A wonderful new tool available through WeChat can help you find when the next bus arrives. Search for “Shanghaifabu”, follow that tool and then run it. Then in the lower left-hand corner, click on the text button to see a lost of tools. The upper left tool is a bus icon. Select it. Then enter the number of your bus line. A corresponding line will show up below. Select it and then click on the search icon. You will see a list of bus stops. If your bus has two directions, there will be two choices at the top for the two directions. When you click on a bus stop in Chinese (not to hard to match with your station, IMHO), it will then show some data, including the number of stops to go before your bus gets there and how many minutes (an estimate) you need to wait. So useful! Here are some screenshots showing the use of the Shanghai Fabu (上海发布) tool.
According to a modern Chinese proverb, a journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single ordeal involving two thousand kilometers of back and forth trips to get approval to travel. At least that’s what the proverb should say to describe my life recently. After five days in a row of endless worrying and numerous trips, I finally found a route and submitted an application that would seem to solve my problems, and today, a little over a week later, I would receive my passport back containing the temporary visa I needed.
Friday morning Sept. 8, I made my fifth trip to the Shanghai Immigration Bureau in Pudong, nearly an hour from my home and office. With the help of two kind officials there and the help of others at my work and elsewhere, I ultimately solved what looked like a disastrous problem with my visa (residence permit) in China. As a result, I will be able to leave China later this month to attend a major international IP conference in Amsterdam that I’m partly in charge of (chairing a day, serving as a keynote speaker, a moderator, and an advisory board member), but throughout the entire week leading up to that Friday, there was reason to worry that I would be a shame-faced no-show at my event.
Along the way, I learned that foreigners needing to attend international meetings can get special help that many experts don’t seem to know about. This help allows them to be able to leave the country and return while using a temporary M visa, which normally would not allow a return entry. Knowing about this option could come in handy for foreigners having trouble getting their work permit and residence visa renewed in time for the meeting they wish to attend.
I also learned that persistence pays off when facing visa challenges. I also learned that officials can be extremely helpful and professional, and even when they seem to be barriers, they may just be doing their duty faithfully and may give you important clues on what to do next, even if it seems like they are closing the door on you. Don’t give up, follow their directions, and you may soon find your problems over.
China has strict but reasonable regulations regarding foreigners in China. Working here requires a visa to get into the country, a work permit, and a then a residence permit (often simply called “visa”) to stay here. In my case, the work permit and residence permit need to be renewed each year, and the rules can change and catch individuals and companies off guard. A key lesson is this: don’t passively rely on your company or outside agency. Pay attention to your visa expiration date. Make sure you will be able to have your work permit renewed well before your visa expiration date because you can’t begin the renewal process for your visa without your work permit, and the work permit may require at least month of time.
So here are the details I faced and the paths I took that eventually resulted in success. My visa was set to expire Sept. 12, 2017. I was also scheduled to travel to Europe on Sept. 25, just after midnight, so it’s really like leaving Saturday, Sept. 24. My work contract was renewed in mid-August, shortly after I returned from vacation in the US, and then the HR department of my employer began an application for a renewed work visa. Near the end of August my work told me they needed my passport for a few days. I discussed my visa expiration with them and also my travel plans, and was told there would be no problem and that I would have my passport back soon. I somehow thought they would be processing both my work permit and my visa at the same time, but that was incorrect.
On Sept. 4, they returned my passport to me, but I could see that the visa issue had not been addressed. So I asked some questions and found that they could not submit my visa renewal request until they had the work permit approved by the government, and they didn’t know when it would come. Would it come by Sept. 12? Because if I don’t turn in a visa application by then, I’ll be illegal and in huge trouble. I was told my work permit could be approved by Sept, 12, but they were not sure. If the work permit did not come by that day, they would have to apply for a temporary M visa, and then later we could apply for the residence permit once we had the work permit. But upon further questions, I learned that applying for an M visa would lock up my passport for a couple of weeks, so starting an M visa on the 12th would not leave time to complete the process and have my regular visa in hand to allow me to leave and return to China.
HR told me that the M visa would allow me to leave the country once, but not return. To return, I would need to go to a Chinese embassy elsewhere and apply for a tourist visa to get back to China. This began to look risky. The city I would be in Europe, Amsterdam, has no embassy or consulate. I could go to another city after my conference, but it would be right before the National Week holiday, and I would expect the consulates to be closed. I also have heard that European Chinese consulates will process documents for Europeans but not Americans. Is that right? I sent an email to the Chinese embassy in Holland. That was about 2 weeks ago – still no response. Given the uncertainties of location, the possibility of complex rules and the likelihood of Chinese embassies everywhere closing down for the national holiday, the idea of getting a tourist visa after leaving China looked far too risky.
On Tuesday morning I had the brilliant idea of relying on my wife’s work to get me a spouse visa. We gathered the numerous documents that might be required and prepared for a rush application. But after contacting her school and my HR department and making additional inquiries, we learned that this route is not possible for an employed spouse and would require that my current company issue a document declaring that I had left work and was not employed. Definitely not a desirable solution. And even doing that in appearance only would destroy my existing and pending work permit and result in months of hassle and delay before getting a new one, if it would even be possible. Forget that.
So our choices became: 1) hope for the best and get the work permit by Sept 12, and then apply for the residence permit, with just enough time to have it by Sept. 22, the last business day before my trip, or 2) assume the worse and begin the M visa application process now. After receiving the M visa, I could immediately seek accelerated processing of the residence permit by paying a 2000 RMB fee (about $300) out of my pocket, and there would be just enough time, if all went well, to get the residence permit before my trip to Europe.
After thoughtfully and prayerfully considering things, my wife and I both felt that we should choose option 2, assume the worst. This would involve a great deal of hassle and some expense, but would reduce overall risk. Of course, if we were wrong about assuming the worse and if, instead, my work permit was approved by Sept. 12, it would be too late to abandon the M visa, and we would be pursuing a path that would waste a lot of time and money and even increase the risk of disaster because any glitches in the process might cause enough delay to overthrow my plans. It would be so nice if we could just get that work permit approved by Sept. 12, and then have time for a normal visa application. But the path of hope felt too dangerous. We choose to assume the worst.
With a cluster of documents in hand, on Wednesday morning, Sept. 7, I began the long trek to the Immigration Bureau in Pudong, about 1 hour by taxi from our home. I was one of the first in line. When it was my turn, I talked to an official behind a window and explained my situation with a meeting in Europe I needed to attend, an expiring visa, a work permit in process, etc. She looked at my documents and said I was missing an operating permit/business license for APP. Could I get that? And then she said there may be a route for me but I needed to first talk to a leader. “A leader? Where?” I asked. “Over there, at windows 6 through 8,” she said. So I went over to a special section where people were waiting to see one of these mysterious “leaders.” While waiting, I called my colleague at work, our IP manager, and he was able to immediately fax a copy of our business license to the fax receiving office at the Immigration Bureau, which I was able to quickly pick up while my place in line was held by my bag and the help of the line attendant. I came back and felt I had all my documents ready and soon it was my turn to talk to a leader.
I spread out my documents and called attention to the printed information about the World IP Summit I was attending in Amsterdam, where I am the chair for day one and also a keynote speaker, panelist, moderator, and board member. This “leader” (as I assumed she was) said since this involved an urgent international meeting, the Immigration Bureau did have a special route that would help me. I could apply for an M visa plus receive a one-time-exit-and-entry pass that would allow me to come back into China. Wow, problem solved!
But the letter my HR department had issued with my documents, the letter describing my problem and need, was wrong. It made no mention of my meeting and needed to be rewritten to request that special exit-and-entry pass in order to attend an international meeting. China did have a solution for such situations, reflecting a wise awareness of the importance of having professionals attend international conferences, exhibitions, etc. Until that moment none of the experienced people I had talked to in APP and outside of APP in my numerous attempts to get help had shown any awareness of such a route. It would prove to be a surprise to all of them. Since it is not well known even among those handling visa issues all the time, I feel it is important that I share this information for those it may help one day.
The kind, helpful “leader” had suddenly filled me with hope and confidence. All I needed was to rush back to the office, get a new introduction letter written and stamped (nothing is official it often seems unless there is a red official stamp on it), and then rush back to the kind “leader” to hand her my documents for approval and smooth sailing.
Back in the office, with the help of our IP manager, I soon had the corporate stamp on a newly drafted letter. The letter requested that the M visa be valid for 2 months from today (30 days is the max, I would later learn) to leave enough time to still process the regular visa after my return on Oct. 7. My colleague also got my more formal stamped copies of our business license and operating permit. And so, back I went to the Immigration Bureau, happy and confident with the end in sight at last.
On my way, I would be joined by Paganini, a Chinese artist who sometimes is an extra Chinese teacher whom I pay for occasional help with translation or bring along when I might need a native speaker. He had called asking if we could meet today, and instead of putting him off, I felt he could help with the final touches of the visa process, and so invited him to come along with me to the Immigration Bureau. He would spend the whole exhausting afternoon with me.
I got right back in the same line to see the “leaders” and soon had my chance to go over to the kind woman who had given me such hope. She recognized me and then seemed to scowl – what? just my imagination? – and in a curt motion pointed to the empty window next to her and told me to sit there and wait. Huh? Something had changed, I feared. What’s going on? After a few minutes an officer in a police uniform came over and began the discussion. “What do you want?” I sensed something was wrong already. Had my case been discussed and found wanting? Maybe it’s just the endless stream of clueless foreigners that takes its toll on the hard-working, very professional police staff who work there, I don’t know, or perhaps my sense of relief and confidence from the morning was annoyingly present. And really, it must be a pain to deal with cocky foreigners who don’t follow the rules and get into visa trouble all the time and expect special exceptions for them. My problem was my fault, ultimately, though also caused by some mistakes in my company. And yes, I was looking for special help.
I explained that I had a meeting in Europe and was chairing part of it and …. She asked me to quit talking so much and instead got right into some key issues. First, “Who told you could get a pass to come back into China?” Then came my biggest mistake, I think. “A leader.” “A leader? Who?” “Yes, the leader next to us.” “No, she’s not a leader. I’m the leader. She’s my employee.” Oops. I had assumed that everyone working at windows 6 through 8 were the “leaders” and did not recognize that there was just one actual leader. Perhaps it didn’t matter to her really and she was just clarifying things for me, but I felt I had done something very stupid. This was the appropriate time to break out into a vigorous and humbling sweat, abandoning all hope as the glorious light at the end of the tunnel was replaced with a massive locomotive of doom coming straight at me. She glanced at my documents and said, “Where is your work permit?” “Why don’t you have it?” When was it applied for?” “Why don’t you know?” At this point I saw nothing but doom, but she was actually just being professional, direct, and helping me understand what was missing. In fact, her guidance would prove to be essential. But in my mental state, I just heard this message: “Abandon hope. You aren’t going to Europe. All the money you’ve spent for tickets and hotels, all the arrangements you’ve made, all the work you’ve done for the IP conference, will all be wasted.”
I pointed to the printouts HR had given me from the work visa submission portal, but these were not helpful because they were unofficial and lacked a red stamp. My friend, Paganini, jumped in and tried to help explain things. She asked who he was and told him to not interrupt. She began speaking rapidly with some kind of directions. I apologized that my Chinese was not very good and asked if she could she please speak more slowly. Instead, she switched to English, rather good English, which caught me by surprise. But it was hard to hear clearly, especially in my panicked mental state, in a noisy environment, as she spoke from behind a glass window. She told me that I needed to go to the Label Department. The Label Department? Yes, and then I can get a label stamp. A label stamp? Yes, the label stamp. I didn’t dare ask too many questions, and was desperately hoping that our HR people might know what a “label stamp” was.
“Excuse me, could you tell me where to go to get the label stamp?” She handed me a sheet of paper with many offices listed and circled one. Bingo, a ray of hope. Perhaps I could go there, get the label stamp on my printout or something, and maybe come back and try again? But, she warned, my request seemed unreasonable and at best she might give me a pass for a few days but not for such a long period of time (the revised letter from my work asked for two months, which was way too long). Alas, no hope, I thought. But in reality she had been quite helpful. But I was tired and frustrated and ready to give up. So off I went, dripping in sweat and consternation. I must have looked even more ridiculous than when I started.
It would be about three hours later, after Paganini and I had faced further disappointment, that I finally understood what I should have understood immediately. The stamp we needed was not a label stamp from the label department – I heard her incorrectly (her English was excellent) – but a stamp from the Labor Office that handles work permits. A labor stamp! One mystery solved. That recognition came after we had already gone to the office she had circled for us to visit. It was the Jingan District labor bureau and after waiting there about an hour, we finally talked to a very kind, smiling officer – everyone there seemed friendly and service oriented, such a delightful place that filled me with the hope of getting some help. This smiling officer looked at my printout and said it looks like my work visa was being handled by the Hankou District labor bureau, not this office. Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. Sigh! Jingan was the logical office since our HQ was established there, but for some odd reason our HR group long ago must have arranged for work visas to go through Hankou.
The Jingan officer kindly wrote down the address of the Hankou office that we would immediately rush to: 123 Zhongshan North Road, or so I thought. So both of us thought. It took 3 tries for a taxi to be willing to take us there (the first two rejected us because we only had an address, not a cross street). The third used GPS and took us on the long journey to what suddenly looked like the wrong place. No sign of a government office there. The cabbie then looked at out little slip of paper and noticed two overlooked tiny little marks that turned the address into 1230 Zhongshan North First Road, a place still quite far away. By the time we got there, just minutes after 4:30 PM, the labor office was closing, which was a shock since the Jingan office we came from was opened until 6 PM, so I thought there would be plenty of time. Missed it by minutes. A loss. But there was probably no hope anyway.
The leader at the Pudong bureau seemed to have put us back to option 1, hope for the best and pray that we get the work visa by Sept. 12. I was sick of wasting so much time on this fruitless chase. Three days had been ruined. Tomorrow I would get back to my innovation conference and do something more productive for my company than chase after an elusive visa.
One of the many blessings along this path, a painful path in which every step helped and ultimately blessed me to get what I needed, was that the innovation conference was particularly poor, at least in terms of my needs on that Thursday morning. It’s one that I had spoken at previously and now had a free ticket as a former speaker. While the lineup looked great, there was something about the setting and the audience that hinted of low energy right away, and then the first two speakers I heard disappointed me. I wasn’t getting anything out of this event and was feeling more and more antsy, feeling that I was wasting my time here and actually began feeling that it was time to get back to my visa process, that I couldn’t stop yet and couldn’t give up on my plans or fall into the “hope for the best” option. Go!
So as a speaker was fumbling around trying to help the conference organizer find her PPT slides on her jump drive, I just walked out quietly and decided to go the Hankou labor office again. I reasoned that if I could just get their help to ensure my work permit is approved by Sept. 12, my problem would be solved. I’d go there for a few minutes and then go back to the innovation conference in an hour or so. But I would never return.
The Hankou labor office staff member was very friendly and kind, but told me that they could do nothing to accelerate the process, and that it might not be ready by Sept. 12. Sigh! Could I get a stamp on my printout from their website to answer questions for the police woman at the Immigration Bureau? No, they couldn’t do that, but there was a stamped document they had already given my work that I should go get. I called HR and they said the document I needed was with our visa service firm that handled visa work, and their office was just around the corner from the labor office where I was. So I went there and surprisingly was able to get help right away from a man who is normally quite busy. He produced the stamped labor document for me, giving me the original and a copy, and also was the first one to give me detailed answers to my questions. He explained that the safest route probably was to get the M visa. If I applied for it that day, there would be time to get my M visa and then, with an accelerated residence visa process, just barely enough time, not a day to spare, to pick up my visa and passport on the last business day before my trip.
Time was of the essence, though, so off I ran once again to the Immigration Bureau. I got there during their lunch and had to wait an hour before processing began. I took a number for the regular service windows, but seeing that there were about 40 people ahead of me, figured I would have time to first go through the special line to see the “leaders,” where I decided to risk talking to the police woman again and apologize profusely for my stupid mistakes and ask for mercy. I was soon invited to the dreadful window where my hopes had been dashed yesterday, but this time it was a different leader, a man in a police uniform. I humbly sat down and tersely explained my situation, handing him the letter. He asked to see information about my meeting and proof of the tickets I had bought, and then he said, “What you need is an M visa with a one-time in-and-out pass to attend an international meeting. Here, I’ll sign a note to that effect for you on your M Visa application form. Your pass will be good up to the day you return, Oct. 7.” Boom. In seconds, my dashed hopes were restored. He sent me back to the regular processing area where I was already queued in the system. Wonderful! Could it be so easy after all?
As I went back to the regular waiting area, I had another moment of panic. I was suddenly missing the passport photos that I had printed and had in a clear plastic bag inside a larger for safekeeping. I had them moments earlier and would need them now. I traced the few steps I had taken, looked under chairs, talked to a maid, talked to the line attendant, looked around the window where I had just been seated, checked my belongings again – they were truly gone and I never figured out what happened to them. In about 10 meters of walking I had lost them. Now what? It looked like I still had about 5 minutes before my number came up. I remembered that you could get passport photos taken on the ground floor, two stories below, so dashed down the escalator, ran over to the photo area, was amazed that there was no line to wait in, and immediately had a photographer taking my photos. I paid for them and then they were printed, and I dashed back up the escalator. When I arrived, my number was listed. Window A10 was open and waiting for me. Seconds later I would have lost my place and would have had to start over with a long queue.
She examined all my documents and the signed note from the leader. She said she could give me a 30-day M visa that would expire on Oct. 7. I recalled that my airplane was scheduled to arrive t 11:15 PM on Oct. 7. If it was a little late, it would be Oct. 8 when I reached customs. That would be a problem. What could I do? She said I could come back the next day, Sept. 8, and get a visa that would expire Oct. 8, giving me some extra cushion. But I was so sick of all the time I had spent already that I just wanted to hope that the place would be on time and that all would be well. I told her to process it today. OK, and she gave me a printed receipt for my M visa, including the electronic photo I had just taken (it was probably for the best to have the convenience electronic photo in their system) and folded up all my papers and passport and put them in a stack somewhere.
Off I went, relieved to be finished – and then I began to worry that I had made a terrible mistake. Even if the plane was on time, it would be hard to get to customs before midnight. Lines could be huge and slow. And it could take a long time to deplane. What was I thinking? Gave it a bit of thought and prayer and realized that of course, yes, I needed to change. So I turned around and went back to the same woman and apologized. “I’d like to start this tomorrow if possible.” She was OK with that and handed my back my materials.
Friday morning I was back and the same woman who was familiar with my situation and had examined my materials took them again, reprocessed my M visa application, and moments later handed my new receipt. My passport would be ready Sept. 19, today, and I would indeed receive it with a beautiful M visa that expires on Oct. 8, with a one-time entry pass and a note that I get another 30 days once I enter China again. Whew! Problem solved.
The part about restarting the clock with another 30 days was something I didn’t understand at first. In fact, after turning my materials in on Sept. 8, I was halfway to work again when I began to worry again. I would come back Oct. 7, my visa would expire Oct. 8, a Sunday, and then I would be illegal on Monday, Oct. 9, before I would have time to apply for a residence permit. What to do? So I turned around and went back to the Immigration Bureau for my 5th time and asked the same woman this question, who kindly explained that I would get another 30 days upon re-entering China. Nice!
So many frustrations and problems, but the problems were solved as helpful officials explained a route that I didn’t know existed. But next year, I’ll be careful to avoid travel plans that might run unto these kind of trouble near visa renewal time, and I will take more initiative to make sure my work visa is being renewed well before my visa expires so there is enough time to be sure of getting it back first. Don’t want to go through these experiences again! But am grateful I did. I feel like I learned a lot about China in the process, and feel so grateful that everything I needed was provided in the end, just in time.
I also was reminded that even when things go wrong and disaster seems to be looming, positive steps to take can be found through prayer. The whole journey of this process was the result of many small blessings that ended up teaching me many things, some of which may be beneficial to others later. Don’t give up prematurely and never give up on prayer in dealing with all your challenges.
Finally, as I waited for my passport to be processed, the final lurking question was when would my work visa be approved? If it was approved on July 12 by about 3 pm, then this whole tedious process would have been unnecessary. I could have just waited patiently, got the approval, and then submitted my normal residency permit application that day. Had I wasted a week of effort for naught?
My work visa was finally approved on Sept. 13, one day too late for the optimistic approach. The effort was needed after all. In fact, my personal, time-consuming effort was needed because had I relied on others to process this, the ideal route would not have been discovered. Plus had I tried to rely on our outside agency, the delays that would introduce would probably have resulted in further trouble and ultimately left me having to cancel the trip.
“Surviving China” requires paying attention to contracts and promises. My experience coming here has been generally positive, but I encounter lots of horror stories among other foreigners. Foreigners recruited to work in China will sometimes be promised the moon, but when they show up and are asked to sign the final contract, it may only refer to a mid-sized asteroid. “Oh, those extra items have to be off-record. We aren’t allowed to put the non-standard things in a contract — this would cause trouble with the authorities or violate regulations. We have to keep that as a private matter between you and us.” But if it’s not in writing, it’s not there. At this point most foreigners buckle and sign the contract, hoping that whatever they were promised will be delivered later, often after the person who made the promise has left the company or been transferred to another area, and the person you have to work with tells you, “What? We don’t have such a policy. Where did you get that idea? No, we can’t do that, it’s against regulations.”
Rather than buckle, as most foreigners do, or walk away and lose the job, one thing you can do is simply amend the contract with a few sentences somewhere to preserve what you were promised. It helps if the items you were promised have been confirmed in an email that you have printed out. So BEFORE you come to China, make sure that every important promise to you has been confirmed in an email. HR won’t put their offer in writing usually, but you can summarize the key items of the verbal offer in an email and ask them to confirm if you have understood correctly.
If they won’t stand by the details of the offer, find out what they will stand by because that’s probably what you will get in the end. Only trust what is in writing before you come to China. When you have proof that important items were in your offer, you can insert whatever is missing back into your contract and initial it, and if needed attach a copy of the proof too coax the company into accepting your revision if they hesitate. Insist on having whatever really matters to you in writing because otherwise it may vaporize. Even having it in writing might eliminate trouble, but it gives you a much stronger position.
A friend of mine was promised a title and pay level equal to or better than his previous job, but when he showed up the contract had both pay and title lower. He didn’t realize that the title and rank was lower in the APP hierarchy than he thought until after he signed, and when he went to get that corrected, he was told it was too late and would require a double promotion (two levels) to fix, which is contrary to corporate policy. The person he had worked with, of course, was gone.
One friend had been promised an educational stipend to help pay for his child’s tuition, but two years later when his child was old enough to begin school and the ridiculously high cost of kindergarten in Shanghai looked like it was outside his budget, he went to HR to claim his educational stipend, but HR told him that they had never heard of such a thing. The person who promised him that chunk of the moon was no longer with the company, of course. This is one of the benefits of high turnover in HR. On the other hand, perhaps its the reason for the high turnover: people make promises without authorization, collect their bonus for recruiting someone, and then move on before they have to face painful consequences. You need to be prepared for that and take steps to protect yourself, including modifying contracts as needed.
I have been handed a renewed contract and was told it was exactly the same as what I signed before, but fortunately I read it carefully and found out that important changes I had required in the past were not incorporated in the new contract, and needed to be manually added. Don’t ever just sign something because it is supposedly the same as what you have signed before. Scrutinize. Good faith mistakes happen all the time. But they are often not going to be in your favor. Pay attention!
It also helps to know what risks to worry about and what questions to ask before you come here. Toward that end, it’s valuable to talk with a foreigner who has worked for the company you are joining. They can tell you their own stories and griefs and give you tools for negotiating properly. Sometimes there are surprise rules and requirements, like having to work on weekends, that can really cause a lot of trouble if you don’t know they are there. If you know the risk, you can negotiate to avoid it. But you have to ask the right questions in the first place. Be informed. Talk to people. Network. Learn all you can before you pack up and move to the other side of the world.
For most of us, the experience of working here is wonderful and rewarding. Prepare properly, then come join us!
In China, it is increasingly important that you use an app like Didi Da Che to order a taxi. Many times you can see dozens of empty cans, often with the green “unoccupied” light on, drive right past you as they go to pick up a customer who has called for them via an app. At busy times or in bad weather, it can feel like you are never going to get a cab by waving one down even though it looks like there are hundreds. The Didi app or the WeChat version under “order a taxi” (Wallet > Order Taxi) lets you both order and pay for the cab. But since you can also pay for the ride in cash, there is sometimes a danger that the driver will take cash and also bill you via the app. This is most likely when you use your app to get a cab for a friend or guest.
Before your friend gets in the can, make sure your plans are clear. Are you paying or is your friend? Be sure to have a way to reach your friend to confirm that the plan was followed. If you paid via your phone, make sure your friend doesn’t also pay with cash.
This happened to me recently as my wife and I sent a college student home to a distant location in Shanghai. I explained that I was paying, and the phone app charge me for about 300 RMB. But when I saw her a week later, I learned that she had been asked to pay cash, 300 RMB again. Nice score for the cabbie!
Here’s what to do. You will need a photo of the cash receipt and also screen shots to show that you paid cash. You can then call the customer service number for the cab company printed on cab receipts, and explain the double billing problem. They won’t speak English, so have a Chinese speaker help you if you don’t speak Chinese. They will probably say that this is just a rare good faith mistake, but they should refund your money. It will take a week or so, but you can get a refund. This worked for me.
Anytime you are using an app to send someone else on a cab ride, make sure you let the person know that you or they are paying, and have them call you if there is any question or surprise. Be wary!
Airlines in Asia: Thoughts on Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia, China Southern and China Eastern Airlines
On recent trips to Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Europe, and other spots, I’ve had some interesting experiences on various Asian airlines. Here are some thoughts and travel tips based on this experience.
First, I’m delighted with Malaysia Airlines. After their disasters a few years ago, they have clearly taken remarkable steps to rebuild their reputation and attract customers. If Malaysian Airlines is going your way, you may find low prices, good planes and helpful staff, with some of the best customer service I’ve seen. This week I had to fly from Shanghai to Jakarta. Malaysia Airlines offered surprisingly inexpensive round trip ticket (2400 RMB, about $350) with a stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I called customer service to make seat assignments. For major US airlines like United and Delta, this is a painful experience because you are likely to wait 30 to 50 minutes to reach anybody, and sometimes it takes over an hour. I called Malaysia Airlines twice, and in both cases I was able to reach an English speaking agent within about 2 minutes or less. Astonishing. And unlike China Eastern or several other airlines in China, I didn’t get some spiel about how you can only make seat assignment more than 3 days before the flight or only on the day of the flight or some other annoying story, Malaysia Airlines simply helped me on the spot. In fact, they explained to me that I could also check in right then and print out a boarding pass. This was wonderful because with my printed boarding pass, I did not need to wait in line to get my ticket (if you want to check baggage, you’ll need to queue) and could go straight to security. So nice.
Air Asia, also based out of Malaysia, is on the other end of the spectrum for customer service. It is very difficult to find a phone number to call (I don’t think it is listed on their website). When we did find a number, it took a long time to reach anyone and in the end they were not helpful. Their system wants you to do everything online, but this requires being a registered user with your ticket linked to your account. Because we had bought our tickets through OneTravel.com, we could not link our tickets to our account and their customer service agents could do nothing to overcome this bureaucratic snafu. Further, because of that problem, their system would not send us email to notify us of changes in the flight. They supposedly emailed OneTravel, but OneTravel knew nothing about this. This became a near disaster, for our flights from Shanghai to Krabi, Thailand (via Kuala Lumpur) that we bought in August 2016 for the end of January 2017 were moved to 12 hours EARLIER than what our booking confirmation showed. EARLIER. And they didn’t bother to contact us to let us know.
Fortunately, we had friends on the same flight who were notified of the change and these friends let us know. If it weren’t for them, we would have showed up at the airport only to learn that our flight have left the night before. And I bet the airline would have washed their hands of that and said it was our fault.
When we reached customer service to ask why they had not let us know, they had no good answer. Claiming they had sent another company an email does not explain why they didn’t try to reach us directly. How is a customer supposed to know? Don’t book a ticket on Air Asia unless you do it directly on their website. Going through a third-party will cause trouble for their antiquated computer system.
Air Asia had the worst seats I’ve seen in terms of leg space. I literally could not fit into my seat. Fortunately, a helpful crew member found another seat for me with an empty seat next to it so I had a place to put my legs. But if you are over 6 feet tall, I suggest avoiding Air Asia. The airline does has great food on their flight that you can order for a price, but unless you want to pick one of two default items, you should place your order online at least 24 hours before. Great food, actually, but that does not compensate for the other problems.
Chinese airlines such as China Eastern and China Southern are generally quite good, but calling service for help might be a bit frustrating at times. Make sure you know their policies on how to get seat assignments before you book with them. More details to follow.
Milk has been a problem for many people in China. Trust of Chinese dairies has been low after some past disasters. Large milk powder companies struggle tend to import the milk they use because of quality control problem among the numerous small dairies that provide milk to large providers. Foreigners who like to use milk tend to buy ultra-high-temperature (UHT) treated milk that does not require refrigeration until it is opened, but the flavor tends to be poor from the heat treatment and nutritional value may be lowered as well.
After struggling with various brands of UHT milk and shying away from Chinese dairies for fresh milk, I finally found a brand of fresh that impresses me: Asahi milk. This is a Japanese company using good Japanese dairy methods on their Chinese dairy. The flavor of the milk is better than anything I remember in the US and tastes like fresh milk I enjoyed in Switzerland long ago. Really delicious. A liter will cost slightly over 20 RMB, about the same price for good quality UHT cartons of milk. But so fresh and delicious. Also, I think, safe and consistent in quality.
I’ve noticed that beef sold in small shops in China is often a bright red color as if very fresh, maybe too fresh. It may have been sitting out for hours or days, and it is still that bright red color, never turning brown as regular beef does. We were buying beef from a local market for quite a while before it hit me that there was something odd about the color. It never turned brown until you cooked it. Finally it hit me that this beef has been treated in some way, probably with sodium nitrite or other chemicals that prevent the normal browning that occurs when beef oxidizes over time.
Some people worry that nitrites might cause cancer, especially when present in meet that is grilled or cooked at high temperature. Whether nitrites are carcinogenic or not, I don’t want chemicals being added to my beef to disguise its age and let old beef look fresh. This might be a good topic for further investigation because I don’t know for sure what is being added and who is doing the treatments, or of they are safe or not. But in the absence of assuring data, the strange absence of browning in some of the been being sold here has given me one more thing to worry about when it comes to meat in China.
Eat meat sparingly. Make sure it’s fresh and from a trustworthy source. Pork and chicken, which are sold in large quantities with high turnover, may be freshest and safest, in my opinion.
Travel Tip: Don’t Fly to China Without Knowing the Trouble with Chinese Taxis (Have Your Destination Printed in Chinese)
We recently met a college student in the Pudong Airport of Shanghai as we were waiting to get through customs. We learned that her university, a famous US school with a campus in Shanghai, had only given her the English address and directions for her living quarters. Clearly, the university was unaware of the primary problem with Chinese taxis: the cabbies don’t speak or read English.
In fact, most cabbies won’t even recognize many prominent place names such as the Marriott Hotel because the Chinese name doesn’t sound anything like the English name. Marriott Hotel, for example, is know as the “wan hao jiu dian” in Chinese. No relationship to Marriott. So you can’t just hop in a taxi and say “Marriott.” Further, if you have a street name transliterated into Pinyin (the dominant system for transliterating Chinese into the Roman alphabet), giving a street name and number is usually not sufficient. Not all cabbies have a GPS system so they require cross streets rather than numbers to find a place.
Fortunately, we were able to write the address down for her in Chinese, including the cross street and the other street the cabbie would need to reach the entrance of the dormitories for this student’s study abroad experience, but there must be many others who face trouble right after landing as they learn that they directions they have aren’t useful. Further, as this student discovered, foreign cell phones may not work here even though the provider claims to provide international service. This student couldn’t call for help because her phone with its nice international plan wasn’t working at all. You may need a new Chinese SIM card. You may be able to buy them at the airport. At least on the night of our return, there was a SIM card vendor at a table just after passing through customs and the baggage claim area.
Before you fly to China, make sure you have the Chinese address for your destination. Also have some Chinese currency or get some from an ATM (best) or currency exchange window so you can pay for your cab fare. From the Pudong Airport to downtown Shanghai, you’ll want at least 150 RMB. To go to the Hongqiao area where we are, you will generally need over 200 RMB (about US$30).
After a frustrating but still quite fun first experience at Shanghai Disney during their pre-opening test days, I was worried that Disney lines in Shanghai would always be too long for most customers. I am happy to report that our second experience on a beautiful winter Saturday, December 10, was much better. This time was clearly my best Disney experience ever. I’ve been to Disney resorts in Anaheim and Orlando more than once for each, and while Shanghai is smaller, this was the most fun I’ve had.
Why was my visit on Dec. 10, 2016 so much better than my visit earlier this year? First, lines were much better than before, partly because there were more rides open and perhaps because the thrill of a new Disney resort had worn off, so crowds, while healthy, were not overwhelming. Many good rides had lines only 30 minutes long. One hour was the longest we waited for anything all day.
For peak times and peak rides, this time we also had the benefit of a good mix of fast passes that gave us rapid access. Plus this time we used the outstanding Shanghai Disney app that shows wait times for rides to help with planning and provides a live map to show you where you are and where to go. Also in our favor, essentially all the rides were operating whereas many were closed during the pre-opening period, so there were more events to spread out the crowds.
Another plus was that we didn’t lose over an hour wading fighting chaos as the giant dining hall near Tron that still hadn’t figured out how to manage their food system, but instead went to better places like Barbossa and Remi’s Patisserie to eat much faster and with better quality food. Further, this time we got an earlier start, arriving right at 9:00 AM when the resort opens, and we also didn’t have to leave early to catch a dinner event as we did our first time. Overall, a longer, more efficient, and much more fun day. Bottom line: use the app, use fast passes, arrive early, and visit your top picks early in the day when lines are short. They may also be short after 6 PM when lots of Shanghai folks focus on eating.
On our first visit, we tried to do the Tron ride but were thwarted by wait times of over 4 hours (!). Even when kind employees there had pity on us and helped us get fast passes, we were thwarted again by a mechanical problem that shut the ride down right as we entered. That mechanical problem turned out to be a new employee leaving a door open that triggered a safety alarm that shut down the ride until engineers could pinpoint the problem. No mechanical failure, just a silly human error. Today Tron was flawless and we rode it 3 times! We did it twice in a row in the morning, and later in the evening around 7 pm the wait time was low.
Favorite rides were Tron, Soaring, and Pirates, and we even liked the interactive fun of Buzz Lightyear. Wonderful, beautiful resort. Thank you, Disney!
On my way to work each day, I usually walk or ride my bike, but on a rainy night recently, I tried taking a bus. The journey ended up taking longer than just walking. Part of the problem was a busy road (Gubei Road near Gubei’s elegant pedestrian street) was partly blocked by a traffic accident. As the bus drove by the scene, I saw a car and a little motorcycle-powered three-wheeled rig for a restaurant delivery service. There was a woman pacing next to the car talking to someone on a cell phone. And then I saw two feet pointed upwards on the ground. A man was lying on the asphalt near the car that had struck his little vehicle. Cars were passing near him. It was raining on him. Nobody seemed to be looking after the victim, with hundreds of cars steadily moving on both sides. Why was nobody helping?
It seemed beyond my ability to do anything about it, but I got off at the next stop and thought I should at least walk back to the accident site and see if things were OK. I debated internally as I pondered all the things I needed to do and the shear improbability of making a difference because things were probably under control by then. But I felt drawn and so I went back. As I approached the scene, I was relieved to see two police officers had shown up. Things were under control. Still, I crossed the street near them to get a peak at the victim, whom I assumed would now be receiving some kind of help. He was still lying in the same place, rain falling on him, with no protection. Then I realized that, perhaps for the first time ever, I had two umbrellas with me that day. I had grabbed one when I went to work, forgetting that I already had one in the bag I carry. I had two, and since the officers didn’t seem to have any, I could offer them one to help them at least keep the victim dry until an ambulance showed up.
The officer I spoke to recognized that an umbrella would be useful, but he was busy directing traffic and said if I wanted to, I could hold it for the victim. Well, OK, the ambulance would be here any minute and so sure, I could help out a bit. I recognized that people passing by might think that I had been the driver of the vehicle that struck the man, but hoped that I would be doing more good than harm by being the volunteer umbrella holder. The woman driver who had been standing around doing nothing said something like, “Oh, right, good idea” when I started trying to protect the victim. But she didn’t offer to take over that role. I was disappointed that the driver didn’t seem very worried about the delivery man she had struck. He was about 50 years old and had a lot to say about the allegedly reckless driver who struck him while he was driving properly and carefully. Proper driving isn’t all that common here, so I can’t judge who was at fault. He worked for one of Shanghai’s best and healthiest restaurants, Element Fresh, which I would learn provides good health care coverage for their employees.
The man was in pain but it didn’t appear critical, but I was worried about the possibility of internal bleeding and wanted the ambulance to get there ASAP. After about 10 minutes I asked if ambulance was coming. “Yes, I called for one.” After about 20 minutes I asked again and she then said that the ambulance service she called had said all the ambulances were busy and that they would call her when one became free. Huh? I talked to the police and suggested that we should give up on this no-show ambulance and take him to the hospital in a taxi. There were taxis coming by all the time. Why not use one of them?
The police reminded me that moving the man could be dangerous. By then, though, the man was sick of lying on the road and said he was going to sit up, and would we help him. So the police helped him to sit up. And then he said that this was a bad place to be waiting and that he wanted to talk over to the curb where it would be safer and more comfortable, and could we please help him walk over there? So the police helped him as I held my two umbrellas above us, and continued holding both for the man and me as we waited. And waited. I again raised the possibility of a taxi. After about 40 minutes of waiting, the police saw that as a good idea and agreed. So I waved down a taxi and wondered if I would be needed to take the man to the hospital, but was relieved to see that the police arranged for the woman to take the man there and that I would not be needed.
The ambulance never came. A poor man struck by a car laid on the road for perhaps an hour or so waiting for am ambulance that never came. A Taiwanese friend of mine later suggested that the woman may have lied and never called the ambulance because in China it is the person who calls the ambulance that pays for it. Perhaps. But later another friend at lunch shared an even more painful story of a stroke victim he was helping in Shanghai, where it took an hour to get an ambulance and then when they came, the team had rough street people who moved the victim like one moves a bag of potatoes. In any case, in this, one of the most advanced and modern cities in the world, when you need it, the ambulance might not come for a very long time. This is a problem that can happen anywhere, especially in times of crisis, not just in rush hour.
By the way, I was able to reach the man later to check up on him. He’s doing well and is taking a month off from work to recover from the injury to his side. No surgery needed. He was quite upbeat. Element Fresh provides good health care benefits it seems and the responsible driver paid for the medical care. I also was impressed that the leaders at the Element Fresh restaurant at Yili Road/Yanan Road were aware of the man’s situation and care about him and helped me contact him to check on his status. To thank Element Fresh (and more selfishly, to enjoy delicious, healthy dining), my wife and I dined there last night and had a wonderful meal.
More and more, it seems that we need to be increasingly prepared to take care of ourselves and reduce our dependency on others. When it comes to health, we need to be doing more to reduce our future reliance on services that might not be there or whose quality might be far below what we need. Now is the time to exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, eat wisely with plenty of plants in our diet, and to reduce behaviors that put us at risk.
In China, by the way, preparedness also means carrying cash or an ATM card with you so you can pay for medical services. You often won’t be treated until you or somebody pays first.
Another health care tip is to beware surgeons pushing for surgery when it might not be needed.
A couple years ago I had a near-miss with a bad surgeon at a good hospital here who was going to “fix” a knee problem (he said he would repair my meniscus), but after I had checked in for the surgery, a comment from one of the staff about “removing the meniscus” raised my suspicions and I decided to just get up and walk away. I’ve been walking ever since. Had I succumbed to the recommended surgery, I think my mobility might have been impaired.
After I walked away, I called a physical therapist I knew for a second opinion. He said the way to check to see if I really needed surgery would be to go to another reputable hospital and meet with a surgeon there and show them my MRI scan, but tell them that if I needed surgery, I would not do it there so they would have no profit motive to sell their surgery to me. Surgery is the solution for everything in China, he explained, because that’s where the profit is. Something like 70% of all babies born are delivered with C-section. And I suppose a lot of knees get repaired unnecessarily as well.
I took a taxi to another hospital and minutes later was meeting with a surgeon. He checked my knee, looked at the MRI, and said this was not a case where surgery was needed. “Try physical therapy.” I went to that physical therapist and after the first treatment, my problem was significantly reduced, and ten treatments later, I was pretty much back to normal. There is a damaged meniscus, but better damaged one than none at all. I came so close to reducing my long-term mobility, and I remain grateful every day that I can walk or ride. It’s exhilarating to move and to be independent. I will greatly miss this freedom when it is gone or limited someday. But for now, my mobility is one of my most cherished gifts, and I recognize it all the more as a gift since that near miss, and from some accidents that could easily have given me a broken bone or worse, where I am just so grateful to have been able to walk away.
Our health is so precious, and it is up to us to protect it. With the strains on the healthcare system and the increasing difficulty of paying for medical insurance, coupled with the decreasing quality of coverage in many places, it is imperative that we do more to preserve our health and to be able to cope with our problems on our own or with our own resources. We can’t always assume that the help we expect to get will be available. And when we do get it, even from good doctors at good clinics, things can go wrong. Prevention must be our first line of defense. Being prepared to render first aid and take care of basic problems is also vital. For more serious things, doing our own research so we understand the issues can make us less dependent on one person’s opinion and can often increase our ability to guide outcomes in the right direction.
Turkey for American Thanksgiving in Shanghai: Consider Carrefour (But First Consider Duck and Chicken Instead)
Americans in Shanghai naturally want to celebrate Thanksgiving with some traditional foods, and that means turkey–a rarity in China. It just isn’t popular with the locals and that means there aren’t a lot of turkey producers. This keeps the price high. People pay about 700 RMB or more (roughly $100) for a turkey weighing around 12-15 pounds. Ouch! It would be OK if turkey were the most delicious food ever, but it tends to be dry and boring. Isn’t it time to consider a nice rotisserie chicken or the delicious Shanghai-style roast duck you can buy for about 40 RMB each?
If you must get a turkey, the best price I am aware of is at Carrefour, where you can get a big frozen turkey for about 450 RMB. We had to buy one today for a Thansgiving party we had, where some of our American guests just wouldn’t be happy with fresh, delicious chicken or duck. At the Gubei Carrefour where we shopped, they are in the meats section close to the end of the check out lanes) in a frozen foods case with a glass door, against a wall. Easy to miss, but there were plenty in stock today.
Ctrip.com is one of the most popular sites for booking travel in Asia and my experiences with it have generally been positive. Unfortunately, I learned that hotel rooms advertised with “free cancellation” policies may leave the purchaser without the protection sought. I also learned that Ctrip’s customer service needs serious improvement.
I was booking a room for 5 people for a tentative stay in Haikou, Hainan. Seeing that the Tienyow Hotel offered some rooms with free cancellation, I booked one of those rooms and then prepaid. The listing with free cancellation had a higher price than the same kind of room without free cancellation, but the extra price was worth the security of having free cancellation if our plans were to change.
On the payment page, the listing continued to show the words “free cancellation” (I didn’t pay much attention to that at the time, actually, but have since verified this behavior on similar listings at the hotel) — but also had a confusing message about not being able to make changes once an order is confirmed. I figured that was standard verbiage that had not been updated to reflect the free cancellation that I was paying for. After all, I was paying extra for the free cancellation service.
When I completed payment, I received an email from Ctrip that said I had paid and that everything was nonrefundable in case I wanted to change. So I called customer service and was told that there was no free cancellation and they couldn’t do anything about it. The representative didn’t seem to get that it was a pretty disturbing, actually illegal, thing to advertise a service or benefit (free cancellation), charge extra for it, and then withhold the service. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was too busy, I was told, but would call me back. He or she did not.
I later went to Ctrip’s live chat and explained the problem and asked for the email of the Legal Department and the CEO so I could register my complaint. They refused to give me that information, after repeated requests, and simply said that “We would inform the staff.” Huh? It took a while to get them to explain what they meant by that, but it was that they would ask a customer service person to call me. Other than that, the chat rep would not answer anything, in spite of my other questions about how they could offer free cancellation and not provide it.
Finally I did get a call from a supervisor in customer service who wanted to argue and tell me that they “had clearly” given notice that there was no free cancellation because of the conflicting message on the second page. They could not change my order because this was their policy, and they cannot change their policy.
At this point a native-Chinese speaking lawyer in my office jumped in and argued with the rep. After about 30 minutes, they offered to try to cancel the reservation for me. But that failed because the hotel refused to cooperate. Later, however, Ctrip did kindly acknowledge that there was something of a problem here and offered to cover 50% of my loss if we have to change or cancel the reservation that I’ve paid for. They also offered 100 RMB, later upped to 200 RMB, as Ctrip-bucks if we do complete the reservation. OK, that’s an improvement, but it took a lot of time and energy to get Ctrip to budge, and they still have a credibility gap when it comes to their offerings. They claim they will fix that soon. I hope so.