Surviving Your Bike Ride in China

Riding a bike is one of the best ways to get around big cities in China. I have my own large Giant bike purchased new for 800 RMB, and I love it. Fast and smooth, but just one gear. That’s fine for Shanghai. Many people ride rental bikes now like Mobikes or the yellow Ofo bike that I sometimes ride (the Mobikes are just too small for me, while the Ofo brand often allows the seat to be raised high enough to make it possible for a tall guy to ride, though not comfortably). I ride my bike most days when going to work in the Hongqiao area of Shanghai. It’s often faster than a taxi and much faster than a bus. You can join the pack of crazy motorcyclists who are not impeded by traffic jams, cutting in and out of obstacles while carefully observing all relevant laws — well, most of the laws of physics, I mean.

Bike riding is fast and convenient, but there are serious dangers. Not as dangerous as a motorcycle, where the higher speed means higher risk, but that higher risk includes collisions with you on your bike, and the results can be nasty. A friend of mine just badly crushed his hand in an accident with a motorcycle while riding his bike. He will need delicate surgery. Another friend was riding across a bridge when she hit a rock and fell from her bike, badly shattering her forearm. Painful surgery and months of recovery were required, but after a year has regained nearly all of her motion. But trust me, you don’t want an accident. Understanding the dangers is critical.

One of the biggest dangers comes from motorcylces and especially their nearly silent electric version, the ebike or electric bike. They can be zooming toward you from behind and you won’t hear them coming. They can be coming in from an angle from the back or side and you won’t hear them coming, unless you listen carefully. More important than listening is looking: you need to frequently make quick glances over your shoulders, especially over your left shoulder where faster approaching vehicles are likely to be coming, but also sometimes over your right shoulder.

Vision Trumps Everything

Peripheral vision is crucial. Frequent glances over your shoulders are vital. Understand that a vehicle may suddenly approach you from any side and any angle. A motorcycle or bike may dart out from an alley or from between parked cars on the side of the road. As you approach an intersection or driveway, someone may suddenly move into your path and it will usually seem that they never even looked your way before entering traffic. It’s amazing that some of them are still alive, but natural selection can be a slow and overly random process. I certainly have not seen any evidence that natural selection has been weeding out insane motorists and cyclists over the years in China. Evolution might work well for some species, but it seems rather inactive for species on the road. Never mind, just focus on not being the one who gets weeded out.

The key is being totally alert and aware of what’s happening in front of you, at your sides, and behind you. Listen carefully for horns, bells, rattling sounds, motors, snorts, cellphone conversations, or other indications of an approaching ghost rider. Watch for signs of motion between stationary cars. Anticipate taxi doors suddenly opening, usually on the right side. Note the protruding nose of a dog getting ready to make a dash for it. Anticipate the craziness of intersections where people may cross your path from all directions. Total alertness and attention is your key to survival.

Here’s the shocking news: for enhanced safety, I’ve given up wearing my helmet. Yes, terrible of me, right? But the statistics globally don’t show that bikers who wear helmets fare better than those who don’t, and in my Shanghai experience, I’ve realized that anything that hinders my peripheral vision or my ability to quickly look over my shoulders increases my risk. Avoiding collisions and falls is the first priority, much better than falling with a touch of added protection. Helmets limit my vision and slow me down when making rapid backward glances. Sayonora.

Alertness is also needed for coping with obstacles on the road. Manhole covers may be moved and the dangerous hole not well marked. Potholes may be large. Bricks or other objects can be in your path. With the rise of rental bikes clogging sidewalks, you will sometimes find a rental bike has been abandoned on the side of the road that partially blocks a bicycle lane. Dangerous! Be  good citizen and move it out of the way, but do this by stopping gradually and with clear signaling of intent. No sudden moves!

Speaking of rental bikes, they add a lot of danger to the scene. Not just because they might be barriers, but because they have brought many new cyclists onto the roads who don’t know much about cycling and safety. And they are slow. They go at about 30-50% of my speed, in part because the wheels are small, and as a result they are constant barriers in front of me I need to weave around. But their riders often don’t ride very well, weaving back and forth as they go. So annoying. Increases the risk for everyone. Be cautious and carefully plan how you can avoid them and get past them as soon as possible. Further, bike renters will often step out onto the road with their bike without even looking at incoming traffic. So clueless. Anticipate their stupidity and be cautious when you see someone standing by a rental bike, possibly getting ready to create a pile-up on his or her first ride.

To Be Safe, Be Predictable

From my experience, a key safety tip is that you need to be predictable. Sudden turns, veering to a side, or a sudden stop can result in disaster. In China, car drivers and motorcyclists constantly forecast where others are going and then plan their sudden weaving in and out or other crazy maneuvers based on forecasting the routes of nearby vehicles. They expect you to just keep going and will time their move based on the forecast. But if you suddenly stop or turn without warning, you may end up where they are about to end up. Bang. Ugly. Notice this when you are in a taxi. Drivers are very aggressive and it all kind of works as long as people are somewhat predictable.

Hand signals aren’t common but are a good idea, especially for left turns against traffic. They aren’t going to stop for you in most cases to let you turn, but the signal lets others know what you are doing so they won’t crash into you.

When you stop, try to do it gradually. Recently I was riding along, thinking I was alone, and saw a person who was on the ground right after an accident between a bike and a motorcycle. I stopped quickly to help and then heard someone right behind me yell as he slammed the brakes of his electric motorcycle to avoid me. I was nearly taken down by that mistake. Be predictable. No sudden moves!

I hope this doesn’t deter you from riding a bike. There are dangers, but if you are alert and cautious, you can manage the risks and enjoy getting around town much faster than going on foot or with public transportation. But do realize that there are risks. Walking and public transportation have much lower risks, so weigh them as alternatives. Very few people have ever needed major surgery after a ride on the subway.

 

By | 2018-01-07T19:24:24+00:00 January 7th, 2018|Categories: China, Crazy, Health, Safety, Shanghai, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Surviving Your Bike Ride in China

The 144-Hour Transit Visa to China: Risky If You Are Staying With Friends or Anywhere Besides a Hotel

The complexities and costs of obtaining a tourist visa to China can be avoided sometimes by taking advantage of the transit visa program that is available in some major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou and several others. Shanghai offers a 144-hour transit visa, which is great for a brief stay here. Some places may offer 72-hour transit visa or 24-hour transit visas. These visas don’t cost anything as far as I know and are easy to get. You have to show that you have a departing international flight scheduled within the allocated time from your arrival, and you need to stay in the designated area. The Shanghai-Zhejiang-Jiangsu 144-hour visa allows you to travel throughout Shanghai and its neighboring provinces, Zhejiang and Jiangsu while here. Getting the transit visa is easy, at least at the Pudong Airport in Shanghai, where there is a special line at the far left of the customs area called “Transit 144/24” for the 144-hour and 24-hour visas. It’s a great program — but there are some rules that can create trouble if you aren’t prepared.

The biggest problem might be if you are planning on staying with friends or an AirBNB rather than a normal hotel. An important part of the transit visa process is ensuring that you and your place of residence are registered with the police. The work to do this is usually handled by hotel staff who make copies of your passport information and process things with the police.

What if are aren’t staying at a hotel? Relatives of mine who just arrived here yesterday informed me of the process. When you register for the visa, the helpful staff will say no problem and explain that you just need to go to a police station within 24 hours. They will give you a card that also tells you to do this, as shown below:

Instructions on the 144-hour China Transit Visa Card

So in the evening after our friends arrived early on a Friday morning, we walked a few hundred yards to our local police station. Strangely, I felt that I should bring along information to renew my own residence registration with the police in since the one I did recently might need updating after finalizing my recent visa renewal. As a result, I brought the contract for our apartment.

Our Local Hongqiao Road Police Station

To my surprise, when we entered the police station and explained what our friends needed, the woman in charge asked for our contract. Whew! Felt so relieved. Here it is. Then she looked at the address. “Oh, you live in Minhang District. This is Changning District. You are at the wrong station.” We explained that the authorities at the airport and the card simply tell us to go “a local police station,” and this is the local one closest to us. She laughed and said, “No, you need to go to Minhang.” Of course.

Minhang has many police stations, but in our own registration efforts, we learned there is only one that we can use for our address. So the card should explain that. The one we have to go to is quite far away and took over 20 minutes by cab to reach. Time was running out because we knew the key office at the police station would close by 8 pm.

When we got there, the woman explained that we needed our contract — check! — and also a license from the management of our apartment building showing that we were properly authorized to live there. Wow, a second surprise document required. Amazingly, as were packing up to go on this journey, I had grabbed that also. Check!

Or maybe not. The officer explained that the license was for my wife and I, but I also needed to get the same form for our guests. Huh? This would require them to have a contract of some kind, as far as I know, and would require a great deal of time and effort, and might not be possible at all. She shook her head and insisted, but in the end with a gentle smile and a soft request for help, she shook off the hidden rules somehow and gave us a break, but said next time we should get the license. No idea how to do that, honestly, but guess we’ll have to try.

In Chine, there are rules that can be hard to predict and sometimes vary from place to place or person to person. This officer was kind and gave us a break. Others might not have been so gracious. But in any case, if you are coming to China on a transit visa, stay at a hotel and make life simple.

If you are inviting guests to stay with you in China who may come on a transit visa, work with your local police station ahead of time to know just what documents will be needed and make sure you can get them.

 

By | 2017-12-08T17:58:13+00:00 December 8th, 2017|Categories: China, Housing, Shanghai, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , |Comments Off on The 144-Hour Transit Visa to China: Risky If You Are Staying With Friends or Anywhere Besides a Hotel

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

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)

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

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

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

There are many times in China when you’ll need your passport. For travel and bank transactions, you generally need the physical passport (sometimes even train travel requires that, though it’s hard to predict when there will be a passport check to get into the train station). But for buying train tickets and a variety of other situations, a photocopy or cell phone image of your passport is fine. I recommend that you always have an image of your passport with you in your wallet or purse, plus have an image on your phone. I also suggest that in addition to an image of your main passport page, you also have an image of your current visa.

Don’t allow hotels to keep your passport. Some want to hold them at the front desk, but this puts you at risk. One person I know had their passport stolen that way. Leave them with a photocopy if they need something from you, but don’t give up your passport.

By | 2017-12-01T21:44:54+00:00 April 27th, 2016|Categories: China, Safety, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: |Comments Off on Passport Tip: Keep Photocopies, Carry a Copy, and Have Photo on Your Phone

Joyous Living in China (and Perhaps Other International Settings)

Having shared a variety of my experiences here in China on the pages of my Shake Well blog, I hope some of you will be more willing to come here when the opportunity comes. I thought coming here would be a sacrifice, but it has been a blessing and joy beyond all my expectations. After four years, hardly a day goes by without me expressing wonder and gratitude at the privilege of being here. My love for China has only grown, in spite of the various challenges that Westerners may face here. I deal with some of the challenges and the more daunting aspects on the Surviving China section of my website, where I discuss some issues like the occasional scams to avoid, the problems with the Internet, dealing with food safety, etc. Lots of places will give you advice on those topics, and it’s important to understand them to stay out of trouble and survive here.

Beyond mere survival, though, comes a more important factor: joyous living. For many foreigners who find China an endless frustration and can’t wait to get back home, the joyous living part may seem remote. I’ll admit that sometimes foreigners end up in situations that are difficult and painful. But I’ve seen foreigners living in remote, difficult locations on shoestring budgets finding the same excitement and happiness that I’ve experienced in Shanghai, where my circumstances are favorable in many ways, and I’ve seen foreigners with much better settings who find the place intolerable. I’ve learned some valuable lessons from those who seem to living on more than their fair share of joy here, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned.

If you approach China in the right way, I feel you can make your in China one of the most enjoyable and rewarding times of your life. (This probably applies to many places, but there are some uniquely wonderful things about China.) China offers a richness of culture, scenery, history, language, and food that can make life here better than what you might experience anywhere else, but it takes preparation, work, and some mental adjustments to discover the richness that is here. You may also find Shanghai in particular to be one of the safest, most convenient and most delightful places on earth, IF you are flexible, overlook some gaps, and enjoy the strengths and beauty of the city.

It Begins with the People

Finding happiness in China, in my opinion , begins with the people. In spite of my various warnings about scams and other dangers that I give elsewhere, you need to understand that the Chinese people in general are kind, honest, friendly, and very kind to foreigners. There are times when you might cause problems and cross over hidden boundaries when it won’t seem that way, but you’ll soon learn how to avoid those situations and how to act properly for Chinese culture.

The key to finding joy in China, in my opinion, is learning to respect and love the people. Once you discover who they are and what they have to offer, it can change your life and your attitudes. To begin, you need to get out of your expat shell and make friends with the locals and learn about their lives. There are many ways to do this, such as:

  1. Hire a Chinese teacher to come into your home at least once a week and teach you Chinese while also discussing Chinese culture, current events, etc. A good teacher can help you understand the vast culture behind the words and better look into the heart of China.
  2. Invite your neighbors and other Chinese acquaintances into your home for dinner. This can lead to lasting friendships and great exchanges of information. Some of our lasting friendships arose by apparent chance after talking to a stranger on the street or chatting with someone on a train. Talk to people, make friends, and follow up.
  3. If you have guards (“menwei”) at your apartment complex, smile at them, wave, and occasionally bring them treats, especially Western goodies that you make or bring to China. A plate of cookies for them to share with each other can earn you a lot of “brownie points” and help you make friends. If you can afford it, I also strongly recommend giving “hong bao” (red envelopes with some cash) to all your menwei right before the Chinese New Year holiday. Once you understand how little they make, you’ll be grateful for the opportunity to give them a bonus. That kindness will often be more than reciprocated by the help they can give you. For example, once my wife left her suitcase in the back of a taxi. The menwei at our complex spent an hour or so reviewing security camera video footage to track down the cab and then recognized and called the cabbie, and we had it back that day—in time for a flight that night. They could have just said, “Too bad!”
  4. Treat your ayi (maid) well, if you have one (this also applies to a driver or others who might be hired to help you). One of the benefits of living in China is that help in the home is very inexpensive. Actually, it’s often too inexpensive. While you may hire an ayi at a fair market price, take care of her with occasional tips, be sure to give an extra month of salary in February as part of the traditional employer obligations to employees at New Year festival (you can pro-rate this if they have been working for you for less than a year), offer to pay her transportation costs to get to your place, and pay her even when you’re away and she doesn’t need to come to work (giving her vacation, in essence). A happy ayi who trusts you and respects you can spare you from a variety of problems and will be motivated to go out of her way to help you.
  5. While tipping is not required, I suggest doing it when you can. Cabbies will always appreciate it. Once you learn how little they earn for working so hard, and what a small portion of each fair actually goes to them, you’ll realize that a small tip makes a big difference. When they are friendly and helpful, why not give an extra tip and make them really happy?
  6. Don’t just shop at expensive expat stores like Carrefour. You will get some of the healthiest, freshest, and tastiest produce, eggs, and even meat at local wet markets. There you can become a regular and make friends with vendors, and experience an important part of Chinese life: the market. Chinese markets are wonderful, but often missed by foreigners.
  7. What about annoying people pushy salesman who approach you on the street selling questionable products? Perhaps they are scammers or crooks, but there’s a good chance they are real people with real needs. They get rejection all day long. Instead of brushing off the salesmen, be polite, smile, and say “Thank you.”
    BACKGROUND: A friend of mine asked a wise Chinese man for a powerful Chinese “zinger” to put annoying salesmen in their place and get rid of them. “What can I say to verbally shove them away?” was his question. The highly educated Chinese man thought for a moment and said, “Try this phrase: Xiexie.” My friend was surprised: “Wait, that just means thank you!” “Yes,” said the Chinese man, “and it’s the right thing to say. Those pushy salesman are just people trying to make a living, and deserve as much respect as you or I, even if we don’t want their goods. So don’t try to make them feel bad. Just be respectful and say ‘Thank you’ or ‘No thanks.’” My friend told me he felt humbled by this and saw those annoying people on East Nanjing and elsewhere in a new light.
  8. What about beggars? There’s a chance that they are scammers, but there’s also a good chance that they are real people in difficult situations. Carry a few coins or small bills reserved for the occasional beggar you meet. Treat them with courtesy. Look them in the eye, smile, and give them something. There may be times when you’ll sense something is wrong and you may just wish to move on, but in general, you won’t regret giving. You may even find some regulars you really like.
    Tip: When giving, don’t expose your wallet or purse to potential pickpockets. They are rare, but at Yu Garden a friend of mine had her wallet and passport stolen by a group of migrant kids while she opened up her purse to give some money to a beggar. (The empty wallet and passport was found shortly after by a Chinese man, a worker from the north, who spent 3 hours tracking down the owner to return it. Since the wallet had my wife’s card in it, he called my wife to report the wallet he had found, and waited until we could meet him to retrieve it—one of the many honest and kind people we have met in China.) Have your change in an easy-to-access place.
  9. Don’t let language barriers stop you from connecting. Get out and meet your neighbors. Find a translator if you need to, but introduce yourself and find out who your neighbors are. They may not be interested, but a consistent smile will eventually work wonders. Also try to be sensitive to things you may do that annoy neighbors, and get feedback from others on how to be a good neighbor. Meanwhile, keep your expectations from others low and don’t assume that others are being deliberately annoying when they are making too much noise or doing other things that bother you.
  10. Be patient in lines, while defending your position when you need to. When people cut in front of you, they may not have realized that you were really in line. After all, why was there a 12-inch space in front of you if you mean to be in line? Be patient and forgiving. You can indicate that you are in a line and ask them to get in line (paidui)—but do it with patience and a smile. (I know, this is easy for me to say, and admittedly often hard to do.) They probably didn’t understand. That’s the kind assumption, anyway, and a good way to think about the frustrations you might experience that come from the culture gaps you face.
  11. Be aware of the people around you and look for opportunities to help. If you are healthy and strong, a seemingly frail or elderly person carrying a heavy suitcase up or down stairs can be a great opportunity to help. A mother struggling to get her baby’s stroller down the stairs is another opportunity. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to go occasional good, and be ready to back off with a smile if they refuse help. But being considerate of the Chinese people helps compensate for the numbing effect of living in crowds and helps you feel more part of the community that is China.

In general, go out of your way to be friendly and respectful to people, though sometimes you’ll need to be firm and insistent. The times you slip and lose your patience will be times of regret. There are things that happen that will try your patience and yes, it may be easy to become angry and frustrated.

The times you do things that help others and the times you overlook the things that annoy are the times when you will most quickly appreciate who the Chinese people really are. The more you can see the good in these very different but very similar neighbors, the more you will connect with China and find happiness and excitement living here. But do take steps to avoid some of the problems that can leave you feeling angry and frustrated.

One opportunity to serve comes through various charities. My employer runs one of the China’s biggest private charitable trusts, the Huang Yi Cong Foundation, which provides help to needy school children in Gansu Province and supports other charitable efforts in China. Many of my colleagues donate a small part of their monthly income to the Foundation, which helps them become connected with the child or children they are helping. They receive occasional letters and photos that help them better understand the difficult life of the poor in China and give them opportunities to make a lasting difference. There are other organizations, of course, providing opportunities to make a difference, but I’m proud of the good people running the Huang Yi Cong Foundation and their passionate care for the needy families they serve.

In addition to building connections with the people, you’ll love your China experience more if you experience Chinese culture. There are many ways to do this. Go to museums, parks, community events, etc. Walk through neighborhoods and watch the dancing, game playing, calligraphy, tai qi, etc. Parks in the morning are great places to visit, and the Bund between 6 am and 7 am is another example, as you witness kite flyers and others at their best. Get involved in community events like special interest groups, classes, musical productions, dance groups, etc., especially those that reflect Chinese culture. There are numerous opportunities here and many friendships and mind-expanding opportunities here.

Again, don’t live in an expat shell. Get out and experience China and its culture. That includes the food. Please don’t just eat Western food. Learn about the many varieties of sophisticated Chinese food and experience many parts of China through its cuisine. Also learn about Chinese history, watch some Chinese movies, and continue learning the language and the culture as much as you can. You’ll find China to be a never-ending puzzle and mystery that rewards you deeply for each layer you unravel.

I hope you will experience life in China one day. May your experience here be exhilarating!

By | 2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00 September 17th, 2015|Categories: China, Shanghai, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Comments Off on Joyous Living in China (and Perhaps Other International Settings)

Facing the Real Risk of Theft from Your Bank Account in China

An increasing number of friends are reporting troubling cases of theft from their China bank accounts. One friend, after years of working in China and saving every penny, was preparing to return to the US, but suddenly every penny in her ICBC bank account was stolen. The ICBC bank officials told her that someone had a copy of her card and had taken the money out. She asked how this was possible without knowing her password. No explanation was given, except that it was somehow her fault. She spent five days arguing with them and got nowhere. They said that the thief could have been working with her to perpetuate fraud on the bank, so why should they refund her money? Her only option now is to sue, but she has to go back to the US soon and fears she won’t have the ability to pursue the case. But we’ve encouraged her to work with a lawyer to fight this. She will, and I hope to have good news to report sometime.

Her story has almost exactly the same set of facts that we find in a chilling account, “How I sued the world’s largest bank and won” at Shanghaist.com. In this case, it was a smaller amount, 15,000 RMB that was taken from the author’s ICBC account. He encountered the same helpful consumer service policies and attitudes, and was forced also to sue for something that was clearly not his fault. He won, and it only took 7 months and some modest attorney fees to get his money back.

If you have a bank account with an ATM card, there is a real risk that one day money will begin disappearing from your account. There are some very high risk factors in China you need to understand:

1) The daily limit for ATM withdrawals is much higher than it is in the U.S. and Europe. A thief typically can take out 20,000 RMB a day (over $3,000), which is 5 to 10 times higher than typical US limits.

2) The daily limit may not be over a 24-hour period, but may be based on the calendar date, so if that applies to your bank, then a thief can take 20,000 RMB out at 11:55 pm, and another 20,000 RMB out at 12:05 PM.

3) Banks in China often don’t have effective anti-fraud protection.

4) There are many thieves with card copying or card scanning devices who can make a duplicate of your card. If they or a small video camera can watch you enter your password, having your account number and your password leaves you defenseless.

5) Thieves can sometimes pull money out of your account without using your password. I don’t know how this happens, but it has happened to multiple people in China, and it happened to us with our US bank.

6) When someone pulls money out of your account without knowing your password, it should be the bank’s fault and they should reimburse you. But consumer service attitudes and policies may not be identical to those in your home country. China banks may tend to blame the customer and argue that maybe the thief was collaborating with you, so they might not cooperate unless you take them to court. You can sue and win in China, but it will take a lot of work and the help of an attorney.

Because money in the bank is so vulnerable, I suggest several best practices:

1) Do not keep large amounts in any single Chinese bank. Move a lot of it into US accounts without ATM cards or with two-part authentication, and keep plenty of cash.

2) Use your bank cards as little as possible. Instead, use cash to make payments when possible.

3) Do not let employees walk away with your bank card (they might run it through a card copier device of some kind). Keep your eyes on it.

4) Do not let your card be scanned in any place that seems questionable or seedy.

5) When using ATM machines, look for unusual devices, small video cameras, etc., that might have been added.

6) Keep good records of where you have been so that if the bank says it must have been you that pulled all your money out of your account in, say, Harbin, you can prove you weren’t in Harbin that day.

7) Monitor your bank account frequently, and make sure you receive automatic text messages when money is taken out of your ATM.

8) When you do find a problem, document in detail who you spoke with, what you said, what they said, etc. You will needs lots of documented details if you have to sue the bank to get back missing money.

9) Avoid trusting your money to any bank that has a bad track record of protecting the money of its customers. If you know of banks that have performed well in this regard, please let me know.

These problems are not unique to China, but they seem to be a lot more frequent here and more severe, especially with the high daily minimum that thieves can take out.

If you do online banking, your risks are also high due to hackers. I suggest you use complex passwords that you change often, and only use secure computers to access your bank accounts. It’s good to have a cheap computer that is never used for browsing but only for bank access, and even then keep good firewall and anti-spyware software on it, keep it updated, use more secure browsers like Chrome or Firefox, and don’t use untrusted wifi networks to access your accounts. For added security, use VPN when you access your bank account.

Don’t keep all your money in any one account, and keep a wad of cash somewhere, too. Thieves can get everything, but we shouldn’t make it easy for them.

By | 2017-10-24T07:05:04+00:00 June 17th, 2015|Categories: Business, China, Finances, Internet, Investing, Scams, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Facing the Real Risk of Theft from Your Bank Account in China