‘Do you want to be a hero or a
talent?’ asks Qian Haiyang,
one of Grabtalk’s three
‘A hero!’ I answer. ‘What’s a hero?’
Working at personal assistant
service Grabtalk you get to choose:
heroes communicate over WeChat
with users about their problems,
talents work away alongside to find
With the huge increase in customer
services in China (think massages
in your own home, individual coffees
being delivered and laundry taken
away), I wanted to try a job in the
burgeoning service sector. So I
spent a week at Grabtalk, a WeChat
customer service operator on the
frontline of expat emergencies.
If tourists or expats can’t speak
Chinese and need some help with,
say, buying something online or
paying a bill, Grabtalk operators are
on hand to help.
Here’s how a day as
an operator unfolds.
Unlike more traditional jobs in
China, this one has a late start
because Johnny Foreigners don’t
generally start having problems until
I’m led into the operators’ office
and am surprised to recognise
the staff from their WeChat profile
pictures. For some reason I’d
expected fake profiles because, well,
With Chrissy as my WeChat
wingman, the Robin ‘talent’ to my
Batman ‘hero’, I get logged in to the software, fingers hovering above the
keyboard, poised to problem-solve.
‘It’s a reactive job,’ says Chrissy.
Then up pops my first request.
Someone wants to buy fruit. I’m
initially delighted. Then perplexed.
What I want to type is ‘go to a fruit
shop, choose fruit, pay for fruit’. Then
I get over myself, remembering what
that first trip to China is like (and I still
get overcharged for apples). I realise
I don’t actually know how to have fruit
delivered. Chrissy does.
There are a few more enquiries,
mainly about booking cars for people
who don’t speak Chinese or can’t
pay. In fact, this turns out to be one
of the biggest issues facing visitors
and expats alike. They might have the
money, but just can’t get it into the
Later, I deal with multiple requests,
including a certain gentleman in
Suzhou who wants not just a massage
in a couple of hours, but a translator
for the next few weeks. One talent is
not enough and others join the hunt to
help me out.
‘You’re not using enough
expression,’ chides Chrissy.
‘Er, like being enthusiastic?’
‘No, inserting these expressions,’
she says, loading up the emoji panel.
I need to add more smiley faces,
apparently. As it’s becoming quite
an endeavour trawling Suzhou for
translators, I plump for a smiley
face with an army hat to more clearly express the severity of the team’s
undertaking. ‘Good,’ says Chrissy.
It’s after 8pm when things really
pick up. That’s when people start
getting lost, hungry, drunk and lonely.
At 8.45pm everyone wants Indian
food delivering. Not long after that,
the Beijing taxi force is coming under
strain and people start using us to
get a ride even if we suspect they can
speak Chinese, are Chinese, or have
the necessary technology.
It wouldn’t be a proper shift if there
weren’t a few of the more ambitious
or downright salacious requests.
‘Can you teach me Chinese tonight?’,
’How can I get a Chinese girlfriend?’
and ‘Do you want to be my girlfriend?’
are fairly common enquiries. Nobody
wants a boyfriend tonight, though.
‘We just send back links to dating
sites,’ explains fellow hero Hiatus.
A skateboard is delivered for some
reason, causing a distinct drop in
productivity and evoking a laid-back,
start-up vibe. Generally, we manage
to help keep visitors in food, drink and
cars throughout the day.
As time goes on I get more and
more into my customer service job,
wondering what that says about
my inner desire to please. I end the
shift on a group discussion where
we’re trying to decide on the best
moisturiser for a user: ‘But has
she got oily skin?’ ‘Is that rude to
Everything works out fine, the
moisturiser is delivered and everyone
gets the hang of the skateboard.