How was your week? (the child edition)

(Names have been changed but the student has chosen his own name, but got confused about which letters to use and given himself a very feminine name. This is his second name, he used to be called Car (because he likes cars). He is 11 and weighs significantly more than me).

Me: How was your week?

Anny: I got in a fight at school. One of the students is taller than me and stronger than me, and he attacked me for no reason at all. Once he attacked a teacher with a chair leg and broke the teacher’s leg a little bit. He attacked me for no reason at all, we fought all the way across the classroom, from the front to the back. He hit my head and I picked him up and threw him against the wall. He is strong but he only fights with his arms and legs, not his head. I have a bruise on my arm and my head is a bit sore.

Me: Did you win?

Anny: No one won because the teacher arrived.

Me: That sounds like a good thing, the teacher must have been very angry.

Anny: The teachers are scared of him. Once Jerry brought a knife to class and he held it to my friend’s face. My friend told his mum and his mum came to the school. The fighting student, Jerry, his mum came to the school too and the two mums fought and my friend’s mum got hurt and now we don’t complain any more. The headmaster doesn’t want to help and we can’t report Jerry because if he knows it’s us then he’ll fight us.

Me: That sounds terrible for everyone.

Anny: His dad is a soldier but I don’t want him to grow up to be a soldier because then he could fight the whole country.

Me: So do you remember that we have been thinking about good decision making skills and poor decision making skills? What would you say were good decisions and what were poor decisions?

Anny: I shouldn’t have attacked him back. My mum said it’s okay to hit people if they hit you first but I should have gone to get the teacher. So I think no one made good decisions.

 

Anny for president!

HSK 4 – nerves, regrets and a surprise

Last month I took a Chinese exam, level 4 of the HSK. HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (“chinese level test”, Chinese naming conventions being very imaginative) and there are six levels in total. I took level 2 in February 2017 and level 3 in September 2017, and did fairly well in both, being well prepared for both exams. The jump between levels is quite big – the amount of vocabulary doubles each time – but I knew that if I didn’t sign up for the exam, I wouldn’t force myself to learn the vocab (instead I would focus on “fun” vocab – so it’s not like I’d completely neglect learning).

I did a mock exam a fortnight beforehand and scored 160/300. The pass mark is 180. I’d not done well (though hadn’t failed…) in the mock exams for both the previous levels, as the format takes a little getting used to, so I tried not to be too worried. However, I was aware that there were major gaps in my knowledge. Over the next week or so I carried on doing mock exams, practising the bits I found difficult. I also kept trying to cram in new vocabulary, spending my commute drilling new words and trying to read and review on lunchbreaks and quiet moments.

The week before the exam I did more mock exams, getting colleagues to mark the writing sections for me. In one I scored 200 but generally I was getting between 150 and 190. I grew increasingly worried.

I’d bought the textbooks for HSK 4 but only worked my way through 6 of the 20 chapters and I wondered what I’d been doing with my time instead of studying or revising.

The day before the exam I was working until nearly 9pm and decided to go home and try to get a decent night’s sleep instead of doing any lastminute cramming. I woke up at 6am and read over some sentences, while drinking a cup of coffee.

I felt really stupid as I felt like I’d had plenty of time to study for the exam. And I felt like the exam really shouldn’t be this hard – after all, I live in China, I’m around Chinese all the time, this isn’t even that hard an exam (children in first grade at school will learn all of this). I started to cry, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.

At about 8am I managed to get myself together a little bit and took a taxi to the exam centre. The taxi driver asked if I was Russian. I went to McDonalds and bought a coffee. I felt sick as I walked down the street, trying to find the entrance to the building. How ironic would it be if I couldn’t even find it?

The exam room itself was reasonably sized, computers at individual desks, most already with the candidate sat patiently behind. My desk was the one nearest the door. I logged in using the log in details taped to the desk for me (although I had to ask where these were, as I didn’t spot them). I checked the headset. I looked about. Then I waited, watching the countdown timer, feeling worse and worse, although not crying any more (small mercies).

The exam started. Listening first. I tried to read the questions before the listening extract each time, to give me an idea about what to listen out for. Some questions were very straightforward and others I felt like I had no clue – I guess this is to be expected when you simply don’t know big chunks of the vocab. I tried to keep calm although it was hard to stay positive. By the end of the listening section I felt pretty tired (I normally give myself a break when doing mock exams at home!).

In the reading section, my teacher had advised I do part 1, then part 3 and finally part 2. Part 1 I normally find very straightforward but I knew I hadn’t got this right, which made my spirits sink yet further. Part 3 is very very long and I felt exhausted by the end, but tried to remain focused on part 2, which is really hard (my teacher had said that it’s possible to spend the whole time on section 2 and still not get it all right, as it’s so tricky).

Finally on to the writing section! The first part is rearranging words into sentences, making sure that the order is correct. Some of these seemed quite easy, others I wasn’t so sure about, others I knew that I thought were easy but were no doubt wrong. The second part is writing a sentence using a picture and prompt word. I spent ages trying to work out whether a particular word that I’m semi-familiar with is a noun or a verb. I settled on it being a noun. I checked all my sentences. I rechecked them. I made some adjustments. I changed them back. I checked it all again. I had 30 seconds left, and rather than click submit and actively commit to finishing the exam, I let it time out and submit on my behalf.

I put on my coat, packed away my passport and headed downstairs. I stumbled out into the street and looked up the word from the writing section (it was a verb, not a noun) and decided not to look up anything else.

I posted on wechat about how I thought the exam had gone and messaged a few friends who’d wished me luck, telling them how awful it was. My teacher suggested I go and get a hot drink and I thought that was an excellent idea so went to buy a hot chocolate. I was totally sure I’d failed and only after going to the gym and sweating out some of the self-hate, then spending the afternoon drinking coffee with a good friend, was I able to put it out of my mind and decide to wait and see what the results were.

Normally the results only take a fortnight, but Chinese New Year meant that it took 3 weeks for the results to come out. By then I’d reconciled myself to the idea of retaking the exam. I almost didn’t bother checking the results online until I went to work, but decided that would be silly and I’d rather just know.

I entered my name. I entered my candidate number. The page opened. What?!?

Listening: 87
Reading: 80
Writing: 77
TOTAL: 244

Surely some mistake?

I immediately sent a screenshot of the page to my teacher, my classmate and Liam, then I just stared at the page for a little while. Then I posted it on wechat, partly for the head pats but also because I’d promised myself that I’d post the results regardless of what they were, full transparency and all that. People have been taking the piss a little, saying that they knew I’d be fine, that I was worried for nothing, that I should have believed in myself more, etc. I hate those kind of people who come out of exams and say they’ve done badly when they know they haven’t, but I genuinely thought I’d tanked it.

No exams for a while for me!

Things my Chinese teacher has asked me…

Why did people vote for Brexit?

Is it true that everyone in Europe has double eyelids?

Are there different dialects of English?

How can you tell different English accents apart? Can you hear the difference?

Which is the bad one, north or south Korea?

Do you like Koreans?

Why are you here?

Do your legs get especially cold, because they’re so long?

Please can you draw a chart of your love life on the board?

Christmas in China

On the one hand, Christmas is a big deal here – every shopping mall is decked out with fancy decorations – but on the other hand, it’s not really a holiday. And so I worked on Christmas Day. And not work like work in the UK at Christmas time (no sitting about eating mince pies and definitely no dressing up as Cliff Richard with all my colleagues and swaying for an awkward three minute song), this was 8 hours of teaching.

On Christmas Eve I went to the sorting office to pick up one of my christmas presents, then went to the gym before going out for an amazing meal on the Bund. It was a super magical evening and I felt both incredibly lucky and very festive. So much so that when I got home, I started leaving emotional voicemail messages for my friends and then skyped my friends.

I woke up on Christmas Day and opened my two presents, listening to Christmas music and drinking my customary imported instant coffee. Then I carried on listening to Christmas tunes all the way to work, having a little dance on the metro. At work, the tunes were on, the hats were on, the festive snacks were out.

At lunch I went for noodles with my boys, before heading back for eight hours of teaching. By the end, I was exhausted. During the last hour, my boss dropped a glass of champagne off in my classroom so the room smelled of booze. Sorry, kiddo. Finally over, I hung out with some colleagues and then headed for dinner with Liam and some friends.

I’d got changed into some sequinned shorts (merry christmas…) and it turned out the restaurant was a michelin-starred place. It was delicious. Afterwards we went to find a bar, first of all going to Perry’s, that Shanghai stalwart. It was smoky as hell and it got right in my throat. We left and wandered a bit, but I decided to head home as I had arranged to skype my family.

An hour chatting on skype, and I finally headed to bed for a terrible night’s sleep. I woke up every hour or so feeling like I’d swallowed razorblades.

On Boxing Day I woke up feeling like actual death, ploughed through another 8 hours of teaching and finally got thrown out of the building by my colleague who told me that if only I’d told him in the morning that I wasn’t well, he would have sent me home. Too late!

Finally on the 27th, I went to pick up the parcel my mum sent me a month ago that’s been languishing in customs all this time. I’d had to get an agent involved to help retrieve it, but still had to go out to the customs office near the airport to show my passport. After sitting about for a while I finally got my parcel and could go back home, open my presents, make a dent in my advent calendar and go back to sleep for a lazy afternoon.

圣诞快乐 everyone!

Wuxi Trail Race

Back in the UK, I used to do a lot of races – there was a period where my boss would ask me what I was doing at the weekend and would groan when I’d tell him another half marathon. But in China I’ve not done nearly as many – partly because there are fewer races, but also because at my old job I worked every weekend. I did one race in September, but that was it.

On the day of the Shanghai Marathon, I met up with friends running it for celebratory drinks. One of the people there said that she was the organiser of the Wuxi Marathon, and a bunch of us ended up saying that we’d do it. She mentioned a trail race coming up in a few weeks, and a little while later, posted it in the WeChat group.

The trail race had a few options – 50km, 29km and 8km. I tried to talk a friend into the 8km but she wasn’t convinced. I asked another friend and he managed to talk me into agreeing to run 29km. Quite honestly, I was easily persuaded but that didn’t stop me from worrying about it quite a lot as the day got closer.

As I tried to get to sleep the night before the race, I was really quite worried. 29km is a long way, I haven’t run that distance since training for the Halstead Marathon, so not since April 2016. In fact, in 2017 I’ve probably only twice run more than 10km. I hadn’t eaten enough, wasn’t sure that I’d packed the right clothes and was all round questioning my life decisions.

The alarm went off at 6am and there was a flurry of activity – showers, coffee, soup, bananas, cereal, last-minute extra layers and then a taxi to Wuxi scenic area. The taxi dropped us off at the entrance and we waited for the shuttle bus to take us to the start line. It was cold. Did I mention I was worried? We did a group warm up and were soon on our way, with the start coinciding with my garmin going into sleep mode (a watch after my own heart).c8i48q1fmrp8o3q1hhmsm

The course seemed busy at first and I wondered if it would be congested all the way, though of course it thinned out without me really realising. We walked up the hills and ran down, trying to keep moving. I actually felt really bad. After 2km I wouldn’t have put money on me finishing. It wasn’t that I was tired but more that I felt that my head would give out. I started apologising to Alex, I was sick of the sound of my voice and sick of the voice in my head too.

run

After 8km we came to the first feed station and we ate bananas, orange slices and raisins. A man took photos of me eating a slice of orange but thankfully I am yet to see these photos anywhere.

Around this point we went through a large stretch of forest, where we had to go single file in a large group of people. Going step by step by step through the trees started to make me feel better. I’d been worried I was so slow, too slow, but here I was going at the same speed as everyone else, and I didn’t have to look where I was going because I could just follow the people ahead. I started feeling better, a lot better. Every step took us closer to the halfway point at the very least, and Alex had pointed out that we really only needed to do 15km because after that we’d have to finish or else never get home.

I normally hate running downhill, especially on trails, but was trying a new tactic of not being such a coward and giving it a go (though I had tried this in the Ashridge Forest trail race and ended up covered in blood). Maybe it was the moral support but I couldn’t stop laughing, even if I didn’t look quite as elegant as I felt.hu010ra63yvje0hxbavgnmcpcakqa5y02z9m8u47

We came out of the woods onto a road heading downhill and I felt like I was flying. Alex was flagging a little bit and I waited for him at the second feed station. I had some more raisins and he had some noodles, and then we were on our way again. We went through a village and then back out into the countryside, along paths through tea fields and then just pushing our way through dense tea plants.1s1c4agahdm3ek2u146vz2

tea

We headed up and up to the top of the mountain, high above the city. There was no one else around and we scrambled across rocks. It felt a little sketchy. Alex wanted to pick up every discarded water bottle that we saw (who drops litter in a place like this?!) so we ended up with lots of empty bottles tucked into our rucksacks. It was quite slow going but every step got us closer.

After about 21km we left the top of the mountain and went through another village, depositing all our water bottles in a bin. A man sauntered past eating a steamed bun and Alex asked him if he had a spare. The man thought he was joking but he wasn’t. We got a little lost just after this but eventually found ourselves on a road and by the edge of the lake, with a pleasant jaunt along the lakeside walkway.

Alex told me to go on ahead and wait at the final feed station, and I headed off, immediately regretting what I’d done as I should have waited for him. I took a wrong turning – that’s karma for you – but finally found my way back to the course, just in time for a long uphill road. Near the top of the road was a large white dog (a samoyed or similar), pulling his owners along. I went to pet the dog and the owners were amazed that I wasn’t scared, and then started laughing when the dog jumped up to cuddle me and we ended up rolling around in the road, one fluffy dog and one sweaty human. Such a nice dog, happy days.

From here it was a short run down to the final feed station, and I waited for Alex, who wolfed down orange slice after orange slice when he arrived. I wanted us to run the final bit together but couldn’t convince him to run with me, so (yet again – and I do feel bad about this) I headed off.

There was one final hill, and I tried to run up and down (by whatever definition of running), ideally without tripping over and breaking any bones. A man past me and gave me a vaguely patronising cheer, then when I passed him back I returned the favour, so he ran with me for a while, asking what I thought of Wuxi etc. I realised we were really close to the end and said I wanted to finish – I wanted it done and I was genuinely worried my watch was about to run out of battery! I tried my best attempt at a sprint finish and crossed the line. 5hr49!

About ten minutes later I saw Alex coming around the corner. Was he… walking? I shouted at him and he ran to the finish. We then made some significant inroads into the food available at the finish line, ginger tea being my favourite thing. We were given finisher hoodies – some pretty good swag at this race, all in all.

I can’t believe how this race went from one where I was so down and then so up. I felt great for days afterwards and I’m still grinning about it.

I suspect I may actually be Chinese

I read an article about a style of parenting popular here in China, called setback parenting. In this, you’re basically really awful to your kid so they don’t get too high an opinion of themselves and this will apparently make them stronger. I think you can guess how it turns out.

Here’s the article: http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001083/setback-education-the-parenting-fad-harming-chinas-kids

As I read it, I did a LOL (as the kids might say, but probably wouldn’t, because I have no idea what the kids actually say), as there are so many parallels with my childhood. My dad believed (possibly still believes) that you shouldn’t compliment (or be nice to) your kids and is surprised that we now do not have a very close relationship.

Anyway, there are lots of other reasons why I think I had a Chinese upbringing:

  1. I got glasses when I was 4 years old.
  2. I play the violin.
  3. And the piano!
  4. I was a total nerd in school, until that day that I suddenly wasn’t.
  5. I went to LSE.
  6. My parents were pretty strict.
  7. I still think less than 90% in a test doesn’t really count as a pass.

That’s only my childhood. There’s further evidence that I’m a Chinese adult, for example: my love of WeChat stickers, going hiking with an umbrella, drinking hot water, shouting in restaurants, pushing on the metro and a whole host of other things that I’ll write about another time.

Getting a haircut

Last week I was feeling down in the dumps, so I went to get my hair cut. I found a picture of the style I wanted and showed it to the hairdresser, who said it was no problem. He asked when I’d had that haircut and didn’t believe me that the random picture on the internet wasn’t me (after all, foreigners generally all look alike).

After chopping at my hair for some time he whipped out the electric razor and I realised I was getting a different haircut to the one I’d asked for. Luckily I’m not precious about my hair and I like it short, so I just let him do whatever.

He asked if I wanted more volume on the top bit, and I said sure. I have extremely fine hair so volume is needed. He started fiddling around with my hair, putting it in pins. It was quite relaxing. Then he took out a box of something chemical looking and I began to get suspicious. I asked to have a look at the box. Perming solution! Are you kidding me?! I told him that there was no way I could have a perm, my hair would be destroyed. He was really keen to do it but I made him stroke my baby-soft hair and compare it to his own and eventually he agreed that I could have a think about a perm and maybe do it next time.

By this point I was a bit stressed out so he told me to wait there (where else could I go, with my hair full of pins) and he disappeared, returning with a bowl of cherry tomatoes for me. He told me I was pretty and that I had nice big eyes, not like those “scary Russian eyes” (I think he meant blue eyes but I’m not sure, he was adamant that they were scary).

He faffed around with my hair a bit longer and finally I left. I’m actually really happy with it, brushed down it looks work appropriate – my manager didn’t notice the undercut until my colleague pointed it out. I’m obsessed with stroking the undercut, like I’m a giant shorthaired cat.

WeChat, China’s messaging megalith

China has 1.3 billion people and surely at least that many mobile phones (everyone has a mobile and some sleazy businessmen will have one for the wife and another for the mistress, #lads etc). If I take the metro to work it’s very easy to avoid eye contact with anyone, as they’re all looking at their phones. 

What are they doing – especially given that so much is blocked in China? Watching TV shows, catching up on weibo, shopping on taobao or chatting on WeChat, of course!

WeChat is the messaging app of choice for everyone in China, young or old. You can use it for text and voice messages, sending photos, voice calls and video calls. So far so normal. But there’s so much more. Here’s a few things that I use wechat for on a daily basis (ok, hourly, I am in China after all).

  1. WeChat wallet. If you link your bank card (Chinese banks only) to your WeChat wallet then you can use WeChat to pay for things. Every retailer either has a QR code for you to scan and enter the amount to pay, or they’ll scan your QR code. It’s so so easy and means you hardly ever have to carry cash. You can also use WeChat wallet to pay bills, buy tickets and top up your mobile phone.
  2. Red envelopes. You can send money to friends. Again, so easy!
  3. Scanning friends. If you meet someone and you want to add them as a friend, you don’t need to faff about typing in their number or looking them up in a search bar. Every user on WeChat has a personal QR code, so you just ask to scan them, they produce the QR code, you scan it and add them. Simple! 
  4. Stickers. These are pictures or gifs you can send in messages. You can download packs of stickers or if a friend sends you a cool one you can save it to impress other friends with later. I like dog ones, obviously, but I also have a pretty rad one of Hitler dancing with glow sticks.
  5. Group chats. These can be for work, friends or interest groups. I’m in all three, though some of them have notifications on mute!
  6. Subscriptions. These are news or organisation accounts that I follow. I particularly like the ones about Shanghai so I know what’s on (art, cinema etc) or what’s a hot topic right now (typhoons, flour scandal, VPN news).
  7. Moments. This is like a facebook news feed, except if a friend posts something you can only read the comments by people you’re already connected to.

Soon you’ll be able to use it on the turnstiles at metro stations here in Shanghai, eliminating the need to carry a metro card.

    Of course, this amazing app does come with a price, and that’s all your personal data belonging firstly to Tencent and then the Chinese government. So that’s not ideal. Also, like many apps in China, it’s a really bloated app  and as a result my phone is grinding to a standstill these days. But life without it would be a lot less convenient, so I try to put any concerns about the government out of my mind… Needs must!!

    Things that are banned in China

    You probably know that Facebook is banned in China. It’s been banned for years now. But did you know that the following are also banned (either permanently or temporarily):

    Google (other than google translate), WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WordPress, LFGSS, gambling, going to Tibet, talking about something that happened in June 1989, baking soda, tinned soup, mentioning certain topics in WeChat groups, changing your WeChat profile picture or username, imported blue cheese, going anywhere without your passport, Brad Pitt, airbnb (it’s not technically legal and right now it’s completely banned in Beijing), hot air balloons, drones, the New York Times and the South China Morning Post but not the Guardian, having a dog without a license, some shoes, giving your child a Muslim name if you live in western China, marmite, and Justin Bieber.

    Things my Chinese teacher says to me…

    Your pronunciation is terrible.

    Your pronunciation is great.

    You’re not *that* fat.

    You have very big eyes.

    Don’t say that, you sound like you’re from Beijing.

    Don’t say that, you sound like a cute Taiwanese girl.

    Don’t say that, you sound like you’re from Shanghai.

    Don’t tell anyone, but I think Koreans look funny.

    Your family is strange.

    Your life is funny.

    You’ve made huge progress and we’re all really proud of you.