All posts by stephanusoptimus

Giving up on Chinese for… Russian?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t done much reading in English this semester because I had another thought: why not read in another language? To which you might respond “Chinese, right?” Well, no. You see, I’ve got kinda fed up with Chinese. Not only is learning Chinese difficult, it’s made more difficult in Beijing because a) I teach English, b) most people here have a working knowledge of English, and c) unless you’re Chinese is very good (re: perfect tones and accent), most Chinese people who can speak English would rather do so than hear out your terrible Chinese. They may compliment you with a smile “Your Chinese is very good” or they may be a little more blunt, “What? Your Chinese is terrible.” Their answers usually depend on how tired they are.

Anyway, if you’ve followed my travels for any length of time you’ll know that I’m knowledgeable in a few different languages, not least my “university languages” of Latin and Ancient Greek. Well, this semester, being fed up with learning Chinese, I decided to try something easier. And so I chose Russian.

Huh? Russian? Easier?

Yes. Easier… than Chinese.

You might recall me mentioning that I have made tentative plans for my next two vacations during which I’ll travel to another country and finally/hopefully practice some of these languages that I’ve been studying for so long. The first “mission”, if you will, is pretty much here and is the one that is causing me the most headache, not so much because of the language itself, but because of the country’s entrance regulations, that is, Russia. (Well, at least I hope to get to Russia, which I’ll have to explain in a bit.)

But why Russia and Russian? Let me explain.

Although you’d be right in saying that Chinese is probably the most practical language for me to learn right now, I can’t help but wonder just how much progress I’m making and, furthermore, how much more I really need to make. Although it’s great to entertain the idea of conversing fluently in the language, I wonder if it’s possible inside the time I’ve allotted for China (I’ll re-evaluate my stay here after about five years). However, this semester I made up my mind to get back to some other languages that I’ve studied in the past. Knowing I didn’t want to handle studying too many languages at once, I had to make a choice. So, after I came back from the Philippines, my interest in studying Chinese on the wane and desire to possibly “prove myself” as some sort of multi-lingual traveller, I chose to go with something familiar, and Russian fit the bill.

Simply writing the word “Russian” will probably cause many in my friend circle in Canada to cringe before they cross themselves and mutter to themselves, “Господи, помилуй / hospody pomyluy / Lord, Have Mercy”. You see, I derive ancestry from Ukraine, Western Ukraine in particular, an area that has staunchly fought for its own unique identity apart from others around it, despite what the political borders may be at any given time. To begin studying Russian is to basically learn the language of a country and culture that has been actively trying to quash the Ukrainian identity. Add to that, Russia’s current leader does not know English but he does speak German fluently as he too remains staunchly Russian all the while impeding upon Ukraine’s territorial boundaries.

(I’m not sure I would go so far as to say it’s the Russian people, as there are elements of pro-Russian in Ukraine and pro-Ukrainian in Russia. So, it’s not so much something of the people, but much more complicated than that. Is it simply political? Economical? Religious? This is part of the entire debate between these two countries. Ukraine is not Russia and Russian is not Ukrainian, but both cultures do have a lot in common.)

I’ve discussed the situation in Ukraine and Russia before and you might even recall that a few years ago I myself went to Ukraine and left with the impression that the country would eventually be divided in two. Well, now it has been divided all but in name. I also never thought it would actually happen the way it did. I will confess, it’s difficult to keep up on current events as the situation in Ukraine has fallen from the mainstream media’s focus. As far as I can tell, however, the situation is still not cleared up.

What prompted this change of attitude?

I mentioned I didn’t get to read very much in English this past semester. However, I finally just finished Sergii Plokhy’s Gates of Europe and have now begun Paul Robert Magosci’s A History of Ukraine. The first is the more modern book, having been published in 2015 and incorporates a discussion of the lead-up and current state of things in Ukraine. The second book is a much more lengthy and in-depth examination of Ukraine, its people, and the country’s history. So, while reading all of this history and the more I read about Russia, its history and its famous literary people, the more I realize the importance of studying and keeping alive a language such as Ukrainian. So, both of those books sort of contributed to my decision in going back to my roots and studying something a little more familiar than Chinese.

So, why Russian and not Ukrainian?

And herein lies the problem. Much like English dominates global business and, geographically, can be found in many parts of the world, Russian’s previous dominance in the Soviet Union saw to it that the language and culture was spread far from Moscow itself. So, the result is that many of the countries that border China speak Russian in addition to their own native languages. Furthermore, modern Ukrainian people I meet either in hostels or wherever around the world typically speak Russian and not Ukrainian. If they speak Ukrainian then they are usually from some small village and haven’t lived in big-city Ukraine for very long, if at all. On top of that, many of the Ukrainian travellers I meet are from Kyiv, which speaks Russian and “surzyk”, a mixture of modern Ukrainian and Russian.

So, since I have a lifetime of experience with the Ukrainian language and because I travel quite a bit, Russian seemed like a natural choice.

How is Russian easier than Chinese?

When I say Russian is “easier” than Chinese and you’d probably agree simply because Chinese is viewed as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but you might not be aware of the finer points of that statement.

First, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet (а б в г / ah buh vuh guh / a b c g) which means that once you learn the letters, then you can read anything. What’s more, and probably the familiar part of Russian to any learned of the language, is that when you learn the word stems then you just need to focus on the word endings and you’ll have a large vocabulary. Contrast that with Chinese in which there are hundreds and thousands of characters to learn each of which have their own meaning and then can be combined with others to make new words. You won’t learn either language over night but you can at least have a basic grasp of the Russian alphabet over night which helps you use a dictionary.

Finally, combining the Cyrillic alphabet and the word stems means using a Russian dictionary is much easier than using a Chinese dictionary, even if it’s electronic. Granted, in this day and age of cell phones and touch displays, it’s not too difficult to enter in your text or simply take a picture and have it translated for you (which I’ve described before). However, typing in a Russian word is easier than trying to write in a Chinese character. Further, when you look up a Russian word you are faced with the word itself (which you can read because you now know the alphabet) and then its meaning. Contrast the Chinese language in which you need to first get the right character (some are very similar to each other but have very different meanings), then write down the pinyin (that is, the romanized method of pronouncing the Chinese character and helps a lot of people learn the language quicker than without), and then the definition of that character.

So how good is my Russian and what books did you use?

I didn’t really want to study with a teacher because I knew it would be expensive and also require much more of a commitment of time, which I don’t always have during the semester. So, instead, I opted to focus on reading and listening. I bought two books, The New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown and Russian Stories: A Dual-Language Book by Gleb Struve which contains several short stories by well-known Russian writers, including Tolstoy, Tergenov and Gogol (though many will point out that he was Ukrainian, he did write in Russian). I made it about half way through the course book and only maybe a third of the way through the Russian short stories but, in my defense, I opted to read and watch “real Russian” news instead of simply trying to learn from the textbook. So, on top of reading I also watched quite a bit of Russia 24 (a Russian news network) and read articles from Along the way, as if only fair, I also read a little bit more Ukrainian just to see how interchangeable the languages are. They are a little bit, but they are still subtantially different from one another.

And at this point, I’d say my Russian is pretty terrible, which is the purpose of this winter vacation. Right after I decided to learn Russian I also asked myself “How can I apply this language? Why spend any time learning this language at all?” To which I responded, as any normal person would say, “Go to Russia!” Which would prompt me to ask, “When should I go there?” and to which you might respond, “During your vacation!”

And so this winter vacation I will be taking the train from Beijing all the way up to Saint Petersberg, a route you probably know to be the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Mongolian, in an effort to practice my Russian.

And so ends 2016 and onto 2017… again, and again, and… again

It’s hard to believe that 2016 is over already with two Christmases done (Julian and Georgian calendars) and two of the three major New Yearses (sp?) are done and over with (again, Julian and Georgian calendars). All that’s left is the Lunar New Year, more commonly referred to as Chinese New Year or, here in China itself, as “Spring Festival” which will end the Year of the Monkey and usher in the Year of the Rooster.

You might be wondering why I haven’t moved along yet. Well, this winter vacation is setting up to be particularly busy. I’ll be travelling, of course, this winter vacation will be taking me across Asia and Europe by train; and then, once the new semester starts, we’ll have a new teacher to train up and, finally, as I try to get that done as quickly and efficiently as possible, I’m off to Canada for 4 days for a wedding and then it’s back to the grindstone for semester number two. So, to tell the truth, I’ve been dreading stepping foot out of my door simply because I know once I do get going it’ll be like pressing “fast forward” on life. And that’s what travel does, no matter what trials or tribulations one encounters on their journey, time seems to move even faster. Before I know it, it’ll be March 12th and I’ll be preparing for class on Monday morning.

First semester is finished and I’ve been off for just over a week now. This semester wasn’t overly challenging in terms of work load as much of my prep work has been done in previous years. I did have a few technical complications which made December particularly challenging (which you can read here, here and here) but overall the semester went rather smoothly. I even made it to the Philippines for a week and completed (most of) my scuba diving certificate.

The air was actually quite nice for about 4 or 5 days last week which made it pleasant to simply sit around and do some reading (which, sadly, I’ve been neglecting) and then head to the pub in the evening. I did manage to get some reading done in English, but not even half of the stack of books I brought with me at the beginning of this semester. You might be wondering about the books I did read (and what else I was reading)…

First, I finished reading Gang of One by Fan Shen, a man who grew up in the time of China’s Cultural Revolution. This book came recommended by a colleague and shows how the author went from an ardent believer in the Revolution to someone trying to get out, and failing many times. Through trials and tribulations, moving around the country as a young Red Youth to learn from the farmers, getting a placement as a university professor in a city just outside Tianjin (and learning about the nasty effects of industrial pollution), then finally being transferred out to another city, he finally asks the love of his life to marry him but even that had a tragic ending. In the end, he makes his way to the USA. and begins a new life. Though I may have given you the major plot points the book is still worth reading for yourself. Highly illuminating.

The second book I finished was Straight to Hell, a hilarious book about John Lefevre’s adventures in the investment banking world.  John Lefevre is famous for running the @GSElevator Twitter handle with which he tweeted some of the things he overheard while on the job. He starts out in New York, moves to London before being transferred to Hong Kong just before the 2008 financial. Through drunken adventures and antics, he gives some insight into how investment banking works and how deals get done to move money around the world. A good portion of the book is about his time in Hong Kong during which he does big deals with Chinese business tycoons who are often more about the money or the roadshow (read: party) rather than doing a “deal” in the strictest sense. (Not as bad as the business misadventures had by Tim Clissold in his book, Mr. China). This one was very easy to read and made me laugh when he explained some of the tricks he used to gain the upper hand in negotiating deals away from the other big banks.

And so that was the reading I was able to do in English. Now, what else was I reading? Chinese? Well, not as much this semester. I started out with good intentions but something else clicked in my mind that sort of derailed me from my Chinese-learning plans and took me on a new route (actually, an old route made new again). And for that, I’ll need to end it here and explain in another post why I gave up studying Chinese and began studying Russian.

Anyway, I know a lot of people found 2016 a particularly detestful year and it will probably go down in history as “one of the worst”. From celebrity deaths (which never really make sense to me why they’re such a big deal) to changes in governments around the world (particularly the USA) to a few deaths and illnesses closer to home (much more emotionally trying), a lot of people bid good riddance to 2016 and have looked with hope to 2017. With that, I hope you had Merry Christmases and Happy New Yearses (sp?) and here’s to an even better new year! Maybe we just need to get past the Lunar New Year before things get better?

Now, about those languages…

A Bad Week Gone Good, Part 3: Sending Money Home

Moving along onto the third part of the trifecta of disasters that all seem to occur within a one week period, I now introduce to you the complication of sending money home.

I’ve been in Beijing for over two years now and, overall, I find it to be a good place to place. It works for me and I work for it, a relationship that we both respect. But a problem arises whenever I need to transfer money home. Now, I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and, despite the typical language barrier issues, I’ve been able to make this work out. The bank takes their cut (100 rmb) and sends my money and it shows up in my Canadian account a day or so later, with my Canadian institution also taking their cut ($15). Over the last two years this has become a rather simple process (bring passport, bank card, contracts in English and Chinese, fill out 电汇 (dian hui, wire transfer form)) but recently China enacted some tougher banking measures, ostensibly to combat the free flow of money out of the country’s borders. So, as of December 1st, 2016, sending money got just a little bit more complicated. Now I needed just one more piece of paper to send money home: a tax bill.

I have no idea what this tax bill thing is but I sense that it has something to do with if and how much I get taxed here in China (11%, if you’re wondering). However, it’s not like you can just get this piece of paper. No, you need to go through your employer who needs to apply for it and then you have to go pick it up at some government tax office somewhere in Beijing. Let’s put it this way, when I asked my boss about it she simply asked, “Is there another way you can send money home?” The implication being that this isn’t a short process. I had never needed this before and, although the bank girl did kinda make a fuss about this last time, they still processed the transfer. It was not to be this time and in all stone-faced seriousness, she explained to me (in Chinese) that-

…Honestly, I have no clue what she said. I’m not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted that the bank teller thinks I can understand Chinese so well. After a few attempts to explain it simply she wrote down the words “tax bill” on a piece of paper and showed it to me. WTF?

So I showed her an email from my employer stating how much tax I pay. She shakes he head, “不是 / bu shi“. No.

She goes on to explain what she means (again, all in Chinese) and (again) I have no idea what she is saying. I imagine what she’s trying to tell me that, despite my handsome and good looks and great reputation amongst all my students, she simply cannot allow the transfer to go through without the proper paper work.

Well, pickle my eggs, Batman. Another complication.

I was aware of other foreigners having problems with bank transfers and the bank teller did inform me that other foreigners had this tax bill thing, I was one of the few who didn’t. That’s not completely true. Yes, there are foreigners who have this thing, but none of the foreigners I know who have been here for any length of time have even heard of this thing. At any rate, I now had to reconsider my options.

Option 1: wire transfer. Foreigners can still do wire transfers but there’s a limit to how much they can exchange per day. The daily amount of money foreigners can exchange is $500 USD, any more than that and you need this tax bill thing. That means I can exchange up to $500USD per day and then, after a few days, do a wire transfer of all that cash. I did see online in one or two places in which foreigners simply went bank to bank and withdrew and then exchanged $500USD until they reached a suitable amount to send overseas. However, I was thinking of all the exchange fees (~ 20RMB / $4 CAD) that would add up over time so I was a little reluctant to do this.

Option 2 is to use Paypal. This is an old one and apparently no longer works, but I may have to try one more method. I know this because I spent an entire Saturday morning setting up a Paypal account IN CHINESE (which required taking screenshot after screenshot and translating it using Baidu translate, which I explained in my last post, and, worst of all, trying to link all of my accounts again) and attempting to send money overseas only to have nothing go through. It was only after this morning that I met another teacher who had lived in Taiwan and other parts of China for a few years beforehand and said it used to work but they have since shut that down. The odd thing is, however, that Paypal and Unionpay (China’s Interac equivalent) recently struck a deal and their websites indicate that sending money overseas is possible. So I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or if I just need to re-try and click the right buttons. I suspect I might have to use online banking to send money, which also requires a USB dongle in order to enter my PIN.

Option 3 is to get a friend to wire the money to your account. Chinese nationals have a higher annual limit to the amount of USD they can send (ostensibly to their princes/ses) overseas or to buy a house in Vancouver/Seattle/Toronto) so not only can they exchange more, but they can send more in one go. Their annual limit is $50,000USD. This option, however, requires me to transfer my money to their account and then hope that they actually put the transfer through so, as you can see, there is a bit more trust needed in this case. Luckily, I think I know someone who can help me with this. Now this would be fine for the short term, but sending money home on a regular basis might be a bit of a nuisance.

Option 4 is the newest one to come along and comes with another learning curve: Bitcoin. This option is a bit of a wild card because I simply don’t trust all the connections you have to go through, not to mention that many of the Bitcoin sites can up and disappear over night with no accountability. The funny thing is, however, that since China has been enacting tougher banking regulations and devaluing its currency on a steady basis, the price of Bitcoin has actually gone up quite a bit in the last few months. It is possible to buy and sell Bitcoins and send them overseas much cheaper than doing any of the above transfer. However, and this is kind of what prevented me from even learning about how to do this exchange, Bitcoin is known to fluctuate quite a bit so there’s no guarantee that by the time you buy, send, and exchange your Bitcoins that it will be worth the same amount. So there’s a big exchange risk factor when using Bitcoin and I’d rather not have that problem when simply trying to send money home.

Other options include sending money via Western Union or Moneygram but, again, foreigners are capped at exchanging $500 USD per day. Further, Western Union likes to take a hefty percentage (~10%) of the amount being sent and, what I dislike about it even more, is that you need somebody on the other side to receive the money. Yet another option is to use Alipay to make an international wire transfer but, as with all simple things for Chinese nationals, you require a Chinese ID card to link bank cards and send the money. In other words, foreigners can’t use the Alipay wire transfer option.

I eventually went with Option 3 and had a friend I know transfer the money into her account and then wire it to me. We went together to the bank and went through the steps because, not only is there a bit of trust required, but she had never done a wire transfer before. Anyway, the bank had no problem doing the transfers (why would they? They made some nice commissions.) and the money went through shortly after.

And so ended this rather challenging week. I now had a new computer hard drive, a new operating system, the ability to order stuff online, and now money in Canada. Despite it being a “bad week”, it actually wasn’t that bad at all and, what’s more, I learned a few things along the way.

A Bad Week Gone Good, Part 2: Another Step into the Chinese Collective

This post is a little late in its formation mainly because this “step into the Chinese Collective” actually began a few months ago, but I can say it made my life easier when I had my computer break down.

If there’s a phrase that makes me simply smile, nod and walk away from anybody here in China, it’s, “you should buy it online. It’s cheaper.” This is true, “it” is often cheaper online, whatever “it” may be. But what they and so many Chinese people don’t appreciate is their language: they’ve had a lifetime of learning the Chinese characters while I’ve only had 2.5 years. As a result, I still can’t read Hanzi to save my life. All that is to say is that all of those “cheap” products sold online through outlets such as or all require something that I don’t currently possess: the ability to read Chinese.

However, that’s only the first part of the process of ordering stuff online. I mean, I could randomly press buttons and just order it, but entering the address is another complication. Luckily, at 2.5 years I am able to say/write my address in Chinese within a quarter tone of correctness so I’m not completely lost. To add to that point, I’m only able to order stuff if I actually know what I want in Chinese. For instance, “hard drive” was pretty easy to find and navigate through, but something like “burr coffee grinder” is a little bit more difficult. And that’s to say nothing of being able to tell the real products from the fake. However, the big however, was actually getting to the point of being able to order stuff online.

I’ve written about (, the Chinese version of Amazon) and WeChat before and have praised their English and how they make my life easier here in China. I should add, however, that nobody knows what “Amazon” is, it’s ya-mah-shuen (亚马逊) in Chinese. Nor is WeChat “WeChat”, it’s Wei-sheen (微信), but these are minor points at best. Amazon was great for me because not only does it deliver within hours (not like in the Canadian prairies where you have to wait 9 days to get your order) but it also accepted COD, cash on delivery. I used this for a long time because it meant I could side step the small issue about not having the ability to pay online (which I’ll get to in a moment).

Brilliance. Familiar format and it even has an “In English” link!

But many of my students and many other Chinese nationals don’t use Amazon nor do they use actual cash money, so they often looked at me in bewilderment when I said I paid in cash as if I was using some sort of foreign currency. Instead, they all use one of two digital payment methods: WeChat Wallet or Alipay.

So many possibilities. So much convenience. Now if I could only add my bank card life would be easier.

In China, WeChat and Alipay are the two dominant payment methods, both of which make life easier in big cities such as Beijing. And, although setting up WeChat Wallet and Alipay are relatively easy steps to complete, it still took me two years to figure out how to do it. Two years? Steve, how slow are you?! In retrospect I probably should’ve been able to figure this out earlier but there were some things working against me that I didn’t completely understand. It is with that I give my first piece of advice to new foreigners to China (and to any country):


I’m not kidding about this. Better yet, maybe have them help you open a WeChat Wallet account right then and there as it will make your life a lot easier.

The reason for the above warning is the small but funnily understandable problem that, well, just as I wouldn’t be able to tell Chinese family names from given names without some sort of cultural awareness, neither can bank tellers interpret foreign family and given names without some sort of cultural introduction. Suffice it to say, the aggravatingly small point about me needing to use Amazon for its COD purposes and not opening a WeChat Wallet account, or Alipay or whatever is simply because I couldn’t figure out the order and format of my name according to my Chinese bank.

And I asked! I asked the bank, what is the name on the account, what is the phone number and they gave me all the answers I requested but what I should’ve been asking is: how did you write my name on the account? Suffice it to say, the name on the account was similar but just different enough to my passport to prevent me from guessing what it could EASILY be. I’ll let you Google “how to open a WeChat Wallet account” to find out the numerous ways that they can misspell foreigners’ names here in China. But again, I will write it again, FIND OUT WHAT YOUR BANKING INFORMATION IS THE DAY YOU OPEN YOUR ACCOUNT AND WRITE IT DOWN EXACTLY AS IT APPEARS IN THEIR SYSTEM.

The moment I had finally figured out how they had ordered and spelled my name, I had a brief “Ah ha. Yea… that’s funny” moment.

In any event, that was a long step one. Now, with the power of a WeChat Wallet account and Alipay, I could now buy all that cheap stuff online.

Convenience at the touch of a button... if only I had the ability to pay what I order.
Freedom and convenience.

Well, almost. There is one more problem with buying stuff online. As you might recall, I have only been studying Chinese half-heartedly for about 2.5 years. Enough to impress girls at the bar but not enough to navigate websites without the “English” option. Basically, to get cheap stuff online in China you need to to be able to read some Chinese or at least know how to navigate a website without becoming overwhelmed by the fact you don’t know what it actually says.

It's almost enough to make your eyes bleed but luckily there are pictures. Now to search for something...
It’s almost enough to make your eyes bleed but, luckily, there are pictures. Now to search for something…

And this is where technology, although testing my patience, also helped me quite a bit.

I truly think WeChat is one of China’s great modern innovations and will someday take its place alongside the printing press or the compass or the other few things they are credited with inventing. The other great piece of technology developed in China for Chinese people is Baidu’s translator, simply called “Fanyi” (翻译) or “Translator”. This is the modern wrench, this is the modern tool that helps me navigate websites in Chinese. It is a beautiful thing, to be able to take a picture and translate some word or words, and that’s exactly what I do whenever I need to use a Chinese website.

Granted, it does require me to take a screenshot, open the picture in Baidu’s translation app, highlight, wait for the translation, and then navigate back to the website which hopefully hasn’t closed due to my phones’ small memory capacity, but it does the job.

Armed now with the power of paying with WeChat Wallet or Alipay and a translator that can help me through the toughest of Chinese websites, I can now simply “buy it online where it’s cheaper.” And that will bring me to the third problem I encountered in this rather long week: sending money home.

(I haven’t mentioned the problem of ordering food online. Although I can use Baidu Translate to help me through a website, speaking with a lost food delivery driver is another issue altogether. And since my guesthouse lacks someone who speaks both English and Chinese (not to mention I don’t want the hassle), it’s always a bit nerve-racking to have food delivered.)

A Bad Week Gone Good, Part 1: The Computer Breakdown

To say the last couple of weeks were a challenge is to understate the little bit of anxiety that has crept up in the morning with full knowledge that as soon as I got up it would be go go go. There was one week in particular that was not very good but not entirely bad either. This here is part 1 of that week’s episodes.

Disk0s2 is not an error you want to see. You don’t see it, mind you, until you run your fsck -ly command and that’s only after you actually find out how to get your Macbook to do any of that (restart computer, hold Alt / Option key, type in fsck -ly). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not alone. I was like you until about a week ago when my computer’s hard drive finally gave up it’s ghost.

There were signs that things were going wrong for quite some time. I was never sure when it would happen but  sometimes it would happen at the most inopportune times, such as just before class, and so I’d give it the holy shake down of curses.  No matter my cursing nor threats to send it out the window, whether it was a copying error or a crash or that little pinwheel just spinning spinning spinning, the computer always seemed to recover after a reboot. This time… it didn’t.

They say unless it’s broke, don’t fix it, but in the age of computers we must amend that statement to something along the lines of “just remember to back it up.” Luckily I’m not a 20 year old newb to computer break downs and have several backups so, at worst, I lose a month or so of work. Moreover, unlike when I was in university in the early 2000s, technology has advanced to the point where it’s easy to ask someone else what could be wrong either in person or, better yet, online. As long as you have another device (such as a cell phone) and an internet connection, you may use Mother Internet to ask Uncle Google what is wrong with your computer. Finally, hard drives are relatively cheap and easy to use so backing up isn’t all that difficult, you just have to remember to do it. Anyway, I do have several backups in various locations mostly offline but online as well. All that being said, the damage and fallout from this hard drive failure wasn’t as bad as previous experiences though, to be sure, it’s not something I want to go through very often.

So I queried Uncle Google and started trying to understand what I should do. My computer would start but it wouldn’t get past the intrdocutory gray screen. The solution is to restart the computer and hold down the Alt/Option key so you can enter some user special mode. There you can run a few disk checks one of is the fsck -ly command, which I read as “FUCK” before I thought maybe it was the computer people’s joke for “fucking sickly [computer]”. (It actually stands for “File System (Consistency) Check”.) So I got that going and let that run. The read out from the computer said it might take a while, maybe 30 minutes, so I set about doing other things while (I hoped) my computer fixed itself. But after about 45 minutes I started to think maybe something was actually really wrong with my computer.

The nearest Apple store is quite a ways away and I already knew what they say: the drive is gone, you have to replace it. Not only would an Apple HDD be expensive, but I would need a new OS on it too. I have lots of old programs on here and didn’t want to upgrade my OS because I knew that I would then have to upgrade all of my programs. So a trip to the Apple Genius Bar was something I was trying to avoid. Despite my best efforts to cajole, console, and threaten my computer back to life, nothing worked.

And so that’s when I messaged the one person I know who deals with this stuff…. my brother.

“Make an Ubuntu boot USB with another computer? [Or] Maybe just leave it off for a while. Not a good sign for the hard drive though.”

Comforting words. WTF is Ubuntu, how do I create a bootable, and why do so many tech guys say “just leave it off for a while”?

“Use Lili to make a USB.”

As an English teacher I have many “Lilly’s” in my classes as it is a popular name for Chinese girls right now. But anyway, where do I get Lili from?


Of course. Now, my only access to Mother Internet is through my phone which has also been causing me some heart ache lately as it refuses to load some webpages. Now I needed to download some USB creator and Ubuntu, which turns out to be 1.09GBs.

My brother also suggested that I could freeze the drive. I was immediately suspicious of this method because freezing requires cold and when that cold thing comes back into room temperature, water droplets form, and water droplets on electrical components sound like a bad mixture. When I told him my concerns he agreed, it had never worked for any drive that he had tried it on. So I thought it best to scrap that idea. Things were not looking good and it looked as though the drive was done for; upgrading would be inevitable.

Anyway, I’ve never used Ubuntu before so this would be a new experience. To me, Ubuntu (a type of Linux operating system, which is just another type of operating system like Windows or Mac OS, but free) belongs in the realm of Matrix-y computer programming nerd stuff that I failed at in high school. To use Ubuntu, I thought, one needs special programming skills and a complex understanding of C++ or Unix systems that allow you to communicate with the brain of the computer.

Well, that’s not Ubuntu. After downloading the requisite programs (Lili USB Creator and the latest Ubuntu LTS (“long term support”, which means that the program is stable and working and people are actively fixing any issues with it)), I created my first ever bootable USB. Surprisingly, Ubuntu turned out to be a very clean and elegant operating system. Colourful, even. Plugging in my dead hard drive I was able to recover quite a few of my files and move them onto an external disk. So job number #1 was done: files were mostly recovered.

But the second problem was to get a new laptop hard drive and Mac OS. Although I could remain part of the elite and use Ubuntu 16.10 Yakkity Yak (that’s the name of this version of the operating system), I know I am a normal person and want a normal OS, such as Mac OS that runs real programs, not just open source programs. But I could go no further on my own. I needed outside help that was physically here in China.

It’s one thing to have your computer breakdown, it’s another thing to have it break down in a country where you don’t speak the language. Don’t underestimate this fear. All I needed was a downloaded copy of Mac OS 10.whatever to get my computer going and then I could figure out the rest. It was with this in mind that I slowly walked over to the tech guy’s store, silently praying that there would be no one else in the store to witness my butchery of the Chinese language.

The tech guy on campus knew I was having problems with my computer because I had gone to him earlier to use one of those tiny screwdrivers to remove my hard drive (when I was thinking about freezing it) so it was no surprise that I came back asking for a Mac OS install disk. Now, he kept asking if it was iOS and I said no, Macbook. Pro? he asks. Nope. 2008. Just a Macbook. 二零零八年苹果电脑 / er ling ling ba nian ping guo dian nao Macbook. “2008 Apple computer Macbook.”

He was confused, as if he wondered why anyone would have such an old system.

This is all in Chinese, by the way, and in Chinese, it helps to spell it out: M-A-C O-S. Ping guo dian nao, em-ay-see, oh-ess. And then I asked “how much” in English giving the universal sign of money.

This is when the one other person in the store finally perked their head up.


A former student. Shit. A witness to my terrible Chinese. Luckily she’s distracted by WeChat or Candy Crush or whatever so she couldn’t record any of it. I smiled and said hi.

“No money,” he says in heavily accented English. “Baidu!”

Oh, the glories of China and Mother Internet. To be fair, OS 10.9 “Mavericks” is the latest free release of the Mac OS. The newer ones you have to pay for, I think.

I guess he assumed I would be back because I never asked him to download it but when I returned the next day, he already had the bootable USB ready.

In the meantime, I had to get a new hard drive which meant shopping around online and ordering one… in Chinese. This is another new experience for me and one that I will write about next. Suffice it to say, I managed to order a new hard drive and it would be delivered the next day (the glories of living in Beijing!)

In the end, the tech guy plugged in the USB and then, seeing that my computer was all in English, soon handed controls over to me to complete the install. An hour later Mavericks was installed and I had my computer up and running again. He charged me 80RMB (~$15.26CAD) for his time and effort, which I gladly handed over to him, and now it was time to copy the old files over and re-install the programs I had on the other drive.

Goal complete. Computer mostly saved. Lessons learned. New OS experience. I learned a new Chinese word 系统 xi tong which means “operating system” in Chinese. And I would even learn how to order stuff online, which was quite an experience not only because is much of it in Chinese, but because it’s something my students talk about all the time yet I remain the old fuddy-duddy who prefers to buy in person with cash. But that story will have to wait until next time when I explain a bit more about how I am becoming a bit more a part of the Great Chinese Collective.