We China expats complain a lot. It’s pretty often that you hear people talking about “the worst thing” or “the hardest thing” about living in China. You hear complaints about the food, cultural issues, linguistic challenges, internet woes, pollution, etc. Many rivers being cried over here.
And I’ll admit, I’ve thought about this issue myself (enough to come to a conclusion). The biggest frustration for me over the years has been related to the internet, and it’s gone from being a personal nuisance to a business issue.
But the real hardest thing is something that crept up on me. It’s something I never thought about when I initially made my decision to stay in China indefinitely, and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve really confronted it.
The hardest thing about living in China as an expat long-term is having your family grow old while you’re not around. It can be hard to accept how the U.S. has changed in recent years, but seeing one’s parents older and frailer with each visit is the absolute hardest. It really makes you question your life choices, even though in my case, my parents have always supported my life decisions.
Especially after having children of my own (ages 4 and 7 now), I’ve made it a priority to get home at least once a year to spend time with my parents and my sisters. But time marches on, and one visit a year feels woefully inadequate when the unmentionable finally happens.
We really don’t have much time, and the years fly by.
I’ve loved the office building where AllSet Learning has been based for the past 6 years. How can you not love a building like this??
I like the natural light and high ceilings, the white walls and natural wood, the lack of fluorescent lighting and cubicles, the “indie but professional” vibe. But recently the government decided it wants the building back, and since technically it’s zoned for education, they can take it back. So it’s time to find a new office!
What’s really striking is how co-woking spaces have totally taken over Shanghai and, unfortunately, driven up office rental rates. Currently the main co-working spaces are:
That last one is a new one, but it seems to have gone all in on co-working, buying up locations all over Shanghai (and several other cities) in a short amount of time.
The co-working space competition is really heating up, and I’ve definitely felt that as we looked around for office space. Co-working spaces charge by the “seat” rather than the actual space provided, and they are generally overpriced (they try to justify it with free coffee or “member-only activities,” as if the main point of renting an office isn’t space to work), but they really are squeezing out a lot of the more traditional options. It used to be much easier to find office space in a small building for a decent price. It’s still not impossible, but the landscape is changing fast.
So AllSet Learning decided to go with Kr Space. Since it’s new, the rates are very competitive, and we were able to choose a larger office than you typically get at one of these places. While I originally wanted to stay away from co-working spaces, I like the location, and Kr Space is more focused on providing a good working environment for individual offices than some of the others.
One downside to moving into a co-working space is that there’s way less storage space. But I’ve come to recognize that one of the reasons co-working has taken off is that most modern offices really don’t need to store a ton of stuff. Most records should be electronic these days, so a company shouldn’t need walls and walls of shelves and cabinets. So we’re taking this opportunity to slim down, and one of the unfortunate results is that we need to unload a ton of books. Some of the Chinese textbooks in our library are showing their age, and some we just never use. So it’s time to weed out some books.
I’ve advertised on WeChat, but if you’re looking to pick up some free Chinese study materials, come by our old officethis week (before we move on Nov. 10, 2018). We also have some Mandarin Companion inventory for sale (imported from the U.S., but at 100 RMB per book still cheaper than on Amazon.cn).
Spotted in the People Squared (West Nanjing Rd. location) co-working space lobby in Shanghai:
In case it’s not entirely obvious, there are no quarters or coins of any kind. There is no “caninet” to hold coins. It’s just a TV hooked up to a small computer of some kind (housed under the controls, it looks like), and all payments are done by scanning the on-screen QR code and paying via mobile payment (WeChat or AliPay).
The games cost:
5 RMB for 10 minutes
8 RMB for 20 minutes
15 RMB for 40 minutes
Pretty cool business model! I’m not sure this is the best location for this particular venture, but I like the idea.
I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:
The text reads:
At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers
100% TEFL/TKT double certification
100% full-time teaching
100% university graduates
So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?
This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.
I like potatoes. I have Polish and Irish blood, so maybe it’s in my DNA. China has a number of good potato dishes, such as the staple 酸辣土豆丝 (sour and spicy potato strips). But it seems like some of the best ones get no love from the local population.
Take this dish for example:
The original Chinese dish was 椒盐土豆 (“salt and pepper potatoes”), and it was good, but I asked them to make it spicy (spicy version pictured above), and it was so much better. Really amazing.
Years ago I had an ayi from China’s Dongbei (northeast) region, and she learned to make garlic mashed potatoes (with no butter) that were awesome. But Chinese people don’t normally eat that.
Of course, French fries are pretty popular here. But the really good potato dishes get no recognition in China…
I studied abroad in Japan for the 1997-98 academic year. During spring break, a friend and I hitchhiked from Osaka to Fukuoka. We visited from friends of mine, and explored the northern half of the island of Kyushu. Now, just over 20 years later, I’ve just visited Fukuoka again. This time the differences I noticed felt meaningful, and it’s not because of Japan. It’s because of me, and the 18 years I’ve spent in China in the meantime.
Obviously, this is a personal take. So-called “evidence” I cite is anecdotal. It doesn’t take into account the societies as a whole. I know, Fukuoka is not Tokyo. But if you can handle all that, read on.
The overwhelming sense I got which took hold of me early on in the visit and just wouldn’t let go is that Japan hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Of course it’s changed. But having lived in China, where pace of development permanently stuck in “breakneck speed,” Fukuoka really made me feel like Japan’s development is at a standstill. I’m no economist, but I’m into technology, so that’s one of the areas I was constantly checking up on. Remember when Japan felt super high-tech, back in the 80’s and 90’s? Now it feels kind of like Disney’s Epcot center, the “city of the future” conceived of in the 1970’s.
“Cashless” restaurant ordering also means vending machines. My wife’s mind was blown that so many Japanese restaurants use meal ticket vending machines. This way the staff doesn’t have to handle money at all, and no one has to take orders. Makes sense, right? The modern Chinese solution, though, is to just put QR codes on the restaurant tables. Diners scan, order, and pay right away. The restaurant staff knows which table you ordered from. You barely have to talk to the staff, much less give them a ticket. No cash, no paper, no human interaction necessary. Cold efficiency.
Japan’s rail system is still legendary. Again, exactly the same as 20 years ago. You buy train tickets from vending machines. There’s a very real sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can understand that. The train system works so well! It’s easy to use, and the trains all run on time. Shanghai’s subway and light rail system is not better than Fukuoka’s. And yet, there’s this feeling that in 10 more years (if that), Shanghai’s will be clearly superior, and Fukuoka’s will be the same.
Japan’s still doing great with recycling and environmental protection. I know, Japan still kills whales and does other bad things. But in general Japan is great at recycling, the streets are clean, and a retreat into the mountains (also clean and relatively unsullied) is never far away. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it would be so great if China could catch up in this respect.
It’s not hard to be alone in Japan. Sure, the cities are super crowded, and apartments are small. But if you need to get away from it all, it feels way easier in Japan. You can hop on a train or bus, and a short ride later be headed into the mountains where you’ll be totally alone. Sure, it’s possible in China, but harder.
I could say a lot of these same things about China and the US, especially if I cherry-pick my cities. One interesting thing, though, was that when my wife told Japanese friends about how we use mobile payments for everything in Shanghai now, they were surprised and blown away. They had no idea.
The most straightforward option is to offer token machines that accept mobile payments. The machine scans your mobile payment app’s QR code, you make the payment, and you get physical tokens. Then you use those in the machines to buy the capsule toys. Ka-chunk! Simple, effective, but it feels like it’s unnecessarily keeping physical currency as part of the operation.
Enter the mobile payment-powered gachapon network! I saw this in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park Toys R Us:
So one of the machines has been converted into a payment unit with a camera for scanning QR codes. You make your payment there, then choose a machine and turn the crank to get the toy.
Works great! (My kids needed some mini Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. 20 RMB each… not cheap, but not outrageous.)
I’m on day 3 of a pretty heinous fever flu thing, and day 2 brought me to a Chinese hospital, late at night. Not an international hospital, but a pretty decent public one. Chinese hospitals are hard because there are always so many people there, and the process is broken down into multiple steps, most of which require taking a number and waiting. So you spend a lot of time waiting with a lot of other sick people. Not fun.
This time, however, I was struck by how patient and professional my doctor was. So often, the doctors are pretty stressed out, seeing cranky patient after cranky patient in a never-ending stream of patients. So the doctors are testy and not terrible forthcoming with information. While this is understandable, it’s certainly not a good experience for a sick person and their concerned family members. And when you get a professional, patient doctor, you really take notice.
I don’t think it’s easy to become a doctor in any country, but in China, the reward for the dedication seems especially paltry. Or, if “helping people,” is all you ever wanted, and that feeling is like a refreshing sip of cool water, you’re suddenly getting a firehose in the face.
I’d be curious to hear the opinion of anyone familiar with both systems: is it way harder to be a Chinese doctor? Is it less rewarding financially? I know it’s not easy being a doctor in any society, but I have trouble imagining either of those answers being “no.”
One of the interesting things about living in Shanghai is seeing new technology integrated into daily life across the city fairly quickly. Two significant recent examples include mobile payments (WeChat, AliPay) and bike sharing (Mobike, Ofo). But WeChat is enabling lots of other cool changes as well.
The other day I went to Burger King and there was a fairly long line.
I noticed this banner telling me to scan the QR code and order on my phone to skip the line:
It was, indeed, easy and fast, and I think I got my order sooner than I would have had I stayed in line.
It was pretty clear to me that Burger King is essentially using the same system used to prepare orders for delivery guys: the user orders on the app, and the delivery guy picks it up in the window. This implementation is simply combining the two for one user. And it utilizes WeChat, so it’s not even a totally separate iOS or Android app. The only flaw I saw was that it didn’t auto-detect which store I was in; I had to choose it. Had I accidentally chosen the wrong location, that would have been quite annoying for both sides.
Still, interesting to see this. McDonalds in Shanghai has had touchscreen order kiosks for a while, but shifting the ordering to WeChat (which virtually every consumer in Shanghai uses) adds a new level of convenience.
I’ve worked with some great interns over the years at the AllSet Learning office in Shanghai, and we’re currently looking for another one.
If you’re looking for an internship where you can actually use Chinese and learn more Chinese, this is the one. We have a Chinese-only rule for interns at our office, and your co-workers include actual professional Chinese teachers. It doesn’t get much better than this if you really want to learn some Chinese!
We have immediate openings, and internship length is flexible. Shoot me an email if you’re interested!
This parking payment system is in place under Sinan Mansions (思南公馆) in Shanghai:
Basically, your license plate gets scanned on the way in, and on the way out you just scan the QR code, input your license plate number, and pay with WeChat or AliPay. The gate opens automatically on your way out.
You have to remember to scan the QR code, but these are posted all around the parking garage, and it’s way more convenient then finding a little cashier’s office or paying at a booth at the gate.
I first visited Australia in June 2003. I traveled with my friend Wilson, who was also my co-worker at ZUCC in Hangzhou. I remember it was tough saving up for that trip on my meager English teaching salary, and while we had enough funds to visit Brisbane, Gold Coast, Byron Bay, and Cairns, we didn’t have enough to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We had enough to go snorkeling, though, and I’m sure glad we did, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is vanishing (or at least drastically changing) as the reef bleaches.
Here’s a shot from that trip:
Now I’m returning to Australia, 14 years later, with my wife and two kids. I can’t wait for my kids to experience this:
One thing I’ve noticed, living in Shanghai, is that there are an unusually large number of Australians in China that hail from Brisbane. (They’re like the Wenzhounese of Australia!) Now I’ve got a decent number of friends in the Brisbane area, including Matt S, Matt C, Ben J, and Fr. Warren. Although we’re not there yet, what I’ve seen of Aussie hospitality is quite impressive already.
As we approach China’s National Day (国庆节) holiday, it can be difficult to find a decent vacation spot that isn’t absolutely flooded with Chinese tourists. Forget anywhere cool in China; it’s mobbed. Forget convenient international destinations (Thailand, Japan); also mobbed. As far away as Australia is, certain areas of Australia will also be mobbed, so we’ll be having a relaxing time in slightly lower-profile Brisbane.
Anyway, happy birthday, PRC. I’m off to Australia…
I have always felt that Jing’an Temple (静安寺) in Shanghai was a cool landmark, a gleaming Buddhist temple sitting right in Shanghai’s city center. Sure, it seems to be more of a tourist spot than an actual spiritual center, but the temple definitely imparts a certain flavor to the area.
Now the newly opened Raffles City Changning mall (长宁来福士广场) near Zhongshan Park (yes, right near the other massive mall in Zhongshan Park) has a similar landmark of its own: the Bell Tower. It used to be a church called St. Mary’s. Now it’s… I’m not sure what. (Still looks quite churchy, though.)
The Bell Tower was completed in 1926. The tallest structure in St. Mary’s Hall, it stood in clear sight from far. Outside, its presence granted a sense of bearing of time and place. Inside, St. Mary’s students came for prayers and direction. Today, it continues to inspire as a venue for fashion, culture, and entertainment.
Saw this Game of Thrones / Chinese culture mash-up gem last night on a Chinese friend’s WeChat “Moments” stream. Too good not to share! Apparently a Chinese Photoshop artist created these, and I’d like credit this person, but I’m still trying to figure out who it is!
Too bad they’re not high-quality images… it seems they were intended for a smallish smartphone screen.
P.S. If anyone knows the original artist, please let me know, and I’ll credit his/her ASAP!
2017-08-17 Update: The Photoshop artist is Weibo user 青红造了个白. He/she has tons of other similar works. Thanks to Danielle Li and Rachel for the info!
July has been a super busy month for me, largely because of all the work that’s gone into getting the forthcoming Chinese Grammar Wiki BOOK out in print form, but also because of a host of other projects, both work-related and personal. So while I can’t say that all of that stuff is done (yet), I can share a little bit about what I’ve been busy with.
I probably would have managed a few more posts in July if not for getting hacked yet again, by some stupid malware script that found an old WordPress plugin exploit. Static site generators are looking more and more attractive…
I joined a gym! And not just any gym, but one that specializes in personal trainer services. It’s not cheap, but I signed up both because I need to get in shape and have been wanting to see what a personal trainer can do, but also because this kind of service is so analogous in so many ways to the personalized Chinese training service that AllSet Learning provides. This experience is offering lots of interesting insights, and I’ll be sharing more on this. (Curious if anyone else has made similar connections between body fitness and language training, on a very personal level?)
My daughter is five and a half, and her English reading is coming along, but now she’s also learning pinyin at the same time. How confusing is that? Turns out, not very. The concept “these same letters make different sounds in Chinese” is not super hard for a kid to get, it seems.
Much to my surprise, I also have a few small video projects in the works. The first one will be shared here very soon.
Everybody needs some down time, right? In between episodes of Game of Thrones, I’ve been immensely enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn. What an amazing game.
I’ve been noticing this mural at a noodle restaurant in Shanghai for several years at least, I think. But the Warriors’ most recent win and Kevin Durant’s performance in particular make me think I should share this odd bit of wall art:
I don’t write about places I visit much these days… I’m a grumpy old man now, and it’s all “been there, done that!” I feel that Xiamen is worth a special mention, though. I’ve now been there twice, and I really enjoyed it both times, especially the small island called Gulangyu (鼓浪屿).
The reasons I like Gulangyu are not really typical ones, though. First a few pictures, then the explanation…
Thoughts on Gulangyu
OK, first let me get a few things out of the way… I’m not a big fan of Chinese seafood (we have a bad history), and I don’t find any of the food on Gulangyu particularly good. So reasons for liking Gulangyu have nothing to do with food.
The main reasons:
The island is just fun to explore… Lots of little twisting roads, interesting architecture, tunnels, beaches, little mountains. It’s a fun place. (Reminds me a little bit of Lijiang in this way, but obviously it’s a very different setting.)
The place is pretty packed with tourists during the day (all clamoring to sample not-great seafood), but at night the place has a special charm. It’s fun to walk around after dark. The roads are well-lit, and surveillance cameras are everywhere (it’s a little disconcerting, honestly), so the place feels quite safe.
No cars are allowed on the island, nor are scooters. You barely see any bicycles, even. Honestly, this might be a huge part of why I like the place so much… it’s hard to say how much this influences my feelings.
The weather is great. The first time I went around Chinese New Year in 2016, and I just went again around the beginning of April this year. Very comfy (unlike Shanghai in winter and early spring).
Lots of little independent shops and restaurants. No Starbucks on Gulangyu. Yes, there is a McDonalds and a KFC,
but there aren’t so many chains, compared to some places, and the little hotels, teahouses, cafes, and restuarants all feel quite distinct (shout out to “Jia Nan D Lounge” (迦南D Lounge)… cool bar, and super friendly staff!).
So, Gulangyu in Xiamen: worth a leisurely visit, in my humble opinion.