Monday, November 28, 2016

The Road to Hong Kong

Yesterday concluded the two month mark of the day we arrived in China. It's been a wild and eye-opening month, but this day had a very special significance for us. It meant that our visas were expiring. Being an illegal immigrant is a much bigger deal in China than it is in the States. They don't just look the other way or have long discussions about the ethical thing to do. If you are here illegally, you are by definition a criminal and you are treated as such. And the penalties are significantly worse than in the States. Plus, if our visa expires, it also means that our residency permit expires since you cannot get a residency permit that extends beyond the length of your intended visit. This would make our already illegal status even illegaler (more illegal, less legal...choose the one you like).  So, we had to do something.
The tourist visas we have are good for multiple entries into the country over the course of 10 years. We can come and go as we please, but we can only stay for 60 days at a time. For now. Once we get our work visas straightened out, we will be good to go and won't need to leave the country every couple of months. However, for now, we had to hit the road because air travel is not cheap.

We are pretty close to the border of Mongolia, but the visa application process was not fast enough to meet our needs. We only had three days to exit China, so we opted for a train ride to Hong Kong.

1,228 miles - 23.5 hours one way by train

This journey was going to take three days to complete. It's 24 hours each way and one night spent in Hong Kong. We would get back with just enough time to get to the police station on Friday afternoon to renew our residency permits using our newly stamped passports. Let the adventure begin.

On Tuesday afternoon, we took the four subways required to get us to (北京西站) Beijing West Train Station. We had been informed by a local (who had purchased our tickets in advance for us) that the station would just be upstairs once we arrived.


Okay! We're here! (We think)
Now what?

Every time we start to get confident that we know what we are doing, we get thrown into one of these situations and become more confused than a cat high on catnip trying to decide which laser pointer dot to chase. The train station was much like what I imagine a rave to be like. It's very loud, people are rushing around everywhere, there's lots of flashing lights and I hate the music.

We had no idea where we were supposed to go to pick up our tickets and no one could help us. The first line I got in resulted in me getting to the front of the line so I could shrug my shoulders, show the attendant our ticket confirmation email on my phone and her pointing off toward another building.

We wandered around the crowd for a while and landed in another line that we believed to be ticket sales and prayed this was right because it was going to take a long time to get to the front. It was a 45 minute wait and people were fighting to get in front of us. We don't know the language, but we put on our scariest angry American faces and made our way to the front without losing a single spot.

We actually were in the correct line and used our new tickets to enter the terminal. The terminal was even more crowded and was total chaos. Plus, we were about three hours early. It was going to be a long wait, but at least there were plenty of people to talk to. Oh, wait...never mind.

Just grab a spot on the floor because you are not getting a seat




The time passed and we got on the train without incident. We made our way to our assigned spot and finally got to see where we would be spending the next 24 hours.

8 feet off the ground in the third bunk up

Our bunks were at the top

The bunks were quite small. Not really made for six foot tall Americans, but they were reasonably comfortable. Plus, with the total lack of security and privacy (notice the lack of doors), being on the top made me feel safer. As small as those bunks were, getting out of the bunks felt really crowded. There just wasn't a lot of space outside of those rooms.

The tables were tiny and usually already taken anyway.

We found the dining car, but had to share the table.
These guys were fun.


Near the end of the trip, I was hanging out in my bunk just waiting to get there and Red made a few friends. No real conversation happened, but they were enjoying the novelty of an American being on board with them. They started offering us food, helping us pronounce Chinese words and took several pictures with us. We were celebrities.

About 8 p.m. we finally reached our destination city of Shenzhen. We took three more subways, fought our way through customs and arrived in Hong Kong.



We had no idea where we were and had no hotel reservations, so we wandered the streets for a while. We eventually ended up in the beautiful Lan Kwai Fong Hotel and then ventured out to fulfill a yearning I've had for the last several weeks. We went and got some pizza. I haven't had a decent pizza since we arrived in China and it was starting to get painful. In Hong Kong, pizza was much easier to come by.

The next day, we started onto the subways again and got through customs to get back into China so we could catch the train back. While waiting for the train, we were approached by a couple who thought we looked out of place in China for some reason.

Emanuel & Mimmi Viksten from Skellefteå, Sweden
This couple got married a year ago, worked and saved for one year and then quit their jobs to travel the world for a year for their honeymoon. We got to hear their story and share some of the things we have learned about China to help them with their journey. They had just entered the country that morning after spending the last two months in Russia and I'm a bit jealous of their trip.

On our return train trip, I was quickly approached by a Chinese man who wanted to practice his English. We spent the rest of the trip talking. He said that our meeting was fate and asked for my contact information.



He uses the English name of Koko and was a wealth of information for us. We were able to ask him all sorts of questions about China. Since we were in a confined space for an entire day, there was lots of opportunity to think of new things to ask and discuss. He will only be in Beijing for the next two months, so we plan to get together again for a meal.

After three long, long days, we finally made it back to Beijing and I was able to dash off to the police department to get our residency permit renewed before we got all dressed up to attend a formal Thanksgiving dinner. A few more hours of smiling and shaking hands and we made it back to our own beds.

All this adventure, time and money was spent for only one purpose.

To get that little stamp right there.


That was an expensive piece of ink, but I think I'm ready to do it again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Need To Start Shaving My Arms

It has been an interesting morning. I just got back home after over of hour of riding on the back of a moped in sub-zero weather through thick Beijing traffic. Sometimes we were going the wrong way, sometimes we were on the sidewalk and several times my coat hit the side mirrors of the cars we whizzed past. Since the driver didn't speak English, I couldn't even yell out warnings when I thought we were about to be smashed.

video


Once we finished all our business, I motioned that I would be walking home. I had no idea where I was, but I had no reason to be on the thing any more. My days of living dangerously are far behind me.

These men are paid to push the
crowd in enough to get the doors closed.
Our concept of personal safety is one of the things we have had to let go of since arriving in Beijing. Obviously, many things are different here, but some things you just can't be prepared for. Red and I have learned that in order to cross a street, you may have to walk through heavy (and still moving) traffic. In order to get to your destination, we have to walk through neighborhoods which are not lit and often through very dark alleys. We rarely have any idea what we are eating. We still can't read road signs and we have learned that the Chinese have no concept of personal space. While being felt up by a stranger is fun and exciting at first, it becomes tedious after about the third week. I think I enjoyed it a little longer than Red did.

Something that I hadn't thought about until I got here was what it would be like to be a minority. A major minority. I just moved here from Indianapolis which is praised for being the most culturally integrated city in the country, so there were other cultures everywhere. Before that, I was from Mt Vernon, IL which is predominantly white, but there are black people, Latinos, Asians and other cultures around. I would never be surprised if I ran into a black man or an old Asian woman. However, here it is quite different.

In Beijing, I can go days without seeing another white face and when I do see one, it is just in passing on the street. I have also learned that just because someone has similar facial features as me does not necessarily mean they want to talk to me. I've been disappointed more than once after approaching someone in a store or on a bus only to find out that my question of "So, how long have you been in Biejing?" cannot be answered because they only speak German or French. Or, even worse, I find out they're from Cleveland and I can't get out of there fast enough. I've approached many black people (I don't say African-American because they probably aren't American) as well hoping to have some English conversation, but find that they usually speak French, Swahili or Arabic.

These encounters are very rare because we generally only see Chinese people. We do not live in a particularly internationally diverse area. I believe we are the only non-Chinese in our entire apartment building. In fact, I have gotten quite used to being stared at because Red and I are the stand-outs in any crowd. We are both very tall and she has red hair. We attract attention. We don't really get people coming up to us to touch us or pull on our hair, but it is not uncommon for a child to point at us or even an adult to point us out to their friends. The students in my classes are much more comfortable with me and often pull the hair on my arms since the Chinese are not particularly hairy. I'm not really very hairy either, but the amount I do have really seems to be a novelty. Robin Williams would have hated it here.

Hopefully, this doesn't sound like complaining. It just takes some getting used to and is a great motivation for us to start learning the language so we can better fit in and stop relying on other people for so much of what we need to do (bank stuff, online ordering, paying bills, getting directions, etc). It really has been a great adventure and we seem to find a new one every day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Can't We All Just Get Along

Red and I landed in Beijing on Sept 27th and there has been plenty of drawbacks and advantages to living in China rather than the States for the last six weeks. It sucks that it is so much colder here, but it is great that I no longer have a car payment. It sucks that we have no control over the temperature of our apartment (the government decides when to turn on the heat), but it's great that we can just step right outside to buy great and cheap food.

But I think the best part of not being in the States for the entire month of October has to be living on the other side of the world in the month leading up to the presidential election. All the political stuff came to a screeching halt as soon as we left the country and I cannot begin to express how freeing that was.

All the hatred and vitriolic content was still on Facebook, but that is very very easy to shut off. I just avoid those posts or walk away from the computer. Quite easy to do and there was no stress involved. The nice part was that outside of my computer, this election almost ceased to exist.

The only discussions of politics that I have had since coming to China has been on the rare occasion that I've run into another English speaker. I've talked American politics with an Irishman, an Australian and a Moroccan. Luckily, they were all civil conversations despite having very different ideas about what is best for America. Something that is hard to come by in the States if you are not in a room full of like-minded individuals.


I really don't understand the venomous attitude toward our fellow man that seems to go hand in hand with politics. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is a key belief for living in a free society. Another key part of that is the freedom that any of us have to tell someone that we disagree with them. Believe it or not, both of these freedoms are supposed to be good things. They are good things.

However, for some reason, as soon as that difference in opinion concerns politics, everyone assumes that the person who disagrees with them does so because of extreme stupidity, close-mindedness or lack of morals. Almost everyone agrees that a child should grow up to be his own person who thinks for himself until that same free-thinking child has a political opinion that does not align to their own.

Almost everyone agrees that a political candidate who utilizes mud-slinging as a tactic should be looked down upon, but that same person is usually happy to use those same dirty tactics when arguing their political view. To make it worse, quite often the person who is defending their candidate isn't just slinging venom at their candidate's opponent, but also at the person they are debating with. In many cases, it is a friend, coworker or family member. What switches off in their brain to make them not notice how they are talking to this person?

I completely understand that there is a lot at stake in this election. I also understand that there are some fundamentally different beliefs about how most of our nation's issues should be addressed. I especially understand that we have an exceptionally angry electorate for this political season. What I do not understand is how that anger is directed at the guy across the street who has the wrong political sign in his front yard.

I definitely have my political opinions. And I am more than willing to share them if I feel that I am in a safe environment to do so. I am also willing to openly disagree with someone and allow someone to disagree with me. I will even go as far as to say that I greatly enjoy a good debate and I am thrilled when I encounter a person who feels the same way. Especially when they disagree with me. However, it is rare that I encounter those people.

I know that it is almost over, but everyone has the opportunity to be nicer to people today as they head to the polls. The ads will stop in the next day, but politics will still exist. Can we just respect each other now?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

It's Not All Bad

I'm sorry it's been so long since my last post, but I have not been able to establish a steady schedule yet. Living in another country tends toward chaos in almost everything you try to do for the first few months. If you follow us on Facebook, then you should be well aware that we really don't have things figured out here yet. We are learning more and more every day, but are far from understanding how things actually work.

In my last post, I wrote about figuring out how to pay our electric bill. That was two weeks ago and we are no closer to figuring out the other bills than we were when I wrote it. However, a comment on Facebook today made me realize something.

Really, Taco Bell? A month after I move to China?

Grant made me reflect on some of the things I have been posting about. Apparently, I post quite a bit about the things in China that we have found to be frustrating. I mean, there are a lot of things. Like the traffic, air pollution, lack of toilet paper (or what they call toilet paper), language barriers, government-controlled heating, surprisingly minimal ninja population, cultural misunderstandings and inability to find basic survival necessities.

I don't post enough about the things that we love about China. Like the fact that my wife and I collectively pay less than $5/month for our cell phones and that is with a data plan. This is one of the many, many, many things that are insanely cheap here. In my last post I celebrated learning how to pay my electric bill and marveled that it counted down rather than up. As long as you keep your balance above zero, you will have power. Several of you asked how long the 500¥ I put in there would last. I discovered that after 8 days of usage, our balance went down exactly 9¥. That means we are using just a little more than 1¥/day. That's 15 cents in American money.

15 cents! That's insane.

That means that at the current rate, my monthly electric bill would be about $4.50. That is $54 for the entire year. I know it will increase a bit when we start using the air conditioner in the summer, but these costs are phenomenally low. Our internet had to be paid for a year in advance. It was less than $75 for the entire year. High speed 50Gb/min internet for approximately $9/month. I was paying $80 in the States.

The cost of food is so low, there is no need to budget for it. We buy from fruit and vegetable vendors on the street almost every day and spend less than a dollar. My two favorite Chinese foods come from street vendors. One of them costs 22 cents. The other costs 75 cents and either of these is a full meal. A half liter bottle of Pepsi (about the same size as a 20 ounce) costs 47 cents. I am constantly amazed at how cheap things are here. Couple all these great prices with the fact that my income here is over four times what it was in the States and I really have nothing that I can complain about.

I have griped about the public transportation a few times, but that is mostly because I am not accustomed to it. I am growing more and more used to it. In our first month, I have spent about $15 in bus and subway fares. That is much cheaper than a car payment and insurance. I spent more than that on gas every week. Plus, other than our jobs, every thing we need is right on our block. Literally, within a few hundred feet (sorry, meters..metric system, you know) is anything we may possibly need.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to eat and it is overwhelming to be in a city with so many different foods that I have never eaten. Everything is so good. I have only had three meals that I didn't care for. I will cover some of the fabulous Chinese foods in future posts.

Red and I both have incredibly light schedules. I work two jobs and still only clock 14 hours and 20 minutes in a work week. This leaves tons of extra time to learn the language, explore the city and write my book. You'd think I would blog more.

The hours from my primary job

On top of all the things there are here to be excited about, there is also the simple fact that it is all new to us. Every time we leave the house, we embark on a learning adventure. Some days that is exhausting, but most of the time it is very educational. I look forward to the day when we better understand this foreign land, but will be in mourning of the loss of wonder at every new thing we experience.

In the meantime, I will try to be more positive with my posts both on the blog and on Facebook. If you believe this hurts the quality of my writing, feel free to blame Grant Mitchell. Here is a link to his Facebook page. Feel free to send him any hate mail you deem necessary. I doubt it will bother me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I Have the Power

 The title was an unintentional He-Man reference, but I'm keeping it.

Good day, everyone and welcome to the latest edition of WTF China! In this episode, we will learn how to pay your electric bill in Beijing.

Is there a reason that would be difficult?

On the day we were shown into our apartment, the building manager walked us around and showed us three different meters in and around our new home. Now, my Chinese is not good (basically, nonexistent), but I believe the meters were for gas, electric and water. But one could have been our ninja repulsion meter. I really have no way of knowing.

If you didn't already know this, many people who do not live in the United States do not speak English. Not even a little bit. And while the people of America are getting more and more adamant that a person inside the borders of the States should be able to speak English, the people of other countries don't really have this debate. If you live in their country, then you need to speak the local language. It's just understood. Because of this philosophy, we have no idea what is going on most of the time.

For instance, we have these three meters in our new home. We know that we have them, but have no idea what to do with them. Will we receive a bill? Will someone be coming around to read them for us? Do we need to read them and send the information into someplace? Is there an office we need to go to? WHAT DO WE DO WITH THESE?

We have difficulty even knowing what questions to ask because the answers seem so simple to the locals that they don't really understand the extreme depth to our level of confusion, but a few days ago something happened.

The building manager dropped by to deliver our electric card.

AWESOME!!!
Now, what do we do with it?

All we learned during his visit (through extremely convoluted translation apps on our phones) was that we needed to take care of our electricity quickly because there was not much left on our meter.

I think this is the proper place for this .gif

After he left, I went outside to look at our meter. This is what I see. What does he mean that there isn't much left? So often, our conversations through phone translation apps are radically wrong, so I thought it must be another of the many misunderstandings we have encountered since arriving. However, we learned that it was not.

Apparently, no one ever comes by to look at your meter. You don't really even have to keep track of the numbers yourself. Sort of.

Upon taking a closer look at our meter, we noticed a small slot to the right side of the screen. Just about the right size to slide a card into it.

This is not a credit card slot as I initially thought.

It took a lot of trial and error, but we discovered that we were to put the electric card we had received into the slot. This registers the card to the meter attached to our apartment. Talking to some Chinese locals revealed to us that we then had to take that card to a bank and put money on it. They suggested putting 500¥ ($75) on it to begin. So the following day, I headed to the bank to begin my adventure.

I was initially sent to the Bank of Beijing. EVERYONE told to go there because it is the easiest place to get it done. So, that is where I went, but there was a problem. Easy for a local person who speaks Chinese is not necessarily easy for a foreigner who not only doesn't speak the language, but has no concept of their practices here. However, my ever-optimistic self dove in.

Upon arriving, I approached the person who appeared to be a "bank information" assistant-type person. He spoke no English, but seemed to understand what I wanted when I showed him my electric card and shrugged my shoulders. I shrug a lot these days.

He directed me back outside to a machine and took my card from me to insert into the machine. He then started navigating through a series of Chinese screens and eventually turned to me and pointed at the credit card slot on the machine. This excited me because we are still over a month away from receiving our first paychecks and our cash on hand is getting a little thin. I popped in my VISA card and entered in 500¥. The machine beeped and spit the card back out. It took a lot of pantomime and grunting from both of us, but I finally figured out that the machine would not take my American card.  

We have learned since arriving in China that Mastercard and Visa are not nearly as universal as we have been lead to believe. The only place that has taken one of our cards here is IKEA (the Swedish furniture company). China has their own version of everything and is pretty insistent on using only their stuff. 

So, I held up a handful of cash. He shook his head, pointed across the street, said "I C B C" and walked away.

Across the street was another bank conveniently named ICBC (I'm pretty sure that why he said that). So, I headed over to try my luck again.


At this bank, I found a similar-type person and started the same routine again. I showed my card and was directed to a machine. I tried my card again because, apparently, this bank can do something that the Bank of Beijing cannot. I got the same results as before, so I held up my cash.

She then directed me to yet another machine, punched a few buttons and it spit out a paper which she handed to me and directed me to a waiting area.

My number was 110.
The 73?
That's the number of people ahead of me in line.

I headed to the waiting area and quickly realized that I was in for a long wait. I was praying that my issue could actually be resolved after waiting in this line because I haven't actually spoken to anyone yet.

Notice the numbers.
I was going to be here for a while.

I got comfortable and slowly watched the numbers climb. Senior citizens sitting next to me kept trying to engage me in conversation and I could only repeat the one Chinese phrase I knew.

Wǒ bù míngbái
我不明白
I don't understand. 

This usually got a lot of laughter and they excitedly said something to the others sitting around them while they were all laughing at me. You know, because foreigners are funny. I get it. It's at this point that I usually do the shrug that is growing quite comfortable by now.

I soon noticed that each person conducting business at the windows required approximately 17 hours and 42 minutes to complete their transaction. I was going to be here for a while. The days passed, but they finally called my number.

I timidly approached the window, held up my card and cash and pushed them through the slot. The employee entered something on the computer, gave me a pen and paper and pointed for me to sign. I signed it and he gave me another paper and called the next person as he handed my card back.

I had no idea what I had signed and my money was now gone. Plus, I was not entirely sure that I had just accomplished what I came for, but I had this piece of paper.

Click the image for an enlarged view and tell me what it says.

When I got home, I made a quick phone call to an expat who has lived here a while to see if there is anything else I had to do and he said I was done. Apparently, that card is tied to my meter through the national grid. When they entered the info at the bank, it automatically put the money on my account and I will have electricity until it runs out. I can look at my meter at any time to see how much money is left on it.

I have 511¥ left.
Now, I just need to monitor
to figure out how long that will last.

It was a long, frustrating day, but I can appreciate the simplicity of the system. Especially since I learned that this can be done online once we have a bank account. The electric company will never threaten you with a disconnect notice. The meter is right outside your door. If you don't keep a balance on it, the power shuts off. No customer service is even needed for this. You don't even have to set up an account or have service transferred when you move.

One utility down. Two to go. Next, I have to figure out how to pay our water and gas.