Things that make me irrationally angry about living in China

Living in China can sometimes be challenging, and sometimes it can be rage inducing. Some of the things that grind my gears are (in my opinion, anyway) genuine issues. However there are some things that I know are not really big issues, yet they drive me nuts. For my friend, it’s the socks that old people wear, like mini stockings: slightly off-flesh colour, usually too tight to make little sausage legs. For me, well, read on…

1. The Shanghai Metro is a beautiful thing. There are 17 (?) lines now, a new one or two (plus extensions) every year. It’s cheap, it’s clean, it’s reliable. It’s also crowded and some of the people it’s crowded with have no concept of things like queuing, not pushing, talking at a reasonable volume, not playing music/videos at full blast, spitting, etc. But this isn’t what makes me angry (because it just can’t…. mind over matter). What I hate is that the hanging handgrips are positioned just at forehead height. Maybe this isn’t an issue for shorter people, but I’m not exactly a giant (1.76) yet these stupid hanging things smack me in the head all the time. They also have quite a bit of swing to them, so if someone lets go of one then it swings at quite a rate directly into your face. I bruised my eye socket this way.

2. Water bottles in China are often made of very flimsy plastic and filled completely to the brim, so that when you open them you compress the plastic and spill water all over yourself.

3. In hotels, the bathroom is usually separated from the rest of the room by a window. I asked a Chinese friend and he said it’s to make the room look bigger. No thanks, I’d rather have a smaller room with no toilet in the middle of it. Another friend said it’s so that when you’re having a shower the prostitute can’t do a runner with all your valuables.

4. Nailclipping in public. The sound of it makes me want to kill someone, possibly by clipping them to death.

5. Table manners in general. Slurping and burping just sound so awful to me. If I’m eating on my own in a restaurant I take headphones. Actually, that’s my China pro-tip: always have headphones. Noise cancelling if possible.

6. When you write Chinese characters, you have to write the strokes in a particular order, so this gets drilled into kids from the moment they learn to write. A lot of people apply the same order to writing in English, so they will cross the ‘t’ before writing the rest of the letter. It just looks so wrong, especially if they try to write in cursive (though admittedly very few people do this – my writing is “impossible to read”, according to my boss, which makes me happy as I can easily communicate with native English speakers/readers without my colleagues understanding).

7. Contrary to popular belief, milk is available in China. Some people are lactose intolerant, but most other people drink milky drinks like there’s no tomorrow. Usually I’ll order milk from the supermarket, but if I’ve run out and I need my morning coffee, I will grab some from the convenience store. Milk comes in little tetrapak cartons and is stored next to the yoghurt, also in tetrapak cartons, both in blue. And this is how I poured yoghurt into my coffee.

8. On that note… why is the yoghurt always runny? Where’s the Greek yoghurt at?

While I can be zen (or am becoming more zen…) about some of the big things (or at least I tell myself I can!), these little things cause me completely disproportionate levels of stress. If you’ve been to China, what little things drive you up the wall?

Drive me crazy, part 2: theory test

Remember I wanted to get my driving licence? Well, here’s what happened when I took my theory test!

I took my test at the end of June and foolishly assumed that I’d be able to apply common sense and pass in this way. Nope! There are 100 questions out of a question bank of around 1250, and while some of them are common sense, other require memorising the regulations (some of which are nonsensical) and the chinglish phrases included in it. You can choose to take the test in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, French or German (and maybe others?). In some ways taking it in Chinese would be easier but they weren’t keen to offer this to me (foreigners don’t speak Chinese after all).

I arrived at the test centre with half an icecream spilled down my front, not a great sign. I had a bit of time to spare so I read through some of the regulations, sending the more amusing ones to friends.

Finally I went upstairs to the testing room, which is in building 1, in the room above the room where you make the appointments (desks 40/41). A man took my papers and checked things through again, before telling me to sit. A few minutes later, he called my name and I sat down at a computer.

I logged in and was a bit weirded out by the video of me in the top corner of the screen. Some of the questions made sense but some of them were nonsense, and some of them I just had no idea what the answer could be. I worked my way through all 100 questions and hit submit… 79. Fail. You get another go straight away and this time I got 78, so I had to go back to the 1st floor to get a number for appointment desks on the 2nd floor, where I made an appointment to retake the test.

Take 2, a few weeks later, and this time I’d studied. I downloaded the app, though couldn’t access more than 150 questions as it wouldn’t let me pay for the premium version. I memorised everything I could and then took a page of notes on some of the bits of the regulations that I knew didn’t make sense or otherwise needed memorisation – penalties for particular traffic offences, etc. I ate another ice cream on the way there, this time not spilling any on me.

I went back to the test room, and when my name was called, sat down at the computer and worked through the questions. If I knew the answer, I answered it; if I didn’t, I left it and came back to it at the end. There were about 15 questions in total that were either too vague/badly written to know what they were asking or I just didn’t know the answer. I made some guesses and hit submit.

An agonising few seconds later, my score popped up on screen. 92! Pass!

I went back to reception and they printed out a page with my passing score. Hilariously this had screenshots of me mid-exam.WeChat Image_20180801111302

I took all these papers down to the 1st floor to get another number for desks 40/41… There I submitted all the papers and was directed to desk 30/31, to pay. I stupidly didn’t keep the receipt but I think it was 70 RMB. I went back to desks over near 40/41 and waited until someone shouted my name (in Chinese), and they handed me my brand new Chinese driving licence!WeChat Image_20180801111231

Watch out, everyone on Chinese roads! Mwahaha.

Costs:

Translation: 50 RMB

Photos: 25 RMB

Medical check: 60 RMB

Theory test: 60 RMB

Licence: 10 RMB

TOTAL COST: 205 RMB

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!

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!

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.

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.

Slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails

Little boys are horrible. Six year olds, specifically. Snot, fighting and being awful to each other.

Little Raphael is a case in point. When he’s not paying attention, or when he’s paying too much attention, he blows spit bubbles. It’s my least favourite thing of anything my students do, which is impressive as they’re often quite repulsive. Every time he does it I tell him to stop and tell him I won’t give him a sticker at the end of class. Sometimes this goes in and sometimes he just stares at me, spit bubbles ballooning out of his chubby face. Then I say “goodbye sticker!” and out of his unfortunately slightly gormless face comes a confused and slightly wronged face – what did i do? He reminds me of a small drunk, a miniature McNulty, barrelling about agape at the injustice in the world.

Raphael would love, more than anything, to be one of the cool kids in class. He tries so hard to be part of their gang but never quite manages it. Recently we were discussing dinosaurs and we all agreed that dinosaurs are very cool.

“When I grow up I want to be a scientist!” announced Raphael, proudly. “I want to discover things about dinosaurs!”

One of his classmates started laughing. “As if you could ever be a scientist!”

And all the other boys laughed.

This class are off to primary school this week. Chinese children start school at 6 years old and are often extraordinarily ill-equipped for it. A nation of only children brought up by their grandparents, these children are fitted on from a young age. The parents work and the grandparents (sometimes 4 to 1 child) give their little precious everything they never had. I see children being fed like birds, opening their mouths and waiting for grandma to stuff more food in. I see grandfathers trailing their grandchild, praising every tiny thing. “You’re the best! You’re number one! You’re better than all the other children!” (about being number one… I’ve had fights break out in my classroom over it, and every child I’ve taught would rather rush their work and finish first than do it all correctly). I very frequently see 4 or 5 year olds being carried like babies. 

Chinese children spend six years being told how amazing and special they are, allowed to rule the roost (bar the occasional violent beating), running around causing havoc in restaurants almost as bad as in middle class parts of London, unable to feed or dress themselves. And then… primary school.

40 or 50 students per class, intense competition and years of rote learning lie ahead.

Raphael, of course, doesn’t know quite what his future holds. He’s always seemed slightly carefree, either impervious or (more likely) oblivious, confident that he is NUMBER ONE despite any evidence to back this up. He looked puzzled when my Teaching Assistant stopped the other boys laughing at him by saying that everyone is allowed to have a dream, like he’d suggested he wanted to grow up to be a panda instead of the number one scientist…

At the end of class I gave all the students lollipops and wished them well at primary school. They rampaged about one final time while I led them out of class to find their parents. All the children scampered off until I was left with just Raphael. His grandma hurried forward and checked he wasn’t cold (grandparents fight an endless battle against their grandchildren being cold, even in the Shanghai summer) and asked him how class was. He showed her the lollipop, clasped in his sweaty little hand. 

Then the smile fell from his face. He stood completely still. Grandma asked him what was wrong. He appeared to get smaller by the second, then turned to me, his face hardened by resolve and sadness. “I’m not allowed sweets anymore,” he told me. “Mum says I’m fat.” He handed back the lollipop and, downcast, walked off, ignoring Grandma’s pleas that he was just perfect.

Welcome to the end of your childhood, Raphael.

Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. I had a good but slightly odd day! 

I went for a run first thing. We’re really lucky that our local park is about 400 metres away (yes, I wear a GPS watch…) so I go running there. It was really hot and I had some top banter with an elderly couple who told me it was way too hot to be running and suggested a mug a child for their scooter instead.

After showering and drinking a lot of water, I headed to Pudong, the east side of the river. I’ve been to Pudong three times before: the airport, the police headquarters and to have my picture taken by a lady who (it turned out) just took pictures of the sky. Let’s just say I wasn’t massively enamoured with Pudong and I had even jokingly said I’d never cross the river again. 

But I broke that promise with the lure of a free trip up a skyscraper. The Shanghai World Financial Center building is the 2nd tallest building in Shanghai so probably top 10 in China. I think it’s the highest observation deck in China, maybe the world, who knows. The observation deck is on the 100th floor and it normally costs about £20 to visit – but I’d read somewhere a while ago that it’s free on your birthday, so off I went!

It was pretty cool, the lift to the 100th floor took 60 seconds – eek! The views weren’t great as it was a bit of a murky day, but I could still look down to the city centre and see teeny tiny boats (actually container ships!) on the river. I wouldn’t pay £20 for it but for free it’s fun. Plus, my ticket said it was a free birthday ticket so every time my ticket was checked, the attendant wished me happy birthday! Hooray!

After lunch I went to work, where all my colleagues had forgotten about my birthday. I bought some chocolates and put them in the staff room and sent a group message saying help yourselves, then the birthday wishes came flooding in. It felt a bit awkward, but less awkward than people realising later and getting a belated cake… I got one of my classes to sing happy birthday to me although they told me they didn’t believe it was my birthday. Aged 4 and already so sceptical. After work the head of the school had gone out to get a cake for me (she must have felt bad) and we had cake and more singing. 

And then I headed off to my running club social night, where we ate salad and chatted about triathlons and I got a pair of new running socks.

I got myself a present (because it felt weird to have no presents and no cards): a book, some hair clips and some Moomin soap.

I’ve had birthdays away from home before (I was in France for my 11th birthday, Germany for my 14th and Hong Kong for my 26th) but this felt a bit different. Not only was I away from everyone I know from back home, but I don’t know when I’ll next see most of them. And I wasn’t with my good friends here in China. I did feel a bit lonely.

That said, I got some lovely messages and I need to spend some time replying to everyone – I was really touched that so many people got in touch.

Sheshan – Shanghai’s mountain

Last Tuesday it was Qingming, the tomb sweeping festival. I asked my colleagues what I should do with the day but no one had any great ideas – public holidays are insanely busy in China, so a lot of ideas were centred around avoiding too many crowds.

After nearly a month in the city, I wanted to get out of town for the day. As I don’t have my passport back yet, I can’t take the train anywhere – so had a look on the (impressively extensive) metro map to see where I should go.

I settled on Sheshan, Shanghai’s only mountain and a national park – conveniently on line 9. I cycled from our flat to the nearest line 9 station (to avoid changing lines twice) and boarded the first train. It was pretty busy and I stood by the doors. This turned out to be quite fun as about half the journey was above ground and I could see out and into houses and over fields.

About half an hour later, we arrived in Sheshan. From the station I could see the east and west hills, and a rollercoaster between me and the hills. I rented a bike and set out towards the hills.

At first the route seemed very simple – pedal directly towards the hills – but after I passed the sculpture park the road turned around the base of the hills and I had to stop to check I was going the right way. Unlike a lot of people using the cycle lane, I pulled over whenever I needed to stop. It’s amazing how many people don’t!

About 25 minutes later, I arrived at Sheshan and picked up a ticket (free) from the entrance booth. I also picked up a bottle water and an overpriced ice cream, getting in the holiday vibe.

I followed the crowds up a flight of steps and soon came to a little clearing, where there was a 10 storey pagoda. Lots of people were taking photos and I got involved in that. 

From there, I followed another flight of steps to the observatory. I didn’t go in, but admired the view from the lookout point instead before going up some more steps and into the cathedral.

Inside the cathedral a lady was singing ‘Amazing Grace’s in Chinese, which was quite lovely.

I would my way down the hill and crossed the main road to the other hill, which is famous for its bamboo plants. It’s amazing how a hill that’s visible for several miles can be created in a few strides. I guess it shows how flat it is around here!

There was a little pond with some fish, and a cart with candles that you could pray at. I think my favourite thing about all religions is the music and Buddhist chants are up there with my favourites, so I lingered here a while.

By this point it was about 5pm and I had to start thinking about getting back, as I had running club in the evening. I went to find a bike to ride back to the station but couldn’t see any. I opened the app and it told me where two were, but as I started walking towards them, two guys beat me to it. I tried another one but it was broken. I went to the bus stop but all the buses were insanely busy. I ended up walking a little way to find a bike that had been parked at the back of a carpark, next to a filthy creek. 

The bike was standing next to some oil seed rape, which grows in and around the village I grew up in, and flowers in time for my birthday. It felt surreal to see it here but it made me very happy.

I pedalled back to the metro station and boarded a train towards the city, hungry but happy to have seen a slither of countryside.