personal


07

May 2008

China According to the Chinese

Micah posts two hilarious maps of China (Chinese required):

China according to the Beijingers
China according to the Shanghainese

Sorry, I’m a bit too busy lately to translate this, but it’s quite revealing culturally, so if you’re a student of Chinese, it’s worth it to get out your China map and a dictionary.

Unkind as it may sound, I got a huge kick out of the labels placed by both groups on the Wenzhounese. (I need to blog someday about Wenzhou…)


26

Apr 2008

Enslaved by Telecommunications Corporations

An old high school friend recently visited me here in Shanghai with her husband. Our chat made the usual rounds of old friends, life updates, etc., and then settled on China. When it comes to discussing life in modern China, one topic I find myself returning to again and again in my conversations with Americans is the whole cell phone thing. Americans are always blown away by how easy and convenient (for the consumer) the system here is.

My own situation:

– Monthly 30 RMB plan with China Telecom, comes with talk time and plenty of text messages. I don’t think I ever exceed my limit, but if I do, I pay very little extra.
– Cell phone bill paid by prepaid card, which I can purchase at any convenience store in increments of 100 RMB or 50 RMB. I only need to do this about once every three months, and it takes 5 minutes to add the money to my account. China Telecom SMSes me when I need to re-up.
– My account and phone number are linked to my SIM card, which I can remove from my cell phone at any time and use in any other cell phone here in China. Upgrading a cell phone is as easy as removing and inserting a SIM card, and takes less than a minute.
– No mail, no credit cards.

I don’t even know the full extent of the hell that American telecommunications companies put their customers through, because I never had to deal with it myself. I got my first cell phone in China. But it all sounds really stupid. The whole concept of “cell phone minutes” annoys me.

The one drawback of not being enslaved by the telecommunications companies is that any cell phone you can steal you can use immediately by simply swapping out the SIM card. Small price to pay, I say. Just be careful.

The worst part about all this is that when Americans come here and realize that even China has a way better cell phone system in place, they are blown away, but they are nevertheless completely resigned to their fate. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way…


19

Apr 2008

Office Moved, Life Improved

Life has just gotten way better for me. Last Friday Praxis Language (home of ChinesePod) moved to the Zhongshan Park area (where I live).

Why is this a big deal? Well, it means I can walk to work. It’s about more than convenience, though.

I used to take the subway to work every morning, and then back home at night. My commute took me down Line 2, through the People’s Square exchange, over to Line 1, at rush hour. Hey, millions of people do this every day in this city, so why shouldn’t I? Well, eventually I learned why. Over time the crushing commuting hordes really got to me. I would start every day lying in bed cursing my alarm clock, dreading my commute, and then, after running the gauntlet again, arrive at work in a foul mood. At the end of the day when work was finally over and I could relax, my bad mood would be reinstated by the commute home. It all added up to a significant amount of unhappiness, far exceeding the daily hour and a half I spent in commute.

I tried carpooling, but that didn’t work. Eventually I started taking taxis a lot more. It was kind of expensive, but I learned it was well worth it. I was buying back a pleasant emotional state, and it was a good value.

Toward the end, John B and I started carpooling by taxi in the morning and taking the subway home after work. We had to leave a half hour earlier in the morning to ensure that we’d get a taxi every day, but we could split the fare. Totally worth it.

Starting Monday I’ll be walking or biking to work every day. It’s going to be sweet.

If you’re planning on living in Shanghai and wondering how close to work you want to live, I say VERY.


16

Apr 2008

Barack Obama in Shanghai (with Evil Obama)

This picture, taken over the weekend, shows Barack Obama with his secret evil twin, “Evil Obama,” in Shanghai. (Evil Obama is recognizable by his mustache, goatee, and evilly slanted eyebrows.) Careful study of this photo shows that no Photoshop work has been done.

Obama and Evil Obama Support Sinosplice

I’m not sure what Obama is doing in Shanghai at a crucial election time like this, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Evil Obama donning an attractive Sinosplice sweatshirt.

Now, as regular readers of this blog know well, I do apolitical China commentary. In this case, however, it’s Obama advocating Sinosplice. Nothing political about that!

By the way, now that the weather is warmed up, you might be interested in these Chinese-related Sinosplice t-shirts:

Sinosplice T-shirts


12

Apr 2008

Kevin Rudd's Chinese, Analyzed

Kevin Rudd, Wu Bangguo

Kevin Rudd with Wu Bangguo

You may have heard of Kevin Rudd, the latest laowai to become famous for speaking fluent Chinese. This guy is kind of different, though, because he happens to be the new Prime Minister of Australia.

Yesterday’s ChinesePod lesson is about Kevin Rudd’s Chinese. Overall a very positive review, of course, but it’s an interesting exercise for advanced students to hear what 小语病 (little language problems) he still has in his speech.

My co-worker Clay commented that if you compare the Chinese Rudd uses in his public appearances from a few months ago with the Chinese he uses now, it has gotten a lot better. It does make me wonder what kind of coaching Rudd gets on his Chinese, and as the Prime Minister of Australia, what kind of priority does he put on improving his Chinese (a truly powerful diplomatic tool)? Is it worth 10 hours of intense language training a week? More?

Anyway, check out the lesson: ChinesePod Media – 澳洲总理秀中文


06

Apr 2008

A Trip to Anji

My wife’s family got their tomb-sweeping done early (apparently that’s allowed), so we used the three-day weekend for a trip to Anji (安吉), Zhejiang Province’s bamboo wonderland.

Anji Tourism Map
Anji Tourist Map [click here for another version]

It has been a while since I went on a trip like this on China, so I was reminded of an important fact: When you go as an uninformed tourist, you get the full tourist experience. We didn’t do a whole lot of research before going. My wife found a pretty nice place to stay online, and the “mountains + bamboo” scenery was great, but we ended up visiting various locations as just two more cogs in the tourism machine. If we ever go back, we’ll remember to do it a bit differently. The following are some of my observations for those of you that are interested in Anji.

Early April was a good time to go because it wasn’t too hot and the crowds were tolerable, but the mountain waterfalls are a little less full, and the bamboo a little less green this time of year. It’s a trade-off.

Bamboo Forest

The place with the most attractive name, 中国大竹海 (Great Bamboo Sea of China), was something of a rip-off. I think my wife’s observation was pretty astute: “they’re just trying to make a tourist buck off of their bamboo production land.” True enough. They also rely heavily on being the bamboo forest location in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. (See image below)

中国大竹海

The text on the billboard which greets you when you arrive reads:

> 《卧虎藏龙》、《像雾像雨又像风》等影视作品拍摄地
周润发、章子怡来了,
周迅、陈坤来了,
周星驰、刘德凯也来了,
嘿,明星们都来了,我们还等什么?

A rough translation:

> Filming location of cinematic works such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Love Story in Shanghai
Chow Young-fat, Zhang Ziyi came,
Zhou Xun, Chen Kun came,
Stephen Chow, Liu Dekai came,
Hey, the stars all came — what are we waiting for?

We didn’t go too deep in, because we didn’t like what we saw in our first hour there: truckloads of cut bamboo on their way out (which tourists had to dodge), fairly thin bamboo forest, bamboo in the forest marked for cutting in big black characters, and tourists frenziedly trying to find and dig up new bamboo shoots (which they’re told they can have if they find). Other random additions included a mini roller coaster and an alpine zipline.

We tried the roller coaster (40 RMB per person), and it was pretty fun. What was interesting is that it had a hand brake. Fortunately my wife let me man the brake, because I was determined to use it as little as possible (whereas must of the Chinese tourists seemed to be applying it right away on the initial descent). It did raise the troubling question, though: is this hand brake here for tourists’ peace of mind, or can this track really not handle us going around the corners at full speed? There was a net along the sides of the track in some places, but not others (including a few tight turns), and the end of the ride requires the riders to brake themselves.

Break now! Roller coaster car

竹博园, something of a bamboo-themed botanical garden, was also pretty lame. You get to see lots of different types of bamboo, but it wasn’t looking very beautiful. There was also a fair amount of random park-like stuff, including the inflatable bubbles on the pond, and even a stage for performances, which radiated loud annoying techno-pop (not the best thing for the atmosphere).

We stayed in the 九龙峡 (literally, “Nine Dragon Gorge”) scenic area, where we saw 白茶谷 (literally, “White Tea Valley”) and 藏龙百瀑 (literally, “Hidden Dragon Hundred Falls”), which were both pretty decent, scenery-wise. The area at the top of 白茶谷 was still under construction, so we couldn’t go all the way to the top. We only went as far as a Buddhist temple about 3/4 of the way up. We had some 白茶 (“white tea”) on the mountain, and it was tasty.

Don't pick the tea!

We didn’t go all the way to the top of 藏龙百瀑 either, because we were both a bit tired from our first mountain climbing experience that day, it was getting dark (no lights), and everyone said the best spectacle was the waterfall halfway up.

Anji in general is still rapidly developing for tourism. I talked to a worker on the way up 藏龙百瀑 who told me the mountain paths (cement/stone stairways in the mountainside) were all only 7-8 years old. (That is, probably not so coincidentally, right when Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came out.)

Overall, a pleasant visit, but be prepared for the stuff that comes with a newly developing tourism industry, and learn from my mistake: do your homework first! We only saw a few parts of a large beautiful region. There is still lots to see.


30

Mar 2008

A Chinese Music Video, QQ-style

The phrase 中国特色 means “Chinese characteristics,” and it’s one you hear a lot in China-centered conversations. When it comes to instant messaging with Chinese characteristics, the only game in town is QQ. Even though it started out as a clone of the once-popular IM client ICQ, over time it has gained its own personality (although I will never forgive it for its malware phase). I really like its “hide” feature, and I wonder why other IM clients don’t use a similar one.

[To learn Chinese related to QQ, check out this ChinesePod lesson: MSN and QQ.]

Anyway, browsing Youku (a Chinese YouTube clone), I stumbled upon this “music video with QQ characteristics.” Here’s a screenshot:

QQ在线视频视频求爱全过程

I don’t like the song itself, but the QQ-style presentation is enjoyable (for 30 seconds or so).

(Are Youku videos viewable outside of China?)


On a related note, the “Back Dorm Boys” (后舍男生) seem to have their own Youku page now, but does anyone still care?

后舍男生


23

Mar 2008

Easter Events

Xujiahui Cathedral

Xujiahui Cathedral

Today was Easter, a good good day to complete the rough draft of my thesis. It came out to about 27,000 characters (40 pages). I still have a bit to add and polish, but the majority of the workload is now off my shoulders. What a relief.

Today Easter mass at Xujiahui Cathedral was packed. My wife and I couldn’t help chuckling at the little Chinese kid behind us, continually pestering his dad with questions:

> What does “hallelujah” mean? Does it mean “I’m awake now?”

> Why did they put out the carpet? It’s not raining today. [In Shanghai you frequently see mats or even broken-down cardboard boxes by the entrances of buildings on rainy days to help collect the water off of people’s feet. In this case, it was a red carpet leading to the altar.]

> What happened to the bishop’s hat? Did someone cut it open? It looks like someone cut it open.

> What’s a prophet? [先知]

Happy Easter!


19

Mar 2008

Saving on Eggs

Sam Flemming‘s latest tweet (message on Twitter) had me smiling:

> saw on old lady bring her own egg to the jian bing guozi seller to save money

Sam is talking about 煎饼果子 (pictures). They’re made by spreading a basic batter on a hot plate, and cooking an egg on top, and then spreading a sauce on it. The total cost (including the price of the egg), is usually 1-3 RMB (depending where you are in China). Eggs generally cost much less than 1 RMB each.


16

Mar 2008

YouTube: Down for everyone or just me?

YouTube has just been blocked in China. Somehow I don’t care nearly as much as I used to when this happens. It’ll be back.

Coincidentally, today I just stumbled upon a website called Down for everyone or just me?. The interface is dead simple:

Down for everyone or just me?

I tried it out on YouTube and got this result:

Down for everyone or just me?

Strange. My “IP sleuthing” seems to reveal that the site’s servers are in France. Did I do something wrong, or is YouTube also down elsewhere?

For a service like this to be done really well, it would have to have server checks all over the world, but this is a good start.


11

Mar 2008

Three Links for March

Some good things I recently came across:

1. Gladder: an auto-proxy addon for Firefox. Very convenient! Unlike TOR, it’s not either “always on” or “always off.” Just works for the sites you need it to work on. How did I not find out about this sooner?? (Via JP)

2. Olympic Game Piracy. Shameless. The best thing to do about this is to spread the word when it happens and turn up the scorn. (Via Dave)

3. The Deadly Huashan Hiking Trail: a photo journey. Don’t let the use of Comic Sans fool you; this is one hardcore mountain climb. Make sure you see the pictures toward the end…


09

Mar 2008

YouTube and Flickr: DENIED!

OK, I’ve gotten over this annoying message I see anytime I try to access a Google Video:

Google Video in China

I’ve gotten over it mainly because I don’t ever use Google Video. YouTube has everything. Today, for the first time, I got this:

Youtube - Denied in the PRC

(Text reads: This video is not available in your country.)

Thanks a lot for spreading this helpful practice to YouTube, Google. This is so annoying. Has anyone else in China gotten this? Fortunately I’ve only gotten it once, for this video.

While I’m on the subject, Flickr has been misbehaving a lot recently too.

Flickr - Denied in the PRC

Other people have also noticed it. The Access Flickr Firefox plugin doesn’t help, and the problem itself seems erratic. Any solutions?

P.S. I’m up to 12,000 characters in my thesis. 2,000 more to go for today…


08

Mar 2008

Pickles

I haven’t been married for long, and one of the challenges is getting used to having Chinese in-laws. Mine are great, so it hasn’t been very challenging, but I’m always looking for more common ground and good conversation topics. Besides our love for one particular Chinese girl, we really don’t have a ton in common.

When it comes to food, my father-in-law and I usually agree. (I may not be as fond of the rice wine, but at least we can agree on beer.) Recently my mother-in-law bought a jar of “Russian style” pickles at the grocery store and was delighted to find that both of us loved them.

The last time my in-laws came over for dinner, my father-in-law and I finished off another jar of those pickles. As I was smiling at the idea of pickles bringing two very different people together, my father-in-law reached for the pickle jar. “They’re all gone,” I was thinking. “What’s he going to do?”

And then he drank the pickle juice.


28

Feb 2008

The Mother and the Wife

Those of us with an adopted country always have very complex relationship with both our home countries and our adopted countries. Obviously her situation is completely different from mine, but Iranian author Marjane Satrapi makes an interesting analogy in an interview:

> So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?

> I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country.

If you haven’t read Persepolis, I highly recommend it. I read graphic novel Maus as a teenager, and it left a deep impression on me. I haven’t gotten quite that feeling since, but Persepolis comes very close.


24

Feb 2008

Cordyceps and Traditional Chinese Medicine

I was watching a BBC documentary on jungles with my wife yesterday, and we learned about a fascinating parasitic fungus called Cordyceps. Here’s the clip we saw:

Just in case you’re too lazy or unable to watch the amazing YouTube video, the fungus spreads through the insect and compels it to go somewhere high up to attach itself and die. Then the fungus sprouts from the corpse and spreads its spores upon the insect populations below. Badass! (Watch the clip.)

After doing a little research, I discovered that the genus Cordyceps includes one kind called Cordyceps sinensis (AKA caterpillar fungus), which is actually used in traditional Chinese medicine!

Here’s what one source says:

> In 1993 Chinese women distance runners won six of nine medals at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany in the 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meter races. They were suspected of steroid use and were tested. The results were negative.

> According to their coach, Ma Junren, they had been running 25 miles a day and had been using cordyceps mushrooms.

And another:

> Cordyceps Sinensis, a plant of the ergot family, is a traditional and precious dried Chinese medicinal herb belonging to the fungus category. It was highly recommended by ancient medical practitioners as the most effective cure for all illness. Owing to the herb’s high efficacy and potency in curing various diseases, it is well-known as an important nourishing tonic. However, as the sourcing and gathering of the herb is rare and difficult, so its supply often falls short of demand.

This one even mentions Shanghai:

> In a huge herb market about 850 miles west of Shanghai, I point to a pile of what look like dried worms, with a puzzled expression on my face. “Tochukaso,” says the herb dealer. I nod, recognizing the Chinese word for Cordyceps sinensis, one of the most prized agents in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the wild, cordyceps is a parasitic fungus which grows on caterpillars on the high Tibetan plateau. But cordyceps is now also cultivated on wood and grains. Heralded in Chinese herbal texts for over 700 years, cordyceps is now trumpeted by science as well.

I’m quite a skeptic when it comes to TCM, and trying to pass off Japanese as Chinese doesn’t make the above source any more credible. However, the Chinese name for Cordyceps sinensis is actually really interesting. From the wikipedia entry:

> In Tibetan it is known as Yartsa Gunbu [Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun ‘bu], source of Nepali: यार्सागुम्बा, Yarshagumba, Yarchagumba. It is also known as “keera jhar” in India. Its name in Chinese “dong chong xia cao” (冬虫夏草) means “winter worm, summer grass” (meaning “worm in the winter, (turns to) plant in the summer”). The Chinese name is a literal translation of the original Tibetan name, which was first recorded in the 15th Century by the Tibetan doctor Zurkhar Namnyi Dorje….

Here are some pictures via Flickr of 冬虫夏草 as it may look in a TCM store (click through the second one for more info):

I was just very amused to find this crazy fungus reminiscent of Giger’s Alien, only to learn that the Chinese have been using it as medicine for hundreds of years. Yeah, I guess it fits…


18

Feb 2008

Thesis Crunch and a note on Pinyin Tooltips

My thesis is taking up most of my free time these days. The deadlines are coming real soon and I have a lot of work left to do. (How could I have ever known an experiment would be a lot of work??)

The good news is that I have a pretty good idea of how the paper is going to turn out, even if I don’t have all the particulars nailed down yet, and I think it’s pretty interesting. The bad news is I have to have 30,000 Chinese characters on paper to turn in way too soon!

Anyway, for that reason, over the next month I will probably not be posting as frequently as my usual one post every 2-3 days, and when I do post, they will likely be quickies. Once all this is over, I will have a lot to say about my Chinese grad school experience. But it just wouldn’t be prudent to say too much yet.

On a wholly unrelated note, I finally managed to add javascript tooltips to pinyin on my site, like this: 拼音. The cool thing is that the tooltips are all still in the HTML markup and will work without javascript, but if you have javascript enabled you get the fancy ones. (On the site only, you lazy RSS-reader readers!) Anyone interested on how I did this? I could make it a topic of a future post if there is interest. I have to thank Brad for his help with the javascript, but the specifics can come later.


14

Feb 2008

Mao: History's Biggest Pimp?

I can’t really believe this, but it’s still hilarious:

> In a long conversation that stretched way past midnight at Mao’s residence on February 17, 1973, the cigar-chomping Chinese leader referred to the dismal trade between the two countries, saying China was a “very poor country” and “what we have in excess is women.”

> He first suggested sending “thousands” of women but as an afterthought proposed “10 million,” drawing laughter at the meeting, also attended by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

> Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor at that time, told Mao that the United States had no “quotas” or “tariffs” for Chinese women, drawing more laughter.

> […]

> “Let them go to your place. They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burdens,” Mao said.

> “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you ten million,” he said.

> Kissinger noted that Mao was “improving his offer.”

> Mao continued, “By doing so we can let them flood your country with disaster and therefore impair your interests. In our country we have too many women, and they have a way of doing things.

> “They give birth to children and our children are too many.”

Story on Yahoo: Chairman Mao proposed sending 10 million Chinese women to US: documents. (via Hank)


12

Feb 2008

Adsotrans Upgrades

While some of us have been slaving away on a stupid never-ending masters thesis over the CNY break, others (David Lancashire) have been updating their “open source natural language processing engine for Chinese text” (Adsotrans).

Dave started up a blog for Adsotrans (again), and he’s got some interesting news to share:

1. Adsotrans now has “sexier popups!”

2. There’s an Adsotrans WordPress plugin in the works!

Really cool stuff. If you’re studying Chinese and haven’t used Adsotrans before, be sure to try it out. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, you can download Adsotrans now.


10

Feb 2008

Your Favorite Board Games Have Come to China

I saw these board games on a recent trip to my local Carrefour supermarket.

Chinese Monopoly Chinese Monopoly (Beijing version) Chinese Life Chinese Risk Chinese Clue Scrabble

Makes sense; they’re all translated into Chinese except for Scrabble, because that just doesn’t work. [There are at least two Chinese adaptations of Scrabble, though, called Magi Compo and Chinese Squabble.]

Did you notice the price stickers? Yikes! In case you missed them:

Monopoly (地产大亨): 198 RMB
Monopoly, Beijing version (地产大亨,北京版): 349 RMB
Risk (大战役): 249 RMB
Life (人生之旅): 199 RMB
Clue (妙探寻凶): 169 RMB
Scrabble: 238 RMB

Still cheaper than back home? I’m not so sure… What do these game go for in the States these days?


Related: China Risk



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