The smell is ever present, but the cold air is refreshing. People are drawn indoors. They know today is not the day to be outside. Buildings, not ten metres ahead of you, appear hazy behind a thin layer of smog.
You open up the air quality app, as if expecting different news. The little cartoon face next to ‘Sydney’ — home — is green and smiling. But you are not in Sydney; you are not home. The face next to the city you’re in is deep purple and wearing a respirator mask.
Avoid outdoor exercise. Close your windows to avoid dirty outdoor air. Wear a mask outdoors. Run an air purifier.
The words mean nothing to you anymore.
You admonish yourself for running an errand today. Your phone pings as your relatives remind you to stay indoors. You don’t want to go to the hospital again, just because you started coughing blood. Just China things, you guess. If you must go out, wear a good quality mask with a filter.
Suddenly, out of the smog looms a billboard. There’s nothing else in sight.
The hazy air gives the lights and the billboard an ethereal quality. Your eyes sweep over the message, the smiling woman, the logo, and you keep walking.
“Do you have Douyin?” your aunt once asked you.
“No,” you replied. You’re not interested in this Chinese app, but she nonetheless makes you watch some very unfunny (and frankly, kind of misogynistic) Douyin videos, reminiscent of 2009 YouTube skits.
You head into a shopping centre, hoping to get a hot drink. You’re not thirsty, but the wind has chilled your fingers until they’ve gone numb, despite the label on your gloves saying wind resistant.
As you wait for your matcha latte — because the coffee here is a travesty — you see a row of claw machines and mystery box vending machines just beyond the seating area of the cafe. They all sport the black, light blue and red 떰稜 Douyin logo. You didn’t know that claw machines could be sponsored. You absentmindedly wonder if Twitter would ever do something like this — have their own range of vending machines.
You stumble down the stairs to the subway station. You walk down a tunnel with glowing clean, white ads on the walls. You don’t register what is being sold, only that fifty metres of ad space were all promoting the same thing. Over and over again.
You take off your bag and heavy coat to put through the X-ray machine at the entrance. A station attendant takes your water bottle aside to make sure that you are indeed carrying water, and not something more dangerous. Finally, you walk up to the ticket barrier. Your matcha latte from earlier was not able to defrost your fingers entirely; they are still clumsy as you try to pull out your metro card. You might miss home, but you certainly don’t miss Sydney’s third-rate transport system.
As the two sets of doors open for you, you squeeze onto the train. You stand awkwardly between a tiny old lady sitting on a bag big enough to envelope her, and a gangly young man. Two middle aged men on either end of the carriage are on their phones, their volume at full blast. You wonder if they’ve ever heard of earphones.
People around you glance at you — you’re a girl with blue hair, after all — then bow their heads to look at their phones again. You see their eyes shine from the glow of their screens. You’re curious. You peek at a screen near you. You recognise the interface. You recognise the logo.
Oh, it’s Douyin.
Of course, it is.
You look at another screen. Douyin again.
Your attention and confusion pique. You’re not sure if it’s the cultural difference, or if Douyin videos just aren’t that good — your 60-year-old aunt isn’t exactly known for her good taste in humour.
The reception underground isn’t strong enough for your VPN to connect. You sigh. No Instagram or Reddit scrolling until you alight and rejoin the surface world.
You gaze out the window to the zoetrope subway ads. Hundreds of screens, mounted to the wall of the subway tunnel, fly by; all playing the same advertisement until they blend together into one moving image. There is no sound, of course, but you see a man — a talk show host well known enough that even you, a foreigner, would recognise — baking in the kitchen. He’s having a great time. You see the Douyin logo in the corner.
Oh, you realise, it’s a Douyin ad.
Your eyebrows draw together and your forehead creases as you try to remember the last time a Western social media platform went this hard at promoting themselves. You don’t think Zuckerberg would even have the gall to plaster Facebook ads on every surface of the real world. No one in the train sees the ads outside the window. They are all watching their own Douyin apps.
When you’re finally in the back of a taxi — over population means that labour here is dirt cheap and you can afford to catch as many taxis as you want — you connect to your VPN and open up Instagram. The caption underneath a selfie of a beautiful, young influencer reads: Guysssss, I FINALLY made a TikTok account! Go follow me @...
Confusion piques again, as does something else. You think it’s dread. You don’t understand why anyone in the Western world would want to download this dystopian app.
The taxi weaves in and out of the traffic jam almost effortlessly, with precision and callousness that you don’t have. Across all twelve lanes, there are twenty other taxis doing the same. You would never survive the regular roads of China, let alone the fury roads. You don’t think about how sustainable it is for China to have over 240 million cars on the road.
You drive by another billboard — a huge digital, LED screen that is probably responsible for half the light pollution in this city — and read its message. An actor is going to do a live broadcast on TikTok tomorrow. The tagline is the same as it’s always been:
Douyin — record beautiful life.