personal


27

Jun 2017

4-Man Harmonica Band Storms Jing’an Park

I’d never seen an all-harmonica band before yesterday, and seeing one turn up in my own neck of the woods in Shanghai (Jing’an Park) was a special treat.

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Yep, they had the appropriate performing license, and were playing in the park’s “street busker” area.

I wish I could tell you what they were playing, but sadly, it escapes me. Lively kind of “Old Susannah” vibe. (Not Chinese classics!)

Word of the day: 口琴, harmonica.


15

Jun 2017

Kevin Durant Slam Dunks a Bowl of Noodles

I’ve been noticing this mural at a noodle restaurant in Shanghai for several years at least, I think. But the Warriors’ most recent win and Kevin Durant’s performance in particular make me think I should share this odd bit of wall art:

Kevin Durant Slam Dunks a Bowl of Beef Noodles


11

Apr 2017

Xiamen (take 2)

I don’t write about places I visit much these days… I’m a grumpy old man now, and it’s all “been there, done that!” I feel that Xiamen is worth a special mention, though. I’ve now been there twice, and I really enjoyed it both times, especially the small island called Gulangyu (鼓浪屿).

The reasons I like Gulangyu are not really typical ones, though. First a few pictures, then the explanation…

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Thoughts on Gulangyu

OK, first let me get a few things out of the way… I’m not a big fan of Chinese seafood (we have a bad history), and I don’t find any of the food on Gulangyu particularly good. So reasons for liking Gulangyu have nothing to do with food.

The main reasons:

  1. The island is just fun to explore… Lots of little twisting roads, interesting architecture, tunnels, beaches, little mountains. It’s a fun place. (Reminds me a little bit of Lijiang in this way, but obviously it’s a very different setting.)
  2. The place is pretty packed with tourists during the day (all clamoring to sample not-great seafood), but at night the place has a special charm. It’s fun to walk around after dark. The roads are well-lit, and surveillance cameras are everywhere (it’s a little disconcerting, honestly), so the place feels quite safe.
  3. No cars are allowed on the island, nor are scooters. You barely see any bicycles, even. Honestly, this might be a huge part of why I like the place so much… it’s hard to say how much this influences my feelings.
  4. The weather is great. The first time I went around Chinese New Year in 2016, and I just went again around the beginning of April this year. Very comfy (unlike Shanghai in winter and early spring).
  5. Lots of little independent shops and restaurants. No Starbucks on Gulangyu. Yes, there is a McDonalds and a KFC,
    but there aren’t so many chains, compared to some places, and the little hotels, teahouses, cafes, and restuarants all feel quite distinct (shout out to “Jia Nan D Lounge” (迦南D Lounge)… cool bar, and super friendly staff!).

So, Gulangyu in Xiamen: worth a leisurely visit, in my humble opinion.


31

Mar 2017

Germs in China: Immunity Training Ground?

I got through this winter without getting sick (not more than a few sniffles, anyway), UNTIL two weeks ago, when spring arrived and I got hit by a horrible cough, condemning me to long coughing fits every morning and evening for over two weeks. It was the kind of cough that I thought was “getting better” every day, until evening hit. It was bad, but not bad enough that made me go see a doctor. And it’s now finally almost faded away, about 15 days since it started. (You’ll notice I haven’t been blogging for this same time period.)

But this got me thinking about my own immune system in relation to China. After 16.6 years in China, has my immune system been “trained” at all? I don’t think there’s any way to definitively answer this question, but I’ve got a few thoughts, and I’m hoping others might share their experiences.

fake germs

Growing up in Florida, I was a pretty healthy kid, especially once I got into my teens. My mom was fond of saying, “you rarely get sick, but when you get sick, you get really sick.” I barely remember getting sick at all in college, including the year I studied in Japan. After that I came to China.

My first year in Hangzhou, I had the obligatory newbie food poisoning incident and it was really bad, which ended with me getting an IV in a hospital (as so many illnesses in China tend to). And then as time went on, I would get colds more frequently in China than I had before. I still get hit by the “China germs sucker punch.”

I would expect, after moving to a new environment with a fairly dense population, swimming with a whole new world of germs, to get sick a bit more often than before. And I think this is what has happened, leading up to gradual new “China immunity” layer in my body’s defenses. And over a decade later, I feel that I do get fewer colds, provided that I don’t get too behind on my sleep. But I don’t feel at all confident anymore saying things like “I rarely get sick” now that I live in China.

All this leads me to a few questions I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Do most expats from the USA (or other relatively sparsely populated western countries) get sick more frequently after moving to China?
  2. Are most long-term expats able to build up a stronger immunity to Chinese germs?
  3. Does a long stay in China lead to a permanently stronger immune system in other countries?
  4. Do Chinese immigrants to the USA get sick less often in the USA than they used to in China?

It would be hard to answer these questions through research, and I realize there are quite a few variables involved (I’m no longer in my twenties, for example) but I’m interested in hearing my readers’ anecdotal evidence. So how about it: in your experience, is China an immunity training ground, or does it simply have its way with you until you’ve had enough?


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.”


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.


14

Dec 2016

NES Classic in Shanghai

How much would you pay for a little plastic box of Nintendo nostalgia? In the US, the NES Classic is going for around $200 on Amazon, while the Euro version is selling for around $230, and the Japanese version for $140 (which you better read Japanese for). I’m not sure how guaranteed the device is to be in stock, even at those prices, however.

So I was a little excited to find stacks of these things at a game shop in Shanghai on West Beijing Rd. (北京西路), near Jiaozhou Rd. (胶州路). The price for the Euro version is 900 RMB (about $130 at current exchange rates).

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If you’re in Shanghai and want to seek out the shop, stay on the south side of the street east of Jiaozhou Rd, and look for a blue Playstation sign.


02

Dec 2016

Back from ACTFL (2016)

I’ve been back from ACTFL for a while, but immediately upon returning I discovered that a bunch of my websites (all hosted on the same shared server) had been infested with malware. So I had that to deal with, in addition to a mountain of other pre-Christmas things.

The server was likely infected because an old WordPress install (that should have been deleted) was exploited. The best fix was a clean wipe: change passwords, export WordPress content via mySQL database dump, re-install WordPress, and re-import each website’s content. Fortunately, my web hosting service, WebFaction, was really helpful. They detected and alerted me of the malware in the first place, and provided useful guidance helping me clean it up. WebFaction is not the best service for anyone relatively clueless about tech, but if you can handle SSH and, like me, don’t mind Googling Linux commands occasionally to get stuff done, it’s really excellent.

But back to ACTFL… It was great to talk to the teachers I met there, and although I was there representing Mandarin Companion this time, I also met teachers familiar with Sinosplice, AllSet Learning, and ChinesePod. It was invaluable to get this rare face-to-face teacher feedback.

Here are my observations from the conference:

  • I was last at ACTFL in 2008, when almost all Chinese teachers in attendance were university instructors, with a sprinkling of teachers from cutting-edge high schools. Now there are plenty of high schools, middle schools, and even primary schools represented. So one unexpected piece of positive feedback was that even middle schools can use Mandarin Companion’s graded readers, and the kids like them.
  • In 2008, pretty much all Chinese teachers in attendance were ethnically Chinese. The only exception I can remember was my own Chinese teacher from undergrad at UF, Elinore Fresh (who was a bit of an anomaly, having grown up in mainland China). But now many of those non-Chinese kids that studied Chinese in college and got pretty good at it have become Chinese teachers themselves, and are also attending ACTFL. I’ve always been a proponent of the learner perspective in language pedagogy, so this is a fantastic trend to see. Chinese and non-Chinese teachers can accomplish so much more by collaborating.
  • There’s a strong TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) faction at ACTFL, the lead proponent for its application to Chinese pedagogy being Dr. Terry Waltz. I got a chance to talk to her about her methods, as well as other practitioners such as Diane Neubauer, who contributes to a great blog dedicated to TPRS for Chinese called Ignite Chinese. It’s very encouraging to see classroom innovation in this space, and I am researching TPRS more.
  • Boston is a pretty cool city. I regret that I didn’t have the time to check it out properly.

When I attended ACTFL in 2008, I met the guys behind Skritter, which went on to become a world-class service. I didn’t make any similar discoveries this time, but there’s no substitute for direct communication with all the teachers back in the USA working hard to prepare the next generation of kids for a world that needs Chinese language skills more than ever. I expect to be attending ACTFL pretty regularly in the coming years.

Now for some photos!

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16

Nov 2016

Headed to Boston for ACTFL

I’m now in Boston for the ACTFL convention. It’s a gathering of a bunch of professional language teachers from all over the U.S. The last time I was here was in 2008, representing ChinesePod. This year I’m representing Mandarin Companion. (We’ve got a new book out, by the way: Journey to the Center of the Earth.)

I’ll be connecting with a few people at the convention, and meeting up with my Chinese teacher buddies. I also get to visit my sister Amy and high school friend Steve. If you’re a Sinosplice reader and you’re at ACTFL, though, please seek out Mandarin Companion and come by and say hi!


08

Nov 2016

Voting from Abroad and Faxing Difficulties

It’s 2016, and I thought my days of using a fax machine were well behind me. It turns out, however, that Hillsborough County in Florida allows mailed-in ballots and faxed-in ballots, but not emailed-in ballots. And due to the unreliability of regular post (I find that a lot of letters and packages simply never arrive these days), my options are down to fax or using an international delivery service like UPS or FedEx. But since those two each cost over $50 to send in my ballot, I opted to go the more archaic route: fax.

Day Sixty Four - Fax Machine

Since any major hotel in Shanghai has a “Business Center” (商务中心), I figured going to a nice hotel would be a good place to fax a document. Sure, it wouldn’t be the cheapest faxing option, but it would certainly be much less than $50, and I could get the help of the professional staff of a five-star hotel.

After calling ahead to the Jing’an Hilton and the Jing’an Shangri-La Hotel (both within walking distance of my office) to make sure both offer international fax services, I set out Friday afternoon to fax in my ballot.

Reality was a bit more complicated. The staff of both places (as well as a third, Yan’an Hotel, which I tried out since I was walking past it anyway) were actually not very familiar with using a fax machine, much less sending an international fax. Every trip resulted in a polite affirmative from staff that they could fax the document, followed by lots of calls on how to send an international fax, multiple attempts, and ultimate failure. The worst part was the way the fax machine’s “failure to send” message result was worded: “no answer or the line was busy.” “Or”?? Seems like in this case, the result could be clearer.

I began to suspect that the fax machine was only on during business hours, and also decided to take a friend’s suggestion and use an app. So I scanned my document, got it on my phone, and used an app called Genius Fax to send it in Friday night at around 8:30pm. Success!

I honestly thought that going the more human route would be easier and more certain, but when it comes to using an increasingly outdated technology, which relies on another increasingly outdated technology (international telephone calls), it just didn’t work out. I still don’t even know for sure if the main issue really was simply one of business hours and time difference, but at least the fax went through in the end.

So if you’re voting abroad, a few pieces of advice:

  1. If you can’t vote by email, vote by fax. You have to waive your right to secret ballot to do this, but at least you can be fairly sure your vote has been received.
  2. If you use the fax option, use an internet-based service. I used Genius Fax, but friends on Facebook also recommend FaxZero and HelloFax.
  3. If you’re voting from abroad and you’ve received your ballot, it’s not too late to vote. So even though today is the official voting day, you still have time, especially if you choose the fax option. Votes from abroad can decide a close election!

Hopefully this helps somebody. Get your vote in! Coming from the state of Florida, I felt additional pressure to be sure to vote in this presidential election, and getting that “successfully received” message from the app was quite a relief.


27

Oct 2016

Investigations of a Bilingual 4-year-old’s Riddle

My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.

Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:

What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?

Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!

Pegasus

The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)

I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.

In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?

I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:

Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?

Her: It means “five legs.”

Her: [thinks for a minute]

Her: …or “5 corners.”

I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.


27

Sep 2016

Chinese Views on Trump

As I write this the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump is underway. I tried hard to view this debate, but in the end I guess I just chose a place with a lousy internet connection. (Despite the ubiquitous use of VPNs, internet issues like this are still a source of daily frustration for foreigners living in China.)

The other day a question on Quora caught my eye: How are the Chinese media covering Trump? Good question! I am not an avid consumer of Chinese media. I do scan headlines and read occasional sources, but for issues like the American presidential race, I tend to stick almost entirely to English language sources. It’s not an easy question to answer objectively, that’s for sure, so it’s nice to see a variety of responses:

Qiong Woo:

I did a research by going through all of Trump-related reports on China Daily since August. And here is what I found. Out of 711 articles under the section of “US and Canada”, how many times has Trump’s name made headlines? 11. One of them, technically wasn’t related to the election per se, it went Trick or Trump: The Donald, Pizza Rat among top Halloween costumes. And just out of curiosity, how many times has Panda Bei Bei? 4. Not bad, Bei Bei!

Xiao Chen:

Trump is a comic star in Chinese media. Many people, mainly from two groups, wish he will be the next president of the U.S.

The first group are the rubbernecks. There is a saying in Chinese: 看热闹的不嫌事大. Basically, it means rubbernecks like to see boisterousness and do not care how serious the consequences would be. A typical comment from this group would be like “we would have four long years of comedy to watch if Trump wins.”

The second group believes that the best gift you can have is a stupid opponent. Typical comment is “I can’t wait to see how badly Trump can mess the U.S. up.” Though Trump has many hostile sayings about China, his capacity of doing anything of real harm is questionable.

Xiao Chen also links to this article which includes some very interesting poll results, essentially asking those polled which candidate they personally prefer, and which candidate will be better for China. Results below:

Poll of who the Chinese want: Clinton or Trump

It’s worth noting that this poll is from February 2016. (Anyone know of a similar, more recent poll?) See the full article for more details: What If Chinese People Could Vote for the President of the United States?


21

Sep 2016

Rise Up and Resist the Motor Scooters!

I noticed these posters near my home a while back:

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They’re propaganda from the Changning District police department, telling people not to tolerate 10 types of illegal behavior. But the first 7 of the 10 items in the list relate specifically to 机动车 (motorized scooters), including illegal parking, blocking lanes of traffic, reckless driving, etc. All are extremely common on the streets of Shanghai.

These 机动车 are often blamed for bad accidents, and the drivers of motor scooters can be seen to flagrantly ignore traffic lights and other traffic rules all over Shanghai. The drivers frequently do not even have legal plates. Many in Shanghai (especially drivers of cars, but also pedestrians) have been hoping for a police crackdown for quite a while, but normally very little is done. There are rumors that Shanghai may eventually ban them entirely. I sure wouldn’t mind.

But what’s with the fists in the graphics above? Is this some kind of subtle suggestion that violence is the answer? It definitely feels odd. (Although the graphic of the fist punching through the wall sums up pretty well how the drivers of these motor scooters can make other residents of Shanghai feel.)

Here’s one that seems a little less extreme (and more in keeping with the usual propaganda style):

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Here’s the text of the 10 illegal behaviors (same on all 3 posters) if you’d like to study it:

  1. 机动车乱停车
  2. 机动车乱占道
  3. 机动车乱变道
  4. 机动车乱鸣号
  5. 机动车涉牌违法
  6. 机动车逆向行驶
  7. 机动车路口违法行为
  8. 非机动车乱骑行
  9. 行人乱穿马路
  10. 非法运客

Note: This article originally mistranslated 机动车 as “electric scooter,” when “motorized vehicle” (normally referring to a scooter, not an automobile) is the correct meaning. “Electric scooter” would be 电动车 or 电瓶车 (both normally referring to scooters, not electric cars). Thank you to reader E.T. for pointing out this mistake!


13

Sep 2016

The only good mooncake is a MEAT mooncake

It’s almost that time of year again: China’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (or as the Chinese like to call it, “Chinese Thanksgiving,” without all the thanks giving and turkey). It’s that time of year when people eat a little snack called a mooncake.

Like many foreigners (and many modern Chinese), I am not fond of the mooncake (despite once participating in a mooncake-eating contest). Yes, I am aware there are many kinds. I have long since tried all the traditional kinds, such as 豆沙 (sweet bean paste) 莲蓉 (lotus seed paste), and 蛋黄 (egg yolk), as well as the fancy new kinds made with ice cream or Japanese mochi. Not a fan. But then I just recently had a freshly baked (not sweet) meat-filled mooncake, and I am a fan:

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Yes, it took me 16 years in China to discover a mooncake I liked. It wasn’t exactly top-priority. The filling is referred to as 鲜肉 (it’s pork).

So, if you don’t like mooncakes, I feel your pain. But this kind (fresh!) is actually decent. I hear that is the kind people line up all day to buy.


23

Aug 2016

Mobike in Shanghai

It’s quite the cliche to talk about “the Uber for x” in the startup world. Those types of businesses tend to not work when they’re not Uber (and Uber itself had a had time in China). But there’s one that I really like: Mobike, AKA 摩拜单车. Like Uber, it’s app-based, and you open up the app to see not where drivers are, like Uber, but to see what parked Mobike bikes are near you.

Mobike app

Then you use the app to unlock the bike and pay 1-2 RMB for each ride. Lock the bike somewhere public when you’re done. So simple!

If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you can even try out the app (without riding a bike) just to see what how many bikes are parked around you. There’s usually a decent number wherever I am in Shanghai. Once you know what a Mobike looks like, you’ll start seeing them everywhere in this city. (The new “punch buggy”??)

Mobike bikes

The only “catch” is that you have to pay a 300 RMB deposit to start using the bikes. That’s fair. Coincidentally, 300 RMB is also my “cheap bike budget.” It’s the amount I’ll pay for a bike that’s “good enough” to ride but is not likely to get stolen. Not a bad price for never having to worry about your bike getting stolen again.


18

Aug 2016

The World Is Your Closet

Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting attitudes toward public spaces here in China. One of the most perplexing, from a western perspective, is one where one’s own home is kept as pristine as possible, while public spaces are treated with much less respect. Taken to the extreme, you might even say public spaces are sometimes treated like a dumpster: littering, dumping of liquids, and worse.

What blew my mind about this “public spaces don’t need to be kept clean” (AKA “the world is your dumpster”) attitude was how clearly and finely the line can be drawn. In some cases, I’ve seen apartment residents treat the hallway right outside their own apartments with this kind of total disregard for cleanliness: stacks of garbage, leaky garbage bags, and other jetsam dumped right outside their own apartment doors. (The idea is that it will be disposed of later, either by the resident who dumped it, or by the cleaning staff of the building. In either case, the garbage is kept out of the clean home, and anyone else who has to share the hall just has to deal with it.)

But I’ve also noticed a less common phenomenon that’s kind of the opposite: claiming public spaces for personal use. To use the “public space” of the apartment hallway as an example again, a resident might discover that the building storage closet in the hallway is not normally locked, and then store some of his own (not so valuable) stuff in that closet.

I noticed a pretty weird example (not at all typical, I’m sure) of this “the world is your closet” attitude just behind my Shanghai office building. Take a look at this apartment building:

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See the stuff stacked outside the window? Yes, the roof has been turned into a closet.

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I’m not sure how well this works, considering how often it rains, but there you have it.


10

Aug 2016

Year 16

In 2004 I wrote a blog post called To Stay in which I shared my intention to stay in China “indefinitely.” I can’t think of it as anything but a great decision for my career and my personal life. Since then, I’ve gotten married, had two kids, gotten my masters degree, had a good run at ChinesePod, and founded AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.

Is life in China challenging? I guess… Internet issues are the #1 (almost daily) frustration, but obviously pollution and food safety are major concerns, especially now that I have children of my own.

What I totally didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of seeing my parents grow old from afar. In that previous blog post, I even acknowledged that “the years before [my parents are] actually old were dwindling,” but I don’t think I fully appreciated what that meant. How could I?

This is the reason for my recent silence, pretty soon after resuming writing in June. My parents are now old, and my father’s health is suddenly not good, so I’m trying to get back to Tampa more often to see him (and my mom). Once a year no longer cuts it.

So I’m working a few things out, but I’m hanging in there. “Indefinitely” hasn’t changed, but I think I’ll be taking a lot more plane trips now.


12

Jul 2016

Pokémon NO GO in China

Pokémon GO

I keep reading about how Pokémon Go is so wildly popular everywhere, and I tried to play it in China, but it just doesn’t work. I managed to use a VPN to create an account using my Google login, and I even caught one little creature (I think it was just part of a beginner tutorial), but then the virtual world (in China) was a vast wasteland… nothing to play. Later, I couldn’t get the app to connect to the server over 4G while I was out and about. Still later, the app acted like I didn’t have an account anymore.

I see now that there is already a Chinese Pokémon Go clone. This is one of the things that disturbs me so much about using the internet in China. It’s not just that we’re so often forced to use cloned apps instead of the real deal (although that, too, is annoying). It’s that we’re cut off from the rest of the world’s users, isolated.

Which is, of course, exactly the point. Even for Pokémon Go.