lardbucket: 2017 : june


Blog All Dog-Eared Pages: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Filed under: Reading — aschmitz @ 10:30 am

After acquiring a Kobo Aura One, I’ve started reading a lot more than I have over the past few years (which is probably a good thing). One of the things that I appreciate about Michal Migurski’s excellent blog tecznotes is his occasional series “blog all dog-eared pages”, so I figured I’d give it a go myself. (It’s not clear whether he or someone else coined the term, but that’s where I heard it first.) Note that I’ve culled some of my dog-eared pages, so the title is a bit of a lie, but the redacted ones are largely those where I wanted to look up a reference.

Up today, a book by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics. The book is composed primarily of essays on each of seven topics, and a discussion following each essay. Each author has a different focus on what they’ve been researching, but all have interesting insights. (I found the book primarily as a follower of things danah boyd has written, including It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, which was similarly interesting.) The book is generally targeted at adults, but focuses almost entirely on “younger” (sub-30s at least, and generally teen) activities.

In chapter 1, on the idea that communities frequently formed out of resistance, then shifted to participation:

danah: […] I want to take Henry’s notion of “Resistant to what?” seriously. Does participatory culture have to be resistant to the status quo? And do communities have to form out of participatory culture or can people be a part of participatory culture without developing the deep connections that both of you highlight in your work?

I hadn’t previously considered that many communities started primarily out of resistance, but Henry points out examples of punk, feminist, and queer appropriation of existing culture as opposition to an existing status quo. (To an extent, fan stories are also proposed in this light, being opposed to both mainstream interpretations of the original work and sometimes other norms, see slash or other fictions.)

In chapter 2, about concerns of parents of children online:

danah: […] Among parents of children ages ten to fourteen, those with girls are significantly more concerned that their daughter will meet a stranger who will harm them and somewhat more concerned that she will be exposed to violent content than parents of boys are. But a child’s sex plays no role in shaping parental concerns regarding exposure to pornography, being bullied, or being a bully. When we held for other factors, the sex of the parent also didn’t seem to matter as much as other factors such as race. Race is a very significant predictor of parental concern. These findings surprised us precisely because we hear gendered rhetoric all the time, but I’ve come to believe that what’s at stake is probably much more complicated than I thought.

In the same chapter, about the reactions to some such fears:

danah: For better or worse, studies regularly show that no increase or decrease in bullying is associated with the internet (Levy et al. 2012). When surveyed, youth consistently report that bullying happens more frequently at school, with greater intensity, and with more social and emotional costs. Parents, on the other hand, focus on the digital realm. This goes back to the issue of visibility. If a child comes home with a black eye, a parent knows that there was a fight at school, but a grumpy child doesn’t necessarily suggest that a bullying incident occurred. Online, where countless interactions leave traces, parents often jump to conclusions about what they see. Unfortunately, our society does not have a strong record in combating bullying – online or off. As a result, parents often want to “solve” the problem by making it less visible – by restricting children’s access to social media or pushing for companies to scan for negative content. But this doesn’t actually curtail bullying. It is only a Band-Aid on the fear.

In chapter 3, regarding status in online groups:

Henry: Within the female fan circles […], it was considered rude to ask another fan what they did in their “mundane life.” […] Many of these fans did not identify strongly with their jobs. They were housewives; they were “pink collar workers” – those working in jobs that have been feminized and devalued in our culture, despite requiring a high level of education for access. The attitude was built into the fannish concept of “mundane life,” life that lacked eep meanings or passions. This perspective reversed the “get a life” language that people often project onto fans. Instead, these women wanted to be valued within fandom based on what they could do as authors, artists, or critics. The result was an alternative and very fluid conception of status. It is a world where every reader is assumed to be a potential writer, and those who are not creating now are assumed not yet to have found the right story to share with the world.

In the same chapter, on how perceived responsibility changes based on framing:

danah: I will never forget the “aha!” moment I had when I read “Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide?” by Dmitry Epstein, Erik Nisbet, and Tarleton Gillespie (2011). They look at two competing rhetorical moves – the narrative of access that dominated the early discussions and the issue of skills that underpins some of the participation gaps you describe. The argue that, in policy circles, when people talk about the issue as being one of access, there’s an assumption that the government should be responsible for addressing the issue. But when there’s a rhetorical shift to skills, the onus moves to the individual or the community to solve their own problem.

On political participation variance by race versus voting:

Henry: Specifically, 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian-American youth participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the previous twelve months. The racial gap in terms of engaging in participatory politics is much narrower than the gap in voting, where there’s a 15 point divide between the most active group – African-Americans – and the least active – Latino/Latina.

In chapter 4, about dealing with a massive shift in the availability of information:

Mimi: It reminds me of when, for us as a species, calorie abundance (as opposed to calorie scarcity) became a problem. We had to learn new skills in order to manage the fact that fats and sugars are abundant and cheap in our diet, and there are definitely downsides in terms of our health that have resulted from it. We see a similar concern with negative effects of information abundance, but that doesn’t mean that we want to go back to a diet of starvation in terms of communication and information.

Later, about getting people to participate in communities, rather than simply produce something:

Mimi: It is even more challenging to support the cultivation of a mindset of social responsibility about the sharing and circulation of media. When we work with kids who have had limited access to digital tools and networks, it’s not difficult for them to pick up skills in media creation. The bigger challenge is for them to take a leap to being an active contributor to the online world and develop an identity as someone who has real contributions to make.

On the vulnerability of sharing new experiences:

Henry: I had a student who was performing at a C level and never said anything in class. One day, we started talking about Batman, and he came alive, making many contributions, dominating the discussion. […] This was an incredible, intense moment, where his interests were being valued. Then, two of my literature department colleagues walked down the hall, heard what we were discussion, stuck their head into my office, and said, “What are you doing talking about Batman? This is a literature department!” They were joking with me, but the student’s face turned ashen. He stopped talking almost instantly; he wandered away and he said nothing else in the class for the rest of the term.

So, bringing such knowledge into the classroom can be deeply empowering. But this is also an incredibly vulnerable moment, when the slightest negative message will be heard loudly. Schools often give this message – that what matters to young people doesn’t matter in school.

In chapter 5, about Facebook’s [leader’s] intent and structure:

danah: Zuckerberg genuinely believes that everyone will benefit if everyday people openly share in public. He sees transparency as the solution to inequality, dishonesty, and intolerance. And he feels that the best way to make this happen is by creating a piece of technology. He also believes that capitalism incentivizes the best minds to work hard, which is why he has structured his business the way he has.

Regarding the sustainability of online communities:

Henry: We need to have a critical response to the current media environment that reflects both our hopes for the possibilities of collective action within a networked culture and our concerns at the ways that any data we shed can and will be used against us in the marketplace. So many of the academic critics of Web 2.0 stop short of proposing viable alternatives that might allow us to seize some of the opportunities many of us recognized in the early days of the Web. If you start from the premise that everything companies do is by definition evil and corrupt, then you’ve opted out of participating in the conversation about what ethical, sustainable, community-oriented uses of social networking tools and media-sharing platforms might look like. If you fall back on ideals about the purity of public media, that’s probably not going to be what sustains large numbers of experiments in the long run. We need to ask what happens when communities that began by seeing themselves as alternative to dominant social, political, economic, or cultural practices are becoming so dependent on an infrastructure that’s driven by commercial motives.

In chapter 6, about the Harry Potter Alliance, a group I’d never heard of before:

Henry: They start with an empowering fantasy and then link it to real-world concerns – a great example of the civic imagination at work. […] The HPA partners with NGOs and governmental agencies, brokering relationships between fandom and various kinds of political elites. […]

There have been many such campaigns across the history of fandom. […] But they may well have understood this activity in purely cultural terms and not yet understood its potential political implications. By contrast, the HPA has been very effective at helping participants to map their identities as fans onto their identities as citizens or activists and to organize an effective network committed to ongoing social change.

On how to empower people to make a positive difference in their communities:

danah: [We] recognized that there were three key pillars: safety, skills, and opportunities. First, youth need to feel strong as individuals. They need to have structural supports for dealing with everything from family difficulties to mental health issues. […] Next, youth need to develop skills. We talked a lot about “soft” skills, such as social-emotional learning, as well as “hard” skills, such as the ability to make media and communicate messages. Finally, we focused on creating opportunities for diverse youth to use their skills and channel their resilience to make change. […] There’s no doubt that specific experiences often trigger engagement that can lead to becoming an empowered activist, but people don’t simply wake up one day empowered. Activism is cultivated.

On how Kony 2012 / Invisible Children (IC) failed:

Henry: IC proved very effective at creating spreadable media – media that circulated widely across the web – but they were less effective at building drillability – ht ecapacity of people to drill down and develop a more in-depth understanding of the issues. […] Some of this was a consequence of a highly centralized leadership meeting a highly decentralized network, but many young people got caught in the crossfire as IC came under attack from more established activist organizations, policy think tanks, editorialists, and political leaders. IC lost control of its message, and young people were the ones on the ground who lost face with their friends when they couldn’t explain what was going on.

On when “safe spaces” can be most useful:

Henry: I think that there’s a tendency among writers discussing activism to dismiss the importance of this idea of a safe space – a zone where young people can find their footing as citizens and activists before they are shoved into confrontation with other opposing forces. This need for a safe space is especially true for youth who may not have a strong sense of safety in other aspects of their lives – who may not yet feel secure in their social identities, say, or who may confront hostile conditions in their schools and homes to begin with.

In chapter 7, the group discusses their ideals for participatory culture:

People participate through and within communities: participatory culture requires us to move beyond a focus on individualized personal expression; it is about an ethos of “doing it together” in addition to “doing it yourself.”

Finally, on when participation may be the most effective:

We know that, historically, revolutions occur not when conditions are at their worst but, rather, when conditions are improving and when newly enfranchised groups start to develop a shared vision of what a better society might look like. The same may be the case with participatory culture. A rhetoric of participation raises expectations and often forms the basis of more active resistance to constraints that might have seemed acceptable under other circumstances.

In retrospect, I may have dog-eared too many pages. Nonetheless, the book is definitely worth a read-through if you’re interested in the history and future of young people’s interaction with society, particularly online. The discussions are particularly interesting where the authors disagree, and give multiple perspectives on a number of subjects. Despite ostensibly being largely the result of in-person discussions, the book comes with an in-depth references section if you’re interested in following up on nearly any of the claims made. (I’ll be looking at “The Relevance of Algorithms” by Tarleton Gillespie and Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins, although likely skimming the latter due to its length.)


Consulting in China

Filed under: Travel — aschmitz @ 8:29 pm

Earlier this year, I did a bit of traveling in China, initially for work, but then with a short vacation tour with my parents. From that, I wrote up a number of notes that I wish I had when I was getting ready to go to China. They’re focused on people who are employed by a (non-Chinese) consulting company, traveling to China to do consulting there. In particular, as I’m a US citizen living in the US, some of the visa notes are most relevant to that situation. However, a fair amount of this will be relevant to other people as well.

(As always, any opinions expressed here are mine, not those of my employer.)

First things first


There are a number of things you may want to do before going to China. Here’s a brief timeline of what needs to get done in rough order:

  1. Vaccines: (T-6 months if possible, 1 month to 1 week if necessary) Some vaccines are best if you have a 1-6 month lead time, but as early as possible is best.
  2. Invitation letter: (ASAP: T-3 weeks or earlier) You will need your client to write a letter inviting you to the country before you can apply for a visa. This may take a week or more, depending on your client. Do this as soon as possible.
  3. Passport: (T-1 month) If you don’t have a passport, get one. If you have one, but it has less than 6 months of validity after the expected end of your trip, you will want to get it renewed. This can take anywhere from a day to a month or more, generally pay for the expedited processing and get it in about a week.
  4. Visa: (T-2 weeks, or earlier) Apply for a visa, which could take up to a week (generally less if expedited). Note that the pick up (and likely drop off) should be in person at your local Chinese consulate. If you think this will be difficult, you can investigate your options, but it’s not clear if having someone else do it is allowed. (I recommend calling if you want to do that: the online documentation is sometimes self-contradictory.)
  5. Flights/hotels: (T-1 week, or earlier if you have an invitation letter and everything is refundable) You need these to get/stay in the country. Book as soon as you’re comfortable. If everything is refundable and you know the dates, you can do this without having your visa in hand.

Obviously, depending on what you have already done, you may be able to skip the vaccines, passport, or visa sections. It’s not clear if an invitation letter is necessary for return trips on an existing visa.

Vaccines / Medicine

You should call up your doctor (or visit them), indicate where you’ll be traveling (at least the nearest major city), and ask for any vaccines or medication they recommend you have. They can also tell you about any relevant travel advisories from the CDC/etc. (For example, avian flu shows up in the area from time to time, so you may want to know about it, but there’s no practical vaccine.) From the doctor for my first time to China, I got a bunch of things:

  • Hepatitis A vaccine: Hep A can be spread by infected water, which may include the water supplies where you are. Don’t drink tap water anyway because of other possible contaminants, but get this regardless: tap water was probably used to wash your food. This vaccine should last the rest of your life.
  • Hepatitis B vaccine: Hep B is spread by infected blood or bodily fluids. You might not expect to be exchanging these, but there’s a decent chance of being exposed to it from a blood transfusion if you end up in a hospital, as there’s a chance the blood you receive may not have been screened for Hep B (although it’s supposed to be). This vaccine should last the rest of your life.
  • Typhoid vaccine: Communicable virus. Not all that common, but slightly higher risk in the region, and you might as well get the vaccine while you’re at it. If you get the shot (you probably will), this lasts two years.
  • Tetanus vaccine: Virus generally found in dirt/rust. Not much riskier in China than the US, but I hadn’t had a booster in a while, and the vaccine is apparently only good for about a decade. I just got this as part of a TDaP/DTaP shot. Should last about a decade.
  • Antibiotics: Should you end up drinking the tap water, you may end up with a case of traveler’s flu. You can (and should) ask for a prescription for antibiotics and get it filled in the US, as it’s a lot easier than doing so in China. (There are no problems bringing the medicine into China.) I got Cipro, which is apparently still effective in the region, but other doctors may prescribe other things.


Assuming you haven’t set up WeChat payments (you probably haven’t, and likely can’t or don’t want to because of ID verification hassles), you’ll want to have a healthy supply of cash. A 100 yuan bill is worth about $15 US (give or take) at the time of writing, and is the largest denomination available. When I traveled with my parents (3 people), the tour company recommended we have about 1000 yuan/day for our group, but this was significant overkill for our spending habits. Lunches in a company cafeteria should run around 10-20 yuan, and dinners are generally under 100 yuan per person, depending on what you get, as a rough guide.

ATMs in most places will accept US debit cards, though you’ll want to tell your bank that you’re traveling to China in advance if possible. I stuck to “Bank of China” ATMs in decent-looking locations: if there’s one in your client’s building, it’s probably among the safer ones to use.

Many locations don’t accept credit cards from the US. Some, particularly chains or those targeted toward tourists, will accept credit cards, but you may have to pay your bank foreign transaction fees for the privilege. Cash works basically everywhere (although occasionally those not paying using WeChat may be shuffled to a different line with a cashier who can make change), and is commonly used for most transactions (at a grocery store, well over 70% of transactions I observed were made with cash).

Other supplies

Toilets in China show up in nearly every travel guide, and this won’t be an exception. Many public toilets are effectively open pit toilets, without a seat. They are instead squat toilets, which isn’t something most people in the US are used to, but is quite common in the region. If you go to a Western-oriented hotel, you should have a seated toilet in your room, but even offices will tend to have flushable squat toilets, generally with one or two seated toilets. Even in these cases, many times you will be expected to have your own toilet paper (although there’s a chance that there’s a single dispenser by the door). So, consider bringing your own toilet paper. Also popular are wipes (potentially flushable, although most places have a wastebasket next to the toilet, as plumbing generally won’t handle flushable wipes or even toilet paper well). I ended up bringing Babyganics flushable wipes, because they claimed to be flushable and yet did not contain methylisothiazolinone, a preservative common in US adult flushable wipes that is banned from cosmetics in the EU as a skin irritant that builds up over time – apparently people care more about their babies than themselves.

Things that you might get in the US at your destination are also things you might consider bringing with you. For example, sunscreen, ibuprofen, etc. are all things that you can undoubtedly find in China, but may be harder to identify, particularly if you’re picky about brands or ingredients. If you’re like me or one of my coworkers, you may also wish to bring a small pharmacy’s over the counter section with you. Other things that might be useful include: your favorite NSAID, band-aids, moleskin, Alka-Seltzer, Immodium, DEET, and anything else you might have used recently. If you take medicine for ongoing or acute issues, bring enough of that to last your trip and then some, as getting medicine in the country will be a hassle.

Getting in to China


If you don’t already have one, you will need a visa to visit China. This is largely a formality, as almost everyone gets approved, but it must be done, and you want to have it before you start making too many plans (airfare, hotels, etc.). There are some requirements for getting a visa, so here’s the process:

(Note: this is primarily for US citizens. If you used to be a Chinese citizen, or currently hold some other non-US passport, you have to do extra work. Check the visa website linked below for more info.)

  1. Make sure you have a valid passport, and that it is scheduled to expire at least six months after you plan to leave China. (Many places won’t let you enter unless you meet this requirement.) If you need it renewed, do this before you apply for your visa. You can likely expense any fees for expediting this process, but consider double-checking with your company.
  2. You want an “M” visa, for “Foreigners who intend to go to China for commercial and trade activities.” This is also known as a business visa. If asked, the purpose of your visa is “business”, not “work” (the latter means you want to find a job and get paid in China, which isn’t what you’re doing).
  3. Follow along at, select “How to Apply”. (The “How to Apply” page URI changes from time to time, avoid going to an old version you get off Google or something. Yes, they keep some of the old versions around.)
  4. As soon as you can, get your client to generate an “invitation letter”. This must have your full name, gender, date of birth, client’s location, intended dates of entry/exit, etc. The client may want a copy of your passport information page, which is apparently standard, although not indicated as a strict requirement on the Chinese Embassy website. Getting this may take several days to a week or more.
  5. You will need a passport-style photograph. A 2×2″ square is acceptable (although not technically in spec, they’ll take it, and it’s what most places will know how to make). If you’re in a big city, there will probably be places that provide this as a service, otherwise a CVS/Walgreens should be able to do it if they have a photo lab. In my Chinese consulate’s visa processing room, they had a (pay-for) photo booth machine that was apparently usable, but I wouldn’t count on it.
  6. You will need to bring a photocopy of the information (and photo) page of your passport when you apply for the visa (and leave it with the consulate). Photocopy it in advance.
  7. Fill out the current visa application (as of March 2017, this is “Visa Application Form V.2013”). A few notes:
    • Paperclip everything together, don’t staple them.
    • “USA” is a fine place to list as your nationality and the place your passport was issued.
    • You can leave “Name in Chinese” and “Other name(s)” blank unless you have them.
    • Your Local ID/Citizenship Number is (or can be) your passport number.
    • You are probably applying with an ordinary passport.
    • Your occupation is a company employee.
    • The major purpose of your visit is “Business & Trade”
    • The “intended number of entries” should match whatever the invitation letter you got says, likely one entry for 3 months. If you’re a US citizen, you’ll probably end up with a 10-year visa regardless, but you should try to match your invitation letter here.
    • You will probably apply for express service (again, probably expense this, check with your company)
    • Your “itinerary in China” should start a couple days before the project starts, and possibly end a couple days after, to allow for travel time.
    • Your “itinerary in China” should probably specify the client’s office if you know it. If you don’t know it, you can put down the address for the person from your invitation letter. If you plan to stay longer for a tour, you can add days to your itinerary for that, but they know that the itinerary may change.
  8. Find your nearest Chinese consulate, and bring the necessary documents to them to apply for a visa:
    • Your invitation letter
    • Your 2×2″ photograph
    • Your passport (you will leave this with them temporarily!)
    • A photocopy of your passport info and photo page
    • Your completed visa application form
  9. You will receive a receipt, telling you what day to come back. Generally with an expedited visa, this will be two business days later. On the appointed day, return with your receipt and a credit card to pay for and receive your visa. If you prefer a less-common card, double-check which credit cards they accept to make sure you’re all set.
  10. Take your passport with your visa in it. Make sure you’ve got the right passport and that the visa says it is for business (“M”) and covers the dates you need.

Now you have a visa! That only took a couple weeks from your start.

You should not book travel before you have everything necessary to apply for the visa, as missing any of them can lead to significant delays. However, once you’ve got your visa application in, you should go ahead and book anything that’s fully refundable. (In particular, you may be told to book fully refundable airplane tickets and hotels. If so, then you can get them while waiting for the visa: if for some reason your visa gets rejected, you can just cancel them.)


China has a lot of hotels, who knew? If you don’t speak a local dialect of Chinese (Mandarin, probably, in major cities), you’ll probably want a hotel that has at least some support for English (for example, someone at the front desk). “Places with an English website that isn’t terrible” is a decent filter, as is “western brands you recognize”. For example, the Holiday Inn Express brand seems marginally popular in China, and even in a location that wasn’t particularly touristy, always had a front desk worker who had passable English. Other major brands will probably be similar. You may want to avoid the small hotels with names you don’t recognize, unless you enjoy full immersion in foreign languages and customs.

Note that when you check in to a hotel (even if just for a night), they will ask for your passport. They will photocopy your data page and visa, and register you with the local police (otherwise, you would have to do this yourself). They will also likely ask for a deposit even if you paid for the hotel online. US credit cards with a chip are generally acceptable for this.


This is a long trip, to a place that has a roughly 12-hour difference in timezones from where you’re used to. It appears to be easier to go to China than to return, from a jet lag perspective. The flight is 12-14 hours or so, the recommendation appears to be to take a flight that arrives in the evening, sleep during the first half of the flight, and then stay up the remainder of the flight.

If at all possible, arrive at least the day before your project starts: don’t try to arrive in the early morning and then go straight to the client’s office unless you’ve made the trip before and know what you’re doing.

Life in China

Talking to people

The generally expected communications medium is WeChat. You should strongly consider getting an account set up, even if it’s just for your trip. It requires validation with your phone number, but works with international numbers. The interface is largely built around scanning the QR codes for contacts or places.

When you see a QR code somewhere, it’s almost certainly a WeChat code (or the earlier incarnation, QQ, from the same company). You can scan that for more information about whatever you’re looking at, although there’s a decent chance it will only be in Chinese. You can also exchange QR codes with your client contact (if you want), and so on. There is a built-in translate feature in WeChat chats, which can be useful: tap or long-press on a message and choose “Translate” to translate into your local language (although obviously WeChat shouldn’t be trusted to transmit sensitive data).

WeChat also has a payments feature integrated, which allows users to link their Chinese bank accounts (and payment cards?) to make payments by scanning a QR code from the merchant (or vice versa in some cases). This is surprisingly popular, accounting for what appeared to be over 50% of purchases in some areas. However, as ID verification (and, as far as I can tell, payments themselves) appear to require Chinese documentation, you likely can’t use this. If you feel like trying, it will probably make some things easier, but carrying cash is also effective.

When talking to people in person, most do not know English, or at least very much English. Younger adults (20s-early 30s) will have taken some English classes in school, but frequently are not fluent. Nonetheless, they may try, and their English is likely better than your Mandarin.

I made it through basically using only hello (“ni hao”, pronounced “knee how”) and thank you (“Xièxiè”, pronounced “tshe tshe”, occasionally with some flourish at the end).

The Internet

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Great Firewall of China, used for censorship of certain topics. What you may not have known is that the details of what is blocked varies hour by hour, and even location by location (which also means from cell tower to cell tower for mobile users).

For the most part, you will not be able to get to Google services. (This includes YouTube and Google Analytics. You’ll quickly discover which sites put Google Analytics in their <head> rather than the <body>, as they’ll hang for a while.) Instead, Microsoft (Bing,, Yahoo!, and Apple services all work (although they are occasionally very slow).

You will want a VPN, if possible. Younger adults I met were quite familiar with the existence of VPNs, and they do not appear to be particularly taboo, but I wouldn’t loudly proclaim that you’re using one, either. I’ve heard reports of some VPN services being blocked at various times, but it sounds as though most are generally reliable for the time being. (Tor, on the other hand, is relatively unreliable within China from my understanding. I did not test it myself.)

I set up an IPSEC VPN using Algo, which requires some technical skill (and a server – DigitalOcean works fine) to set up, but generates .mobileconfig files that can be loaded on macOS and iOS to provide VPN service. Because Internet service is somewhat unreliable, it may be wise to not force the always-on VPN option, but instead use the VPN as needed. With that said, when the Internet worked, I never had any problems with the VPN, and it was able to stay up for periods of 8+ hours without interruption.


First: as soon as you make it to your hotel and check in, ask them for their card. This should be a business card-sized paper with their name and address on it in Chinese, possibly along with some brief directions to the hotel. If you get lost, you can flag down a taxi and give them the card, they should be able to get you back to your hotel.

Automatic rental bikes are popular. There’s also an Uber-like service (Didi). You pretty much can’t use either of them, because they require WeChat payments. (But you should double-check on Didi: it used to be part of Uber, then split off and dropped any support for foreign payments or languages, but recently added English support. It may soon support foreign payments again.)

This leaves you largely stuck with taxis, the subway, or walking. For taxis, try to get a printout of where you’re going (name and address) in Chinese, so you can show it to a driver. (Your phone will also probably work, but again, you will need the name in Chinese, not English or pinyin.) You may want to have your hotel call you a taxi if you’re not near a lot of taxis. Taxi rides are generally relatively cheap, but can run up to 100 yuan or more if you’re going far. As always in China, keep some cash handy. Beware that there are frequently signs telling people to make sure that the taxi they take is legitimate (there doesn’t appear to be a great way to tell: there should be a light on top, and a meter likely in the dashboard, but car types and markings vary), and that any change they receive is legitimate legal tender, although it’s not clear how to tell what is counterfeit money.

The subway in Beijing is well labeled (and announced) in both Chinese and English. Station names are largely pinyin versions of Chinese names (although places like the Olympic Sports Center have English names). Beijing’s subway has ticket machines at most or all entrances, and most main entrances also sell reloadable cards (you’ll be looking for the booth with a human for those, the machines only sell tickets that can be loaded just once). Ticket costs vary depending on where you enter and leave the system, so the ticket machines will prompt for both, then prompt for the fare and give you a ticket after you pay (cash: small bills or yuan coins). If you get a reloadable card, there is a required 20 yuan deposit for the card, plus as much money as you want to put on the card. The reusable card is simply tapped on the entrance and exit gates, and tells you how much money remains on the card at the time. Rides cost the same amount with either mechanism, and vary between 4 and 10 yuan per one-way trip. (Transfers don’t have an explicit cost, but the farther you travel, the more the trip will cost up to the 10 yuan maximum.)

Walking Around

Walking is a fine way to go around most parts of major cities, although if you’re not sure about the safety / walkability of an area, you may run the plan past someone who knows the area (your client contact, for example). You’re far more likely to have your pocket picked than you are to be threatened with a weapon: one of the travel wallets you can hang around your neck is a good place to keep your passport, any large amount of cash, etc.

Streets in major cities are vaguely managed, with traffic lights, marked lanes, crosswalks, etc., but they work more via an expectation that people will be mostly reasonable and somewhat pushy. There are effectively three classes of traffic that can travel on roads: cars and trucks; scooters, rickshaws and bikes; and pedestrians. Each of these yields to the next, more or less. If you’re crossing a street, you may need to indicate your willingness to do so by simply starting to walk. Cars and bikes should largely avoid you given enough distance, but obviously don’t walk right in front of something that will hit you. Crossing major streets takes equal parts hubris and daring, but it is almost never a problem to simply walk with a large group of people that’s already moving, even if the lights indicate you shouldn’t.


Google Maps

As with all Google properties, Google Maps is not reliable in China. You should expect that it will never work without a VPN, although it did appear to work in a few cases. If you can get it to work (i.e. turn on your VPN), however, it can give decent directions. Estimated travel time, particularly via car, isn’t good due to lack of data. Google has not invested significantly in building databases of businesses in China, so features like finding nearby restaurants aren’t very effective.

Apple Maps

Apple Maps works fine in China, although a bit slowly. Transit directions are also generally correct, which is useful when trying to navigate the subway.


OSM has reasonable coverage, particularly in major cities. (Even when touring, some trails and local landmarks appeared to be on the map.)


China largely uses a coordinate system that is skewed by an amount that varies by location: coordinates that the rest of the world uses (WGS84) will be off by a bit (up to about half a kilometer) from what is used internally in China. (The Chinese coordinates are semi-officially known as GCJ-02, and more commonly as “Mars Coordinates”.) Just to be different, Baidu maps uses its own offsets on top of GCJ-02, called BD-09. There are some reverse-engineered algorithms online to convert between these, and will do it if you just want to convert a few coordinates manually.

This occasionally leads to some interesting issues. An iPhone using Apple Maps or Google Maps will convert the WGS84 “real” coordinates into GCJ-02 coordinates before showing them on the map, and will use the shifted map, so everything appears to “just work”. However, if you search for a WGS84 coordinate (such as looking for a Geocache), you’ll be shown the wrong place. OpenStreetMap uses WGS84 coordinates, so a program such as OsmAnd will show the coordinates correctly, while Apple Maps and Google Maps will be offset. The iPhone will store GPS coordinates in photos as WGS84, however, not GCJ-02.

Note that uses GCJ-02, while uses WGS-84 (even when looking at China), if you want to compare.


There are a fair number of signs warning about scams in popular areas. Some common ones:

  1. New friends / “tea house scam”: People, typically with a decent grasp of English, may befriend you and give you a mini tour. This typically ends in a trip to a tea house or other food/drink establishment, suggested by your new guide. There, you will end up with a very large bill, often several hundred US dollars. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all locals, but consider not going with them to restaurants, or picking the restaurants yourself.
  2. Bad change: The normal unit of currency in China is the yuan. The yuan can be divided into tenths, called jiao. (Many transactions will simply round the jiao out of the amount, although they are still used in some cases.) Yuan paper bills will have a picture of Chairman Mao on them, while jiao paper bills do not. When you receive change for things, you may receive either counterfeit bills or jiao instead of yuan. If you’re concerned about it, check for Mao’s face on the bills and rub the colored dots in the corner of the bill: the dots should be slightly raised.
  3. Non-standard taxis: taxis without a meter running may charge you whatever they want. In particular, this includes rickshaws and similar not-car transportation. Even if you agree on a rate, they may try to renegotiate mid-ride. I stuck with “real” taxis where I had to use a taxi.
  4. Haggling: not a scam, strictly speaking, but in many places, you are expected to haggle over the prices of things. In tourist areas, you should generally be able to get at least half off the listed price, although this varies (I’ve gotten things for a quarter of their listed price, and been told that haggling isn’t acceptable in other places). Haggling generally does not occur with food. When haggling, the merchant may have a calculator for use: this lets you haggle without knowing the same language, feel free to hit clear and make a counteroffer. You could pull out your phone and do the same, but in some areas, your phone (or camera, etc.) can also indicate that you have a lot of money, and merchants may aim for a higher price.


The major cities of China tend to be relatively safe. While there is crime (as there is in any city), significant violence toward foreigners is relatively uncommon. As mentioned before, you are much more likely to have your pocket picked, or to be led to an expensive tea house, than you are to be outright held up with a weapon.

The country’s government is a somewhat touchy subject. The official line is that it is a great government, and it appears as though many people believe this (it provides many services, after all). Others may privately indicate they don’t agree, but generally not in large groups. Obviously, you should not stage demonstrations, or expect significant repurcussions if you do. (Note that each city has a communist party office, as do many larger schools or businesses. The party isn’t just “a few people far away”.)

Breathing Air

Major cities in China (Beijing in particular, but also other cities) have a problem with smog, a large number of airborne particulates. Many locals will wear masks, ranging from the US-standard “surgical mask” to fancier, reusable masks that look more comfortable and sometimes have small filters that may perform better. Even so, unless the air polution is particularly bad on a given day, at most around 5% of locals wear them. (Far from everyone, but enough that it won’t look too weird if you do it.)

You might want to bring a couple masks for breathing, particularly if you’re prone to asthma or other breathing problems. I used a couple, but relatively infrequently. Even so, after several days it was definitely possible to tell that the air was harder to breathe than “normal”. The pollution does appear to have cumulative effects, so wear a mask early if you sometimes have breathing problems at home.

Most indoor locations (your hotel, office, malls, many/most restaurants, etc.) typically have some sort of air filtration system, and generally don’t need masks. You may find that the entrances to many such areas have doorways covered by wide strips of thick plastic (or in some cases, fluffier gates from some sort of fabric): this doesn’t mean the door is closed or under construction, they’re just to keep the air in/out.

Outdoor air quality is generally expressed in terms of an Air Quality Index (AQI), rather than exact PM2.5 counts, as the former is supposed to be a more usable metric for daily use. You can view computed AQIs for a number of major cities at (the website is unofficial, but easier to use than the official US embassy one). Generally, AQI above 100 is vaguely noticeable, above 150 is more noticeable, and much above that starts becoming problematic for people with breathing problems.


You will encounter a lot of security checkpoints, particularly if you are doing “touristy” things. Almost any major cultural attraction has a checkpoint, with some appearing more thorough than others. For example, the Beijing subway has cursory checkpoints at every entrance, while Tienanmen Square has a larger checkpoint with large lines that may take an hour to clear.

The security checkpoints at airports are in fact serious checkpoints, where metal detector alerts will be followed up on, and baggage x-rays will be questioned. (I flew several times, and had several questions asked, but these were never aggressive, just valid questions given their requirements.) Other checkpoints elsewhere are rarely thorough.

Most checkpoints will have some combination of an x-ray machine for bags and a metal detector. There’s a chance that someone will cursorily look at the x-ray of your bags (although what they have you put through the metal detector varies: usually a backpack should go through, but purses are sometimes optional), but I have almost never had anyone point out anything. They do have machines that are supposed to detect malicious things in water bottles, so they may test a water bottle if you have one in your bag. (No idea if it’s effective, and I’ve never seen it “alert”.)

The metal detectors are often just for show. I’ve had them be entirely off (including at more sensitive sites), I’ve walked through them, had them beep, and been waved through, and I’ve been stopped by someone with a wand metal detector. If you get stopped with a wand metal detector (vaguely common), they’ll generally wave it over you, ask for what metal you might be carrying, and be mollified when you pull a phone out of your pocket and indicate that it would set off a metal detector. (Never mind the other metal in the rest of your pockets.) In short, these checkpoints are not run by picky operators, and don’t pose much of a hassle.

If you see people getting out IDs for a security checkpoint, you can present your passport. (For example, to visit Tianenmen Square, you must present a Chinese citizen ID or a passport.) The check for passports varies between “yeah, that looks like a passport” and “yes, that looks like you, the passport is still valid by date, and the visa is still valid by date”, but isn’t anything to be concerned about.

Long story short, there will be lots of checkpoints, but they shouldn’t actually inconvenience you much after you’re used to how they work.


You may wish to go on a tour in China. Your client is paying to send you all the way out there, why not take a few days of vacation and explore the country? It’s a relatively inexpensive place to be (~$0.20 for a bottle of water, under $5 for a decent lunch all the way to $15-30 for a reasonably expensive dinner – though very fancy places can cost more, of course), so taking an extra week won’t cost a fortune.

You can do your own tour by just wandering around, but if you’re like me, you’d prefer to go with someone who both speaks both the local language and yours, and ideally knows something about where you’re going. Most tourist destinations have sufficient signs in English, and staff in the areas tend to know enough English to get you where you’re going, but the experience may well be better with a tour guide. Tour guides will also often be able to get you in tour entrances, frequently bypassing security lines (which easily saves an hour at Tiananmen Square alone) or bypassing long paths designed to lead past vendors.

I went on a tour with my parents (they flew in for the occasion) for just over a week for approximately $2k (USD) plus tips per person, including hotels, airfare (to several cities), breakfast, and lunch (but not dinner). I’m sure there are several places that do tours, and I’m sure many of them are fine. We went with China Highlights (.com), which arranged everything, including a guide and driver for our tiny group of three in each city, including dropping us off at the airport and getting us checked in. They were also pretty flexible when we had requests for places to go or shops to visit, and rearranged individual destinations in cities to do outdoor ones when the weather was better. Other tour companies may well be fine, but we had a good experience with China Highlights, and I’d generally recommend them to other people. (They contract with a number of guides in each city, so your experience will almost certainly vary, but we had four different guides, each of which was generally good.)

In terms of destinations, Xi’an is primarily known for the Terra Cotta Warriors, which are worth seeing. Guilin is a good place for a slightly more rural experience: more idyllic countryside, less urban metropolis. Shanghai is much smaller than Beijing, and a much newer (and therefore more modern) city, although it is generally quite similar (but if you’re there for an evening, go to the Bund to see the blinkenlights on the buildings, complete with animations). Beijing is an utterly massive city, with many very different destinations that are also worth spending a couple days exploring (both day and night: the Olympic stadium buildings and lights are impressive at night).

And that’s about it. Best of luck on your trip.

My Stuff
Blog Stuff