Arriving at Shanghai Pudong Airport

Before the plane landed at Shanghai Pudong International airport, we were all instructed to stay in our seats after we arrived at the gate. The ground crew would tell us when to deplane and in what order. We had to keep our customs health QR code ready for inspection. That was the code we got at the airport by filling out the http://health.customsapp.com/ form, not the health code that we got from the consulate. This wouldn’t be the last form I had to fill out or the last QR code I’d receive that day.

Not too long after we arrived at the gate, business class was told to deplane. I picked up my roller bag & backpack and exited the plane as you normally do. The folks at the gate were all in full PPE suits and didn’t really care about the QR code that was on my phone. My first impression was that this was more for show, but I was very wrong about that.

Walking through the terminal I noticed how quiet things were. Typically, the Shanghai airport is buzzing with people but not this time. At the end of the terminal, we arrived at a check point where you had to scan your QR code. You were then directed to a long row of small desks (mine was 31) where folks interviewed you about your health form. Of course, all the airport employees were in full PPE the whole time. Suit, masks, face guard, the works.

During the interview they asked to see my vaccination record and also my tests records. I only had electronic copies of the test documents, so I had to show them on my computer, but they were ok with that. Apparently, in my confusion at the airport I had selected that I had not received the tests. I was surprised I did that, and I could have sworn I selected the right answers. Perhaps it was reset when I was dealing with fixing the Chinese error messages, so make sure you check the form before you hit submit. It wasn’t a big deal though; the official fixed the answers for me.

The next step was to get a COVID test, the nasal swap version. Walking to the testing center was challenging with my heavy luggage. You had to descend many stairs along the way. At the testing center I was again assigned one of the many booths and there a nurse in full PPE stuck a nasal swap far up my nostril. She pulled it out, looked at the swap, wasn’t quite content with what she had collected, and up again it went. I had to control the urge not to sneeze right into her face. She also took two throat swaps and then sent me on my way.

Following the same path up, this time with working escalators, I went on to immigration. Before I arrived at immigration there was another check to make sure you didn’t skip your COVID test. After that they let me into the immigration area. Immigration was very quiet unlike my previous arrivals in China where its typically a madhouse, and I passed without trouble. The immigration officer did want to know my Chinese phone number which was a first for me.

By the time I got to the luggage carousel my bag was already there. I picked it up and walked through the nothing to declare customs lane, scanned my bags, and I was surprised how smooth this all went. Less than an hour. Normally I do it within 30 minutes with my APEC pass, but given the circumstances an hour wasn’t bad at all.

The next step was to find my quarantine hotel. There is a common misconception that the government will assign you to a random hotel and that you have no choice in the matter. That is true if you didn’t select a hotel before your trip, but there is an option to select a hotel. I wasn’t aware of this either until a week before my departure when someone told me about it. I immediately asked my company’s China team, and they were able to book me into a 5-star quarantine hotel. The impression I got is that the government contracted a set of 1–5-star hotels that are retrofitted to handle quarantined travelers. Among this set you can preselect your quarantine hotel.

I got the hotel instructions from a colleague over WeChat, but they weren’t very precise. Follow to signs to Shanghai and find “Yangpu District/浦区” help desk. The staff at the help desk will lead you to the shuttle for Wyndham hotel. Before I even saw a sign to Shanghai, I ran into another check point and you guessed it, I had to fill out another online form. Mind you, all these forms have the same information in them: Name, ID type, ID number, contact info in china, nationality, etc. Each one of them is from a different authority. It would be nice if they’d integrated their systems.  Once I submitted the form I got another QR code, and I could proceed.

Another checkpoint and another form to fill out.

Further down the hallway I did find the signs pointing to Shanghai and eventually I found the helpdesk. The police officer behind the desk spoke very little English which was a bit problematic later on. At this point though she asked for my passport and QR code. She was processing this for minutes and I got a bit worried that I would end up at a different place. I tried to ask her what was going on and all she said in heavily Chinese accented English: “I know who you are”. That sounded sinister enough to me, and I decided to call my Chinese colleague to help with the translation. It turned out I was already in the system and all I had to do was sit on the bench and wait for the shuttle to show up. It was going to arrive soon. At this point it was 8:30pm.

Waiting for the bus to my quarantine hotel.

Two more people joined that needed to go to different hotels but that were on the same shuttle route as my hotel. Still no shuttle though. At 9pm I asked the police officer when the shuttle was coming, and I got the answer between 10-11pm. I sighed and returned to my seat and waited for an hour while WeChatting and IMing folks around the world that I had arrived in Shanghai. At 10pm, no bus. At 11pm still no bus. I asked the official again. The bus was now coming at midnight. You guessed it, at midnight no bus. Around 12:30am, the two other travelers and I were getting restless and started to complain. At that point they told us, the bus is coming and we will take you downstairs. Before they could do that, they had to scan our QR codes again and then we waited for the bus to arrive. Another 25 minutes or so. 

Finally on the bus to the quarantine hotel. Just my luck, I was the last stop.

It turned out that they were waiting for another delayed flight to come in so that they could pick up those passengers as well. All in all, I was dropped off at my hotel around 2:30am on Sunday morning. A friend of mine on the same flight, who had a hotel assigned to him by the government, and left much earlier than I did, told me the next day that the wait was well worth it after I sent him some pictures of my hotel.

The arrival at the hotel was surreal. I was led into the poorly lit back service entrance next to the freight elevator. Remember, everyone is still in full PPE. There they asked me to pay 80元 for a COVID test. I’m still not sure which one but I think it was the one at the airport. To pay this fee they just pointed to a WeChat QR code. I told you WeChat was indispensable here. Once I paid the fee, they pointed me to another QR code and that was their contact information on WeChat. Any request I had, for the room, medical issues, etc. they all needed to be asked through WeChat. They then made me sign a form that I promised that I will pay the 7000元 at the end of my stay. With that out of the way I was given the room number, 1903, and an access card and I was pointed towards the service elevator. I went up by myself, found my room, quickly unpacked some basic things and around 3am I was asleep. This had been a long day.

The trip to Shanghai

The trip to Shanghai started on Wednesday Cinqo de Mayo (May 5th) from Austin. It’s a cumbersome trip because China requires you to take two COVID19 tests. Both the PCR (nasal swap) and antibody (blood serum) test. Both need to be taken at the port of departure within 48-hours of your flight leaving at a Chinese consulate approved testing facility. In my case that was the Bay Area because I was flying out of San Francisco, one of the few places with semi-direct flights between the USA and China.

I had registered with Apostle Diagnostics in San Jose well in advance to do my tests there at 9am on Thursday. I stayed in a hotel nearby and I showed up promptly at 8:30am as suggested in their instructions. I was one of the first ones and as it got closer to 9am more folks started to queue up. These were all people getting ready to travel to China and as you can expect most of them were Chinese and speaking Mandarin. I only spotted one other Caucasian looking individual. Apparently only the two of us were crazy to go through this.

I had signed up for the rtPCR+IgM (targeting the N protein) tests because I had been vaccinated with Moderna vaccine months earlier. The rtPCR test is the regular nasal swap test and the IgM test requires a blood (serum) sample. It turns out that the standard serum test (S protein) can have false positives when you’ve had the Pfizer/Moderna/Johnson&Johnson vaccine, and the special serum test (M protein) does not. Interestingly, when I got the test results back, they performed all three tests (rtPCR, IgM-S, and IgM-M) and they all came back negative.

The tests itself were streamlined. As soon as they had checked your paperwork (make sure you have everything printed or ready on your phone) you started the process of double checking your information, get the nasal swap, and take a blood sample. During the blood test they asked me whether I wanted to have a proof picture. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant by that but apparently its used to show the consulate that you have taken the test at a certified lab. In cases like this I just say yes and go with the flow. I also got a form to fill out that was basically a self-signed attestation that the vaccine form I had was real and not forged. I guess that has become a problem now too: falsified vaccination forms.

Proof that I took the COVID19 tests.

With all the tests done I went back to my hotel room and worked while I waited for the results to come in. It’s a same day test but the lab guarantee is before midnight and usually the result return between 6-8pm. This had me a bit on edge because the consulate stops approving these tests by 10pm and starts again at 9am. My flight was at 10:55am the next day so that was pretty tight. If I had to do it all over again, I would cut it less short and do the test on Wednesday afternoon. 

I got the test results just after 6pm and immediately submitted them onto the consulate’s website, https://hrhk.cs.mfa.gov.cn/H5/ (notice the trailing / its important), including the authentication picture and the certificate that I swore I had gotten the vaccine. Someone warned me that the website was picky about file sizes and I noticed that it didn’t accept the labs results pdf. So, I converted everything to jpeg files and compressed the heck out of them. With everything submitted I received the green code I needed to board the flight after 1.5hr which felt like ages to me.

My green health code.

The next morning, I showed up early at SFO with the expectation that I was fully set. Nope, there was yet another form I had to fill out online at http://health.customsapp.com/. This website is in English/Chinese with the error messages in Chinese. The United Airlines person at the check-in counter, who was already grumpy, was not happy with me that it took me so long to fill out the form. She started servicing other folks while I was working on it. The website rendering didn’t work too well on my iphone so it took me a while to work around its quirks. Eventually I got the customs QR code and then my boarding pass. Do make sure to take screenshots of all these passes and QR codes. Folks ask for them everywhere.

The San Francisco airport was pretty busy but despite that United Airlines had closed its Polaris club and most other clubs. The AMEX lounge was open, so I hung out there instead. Boarding the flight was easy but then there was a maintenance issue that caused us all to deplane and get on another plane that left 3.5hrs later. Sigh! The flight itself was surprisingly full but uneventful. As expected, we all had to wear masks the whole time. We did make a short stop to change the crew in south Korea. I wonder whether that was because the crew can’t stay in China without going through a 14-day quarantine either. By flying from Korea, and never leave the airplane, they can get back and forth on the same day.

15 hours to Shanghai

Saturday, around 7:30pm I arrived, 2:30hrs later than planned, at Shanghai Pudong airport. It had been a long day but it would get even longer.

Wechat and Alipay

WeChat and Alipay are indispensable phone apps here in China. You use it for everything. To pay, to order food, to order taxis, to instant message, to tracking your health, social media, etc. It’s an integrated platform that is pervasive throughout the country. China is effectively a cashless society, and all its payments are done through WeChat and Alipay.

I realized this 6 years ago when I paid for lunch with cash. At first, they didn’t want to accept cash until I told them that was all I had. You have to keep in mind that China has a closed banking system and non-Chinese credit cards are not accepted. It took the waiter 20min to come back with change. He and his colleagues were clearly running around the mall looking for change and they finally found it. This made me realize that I had to get my own WeChat and/or Alipay account if I wanted to be independent in China.

During the preparation for my next trip to China, somewhere in 2016, I mentioned this incident to a Chinese colleague of mine who was going to accompany me. She laughed about my story and told me that during the upcoming trip she would help me get a Chinese bank account and that would get the ball rolling. 

During the next trip we did just that. We had blocked a morning to accomplish this. She had figured out the process: first get a permanent Chinese phone number, then open a bank account. The phone shop and bank were right next to each other, so this was going to be easy … I thought.

Getting a Chinese phone number was straight forward. She got me a plan that was 18元 per month, that’s about $2.80. It gets me free receiving SMS messages, free receiving calls, 100Mb of data, etc. This was fine for me because I tend to use my T-mobile Global plus plan when I’m travelling. The Chinese phone number was mostly used to authenticate myself. Paying for the SIM was a bit of challenge, this is done through WeChat or Alipay, but they accepted cash and I put 100元 on the account just to be safe.

The next stop was the bank. This is a little bit trickier because China has regional banks that are only accepted in specific regions like Beijing, but she had selected the Bank of Communications for me which is an international bank that is accepted everywhere in China. The bank even had English text in their window advertisements, so that looked promising.

Well, it turns out that I was the first foreigner to open a bank account in the last 12 months at that branch. The poor teller immediately got attention from her manager, his manager and 2 other folks whom I didn’t quite understand what their job was but they too were busy looking at all the paperwork. I started with filling out the forms. I had to do this twice because I hadn’t filled out my name correctly. I typically don’t use my second name but when they checked my passport, they got all excited and I had to do it again.

I then had to fill out my US tax information because the US forces every bank in the world who has US citizens as clients to report their bank accounts to the IRS. I tend to keep only a small amount on this account, much less than $10,000, so I don’t have to file a yearly FBAR for it.

Then came the kicker, and keep in mind at this point I had been filling out forms for over an hour. They asked me where my permanent resident status was. I didn’t have that because I was on business travel. They told me that I couldn’t open an account unless I was a permanent resident, or it was for business. I told them that it was for business and that I was on business travel. That’s when they asked me to prove it.

When I asked my colleague what to bring for opening the bank account her response was just your passport. I figured that can’t be enough so I asked a local friend if I could use his physical address (yes, we needed that information) and I brought my APEC card. APEC is an Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation and one of the things they do is issue id cards to business travelers. The main benefit to me is that it provides me VIP access in most countries in Asia and the Pacific rim so that I can run through immigration in no time. It’s a government issued id, the same one that issues global entry in the US, and I figured you cannot have enough identification on you while opening a new bank account.

So, when they asked me for proof, I showed them my APEC card which clearly states: “Business Travel” and looks like an official Chinese ID card. That did the trick. All 5 folks, and if I remember correctly there were more at this point, looked at the card, studied it, and they all agreed that I was opening the account for business purposes.

With that out of the way, I immediately got a bank card, I was able to deposit money on the account, and I setup my WeChat and AliPay accounts. Afterwards, I took my colleague for coffee to make sure it all worked.

Nowadays WeChat and Alipay have made it easier for foreigners to add western credit cards. It’s not exactly the same as having a local bank account but its close.

Getting a Visa

The first step of getting to China was to get a valid visa. I already had a 10-year multi-entry visa but that was only valid for 60-days at a time and on top of that China had revoked all outstanding visas in 2020 because of COVID. Fortunately, the Microsoft China visa office was there to help me although they were very confused about the whole situation. Their first suggestion was to get a PU-letter but then they concluded that it wouldn’t last long enough. Their next suggestion was to get an R-visa which allowed a 180-day stay but was harder to get.

In case you are wondering, I didn’t want to go for the full expat arrangement for just a few months trip. That would have required me to move companies, China is a different legal entity, and make my tax situation even more complicated than it already is. 

I had never heard about an R-visa before, so I started investigating it. An R-visa is issued to those who are high-level talents or whose skills are urgently needed in China. The qualification examples I read were of Nobel prize winners and I’m clearly not in that league, but it got me worried enough that I brushed off my CV and used Google scholar to find all my publications and citations. In retrospect that was overkill. All you need for an R-visa is to be a professor at a well known university or an executive at a fortune 500 company. I don’t think they even used my CV in the end, just the form I filled out with my last 3 jobs, companies and titles.

When I had assembled all the information, it took me about 4 weeks, my company’s China visa office had changed their mind. They told me they were going for a PU letter because it was easier. I blew up and asked them why they had just wasted my time. Taken aback, they decided to still file for an R-visa certification letter but told me it was very risky. Right before filing the request, the china team asked me to write an introduction letter to go with my application. They would adapt and translate it for me. As you can imagine, I wrote a glowing recommendation letter about my work and the unique opportunity for MSRA and China to host me. That worked. Three days(!) after filing the request I received the much-coveted R-visa certification letter.

The next step was to apply for the actual visa at a Chinese consulate/embassy in the USA and this is where things got interesting, and I got very lucky. 

The China visa application is not for the faint of heart. Its application is an extensive list of questions about yourself, your spouse, your kids and even your parents. It took me a few hours to fill this out, find all the other requested information (driver’s license copy, passport, credit card authorization, photo of previous visa, actual photo, etc.) and figure out how to send this to the Chinese consulate. You need to send it with USPS priority mail express and include a paid-for self-addressed priority express return envelope as well.

I had sent all of it off on Friday to the Chinese consulate in LA. Relieved I was finally done with the whole process, it had taken many months, I enjoyed the weekend with my family. I was anxiously waiting for my visa to come back. On Monday evening 6pm I noticed that I had two calls from the LA Chinese consulate that I missed because they aren’t listed in my address book. I don’t accept unknown calls. Worried, I called back the number, but I got a fax machine instead. 

Tuesday, I got an email from the LA consulate asking me for proof that I live in their jurisdiction. Jurisdiction? Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that the LA consulate doesn’t service Texas. The consulate that does service Texas is in Houston but that was shutdown months earlier. Apparently I should have sent everything to the Washington DC Embassy. Discouraged that I had to start all over again, I sent an apology email to the LA consulate explaining my confusion and asking them to return my passport so I can reapply.

I didn’t hear anything back from the LA consulate for a week. No email, no call, no returned passport. The next week I went on a business trip to Redmond, WA and halfway through my wife texts me a picture of my passport and the text this should make you happy:  My passport had a 10-year 180-day per visit R-visa stamp in it.

Some of you will probably point out that I should have used a visa service to help me. I tried and called two of them, but they were utterly clueless and had no idea about R-visas and its process.

So, this is how I got the Chinese visa I wanted from the wrong consulate.

Hatching the plan

Why go to China in the middle of a pandemic? That’s the first question people asked me when I told them about my plans to go to China for the summer. 

China has always fascinated me since I first travelled there in 2011 when I was still working for AMD. One of my responsibilities at AMD was to be the executive sponsor for our Fellow and Senior Principal engineering training programs and as a result I had a lot of interaction with our engineers. Obviously, I spent a lot of time with the US/CA engineers but every time I visited India and China, it struck me that these engineers were just as smart and perhaps even more motivated but lacked experience. To me, that was the big difference between US engineers and China engineers.  Of course, experience is just a matter time and interesting projects to work on. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen China develop rapidly to a point where they are leading in more and more technology areas ranging from their traditional strength in manufacturing to very advanced machine learning technologies. 

While I have travelled often to China, probably close to 40-50 times, I have never had the chance to actually live there and experience China up and close. I wanted to change that and during the summer of 2020 I put together a plan to experience that.

I’m fortunate that I work as a technical executive in the Azure, Microsoft organization and that Microsoft has a strong presence in China. Especially, Microsoft has a Research Lab (MSRA) in Beijing that has a rich culture of inviting visitors to collaborate with them.

Career wise, I was at a good point for a disruption. I had been operationalizing a major project that I had incubated and built from the ground up for 5+ years and I needed to revitalize myself, learn new things, and expose myself to new experiences. This is why I didn’t want to wait until COVID19 was over and miss this opportunity.

With that in mind I formulated a plan about spending a couple of months at MSRA, why this was a good thing for my company and myself. I discussed this with my manager and what I expected to be a difficult conversation was the easiest thing in the world. After a brief explanation of what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and what I wanted to accomplish my manager was all in. He even encouraged me to go longer (6 month) than I had originally planned (3 month) because he immediately saw the value of cross pollination. I then reached out to the MSRA lab director who was equally thrilled. That’s why I’m now in a Shanghai quarantine hotel overlooking the downtown Pudong area.

While I won’t go into all the details for the objectives I have for this trip, here is a list of things I’m planning to do these next few months:

  • WfH: Manage my teams back in the US. I can’t shed all my responsibilities back home,
  • Think: How I would build a Cloud infrastructure if I could start from scratch,
  • Learn: MSRA is a hotbed for machine learning, and I’d like to get more hands on with that,
  • Grow: I want to build out my business and technical network in China and get a much better idea of what makes it tick,
  • Language: One of my requirements was a daily Chinese tutor. I want to learn more than just 我要一杯啤酒 (I want one glass of beer).

This blog

Last September I got the idea to spend some time in China. I’ve travelled to China many times before, but I had never actually lived there, and I wanted to experience first-hand how quickly things are changing in that part of the world. Of course, my timing wasn’t optimal. China had effectively shut down its borders because of COVID19 and the rest of the world wasn’t in a much better shape. Still, I forged ahead and as a result I’m now quarantining in Shanghai and I’ll spend the whole summer in Beijing.

While I was preparing for this trip and telling folks about all the hoops I had to get through, a friend of mine suggested that I should start a blog about my experiences. My wife and family immediately latched onto this idea and they’ve been pestering me about it for the last 3+ months.

I’m not much of a blog writer. I once tried to keep a journal as a teenager but got bored with it after a week and never tried it again. So, the idea of keeping a regular blog was kind of daunting to me. Do I have the time, do I have enough entertaining material, should I open the blog for comments and spend hours and hours answering comments? I still don’t have an answer to all of these questions, but I decided to take the plunge and I’ll see where it ends.

Rather than a collection of funny stories, and trust me there will be many of those, I also want to make this blog practical and include links to items I brought, forms I had to fill out that I wasn’t aware of, and lessons learned of what I could have done better. Even though the China immigration situation continues to stay fluid, there is hopefully enough practical information in here in case you want to repeat what I did.