Billie JD Porter Talks To Us about Her New Show On Young People in China
The Debrief: Parental pressures, gaming superfandom, teenage bootcamp all feature in Billie’s new series about what it’s like being young in China
Billie JD Porter isn’t exactly bursting with nostalgia for her school days. ‘I went to a fucking terrible school,’ she says. ‘Awful. Absolute chaos. A teacher was stabbed when I was there. We had police at our gates. The children were so badly behaved.’
She left as soon as she could – at 16.
We’re chatting over the phone about Billie’s new three-part BBC series, Secrets of China. For the first episode, ‘Fit in or Fail’, Billie visited a state secondary school and found it a world away from her own experience of education. Young people in China face intense pressure to do well in the Gaokao – the national uni entrance exam – so discipline and knowledge are prized over creativity.
‘I was kind of in awe of it because in my school I always wanted to study but the environment was so shitty that I couldn’t.’
Not all Chinese kids are the model students their parents would like them to be. Episode one sees Billie enrol at a boot camp for rebellious teenagers who’ve been sent there for bunking off school, smoking, drinking, socialising with the opposite sex – all of which sound like pretty standard, spirited youthful behaviour to Billie.
‘The stupid mistakes you make, the silly people you date, the weird jobs you had – it’s all part of growing up but [in China] there’s no time for that,’ she says.
Dressed in military garb, Billie joins her new mates on an intensive training programme: they sing patriotic songs, scrub loos, march for miles on end, and spend an hour standing completely still, in silence, staring at a white dot on a chalkboard. This proved to be ‘absolute torture’ for Billie. ‘People were walking around shouting at you to concentrate. I was like, I can’t even see it anymore…’
To her surprise, though, she found that boot camp wasn’t all bad. ‘I was so cynical about it to the point where I found it quite difficult to film but I did a complete 360,’ says Billie. ‘It’s not just about discipline; it’s about surpassing your expectations of yourself. On the march, there were kids who were being pushed physically up this hill and they were like, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. But they were told, you have to. In some instances, that approach does work.’
Another unexpected discovery: in China, gaming is a big deal. A really big deal. A third of the boys at the boot camp are addicted to it. One played the game League of Legend for three days and two nights straight. Billie had a go herself, and couldn’t see the appeal.
‘I thought OK, maybe it’s this amazing, multi-level fantasy game. But it’s one level. They just do one level over and over again.’
Still, a trip to a League of Legends tournament was like a night out at a One Direction gig. Far from being seen as geeks, the top players – all boys in their teens and twenties, no female pro gamers featured – earn six-figure salaries and are heartthrobs with legions of superfans.
‘I remember being at the stage door – it reminded me of that scene from Almost Famous where Penny Lane is trying to get in backstage,’ Billie remembers. ‘It was crazy – these guys are sex symbols here. The girls are completely losing their shit over them.’
This gender divide isn’t exclusive to the gaming world. Episode two will look in more depth at the expectations faced by young people in China when it comes to romance. ‘Men don’t want to marry anyone who’s cleverer than them so [as a young woman] you’re in this weird situation where you’re being told to study really hard so you can go to university but then you don’t want to be too career-driven because that’s not going to make you attractive to a man.’
Billie adds: ‘Their time is quite regimented when they’re studying and then as soon as they leave university and get a job their parents are like, so when are you going to get married? A lot of them don’t know how to talk to the opposite sex because they haven’t been allowed to.’
Which aspects of youth culture in China does Billie reckon we’re missing out on the most here in the UK? Respect, she says. Not just for authority but for our families.
‘It wasn’t just them being obedient; you could tell they really did respect each other. You’d have a family with a grandmother in her eighties and she’s properly waited on and treated really well. That family structure is beautiful.’
She says: ‘I became a bit obsessed with China by the end – it has such a rich history. Before this project, it wasn’t really on my list. Now whenever I talk to people I’m like, go to China, you’ve got to go to China, let’s go to China!’
Catch the first episode of Secrets of China, Fit in or Fail, on BBC Three at 9pm on Tuesday 25 August.
Like this? Then you might also be interested in:
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rachsh
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating