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 everywhere?
  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.

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?

My first ayi

When I lived in a shared house in London, we had a cleaner once a week. There were four of us, plus visiting partners and a cat, and the idea was that having a cleaner would help us to keep the place clean/tidy throughout the week. It cost us about 15 GBP per hour (I can’t find the pound sign on this keyboard…). Because I am middle class and British, I found having a cleaner really weird, but accepted that the alternative was to clean up after my housemates.

In Shanghai, I live on my own and so have been fighting getting a cleaner. But no more.

Yesterday I went on 大众点评 (an app that’s a bit like yelp or google reviews or something, but better – you can book through it) and ordered a cleaning lady, or ayi, to come this morning. It cost me 70 RMB for two hours.

She showed up 20 minutes early, which was a bit awkward as I was just going out to buy a milk tea and some more cleaning products – I was suddenly worried that she wouldn’t bring any… and I was right. We had a bit of a chat and I showed her around the flat and left her to start on the bathroom while I went to the shops to buy her a mop.

I came back and found her cleaning the bathroom with my face towel. “Is it okay to use this cloth?” she asked. Well, a bit late now…

I retreated to my bedroom where I attempted to look very studious. She didn’t care about this and kept popping in to ask me questions about why I lived alone, how much rent I paid, why I didn’t clean more often… In the meantime she made every surface in my flat damp, before sweeping the floor and making that damp too. I *think* she used some cleaning products but not really enough.

After about an hour she told me that she was done, and I pretended to inspect the place and said “yeah yeah, looks great, thanks” so that she could leave and I could use the loo.

Actually, she’s not done a bad job. Cleaning is boring and I’m happy to pay someone to do it for me, and I get to practice my Chinese in the meantime. And now I own a mop.

Here are my top tips for getting an ayi:

  • Don’t expect her to bring any cleaning materials or products. Mine literally just brought a straw hat.
  • Either get one through a recommendation or you can order one through the app if you can read Chinese.
  • Don’t expect her to speak any English whatsoever.
  • Expect lots of personal questions!
  • Hide anything you don’t mind her commandeering for use as a cleaning cloth. I’m serious: towels, pillow cases, sheets, underwear, clothes, etc.
  • Point out the cleaning products several times and make it clear that you want them used.
  • Don’t get stressed that her idea of cleaning is to make everything damp with a cloth. If you have specific things you want cleaning then either tell/show her or do it yourself when she’s gone – I have a bit of a mold problem and bought some fancy imported mold spray but I wasn’t going to go to the hassle of explaining how to use this to her.
  • If you book her for a certain time, eg 09:30, expect her anytime from 09:00. And don’t expect her to stay for two hours, she’ll tell you when she’s finished and then you can either say you’re happy with it or ask her to clean something she’s missed.

It’s pretty cool to think I have a nice clean(ish) flat now, having booked it on an app yesterday. That’s one of the cool things about living in China, you can order/book anything you like. If I run out of ice, I order some. If I’m hungry, I order food. If I want an inflatable ball pond to play in, I order one. Life is convenient. Life is good.

 

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

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!

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.