From How-to

Guides for getting stuff done

How To Tell The Difference Between Asian Languages

To the untrained eye or ear, Asian languages can appear completely incomprehensible and indistinguishable from each other. The written characters may as well be hieroglyphs and unlike some other languages, listening in on a conversation isn’t going to give you much to go on. The guide below it intended to provide a simple quick start for telling apart Chinese, Japanese and Korean. You’ll soon find it’s really rather simple! Read more

Optimising Security for Life in the Cloud

With our lives rapidly migrating into the cloud and the distinction between online and offline becoming evermore blurred, I’ve become increasingly paranoid about the security and integrity of my data (maybe I’m just getting old!). There are two scenarios that worry me the most: Read more

Getting Stuff Done

I don’t generally give much credence to management or lifestyle books which propone to provide the secrets to success; we are all defined by unique sets of circumstances and experiences which ultimately propels us down one avenue or another. What works for you is unlikely to work for me and visa versa – we are individuals, not robots. Read more

Resources For Planning A Trip To Japan

I thought I’d take a break this week from relaying my travel tales to bring you some useful info for anyone planning a trip to Japan themselves. For me the planning part is as much a part of the holiday as the time spent travelling itself – there’s something innately enjoyable about working out where you want to go, how to navigate your way around and where to stay. Read more

How To Optimize Your VPN Connection

For folks living and travelling in China having a VPN (Virtual Private Network) has become a necessity if you want to leap over the great firewall and access sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to name but a few. While personal VPN providers like Witopia and 12vpn provide easy to set up packages which you can install on your computer many people will still intermittently experience slow or unstable connections (through no fault of the provider) which can dampen the experience. Read more

Essential iPhone Apps for China Expats

Without a doubt the iPhone is the most useful electronic product I own. Aside from its plethora of inbuilt functions the ability to download and install apps basically gives you unlimited scope for what you can do with it and with over 85,000 you’re spoilt for choice (even if 70% of them are rubbish). Living as an expat in China presents its own unique challenges but as the advert says “there’s an app for that”. Below is a list of what I consider my essential apps for helping with everyday life in China:

(N.b. If you brought your iPhone abroad you’ll probably need to unlock it first to accept a foreign SIM card – PwnageTool usually does the trick but be sure to back things up first).

Qingwen Mandarin Dictionary

Qingwen iPhone Dictionary App

Language is often the biggest hurdle for China expats and finding the right words can be a frustrating experience. There are many English <-> Chinese dictionaries available for the iPhone but the one I like the most is Qingwen. It allows you to quickly search for words in either English or Pinyin and then gives you the option to listen to it and create word lists (e.g. I have a word list containing all my favourite foods). I often find this comes in handy at the supermarket – when I can’t find something I just look it up here then flash it in front of a staff member.

Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook

Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrase Book iPhone App

If you want to be a little more conversational than just single words then the Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook has a tonne of common everyday phrases you can use to impress the locals (that is if you can manage to pronounce them correctly). Luckily each phrase comes with an audio clip but you’ll probably want to plug in your headphones to pick it up clearly. This app has saved my life numerous times, the only problem is understanding what the other person is saying back to you (until someone invents a voice translation app which works)!


Skype iPhone App

Skype is something I couldn’t live without in China for cheaply keeping in touch with friends and family back home. The iPhone version allows you to make calls directly from you phone (when you have a wifi connection) but what I love most about it is the ability to send SMS messages abroad for a fraction of the price you’d normally pay for an international SMS (without wifi connection). For the best audio quality you’ll need a newer model iPhone 3GS.

XE Currency & Notes

XE Currency & Notes iPhone Apps

Two small apps also worth your attention are XE Currency and the inbuilt Notes apps. As you might imagine the first is great for doing quick currency conversions. There are many similar apps like this but I like this one because you can do multiple conversions at the same time. I find the Notes app useful for storing things like bus numbers (I have a terrible memory) which is essential since things like bus stop signs are only ever shown in Chinese (no pinyin). A good alternative to this is Evernote which can wirelessly sync your note across multiple devices.

Google Maps

Google Maps iPhone App

Google Maps also comes inbuilt so you don’t have to download it separately. What most people don’t realise is that most major cities in China now have pretty good maps which you can search using pinyin. With inbuilt cell tower triangulation/GPS I find it useful for finding my way about and making sure taxi drivers aren’t giving me the run-around. What’s even better is that you can get it to give you driving or walking directions (some areas even have bus routes).

What are the apps you find most useful in China or as an expat?

Understanding Cultural Differences

I’ve given a couple of presentations recently at work about understanding the cultural differences between East (US / Europe) and West (China / East Asia) which I thought I’d share today. The first is aimed at Chinese to understand Western Culture (with lots of nice pics) while the second is aimed at Westerners to understand Chinese Culture (more wordy):

Understanding Western Culture

Yes, that’s a picture of my sister in Africa killing a goat for dinner towards the end – a perfect example of dealing with uncomfortable situations (in this case quite an extreme one)! The presentation itself had lots of talking over the top – if you download the file you can see my notes with more information about the content. It would be great if someone could help me translate this into Chinese.

When Yes Means No (or Yes or Maybe)

Understanding Chinese culture and the implications for doing business there

This presentation was a summary from my earlier series “Chinese Culture 101” (which contains lots more detail). Hopefully this will be published as a revised and expanded paper in the near future.

Summarising the history and culture of two major civilisations was a bit of a challenge but I think I’ve manage the pull it off without any glaring holes. I hope this is useful to people and as ever feedback is welcome.

How To Cook Dumplings

Last weekend I learnt how to cook Chinese dumplings. For those who might not be familiar with these tiny parcels of deliciousness a dumpling consists of minced meat and chopped vegetables wrapped into a piece of dough and then boiled, fried or steamed.

Dumplings Ready for Cooking

There are also sweet varieties but I made the traditional type and for your entertainment filmed a short video of the process:

Pretty simple but somehow I don’t think Jamie Oliver has anything to worry about!

Ingredients needed:

  • Minced pork (about 1:1 ratio with vegetables)
  • Spring onion & cabbage finely chopped
  • Soy sauce & rice wine (or vinegar)
  • Dumpling pancakes (some people make their own but it was too much hassle for me)


  1. Mix together the minced pork and chopped vegetables with a drizzle of soy sauce and rice wine
  2. Place a small amount of mixture in the middle of each pancake and seal the sides with water
  3. Boil the dumplings for 3 minutes being careful not to let them stick to the sides of the pan
  4. Drain the water and serve plain or with hot chili sauce

Dumplings for Lunch

These are just the most simple type of dumpling to make – there are many more shapes and varieties with different fillings. Take a look at these great guides for more inspiration (1, 2). You’ll see that dumpling making is a pretty serious business!

Storing Sensitive Data In The Cloud

Being an expat with multiple bank accounts in different countries, important documents such as passports, visas, life insurance and other contracts I seem to have amassed a huge collection of important but private information which is essential to the smooth running of my life. Whatever the documents may be if you’re like me then keeping track of it all is a headache made even it’s made even more complex as conventionally it’s a bad idea to store it all in the same place which would make identity theft much easier if that information was compromised (i.e. stolen). Added to this you need this information to be easily accessible as it would be pretty difficult to memorize it all (e.g. online bank credentials, emergency contact and policy numbers etc).

So what’s the solution for keeping your personal information secure but accessible at the same time?

One solution I’ve found which works well is to use a combination of the cloud storage service Dropbox and disk encryption software TrueCrypt:

Dropbox TrueCrypt Cloud

Whilst this might look a bit daunting it’s simpler than it appears. TrueCrypt allows you to create a  virtual encrypted disk within a file which can be mounted on your computer as an ordinary disk (like plugging in a USB drive). Dropbox allows you to sync your files online (in the “cloud”) and across multiple computers.

The basic step for setting this up are as follows:

  1. Sign up for a Dropbox account & install client (2gb of storage free, works on all platforms)
  2. Download and install TrueCrypt (opensource, works on all platforms)
  3. Run the TrueCrypt Volume Creation Wizard to create a new virtual encrypted disk within a file (default option). When selecting the volume size be sure to keep it <5mb depending on your internet connection speed as this will have to be updated each time you unmount (disconnect) the disk.
  4. Save the virtual disk file to your Dropbox (usually within My Documents on Windows or your Home Directory on Mac OS/Linux).
  5. Place your secret files within the virtual disk and mount/unmount as needed.

Dropbox encrypts all files with AES-256 before being sent to their servers over an SSL connection (similar to when you make a credit card purchase online). Combined with TrueCrypt this essentially “triple encrypts” your files so in the extremely unlikely even that someone compromised the Dropbox servers or your computer then your files would still remain safe.

There are other all-in-one solutions which do similar things (like 1Password) but the problem I have with these are that you’re still entrusting your security to other people and most are platform dependent. With this solution you have multiple levels of protection and you’re still in complete control.

While this works quite well for me there may be better methods so if you know of one please leave a comment below!

How To Transfer Money Out Of China

Expats who live and work in China will attest to the hassle banking can be. From opening an account to making deposits and  transferring money it’s not particularly foreigner friendly and frequently requires the patience of a saint. Things gets even more tricky if you get paid in Renminbi (RMB) and want to transfer some of your earnings back home. In general China is adverse to money flowing out of the country and due to the complexity of the process bank staff will often look for any excuse to deny you being able to so.

100 Yuan
Photo by David Dennis

I’ve recently completed the rather tortuous process successfully for the first time so thought I’d share how it works in the hope that others might be able to avoid disappointment –

What you will need:

  • Passport with valid Residence Visa (and sometimes Residency Permit)
  • Employment contract original copy officially stamped or ‘chopped’
  • Tax receipts for each month of your employment (depending on how much you want to transfer)
  • SWIFT code of your bank back home (e.g. BARCGB22 for Barclays UK)
  • Bank account information for both sending and receiving parties (name, address etc.)
  • Sufficient funds up to the amount you have paid tax on (duh!)

What it will cost (other banks may vary):

  • Bank of China – 150 RMB service charge, 0.1% of the total to be transferred
  • Bank of Communications – 80 RMB service charge, 0.1% of the total to be transferred
  • Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) – 150 RMB service charge, 1% of the total to be transferred

In the past only the Bank of China could make foreign transfers but this has been recently liberalised so most banks should now be able to provide telegraphic transfer services.

The process (Chinese speaker needed to help unless you are fluent yourself):

  1. Take all you documents to your bank who will take photocopies (and probably be less than cooperative)
  2. Buy the amount of foreign currency you want to transfer (usually Dollars, Euros or Pounds Sterling) – this will be placed in your account – you wont receive any cash only a receipt
  3. Fill in an application form for funds transfers (overseas). Be sure to enter your details very carefully otherwise your money could end up in someone else’s account! The bank will probably insist that the charges be “shared” between both banks
  4. Submit the form and wait a day for the transfer to complete (praying optional!)
  5. Return the next day to the bank who will give you a receipt detailing whether the transfer was successful or not.

Last but not least, avoid illegal/blackmarket/unofficial money exchangers as you will probably get ripped off or worse. If you’ve had any other experiences of currency exchange in China feel free to leave a comment below.