China- The First Few Days

I was pretty tired when we arrived in Shenyang (I barely slept on the flight over), and was jet-lagged for a couple weeks afterwards, so I may not be remembering everything with 100% accuracy.  Anyway, here are my first impressions of Shenyang:

  1. This place smells BAD.  Immediately after we got off the plane, I realized air pollution here is no joke.  The air inside the airport was smoky and stinky, like a coal fire.  The local coal plants have mostly shut down for the summer by now (June), but the coal smell has been replaced by a vaguely yucky garbage-y smell.  That and the smell of used cooking oil pretty much saturates this place.
  2. This is a developing country, so most buildings, roads, infrastructure and so on are in a worse state of repair than I’m used to.  Sidewalks have gaping holes everywhere, if they exist at all, everything is dirty, paint is peeling off, stuff just looks shabby in general.
  3. On the other hand, there are a lot of brand-new buildings dotting the skyline, in between the ugly gray apartment blocks.  There is money pouring into new construction, so hopefully in a few years the city will look a lot better.
  4. Expectations for good manners should be lowered.  People here are used to having to push and shove their way in life if they want to get anywhere and because of that, they aren’t as polite as we might want people to be.
  5. Kind of related to #4, people around here vomit in public a lot.  I think it has something to do with drinking too much, but whatever the reason: watch where you step.  Also, they spit…a LOT.
  6. Walking around town can be really dangerous.  People will drive through red lights, and go right through the crosswalk when you’re trying to cross the street.  And the sidewalks are where people park their cars, so watch out for that.  Also, the electric scooter people are all over the sidewalks, and they will mow you down if you don’t get out of the way.  Basically, assume everybody around you is trying to murder you with their vehicles.

I know I’m being really negative, but I want people to have a clear picture of this place before making any decisions about coming to visit or work.  I’ve been here a few months now, so the shock has mostly worn off and I’ve gotten used to Shenyang’s quirks.  If you’re squeamish, have lung issues, or you’re a slow walker, I’d stay away.

Once we settled in and had a chance to explore a bit, we needed to get a few important things done.  Our home has Internet included and we brought a VPN-equipped router, so we didn’t have to worry about that after arriving.  And our home came with several air purifiers, something everybody should have.  Speaking of the air, we brought some disposable air filter masks in our luggage, so we didn’t need to deal with that.  So here are some things we needed to do right away:

  1. Get a Chinese smartphone, or a SIM card for your unlocked smartphone.  Here’s a useful website to research whether or not your old phone will work here.  Once you have a Chinese phone number things are much easier here.  Not to mention, you’ll be able to use various smartphone apps to find your way around, buy stuff, get movie times, you name it.
  2. Related to #1, install the WeChat app on your phone.  Make sure you do this after you have your new phone number, because your phone number is integrated with the app.  This app is super useful, everybody here uses it for instant messaging, shopping, paying for your cell phone, and lots more I don’t even know about yet.
  3. Get a Chinese bank account.  I use Bank of China, but there are other choices.  I don’t keep much money there, but a lot of businesses don’t accept American debit or credit cards, but Chinese bank cards work.  Also, you can integrate the account with WeChat, to pay for stuff.  Really useful.
  4. Other useful apps, while I’m at it: AirVisual, for monitoring the pollution levels, Baidu Maps (Google Maps is  not very accurate here), a VPN app (I use ExpressVPN) so you can use the Internet when you’re away from home.

Other useful things you might want to work on: get a Roku or some other streaming device, get a VOIP box and a landline phone to plug into it so you can call people in the states.  And if you’re like me, get a sourdough starter going, and you’ll be able to use it in a week or two.

Pack like an EFM

Related to the last post, I wanted to share my strategy when packing to move to China with Diplowife and our cat.  Also, how we arranged to have certain necessary items at post, waiting for us when we arrived.  FSO’s and EFM’s get to take two pieces of checked luggage apiece.  The weight limit for our checked bags was 50 pounds each, but your airline may be different.  Also, our carry-on bags had to be under 25 pounds each.  So add it all up and the plan was for 200 pounds of checked luggage, and another 50+ for carry-on bags and “personal items”.  Not to mention the cat carrier, but that’s another topic.

A few weeks before moving, I ordered a bunch of prescription cat food (our cat has kidney problems) and shipped it to our social sponsor.  Diplowife mailed some bedding and other cat stuff, too. Theoretically, we could have mailed it to our own DPO or pouch address and the mailroom would have held it for us, but that’s not a certainty by any stretch.

Before you ask, our social sponsor was fine with all of this, but check with yours first.  Also, I mailed a few things to our new DPO address, that I knew would arrive after we did, so there was no need to involve our sponsor.  These packages took a lot of pressure off us, since it was all stuff we would have had to carry in our luggage otherwise.

Speaking of luggage, we bought several of these duffle bags from LL Bean.  The large size is good as airline luggage.  Keep an eye on them before you need to buy, they go on sale from time to time.  They don’t stand up straight like stiff-sided bags, but they take up almost no space when you’re not using them.

There were a few special items I had to have in our new apartment, I wasn’t going to wait until our UAB or take the chance on shipping them.  One item was our new Internet router, with built-in VPN.  That’s a necessary thing in China.  Another was my bag of knives, as I’d heard the welcome kit knives were not very good quality.  And I packed my instant-read thermometer, a good surge protector, electrical plug converters, and a multi-tool.  And my laptop bag, which I hope I never have to check.

But being an EFM, I had little need for a full wardrobe since I don’t have a job.  Maybe that’ll change someday, but for now, I’m a stay-at-home cat father.  And when I go out to the grocery store it’s not like I need to impress anyone.  So I packed a week’s worth of underwear and t-shirts, some pajama pants, a few button-up shirts, a pair of chinos, jeans and a couple pairs of sneakers.  And I brought my navy suit, a couple ties, a white dress shirt and a pair of dress shoes.  Just in case some kind of unexpected formal event cropped up (it didn’t, but better safe than sorry).  This way, our luggage had room for Diplowife’s work clothes.

So, try to plan out what you’ll need at post for that first month or so before your UAB arrives.  Try not to take up much room in the luggage, your spouse has more need for clothes than you do, if you’re a non-working EFM like me.  If what you need won’t fit in the luggage, see if your social sponsor will let you mail stuff to them, or send it to yourself if you can be sure you’ll get to post before the package does.  Good luck, and remember you can always buy stuff online and ship it to post when you arrive and need something that can’t be found on the local market.

Distance Learning Begins

My Distance Learning class started this week.  This is a language course (Mandarin, naturally) that’s all online, no classroom.  FSI’s website has everything you need: course materials, several ways to interact with your fellow students, and a mentor that guides you through the class.  I couldn’t sign up for the class myself, Diplowife had to take care of that, so ask your spouse about signing up if you’re interested.  The class goes for 14 weeks, so I should finish in mid-December.

Right off the bat, I was skeptical about the class.  You’re supposed to schedule time to talk with your mentor once a week for 45 minutes, and my mentor has a calendar on the course’s website.  Problem is, the times she’s available are when I’m at work.  I asked her if she’s available evenings or weekends, and she was kind enough to accommodate me. So don’t be afraid to ask, you never know.  My other issue was I assumed this class was redundant since I’ve already been using Mango for a while now.

As it turns out the course has complemented Mango Languages pretty well so far.  The first week’s study material focus on how to pronounce Chinese properly (it’s not easy) and how written Chinese works.  The class barely touches on written Chinese, but at least they provide a brief introduction to it.  Mango doesn’t really cover this, so right off the bat I’m learning new stuff.  I’ll need to be able to read street signs, price tags and who knows what else in Shenyang, so this is important.

I did my first mentor session a couple days ago, and it was interesting. We met up on Skype in video chat.  She had me pronounce various Chinese sounds and let me know what I was doing wrong.  I had been speaking Mandarin with Mango for a couple months now, but it seems my pronunciation needs work.  Good to know!  Some of the sounds are so similar to each other that I can barely hear any difference at this point, but I’m told it gets easier with practice.

Anyway, I recommend taking the Distance Learning course, if you have the time.  Ideally, before shipping out to your new home, but better late than never.

Speaking of China, happy Mid-Autumn Festival!  Diplowife brought me some moon cakes yesterday.  Not very good, but maybe they’re better in China.

The Doldrums

Not much going on these days, Foreign Service-wise, for yours truly.  I’m still studying Mandarin with Mango Languages, and about to start Distance Learning with a mentor from FSI.  At this rate, I should have some decent beginners-level Mandarin skills, which was my goal all along.  Diplowife is likewise busy with her own Mandarin training, way beyond my level of course.  Still, it’s fun to occasionally surprise her with a bit of vocabulary that she didn’t know.

It’s been four months since Flag Day, and there’s six more to go, at least, until we head to China.  The last couple months we’re here should be more interesting, I’ll have a lot of work to do around the house, getting rid of stuff we don’t need and inventorying the rest.  Plus, I have several short classes lined up in February and March at FSI and elsewhere.  But I’ve run out of things to research online about Shenyang, so it’s been pushed to the back of my mind.

For the time being, we’re trying to socialize with Diplowife’s colleagues as much as we can, but as introverts it’s not easy.  I prefer to ingratiate myself with them by sending Diplowife to work with baked goods that I made.  Summertime isn’t my favorite time to bake, but it’s a good skill to have at post.  Who wouldn’t invite the couple to a party that always brings a homemade pie or cake?  If my EFM corridor reputation is solely “Diplowife’s husband, he always brings a pie to parties”, I can live with that.

So, it’s my least-favorite time of year (summer), not-so-great job, and several months until much of anything changes.  I’m trying to make the most of it, but not always succeeding.  It’s a good time for lots of distractions and hobbies.  I’m kind of glad our election coming up is such a dumpster fire, it’s definitely distracting, if not exactly good for the country.  Anyways, that’s where things stand, hopefully something more meaningful will come up soon to write about.

 

Don’t be a burden, Part 1

Once we get to post in Shenyang, Diplowife will be working at the Consulate, and I’ll be on my own for 40+ hours a week.  In China.  Where people speak Chinese.  This is a problem.  I don’t intend to stay home all day, waiting for Diplowife to get home from work, so I can then go out to run errands, dragging her along to translate for me.  Diplomacy is a full-time job for her, she doesn’t need a second job as an EFM hand-holder.

So, my first step is to learn Chinese.  Mandarin, to be specific.  FSI is way ahead of me here.  Of course, they offer classes in every language imaginable, and EFMs can attend, provided the class has space.  But I’m working full-time and need options that don’t involve going to FSI every day.

With help from Diplowife, I got signed up with an account in Mango Languages which is a terrific system.  You can access the lessons on the web, or via apps that work on my smartphone and tablet.  I’ve learned a lot already, like greetings & introductions, how to talk to shopkeepers, give directions, ordering food at restaurants.  It’s pretty much all verbal, so don’t expect to learn how to read & write.  They show you the Chinese characters, but there’s little emphasis on reading.

Aside from Mango, there are some other options for learning at home, or “distance learning” as FSI calls it.  Ask your spouse about FSI’s Distance Learning options, they probably already have an email about it in their DoS inbox.  The “Express” option caught my eye, it’s available in Mandarin and is two 14-week courses taken at home, about 6-8 hours per week, plus an hour of one-on-one time with a mentor, via Skype or something similar.  So I’m signed up for the first Express Mandarin course, starting next month, so I’ll be sure to post about it once I start.

Also, some posts have language training that EFMs can participate in, so ask the CLO if that’s an option.  Ideally, you shouldn’t wait until you get to post to start learning, but it’s good to have the option, not everybody has free time like I do.  Learning some Mandarin should go a long way to preparing me for a semi-independent life in Shenyang.

I have some other concerns about burdening Diplowife, but they’ll have to wait for another blog post.