Monday, June 30, 2008

Job Hunting

I'm nowhere near fluent in the local language but that's not my main barrier to looking for employment. No, for me the biggest challenge is that I'm not seeking work as a professional psychologist, since my college degree is in psychology. China is one of many places around the world where it is expected that your career is in the same area as your undergraduate degree. Years of experience in finance mean nothing to most Chinese companies and hiring managers.

One local company that had me in for several rounds of interviews, and whose Finance department considered me the lead candidate for the position of Foreign Financial Adviser, has reposted the job. The job requires finance skills but they also want someone who preferably speaks some Spanish and/or French and with knowledge of Latin, African and/or Arab cultures. It's not that they don't want to hire me. It's that my degree isn't in finance so I obviously know nothing about financial management, analysis, modeling or making projections. The dapartment has been told to find a candidate with a Finance degree so that the executive who gives final approval can compare me to them. After they've done that they'll let me know. Oh well, I may have found something else before they find that person.

Most of the well-renumerated ex-patriots in China were hired by their multi-national companies in their home countries and shipped over here with well-cushioned ex-pat packages. My last job was with an American municipal government, one that does not have an office in China, so I knew that I'd have to relocate myself if I wanted to be here. My salary will take a cut at first but over time I expect to return to a salary level comparable to what I was making before, or better. No matter what, I'm in an environment where I am learning a lot, which has value in and of itself.

Employment laws here are opaque, which is a barrier to part-time work if I want to be certain of avoiding problems (and I do). I've turned down some work with a training center where I was placed as part of my volunteer assignment because I'm not certain that I can legally work part time with the class of visa which I am holding. A few hundred RMB is not worth the risk of being arrested and possibly deported. One Chinese-speaking laowai I know went to two different government agencies to confirm what is legal and was told two different stories. Even if we could get confirmation of what is permissible the rules might change tomorrow without advance notice. I've also turned down a few things that were not interesting, were in parts of the city that are inconvenient and pay little - there's no point taking a job where I know I won't want to stay for three months, let alone longer.

It's more important to me to find a job that is a good fit, something interesting in a well-run organization where I'll be learning, than to find something quickly where I won't be happy. Most recruiting agencies that I've found which cater to foreigners and place people in non-entry level jobs are either looking for people who are conversant in Putonghua, which I understand and respect, or for senior, C-level executives. There are a number of employment websites which I visit several times each week to review listings, including the Chamber of Commerce sites for the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, and I've also visited websites of NGOs and multinational companies that have offices here and post job listings in English (some organizations only have Chinese on their China site). Many companies are looking for attorneys, engineers or Chinese nationals (foreign companies are required to hire a certain number of Chinese citizens if they have a footprint here), but occasionally I see postings that look interesting. One manager to whom I submitted my resume replied almost immediately that he'd already filled the post but would like to forward my resume to colleagues who might have an opening that could use with my skillset. (Go Deloitte! That guy just earned them more respect in my book, both for responding and for thinking about how to help colleagues (and possibly me).) I'm also trying to be social and meet new people - just as in New York, many jobs here are filled by internal candidates or friends of friends before they are even posted.

This entire process is educational. I'm learning a lot about modern Chinese workplace culture as I speak with hiring managers and recruitment agents. Many don't want to share any information or answer questions about the job or organization until the interview, but they want your resume, photos, a picture of your passport, a picture of your degree, and other information before they even consider speaking with you. I'm not keen on sharing my passport with people I don't know so I've created a .jpg image with my passport number and certain other information blacked out. My understanding is that they request the passport image to confirm identity, nationality (there is a presumed hierarchy of foreign countries here) and that the passport holder is documented, here legally and has enough time left on their passport to meet the needs of the employer, so I left my name and the expiration date on my passport visible and covered every thing else. Hiring managers can use the image to screen for their needs and I can feel like I'm maintaining control over information that could possibly be used for fraud.

The other day I received a call from an agent at 8pm, requesting some additional data on me on behalf of a client. She wanted it immediately. I explained that I was out, in another part of the city, entertaining visitors to Beijing, and would be out late. Her response was to ask when, when, 9pm? by 10 pm? 11? I said possibly very late, but I would forward the files when I arrived home. When I did get home there was an email reminding me to send it before 2am.

So I'm still looking. And exploring. And learning a challenging language. Oh, and enjoying every moment of it.

Soy Sauce Overload

In the city there are a large number of western-style grocery stores, some locally owned and some, like Carrefour or Bonjour, are foreign-owned. Dry goods, produce, meat, fish, beverages and other items of all sorts, can be purchased in securely wrapped packages from aisle after aisle of displays under bright light. Some of them are easily recognizable, some are not.

The Kraft logo is easy to recognize even in Chinese but I'm trying to buy local brands whenever possible. Today was the first time I bought eggs, a half dozen labeled 'ecological' (local speak for organic), because I've been anxious that I'd accidentally pick up duck eggs or some type of treated eggs that are popular here but which I have a hard time eating (thousand year eggs, anyone?).

Tonight I wanted to buy soy sauce. I was naive when I thought it would be easy. I knew that there would be more options than in New York but I was taken aback by the sheer number of options. Instead of one or two different brands there was an entire aisle - different brands and styles, glass bottles and plastic bottles and plastic bags, light and dark, northern style or mushroom. I thought about asking someone which one they buy but no one was nearby.

I ended up picking up a 500ml glass bottle of HaDay Golden Label Superior Soy Sauce. I'll admit that I mainly chose it because the logo looks similar to Kikkoman, a brand I know and trust. It's not organic but there's an ingredient list in English and it doesn't say MSG.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Paying the Bills

As much as my time here often feels like a surreal extended vacation, there is reality. And in reality I need to learn to do lots of new things, like pay bills. Yes, they are mundane, but they are a part of life and they must be done. I can't just walk around the lake, study Chinese, do yoga, read and go see films with my friends all of the time.

I am currently staying in a mid-sized (from a New York perspective) two bedroom apartment in a mostly Chinese complex in central Beijing, near the Lama Temple and the drum and bell towers, walking distance to both Houhai and Sanlitun, that is being rented by my friend C., who is currently out of China visiting friends and family in her country. There is running hot water, a western toilet (yay!), a shower, refrigerator, sofa, tv, dvd player, western beds, high speed internet, etc. There are two gas stove burners built into the countertop. As in most Chinese apartments, the stove has no oven, however C. bought an electric oven that sits on the countertop, large enough to toast two bagels or bake a small lasagna or pan of brownies (one of these days I'm going to have to find a baking pan).

Just like in most of the western world, tenants have to pay for water, electricity, phone and gas. Unlike in the U.S., I can't just log onto a website to do it or send a check through the mail. This is a cash based economy, people don't trust the internet with financial information and there is an avoidance of credit cards (which I've heard attributed to the high rates of tax evasion as well as to a lack of trust). To pay the bills it is necessary to take cash to the bank or another specially designated public outlet.

Yesterday I took the invoice for the water bill that had been slipped under the door earlier in the month and the name and phone number of the landlord (for the phone bill) and went to the Bank of Beijing (I am avoiding Bank of China after an uncomfortable situation at one of their locations earlier this week - some of the local people were getting so upset about having a long wait that they started yelling and the anxious -looking lobby guard had to call a more senior armed guard; one of the women explained to me afterwards that the wait was so long (1 hour +) because the Bank of China is handling ticketing issues for the Olympics, so windows normally used for customer services had been redesignated for Olympics-related transactions; she also told me that they normally treat their customers poorly anyway). As in most banks, in the Bank of Beijing there is a computerized kiosk at the entry where you enter the type of service you need then take a number. There was no option for 'pay bills' so I walked over to the guard and showed him the receipt to indicate my reason to be there, and he came to the machine to show me that I wanted 'Customer Services.' After a fifteen minute wait my number was called, and I saw it flashing on the electronic display above one of the tellers.

I sat at the chair in front of the window, with glass extending from the top of the window down to the counter, showed the water bill and the phone information to the teller, then slipped them to him through the sliding drawer at the bottom of the window.

The water bill covered a time period that was at least five months, possibly six months, and the amount was clearly stated on the invoice. The phone bill is calculated by the bank from computer records, and the teller puts a telephone company specific form into the printer for an invoice to be printed. The teller told me the total for the two bills and I slipped the cash to him through the drawer. He counted the money, put it aside, stamped the invoices for the water and phone bills with several different red stamps, then slipped copies of the paid invoices back to me under the window. "Xiexie" (thank you), I said, "zaijian" (goodbye).

So simple, really, but not like in the U.S.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Rain in China Falls...Mainly Whenever They Want

This morning I woke before five a.m., to the sound of blasts and bangs and thunderbolts and falling rain. It wasn't the first time I've heard these sounds together, but usually I hear them in the evening.

China places great weight on what happens at the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games. Landmark stadiums and dormitories and a variety of other buildings (including the much-admired CCTV tower) have been built over the last several years, replacing traditional dwellings and other structures, all to showcase how modern the country is becoming. Billions of dollars and the efforts of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people have been aimed towards making the event successful, even down to the weather. The government is not willing to risk rain at the games, especially during the opening ceremonies or other high profile events, and has a multi-million dollar Weather Modification Department ready to combat rainclouds.

The Chinese have had programs to manipulate the weather for several decades now. The science usually involves seeding clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen. For the last several years the government has been preparing for the Olympics by practicing their response to possible rainclouds. One positive effect of these man-made storms is that they temporarily clean Beijing's notoriously smoggy air, making it easier to breathe.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Update: Peaches

Yummy, firm, large, juicy peach goodness, the nectar of which ran down my face and hands.

Yes, it was worth the two dollars.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Peaches and RMB

I just paid $2 for a peach. 12.48 RMB, with the exchange rate at 6.9029 RMB to the dollar.

All of a sudden I don't regret having taken an extraordinarily long time sniffing at all of the peaches on display and feeling them to make sure they weren't still green, and that softness was not rot instead of the yummy, juicy peach flesh which I wanted.

I do feel silly, however, for the fact that I didn't transfer the majority of my savings from dollars to RMB (Ren Min Bi, or 'people's money') when I arrived in February, back when rates were higher. On February 13 the rate was 7.1952 RMB to the dollar.

Now for every hundred U.S. dollars I exchange I receive 29RMB less than I would have then. That 29 RMB would buy almost 3 taxi rides, almost 15 subway rides, 20 copies of China Daily newspaper, or 72 of the yummy vegetable baozi (steamed buns) of which I like to have 3 or 4 as a mid-morning snack.

For me this is a simple belt tightening excercise. For people back in the States you can think about the cost of goods imported from China, of which many are sold all over the U.S., and how costs are skyrocketing in terms of both the sinking strength of the dollar and an increase in shipping charges.

That better be one good peach!

Monday, June 9, 2008

The American Embassy

The U.S. embassy in Beijing is located off of Jianguomen Dajie (Jianguomen Street), just west of the Silk Market, the most well-known shopping destination for westerners who want to bargain shop for fake or off-label products. When I was here before I didn't register but since I'm now planning to be here for an extended period of time, and am no longer associated with a formal program, I decided that registering my whereabout would be worthwhile in the unlikely case of an emergency.

I went a couple of days after my arrival back in Beijing, on a beautiful afternoon for being outside and walking through the tree-lined streets of the embassy area in Central Beijing. The U.S. embassy is in an area behind the centrally located Silk Market shopping center, off of Jianguomen Dajie. I found the guarded gate to the old embassy area and saw that there were signs saying there were no cell phones or cameras allowed so I walked into the enclosed area where there were lockers for people to leave their things, only to be shooed away by several older Chinese women who looked at me like I was crazy and said "American? No!" while shaking their hands to indicate that I didn't have to leave my things. The guard at the gate looked at my passport, asked what I wanted, then let me through.

One of the first compounds across the street was the American Embassy. There's a guard house at the entrance, complete with metal detector and x-ray machine. I had to hand over my cell phone and camera for safekeeping before being allowed entrance and had to explain the reason for my visit. I said I wanted to register and was given a number, then I walked out of the guardhouse and into the compound proper, over a cement walkway to a side entry manned by a marine behind bullet-proof glass. He buzzed the door open and pointed me down the hall when I asked where to go to register. I found the correct room and entered it to see about fifteen people, children and adults, sitting on the three or four benches or standing at one of the four windows. The windows were covered with (probably bullet-proof) glass. I sat down and observed my fellow Americans - some tourists, some Beijing residents. We each waited for out number to be called and I was happy to only have to wait about fifteen or twenty minutes to be seen.

My main reason to be there was to register my location, in case of an emergency. However, I decided to take advantage of my visit to do something that I used to dream about doing when I was a little kid: get extra pages added into my passport. When I was little I thought it would be exciting and romantic to travel so much that I would need more space for all of the visas and stamps. Issued in August 2001, my passport now houses entry and exit stamps from Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Morocco, Peru, Singapore and Thailand, in addition to the several full-page visa stickers and entry and exit stamps from China, and is nearly full. U.S. embassies add additional pages into valid U.S. passports for free.

While I was waiting I filled out the simple one-page form to request additional pages. When my name was called I met briefly with a Chinese woman speaking good but not completely fluent English and she took my passport away to have the new pages added, gave me the registration form and told me to sit back down, fill out the form and wait for her to call me again. The registration form was about half the size of letter-sized piece of paper and asked for my name, passport number, reason for being in China, local and U.S. contact information, and expected departure date. My name was called after about ten minutes; I turned in the form and received my passport back, with 12 additional pages (24 if you count both sides) sewn into the middle. Now I can keep traveling and not worry about whether or not I have enough space to get into or out of countries that have requirements about that sort of thing.

I still don't know anyone from the U.S. embassy. I've socially met people from a number of other embassies, African and European. I have met other Americans, through hiking or social events, but no one from the embassy.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Registering with the Police

In China everyone is required to register their location with the local police precinct. Hotel guests are registered by hotel staff so they may not realize that it is being done. When I arrived here in February one of the administrators of my program took care of the registration. Now I am staying with a friend who is about to go back to her country for a couple of months, enabling me to have a comfortable place to live while I postpone apartment hunting until after Beijing's Olympic-inflated rents have come back down out of the stratosphere, and am required to register so that the local police will have a record of me.

After a lunch of some of my favorite Chinese foods at Luogo we took a stroll to the local precinct, located in a one story cement building. Three uniformed police women sat in front of computers in a large room. When we walked in my friend explained that we needed to register me, and one of the officers got up and took my passport before sitting down at a panel with two large monitors. She started putting information into one of the two computers, then moved to the other. There she entered information and pulled up a scanned photograph of me that was already in the system, though from 10 feet away I couldn't tell if it was the photo from my passport or the one that I submitted as part of my visa application.

After requesting additional information about me from my friend (it's good to have friends who are fluent in the local language) the officer took a copy of the foreigner registration form and put it through the printer to have my data printed on it, in triplicate, then stamped it with a red stamp (all official documents here are stamped, usually with large red stamps), told me to sign it, and gave me a copy. The "Registration Form of Temporary Residence" has my name, gender, nationality, date of birth, passport number, type of visa, arrival date, visa expiration and departure dates, type of residence and address. The form is written in Chinese, and all of the information is also in characters with the exception of numbers and my name, though the labels for each data point are in both characters and English. The characters for 'Surname' and 'First Name' actually say "English Family Name" and "English First Name," which is in line with most things here which treat all languages other than Chinese as English.

I am to carry a copy of the registration with me at all times, along with my passport. If I leave the country for vacation and return I need to go back and re-register. Most countries where I've traveled require you to carry some form of ID (usually your passport or a locally issued government ID card for foreigners) but this is the first time I've ever had to register with the police. It was quick and easy, and the officers were pleasant.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Home to Beijing

I'm back in Beijing. My flight arrived a half hour early to a beautiful spring day, and I am now sitting in my new home getting ready to go buy some water and fruit for tomorrow - both because they are needed and to keep me awake until 9pm. I'm exhausted.

The in-flight entertainment system made it way too easy to watch films the entire flight, which meant that I only slept for about an hour on the flight. I'm sure I'll sleep well tonight.

My arrival back to Beijing was quick and relatively painless. The one nerve-wracking moment was when I was going through the immigration line and the official took my passport, decided it didn't look like me, and asked for an id card. I quickly dug my driver's license out of my wallet, explaining that it is my only other identification, even thought it's not an official identification document here. Apparently that didn't look like me either. I put my bags down and used my hands to pull my hair back off of my face, similar to the way it looks in a ponytail, as it was in my passport photo. That did the trick, he nodded his head and picked up the stamp.

After that I was able to give the cabdriver my address in a manner which he understood and he drove me to my complex. I waved to the guards to open the gates to let the car in and they did it, so the cab was able to drop me directly in front of the steps to my building and I didn't have to carry my bags all the way from the curb.

It's good to be back.