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.