Monthly Archives: January 2011


Jan 2011

Nice try, Carrefour

Carrefour keeps trying new things to deal with the shopping hoard that flows through its boundaries every day here in Shanghai. I mentioned a “basket-only line” idea a while back. I’m not sure when it disappeared, but it seems that idea is long gone. Lately I noticed another interesting idea:


The text reads:

> 如您前面有4人排队 If there are 4 customers waiting before you

> 请按键 Please press the button

> 减少您的等待时间是 Reduce your waiting time by every second in cashier line

> 我们的承诺 is our commitment

Decent idea, in theory, but the reason that button is so funny-looking is because the button is actually missing (presumably destroyed by all the constant frantic mashing it received).

Nice try, Carrefour.

Related: Shanghai Carrefour Showcase (2006)


Jan 2011

Aeviou: A Chinese Input Method with Promise

Aeviou” is the name of a new input method for Chinese, designed specifically for a new generation of touchscreen mobile devices with soft keyboards. This new input method, which looks to be at least partially inspired by Swype, seems to solve a lot of the problems currently faced by pinyin-centric input methods.

The Problem

The problem is that while pinyin is a convenient way to enter Chinese on a keyboard, for many, it’s an extremely unforgiving input method. For languages like English, T9 predictive text input on older phones and, more recently, auto-correct on soft keyboards have greatly sped up text input on mobile devices, but neither of these works for pinyin. This is partly due to the shortcuts offered by pinyin input methods. For example, to get 你好, you could enter “nihao” in its entirely, but you can could also enter “nih” or “nhao” or maybe even just “nh”. Most of the pinyin input methods out there now will display 你好 as a top result for any of these inputs. You quickly get used to entering “xx” (or at most “xiex”) instead of “xiexie” to get 谢谢, and the whole thing saves a lot of time.

The way this system of shortcuts is unforgiving is that it depends on every keystroke being accurate. When a single letter is used to represent a whole syllable (and thus a whole character), a typo can be disastrous. When you’re spelling out whole words in English, there’s some leeway which can be leveraged in order to create input methods like T9 and auto-correct. But when you’re shortcutting your way through pinyin, T9 and auto-correct aren’t options. (I have to admit, though, Chinese pinyin-based auto-correct would have results disastrous enough to be way funnier than the ones seen on

Some Examples of Why You Can’t Auto-Correct

I’m going to give some hypothetical examples based on my Mac’s pinyin input system, QIM. Theoretically, you could get the same or similar results on many mobile device soft keyboards, although each is a little different. The most interesting results would probably occur on an Android phone using Google pinyin, since the input method is synced with your PC’s pinyin input method.

Anyway, the examples (in each case, there’s a typo affecting one letter in the input):

1. Trying to type “hpy” to get 好朋友 (good friend), you type “hpt” and get 很普通 (very ordinary).

2. Trying to type “bjhcz” to get 北京火车站 (Beijing Train Station), you type “bjhcx” and get 北京话出现 (Beijing dialect emerges!).

3. Trying to type “xgmn” to get 性感美女 (sexy beautiful woman), you type “xfmn” and get 幸福吗你 (are you happy?).

OK, so these examples are a little over the top, and no one is going to get by using only the first letter of every syllable to type in pinyin, but the shortcuts are built into the input method.

A New Solution

So the reason the Aeviou is a great solution is that it offers the quickness of the “shortcuts” above through a “swipe” method, made possible by a soft keyboard that updates with each “keystroke” to offer input only of possible syllables. Effectively, it kills the shortcuts but allows full, unambiguous pinyin syllable entry to become quick and painless.

Read more on TechRice, where I read about this new input method, and check out the video below for a demo:

Great idea! I’m really happy to see innovation around Android in China.


Jan 2011

Big Snow in Shanghai

I say “big snow” because that’s the literally translation of the Chinese word for “heavy snow”: 大雪. And what we woke up to this morning in Shanghai is definitely a heavy snow for this part of China!

The Shanghainese aren’t used to the snow. This car, for example, drove out into traffic without even clearing its rear window:


Probably the weirdest thing to see, though, is the “snow sweeping”; the use of Chinese straw brooms to clear the snow. No, it’s not very effective, but no one has snow shovels.





Jan 2011

Going to the Dentist in Shanghai

Life in China for us non-Chinese is a never-ending process of adaptation. Some things come easier than others. For me, one of the most difficult to get used to has been going to the dentist. Let’s face it — Americans are pretty vain when it comes to teeth, and we don’t see a lot on a daily basis to inspire confidence in China’s dentistry skill. Does an American like me dare go to the dentist in China? How does one make such a decision?

I don’t claim to have all the answers for everyone, but I can share my own experiences, which may be useful to some of you out there (especially those of you in Shanghai).

I started my China stay in Hangzhou. The only “dental clinics” I ever saw there were tiny little shops on the side of small roads. They often had glass sliding doors opening right into a tiny room with a dentist’s chair, and if you walked by the shop at the right time, you could peer right into a patient’s open mouth from the other side of the glass door, without even going inside. Not exactly private. Some of them also look, to put it nicely, quite “amateur,” and they offer pricing to reflect that. Clearly, they fill a need in the Chinese market, but they’re not the type of place most foreigners are going to entrust their pearly whites to.

Here’s one of the “roadside dental clinics,” this one in Shanghai, and actually looking a lot nicer than the ones I saw back in the day in Hangzhou (click through to the Flickr photo page for an explanation of the characters on the doors):

Dental Clinic

What I didn’t know at the time, living in Hangzhou, is that many Chinese people actually go to hospitals to have their dental work done. I’ve never done that, but from what I’ve heard the quality of dental work offered at hospitals can vary quite a lot, and the sheer volume of patients going through hospitals means the service is not likely to be of the same caliber as a dedicated dental clinic.

In a big city like Shanghai, western-style dental clinics do exist. They’re more expensive than more traditional Chinese options, but there are also acceptably priced options. For over 8 years in China, I had successfully avoided trying out any of these dental care options, feebly hoping that my faithful brushing and flossing would be enough to carry me through forever. Eventually, an old filling came out, and I had an undeniable need for a dentist. I ended up choosing Byer Dental Clinic (拜尔齿科) in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park Cloud Nine (龙之梦) Shopping Center. It looked very clean, professional, and up-to-date, and respectful of patient privacy.

Byer Dental

Byer Dental

I was really impressed by the service and price I got from Byer Dental. Make no mistake; it was more expensive than I could have gotten from a host of more traditional Chinese options, but I actually felt at ease. I hadn’t been to a dentist in years, and it was good to see that the facilities were far more technologically advanced than anything I had seen before. The replacement filling used a high-quality white material which hardened instantly under a special blue light. The filling it replaced was from 1998, the ugly metallic green kind, that typically last less than 10 years before needing to be replaced.

I don’t remember how much I paid for my last filling, but just recently another old filling cracked, and I found myself back at Byer Dental. This time the total was 610 RMB (currently USD 93). I’m not a “member” or anything. I made the appointment the day before, was seen at 3pm on Saturday, and was completely done and out of there at 3:45pm. I could eat right away, and even though I had had a shot of local anesthetic, I guess it was just the right amount, because my mouth wasn’t even numb.

The staff is perhaps not super-fluent in English but sufficiently bilingual, and they were happy to talk to me in Chinese. I really enjoyed talking to the dentist about recent advances in dental technology, and the difference between my old crappy fillings and the new ones they put in. She taught me words like 光固化 (“photo-curing”? means “light,” and “固化” means “to make solid,” as in “固体,” the word for “solid”). Really friendly and informative staff every time I go.

This recommendation is based on only two visits to Byer Dental over roughly two years, but I’ve had really great experiences there. I recommended Byer Dental to my friend Hank, and he also had a good experience there. If you’re delaying a visit to the dentist due to fear of Chinese dental clinics like I was, I recommend you give Byer Dental a try before it’s too late.

Obviously, if anyone else has any good (or bad) dental experiences in Shanghai or the rest of China, please feel free to share them in the comments. This information can have a permanent effect on other people’s lives, so please don’t hold back!

Related ChinesePod lessons:

Elementary – Toothache
Intermediate – Going to the Dentist
Upper Intermediate – Straightening Teeth
Upper Intermediate – Phobias (in which I admitted that I had been in China 6 years already, but still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to see the dentist in China!)


Jan 2011

Three-Penis Liquor: the Perfect Gift

On my recent trip home, I brought a few bottles of this stuff to give to some friends:

Special 3-Penis Liquor!

Back Label of 3-Penis Liquor

The name of this unremarkable-looking “rice wine” is 张裕特质三鞭酒. The part to pay atention to here is “三鞭“. That means “three penis.” We’re talking various types of animal penis here, brewed in the liquor to impart vitality to the drinker. If you read the back, you can find out which three it is: 海狗鞭 (seal penis), 鹿鞭 (deer penis), and 广狗鞭 (Cantonese dog penis).

If you live in China, the character is worth learning to recognize. It shows up a bit more often than you’d expect. “Special” liquor, “special” hot pot, Chinese medicine, etc.

The 3-penis liquor in the picture isn’t expensive, and I got it at Carrefour. When you take it home from China as a gift, remember to ask your friends to try it first, then tell them specifically what kind of special liquor it is. It’s a gift they won’t soon forget.


Jan 2011

Stages in Learning, Adapting


image from todaywasawesome

I’m a pretty analytical guy. Ever since high school, when I was introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I liked the idea that we all go through the same psychological stages of development, which can be diagnosed and predicted. The Kübler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), popularized by various movies and TV shows, also appealed to me. When studying linguistics, I learned a bit about how babies’ brains develop, as well as how certain cognitive abilities appear first, and others later. I also learned about Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis, which states that learners of a language can expect to master most features of a language in a predictable order, one which is “natural.” This all fascinated me.

Sure, I know that there are criticisms of Krashen’s theories, and that it’s pretty damn difficult to come up with generalities that are true enough to be meaningful. I have still felt drawn to these ideas over the years, and proposed a few similar thoughts of my own, including The 5 Stages to Learning Chinese (not entirely serious), The Process of Learning Tones (serious, if unresearched), and even touched on these ideas in my master’s thesis on foreigner’s acquisition of Mandarin tones (pretty serious). Is this useful? Yes, I think so. And I’m more and more convinced of it as I work with this stuff firsthand through AllSet.

The “natural order” propositions I’m more skeptical of are the cultural ones. The one I’m most familiar with is the Stages of Culture Shock idea (and its sequel, the Stages of Reverse Culture Shock). I’m not surprised to see a disclaimer like this preceding the stages on the Wikipedia page:

> The shock of moving to a foreign country often consists of distinct phases, though not everyone passes through these phases and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all five. There are no fixed symptoms ascribed to culture shock as each person is affected differently.

OK, everyone’s different, and every culture’s different. I get that. Your mileage may vary. Fair enough. I’m just not sure if this is useful to anyone. (Is it?)

But what if you reduced the number of variables to something more manageable? Might the validity of the generalization be improved then?

This idea came to me because over time I seem to be moving through a series of progressive “mini culture shock” stages in my trips back to the United States, and from what I’ve observed among friends and on other blogs, my experiences are pretty typical of Americans who have spent a considerable amount of time in China. These stages are spread out over a period of years, and I only notice the differences on separate trips, usually spaced at least one year apart.

Anyway, I’m just going to throw these out there. I went back through some of my old entries (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008), and there’s partial support there. But I’m curious if any readers that have been living in China a while have experienced something similar:

Stages of Cultural Response to the United States on Periodic Visits from China:

1. So Many White and Black People! (This one is typical of Americans who have lived in small-town China for a while. They can also get this reaction just from visiting Shanghai or Beijing.)

2. Americans are so fat! (This is really cliché, but it’s real. I wrote my own post on this, long ago.)

3. American air is so clean! (Pretty obvious, but perhaps less so than American obesity…)

4. America is so diverse! (I remember feeling this very acutely a few years back. It was a source of renewed pride and appreciation for my home culture.)

5. American culture is so bizarre/lame! (This is when the cultural disconnect really starts to kick in. The stars de jour, the songs, and the TV shows, are almost all unfamiliar now. It wouldn’t seem weird at all if it weren’t so unfamiliar.)

6. American food is so sweet! (I know a lot of people experience this sooner than I do, but I’m a fan of the sweets. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m getting older, or if it’s the Chinese diet changing my tastes, but on my last visit, the sweetness everywhere was hard to take.)

Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s much universality here (especially in terms of sequence). The only one I feel strongly about is the “Americans are so fat!” stage early on. Are there any other identifiable patterns here?