Tag Archives: shanghai

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.

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!

What’s Up With This Sharing Economy Thing?

“What’s up with this sharing economy thing?” I say to my friend Mike as I stare at the line of beat-up yellow bicycles parked at the foot of my apartment building.

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“It’s kind of like an agreement. We all put in some money and then share something.” Mike gestures to the line of yellow bicycles. “It’s kind of like everyone in the city buys a bicycle, but doesn’t lock them.”

“I see. Still, it seems a little odd to me. There are so many of them now.”

“Yeah, I know. Seems like people really like to share when everyone benefits.”

I nod my head to Mike. I guess I can’t argue with that. It’s nice to be able to ride a bicycle in any part of the city and not worry if someone is going to steal it or not. When you have a good subway system and access to bicycles at every stop it makes you wonder why someone would want to buy a car in the first place.

Then you get on the subway in the heat of summer. Everyone is sweaty and you can’t find a seat. Your clothes stick to your skin like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth and you suddenly don’t wonder so much why people still drive cars.

Mike and I ride our yellow bicycles out of the compound and down a dusty street in search of some stir-fried vegetables over rice. Still, I think to myself, there have been much worse ideas.

小黄车 xiǎo huángchē- a new word with Min老师

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