Ctrip Trouble: Beware “Free Cancellation”

Ctrip.com is one of the most popular sites for booking travel in Asia and my experiences with it have generally been positive. Unfortunately, I learned that hotel rooms advertised with “free cancellation” policies may leave the purchaser without the protection sought. I also learned that Ctrip’s customer service needs serious improvement.

I was booking a room for 5 people for a tentative stay in Haikou, Hainan. Seeing that the Tienyow Hotel offered some rooms with free cancellation, I booked one of those rooms and then prepaid. The listing with free cancellation had a higher price than the same kind of room without free cancellation, but the extra price was worth the security of having free cancellation if our plans were to change.

On the payment page, the listing continued to show the words “free cancellation” (I didn’t pay much attention to that at the time, actually, but have since verified this behavior on similar listings at the hotel) — but also had a confusing message about not being able to make changes once an order is confirmed. I figured that was standard verbiage that had not been updated to reflect the free cancellation that I was paying for. After all, I was paying extra for the free cancellation service.

When I completed payment, I received an email from Ctrip that said I had paid and that everything was nonrefundable in case I wanted to change. So I called customer service and was told that there was no free cancellation and they couldn’t do anything about it. The representative didn’t seem to get that it was a pretty disturbing, actually illegal, thing to advertise a service or benefit (free cancellation), charge extra for it, and then withhold the service. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was too busy, I was told, but would call me back. He or she did not.

I later went to Ctrip’s live chat and explained the problem and asked for the email of the Legal Department and the CEO so I could register my complaint. They refused to give me that information, after repeated requests, and simply said that “We would inform the staff.” Huh? It took a while to get them to explain what they meant by that, but it was that they would ask a customer service person to call me. Other than that, the chat rep would not answer anything, in spite of my other questions about how they could offer free cancellation and not provide it.

Finally I did get a call from a supervisor in customer service who wanted to argue and tell me that they “had clearly” given notice that there was no free cancellation because of the conflicting message on the second page. They could not change my order because this was their policy, and they cannot change their policy.

At this point a native-Chinese speaking lawyer in my office jumped in and argued with the rep. After about 30 minutes, they offered to try to cancel the reservation for me. But that failed because the hotel refused to cooperate. Later, however, Ctrip did kindly acknowledge that there was something of a problem here and offered to cover 50% of my loss if we have to change or cancel the reservation that I’ve paid for. They also offered 100 RMB, later upped to 200 RMB, as Ctrip-bucks if we do complete the reservation. OK, that’s an improvement, but it took a lot of time and energy to get Ctrip to budge, and they still have a credibility gap when it comes to their offerings. They claim they will fix that soon. I hope so.

By | October 20th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Surviving Bank Theft in China: What to Do Immediately When a Thief Robs You with an ATM Machine

If you have taken my advice elsewhere on this site, your bank account is already set up to alert you by text message whenever there is activity such as an ATM withdrawal. But what do you do when you get the dreaded message that a large unauthorized withdrawal has just been made on an ATM machine somewhere in China or elsewhere? Sadly, few victims know about an important defensive action to take at that moment that will increase the odds of prevailing in court if your bank, like many banks in China, refuses to refund the money that was stolen from you.

Court? Really? Yes. Unfortunately, Chinese banks may actually accuse you, the victim, of having given your card to someone else to use in the usually distant city where the theft takes place. “How do we know you didn’t take the money out yourself, or give the card to an accomplice to take it out? You’re trying to cheat us!” The bank sometimes won’t even cooperate by providing you the recorded images or video of the person who made the illegal withdrawal, or providing other forms of information they might have that would show this was a criminal act unrelated to you. It’s up to you to prove that you are innocent, without any help from them. What to do?

My advice is simple: the moment you get notice of unauthorized activity, RUSH to the nearest ATM machine, use the ATM card for the account that was just robbed, and make a deposit, a transfer, a withdrawal, or some other action. Stare into the camera monitoring the machine and make sure your face is visible. Your goal: create a record about the location of you and your card at that moment. For extra protection, hold up a sign with your name and the date, maybe holding your photo ID near the camera, and also show your ATM card before and after the transaction (perhaps unnecessary since it will be read and recorded, but this will verify that it’s an ordinary card you are using). The point is to create a record showing that you and your card were in your neighborhood very near the time of the theft, ruling out the possibility that you or your card was in, say, the backwoods of Guizhou province at the time. With this approach, one Chinese man recently successfully overcame the ridiculous defense of his Chinese bank in court and was able to have the judge demand that the bank reimburse him in full for the large unauthorized theft from his account. Just in case, take your card to another ATM machine from a different and do this again. Maybe it helps if one of the ATM machines you visit is associated with the bank whose account was hacked. Create at least two records. In the process, have someone take a photo of you on your camera as you are holding your card (maybe cover the last couple of digits with your fingers) and do that with a background that is easily recognizable (street signs, famous landmark, etc.) and then text it to someone you trust to create an electronic record. These forms of evidence may be helpful in proving your innocence so that the bank will be held accountable for allowing someone to hack your account.

There are thieves out there who use your scanned card and stolen PIN to make bogus duplicates and suck your money out. Sometimes money gets sucked out from your account with inside help from crooked employees. However you are robbed, be ready to swiftly create evidence that can help you in court. Further, defend yourself by using your card as little as possible. Every transaction could result in your data being given to thieves. Always shield your PIN entry. But even that won’t help when an ATM machine has been hacked and is sending data to a thief. Keep lots of cash on hand and use only a few trusted ATM machines in well monitored locations like inside banks to reduce the risk of using a bad machine.

Don’t let large amounts accumulate in your accounts, either. Diversity your resources and don’t risk losing everything if a bank goes belly up, an account is hacked, or you make a ridiculous mistake like leaving your card in an ATM machine and walking away while the terminal is still actively connected to your account (I know someone that happened to, and someone stepped in and just started helping themselves to their money).

One more thing: Be sure to call the bank and report the theft as soon as you’ve created the evidence you’ll need to show where you and your card were located. Hopefully they will work with you, but if you have to sue, it will take several months and once the award is ordered by the judge, they may still drag their feet for a few months. Sigh. One of the challenges of surviving China.

By | September 24th, 2016|Categories: Business, China, Safety, Scams, Society, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on Surviving Bank Theft in China: What to Do Immediately When a Thief Robs You with an ATM Machine

Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

We’ve lived in Shanghai for almost 5 years now and have rented four different places in this time (#4 about to start). Moving is a pain, but it’s given us some valuable experience. Here are some tips based on what we’ve seen.

Looking for apartments in Shanghai usually involves a real estate agent who will help you find an apartment. You’ll be asked to sign a one-year rental agreement. Anything less is difficult, but can be done with special arrangements, but only with a minority of landlords. Those needing an apartment for less than a year might try subletting a place listings at SmartShanghai.com or by personal connections with Shanghai residents willing to let someone use a room for a while.

You will need a lot of cash. In general, apartments are rented out one year at a time with contracts requiring one or two months’ rent as a deposit, and then upfront payment of the first two or sometimes three months of rent. This is a big surprise for many foreigners coming here, for it means that obtaining an apartment in one of the most expensive cities on earth will require at least three and usually four or five months of rent paid before you can even move in. In addition, you will also need to pay 35% of one month’s rent (typically, but be sure to check) as a fee to the real estate agent. (That may seem like a pretty steep fee for the work of signing you up for an apartment, but it’s actually worse than that because the landlord has to pay also, and the going fee now seems to be 100% of a month’s rent as payment from the landlord to the rental agency they signed up with.) Many foreigners coming here are shocked to see how expensive apartments are (e.g., often 2 or frequently even 4 times as much as in many US cities), and are even more shocked to see how much cash they have to provide in their first few weeks.

The company that brought you here typically won’t help with any of that upfront cash you need to pay. If they offer housing assistance, as many do, it comes in the form of a monthly stipend that will start after (maybe a month or even two after) you’ve paid all that cash and moved in. You will need to provide a fapiao (official government tax receipt) for the first month of rent from the landlord to your work and it must be listed with the exact name of your company (generally) in order for you to get reimbursed for one month of rent at a time.

For the process of finding the apartment, here are some tips:

First, if you don’t speak Chinese, bring or hire a Chinese-speaking friend to help you get the information you need. If you rely on rare English-speaking agents, your choices will be much more limited and it will be hard to find multiple agents covering a desired region, which is part of Tip #2 below.

Second, work with more than one real estate agent to find a place to rent. The listings from landlords are not all visible to every agent, so the perfect place for you might not be known to the first agent you work with. The quality and diligence of agents varies greatly. Most recently, for example, we started looking about seven weeks before our current contract ended. We had one agent we really liked who took us to a few places but then told us that we needed to wait a couple of weeks before we came back because landlords were not willing to sign a contract what would start in mid-June when it was only early May. But as we were saying good-bye to that agent, another one approached us on a street corner and said he could do better and that he thought it wasn’t too early too look. He worked hard to come up with some places where the landlord was somewhat flexible, and we soon found an ideal place that we’ll be moving into shortly. But during out search, we worked with three different agents, each with different listings and different strengths.

Third, be very clear about what you want and understand where you can compromise. Some people want to be up high enough to have very few mosquitoes. But if you could save 1000 RMB with a place on the first floor, could you cope by using bug zappers and mosquito netting over your bed? Do you really need two bathrooms? If you have lots of guests, this can be especially valuable. Understand how much space you need for the kitchen. Do you need an oven? Do you need a dryer? These are rare but some places have them. Understanding the difference between “nice to have” and “game over if I don’t have” is vital, because you are probably going to have make some compromises or pay a lot more than you want.

Fourth, generate lists of questions and issue to consider and discuss by visualizing details of your life when you are in an apartment you are considering. Look at the kitchen layout and consider how you would use it. Is the fridge too far away for practical work? Is there inadequate storage space? Obvious dangers? In other rooms, look at the electrical outlets and see if there are enough. See if windows can be closed and sealed off in winter to keep cold air from flowing through your home. See if air conditioners work, hot water flows, etc. Sit calmly and listen: is there lots of honking from street traffic, or are you in an peaceful place where you have a chance of getting decent sleep? Try out the furniture. Designed for someone half your size? Feel the bed. Rock hard? If reading is important to you, is there a comfortable place with decent lighting you can use? Look carefully at the neighborhood and the street you will live on. Is the traffic clogging the road all the time? Are there no taxis? Also, make sure your clearly understand if the quoted rent includes a fapiao (if you need two fapiaos, this could be trouble, and make sure that is clearly and plainly explained, and make sure you explain that you need real fapiaos, not fake ones–no kidding!). Ask if there are any extra fees you are responsible for. Will there be an installation fee to start Internet or TV service? Understand parking rules for you or for visitors.

Fifth, don’t trust everything you see or hear. Many online apartment listings rely on fake information to lure you in, and some agents you meet will feed you fake information to win you as a client. This fake information will be a listing that looks absolutely perfect, such as an ideal apartment in the place you want, in your budget, with loads of cute extras that make it seem like a real steal. When you call the agent to schedule a visit, you’ll find out that it has “just been sold.” That same apartment may end up “just being sold” over and over again. It may not even exist. I suggest not relying on that service or agency if they play that game. Further, real estate agents will often make statements when they don’t really know the answer. Be suspicious and ask how they know. Some agents, especially those working for firms that seem to be trying hard to push market prices higher, will quote you greatly inflated prices. Checking with multiple agents can give you a feel for what the real price should be for a given type of apartment.

Sixth, negotiate. Three times we have offered somewhat less than the asking price and had success, but if you ask for more than, say, a 10% reduction, you might not only get a rejection but find that the landlord is not willing to talk with you any more at all. But do negotiate, respectfully. In one place, we pointed out how terrible the furniture was and got the landlord to agree to lower rent if we scrapped some wasted furniture and bought our own instead of requiring the landlord to buy new items. We got 1000 RMB a month off our rent which quickly paid for the cheap used couches and a used bed we bought from expat friends who were moving back to the US. In another place, we got the landlord to buy an over for us if we would pay 500 RMB a month extra, which was fine with us–but in the end a bad deal for us because we stayed there two years, and an over costs about 5000 RMB. Oh well!

Seventh, allay landlord concerns. The visit to an apartment with a landlord present is a two-way interview. You are trying to find out if the landlord will be reasonable, but the landlord is keenly interested in seeing who you are. They have invested way too much money in this place and don’t want to lose it through a disastrous tenant. Dress nicely. Be on time. Be very pleasant and polite. Compliment the landlord on the things you see that are positives. Act like a considerate guest. The feeling they have about you can play an important role. They want responsible, trustworthy people who aren’t going to trash the apartment or sublet it to a tribe of party animals.

Eighth, once you’ve found the right place, be prepared for the closing. Find out if the landlord wants the upfront payments in cash or via an electronic deposit (credit cards often are not accepted for these kind of things). If you need, say, 40,000 RMB, realize that you can’t get all of that on one day from an ATM machine, but you can get it from a bank if you have an account there with that much in it. Otherwise you may need to have money wired to China from a US bank. Also as part of preparing for closing, ask the agent to get a copy of the contract to you before the closing so you can review it, and make sure it is in English and Chinese (but the Chinese terms will govern if there are any differences). If they have changed the agreed-upon terms or offer new unexpected conditions, be ready to walk. Also have someone who knows China and Chinese be there with you are at least available to help if there are any issues or questions. Inspect the apartment carefully and make sure agreed-upon repairs or changes have been done or are spelled out in the contract.

Ninth, prepare for moving out of your old place.  Be sure to give your previous landlord plenty of notice (usually by 30 days or a month before the last day of your contract, you need to give written notice if you aren’t going to continue) and cooperate fully to help them sell the place. Keep it clean. Do your best to be thoughtful of your old landlord. While that’s just good human behavior, it also has a practical aspect: it may increase the chances of you getting your deposit back, or at least some of it. Sadly, some landlords make excuses and keep the deposit. We’ve had luck so far in getting our deposit back, though we have another deposit quest coming up soon. Wish us luck. Have an inspection meeting with your former landlord to review the apartment and see if there have been any unusual damages. It may be good to have photos of the place when you moved in and photos of the current place to show that you’ve taken good care. If you’ve spent money on repairs or other things, receipts will be helpful. You may need to prove that the furniture you wish to remove from the apartment is actually yours, since the door guards (“menwei”) at apartment complexes are trained to prevent theft from departing tenants and so will require conformation from the landlord for you to remove something you may own. Make sure you move on a day when the landlord is available by phone.

Tenth, when you move, take many precautions and get help. Hire movers to move your stuff if you have a lot, and watch over the process carefully. They may be fly-by-night and can damage many things. Work with them to protect whatever is really valuable or move it yourself. For special items like a piano, go to a piano shop and get their recommendation for skilled piano movers. Work with the agent and landlord to make sure that services like power, Internet, gas, etc. are operating when you move in. Be very careful not to damage walls, flooring, windows, or light fixtures as you move in. Make sure you have keys and understand how to enter the complex and the building (passwords, key tokens, etc.?).

It can be tiring, but with luck, you’ll have avoided major disasters and will find yourself in a pleasant new setting in one of the most delightful and beautiful cities on earth, Shanghai.

By | May 29th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

Passport Tip: Keep Photocopies, Carry a Copy, and Have Photo on Your Phone

[dropcap color=”#31617f” boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”8px” class=”” id=””]T[/dropcap]here are many times in China when you’ll need your passport. For travel and bank transactions, you generally need the physical passport (sometimes even train travel requires that, though it’s hard to predict when there will be a passport check to get into the train station). But for buying train tickets and a variety of other situations, a photocopy or cell phone image of your passport is fine. I recommend that you always have an image of your passport with you in your wallet or purse, plus have an image on your phone. I also suggest that in addition to an image of your main passport page, you also have an image of your current visa.

Don’t allow hotels to keep your passport. Some want to hold them at the front desk, but this puts you at risk. One person I know had their passport stolen that way. Leave them with a photocopy if they need something from you, but don’t give up your passport.

By | April 27th, 2016|Categories: China, Safety, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: |Comments Off on Passport Tip: Keep Photocopies, Carry a Copy, and Have Photo on Your Phone

Joyous Living in China (and Perhaps Other International Settings)

Having shared a variety of my experiences here in China on the pages of my Shake Well blog, I hope some of you will be more willing to come here when the opportunity comes. I thought coming here would be a sacrifice, but it has been a blessing and joy beyond all my expectations. After four years, hardly a day goes by without me expressing wonder and gratitude at the privilege of being here. My love for China has only grown, in spite of the various challenges that Westerners may face here. I deal with some of the challenges and the more daunting aspects on the Surviving China section of my website, where I discuss some issues like the occasional scams to avoid, the problems with the Internet, dealing with food safety, etc. Lots of places will give you advice on those topics, and it’s important to understand them to stay out of trouble and survive here.

Beyond mere survival, though, comes a more important factor: joyous living. For many foreigners who find China an endless frustration and can’t wait to get back home, the joyous living part may seem remote. I’ll admit that sometimes foreigners end up in situations that are difficult and painful. But I’ve seen foreigners living in remote, difficult locations on shoestring budgets finding the same excitement and happiness that I’ve experienced in Shanghai, where my circumstances are favorable in many ways, and I’ve seen foreigners with much better settings who find the place intolerable. I’ve learned some valuable lessons from those who seem to living on more than their fair share of joy here, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned.

If you approach China in the right way, I feel you can make your in China one of the most enjoyable and rewarding times of your life. (This probably applies to many places, but there are some uniquely wonderful things about China.) China offers a richness of culture, scenery, history, language, and food that can make life here better than what you might experience anywhere else, but it takes preparation, work, and some mental adjustments to discover the richness that is here. You may also find Shanghai in particular to be one of the safest, most convenient and most delightful places on earth, IF you are flexible, overlook some gaps, and enjoy the strengths and beauty of the city.

It Begins with the People

Finding happiness in China, in my opinion , begins with the people. In spite of my various warnings about scams and other dangers that I give elsewhere, you need to understand that the Chinese people in general are kind, honest, friendly, and very kind to foreigners. There are times when you might cause problems and cross over hidden boundaries when it won’t seem that way, but you’ll soon learn how to avoid those situations and how to act properly for Chinese culture.

The key to finding joy in China, in my opinion, is learning to respect and love the people. Once you discover who they are and what they have to offer, it can change your life and your attitudes. To begin, you need to get out of your expat shell and make friends with the locals and learn about their lives. There are many ways to do this, such as:

  1. Hire a Chinese teacher to come into your home at least once a week and teach you Chinese while also discussing Chinese culture, current events, etc. A good teacher can help you understand the vast culture behind the words and better look into the heart of China.
  2. Invite your neighbors and other Chinese acquaintances into your home for dinner. This can lead to lasting friendships and great exchanges of information. Some of our lasting friendships arose by apparent chance after talking to a stranger on the street or chatting with someone on a train. Talk to people, make friends, and follow up.
  3. If you have guards (“menwei”) at your apartment complex, smile at them, wave, and occasionally bring them treats, especially Western goodies that you make or bring to China. A plate of cookies for them to share with each other can earn you a lot of “brownie points” and help you make friends. If you can afford it, I also strongly recommend giving “hong bao” (red envelopes with some cash) to all your menwei right before the Chinese New Year holiday. Once you understand how little they make, you’ll be grateful for the opportunity to give them a bonus. That kindness will often be more than reciprocated by the help they can give you. For example, once my wife left her suitcase in the back of a taxi. The menwei at our complex spent an hour or so reviewing security camera video footage to track down the cab and then recognized and called the cabbie, and we had it back that day—in time for a flight that night. They could have just said, “Too bad!”
  4. Treat your ayi (maid) well, if you have one (this also applies to a driver or others who might be hired to help you). One of the benefits of living in China is that help in the home is very inexpensive. Actually, it’s often too inexpensive. While you may hire an ayi at a fair market price, take care of her with occasional tips, be sure to give an extra month of salary in February as part of the traditional employer obligations to employees at New Year festival (you can pro-rate this if they have been working for you for less than a year), offer to pay her transportation costs to get to your place, and pay her even when you’re away and she doesn’t need to come to work (giving her vacation, in essence). A happy ayi who trusts you and respects you can spare you from a variety of problems and will be motivated to go out of her way to help you.
  5. While tipping is not required, I suggest doing it when you can. Cabbies will always appreciate it. Once you learn how little they earn for working so hard, and what a small portion of each fair actually goes to them, you’ll realize that a small tip makes a big difference. When they are friendly and helpful, why not give an extra tip and make them really happy?
  6. Don’t just shop at expensive expat stores like Carrefour. You will get some of the healthiest, freshest, and tastiest produce, eggs, and even meat at local wet markets. There you can become a regular and make friends with vendors, and experience an important part of Chinese life: the market. Chinese markets are wonderful, but often missed by foreigners.
  7. What about annoying people pushy salesman who approach you on the street selling questionable products? Perhaps they are scammers or crooks, but there’s a good chance they are real people with real needs. They get rejection all day long. Instead of brushing off the salesmen, be polite, smile, and say “Thank you.”
    BACKGROUND: A friend of mine asked a wise Chinese man for a powerful Chinese “zinger” to put annoying salesmen in their place and get rid of them. “What can I say to verbally shove them away?” was his question. The highly educated Chinese man thought for a moment and said, “Try this phrase: Xiexie.” My friend was surprised: “Wait, that just means thank you!” “Yes,” said the Chinese man, “and it’s the right thing to say. Those pushy salesman are just people trying to make a living, and deserve as much respect as you or I, even if we don’t want their goods. So don’t try to make them feel bad. Just be respectful and say ‘Thank you’ or ‘No thanks.’” My friend told me he felt humbled by this and saw those annoying people on East Nanjing and elsewhere in a new light.
  8. What about beggars? There’s a chance that they are scammers, but there’s also a good chance that they are real people in difficult situations. Carry a few coins or small bills reserved for the occasional beggar you meet. Treat them with courtesy. Look them in the eye, smile, and give them something. There may be times when you’ll sense something is wrong and you may just wish to move on, but in general, you won’t regret giving. You may even find some regulars you really like.
    Tip: When giving, don’t expose your wallet or purse to potential pickpockets. They are rare, but at Yu Garden a friend of mine had her wallet and passport stolen by a group of migrant kids while she opened up her purse to give some money to a beggar. (The empty wallet and passport was found shortly after by a Chinese man, a worker from the north, who spent 3 hours tracking down the owner to return it. Since the wallet had my wife’s card in it, he called my wife to report the wallet he had found, and waited until we could meet him to retrieve it—one of the many honest and kind people we have met in China.) Have your change in an easy-to-access place.
  9. Don’t let language barriers stop you from connecting. Get out and meet your neighbors. Find a translator if you need to, but introduce yourself and find out who your neighbors are. They may not be interested, but a consistent smile will eventually work wonders. Also try to be sensitive to things you may do that annoy neighbors, and get feedback from others on how to be a good neighbor. Meanwhile, keep your expectations from others low and don’t assume that others are being deliberately annoying when they are making too much noise or doing other things that bother you.
  10. Be patient in lines, while defending your position when you need to. When people cut in front of you, they may not have realized that you were really in line. After all, why was there a 12-inch space in front of you if you mean to be in line? Be patient and forgiving. You can indicate that you are in a line and ask them to get in line (paidui)—but do it with patience and a smile. (I know, this is easy for me to say, and admittedly often hard to do.) They probably didn’t understand. That’s the kind assumption, anyway, and a good way to think about the frustrations you might experience that come from the culture gaps you face.
  11. Be aware of the people around you and look for opportunities to help. If you are healthy and strong, a seemingly frail or elderly person carrying a heavy suitcase up or down stairs can be a great opportunity to help. A mother struggling to get her baby’s stroller down the stairs is another opportunity. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to go occasional good, and be ready to back off with a smile if they refuse help. But being considerate of the Chinese people helps compensate for the numbing effect of living in crowds and helps you feel more part of the community that is China.

In general, go out of your way to be friendly and respectful to people, though sometimes you’ll need to be firm and insistent. The times you slip and lose your patience will be times of regret. There are things that happen that will try your patience and yes, it may be easy to become angry and frustrated.

The times you do things that help others and the times you overlook the things that annoy are the times when you will most quickly appreciate who the Chinese people really are. The more you can see the good in these very different but very similar neighbors, the more you will connect with China and find happiness and excitement living here. But do take steps to avoid some of the problems that can leave you feeling angry and frustrated.

One opportunity to serve comes through various charities. My employer runs one of the China’s biggest private charitable trusts, the Huang Yi Cong Foundation, which provides help to needy school children in Gansu Province and supports other charitable efforts in China. Many of my colleagues donate a small part of their monthly income to the Foundation, which helps them become connected with the child or children they are helping. They receive occasional letters and photos that help them better understand the difficult life of the poor in China and give them opportunities to make a lasting difference. There are other organizations, of course, providing opportunities to make a difference, but I’m proud of the good people running the Huang Yi Cong Foundation and their passionate care for the needy families they serve.

In addition to building connections with the people, you’ll love your China experience more if you experience Chinese culture. There are many ways to do this. Go to museums, parks, community events, etc. Walk through neighborhoods and watch the dancing, game playing, calligraphy, tai qi, etc. Parks in the morning are great places to visit, and the Bund between 6 am and 7 am is another example, as you witness kite flyers and others at their best. Get involved in community events like special interest groups, classes, musical productions, dance groups, etc., especially those that reflect Chinese culture. There are numerous opportunities here and many friendships and mind-expanding opportunities here.

Again, don’t live in an expat shell. Get out and experience China and its culture. That includes the food. Please don’t just eat Western food. Learn about the many varieties of sophisticated Chinese food and experience many parts of China through its cuisine. Also learn about Chinese history, watch some Chinese movies, and continue learning the language and the culture as much as you can. You’ll find China to be a never-ending puzzle and mystery that rewards you deeply for each layer you unravel.

I hope you will experience life in China one day. May your experience here be exhilarating!

By | September 17th, 2015|Categories: China, Shanghai, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Comments Off on Joyous Living in China (and Perhaps Other International Settings)

Facing the Real Risk of Theft from Your Bank Account in China

An increasing number of friends are reporting troubling cases of theft from their China bank accounts. One friend, after years of working in China and saving every penny, was preparing to return to the US, but suddenly every penny in her ICBC bank account was stolen. The ICBC bank officials told her that someone had a copy of her card and had taken the money out. She asked how this was possible without knowing her password. No explanation was given, except that it was somehow her fault. She spent five days arguing with them and got nowhere. They said that the thief could have been working with her to perpetuate fraud on the bank, so why should they refund her money? Her only option now is to sue, but she has to go back to the US soon and fears she won’t have the ability to pursue the case. But we’ve encouraged her to work with a lawyer to fight this. She will, and I hope to have good news to report sometime.

Her story has almost exactly the same set of facts that we find in a chilling account, “How I sued the world’s largest bank and won” at Shanghaist.com. In this case, it was a smaller amount, 15,000 RMB that was taken from the author’s ICBC account. He encountered the same helpful consumer service policies and attitudes, and was forced also to sue for something that was clearly not his fault. He won, and it only took 7 months and some modest attorney fees to get his money back.

If you have a bank account with an ATM card, there is a real risk that one day money will begin disappearing from your account. There are some very high risk factors in China you need to understand:

1) The daily limit for ATM withdrawals is much higher than it is in the U.S. and Europe. A thief typically can take out 20,000 RMB a day (over $3,000), which is 5 to 10 times higher than typical US limits.

2) The daily limit may not be over a 24-hour period, but may be based on the calendar date, so if that applies to your bank, then a thief can take 20,000 RMB out at 11:55 pm, and another 20,000 RMB out at 12:05 PM.

3) Banks in China often don’t have effective anti-fraud protection.

4) There are many thieves with card copying or card scanning devices who can make a duplicate of your card. If they or a small video camera can watch you enter your password, having your account number and your password leaves you defenseless.

5) Thieves can sometimes pull money out of your account without using your password. I don’t know how this happens, but it has happened to multiple people in China, and it happened to us with our US bank.

6) When someone pulls money out of your account without knowing your password, it should be the bank’s fault and they should reimburse you. But consumer service attitudes and policies may not be identical to those in your home country. China banks may tend to blame the customer and argue that maybe the thief was collaborating with you, so they might not cooperate unless you take them to court. You can sue and win in China, but it will take a lot of work and the help of an attorney.

Because money in the bank is so vulnerable, I suggest several best practices:

1) Do not keep large amounts in any single Chinese bank. Move a lot of it into US accounts without ATM cards or with two-part authentication, and keep plenty of cash.

2) Use your bank cards as little as possible. Instead, use cash to make payments when possible.

3) Do not let employees walk away with your bank card (they might run it through a card copier device of some kind). Keep your eyes on it.

4) Do not let your card be scanned in any place that seems questionable or seedy.

5) When using ATM machines, look for unusual devices, small video cameras, etc., that might have been added.

6) Keep good records of where you have been so that if the bank says it must have been you that pulled all your money out of your account in, say, Harbin, you can prove you weren’t in Harbin that day.

7) Monitor your bank account frequently, and make sure you receive automatic text messages when money is taken out of your ATM.

8) When you do find a problem, document in detail who you spoke with, what you said, what they said, etc. You will needs lots of documented details if you have to sue the bank to get back missing money.

9) Avoid trusting your money to any bank that has a bad track record of protecting the money of its customers. If you know of banks that have performed well in this regard, please let me know.

These problems are not unique to China, but they seem to be a lot more frequent here and more severe, especially with the high daily minimum that thieves can take out.

If you do online banking, your risks are also high due to hackers. I suggest you use complex passwords that you change often, and only use secure computers to access your bank accounts. It’s good to have a cheap computer that is never used for browsing but only for bank access, and even then keep good firewall and anti-spyware software on it, keep it updated, use more secure browsers like Chrome or Firefox, and don’t use untrusted wifi networks to access your accounts. For added security, use VPN when you access your bank account.

Don’t keep all your money in any one account, and keep a wad of cash somewhere, too. Thieves can get everything, but we shouldn’t make it easy for them.

By | June 17th, 2015|Categories: Business, China, Finances, Internet, Investing, Scams, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Facing the Real Risk of Theft from Your Bank Account in China

Beware Fake Rental Fapiaos (Receipts) in China

Many expatriates living in China receive housing stipends that cover at least part of the monthly cost of rental here. In expensive cities like Shanghai, getting your housing stipend can be essential. Your reimbursement, though, requires that you provide a “fapiao” (official receipt from the government) which shows that taxes have been paid. The tax rate right now is 5%, so your fapiao of, say, 8,000 RMB costs your landlord 400 RMB. Your employer then uses the fapiao for some kind of tax benefits in reimbursing you. If you don’t provide a proper fapiao, you generally won’t get your housing stipend.

A few things can go wrong on this process. Make sure you know exactly what name your company requires to be on the fapiao. For me, it has to be the proper legal name of my company, not my name and not other commonly used versions of my employer’s name. One time my landlord bought several months’ worth of fapiaos all at once, but used the corporate name I pointed to on my business card instead of the official legal name, and I ended up having to pay for new fapiaos out of my pocket. In that process, though, I learned that getting fapiaos involves going to a local tax office, showing your rental agreement and your passport, and then simply paying 5% of your rent to buy the fapiao.

Also make sure you get fapiaos by the month. Your company will generally want one for each month, not one for three months at a time, even if you pay your rent once every three months as I do.

A more troubling problem you may encounter is fake fapiaos. Fake receipts? Yep, it happens, and is an easy way for an unscrupulous person to make some quick money. This may happen when a real estate agent, after closing the deal for your apartment, offers to save the landlord the trouble of getting fapiaos. The agent may have a friend allegedly at the tax bureau who can help you get the fapiaos easily. If the agent doesn’t need a copy of your rental agreement, that’s a clear sign that something is wrong. I don’t know if the seemingly official fapiaos are printed on stolen receipt paper from government offices or are just really good forgeries, but they look like the real thing and businesses may accept them and reimburse you, but if there is an audit or careful investigation, they may discover that the fapiaos are fake and you may then be denied your reimbursement.

For Shanghai folks, you can check to see if your fapiao is real or not using a government website: http://www.csj.sh.gov.cn/wsbs/WSBSptFpCx_loginsNewl.jsp. It’s in Chinese, so you may need help doing this.

If you are getting fake fapiaos, let your landlord know. It can hurt their credit and their reputation with the government. It may end up hurting you. The crooks who are stealing your money (and stealing tax money from China) with fake fapiaos need to be stopped. Of course, your agent or whoever gave you the fake fapiaos will be shocked that their friend in the tax office made some kind of error. Maybe they knew, maybe they didn’t, and maybe it was all an innocent mistake, but given the easy money to be made, chances are someone is just pocketing the money, and not pocketing it accidentally.

Unfortunately, one acquaintance of ours says that she got fake fapiaos by going to the fapiao office her business told her to use. I think this was an official fapiao office but I need to confirm that. Whether it was an accident or intentional theft, you need to recognize that there is a possibility that the fapiao you get is fake. Check to make sure they are legit, and try not to get too many months of fapiaos all at once in case there is a problem with them.

By | May 18th, 2015|Categories: China, Finances, Housing, Products, Scams, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Beware Fake Rental Fapiaos (Receipts) in China

Beware Counterfeit Money from ATMs: It Can (Rarely!) Happen in China

Two good friends of mine were traveling in Beijing recently and took out several thousand RMB from a Bank of China ATM machine in the lobby of a popular international hotel chain with a great reputation. Later that day, when they used their cash to pay a cabbie, he checked the bill they gave him and declared it was fake. They tried several other bills and all were fake. They didn’t believe the cabbie. They later went to a restaurant and had their bills rejected. They went back to the hotel and confirmed that the bills were fake, but the hotel said it wasn’t their fault and the bank claimed that it wasn’t possible for fake bills to be issued from their machine.

I’ve read of others encountering fake bills from ATMs, usually with the insistence of the bank that it is not possible. I’m afraid it can happen, though it has never happened to me. But now when I get cash out, before I leave the ATM, I hold a few up to the light to see if they are watermarked. The fake bills my friends had were lightly printed in the watermark area so it looked like a watermark, but holding it up to the light produces a much different effect.

Check a few bills at your ATM machine to reduce the risk of getting a big wad of fakes. Just my two cents.

By | May 17th, 2015|Categories: China, Scams, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Beware Counterfeit Money from ATMs: It Can (Rarely!) Happen in China

Young Single Adult Tours in Shanghai, Fall 2014

For the large group of young single adults coming to join us in Shanghai on a certain weekend this fall, here are the basic tours we are offering.

1. The QiBao ancient water town tour: visit a popular and historic water town with some pretty bridges, a bustling pedestrian street, great street food, quirky museums (ah, the cricket museum!) and many photo ops. Tour begins at the QiBao station way out on Line 9, Exit 2, meeting underground and leaving at 10:00 AM sharp. Leave early to get there on time. This station is about 35 minutes from downtown. Your tour leader, D. R., will cover the tickets for a gondola ride and the funny little museums in Qibao.

2. Shanghai’s Biggest Hits: See the Bund, Yu Gardens, the matchmaking market at People’s Park, and the skyscrapers at Lujiazui. We meet at People’s Square, Exit 1 at 9:45 AM, departing at 10:00 AM. Note: the matchmaking market is a remarkable Shanghai tradition that strikes some foreigners as very odd. Absorb and look but don’t giggle or take too many photos. Be respectful, polite, and relatively quiet even thought it’s a pretty lively and noisy place. You’ll have time to discuss and comment later. (Some of you may wish to sign up some of your friends, but it’s best for foreigners to not try their luck with this system.)

3. Arts and Culture in Shanghai (great for bad weather): see the famous Shanghai Museum, see arts and crafts at Yu Garden, and visit the China Art Museum or several small museums near the Bund (details depend on group size and interest). Starts at People’s Square also.

4. Quirky Shanghai: Unusual sites most tourists miss. Includes the matchmaking market at People’s Park (observe the rules mentioned in #2 above), the mysterious angels at Lujiazui Park, great architecture and art in places like the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the cricket market, the Dong Tai Antiques Market, and the surprisingly calm Confucian Temple in the heart of the wild old city. I’ll lead this group. We start at People’s Square, departing at 10:00 AM.

Bring some money for lunch and dinner. We’ll show you places where you can eat for around 35 RMB or less. We’ll also have subway cards for using the metro system at now cost to you (if all goes well). Tours will go from 10 to 3 PM. Then you’ve got a meeting and, in the evening, a dance.

Stay safe and healthy. Don’t get lost. Stay with the group. Know the phone numbers of your tour leaders and where you will be going next in case you are separated. Use the buddy system. Keep a water bottle with you and get plenty of fluids. If there are health issues, let me or your tour leaders know right away.

Know the basic scams to watch out for (the tea ceremony scam, etc.). Use caution when crossing the sometimes dangerous roads. Watch your feet and your head, especially on the streets of the old city, and watch for motorcycles that can come from any direction.

By | September 11th, 2014|Categories: Shanghai, Surviving|Tags: |Comments Off on Young Single Adult Tours in Shanghai, Fall 2014

Foreigners in China: Get the VIP Internet Service from China Telecom to Improve Access to Foreign Websites

We recently upgraded our Internet service to the fastest available: 100 Mbps service for 248 RMB a month. Even with that high speed, we noticed that accessing foreign websites was still painfully slow and unreliable. When we turned on ExpressVPN, our generally good VPN service, the speed was even worse and was essentially blocked, or so it seemed on many days.

Then I learned about China Telecom’s VIP service for foreign websites. This service costs an extra 50 RMB per month and gives you “more stable” access to websites in the US, Japan, Europe, and Hong Kong. Desperate. we tried it, and it has made a huge difference. Foreign websites now upload much faster. We still need VPN for sites like Facebook, but that also seems much faster than before.

To change your service, you need to be on their monthly billing plan. We were on a prepaid plan, having prepaid for a year, so we needed to make a change. How we got on their strange prepaid system is a long story of itself: someone in our real-estate agent’s company handled this and possibly tried to rip-us off, paying for the lowest-speed service instead of the highest and pocketing the money. Only we caught the “mistake” and insisted on correcting did the upgrade happen, and then they only prepared for one month and possibly tried to pocket the difference again. We finally got all or nearly all of the money we had given to show up in our Telecom account. Don’t let intermediaries do this for you! Our mistake.

To switch to monthly billing, you would think it should just take a phone call and the flip of a digital switch. Nope. I had to go a special office in person–not the closest one, but one that is authorized to handle the VIP account. That office is at 500 Jiangsu Road, close Yan An Road. It’s inside an electronic store on the second floor. Right next to the escalator is a round desk with an English speaking young man working there, and he was great.

To get the VIP account, I had to cancel my entire previous account and have a new line installed. That meant a big service fee or getting a year-long plan. Since I heard that 50 Mbps with the VIP service was better than 100 Mbps without, I accepted a special deal they had on 50 Mbps (no similar deal for the 100 Mbps unless I would take a two-year plan). So now I’m paying about 150 a month plus 50 for the VIP service, less than the 289 a month I was paying for the 100 Mbps service. They had to come and install a new line and put in a new cable modem. But the new service with VIP magic is definitely better. Finally, we can use the Internet, even in the evening, and access foreign websites with acceptable speed. We even were able to watch a movie on Netflix. Wow, it’s a new world for us here in China.

We had 1100 in our account that was closed. To get a refund, we had to take our old modem back in with my passport and apply for a refund. The same guy was very helpful. They will call us in a few days when I can come in and get my cash. They cannot just put the money into my account. That, I’m afraid, would be far too easy. But overall, the process wasn’t bad and I’m delighted with the mysterious yet effective VIP service.

Some folks at ShanghaiExpat.com discuss this as “GFW-free” service. No, it is not free of the Great Firewall. VPN is still needed if you want to access things like Netflix or Facebook. But you might have much better results, I think, than you are getting now. If you are about to abandon hope because of slow Internet in China, try the VIP service from China Telecom.

By | August 16th, 2014|Categories: China, Internet, Products, Shanghai, Surviving|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Foreigners in China: Get the VIP Internet Service from China Telecom to Improve Access to Foreign Websites

Why Do So Many Foreigners Shop at Carrefour? Too Expensive, Not Superior Quality

Now that we’ve moved out to the Gubei/Hongqiao area in Shanghai, we are close to the large and popular Carrefour grocery store. We’ve been there 3 times now, but we’ve decided to shun it as much as we can now that we’ve seen how consistently high the prices area and how iffy the quality can be.

The high prices are my main complaint–many things are 20% to 50% or more what you would pay at E-Mart and maybe twice what you might pay if you shop around a little more. But price is not the only problem. We’ve had some quality problems already.

Produce purchased on Saturday in several cases went bad by Sunday. I could tell it was getting on in age when I bought it, but having to throw vegetables away after one day is ridiculous. We found their baked bread quality to be poor (burned flavor from overcooking). Staff are not that helpful (likely to give you wrong directions or just point you in a general direction without really helping you).

Food is not the only problem we’ve had. A DVD player we purchased was dead out of the box and had to be returned, but returning was difficult because the staff person in the electronics area had us pay her cash and she put it on her card to get credit for the purchase. Took a lot of talking, but finally we were able to get a refund. Also, when you need a fapiao (for example, some people need to get them and turn them in to their employer to help them get some kind of tax benefits I guess), they take and keep your entire receipt so all you have is the fapiao that you might have to turn into the office. If something needs to be replaced, you won’t have your proof of purchase anymore. Good luck. Other stores like E-Mart let you keep the receipt when you get a fapiao.

On the plus side, their fresh herbs were fresh (ah, great mint for my favorite Brazilian pineapple-mint drink) and reasonably priced for the quality. And another big plus for Carrefour in Gubei is the Food Republic food court on the first floor with a dozen or so great places to eat at reasonable prices, including one of my favorite gelato/ice cream places, Ice Season, where natural mint is my flavoite flavor Not too sweet, and perfectly flavored.

On the down side, getting home from Carrefour is a chore if you want to take a taxi. There is along taxi line but very few taxis coming by. Since most of the people there are going short distances to get home, fares will be low, so cabbies aren’t motivated to go there. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the Shuicheng Road subway station on Line 10. Much easier to use that if you can.

But for better deals and fresher produce, go to your local wet market. Or try other grocers or other supermarkets like E-Mart at Laoximen. Much better prices there, and generally good quality.

By | July 29th, 2014|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Restaurants, Shopping, Surviving|Comments Off on Why Do So Many Foreigners Shop at Carrefour? Too Expensive, Not Superior Quality

Coming to China to Teach English? Do You Know What You’re Facing?

While there is high demand for English teachers in China and great pay for teachers with teaching credentials, the situation is quite different for those without teaching credentials (e.g., a teaching certificate and a degree). Young teachers, typically college students, are recruited to come to China for a few months in what amounts to an unusually difficult study-abroad experience programs from institutions like China Horizons or ILP (International Language Program). The recruits generally pay their own travel to come here and get almost nothing as pay (if anything at all), though room and board is provided. What the enthusiastic teachers often don’t know before coming here is that the room and board can be unspeakably unpleasant in many cases: no heating or air conditioning, no flush toilets, bad food, poor sanitation, and a location in a remote town far from the conveniences of places like Shanghai or Beijing.

Students coming here to teach often think they will be able to learn Chinese and see China while here. But no instruction in Chinese will be provided and free time to see China will be much less than they imagine. They may be told that weekends will be free, but the schools frequently have weekend programs and tell the teachers they are required to be there. Sometimes they learn of this at the last minute (like on Friday), after having already bought train tickets to go somewhere for the weekend. Many are told that they only have to work a small number of hours or teach a few classes, and then find that their work load is much higher once they get here. They can really be at the mercy of the local school. Many of these teachers I know seem to be little more than servants exploited to make a poor school seem more credible and increase revenues from parents anxious to have their kids learn English.

Many of the students coming here are religious (e.g., LDS/Mormon) and hope to attend church on Sundays, but find out that the town where they are assigned is 3 hours away from the nearest congregation, and that the transportation to go to church will eat up much of their cash. Some make the sacrifice and go as often as they can. But that takes real commitment.

Some know all this and come with a desire to serve, teach, and experience the wonder of China. Others are surprised but boldly conquer their challenges and move forward. Some feel greatly disappointed, but often fear to let others know (especially their parents), not wanting to make people worry or think that they were duped or something. I think there needs to be more awareness of just how challenging China can be for a Westerner. It’s easy in Shanghai, though plenty challenging, but in a small town without all the graces and support systems of Shanghai, it can be quite an ordeal. Some know this and bravely conquer, but others wish they had known first.

Do a little more homework before you come to China to teach English. Make sure you know where you are going and what the conditions are. And recognize that whatever you are told, even in complete good faith, that things change quickly here. Be ready for what you may experience. It is rarely easy. Sadly, for some, it wasn’t worth it. For others, it was terrific.

By | July 15th, 2014|Categories: Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Coming to China to Teach English? Do You Know What You’re Facing?