A ‘Burger in Beijing


by Mike Kroll


Pat Brown, former owner of Lefler & Brown Television and Satellite Service in Galesburg, recently returned from Beijing, China. Pat sold her business earlier this year so she could spend more time with her husband, Charles, who has worked in China for the last few years setting up satellite communications systems. The couple maintain an apartment in China's sprawling capital and second largest city, home to a population of nearly 15 million and Charles now works for Motorola after that corporation bought out his original employer in September. As you might expect, living in China is very different from life in Galesburg.

“When people learn I have just returned from China they tease me about being a world traveler, but I'm really not,” commented Pat. “Aside from following Charlie to China and flying back and forth between Chicago and Beijing (a 12-14 hour direct flight) I really haven't done that much traveling. I guess you could say I'm pretty experienced navigating the Beijing airport at this point however. I like to travel coach because people seem friendlier there and most of the business- or first-class passengers sleep during the flight. When we arrive in Beijing I always offer to help other Americans find their way out of the airport.”

“You know I really notice the culture shock more when I return to the U.S. from China then when arriving in Beijing but everything is really very different over there. Everything smells different, the food tastes so different and the people are so different in so many ways. Part of this could be that neither Charlie or I have ever lived in a large city before either.”

Pat says that the Chinese language and various dialects are a big barrier to most Westerners living or traveling in China. “I just don't understand how anybody from the west can learn to speak or read Chinese, I sure haven't picked it up at all.” Chinese nationals are expected to learn English as a foreign language as part of their secondary or college education but few get any opportunity to really practice their English outside of the classroom and even fewer are proficient with our language according to Brown. “The locals will seek out Americans just so they can try to talk with you. Many of them love everything Western and especially want anything American.”

Formerly known as Peking to most Westerners, Beijing translates roughly to “northern capital” and is considered a municipality in the Chinese system of governmental units. This is akin to what Americans would consider a metropolitan area composed of a large city and numerous smaller cities, towns and villages surrounding the urban area. The Beijing municipality runs the gamut from dense urban to suburban to rural in character with just over half the population found in the urban-most area that continues to expand outward like the rings on a tree trunk. The city is surrounded by concentric circular highways called “ring roads” that function like American expressways.

Pat reports that Beijing is a very interesting mixture of the old, very old and downright modern in terms of buildings but a place where many older structures are being torn down to make way for new buildings. In some areas of the city you can find traditional imperial structures like the Temple of Heaven alongside bland boxy mid-twentieth century construction next to extremely modern style buildings that one might find in Chicago, Paris or New York. This unusual mixture of building styles is found in few modern cities outside of Europe. Much of the newest construction is in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympic games.

“I will be amazed if they can get everything finished in time,” say Pat, “they already have one of the biggest mass transit systems in the world and the current expansion of the subways will make the Beijing subway the world's largest such system. There must be 800 bus routes in Beijing and the widest assortment of different size and style buses as you can imagine running each route. What is amazing to me is that while you are constantly told that few individuals are permitted to own private automobiles the roads are simply clogged with cars and trucks. Drivers here don't seem to obey traffic rules consistently and that might explain why the traffic officers wearing red neckerchiefs and assigned to direct city traffic don't stand in the middle of the street there. Instead they stand on the sidewalk and blow their whistle and wave their arms. Crossing the street as a pedestrian can be quite an experience and I don't jaywalk in Beijing.”

She says that taxi cabs are also plentiful but the language deficit makes it nearly impossible for Pat to comfortably use public transportation. “For me it is just about impossible to get around except on foot unless someone arranges a car and driver for me. I have done my best to explore the area of Beijing near our apartment that I can reach on foot and have found many interesting places to shop. Initially, I would purchase everything on my credit card but now I have learned the currency. It is surprising how many items we take for granted that are nearly impossible to find in Beijing. Here in Galesburg you can go to any discount store and find a vast selection of very affordable household items that are made in China but just try to find an inexpensive alarm clock in Beijing! I can find almost none of the products that are made in China and exported to the U.S. offered for sale in China itself.”

In some ways Beijing is much more modern than Galesburg. Most utilities are prepaid much like you would purchase a prepaid cellphone here. “You buy a prepaid card that you insert into your electric meter and when it runs out your power is shut off.” In fact, Pat reports that everybody uses cell phones and land-line telephones are rare. “The Chinese wear their cell phones around their neck and are much more courteous about not talking loudly on their phone where it might annoy someone else. They also make much more use of text messaging. Cell phones in China must be purchased, they aren't provided as part of a service plan and they are relatively expensive. Despite the cost everyone with a middle-class income has one or even two cell phones.”

And while banks exist and provide loans to people and businesses in China checking accounts are virtually unheard of. “Most workers are paid in cash and the Chinese conduct virtually all of their business in cash. It is extremely difficult for the average Chinese person to get a credit card and buying on credit is extremely rare. People will save for a long time to purchase something.”

After living in China for months Pat began to notice things you don't find there that are ubiquitous back here in the states. “In all the time I have spend in Beijing I have never once seen either an ambulance or a garbage truck. But you know there must be accidents and people must get injured and certainly garbage is generated but the mystery remains. As for the garbage I have found that poor country people will scavenge through what I would throw away in what has to be the most efficient 'recycling' system ever devised. The city itself is always dusty from construction activity or the sands that blow in from the adjacent desert but otherwise it is very clean and free of litter, debris and absolutely no graffiti.”

There is also a negligible insect problem. Pat reports seeing almost no bugs in Beijing, excepting very large and aggressive mosquitoes. You also don't see many birds because the bird population has been decimated by humans who catch and eat them. Trees are considered an urban treasure because so many have been lost to construction and the poor seeking firewood. “Most of the larger trees in Beijing are actually numbers,” said Pat. “The carve an identification number into the side of each tree and it is a major criminal offense to cut down or damage a numbered tree.”

Although the police presence is discreet crime is very low in Beijing. “I have no fear of being accosted on the street. When people here do break the law justice is swift and severe. The death penalty is a much more common sentence here and they even have mobile death vans to carry out executions. Sometimes swift justice is anything but just. Recently a man was executed after his wife disappeared and it was assumed he had murdered her. Not much later the wife turned up again after being hidden by her family who disapproved of her husband. The state recognized its error in rushing to judgment and awarded the dead husband's family what amounts to about $600 in compensation. That amount seems to be the standard monetary value of a life in China as it comes up time and time again in settlements for accidental deaths as well. Westerners are warned not to run afoul of the law in Beijing but after spending a little time here those warning are both accurate and unnecessary, you just get it.”

In Beijing there are many foreign-owned companies doing business in China and most employ a number of Chinese nationals. Employee expectations in China are very different from those in the U.S. While unskilled labor is extremely cheap in China finding quality skilled help is no simple matter. If a Chinese national has a good grasp of English and real skills they are in high demand and paid comparatively well. Most such desirable employees are is such demand that they are constantly being lured away by other desperate employers and thus change jobs frequently and earn more and more with each new employer. Most firms in China provide employee uniforms and it is customary for a Chinese employer to provide employee lunches. Healthcare is provided to all nationals by the state and the concept of insurance is very different in China.

“When Charlie first began to set up his office in Beijing he needed to rent space, arrange for furniture and supplies and he sought out insurance. Just finding an insurance agent in China was a big deal and after he did that and explained what he wanted the agent couldn't understand why he needed liability insurance. He told Charlie that if someone got hurt tripping over a chair in his office that it was the injured party's fault for being so careless. We guess personal injury lawsuits are as yet unheard of in China.”

Pat went to China to be with her husband because she missed him but living in China has proven to be very lonely for her. “Charlie is always busy with work but I quickly found that there was little for me to do. We have a local maid who comes in to do cleaning and such and our apartment really isn't even that large at just under 170 square meters (1,800 square feet including a living room, kitchen, dining area, two bedrooms and two baths). We live in an apartment complex with mostly Westerners from Europe. The majority are German or Belgian. This is a modern secure building with nice amenities but I haven't been able to make many friends there.”

To help spend her time in Beijing Pat has started a cooking school where she teaches Chinese students to cook American food. Called 'The American Cooking School' Pat focuses on simple but authentic American foods that can be prepared with ingredients readily found in Beijing. “I went out looking for stores that sold western or American foods and found a number of them in Beijing. I was surprised to find just how much fresh American-style produce can be found there but I also discovered that fresh foods have a much shorter shelf-life in China.”

Part of what provided Pat the idea of the cooking school is that many Chinese women are seeking relationships with Western men, particularly American men. “An American man seeking female company in Beijing will have no problem with loneliness but the story is very different for American women, particularly if they are over 30. There is such an abundance of young and attractive Chinese women seeking American men of any age that many American women in China feel overlooked and even among the Chinese women competition is fierce. I began the cooking school by advertising that the secret to finding and keeping an American boyfriend or husband was in mastering American cooking. This approach has worked as nearly all of my students are women.”

Pat began by teaching basic baking, brownies, cakes, cookies, etc. This was by design because the Chinese simply don't bake. But this also presented a problem in that few if any of the typical Chinese homes have ovens. Standard ovens or ranges as we know them are rare in Beijing and undoubtedly rarer still in other parts of China. What is available are counter top ovens in various sizes that are relatively new to the Chinese market. “We do all of our baking in these counter top ovens so my students can see that the lesson can be practical for them in their own homes. I was skeptical about these ovens but have discovered that they might actually be a good idea here in the states with fewer American women baking today.”

Another discovery that surprised Pat was how little effort is really involved in starting a small business in Beijing. “I have found that there is actually far less government regulation in China than found here but that also means that neither consumer or employee safety is of much government interest. Many small Chinese food shops scare me with respect to cleanliness or food safety and I avoid eating or drinking in many of them and I have learned to be very, very picky about public restrooms.”

“The Chinese love just about everything American but don't really appreciate what life in America is all about. For example, when Motorola held a big meeting here in Beijing they were concerned about security and setup checkpoints at entrances. While most American and other Westerners readily accepted the metal detectors and searches the Chinese employees were aghast. They couldn't believe someone expected to look through their purses or check their bags and briefcases. I keep telling them that there are lots and lots of rules in America. An experience like that kind of reminds us of how much privacy and civil liberties Americans have given up in recent years. In many ways government is far less intrusive in the lives of Chinese than here in America. I think there is a lesson there.”