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

Review of The Lion King Musical at Shanghai Disney Resort, the Chinese Version of the Broadway Hit

The Chinese version of the Broadway hit, The Lion King, was one of best performances I’ve seen. Spectacular, beautiful, wonderful to watch, even for those who don’t speak Mandarin, the language it is performed in at the beautiful theater in Disney Town at Shanghai Disney Resort. We attended a matinee performance on June 11, a few days before the official opening. There were no serious rough edges that we could see. The cast was wonderful, though a few voices weren’t as strong as one might encounter on Broadway. I was particularly delighted with the costumes, which were brilliant, clever, beautiful, and fascinating to watch. Special effects were also nicely done. Dramatic, fun, well choreographed, just a lot of fun. I really like the uniquely Chinese elements that were added such as the appearance of the Chinese Monkey King a couple of times. I understand one of the songs was added also for the Chinese production, though I’m unclear on that. The Disney Town theater is spacious and comfortable, and I think seats about 1500 people.

If you are coming to Shanghai, attending The Lion King might be one of the big attractions you should plan for. Note, however, that going there by taxi can be rough since many cabbies don’t know the area yet and since the Shanghai Disney Resort Website is surprisingly deficient in basic information on how to get there. There is no map or address given! There is a chat function for help, so I tried in many ways to squeeze information out of the chat service, but they insisted that there was nothing to worry about, that you just had to say “Disney” to cabbies and they would know where to go, which proved to be completely wrong for our friends who tried to meet us early at the theater to get their tickets. I eventually got an address from the chat service–actually 3 addresses, which confused things further, but none of them were helpful to the cabbie and my friends, came within a couple minutes of missing the opening of the performance. As of today, June 23, 2016, the website still lacks an address for those coming by taxi. Huh? I tried about several times to ask the chat service person to let the webmaster know this needed to be added, and just got the delusional “no worries, there is no problem, cabbies will know how to get there” response. Disney, wake up! You are not the Middle Kingdom in the center of the world where everyone knows your location. You are in an obscure remote corner of the outskirts of Shanghai and people don’t know how to drive there.

Best to go by subway. Line 11 ends there at a station clearly marked as “Disney.”

Here are some photos of the theater.

Before or after the show, enjoy a meal at one of the many good restaurants in Disney Town. This is a fun place that doesn’t require a ticket to get in. Just stroll from the subway (Line 11, Disney station) to Disney Town and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. The restaurants include some of China’s most popular higher-end places like Shanghai Min (wonderful Shanghai-style food, one of my favorite places), The Dining Place (fairly inexpensive dim sum and Shanghai fair), Element Fresh, Simply Thai, and many others. We tried a tremendously popular US restaurant that is the first of its kind in China, the Cheesecake Factory. We were very impressed. They have a menu just like the typical menus in the States, with strong leadership from the States here to train the staff and ensure high quality service and food preparation. Food was delicious though pricey for Chinese standards, but portions were also huge, maybe twice the size we are used to in China, so for us a single dish shared would have been enough, coupled with the appetizers were bought. I had Jamaican chicken and shrimp, and it was so flavorful and tender. The guacamole was surprisingly good, almost perfect. A slight disappointment was that the fish tacos were almost cold by the time they came to the table. Looks like they try to bring all the food at once, which means uneven wait times for some dishes. Ask to have food brought hot as soon as each dish is ready. More work for the sometimes overwhelmed staff at this hugely popular place, but you deserve your food fresh and hot.

By | June 23rd, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Parks, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on Review of The Lion King Musical at Shanghai Disney Resort, the Chinese Version of the Broadway Hit

Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

China is buzzing about the new Shanghai Disney Resort in the southern end of sprawling Shanghai. On Saturday, May 28, 2016, my wife and I were kindly invited to attend a “soft opening” event at Disney, about two weeks before the official start date. Even though it was a rainy day, there were MANY people there. We were accompanied by about 40,000 other lucky people, creating lines as long as 5 hours (as in FIVE HOURS!!!). This was with about 70% of the rides open, so when in full operation, there will be more lines to divert the crowds, but the crowds could be even bigger. During regular operation, even bigger crowds are expected, perhaps as high as 70,000 or so. Wow.

This was a “stress test” day since other days of the soft opening had been limited to about half as many people. It was wonderful to be there, but there was plenty of stress.

Our favorite ride of the day, by far, was Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, to be fair, I should point out that it was our ONLY ride of the day. We tried to get through the Tron ride, twice actually, but gave up even though we had managed to obtain a fast pass ticket for our second attempt (with the help of a kind friend) and were just minutes away from entering. But then there was a mechanical problem that shut the ride down before we could go on it (I later learned that an employee foolishly opened a door that could have let someone walk onto the track, and the interlock safety system shut the ride down for safety reasons until they could troubleshoot the problem), and we were out of time. We had to leave early for a dinner event, unfortunately. One day, one ride–but it was still a great day.

If you go, don’t make our mistake of attempting to get fast food in one of the big eateries. That wasted an hour and a lot of money, and we ended up walking away from our food, largely uneaten. Ugh. Bring you own. But Remy’s Patisserie was excellent and fast, with perfect spinach quiche. Try that, perhaps, but now the hamburger joint near Tron. Ugly lines, very slow, and lots of craziness.

Prepare for Disney by using the fast pass system and by making online reservations. Do your homework first! Then enjoy. Please don’t stand in any line over 3 hours long! Life is too short.

By | June 1st, 2016|Categories: China, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

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

There 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 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

More Trouble: Challenges of Teaching English in China

Met today with someone who had come to China with a major program to teach English. Heard some pretty troubling stories. Heard that administrators of the program have not been to the majority of the schools where they place teachers, so they don’t really know if the housing is adequate, if the conditions are safe, if there is any heating, or if the food provided is edible. Teachers can be subject to grueling conditions in remote and difficult places, much longer teaching hours than promised, with random changes in schedules that wipe out personal plans.

If your program won’t tell you where you will be placed until you are here and can’t provide you references from people who have been to same place, be very worried. The numerous problems that young people face when they come to teach English in China are quite discouraging. Don’t come here without knowing what it will be like. Don’t go with a program that will put you in a remote situation without support, help, and structure.

By | October 8th, 2014|Categories: Education, Travel tips|Tags: |Comments Off on More Trouble: Challenges of Teaching English in China

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?

Zhangjiajie, China’s Beautiful Mountain Treasure Overlooked by Most Foreigners

One of China’s most beautiful locations is Zhangjiajie, arguably one of earth’s most beautiful locations. But Zhangjiajie is sadly overlooked by most foreigners travelers here. They go to Xian or other popular spots that pale in comparison. Zhangjiajie’s scenery was actually used in the filming of Avatar. The tall mountains with trees on the top don’t float they way they do in the movie, but when the clouds are at the right level, it sort of looks that way.

Zhangjiajie is about a two-hour flight from Shanghai. You can stay in the city of Zhangjiajie or take a 40-minute taxi up into the town at the entrance to the major national park, where rates are not bad at all. It can be busy on holidays, but still entirely doable and affordable. Way too much fun to overlook. Plan on spending at least two full days there. Three days are about right.

I recommend staying in the mountain village of Wulingyuan, where you are just a short walk or cab ride to the main entrance of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, one of several attractions in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. The park has stunning karst pillars of sandstone. There are often clouds and fog, which can enhance the photography if you are lucky, but might just block your view at times.

Wulingyuan Scenic Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss it!

We reached Wulingyuan by flying to Zhangjiajie city, which has a small airport and a lot of crooked cabbies. They will quote you a price of 300 RMB to get to Wulingyuan. It should be about 100 RMB if they use a meter, which naturally they don’t want to. Insist on the meter or walk away. It’s only when you walk away that they will take you seriously. Tell them you can take a bus or something instead and walk, or go to a different cabbie, but don’t pay 300 RMB.

Also be sure to get a tour guide. We can recommend an excellent one that charges 100 RMB for half a day and 200 RMB for a full day. She was outstanding. Chinese language only, but it was good Chinese – sort of like having a day-long lesson for the price of one or two hours of regular lessons. Yes, we tipped her, and would be happy to recommend her to you as well. Email me (jeff at jeff lindsay d0t com) your contact info and I’ll get you in touch with her.

Here are a few photos of this scenic area in western Hunan province, near the center of China.

By | June 8th, 2014|Categories: China, Photography, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Zhangjiajie, China’s Beautiful Mountain Treasure Overlooked by Most Foreigners

Travel to Hong Kong from China

hong-kong-street-12-01-02_51425 hong-kong-evening_51443 hong-kong_48167Foreigners living in China often may wish to visit Hong Kong also. Typically they will fly into the Hong Kong airport from China. However, you can save money by flying to Shenzhen and then crossing the border and taking a train into China. Flights to Shenzhen avoid international taxes and can sometimes be 30% or more less expensive. Staying in a hotel near the border in Shenzhen can also be much less expensive than Hong Kong. We’ve often stayed at the Shenzhen Best Western Felicity Hotel, which is just across the street from the Lu Huo border crossing, said to be the world’s busiest on-land border crossing. They open at 6:30 AM and continue until midnight, I think (check first if it matters!), and sometimes the lines can be huge. During holidays, weekends, and rush hour, be prepared to take an hour or more to cross the border, though right at 6:30 AM isn’t bad usually. Once across, you can buy an Octopus card (good for trains, subways, taxis, and convenience stores) and then take the train into Hong Kong.

If you fly directly to Hong Kong, there is a chance that you will be asked to prove that you have sufficient funds for the trip. Once, for example, a friend of ours from Mongolia went to the airport to fly to Hong Kong, and was told by the airline (Spring Air) that she needed to show them 5,000 RMB cash before they could give her the ticket she had already paid for. Apparently this was a requirement of the Hong Kong immigration authorities. I haven’t heard of this before and haven’t been asked to show my cash when I’ve gone, but be aware that this could happen. I think having a credit card ought to do the trick. It may be an issue for Mongolian citizens in particular or for other developing nations, where perhaps Hong Kong is worried that people from poorer nations might get into financial trouble once inside their border. Might be good to have proof of a return ticket also and evidence of a hotel that has been booked or prepaid.

Naturally, make sure your visa permits you to enter Hong Kong and come back safely to China. Some people plan on going there without realizing that the China visa they have is for one entry only, and once they go out, they can’t get back in right away. Your visa should be good for one month beyond your stay–don’t take risks as your visa is about to expire. Some details are given here. That page may not be official, though.

Also be aware that Hong Kong has a completely different electrical outlet (a three-pronged UK-style outlet) than China or the U.S., so you’ll need an adapter. Also, be aware that they drive on the left side of the road in Hong Kong, unlike they do in China, so be very careful in crossing the street or driving.

Hong Kong is a clean, safe, and beautiful place with many great places to visit. We especially enjoy the Tai-O Fishing Village and the Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha) on the mountain and the cable car ride. It’s more expensive than China, so be prepared, but enjoy!

By | May 21st, 2014|Categories: China, Travel tips|Tags: |Comments Off on Travel to Hong Kong from China

Qingdao, China: Clean, Beautiful City with a Great Beach and Nearby Mountains

For a recent 3-day holiday, my wife and I went to Qingdao, China, in Shandong Province. We stayed on the beach the Haiyu Hotel. The hotel was reasonably good and quite inexpensive, less than 500 RMB a night with an ocean view and a great beachfront to explore. Qingdao has wonderful seafood, and if you like clams and basic fish, you can get it very inexpensively. The air was fresh, the sky was blue, and the ocean front was relatively clean and attractive, unlike the mud the occupies the region around Shanghai.

We began with a trip to Lao Shan Mountain, which features some good hiking and also beautiful fishing boats in the coastal city of Lao Shan. Then we visited a few parts of Qingdao such as Ba De Guan with lots of European architecture and the beautiful Zhongshan Park.

Travel tip: taxis can be hard to hail in Qingdao. During a time with lots of visitors, you would be wise to arrange a driver ahead of time. Might cost 400-500 per day. If you hire a taxi for a day, it might be more like 800 or higher. A subway system is under construction and should be up starting in 2015.

Here are some photos of our adventure.

By | April 13th, 2014|Categories: China, Photography, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , |Comments Off on Qingdao, China: Clean, Beautiful City with a Great Beach and Nearby Mountains