Five Days of Struggle to Renew a Visa: Some Discoveries in Dealing with Work Permit and Visa Issues

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.

Background

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.

By | 2017-09-20T07:03:16+00:00 September 19th, 2017|Categories: China, Humor, Shanghai, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on Five Days of Struggle to Renew a Visa: Some Discoveries in Dealing with Work Permit and Visa Issues

Moving to China for a Job? Some Tips in Negotiating

“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!

 

By | 2017-08-21T16:47:22+00:00 August 21st, 2017|Categories: China, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Moving to China for a Job? Some Tips in Negotiating

Milk in China: Try the Asahi Brand for Safe, Delicious Fresh Milk

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.

Asahi brand whole milk: possibly China's best?v

Asahi brand whole milk: possibly China’s best?

By | 2017-10-24T06:52:38+00:00 January 21st, 2017|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Health, Safety, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , |2 Comments

Funny Red Beef in China: Treated with Sodium Nitrite?

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.

By | 2017-01-06T21:12:08+00:00 January 6th, 2017|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Health, Restaurants, Safety, Shanghai, Shopping|Tags: , |Comments Off on Funny Red Beef in China: Treated with Sodium Nitrite?

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).

By | 2017-01-03T16:37:26+00:00 January 3rd, 2017|Categories: China, Surviving, Travel tips|Comments Off on Travel Tip: Don’t Fly to China Without Knowing the Trouble with Chinese Taxis (Have Your Destination Printed in Chinese)

Shanghai Disney Resort: Second Time’s the Charm! My Best Disney Experience Ever

Shanghai Disney Castle

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!

By | 2017-10-24T06:51:17+00:00 December 15th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Shanghai, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Shanghai Disney Resort: Second Time’s the Charm! My Best Disney Experience Ever

Accident in Shanghai: The Ambulance Never Came

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.

By | 2016-11-25T16:54:36+00:00 November 25th, 2016|Categories: China, Health, Shanghai|Comments Off on Accident in Shanghai: The Ambulance Never Came

Ctrip Trouble: Beware “Free Cancellation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | 2016-10-24T05:57:52+00:00 October 20th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Ctrip Trouble: Beware “Free Cancellation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | 2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00 September 24th, 2016|Categories: Business, China, Safety, Scams, Society, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on Surviving Bank Theft in China: What to Do Immediately When a Thief Robs You with an ATM Machine

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

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

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

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

Here are some photos of the theater.

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

By | 2017-10-22T04:25:42+00:00 June 23rd, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Parks, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on Review of The Lion King Musical at Shanghai Disney Resort, the Chinese Version of the Broadway Hit

Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

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

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

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

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

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

By | 2016-06-02T06:24:17+00:00 June 1st, 2016|Categories: China, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | 2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00 May 29th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips