The Phone Situation

You’re going to need one. You’re going to want a smartphone. And you’re going to want a data plan and GPS.

China, like the rest of the intelligent world, uses GSM for cell phones, and the cell and provider are separate. You get a phone at full price and you get a service. Most of the U.S. uses GSM, too, unless you are with Verizon, which uses CDMA. If you have a CDMA phone, leave it at home. If you have a GSM phone and can get at the SIM card, you need to SIM unlock it before you can bring it outside the country. Do it a few weeks before you leave because it can take  a few days to get your provider to give you the unlock code. For instructions on SIM unlocking your phone, you’ll have to look it up elsewhere. Once you have unlocked your phone, you can then take it anywhere you want, slip a new SIM card in, turn it on, and you’re good to go. It just works.

Of course, you don’t have to bring your cell phone with you. Since you will likely be changing your number anyway when you get a new SIM card, it won’t do you a lot of good. Plus there’s the possibility of it getting stolen, so if you have a nice phone that you want to protect, it may be best to leave it at home.

If you decide to buy a phone in China and you are living or staying in Shenzhen, don’t do anything in Hong Kong. It won’t work when you come to the mainland. Well, it will work, but you will be roaming and it will cost an arm and a leg. Once you are on the mainland, there are plenty of places that sell cell phones. Suning is like the Best Buy of China. RenRenLe is like the Fred Meyer or Walmart (except China actually has Walmart, too). You can also go to Huaqaing Rd. (pronounced like Wa Chang Bay), which is the amazing electronics market. There you will find every phone made. Good luck and have fun.

Once you have a phone, get a SIM card. There are two main providers; China Unicom and China Mobile. It doesn’t matter who you choose. I ended up with China Unicom for absolutely no reason, but I am happy with it. Other people I know have China Mobile and have no complaints. You can get a SIM card in a lot of places. There are stores all over; I found mine at a little table manned by some guy right outside the RenRenLe. I looked through a book of phone numbers I could have and randomly chose one. It seemed to work. While I was there we put the SIM card in and turned on the phone. It had signal and immediately received some text messages.

I used the mobile page to copy the text of the messages and paste them in to the translator and get something that resembled English, though tech terms are awful at translating well. One of the messages indicated that I would be charged 25 RMB per month. $4 a month for a phone plan. That’s WAY better than the U.S. Another message told me that I could get 200MB of data a month for only $15 RMB. $2.50 for data? Sweet! I texted the number to indicate I wanted it.

Recharging the cell phone is easy, too. I can text a number to see what the balance on my account is, and it lets me know when it’s getting low. You can purchase cards to add to the account, and it’s easy to find stands where you can purchase 100 RMB cards that are wrapped in plastic and have a scratch sticker to protect the code. Just call the number, enter the English option, and then type in the code. The balance gets updated.

I have service all over Shenzhen, including inside the subways while they are moving. It’s amazing. And I use my phone constantly. Here are the reasons why you want a smartphone with GPS and a data plan:

  • I’m always on Skype. This means I can communicate over IM with my girlfriend in the U.S. all the time. I still only do voice and video on my laptop because I have a data limit (though it would just charge me by the KB if I went over), but for IM only I don’t even get close to my cap and it’s handy to catch up with her while I’m taking the subway.
  • I get my email at all times. When all your contacts are offset by 12 hours, mornings and evenings are when a lot of work gets done, so it’s nice to be able to be in real time contact with people during those times.
  • I don’t get lost and I don’t have problems with taxis or buses. I can direct taxis anywhere I want to go, and I can watch them to make sure they aren’t taking me on a circuitous route to gouge me. I have the confidence to  go anywhere and explore knowing that I’ll be fine. One day I ran out of batter and took a bus the wrong direction and didn’t know for half an hour, then got dumped in the middle of nowhere without a stop nearby that had another bus going the opposite direction. Fortunately I had a business card for my office, but the phone has saved my butt a few times and prevents me from doing stupid things.
  • It’s awesome for translating. Don’t bother with full sentences; it’s awful at long and complicated things. But for a few important words, it works well. Use only present tense, do just Subject Verb Object, or even just object, and keep it as simple as possible.
  • It’s nice to have a camera to take pictures of all the completely bizarre things you will happen to see.

Getting a phone and service is possibly less difficult in China than it is in the U.S. It is far cheaper, too. I really like the security of having a phone that can get me out of a lot of problems I might run into. Of course, I’m also very careful not to leave it out, as phones get nicked frequently if the opportunity is there.

Permanent link to this article:

Strange walking tour of Shenzhen

If you look at a map of Shenzhen, you’ll see the Shekuo area is a huge jutting out of land into the sea, and there is a lot of coastline. I thought I’d take a long walk and see how much of the coast I could see. The short version of my 7 1/2 mile hike; none.

I started from my apartment and headed west (paying my rent along the way). Before I hit the water, I ran into a train station. So I started heading south along a nice path. The path extended for a few miles, but never got me close to water. I passed other exciting things like the Nanshan Sewage Treatment Center, and container yards filled with hundreds of containers. On the road next to the path were hundreds of container trucks travelling to and from the ports. It was a steady stream of trucks.

Eventually I reached a point where I was starting to wonder if I should really be there. Nobody knew where I was, I was a long way from a taxi, subway, or even food. I had been walking a long time in the sun (fortunately I had brought sun tan lotion), and the path I was on was decreasingly maintained. Plus I was still a long way from the water, and there were no indications it would be easy to get to it if I continued on the road. I cut the corner and headed East, passing between two mountains, and the walking path got smaller and smaller until I was actually walking on the highway with trucks passing by me for about 1/4 mile. This was probably the most exciting part of the trip.

Eventually the sidewalk reappeared and I was in relative safety again. I continued walking, passing by nothing but industrial plants and container yards. Finally I reached a point where I could start heading in the right direction, and a few times I saw ships, but I never had the opportunity to get near water. In the whole 7 1/2 miles, I never saw the water.

By the time I made it to Sea World (where an old cruise liner was permanently moored and then they put concrete around it and extended the shore line back, so I STILL didn’t have the opportunity to get close to the water), I was tired and hot and extremely hungry. I had skipped breakfast, left at 11, and arrived at Sea World about 1:30. I stopped at a Mexican restaurant and had a cold margarita and some tacos with something that wasn’t cheese but looked like it. It was still good, though.

After the meal, I was done walking. I took the subway home and promptly napped. The next hike I do I may research a little, though it was still interesting to see how much shipping goes on around here. The whole coastline for many miles is devoted entirely to the shipping industry. It’s HUGE.

And Sea World is something else entirely. It’s where all the foreigners live and hang out. There are bars and restaurants from around the world, and chains like Subway and Pizza Hut and Starbucks, and everyone speaks English there. It’s weird seeing so many Caucasians in one place, and it takes the excitement and challenge of being in a foreign country out of it. However, it does feel nice to go there occasionally to get some comfort food and not have to try so hard.

Permanent link to this article:

Public transportation is great for EVERYTHING

This is exactly what it looks like. A public bus being used to transport a few dressers and shelves. I can’t imagine the bus driver was amused, or the other passengers happy that they had to navigate around this set. I believe they were unloading the bus here.

Permanent link to this article:

Getting by without talking

I’ve decided that it’s totally possible to get by without talking at all, and in fact may be preferable to trying to speak. When I try to initiate a transaction and say Hello in Mandarin, people assume that I can speak at least some, if not fluent, and they will speak back in Mandarin, to which I usually have to give up with a shrug and say in English that I don’t know what they are saying. Then we revert to pointing and gestures. If I start off that way, then there is no ambiguity, and we can immediately begin with gestures and pointing, and I can even surprise them with a word or two. Sometimes the notepad and pen will come out, sometimes the phone will come out to translate something, but generally, things go pretty well.

You can’t start off fluent; there’s a long period of learning and during that period there will be many times when you won’t have the right words. In those cases, you need a safety net you can fall back on, and you need to be so comfortable with that safety net that it gives you the courage to try new things and say stuff for the first time. Learning to do quick gesturing and creative communication is a skill that needs to be practiced. When ordering something, you can’t just say you want a drink; you have to say what kind, whether you want it hot or cold, what flavor, what size. Each of those things will be asked of you, and you need to be able to figure out what they are asking based on the context and other subtle clues, and then figure out how to answer quickly. Today I ordered a drink and was asked if I wanted hot or cold by the woman pointing at the freezer and the tea pot. It’s a game and a skill that is useful in any country, so learning it and being comfortable wherever you are is a critical first step to being happy in an unfamiliar place.

Once you have mastered this skill, you have the courage to go out and try new tasks. You can also start learning words slowly. Maybe one day learn the sizes of drinks. Then another day figure out iced or hot. You can build up a vocabulary slowly without needing to know everything at once.

The other advantage is that it gives you the awareness of the surroundings to pick up on a lot more of the culture. You can watch how people think and watch other people interact and mimic it. You have to trust people to give you something close to what you want, and flexible enough to appreciate what they gave you, even if it wasn’t exactly what you had tried to communicate. I tried to order three buns for breakfast the other day, but I don’t know the words for the different kinds of buns, and I wanted to branch out. I said ‘three buns. you choose.’ It wasn’t until later that I understood that they had tried to ask me if I wanted three of one kind or three different kinds of buns. I wasn’t able to answer and they just made the decision for me, and I was ok with that. Sometimes you get something completely different, and that can be a good thing.

Over the past couple months I’ve gotten much better at the nonverbal communication game. I act like I belong and get much fewer stares. I have the confidence of being better at the game to go anywhere and do anything, and it means I’m in a position to start learning the language. Two months is a long time to get to this point, and I wish I had done it sooner. There’s no point in being embarrassed or ashamed that I can’t speak all the words I need. It’s not like I’ll see these people again anyway.


Permanent link to this article:

Don’t Just Roll The Dice – eBook about pricing

I recently read a short book called Don’t Just Roll The Dice, available as a free pdf. The book is about different pricing models and how they work, why they work, the psychology of the different schemes, and how to choose the right model and prices for your business. The book primarily focused on software, but as a lot of hardware often now has a software connected component, it is still somewhat applicable. For example, the book talked about selling the Playstation and xBox as a loss leader but making up that revenue in increased game sales.

At around 70 pages, it’s a quick read; good if you have an hour to kill. The biggest lesson from the book is that you shouldn’t be afraid to just pick a price that you think makes sense and then experiment with it to maximize profit.

In the hardware world, things are in a lot of ways more complex than what the book described. There are so many extra costs that need to be considered that aren’t part of the physical product being manufactured. Things like shipping, tariffs, tax, support, returns, defective parts, assembly, licensing and certifications. Plus there are months of delays between making an order with the factory and getting the finished product delivered. There are people at every step who siphon off a chunk of the profit. There is a lot more risk that is outside your control. As a general rule, hardware pricing takes the cost of the goods sold and multiplies it by 3 or 4. That means every product you buy probably was produced for 1/3 to 1/4 of the price you paid, which is kind of amazing when you look at all the technology packed into a TV or computer. But all that markup is necessary because moving physical things around is expensive.

Permanent link to this article:


KFC is HUGE in China. You’ll find one on just about every other block. They have delivery bikes, a breakfast menu, and many are open 24 hours. One night, partly because I was tired and hungry and didn’t want to worry, and also partly in the interest of experimentation, I ignored my hatred of chain restaurants and gave it another chance.

I ordered a fried chicken sandwich combo, which included a drink, fries, starfish shaped fried fish thingy, and some chicken on a stick.

And how did it taste? Worse than I expected, even for fast food. Lukewarm fries, warm flat soda without ice, soggy bun, and everything was fried so I didn’t really feel better afterwards. The prices are the same as you would expect in the States, which is to say ridiculously high for China. It’s amazing that this place is as popular as it is. I guess it shouldn’t really surprise me that one of the worst meals I’ve had in China has been Western fast food.

Permanent link to this article:

Hello looking handbag watch?

The most popular phrase in the Luohu shopping market is “Hello looking handbag watch?” Sometimes this is shortened to “Hello looking?” or mixed up with “You buy glasses?”

Where the electronics market is filled with booths of people who sit disinterestedly chatting with friends online, the Luohu shopping market is the exact opposite; thousands of small stores and booths with every one of them standing outside their stall trying to convince you to come inside and peruse their wares.

Directly across the border from Hong Kong, the market is situated in such a way as to make it easy for Hong Kong residents and visitors to hop into the mainland for a few hours of shopping for jewelry, fake designer clothing and shoes, kitschy ‘authentic’ Chinese art, cheap electronics and watches, and custom tailored clothes. Five floors of madness. And everyone speaks the international language of shopping English. Just enough of the right words so that they can get you to buy things.

Outside the market are people approaching visitors, asking to help them navigate directly to their stores so they can get you to buy their goods and following closely as long as there is a chance. Inside it’s hardly any better. Every few feet is a new stall, and another person asking in the same way “Hello looking handbag watch?” We stopped at a few places, even made a few purchases. We also mastered our negotiating tactics, and if you thought there were plenty of negotiating tricks that a single person can make, having a group of people opens up a whole new world of plays. Since everything in the market was market up immensely to extract the maximum from visitors, and many of the materials are not as advertised (there’s no way that’s actually cashmere, and why is the tag ripped off of this article?), there’s a significant amount of room for negotiation. In one case we brought the cost of something from something like 860 down to 130. That was a fun one and involved at least three different plays.

The play that gets the most response is leaving. They hate seeing a sale walk out and will always call you back to continue negotiations. Two plays we discovered as a group include getting a discount by purchasing more than one item (handy if you were already planning to buy two things but don’t reveal that till the end), and having your friend hold your money so you can show a nearly empty wallet and say that you’ll come back tomorrow with the money (you both know you won’t), or that you’d have to borrow from your friend and you would rather not. They’ll realize they can’t get any more out of you.

The amazement of the place didn’t start until the top floor, though, when we got to where all the tailors and raw fabrics lived. The stalls were filled with gorgeous gowns and suits, and tailors following, offering to make a custom suit within days for cheap. The prices were amazing, the clothes incredible, and the number and diversity of fabrics unheard of. There were stalls for buttons and stalls for furs and stalls for stretchy fabrics and wools and cottons and synthetics and drapes and everything.

I’m definitely going back.

Permanent link to this article:

A-Tech Product Engineering

On the recommendation of a mentor, a few of us took a quick trip to a prototyping company called A-Tech. The company’s focus was building prototypes of toys. With big names for clients such as Hasbro, Mattel, Tiger Electronics, Hallmark, and Mega Block, the company’s show room looked like a toy store from the United States.

During the tour, the representative said the only time we were allowed to take pictures was in the show room, and he was very careful about security. There were cameras everywhere, and it wasn’t hard to see why. He said that they often worked on toys up to a year before their release, so it was essential that nothing leak about the design of characters or any details that could compromise them. One leak and a movie studio or toy company could break their business.

The facility itself had a few departments. There was the CNC milling area, where sheets of thick ABS were transformed into models. There was a room full of technicians with scalpels and other tools tweaking the models or assembling them. There was a modeling room with people forming wax molds of designs. There was a room with silicone molds and vacuum formed parts. There was a painting room. And then we moved into another part where there was a room of modelers creating virtual models from sketches using extremely expensive force feedback wands that moved in any direction and allowed the modelers to ‘feel’ their model as they manipulated it. There was another room with people working on CAD models of parts and assemblies. There was a final room with 3D printers.

The tour was shorter than the travel time, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I don’t think there’s anything they can do for me. As a toy prototyping factory they are accustomed to making small models, and they only develop one or two prototypes of something and ship it off. After that, they are no longer involved, leaving the client to take the model to another factory and find someone to develop the tooling. They also were very expensive. Probably still far cheaper than an equivalent U.S. company, but still way out of my price range for my current project.

If, however, one was looking for a toy prototyping facility where one could hand them a sketch and they could transform it into a beautiful 3D model and make it real, then this place is PERFECT.

Permanent link to this article:

Being a Mandaridiot

My Mandarin is awful. I just spent the whole subway ride, about thirty minutes, with my little book on Mandarin, trying to figure out what to say to order my buns this morning for breakfast. I hate that every day I point and I’m not showing people progress. Six freaking syllables. Two bean, one spiral. I was ready. I got up to the counter, said what I thought was right, and things fell apart immediately. I think the confusion was because I said two, then one. Perhaps I should have waited for her to do the two beans first, then ask for one spiral. Things got worse when they started asking me what I meant. Of course they had to ask the question in Mandarin, using lots of words and saying it quickly. Then the guy next to me got involved, trying to help by using even more words I didn’t know (and with a vocabulary of about ten words, this is not difficult). The girls behind the counter know me. I’ve been going there for weeks. One of them understands that I know nothing. They shoved a couple buns in a bag and sent me on my way. I never got the spiral one, which is plain but with a hint of some spice, and it turned out that one of the buns was something other than bean.

I’ve been here seven weeks and I still haven’t mastered a single word. I’m understanding a few words. Almost nothing. And with every attempt at speaking ending in complete failure, my will to keep trying is breaking down. I may just be an illiterate and mute resident. Perhaps I should make a card and hang it around my neck that says “I’m a stupid westerner. Don’t bother.”


In retrospect, I wonder if maybe they only had one bean and were trying to communicate that to me and ask me what I wanted instead. That explains what the people were trying to say. Maybe they were just telling me there was only one, not that they had misunderstood me. And that means the other girl must have said something like “just give him something else.” And the guy thought it was funny, and was probably trying to explain to me as well, but he was useless. Okay, maybe I’ll give it another shot tomorrow. But I need to do some serious learning. I’m constantly embarrassed by my lack of everything.

Permanent link to this article:

China’s Receipt Lottery

China has a problem with tax evasion. Stores often keep at least two sets of books (and sometimes three). There’s the actual books, and there’s the government books. When people go to a store and purchase something, the purchase may not end up on the government books, especially at restaurants where it is difficult if not impossible to keep accurate records of stock levels and verify that everything is accounted for. Further, almost all transactions are done with cash, so there is no record on the bank’s side, either.

All these ghost transactions aren’t taxed, and the government doesn’t like that. The only way to combat this is to make sure there are receipts and that the transactions end up on the government books. But the problem is so ingrained that people don’t care about the receipts.

So the government has a scheme called fapiao, which is a method whereby receipts are provided that have a scratch lottery built in. Scratch off your receipt and you can win money back. The one in the picture with 50 on it won 10 back. What happened was I went to a restaurant, spent 150 yuan, got the two fapiao as a receipt, scratched it and won 10 yuan back. I can redeem this receipt at the restaurant from which I purchased it.

Of course, this is China, and there are all kinds of schemes that have cropped up around this. First, you can request NOT to get a receipt in some places, and they will give you a small discount on your bill (because then they don’t have to report the transaction and avoid the VAT). The prizes on fapiao are so small and rare that you’re better off getting a regular discount without the fapiao than you are winning a prize with it. But not all places do this.

The other major scheme is people selling fapiao in major areas like outside the big subway stations. They walk around muttering it under their breath. Because these receipts are used on expense reports, people sell fapiao to business people at significantly lower rates, and then the business people claim them on their expense reports and get money from their business.

There are so many schemes and ways people scratch out a living and avoid taxes and game the system here. It’s expected and embraced and you have to always be careful that you’re on the victim end of someone’s con. Fortunately the Chinese are nonviolent and you don’t have to worry about losing more than a few bucks.

China's receipts are a lottery


Permanent link to this article:

Older posts «

» Newer posts