First Week in China (Episode 39)
We took a break in our "Backpacking Europe" series because our next topic was just too exciting to keep to ourselves: our first week living in China!
We moved to Shenzhen, China on August 18th, 2018 to teach English in primary schools. In this episode, we talked about what happened each day during our first week in China. In the episode, we discussed:
Almost getting poisoned by counterfeit wine
How to NOT buy/drink counterfeit alcohol
What to pack when flying to China if you DON'T want to get your bags back!
Problems with retrieving our baggage upon landing in Hong Kong
Applying for business visas on arrival and crossing the border into China
Getting SIM cards, metro cards, and bank accounts in Shenzhen, China
Visiting COCO Park and discovering why it's a bit overrated
Our first Chinese meal and our reactions to it
What NOT to do when ordering food in China
What eating at a Chinese restaurant in China is like and why it's our favorite style of eating!
Apartment hunting in Shenzhen
Exploring Dongmen, our favorite place in Shenzhen so far for shopping and STREET FOOD!
Dining with a Lazy Susan and a cockroach
Orientation with our job agency and why it was a big ol' waste of time
Matt's 26th birthday celebration in the Shenzhen nightlife!
Moving into our apartment
And more! Thank you for reading/listening! Be sure to check our out blog post below for lots more information and photos. Cheers and happy travels!
Wine: Casillero del Diablo - Merlot (Spain)
Preface: If you didn't already know, we drink a bottle of wine with each and every podcast. We opened a bottle right before recording this episode, but upon close inspection, we noticed some inconsistencies with the wine. It smelled off, there were misspelling on the label, the barcode on the bottle didn't lead to a legitimate website with the wine brand, and nothing came up upon a simple Google search of the wine.
Then, we realized: it was counterfeit wine.
And apparently, counterfeit alcohol is a common thing in China. You need to use extreme caution when ordering/buying your alcohol.
Tip for buying alcohol in China: there is a lot of counterfeit alcohol in small shops, bars, and other places in China. Only buy it at legitimate places, like Walmart or other big chains and legitimate bars. Read the label and check for spelling and other errors. Scan the barcode on WeChat (popular messaging app in China) and make sure it takes you to a legitimate website. Make sure the price for the wine makes sense and isn't too cheap.
Nothing like counterfeit wine as a welcome to China!
Anyway, we dumped that bottle and bought a new, legitimate bottle from Walmart the following day. Then, we drank it (and didn't die!) and recorded this episode.
Friday, August 17th
We flew from Prague, Czech Republic (we lived there for a little over a year and a half) to Hong Kong with a layover in Beijing. While checking our bags, we noticed signs everywhere, telling people to not leave anything with lithium batteries in their checked bags. Just to be safe, Matt took out his PlayStation from his checked bag and packed it in his carry-on bag.
However, it was't until after security that we both realized Matt had his Kindle and old iPhone in his checked bags. I also left my old iPhone in mine. And the people at check-in told us that it might take multiple weeks to receive our bags if we leave lithium batteries in them.
We boarded our flight, anxious the entire time while flying and during our layover in Beijing that we wouldn't get our bags back.
Saturday, August 18th
Once we went to baggage claim in Hong Kong, lo and behold: there was a sign on the conveyor belt with our names on it, telling us to go to the baggage claim customer service desk.
Once we approached the desk and told them our names, they immediately asked if we had any lithium batteries in our checked bags. We replied with a collective "yes," then the guy helping us expertly printed out papers, asked us other questions, and had us sign papers. All of this was to get our bags back as soon as possible. All we had to do was give permission to the Beijing airport (where our bags were being held) to throw out our lithium batteries.
Sure, no problem. Just throw out our Kindle and iPhones!
The guy then told us that our bags should be arriving at the Hong Kong airport on the next flight from Beijing, either at 4:00 PM or 12:00 AM. But, at that point, it was only 12:00 PM! We only had one option: wait a few hours and hope to all the gods and divine beings that they arrived at 4:00!
For the next four hours, we sat in the baggage claim area, basically twiddling our thumbs and pacing. At around 4:00, we went to a baggage claim conveyor belt designated for a flight from Beijing. However, we checked every bag and neither of ours were there.
We went to the customer service desk and asked about our bags again, which they miraculously answered with, "Did you check over there?" Another flight just landed from Beijing!
We waited and waited for the bags to come and by god, they were there!!! We both literally leapt for joy-- and yes, we looked like utter fools. But, it was necessary!
With our bags rolling behind us, we wheeled on out of there and to the bus service area of the airport. We needed to get to Shenzhen border in order to apply for our visa, then cross the border (obviously, since we were going to live there!).
After following the directions from our job agency, we bought our bus tickets, then needed to wait an hour before the bus departed. Instantly, we wheeled over to a restaurant and ate some yummy Chinese food!
Later, we arrived at the Hong Kong border and went through without a problem. We stumbled around a little afterwards, unaware what to do until we discovered we had to get back on the bus we just left! Fools.
At the Shenzhen border, we collected some important paperwork from an agent from our job agency, which she passed to us from the Shenzhen border. Just right over a little barrier. Strange how that was legal!
We then went to the "visa" counter, which was in a small and dark corner of the building. We passed the official all of our documents and passports and patiently waited to receive them back, holding a business Z visa! Which, thankfully, we got with no issues!
After about 45 minutes, we went through immigration easily with our new visas freshly stuck in our passports and finally met with our agent in China (the same person who handed us our documents over the barrier). Hooray!
What is an agency when teaching English abroad?
Basically, an agency is the middleman between you and your school. For the agencies in China, they usually help you:
find a job with a school
set up a bank account
help you apply for and obtain your work visa
get you a SIM card
take you apartment hunting
get a Metro card
register with the police
and other fun and necessary stuff.
But, for all of that (and more), they obviously don't work for free; they take a chunk out of your pay each month for their services. You don't pay them technically. The school does, but since it's coming out of your salary, you're basically paying them for it. But, you still get paid a good deal after their cut!
Who was our agency?
Our agency is called SeaDragon International Education, or SDE. So far, they've been really great and helpful with the whole process. They helped us do everything listed above and other necessary steps, which was great! They even paid for the first 4 nights in a hotel when we arrived.
Back to our story!
After the border crossing, we took a cab with our agent to the hotel and checked in. The hotel room was very small and had no windows, but was tolerable because it was free and only for a few days. Afterwards, our agent recommended a place to eat, but it was small, dirty, and had a poor health code rating. We quickly declined to eat there and instead, walked to a McDonalds to eat dinner because we were too nervous to eat anywhere else! Some "brave world travelers" we are!
We later learned to not take the health codes very seriously in restaurants. They're not legitimate. There's 3 ratings: a green face for great, a yellow face for medium, and a red face for poor. It may seem like it's based on cleanliness or food quality, but it's actually more for the appearance of the place and whether or not the owner paid a bribe!
If you're worried about eating somewhere in China, you can eat at a place if: there are a good number of people eating there and if the place looks relatively clean (not if there's a piece of poop on the floor or something!).
Sunday, August 19th
In the morning, we needed to go to the SDE (our agency) office, which was conveniently a block or so walk from the hotel. When we got there, we immediately met other future ESL teachers as well, who were all ironically from the US!
While at the office, we did some important paperwork and other various things. We handed them some forms we brought from the States, like our passports (duh), bachelor's degrees, TESOL certificates, criminal background checks, and other various documents. We signed some stuff, got our SIM cards, and applied for bank accounts.
For our SIM cards, by the way, we got Unicom and paid for 5 months in advance for only about $50 each...and unlimited data and some calling. What a deal!
After that hubbub, we went to lunch with a few fellow ESL teachers. We noticed instantly while ordering food that they had never been to Asia before. They were speaking fluent English sentences, asking for things on the side of their meals, etc. But, the waiter didn't speak English, which is very common in Asia and especially China. So, it was a little embarrassing to us because we knew not to do that!
Pro tip when moving to China/Asia: when ordering food, translate what you want, point at pictures, and/or talk as little as possible. They will not give you things on the side or do other special orders you may have!
This was our first meal in China other than McDonalds. We ordered some beef, vegetables, etc. and it was.....unbelievable. Chinese food is out of this world. It's almost unfair how flavorful, rich, spicy, salty, and tastebud-pleasuring the food is!
After lunch, we did some more paper signing, then the two of us went to COCO Park. COCO Park is a huge attraction here. It's basically a gigantic mall with tons of shopping, but also bars and clubs. We went there and walked around, then stopped at a bar/restaurant and had some overpriced craft beers.
While there, we also admired the Ping An Financial Building, which is the tallest building in Shenzhen and also the fourth tallest building in the world! Quite impressive.
Afterwards, it was dinnertime, but we obviously couldn't afford any place near COCO Park. Instead, we took the metro (a.k.a. subway) back to our hotel, then ate at a buffet-style restaurant. It only cost Matt $4 and me $3 for lots of various different food items, like meat, vegetables, and other goodies. However, the food didn't taste THAT amazing. It was kind of just average. But, it was very cost-friendly!
Monday, August 20th
In the morning, we met at our agency again with other teachers. With some agents, we all took a . trip via the metro with our brand spankin' new metro cards to the Education Bureau. There, we sat around for a little while, then got these "receiving letters." Those are basically forms where the education bureau accepts you, then stamps it. Later, you bring it to your school, have them accept you, then stamp it.
Afterwards, all of us went to have lunch together in that area. We went to a typical Chinese restaurant. When eating a traditional Chinese meal whether it be at a restaurant or in someone's home, you basically order/cook a plethora of different food items and then share them with the people you're dining with. People don't order individual meals for themselves, like they do in the states or in other Western countries. Everyone shares!
One of my favorite parts is that all of the platters are placed on a "lazy Susan," so you can spin it when you want something on the other side of the table!
So, that's what we did. We shared all kinds of amazing food: spicy beef, tons of different vegetables, noodle platters, rice, duck, chicken, eggs, fish, and so much more. It was incredible! Matt and I stuffed ourselves! And best part: it came out to maybe $4 per person.
Only one downfall is that it isn't the cleanest way of eating, since everyone is picking food with their utensils. But, otherwise, it's the best way of eating to us!
With our tummies satisfied, we split up into groups to go apartment searching! Specifically, we went to Fanshen, an area in Shenzhen, which is where my (Marilyn's) school is located.
However, the search was pretty pathetic. We just walked around in the stifling heat, just asking if any apartment buildings had available rooms for rent. In the end, we only saw two apartments, which was pretty futile for us because it was too far from Matt's school. We ended up searching for hours and coming up empty.
One problem with SeaDragon: pathetic apartment hunting.
Eventually, we went back to our hotel's area and had dinner with one of the other ESL teachers. Scrumptious once again!
Tuesday, August 21st
Since our agency failed to show us an apartment we wanted, we had to use an agent. Usually, agents in Shenzhen cost 1/2 a month's rent if you find a place with them. Yikes! But, luckily, SeaDragon knew of an agency that only cost 500 yuan (about $70). We messaged him on WeChat, then met with him to see an apartment in a great area, which was near Bao'an Stadium (very close to the center of Bao'an, our district of Shenzhen). Plus, it was a great middle ground between my and Matt's schools.
But, that apartment....not so good. It was absolutely filthy! There were holes in the walls, someone's hair and dust everywhere, the stove was grimy and disgusting. I mean, I could go on and on. Basically, it was not cleaned whatsoever. But, apparently, if we wanted to move in, the landlord would give us "a few days free" if we paid for a cleaning lady to come in and clean it.
Get the hell out of here! We needed to see it when it was clean as well! Plus, we weren't about to pay a cleaning lady to clean an apartment that someone else made disgusting!
So, we practically ran out of there. By the way, apparently, that's common to find in China. When you look at apartments, they're usually filthy. The Chinese standard of clean is far different from a Westerners standard of clean!
After that, our agent left and said he didn't have anything else to show us at that time. So, we went our separate ways. Matt and I ate some lunch, then ducked into a Starbuck's and while in there, Matt asked around on a WeChat group with other foreigners for another recommended agent. He luckily got another name! So, he set up an appointment to see another place right then!
I didn't want to see it because it was a little far from my school, but it was right by Matt's. Since we had nothing else to do, we went to see the apartment anyway.
And right away, we loved the place! On the ground floor of the building, there was a large cafe with pool tables, treadmills, a foosball table, and tables to just chill with friends or work on your computer. Pretty sweet! Then, we loved the apartment. It was a studio, but it was decorated so nicely and felt so homey. It was pretty perfect for our tastes!
Oh, and it was CLEAN.
However, it was a 15 minute bike ride to the metro from there. That, and it was so far from my school. I would have to ride a bike, then take a metro 4 stops, then transfer for one. I dismissed it right then. It was just too much of a hassle.
Then, the agent from earlier showed us yet another apartment. This place was great, too! It was a pretty middle area for the two of our schools and was a little closer to the metro. It also had an awesome area-- I mean, there was a Walmart within walking distance!
But, it was a little small and someone else was living there, which made it look dirty and grimy.
Afterwards, we saw another apartment with another agent. But, it was a very small studio and we pretty much just went in and out and that was that.
So, we decided to take the third apartment we saw (the one close to Walmart).
However, I (Marilyn) started having second thoughts about it. I was very nervous about it having cockroaches, which is almost definitely had because it was so dirty! Oh, and cockroaches are common in Shenzhen (and possibly the rest of China).
I mean, we even had cockroaches in our hotel. They weren't big, fat ones, but they were smaller ones. But, obviously, that just meant that there were bigger ones hiding somewhere else out of view.
One time, Matt opened the door to our hotel room (remember, there were no windows, so it was very dark-- the perfect lighting for cockroaches) and cockroaches fell on his head from the ceiling!
Wednesday, August 22nd
We met with a fellow teacher in SeaDragon and went to a metro stop to go to Dongmen, which is a popular place in Shenzhen. It's a huge area dedicated to shopping and street food! At that metro station, though, we actually met with our real estate agent and gave him a deposit on the apartment: a whopping 1,000 RMB ($150)!
Then, we went to Dongmen, where we walked around and ate so many delicious food items. We ate barbecued squid on skewers, noodles, meat, and other incredible foods! We had no shame. Dongmen was one of our favorite place in Shenzhen so far!
Afterwards, we took the metro back towards our hotel's area, where the three of us walked around and then went to a restaurant we knew and loved. We sat and had some drinks. Eventually, it was dinnertime, so we stayed there and had some dinner, too!
Favorite food items so far: spicy beef and spicy cauliflower! KILLER.
Thursday, August 23rd
We finally got our bank accounts set up, so we went there just to finalize it, sign some papers, and get our cards. Fortunately, they spoke English at that bank!
They also set us up for WeChat. WeChat is a very popular app in China. It's primarily a text messaging app, but it also allows you to put money onto it through your back account and lets you just scan barcodes to pay for various things. We can even pay for rent with it! It's pretty handy!
Afterwards, we went with our new friend from yesterday to another cool restaurant near the bank, which was right near our hotel, too! Once again, we were not disappointed!
For the rest of the day, we kind of just relaxed and didn't do all that much. Our agency didn't have anything else for us to do!
Friday, August 24th
This was the first day of our official orientation with SeaDragon. We were in their office from 9AM to 7PM. Pretty brutal.
And unnecessary. It was just like we knew it would be: they put up a PowerPoint and blabbered for hours on end about information we already knew. The orientation could've been crammed in maybe an hour, but instead, they wasted our time for the entire day talking about their company, and other various things we either didn't need to know or already knew.
At one point though, they did give us free lunch in the restaurant in the building. But, hilariously enough, when we all sat down at a big table, we noticed something moving under the lazy Susan: a damn cockroach!
We told the staff, who proceeded to pick up the very heavy glass piece and try to shake out the cockroach only five feet away from the table. It was an hysterical scene!
Eventually, they got it out, and just put it back on the table. Then, they brought out our food one by one.
It's funny: things like this are so common in Asia that we just continued on with our dining experience. However, if this happened in America or in Europe, no one would stand for it and we would've just left!
Ironically enough, the food was amazing! And no, we didn't get sick after, either!
We returned to the orientation where we basically were talked at for a while, then split into groups. In our groups, we had to design a 45-minute lesson, then present them the following day as a group.
This was irritating because they didn't really give us any other information that topics to choose from and the amount of time we were allowed to teach it in. That was it! Luckily, Matt and I knew what we were doing, so we helped guide our groups in the right directions. But, if that wasn't the case, we wouldn't have done well! It was like they were setting us up for failure.
Saturday, August 25th- Matt's Birthday!
This day was Matt's birthday! Before we had to go into orientation, we went out to a seafood street for lunch. It was apparently more bustling during the evening, so it wasn't that exciting for lunch. But, we got some yummy fish, meat, and veggies!
Then, we headed to the office once again to give our presentations, which we did easily. Luckily, we all got praise and everything was so lax and comfortable, which was great.
It was dinnertime when we finished, and since it was Matt's birthday, everyone wanted to celebrate! The two of us plus four others went to a nearby restaurant we had yet to try. We ordered tons of amazing food! Duck blood soup, cauliflower, green beans, duck, noodles, beef, and more! It was one of our favorite meals so far!
After we were stuffed, we all hopped on the metro and went to COCO Park. There, we met up with a couple of other people, then went to an Irish bar called McCawley's, which was supposed to be pretty cool.
It was a typical Irish bar complete with overpriced drinks! But, you know, we prefer overpriced drinks over counterfeit ones!
We all hung out, drank, and talked for several hours. We had a splendid time celebrating Matt's day!
Sunday, August 26th
Our apartment wasn't available until September 1st, so we needed to find a place to stay-- and obviously, the cockroach-infested, windowless hotel wasn't cutting it anymore. We actually ended up finding one of the other apartments we'd visited (and loved!) on AirBNB. So, we decided to stay there for several days before our apartment became ready.
And the apartment we stayed in for AirBNB was amazing! It was so clean, cozy, very well-decorated, and most importantly, there were no cockroaches in sight! We honestly felt right at home in this place.
We had a mountain of laundry to do, so we went on a search for the laundry area in the building. From the directions we got from the AirBNB host, we found it and more. We found the rooftop, which had an awesome view of the surrounding area, washing machines, and even dryers.
Fact for you: dryers are extremely rare to find outside of America pretty much! It was like some kind of miracle that this place had them!
And from that moment, we collectively realized something: we desperately wanted and needed to live here. It was worth the trek to and from school every day for me.
We then asked to see other available rooms, which they quickly showed us. They actually showed us two apartments that were available, one on the third and one on the fifth floors. We chose the third floor, in case you were wondering!
The following day, we moved into our new place!
Oh, yes, and the deposit we put down on the other apartment? Lost, unfortunately. But, it was honestly worth it because we would've been far less comfortable there than in the apartment we're in now!
Plus, the rent for this place was substantially cheaper: 2,550 RMB ($375)! The other place was 3,900 RMB ($571).
Another positive about the place we chose was that there was a Walmart very closeby! The other place had one, too, but we were very happy that this place had one as well. We obviously went there for all of our apartment stuff, plus grocery shopping!
Even with all that hubbub, we are now very comfortable and content in our new apartment!
Concluding Thoughts on Our First Week in China
We're both feeling really good so far about our move! We're content with almost everything so far: our apartment, the area around it, our schools, our agency, the people we've met (both Chinese and other foreigners), the food, prices of everything, and so on. We're getting nice and comfortable in our new home-- and loving it!
One downfall that's really agitating us, though: the internet. The overall WiFi and internet service are extremely slow and unpredictable. Often times, they can be unusable!
Otherwise, we are loving it so far. We are really looking forward to teaching and living at least the next year here!
Wine: Casillero del Diablo - Merlot (Spain)