Interview with expatinterviews.com

Posted in Announcements at 4:51 am by Benjamin Ross

Recently I did an interview with expatinterviews.com, a site which describes itself as “a bridge, something that people who need information on what it’s like to live in another country, can cross to get first-hand feedback and insights from one of the best sources that exist: expatriates, or expats.” Normally I would not repost an interview I did for another site, but a lot of these questions are question I get asked from readers in regards to living in China. If anybody has any information to add or correct, please feel free to do so in the comments section. The original post is available here.

Ben is now back home in the USA after having lived in China for three years. What did he like most about living in China? What did he like the least? Experiencing Chinese culture opened up a whole new world for him, and those who are considering moving to China can perhaps learn from Ben’s experiences, observations, and tips, which he most generously shares here.

Where were you born?

Kansas City, Missouri, USA -In which country and city are you living now? After living in or near Fuzhou, China for the past 3 years, I just returned to Kansas City last month.

Did you live alone or with your family?

While I was in China I lived alone.

How long did you live in China?

I lived in Fuqing, a small town in Southeast China for 15 months, then moved to Fuzhou, which was only about an hour away from Fuqing, but considerably larger. I lived there for another 2 years.

What is your age?

I am 27.

When did you come up with the idea of living in China?

I finished college in 2003 and knew I wanted to experience living in another culture and learning the local language. When I say “different culture” I mean I was looking for something really different (i.e. not Europe). It’s not that I didn’t like life in the US, but I really wanted to be shocked and exposed to a way of life different from my own.

My original plan was to go to francophone Africa since I had studied French for 5 years. When I couldn’t find a decent job there, I found a job in a local newspaper for teaching English in China. One of my goals had been to learn the language of wherever it was I was going, and I wanted to learn a language that I would be able to use widely in the future. Based on China’s growing importance in world affairs, and its high ranking on the “different” scale, I opted to go to China. While in China I taught English at the university level for 2 years, then worked as an ethnographer for an American company for another year.

Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?

Well, if you look at my passport now, you will see nearly 20 different Chinese visas. They actually take up so much room that I had to get more pages added to my passport at the Guangzhou American embassy. If I had to describe the process of obtaining a Chinese visa, I probably would not use the adjective “hard.” I think “taxing” is a much better word. Pretty much anybody from a Western country can get a visa to China, but that doesn’t mean you will not be required to jump through a series of hoops in order to get it. The regulations are constantly changing, and although I have never been flat out denied a visa, there was one time I had to leave Fuzhou and take a trip to Hong Kong in order to get it processed. Then there was the time I had to prove to the visa bureau that I had 25,000 RMB (a little over 3,000 USD) in my bank account before they would give me a new visa. The list goes on and on, and my experiences are not unique. Bottom line, you will get your visa, but you may need to put up with some serious bureaucratic muckedy-muck along the way. Patience is a must.

Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

The concept of medical insurance in China is still relatively new, and most people pay their medical expenses out of pocket. In China (like most places in the world) health care is much, much cheaper than it is in the United States. While I was living in Fuzhou, an American friend of mine and his Chinese wife had a baby. They got a private room in the hospital (getting your own room is a premium charge) and she stayed in the hospital for 3 days. The final bill was a mere 300 dollars USD.

While my friend’s experience with the hospital went smoothly, I personally would not want to have any major procedure done in a Chinese hospital when there was an available alternative. So I purchased a high-deductible American insurance policy. For small things such as doctor’s visits I would go to a Chinese hospital and pay out of pocket, which usually cost about the price of an extra value meal at McDonalds. However, in the event I ever needed major surgery, I knew I had the option of going back to the US and being covered by insurance there.

How did you make your living in China? Did you have any type of income generated?

The supply of Westerners in China is still far below the demand for them, so finding a job in China is quite easy. I found my job through a recruiting agency in the US, but I would advise others against doing this. While my job turned out okay, many others have not been so lucky. The absolute best way to find a job in China is to know somebody there, and have them help you look. (You might even try making contacts on Facebook or MySpace). If you are set on going China, it is best to go first, and then find a job afterward, although this can be tough if you don’t know anybody.

In medium-sized cities like Fuzhou the network of foreigners was pretty tightly connected, so I would always hear of new schools opening up and in need of foreign teachers. When one of my good friends from the US expressed interest in moving to China to teach English I convinced him to buy a one-way ticket over and we would find him a job once he got here. He reluctantly accepted, and within a week had 3 different offers. The advantage in moving to China first is that it gives you a chance to take a more careful look at your school and your apartment (most jobs in China provide free housing) before you make your decision. Also, cost of living in China is so cheap, that even if you don’t find a job right away, you won’t be burning a hole in your pocket.

If you don’t know anybody in China, and aren’t willing to move out first and rough it until you find a job, the best way is to contact schools directly. Do not go through a recruiter. English teaching jobs in China are plentiful, and there is no need to go through a recruiting agency who is likely just skimming a percentage off of your salary. Do a search on Google for Chinese universities or training centers (many of whom have English websites). Send them your resume and a personal photograph (very important) and see what kinds of responses you get. There are also many job websites available to choose from. But remember, be choosy! You are in high demand! Do not accept any job that pays less than 4000 RMB per month. Also, they should provide you with a Z visa, free housing, and a round trip plane ticket from your hometown to your Chinese destination.

Did you learn to speak Chinese and do you think it’s important to speak the local language?

Learning Chinese was one of my main goals when I came to China, and while learning Chinese is certainly not necessary in China (Chinese people will be overjoyed to practice their English with you whenever possible) it will greatly enhance your experience. For me, learning Chinese opened up an entirely different world I would not have been able to experience had I been speaking English the entire time I was in China, and I would recommend it for anybody planning to live there long term.

Chinese has a reputation as a difficult language to learn, but this does not mean it is not scalable. In fact, I would argue that Chinese is a difficult language to begin learning, but the deeper you get into it, the easier it becomes, as opposed to learning English which is of similar difficulty from beginning to end. Because of this, people often get frustrated with Chinese at the beginning, and give up before they ever make it to the other side of the first major hump. Little do they know, the humps get smaller and smaller as the journey progresses.

From my experience and those of others, I would say the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese is the pronunciation, especially in regards to the tones. For example if I say the word “mai” with a dipping tone it means “buy.” If I say “mai” with a falling tone it means “sell.” Because of the importance of tones, it is quite common for foreigners to study Chinese for several months, but still receive looks of bewilderment from locals who have no idea what they are saying because their intonation is incorrect. Once pronunciation of Chinese is mastered (which is an absolute must for anybody wanting to learn Chinese), students are often relieved to find that Chinese is a language with no verb conjugations, no masculine/feminine distinctions, and a grammar which is infinitely simpler than those of English or Romance languages. I have also found Chinese to be a language much more bounded in logic than English. For example, the word for “telephone” is constructed by combining the ideogram for “electricity” with the ideogram for “speak.” The word for “pork” is constructed by combining “pig” and “meat.” The word for “diabetes” is “sugar urine disease,” and on and on.

Did you miss home and family sometimes?

There were some things I missed in China (mainly Mexican food and American football) but mostly those interests were supplanted by new-found ones in China. As an avid basketball player, I was pleased to find that basketball is every bit as popular in China as it is in the US, and I played several times a week while I was there. I also picked up badminton for the first time, and made some major strides in my ping pong game, mostly through having ass kicked by Chinese kids who weren’t even trying their hardest.

Do you have other plans for the future?

Right now I am looking for jobs in the US, mainly those dealing with China in the fields of either research or print/digital media.

What about housing, did you buy, or did you rent a home? How much did you pay for it?

Virtually everything in China (with the exception of electronics, air travel, and foreign food) is considerably cheaper than it would be in the US, and real estate is no exception. When I was under contract with a school, my housing was always provided as part of my job. When I was working for an American company and paying my own bills, I never paid more than $150 a month in rent. Expect to pay more if you are in a larger city such as Beijing or Shanghai, and a little bit less if you are living in a rural area. Food as well is very, very cheap. I would typically pay about a dollar for a meal in a small local restaurant. If I wanted to go some place nice, it would be about 5 dollars. If I really wanted to go cheap, I could eat on a dollar a day.

What is the cost of living in China?

(see above)

What did you think about the Chinese?

The Chinese treat foreigners very well, in fact much better than they treat other Chinese people. The concept of host and guest is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, and as a foreigner interacting with a Chinese, you are always on some level, their guest. There have been times I have gone to the bank (or any other public establishment) with Chinese friends. While my Chinese friends are given cold service and little concern for their satisfaction, I am typically treated with smiles and service nothing short of a VIP. While this can be a perk to some people, it can be discouraging as well, especially when you are trying to fit in.

What were the positive and negative aspects of living in China?

One of the biggest advantages of living in China is that jobs for foreigners are high paying (in comparison to local standards of living) and not all that demanding. In my first semester teaching I was working 11 hours a week, and making a salary 3 times as high as the Chinese English teachers at my school. This gives you the freedom, both in terms of finances and time, to focus on your own projects and efforts, be that traveling, learning Chinese, writing the next great American novel, or anything else that fast-paced American life would not leave time for. For me, I know my Chinese would not have progressed to the level that it did, had I been working 40 hours a week, and living paycheck to paycheck.

As for the negative aspects in China, I would cite the noise, low sanitation standards, awful popular music, lack of grass and trees, pollution, big crowds, warm beer, spitting, blaring televisions, and lack of respect of privacy and personal space. These all annoy foreign visitors from time to time, but they are also part of the charm of living in an overcrowded developing nation. You can either adapt and get used to it, or beat yourself up complaining.

Do you have any tips for our readers about living in China?

Go with an open mind. Don’t expect anything or take anything for granted. If you stick to this, everything else will come much easier.

Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about China?

If you want to read more on my own thoughts and experiences in China, you can check out my blog, Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom. I also have a new site which is designed to help Westerners order Chinese food in China, which is www.howtoorderchinesefood.com. As for my own personal favorite China reads, I would suggest The China Law Blog which tackles more issues than just law, as well as Sinosplice which is written by an American who has lived in China for over 7 years.



Was Chinggis Khaan Chinese?

Posted in Personal Anecdotes at 7:15 am by Benjamin Ross

Chinggis Khaan Beer
Chinggis Beer, the Budweiser of Mongolia

On one of my last days in China I wore a shirt that I bought in Mongolia with the image of Chinggis Khaan, Mongolia’s all around patriarch/superstar. As leader of the Mongolian nomads, Chinggis was able to invade and take over most of China, parts of Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, while establishing the largest empire in world history. The Ulaanbaatar Airport is named after him. Mongolia’s most popular beer is named after him, and pictures of him can be seen all over Mongolia. Although he died over 600 years ago, Chinggis is by far and away Mongolia’s most prominent historical figure. During my trip to Mongolia, I had to buy a Chinggis Khaan T-shirt.

My Chinggis shirt often becomes a conversation topic when I wear it in China. When my Chinese friends ask where I bought the shirt, and I tell them Mongolia, they are quick to point out that Mongolia was historically part of China, and that Mongolians are one of the 56 official nationalities living in China, and therefore Chinggis Khan was a Chinese.

During several periods in history, Mongolia was controlled by China, and today half of it (Inner Mongolia) still is. However, from 1271 to 1368, China was invaded and controlled by Chinggis and his Mongolian tribes in what is commonly referred to in China as the “Yuan Dynasty.”

Determining who is and who is not Chinese is not an exact science. What makes somebody a Chinese? If we say that a Chinese is a Han Chinese, then the Manchurians who controlled China during the Qing Dynasty would not be Chinese either, and neither would be Zheng He, the famous explorer (and Hui Muslim), who allegedly discovered America before Christopher Columbus.

Ulaanbaatar Mongolia Genghis Khan International Airport
Chinggis Khaan International Airport, Ulaanbaatar

Yet, if we insist that “Chinese” includes all of the peoples who are represented by the 56 official Chinese nationalities, then suddenly our definition of “Chinese” swells to include not only Chinggis Khaan, but Stalin, Kim Jong Ill, the Dalai Lama, and Borat, all of whose nationalities are part of the 56. So where is the line between a Chinese and a…for lack of better terminology…laowai? Calling Chinggis Khaan Chinese seems like a historical stretch to me, but by some twist of logic, I can see how the distinction would be made. However, using the same logic, you could argue that Mao Zedong was Mongolian. Somehow I can’t imagine this would sit too well with the Chinese.



Hotels? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Hotels!

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:27 am by Benjamin Ross

Several months ago (this was when I was still in Fuzhou) I was struck with a predicament we all face from time to time. I got locked out of my apartment. Normally this isn’t such a big deal, but I had just moved into a new apartment and had yet to give a spare key to a trusted friend. Several thoughts ran through my mind at the time. First I called my roommate, but he was spending the night in a hotel with his girlfriend who was visiting him from France. I didn’t seem like the time to ask him to come home and bail me out. Then the thought crossed my mind to sleep with my former co-workers in the barbershop dormitory. However, sleeping without air conditioning in Fuzhou in the summer is something no sane person would ever purposely chose when there was a viable alternative. The other option was to find a hotel. However, most hotels in Fuzhou start around 200 RMB (approx $25 US) per night, quite a waste when it is already 1 pm.

As I strolled through the dark alleys of downtown Fuzhou, suddenly a new thought entered my mind. There was a place I could go with my own room, air conditioning, TV, clean bathrooms and showers, as well as a complimentary massage, all for only 50 RMB (approx $6 US)…that is one of Fuzhou’s ubiquitous massage/sauna centers. Before you get the wrong idea, I am not referring the “barbershops” with the pink lights. I am talking about legitimate massage centers where for 50 kuai (sometimes less) you get a one hour professional massage as well as access to clean bathrooms, hot showers, and a room similar to most 3 star hotels. Now the real kicker to the deal is that 9 times out of 10 you can actually sleep in the massage room for the night.

I first learned about this from my good friend Ron Sims (the famous podcaster) when we were traveling in Hunan and Jiangxi for May Day in 2006. We visited 6 different cities in 7 days, and did not spend a single night in a hotel. 3 of our nights were spent sleeping on trains, while the other 4 were spent sleeping in various massage centers, paying around 30 or 40 RMB per night. As Ron put it, “It’s essentially the same price as staying in a hotel, possibly cheaper, plus you get a free massage every night.”

I now had a plan. I set off to find the closest massage center. About a 15 minute walk away from my apartment I found a fancy hotel with massage service. The regular massage was 80 RMB, but they had a foot massage for 50 RMB. I had never tried a foot massage before, but figured I’d give it a whirl. The attendant led me upstairs to a room and had me lie down on a bed with freshly changed sheets. With two strokes of a remote control the A/C was cranking and the TV was blaring Chinese talk shows. I lay down and relaxed for fifteen minutes before a girl who couldn’t have been older than 18 came into the room with a big bucket full of hot liquid. She placed my feet in the bucket which she told me contained Chinese medicine. While my feet soaked, she massaged my legs and arms. After the preliminary massage, she meticulously labored away at my feet for the next half an hour, massaging, and cleaning every possible nook and cranny of my feet.

When it was all said and done my feet were cleaner than they had been on the day I was born. My body was massaged. The bed was comfortable. The A/C was on full blast. It was 2 AM. I turned on the TV and passed out. The next morning I awoke around 9 am. I put on my sandals, which had been provided by the massage center, and headed over to the locker room where I took a 25 minute shower in steaming hot water with incredible pressure. At 9:30 I checked out at the front desk, gave them my 50 RMB and headed back to my apartment hoping one of my roommates had returned.

The overnight massage stay is one of the most valuable tricks I have learned during my tenure in China, and I’m surprised more people don’t take advantage of it. Afterall, why would I pay 200 RMB for a regular hotel room when I can pay 50 RMB with a similar room plus a complimentary massage or foot detail? Where else can you get this kind of treatment and accommodations for less then a the cost of a pepperoni pizza? Gotta love China.



Take that cigarette outside!…not in Tokyo.

Posted in Health and Medicine, Japan at 9:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

While American states and cities are systematically banning smoking in indoor public establishments, the city of Tokyo has recently enacted a law which has banned smoking in outdoor public establishments as well. Outdoor smoking is now restricted to special smoking zones. Like China, Japan has high rates of smoking, and from what I gathered from the locals, people are not too stoked about this new regulation. However, based on my limited observation (I was only there 3 days), it did seem that a large portion of Tokyo’s smokers are complying by the new rules. With serial public smoking becoming increasingly difficult in Japan and the United States, one might wonder if at some point the smoking dominoes will begin to fall in China as well. My personal thought is that as long as the Chinese government remains interested in promoting “stability” and creating a “harmonious society” smoking will go on unchecked in virtually every nook and cranny of the Middle Kingdom.

smokers in smoking area Shibuya Station
Smokers congregate in the designated smoking area outside of Shibuya Station.
Shibuya City Smoking Rules
A sign clarifies the policy for those uninitiated.
A lit cigarette is carried at the height of a child's face.
Japanese anti-smoking propaganda (closeup of sign in the middle of the first picture)



Thoughts on 9/11

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 7:40 am by Benjamin Ross

Today is September 11, a day in which we recall the terrorist attacks which shook our nation back in 2001. For many people, 9/11 is a time to reflect…to look at the freedoms we have in America, and be thankful for what we have. When I realized that this would be my first September 11 in the United States since 2003, I was reminded of a conversation I had with an old woman in my apartment complex several months ago when I was still living in Fuzhou.

The woman was a retired teacher of philosophy who had published several of her own books. She was originally from Shandong province, but had moved in with her son in Fuzhou after retirement (as is Chinese custom). A remarkably well-educated and worldly woman who had grown up in an age when most women were illiterate, she would frequently engage me in conversations about philosophy and politics whenever we would pass each other. One day she came to me with a question.

“Do Americans love war?”

I had been asked these kinds of questions, but never so directly, and I had a stock answer.

“I don’t think anybody loves war. Wars are usually caused by large-scale governments, not by the citizens themselves.”

“I agree,” she said, interrupting me before I could finish. “But in America, you are democratic, right? You can vote for your own leaders. Here in China, we have no say in the government, but in America your leaders are chosen by the citizens. Your government likes to start wars in other countries, so I have always thought that your people must love war as well, since this is what your government does, and the government is chosen by the people.”

I am not a political scientist, nor am I sure that the transitive property necessarily applies to matters of international relations. But what I do know is that this view is not unique to my old Chinese philosopher friend.

In the wake of 911, the American public was bombarded with rhetoric from our leaders about fighting terrorism and “keeping the world safe for democracy.” However, what we did not receive was much verbage indicating any form of self-introspection. Why would any country, organization, or even a terrorist group want to attack the United States?

There is never an excuse for killing innocent civilians, and I in no way condone the events of 9/11, but that does not mean there are no reasons behind it. Yet we are often skirted away from any form of self-introspection by explanations such as “The terrorists hate freedom!”

For those of you who have spent time abroad, I do not need to tell you what the Iraq War has done to America’s reputation on an international scale. For those who have not been abroad, I suggest you call a friend from Britain, or France, or China, or Afghanistan, and ask them.

Would it not be out of line to suggest that America’s actions and reputation on the international sphere had some influence on the events of September 11, 2001? Furthermore, does our growing reputation as a nation which causes wars abroad have any impact on the future security of the United States?

When the topic of 9/11 came up, the old woman told me she had sympathy for the American people, but that she understood why terrorists would be compelled to carry out such actions.

“I don’t think it is right to attack civilians,” she said “But I also do not think it is right to mess around with another country’s internal affairs.”

As for her view that Americans “love war,” I was unable to convince her otherwise.



Images from a Tokyo Subway

Posted in Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:12 pm by Benjamin Ross

Sometimes a picture conveys what can’t be communicated by words. Here are two of my favorite shots, both taken on the Tokyo subway.




Branding and Advertising in Japan

Posted in Curious English, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 7:31 am by Benjamin Ross

During my 3 day stint in Japan I brought my little Canon IXUS850 pocket sized camera everywhere I went, taking pictures of anything which caught my eye. Not surprisingly (for anybody who has been to Japan) I found myself taking a lot of pictures of Japanese advertising, be it posters, storefronts, or simply the products themselves. Here’s a sampling.

US Hyper Convenience Mart
I did not know the US was thought of as convenient, especially when paired up against Japan. Nonetheless, we have the Hyper Convenience US Mart where everything is 100 yen (a little less than a dollar).

Calorie Mate Block
Here’s another product which comes out of Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but if the claims on the label are accurate, then this is some pretty powerful stuff.

McDonald's McPita
Nobody does advertising like McDonald’s, especially when it’s for a new product such as the McPita.
Michael Moore Sicko Japanese
Apparently Michael Moore isn’t only making his presence felt in the US. This poster was in Shibuya Station, one of the busiest subway stations in Japan.

Hello Kitty Poster Tokyo
It just wouldn’t be Japan without Hello Kitty, now would it? These posters were tacked up all over town. Unfortunately my Japanese reading only goes so far as the Kanji I know from Chinese, so I am not sure what this poster is for. Anybody care to translate?

UCLA bar Tokyo
This was the bar I went to on my first night in Tokyo. It’s called UCLA.

Hot Men's Box
hmm…not really sure what the owner of this bar was trying to imply when he named it…maybe it’s better off that way.

Nude Rump
This one seems to be a little more obvious.

Jesus Diamante
For those looking for a more wholesome establishment, may I recommend Jesus Diamante?

Shalom Relaxation Salon
What? Too Christian?….Ok, then how about the Shalom Relaxation Salon?

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Engrish
I know one this isn’t really advertising, but it was just too good not to post.



Vending Machines Galore!

Posted in Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 7:57 am by Benjamin Ross

Tokyo vending machines
The caption to this shot might as well read “an image of every single street corner in Tokyo.” You literally cannot walk 30 seconds in Tokyo without running to a vending machine, if not 5.

Before I took my trip to Japan, I had read that Tokyo has more vending machines than any other city on the planet. At the time I read this statistic I did not fully comprehend what this means. One of the first observations I made in Tokyo is that you literally cannot walk 30 seconds without seeing a vending machine…or 3 or 4 vending machines right next to one another. The machines mainly sell drinks such as water, fruit juice, green tea, and beer. Each vending machine also has at least one full row of various sugary coffee drinks which I was told are quite popular with Japanese office workers putting in 10 plus hour days. The convenience of vending machines almost became too convenient for me, as I was consuming about 5 or 6 drinks per day during my 3 day stay in Tokyo. On my first day there I drank 2 Dr. Peppers, a grape Fanta, a Qoo banana milk drink, 2 bottles of water, and a C. C. Lemon Vitamin drink which claims to have “70 lemons worth of Vitamin C in every bottle.”

According to my friend Andrew, who has lived in Tokyo for almost 5 years, the vending machine fad has mellowed out in the past few years. Several years ago virtually anything which could fit in a vending machine was being sold in one, including items such as toys and lighters. However, these days vending machines are primarily only dispensing drinks and cigarettes.

C. C. Lemon Drink
C.C. Lemon was one of the best tasting Tokyo vending machine products. Frankly however the thought of 70 lemons worth of Vitamin C in every bottle has me a little concerned.

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