Cross the river by feeling the stones.

Looking outside for desirable things –

day dreaming about Caribbean beaches and sleek sports cars –

thinking about what could happen in the future – or what could have happened in the past.

We indulge ourselves in fantasy.

But what if we focused on making the things we have better, instead of thinking about far away places? Things like our relationships with other people, our daily crafts, and the way in which we go about our lives.

Just like the late Chairman Deng Xiaoping said: we must “cross the river by feeling the stones (摸着石头过河).”

How to Find an Apartment in China: Tips and Tricks

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Trying to find an apartment in Beijing sometimes feels more hopeless than trying to climb up a rock wall slathered in baby oil.

The real estate agents, all working for a different real estate company, somehow all manage to show you the same godawful apartment in your round’ of the neighborhood. (You know, the one with a wretched stench and cracked faucet).

Before moving to Beijing, I was not used to such extreme apartment hunts. I grew up in suburban America. Finding an apartment there meant that all you would had to do was to type Craigslist.org into the URL bar of your favorite internet browser, then look up the number of a man or women that had a room in some empty farm house or the like. There were no thirty-story apartment complexes. I didn’t even ride on the metro until I was in my twenties.

In fact, prior to moving to China, I had only lived in a city once before – and that was during a study abroad program in Budapest, Hungary. And even then I didn’t have to find my own apartment as it was provided by the university

Searching for an apartment in Beijing or any other large Chinese city is no easy task. Here are some pointers.

Tips and tricks

  1. Agents charge one month’s rent as commission. In Beijing that means a full months rent. You might be tempted to skimp out on the agency fee, but this is hard. The best way to do this is to find a room in a flat already leased on the Beijinger’s housing classifieds (Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen should have something similar). However, if you don’t want to share a place, be prepared to fork out one months rent.
  2. When talking about the size of an apartment, the common language is square meters (Chinese is 平米). This is a good way to know how large an apartment is before you visit. Sometimes the floor space can be laid out nonsensically, which makes this metric less useful, but still it is a good measurement to start out with nonetheless.
  3. Which way the apartment windows face (north, south, east, and west) is very important. At least, it’s important to Chinese. I am still not quite sure how much this really matters, but for some reason the Chinese are slightly obsessed with the direction of their apartment windows. For me, I think of it in terms of sunlight and the other buildings surrounding the apartment. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the cult of fengshui (风水) is also behind this.
  4. An apartment’s location in relation to the nearest subway stop is crucial. You should find out the address, shops around the apartment, and how long it takes to literally walk there. The subway line which you choose to be close to should be carefully considered in terms of where you work and your main areas for social interaction.
  5. Have a budget laid out before you decide on your apartment. This is tricky, because we can often be lured away from factors of convenience like distance to the subway, work, and social life, for the sake of shaving off a couple hundred RMBs. If you know how much you are willing to spend ahead of time, then you can more easily filter out apartments which are out of range or fail to meet your requirements. (Remember to factor agency fee and deposit plus three months’ rent into your budget. You will need to pay this upfront if you are using a traditional real estate agency. When planning my budget, I find it most useful to think of renting in terms of all monthly payments plus agency fee; i.e. rent= monthly rent x 13.).
  6. Make sure that your landlord can provide both a deed for the apartment (房本) and Chinese ID card (身份证). This means that your landlord is legally allowed to rent to you and you will be able to register at the local police station (a requirement for all foreigners in China).

These are some of the basics that I have picked up along the way while searching for an apartment. Keep these principles in mind during your own apartment hunt to find a suitable apartment in a city which is very unforgiving to those not well prepared.

A note on landlords: Landlords in China, especially in comparison to back in America, don’t believe that much, if anything, is their responsibility beyond collecting your money. In America, it’s very much considered normal for the landlord to replace basic things and make sure that the maintenance of the place is kept up well. However, Chinese landlords really just ignore your request most of the time, unless of course you find a good one. (I’m not saying that good ones don’t exist, just that I have had a very hard time during my four years in Beijing).  

A note on location: Commuting in any large Chinese city can be incredibly rough, so one learns quickly to either rig the game in one’s favor, reconfigure the “chessboard”, or leave the city altogether. Take it from me, you really don’t want to spend an hour and a half one way to travel to work sardine style, packed into a subway traveling across town. You also don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, isolated from a Starbucks or friends. In short, a balance must be struck.

The Heart of Summer in Beijing

I know that summer is coming when the peaches start to appear at the fruit stand in front of my compound. That is about the same time when I start to wear shorts and a t-shirt, although a jacket is still necessary when I ride my scooter into work early in the morning.

Those peaches are hard and bitter, and I often wonder why they even try to sell them in the first place.

As July approaches, the peaches soften up and become sweeter. And when the sun beats down on one’s brow in the heart of the summer, the peaches are sweetest.

I have never eaten a peach as sweet as the ones from Beijing in the heart of summer.

I wash them off in the sink and stand while I eat them. The best ones are so juicy that you have to hold them out in front of you so that the juices don’t drip down onto your t-shirt. When finished, I wash my face and hands to remove the remnants of peach flesh from my mouth.

When the peaches begin to harden and become bitter I start to think about wearing jeans again and where I will spend my golden week. That is the first week in October you get off in a Chinese company. Almost a whole year will need to pass before we can eat Beijing’s sweet peaches again.

The Complications of Beijing Train Stations

 

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I almost didn’t make it.

It was hot and humid in early morning July. The taxi cabs were lined up bumper to bumper around the station and everyone seemed to be in a rush to go somewhere, although no one was quite sure where that place was exactly.

No matter how many times I go to train stations in Beijing, they always seem to confuse the heck out of me. In other cities it’s more streamlined and there are less people. But in Beijing, for one reason or another, it’s always a zoo.

Having bought my ticket to Wuhan on the C-Trip app, I still needed to pick it up at Beijing West Station. First, I tried to use the self service station, but that machine required using a shenfenzheng (身份证), or Chinese ID card.

In a rush I asked a few different shop attendants where I could pick up the ticket. They all gave different answers. Eventually I figured out that I needed to go into the station and stand in one of the lines that oozed out like an ice cream cone in the sun.

The first line moved quickly and I was relieved. I checked my phone, and saw that I would still have time to grab a coffee and something quick for breakfast before departure. Perfect.

Abruptly the line began to thin. Soon I reached the front, only to find out that the attendant was closing the register. Apparently she had been working all night.

I moved onto the next line. This time deciding upon one that read “English Service” above the register.

About halfway into the line I began to hear yelling. Men who were slightly bigger than the others were throwing their voices around in hopes that they could either rush to the front or speed up the already stressed out cashier.

A moment later one of the men appeared in my vision above the crowd, crouching on a metal bar in front of the cashier’s station where a rotating gate stemmed the surge of passengers who pushed each other from behind. Like some sort of line-cutting troll he shoved his ID card under the window and demanded his ticket.

A moment later, another a man who had cut the line was walking away when he got into a shouting and shoving altercation with a man standing in the line that he had cut. They raised their voices and puffed out their chests, cursing each other.

Ultimately the man walked away, throwing insults over his shoulder as the other stood fuming in position at the center of the line.

And yet still we waited, and waited. I checked my phone and realized now that the gap between me boarding the train and it departing was becoming narrower and narrower. Fending off a few more old men trying to cut the line and passing through the steel gates, I managed to pick up both departure and return tickets for an extra five RMB.

Outside, I began to hurry. I now had to find a way to enter into the station, but the heat and crowds of people befuddled my head. Eventually I made my way to another set of turnstiles between the crowd and train platforms.

At the final set of turnstiles, I realized that I again needed a Chinese ID card to pass through. Pleading with the guard to let me jump over the gates as I was in danger of missing my train, she smiled and shook her head.

So, out of time and luck, I made my way as if I was to go back out of the line, but then casually ducked under a red rope to the side of the turnstiles.

Rushing through the final security check, grabbing two meat pies and a bottle of water, the attendant looked at my ticket and urged me to hurry onto the platform before my train departed. I dashed away towards the incorrect cabin, but a cabin nonetheless, and onto the train leaving for Wuhan.

Had I not ducked under the red rope, I would have missed my train and had to return to the line and exchange tickets. A task that would have cost me another hour, minimum, and further exposed myself to the not-to-be-taken-lightly early morning summer sweat.

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Running, running, running. After this, that, and the other thing. I want my fast-food-McDonald’s-double-quarter-pounder-dream today. Now. I also want the plastic toy, please.

And after I get it, I want a vanilla-ice-cream-super-seven-eleven-slurpee-sugar-rush-city. And the buy one get one free deal.

Today. Now. Faster.

This type of thinking can drive us up and over the wall. ‘Cause us to break down and leave everything behind… because we cannot accept  a reality in which things don’t happen at the pace of our minds.

But what happens when we realize that anything worth something got that way because of a long term investment of time, focus, and effort?

What happens when we realize that the “good things” are on their way… but they’re taking the back roads and stopping all the time to take photos?

 

5 Useful Attitudes and Habits to Adopt When Learning Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn.

When I first came to China in the summer of 2013 I knew zero Chinese, but still I had hope that I could succeed where other language learners before me had failed.

In the beginning I learned the easy stuff. Phrases like “听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng)” for “I can’t understand what you’re saying!” and “没有- (méi yǒu)” for “I don’t have it”.

With time and practice I learned more. However I was still so oblivious in those early days that I would often make some pretty cringe-worthy mistakes. Oftentimes, I would try to bull rush my way through a conversation, speaking quickly and imitating a Beijing accent; hoping that the other person would mistake my incompetence for “a more rustic feel” of the language.

I now look back at this technique and many others similar to it that I employed and see them for what they were: shortcuts.  

Shortcuts are useful in that they help produce results quickly. However, in the long run they are like a festering wound. I was like a man trying to run a marathon without any regard for the physical health of his body.

I wrote these five points to help novice Mandarin learners develop good language learning habits. They do not deal with linguistic or grammatical concerns, but rather the types of attitudes and ideas that many have adopted becuase of their effectiveness. These have come as a culmination of both my own and other’s trial and error.

  1. Tones Matter

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language which means that the tone of each word corresponds with its meaning. Maybe in the beginning you don’t want to admit it, but yes, tones matter. A pronunciation error can completely change the meaning of a word.

Some people might disagree with this, but that’s because their Mandarin isn’t that good. Although you can get away with not knowing the proper tone by speaking fast and glossing over certain words, this shortcut will ultimately handicap your progress

The best way to combat this is to focus obsessively on learning each word’s proper tone. That way, people can understand when you want to buy something, and not sell it (see 买 mǎi and 卖 mài).

Link: https://chinesepod.com/tools/pronunciation/section/17

  1. Learn How to Read and Write Characters

The written system for Mandarin Chinese is complex. It uses both character symbols (汉字 hànzì) and pinyin, which is the romanticized form created in 1958 with tones written above the letters- the same one that I have been using alongside characters here.  

In the beginning it’s common to say that “I only want to learn pinyin, characters take too much time”. However avoiding the deliberate study of Chinese characters is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when learning Chinese. Not only will you not be able to take any of the advance level tests (HSK for simplified characters), but you will also not be able to chat with Chinese friends online or read any of texts in the target language.

A side-note on reading:
Developing reading comprehension is especially important. It helps you to practice the language without having to find a conversational partner. It also allows access to content that will prove invaluable to you as a student of Mandarin. By developing strong reading skills you will have a unique perspective into Chinese society and culture that is often difficult to find as a foreigner due to an undercurrent of xenophobia (possible without, of course, but still inherently difficult).

  1. Work with a Qualified Tutor

There is a certain mythos surrounding those who are able to learn a language purely through self study and immersion. It’s easy for novices to believe themselves “language learning rogues” who will learn the language by “living among the people”. And while participation and interaction with native speakers is certainly important, this belief can be largely damaging to your progress in Mandarin.

Working with a qualified teacher is an effective way to keep your feet on the ground and make steady progress. A good teacher will drill the basics into you early and often. They will motivate you to speak and make mistakes, but will not let you believe that you are invincible.

A personal anecdote:
I was one of those students that didn’t believe I needed a teacher. In the beginning I managed to kind of bulldoze my way through and, as a consequence, I developed a rather gawky, toneless form of Mandarin. At that point in time, many of my Chinese friends told me that I spoke with an incredible amount of slang, which they called 胡同话 hútong huà. (Sidenote: this was/is not a complement).

I eventually hired a teacher and my Mandarin has been all the better for it. There are certainly a lot of positives about self-study, but I have found that a teacher helps me to correct errors that I didn’t know I had. Looking back, I can now also see how they helped me to make consistent progress.

  1. Speak slowly and deliberately

A lot of times when we start learning a new language we get very excited and tend to speak very fast. We think that this makes us sound more authentic and like we actually “know” the language. However the reality of speaking quickly in Chinese before you are ready is that you will hear “tīng bu dǒng” much more than if you were to speak slowly and deliberately.

Slowing down when you speak, and putting emphasis on the right tones, helps others to understand you.

A side-note on speaking:
Think about speaking to another person who is learning your mother tongue. Is it easier when they speak fast and try to add their own “flair” to the language, or when they speak to you at an even pace and try to keep things as simple as possible? If you want to have conversations with native speakers, and so make progress, then you need to do the same.

  1. Do Not Refuse to Speak English

Another tendency of the fledgling Mandarin student, especially while living in a Chinese speaking country, is to refuse to speak English with Chinese friends. This can lead to some awkward situations that you want to avoid.  

The fact of the matter is that many native Chinese speakers have been learning English their entire life and feel very proud of their ability. They don’t necessarily want to make you feel bad about your language level, but it’s slightly awkward and embarrassing when you are trying to have a conversation with someone, and that person insists on using a language they don’t know.

Be tactful with whom and where you practice in the beginning. Don’t, for example, try to respond to your boss in Chinese when she tells you something in English. Have faith that as you continue to study and immerse yourself that your Chinese will blossom like the Beijing botantical gardens, Summer Palace, or… well you get the point.

A side-note on no refusing to speak English:
If you work hard enough, then eventually you will find yourself in many situations where the tables have been turned, that is, your Chinese is better than the other’s English. If you don’t understand what I am talking about now, perhaps you will have more appreciation for this point then.   

Wrap Up

The adoption and commitment to these attitudes and habits will help you improve your Mandarin level and get rid of some of those nasty habits that are holding you back from developing a more thorough understanding of the language.

Until next time, Cheers and 加油!

10 Ways to Relax like a Local Expat in Beijing

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Tourists in Beijing often prioritize visiting places like the Great Wall and Forbidden city. They have good reason to. These are not only beautiful attractions in their own right, but also emblematic of China.

However a lot of people don’t want to deal with the crowds or stress of traveling around and trying to check off every box on their Fodor’s travel guide. They want to experience the city as a local might.

This list is for those people.

We all love China. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that sometimes a guy has got to eat a slice of pizza and try to visualize he is anywhere else but here…in China.

Don’t judge me, OK?

1. Visit Wangfujing Bookstore and have a coffee above the Oriental Mall 

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View From Starbucks at Jiangguomen Wai 

Location: 东城区王府井大街218
218 Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District

Wangfujing and its adjacent snack street filled with scorpions and fried shark fin is a great place for tourists. However, those whom live in Beijing prefer to skip all that and instead visit the Wangfujing Bookstore, located directly across from the snack street. The store has six floors of books, with the third floor containing English books as well as Chinese language learning materials (in case, you know, you want to be less helpless in the city).

After visiting the book store you may be tempted to try fried scorpion… Take my word for it, you can skip that. Instead, ride the escalator up to the office buildings above the Oriental Mall and have a coffee at one of the most underrated Starbucks in Beijing next to the Hyatt. This is a great place to get a view of Jianguomen Wai and some buildings beautiful examples of contemporary Chinese architecture. 

2. Eat pastries and drink coffee north of “The Village”

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Pasticceria North of “The Village

Location: 三里屯北小街1
1 Sanlitun Beixiaojie

Sanlitun Village is the de-facto foreign quarter of Beijing. 

The reason for this being that it is surrounded by many embassies and is beside the city’s main business district. North of of the main area for restaurants and shops, called by many “The Village”, is a tidy corridor of cafes owned primarily by an Italian gentlemen who I have never met. Anyway, you can get meals there and, more importantly, eat sweets at the pasticceria while sipping a cappuccino.

 

3. Eat Nachos in Sanlitun Village

Location: 朝阳区三里屯路19号三里屯Village南区4号楼3S4-32
S4-32, 3/F, Bldg 4, Sanlitun Village South, 19 Sanlitun Lu Chaoyang District

Taikoonli is an upscale shopping center in Sanlitun Village, and is also home to a few restaurants that Expats swear by; one of which is called Cantina Agave and has some of the best Mexican food in town. Sure, Chinese food is good and all, but what self respecting traveller doesn’t enjoy a good dose of sour cream and guacamole from time to time?

4. Relax in Changping and Mentougou Districts  

Link (Mangshan National Park): http://www.ebeijing.gov.cn/feature_2/BeijingParks/BeijingParksA_Z/t1177019.htm

Tired of honking horns, screaming mothers, and heavy pollution? Well, Beijing’s mountains in the west of the city offer some of the best medicine for urban headaches. 

Completed in 2015, the Changping Line departs from Xierqi Station in Hadian and travels out into Beijing’s Changping District. The Dongguan subway stop provides access to Mangshan National Park nearby the Ming Tombs, which is a nice hour hike up to a pagoda. This is but one of the many options in Changping.

Another way to take advantage of the surrounding mountains is to ride Line 1 until you reach Pingguoyuan, the most western station. From there you can access Mentougou district, which is a popular area for villages and buddhist temples. One of the most famous Buddhist temples in Beijing, Tanzhesi, is located here.

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Tanzhesi Temple

5. Relax With A Massage 

Location: 朝阳区工体北路17
17 Gongti Beilu Chaoyang District
Link: https://www.thebeijinger.com/directory/bodhi-therapeutic-retreat

Massages in China are considerably cheaper than in western countries. You should take advantage of this! Remember, you won’t be here forever. One of the most popular places to get a massage is at Bodhi in Sanlitun village. They offer a solid middle of the road option. 

6. Ride the Beijing Subway

Taxis are cheap in China. Yes, I know it. But you know what is even cheaper? The subway. It used to be that you could travel anywhere in the city for just 2 RMB. Now it’s gone up to a distance fare system where the most you pay is 7 RMB. Still, nobody is complaining.

7. Spend the Day at Ikea

The Swedish furniture importer is much more than a simple warehouse, it is also a place to sleep, hang out with friends, and eat. Chinese and foreigners alike enjoy going to Ikea on dates or just to kill time. Sound crazy? Well, some things you have to see to believe.

8. Bike Around the Hutongs Aimlessly 

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Beijing is a city known for its history, and a big part of that is its traditional houses called hutongs. Although the hutongs are rapidly disappearing as the city pushes into modernity, there are still plenty to see (particularly within the second ring road).

If the hutongs are Beijing’s most famous style of architecture, than the same can be said for the bicycle mode of transportation. Although the time of everyone riding on two wheels has long since passed, it is still a very pleasant experience to cycle in Beijing as its an extremely flat city. Spend a day either alone or with a friend and get lost in some of Beijing’s old inner city. 

9. Eat barbecue and drink watery beer 

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Kao Rou, Chinese For Barbecue

One of my first memories in Beijing was eating chuar (barbecue) and drinking watery yanjing beer late into the summer nights. During the winter this isn’t an option. But when the weather is still warm enough and you can get away with it, I highly recommend pulling up a plastic stool and ordering some roasted lamb and mantou bread. 

(I also recommend making sure that the restaurant you choose is at least halfway decent and that you are not going to eat anything questionable, such as rat or dog.)

10. Play Football in Chaoyang Park 

Location: 1 Nongzhan Nanlu, Chaoyang District
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Beijing is an international city and so it is only fitting that it has a decent football scene (soccer for us Americans). Chaoyang Park is located just east of Sanlitun and holds five on five games on various nights of the week. This is a great way to let off some steam and keep sane. Sometimes all you need to fend off homesickness is a to work up a sweat with some friends.