Final thoughts on Beijing:
- Guanxi – if you don’t have an iTouch or iPhone with one of the brilliant taxi card apps, then this handy SMS service will see you heading off in the right direction in at least Beijing and Shanghai. Send the name of the place, street etc you are looking for to 106695882929 and the service will send you a list of options. You select the correct one and can opt to receive the address in Chinese characters.
- Problems with your internet connection? If the problems aren’t related to the fact you’ve been cut off from paying a bill you didn’t know you owed, China Unicom‘s helpline dial 10086 (which is surprisingly helpful) can be accessed in English by hitting option 2. They aim to send someone out same day. On a related note, ask at your bank and mobile phone provider for the English language helpline number.
- With all the politically sensitive anniversaries in 2009, the escalating row with Google, and proof of the power of Twitter in Iran, the Chinese government is in no mood for chances. Over the last few months the powers that be have been systematically cracking down on the free sites that allow access to the “real”, uncensored internet and social networking sites remain blocked. As an expat count yourself lucky you have access to foreign credit cards and so a way around this. Get thee a VPN provider ASAP. I’ve been impressed with the level of service offered by Witopia who were really helpful when even my VPN stopped working during the Uighur riots over the summer.
- If you’ll be using the subway or the bus network (and really, why wouldn’t you? It is not difficult) try to get yourself one of the blue, rechargeable IC cards, Beijing’s answer to London’s Oyster card. These can only be bought at special counters in the subway and as often as not there is no-one there. If you hang around, someone will usually materialise. From memory, the card needs a deposit of 20 kuai and then it is up to you how much you add.
- As much as I love Jenny Lou, try to find your local Jingkalong and market and save a bundle on fruit and veg, spices and noodles. It is also a good chance to practice your Chinese, at least the numbers. Inevitably you’ll be something of an attraction and receive free bunches of herbs as gifts. Don’t follow Mr B’s example and fall for very expensive imported fruits, however. Ahem.
- If you can’t find that crucial western foodstuff, try City Shop near the US Embassy. It is pricey but when you are desperate, it is great. Expat urban legend says if you can’t find it anywhere else in the city, it will be here. We found a frozen turkey here on Christmas Eve and thus averted a catastrophe. It is also great for frozen vegetarian food 😀 and baby food. Apparently.
- Expat wives in need of career advice can do no better than talk to Sarah Cooper at Cows From My Window. A font of calm and good advice.
A word on etiquette in Beijing’s crowded spaces, notably the subway and lifts (elevators). The unspoken rule for both of these situations is layering. When entering the subway at rush hour, unless you plan to get out at the next station, you should push your way back or towards the middle of the carriage. You’ll notice that approaching each station a shuffling dance ensues whereby those getting off push towards the doors and everyone else steps back. The same in elevators. Push the button for your floor on entering the doors (not when you’ve found an empty spot) and then arrange yourself accordingly. If you want a top floor, you should be standing at the back, if you want a low floor try to stay near the doors.
Finally, and then I’ll go, for an insight into local vs expat tension, check out this recent discussion. Mr B and I can’t decide whether the article is a Chinese attempt at irony or simply aggressive posturing in bad taste but the reactions from the expat and local communities alike are illuminating.