More Effort Means More Learning

This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.

Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?

A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”

HSK WTF

Q: What? Why?

A: I’m glad you asked…

  1. Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
  2. Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
  3. Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
  4. You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.

Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.

HSK hundreds

But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.

Upgrading Self-Introductions

Remember when you first started studying Chinese? The teacher always made you introduce yourself. It usually consisted of something like the following:

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Photo by zhengdzi on Flickr

  • My name is _________.
  • I am from _________.
  • I am _________ years old.

It’s all very cute and practical, and instinctively seems appropriate to both beginners in a language as well as three-year-old native speakers. This type of basic self-introduction is generally accepted as normal and necessary.

Unfortunately, this self-introduction (自我介绍 in Chinese) often goes un-updated for years on end. So you’ve been studying Chinese for 2 years, are at a solid intermediate level, and yet you basically still recite the same self-introduction above (perhaps swapping out your age for your job). That’s kinda lame.

In reality, every new word you learn, every cool new grammar point, could potentially enhance your stale old self-introduction. Take the time to do the upgrade! Just like failing to upgrade your 听不懂 is going to affect your interactions with Chinese people, failing to upgrade your self-introduction will have the same effect. Ideally, your self-introduction should be as cutting-edge, language-wise, as you can smoothly handle. It’s OK to show off your Chinese level with your self-introduction just a little, if it means people will stop treating you like you just learned to say 你好.

The nice thing about self-introductions is that you can be creative. Keeping in mind that this is going to vary a lot depending on the individual, the audience, and the Chinese level of the speaker, here are a few suggestions to get you going:

  • If you have a Chinese name, and you tell your audience which characters are used to write it, use creative, interesting choices of words that use the characters in your name. You can use this trick to associate your name with a famous Chinese person you’re a fan of, or whatever you can come up with.
  • As you tell your audience where you are from, use the opportunity to stifle annoying stereotypes from the beginning (e.g. “I’m an American but I’ve never owned a gun,” or “I’m French but I’m not at all romantic,” etc.).
  • Add in your Chinese zodiac sign instead of your age for fun (and to show that you’re not a total newb in this whole “Chinese culture” game).
  • Depending on the audience, you may want to head off other annoying questions, by saying things like “I can use chopsticks” or “I am used to eating Chinese food”, but make sure that it comes across as a joke, and not the lamest brag ever.
  • Include a few details about why you first came to China or why you haven’t left yet, after all these years (because the Chinese are already curious about that kind of thing)… but be prepared for follow-up questions!
  • Include what Chinese movies, books, or dishes you like for a chance to make an instant connection with certain members of your audience.

P.S. Here are two cute kids’ self-introduction videos on Flickr: [1], [2].

“True Detective” in Chinese is Sneaky

I just finished Season 2 of the bleak HBO TV series True Detective, and enjoyed it (although it depressed me a bit). I’ve had a few discussions with Chinese friends about the show, and I realized that the Chinese name of the show is worth a mention.

true-detective-zhentan

So the Chinese name of the show is 真探. The word for “detective” in Chinese is 侦探. Notice that both are pronounced exactly the same: “zhēn tàn.”

So if you’re hearing the name of this show in Chinese for the first time, you’d probably think it is just called “zhēntàn,” translating to “The Detective” in English. You have to actually see the characters to realize that a “True” has been slipped in there. (Makes me think of a line from the show intro: “I live among you… well disguised.”) It’s different from the common character swaps you see in Chinese brand names because it’s actually a translation, and it’s the fusing of two meaningful words into one.

And this got me thinking about similar wordplay for other names. It’s not a true portmanteau, as I understand the term, because there is no phonetic fusing going on. The “fusing” is entirely writing-based, but extends to meaning once you see it. We can do this in English too, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any examples right now.

I actually see this a lot going the other way (semantically) in Chinese: a name makes you think of certain meanings associated with certain characters (that you think you hear), but then the name purposely switches out those characters (in an attempt to be more “subtle”?). One example of that is 肯德基. (The Chinese name for Kentucky is 肯塔基州, but since it’s the name for KFC, the brand could have used instead of ). Another examples is 珍爱网, a dating site, which is clearly playing on the “true love” meaning of the word 真爱.

Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Cultural Gaps

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I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).

Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)

Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.

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  1. 唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
  2. 孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
  3. 猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
  4. 沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
  5. 玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)

OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:

dashengguilai-characters

  1. The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
  2. In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
  3. When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
  4. Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
  5. 唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
  6. The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
  7. Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
  8. The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
  9. Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)

If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.

I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:

Music video with scenes from the movie:


Additional Links:

Watermelon Man’s Secret

I was tempted to use a title like, “You think this guy is just selling watermelons, but you won’t believe what he does next!

Anyway, on my morning commute, I passed this dejected-looking vendor, eyes downcast, as he shirtlessly watched over his truckload of watermelons. He was staring at his scale, and I imagined he was thinking about how absurd it is that this electronic device determines his income.

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As I got closer, I saw what he was actually doing.

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Yeah, that’s an iPad. Watermelon guy was watching some kind of drama (but due to bad luck, the screen was black right when I snapped this shot).

A “Home” for Escher in Chinese Design

Here’s a poster I spotted in a mall recently:

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The character there is , meaning “house,” “home,” or sometimes even “family.”

The first thing I noticed was its Escher-like quality, updated to a modern aesthetic. (Reminded me of Monument Valley even more than Escher directly, actually.) Very cool, and not something I see much in China, for sure!

The second thing I noticed was that the stylized character on the poster is missing a few strokes. If this character is , then the bottom part is supposed to be , which has 7 strokes. Instead, the bottom part looks more like the 5-stroke , minus the top stroke.

I found this odd, because this is a pretty big difference, and in my experience the Chinese don’t take character mutilation too lightly, especially when it’s not just private use. My wife’s response was just to shrug it off, though, with a, “yeah, but it’s still supposed to be .”

What do your Chinese friends think? Cool design, or heinous affront to the sanctity of the 10 strokes of the Chinese character ?

Steve Jobs Ice Cream in Shanghai

Passing by Chinese “Italian-style” ice cream shop “Iceason” with a friend yesterday, we were startled to see an ad featuring “3D printed” ice cream bars in the likeness of the late Steve Jobs:

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Steve Jobs Ice Cream

The surname “Jobs” is normally written in Chinese as “乔布斯,” or “Qiaobusi” in pinyin (a transliteration, where the characters are chosen for phonetic value only, and essentially have no meaning). For this ice cream bar, it’s written as “乔不死,” also “Qiaobusi” in pinyin, but with different characters so that it includes the phrase “not die” (不死).

The same shop also sells “3D printed” ice cream bars in the shape of the Apple watch and iPhone.

Dian Dian Sha

This is the logo for a service called 点点啥 (Dian Dian Sha):

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So this is the Chinese verb (meaning “to order (food)”), reduplicated. The word is a colloquial way to say 什么 (“what”), used more in northern China.

Nice characterplay here, the second replaced by the service bell, while the first is modified a bit to look more like the bell.

One thing beginners might not know is that the character component consisting of four short diagonal lines (as in ) is frequently written as a single horizontal line. You can actually see this in some PRC character simplifications:

  • 魚 → 鱼
  • 馬 → 马

Obviously, it’s not applied across the board, leaving us with characters like , , and , which still use the four short diagonal lines in printed form. In handwritten forms (or certain fonts), even those four short lines frequently get turned into a horizontal line (usually kinda squiggly).

点点啥 (Dian Dian Sha) has an app aimed at reduced food-related wait times.

Elementary School Volunteers Push for a More Civilized Shanghai

I was impressed by the “propaganda” handed to me in the subway yesterday. I had seen lots of elementary schoolers on the streets engaged in some sort of volunteer work, and then in the subway I experienced it firsthand. Here’s the flyer I was given:

Civilized Pet Care (Propaganda Flyer)

The “” represents the barking sound a dog makes in Chinese. (In panel 3, the little girls is saying “妈妈“, “mommy.”) The characters in the lower righthand corner read:

从我做起 [it starts with me]

文明养宠 [civilized care for pets]

长宁实验小学 [Changning Experimental Elementary School]

What impressed me was the idea that the school is (1) educating the kids to be “civilized” (文明), but also (2) trying to use the kids to influence the less civilized adults (who are arguably most in need of this type of education, but also prone to negatively influencing the kids). Made me think of the brilliant Thai anti-smoking ad that also used kids.

Here’s hoping these efforts pay off! We’d all like a “more civilized” Shanghai (with less dog poop).

Mike’s Immersion Experience in the Chinese Countryside

I’ve had many conversations with learners looking for an immersion experience in China. Well, Michael Hurwitz, my friend (and former AllSet Learning client) decided to round out his China experience with a month in the Sichuan countryside (outside Chengdu) doing farm work. He went through an organization called WWOOF that sets up labor-hungry foreigners with organic farms and the like.

But is a month enough? Was it a good experience? I interviewed Mike to get his take on it.


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农村 Mike

Could you explain why you felt the need to run off to the Chinese countryside for an immersion experience?

Mike: It was something I’d wanted to do for awhile, but the language element was only part of it. I was also interested in checking out a more “authentic” Chinese place than Shanghai, if that makes any sense. The lack of westerners and English speakers around was a big part of my reasoning, but I was also hoping that the stronger “Chineseness” of the 农村 [countryside] (and 农民 [rural workers], for that matter) would rub off on me a bit and that I’d understand a bit more about China, having seen a lifestyle very different than the urban one I’d been participating in.

What was the farm work like?

Mike: The work itself was nothing crazy, primarily because the farm was as much about environmental education as it was about growing stuff. I mostly planted trees and pulled weeds, with lots of other work thrown in. The farm’s owner was really flexible; for instance I sometimes have knee problems (because I’m secretly a 45-year old man) and he had no problem with me forgoing work that involved lots of crouching. Towards the end of my time there, the owner even had me translate some instruction manuals for products he’d ordered from the US into Chinese! Productive work, but not quite what I’d imagined beforehand.

mike-nongcun-manure

How was the food?

Mike: Food was very hit or miss. I don’t eat pork, which complicated things, as one of the 阿姨s [ayis] simply couldn’t understand that, and often left me no meat alternatives, which is tough when you’re doing physical labor all day. However, the other 阿姨 [ayi] was a wizard in the kitchen and made some absolutely magnificent dishes that I still crave.

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Were you able to practice a lot of Chinese? What kinds of conversations did you have? Was the location a good choice?

Mike: Definitely got a huge amount of practice. No one else on the farm spoke English, so all communication was done in Chinese. It was very productive in that it was easy to get past the normal sorts of introductory conversations and actually start talking with people about normal things grown-ups talk about.

This was very cool because so often as a foreigner you’re seen as more of a curiosity than an actual person, so you can’t really have genuine conversations, but living on the farm with the same people for an extended period helped me get past that.

The location was something of a mixed bag. While being out west meant there weren’t any English speakers, it also meant there were some very non-standard accents and a lot of older folks who just couldn’t speak Mandarin. It led to situations where I had to have younger people translate from the local dialect into Mandarin for me, which was colorful but inconvenient.

Another element was that many of the things I was doing and experiencing – farm work, new foods, new activities, etc – were things I had never had cause to talk about or learn the vocabulary for in Chinese, so there was a lot of learning on the fly there as well. It was a bit overwhelming at first but after a week or so it got a lot easier. It helped as well that the farm’s owner and his wife were Beijingers, so I could always lean on them when I needed something more 标准 [standard].

Would you recommend what you did to other learners looking for an immersion experience?

Mike: I would definitely recommend an immersion experience, but location-wise, I’d say I had mixed results. Being in a place with so many non-standard accents and weird dialects made it a less smooth experience than I’d hoped. I think volunteering somewhere with more standard Mandarin would ameliorate that though.

Would you recommend what you did as a purely cultural experience?

Mike: Most definitely. I didn’t know what to expect going into this experience but I learned a tremendous amount about farming and rural Chinese life. Most of the people I met were great and it was wonderful to see a totally different side of the Chinese experience!

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