Sunday, September 28, 2008


Citibank has been told that I am in China. I've told them on at least two occasions, once when I called from New York and once when I called from here a couple of weeks ago to have a block taken off of my account. I don't use the card often but I recently used it to buy a baby shower gift from Toys R Us and have it sent to a friend in Connecticut, and also to buy something at the grocery store here when I'd forgotten to put more cash in my wallet. I just logged on to the Citibank website to pay my bill and saw a message that I need to call in to Citibank due to some 'high-risk activity.' I opened up Skype and called.

After listening to the usual recorded Citibank messages I heard a pleasant woman with an Indian accent say that the system is down for maintenance, could I please call back later. I have things to do today that preclude my sitting in front of the keyboard indefinitely so decided to see if I could avoid having to stay online by having someone call me back. I asked "Are you a human being or a recording?" From the other end of the line I heard someone say "uuuhhhhhh."

That's a human being.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 4

I have a home.

Friday night S and I signed a lease on our fabulous two bedroom apartment in Sanlitun. Well, Stephanie was the one who signed, but my name is on the lease as an occupant. This was important because I want to make sure that there is not a problem with my registering with the police at that address, or coming and going on a regular basis.

The lease was written in both Mandarin and English, with a clause saying that if there was a discrepancy then the Mandarin version is the one that will prevail. In the lease there is a Force Majeure clause protecting the landlord from responsibilities if there are problems due to riots, war or Acts of God. That caught my eye and made me wonder.

Friday morning I went on an expedition to Carrefour, the French supermarket, to buy cleaning supplies and other things to prepare the apartment. I haven't been shopping for anything other than food for awhile but I quickly remembered how much I hate shopping here. The low cost of labor here means that there are numerous employees all over the store. Every time I picked up a broom or a mop to look at features there would be four or five or six people who came forward to show me a different version and yell at me to tell me that I should get the other one. It resulted in my having to sculk at the end of the aisle, trying to visually find an item I wanted and figure out which version of the item I would think best, then dashing up the aisle to pick it up, look at it, and dash back out of the aisle to my shopping cart before anyone started yelling at me. I know how to choose a mop, thank you very much, please stop yelling and shoving things in my face.

Customer service is very different here than in other countries. It was a bit better during the Olympics but they are over now and I want to avoid all stores again. I wasn't able to buy all of the things on my list (I don't have towels or sheets yet) because the selection wasn't very large and I felt like I'd run the gauntlet enough that day.

Yesterday the real estate agent had two ayis (cleaning women) in to clean the apartment, and I made several trips from where I've been staying with my suitcases, books, and other things, including the cleaning supplies I had bought at Carrefour. Today I won't be able to go to the new apartment, but tomorrow I'll take one or two more trips over and buy bedsheets and towels so that I'll be able to move in and start actually living there by the time the weekend arrives.

I have an actual apartment now. After eight months living out of suitcases it feels strange to know that I'll be able to unpack everything soon.


Last night a cab ride that should have taken me 15 minutes instead took over 45. The special traffic rules for the Olympics are gone. I miss them.

My new apartment is located minutes away from places where I go regularly, and about 15 minutes from the subway. I've been living close to a subway line, but one that doesn't go places I usually go so I would need to transfer several times to get to my usual destination.

Taxis and subway are good. Traffic is annoying. I'm looking forward to buying a bicycle now that I have a place to put it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 3

I think I found a home!

I've looked at several more apartments with my wonderful Chinese broker who speaks almost no English. Yesterday afternoon he took me to view two apartments on the back of his electric bicycle. Neither of them were anywhere near as welcoming to me as the first place he had shown me, which was fabulous but overpriced. I loved it, but don't want to knowingly overpay.

Last night I was on my way to meet my friend S, a Beijing-born Chinese-American woman, when she called and asked if I'd mind looking at an apartment with her. We're both home hunting, both plan to live alone, and have gone to look at some apartments together then shared our opinions of the buildings, apartments, furnishing, and decor - or lack thereof. If she didn't like the apartment last night she was going to renew the lease on her current apartment. I was just along as a prelude to our dinner and to give another opinion.

We met close to where we had previously planned to meet, in the Sanlitun embassy area, a few minutes walk from an English-language bookstore, a good local grocery store, the yoga studio where I like to go, and lots of good restaurants. We met the broker on a street corner opposite from Beijing's Worker Stadium, a central landmark and the location of the Olympic soccor semi-finals and finals. Only a few minutes walk away we turned into the courtyard of a Chinese apartment complex where only three weeks ago S and I had both commented we would love to get in but the rents would probably be insane if any Chinese retirees were willing to sublet.

At the entry to the building we met the landlady, a Chinese woman in her thirties, then walked up four flights of stairs and waited while she opened a heavy metal door right off to the landing. The heavy metal door led to a private outdoor patio and another metal door, behind which was an indoor patio and a hallway into a place we never would have expected in a building that is over thirty years old. Spanish tiles in the entryway. High ceilings. Modern light fixtures. A bathtub. An oven (small, but still large enough for a brownie pan, cookie sheet or lasagna dish). Built-in bookcases. Generous storage space. Crown molding. Front and back patios. Southern and norther exposure. Views of green courtyard areas. Over 120 square meters of floor space. Two large bedrooms. The complex was built by the Soviet Union for senior communist party officials working in China in the late 1960s and it was made to last. Its location in the embassy area means that heat and power are reliable. All at a price well under market, maybe one third less, because the landlord wants someone they trust who won't be a problem.

The rent on the apartment is at the cap of what I was willing to pay, but for this apartment, the location and the space I would be quite happy to pay it. So would S. Such places are almost impossible for outsiders or foreigners to get into (no, we're supposed to want to live in overpriced, modern luxury monstrosities with all the character of an overcooked potato and filled with other foreigners), but S has local origins and guanxi (a network of relationships and connections) that are hard for a newcomer to access, and a friend connected her with this broker. As we looked through the apartment we kept commenting on the same things, or exclaiming for the other to look at some detail (crown molding!). We've decided that we'll share.

We're going back on Friday afternoon to take a look at the apartment during the day, check the water pressure and sign the lease. Last night over dinner in a nearby cafe we started to discuss decor and house rules; today we discussed them further and agreed to have a written agreement that clearly states financial responsibilities and some other information. Our next step will be to get a housekeeper in do a deep clean. If all goes well I'll be living there in under two weeks. I already know the area and have friends nearby, and will have easy access to most of the places where I go regularly.

Wish us luck!


Last week was nine days straight of 18+ hour days. We did the classwork for two different semester-long MBA classes, Financial Accounting and Organizational Behavior. Anyone who slept more than six hours each night was considered an anomaly. Several classmates and I have tentatively decided that MBA programs are synonymous with sleep deprivation torture.

Our class is made up of over 40 professionals, men and women from China, the U.S., Canada, Germany, Isreal, Columbia, Chile, and other countries around the world. One brave woman is doing this while pregnant, due to give birth in a few months. Several program participants arrived in Beijing from North America or Europe only three or four days before class started. All in the group are driven to perform, though we have different strengths and weaknesses. In our first week we had brilliant professors, both of whom have earned success in the business world in addition to their recognition in the academic world. One of them is dean of the undergraduate business program at Rutgers and the other teaches accounting at some of the top business schools around the United States.

We learned a lot in our first week. And we realize that over the next fourteen months we'll be learning a lot about time management and group dynamics, not just the subjects listed in the class syllabuses.

For now, we recover. Classmates who are not working spent Monday in a shell-shocked state. Yesterday I emerged from my bubble and met a classmate for kayaking on Houhai, the lake where we usually go for dragonboating. I needed that after nine days sitting at a table and almost no physical activity.

Now we have two and a half weeks before our next one-week intensive and we have to prepare.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 2

My apartment hunt has been temporarily put on hold, pending the end of my first intensive week of classes next week. This morning, however, I received a call from the friendly, non-English speaking broker at Wo Ai Wo Jia. He had two apartments to show me. I scheduled an appointment to meet him this afternoon.

After my frustrations while looking at apartments last week I put together a list of things that are important to me to have in an apartment. I wrote it down, then a fabulous translator friend typed it in Chinese. We printed it out and now I can show it to Chinese brokers so that they know what I want:

"I am looking for a 2 bedroom furnished apartment, preferably in a Chinese complex (not an international compound), in Dongzhimen, Dongsishitiao or Yonghegong, with a one-year lease.

The apartment should have:
24 hr hot water
heat included in the rent
a western toilet
an enclosed shower (shower cabinet) or a bathtub
natural light during the daytime
tile, parquet or wood floors (no wall to wall carpets)
elevator if above the third floor (24 hrs)
air conditioner
high speed internet access
An oven (for baking) would be nice but is not a requirement.

I am ready to move in immediately upon identifying an apartment and signing the lease but do not need to move until I find the right place.

I have Chinese and foreigner friends who speak and read both Chinese and English and can help me understand the contract before I sign it."

You may have laughed when you read the list. Some older homes here don't even have running water, so I want to make sure that a realtor knows that it's important to me, and that I want it 24 hours a day. The hot water in some places turns off after a certain hour, so again I decided to specify. Many apartments have bathrooms with 'open' showers, which means the shower head is just a spigot or a handheld showerhead mounted on a wall, with no tub or compartment to separate the 'shower' from the rest of the bathroom. It can be a nightmare to clean, and one that I saw had the showerhead pointed right at the toilet, with not enough room to stand up or turn around. No thank you. Some buildings with elevators turn them off after a certain hour. I don't want to ever have to make a decision to leave somewhere early, or to stay out until five or six in the morning, because of an elevator being turned off.

High speed internet access is necessary because, well, because I want internet access at home and it can take months to have installed if an apartment does not already have it.

This afternoon the broker took me to two apartments. One had two bedrooms, two living rooms, a long enclosed porch and lots of great light. Unfortunately, the shower looked, um, 'nasty,' there were plastic grape vines and bunchs of grapes attached to the ceiling of one of the living rooms - a dusting nightmare, and the apartment required climbing seven flights of stairs. The second place had an elevator, two bedrooms and a view over a small hidden park with a lake from the master bedroom. The pitfalls were that the second bedroom and the living room both faced an unpleasant looking airshaft, there was very little light, the furniture was old and dark, and the layout made the place feel smaller than it was.

I explained to broker, in bad Chinese and with lots of hand gestures and laughter, that I like to have friends over but few would walk up seven flights, and that the other place felt very dark. Now he has my email address so he's going to take photos of places and send them to me. I also pulled out a calendar and explained that I'll be 'studying' all next week, from morning until night. We're going to resume apartment viewing after that.

It's an adventure, but I know I'll find a place I love if I'm patient and keep looking. If not, there's always the luxury foreigner ghettos.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Scrabble Update

I asked a friend who spent her childhood here about how Scrabble is played in Chinese. It's not.

Local schoolchildren don't have time for games. They're working too hard. The most commonly used learning method is memorization, and students have to memorize a lot. There is little time for any type of extracurricular activities.


I have news: I'm going to get an MBA. From Rutgers. In China. Business Week ranked the Rutgers Executive MBA program in the top five for strategy and top six for finance globally.

This is a fourteen month intensive program, with classes being held over a one week period approximately once each month. For each week, we will be in class full time on the beginning and ending weekends and two evenings during the week in between. Classes are taught by the same professors who teach in the program in the United States. The program costs US$41,000, including textbooks and refreshments, a bargain compared to the over US$100,000 tuition and fees charged to out-of-state students taking the same E-MBA program in the New Jersey.

Life sometimes offers us interesting paths to take. I often find ones I'd never even thought existed. This is one of them. I had not imagined this as part of my plan in China but it's an amazing opportunity. I have learned something new every day since I arrived here and I know I will continue to do so.

Right now I'm trying to read as much of the 900+ pages of Accounting and Organizational Behavior textbooks, case studies and readings as I can before the program starts on Saturday. The classes are only one week long so I know I can make it through.

At this point I'm still waiting to hear back from the federal government about student aid. Anyone have an extra $41,000?

Exchange Rates

Most apartments that I am looking at are priced in the local currency, RMB. Some apartments listed online are priced in dollars. I'm now at the point where I have to convert the cost into RMB, as that is the currency that I use most frequently.

You know you really live somewhere when you have to convert prices in your own country's currency into the local currency to assess whether a price is reasonable.

Hot Chocolate at the Grand Hyatt

The Grand Hyatt hotel is located in the heart of Beijing, on Chang'an Avenue in the Oriental Plaza shopping and apartment complex, and is generally considered to be the finest luxury hotel in town.

Yesterday evening I stopped into the Grand Hyatt to pick up a package that was left for me by a visiting friend. After claiming it from the concierge I sat in the lobby to read. I also splurged on a hot chocolate. It was made in the American style, with milk, whipped creme on top, and marshmallows, biscotti and a chocolate-dipped bread stick on the side. Yum!

One noteworthy thing that I observed was the presence of a service charge on the bill. Waitstaff are certainly deserving of being paid for their services, but tipping is not the norm here in Beijing. Some premium restaurants and lounges (read: ones frequented by foreigners or ultra-wealthy locals) now charge a service fee on all bills. If it were used to reward waitstaff for good service I would respect it, but the service fee is kept by management and never makes its way to the people who are actually providing service. Remember that the next time you see a mandatory service charge in China.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 1

Now that the Olympics are over it is time for me to find my own apartment.

I started this by reviewing online ads on two popular websites for expats. There were a number of ads listed that looked promising so I sent off emails. Their apartments were in areas close to where I spend most of my time and were in my price range. Most of the ads were placed by English-speaking real estate agents, who then respond and try to steer me into buildings and apartments they think I would like.

As I am a foreign woman, it is obvious to the agents that I want to be in one of the large luxury compounds that are filled with foreigners from around the world. I've looked at some of the apartments there and felt like I was looking at condominiums in Connecticut, right out of a cookie cutter. They are sterile and there is very little sense of community. Agents stress the club house and the gym facilities, but I have no use for a stair machine since I am already active physically. They tell me that the buildings are safe; Beijing is one of the safest places in the world for foreigners, especially foreign women, and the only time I've ever felt unsafe in the slightest was when I was with foreigners. The realtors look shocked when I say that I want to be in a Chinese compound, but I want to be somewhere with a real sense of community, where English is not the lingua franca.

Yesterday afternoon I'd had enough of politely arguing with the English speaking brokers and walked into a Chinese brokerage firm - Wo Ai Wo Jia, or I Love My House. The brokers weren't sure what to make of me at first, and communicating wasn't easy, but I now feel much happier about the whole process. Plus, I'm learning some new vocabulary words.

When I walked in and the agents looked up at me I said I wanted a, um, (darn it, how do I say rental?), then I pointed at the rental ads in the window so that they would know I didn't want to buy a place. That would be a lot more paperwork than I'm willing to do right now and I don't feel I'm ready to do that here yet. They asked how many people, how big, I explained that the apartment is for me and I'd like one or two bedrooms. I told them the areas where I'm looking. One realtors knew a few words of English ('how much' and 'rooms'), so he quickly became my main point of contact. I told him I didn't want to live in the big international complexes, I want a Chinese complex. He had something else to do so he told me to return in an hour. I asked for his business card, then his name. When he gave me his card he pointed to his name, and I had to explain that "Wo bu kan Zhongwen" (I don't read Chinese). As my vocabulary is smaller than that of most three year olds my inability to read didn't come as a complete surprise so he said his name and wrote it out in pinyin on his card.

When I returned to the brokerage after an hour I waited for him for a few minutes and his colleagues gave me warm water while I waited. When he walked in, he had a set of keys and he and a female colleague told me to follow them. We walked about twenty minutes to a Chinese complex and I was happy to see all of the trees and the retirees sitting outside chatting together. The apartment was a two bedroom, with lots of light, view of the courtyard below, an enclosed shower, a renovated kitchen (no oven, but that's normal here) and a piano in the dining area. It was beautiful, but I told the realtor that I would like something closer to the main street (and the subway). He said something that I didn't understand, then he and his colleague made cars sounds to explain that apartments closer to the street would have a lot of traffic noise. I still wanted to see another apartment, so asked him to find me something else that I would like.

As I walked out of the compound I took a different route, down a tree lined street, and saw that the building was only a few minutes from the street, much closer than I had thought. That night I went back with a friend, and a woman stopped her hacky sack game to tell me should would be my neighbor. It was a homey apartment, comfortable and cleanable, in a great location.

The next day I had a friend call the realtor to speak in Chinese and say I'm interested, but the price was several hundred RMB too high. It turns out that the place would be a sublet. The current tenant signed two months ago, at the top of the market, and would only come down 100RMB per month. I queried friends, locals and foreigners alike, to hear their estimates of what the apartment is worth. The tenants reduced price is still several hundred RMB higher than the apartment is worth in the current market. I liked it, but I'm not willing to pay for someone else's lack of knowledge about real estate prices. I'm going to keep looking.

Random Question - Scrabble

Chinese characters are mostly complete words unto themselves. There are some characters which signify a sound, not a word, but by and large most characters have meaning.

This leads me to ask:

How does one play Scrabble in Chinese?

We play scrabble by building on letters in one word to spell another word. If each character is already a complete word then we can't build on it. True, we have compound words, but those are usually composed of two or three characters (telephone is made up of the two words "dian-hua," or "electric/electricity-speak/language"). We could play by transcribing words but we'd have to find a way to include tones in our writing.

The question popped into my mind as I was on a late night stroll last night. Now I'm curious and am going to have to find out.