I’m met by a round of applause just for saying 'hello' to my class of 18 pensioners who have gathered for their weekly WeChat and tai chi class. That’s right, the class is half WeChat interface, half swinging and squatting. 'Because they’ll get bored and it’s uncomfortable for them to have their heads bent down all the time,' an organiser had told me.
I’d already been across town for tai chi training so that I could impart the routine specially developed for senior stretchers, though I still wasn’t a prepared as I’d hoped.
Everyone takes their seats (there’s only four men and two of them make up the back row) then take out their phones. The first step is connecting to the community centre’s Wi-Fi. My first lesson is that I don’t actually know how to use any operating system other than the iPhone’s iOS, which not a single student was using.
Connecting takes a little while so in the meantime Teacher Li explains the usefulness of Wi-Fi’s global standards, meaning when you check into a hotel room abroad, you can connect to the Wi-Fi and make calls home for free. ‘Why is there more than one choice of network to connect to?’ is the response to that.
The facilities are fantastic and we use a large flat-screen TV to show images of interfaces, though WeChat’s scanning function is the favourite. Teacher Li then addresses a real bugbear for all WeChat users: how to switch off notifications from annoying group chats. 'So annoying!' 'So much noise all the time!' are the positive responses to learning this trick. Everyone has boring WeChat contacts they want to silence.
There’s a lot of chat throughout as everyone’s WeChat somehow seems to be different, but the next step – how to video call – is a common function. The students have more or less paired up by this point to help each other work things out and it makes sense to simply video call the person they’re sitting next to.
'Why do you come to class?' asks Teacher Li. 'Because you’re too timid to just press buttons and see what happens like a four-year-old would.' Harsh words, but he’s trying to make a point about discovering what WeChat can do. We’re explaining as much why you would do something as how to do it.
Sending hongbao (electronic versions of the red envelopes stuffed with cash at Chinese New Year) is instantly understood and Teacher Li urges everyone to send 1 fen (0.01RMB) to someone they know. 'I’ll send a 1 fen hongbao to you, teacher,' says a lady in the second row. 'Thank you!' 'Oh it won’t send.' 'Let me see,' he says and we look at her phone. 'Oh, due to national regulations you can’t send anything as your ID is incomplete,' Teacher Li explains. 'Gotta be real-name registered!' shouts out an old boy from the back row.
Then I ask the students what they use WeChat for; the answer is predominantly for chatting to relatives (and not just younger ones). Though things turn a little more poignant when Teacher Li again explains why they need to embrace the technology: ‘the world is changing and mobiles aren’t about calling people. You need to catch up or you’ll be left behind because soon people aren’t going to want to be paid in cash, delivery drivers will WeChat you rather than call. Think about it, instead of making your kids buy things for you, get them delivered so that you can spend the time with your kids that they would have spent on your errand.’
'Activity time!' shouts out the lady with the Le Shi phone the class had panned. Suddenly everyone is up on their feet and moving the chairs to the side ready for tai chi. While my (relative) youth gave me some authority for the phones, the students are here for Master Dong’s instruction so I join in at the back and confuse my classmates with questions like 'So why do you have WeChat and tai chi together?'.