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Archive for the ‘Traveling in China’ Category

Tuesday morning at 6am I woke up for the last time in China after getting a whopping two or maybe three hours of sleep.  I headed out into the living room where my suitcases waited to do some last sorting of papers I wanted to take with me on the flight home to Canada.

I finished the last little bits of packing I needed to do before it was time to head down to load the car our university provided to take me to the airport (and later Julianne for her afternoon flight).  A co-worker/friend heard Julianne and I coming out of our apartment and decided to see me off (though she initially thought it was ‘us’ leaving at the same time).  We got downstairs and saw what we thought was the car but the driver was nowhere to be seen.

Our university student-assistant showed up to help and make sure everything was ready (i.e. the driver!) and we all stood around in the morning heat and humidity sweating and wondering where the driver was although he did have five minutes before the set time to leave.  It was a little awkward (in my mind anyways) standing there with two other people besides Julianne and I because I wanted to spend my last few minutes with her alone . . . but it couldn’t be helped.  Julianne will spend several weeks in America while I’m in Canada with each of us taking some time off and preparing for the next ‘big adventure’ overseas teaching English (more on that later).  We just made do in spite of wanting to be alone, and me being a little distracted with worry about where the driver was and if he was going to show up.

The driver shows up on time (my cell phone time was running slow) and we load the car.  Our co-worker/friend gives me a hug and then heads upstairs, and I ask our student-assistant to give me a minute to say goodbye to Julianne.  We say our goodbyes and I get into the car which looks like a 2011 model–very new and very nice! The ‘irony’ behind all this being that we had to stalk the university liaison/secretary for six days with no success by cell phone messages (that went unanswered!!!) until finally on Monday morning (the day before we leave!) our student-assistant calls her and asks her to confirm that we have a car booked for each of our departure times to get us to the airport (a perk that our contracts give us) . . .

Anyways, the car pulls out and I pick up my camera thinking I’ll snap my last shots of China on the way to the airport but I’m so tired that I decide to just enjoy the ride (and watch traffic to make sure we don’t get in an accident on the way there!).  Twenty minutes or so later we arrive at Changsha’s “International” Airport and I get my luggage and head into what I hope is the international departures area (signs are not good).

Inside, I look around to see that the overhead lights are not turned on (but think that could just be to save power) and wonder where I’m supposed to go and wait when there are very few English signs.  Outside the doors I had entered was a sign saying “Hong Kong” and three other destinations so I had assumed that since my layover/transfer was there that I was heading into the right place.

Then I see another expat trying to talk to a security guard who apparently has no English but is posted at the ‘international’ desk . . . nice!  The guard grabs an employee who is entering through the barrier and asks her to talk to the expat–I hear “Hong Kong” and see her head nod and I decide to walk over and confirm with her that I’m also in the right place.  She looks a little exasperated to be doing a job that probably is outside her job description but is friendly and helps me out.

The other expat and I introduce ourselves and I find out that he’s an American teacher but was only in Changsha on business for a short stay.  We sit down and begin talking as we wait for the 9:30am official opening time for the check-in counters.  The conversation is good and time passes pretty quickly.

Then a bus pulls up and several Chinese travelers begin piling into the waiting area and I suggest that my new friend and I move our luggage over to the place we’ll enter through a barrier once everything opens–and it’s a good thing we do because even after positioning ourselves right next to the barrier a Chinese woman walks past everyone and puts her suitcase in front of ours . . . and later I move it behind us when she goes off to do something, ha!

Another woman gets escorted by a guy in a military uniform to the front of the dozens of people now waiting and put in front of us and I let it go because she’s probably some high ranking/rich person’s relative or girlfriend and complaining would only get stares and being ignored.

And then it’s time to check-in.  We show our e-ticket printouts and passports and get waved over to an X-ray machine which we put our stuff through–and that’s when I get pulled aside for the first time by a security person and asked to go into a side-room for an inspection of one of my suitcases.

I put my suitcase up on a steel table while my friend continues on to the check-in counters.  I open my suitcase and ask the woman what she would like to check–no answer, she just smiles.  She roots around in one particular area and pulls out . . . wait for it, wait for it, an English textbook audio CD and asks me where I bought it.  EFL/ESL CD’s are possible contraband on outgoing flights??? LOL! REALLY!  I tell her it’s mine and that I bought it outside of China years ago, and then we’re finished.  The bizarre thing, as if this could get more bizarre, is that the STACK OF BURNED CD’s I had in another part of the same suitcase never got any attention . . . yeah.

I then head over to the check-in counters thinking that I won’t have any more issues with my luggage other than one of them might be slightly over weight–wrong!!!

I see my new friend and we say hi as he passes me in line.  I wait for a woman to finish and then head to the counter.  The clerk begins processing my e-ticket and I put my first suitcase up on the conveyor belt to be weighed and, apparently, X-rayed again!  The first suitcase goes through fine with no problems and I even don’t have to pay for what I think is a couple kilograms over in weight.

Then my second suitcase rolls into the X-ray machine . . . and that’s when I begin to feel like things are beginning to get crazy.  For a minute nothing is said but my suitcase stays inside the scanning box, and then I’m asked to come behind the check-in counter.  I walk over to where there is a door that leads behind the counter and knock–it doesn’t open.  I walk around the corner back to the counter and a woman tells me to put my camera/lens backpack on the ground, squeeze between a post and the counter that looks dubiously just big enough for me to squeeze through–and I laugh and look her in the eyes and without any hesitation at all say “Uhm, no, my backpack is NOT staying out here” as I highly doubt anyone at the airport would give a damn if it was stolen with all my camera equipment.

I heft the backpack over my head and at the same time squeeze through the small space and then I’m standing behind the check-in counters and see a long row of conveyor belts leading out of the scanning boxes for each of the check-in booths–and there’s no way for me to get to my suitcase which is two sections down, but of course there’s a girl waving at me to come over to her and an older guy sitting at a computer screen with a big frown on his face . . .

I walk over to the edge of the first conveyor belt, and say “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to get the suitcase? Do you want me to step over the conveyor belts?” The girl looks mortified and says nothing but keeps gesturing, and the scanner dude glances at me and continues to scowl at his computer monitor while saying nothing.

I set my backpack down because we’re behind the counters, and climb up onto and over two conveyor belts.  I ask my questions again, get no answers but gestures (because in an international airport it makes no sense to hire people who have some English skills!), and I pick up my suitcase and lug it back over the conveyor belts to a table.

I ask the girl again what do they need to see, and what are they looking for–no answers, just nervous smiling and gesturing for me to open the suitcase.  I open it and immediately show her my two AA battery chargers thinking that that is probably what she, and scowling dude, want to see–nope, and the gesturing continues.  She asks scowling dude a question and he fires off an irritated answer, and she then begins poking and prodding my suitcase aimlessly searching for what I don’t know.

I point at the upper part that isn’t open, and she nods enthusiastically so I open it and show her what is there while trying not to move stuff too much cause I had packed it carefully to make opening and closing it not too difficult–no luck, she still hasn’t found whatever dude wants her to find.

Oh, did I mention that he’s ten feet away and already inspecting someone else’s luggage AND can’t see my suitcase or what the girl is doing? Yeah.

We return to the main compartment of my suitcase and I decide to show her all the other electronic things (some power cords, an iTouch charger head) and she shakes her head. I then show her a pair of large sized studio-grade head phones I have and she also shakes her head no–but by this point she has been told by scowling dude that he wants her to focus on the right side of my suitcase.  Knowing that there is NOTHING but my tightly rolled tshirts, socks, and underwear on that side I begin to lose my patience as I’m sweating in the heat and humidity of the check-in area.

I step away from the girl and towards the scowling dude, and call out to him and wave at him to cover over and HELP HER!  He looks at me like I’m a mosquito asking for a blood donation and I look back at him like he’s a lazy officious oaf that needs to get off his ass and do his job since he’s the one that pulled me aside for an inspection that isn’t finding anything!

I ask him in an exaggerated tone “What are you looking for?!”  He then actually stands for a second and says something to the girl who moans and says what I’m sure must be “I have no idea what to do” and then finally makes an effort to communicate by gesturing the shape and size of the object he is so keen to find.

The gestured outline is exactly that of the head phones I had ALREADY SHOWN TO MINNY MOUSE!!!  I pick them up and hold them out towards the dude and he scowls at me and immediately rejects them as the object he is searching for in spite of them being the right size and shape.  It seems he was wishing for a mortar-shell-rigged-to-a-clock-with-ticking-fuse but after I insist and the girl has gutted the right side of my luggage he gives in–and then, of course, tells me I have to put my suitcase back through the scanner one more time which means me lifting it four feet up in the air and over the counter while squeezing through the slit of space that isn’t meant to be used as an exit to do so–I should have insisted that one of the clerks or security people do it as that’s ‘normally’ THEIR JOB not the paying customer but I just wanted the whole ridiculous inspection to be over with–and then it was, finally!

Having already lost two kilos through sweating I head over to customs and actually get a semi-friendly agent.  She doesn’t say much other than a few questions to check details of my departure and she lets me keep my foreign expert permit.  This surprised me because when you leave South Korea after a contract you normally have to hand over your alien registrati0n card and I just assumed this would be the case here too–but I got to keep it.

I then go to the waiting area by the departure gate and find my American friend.  I buy 3 bottles of water and a Coke for 64 yuan (major rip-off!) and we sit and talk while waiting.  I had earlier joked that it’d be funny if we were seated together and once we get on the plane we see that he’s sitting directly across the aisle from my seat, lol.

During the 90 minute flight to Hong Kong we chat the whole time talking about his wife, family, teaching career in the US, and business he does in China, and I trade teaching stories and experiences and observations about my time in China and South Korea with him.

We land in Hong Kong and I tell him I have to ask if I need to re-check my luggage and unfortunately I never get a chance to say goodbye as we got separated exiting the plane.  I did, however, give him my blog url so if he’s reading this he’ll know what happened.

After disembarking from the airplane everyone got onto a huge bus that transported us to the airport itself–which is GI-NORMOUS!!!!

I look around inside and have no idea where I need to go so ask, and find out I have to walk about THIRTY GATE NUMBERS to my departure gate. At first I don’t think it’ll be bad because they have the moving sidewalks but then notice that both lanes are moving towards me, so I begin to walk a lot faster because I only have a two hour turn around and don’t want to somehow miss my connection.  With my heavy backpack and satchel I lose another couple kilos as I walk quickly towards the gate . . .

I find the gate with about 15 minutes to spare before boarding begins and then backtrack because Julianne had asked me to get her a bookmark or postcard in Hong Kong. I find some cool panoramic fridge magnet pictures and buy two, and then look for somewhere to buy a sandwich and drink because I didn’t know how long it’d be before they’d feed us on the flight for the first time, and the 90 minute flight had given us a tiny packet of pretzels and small glass of juice/pop/water . . . so I was pretty hungry.

Unfortunately, even after walking back a couple hundred feet I didn’t see any food places that had what I wanted so I resigned myself to waiting for the first meal on the plane.

As I walk down the boarding tunnel to the plane I see a man wearing a kind of fedora hat, light-weight summery European style short sleeved shirt and pants munching away on a wrap and wonder where he’d found it.  He scarfs it down just as he reaches the entrance to the airplane and seconds before an attendant who’d begun to stare at him with a ‘where-the-hell-do-you-think-you’re-taking-that-food-look’ . . . and that was my first introduction to the Argentinian Geriatric Brady Bunch Gang.

Before I continue on with that little gem of my travel story here is a picture of the view from inside the Hong Kong airport.  I really liked the mountains and clear blue sky with some white clouds (unlike Changsha’s grey-blue-at-best skies).

Getting back to the Argentinian Geriatric Brady Bunch Gang . . . apparently a group tour of 26 Argentinians was a part of the flight I was on and the vast majority were seated directly around my seat.  On my left was a Chinese Tiger-Mom (definition “a mother that could be a genetic hybrid of Mao/Hilter/Stalin/Sarah Palin/Mary Poppins-on-crack”) and her high school/first year university-aged daughter who sat directly beside me.  In front of me were Argentinians, behind me probably the oldest Argentinian of the group (who gets a ‘special’ place in this blog post), and to my right where the largest central rows of seats were was the main bulk of the gang.

Four of the old boys in the gang spent a good portion of the first six hours of the fourteen hour flight chatting up the ladies (who were all 50+ I think).  I got to experience the joys of one guy in particular leaning his hands, elbows, and hips on the back of the chair in front of me where I was trying to watch movies, and then on the head of my own chair which was fantastic as he kept shifting his weight making my seat bob, dip, and go up and down a little; glaring at him did nothing and I didn’t want to get into a conversation with Roberto Benigni‘s Argentinian cousin from “Life is Beautiful” . . . the one thing I did like about the entire group was their insanely powerful joie de vivre as they stood in aisles of the plane and chatted away with each other as though at a party and not on a plane.

It began with three chatting by the bathrooms but they realized after an hour that they were blocking the stewards/stewardess and other travelers trying to get through and to the bathrooms.

Later, six of them made the space in front of the emergency exit their hang out, laugh, talk, gesticulate energetically, and have fun spot. (I know the pic is blurry but I still can’t believe that no one told them they couldn’t congregate there.)

While I admired their unique (I’ve NEVER seen this many people all stand in groups and chat, and walk around to their friends sitting down and chat, for so long during an international flight) energy and manner of making time pass while flying, I really didn’t care for how loud they were after the lights were turned down and some people were trying to sleep and/or watch a movie, etc.

The old guy behind me, around the seven hour mark of the flight, apparently began to have some major issues with his legs . . . and decided to work out his pain/tinglies and frustrations by KICKING THE UNDERSIDE AND BACK OF MY FREAKING CHAIR IN RAPID FIRE BURSTS OF 3 and as many as 10 HARD KICKS!!!

I would sit up and turn and glare at him but it somehow failed to register.  I said stop in English but a good number of the gang on the flight couldn’t speak much English (though you’d think ‘stop’ might be one of the few words most would know).

Finally, after about the sixth (I lost track!) chair attack I got a flight stewardess to come over and asked her to ask the man to stop.  Two younger guys sitting beside the old guy also said they were worried about the man’s kicking/spasms and the stewardess tried to suggest to him to stand up and walk it off around the aisles of the plane.  After gesturing and repeating the suggestion he finally stood up and walked down the aisle and I was able to get back to sleeping without thinking a little kid was sitting behind me (which has happened before!) bored and losing his mind but entertaining himself through exploring the percussive and acoustic properties of my chair back . . . why the old boy couldn’t have told himself to get up and move around I don’t know . . . oh well.

Another thing that happened during the flight that surprised me was the Chinese girl sitting beside me, who spent most of the flight sleeping, ended up at one point falling asleep with her head on my thigh.  She had begun trying to sleep on the backseat tray but invariably she would fall asleep enough that she’d slowly slide more and more off of it and then onto my leg.  She sounded like she was exhausted and fighting a cold and I really didn’t care if she used my leg as a pillow cause she was tiny and it was never for very long cause after ten minutes or so she’d wake up, realize her head was on my leg and pretend it wasn’t, lol, and then she’d reposition herself on the tray and fall asleep again to repeat the whole pattern.  I thought it was cute and remembered some of the high school girls I’d taught in Korea and wondered why she was flying to Toronto (later, I saw she is a university student on her customs form).

I amused myself in different ways during the flight to help time pass.  The first half of the flight I tried to sleep as much as possible so that my jet lag and transitioning to Canada time wouldn’t be too bad.  While on a trip to the bathroom I decided to shoot my first ‘me holding my camera mirror self-portrait’ . . .

Fourteen hours later the flight lands in Toronto–yahooo!  After clearing customs I stepped onto the motorized sidwalk and was shocked at how fast it moved (I’d been on it during past trips through the airport but it had never been set at so fast a speed!).

I picked up my luggage and then walked outside to meet my parents . . . my jet lag/exhaustion was a little strong but not too bad.  I feel bad for Julianne because her total travel and flight time will clock in at over 30 hours by the time she gets home in America. My 20 hours or so of travel time is nothing compared to that.

And that’s my story . . . it’s great to be back in Canada and this morning for breakfast I ate something I hadn’t had in a LONG TIME: really good cantaloupe!!!

Well, time to go get ready for my first full day back in Canada.  I’m going to go and try to get some rolls of film developed, and if they do it quick enough I’ll upload them to my flickr page later today.

Oh yeah, the other thing I want to do is walk around a grocery store . . . oh baby!!!

J

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What’s it like for native English teachers/expats to live in Changsha, Hunan, China?

I should preface this post by saying that Julianne and I have not had what I think is the ‘typical’ living and teaching experience in Changsha, or China for that matter.  First off our apartment sits inside a compound with a guarded gate.  A number of Chinese teachers and some other native English teachers also live within the compound which sits on the edge of a military university campus.  Having a guard at the gate gives a degree of safety and security against apartment break-ins and other problems that might occur.  Second, we have been teaching for a national government military university so this has, in my mind, isolated and protected us from what I perceive as the ‘normal’ and ‘everyday’ experiences other native teachers experience when living in normal apartments and teaching at normal schools/universities.  Third, our travel to and from work has been on a coach style bus along with other officers/instructors so our frequency of interactions and experiences with non-government/non-military Chinese people has also not been as frequent as what I think other native English teachers experience on a daily basis.  Those are just some of the things that have made our experiences here different from what I’d say is ‘normal’ for native teachers/expats in Changsha (and China).

All that being said, here’s what I think about living and teaching in Changsha.

Buses

Traveling in Changsha is pretty cheap and easy.  Taking a city bus costs 1-2 yuan.  If you get on a bus with a * next to its name you pay 2 yuan; this is because these buses are ‘nicer’ than the non-* buses (meaning they have air conditioning, for example).  If it’s your first time in China you should prepare yourself for a wild ride as bus drivers here drive as fast as possible pretty much at all times.  This is generally because traffic can slow them down too much and I’ve been told that if drivers are late they get fined or something.  Buses will at times do a ‘rolling stop’ for you to get on . . . and conversely they may not completely stop while you are trying to get off–oh, and sometimes they don’t stop at all and you have to yell (there may be so many people on the bus that they are unusure if you want to get off, for example).  Be forewarned that hard breaking will happen, swerving into the oncoming traffic lane to get around any cars that are slowed/stopped, and other kinds of driving that in North America would get the driver a pink slip, a major traffic violation fine/s, etc.

Prepare yourself to be on a bus with so many people that you may feel like you’re being crushed from multiple directions.  There are no limits to how many people will try to get on a bus here, and I’ve seen people pushing and hammering other people into the doorway of buses trying to cram the person in front of them onto the bus so that THEY can get onto the bus too, lol.

Julianne and I have discovered that the best time to travel on city buses is from 10am to 12pm, and 1pm until about 4pm.  After the insane morning rush hour and before lunch time, and after lunch time during the siesta (rest time) until about 4pm the number of travelers and traffic on the roads is actually not bad.  You will find your bus trip takes a lot less time and you might even be able to get a seat!

Pick-pockets seem to be a bit of an issue on the bus . . . but at the same time don’t think that you’ll have someone’s fingers trying to get into your pocket/purse every time you ride the bus.  I will given an example of how Julianne and I spent nearly an hour trapped on a bus full of angry and yelling Chinese people one time after someone had had their cell phone stolen out of their giant open purse.  The bus driver pullled over to the side of the road and wouldn’t let anyone get off until the police arrived . . . yeah.  Julianne and I joked with our student assistant who was with us at the time (the university assigns one to native teachers to help with day to day things) that we wondered if the police were going to strip search all of us–to which we got a blank-stare-response.

We then had to explain that we wondered how on earth the police could figure out who to detain or who the criminal was when they arrived; our assistant responded that they had ‘special training’ and that the police would look into the eyes of each passenger and find the criminal–LOL! Riggggghhhhht . . . After the police arrived one of them walked up and down the bus searching under seats and looking in the garbage can by the exit door–and then they let off a few people at a time asking each some questions and then letting them go.  The thief was never caught, and we finally got off the bus and continued our trip on another one.  The point of this little anecdote is to not keep your wallet/cash/cell phone/ID in large open pockets or open bags, etc.  Even a backpack is a risk as a friend of ours also told us a story about how she was going up an escalator (I know it’s not the bus, but it was in public) and turned to find a man with his arm up to his elbow inside her backpack ! Be cautious and alert and it’s likely nothing will happen to you–be careless and you’ll likely have a bad experience.

I should also mention that there’s no such thing as a ‘bus schedule’ in Changsha.  The bus comes when it comes.  Sometimes the same bus route number will go by THREE AT A TIME, and if you’re unlucky and miss all of them you get to stand there for several minutes till another comes by.  Also, bus drivers can and will change the regular route at will for whatever reason they want to though to be fair it’s usually because of traffic congestion or construction.  They eventually get back on track but you may have to walk for a bit if your stop happens to be the one they detour around.  Add to all this that extreme acceleration and breaking are a NORMAL part of the bus trip and I think that’s as much advanced warning as you can get before getting on a bus here.

Taxis

Taxi fares begin at 7 yuan on the meter . . . I’m not really sure how much distance per yuan the rate is but when you’re shopping or don’t want to be on the bus it’s generally not too expensive.  The general size of taxi cars is small relative to western body sizes and whether you’re fat or tall or big boned you’ll find it’s a small space to get into.  A metal bar grate barrier sits between the back seat and front seat and there’s usually a small TV playing advertisements or bizarre animated cartoons (you’ll ‘love’ how other ethnicities are drawn–not).

It’s a good idea to have your destination written in Chinese by a Chinese person because drivers often either struggle to undertand native English speakers saying anything in Chinese or aren’t willing to make much efforts to understand you–that being said, we’ve generally had decent experiences with drivers (though we always hand them a piece of paper with our address).

Some drivers will try to ‘take you for a ride’ and you should be aware of this problem.  Click here to read about one driver who tried to rip Julianne and I off.

Foreign Foods

There are two department stores in Changsha where Julianne and I go regularly to get foreign foods: Metro (it’s like a COSTCO) and Carrefour.  Of the two we like Metro better as it has a much bigger selection of foods and other things.

Metro has some of the following things: spices, foreign wines/beers/liqueurs, imported cheese, imported cereals, imported canned goods, fruits and vegetables, a bakery, electronics, etc.

NOTE: During your first visit to Metro you have to get a free membership card.  Bring your passport.

Carrefour has a few things that Metro doesn’t but in general it’s foreign foods section is very small and Metro should be your first stop.

There is also a Walmart in downtown Changsha which has some foreign foods and other items.

Weather

Changsha’s weather is one of extremes–period.  It either feels like it’s cold, or like it’s hot, most if not all the time.  Spring and fall seasons seem to be very short.  The spring lasted maybe 2-3 weeks and then the summer heat and humidity hit hard.  The fall also was pretty much the same.  Winter temperatures, while not as cold as in Canada and parts of America, were cold relative to what we’d become used to in Changsha.  While Julianne never needed to use her Northface down filled winter coat she did want a polar fleece sweater and jacket during some parts of the winter.

The heat and humidity of the summer are severe.  Julianne and I used wide packing tape to seal up most of the windows in our apartment so that heat during the winter wouldn’t escape and cold get inside, and it’s also been working well so far this summer to keep the cold air from our air conditioning in and the heat and humidity out.  The design and construction materials used for our apartment (and I think it’s safe to say for most apartments in China) do not work very well as insulators.  Large size windows with poor caulking and thin/low quality glass do nothing to keep out heat or cold temperatures, and the glass door (our bedroom wall has a massive window and large glass door which exposes it to the elements) leading out onto the balconies (there are 2) of our apartment have gaps at the bottom of the doors and let in the outside temperatures.

Women and Safety

Julianne and the other expat women we work with haven’t had any bad experiences while out and about during the daytime.  At night, however, two of our friends decided to walk home from downtown Changsha after 11pm at night.  During their walk a man decided to expose himself several times as he would drive ahead of them on his scooter, find a spot that shielded him from all directions except for the two girls, and then he would expose himself . . . fortunately that was all he did.  I would NOT recommend female expats walk anywhere alone late at night as the risks are too great.  Add to that that from readings on other blogs I’ve learned that there is a general cultural pattern in China of looking the other way when some kind of violence or bad event is happening.  One cannot rely on the fact that they’re in a busy area and that people passing by will help let alone late at night when there is hardly anyone out and about.

I forgot to mention that during the daytime women generally just have to tolerate being stared at . . . and stared at . . . and stared at for long periods of time.

Banks

Bring everything with you–EVERYTHING! Work visa, copy of contract, passport, Foreign Expert permit, your home banking information: account number, transit number, address of the bank . . . and anything else you can think of.  Do NOT go alone when opening a bank account–go with a Chinese friend or co-worker.  Expect everything to take a long time to do.

Transferring money home . . . ask what the daily limit is for converting Chinese yuan into your home country currency.  Ask what the daily limit is for sending money home to your account.  Ask what the fees are for converting money into your currency, and what the fee is for sending money home.

Apparently there is an income/salary declaration form you can get your visa sponsor/boss to fill out that allows you more freedom with sending money home.

Do not take large amounts of cash out of ATM’s at night and if you need to get cash out try and do it in more upscale and busy areas.  Also, don’t leave cash lying around in your apartment in plain sight.  It’s likely that others may have copies of the keys to your apartment and undisclosed visits may be made while you are at work or traveling or just out.  Add to that that break-ins seem to be a common problem (there are bars covering the windows of most apartments in China) and you should find a nice little hiding place for any cash and valuables that you keep in your apartment.

Hospitals

Basically I’d say the following thing about hospitals: if you don’t have to go .  . . DON’T GO!  Read this post of mine about a trip to a hospital that Julianne and I experienced.

Julianne and I never got around to checking out a place called the “Global Doctor Changsha Clinic.”  Here’s the contact info we found online if you want to check it out.  I imagine it costs a lot more but if the medical and hygiene standards are near or at western levels and the doctor speaks good English I imagine you’ll pay the extra happily.

Tel: + 86 731 523 0250Hunan 2nd People’s Hospital
No 427, Furong Rd (M)
Changsha
410007
China

Otherwise if it’s an emergency or you have no other choice you will end up going to one of the hospitals in Changsha.  Get a Chinese friend or colleague to go with you to translate.  Expect that there will be no privacy whatsoever and that translations of information/diagnosis and other things might not be accurate and/or possible.

In other words–don’t go if you don’t have to go.

Dental Clinics/Hospitals

There is a “Stomatological Hospital” in downtown Changsha that a friend of ours went to and she says it was clean and had good hygiene practice, and that the dentist she worked with had fairly good English and knew what he was doing.  Also, the fees were reasonable UPDATE: I was reminded tonight by the friend who went to the hospital that compared with dental fees back in America that she felt that the fees were incredibly low compared with the ‘thousands of dollars’ she would have paid back home.

Leisure and Recreation

Before moving to Changsha Julianne and I spent our last year in South Korea living in the center of Seoul . . . so Changsha . . . didn’t really do much for us in terms of leisure and recreation as we had to adjust ‘a little.’

That being said there is a fair bit to do inside Changsha: Kaifu Temple, Walking street shopping area, Giant Mao head on Orange Island on the Xiang river, Martyr’s Park and lakes, Xiang river walkways, Yuelu Mountain (bird zoo (very depressing), Changsha Window of The World (didn’t go), Changsha Seaworld (didn’t go), Embroidery Museum (didn’t go), Taoist temple, Hunan Botanical Gardens and animal zoo (very depressing), and more.

If you make friends with Chinese teachers and (if you teach university/college) students you’ll gain access to activities and traveling in a much easier fashion.  Be a little wary of Chinese people who approach you on the street as there are common scams that native English speakers fall for like invitations to a tea room and afterwards the prices suddenly skyrocket and a couple of large boys appear to intimidate you into paying, etc.  Do a Google search to find out more about these scams–and avoid them!

Nightlife and Clubs/Bars

I really can’t comment much on this aspect of Changsha because Julianne and I don’t do the clubbing/bar scene (not regulary, anyways, lol).  For some stories about clubbing/bar hopping in Changsha I’d suggest reading this blog.  You’ll have to scroll back a bit through his posts but there are several funny and well written INSANE stories there.

The one blog entry I do have about going to a pool hall/bar can be read here.

One thing I have experienced (this was after the pool hall night was over) is that getting a taxi after 12am can be hell with so many other people trying to get home too! Keep this in mind when you’re out late at night.

Chinese Food and Restaurants

Julianne and I eat at about six different restaurants fairly regularly and most of the time have not had any problems with the food.  If you go out to eat and don’t speak Changsha-nese or Mandarin make sure you bring a phrasebook with you or if you have an iPod download a translation app.  If you don’t like what I call ‘nuclear-spicy’ food make sure you repeat several times to the waiter/waitress that you don’t want your dishes to be spicy and show them the translation too.  You should still expect your dishes to have some ‘heat’ to them but for the most part–if the server understood–you can expect your dishes to not be too spicy.

Let me stress one more time that you should make extra efforts to be understood when asking for dishes not to be spicy–Hunan province dishes are what I would call ‘chemical burn’ level intensity!

Until you learn the basics of ordering and general restaurant culture it’s a good idea to go with a Chinese co-worker or friend (or expat who speaks Chinese–thank you Amy!) during your first few forays into Chinese restaurants.  Bring an English-Chinese dictionary with you, or iPod with translation app, so that you can help your Chinese friend with vocabulary and expressions they may not know.

If you order it, you pay for it–this is something I really dislike about food and restaurant culture in China but it is what it is.  Recently I ordered a Coke while out with friends and got a glass of ice water with a small splash of Coke in it.  I sent it back twice and each time it was ridiculously watered down–and I still had to pay for it.   If I’d been alone or just with Julianne I probably would have argued the point but I could see that the two younger native teachers I was with would have been mortified if I did that so I just let it go.  I’ve read on other blogs about this particular aspect of restaurant culture in China and how even Chinese people pretty much have to yell and scream if the service/food is crap and they don’t want to pay for it . . . and as a foreigner with no legal rights in China it’s probably better if you just ‘take one for the team’ and let it go if this happens to you–that, and never eat at the place again and tell all your friends not to go too.

Street Food

After reading several news stories and blogs about food safety issues in China I have been a bit wary of eating anything from them.  That being said, Julianne and I have bought meat on a stick a few times and not had anything terrible happen to our digestive systems.  We also get egg-canape-style things at a vendor and haven’t had many problems either.  If many Chinese people are buying from the vendor then it’s likely okay to eat there–if not, you’re taking a risk that you’ll be sitting on the porcelain throne for several hours.

Traveling by train

I cannot speak from personal experience about traveling by train but I have heard several stories from friends, colleagues, and students.  If you choose to travel by train during any of the major holidays in China be prepared for the most insane train experience of your life (the only place I’ve heard more crazy stories about is India)–if you don’t believe me Google “Golden week traveling by train in China” or “Lunar new year traveling by train in China” and look at the pictures!

Bring snacks and drinks with you and keep your eyes on them at all times! Expect that someone will likely be in your bed or seat if you buy a ticket that comes with one and that you’ll have to force them (politely but VERY firmly) to move.  Expect that it will be noisy and packed on the train.  Expect that the toilets will not be clean and that they will be squatters.  Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  If you decide you’ll be able to buy food on the train expect it to be things like chicken feet and other Chinese foods that may not be to your taste.  Expect that sleeping on the train may not be possible due to snoring neighbors, loud children, talking, etc.

Expect that getting to the train station may/likely won’t be easy, and expect that getting from the train station to wherever you’re traveling to also won’t be easy–especially if you don’t speak the regional dialect let alone Mandarin.  Also expect that the travel time may not be as advertised on your ticket and can take hours longer than you expect.

Traveling by plane

In terms of traveling I think this is the best option based on what I’ve heard and read from expats in China with more experience.  Departure and arrival times are for the most part on schedule.  The general safety of your luggage is much better than on a train too.   Depending on when you buy tickets for long distance trips within China the cost of train ticket versus a plane ticket can make taking a plane seem a lot better too.  Also, the seats on a plane compared to a train . . . well, from what I hear there’s no comparison.

Apartment Conditions

In general it seems like native English teachers get put in good apartments–for inside China. “For inside China” is an expression that if it’s your first time living and teaching overseas you’ll likely hear a lot and begin to say yourself.  Relative to the average living space of Chinese people, native English teachers have it pretty damn good.

You can expect, however, some of the following things.

Rolling blackouts (click here for a story) during the summer when air conditioners are running on full blast.  Make sure to back up work on your computer regularly, and have power surge protection on your power bars.

You will have to purchase canisters of natural gas regularly for hot water and cooking on a gas range.

Noise pollution will become a regular part of your life inside your apartment.  Scooters, cars, trucks, buses all passing nearby will honk and honk and honk and HONK . . . and, of course, if you have any schools nearby expect to hear a lot of noise early in the morning, at lunch, and when school lets out.

Check the air conditioner/heating unit vents when you move in because they’ll likely not have been cleaned in . . . well, probably not since they were installed.

Buy some rolls of wide packing tape and seal off window seams and glass door seams to help keep it warm or cool inside the apartment.  Be careful how you do this, though, as there are safety issues for not allowing any air flow throughout your apartment.

Bugs and mice/rats may be a problem in your apartment.

Mr. Mouse vs. Julianne, 1-0 — Tales of Mr. Mouse, Part 1

Life as an expat in China: The Battle with Mr. Mouse Generation II begins . . .

Expat life in China: Mr. Mouse the Sixth gets his death sentence

Drinking water — we purchased a small water cooler and 40 tickets for 5 gallon barrels of water replacements for 400 yuan (prices will vary).

Curtains may or may not block out light enough for you to sleep.  Julianne and I bought some thick sheets of paper and taped them up over our bedroom windows as we didn’t want to shell out big bucks for thick curtains and/or blinds.

Make sure to keep your apartment door locked at all times because all too often in China people will knock and then open the door at the same time if not before knocking.  Also, the quality of the lock on your door, and even the door knob (our’s fell off!) may not be good so you might want to invest in a new lock on the inside or something along those lines.

What to pack before coming to China

1. Medicine – cold medicines, cold/flu/cough medicine, diarrhea medicine, anti-nausea medicine, Neosporin, Neo-Citran (Canada) or Thera-flu (America)

NOTE: Birth control – your particular kind of birth control may be very difficult/impossible to find inside China so bring a year’s supply (or 6 months and have a friend or family member ship you another 6 months later).  That being said, cost of medications is pretty cheap here so if you can find a type you’re happy with it won’t cost you much.

NOTE 2: Google for news stories about condoms and quality control in China–and then seriously reconsider whether or not you’ll buy/use them.  That’s all I’m going to say about that.

2. Bed sheets – Sheets are not common in department stores and those you find are expensive yet low quality.

3.  Film – If you’re an ‘old school’ photographer it may take you time to find a place that sells film.

4.  Spices – If you love to cook you can find quite a few spices (at Metro or Carrefour) but there will be some that are impossible or very expensive to buy.

5.  Clothing, shoes, sandals – Between counterfeit stuff and the risks of being swindled while shopping it’s just safer to bring what you need with you.  Sizes are also an issue too if you’re anything above a western size SMALL back home.

6. English teaching books and resources – Very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them.

7. English novels and leisure reading – Very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them.  Also, very limited range of choices.  If you have an e-reader you can download titles (though your Net speed may also be slow) and this is one way to deal with the issue.

8.  For men and shaving – If you prefer shaving with a blade be prepared to have to spend some money each month.  Gillette Turbo packs of blades run 89 yuan each.  To put that in perspective a large plate of noodles at a restaurant costs 10-12 yuan so you could go out to eat 9-10 times for the price of one pack of disposable blades.  Bring an electric razor with you and you’ll save a lot of money each month.

9.  For women – If you’re endowed with a large bust you will want to bring a good supply of bras with you.

10. Deodorant! Bring at least a 6 month supply with you and if you don’t know for sure that a friend/family member can resupply you bring an entire year’s worth.

Well, that’s all for now . . . if and when I think of other things I’ll add them to this post.  Any expats living and teaching in Changsha/China who think of things I’ve missed, or if you think I’ve misrepresented something or have an error, please write a comment.

For newbies coming to Changsha–good luck!

J

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Yesterday, Julianne and I made our first real foray out into the city of Changsha on our own.  We decided to do it by taxi because Julianne’s foot is still recovering, and we don’t have a map of the city’s bus routes (whether or not one is available in English is something we’re trying to find out too).

Our taxi driver on the way to Yuelu Mountain was good.  I pointed at a map we have and he said something fast in Chinese, and I responded in polite English.  When I said “Okay?” with my thumb pointed up to signal an affirmative that he understood where we wanted to go he was cool with it.

I’ll write another post later about our actual trip experience at the mountain–this post is about the taxi ride home.

We had to wait about five minutes before a free taxi drove past where we were waiting beside the Xiangjiang River and nearby bridge we had been driven across to get to the mountain.  I knew exactly where we were, and what route the driver should take to get us home.

This is not what happened.

After showing the driver the map, and where we wanted to go, he nodded in the affirmative.  We got in and that’s when the problem began.

He drove towards the bridge that was only about 500 meters away, and then suddenly did a U-turn–and I sat there in shock because I knew in my gut he was trying to drive up the fare.  The idiot was actually driving in the OPPOSITE direction of the bridge, and more importantly the general opposite direction of our destination.  Why he was doing this when I had a MAP in my hand I don’t know.  Maybe he thought all foreigners are stupid and can’t read maps?

All he had to do was drive up to the bridge, cross it over the river, and then keep going straight about 10 blocks to our destination . . . and yet he was going the OPPOSITE DIRECTION!

I sat there and said to Julianne that we were going the wrong direction.  She told me she thought there was another bridge farther down the river.  I looked at the folded map sitting in my lap and opened it up to a much bigger portion of the map to see what was several grid reference boxes away: yes, there was another bridge but it was something like 3-4 kilometers away in the WRONG DIRECTION.

Now I realize I’m partly to blame in this as I haven’t learned the Chinese Mandarin for saying “stop,” “go straight,” and “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” but then, we’ve been waiting for the insane holiday schedules to finish so we can start tutoring with a friend of a friend and study consistently without constant breaks due to holidays and what not. The language is so different that even if we had been studying and practicing I doubt our pronunciation, and more importantly the different types of tonal inflections each word must have, would have been understood–and in this case I imagine a deliberate I-can’t-understand-anything-you’re-saying-because-you’re-foreign would have suddenly infected our driver too.

I should have tapped the guy on the shoulder and told him not to do the u-turn, and to keep going straight–but it happened really fast and then we were going the wrong way.   I was also trying to give him the ‘benefit of the doubt’–and boy was that STUPID of me!  My rationale was that perhaps he knew a faster way to get to our destination.  Maybe he knew the other bridge still had a huge traffic jam like it did when we crossed it the first time, and that another bridge would be faster . . . I was WAY WRONG!

Not only did this driver take us the opposite direction from the closest bridge and most direct route, but after crossing the river he kept driving further away from the most direct route on the other side of the river!

I told Julianne to prepare herself for me telling the driver that I was only going to pay him the same amount that we paid on our way to the mountain.  I got out the money, got out my map, and rehearsed in my head how I was going to use very basic English, gestures, and drawing the route we SHOULD have taken on the map versus the rip-off route the driver had taken us on the map.

When the driver finally got us to our destination the meter was DOUBLE the price we had paid on our way to the mountain.  Oh yeah, and he also had us on the wrong side of the street with a barrier in the middle which meant he had to go several more blocks away from our destination in order to do another u-turn to then go back to where we should have been driven–at that point, I told him no, stop, and gestured vigorously to pull over.

I got out of the taxi, and then made sure Julianne was out too.  I then opened up the map, pointed at the driver and the route he had taken us, and then pointed at the route he should have taken. I then handed him a little more than half of the meter fare (hoping that he wouldn’t throw a fit or start screaming and yelling at me in Chinese), and said in English, “That’s all you’re getting.”

The f’cker laughed at me–he looked at me, looked at my map, and with full awareness and a brazen display of ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ attitude he LAUGHED . . .

I gave him a look of disgust, and walked away.

I’ve been ripped off before by taxi drivers in South Korea, and for much more money than the 7 yuan extra that I let him have . . . but I’ve NEVER had a driver laugh in my face when being confronted about his behavior.

Caveat emtor with a twist: Let the expat traveler in China beware taxi driver rip-offs.

J

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