong media stars and has good hip-hop music. The place is always packed with overseas Chinese and ABCs (American-Born Chinese).

Here are some of the main clubbing areas:
Tongren Road
Hengshan Road
Fuxing Park
Maoming Road

SH Magazine is a free weekly publication that has all the latest restaurant and clubbing info. You can pick it up at most Starbucks and Western restaurants. Smart Shanghai is another great source.

DVDs -- China is heaven for movie lovers, since pirated DVDs are everywhere. DVDs in shops go for about 10 RMB ($1.25). On the street, they can go as low as 5 RMB ($0.62). I got a Philips DVD player for 400 RMB ($50) at Gome, a big electronics store. It's best to stay away from the newest Hollywood movies. Many times they're bad because the movie was recorded with a home video camera someone snuck into a movie theater. The annoying thing is that they often don't have the special features, like deleted scenes, director commentary, etc.

Books -- Books are relatively expensive. Paperback copies of literary classics are the best bargains at about 18 RMB ($2.25). Any other book can cost over 200 RMB ($24.81). Thanks to government censorship, there is a lack of variety, except for books about learning the Chinese language and doing business in China. Most bookstores will have a small section of English-language books, usually guidebooks and classic literature. The best bookstore is the Foreign Languages Bookstore, on Fuzhou Road.

Mobile Phone -- They say "mobile phone" more than "cell phone" here. Good ones usually cost more than 1000 RMB ($124.03). I got a Motorola for about 500 RMB ($62.01). One of my Chinese friends took me to a mobile phone store at Middle Henan Road subway station, Exit 1. You can sign up with China Mobile and pay a monthly fee. My friends and I buy phone cards and add credit as we go. Phone cards come in 50 RMB or 100 RMB. Since I mostly send text messages instead of talk, a 50 RMB card can last me a month.

Long-Distance Calls -- Just like with mobile phone cards, long-distance ones come in denominations of 50 RMB or 100 RMB. Try to buy them off the street from the shabbiest operator you can find. Normally you can buy for 50% or 66% off the face value. If you look Caucasian, you'll probably end up paying full price. A 100 RMB card lasts 45-50 minutes when calling America.

Appendix 2: Average Salaries in Shanghai

After talking to some people, here's what I came up with. Strictly word-of-mouth, no statistics to back these up. All numbers are monthly figures.

1000-3000 RMB ($124-$372) Recent College Graduate

5000-7000 RMB ($620-$868) Mid-level Employee

10,000 + RMB ($1240) Executive

Looking at this list, I can see why Western companies are in such a rush to send jobs overseas. You could pay a Chinese CEO half of what an American high school student makes at McDonald's. Note that factory workers make even less. Since rents are often higher than starting salaries in Shanghai, many young professionals live with their parents.

English is in such demand that I make more as an English teacher than many of my students. People are paid monthly here, rather than biweekly like the U.S. Some employers do direct deposits to bank accounts, while many still pay in cash.

Appendix 3: Exchanging Money

The yuan is a closed currency, meaning it is difficult to change. There's all sorts of exchange controls to let money come into China, but not go out. For example, when you change money at the airport or a bank, you are given an exchange memo. You always have to show that exchange memo before you can change yuan back into dollars. You can't get back more dollars than you first exchanged. Exchange memos are only valid for 6 months. Customs regualations prohibit carrying more than $5000 or 20,000 RMB in cash out of the country.

The best of all worlds is to have an American employer who pays you in dollars. Executive-level expats usually have their main salary wired to their U.S. bank account, while taking living allowances in cash for daily expenses.

Then there's the black market. Outside the main Bank of China headquarters near the Bund, there's street currency traders who will happily change as many dollars as you want. If they're blatant, they might run away with your money. If they have some subtlety, they'll yell "Police!" and then run away with your money. Or they will be totally professional: once back at your hotel, you'll discover you got carefully cut pieces of newspaper, even if you swear the money never left your hands.

The Hong Kong Dollar is freely convertible, so one of my friends proposed opening a bank account there if I ever visit Hong Kong to buy a Chinese visa. Wire the money to Hong Kong, then America. Or carry bundles of cash to Hong Kong. Some of the other schemes expats have come up with are too crazy to mention here.