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.

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.

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.