Yearly Archives: 2017


15

Mar 2017

JD.com Brings Some Diversity to Spring Advertising

I’m not saying it never happens, but I see black women prominently featured in Chinese ads seldom enough that I notice when it happens. These ads from the Shanghai Metro are by JD.com (京东), which is a Chinese company, not just a foreign company doing business in China.

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There’s also one ad with pale (half-?)Asian girl, and one with random perky white dude:

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The ads all read:

是你让春天来

That means, “it’s you that made the spring come.” Not the most inspired slogan, but easy for Chinese learners!


07

Mar 2017

Recruiting Talent

The character here is (as in 招聘, referring to “recruiting for a job,” in other words, “now hiring”), with a little thrown in for flavor:

上海聘(才)

That’s not the adverb , but rather the one in the word 人才, referring to “talent.”

P.S. On a related note, my company AllSet Learning is currently looking for new academic interns. You can see what past interns have done here.


02

Mar 2017

The English that Feels Weird in Your Chinese

Anyone that has studied Chinese for a while and made it to at least the intermediate level will notice that certain English words are used. Sometimes it’s words that seem cool or trendy to use in English, like “Starbucks” or “Doctor Strange.” Other times it’s English acronyms that are just easy to keep in English rather than translating into Chinese, such as “FBI” or “NBA” or “MBA.” And still other times, it’s “false acronyms” with Chinese characteristics such as “PPT” (for Powerpoint presentations) or “APP” (for “app”).

I’m not talking about any of those. These are all fairly easy to pick up and incorporate into one’s daily conversations. I’m talking about another kind, while not difficult at all to understand, made me cringe a little at first. And now, even though I’m quite used to them, I can’t really stomach using them in my own speech. But these are words that I hear even people that don’t speak much English using.

Some examples!

  1. make sense: most notably, the phrase “不make sense.” (I recall Jenny used to use this on ChinesePod occasionally, but she’s not the only Chinese person to use this English phrase in Chinese!)
  2. man: this means “manly,” as in “很man
  3. fashion: this means “fashionable,” as in “很fashion
  4. in: used as an adjective to describe fads or trends, as in “很in
  5. out: used to describe what’s NOT cool, but this time as either an adjective or as a verb: “太out了” or “你out了
  6. OK: although sometimes this word feels just like it does in English, there’s something about the phrase “也OK” instead of “也可以” that always feels odd to me
  7. high (often written as ““): I’ve never heard this used in the “drug high” sense; it’s always in the “natural high” sense, as in “玩得很high” for “have/had a blast”
  8. get: this seems to be a synonym for , as in “只有你能get我
  9. down: a verb, short for “download”

Here are some examples collected from the web. Many of them seem to be from Taiwanese sources.

in

out

man

high

fashion

To be clear, this is not just regular “Chinglish,” where English gets randomly mixed in with Chinese. These are words that seem to have snuck into common usage among young people (maybe first in Taiwan?), even when those people don’t speak much English, and don’t necessarily even have an international education.

Do these usages feel weird coming out of your own mouth? Or can you use them naturally?

What other examples can you share?


22

Feb 2017

Ofo Rental Bikes Are Getting OWNED

I’ve recently commented on how the sudden rise of app-driven bike rental services in Shanghai is fairly staggering. From a casual look around the downtown area, it’s clear that Mobike and Ofo are currently the top dogs, and Ofo seems to be doing all right with its “cheaper” business model, despite its late entrance to the market. But I’ve recently learned that Ofo’s service has some pretty glaring flaws when compared to Mobike.

How Mobike and Ofo Differ

Both services use apps, but Mobike’s bicycles are more high-tech, and that makes a big difference. Mobike bikes have tracking devices embedded, and the bike locks are unlocked remotely through the network. Ofo bikes use simple combination locks that you can request the code for through the app.

So the Mobike service works like this:

  1. Use the app to find bikes near you
  2. Unlock a particular bike by scanning its QR code with the app
  3. (The bike’s lock automatically unlocks after a few seconds)
  4. Use the bike
  5. Park the bike and manually lock it
  6. Mobike’s services are informed the ride is over, and the bike’s location is made available to other users through the app

…and the Ofo service works like this:

  1. Find a bike yourself (no tracking devices)
  2. Send the bike’s ID number to Ofo via the app
  3. Receive the combination to the mechanical lock
  4. Unlock the bike with the combination
  5. Use the bike
  6. Park the bike and manually lock it

(Note: I don’t use Ofo myself, but I’ve spoken with people who do. Ofo bikes also have QR codes on their bikes, but they’re for the purpose of advertising the app, not unlocking the bikes. The Mobike QR codes serve both purposes.)

It seems like the Ofo system is fairly straightforward and would save a lot of money, right? Oh, but it has problems…

Ofo’s Locking Problem

Because Ofo uses combination locks, none of the bike locks are truly locked unless the last user changed the combination after closing the lock. And, it turns out, a lot of people don’t. A good number of Ofo bikes on the street are actually unlocked, if you just press the button on the lock.

When I first heard this, I was skeptical, but the very first bike I tried was unlocked. Later, I checked a sample of 20 bikes in the Jing’an area, and 4 were unlocked. So, 1 in 5. That’s a lot!

As it turns out, this isn’t Ofo’s worst problem, though…

People Are Publicly Stealing Ofo’s Bikes

Ofo bikes are locked with combination locks, and those combinations don’t change. So if you save the combination and can find the same bike again, you can use it for free. The only thing keeping you from using the same bike again is the sheer number of bikes out there and the other people using them. And the way that other people use the bikes is to request the combination through the app. But what if they couldn’t get the combination for “your” bike? To get the combination, other users need to read the bike’s ID number. But if this number is missing or unreadable, no one else can get the combination.

Ofo Public Bike Theft

Ofo Public Bike Theft

So this is how people are “owning” Ofo bikes. They’re getting the combination to a particular bike, and then scratching off or otherwise removing the bike’s ID number. I did a bit of hunting for “owned” Ofo bikes parked on the street, and did find a few. Logically, though, the “owned” bikes are probably going to be parked in less public places. I really wonder how many Ofo bikes have disappeared off the street.

Ofo Public Bike Theft

Ofo Public Bike Theft

I also wonder if this aspect of the “cheap bike” strategy has already been taken into account. Ofo has ample funding, after all. How many bikes can Ofo afford to lose and yet still have lower costs than Mobike, with its fancy high-tech bikes? Or, how many Ofo bikes need to be stolen before people realize that it’s easier (and not at all expensive) to just leave the bikes in the system? How long does it take before “owning” a ripped-off Ofo bike is uncool and/or shameful? Hard to say… and there are a lot of people in Shanghai!

Strange Competitive Practices

The other day near Jing’an Temple I snapped this shot of a few guys slowly escorting a “cargo tricycle” full of Mobike bicycles. The strange thing was the two of them were riding Ofo bikes!

Ofo vs. Mobike?

Ofo vs. Mobike?

I was in a hurry, so I didn’t even try to ask them any questions, but the guys were wearing clothes which read 特勤, which is probably short for 特殊勤务, something like “special forces” (a division of the police).

At least one Chinese person I showed these pictures to thought the uniforms looked fake, but who knows?

Ofo in Chinese Is “O-F-O”

Just a final note on the Chinese names of these two companies:

  • Mobike: 摩拜单车
  • Ofo: O-F-O

Yes, Ofo in Chinese is spelled out, just like the word “app” is spelled out in Chinese as “A-P-P.”


16

Feb 2017

Subvocalization While Reading Chinese

According to Wikipedia, subvocalization refers to “the internal speech typically made when reading.” It’s that “voice in your head” (you) pronouncing every word mentally. Subvocalization is normal, and is not generally considered a problem, unless you’re trying to learn to speed read. In that case. subvocalization is generally regarded as something that slows a reader down.

I found this section of Wikipedia quite interesting:

Advocates of speed reading generally claim that subvocalization places extra burden on the cognitive resources, thus, slowing the reading down. Speed reading courses often prescribe lengthy practices to eliminate subvocalizing when reading… [but] for competent readers, subvocalizing to some extent even at scanning rates is normal.

Typically, subvocalizing is an inherent part of reading and understanding a word. Micro-muscle tests suggest that full and permanent elimination of subvocalizing is impossible. This may originate in the way people learn to read by associating the sight of words with their spoken sounds…. At the slower reading rates (100-300 words per minute), subvocalizing may improve comprehension.

The Case of Chinese

OK, but now what about for Chinese? Chinese characters are not as directly tied to a phonetic system (like an alphabet), right? Plus Chinese kids learn characters by writing them over and over rather than by reading them aloud, right?

Well, not really. Here’s what research has to say (I added bold to certain parts):

Reading English and reading Chinese have more in common than has been appreciated when it comes to phonological processes. The text experiments suggest that readers in both systems rely on phonological processes during the comprehension of written text. The lexical experiments show differences just where it is expected: Evidence for early (“prelexical”) phonology in English but not in Chinese, but evidence for still-early (“lexical”) phonology in Chinese. The time course of activation appears to be slightly different in the two cases. Thus, the similarity between Chinese and English readers is shown not in their dependence on a visual route, but in their use of phonology as quickly as allowed by the writing system.

So it’s not that Chinese readers don’t subvocalize; it just kicks in later, because it takes for time for readers to amass the knowledge of written Chinese needed. Interesting!

Obviously, you can dive a lot deeper into the research on subvocalization, reading comprehension, and cognitive differences between writing systems. (Please feel free to share links to relevant studies in the comments.) For my purposes, though, one important point is clear: there’s no need to exoticize reading Chinese any more than necessary. Yes, learning a bunch of characters is a hurdle, but you don’t really need to worry too much beyond that.

Subvocalizing in Chinese

First of all, we should remember that subvocalization is not “bad,” and it’s not something that native Chinese readers don’t do (some kind of “laowai problem”). But that doesn’t mean that there’s no danger of over-reliance on subvocalization when learning to read Chinese.

I personally have experienced what I consider a serious impediment to my reading fluency. I found that when I would read Chinese a text, I was reading it aloud very deliberately in my head (subvocalizing). The problem was that I had obsessed over correct tones for so long that I just couldn’t stop. This slowed me down even more than normal subvocalization would be expected to do. So even when I was just reading for purely informational purposes, my brain was insisting that I had to pronounce every tone of every word (in my head) exactly right. I knew this was slowing me down a lot, but I couldn’t stop! The “tone police” in my head were out of control.

I did eventually get over this bad habit, and the result was much more rapid reading speed, as well as the ability to truly scan a text for meaning quickly. How did I do it?

Two Cures for Subvocalization

Canadian Tradition

My solution was “the firehose.” I forced myself to read a lot. I read long Chinese texts for which I knew the words, but wasn’t sure of the tones for all the words. In some cases, I may not have even been sure of all the exact readings of all the characters in those words. But I could still comprehend the general meaning of the texts, which was all I needed.

So the steps were:

  1. Find a relatively long text which had information I needed (make the reading meaningful)
  2. Don’t allow myself to look up words (no popup pinyin plugin allowed!)
  3. Force myself to read at a high speed, disallowing my brain from obsessing over uncertain readings

This worked, but I had to do it a lot, and to be honest, it was a little painful. Unlearning a habit is not easy, and if I’m not careful, I still find my brain dutifully reading aloud every single tone in my mind. But with just a little willpower, I can keep subvocalization in check when I need to, and greatly increase my reading speed.

The second solution is extensive reading. It’s a gentler version of the method described above. The idea is that if you know that you already know all the words (with correct tones) in a text, then forcing yourself to read it without focusing on the correct tones should be easier. No anxiety. You can let go and just read.

But here’s the key: you can’t just read a text first to identify all the words you don’t know, add the pinyin, and consider them “learned.” That’s not going to allow you to let go of subvocalization for unfamiliar texts. So you need to find reading material which is unfamiliar, and yet entirely composed of familiar words. This is what graded readers can help with.

Share Your Subvocalization Battle Tales

I’d be very interested to hear about any readers’ struggles with subvocalization when learning to read Chinese. Actually, any foreign language… it’s all relevant.


14

Feb 2017

Crazy Circus Chinese Characters

I’m always on the lookout for interesting, creative use of Chinese characters, and that includes cool and weird Chinese fonts. Well, the characters at the bottom of this poster really caught me by surprise, because I didn’t even realize they were characters at first:

Crazy Circus City

If you’re struggling to make anything out, note that English at the bottom right: “Crazy Circus City.” Big clue.

OK, here’s what it reads:

疯狂马戏城

Literally, “crazy (疯狂) circus (马戏) city ().”

(Don’t worry if you still find it hard to read even after you know what it says, and even if you know the characters. It’s really hard to read!)

For some reason the traditional form of is used, though: . My Chinese teacher back in college always told me that mixing simplified and traditional characters was a big no-no. It’s just too… crazy.

If the whole thing had been in traditional characters, it would have read:

瘋狂馬戲城


01

Feb 2017

Happy Year of the Rooster

Happy Year of the Rooster/Cock/Chicken! Just as the English word “cock” has multiple meanings, the Chinese word (“chicken”) does as well. By itself, it can mean “prostitute,” but the same sound “jī” is also part of the Chinese word for, well, “cock.” I guess I’m friends with a bunch of upstanding Chinese folk, because I didn’t see the many puns I feel I could have for this year’s barrage of Chinese New Year greetings.

Here’s one tame pun I did see this year:

点钞机 / 点钞鸡

So the original word is 点钞机, “money counting machine.” Substituting (“chicken”) for (“machine”) doesn’t change the sound at all, but 点钞鸡 falls right in line with the Chinese proclivity for wishing financial success in the New Year. And you can totally imagine a money counting rooster.


26

Jan 2017

Happy New Year Teeth

Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and I bring you this pun/characterplay combo. Unfortunately, neither is particularly clever, but at least it’s not hard to understand!

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The large text of the ad reads:

新年好呀

This basically just means “happy New Year,” but the on the end is a modal particle you hear a lot in Shanghai. It adds a tone of playfulness, possibly childishness.

The pun is on 好牙, which refers to “good teeth.” (The two-character word for “tooth” or “teeth” is 牙齿). And since it’s an ad for dental services, the pun on good teeth is quite appropriate.

But do you see where the 口 component of (the modal particle) is actually a tooth? That’s the characterplay aspect. But the weird thing is that if you take away the 口, what’s left actually does literally mean “tooth.”

Anyway, 新年好!


24

Jan 2017

Shanghai’s Mobike Mania Invites Competition

I noticed at the end of 2016 that Mobike seemed to be really taking off in Shanghai. But when I came back from Florida in January, it was a whole ‘nother story… Not only were there more orange Mobike bikes on the streets than ever, but yellow (Didi-backed) competitor Ofo was suddenly seriously competing, and even baby blue 小鸣单车 was upping its game. I’ve been seeing so many rows of Mobikes on the sidewalks of Jing’an District that I’m guessing there now must be nightly redistribution efforts going on to properly seed the city center. Now that the Uber war is over, this seems to be the new battlefront.

A few shots I snapped last week:

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And one photo I downloaded on WeChat (not sure who to credit), which was labeled “#VCfunding“:

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18

Jan 2017

SmartShanghai Interview

SmartShanghai article (Jan 2017)

I just recently did an interview with SmartShanghai: [10-Year Club]: John Pasden of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning. It also has a tagline: A trip down memory lane with long-time Shanghai-based language specialist John Pasden. Dude speaks Chinese with the intensity of 1000 exploding Da Shans. That “exploding Da Shans” line cracks me up for many reasons.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably appreciate this answer I gave:

SmSh: I know you get this a lot — speaking specifically to your job, what are some tips for people trying to learn Chinese?

JP: You have to get out of your comfort zone. I know a lot of people that get out of their work “expat bubble” and talk to Chinese friends, but they’re only talking to Chinese people with pretty decent English. Not enough discomfort! Try talking to your ayi about her kids, or ask the fruit stand guy how much he pays for rent, or try to convince the guard in your apartment complex to stop smoking. You may think your Chinese isn’t good enough, but you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Look up a few words or phrases in Pleco, and give it a shot. Those are the conversations that will NOT be comfortable at first. You will likely fail hard at some of them, but those people are not going to switch to English, and they’re likely to have more patience for your bad Chinese than you do. And if they laugh, just assume that it’s because you made their day by even trying to talk to them in Chinese.

The whole interview is on SmartShanghai.


11

Jan 2017

16 Sincere Answers to 16 Tiresome Questions about Life in China

I recently read an article titled 16 Things Expats in China are Tired of Hearing Back Home. My immediate reaction was: this is so on the money. I have definitely heard all of these. Having just spent 3 weeks in the States, I have very recently heard many of these.

But rather than simply sharing this list, I thought it might be useful to give my sincere answers to these questions, because none of them are really stupid questions. They’re just kind of hard to answer briefly. So I’ll answer, but occasionally take the easy way out by linking to old entries of mine.

So, without further ado, here we go…

1. “So what is China like?”

This is the most common and hardest one to answer. It would be interesting to see a bunch of different long-term expats answer this in 200 words or less. Or maybe in haiku form. Anyway, it’s a tough question because it’s way too broad. But I actually do get why people ask this, and I think the motivation is good, so I’ll attempt to answer (and you can also see what people say on Quora).

Me at Jing'an Temple

The one time I really tried to answer this question was in a blog post I wrote in 2006 called The Chaos Run. In that post, I described “a near-perpetual state of excitement.” This place really is seething with energy.

Obviously, living in China is not all fun and excitement. Expats complain about life here a lot, and don’t tend to stay too long. An apt description of life in China is that these are “interesting times.” Just as the supposed Chinese curse implies that “interesting” is not always positive, neither is life in China. “Interesting” is good food, amazing work opportunities, and great people, but it’s also food safety issues, pervasive pollution, and infuriating social interactions. How much of the good and the bad you end up with depends largely on where you live in China, what you do here, whether you’re here alone or with a family, what you expect to get out of your stay here, and a bunch of other factors. And, of course, there’s the element of luck and the undeniable role of your own attitude about the experience.

But it’s definitely interesting.

2. “Wow, that must have been a really long flight!”

Yeah, I typically fly 13-14 hours just to get to the States from Shanghai, and then another 3-5 hours in the air to get home to Florida. I have learned that flying into California is no good, because I always need two more flights to get to Florida, and adding in the layover time, that will nearly always results in a trip over 24 hours! (It usually takes me 20-22 hours to get home, though.)

3. “Can you speak Chinese?”

Yes. I knew some broken Chinese before even coming over in 2000, but I wasn’t even conversational, really.

And yes, I would say that learning Chinese is hard. But it’s worth it.

4. “So you must be really fluent in Chinese now.”

Fluent enough. You can read about how I learned Chinese here on this website.

I also run a company called AllSet Learning which helps move highly motivated individuals closer to fluency every day.

5. “What made you decide to go to China?”

I wanted to see the world and learn languages while I was young! I kind of got hung up on the first country I stopped in, though, and I’ve been here ever since. No regrets.

6. “I heard the pollution in China is really bad!”

It is very bad. Beijing and other northern cities are way worse than Shanghai, but it’s not great anywhere.

I am personally not bothered by it here in Shanghai on a daily basis. I’m not as sensitive as some people to the pollution, even if I’m breathing in potentially harmful air 24/7. I would not want to live in Beijing, however, mostly for this reason (it’s a very cool city otherwise).

7. “I heard that in China [insert widely reported misconception]. Is that true?”

I don’t really mind questions like this too much, because I frequently hear crazy things this way that I’ve never heard while living in China. And honestly, truth is stranger than fiction. I hear bizarre stories every day about what’s going on in China. (It’s “interesting” here, remember?)

Websites like Shanghaiist cover this aspect of life in China pretty well. If you want more serious China news, check out Sinocism.

8. “Can you use chopsticks?”

Yes.

I hear this question from Chinese people much more than from foreigners. Chinese people who don’t have much contact with foreigners are often surprised to see a foreigners using chopsticks. I usually inform them that it’s pretty easy to learn chopsticks, lots of foreigners can do it, and then I quickly change the subject.

9. “Do they have [insert foreign brand] over there?”

Some of the most common western brands you see everywhere are: Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Nike, Apple. This topic is too big for me, though. Here are a few articles on the topic:

10. “Do you ever get culture shock over there?”

Not really. I do have my bad days in China, but that’s to be expected, right?

I’d say it’s probably a good idea to expect culture shock, but actually, the less you expect at all, the less shocked you are. I arrived in China as a wide-eyed 22-year-old full of wonder, and just took it all in.

11. “What do Chinese people think of [insert foreign brand/person/country]?”

The state may control the media in China, but it doesn’t control the opinions of individuals. Sure, you’ll meet lots of people that parrot the party line echoed in the media, but you’ll also meet lots of people with their own ideas.

So what I’m saying is: you’ll find all kinds of opinions on any topic. That’s why the Sinosplice tagline is “Try to understand China. Learn Chinese.” The more people you can talk to, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the diversity of opinions and ideas here in China.

12. “What does China think of Trump?”

Again, lots of opinions here. Many people think he’s an idiot, and many think he’s an accomplished businessman. I wrote about this a bit last year.

13. “Do you have a Chinese [wife/husband] yet?”

Yup. I’ve been married since 2007.

14. “So how much longer do you think you’ll stay over there?”

Most expats arrive in China without expectations to stay too long, and most only last a year or two. (The “interestingness” can get overpowering.) I was originally my plan to only stay 1-2 years as well, but eventually I decided to stay indefinitely.

I anticipate I’ll be spending some part of the year in China for the rest of my life, but I do plan to spend more and more time in the States, as I have started doing in recent years. I want my kids to spend more time with my parents, and to absorb some more American culture. Trips to the U.S. are also becoming increasingly important for my businesses, AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.

One common trend among expats in China is that once they have kids, they tend to leave so that they can put their kids in school in their home countries. (Even the Chinese who can afford it are trying to put their kids in school outside of China, and it’s becoming really common for high school, even, among families that can afford it.) My kids are 5 and 2 now, so there’s not a huge rush, but it is a factor too.

15. “When are you coming back for good?”

Once you marry into China, there’s no “coming back for good,” as far as I’m concerned.

16. “But really… are you ever coming back?!”

These questions are starting to sound like my mom.