Pedestrians get no love

If there’s one thing I’d like to change about Shenzhen, it’s having the right of way on sidewalks and the sense of safety that I can be a pedestrian without getting run over. Sadly, the sidewalks are frequently populated with as many cars and motorcycles and bicycles as the road is, and going in both directions. If it weren’t for the busses, I’d consider just walking on the street.

The motorcycles and electric bicycles act like it’s their special place, too, and will honk at everything in their way to let people know that they are coming through. The electric bicycles especially because they are otherwise silent and must make their presence known, sneaking up behind pedestrians and then blasting them with their horn.

In order to understand the problem, it’s necessary to understand the structure of a city block in Shenzhen. There is typically a large space, maybe 50 feet or more, between the street and the buildings. This space is tiled, and there is usually some kind of fence or barrier between the sidewalk and the road. The space is mixed-purpose. Often parts of it will serve as a parking lot, with attendants at the corners of the block to handle payment and allow vehicles in. Here is an example of a typical sidewalk.

As you can see, it gets crowded, and the pedestrians often have to squeeze around the cars on the sidewalk. Cars are usually impatient, too, and honk at pedestrians who aren’t walking fast enough.

Somehow the cars are almost excusable, though. They are only there to park, and arguably they’re in a parking lot. It gets annoying when the bikes are involved. To be clear, these are not the bikes you see in the states. These are almost all electric. Some of them are hybrid bicycles, but most are electric bicycles. They essentially have the run of the city, going everywhere they want and breaking every rule. When they are on the streets, they zip through red lights, make turns from the far lanes across traffic, split lanes to pass cars, and honk incessantly. When they are on the sidewalks, they weave in and out of pedestrians, honking incessantly to announce their presence and insist that you get out of their way.

The road is too empty and sunny. Let's take the sidewalk instead!

They are impatient and unruly and will come up from behind and slice by you. The picture above doesn’t do the crowdedness or the loudness or the self-righteousness justice, but here are a couple more photos to show what it’s like.

I'm important because I'm on a bicycle. Get out of my way!

The frustration of these bicycles is compounded by the fact that there is an entire industry around short transportation via these bicycles. At any corner or subway station is a group of guys emphatically insisting that you  hop on the back of their vehicle. If you’re carrying a bag, they practically throw you on their bicycle. For 5 or 10 yuan ($1-1.50)  they’ll take you anywhere within a few blocks, and because they’re hired, they’re important, and will honk at anyone within earshot to let them know they’re on important business and you need to get out of their way. Sometimes if they don’t have a fare, they’ll ride slowly down the sidewalk or street, honking at anyone they see to invite them to take a ride.

In the interest of this blog (and to save myself a 30 minute hike), I took one of these bikes, but I didn’t want to contribute to the problem, so I made sure that when I did it I was taking a route that was entirely on the road and didn’t have any sidewalk travel. It was both exciting and death-defying as we dodged cars, explored potholes to the full extent of the shocks, and got into the far right lane so that when we turned left at the intersection and ran the red light we would have to avoid the maximum number of cars and buses.

With the danger of crosswalks, the danger of sidewalks, and the constant annoyance of people honking for no reason, I’m tired and considering ways to fight back. I’ve started ignoring all honking from behind me. If they want to get around, that’s on them. If a particularly annoying honker tries to pass, I’ve been restraining myself from sticking out an arm to clothesline, but my restraint is waning. What I’m most excited about, though, is finding an air horn to carry with me. If I get honked at, I’ll honk back, and it will be loud and and they will know they made me mad.

Ultimately, though, there’s nothing I can do to change the culture, so I just have to be extremely vigilant about all traffic every time I step out of the apartment. I’ve even seen people riding bikes in the subway; there’s nowhere that’s safe.

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Crossing the street is hazardous

This morning I barely avoided serious injury. I had the crosswalk telling me it was ok, I looked both ways, I even slowed down as I started because it looked like a bus was considering going anyway, but it changed its mind. As I crossed, a car on the wrong side of the street was speeding toward the intersection where people were crossing, blasting its horn as we scurried to dodge it while it flew through the red light and turned. To recap: wrong side of the street (which even had a median), speeding, running a red light, and going through a crosswalk with pedestrians. All in the span of about 5 seconds. Amazingly, he wasn’t being chased, but I gave him some unheard curse words as he disappeared.

It’s mind boggling what people do on the roads here. You have to be completely aware of everything around you at all times.

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China can be gross sometimes

Since I’ve been here I’ve seen a parade of disgusting everywhere I go. It’s relentless and it’s exhausting. Here are just some of the notable ones:

  • As I came up the escalator from the subway, a woman was crouched on the sidewalk vomiting into a corner.
  • At least she was kind enough to do it in a corner. I walked by a guy one evening covered in vomit as friends tried to help  him get out of the way of the car honking at him. This was on the sidewalk.
  • Random piles of vomit everywhere
  • Random piles of dog poo everywhere
  • Spitting. Everywhere you go guys are hocking and preparing for big spits, which they then fling carelessly onto the sidewalk or street
  • Snot rockets are another popular pastime
  • Throwing garbage everywhere
  • Throwing garbage from tall buildings to the streets below. Feels like a confetti parade sometimes. Every morning outside my patio is a fresh batch of random trash.
  • Small children peeing everywhere. But that’s why they have crotchless pants! Still, parents pick the worst places to let their kids pee.
  • At least the older kids have the sense to go in front of the nearby tree.
  • It smells bad everywhere. The air quality apparently is much better than it used to be a few years ago, but it still stinks.
  • The gutter oil scandal.

To deal with all of this, there is an army of workers in bright colored uniforms cleaning everything. The subways are under constant care and are probably the cleanest place in the city. Still, it’s never enough to get it all, and the fact that it happens everywhere and so pervasively means that it never feels clean.

My apartment recently succumbed to the onslaught despite my efforts, and I discovered that parts of the furniture, like the back my dresser and underneath some drawers, were completely covered in mold. It explains why I’ve been coughing extensively lately, and two nights ago I only got a few hours of sleep because of the coughing. Now I get to try to figure out how to get out of my lease and get my money back for rent and my deposit. My translator talked to the landlord and someone will come by to fix the AC. But that I have to clean the mold myself, and the AC will prevent it from coming back. And that I should drink lots of water and get some medicine. I may have to say no, and that while I’ve been submitting to China for the last two months, it’s hurting me and I need to fight back.

The back side of my dresser.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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