In the Garage

5 Apps Making My Life Easier in China

January 04, 2015 | 12 Minute Read

One major difference between the first time I moved abroad and this time around is having a smartphone. Admittedly, I was a bit slow to jump on the smartphone bandwagon and only got one at the beginning of 2014. My main reason to finally cave was because working at a tech company, my colleagues would laugh mercilessly at my old school Sony Ericsson, but I also wanted a new compact digital camera. I figured I'd just get a phone with a great camera, which is why I decided to get *gasp* the Nokia Lumia 1020, a Windows Phone.

Since getting here to Shanghai, I've really come to appreciate having a Windows Phone because the native apps aren't blocked here. Frankly, I don't get how Android works in China since the majority of Google services are blocked; even Gmail has been blocked via protocol (supposedly it's working again, but I haven't gotten any emails from my Gmail account on my phone for days). Some may argue that there aren't any good WP apps available out there and everything is being developed for iOS and Android. This may be true, but by doing some research and following sites like Windows Central, I've found some great apps that have helped me greatly here in China. Here are five apps that have made adjusting to life here much easier. (Note that I'm not including photo apps here because although they're great to have, these apps are really about adjusting to life here in China.)

Map of Shanghai

1. HERE Maps

I've been using HERE Maps pretty much since I got the phone and knew it was pretty handy when abroad since I can use maps offline if I download them beforehand. While in Budapest, London, and India, this was extremely practical when trying to get around on foot and public transportation. Moreover, it has the metro and bus stations and stops directly on the map.

In Shanghai, this has been helpful because I don't need to use what little data I have on a prepaid plan to find my way around. I've started using location services all the time because I never know where I am. HERE Maps makes it easy to save places and look them up. I appreciate the fact that I can search in pinyin and Chinese characters as well as English versus Chinese address format without having to change any language preferences. For example, I can search by entering "Zhongshan Road, Shanghai" or I can input, "上海市中山路". I can even search by putting in "Zhongshan Lu, Shanghai" and mix the English pinyin and format and still find what I'm looking for.

Also quite handy is having the exits for each metro stop easily visible on the entire map. Here in Shanghai, metro stations can have 20-odd exits and be really enormous, like the People's Square stop. Normally I look up where I'm going and check out the closest exit which makes getting around much easier.

HERE maps HERE maps 2

2. YiXue Chinese Dictionary

I don't know how I found this app, but it's helped me learn written Chinese really easily. It's a straightforward app that allows me to look up words in English, pinyin, and Chinese characters (both traditional and simplified!). This is good because sometimes I know the pinyin and want to know what the character looks like, sometimes I know what the character is but don't know the English meaning or pinyin, or I just know the English and need to know the Chinese, both pinyin and character. Of course, this means I've installed different Chinese input keyboards on my phone too -- the ability to enter pinyin like a regular keyboard and then one that recognizes handwriting. And my phone doesn't care about stroke order like my Chinese teacher would; as long as I get it close enough, it'll give me a list of suggestions that I can choose from.

What's also great about YiXue is that I have the ability to create lists of words. Currently, I've created two lists -- Common Vocabulary, which are words I see all the time when I'm out and about, and Tuttle Vocabulary, which are words I'm learning to write based on this book. The app also has the default list of HSK Level 1 vocabulary, so all the words for the first level official Chinese language test are in one place. Moreover, the lists can be used in study mode, which is like having flashcards, and then different games to test your knowledge. It can test you on Chinese character + pinyin, pinyin + English meaning, etc.

Also what's fantastic for learning the language is that YiXue shows you sentences with the word you've looked up so you can see some context. Anyone who's learned a language knows that context is everything, so being able to see the word in action has given me a better understanding of how to use specific keywords. YiXue even shows you the sentences in simplified and traditional, which again, is super helpful depending on where you are or in my case, when I might know the word in traditional writing but not simplified.

The only thing I would love to have on this app is that the words that I keep forgetting would pop up more frequently or that I could create a separate list from the ones that haven't stuck in my memory. I talked to Christian and I actually couldn't find a similar app for his iPhone. YiXue is definitely the best app helping out with the language barrier and I would recommend it to anyone even just traveling in China. The app is free, but if you pay the $2 to unlock it, you're not limited to only three searches per session, no ads, and a few other things. To be honest, the two bucks is probably the best money I've spent on any app.

YiXue screenshot YiXue screenshot 2

3. BJ Air

Being an expat in China, you learn to accept the idea that leaving the apartment means dealing with the pollution. I don't think Shanghai's pollution is nearly as bad as Beijing's, like how this Handelsblatt article talks about a flight being grounded and not being able to return to the terminal because the smog was so thick. Even so, I've found myself constantly checking the Air Quality Index on my phone so I know when I shouldn't go outside for longer periods of time or if I need to wear a face mask (yes, I've adopted wearing a face mask because the pollution is horrendous compared to Germany or the US).

There are multiple apps out there available, so I'm not necessarily praising BJ Air in particular, but just mentioning how convenient it is to have this information available on my phone. What I like in particular about BJ Air and the Windows Phone is that I don't have to open the app to see the information -- the Live Tile shows me the information directly and is as easy as checking the time. BJ Air is a simple, elegant app that gives me what I need at a glance. It only has the information for Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, so for people in other cities, this app isn't really helpful.

BJ Air screenshot BJ Air screenshot 2

4. Bing Translator

I've actually started using Bing a lot more here in China just because Google is blocked. So when I'm on-the-go, my go-to search engine is Bing since I don't feel like having to turn on my VPN over cellular data (I get the feeling that it's just too slow and that drives me nuts). The Bing Translator app is surprisingly pretty good and even allows me to translate things offline since I downloaded the Chinese-English language pack.

I actually use the Bing Translator most often to translate text messages that I get from China Mobile telling me how much money I owe them or whatever other random messages I get. It's pretty easy to copy + paste text into it, though the translation is frequently imperfect and requires some sort of deciphering (to be fair, Google Translate has its issues as well). I also can get pronunciation when I input the Chinese, which has also been good for learning the language.

What's been a slight disappointment is the camera translator. Unless the Chinese is on a huge sign, for example, holding up my phone and trying to translate small text on packaging in the supermarket has been rather unsuccessful. Considering my camera has 41 megapixels, I would think this wouldn't be an issue, but it seems that the translator app and my camera don't really work very well together. Most of the time, the issue is that the camera can't focus and find the text, so it's actually easier for me to just input the text by entering it via the handwriting keyboard. Even so, the app still has its uses when I'm translating a sentence or more; if I need just one or two words, I'll use YiXue. I haven't tried out the voice translator yet, but I just feel dumb talking to my phone to translate something anyway.

Bing Translator Bing Translator

5. WeChat

I've saved WeChat for last because this is an app that's rather specific to the Chinese market. Here in China, it's known as Weixin 微信, and is a messaging app kind of like WhatsApp. Except that I've described it to my friends as a WhatsApp-meets-Facebook app because it's got a lot more features on it, including video calls. So yes, WeChat has the functionality that you can send your friends messages like any other messaging app on there. One thing I particularly love in WeChat is the stickers, which are basically animated gifs. There's a lot of super cute ones that I use a lot, but it also has the ability to make your own stickers and I've had way too much fun looking for Liz Lemon gifs to use:

WeChat also makes it easy to connect to people, whether sharing a name card within a chat, using QR codes that you can scan to add a contact, or using a radar-type thing to add nearby people. It's also practical for group chats; I'm in a few different groups with 20+ more people that I don't even know and don't need to add them as contacts. These groups are for Middlebury alum, a meet-up group, a NESCAC alum group, etc.

But WeChat is also like Facebook because you can post Moments, which is its equivalent of the Timeline/Newsfeed. You can comment and like things, but my favorite part of it is that only contacts that you and the other person have in common will see whatever activity you put on there. For example, if Christian posted a photo from our vacation and I wrote a comment on it, only our mutual contacts could see my comment. So his coworker that I don't have on WeChat won't see what I wrote, and if Christian and I have a conversation in comments, his coworker won't be bombarded with notifications if they also write something. Essentially, the only person who knows how much activity a specific post got is the person who actually created the post.

Lastly, WeChat is good for following official accounts. For example, I follow the Shanghai Metro, one of the record stores I found here, Buzzfeed, and a few others so that I get updates directly in WeChat. The information I get from them is more personalized; I specifically only wanted cute things from Buzzfeed (I admit it, I'm a sucker for their animal posts), so I actually only get content from them that they've labeled "cute." I recently read this article on TechCrunch about how chat apps are the new form of social media, and frankly, this rings really true when you see WeChat in action.

Essentially, nobody exchanges phone numbers here anymore. The first question when swapping contact information is, "What's your WeChat?" Even all the expats here use it. I only wish that more people outside China would use it because it's got a lot more features than WhatsApp and isn't as annoying as Facebook.

WeChat WeChat

In addition to these five apps, there are others that I'm still figuring out how to use, like Didi Dache (the Chinese version of Uber) and Dianping (the Chinese version of Yelp). These are a little more complicated since they don't have English-language versions, but with Dianping, I've at least figured out how to find restaurants and browse through content. There's also one or two other apps I've been using, but these five were definitely the ones that I've been using on a daily basis and making adjusting to life in China way easier.

And if you're interested in general UI trends in apps here in China, take a look at this well-written article for some great insight.