Surviving in China

A Guide to Survival and Fun from an American Expat in Shanghai

China is a nation of beauty, surprise and delight, but living here can be a challenge for foreigners. What follows is a guide for Westerners living in China, with an emphasis on Shanghai.

Basics for Foreigners Visiting or Living in China

Passport Basics

Your passport is life. Protect it. Keep it in a safe place unless you need it. Never leave it with someone you don’t trust. If a hotel wants to hold it, give them a copy but check out before you leave it with them. A friend of mine had their passport stolen while it was in the safe keeping of a hotel. Street value of a US passport is around $5,000-$15,000, I’ve heard. It may be the most tempting and valuable thing you possess. Chinese people are typically very honest, but it just takes that 1 in 10,000 to change your life quickly.

Know when you will need to bring your passport. You will need to have it with you for hotels, trains (rarely checked, but it does happen, and will be needed to buy a ticket or make changes), and planes. You will need to do anything with people at a bank, or even registering for, say, a customer loyalty card at a grocery store). Also may need it for checking into a hospital, but check to see if a photocopy will do. In any case, always have a photocopy or two of your passport with you. Carry one in your wallet or purse, and perhaps somewhere else also.

If your passport is actually missing and not just misplaced, don’t waste time waiting for it to be returned to a lost and found area. Chances are it was stolen or quickly will be. Start on the path of getting a replacement for your passport and Chinese visa. The replacement passport can be done fairly quickly, but the visa takes extra time. This will take about 3 business days typically, if things go well, so change your travel arrangements as needed. Immediately contact the US Consulate in your area (or the consulate or embassy for wherever you are from). They can get you started on this process. It’s also going to involve several hundred dollars and you will need to leave the country (Hong Kong is a good choice) and come back in to get your new temporary passport stamped and validated.

Transportation Basics

Travel within China is enjoyable and often convenient. The train system is marvelous, especially if you are one the high-speed trains (gao tie), but some of the slow trains can be rough and primitive. The major cities generally have subways and they can be extremely convenient. Air travel is surprisingly advanced and some of the airports are world-class beauties. On the road, though, you'll be surprised at how people drive and how taxi drivers can dodge and weave through it all. I'll offer some tips for on the ground survival as well.

Train Tips

Train tickets can be purchased at train stations several days in advance (often needs to be no more than three days). Bring your passport! Some offices may accept a copy of your passport for purchasing a ticket, but there's no guarantee. In major cities like Shanghai, there may be an English-speaking window at major train stations (the main Shanghai train station definitely has one and I think Hongqiao has employees who can speak some English). But don't count on it. If you don't speak Chinese, have your request written out or find a Chinese speaker who can help you. Foreigners can't use the automated ticket machines at the train stations, so get in line and talk to a human. There are train ticket outlets at various locations that can also be used, at least for straightforward purchasing of tickets, but not for exchanges or returns. In Shanghai, there are perhaps a couple dozen train ticket outlets that foreigners might walk by without even noticing. Learning where these are can make life more convenient.

Most convenient of all is to have the tickets delivered to you. Hotels can order them and have them delivered to your hotel on the same day for a small fee. I've done that even when I wasn't staying at a hotel. But I usually use a ticket delivery service. The one I use lets me call in, fax, or email an order, and then they deliver the tickets later that day for just 10 RMB a ticket. I like to add a tip even though tipping is not done in China as a rule, but I know the hard-working delivery people aren't paid well and could use a little extra every now and then. If you use a delivery service for the first time, including a hotel service, they will need to get a copy of your passport on file.

Train tickets have numbers like D5284 or G12, where the first letter is related to the type of train (G is best - it's the high speed line). When you have found the right gate for your train, a sign showing train numbers will show your train number in green when it's time to board, often just a few minutes before departure. As you approach the turnstile, you place your paper ticket in a slot that reads it and spits out out on top of the device, and when you pluck it out the doors swing open for you to pass through. Go to the proper train and get in the car matching the car number printed on your ticket (upper right-hand corner has the car number and then the seat number). Make sure you get off at the right station (it really helps to know what the Chinese characters look like for your destination, but it is typically announced in English also). To leave the station, you will need to put your ticket back into the turnstile to be read and spit out as before. Keep the ticket as your receipt.

A ticket can be exchanged or returned before the scheduled train leaves. There's a special line for exchanges (改签)and sometimes a different line for returns (退票).

To look at train schedules, the best system I know of is Huoche.com.cn but it's all in Chinese. An English site for train schedules is Chinatrainguide.com or Cnvol.com. A good introduction to China trains, including how to read a train ticket, is at Seat61.com.

BONUS TIP: With a ticket in hand, you can often ride an earlier train without having to go through the hassle of exchanging your ticket, if you are willing to risk having to stand or bounce between available seats. To do this, it really helps to speak Chinese so you can go to the gate monitor and ask to get on, acknowledging that you may have to stand.

SLEEPER TRAINS: For long trips, you may need to take a sleeper train. When available, there are two options: soft sleepers and hard sleepers. Both offer similar rather hard beds, in my opinion, but the soft sleepers offer a lot more space and privacy. The soft sleepers, in my limited experience, are rooms with four beds, two on each side of a central aisle, two that are low and two that are up high, requiring a little climbing to each, with a door that can be closed to keep everyone else out. In the hard sleepers, the layout is similar but without the doors and with a stack of three beds on each side of every unit. This makes it harder to sit up on your bed, though you still can, and gives less privacy and more noise. But the hard sleeper makes it easier to meet people and have lots of conversations. At around 10 PM, I think, the lights will go out in the hard sleeper car and people are expected to not be too noisy. In the soft sleeper, the four occupants of the room can decide when to turn the lights out.

In sleeper trains, you give your ticket to the attendant, who then hands you a card showing which unit and bed you are assigned to (should match what is on your ticket, of course). The attendant will come and alert you after the last stop before yours so that you know it's time to pack up and get ready to go. This is a pretty good system and makes it possible to sleep without having to constantly worry about the time. But to be safe, set your clock or phone to wake you up 20 minutes before your designated arrival time. Trains stop very briefly at some stations, so be ready to get off quickly. Have your bags in hand and be standing near the door before the train comes to a halt. I once watched a man scream and yell and plead with the train staff to stop the train and let him get off when he failed to get off at the right station, but to no avail. It was the kind of behavior that may well have gotten him arrested when he did get off. Who knows? Don't risk the stress. But if disaster strikes, stay calm and don't blow up. Stay likable, remember who you and who you need to be, and sometimes you'll find some surprisingly kind help along the way.

By the way, sleeper trains do have beds that are long enough for people maybe up to 6'4", maybe even 6'5". I'm 6'6" and was able to get some sleep the top bunk of a soft sleeper, though there were constant interruptions as others came in and out at various stops during the night. The beds are provided with pillows and a feather comforter. I don't know how often they are changed. I think pesticides are applied periodically to keep things like bedbugs and lice under control, so I'm not even going to raise the specter of such critters by mentioning them here.

Electrical outlets on trains? Probably not. On the trains we had going to and then within Jiangxi province, there were no electrical outlets to be had. No way to recharge phones, etc. Keep that in mine. But I once did have a soft sleeper with a power outlet. I think this was on a train to Nanjing. Also, regular first or even second class cars with standard seats will occasionally have electrical outlets. It's not common, from my experience, but great when it's there.

Other resources:

Air Travel

China has the friendliest, fastest airports I've seen. The security is polite and friendly, much nicer than what we face in the US where TSA can be invasive and even humiliating. Check-in is usually fast, but it's smart to get to the airport two hours early, even for domestic flights, just in case. Of course, bring your passport. For ordering tickets for flights in and out of China, be sure to consider Ctrip.com. They have some of the best customer service I've ever seen and can help you with hotels also. Remarkable site and service. Other services like Orbitz won't help you for many Chinese domestic flights. Be aware that some airlines may have weight limits for carry-ons and may actually check and require you to check bags that you would normally carry in the U.S. I've had good experiences with a wide variety of airlines, but be aware that flights in the evening are often delayed, in my experience.

If you are tall like me, you will want to get an exit row when possible because Chinese seats tend to have a little less leg room than I'd like. Getting an exit row is usually not possible over the phone or online but requires showing up at the airport early. I've often had good luck, almost as if there aren't a lot of Chinese people bothering to ask for exit row seats.

Subway and Bus Tips

China's subways are wonderful, when available. I love the system in Shanghai which tends to offer good climate control, though they can be highly crowded at rush hour (also known as push hour or squish hour, especially on Line 1 and Line 2, the two oldest and most heavily used routes. Beijing has a pretty good system and I've also been impressed with Shenzhen's and Nanjing's. Suzhou recently opened theirs and it will continue to grow.

If you are going to be traveling for more than a day or two in a city, buy a transport card at one of the service centers in the subway station. In Shanghai they cost 25 RMB and can then be loaded with whatever amount you want to put on it. (These also make great gifts.) You swipe the cards at the turnstiles when entering and exiting the sub and fares are electronically deducted from your card (often 2 to 6 RMB, depending on distance traveled and the city you are in). While that may seem cheap to you, a lot of Chinese people don't ride the subway because it's more expensive than the bus. Your transport card in Shanghai and probably in other cities can be used for the bus as well. A bus fare is 2 RMB in Shanghai and I believe transfer is possible on the same fare. If you are going to transfer, you may need a strip of paper from an attendant before you get off the bus if you've paid cash. I think if you swipe your card the system will recognize a transfer. I don't use the bus much so let me know if you encounter something different.

Learning to use the bus requires some experienced help or a good app or webpage. It's a wonderful way to explore a town and see things you would miss in a sub. Google Maps is one resource you can use. When zoomed in enough, you will see little bus icons where bus stops are located, and clicking on them will provide information about the bus lines and highlight the routes you can take. There are other apps that can let you find the right combination of buses to get around.

As a foreigner in China, be on your best behavior when on buses, trains, or other crowded public places because you will be watched and your example does make a difference. You can do good with a little patience, a smile, and perhaps a willingness to stand so others in need may sit. Don't let your frustrations and pains of the day get in the way of a chance to life others a little.

Surviving Taxis and Cars

Some of the most suspenseful action in China occurs in cab rides. Seatbelts are often missing, but I'm grateful whenever a cab does have one because I usually feel like I need it. Driving is not as wild as it might be in many other nations, but on the streets of Shanghai or Beijing or wherever, you'll quickly notice that you're not in Kansas anymore. Driving in China requires nerves and aggression. Drivers learn to jump into spaces with almost surgical precision and to fight for their place with rules that seem fluid and capricious. It's a different pace, but it actually works and accidents are surprisingly rare, though they do occur. In two years here, I haven't had any, but my wife was in one.

At airports, train stations, and other popular spots, you will be approached by people offering to give you a taxi ride. These are illegal "black cabs" that will overcharge you and could be more dangerous. Avoid those. However, some foreigners do take the black cabs when no regular metered cabs are available (this can happen at big events, rain, etc.), but don't do this unless you know what the normal fare is so you only pay, say, double, and unless you know where you are going, and unless--well, don't do it. But I know people who have done it without too much trouble.

When you get in a cab, make sure there is a meter, otherwise the driver can just make up a price. Know what the price should be approximately. For example, from downtown Shanghai to the PuDong airport, it will cost around 180 RMB. If a fixed meter shows you owe 1000 RMB, wave a policeman over, take a photo, get the receipt and license plate number, etc. You're being taken I would suggest you just give something over the normal fare, like 220 RMB, and walk away, if you can. But I haven't had that happen to me.

When you are at a train station or airport with a long line waiting for taxis, you may be tempted to talk away with a black cab driver promising instant access to their vehicle. They also may promise that their fare is "the same" as a cab, which almost certainly won't be true. The sales pitch may come from a sweet looking older man or woman that you'd like to trust (this may or may not be the person into whose hands you will entrust your life once you step into their unlicensed vehicle). Notice that none of the in-the-know local Chinese in the line are willing to talk off with the black cab drivers. They focus on newcomers and especially gullible foreigners. I suggest staying in line and not trying the higher risk, higher cost shortcut. Recently one persistent black cab saleswoman told us she would take us from the Nanchang train station to the Nanchang airport for "the same price" as a cab, but her price was 180 RMB when we knew the cab price would be around 80. At first we liked her and were tempted when the price came down to 130 RMB, but something about her started seeming a bit scary and frantic, and we eventually just had to put her on ignore as she and several peers turned the pressure up. Intense. None of the locals around us looked the least interested in the black cab gang.

Lost items: Sooner or later, you are going to lose something in China, and it can easily be a taxi where this happens. It's easy for a phone or keys to slip out of a pocket, or to drop a wallet or passport (but don't ever handle your passport in a way where you can drop it in the rush of getting in or out of a taxi!), or to leave a bag in the trunk or on a seat. Once the taxi drives away, your primary hope for recovering your goods is in the fapiao (official receipt) that you obtained before you left the taxi. Oh, you did ask for the fapiao, right? This can become one of the most important habits for you to develop. Never get out of a taxi until you have the printed fapiao. The information on it identifies the company and the vehicle so that the driver can be contacted in order for you to obtain your lost item. In our two years in Shanghai, we have obtained fapiaos for almost every taxi ride. But getting the fapiao is annoyingly slow, taking maybe 20 extra seconds that you could be using for something more useful like running frantically to catch your train. Once when my wife needed to take a cab to work and was on the very of being late, she skipped the fapiao process and was relieved to clock in on time with less than a minute to spare. Moments later she realized that she had left her suitcase in the trunk of the cab that had already driven off. No fapiao. After work that night, we were going to meet at a train station and take an overnight train deep into Jiangxi Province for a big 3-day trip. The loss of her bag was a big set back.

The story of my wife's lost bag actually had a happy ending thanks to the prevalence of surveillance cameras in China. My wife had taken a taxi from just in front of our apartment complex, in sight of one of the surveillance cameras that monitor the area. The menwei (gate guards), perhaps some of the most important people for you to befriend, were sympathetic and extremely helpful. They took me into their surveillance center and pulled up the video for the time when my wife got in the taxi, and I was able to watch her from two different angles. They could see the cab and then called the menwei who was closest to the area, and he knew who the cabbie was. Within two hours her bag was back at our apartment where I would pick it up that evening on my way to the train station to meet my wife. What a relief. Lessons: (1) Always get the fapiao. (2) If in a rush, keep your bags on your lap or next to you so you won't risk leaving something in the trunk. (3) Maintain good relations with your local guards. And of course, (4) don't leave stuff behind.

Living Large in China

Finding a Place to Live

Most people coming here for more than a few weeks will need to rent an apartment. Rent is expensive in Shanghai, where a 100 square meter apartment in a typical relatively new complex might cost from 6000 RMB ($1000) to 15,000 RMB ($2500) per month, depending on location and amenities. Many people start their apartment search with SmartShanghai.com. We've had good results using real estate agents that specialize in finding apartments. Some of these can be found online. Sometimes very good ones can be found by going to the area you are interested in and looking for prominent real estate offices along major roads and often near popular housing areas. They usually won't speak much English, though, but some of the services that advertise online will have good English skills.

Landlords usually want at least a one-year contract and will require two months rent as deposit, in addition to your first month of rent paid up front. If you use a real estate agent, you may be responsible for the commission as well--find out how that works for the agency in question.

If you are coming here with children, being close to an international school may be a prime consideration. Unfortunately, there are only a couple areas in town with international schools and they tend to be well outside of the really fun and convenient downtown area, so expat families tend to congregate in those regions, namely, Hongqiao and adjacent Gubei, and Jinqiao on the PuDong Side. If you don't have to worry about an international school, consider living in the heart of town as we do in HuangPu District in the very convenient and surprisingly affordable region known as LaoXiMen.

Many people live in PuDong but find that it is too spread out and leaves them feeling isolated. The subway system is improving there, but it has a much different feel than the crowded and bustling and extremely convenient neighborhoods of PuXi such as LaoXiMen, XinTianDi, XuJiaHui, JingAn, etc.

Before you select a place, consider what your commute will be like. Be sure to travel to and from work during rush hour so you can understand what you'll be facing each day, whether it's on jammed roads or the moving chiropractic clinics known as subway trains, where the pressure of fellow passengers cramming into you can realign those vertebra quite effectively and at no additional charge. Lines 1 and 2 are famous for being crowded, but now lines 6 and 8 can be quite fearsome also during rush hour. Experience it for yourself. Routes along line 10, on the other hand, can be much more manageable, as we've experienced.

Stay on good terms with your landlord, who probably won't speak English. Take good care of the place and make sure any problems are communicated promptly and politely. Do you part to keep relations happy. That will help increase the odds of getting your deposit back when you leave. Some don't succeed. We had no problem with our first place, and think we will do OK with this new one as well.

Coping with Climate

In Shanghai and much of southern China, it's surprisingly cold in the winter, partly because many buildings aren't heated, or if heat is available, the insulation is so poor that it doesn't do a lot of good. As a result, it pays to dress warmly. Even expensive apartments often have poor heating systems. The heating is just a heat pump that is essentially the air conditioner run in reverse. It seems surprisingly inefficient, not to mention noisy. What many people do is give up on the built-in heating systems and just use small portable electric heaters where needed. And again, dress warmly.

For heat, southern China is usually well equipped with air conditioners and they work well, though they are noisy and expensive. Your utility bill can be shocking if you use airconditioning all the time. Use a fan as much as you can. If you are coming from the States or travel there frequently, one import you might wish to bring are the heat-shrinking 3M window films that can be used to seal leaky windows in winter. This can help keep some rooms a lot warmer, but it also means you won't be able to open the windows. It's a bit of work to get them installed, and there's a risk of damaging some surfaces with this treatment, so be careful.

During the summer, it can be really hot for a few days, with very high humidity. If you are not used to that, you could face heat stroke or just a lot of discomfort. Stay out of the heat and drink plenty of fluids.

Mosquitos exist in many parts of China. In Shanghai they are far less severe than I expected, coming from the mosquito paradise of Wisconsin. The best way to avoid mosquitos is to live high above the ground, say floor 10 or higher in an apartment building. At levels 1-4 it is easy for mosquitos to find you. We are currently at level 23 and we still get an occasional mosquito that probably gets a ride in an elevator, but we don't think any fly in through our open windows.

Food

The Beginning: Food Safety

Food is one of the crowning glories of Chinese culture. Thousands of years of culture and the preservation of many great secrets and techniques over the ages culminates in some of the most delicious food on earth, all around you in China. On the other hand, corrupted supply chains, human greed and criminal elements combine to bring some disgusting food hazards like "ditch oil," which is possibly contaminated oil scooped out of the sewage system near restaurants and recycled by criminal gangs to be sold back to many restaurants at a fraction of the cost of fresh vegetable oil--disgusting! Perhaps 30% of China's restaurants use ditch oil, according to government sources. If the oil smells bad or tastes funny, don't eat it, but chances are you won't know what oil your favorite place uses. Nicer, more expensive places are unlikely to be using ditch oil, and the cheapest places on the street are much more likely to take shortcuts.

When you buy oil at the supermarket, you can't even be sure that you're not getting ditch oil unless you go with a well known brand. Be aware.

Other food scandals in China include recycled garbage of many kinds that gets reprocessed as food, dead and diseased pigs that were illegally sold back into the Shanghai meat markets for years as low-cost pork, lamb meat that turned out to be processed rat meat, fish contaminated with toxic melamine, dairy products contaminated with toxic melamine, rice contaminated with heavy metals, and on and on goes the list of scandals and dangers. We avoid meet for the most part, except for high-quality places or meet that we cook ourselves, and avoid food that is very oily, which eliminates a lot of dishes.

For best results, stick to higher-end restaurants, places you know and trust, or food that you cook yourself.

Cooking and Storing Food

Some people eat out all the time, but eventually they may realize that it's time consuming, expensive, and always adds an element of risk that can be removed by cooking yourself. There are some challenges with cooking yourself, though. First, almost no kitchens in China have ovens. There will usually be a gas stove well suited for cooking with a wok, but the concept of baking is foreign to most Chinese. Many people will buy a small toaster oven, and these can be useful for making toast or warming up foods, but doing actual baking will be difficult. However, you can grill fish in them, with patience.

Kitchens are small and can be difficult to cook in. Requires adjustment of your cooking style. In our second apartment in Shanghai, we went after a big kitchen and then negotiated with the landlord to take out the useless "sterilizer" unit under many gas stoves and replace it with an actual over. We paid extra for that, but it was worth it. A real oven! My wife is much happier now because we can cook for groups with foods she is used to cooking.

Finding Western ingredients can be a challenge. There are some restaurant supply stores that offer big chunks of excellent cheese at prices not much higher than in the States. You can also get small, expensive blocks of cheese at shops such as City Shop, the Pines, Carrefour, EMart (sometimes), Lotus, Bazaar, and many little speciality shops in the French Concession, XinTianDi, or other corners of town. For good bread, I look to City Shop and also Nancy's Bistro and Bakery in Pudong (Weifang Road 68). Tesco and Metro are excellent large department stores with many Western foods including pasta, spaghetti sauce, cheese, pepperoni, etc.

For storing food, find some airtight containers to keep bugs out. Shanghai also has a lot fewer bugs than I expected, but you do need to be aware that they can easily infest rice and flour if not kept sealed. Also, cracker, noodles, and other grain-based foods, once open, can attract and sustain a variety of little bugs. Don't let them get settled in your kitchen. Keep things clean and sealed.

Restaurants

So many! I've tried many dozens. Here are a few recommendations:

Shanghai Resources

  • Shanghai Expat--a popular source for foreigners in Shanghai to share information and news. Also provides details on many events, restaurants, etc. Seems somewhat geared toward singles.
  • Shanghai Daily--A Chinese government newspaper in English with handy information about events and local happenings
  • Shanghai Mamas--wonderful network of expatriate women in Shanghai, including many moms, dedicated to making life easier for international families in Shanghai. They offer forums, information, and events. I'm very grateful for the help they gave to some new friends of ours from New Zealand who unintentionally delivered a premature baby here while on a brief layover in Shanghai. Shanghai Mamas, you're awesome!
  • Shanghai Family--an online magazine for families in Shanghai, including forums, information on events, etc.
  • City Weekend--lots of Shanghai-specific info and stories, in English
  • Great tourist map of Shanghai
  • Shanghai Camera Repair--a talented and inexpensive repair man who fixed my broken Nikon camera for $30. One of many shops at Shanghai's giant camera mall at 300 Lu Ban Road, near lines 4 and 9 a little west and south of the Bund.

Understanding China

Your time in China will make more sense and be more fulfilling if you do all you can to understand Chinese culture and, of course, to understand Chinese. And then you may also wish to understand the trends, the politics, the happenings and controversies. Here are some resources for all of these things.

Learning Chinese

Start when you are newborn, if you can, and learn it naturally as you mature. Too late? No worries--as long as you are under about 12 years of age, you'll do just fine. If your adventure with Chinese is starting a little later in life, you're going to have to study hard to get anywhere with the time you have left in life. One place I really like is ChinesePod.com, a service that I began using in the United States and that I continue to use here. I also have a teacher who comes weekly and an informal teacher that meet for Chinese practice at lunch, in addition to taking advantage of all the Chinese listening and speaking opportunities I can. I've studied other languages, which are supposed to help in general, but my experiences with other languages just make it obvious how difficult Chinese is. Yes, it's a tough language, especially when you start reading and writing.

Chinese Society, Traditions, and Customs

A lifetime of study is needed here, but you can avoid a lot of big mistakes with some rapid study. Key resources:


Other Links:

Beam to J.L.'s cracked planet.