language


16

Dec 2003

HSK: the final stretch

I will take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi — Chinese Proficiency Examination) this coming Sunday, December 21st. Taking the HSK was part of my plan all along to study Chinese full-time this semester. Thus, in addition to my 20 hours of Chinese classes per week, I’ve also been taking 4 hours of optional HSK prep courses (well, usually).

Throughout this semester I’ve been faced with a question of study method: should I take my classes the “Chinese way” or the “American way?” The “Chinese way” means going to lots of classes but doing comparatively little outside work. Most “learning” is accomplished in the classroom. The “American way” means the student exerts much more effort on his own time than in the classroom, effectively making the student largely responsible for his own learning instead of the teacher.

For obvious reasons, I prefer the “American way.” I would have liked to have studied my butt off at home and totally conquered each and every lesson in my textbooks. But that didn’t turn out to be too practical. With my own English classes to teach and an active social life, 20 classes kept me pretty busy, and I even (guiltily) skipped a fair amount of them. So I had to grudgingly accept the “Chinese way.”

The result was that I didn’t pick up as much additional vocabulary as I would have liked. Now that I’m really hitting the HSK prep books, I’m discovering that vocabulary is precisely what I should have been hitting hard all along. Listening comprehension, reading comprehension, character fill-in-the-blank — in each case my problems result from a deficient vocabulary, not in grammar, speed, or character recall. I need to read more Chinese, more often. I’m shooting for level 8 — the highest score in the intermediate range — on my first sitting of the HSK, so I can’t have too many mistakes.

One of my few comforts is that other students tell me that the “red book” (中国汉语水平考试应试指南,北京语言文化大学出版社) we use is more difficult than the actual HSK.

There are some strange topics chosen for the reading comprehension passages: Evolutionary reasons for the scarcity of black flowers in nature, Health risks associated with contact lenses, Astronomists’ current theories on ‘killer stars,’ an Overview of the history of Hong Kong’s subway system, Pig breeding issues around the world, etc.*

I actually prefer the more scientific ones. You can infer most of the really difficult words, and you can employ a lot of common sense. What’s the main reason that killer stars swallow up other stars? Even if you can’t read everything in the text, you know it’s gonna be gravity if you have any background at all in astronomy.

What’s the point of this post? If there is any, it’s basically just to tell those of you who intend to take the HSK that you need to be hitting vocabulary hard. The Chinese designed this test. They are the original examination masters, and there’s nothing they love more than making poor youngsters squander their vigor on rote memorization of vocabulary. If you want to take the HSK, you have to comply with these sadists’ designs.

* The HSK lumps Beginner and Intermediate levels together all on one test. That means if you’re a beginner who can only hope for a very modest score, you’re still going to be subjected to texts filled with the likes of the topics listed above. The idea is that you’ll get the easiest questions right, and your score will reflect your ability. Still seems like a cop-out to me.

Irrelevant sidenote: Richard’s “Interview with a 1989 demonstrator in China” on Living in China is an absolute must-read. It’s very readable for those of you that know what happened in 1989, but don’t necessarily know a lot about it.


18

Nov 2003

Wang's Observations

I have a Chinese teacher whose last name is Wang. All her students call her “Wang Laoshi” (laoshi means “teacher”), according to Chinese custom. She teaches my HSK prep class. Since the class only meets once a week for two hours, I see less of her than most of my other teachers, but I feel like I know her much better than the others. For one thing, I’ve known her longer. She tutored me for about half a year during my first year in China. For another, she seems much more straightforward about her feelings than a lot of Chinese people I meet.

Last week she shared with the HSK class a problem she’s been having with another class. She says her current intermediate level Chinese class is simply not willing to talk. At all. When she asks the class if someone can make a sentence using the new word, the whole class just stares down at their books, not daring to make eye contact. She waits patiently and encourages them, to no avail. If she asks a single person, she gets the same response. Trying to get just one sentence out of them is like pulling teeth. Even when she simply asks the class if they understand, she can’t get an answer. The only time the students show definite signs of life is when she writes on the chalkboard. They all magically spring into action, jotting everything down neatly in their notebooks. They seem to prefer it when she simply talks and writes, but that’s really boring for her, and not the most effective teaching method, either.
Wang Laoshi said that in the past she lost her temper and berated the students for their overly passive attitudes, which seemed to help the situation for a while. This semester, however, almost all her students are girls, and she doesn’t want to upset them.

So what’s with this class? Well, for one thing, they’re almost all Korean. Wang Laoshi asked the Korean students in the HSK prep class why they thought her intermediate level students were so incorrigibly passive. The Korean students reponded that it was because of their culture — the traditional Confucian style of education.

Wang Laoshi didn’t buy that. She said that Chinese students weren’t like that. That really made me smile, because I don’t think Wang Laoshi knows how passive Chinese students can be in an English class taught by a foreigner. Still, though, the way she described her students made them more inactive than any Chinese students I’ve ever taught.

Wang Laoshi’s observations on international students of Chinese were thus:

  1. Students from Western countries are much more active in the classroom. Wang Laoshi prefers there to be at least a few students from Europe or the Americas to liven up the atmosphere.
  2. Students from Western countries want to spend classtime mastering a few grammar patterns so that they can feel confident about their usage.
  3. Asian students want to cover as many grammar patterns as possible in class, and review them on their own.

Another thing I think Wang Laoshi doesn’t realize is that a lot of Chinese teachers don’t encourage class participation so much. I think some of the other Chinese teachers wouldn’t be so bothered by the lifelessness of her students. It just disappoints me that an excellent teacher like Wang Laoshi is wasted on such undeserving grammar sponges.


26

Oct 2003

Chinese Class Report

So sometime in September, when the teaching semester started, I also started studying Chinese full-time at Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT). After talking with the administration, I was placed directly into the advanced class without having to take the placement test. Before classes started I was a little apprehensive about that decision, but I needn’t have been.

There are only four students in the advanced class. There’s a Korean guy, a Korean girl, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, and me. Everyone is in their twenties, and we all get along fine. All conversation between us, both inside and outside class, is in Chinese (with the exception of the two Koreans).

I have five classes: Intensive Reading, Reading and Writing, Conversation Topics, Survey of Chinese Society, and HSK Prep. I like my classes, and I think they’re just what I’m looking for: extensive and intensive reading practice, and extreme vocabulary acquisition. What’s a little disappointing about my classes is that, the HSK prep aside, all the classes pretty much follow the same format: (1) discuss new vocabulary, (2) read the text, (3) go over any difficult parts in the text, (4) answer the reading comprehension questions, (5) practice the vocabulary and grammar patterns highlighted by the book for that selection.

It’s a pretty typical way of examining a text, and I suppose there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but was it naive of me to expect four different classes to have four different class structures? The above pattern seems best fitted to Intensive Reading. So far there have only been two minor writing assignments for the Reading and Writing class. I really like my Conversation Topics teacher, but I was hoping she’d do activities to get us to talk more. Since we’re all advanced, we could really do some fun stuff. But we don’t. The teacher of Survey of Chinese Society is a learned guy with a Ph.D. in ancient Chinese lit. He’s gotten into some different material in the form of poetry and history of the Chinese writing system, but I wish he’d do it more.

The reason I’m so critical of my classes, of course, is that I’m also a teacher of a foreign language. I’ve taken theory courses on how to teach, I’ve been teaching for over five years, I’ve written a little guide on teaching English in China, and I’ve written a book on the topic which will soon be published (but no more details until it is!). So I have certain expectations of my Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately, those counterparts were products of the same educational system which begot the listless Chinese learners I’m faced with in my own classroom. It’s not that these teachers are not enthusiastic or good at what they do — it’s that their methods largely come from a system where the students are all passive note-copying machines.

So what do I do about it? Well, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to suggest some more communication-oriented classroom activities to my Conversation Topics teacher, but I will. I might just take some of my own Spoken English classroom activities and translate them into Chinese and let her take a look. I’m going to be bring in some materials for my Survey of Chinese Society teacher to discuss with us. He’s got a Ph.D. in ancient lit, so next week I’m going to ask him some questions about the Chinese in The Art of War (孙子兵法). He already said it’s OK. I’m going to be writing for my Reading and Writing class, whether or not it’s assigned. (How can she complain about having to correct one student’s compositions, only once a week?) I’m going to be trying hard to stay awake in my Intensive Reading class. One thing that I’ve learned is that even if you already know something that’s being explained, you can benefit a lot by listening carefully to the way it’s explained in Chinese. And, of course, I’m going to show these teachers with all my questions in class just what it means to have an active American in the classroom.

For clarification, I’d just like to note that I’m only studying Chinese formally for one semester, and I paid for it with my own hard-earned RMB, so I intend to get the most out of it. That explains my attitude. Also, what’s both encouraging and annoying is that even though I ask the most questions, it seems that everyone else is really eager to hear the answers as well. So I’m either asking the questions my classmates didn’t think to ask but nevertheless want to know the answers to, or I’m asking the questions that my classmates were too timid to ask. Either way, I feel confident that I’m not the “annoying student who asks too many questions.”

Finally, I’d like to say that I think I made the right decision to study at ZUT instead of the more prestigious Zhejiang University. The number one reason is convenience. I am a 20-minute (harrowing) bike ride away from ZUT, but about an hour away from Zhejiang University, either by bike or by bus. Furthermore, I like my teachers, I like my classmates, I like my class size, and I think these classes are accomplishing my goals of increasing my vocabulary, making me a better reader, and equipping me to kick ass on the HSK which is coming up in mid-December.

[Note: I’m still looking for a job in Shanghai. All leads are greatly appreciated.]

08

Oct 2003

Dumb Pronunciation

That pronunciation guide I made turned out to be a big pain for me. It has gone through multiple revisions, but I think it’s pretty done now. The latest revisions included adding “pinyin clarifiers” in red which may very well only make it all more confusing. Oh well. I also changed the tone of my “condemnation” of pinyin to satisfy the pinyin fanatics out there who can’t bear to see the word “inconsistent” associated with pinyin (OK, that’s a joke — calm down).

I hope it’s more accurate, more balanced now. The “Background” section was never even supposed to be the important part, so those of you who haven’t done so already long ago can forget about it now. The people who were paying the most attention to it probably don’t need it anyway. The following is an e-mail I got from a learner who found my pages via Google.

> John,

> I have recently begun learning Mandarin. I knew there was a difference in pronunciation between j & zh, x & sh, q & ch, but I was very frustrated in my attempts to find a clear explanation of the difference. You’re website is like cool water in a desert! Marvelous!

> Thank you very much for putting so much effort into setting the record straight! Now, at last, I can get my pronunciation close enough that my tutor can help me fine tune it.

> Great job John! God bless you!

> Charles

That’s exactly what I made the pronunciation pages for. They’re working. I am content. Thank you everyone. I exit now to sleep, and to later arise and report another day on my Chinese studies which have been consuming so much of my time of late…


20

Sep 2003

Chinese Pronunciation

I noticed recently that there’s a lot of bad information out there on the web about the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. So I created this new section on Sinosplice to address the issue. It’s quite long, and I think it’s quite thorough and accurate. This is for the people that are having trouble mastering the harder consonant sounds of Mandarin like q, x, and j.

Please let me know what you think or if you find it helpful.


14

Aug 2003

Google Dictionary?

I’m not sure, maybe this is a common practice. But just in case it isn’t, I’d like to offer a tip to you happy web surfers out there, and an extra special tip to those of you studying Chinese.

Every one knows about Google now. “Google” is pretty much a verb in common usage already. I urge you to use the Google Toolbar if you don’t already. It’s so useful — I get annoyed now when I’m on someone else’s computer and I actually have to go to the Google site to use Google. I just use Google that much. Then there’s Google Images, which is your key to a vast lode of virtually untapped digital imagery ore. Sure, you can use those pictures for your own unscrupulous Photoshop purposes or whatever (I sure have)… But what people don’t realize is that Google Images is also a reference resource.

I’ll give an example. Suppose you want to know what a Pekinese looks like. You know it’s a kind of dog, but you want to know exactly what it looks like. If you looked it up in a dictionary, you’d get a nice (possibly vague) description, but what you really would want is a picture. An encyclopedia might provide that, but it might not, plus looking something up in an encyclopedia is a big pain in this modern age. All you have to do is pop “pekinese” into Google Images, and voila! you have a whole smattering of visual testimony, all provided unwittingly by people across the web.

But none of that is revolutionary. What I find Google especially useful for is checking up on Chinese words [sorry, you’ll need Chinese input capability for this]. There are a lot of Chinese words that are in common practice but have not made it into dictionaries. Proper nouns are not usually in dictionaries anyway. So what do you do in a case like that? Google them. Take a guess at the characters. If you’re wrong, you’ll know by the search results.

I’ll give an example. You want to search for information on Jay Chou in Chinese. You know his Chinese name is Zhou Jielun, but you’re not sure which “lun” the last character is. Google all your guesses. Chances are, the one which turns up the greatest number of results is the right one. In the case of Zhou Jielun, it clearly is.

This works great for famous people’s names, place names, new slang, etc., and it sure beats any traditional dictionary method I know. The only problem is that you’re choosing the “correct” answer by following the herd. When the herd is 1.3 billion strong, though, in the name of convenience… why not?


10

Aug 2003

Studying Chinese

Instead of wisely sleeping, I decided to beef up the Language section of Sinosplice tonight. I’ve been meaning to do it for a while, and I don’t think I’m going to have as much free time as I do now much longer. Anyway, this is just the beginning of some of the plans I have.

If you’re just starting to learn Chinese, this stuff is for you!

New areas:
The 5 Stages to Learning Chinese The Process of Learning Tones Chinese Study Book Reviews


04

Jun 2003

Studying Chinese in Hangzhou

As I’ve mentioned before, lately I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with my progress in Chinese. I think there are several reasons for this stagnation. One reason I can’t ignore is that I’ve really been having a good time here for the past year and a half, and I’ve just plain been lazy about studying. I can’t deny that. But there’s more to it than just laziness. My spoken Chinese has reached a sort of plateau. I know most of the words for everyday life. If linguistists’ estimate of 10,000 words for a basic vocabulary is correct, then I know those 10,000 words in Chinese, and I can use them fairly fluently in conversation. Remember, though, that’s a basic vocabulary; it is an accomplishment, but it’s nothing to be exceedingly proud about. I’ve gotta keep pushing. Basic conversation is no longer sufficient to help me learn the more sophisticated vocabulary I want to work on, and basic conversation doesn’t help me with reading or writing, two skill areas I’ve definitely been neglecting. My conclusion? I need to take formal classes.

Besides a simple desire for further progress, there’s another reason I want to start taking formal classes. I’ve decided that I need to take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – Chinese Proficiency test, China’s “TOEFL”) in order for my progress in Chinese to be formally recognized. I didn’t major in Chinese; I just took a few courses in college, so at this point I have no official documentation to prove that my Chinese is decent. If you throw me into China it’s pretty clear that I can handle myself, but that doesn’t readily work itself onto a resume. The HSK score will provide a recognized standard that I might need for the future.

Also, I think it’s pretty clear that I thrive on competition. (Maybe that’s part of the reason I took up the study of Chinese… It’s undoubtedly quite a challenge, and there aren’t a whole lot of Westerners that can do it, so I could realistically compete with the best if I tried hard and stuck with it.) I think classroom competition in the form of other serious classmates will be a powerful form of motivation for me to excel in my studies.

I have already announced before that I plan to study Chinese at Zhejiang University for the 2003-2004 academic year. This past semester I’ve been putting aside over two-thirds of my income every month for that express purpose. Recently, though, it has come to my attention that Zheijiang University may not be the best choice for me, especially since I plan to continue living on campus at ZUCC next semester (and teaching part-time). Below is my comparison and evaluation of the three main choices for Chinese study in Hangzhou.

Zhejiang University (Yuquan Campus)

Zheijiang University Zheijiang University

Chinese Studies Program: Good – generally considered to be the best in Hanghzou

Students: 500-900, from all over (but especially Korea)

Campus: Pretty large, attractive with lots of trees, but classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: medium (20-35 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:00am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 30 minutes by bicycle, at least an hour by bus (requiring one transfer)

Tuition: US$1000 for the first semester; US$800 for the second semester

Evaluation: A decent program which perhaps charges a little too much because it knows it has the reputation of Zhejiang University behind it. It would be cool to be part of such a big international community of students, but I’m afraid the daily commute (which would necessitate me waking up at 6am for a grueling daily ordeal) would kill me.

Zhejiang University of Technology

Zhejiang University of Technology Zhejiang University of Technology

Chinese Studies Program: Fair – emphasizes listening and reading skills and HSK prep, but doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about conducting interesting conversation classes

Students: about 100, mostly from Korea

Campus: Pretty large, unattractive, classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: small (10-15 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:55am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 15 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus

Tuition: US$780 for the first semester; US$750 for the second semester

Evaluation: I’d prefer to study at a school with a more attractive campus, but I guess that isn’t the most important thing. The school’s reputation isn’t the greatest and the classes might not be the most imaginatively planned out, but as far as what I want to study, it should get the job done. The fact that it’s very close is a huge plus.

Hangzhou Teachers College

Hangzhou Teachers College Hangzhou Teachers College

Chinese Studies Program: Fair/poor – very personal interaction, but doesn’t seem to have an established study curriculum

Students: about 30, mostly from Korea

Campus: Pretty large, nice pond in the center of campus, some attractive architecture, but classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: very small (1-5 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:30am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 20 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus

Tuition: US$800 for the first semester; US$800 for the second semester

Evaluation: I really like the campus, but I don’t think the study program cuts it. First, the classes are just too small. I’m afraid I wouldn’t get the competition I’m looking for, or much of the comraderie. Second, the curriculum is just unimpressive and seems somewhat vague for advanced students.

Hangzhou University of Commerce

Hangzhou University of Commerce Hangzhou University of Commerce

Chinese Studies Program: Fair – very personal interaction, established study curriculum, but doesn’t seem to go into advanced study of Chinese (although it does offer “business Chinese”)

Students: about 50, from all over

Campus: Pretty large, not unattractive, but classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: small (5-10 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:30am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 30 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus

Tuition: US$900 for the first semester; US$900 for the second semester

Evaluation: The first thing that strikes me about the program is that to study for one year it’s the same price as Zhejiang University’s, and it doesn’t seem anywhere near as comprehensive. On the plus side, it’s closer and has smaller class sizes. I worry, though, that the program is not designed for higher level students of Chinese, because an “advanced” class is not even listed in the program description.

So, it looks like my final choice is Zhejiang University of Technology. Zhejiang University’s Chinese studies program application deadline is June 15th. I think I have to count out Zhejiang University primarily because of the commute, but it will also be nice to keep the money I save. Zhejiang University of Technology is a good compromise between convenience and excellence, and it should help me accomplish my goals. I can always re-evaluate the situation after one semester if I don’t like the program.

So, after three years of working full-time at ZUCC, I’m finally going to be a student again this fall. It feels good.


10

May 2003

A Madman's Diary

Lu Xun

Recently I was given a really cool birthday present: Selected Stories of Lu Xun. It’s got the Chinese on the left side and the English on the right. I tend to read in English first and then go back and study the Chinese later. Lu Xun (鲁迅) is simply the most famous modern author in China. Lu Xun’s writings predate Communism by a bit, and reflect the great turbulence China was experiencing in the early 1900’s.

Anyway, the first short story in the book is A Madman’s Diary. It’s really a fascinating little piece of literature. I’ll confess, I’ve been out of the literary analysis loop for some time, and my understanding of Chinese culture and history still has a ways to go, so I didn’t fully get the story right away. It’s frustrating to have one’s intellect blunted by disuse. Still, I knew there was a lot to it. I had a talk with my tutor about the story, though. He’s a big fan of Lu Xun. So I understand and appreciate it a lot better now. [ literary analysis ]

The story deals with cannibalism. The madman narrator believes that the people of his town are plotting to kill and eat him. What’s interesting is that the story refers to the fact that China has a long history of incidents of cannibalism. Under feudalism, when hard times hit, the peasants got hit hardest. Famines were common. And, as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. One reference in the story I didn’t quite understand. It referred to the practice of “exchang[ing] sons to eat” (yi zi er shi — 易子而食). So I asked my tutor about it. I was completely shocked. In ancient China, when famine hit, there was a practice of two households exchanging a child, and then each household killing and eating that child. (You can’t eat your own child, right? That would be uncivilized.) It’s absolutely mind boggling to what extremes famine can drive human beings. My tutor told me there were also incidents of people being so hungry that they would eat mud and die from it.

It was just a little difficult to talk about this with my tutor. He answers my questions well (sometimes too well — and the guy talks fast with a really good vocabulary), and he’s committed to helping me learn more about Chinese culture. But the topic was cannibalism in Chinese history, and Chinese people have a tendency to be kind of sensitive about that which portrays China in a bad light.

I expressed total shock about the “exchange sons to eat” thing, and I think he was a little surprised. He told me he thought Western history contained incidents that are just as bad. I didn’t really doubt that, but I asked for an example. He thought for a few seconds and then brought up Roman gladiators. Not only were humans forced to battle beasts and each other in front of a live audience, but the audience actually got off on the carnage. Granted, that is pretty heinous. But the difference, I felt, was that in most cases of extreme human cruelty, the recipient is dehumanized in the eyes of the offender. It seems like that would be a little harder to do in an even exchange of children with a neighbor.

This conversation prompted me to do a bit of my own research. If cannibalism is a known part of Chinese history, I wondered just how well documented it is in English. I’m not very familiar with the scholarly resources of sinologists, so I just used Google. I found one page with information, but coming from a Japanese source it seems kind of suspect (notice that the information is even in a directory labeled “nanjing”). I also uncovered a plethora of other pages. I’m not going to list them here, because I can’t tell if those pages report the truth, or whether it’s simply some kind of sensationalist China-bashing. (If you want to see them, just do a Google search for “china cannibalism.”) I found one page debunking the claims of another page. Regardless, it’s all an information/misinformation mess, and I found very little referring to the historical incidents that I was looking for.


13

Apr 2003

English only, please — this is China

SPEAK BOY!

This is one of my favorite cartoons of all time… Multi-lingual, pro-individuals’ clean air rights, anti-animal abuse — all the while taking a jab at linguistic imperialism.

So what’s the China connection? Those who have not had the privilege of coming to China may expect me to decry some foreigners’ attitudes here. Far from it. Rather than foreigners in China expecting to be spoken to in English more than they are, it is the Chinese who expect to be spoken to in English more than they are.

Sure, there are plenty of people here that don’t speak English and have no interest in it, but many Chinese people — especially college-aged — are reluctant to talk to foreigners in any language but English. Your good-natured attempts at the language are returned with a laugh and English only. I don’t want to make it seem like there are no college-aged students that are willing to talk to foreigners in Chinese. That simply wouldn’t be true. But the proportion is heavily skewed in the opposite direction, or at least much more strongly than I had ever imagined before coming here.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. I’m not sure, but I think this is a unique set of circumstances in the world today. The Japanese are not like that. It may be partly because the poor Japanese have a bit of a linguistic inferiority complex, but the Japanese usually seem relieved to be able to speak Japanese with a foreigner instead of having to use English. In Thailand I sure couldn’t speak much Thai, but the people were so friendly that I had a ball with my mangled phrasebook command of the language. And there are a lot of Thai people that speak good English. In my experience, Mexicans don’t feel the need to always bring it back to English either… and they know when you’re American. I’ve never been there, but in Europe English seems to be an oft-resented obligatory linguistic routine. So what’s going on in China?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese people have an intense longing to come up in the world. The government — despite its severely flawed English education system — has recognized the importance of English in our increasingly globalized, capitalistic earthly existence, and has instilled a sense of urgency in the young to learn English. True, some are trying to get out of the country, but others just want to learn it. It is because of these very circumstances that I and many others are able to easily find work in China at a university level and live comfortably here.

And yet, the whole situation can be very frustrating. People who come all the way to China to learn Chinese do not appreciate being repeatedly forced to speak English. Yes, English is now the international language, but shouldn’t Mandarin be the default language here? Also, there is sort of a natural linguistic principle which dictates that when two speakers of different languages communicate, the mode of communication settled upon will be the language that both people speak best. This means that if a Frenchman and a Spaniard meet, and the Frenchman’s Spanish is not so hot, but neither is the Spaniard’s French, but both speak English decently, communication will be conducted in English. Natural, right? Similarly, if a Chinese and an American meet, and the Chinese person speaks pretty bad English but the American speaks decent Chinese, the conversation should proceed in Chinese. Why, then, in China, is this so often not the case? At times it amounts to linguistic bullying, and it becomes clear that communication is not really the desired end.

Again, let me stress that this is not always the case, but I’d like to list two of the ruder experiences I’ve had here, which are not isolated incidents, but rather categories of incidents which occasionally are repeated:

– I was speaking with a Chinese friend in Chinese in a public place. My friend didn’t speak English. A Chinese man I didn’t know approached me and engaged me in coversation in English. He refused to switch over to Chinese, even though my friend couldn’t follow the conversation. My friend and I had to leave to get away from the guy.

– I was speaking to two Chinese people who approached me in English. I spoke to them in English, and then added in some Chinese. One of the people got a strange expression on his face and told me he didn’t understand. The other was like, “what do you mean you don’t understand? He said that totally clearly.” The other became flustered because his friend didn’t catch onto his fake miscomprehension trick.

In all fairness, I should bring up the idea of the “psychological block” to communication in Asia. I have had this experience in both Japan and China. Sometimes you’ll speak to a person in near-perfect (if not perfect) Chinese or Japanese, and all you’ll get is a shaking of the head and a “I don’t speak English.” These people will not listen to you at all, because when they see a white face they become absolutely convinced in their minds that communication is impossible. Often it’s the old that suffer from these psychological blocks. In one case a nearby Chinese person, incredulous, told the guy that I was speaking to him in Chinese, but the man still refused to even listen to me. Incredible. That said, I’d like to say that the second example above is not one of those cases. It was a deliberate attempt to block communication in Chinese.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m willing to speak to Chinese people in English. I also understand that the average Chinese person gets very very few opportunities to practice “real English,” and I’m always happy to speak to my students in English. It can also be very refreshing to speak to a Chinese person in English when the person speaks good English. But I certainly resent being deprived of my right to speak Chinese in China.


19

Jan 2003

"Dialects" in China

[Here’s something I wrote way back in 2000, shortly after coming to China. I still think it’s pretty accurate.]

The linguistic situation in China is truly mind-blowing. Most people with a basic knowledge of China know that Mandarin is the official language, though quite a lot of people also speak Cantonese (in the south, in areas like Hong Kong and Guangzhou). Those people might also know that there are many more languages in China, spoken by various minority groups. All this is true, but this assessment barely even scratches the surface.

In reality, almost every person in Eastern China (developed China, not the countryside) is at least bilingual. China is a vast patchwork of languages, with every single town speaking its own brand of Chinese. Chinese people call these “dailects”, but it’s not actually that simple. When Americans think of dialects, we might think of black English, or the English of the American South, or of England. Though there might be some communication difficulty (with certain dialects in particular), communication between speakers of different dialects can generally proceed.

Chinese “dialects” are not so. This is largely because tones are a vital part of the Chinese language, and tones (as well as other sounds) vary from “dialect” to “dialect”. Neighboring towns tend to speak varieties of Chinese which can be mutually understood, but if you go just a little further away to another town, communication often breaks down completely. Since mutual intelligibility is generally accepted as the basic dividing line between dialect and language, these “dialects” are actually separate languages. Thus, this means that every town in China speaks a separate language! Since most people in China speak their hometown language as well as Mandarin, that means almost everyone is bilingual! Furthermore, many people who have moved from city to city can speak or at least understand more than one local language (and can understand the closely related ones as well).

So what we have here is a vast lingual patchwork with countless patches, and where one patch ends and the next begins is unclear. In addition, Mandarin is laid on top of that patchwork, lending cohesion to the linguistic mess. This is not to say that Mandarin is completely standard (or even necessarily often spoken) throughout the nation. It’s not (though much more so in northern China). This is where the true dialects come in — the local languages of different regions affect the way Mandarin is pronounced and used, but mutual intelligibility is preserved. Thus, the Mandarin of Beijing, of Shanghai, and of Taiwan are not the same. They each have their own dialect of Mandarin. In some parts of China like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Cantonese is spoken more often than Mandarin.

Thus, China is a land of countless languages, united under one government. Calling the separate languages merely “dialects” and downplaying the linguistic disparity (and individuality) actually serves to help unify the country. It’s easier to consider people your fellow countrymen when they are merely speaking a “dialect” of the same language instead of a separate language. Even more unifying than the government’s psychological manipulation through words, though, is the Chinese written language. Despite the differences in the great array of languages — the differences in word pronunciation, in tone (sometimes even in number of tones), in grammatical usage, etc. — they all use the same Chinese characters in written form, with the exception of some minority languages. Any literate person in China (with the exception of some minorities) can read a Chinese newspaper aloud, character for character, in his native tongue, and it will be understood by native listeners, but not by most people from other regions of China. Read aloud in Mandarin, the official language of China, it will be understood by most people throughout China.

Because China is such a multilingual country, the use of Chinese characters and of Mandarin as the official language of China were crucial prerequisities to China’s modernization. Chinese characters have of course been around for thousands of years, but the adoption of one official language for the country did not take place until the beginning of the 20th century! It is perhaps one reason why China got a slow start on modernization. In selecting one language as the standard for the entire country, China was actually following Japan’s example. Japan underwent the same process as a precursor to its modernization. Perhaps because of its vastness, or maybe also because of its particular linguistic situation, China to this day does not have the linguistic cohesion that Japan does. Japan cannot be said to be a country of many languages (although in addition to Japanese it does have the the language of the Ainu, the aboriginal Japanese). To be sure, each part of Japan speaks a distinct variety of Japanese, but these are merely dialectual differences, and do not depart from mutual intelligibility for the most part.


16

Oct 2002

Tutor Update / River Story / Mr. Manners

A while back I listed a bunch of requirements for the tutor I was looking for. Well, with the help of someone in the Foreign Language Department, I have found him. He’s an awesome tutor. He’s critical. He tells me when my pronunciation is a little off, he tells me how it’s off, and he tells me how, phonologically, to correct it. He speaks to me all in Chinese. He speaks fast, and with good vocab. He’s well-read, and knows Chinese history well. He speaks standard Mandarin. He brings his own materials and demands that I learn this or that. It’s great to have a tutor with definite ideas of what I should be learning. He brings me 12 new chengyu (Chinese idioms) to study every class. He requires me to read from a standard Mandarin pronunciation class textbook, and criticizes my pronunciation, and then makes me read again, and again, and again… He also records his own readings onto my computer so that I can practice on my own for the next class.

After each two-hour session, I am exhausted. He’s a good teacher. I can feel the now unfamiliar soreness of progress once again.

Last Thursday I had my advanced English discussion class at the English Department. Those students are just great. Their English is so good, and the people just have such personality. I thought college students were great for those reasons, but these adult students take it to a whole new level.

Last week we did the “River Romance Story” (for lack of a better name), which I’ve already made famous at this school. It’s pretty famous already anyway, so I’m kind of afraid to use it, always expecting my students to be familiar with it already. But last Thursday none of my students were. Good.

Before I give an account of the discussion, I should tell the story. Here goes.

Long, long ago, in the time of kings and queens, there lived a Man and a Lady, deeply in love. It was true love. The Man was a high-ranking servant of the king, often sent off to new posts to solve problems. Where the Man went to work, the Lady followed. Then the Man was assigned to a faroff village that was only reachable by way of a treacherous river. On the river, a storm suddenly sprang up. The boat was run into rocks, and everyone thrown overboard. The Man was the only passenger that could swim, and he managed to save himself, all the while looking fervently for the Lady. He couldn’t find her. Not a single body turned up; all were lost in the swift current. After searching for days, grief-stricken, the Man was forced to accept the unimagniable. The Lady was gone. With heavy heart, he headed off to the village to fulfill his post.

As fate would have it, however, the Lady didn’t die. She was rescued by an inhabitant on the other side of the river and nursed back to health over a series of weeks from the brink of death. As soon as she could walk, she set about trying to get back to the Man. However, the river was uncrossable. There was no bridge. There was only one way of crossing: by way of the Boatman. He was the only one with enough skill to ferry people from one side to the other. He charged 10 gold pieces each way for his service.

By the time the Lady reached the Boatman, he had long since heard of her. When she asked his price, he told her 100 gold pieces. She had only 10. No matter how she begged and pleaded, he would not bring the price down or even let her pay after crossing and finding the Man. It was 100 or nothing.

The Lady soon met another man, however, named Sam. Sam was a landowner with a good deal off money, but he was a bit of a womanizer. The Lady was beautiful, and he took to her immediately. She made it clear that she wished only to return to her Man, though. Magnanimous man that he was, Sam said he could help her — on one condition. The Lady must sleep with Sam for a night.

The Lady was outraged at this request, and stormed off. She soon sank into despair, however, and quickly came to the conclusion that her life there, on the wrong side of the river was meaningless, and there was only one way out. She would sleep with Sam.

So the Lady slept with Sam. She received 100 gold pieces. She paid the Boatman and crossed the river. She made her way into the village and found the Man. They were reunited at last, and their joy was boundless. Yet, at the back of the woman’s heart gnawed the question: should I tell him? She decided to leave it be for the time being.

After arriving, the Lady met the Man’s new Friend, who also worked in the village. This Friend left the next day for the other side of the river to do business. His business was with Sam, and Sam liked to talk. He had a tendency to brag about his womanizing exploits, but he was known to always tell the truth. Sam told the Friend about his night with the Lady.

The Friend was now in a hard position. Should he tell the Man? He didn’t know all the circumstances of the incident in question, but he could be sure what Sam said was the truth. Finally, he decided that the Man should know the truth, and told him.

The Man was angered by this information, calling the Friend a liar. Still, doubt overtook him, and he brought the “outrageous rumor” up to the Lady. She immediately burst into tears, admitting it was the truth.

The Man was in total shock. Never had he felt so betrayed. He had vowed never to love again when he lost the Lady, but how could he forgive this? In the end, he couldn’t. He parted ways with the Lady.

They never saw each other again.

So that’s the story. The task is then to rank the people, 1-5, from “best” to “worst.” Then discuss. This always yields great discussion. I love it.

After discussing that, you can reveal what each person is supposed to symbolize: Lady – Love, Boatman – Business, Friend – Friendship, Sam – Sex, Man – Morality. Then we discuss whether the activity actually reveals our priorities in life.

Anyway, last Thursday my class got so into this discussion. It was incredible. They were funny, too — when I mentioned in the beginning how in love the Man and Lady were, one of my students said, “what’s the use?” Later, when they were guessing what each character symbolizes, this same girl said the Lady represents weakness! Funny stuff.

Anyway, we had a long discussion on morality. This example really brings out the differences and similarities between Western and Eastern morality. Eastern is much more relativistic. I taught them phrases from Western thought like, “the truth will set you free,” “the ends doesn’t justify the means,” and “ignorance is bliss.”

Chinese girls seem to love to say the Lady is the best (and even that she did nothing wrong), and the Man is the worst for not forgiving the Lady. Some of them also say the Boatman is worse than Sam, because the whole mess was started by him, even if he was ignorant of the drama he set in motion.

So I thought of all kinds of hypothetical situations to test their stances. Unsurprisingly, the girls became quite similar to the Man when I posed the situation of their husband sleeping with his female boss to get a promotion and provide better for his family (which was struggling to make ends meet and had no hope of properly educating the child).

What blew my mind, though, was two girls’ answer to this question: “Would you rather have a husband who was completely faithful to you and made you happy, or a husband who was not faithful, but you didn’t know about it, and so were still happy?” The answer? “Either one is fine, as long as I never find out he’s cheating.” Either one is fine! Incredible.

That class was a blast. I learned so much. It’s classes like that that remind me how much I’m still learning here, and how my life is totally on track.

This past week I also started a third teaching job. It’s for a large department store, only teaching three times, for two hours each time. It pays very well. My job is to provide training for some of the department store employees so that they can do a little job-related communication with foreigners when necessary. I was also asked to give a short lecture, in Chinese, on “how not to offend foreigners.” My first lecture in Chinese. Awesome. I was excited.

The lecture went pretty well. I held their interest with humor well, and they learned a lot. Here’s what they learned:

1. Foreigners value hygiene highly. Do not cough, yawn, or sneeze without covering appropriate orifices. Don’t spit. Don’t pick your nose or ear in public. Don’t scratch. Don’t fart. Don’t have a runny nose (or at least don’t blow a snot rocket!).

2. Be careful with questions. Don’t ask age or salary. Don’t assume people are American or any nationality.

3. Be careful in your actions. Don’t fidget. Don’t yell for any reason. Be patient. Smile. Never litter, anywhere.

4. When eating… Eat slowly, with small bites. There should be no noises coming from your mouth. Sit up straight, never hunch. Put one hand on your lap, with your napkin. Don’t spit out anything if it can be avoided.

5. When communicating… Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Don’t be too self-deprecatory. Don’t comment on physical appearance.

Some of these may seem unnecessary, but I personally made this list, and my reason for adding each item comes from my own real-life experiences with people in Chinese society….


27

Sep 2002

Ideal Tutor

Speaking of Chinese, I’m still learning that thing. Last semester I made very little progress. I need to turn into a vocabulary acquisition machine. But how? Also, I’ve reached a dangerous level of fluency. It’s a level where I’m completely functional and conversational, and I don’t make many mistakes when I speak, but my Chinese is still by no means perfect. At this point it’s easy to be complacent and get slack in my studies, but I’m trying hard to rebel against that urge. I’ve decided to hire a Chinese student to tutor me (15rmb(US$2)/hour). My criteria were threefold:

  1. The tutor must be male. I’m tired of learning to speak like a girl. My Chinese is good enough now that personality comes through in my speech, and it doesn’t need to be some girly-boy personality.
  2. The tutor must be critical. I still make mistakes when I talk, but they’re mostly pretty minor. I’m not completely conscious of all of them, but I want them eliminated. It’s so easy to get praise, but so hard to get criticism where I need it.
  3. The tutor must be business-like, and must be a stranger. I want a business deal. Chinese students are all for huxiang xuexi (“you teach me English, I teach you Chinese”), but I really don’t want to spend my free time teaching more English. Plus, if I’m dissatisfied with a tutor and decide to discontinue, he’s only deprived of a small amount of income, not some rare, precious source of real English exposure.

16

Sep 2002

Verbal Horror

Asiafirst‘s recent post on City Weekend reminded me of an interesting topic… diarrhea.

Now, since you’re most likely of the Western tradition, you probably squirmed a little when you saw that word. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. In Asia, they treat diarrhea like a cold — a temporary, uncomfortable condition. Meanwhile, in the United States it’s an unmentionable dark secret. No one wants to hear about your diarrhea, as if just the word in itself is some kind of plot to make us visualize something disgusting.

It took me some time in Japan and China, when I was in a position requiring someone else’s help, to be able to just tell people, “yo, I’ve got diarrhea, help me out here.” In the U.S. we’d be much less direct about that kind of thing. As your hints about your condition zero in on the unspeakable, the listener gets your drift and tactfully pledges assistance and then immediately changes the topic. On the other hand, if you mention it to your Chinese friend while you’re at the store, he just replies matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’ve got diarrhea??” and then, loudly, to the clerk across the store, “hey, my foreign friend here has diarrhea! Where’ s the medicine for that?” You get the picture.

Just one of those little differences…

Oh, and as long as I’m on this taboo topic, a word to the wise: if you come to China, bring some immodium.



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