Tag Archives: beijing

A Very Particular Period of Chinese Language Studies

When I first started learning Mandarin Chinese, I relied heavily on a series of Pimsleur courses. I found these very helpful in learning the different sounds and tones of the language, as the Pimsleur method places heavy emphasis on repetition (quite useful for speaking Mandarin).

It has been four years since that time and here I am: still working on the basics.

As part of my journey to pass the HSK 5 I am trying out some new techniques and experimenting with using new material. In particular, I have been very interested in using material from the US government’s Foreign Language Institute.

Today, I actually got around to downloading and listening to one of their tapes. You can find that tape here . (Please note that this site is not affiliated with any government entity and is privately owned).

Now, it doesn’t say exactly when the course was created, but on this particular website it uses the words “many years ago”. After listening to the tape, I realized that they were not exaggerating.

The two speakers I heard on Unit 1 Tape 1 spoke not only very quickly, but also with a heavy Beijing accent. After listening to the tape I found it very curious indeed how people were able to learn Chinese twenty or thirty years ago.

The tapes are interesting from a cultural perspective. They harken back to a time when people in the USA and China did not know very much about each other. I imagine that many of the more experienced China hands I know today learned Mandarin using similar materials.

PS: I could not find a record of the first US student to study Chinese in Mainland China. I would love to know who this person was and their story. If you know, please drop me a line.

Wikipedia Background Links

US-China open door policy and 1978 opening to foreign investment
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Door_Policy

Brief history of Chinese language studies
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_as_a_foreign_language

Riding Electric Scooters in Beijing

When I first came to Beijing I used to commute to work for an hour and a half each way on the subway. That meant most of my time was spent either at work or in the metro.

I think it was in one of those early morning commutes that I vowed to myself that I would never knowingly accept such a commute again if I could help it. In order to make good on that promise to myself I needed to find another job and minimize the time spent commuting.

Since those early days I have switched jobs a few times and apartments as well. A big part of my solution to the original commuter problem is to live in an apartment located nearby my office and to ride an electric moped.

Riding a moped into work is not perfect, (early morning traffic still gives me anxiety), but it definitely beats taking the bus or metro. In fact, the utility I have found in owning a scooter is one of the biggest reasons why I like my job and life in China.

My Current Scooter Set Up

Throughout my time in Beijing I have had two scooters. The first was a beat-up model with wide handlebars that navigated the hutongs more like a boat than anything else. Ever though it was old, it was still useful to commute from the room that I had rented in the city center to my job a few blocks away (this was post first Beijing job).

That bike had many problems and eventually I ended up selling it to a local repair shop for 300 RMB. Considering that I had used it for the better part of a year, and bought it for 800 RMB, I considered it a good purchase.

I purchased my second and current scooter upon getting a new job in a different district and moving nearby the office. In this area, it was very hard to find a good apartment close to the subway, so buying a scooter was a way for me to get around while still living somewhere nice.

While people often go for style when purchasing scooters, I chose a slightly different tact. For me, the most important feature was utility as I was using it as a tool to both commute to work and park nearby the different metro stations. That meant I was concerned primarily with the scooter utility.

When judging a scooters utility there are two important factors: batteries and safety. I decided to go with a very basic, large black scooter and lead batteries for 2500 RMB based on these two criteria.

Battery Life

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six pack lead batteries

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battery price list from local shop

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outside of the lead battery pack

As noted above, perhaps the most important quality of a scooter is its battery system. In China, there are many different kinds of batteries to choose from, ranging from cheap lead, to higher quality lithium.

Lead batteries are of poorer quality. This means that they will wear out much faster and weigh much more depending upon your desired range than lithium. However, because they are less valuable, they are also less likely to be stolen. A box of six lead batteries can cost from anywhere between three hundred to one thousand RMB.

Lithium batteries are much better. Generally speaking, you will only need one lithium battery to power your scooter with excellent range. They are lighter and also last much longer than their lead counterparts.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of lead batteries is the difficulty in charging them. If you plan on using your bike for commuting anything more than a couple of kms, then you will need more than one in your bike. (For the record, I commute 9 kms every day and have placed the entire pack of six batteries in my bike).

To charge lead batteries, riders either pull them out of the bike and lug them up to their apartments, or literally bring their bikes into the elevator and wheel them into their apartments.

The advantage of using lithium batteries is that you can simply pull the battery out and easily carry it up to your apartment. It’s simple, convenient, and incredibly light in comparison to lead batteries.

However, I chose to power my bike with lead batteries because I am honestly too afraid of a lithium battery being stolen. I myself have had two bikes stolen from me in Beijing (one I was watching for a friend) and do not relish the idea of going through this again with a lithium battery bike. Lead batteries allow me to leave the bike nearby the subway and worry less about the costs should it be tampered with.

Safety

Aside from batteries, the safety of one’s scooter is also very important. We can judge safety mostly in terms of how well the parts work: most importantly its wheels and brakes. The size of the scooter is also very important.

My first scooter in Beijing was second-hand and very unsafe.

Looking back at it now, I understand how the poorly maintained brake pads caused me to get into an accident. That … and a lack of concentration.

In order to hedge against poorly working parts I decided to buy a brand new scooter. This was a good way to ensure that everything was as new and safe as possible.

Also, like any good American, my desire to optimize safety led me to purchase the largest scooter that I could find. This idea was put into me at a very young age when my siblings and friends got their first cars to drive. That is, if you get into a crash, the largest car will always come out on top.

For these two reasons I went with a brand new model of the largest scooter I could find. This ensured brand new brakes and tires, as well as something large enough to make sure that I was a presence on the road.

Conclusion

Overall, I am happy with the purchase. It lets me cruise into work safely, and if something happens to the bike then I am not at a terrible financial loss. The size has proved well worth it while riding to and from work and I have not had a problem so far leaving it parked in various places.

However, I think if I were to purchase another bike I would seriously consider upgrading to lithium. As most of my distance gets put on between my compound and place of work, I find that actually I don’t need to worry about parking it that often. Once complaint that I have is that bringing my scooter into my elevator and then apartment multiple times a week is a hassle. I would definitely consider paying a little bit more to solve this problem.

What do you think? Are my scooter criteria aligned with your own? How do you make commuting to work more enjoyable?

Useful  Vocabulary
electric scooter: 电动车 (diàndòngchē)
battery: 电池 (diànchí)
wheels: 车轮 (chēlún)
second hand: 二手 (èrshǒu)

The General Consensus Is Better Air in Beijing

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Here is a panorama shot I took on my smartphone. I was lying down on a bench at the time of the shot. That’s the kind of weather we have been having here lately: mid seventies and blue skies. What more could a guy ask for?

It seems like the pollution is getting better in Beijing. At least, that is what you hear anecdotally. I had dinner with an old china hand last night that was passing through town. He remarked on how clean the air seemed.

While that person doesn’t live in China full-time anymore, and any one person’s opinion on such a large-scale problem hardly seems reliable, I think that it’s safe to say that his comment reflects the general consensus.

We still get very bad smog here, but it does seem like the stretches of good days are getting longer and longer.

I like these days because it puts everyone in a better mood. I spent most of the day around my apartment waiting on the property management to come by and I didn’t mind it at all. Everyone was smiling – even the property management people.

After everything was taken care of, I rode out of my compound in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals – thinking about what I might have for dinner under the sashay of summer’s green branches.

In the end, I decided upon Xingjiang Barbecue (串儿). A summer night classic.

 

Chinese Markets

Don’t be confused by the architecture or the language or the way others look. We are all actually a lot similar than we might like to think. We all need the basics; food, shelter, water, love. We all worry about the future and the past.

But, sometimes, the color of one’s flag tends to confuse people. It can make us think that we are a lot more different than we actually are.

American exceptionalism.

Chinese copy-cats.

It’s all hot air.

In reality, the differences between our achievements come from how our societies are constructed and the resources which are available to us at a given time.

Americans aren’t necessarily “better” than everyone else. We have just consciously cultivated a place where cooperation, learning, and meaningful work are encouraged.

Chinese aren’t copy-cats by nature. It’s just that their educational system and this particular model suits their country at this point in time. And as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Throughout past four years living in China and coming to understand it, I have fluctuated between wildly outlandish, racist notions, and a more realistic grasp of how basic societal differences shape the people. 

The best way to understand China as a market is to understand the details, while at the same time not letting these perceived differences intimidate or deter you. Yes, living and doing business here is very different from many other places. But, no, it’s not impossible.   

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.