Blog


05

Dec 2018

“Meng” Characterplay

I spotted this ad on the Shanghai Metro:

盟盟

The name of the service is 盟盟 (and apparently all the good domain names have been taken for that one). You can see how the “盟” character blends nicely into the drawing of the ship.

But no, the brand has nothing to do with ships or cruises or whatever… So while the characterplay looks like it kind of works, the picture really has nothing to do with what 盟盟 is all about: franchising (加盟) other brands.


27

Nov 2018

Fish You Talk

This restaurant, 鱼你说, has a pun for a name:

Yu Ni Shuo

I also like the stylized font!

The name is a pun on the phrase “与你说,” which means “talk with you.” is a rather formal word that can be used in place of or in many contexts.

Although the pinyin for both the name and the phrase are “yu ni shuo,” actually is second tone, while is third tone. But is third tone, which means that is read as second tone, due to the tone change rule. So actually the two sound the same.


21

Nov 2018

11-11: Blinded by Consumerism

The “Double 11” (AKA “Singles Day”) Chinese shopping holiday has been over for 10 days, but I think this is still worth sharing. This ad by Tmall remains the best (unintentional) metaphor for “blinded by consumerism” that I’ve seen:

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

The mask is in the shape of Tmall‘s logo, a cat. Tmall’s Chinese name is 天猫, which literally means “Sky Cat,” but it seems like it was chosen based on the English name (“T” for Taobao, which owns Tmall, and “mao” sounds like “mall” to Chinese ears).

TMall Cat (天猫)

It’s funny that you sometimes see the 双11 (literally, “Double 11”) manufactured holiday translated in English as “Singles Day” (formerly “Bachelor’s Day”). This day was once celebrated as such, but in a few short years, the shopping aspect has completely taken over the “holiday.” Single people feel entirely irrelevant now. But hey… who cares about human connections when you can spend money on all these great deals??


16

Nov 2018

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

Spotted on a wall in Shanghai:

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

It reads:

勿以恶小而为之,
勿以善小而不为。

Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.

Translation:

Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.

A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:

  • : “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “because” (classical Chinese)
  • : a tricky grammar word usually indicating contrast (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “to do” (classical Chinese)
  • : “it” (classical Chinese)

Words like and are especially tricky because they can mean so many different things! 慢慢来… it takes time to absorb all those different usages.


15

Nov 2018

E ink for the Shanghai Bus System

I was surprised to see this new bus schedule display screen using what appears to be e ink for its display:

Shanghai Bus Stop Using E ink

I did a double-take at first, thinking it had to be paper. (Obviously, it’s a screen.)

Pretty cool! I had no idea that this technology was being applied in this way. Curious if this is just a tiny experiment, or if this kind of display is rolling out at a larger scale already. E ink totally makes sense as a way to roll out more dynamic (networked) announcement boards across the city at a lower energy cost.

One of my co-workers remarked that there’s a conspicuous lack of ad space on the display. Other similar bus stop displays have used conventional monitors to show the bus ever-changing schedule alongside video ads. This does seem like a user-friendly lower-cost option, though.


07

Nov 2018

Co-working Dominates Shanghai in 2018

I’ve loved the office building where AllSet Learning has been based for the past 6 years. How can you not love a building like this??

AllSet Learning's new office building

I like the natural light and high ceilings, the white walls and natural wood, the lack of fluorescent lighting and cubicles, the “indie but professional” vibe. But recently the government decided it wants the building back, and since technically it’s zoned for education, they can take it back. So it’s time to find a new office!

What’s really striking is how co-woking spaces have totally taken over Shanghai and, unfortunately, driven up office rental rates. Currently the main co-working spaces are:

That last one is a new one, but it seems to have gone all in on co-working, buying up locations all over Shanghai (and several other cities) in a short amount of time.

The co-working space competition is really heating up, and I’ve definitely felt that as we looked around for office space. Co-working spaces charge by the “seat” rather than the actual space provided, and they are generally overpriced (they try to justify it with free coffee or “member-only activities,” as if the main point of renting an office isn’t space to work), but they really are squeezing out a lot of the more traditional options. It used to be much easier to find office space in a small building for a decent price. It’s still not impossible, but the landscape is changing fast.

So AllSet Learning decided to go with Kr Space. Since it’s new, the rates are very competitive, and we were able to choose a larger office than you typically get at one of these places. While I originally wanted to stay away from co-working spaces, I like the location, and Kr Space is more focused on providing a good working environment for individual offices than some of the others.

One downside to moving into a co-working space is that there’s way less storage space. But I’ve come to recognize that one of the reasons co-working has taken off is that most modern offices really don’t need to store a ton of stuff. Most records should be electronic these days, so a company shouldn’t need walls and walls of shelves and cabinets. So we’re taking this opportunity to slim down, and one of the unfortunate results is that we need to unload a ton of books. Some of the Chinese textbooks in our library are showing their age, and some we just never use. So it’s time to weed out some books.

I’ve advertised on WeChat, but if you’re looking to pick up some free Chinese study materials, come by our old office this week (before we move on Nov. 10, 2018). We also have some Mandarin Companion inventory for sale (imported from the U.S., but at 100 RMB per book still cheaper than on Amazon.cn).


24

Oct 2018

Arcade Games by QR Code

Spotted in the People Squared (West Nanjing Rd. location) co-working space lobby in Shanghai:

QR Code Arcade Machine

QR Code Arcade Machine

QR Code Arcade Machine

In case it’s not entirely obvious, there are no quarters or coins of any kind. There is no “caninet” to hold coins. It’s just a TV hooked up to a small computer of some kind (housed under the controls, it looks like), and all payments are done by scanning the on-screen QR code and paying via mobile payment (WeChat or AliPay).

The games cost:

  • 5 RMB for 10 minutes
  • 8 RMB for 20 minutes
  • 15 RMB for 40 minutes

Pretty cool business model! I’m not sure this is the best location for this particular venture, but I like the idea.


17

Oct 2018

Deciphering “skr” Slang

So there’s this word “skr” being used a lot in China these days, mainly by Chinese kids online. As with any popular internet slang, however, it has found its way into real-world marketing materials. Here’s a usage I spotted the other day in Shanghai:

sheng-skr-ren

So the part we’re focused on here is:

省skr人

Which means, essentially:

省死个人

This could be restated as:

(人)可以省很多钱

If you’re trying to make sense of “skr,” it’s usually used to replace 是个 or 死个 (normally it should be the intensifying , as in the example above). The word has its roots in Chinese hip hop, and specifically the performer 吴亦凡 [Baidu Baike link], who is pictured several times in the GIFs below (red background).

This is a screenshot from a search of WeChat’s 表情 animated GIFs showing how popular “skr” currently is:

skr-stickers

(I don’t expect this popularity will last.)


11

Oct 2018

EF’s “REAL Foreign Teachers”: Progress or Dog Whistle?

I spotted this EF advertisement here in Shanghai recently:

REAL English Teachers!!!

The text reads:

在英孚,我们
只用真正的外教

  • 100% TEFL/TKT双证上岗
  • 100% 全职教学
  • 100% 大学以上学历

A translation:

At English First, we
only use real foreign teachers

  • 100% TEFL/TKT double certification
  • 100% full-time teaching
  • 100% university graduates

So you see a white face and the promise of “REAL foreign teachers.” Is this some kind of racist ad? No, no, you are mistaken: they’re referring to the qualifications of their teachers, which just happens to be written in smaller type below. It’s just a coincidence that the teacher they chose for the ad is white, right?

This seems like a dog whistle advertisement to me. They’re communicating with the racist segment of their target market while also maintaining plausible deniability.

What do you think?


03

Oct 2018

So I made a screencast…

I’m in the middle of the 7-day Chinese National Day (国庆节) holiday, and I’m in the office getting some work done. I decided a while ago that it would be useful to make some videos (and I did make one), but I didn’t want the hassle of video editing (or managing video editing) on a regular basis. Turns out screencasts are really easy to do once you get them all set up!

So I’m doing a series of screencasts about the Chinese Grammar Wiki, and this first one explains how you can make use of keywords on the wiki for quicker and easier navigation:

If you find it useful, please share!


27

Sep 2018

China Knows Potatoes, Yet Doesn’t Appreciate Potatoes

I like potatoes. I have Polish and Irish blood, so maybe it’s in my DNA. China has a number of good potato dishes, such as the staple 酸辣土豆丝 (sour and spicy potato strips). But it seems like some of the best ones get no love from the local population.

Take this dish for example:

Spicy Potatoes

The original Chinese dish was 椒盐土豆 (“salt and pepper potatoes”), and it was good, but I asked them to make it spicy (spicy version pictured above), and it was so much better. Really amazing.

Years ago I had an ayi from China’s Dongbei (northeast) region, and she learned to make garlic mashed potatoes (with no butter) that were awesome. But Chinese people don’t normally eat that.

Of course, French fries are pretty popular here. But the really good potato dishes get no recognition in China…

Sad Potato


Related: 10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love


21

Sep 2018

When the Teacher Strikes Back

I came across this image on WeChat:

Sassy Teacher Pwns Students

The original image was written in traditional characters. Here’s a simplified Chinese transcript:

学生:老师你教的都

是没有用的东西

老师:我不许你这样

说自己

Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it at first. Some native speakers even take a second to figure out what happened.

This is a case of syntactic ambiguity. You can interpret the first statement in two ways, and it’s all because the verb , meaning “to teach,” can take two objects: who is being taught (what we think of as a “indirect object” in English) and what is being taught (what we think of as a “direct object” in English).

The other key is that in Chinese, 没有用的东西 (literally, “useless things”) can also refer to people.

So the joke is that when the student says “everything you teach is useless,” the teacher flips it around and interprets it as “everyone you teach is useless.” Then the teacher pretends to take the high road and says, “I won’t let you talk about yourself that way.”


12

Sep 2018

Shanghai Subway Ads that Teach Chinese Grammar

Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:

JD.com Ad 1

不为朋友圈而运动

JD.com Ad 3

不为跟风而运动

JD.com Ad 5

不为赶时髦而运动

JD.com Ad 4

不为别人的眼光而运动

JD.com Ad 2

不为自拍而运动

In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.

The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.

The ads roughly translate to:

  • Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
  • Exercise, not just because everyone else is
  • Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
  • Exercise, not because of what other people think
  • Exercise, not for the selfies

(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)


04

Sep 2018

The Value of Reading Marvel Comics in Chinese

Last month my friend Zach Franklin and I spent a half-hour in a recording studio talking about reading Marvel graphic novels as a way to practice Chinese. Not sure how often I’ll do this kind of recording, but hopefully you Chinese learners will find it interesting!

John and Zach talk Marvel Infinity

The last interview I did of Zach was all text, for the 2010 interview post The Value of a Master’s in Chinese Economics. Now you get to hear his voice and learn a bit more about how he uses his Chinese for less serious endeavors.

The book we talk about (aside from Harry Potter) is Marvel’s Infinity, or 无限 in Chinese (in Zach’s hands above).

Audio Highlights

Here are a few markers for the audio, as well as some of the Chinese mentioned in our conversation:

  • 03:00: 2000 AD, Judge Dredd and Spawn discussion
  • 03:48 : Harry Potter discussion begins
  • 04:50: 4 Privet Drive = 女贞路4号
  • 05:38: Buying James Bond 连环画 books in Xujiahui
  • 09:16: to answer this question, Spawn (再生侠) has still not been officially translated for the Chinese market
  • 10:20: Beijing 潘家园 Market, 星球大战(上、中、下)
  • 11:41: my “Vader didn’t get a lot of screen time” comment was a reference to this YouTube video
  • 12:51: Discussion of Marvel Comics in Chinese, and the experiece of tackling them for the first time
  • 15:10: Discussion of the graphic novel Infinity
  • 17:49: Why Zach is a hypocrite (when it comes to study methods)
  • 19:12: Character names in Chinese discussed: 钢铁侠 (Iron Man)、雷神托尔索尔 (Thor)、鹰眼 (Hawkeye)、黑寡妇 (Black Widow)
  • 21:09: Calling out Pleco for lack of Marvel character name vocab
  • 21:28: 灭霸 (Thanos)、黑色兄弟会 (the Black Order) / 杀戮黑曜石 (lit. “Slaughter Obsidian”)、黑矮星 (Black Dwarf / Cull Obsidian)、超巨星 (Supergiant)、亡刃将军 (Corvus Glaive)、比灵星午夜暗夜比邻星 (Proxima Midnight)、
  • 25:10: “Infinity” is not the same as “Infinity War” at all
  • 26:38: Is reading translated comics in Chinese a good idea for other learners as well??
  • 27:44: “Cultural depth” of Marvel comics and Star Wars in Chinese society
  • 29:06: The value of studying material you’re actually interested in

Images from Infinity (Chinese Version)

The front of the book has a list of all the Marvel characters’ Chinese names, and here are the sections that relate to this podcast (apologies for the quality; it’s a photo of a physical book!):

Infinity (Marvel), Avengers

Infinity (Marvel), Black Order

Here we can see the members of the Black Order more clearly:

Infinity (Marvel), Black Order

And, just for balance, here are a few shots where the Chinese used is actually really easy to read:

Infinity (Marvel), Cap & gang

Infinity (Marvel), Black Bolt & Thanos

Finally, a few cases where apparently translation was not really an option (or maybe just too much trouble):

Infinity (Marvel), Thanos

Infinity (Marvel), Thor

(Take that, 灭霸!)

If anyone has a question for Zach, please leave a comment on this blog post, and I’ll gleefully harass him until he answers!


31

Aug 2018

Flashcards: That’s not how it works!

My partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared, recently created this meme for a blog post:

Flashcards: that's not how it works!

The blog post is a learner story, and it touches on flashcards, but that’s not really the main point of the story. Still a useful read for other learners of Chinese, though.

But the meme struck me as very timely, because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about flashcards over the years. Back in my ChinesePod days, my friend John B was always quite the flashcard software (SRS) “believer,” and my co-worker JP was always against it. At the time I was somewhat neutral (probably more on the pro side), but over the years I’ve gained a lot more insight into the issues surrounding flashcard usage. One of my earlier posts, Misgivings about SRS, touches on some of the ideas, but I wrote that the same year I started AllSet Learning, and since then I’ve come into contact with many different kinds of learners and gained far deeper insight into how flashcards work for whom, and how they don’t work.

I’m still organizing my thoughts for an upcoming blog post (it’s going to be rather long), but if you have your own flashcard story to tell (for or against), please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email. Links to academic studies of flashcards are also very welcome.

I’ll end with a thought related to extensive reading, which is what Mandarin Companion is all about: Chinese graded readers. Reading is the original spaced repetition. (For many cases, it’s still superior.)


23

Aug 2018

Extreme Characterplay with Furniture

It might be hard to make out the characters used in this furniture store’s ad:

生活现场 (MEHOS)

They are: 生活现场. 生活现场 is a phrase that’s not easy to translate… if you ask a native speaker what it means, they’ll have trouble answering you without a context. It’s something like “scenes of daily life.” The characterplay kind of works, I guess… I like the the best. The is not impressive.

Anyway, the ad is for 美好家 (MEHOS), a furniture store in Shanghai.


16

Aug 2018

Fukuoka 20 Years Later, post-China

I studied abroad in Japan for the 1997-98 academic year. During spring break, a friend and I hitchhiked from Osaka to Fukuoka. We visited from friends of mine, and explored the northern half of the island of Kyushu. Now, just over 20 years later, I’ve just visited Fukuoka again. This time the differences I noticed felt meaningful, and it’s not because of Japan. It’s because of me, and the 18 years I’ve spent in China in the meantime.

Obviously, this is a personal take. So-called “evidence” I cite is anecdotal. It doesn’t take into account the societies as a whole. I know, Fukuoka is not Tokyo. But if you can handle all that, read on.

The overwhelming sense I got which took hold of me early on in the visit and just wouldn’t let go is that Japan hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Of course it’s changed. But having lived in China, where pace of development permanently stuck in “breakneck speed,” Fukuoka really made me feel like Japan’s development is at a standstill. I’m no economist, but I’m into technology, so that’s one of the areas I was constantly checking up on. Remember when Japan felt super high-tech, back in the 80’s and 90’s? Now it feels kind of like Disney’s Epcot center, the “city of the future” conceived of in the 1970’s.

Just a few things that left an impression:

  1. Vending machines everywhere. This is one of the things that’s so Japan, and I take no issue with the approach, except that these are literally the exact same machines from 20 years ago. They really haven’t changed. Meanwhile, China is outfitting these machines with scanners to support WeChat and AliPay.

    "Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

  2. “Cashless” restaurant ordering also means vending machines. My wife’s mind was blown that so many Japanese restaurants use meal ticket vending machines. This way the staff doesn’t have to handle money at all, and no one has to take orders. Makes sense, right? The modern Chinese solution, though, is to just put QR codes on the restaurant tables. Diners scan, order, and pay right away. The restaurant staff knows which table you ordered from. You barely have to talk to the staff, much less give them a ticket. No cash, no paper, no human interaction necessary. Cold efficiency.

    China

  3. Japan’s rail system is still legendary. Again, exactly the same as 20 years ago. You buy train tickets from vending machines. There’s a very real sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can understand that. The train system works so well! It’s easy to use, and the trains all run on time. Shanghai’s subway and light rail system is not better than Fukuoka’s. And yet, there’s this feeling that in 10 more years (if that), Shanghai’s will be clearly superior, and Fukuoka’s will be the same.

    IMG_3764

  4. Japan’s still doing great with recycling and environmental protection. I know, Japan still kills whales and does other bad things. But in general Japan is great at recycling, the streets are clean, and a retreat into the mountains (also clean and relatively unsullied) is never far away. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it would be so great if China could catch up in this respect.

    Lawson Japan

  5. It’s not hard to be alone in Japan. Sure, the cities are super crowded, and apartments are small. But if you need to get away from it all, it feels way easier in Japan. You can hop on a train or bus, and a short ride later be headed into the mountains where you’ll be totally alone. Sure, it’s possible in China, but harder.

    Gen on the Path

I could say a lot of these same things about China and the US, especially if I cherry-pick my cities. One interesting thing, though, was that when my wife told Japanese friends about how we use mobile payments for everything in Shanghai now, they were surprised and blown away. They had no idea.


10

Aug 2018

Down Time in Japan

It’s been a busy summer so far, so it was nice to pop over to Fukuoka for a week to unwind a bit. I ended up doing a lot of thinking about Japan and China. More on that next week.

Untitled

Gen on the Path

Forest Buddha

River Crab

P.S. River crabs (河蟹) are totally real in Fukuoka and actually crawl all over the mountains!

Taito Game Station


26

Jul 2018

The Torture of Japanese via Chinese

This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.

I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.

Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.

But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:

Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name

(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)

Brain melting…


19

Jul 2018

Updating Capsule Toy Vending Machines for Mobile Payments

You know those Japanese “capsule toy vending machines”? They’re called gashapon (ガシャポン) or gachapon (ガチャポン) in Japanese, and they’re fairly common all around Shanghai these days. The only problem is that these things were all originally designed to be coin-operated, and modern Chinese cities are using cash less and less, opting for mobile payment giants AliPay and WeChat whenever possible. So what’s a gachapon operator to do?

The most straightforward option is to offer token machines that accept mobile payments. The machine scans your mobile payment app’s QR code, you make the payment, and you get physical tokens. Then you use those in the machines to buy the capsule toys. Ka-chunk! Simple, effective, but it feels like it’s unnecessarily keeping physical currency as part of the operation.

Enter the mobile payment-powered gachapon network! I saw this in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park Toys R Us:

"Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

So one of the machines has been converted into a payment unit with a camera for scanning QR codes. You make your payment there, then choose a machine and turn the crank to get the toy.

"Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

"Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

Works great! (My kids needed some mini Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. 20 RMB each… not cheap, but not outrageous.)



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