Accepting a Job in China? Some Questions to Ask (and an Exercise for English Teachers)

After nearly 8 years in China, I’ve met a lot of foreigners and heard many surprising stories of some of the challenges they face in their jobs, especially when working for Asian companies. In most cases, the employee made assumptions about their job and their employer based on their experience with Western companies. Others didn’t fully understand what was expected of them and what they would have to do. This can lead to pain, frustration, embarrassment, and financial loss. Please don’t make lots of assumptions and assume that everything will be like it is back home.

You need to ask a lot of questions! If you find yourself saying, “I’m sure it will be OK” or “I trust it will be fine,” you may have a problem. In a very foreign culture with different laws and different levels of compliance with those laws, it’s much better to be asking, “What could go wrong?” Some of the questions you might want to ask may seem a bit bizarre, such as “Do I need to bring my own mop?” It’s a fair question, though tongue-in-cheek in most cases, as explained below.

Here are some suggested questions to ask:

  • Can I see the contract(s) you want me to sign before I resign my current job and show up for work in China? Sometimes the “standard” contract your company will give you when you show up for work will be a shocker. You may find the salary you agreed upon is not what is in your contract, that the benefits that were promised are not in the contract, and that troubling provisions are in the contract, such as a rejection of many of the normal employee rights provided by China’s generous labor laws, and even a requirement that portion of your income will be withheld for some period of time and perhaps only given to you if certain goals are achieved that you may not be able to control and achieve on your own. When you ask about the benefits or other terms you have negotiated, the response may be, “Of course! But that’s just verbal. Trust us.” Realize that the HR person saying that may be totally sincere, but several years or weeks later he or she may be gone (HR turnover is intense in China) and the new person will not believe you when you bring up the verbal agreement that supposedly was made. Contracts may not always mean a lot in China, but verbal agreements with people who are no longer around mean even less.
  • Can you put that in writing? Don’t assume that any of the benefits and other terms you have negotiated will be put into writing in your contract. Be prepared for that, which is usually something that we gullible foreigners have not even imagined as a possible risk. I suggest that you insist that everything is in writing. At a minimum, have emails confirming the terms before you accept an offer and keep copies, copy other witnesses, etc., to create a paper trail, and have dated and signed printouts of those terms witnessed and notarized as a defense (get them notarized in China also, if you can, or at least signed by Chinese witnesses), but also realize that the paper trail may not do all that much for you if you don’t get those terms in the contract.
  • Will there be more than one contract to sign with potentially inconsistent, conflicting, or generally problematic terms? This is likely if you end up with a split income, as described below, or if you are a high-end employee subject to a non-compete agreement or other special terms in addition to a standard employee contract. The additional contract(s) may have terms that undermine or exacerbate portions of your basic contract, or that create serious problems in other ways. Be ready for careful analysis and outside legal guidance and recognize that you can propose alterations. The worse thing to do is say, “Well, I trust that it will be OK.” Remember, the key question is, “What could possibly go wrong?”
  • Will I have a legitimate work permit and a work visa? Sadly, many companies bring people here on a tourist visa and have them work illegally. This can get you detained, fined, and deported. If the company is not actively working to get documents needed for a visa long before you come to China, they may be planning to rely on your tourist visa, even if they promise they will get you a visa once here. Sadly, I know too many English teachers who get into awkward situations when some of the companies that bring them here don’t properly provide work visas for them. Sometimes the company tries their best but the Chinese side (a company or school) takes short cuts and put the teachers at risk. Ask lots of questions. If there is uncertainty, be sure to try out the bonus exercise I give at the end!
  • How will the taxes due to China be paid? Ex-pats are typically told that the company will handle all Chinese taxes. Make sure this is in writing. Also make sure the company will pay taxes on your full income, which leads to the next question:
  • Are you going to split my income to evade taxes? Sadly, some companies use a practice of splitting a foreign employee’s pay, with part of the salary being paid to a Chinese bank account, and another part being paid to a bank in the employee’s home country, typically using some foreign (non-Chinese) agency to wire money to the home country. That system is convenient for getting money to your home bank account, but the problem is that the employer typically doesn’t report the foreign income to China and only withholds Chinese taxes for the China income. Ex-pats generally don’t understand that taxes aren’t being paid on the foreign income when this happens, and it can be a devastating shocker to eventually learn what might have been going on and how much risk and gargantuan penalties you potentially face. There are cases where an employee in China may do genuine work for oversees entities that may justify offshore income, but you should check carefully into this matter and get legal advice before accepting split income arrangements. Do not risk getting into trouble in China, and do all you can to respect Chinese law. If you find your company is not respecting Chinese tax laws, it’s time to resign. For some good guidance, see these articles by Dan Harris at the China Law Blog: “China Expat Pay: Splitting with Hong Kong is 100% Illegal and 200% Dangerous (Part 1)” and Part 2.
  • Will you respect Chinese Labor Law or will my work contract say I have essentially no rights (e.g., no severance pay, etc.)? Some contracts say that there will be no benefits or rights except for what is mandatory under China’s labor laws. That means no severance pay, for example, and other potential disappointments.
  • When I leave, how much notice do you require? If you are asking me to give, say, three months of notice, will you respond to my resignation notice by exercising your right to terminate me with 30 days’ notice with no severance pay? Yes, this absolutely can and does happen, even for employees who have seemingly been loyal and valuable workers for many years. It’s an ugly way to treat an employee, but there are often incentives for some people in the company to lay off a certain number of people, so they might jump at the chance to turn a voluntary resignation into a lay-off that gets them credit for their own KPIs, so I’ve been told by a China expert. The employer will always retain the right to fire you with 30 days notice (some will give less and dare you to sue), so if you are asked to give more notice than that, point out that this is unfair and either change the contract to require 30 days or consider a provision that gives you compensation if they refuse to respect your advance notice and respond by giving you 30 days notice in return.
  • How much cash will I need to bring to get started with housing and everything else in China? Many people don’t understand that the company is not going to help you with housing at all or that at most they will provide some monthly stipend toward housing, but only after you have found your apartment and paid the huge fees and deposits required to get started, and then present your company with an official receipt for your first month’s rent. If you are renting, say, a 15,000 RMB/month apartment, you may have out-of-pocket expenses from paying your first month’s rent plus a deposit of two-months’ rent, plus a rental agent fee of 35% of a month’s rent, adding up to a little over 50,000 RMB, or nearly $7,400 in cash before you receive your first paycheck and long before you’ll get your first housing stipend for some portion of your monthly rent. It’s expensive to start working in China. Are you ready?
  • Will housing benefits and other benefits begin as soon as I start, or is there some minimum term of service required before they begin? Which ones actually begin on day one? And can you put that into writing? One friend relied on the promised housing stipend in selecting a nice apartment, more expensive than he might want if paying for it on his own, but only later found out that the significant housing benefit would only begin after several years of service. Ouch.
  • To begin my job in China, will you bring me through China customs in the normal legal way, or will I be smuggled in by, say, crossing a mountain along the Vietnam border? If your employer turns you over to a smuggling team and requires you to march through the jungle or scramble over a mountainous border to sneak into China, or even if you come through a legal port but are just whisked into China through a “special lane” without your documents being checked and entered into China’s system, you are entering illegally and will have a world of trouble to face, especially if your employer takes away your passport, making you almost like a slave. This usually doesn’t apply to people coming here to work for higher-end jobs that require college degrees, but often applies to those coming to be maids or “ayis,” as is the case for many women from the Philippines. They are often taken advantage of in many ways due to their lack of legal status and their fear of seeking legal protection when they are cheated or abused. Don’t enter China illegally!
  • Will my health insurance actually help if I need surgery? And will it help my family or just me? Health care is fairly inexpensive in China, unless you want care provided by Western-style clinics or hospitals. Even if you rely on less expensive local hospitals (I love Shanghai East and it’s inexpensive VIP clinic, for example), you may be disappointed with how little your corporate health insurance covers. And insurance packages usually just apply to the employee, but may offer an option to purchase a plan for your spouse or children. Learn early what you are getting, if anything.
  • Will I be required to work on Saturday and Sundays? Can you put it into writing that I will have my weekends free? Sometimes corporate leaders launch campaigns to increase productivity, or the appearance of productivity, by requiring employees to start coming in on Saturdays or weekends. That’s really hard on ex-pats who come here hoping to experience China. Hard to experience it when you are trapped in an office all week long. Those coming here to teach also often find that there are school shows and performances held on weekends that they are required to be at. Unexpected duties tend to crop up with little notice, after people have purchased plane or train tickets, or even during holidays. Keep your weekends free and try to get something in writing to that effect. Even then, you will see that big national holidays often involve turning a Saturday or Sunday into work days to add more vacation days to a holiday. This can be frustrating.
  • Will critical corporate announcements all be in Chinese? Will there be any translation help for me? Even large multinational companies will tend to have at least some important email and documents sent to employees in Chinese only, and many won’t take any pains to provide translation. If you are not a Chinese speaker, this can make life difficult. Learn Chinese, make friends with Chinese speakers who can help you, and find ways to cope.
  • What documents do I need to bring to get my work permit? The rules have evolved on this critical issue, but have long been surprising. For example, when I came in 2011, I learned that I needed to bring my ORIGINAL diploma from BYU. In the US, people often don’t care about the diploma. It’s just a pretty document that we don’t really care about, but it’s a big deal here. You may need to contact your school to get a notarized physical copy of your diploma to work in China. And there may be a number of other original documents you need: your wedding license, your birth certificate, a letter from your former employer, etc. One friend of mine is unable to get the promotion he has long deserved because the small college that issued his diploma long ago has failed and is no longer, making it impossible to get a physical diploma now. A disaster for him, I’m afraid.
  • Jeff Lindsay holding two mops

    Reporting for duty!

    Do I need to bring my own mop or broom? OK, joking, of course, but there’s a point here: sometimes wonderful sounding jobs with lofty titles turn out to be painful and rather menial. You might think you are in charge of something major, and find out that in reality you are just mopping up after someone else. The best way to prepare is to talk to people in the company or who once worked for the company to understand what the job is really likely to involve. I talked with several former and current employees before making my decision, and that was really helpful, though I still had some surprises. But many pleasant surprises as well. I’ve had a wonderful 8 years here without too much mopping, and a lot of excitement that has swept me away at times.

No matter how much you try to pin things down, understand that things tend to change rapidly in China, so be prepared to be flexible. (Also be prepared to walk away if things turn out to be really shady.) In my case, for example, I was supposed to work here for one year, and then I would be brought back to the US to be part of a US expansion team. That sounded perfect. About one year later, as I wondered why I wasn’t hearing anything about the US expansion team, I asked around and learned through the grapevine that the U.S. expansion team had been fired and no longer existed, and all plans for my return to the US had been dropped. It was a surprise, but a very fortunate one in my case because one year would not have been long enough. Whew! I’m so grateful for that unexpected change. But in Asian companies, as many ex-pats have found, you may have to ask and inquire persistently to learn of these big changes or upcoming problems because communication to employees might not be a strong point of your particular company, nor will it be one of the KPIs for HR.

“What Foreigner?” An Exercise Useful for Some English Teachers

Now, for those coming here as English teachers, one of the jobs with a relatively high risk of trouble, here’s a physical exercise that may prepare you for your day-to-day work, especially if your company is not going to arrange for a legal work visa for you before you arrive. (If they tell you that all you need is a “student visa” and that you will be a student just doing “volunteer work” as a teachers, you might need this exercise, especially if you are being paid anything and especially if you are in a more developed city like Shanghai.) It’s a fun exercise, even a game, called “What Foreigner?” It’s something you should play a lot to be prepared so when you play it here for real, you’ll be ready. It takes 3 people to play, but you can get by with only two players if one does double duty.

You are the foreigner, and you need to begin by standing in a room in your home, school, church, or other facility with multiple rooms. We’ll call that facility “the school.” That room will be “the classroom.” You will hold a textbook or other objects that help you feel like you are in the middle of teaching a class. Act like you are teaching.

Have Friend #1 and Friend #2 go to the front door of the building. Friend #1 will step outside the door and pretend to be the police while Friend #2 will stay inside and pretend to be a school administrator. Have them wait a few minutes. When Friend #1 feels ready, he or she knocks on the door. Friend #2 looks through a window, peephole, or crack to see who it is, then turns and shouts toward you, “Police!” Friend #1 comes in and then begins walking to the classroom. As soon as you hear the shout, your job is to drop everything and escape out a back door or side door before you are spotted, and then to run as fast as you can until you are far from “the school.” Meanwhile, when Friend #1 arrives in the “classroom,” he or she asks, “Where is the foreigner?” Friend #2 then tries very hard not to laugh and says, with a sense of indignation, “What foreigner?”

Did you get out in time? Whew! Congratulations! Now do it again. Best to practice now so you’ll be ready. And yes, for those who don’t get US-style humor, I am making a joke here. I do not support violation of law in China, and recommend that you do not accept illegal work in China! Those who end up teaching in questionable English programs, working illegally as teachers, end up in lots of difficult situations where they have to run or pretend to be students. If you are teaching a class for pay, you are working and need a work visa. China is increasingly rooting out these illegal operations. I suggest you don’t take risks and strive to diligently adhere to Chinese law.

Even if you do all you can to be legal and everything looks good, you may find that your company or agency has done something illegal that may affect you. For example, a couple of teachers we knew thought they were completely legal, teaching for pay with a legal work permit in Shanghai, but it turns out that a local agency had falsified their application for a work permit in order to meet Shanghai’s strict requirements and claimed that they had advanced degrees and more years of experience than they really had, which is a serious crime that can get you deported. When the US company that brought them here as teachers learned of this, they realized that the couple was in grave danger and had to rush them out of the country without even a chance to say good-bye to their students. If you can, look at the documents being submitted for your work permit and visa and make sure that nothing has been falsified.

If you are coming to China, congratulations! It’s the most exciting and wonderful place I’ve ever been. Working here has been the most exciting (though occasionally the most painful and frustrating) part of my career so far. But ask lots of questions and do all you can to be legal and to respect China’s laws.

Offered a Good Job in China? Congrats! Now, Can You Afford It? (Bring a Wad of Cash!)

So you’ve got a great job offer in China? Way to go! But can you afford it? More specifically, can you afford the large up-front expenses that many foreigners face when they are required to arrange their own housing. That usually doesn’t apply to school teachers living on campus or to many big executives living in palaces (expensive villas), but for many of us, the company or institution we work for requires us to find our own housing (though they may provide a hotel for a couple of weeks to give you time to find a place to rent). Renting an apartment involves enormous expenses. Are you ready?

Rent in China’s large cities is quite high. A small place may still cost you $1,000 a month (6800 RMB) but it can easily be $3,000 a month if it’s in a nice location with, say, three bedrooms. Even if your company reimburses you for rent or for part of your rent, the process of renting involves large up-front costs that you need to pay. Rental agreements usually require a deposit of two months of rent, plus paying up front for your first three months of rent, and then paying 35% of one month as a fee to the real estate agent. You can be broke before you ever move in if you aren’t prepared. Get details and make sure you know what your company will cover and what they won’t.

You may be able to negotiate a reduced deposit of just one month, but even if you do, you need to have a wad of cash of enough funds in your Chinese bank to pay 43,500 RMB for a 10,000/month apartment. That’s over $6,000. Your credit cards won’t be accepted.

Know what you’re up against before you come!

By |2019-01-11T06:42:51+00:00January 11th, 2019|Categories: China, Consumers, Finances, Housing, Shanghai, Surviving|Comments Off on Offered a Good Job in China? Congrats! Now, Can You Afford It? (Bring a Wad of Cash!)

When Cabbies Dump You

Shanghai cabThough most of my cab rides in Shanghai turn out well, occasionally something goes sour. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to make some serious mistakes, just like I did today.

My cab ride had just begun when I pulled a beloved Chinese epic sci-fi novel from my bag to begin some precious reading time. Suddenly the cabbie saw something come in on his cell phone and turned around and told me that he was sorry, but I had to get out so he could go get another customer. Had I been better prepared, I would have said no, I’m your customer, and please take me to my destination. This might not work and sometimes could lead to a big argument or even physical fight, but I should have resisted or at least have him take me a little closer to my destination or to the nearest subway or something better than what I did, which was 1) give up easy and 2) make a dangerous and actually illegal exit in the middle of an intersection.

“Rats,” I thought, when he told me to get out. I resigned myself to his rejection, but was actually too cooperative. He was in the left lane at an intersection at a red light. There were just seconds before it would be green, so I needed to hustle. It wasn’t a busy intersection, but still, it was wrong to let him force me out there. As I hastily prepared to open the right door, I was focused on traffic coming along the right side of the car, not wanting to be hit by a motorcycle or other vehicle. This was stupid and dangerous, for I at least should have insisted that he first drive me to a safe spot.

I got out safely and he drove off. Only later would I realize that he had my beloved book, with many markings and notes, sitting unloved in the back of his car. I was only 75 pages into it, but it was a painful loss, and I had no way to reach him because he didn’t charge me for the brief ride, meaning I didn’t get a receipt.

Rule #1 of cab rides is NEVER GET OUT WITHOUT A RECEIPT. The main reason for this is in case you leave something behind, you can use the receipt to call the company and identify the driver and get your goods back in most cases. (It also is essential if you get double billed if you got the cab through WeChat, paid by cash, but then also got an automated WeChat bill.) But a corollary to that rule is if you are being booted out without a receipt, get a photo of the driver’s ID posted in the front of the cab and a photo of his license plate number in case you need that info later, either to recover lost goods or, as in this case, to also report illegal dumping. And you might as well ask for an old spare receipt (fapiao) as partial compensation for your lost time–they usually have several.

Of course, if you have your wits about you enough to get the ID and license plate, you will also be thinking about not losing goods and looking carefully before you step out of the car. But this requires being smart enough to step out of the car in a safe spot where you can take the time to slowly gather your things, check the seat carefully, and gracefully exit instead of just making a made dash to get out of an intersection while someone drives off with your book (or cell phone, wallet, passport, etc.).

Recapping, when a driver wants to dump you for another customer:

  1. Know that this is illegal and try to insist on your rights. If he won’t respect your request, take your time. Ask for an explanation. Repeat your request. Don’t feel obligated to jump out right away. No need to reward his bad behavior. But stay friendly and don’t provoke a fight.
  2. Take a photo of his ID (this will alert him that you have the power to report him, and that may change his tune on the spot). Ask for a spare fapiao as well. Make sure you have the phone number of his company. When you get out, also get a photo of the license plate and maybe of him as well (leaving a door open for a while can buy you time for this so he doesn’t speed off immediately).
  3. Take your time to gather your stuff. Don’t leave things behind! Always ask yourself: is there anything in the trunk? On the floor? Anything that could have slipped from my pockets?
  4. Never get out at an unsafe and inconvenient location. If he won’t take you to your destination, insist that he drive you forward to the next subway station or at least to an area where it might be easier to catch a cab, and make sure he takes you to a safe spot to exit.

By knowing your rights and being assertive/annoying in a calm, friendly way, you may help him realize that cabbie crime doesn’t pay, maybe making things easier for the next customer. But don’t provoke him into extreme anger. Some cabbies have assaulted passengers, so be careful. You can just roll over like I did — but don’t do it in a rush, for you are more likely to lose things and have an accident. Take your time and insist on safety.

For me, the loss is mostly recoverable, for I just ordered a new copy of the book on Amazon.cn, and will have it back in my hands tomorrow. Taxi losses can be much more painful than that, so be careful and keep your wits about you.

By |2018-11-05T04:45:26+00:00November 5th, 2018|Categories: China, Safety, Shanghai, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , |Comments Off on When Cabbies Dump You

How We Fixed a Painful iPhone Email Error: “Cannot Verify Server Identity”

My wife’s email on her iPhone failed today, constantly giving the error message, “Cannot Verify Server Identity.” She had made no changes to her account settings. What to do?
Trying to troubleshoot, I read numerous pages offering various solutions to this problem (one that many people have had and that Apple tech support apparently is not familiar with). Solutions included turning WiFi on and off, turning SSL on and off, and more Draconian solutions like deleting and reinstalling the email account and even deleting all settings. We tried a variety of things without success. Thank goodness for terrific customer service at DreamHost.com, the host of her main email accounts. The fix was simply to update the account settings.
 
If your email is on a Dreamhost server, the instructions that worked for us might help you.
 
For the incoming server, we were told to use:
IMAP Port: 993
Incoming SSL: Enabled
Incoming Host: imap.dreamhost.com
Username: <full email address>
Authentication: Password or Normal Password
 
For the outgoing server,
SMTP Port: 465
Outgoing SSL: Enabled
Outgoing Host: smtp.dreamhost.com
Username: <full email address>
Authentication: Password or Normal Password
 
Email is working fine now! Changing the outgoing server took about 5 minutes to verify. Our service guy said we might need to reboot the phone and do it again, but it was not needed. All is well! Happy wife!
By |2018-10-23T07:31:25+00:00October 23rd, 2018|Categories: Consumers, Internet, Products|Tags: |Comments Off on How We Fixed a Painful iPhone Email Error: “Cannot Verify Server Identity”

Routine Physical Exams in China

If you work for a large company in China, you may be given a routine physical checkup every year through a local Chinese clinic. I’ve been through several versions of this in my years in China. The process can be a bit overwhelming, but it’s certainly efficient.

In these exams, you and many dozens of other people will be herded from one station to another where a “specialist” will perform there duty. Blood test, urine sample reception, eye exam, ear exam, ultrasound inspection of your heart and neck, cardiograph, magic “qi” measurement with electrodes, blood pressure check, etc. It can go pretty quickly and seems very efficient. However, it’s not exactly perfect.

In my last exam at Ciming Clinic on Hongqiao Road near Yili Road, the ear specialist looked into both ears and said all was well. On to the next station. But in reality I had severe ear wax in both ears that was already causing some hearing loss and soon would be causing ringing in one ear. When I had a real ear doctor look at it, he was amazed at how much wax there was. It took two treatments by a good ear doctor at Shanghai East Hospital to get most of it out, and a third treatment by an excellent German specialist at the Gleneagle Clinic at the Tomorrow Center at People’s Square to finish the extraction. How on earth did the Ciming ear specialist not notice and inform me of the problem? I don’t think he even looked when he stuck the ear probe in my ear.

Others have made similar complaints. Basic things are missed. The process is useful for basic indicators, but don’t assume that all is well if the results are positive, or that some of the problems they point to are real. Some of the tests may be unnecessary or even weird, sometimes apparently trying to justify a strange piece of equipment someone acquired. So see a real doctor afterwards to discuss your results and talk about your health. In the mass production operations, generally nobody will ask you basic questions that should be the beginning of a health exam. Good luck!

By |2018-09-26T16:43:30+00:00September 26th, 2018|Categories: China, Consumers, Health, Shanghai, Surviving|Comments Off on Routine Physical Exams in China

Coping with Suicidal Thoughts in Shanghai? Local English- and Chinese-Speaking Resources Can Help

Foreigners living in China can sometimes feel very isolated, which might make depression or other mental health challenges even worse. It’s important to know that if your or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts or the trauma of someone else’s suicide, there are resources to help. One resource is located right here in Shanghai for English speakers: Lifeline Shanghai (China; English only), phone: (021) 62798990. If calling from outside China, use the country code of +86. For Chinese speakers, a resource is HopeLine: 4001619995 (Chinese speakers; 24/7 toll-free access within China).

According to the Lifeline Shanghai website (http://www.lifeline-shanghai.com/):

Lifeline Shanghai serves the English-speaking community with free, confidential, and anonymous emotional support via telephone 10AM to 10PM, 365 days a year. Our helpline offers an emotional support service that respects everyone’s right to be heard, understood, and cared for. Lifeline Shanghai helpline assistants are ready to listen and support, helping you to gain another perspective and connecting you with other support services as needed. Trained volunteers offer emotional support and assist you to clarify options and choices that are right for you. ​

This service is for those with a wide variety of difficulties, not just suicidal thoughts. Appears to be a valuable addition to Shanghai’s expat resources.

Since many of my friends and some of my readers in Shanghai are part of my LDS religious community (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints),  will also mention the excellent resources and list of external resources provided at the Church’s official page, “Suicide Prevention and Ministering Understanding and Healing from the Pain of Suicide” (https://www.lds.org/get-help/suicide/?lang=eng).

Although Shanghai is a prosperous and wonderful place, the problem of suicide is serious. Suicide rates are painfully high and is even a serious problem among children, perhaps due to the high pressure they face in school. See “Child suicides high in Shanghai” at the Christian Science Monitor (an old 2004 article). But suicide rates have been increasing in many parts of the world, including the US. Rates among young girls have actually tripled in recent years, a terrible development. See “Suicide rate triples among young girls: How can we stem the ‘silent epidemic’?,” also from the Christian Science Monitor.

If someone you know is showing signs of suicidal thoughts, take it seriously and lovingly work to support them and get help. Turning to outside expert help may be vitally important.

By |2018-08-17T17:53:13+00:00August 17th, 2018|Categories: Education, Health, Relationships, Religion, Safety, Shanghai, Society, Surviving|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Coping with Suicidal Thoughts in Shanghai? Local English- and Chinese-Speaking Resources Can Help

A Grieving Mom in Shanghai Learns Her Son May Not Have Pancreatic Cancer After All: Misuse of the CA-19-9 Antigen Test

A few days ago a grieving mom in Shanghai, a good friend of ours, shared some tragic news with me: her teenage son had pancreatic cancer, one of the worst cancers. Her son was likely to die soon, if the doctor was correct. Only about 20% of pancreatic cancer patients live past 5 years. She was almost overcome with grief and had been crying for a couple of days. But even though she had gone to an expensive hospital that caters to foreign clients, she wasn’t sure she should trust the doctor. The mother called me to see if I knew where she could turn for help. She didn’t know that one of my sons happens to be a doctor treating cancer at a leading US clinic.

I received a photo of the lab report for the boy and sent it to my son. The physical results reported that a scan of internal organs showed no unusual problems indicative of cancer. There were no other symptoms, just a slightly elevated CA-19-9 antigen level, 45 instead of a desired maximum of 37.

My son was greatly disappointed that the doctor would create such needless panic by telling the mom that her son probably had pancreatic cancer. My son explained that the CA-19-9 test is not supposed to be used for diagnosing cancer on its own. Absent other symptoms of cancer, its predictive power for cancer is less than 1%, he said, and when he learned that the son was just a teenager, he said it’s even less likely to be pancreatic cancer because that disease is almost unheard of in young people. The mother’s grief was turned to relief.

I later found scientific publications confirming what my son had said. For example, see K. Umashankar et al., “The clinical utility of serum CA 19-9 in the diagnosis, prognosis and management of pancreatic adenocarcinoma: An evidence based appraisal,” Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology, 2012 Jun; 3(2): 105–119; doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2078-6891.2011.021:

CA 19-9 serum levels have a sensitivity and specificity of 79-81% and 82-90% respectively for the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in symptomatic patients; but are not useful as a screening marker because of low positive predictive value (0.5-0.9%).

Other articles indicate that diabetics, such as this young man, can have inflated CA-19-9 values (this applies at least for Type 2 diabetes–I’m not sure if CA-19-9 artifacts from Type 1 diabetes has been investigated), one of many possible alternative causes of elevated CA-19-9 values. Alternative causes for the elevated test result do not appear to have been  considered by the doctor who terrified a mom by declaring that it was probably pancreatic cancer. Again, the test can be useful in tracking the progress of treatment of a known cancer, but should not be used to diagnose cancer in the absence of other evidence, as in this case.




Keep this in mind when you have your physical in China. Don’t panic if a doctor reports that you might have pancreatic cancer based on a blood test result alone. Get a second opinion and understand why that value may be high, but don’t panic. Physical testing here can often include too many unnecessary tests in search of phantom problems that may be listed in your report by people who aren’t necessarily qualified to make such proclamations.

The family still needs to be cautious and follow up on the possible causes of the inflated test result, but it was only slightly elevated unlike the much higher scores that I’ve seen reported in patients who actually do have pancreatic cancer.

I am so grateful that my son was able to help bring peace to a mother who had been crying for a couple of days over the “fake news” she received from a generally good hospital. I suggest that here or anywhere else you should be open to the possibility that some doctors don’t know what they are talking about. And of course, that can apply to what I’ve said here. Do your homework, ask questions, and be cautious about what others declare.

 

By |2018-07-05T22:10:03+00:00June 17th, 2018|Categories: China, Consumers, Education, Health, Safety, Surviving|Tags: , |Comments Off on A Grieving Mom in Shanghai Learns Her Son May Not Have Pancreatic Cancer After All: Misuse of the CA-19-9 Antigen Test

Xiaogang, Anhui: Can You Hear the Roar of Prosperity from China’s Quiet Revolution?





One of the most touching and courageous moments in China’s recent history is depicted in the painting shown here of a secret meeting of farmers in a tiny village that few people have ever seen or heard of. It was the beginning of a quiet revolution, what one might call China’s Second Revolution, whose roar continues to inspire and strengthen this land. These farmers are gathered in a hut in a dark side room free of windows to keep the meeting hidden from spies. As the mostly illiterate farmers touched the red ink pad to sign an illegal contract with their fingerprints, they were putting more than ink onto paper: they were putting their lives on the line. That moment in 1978 marks the birth of a revolution that has changed the world and blessed hundreds of millions in this land. It’s a story rich in basic lessons that the West may need to relearn in order to survive.

Xiaogang Signing

The village is called Xiaogang (pronounced like “Shau Gong”). It’s a tiny dot on the map in Anhui Province about an hour away from the major city of Bengbu, a city most Westerners have never heard of because, of course, it only has the population of Chicago. But Xiaogang Village is really small, I’d guess around a thousand people or less, and that’s counting the outsiders who work here to staff their gargantuan tourist buildings that commemorate the economic revolution that began here. After learning about the dramatic but not frequently shared story, I finally made a pilgrimage in 2017 to what is now a sacred spot.

The story basically is that the village of Xiaogang had been suffering from the effects of the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution, along with some bad weather, perhaps. The old system of that day left people with relatively little incentive to work hard and produce more. They were starving. Whether they worked hard all day or just slept, they would still get inadequate food and risk starvation. Why bother? But they suspected there was a better way. Led by a brave man, the farmers met and agreed to implement a bold new (but actually very ancient) system. The contract they signed agreed to give a portion to the government and then they would get to keep the surplus for themselves. In the article “Xiaogang, Anhui,” Wikipedia describes the Xiaogang miracle this way:

During the Great Leap Forward, Fengyang County, along with much of the rest of the country, experienced a period of famine. A quarter of the county’s population, 90,000 people, died of starvation. In Xiaogang village alone, 67 villagers died of starvation out of a population of 120 between 1958 and 1960.

In December 1978, eighteen of the local farmers, led by Yan (NPR’s name is a typo, there is no YEN in Chinese romanization) Jingchang,[2] met in the largest house in the village. They agreed to break the law at the time by signing a secret agreement to divide the land, local People’s Commune, into family plots. Each plot was to be worked by an individual family who would turn over some of what they grew to the government and the collective whilst at the same time agreeing that they could keep the surplus for themselves. The villagers also agreed that should one of them be caught and sentenced to death that the other villagers would raise their children until they were eighteen years old.[2][3] At the time, the villagers were worried that another famine might strike the village after a particularly bad harvest and more people might die of hunger.

After this secret reform, Xiaogang village produced a harvest that was larger than the previous five years combined.[2] Per capita income in the village increase from 22 yuan to 400 yuan with grain output increasing to 90,000 kg in 1979.[3] This attracted significant attention from surrounding villages and before long the government in Beijing had found out. The villagers were fortunate in that at the time China had just changed leadership after Mao Zedong had died. The new leadership under Deng Xiaoping was looking for ways to reform China’s economy and the discovery of Xiaogang’s innovation was held up as a model to other villages across the country. This led to the abandonment of collectivised farming across China and a large increase in agricultural production. The secret signing of the contract in Xiaogang is widely regarded as the beginning of the period of rapid economic growth and industrialisation that mainland China has experienced in the thirty years since.

This is dramatic stuff, and it’s been recognized by the Chinese government as a key moment in China’s history. Wonderfully, Deng Xiaoping embraced the Xiaogang miracle, which was vital inspiration for the economic reforms he introduced. The timing was just right, and as a result, when local police came knocking on the door of the main farmer behind the conspiracy, it was not to take him to his death as he expected, but to ask for help in expanding their illegal system across many more farms in China. He came away from the police station as hero, not as a criminal, and China awoke to a revolution that continues to roar. Some of you will call that capitalism and an abandonment of Chinese socialism, but over here I think it’s more officially viewed as an important modification in socialism, part of the unique Chinese approach, that overcomes empty “bubble talk” and lack of commitment to work that many faced. However you want to package it, it was a huge step for China. I have seen the burden of poverty in this country and yearn for China’s economic success, and applaud the brave farmers who started the revolution and the policy makers who recognized and learned from their wisdom. What a revolution it has been.

I hope you’ll consider a trek to Xiaogang someday. (I might even join you if you give me advance notice.)

Getting there wasn’t too difficult from Shanghai. It required two or so hours in a high-speed train, often reaching 300 km/hr, to reach Bengbu, and then about an hour in a taxi to reach the village. The town is pretty much just one side road on the main highway. But it has a big arch as you enter, and then a giant tourist center, and then you find that the tourist center is not about the historical event that should make this town famous, but about its current geography, agriculture, climate, etc. Not what IO came for, but nice to have, I suppose.

Only after inquiring did we learn that the place celebrating the key historical event is on an even bigger building about one kilometer down the only side road off the main highway the the town seems to have.

When my wife and I with two other Western friends finally arrived at the primary building about the Xiaogang miracle, I was amazed at how large it was. And what a thrill to finally be there! But where were all the crowds? The place was obviously built with the expectation of big tour groups, but it seemed rather vacant on the Saturday when we showed up. Never mind, I was so excited to finally be here.

As we entered and paid a small fee, it was about 11:50 AM, and the staff informed us that it would be lunch in 10 minutes and we would have to leave until lunch was over at 1:30 PM. Since we had a 3 PM train to Nanjing for additional plans and would need to leave by 2 PM, waiting until 1:30 would be a huge set back. I politely pleaded our case: “We are foreigners who have traveled a long way to see this vitally important site in Chinese history. We have looked forward to this for so long and now are here on a tight schedule. We have to go to Nanjing this afternoon and would not be able to see all the museum if we wait until 1:30. We won’t cause any trouble and don’t need any help. Can we please just stay and look around during your lunch? Please?” No, sorry, we are closed at noon. Come back at 1:30. We didn’t get anywhere with diplomacy, so we rushed in and started looking and shooting photos. A friend suggested we just stay and keep looking. But soon a staff member came to escort us out and right at 12:00 the lights went out. China has made huge progress in customer service attitudes during my six years here, but sometimes there is still room for progress. Tourist sites that close in the middle of a Saturday for lunch (or naps) represent an opportunity for progress, IMHO.

The memorial had some frank information though it was very tactfully presented and balanced with reminders of the positive impact of officials over the years that greatly cheered and motivated the workers.  But repeatedly we can see hints about the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The scene below from the museum is of a landowner being harassed for having taken the “capitalist road.” Those scenes could be very tragic.

During our 10 minute spree through the building, we realized it was just a museum and didn’t look like it housed the site where the economic revolution began. On our way out, though, we asked some more questions. “Oh, you want to see the old hut? It’s just down the street, about 200 meters, and it’s open during lunch.” Ah hah! Glad we didn’t spend all our time in the museum to miss the most important site. There was the hut where it all began, and the side room with the table where the contract was signed. We sat there and put our fingers to the pad and thought of the brave farmers, tired of watching loved ones die of starvation, risking their lives for the right to keep a reasonable chunk of what they produce. Economics 101, but forgotten by too many in our world.

The result of the conspiracy was a sudden boom in prosperity. About a 600% increase! It went viral and lifted one of the poorest parts of China. Farmers rose out of poverty and could afford luxuries like a television, a ceiling fan, and a sewing machine.

The leader of China today, Xi Jinping, paid tribute to Xiaogong with a 2016 visit. Of that moment in history and of those brave farmers, he said this:

“The daring feet that we did at the risk of our lives in those days has become a thunder arousing China’s reform, and a symbol of China’s reform.” 

Whatever you think about the politics of China and the revolution that gave us the nation of China, I think all of us Westerners can embrace and learn from this second revolution of China that has lifted so many of its people and brought so much opportunity and hope. At this time of thanksgiving, the courage of those who brought about the Xiaogang miracle is one of the things that I am grateful for. And how grateful I am that I could visit that site and meet some of the locals of Xiaogang. Sadly, I was the first foreigner they had seen there for months, one worker told me. Wish more of you would come by and experience the spirit of this place.

By |2018-06-17T18:50:26+00:00June 17th, 2018|Categories: Business, China, Politics, Relationships, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , |Comments Off on Xiaogang, Anhui: Can You Hear the Roar of Prosperity from China’s Quiet Revolution?

Finally! Now I Have 4G on My iPhone 6+ Thanks to China Unicom (Goodbye, China Telecom!)

Two days ago the most amazing thing happened. I needed to buy a new SIM card for my Apple iPhone 6+, and when I went looking for a local China Mobile (中国移动) store, I saw a competing China Unicom (中国联通) store closer to my office and decided to give it a try for convenience. When I put the China Unicom SIM card in my iPhone, I was shocked and delighted to see that after all these years of suffering, I finally had 4G service. Wow! That means fast access to the Internet and, for example, all the valuable functions WeChat provides (taxi hailing, payments, bus schedules, social media, even video calls). Life just got better.



One of my few frustrations in China has been the slow data services on my iPhone. When I need to use the Internet and don’t have local WiFi, I’ve been limited to 2G. Folks at the Apple store here explained that my US iPhone was designed for a different cellular network not compatible with China’s network, so there was no hope of 4G service like everyone else seems to have. But they were wrong. The real problem, as explained by a knowledgeable Taiwanese colleague, was that the provider of my former SIM card, China Mobile, operates over a portion of the cellular spectrum that is incompatible with my iPhone. China Unicom, on the other hand, operates over a different portion of the spectrum, making their network more compatible with US phones. The China Unicom employee smiled as she explained what was apparently well known to her: their service gives me 4G, but China Mobile’s service can’t. Wish I had known this a couple years ago! Even after a supposed updated SIM card was installed in my iPhone courtesy of my employer, the service remained 2G.

Why am I changing SIM cards at all? My employer is giving me a new company phone, a Samsung model with high security features (VMWare to track employees and make it harder to steal trade secrets, supposedly) that has 4G, and are giving me a new SIM card with that phone while requiring me to return the old SIM card I have been using in my iPhone. Changing phones is a bit traumatic, but discovering accidentally that I could easily upgrade to 4G just by switching to China Unicom helps make the change more welcome. Thank you, China Unicom!

By |2018-06-17T18:51:44+00:00May 31st, 2018|Categories: China, Consumers, Internet, Products, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , |Comments Off on Finally! Now I Have 4G on My iPhone 6+ Thanks to China Unicom (Goodbye, China Telecom!)

Credit Cards in China: Don’t Rely on Them, and Use Virtual Credit Card Numbers for Security

Many visitors to China are surprised to see that credit cards are not widely accepted. High-end hotels will accept them, certainly, but they might not be accepted at many Chinese hotels. Many restaurants are not able to take Western credit cards. Train tickets, taxis, and numerous other services will refuse them. Simply put, cash is king in China. You really need to have a healthy amount of cash for daily survival. Have a stack of 100 RMB bills and some smaller bills and a few coins.

The first time I used a credit card in China was at a Best Western hotel in Shenzhen, near the Hong Kong border. Within 15 minutes after using the card, a spurious charge was made against that number by someone trying to purchase something in California. Our credit card company called to report the problem and our card had to be inactivated. Big hassle. Not everyone has that problem, but in Asia there are many places where credit card numbers will be swiped. They are easier to swipe than the highly secure ATM cards that are commonly used and accepted in China, cards that require a 6-digit password.

For secure use of a credit card here or anywhere else, a great service offered by some providers is a virtual credit card number. Bank of America, Discover, and Citibank offer this service. With a virtual credit card service such as Bank of America’s ShopSafe system, you can request a one-time or limited time use credit card number with a set maximum amount that can be charged against it. You don’t have to worry about the virtual credit card number being stolen. For example, I just logged into my credit card’s service and requested a virtual credit card number. I specified the amount that could be charged ($30), the date the card would expire (2 months from now), and then received a new card number, CCV code, and expiration date with my name and linked to my credit card. I used this to pay for an annual service that I don’t want to be automatically renewed with a provider who may not have the highest security. I made the payment and don’t have to worry about them charging me over and over or about hackers stealing my card number. It’s worthless now that I’ve made my payment.

Virtual credit card numbers can help you add security to your travels and your online life. You will need online access to your account to create them. You can obtain a variety of numbers for different parts of your trip. It’s a terrific advance in credit card security.

By |2018-04-25T05:57:43+00:00April 25th, 2018|Categories: Business, China, Consumers, Finances, Products, Restaurants, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: |Comments Off on Credit Cards in China: Don’t Rely on Them, and Use Virtual Credit Card Numbers for Security

Expats in China, Be Sure to File Your Tax Report (WeChat Can Help)

The Shanghai City government has sent out notices to employers reminding them to have foreigners who make over 120,000 RMB per year to file a tax report with the government. It’s due March 31. Foreigners typically need the help of HR or someone else to do this. Not a simple process if you haven’t done it before. In Shanghai, you can use the “fabu” site on WeChat (search for and follow 上海发布, which can show up just by searching for “fabu” I think). Enter that site, click on the second icon on the lower left corner (市政大厅), and then you click on the red and white icon at the bottom of the screen in the center (个税查询), which deals with individual taxes. From there, you’ll need to enter your ID, name, create a password, and enter other information including a recent tax payment level. When done, it will give you access to your past tax payments. Please see HR or a competent Chinese friend for the details.

I’m not sure what problems arise if you don’t file this report, but China is a place where you don’t want to ignore laws, especially those that affect how the nation’s detailed computer records view you. This one feeds right into those records, so don’t skip it.

 

 

By |2018-03-28T16:43:21+00:00March 28th, 2018|Categories: China, Finances, Shanghai, Society, Surviving|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Expats in China, Be Sure to File Your Tax Report (WeChat Can Help)

Jimmer, the “Lonely Master,” Might Be Doing Better and Doing More in China than the Deseret News Thinks

In the state of Utah, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News recently carried a touching but slightly downbeat article about China’s most popular basketball player, Jimmer Fredette, the impressive star who once stunned American crowds while playing for Brigham Young University. The article is “Lonely Master: From March Madness to Shanghai, the Unlikely Journey of Jimmer Fredette” by Jesse Hyde, published March 12, 2018. It has a lot of positive things to say about Jimmer and his accomplishments in China, but the general tone of the article is that Jimmer has missed out on his US dreams and thus has settled for something painfully inferior by coming to China, a grim and gritty place. I think there’s another perspective that ought to be considered.

Yes, the CBA is a far weaker competitive field than the NBA, and yes, it is disappointing that his NBA career did not give him the opportunities and satisfaction he sought. But don’t shed too many tears for Jimmer: things might not be as grim as the article implies.

The negative picture painted of China is quite disappointing. It’s a beautiful, exciting place where Jimmer is visible and influential to millions of people in ways that would not be possible in Europe or the US. I have met Jimmer and chatted a few times but don’t know him well nor can I speak for him. But what he is doing here is remarkable and has touched many people. His goodness, his honesty, his humility, and his high standards have also helped him touch people beyond what his athletic skills alone could do. For someone who possibly may have a sense of a mission higher than personal temporal success alone, coming to China brings many opportunities to achieve greater good, while also benefiting from a shorter season and excellent pay. Win/win from my perspective. His presence in China is part of something big, at least in the minds of many of his BYU-related fans here.

One of those fans, a Communist Party official, requested a chance to meet Jimmer last year. I was honored to be part of the little gathering where introductions were made. Jimmer with his characteristic class and humility brought gifts for the Chinese men who had come — framed photos of him as keepsakes. They were thrilled. Before Jimmer showed up, one man in the small group, a business leader in charge of the large complex where we rent some beautiful space to hold LDS services, chattered excitedly about Jimmer and quoted statistics from Jimmer’s games when he was at BYU and in China. Kid in a candy shop when Jimmer arrived. The official had gifts also, a terrific album of Chinese postage stamps. It was a beautiful souvenir for each of the foreigners at this event, which I’m proudly holding in the photo below.

With typical Jimmer class, Jimmer noticed a couple of keenly interested staff members from the little cafe where we met and invited them to get their photos taken also. It was a big day for all of us.

The Deseret News article makes numerous references to the pollution of China and Jimmer’s depressing situation here. The lead paragraph suggests he can’t see much of the skyline in Shanghai due to pollution (yes, we have pollution and some days visibility is noticeably reduced, but we have a lot of beautiful days too and air quality is improving). His apartment is “empty, lonely, a place he just crashes, so devoid of personal effects….” Regarding some reminders of his wife and daughter in his apartment: “Sometimes he needs those reminders. Like when he’s in Shanxi, a gritty industrial city where the gray dust blows from the cement factories and the grime is so thick he could scribble his name on the windows of parked cars.” And when he’s in Shanghai, in spite of the wealth and good food here, “even here, the air carries a slight whiff of chemicals you can almost taste. It’s hard not to want to be somewhere else.”

At this point in reading the article, I wondered if the staff of the Deseret News have ever been in Salt Lake City during the winter months, when the winter inversion traps air in the Salt Lake Valley and leads to painfully high levels of particles, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants? Of if they have ever been near operations of the massive copper mine that scars the Valley? Or drove through Utah County in the days when the Geneva Steel works were cranking out massive whiffs of chemicals into the air? Or if they have lived near a paper mill in the United States? Shanghai air can get smoggy and is typically worse than most places in the US, but apart from an occasional painter using oil-based paint or a vehicle burning too much oil, as in almost any city, noticeable “whiffs of chemicals” are something I generally don’t experience here, unless those chemicals include the cinnamon aromas coming from Shanghai’s amazing Cinnaswirl bakery with world-class cinnamon rolls, or from the intoxicating smells of any of the hundreds of different cuisines available in Shanghai. OK, we do have stinky tofu, which does have a noticeable smell from its unusual natural chemistry — maybe that’s what the writer encountered here. But you can just take a few steps and be free of that.

China has pollution, certainly. There are spots that are gritty or grimy, just as in America. But it’s also one of the most beautiful and exciting places to live, especially Shanghai. For me personally, my respiratory health during my nearly seven years in Shanghai has been much better than it was in the US, where I would often get bronchitis or other issues in winter. Here it’s been great and I’ve almost never had to miss work due to illness. One or two days for an injury, but my health has been terrific. Part of that is from the food, which is high in fresh produce and generally quite healthy.

Come give China a chance. It’s one of the nicest places in the world, in my opinion. Anyplace is grim when you are away from family, but with such a short playing season, we hope that Jimmer can continue to thrive here and increasingly experience the beauty and wonders of China while here.

As a reminder of the surprising beauty and sometimes even miraculous nature of life in Shanghai, here are images of one of Shanghai’s secrets: its impressive angels rising from the ground to watch over this city. May Jimmer continue to be among them.

Finally, here’s a couple views of one of Jimmer’s favorite Shanghai spots.

Shanghai Disney Castle

The Shanghai Disney Castle

 

Cinderella’s Castle.

 

 

By |2018-03-17T07:24:37+00:00March 16th, 2018|Categories: Business, Career, China, Food, Health, Photography, Relationships, Religion, Restaurants, Safety, Shanghai, Society, Surviving|Comments Off on Jimmer, the “Lonely Master,” Might Be Doing Better and Doing More in China than the Deseret News Thinks