Bullet screens: you what?

What with the BIG DAY next week, internet restrictions have been tightened up. One thing that I found particularly interesting is that bullet screens on bilibili have been suspended. I then realised that this sentence would make absolutely no sense to anyone outside of China, and that in itself was quite interesting. So let me explain.

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Bilibili is a video-streaming website, a bit like that other famous one, “you” something… yes, Youku (YouTube is, of course, banned here, so there’s Youku, the original fake, plus loads of others).

Bullet screens are basically YouTube comments, but in lurid colours and scrolling across the screen obscuring the video you’re trying to watch, appearing at the exact moment the writer posted it.

Imagine you’re watching an episode of your favourite boxset one evening. It opens with a man staring into the distance. Up pop thousands of characters: ‘wah, so handsome’, ‘who is he?’, ‘what is he looking at?’, ‘handsome brother’. These characters fly across the screen, covering the face of the man and generally being annoying. Behold, bullet screens:Image result for bullet screens china

Originating from Japan, bullet screens, danmu, are essentially just real time comments but I find them so fascinating for a number of reasons:

  1. Surely everyone knows you should NEVER read the comments. And yet, they’re on top of the bloody video!
  2. MY EYES!

Part of the problem (in my opinion) is that the comments are short, and while there are lots of examples of witty or clever comments, there are also a lot of totally inane comments. My brain wants tot think that when people write longer comments, they have to think a bit more about it and so the quality of the comment will be higher, even though this is patently untrue (see: YouTube, the Daily Mail website, most recesses of the internet). I’m just a long form nerd: no paragraphs, footnotes and page numbers = no party.

I asked a friend what he thought the appeal of bullet screens were and he asked why anyone comments on anything – which is a good point. I love shouting away on Twitter but I rarely comment on news articles, videos, etc. I like to passively consume media (probably a little too much) but I don’t think that my comments on it (especially if they amount to “aww, so cute”) merit being published. One might argue that my tweets aren’t exactly scaling literary heights so why do I type those out, and I will tell you that the answer is a heady mixture of boredom and narcissism and there’s nothing much I can do about that.

Thankfully, you can usually switch the comments off on video streaming websites, and even better, there are no comments at all on the pirated DVDs I buy from the shop round the corner.

A big year for anniversaries

There’s a big anniversary coming up in a few day’s time. This year is quite a big year for anniversaries in general: 70 years since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (this will be celebrated with lots and lots of nationalism), 100 year anniversary of the May Fourth movement (the Labor Day public holiday got rearranged to ensure people were busy spending money instead of thinking too much about this one) and 30 years since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident (this is strictly taboo and will be censored in Mainland China, as ever).

Should future generations endlessly muse over the actions of the previous generation? No, but I believe we should acknowledge and learn from the past. We are in a fortunate position in that we can learn from history – other people have done things before so we don’t have to! Many Chinese people do not feel shy about reminding me of the atrocities that my ancestors (ie. the British, never mind that I only just got a British passport) committed but their own country/Party (because great efforts have been made to conflate the two) is always painted as a victim or simply the sole peaceful actor facing aggression from all sides.

Should a mature, confident state accept the entirety of their history, warts and all – or should a country posturing as a world leader teach a bogus mix of fantasy, mythology and history to validate its fantasy of being a benevolent country with “5000 years of history”? The CCP heavily pushes the (false) notion that China has uniquely long history. With the rise of Han supremacism (Han being the majority ethnic group in China), I’ve been told by many people of the eternally peaceful nature of the Han people and the appalling treatment meted out to them by any and all other ethnic groups and nationalities. It’s simply not true, but it’s what is taught as such.

Should the leaders of a country let people make up their own minds about the successes of the regime based on facts – or should a one-sided argument grounded in exceptionalism, deliberate narrow mindedness and fragile egos be the guiding principles in how people think or are told how to think? If a country is really doing so well thanks solely to one single political party, why is domestic bad news suppressed and international bad news broadcast so widely? For example, we hear a lot about American school shootings, so a lot of Chinese people will say “America, so dangerous!”, but when there was a train crash in China a few years ago the cover up was so thorough that they literally buried the train carriages in the ground rather than get the bodies out.

In Hong Kong and Taiwan, 4th June will be marked and remembered. I read a Hong Kong based newspaper pretty regularly and I’m always shocked at the number of comments on articles about Tiananmen (and naturally there are quite a few at the moment) from Mainland or pro-Mainland voices saying it’s boring to go on about this, that the democracy movement was an American plant and that we should talk more about Western war crimes. I mean, sure, we should absolutely talk about war crimes, because they’re appalling – but the fact is that we can, and we do, whereas in Mainland China there can be no discussion of the events of 1989.

Is it sustainable or ethical to refuse to allow critical thinking? Can rampant nationalism end up in anything other than conflict? I wish I felt more confident about the state of the nation, but in the light of the trade war, the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, the increasing online censorship and the overwhelming ignorance/apathy towards politics by the general populace, I find it very hard to be anything other than overwhelmingly pessimistic.

As we go into next week, I expect my VPN not to work. If I post anything on WeChat, I expect it to be censored. In Beijing, some metro stations will be closed “for maintenance”. Dissidents will be temporarily relocated out of the cities. 99% of the population will consider it a normal day: online shopping, watching videos on their mobiles, taking and posting selfies. Another day in consumerist China, where freedom was exchanged for online shopping festivals.

Kuala Lumpur weekend

Back in April I went to Kuala Lumpur. I’ve always had this thing about KL: a uni friend had family from there; they had a Grand Prix even back in the day when I was really into Formula 1; and I dated a guy from Singapore for a couple of months when I was 23 and he was really anti-Malaysia, and I’m petty like that.

My flight was at 6am (it’s a five hour flight, so I wanted to go as early as possible) and I packed the day before, which meant I could get drunk, go to the cinema and sing along to (the edited) Bohemian Rhapsody (much to the annoyance of the lady sitting next to me), then stumble home and sleep on the sofa for three hours. At 3am I got up, got dressed (including grabbing my coat – more on this later), called a taxi and slept all the way to the airport. I was a little hungover but felt fine until I was in line for the baggage check and passed out, coming to with a security guard offering me a mint polo. It was very embarrassing but they looked after me (though my bag had to be scanned a second time, as I’d forgotten about my power bank).

I snoozed all the way to KL, and was somehow the first off the plane. I legged it to the bathroom before everyone else got there, and freshened up a bit. Once in the city, I tried to take the metro but got on a suburban train going in the wrong direction and ended up in the middle of nowhere and missed the twice-hourly train going back to where I’d come from. I left the station and went to another station next door (confusing) but the lady there refused to sell me a ticket as she said I had to use the machines – but I didn’t know where to go to. I stalked off, bought some crisps, asked someone else for help, bought a ticket and was soon back in the city centre. I found myself almost immediately in Chinatown and enjoyed wandering about and particularly enjoyed a vintage store where everything was less than a pound (I had to remind myself I only had hand luggage… but still bought three dresses).IMG_20190405_162445_822

I was quite hungry, and HOT, because I had my sheep-like coat with me. Yes, the coat I took to Seoul in January, the coat I took to the UK in February – somehow I had decided that this coat was appropriate for 30+ degree, tropical Malaysia. I went to a cafe with lovely air conditioning and stuffed my face with curry and cake (separately). I thought I spotted a girl I used to work with but decided that would be ridiculous and chastised myself for thinking that all Chinese people look the same.

As soon as I left the cafe it started to rain, and by the time I made it to my hotel I was slightly damp. It soon stopped and I went up to the rooftop to check out the view.IMG_20190405_190450_160

I checked my WeChat Moments and saw that my old colleague was in KL, the one I thought I’d seen earlier. I messaged her to say I was in town too, and she replied saying she thought she’d seen me but had assumed it couldn’t be me. Small world!

I set off for the Twin Towers, and got slightly lost (and waylaid in Marks & Spencer). Outside the Twin Towers was small lake with dancing fountains.

I meandered back towards my hotel, had a pedicure, then bought a falafel and ate it in bed while watching Jurassic Park on TV. Solo travelling is brilliant!

The next morning I woke up feeling strange. I hadn’t slept more than five hours a night for the previous few weeks but had managed a full night’s sleep. I felt… refreshed! I made some tea and danced about my room for a bit, before heading up to the roof to do some work.IMG_20190406_124354_291

Once the work was finally done, I headed for Masjid Jamek, a mosque, near Merdeka Square. Although the mosque was just off a busy road, it was a peaceful enclave and I enjoyed reading the boards explaining the history of the area, people watching and (of course) drinking kopi, Malaysian iced coffee. I walked along the river for a while, enjoying the architecture.IMG_20190406_191747_221

From here I walked to the National Mosque. I wasn’t allowed in, which meant I couldn’t see the building very close up, but it was still interesting.IMG_20190407_160253_681

Next I went to the Museum of Islamic Art. This was brilliant. From the moment I walked in, greeted by friendly staff (living in China has acclimatised me to terrible service, so I spent most of my time in Malaysia being astounded at how nice people were), to the building itself, the well curated displays, the range of objects on display (fabrics, books, pictures, maps, etc)… it was an extremely enjoyable visit and I’d recommend the museum to anyone with even the smallest interest in art, Islamic or otherwise.IMG_20190406_202717_439

I walked over to Chinatown and went to a restaurant recommended by a friend, then to the Central Market. An awesome thunderstorm started up, and at first it was “just” deafening thunder, but before long it was raining heavily and I got so soaked on the way back to my hotel that I had to strip off the moment I stepped into my room.

I lay on the bed eating M&S snacks, watching youtube videos (yay, unblocked internet) and checking out Tinder. I matched with a guy and we agreed to meet for a drink later, so I carried on watching youtube and ate more snacks. Finally I felt bad about all the snacks, so I went to the gym, where I jogged on the treadmill looking out at the stormy sky.

Tinder is funny. If someone matched with me and they were only in my city for one day, I wouldn’t bother to meet up with them. But I was glad that we met up, as we had a great time drinking (inauthentic) pisco sours and then eating (very authentic) Malay food in a preserved part of town.IMG_20190407_022325_489

The next day I had thought about going to Batu Caves, but the logistics seemed rushed and I was mindful of the fact that I would have checked out of my hotel and so would have my very hot coat with me again. Instead I walked over to a temple near the Twin Towers (of course, picking up a milk tea on the way) and after being accosted by the man outside who was keen to explain something (but I couldn’t work out what) to me, I spent a peaceful half hour listening to the sermon (a female monk double act, both reading from MacBooks).

Next I went to two more temples: one a Hindu temple, and the other (100 metres up the road) a Chinese temple.IMG_20190408_215030_183IMG_20190407_144236_304IMG_20190409_083150_266

Finally I went to a vegetarian restaurant for lunch before taking the train to the airport. The airport was a bit of a disaster. I printed my ticket from the machine, but had to get my documents verified at a desk, which wasn’t apparent until I tried to enter security. I then got in the queue for passport control, and I began to get worried about missing my flight when I was still in the queue 45 minutes later. Eventually I got to the front, and of course, the immigration officer was friendly and polite (like everyone – so refreshing). The bag check was thankfully very quick, and I headed for the gate, which of course was far away, so I walked quickly. But then – what’s this? Another bag check?! I pushed my way to the front, waving my boarding pass, and ran through the terminal to my gate, making it just at the time the gate was advertised to close. Luckily almost everyone on the plane had a similar issue, but it seemed crazy that I’d arrived at the airport more than two hours before my flight and had still nearly missed it. I was relieved to finally sit down and gaze out the window at, first, a rainbow, and then, a sunset.

Arriving back at Pudong was as awful as it always is, and I got home late. The only good thing was that I finally had a use for my coat when I cycled home from the bus stop.

In hindsight, book-ending the weekend with five hour flights was slightly insane, but I had such an excellent time so my only regret for the weekend was taking my coat with me.

Notre Dame and social media

As China is six hours ahead of France, I didn’t find out about the fire at Notre Dame until I woke up on Tuesday morning. By the time I got to work, my WeChat Moments had lots of posts about the fire. WeChat Moments, or 朋友圈  (friends circle) in Chinese, is where you can post pictures, comments and links for all your WeChat friends to see. A Parisian friend posted the view from her childhood bedroom window, with Notre Dame in the background. Chinese friends posted pictures of themselves outside Notre Dame on their holidays or while studying abroad in Europe.

I started to feel slightly weird about these photos. The fire wasn’t even out and already there was  a heady mix of grief tourism and wealth flaunting. “Look how well-travelled and cultured I am! Check out the international education my parents paid for! Behold my appreciation of foreign architecture!” Making a fire in a church the other side of the world all about you and your selfies seemed, to me, to be a very Chinese millennial response.

My friends were unanimous about how sad it was that it was in flames. There were lots of references to its age, its importance, its beauty and why we need to preserve cultural icons like this. I knew it was wrong to judge my friends but I couldn’t help thinking about all the cultural icons they didn’t care about. China is proud of its long history (find me a foreigner in China who hasn’t been told about China’s 5000 years of history…) but there aren’t as many old buildings in China as there should be, due to wars, the cultural revolution, natural disasters and things not being built well in the first place. In Shanghai, old buildings are torn down to be replaced by gleaming (for now) malls or apartment buildings, or fake old buildings. Out with the old, in with the new; then out with those as the poor building regulations means it’s all falling apart only a few years later. More new things! GDP! Yay!

That’s not to say there aren’t some old buildings in China, though. One example is a mosque in Xinjiang almost the same age as Notre Dame – or was, at least. The Keriya Mosque was built in 1237 and was demolished last year by the Chinese government as part of the ongoing ethnic war against the Uighur people. You can see before and after pictures of the mosque here. Reportedly, 200 of 800 mosques in the region have been demolished. None of my friends have mentioned that they’re sad about these buildings being destroyed, if they even know anything about it.

At least my friends were sad about Notre Dame. Elsewhere on Chinese social media, some netizens (how I hate this word) were posting that the fire was karmic retribution for the destruction of the Summer Palace, an imperial park, in Beijing. At the end of the Second Opium War, the British and French looted the Summer Palace and (after two British journalists were killed) the British burnt the palace down. This event is taught in great detail in Chinese history classes and it horrifies Chinese people to discover that it’s not mentioned in British schools. Is there space in the British curriculum to cover every atrocity the British carried out, and would this even make the top five atrocities? Should British history cover British atrocities (personally, I think it should), even at the expense of studying anything else (personally, I don’t think so), and does it matter to this line of thinking that the Chinese curriculum doesn’t cover anything bad that China (or the Han majority) has done, past or present?

The fire was extinguished. I read about all the money pouring in to restore it, about the trees grown in Versailles especially for the eventuality of ever having to replace the wood in the roof. I stopped caring about a church I’d been to twice. Memes were shared.

My first thought on seeing a photo early on Tuesday morning was that it might be terrorism and it made me sick to my stomach – not just the act itself but what the reaction might be in an already incendiary Europe. I then found myself ‘relieved’ that it was just a giant fire, and when I thought back to how I felt reading about Grenfell, it felt almost insignificant, if you’re allowed to say that about the destruction of a national icon. I suppose nothing exists in isolation, and no reaction is without a thousand other influences.

More questions about China

  1. What’s with the terribly drawn on eyebrows?
  2. Why does no one go to the gym in the morning (I’m not complaining about this! I love having the place to myself)?
  3. Why do people use hair velcro instead of hair clips?
  4. I swear my colleague clips his nails at least twice a week, always at his desk. Why does he need to clip his nails so often?
  5. On the subject of nails, why do some men have long nails or (ewwww vom) the one really long pinky nail? Please don’t answer this one…
  6. Why is it okay for grown adults to send “cute” pictures of kids as emojis/stickers on their WeChat?
  7. Why can’t people read maps? It seems to be some sort of national affliction.
  8. Why do people believe that Indian food isn’t spicy?
  9. Why do people think ducks can’t fly?

Do you have any questions about China? Let me know and I’ll try to answer them.

Visiting home

After circling Essex like a metaphorical drain in the sky, the plane finally landed at Heathrow. I looked out at the dark, the rain – home at last. I didn’t know if I was very tired or very awake, and in fact the only thing I could be really certain of was that I needed the toilet.

At baggage reclaim I sat on a trolley and watched the suitcases nose their way up onto the conveyor belt and snake their way around the carousel. I thought about the slaughterhouse I went to in Shanghai and all the channels for cows, people, blood, meat, all flowing with the same lumbering grace of Heathrow’s baggage reclaim. I tried to remember what my suitcase looked like. Black? Rectangular? Possibly with a handle? I wondered if I would be too tired to do anything if it didn’t show up.

Case in hand, I headed out into Heathrow, scanning the waiting faces in case anyone had come to meet me, trying not to feel hopeful. Oh. No. Okay. It’s fine. It’s what I was expecting. I need the loo anyway.

Everything felt so…. normal, like I didn’t live 10,000 miles away in another continent, in another language, with another font, in another colour scheme. Oh look, Marks & Spencer! I dragged my case down to the metro – no! It’s the tube! Tube, tube, tube, not a metro. My card worked, I felt like a local, the local I am or was or would be or should be or I don’t even know anymore.

Why are the seats fabric? Why is everything so familiar? Why are the announcements al in English? Why are there so few Chinese people? Can I stare at people? Should I do the laowai nod to other white people? Why doesn’t my phone work underground? Why are we only at Hounslow? Why does this feel so incredibly normal?

My life in Shanghai felt so normal until suddenly I’m not there and now this is normal, but Shanghai is normal too, and I wonder how many people I really am. Kaleidoscopic me, thousands of eyes and faces and hair (the thickest my hair will ever look) and limbs and suitcases.

Visiting home is so normal, so abnormal, so confusing.

Christmas and new year

Christmas in China is in some ways a big deal and in other ways a total damp squib. Most malls will put up Christmas decorations (as early as October) and certainly my social media was full of people saying merry christmas (annoyingly, mainly on the 24th). However there’s very little Christmas music (a good thing I think) and not a mince pie to be found (also no great loss).

On christmas eve I was walking home when I was overwhelmed by a sudden wave of festive spirit and I decided that I wanted a glass of mulled wine. I’d had some mulled wine the week before and it was delicious, but I was nowhere near that part of town. About 100m further down the road I came across a pop up shop selling mulled wine! I couldn’t believe it! Unfortunately, neither could they, as they’d sold out. Thankfully I was able to get mulled wine in the pretentious and overpriced wine bar on my road, and I promptly nearly waterboarded myself on the slice of orange.

The big morning came and I jumped out of bed and and had a shower to try and take the nighttime chill off, before opening up the Fortnum & Mason christmas pudding I’d been given. I put it in my steamer and went to open the huge box of presents my mum had sent me, hitting play on the Sia christmas album while I was at it. This year the parcel made it to me without getting held up at customs for 3 weeks (what a nightmare that was – I had to get two colleagues involved and in the end paid an agent to help, though I still had to go out to the EMS depot near the airport when sick as a dog), and it had been sitting in my living room, eyeing me up for several days. My mum got me such awesome presents and I got quite emotional. I noticed billows of steam from the kitchen and went to rescue the pudding, before having to eat it really quickly so I wasn’t late for work.

At work, I opened a box of celebrations and got on with a completely normal work day. Later my manager asked if we could have a quick chat and I was convinced I was in trouble for something, but it turned out he had bought some cakes, and our team went to sit in the kitchen and eat our cakes. Our boss came in with his son and they ate some pizza, but I don’t think this was christmas related.

On the way home from work I skyped my family, which is always quite strange – being on the metro and chatting to them when they’re so far away. Back home I opened the last of my presents, chatting to the family. Later I took a taxi over to my friends house, where I presented him with two bottles of gin and a pomelo wearing a santa hat. At first it was just us and we hung out drinking G&T, then later lots more people showed up and made G&T using soda water and I eventually got home at about 3am.

The next day was horrid, with the only highlight the takeaway curry (with cheese naan!) I had in bed that night.

New year seemed to sneak up on me and I decided to go to Seoul. It’s less than 2 hours away and I thought it would be cold (and dry!) outside but warm inside. And I was right!

I made a stupid decision not to buy a sim card on landing in Seoul, meaning I was reliant on wifi – which, when you can’t find your hotel and it’s -8 degrees, starts to feel a bit stupid. I also managed to get into the metro without a valid ticket, and the good girl inside me was super worried about it for the whole journey (the gates were open at the station I exited at, phew). When I got to my hotel there was no one there, but it was warm and there was wifi so I waited a while and eventually the owner returned with his dog.

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I dropped off my stuff and headed off to a bathhouse. I absolutely love bathhouses and go to a Korean one in Shanghai from time-to-time. This one was super crowded in places but I still had a very relaxing experience, other than when I got face tingles in the very very hot pool. After soaking for ages and lying about on a heated tatami thing, I went back into town and had some pumpkin soup and soju. I regretted ordering soju almost immediately as it’s really not very nice.

The next day I had breakfast in the hotel dining room, which was playing Sister Act. Then I headed off to the Jongmyo Shrine, which was not too far away. I was told I’d have to take a guided tour, starting in 50 minutes, and initially I wasn’t all that excited about it. However it gave me a chance to go to a nearby market, which was a fun experience.

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The guided tour was actually well worth it, as I wouldn’t have understood anything about the shrine without it. It’s where all the spirits of the dead emperors are kept, and there are strict rules on who gets the best spots!

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Afterwards I walked to one of the shopping areas. I didn’t see anything I particularly wanted to buy but it was still fun to wander about. At one point I got accosted by christians – I’d forgotten about korean christians! They insisted that god had a wife and pointed to some words from Genesis to ‘prove’ it, and I went on at length about the futility of analysing language when it’s been translated so many times, into languages that don’t have the same nuance and by people with political agendas. They asked if I’d like to visit their church “only 50 minutes away by bus”. I said no.

In the evening, I made the fatal error of not having any dinner (on top of not having any lunch), and bought a bottle of apple soju. I ended up in a bar on Homo Hill in Itaewon, drinking wine with two awesome guys. After the new year countdown, and after some shots, we went to a club across the road where I busted out my best kpop moves, and then we went to another bar, where I sang Bohemian Rhapsody to a table full of strangers.

Inevitably, I missed the last metro back to my hotel so had to wait in a cafe for the metro to open. This was a pretty bleak point and I was very very happy when the metro finally opened and I could head towards my bed. I was less happy when I realised I’d got on the wrong train and was going in the wrong direction. Finally I got into bed at 6.30am.

I woke up at 10:46 for an 11am checkout, and had a shower and threw all my stuff into my bag and staggered downstairs. I definitely still felt drunk and couldn’t face going outside into the cold just yet so I sat in the hotel lobby for a while reading and scrolling through social media. I’d got an email the day before saying that my flight had been rescheduled so I spent some time trying to sort this out. Eventually I was so hungry that I had to get up and go and find some food.

I went to the metro station as I needed to go to the ATM and suddenly remembered that none of my cards had worked the night before. Uh oh. I tried my ICBC card and it didn’t work. Uh oh. I tried my BOC card and thankfully it did work. I went to a bakery and got bread and coffee. Feeling more alive, or slightly less hungry anyway, I went to Bukchon Hanok village, a traditional area of Seoul with lots of adorable houses nestled on a hill. It was well set up for tourists but wasn’t that busy, and was a nice place to wander about.

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Once I’d done wandering, I decided that another bathhouse was in order. This was an excellent choice, and I spent some time lying in a small tomb-like hole, before scrubbing and soaking myself to within an inch of my life. Bathhouses are so good in the winter as you feel like your insides are finally warm again. I should definitely go more often. Even when I was done and walking to the station I felt like I’d been pleasantly cooked and I could just about deal with how giant Seoul station was and how far away the airport train was.

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By the time I got to the airport I was really, really hungry, and eventually I managed to find something vegetarian. I went to the gate to wait… and wait… and wait… The airline started handing out snacks (never a good sign), and even when we were on the plane there was another delay due to people having so many bags of shopping from duty free. When the cabin crew opened up the compartment above me I saw that someone had bought a duvet. Who goes on holiday and buys a duvet?!

I finally got home at around 12:30 and went straight to bed. And now it’s January and I’m still not sure what my new years resolutions really are…

Things I wish I understood about China

I’ve lived here for nearly two years now. I’d say I’m not completely unfamiliar with the language, culture and history, and yet there are still so many things that baffle me on a daily basis.

  1. Why are people so loud? Why doesn’t noise bother anyone? Related: why don’t people use headphones?
  2. Why do people panic so much? For example, at the airport, running to the gate for their reserved seat, or when they arrive at a restaurant 2 mins ahead of schedule and message you asking if they should order?
  3. Why does anyone like pork floss?
  4. Why did a major publishing house produce a textbook called “London Bridge” with a picture of Tower Bridge on it? It’s hard to convince anyone that they’re thinking of Tower Bridge when they say that they want to visit London Bridge. I can guarantee that anyone visiting London Bridge will be very disappointed.
  5. Why does everyone insist Theresa May is a strong leader? Also, when shown the video of her dancing, why do they say “ah, at least she’s trying!”. Trying what? Can you imagine Xi Jinping doing that?!
  6. Why do girls wear red eyeshadow? They look dead.
  7. When I ask a Chinese person where they’re from, why do they answer with just “China”? Then when I ask “but where in China?” they say the province (note that even the smallest province is bigger than England). Then if I ask further they will name a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Isn’t there a step missing? If someone asks where I’m from I don’t leap straight from “Europe” to the name of the road I grew up on.
  8. Why can’t people knock once on the door? Delivery drivers shout to announce their arrival, then knock, then wait two seconds before knocking again, and even if you shout that you’re coming they will continue to knock. Friends will do the same but without the shouting. Chill out!
  9. Why do people walk so slowly? Even in rush hour, people amble along slowly. This is contested by pretty much every Chinese person, who will insist that people walk quickly in the big cities and that in HK people walk incredibly fast. While it’s true that people in HK do walk a bit quicker, it’s still really slow!
  10. Why do people think tap water in the UK will make your hair fall out, and why is this the worst possible thing tap water could do? I know I would rather be bald than die of heavy metal poisoning…

Changing jobs in China: the banking edition

Last year I changed jobs, and wrote about the ordeal here. I’ve recently changed jobs again, but it was a much smoother process:

  • 15 September: hand in notice
  • 31 October: final day, HR applied for the cancellation of my work permit
  • 14 November: work permit cancellation letter ready, take documents to the agency dealing with the process to start the online application for my new work permit
  • 28 November: online process approved
  • 29 November: counter application started
  • 3 December: apply to cancel residence permit and replace with stay permit
  • 12 December: stay permit collected ALSO work permit fully approved
  • 17 December: apply for residence permit
  • 26 December: passport with new residence permit ready

Everything went smoothly but you’ll notice I wasn’t allowed to work (no work permit = no working) from the day I left my old work (31 October) and mid December. Just as well I had some pennies saved up!

Speaking of pennies, obviously I do not work for free and I prefer to get paid. In China it’s pretty standard practice that your employer will specify which banks they will pay your salary into, and if you don’t already have an account with one of those banks then you need to open one. There are four big banks in China (all state owned, of course): Bank of China, ICBC, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank. I have accounts with Bank of China and ICBC, but don’t really use the ICBC account as my name is written differently to wherever else it appears on official documents and this causes issues.

On my first day at work I was told I could only be paid into ICBC or China Merchants Bank. As I can’t use my existing ICBC account, I would have to open a new account at either bank – and have heard so many horror stories about ICBC that I chose CMB.

First of all, I had to wait until I had my passport back from getting the residence permit. Once I had this I went to the nearest branch (right by my office, luckily). They immediately listed all the different things I would need to apply: residence permit? work contract? housing contract? police registration form? Shanghai phone number? Yes, to all these. They asked me to fill in a form while they photocopied my documents and then told me they would be in touch once they had authorisation from head office.

I went away and waited. HR messaged me several times asking me what was going on. Eventually I got a call to say I’d been approved.

I went back into the branch and the lady I’d been dealing with wasn’t there, so I explained the whole situation again. The new cashier got out all my documents and some more forms. She gave me a tax form to fill in… which is when things went bad.

I’ve been hearing things about tax changes here in China – essentially foreigners can now be taxed on global income, so they want our tax numbers. My ICBC account has actually been frozen because I haven’t supplied them with this number. But that’s beside the point. It’s never been particularly clear whether they want our Chinese tax numbers or the ones from our home country. After lots of hassle last week, I managed to almost get my Chinese tax number, but it turned out they wanted the home tax number (the form actually said the tax number where we are tax residents, which for me is only China currently, but hey).

I filled in the form – the first I’ve seen with a box for middle name. This caused some problems as China generally assumes I have two first names. The cashier was also confused that my middle name didn’t match what was on my passport but it turned out she was looked at the words “Eireannach/Irish”. The biggest problem was that my passport is Irish and my tax number is my UK national insurance number.

“You need to put your Irish tax number”, she said.

“I don’t have one, I’ve never worked in Ireland,” I told her. “I have only worked in China and the UK, so the only non-Chinese tax number I have is a UK one.”

“I don’t think we can open your account,” she told me. “It has to match your nationality.”

“But I also have British nationality…” I nearly said, before I thought better of it, dual nationality being an alien concept in China.

Eventually, after making some phone calls and involving almost everyone in the branch, it was decided that I could use my passport number as my tax number, and that they didn’t need my UK tax number.

Next up, my phone number had to be verified, by calling the phone company to check that the number was registered to me (and my passport number). I also got sent a 6 digit code to enter.

Finally, I signed my name several times on the screen, ticking “I agree” to things I hadn’t read (does anyone read these things?), set up my PIN, set up the PIN for the app, signed my bank card and got the bank to write down the SWIFT code for me.

1.5 hours later, I had a new bank account!

I went back to the office and let HR know, then downloaded the app. Of course, having a bank card in China is not that useful as it’s not like you can use it to do very much. Most of the time I do everything using Alipay or WeChat Pay. Amazingly I was able to link my new account to both these apps! I transferred some money to test it out and now I just have to hope that I get paid with no drama next week.

To think that in the UK, I’ve had the same bank account since I was six… I’ve been in China less than two years and I already have three! Still, a good test for both my patience and my Chinese skills.

Things I do that are rather Chinese

I wrote a while ago about why I think I might actually be Chinese. But having lived here for a little while now, I have developed some rather Chinese habits…

When I first moved to China I was amazed that everyone was glued to their phones. In the UK, there’s no signal on the tube so you have to read the crappy free papers instead, but in China (well, Shanghai at least) there’s 4G everywhere – and 5G coming soon. Now I am a phone zombie too. I stare at my phone on the metro, including when getting off (though I do hold on to it tightly as I brace for impact with all the people rushing to get on before anyone gets off), I read while walking down the street, I hold up traffic because I’m checking social media while cycling to work. I’m not necessarily very proud of myself but it’s easy to get sucked in. And sometimes, every now and then at least, it’s work related and then I feel entirely justified.

Speaking of social media… I joke that many people only do things so that they can post it on social media. In China, pretty much all foreign social media is blocked, and if you want to boast to your friends that you queued up at Hey Tea to get a boba cheese fruit tea then you post the picture on WeChat Moments. I mock this, along with the filters and the beauty filters (admittedly some of them are ridiculous and make people look like aliens), but guess what I did when I went to Hey Tea last week?!

People in the UK, my mum at least (hi Mum!), think it’s weird that people in Asia wear face masks. But you know what, it’s actually quite nice to have a mask on in winter as it keeps your face warm. It helps to let people know that you’re sick (eg. your boss), and it feels like you’re doing something about your annoying winter cold rather than just moaning about it. On polluted days, a mask is crucial, specifically one with a proper PM2.5 rating. I have one with filters that you change on a daily basis, and while I think it’s very effective, I can’t get the idea that I’m changing my mask’s nappy.

When I was growing up we used to go to Peterborough to the big shopping centre as a treat during the school holidays. Now, not only do I call shopping centres ‘malls’, but I go to one EVERY DAY. Every. Single. Day. China has an abundance of malls, far too many to be in any way commercially viable (the government has incentivised this, and as a result you see dead malls (very strange to see) and thousands of malls full of all the same shops), and a lot of services can be found in them. Normally on the basement level, or B1, there is a food court and superamarket. Floors 1-3 are shops, floor 4 is kids shops/services, floor 5+ are restaurants, hairdressers, beauty salons, etc, and then on the top floor there may be a cinema. If you want to buy something, you’re going to a mall. If you want to eat, the chances are you’re going to a mall. It’s a weird phenomenom. Actually, as I write this I am quite proud to realise I haven’t been to a mall today (I’m in a trendy coffee shop – so Shanghai).

I’ve saved the best for last… I was brought up to cover my mouth when I cough, but it turns out that the 1.4 billion people here were not taught the same thing. Now I’m not saying I do this all the time, certainly not when there are people around, but sometimes I cough and don’t bother covering my mouth and it feels simultaneously disgusting and OH SO LIBERATING.