Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Time = Money

I received the results of my health examination on Monday. I’m happy to say I got a clean bill of health. It was hand delivered to my office in the morning. The office assistant took it, my passport and some forms to the Visa/residence permit processing facility this afternoon just to wait in line for me. Since I still had to go in person to get my picture taken, she called me a little before her number was called, and I took a taxi out to meet her there. I handed over all my papers (how come we never call them “papers” in the US?) for processing. I should receive it back in a week. I feel like the availability of cheap labor in China has pushed services in opposite directions:

1. Services that think your time is worthless.
I put places like the bank in this category. You go in, take a number, wait anywhere between 30-75 minutes until your number is called. Then you can finally perform whatever simple transaction you required (like withdrawing or depositing money.) The problem here is that banks don’t segregate the time-consuming tasks from the short ones. In a US bank, if you want to open an account, or something equally involved, you don’t stand in line. You see a clerk at a desk. In China, there is one line. Unless you are a VIP (don’t know how you qualify), you wait along with everyone else for the 2 tellers that are helping everyone. If two people want to open an account, they hold up the entire line for 15-20 minutes.

Retail stores are similar. There’s no such thing as a simple transaction. Everything requires a hard sell, bargaining on price, confirmation that the product is in good condition, payment, collection of products, and finally confirmation that the products you just received are the ones that you examined earlier.

2. Services that think your time is valuable.
The assistant waited in line for me because there is a clear understanding that my time is worth "more" than hers. Delivery services here (such as the ones that delivered my furniture) work weekends and long morning and evening hours. Ayis (maids) clean your apartment because your time is worth "more" than the $2/hour they make. Is it exploitation? I think it’s efficient allocation of resources.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Chinese tourists

While at work, I came across some interesting facts about Chinese tourists.

1) Chinese outbound (international) travel is growing at 15% a year. There are now more tourists leaving from China than Japan.

2) Chinese trade-down on accommodations and transportation, but trade up in shopping. Trading-up and down are terms used to describe the behavior of buying really cheap things to be able to afford certain luxuries, for example, buying Target-brand socks to wear with $200 Nike sneakers. For example, the average American visitor to Hong Kong spends $700 on hotel stay, $200 on meals, and $300 on shopping. The typical Chinese visitor to Hong Kong spends $1,000 on shopping for luxury goods (Prada, Gucci, etc.), $120 on hotel stay and $140 on meals.

3) Most travel in with tour groups. This is because Chinese travelers typically can’t speak English, have never traveled before and don’t know what to expect, and want to be able to eat Chinese food.

4) The cost of round trip airfare from Shanghai to Beijing (~1300 RMB) is equivalent to one months’ salary for the average worker in either city.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

I heart Carrefour #2

I need slippers. Across Asia, it's culturally proper to take off your shoes and put on slippers before entering someone's home. In China, it's even more important because for some reason, the street is particularly dirty. It's still a developing country in many ways, so I expected parts to be dirty. But, despite the many people sweeping streets and mopping hallway floors, there is a permanent layer of grime on every horizontal surface. Thus, I try to take off my shoes even as I enter my own apartment. However, since it's still the middle of winter, I also needed to get a pair of warm slippers. It's easy to find a cheap pair of slippers from any stall on the street. But they are typically made for tourists and not very warm. My feet are worth spending some cash, so I went to the department store in my local mall (conveniently right above Carrefour).

Let me describe it so you can get a better picture of it. It's seven stories high and yet never has any more than 5 customers on each floor (which says something about me, since I went in there to buy something). It averages a staff to customer ratio of 3:1 on any given floor. Strangely, each department in the department store is actually operated almost entirely independently of the others. Imagine the Polo section in your local Macy's not being run by the same company as the Tommy Hilfiger section, and you'll get the idea. I asked one clerk who was selling wool socks where I could find slippers. She simply said, "I don't sell slippers." I said, "I know that, where can I get some?" Her response was, "I don't know, I don't sell them. Maybe somebody else here does." I finally found slippers, and even though the biggest size was still one size smaller than my feet (I only wear a size 10 ½ in the US, but apparently, those are giant feet over here), I still bought them. I was desperate, having not seen any insulated slippers so far, and they were also half the price of ones I had seen in a US department store.

In addition to being arranged independently, the department store's departments also aren’t allowed to take payments. Instead, they write up a receipt, and you have to walk to the nearest cashier (sometimes located outside the actual department store) settle the bill there, get a receipt for your payment, bring it back to the clerk who sold you your goods, and then pick up your stuff. In any case, long story short, I paid 90 RMB for comfortable slippers.

Since the department store is right above Carrefour, I figured I’d pop down to get some food and other odds and ends. I couldn’t help but look for slippers there as well. I am kicking myself now because of course I found much cheaper slippers there; one pair actually fits my extra-large feet. They were so cheap, I bought two pairs. One for me, and one for any guests that might come over. They were 20 RMB and 13 RMB respectively. Moral of the story: Go to Carrefour first. Go to other places only if Carrefour doesn’t have what you need, because it’s likely to be more expensive and a lot more difficult to purchase anyplace else.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Where I live

Here's an aerial view of my apartment building. Well, not from very high up, and not of my actual building. It's part of a model of the entire city of Shanghai at the City Planning musuem. But you get the picture. There are seven towers (not connected - read my earlier post about rooftop crossings) that are each 25-30 stories high. I wrote earlier that I live on the 33rd floor, but I actually live on the floor numbered 33. In reality, it's only the 29th story of the building. Thanks to superstition (Chinese and Western), there are no floors numbered 4, 13, 14, 24, or 34. The number 4 sounds like death in Chinese, so those numbers are all taboo. (More to come on Chinese number preferences.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Internet connectivity in China

The internet connection between here and the US is ridiculously slow. I’m told it’s all due to the an earthquake off the coast of Taiwan that severed most of the fiber optic links between Asia and the United States a month ago. I sure hope that’s true, because if it remains as slow after the links are fixed, my happiness and productivity will be severely diminished. I find myself unable to download files over 4 MB since the connection gets reset every so often, which makes it impossible for me to get updates for TurboTax (does this qualify me for an automatic refund extension?) or see company annual reports. It also means that I am having a really difficult time watching any TV that I am trying to stream over from the US via Slingbox. I’m getting awfully tired of watching the only English channel on Chinese broadcast television, CCTV9. CCTV9 only seems to have 4 hours of new content each day. During the other 20 hours a day, it just replays the same “expert interviews” and documentaries about rural farm workers.

However, I do have enough bandwidth to use my VOIP phone. So now, Katie can call me on a local phone number from the US, and I can call her without incurring ridiculous international long distance phone charges. The only thing I have to worry about now are wrong numbers that wake me up at 2 in the morning, since it’s 1 in the afternoon in Washington DC, where my phone number is from.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Residence permit health exam

This morning I had to get a medical examination as part of my residence permit application. This helps prove you are not carrying any contagious diseases as well as show the government that you are not moving to China to freeload off their socialized health care system. I had readied myself for the worst, but it was actually a pleasant experience. After taking a cab to the Hong Qiao area (suburb popular with expats), I paid 702 RMB ($90) and handed over 3 passport-sized pictures, a copy of my passport and a copy of my firm’s business license. They gave me a brief medical questionnaire to fill out while waiting for my number to be called. The form was in English and all the employees seemed to be able to speak English. However, almost every Caucasian in the place was accompanied by an interpreter. When my number was called, they took my form, stapled a bunch of barcode stickers to it and took a digital photo. Then I was led to the assembly line of tests that many other people were already going through.

Step 1) Take off my shirt and put on a robe top.

Step 2) Have my height and weight measured using an ultrasonic scanner (bounces off my head to measure my height).

Step 3) Have two tubes of blood drawn. No immediate results.

Step 4) Quick eye exam while still wearing my glasses. I guess it’s a good thing I am not colorblind and that my prescription is correct.

Step 5) Chest X-ray. Again, no immediate results, but the x-ray sensor was labeled “X-ray autoloader” and seemed like it was capable of taking x-rays faster than my printer can print pages.

Step 6) EKG test. Print out was stapled to my form.

Step 7) Ultrasound. Never had this done before. The technician seemed surprised when she said “You’re normal!” I don’t even know what she was looking for, but I was relieved.

Step 8) Basic exam. Blood pressure check and cursory listening via stethoscope. The doctor asked, “Do you have any health problems?” I said “No”, but was really thinking, “isn’t that what you’re supposed to tell me?”

Step 9) Get dressed and tell them if you want to come back to pick up your completed results in a week or have it hand delivered for 30 RMB. Since 30 RMB is less than $4, and the round-trip cab fare alone is 50 RMB, I took the delivered option.

All in all, it took about 45 minutes and didn’t require anything really invasive. If all Chinese medical experiences were like that, I wouldn’t be afraid to go to the doctor.

Day 1 in the office

Today was my first day in the office. Not wanting to be late, I showed up a little before 8:30. No one was in the office. There was no receptionist; the doors were locked. I went back downstairs to hide out in a convenience store for a little while. When I went up again a little before 9, the doors had been opened. I suppose the Shanghai working hours are a little closer to New York City. The receptionist kindly let me know that no one that could help me was there yet, so I could sit in a conference room until they arrived. I plopped myself down and connected to the wireless internet, until a coworker I knew from the US stopped in and offered to walk me around to my office. He gave me the brief rundown of everything. Nothing is very different from the US, other than the fact that we have a cleaner on staff to dump out our pint-size trash cans and restock the kitchen with tea. Also, paper seems to be expensive. Notebooks are no larger than 5”x 7” and there are no pads of the graph paper that I’m used to in the US.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Useless advanced technology #1

I dropped Katie off at the airport today to go back to the US. The new international airport, Shanghai PuDong, is about 45 km from downtown Shanghai. A cab ride can cost about 100 RMB. We took a somewhat different route.

A few years ago, China decided to build something no other company, city, country, or Simpson’s fan had ever been dumb enough to do. They built the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train. These trains have been pioneered by the Germans and the Japanese, but it took the ego of the Chinese to think you could make money on a $1.2 billion train that runs 30 km from the airport to the outskirts of Shanghai suburbia.

In any case, it was a lot of fun to ride. We took the metro almost to the end of the line and then bought one-way tickets (40 RMB/~$5 each). We got on board and it took off. It accelerated gently but constantly to 431 km/h (267 miles per hour) and then started to decelerate. In all, we covered the 30 miles in about 12 minutes. The experience was very much like flying on land. I wish we could all get around by maglev. If only it didn’t cost $13,000 per foot of track and require an additional 30 minutes to get to the station. It’s a good exhibition for China; it shows the world that they can utilize advanced technology (and also eases the trade imbalance).

However, it is a little bit inappropriate for its current limited use and just goes to show the lengths to which the country will go just to look good.By the way, my return trip from the airport was via bus. It dropped me off in front of my apartment building, took 75 minutes and cost 20 RMB.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Fear of Personal Safety #1

In my rush to describe our new apartment, I neglected to describe our first evening in it. Katie and I decided to stock the pantry by going to Carrefour (did I mention how much I love the place?) and buying armloads of staples. On our way back to the apartment, we discovered a fire hose snaking out the front door, pumping a heavy stream of water. We were turned away at the door to the building. Apparently, a pipe on the 18th floor burst and the elevators were not working. We could take the stairs or go through the next building and walk over. We decided to follow a security guard to the next building as the prospect of walking up the 29 flights of stairs with our bags of purchases was not very appealing. The guard took us in the elevator to the top floor of the next building over. We walked out and followed him up a flight of stairs, out a door and onto the… roof. It turns out there is no connecting walkway between buildings, just a rooftop available for maintenance workers. We picked our way across the roof, climbing over ventilation ducts, electrical wires, and drainage pipes to get to my building. My building is four stories taller than the one we were on, so to get in from the roof, we had to climb the fire escape. Once there, another security guard was waiting to open the door to get inside my building. We then climbed down one floor to my apartment. While I would not consider our activities dangerous (we were well over 20 feet away from any ledge), I did note that there were no railings, no warning signs, or even lights. We just had three security guards and flashlights helping us. The United States is a trial lawyer’s heaven, but there are times when I think liability laws actually help keep people safe.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Could Chinese airtravel be more comfortable than in the US?

We’re flying back to Shanghai on China Eastern. We were stopped as we boarded the plane and told to leave our carry on bags since the plane was too full. Now that we are on board, I see the overhead compartments are almost completely empty. I don’t see how that made any sense. My fingers are crossed that our bags will be waiting for us on the other side. We had one pleasant surprise on the flight. We were served dinner! I’m too used to American flights where cost cutting has eliminated food service and double drink service. Here, we got a plate of hot noodles with beef, bread, and dessert. Not exactly five star, but better than McDonalds.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Katie and I are in Beijing today. Now that the apartment situation has been squared away, we decided to get out of town. If Shanghai is Vegas and LA combined, then Beijing is Dallas mixed with Detroit. Sound unpleasant? That’s because it is. It’s 22 degrees Fahrenheit, adding to the discomfort, but it’s just not a very pretty city. Everything is drab and covered in a thin layer of dirt. Street blocks are half a mile long and the two metro lines never go where you want them to.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I heart Carrefour

Katie and I have been here 5 days and have been in Carrefour every single day. It helps that we live across the street from the place. Almost everything that I could possibly want lies within the four walls and two floors of the hypermart. I love Wal-Mart in the US, but the one Wal-Mart here is out in the hinterlands of Shanghai suburbia. Carrefour has adopted a much smaller footprint strategy that works in department store format. I can go there to get trash bags, bed sheets, and toilet paper as well as find diet coke and brie cheese.

Friday, January 12, 2007

I have heard Shanghai compared to New York, Paris, and Hong Kong. I’d have to say that those may be true, but I would say it is closer to a combination of Vegas and Los Angeles. It can be as gaudy and bright as Vegas, but everybody is as fashionable and attentive to style as LA. Paris? I don’t see it at all. People are nice, the city is cheap, and they don’t mind if you speak a little English. The only thing that is similar is that the Americano served at Starbucks is a shot of espresso mixed with hot water. Here are my other first observations from the first week in China:

1) There are tons of KFCs. I knew KFC is popular, given the fact that the Chinese love chicken as well as anything fried. But I didn’t expect them to be on every corner and offer free wireless internet as well.

2) Street food seems to be popular in every developing country, but I didn’t expect a guy with a metal box full of burning charcoal selling beef kabobs off the luggage rack of his bike. Katie made me promise not to buy meat products on the street.

3) There is a greater variety of banks than in the United States. The US has a pretty regional banking market, but in any given big city, there are only a few major banks (BofA, Citi, Chase, Wells Fargo, WaMu, etc.) Here in China, it seems that there are 10-20 different banks to choose from, almost all equally prevalent and popular, except two: Bank of China (my bank of choice because it is the only bank I found with an English account application form) and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

4) There are very few homeless people. Perhaps it’s because the Public Security Bureau (i.e. police) sweep them off the streets at night to be carted out to the country, or because the socialist government provides for their well-being. Regardless, I am particularly aware of their absence since I lived in downtown DC and I couldn’t walk 10 feet without being accosted. Now I can’t walk 10 feet without being asked if I want a Rolex watch or a LV bag, but at least they’re trying to make a living.

5) Nobody sells Diet Coke. Nobody needs to be on a diet here anyway, since I’m easily the heaviest person in the room at all times. I have yet to see anybody with a BMI of over 28. Coke is available everywhere, but if you ask for diet coke, or coke light, they look at you as if you asked for a glass of dirty water. Everybody that is except for Carrefour. But more about that later.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Got my apartment

Everything here seems to require 4 people and a lot of waiting. The average waiting time in a bank is 45 minutes. I finally signed a lease for my apartment today. It required a total of 4 visits to the apartment, one visit to the furniture store (with 3 people in tow: the property manager, the renter’s agent, and the landlord’s agent), and one visit to the electronics store. Even buying a microwave requires speaking with the microwave sales agent, paying for it at the cashier, bringing the receipt back to the sales agent, and scheduling delivery by another person at a later date. Labor is cheap, but that’s no excuse for the lack of any sort of productivity.

As I mentioned earlier, the primary accomplishment of the day was to get an apartment and sign a lease. The lease agreement was filled out by hand in triplicate. Anybody heard of a copier? But I signed it, and paid five months worth of rent at the same time. Two months for the deposit, and three months of rent (I prepaid to negotiate for a lower monthly rate). Did I mention it was all in cash? Checks are not popular in China. I have to walk around with a gangster roll in my pocket if I want to buy anything substantive. This is also due to the fact that no bills larger than 100 RMB ($12.50) seem to exist in circulation. Banks provide little bags for your convenience of transporting upwards of 10-20k RMB at once. So, I paid my rent the first time in cash. Next time? Simple: I walk to my bank, withdraw my money, walk out with my thief-attracting takeout bag of bills to the bank where my landlord has an account. Then I deposit that cash in her account. My deposit slip is my receipt.

However, I am pleased with the apartment’s location. A little bit away from the central downtown area, it’s still very convenient, right above the metro stop, and cheaper. We’ll see how long it takes for me to get tired of going to the same restaurants and shops.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Flying troubles

Katie and I woke up yesterday at 4:45 AM to catch a flight out of Dulles bound for San Francisco, where we were to catch a flight to Shanghai. I knew we had a tight connection in SFO if 45 minutes, but I figured we would make it since our flight was early in the morning and there were no weather problems at either airport. Of course, things didn’t start out well, as we boarded our plane in Washington 15 minutes late. We then sat at the gate a few more minutes due to extra baggage. Then a 777 was held up right behind us and we took off 40 minutes late. I was still confident that we would make our flight, hoping in vain that the other international passengers on our flight (as well as my measly Premier status on United) would hold up our flight by the 5-10 minutes we would need to catch our original flight. Our hopes were dashed when a flight attendant approached us just as we started to descend for landing. She told us that we had been rebooked on a Cathay Pacific flight departing one hour after our scheduled United flight. She said it had already been done and that there was nothing we could do. We figured Cathay would be better than United, so we said okay. However, we had to go out to the terminal to pick up our new boarding passes when we arrived. We arrived 25 minutes late, with potentially enough time to get to our flight. But we went out to the terminal to get our new tickets. Our faces dropped when we realized the attendant was wrong – we hadn’t been rebooked on Cathay; we were rebooked on Air China… through Beijing. Air China is no Cathay. It’s not even comparable to United. The line was 300-people long and the clerks at the counter were ruder than employees at CVS. We politely refused our new itinerary and went back to United to complain. They got us on the same flight the next day. However, even with status, we had to ask for a manager to get vouchers for meals and a hotel stay. No extra frequent flier miles. If this were a Starwood business, I would have gotten 5,000 points, easy. We spent the afternoon sleeping and then went to dinner with my sister. This morning, we woke up at a leisurely time and got on our flight. So here we are, stuck in the middle two seats of a 3-4-3 747 headed to China. Luckily, I also got to run into an old family friend, Lynn, who has been working for Monitor in Shanghai for nearly a year. I’m sure I’ll be asking her lots of questions over the next few months. For now, my only question is what contact information to put on our immigration forms since I have no idea where we are staying once we arrive.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007


Yes, I know it's not the year of the pig yet, but it's close enough to name the blog after it. A year may seem like a long time, but if you put it into relative terms, like 12 paychecks, 8760 hours, or 390 continuous viewings of all Star Wars and Godfather movies (or as Katie would say, 176 viewings of the complete Sex in the City boxed set), it doesn't seem all that long.