Archive for the ‘Deciding whether to go’ Category

If, like me, you will have a house, pets and a car waiting at home during your year in Beijing, you have a lot to take care of before leaving. Whether you decide to rent out your place or lock it up, be sure the mortgage, taxes, insurance and utilities will be paid automatically through deductions from your home account. Even if you aren’t there for a year, it might be cheaper to just leave the phone and internet connected rather than deal with the inconvenience and extra fees of cancelling them and then renewing when you return.

Be sure you add a trusted person to your bank account and have your mail forwarded to that person. There will be some billers who (unbelievably) still aren’t set up to handle automatic payments, and there’s always the unexpected expense. Your fence might blow down or the pipes burst during a bitter cold spell. Your car license tag will need to be renewed and it might have to get an emissions inspection first. Someone will need to be close by, with your checkbook, car and house keys, to deal with all of it. If you’re leaving pets behind, be sure to write, sign and date an authorization for their caretaker to show your vet in case they need to make any emergency decisions for your pets.

Handling your mail, bills, pets and home maintenance is a huge job. Make sure you bring back a really nice gift for whoever does it.


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Once you arrive in Beijing, your best sources of advice will be foreign co-corkers who’ve been there a few months. Here’s what I learned from them, among many other things such as who sells pot and where the best pick-up prospects congregate:

Money: Exchange dollars for yuan at the airport when you arrive. Nobody in Beijing accepts any currency except Chinese. Currently, one dollar equals almost seven yuan. Don’t count on being able to use your credit card anywhere but at an ATM, where you can use it to get yuan. Until you get a Chinese-issued debit card, count on having to carry wads of cash.

Banks: Your employer might have an arrangement with a particular bank, so your account will be set up there. This may change frequently; mine did four times in 12 months. Your pay checks will be deposited directly into the account and you’ll be issued a debit card, which you can use most places. As soon as you enter the bank, look for the little machine that issues numbers (like at the deli counter) and get one. If possible, get one especially for the window servicing foreigners, since it will move much faster and the teller might speak a little English. Pay close attention because when your number comes up, you may have five seconds to get to the proper window before the next number is called. 

Sending money home: It’s possible to set up transfers from your Chinese account to an American bank, but it’s a tedious chore. Each transfer requires your presence at the bank and a time-consuming routine that might vary from visit to visit, depending on how the teller feels like interpreting rules and regulations that day. I found it easier to exchange yuan for dollars and bus it over to a Western Union office, from where I sent it to my sister in Skokie, Ill. She then deposited it in my home account. 

Business cards: Ask for them as soon as possible, if they aren’t offered quickly. If possible, get one with the name and address of the company printed in Mandarin, as well as English. Very handy for cab drivers.

Subways: In Beijing, the system is cheap and excellent – mostly. Try to avoid using line 1, the oldest and most crowded. Also avoid morning and evening rush hours, if possible. Otherwise, they’re easy to use and reliable. Most have English signs and even the computerized female voice announcing the next stop translates into English. Get a subway pass.

Groceries: If you’re lucky, you’ll find a market nearby consisting of multiple stalls, each housing a vendor and organized by sections – vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, dry goods, pet supplies, housewares, imported foods, beans, grains, nuts and rice, liquor and cigarettes, noodles, dumplings, steamed bread and hardware. The offerings here are fresher than in stores and prices are negotiable. The Japanese department store Ito Yokado, Walmart and its Chinese knock-off, Wumart offer big grocery stores. Some neighborhoods have a French-based supermarket called Carrefours. For Western groceries, Jennie Lou’s is where most people go. It has several branches around town. There’s also a stall (#36, I think) at the Xinyuanli market near the Kunlun Hotel. This market has a great reputation and is worth checking out for all kinds of food. Even the furniture store Ikea offers a few Western groceries (including great coffee) but at stiff prices. At Jennie Lou’s or Xinyuanli, I usually bought coffee beans, Parmesan cheese, Irish or Danish butter, Italian pasta, maple syrup, baking soda, and cleaning products. The Ito Yokado had good fresh-baked French bread.

There’s lots more to describe, but I don’t want to overload you with new and strange information. That will happen often enough in Beijing!

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Before setting off to an alien culture thousands of miles from home, do yourself a favor – research blogs, websites and anyone who already has made the journey about what items you’ll want to bring with you. In addition, have a few family members and friends willing to ship you care packages as needed. Don’t count on being able to order things over the Internet – lots of businesses don’t ship to China. Here are those items that I found most important:

-Western medicines, especially antihistamines, pain relievers, aspirin, cough syrup, allergy medicine and hand sanitizer; Chinese versions are likely to be ineffective or even adulterated fakes. The Western products are not impossible to get in China, but they aren’t easy to find and they are extremely expensive.

-Cooking supplies such as a serving fork, a potato masher, a coffee grinder and coffee maker. Again, the coffee supplies can be bought in China but only for a big price and with mediocre quality. The big fork and potato masher were things I couldn’t find at all.

-Personal grooming products such as shampoo, soap, deodorant and toothpaste. It’s comforting to have a year’s supply of products whose quality you trust, instead of worrying about fakes and possibly toxic ingredients.

-Clothing; if you are not a very short, skinny person, don’t count on being able to buy clothes in China that fit you. Shoes are especially critical. Make sure they fit comfortably and can handle lots of walking on uneven pavement and sidewalks. A pair of rubber boots is desirable for heavy rains, which cause Beijing’s sewers to flood into the streets in a most awful way.

-Your own computer. You won’t want to buy one in China, where it’s difficult to tell if it’s fake and will be extremely expensive if it’s not. Internet speeds in China are 10 times slower than in Japan and 50 times slower than in Korea, and to access a lot of Western sites you’ll have to use a virtual proxy network, which also slows things down.

-A translation app on your phone, such as English-to-Mandarin and vice versa, can help you communicate on-the-spot with cab drivers, sales clerks and others.

-Finally, if in doubt, follow the recommendation of this old joke: When in the P.R.C., bring Patience and Reams of Cash.

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If you’re a Western journalist mulling whether to take any kind of editing job with a Chinese news outlet, here are some of the most common problems you’ll encounter:

-Missing or misplaced articles such as “the,” “a” and “an.” “The” tends to be especially problematic. Chinese reporters either avoid them or seem to randomly sprinkle them throughout their work in the hope that some will be correct. I can’t blame them for being confused. I understand how to use them only because I’m a native English speaker who grew up hearing and reading them being used. Even when knowing where to put them, I can’t explain why;

-No use of tenses. It will be impossible at times to tell whether an event has already happened, is happening now or is scheduled to happen. Sometimes a story will suggest two or more of these possibilities simultaneously;

-Use of dubious sources for English words and phrases. The satirical or tongue-in-cheek aspects of websites such as The Onion or Urban Dictionary are totally lost on Chinese. Thus, you’ll see a phrase like “blanket drill” used in an English-language tips column (“When I get out of the Army, I’m going to do the blanket drill from dawn to dusk” – a genuine example that came to me for editing) because the Chinese reporter didn’t realize it’s military jargon for masturbation;

-Reliance on British news media and style. When a Chinese news story is attributed to the Times, they mean the Times of London, not New York. Australian and Indian papers also are often used for copy. The results include words or expressions such as “bourse,” “whingers,” “Oz” and “thrice,” along with style oddities such as putting quotation marks inside punctuation (“she said”.). Although American English is the world standard, the Chinese don’t trust American English-speaking editors or news sources, suspecting them of anti-Chinese bias;

-Inability to speak English. Yes, even those Chinese colleagues at English-language news media who supposedly have years of education in English will be unable to understand your questions about an article or your explanations of the edits you made. This includes top editors. At first, I tried phrasing my questions in the simplest terms, such as, “Is this black or white?” The answer I’d get would be, “Yes.” You can either guess at what is meant or delete it. In any case, it’s likely that whatever correction you make will simply be changed back to its original erroneous form after you’re done with it.

I have great respect for Chinese who learn English (or English-speakers who learn Chinese). One of the most memorable people I met in China was an elderly man who introduced himself to me and a fellow American because he wanted to practice his English. He was self-taught, and in the process had learned the lyrics to every Frank Sinatra song. We asked him to sing something for us and expected to hear a rendition of “My Way” or “New York, New York.” Instead, he launched into “God Bless America.”

The two languages and cultures could not be more different. No doubt the shaky Chinese-language skills of English speakers provide plenty of amusement to the Chinese. 

The perverse official insistence on avoiding American news sources puts Chinese citizens at a real disadvantage. The only truth they know is that which will keep the Communist Party in power. No Western journalist will be able to change that, so expect to do a lot of teeth-gritting and tongue-biting as you help prepare what passes for news. And, for a look at the tussle among English-speaking editors over which country’s version of English is to be used, check out “English war of words” on the columns page.

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Greetings, readers,

If you are an out-of-work print journalist willing to take a big leap outside your comfort zone, you might be able to find a job in Beijing. My goal in this space is to tell you what to expect. Unless you have been in China before, you’ll need all the forewarning you can get. Most Western expats don’t last a year in China. I did, but only because a close pal already was in Beijing and helped me get a job where she worked. 

First, a disclaimer: One year in Beijing does not make me an expert on it, especially since the only Mandarin words I learned were for “hello,” “beer,” and “thank you.” Had I learned more of the language and thus spent more time socializing with  Chinese, I surely would have gained a deeper understanding of the country and possibly might have come to enjoy and appreciate it. However, I came to regard living there as a character-building experience, a painful episode that might have benefits down the road.

Westerners immersed in Chinese culture feel as if they’ve been dropped onto another planet. They suddenly are illiterate and for all practical purposes, deaf and mute as well. They can’t shop, order a meal, direct a cab driver, obtain Internet and phone services, use a phone book or open a bank account without help.

Even more disconcerting, everything you think you know about how people think, what they feel, the way they’ll respond and how things work will turn out to be wrong. Even diagrams like subway maps or icons on appliances will turn out to mean something other than what you thought they so obviously did.

Constant challenges to your competence, independence and sense of humor will take their toll at first. Confronted with unfamiliar and severe limitations, new or undeveloped aspects of your self will appear, not all of them attractive. A lot of Westerners in Beijing turn to drinking or drugs to cope.

In future posts, I’ll describe Chinese media, workplace experiences, cultural differences and the nuts and bolts of living in a place where you are an alien. Americans in particular should expect some strange assumptions about them and reactions to them, as the Chinese seem fixated on a love-hate relationship with the United States.

Should you take a job in Beijing? In my next post, I’ll try to help answer that question.

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