Tag: classic


Oct 2014

Chinese Teachers: Use Your Chinese Names!

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. You’re not helping them by calling yourself some easier-to-pronounce English name. I would have thought that this was obvious, but after all these years in the business, I can now see that it is not obvious to many otherwise well-meaning teachers. So I’ll spell it out here. (Please forward this to your Chinese teacher who doesn’t ask you to use a Chinese name in your interactions.)

So why should students of Chinese call their Chinese teachers of Chinese by a Chinese name? I’m glad you asked…

Using your actual Chinese name shows respect for the culture

My dad is one of those people that enjoys befriending recent immigrants in the United States. He likes to find out where they’re from, why they came to the U.S., etc. One of the things he always asks “Bob from Iran” or “Alice from China” or whoever is, “what’s your real name?” He does this not only out of curiosity, but also to show a genuine respect for their culture and interest in their identity. Most of the time immigrants are thankful for this gesture (even if he can’t always accurately reproduce the sounds that make up their names).

As a teacher, you get to decide how your students address you. But in Chinese culture, it’s a non-question; teachers are simply called “[Surname] Laoshi” by their students. As a teacher of Chinese, why would you not use this opportunity to start teaching your students about Chinese culture in an easy, practical way? Get the cultural respect going from lesson one. Students will be totally on board.

Using Chinese names is good practice

One of the main arguments for NOT using real Chinese names is that “my Chinese surname is too hard for foreigners.” OK, maybe your surname is hard for most foreigners, but your students have decided to learn Chinese. They probably already know it’s not easy. Even if your surname is particularly difficult to pronounce, it’s probably only one syllable. And it’s one syllable your students are going to be able to repeat over and over every lesson, and they’re eventually going to start getting it right.

So don’t baby them. Let them struggle a little bit. It doesn’t matter if your surname is “Xu” or “Zhu” or “Jiang” or “Zhang” or “Yu.” They’ll get it eventually.

Chinese Teachers: Please Use Chinese Names!

It’s a vote of confidence

So it’s a pretty safe bet that your students will not be pronouncing “Xu” correctly on day 1, and that’s OK. But when you tell them, “You don’t need to try to say ‘Xu.’ Just call me Vivian,” you’re casting a vote of no-confidence in their ability to learn correct pronunciation. That’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do.

Not only are you saying, “you can’t learn this,” but you’re also saying, “you can’t learn this, and I won’t even be able to teach you.” So it’s also a vote of no-confidence in yourself as a teacher!

Cast a vote of confidence in your students by telling them, “my name is a little tricky to pronounce, but don’t worry; you’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying.”

Have confidence in them from the first lesson, and they will keep trying. They need you to believe that they can learn to correctly pronounce your name.

Chinese names are hard to remember

This is totally true. Chinese names are hard for foreigners to remember. But you know what doesn’t help? Enabling learners to never even try to remember, and always copping out by using English names. That’s just lazy.

Chinese names are hard to remember in the beginning. But learners get better at it by learning more real Chinese names, and the process starts with you, the Chinese teacher. With each new Chinese person the learner meets, he learns a real Chinese name, and one by one, the names start to seem less insane. They become manageable.

Start your students down this road.

But what about Hong Kong?

One thing I’ve heard over the years is, “but in Hong Kong, Chinese people often use English names. It’s also a Chinese thing.” OK, yes, that’s true. But as a learner, I really don’t need help learning names like “Jacky” and “Coco.” What I need is more practice with the less familiar names… the ones starting with “Zhang” and “Wang” and “Hu.”

So Hong Kong-style English names are easy freebies that we sometimes get, but they’re certainly not the norm for everyone in mainland China, and they’re not an excuse to avoid Chinese names altogether.

Don’t be absurd

Lastly, let me leave you a counter-example. Imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed foreigner living in China and working as an English teacher. We’ll call him “Carl.” He teaches English, but he also knows Chinese, and uses it a little bit with beginners.

But here’s the thing: Carl has chosen “Zhang” () as his Chinese surname, and in his English classes he has all of his students call him Zhang Laoshi (张老师). It’s because “Carl” is hard to pronounce, and he just finds it easier.

Is that not absurd? Would the Chinese students not find this odd? Does it help the students to call Carl “Zhang Laoshi” in English class?

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. They’ll thank you later.


See also:

Sinosplice Guide to Chinese Pronunciation
AllSet Learning Pronunciation Packs


Oct 2014

Analysis Paralysis in Chinese Studies

You’ve probably heard of analysis paralysis, but where does it come into Chinese studies? Studying a language is fairly straightforward, right? I’m referring not to being overly analytical about grammar, but rather about vocabulary. How can one be overly analytical about vocabulary? This is something that technology has made easy in recent years.

Most of my AllSet Learning clients use Pleco or Anki to review vocabulary. Both have built-in SRS flashcard functionality, so doing occasional reviews pretty much solves that problem, right? Well, maybe… SRS drawbacks aside, certain personality types like to take a more active role in the vocabulary categorization process. Yes, categorization. That’s the trap.

You see, when you save a word to your flashcard system, you can also categorize it. Where did this vocabulary come from? What type of vocabulary is it? How high priority is it? You can go as deep down this rabbit hole as you want. And you can spend a lot more time organizing and re-organizing your flashcards than actually reviewing them.

So typically when a client comes to me with “flashcard organization problems,” the way forward is pretty clear: it’s time for some serious vocab axing. The situation can be as bad as physical packrat (or even hoarder) tendencies, except with vocabulary data instead of old newspapers or whatever. In most cases, the learner is much better off chucking the majority of this carefully collected information. Usually the most exquisitely categorized lexical items are the least useful. Reducing everything to one “high priority” list is the way to go. This really is all you need, and you get back all that time you used to waste endlessly organizing words (without actually learning them).

Vocab Reduction

For those that are seriously attached to their accumulated lexical data, technology offers a solution: you can back it up! Back up the data, dump it somewhere, and keep your active word list as simple, focused, and clutter-free as possible. (Chances are you’ll never go looking for that backup.)

If this problem sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of the bookshelf problem. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we humans can be motivated to do something related to learning a language, but actually pour the majority of our efforts into useless activities? The worst, part, of course, is that even a meticulously curated collection of lists which are somehow regularly reviewed don’t guarantee any kind of conversational ability. But then actually talking to people is a bit too random for the analytical brain to handle.

The solution is simple, though: less organizing, more talking. A more bare-bones vocabulary list will help you move in that direction. If you’re a vocabulary hoarder, I strongly urge you to reconsider your approach.


Sep 2014

Confidence and Tones

It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:

Confidence Knowledge Quadrants

Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…

1. Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.

2. Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.

3. Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.

4. Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.

You need to KNOW the Tones

A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).

She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”

“I memorized them,” I said.

This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.

This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.

You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones

Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)

The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.

At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.

So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.


Aug 2014

Why You Won’t Learn Like a Child

It’s not that you can’t learn like a child, it’s that you won’t. You’re not willing to. Not because you aren’t committed, or aren’t smart enough, but because you’re an adult with a little bit of self-respect. And you get frustrated.

Have you ever hung out with a crazy friend who will go up to any stranger and say anything, seemingly without inhibitions? It’s awkward but also awe-inspiring, because it opens your eyes to how much your own inhibitions prevent you from doing and experiencing. This is sort of how I feel about my daughter as I watch her simultaneously acquire English and Chinese. Like all toddlers, she is awesome in so many ways that I feel that 99% of adult learners will not let themselves be.

You want to acquire language like a child? Here’s a list of things to do.

– Be told something is useful. Shrug it off and discard it because it’s boring and tackle something fun. [I see learners of Chinese tackle the HSK word list every day because they see it as “useful.” A child would not do this.]

– Say something wrong. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Etc…. and yet never lose the desire to keep communicating. [This is perhaps one of the most amazing things that kids can pull off. They know no shame, feel very little frustration, and when it comes to language-learning, that makes them invincible. They’ve never learned a language before, so have no idea “how they’re doing at it,” and don’t care.]

– Ask how to say something, forget two minutes later. Ask again. Forget 3 minutes later. Ask again. Forget one minute later. Ask again. Etc…. [Adults, quite simply, get quite embarrassed when they keep forgetting something that they feel they should be able to remember. Everyone has a limit, and eventually adults will get too embarrassed to keep asking.]

– Say something simple. Repeat it. Again and again, until your conversation partner is visibly agitated. Do the same thing the next day. You’re locking that in.

Working Lunch 7969
(Yeah, I’m in the middle of a non-sensical conversation with my mom, but she’ll wait.
photo: mliu92)

– Repeat something that you’ve just been told in order to confirm it. Then do it again. And again. Because why not do a triple or quadruple confirmation? You’re locking that in too.

– Say a word wrong, and get corrected on your pronunciation. Try to say it correctly, but fail. Shrug it off and doggedly continue with your incorrect pronunciation for now, because you know they understand what you mean (and hey, you’ll get it eventually!).

talk to the hand, the toddler is not listening
(Stop. I call it “pasgetti.” Now you just deal with that, and let’s move on.
photo: sesameellis)

– Ask how to say something. Discover the word is hard, and just dismiss it, as if you never really wanted to learn it anyway. Give your dad a withering “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that” look. [Adults will sometimes postpone difficult vocab, but very often, they’ll bite off more than they can chew rather than “retreat” and live to fight another day. My daughter repeatedly dismisses the English word “electricity.” In Chinese, “” is easy.]

– Tell your teacher super basic information all the time that your teacher obviously already knows. It’s like telling your Spanish teacher how to conjugate “estar,” or telling your math teacher about the Pythagorean Theorem. [They don’t need you to tell them this, but telling them helps you.]

– Talk and talk, even though you know you’re not making any sense. Use body language, tone of voice, and context to communicate something, anything. Then wait for the listener to try to make sense of that train wreck of a message, and just take it from there. Feel no shame.

– Make so little sense when you talk that you confuse your listeners. When they express their confusion, laugh at them. Then continue to not make sense if you feel like it.

(Whoa, whoa… who said anything about making sense? I’m just talking here. Come on, keep up, buddy.
photo: nautile)

If you can do all these things as a language learner, then congratulations! You are a rare learner indeed (or maybe roughly three years old?). You will learn quickly (if you don’t get shunned by too many native speakers for not acting “normal”).

But even if you can’t do these things, adults have lots of advantages over children, and no one expects you to learn like a child. Different ages call for different learning strategies. (But it doesn’t hurt to be just a little reckless in your learning, either.)


May 2013

OF COURSE Radicals

Please excuse a short rant.

Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.

I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).

So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.

(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)

Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!

So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.


Mar 2013

Spot the Difference between these Identical Phrases

One of our star teachers at AllSet Learning recently shared this with me:

> 大学里有两种人不谈恋爱:一种是谁都看不上,另一种是谁都看不上。

> 大学里有两种人最容易被甩:一种人不知道什么叫做爱,一种人不知道什么叫做爱。

> 这些人都是原先喜欢一个人,后来喜欢一个人。

> 网友评论:壮哉我大中文!!外国人绝对看不懂~!

This is definitely a tricky one, and you’re not likely to be able to appreciate it if you’re not at least the intermediate level. So forgive me for not providing pinyin and translations for everything.

Like many jokes, this joke relies on ambiguity. Understanding the different sentences requires some understanding of semantic ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity.

Here’s what’s going on:

> 大学里有两种人不谈恋爱:一种是谁都看不上,另一种是谁都看不上。

谁都看不上 can be interpreted as either “doesn’t like anyone” or “isn’t liked by anyone.” You’re not normally going to see both meanings used in one sentence!

> 大学里有两种人最容易被甩:一种人不知道什么叫做爱,一种人不知道什么叫做爱。

This is a parsing issue, and revolves around the word 叫做 being a synonym for 叫: “叫做 爱” (“to be called love”) vs. “叫 做爱” (“to be called making love”). In spoken Chinese, you would definitely pause to verbally insert the “space” that I have typed above.

> 这些人都是原先喜欢一个人,后来喜欢一个人。

So 一个人 can be interpreted as both “a person” and “[to be] alone.”

> 网友评论:壮哉我大中文!!外国人绝对看不懂~!

You can’t really praise Chinese for having ambiguity; every language does. And what one human mind can encode, another can decode (native speaker or not!).


Oct 2011

Camus on China


Albert Camus was my favorite of the authors we read in high school; The Stranger (局外人》 in Chinese) was my favorite book. Recently I was reading some of Camus’s famous quotes, and I was struck by how applicable many of them are now to modern China:

> “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”

> “Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny.”

> “The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”

> “The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” [Uh oh…]

> “Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”

> “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

> “By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”

> “The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”

> “All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”

> “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”

> “Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.”

> “As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”

> “It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” [Many, many Chinese people I know would whole-heartedly agree with this statement.]

> “He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”

> “Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”

In my experience, Albert Camus (阿尔贝·加缪) is not very well-known in China.

Sources: BrainyQuote, Wikiquote


Sep 2011

A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

> Me: Hi, how’s it going?

> Student: [confused] Going?

> Me: Hello, how are you?

> Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

> Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.

X is the Unknown


Mar 2011

X is the Unknown

Do you remember “solving for x” in math class? When you first started algebra (or was it pre-algebra?), you had to learn a whole new set of methods which, when applied, could magically reveal the values of the unknown variables.

So when you saw this:

> 2x = 8

> 4x + y = 17

> z(3x – 2y) = 30

…before long you could handily solve for x. And once you had x, you could solve for y. Then z was a piece of cake too.

The Algebra Connection

Chinese pronunciation is similar. We native speakers of English of English have to learn to produce some new sounds in order to become fluent speakers of Chinese. Although the pinyin “r” sound is formidable, what I’m talking about today are the sounds linguists call “alveolo-palatals“: the three Mandarin consonant sounds pinyin represents as “x,” “q,” and “j.”

So how are the sounds of Mandarin like algebra? Well, just as the in the above algebra example one would first solve for x, then solve for y, and finally solve for z, learning those “alveolo-palatals” involves a similar chain effect. Once you’ve solved for “x” (I’m talking the pinyin x here), “q” and “j” both become relatively simple. “X” is definitely the one you want to start with, though, for many reasons. X is the unknown. First solve for “x,” and “q” and “j” are within your grasp.

Why X?

There are a number of reasons to start with “x.” First of all, it’s a prominent feature of the Chinese word almost everyone learns right after “nihao” (你好). Yes, the word is “xiexie” (谢谢), the Chinese word for “thank you.”

Second, the “x” consonant contains the basic feature you need to build on to learn “q” and then “j.” Just as solving for x in the algebra equations above allows you to solve for y with a simple operation, the same is true for pinyin “x” and then “q.” Allow me to explain.

The True Nature of X, Q, and J

If you’ve studied phonetics at all, you learn IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). The main idea behind IPA is that as nearly as possible, every unique sound is represented by a unique symbol. So one good way to know if a sound in a foreign language is really equivalent to a sound in English is to check their respective IPA notations.

In English, for example, the “sh” sound isn’t actually an “s” sound plus an “h” sound. We just write it as “sh.” In reality, it’s a sound different from all the other sounds in the English language. It gets its own IPA symbol: ʃ. Makes sense, right? Now, a lot of new learners to Chinese think that pinyin “x” is the same as English’s “sh.” If that were true, the IPA symbols for the two sounds would be the same. But they’re not.

IPA for x, q, j

If there is any doubt that the pinyin “x,” “q,” and “j” sounds are foreign for speakers of English, you can look up the IPA for the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t freak out, now. The alien symbols representing pinyin’s “x,” “j,” and “q,” are, respectively, ɕ, tɕʰ, and tɕ.

Now take a look at those three consonant sounds again: ɕ, tɕʰ, tɕ. The common element is ɕ. That’s the “x” sound. This sound does not exist in English; “x” is the unknown. But the addition of the other sounds, which are not foreign to English speakers, will result in the “q” and “j” sounds.

So, once again, master that “x” sound, and you can unlock the other two. It’s practically “buy one get two free,” but you definitely have to pay for the “x,” and you may need to struggle a bit. [More info on producing this sound here.]

It’s worth it, though. Before long you’ll leave “syeh-syeh” behind and utter “xièxie” perfectly. Just solve for “x” first.


– The Sinosplice guide to the Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese
Wikipedia on Pinyin
AllSet Learning, John’s own learning consultancy which serves learners in Shanghai


Jan 2011

Three-Penis Liquor: the Perfect Gift

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

Special 3-Penis Liquor!

Back Label of 3-Penis Liquor

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

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

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


Dec 2010

Tones in Chinese Songs

I’ve been asked a number of times: if Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, what happens when you sing in Mandarin? Well, the answer is the melody takes over and the tones are ignored. Pretty simple.

However, it may not quite end there. I recently discovered a paper called “Tone and Melody in Cantonese” which asserts that Cantonese tones are set to music in a somewhat different way:

> For Chinese, modern songs in Mandarin and Cantonese exhibit very different behaviour with respect to the extent to which the melodies affect the lexical tones. In modern Mandarin songs, the melodies dominate, so that the original tones on the lyrics seem to be completely ignored. In Cantonese songs, however, the melodies typically take the lexical tones into consideration and attempt to preserve their pitch contours and relative pitch heights.

Here’s a graphical representation of Cantonese tones, with and without music:


And here’s an example of Mandarin:


I can’t say I’m fully convinced by the pitch contour graphic that the Cantonese songs “take the lexical tones into consideration,” but it’s an interesting argument. This would suggest that studying songs would be more beneficial to acquisition of tones for the student of Cantonese than for the student of Mandarin.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, Professor Marjorie K. M. Chan has lots of articles available on her website’s Publications page.


Nov 2010

Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism

Legendary animator Chuck Jones is said to have offered budding young artists this piece of advice, in one form or another:

> We all have at least 10,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.

Chuck apparently didn’t make up this quote; although the exact number varies, the advice is frequently heard in interviews with any Chouinard or CalArts graduate. This little gem has been going around for a while.

I like this idea. It’s not that you’re lacking a skill, it’s that you just need to purge all those crappy drawings inside. It’s a whole lot easier to just get rid of junk than to build something entirely new from scratch, isn’t it? You can almost imagine a “crappy drawing” count somewhere going down over time, as those amateur doodles run out and a real artist bursts forth.

This is an idea that learners of Chinese could use. It’s not that you need to “learn tones,” it’s that you have 10,000 bad tones inside you that need to get out before you can hope to be fluent. It’s a veritable exorcism of that “crazy-tones laowai accent.”

Accent Exorcism

And until you expel those bad tones, they torture you a bit. It’s not enough to lock yourself up in a room and recite your textbook. Oh no, you have to get out there and talk to real people and screw up, and get those blank stares and giggles. And that does burn a little.

Until you get all those bad tones out, you’re in a sort of tone purgatory. In case you’re not familiar, purgatory is a state in which in imperfect soul is cleansed before it can continue on to heaven. Over the ages, it has frequently been depicted as purifying flames.

Every bad tone is an accent impurity, but all you can do is exorcise them slowly, one by one, by practicing your Chinese. Getting tones wrong is frustrating, and can feel like torture at times, but heaven awaits… (Heaven is, by the way, “talking to Chinese people.” Hmmm, slight exaggeration?)

Tone Purgatory

So you may be in tone purgatory, but so what? You can conduct the accent exorcism on your own. You know what to expect. All you have to do is get out there and start talking.


Nov 2010

Why Learning Chinese Is Hard

I can’t agree with anyone who says that learning Chinese isn’t hard, because it’s got to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s been extremely rewarding, but I personally found it quite hard. Hopefully you’re not someone who chooses to learn a language based solely on how difficult it is perceived to be. But as someone who has chosen to learn a language for the wrong reasons before, and who also once shied away from Chinese, daunted by those terrifying tones, I can tell you that it is definitely difficult enough to scare off the casual dabbler. But what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. When I say “difficult,” what do I mean? Here’s a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

> needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand

So when we talk about difficult, we shouldn’t confuse this with time-consuming. John Biesnecker recently wrote a great post explaining why the time-consuming nature of studying Chinese does not make it difficult, followed by extensive, patient clarifications in the comments.

But John also says:

> …learning Chinese is a long, drawn out series of really easy things — learn a character, learn a word, listen to a song, talk to someone, watch a movie, write an email, 等等. Not a single one of them is hard. Not one.

While I agree with most of John’s premise, I can’t agree that nothing about learning Chinese is hard. I found learning Chinese very difficult in the beginning. Although difficulty is subjective, I think there’s an important part of the equation missing here. First, two examples from my own life.

Putting in Time vs. Acquiring a Skill

When I was in high school I played a video game called Final Fantasy II. It was an RPG for the Super NES which can be beaten with the characters in your party at around level 40. Nerdy kid that I was, I loved that game so much that I continued playing it long after I had beaten it, until all my characters were up to level 99. You might call that feat silly or sad, but it was essentially a very long (but somehow enjoyable??) slog to reach increasingly higher level-up points. It was a ridiculous time investment. But one thing it certainly wasn’t is difficult.

Another example from my awkward teen years. My cousin Kevin introduced me to juggling. He insisted that anyone could learn it in one day, if they just stuck to it. After trying a few times, this seemed hard to believe. Juggling just three balls for even 10 tosses was deceptively difficult. But for some reason I dug in and kept at it. After 30 minutes I could do those 10 tosses. After an hour, I was starting to look like I could juggle three balls.

Does it seem wrong to say learning to juggle is difficult? It honestly takes less than an hour if the learner keeps at it. I’ve tried to teach quite a few people to juggle, and the conversation usually goes like this:

> Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

> Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

> Learner: Really? Let me try.

> [I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

> Learner: This is harder than it looks!

> Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

> [5 minutes pass.]

> Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

So why is juggling hard, even though 30 minutes is enough to get the basics down? It’s because it requires the mastery of a new skill, which, our brain reasons, “shouldn’t be too hard.” The logic of the task is quite simple. Throw ball. Catch ball. Repeat. The brain grasps the concept immediately. But the hands do not comply. The skill is too foreign.

The Jazzy Juggler

photo by Jeff Kubina

In essence, it’s “hard” because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance, and this is a blow to one’s ego. It’s emotional, not rational. What’s worse, if this simple task cannot be accomplished as easily as estimated, how can you be sure you’re ever going to get the hang of it?

This is the crux of the difficulty of learning juggling, Chinese, and many other worthwhile skills: the sheer frustration of the endeavor, and the ever-present fear that one is attempting the impossible. It takes a lot of effort to acquire an entirely new skill. Many people simply get discouraged and quit. “It’s too hard.”

The Hard Part

When I say that learning Chinese is hard, I don’t mean everything about it is difficult. For me, the hard part about learning Chinese, without a doubt, has been mastering the tones. The worst part was arriving in China after a year and a half of formal Mandarin study to make the horrifying discovery that no one in China understood my Chinese. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and I eventually made it. In my experience, tones are the single most frustrating thing about learning Mandarin Chinese.

Why? Well, to begin with you can’t even distinguish the tones. It seems impossible. Then, once you start to be able to distinguish them, you can’t reproduce them on your own. It seems impossible. Then, once you can produce individual tones in isolation on your own, it all falls apart when you try to string tones together. It seems impossible. Then, once you can start to string tones together with some semblance of accuracy, adding in sentence intonation screws everything up. It seems impossible.

See a pattern? Mastering tones is a long, frustrating process. I think there comes a point in almost every learner’s experience (me included!) where they say something like this:

> What’s wrong with these people? I said everything perfectly. I know all my tones were right. But they always act like they can’t understand me!

This is pure frustration. It happens to every learner.

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes acquiring Mandarin’s tones seems perilously close to this definition!

The Good News

The good news is that although Chinese has a steep learning curve, the worst part, by far, is right at the beginning. You have no choice but to tackle the tones right off the bat, and they’re just hard. But once you get a handle on them, the worst is behind you. (This is, however, where John Biesnecker’s “time-consuming does not mean difficult” argument kicks in, and you still have a long road ahead with the characters and vocabulary acquisition.)

I essentially expressed this point a while back when I compared the difficulty of learning Chinese and Japanese:

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

Because the hardest part is right at the beginning, I think advanced learners can sometimes forget how difficult and frustrating it was. But it’s a key issue I face on an almost daily basis in my work at AllSet Learning. For beginners, the learning curve can be a bit brutal.

You’re not afraid of a challenge, are you?

Mastering tones may be difficult, and memorizing all those characters may be time-consuming, but learning Chinese is definitely worth it. Difficulty is a subjective thing, so there may be those with an uncanny knack for acquiring tones (or perhaps indefatigable, saintly patience) who honestly don’t find it difficult (or frustrating). I’m willing to bet that some learners simply have a penchant for blocking out distant painful memories, and there may even be a few out there with devious plans to trick you into falling in love with Chinese. It is, after all, one of the world’s most fascinating languages.

There have been a number of excellent articles already written on this topic. I’ve linked to some of them below. Please note that David Moser’s article is tongue-in-cheek. Brendan’s conclusion is spot on, and I think Ben Ross’s views are also very close to my own.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser
…so, you want to learn Chinese? by Brendan O’Kane
Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language by Ben Ross
How Hard Is Chinese to Learn, Really? by Albert Wolfe
Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It? by Truett Black
Learning Chinese isn’t hard by John Biesnecker

Relevant Sinosplice content:

The Process of Learning Tones
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills
Chinese Pronunciation
Tone-related blog posts


Nov 2010

Google Suggest Venn Diagrams for Chinese, Japanese, and English

I was recently introduced to the awesome Google Suggest Venn Diagram Generator by Micah. Some interesting suggested searches by Google were crossed with a Venn diagram by some creative soul, and then the process was automated on the web by request. The result is a unique way to visualize and compare the data indexed by Google.

Here’s an example of what the diagram generator produces:


So we can see from this graph that according to Google, lots of people are asking (or telling) why both people and girls are mean, why girls and Americans are dumb, and why people, girls, and Americans are all stupid.

I decided to try some queries of my own. I chose the terms “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “English” as my recurring comparisons, and then added a little color to the results. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

how does _____ …


Yikes, “how does Chinese water torture work“? Gotta love the intellectual curiosity. I like the “how does English sound to foreigners” question though.

learn _____ …


Apparently there’s a whole lot of learning going on in the DC area. It’s no surprise that people want to learn online for free, but it’s interesting that Chinese is the only language of the three that people expect to learn in 5 minutes. (Tip: it might take slightly longer than that.)

_____ grammar …


Ah, good old . (I’m kind of surprised it trumped , though.)

awesome _____ …


stupid _____ …


Why is _____ so damn…


Ah, yes. But we expected that.


Jun 2010

Misgivings about SRS

Earlier this year the Global Times did an article on using SRS (spaced repetition software) technology to “Learn Chinese in a flash.” The journalist interviewed both me and Dr. Orlando Kelm about the issue, but most of what we said didn’t actually make it into the article. I’m going to use the content of that exchange to finally address my misgivings about SRS.

My SRS misgivings are grouped into three main points below, and I’ve added in some of Dr. Kelm’s input, with his permission.

SRS is a way to enhance your language studies, not a substitution for them

Back in the good old days, we students used to take our vocabulary lists and make flashcards out of them. As we amassed stacks and stacks of these flashcards, it was hard to systematically review them properly, and to keep track of which stacks of cards had which vocabulary. SRS completely solves this problem with a tidy little review algorithm and a feedback mechanism which you interact with as you review your vocabulary. This is great. Those of us who were too lazy to create stacks and stacks of flashcards can now feel vindicated; we will never have to, because technology has saved us from all that arduous flashcard management.

The problem, however, is that SRS is sometimes over-emphasized to the point that it almost seems like a “language acquisition method.” Especially for the analytical-minded, it can be easy to get lost in the efficiency of the review system and all the pretty stats, forgetting that memorization of vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition. If the SRS-obsessed student is not getting plenty of natural target language input and speaking practice, he’ll end up the linguistic equivalent of the guy at the gym with bulging upper body musculature but pencil legs.

Dr. Kelm warns against the “one method for everything” approach as well:

> It seems like every time we discover something that is good in one area (e.g., SRS that helps in aiding rote memorization) the tendency is to try to apply it in every other area (e.g., speaking a foreign language). I have seen the same thing with lots of second language theories. For example TPR (total physical response) is a theory where people are supposed to physically use their senses while learning a language (actually open a door when saying “I open the door”, actually taste the food when they say “I am eating a banana). Great, TPR may be OK in some instances, but then people try to apply TPR to every aspect of language learning. It just gets crazy after a while. To me the same issue comes up with SRS. Just because it is good for rote memorization, doesn’t mean that it will be good for all aspects of language learning.

Dr. Kelm reminds us about what else is important that is outside the realm of SRS :

> The biggest issue here, as related some of the limitations of SRS, is that of input vs intake, schema theory, and scripts. A gigantic part of language learning is related to CONTEXT. I’m sure there are times when you can recall the exact moment when you heard a new phrase in Chinese, learned a new word, or did something in another language.

> For example, last month when I was in China a seller came up to our car and asked my guide if he wanted to buy something. All he said to the seller was “mai bu qi” (I can’t afford that). For me it was the perfect moment because I saw how a native speaker reacts to the sellers. Where I would have just said “bu yao” or “bu yong“, there was something cool about hearing “mai bu qi“. The phrase stuck in my mind and I’ll be able to use it from here on out. This is a great example of how context affects our learning. The more we can create context for learners, the better we retain the foreign language. Note that this is not related to frequency of occurrence or frequency of review (principles of SRS), but more to the impact of the moment. SRS doesn’t necessarily take this feature into account.

> Second, language learning also happens in chunks and people learn these chunks in scripts that we follow. For example, if you go to a fast food restaurant to make an order, at some point the cashier will say “Is that for here or to go?” You know the pattern, you expect this question to come up, and so you are prepared to answer it. Even if you don’t hear the question exactly, you can still guess at what was said. It’s part of the “script” that we all follow when ordering fast food. When language learning relates to these chunks and scripts, it helps to make things stick. Note again that this is not related to the frequency of occurrence and isn’t where SRS will shine. (I should probably add that ChinesePod does a really good job of creating short dialogs that help provide this context and simulate these scripts. They recycle vocabulary in various contexts well.)

SRS and the DIY factor

Creating flashcards is a meaningful activity in itself. The act of creating the cards, with each word carefully scrawled by the student (and maybe even a picture or two!) contributes to the learning. Anyone who has ever used flashcards can tell you there’s a big difference between making your own and buying pre-made flashcards.

Ideally, the words and sentences added to your SRS come from your own experience, or from the material you are personally interested in studying. This makes the learning more personal and the results more satisfying. Many students, however, are reviewing ready-made vocabulary lists, pre-loaded into the SRS. This type of review isn’t worthless, but because the learner’s degree of involvement is so much lower, each word’s “memory imprint” is much fainter. It’s also much easier to simply toss aside and forget a digital “stack” of flashcards that took 3 seconds to download, compared to a personalized list one has invested time and effort into.

Using SRS well is a skill

This is the part that no one really expects, because it’s nice to think that technology has solved our problems. The truth is that using SRS effectively is an entirely new skill. I mentioned already that ready-made decks are less likely to be effective, but even an active learner carefully looking up new words and adding them to SRS (with some context) can easily go wrong.

I’ll give you a personal example. I was reading a Lu Xun story, and it contained a fair amount of vocabulary with which I was unfamiliar. After looking up the new words, I dutifully copied them into Anki (my SRS client of choice). There was a fair amount of vocabulary just from that Lu Xun story. Over time, I found that the Lu Xun vocabulary just wasn’t sticking. The words were semi-archaic, and I had virtually no chance of running into them in my modern daily life in Shanghai. I found they were useful only for reading Lu Xun (or possibly other Chinese literature of that era), and yet I wasn’t spending a lot of time reading that literature. The vocabulary was effectively “clogging up” my SRS review sessions as I had to repeatedly review those words, which meant I had less time to spend on review of more useful vocabulary, and I was rapidly losing motivation to use SRS altogether. When I found myself going a week or more without doing any review at all, I eventually realized that I had effectively killed my review sessions and needed an “Anki Reset.”

Including too much obscure “recognition only” material is not the only pitfall; other typical mistakes include lack of sufficient context, overly long sentence examples, and insufficient consideration of what is actually useful in one’s active vocabulary. It’s the memorization of vocabulary which one is able to actually use in conversation that is the most satisfying, after all. Failure to accomplish this essentially amounts to “vocabulary hoarding,” not proficiency in the target language.

Since using SRS properly is a skill which must be practiced, it demands time in itself. Learning to use SRS well and getting into the the habit of using it will take time, which could otherwise be devoted to listening or speaking practice. Is it worth it? For some, the answer is an unabashed yes, yes, a thousands times YES! but for many students the answer is not so clear-cut.

Language Power Struggles


May 2010

Language Power Struggles

The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.

First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.

> American: [Hello, can I sit here?]

> Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.

> American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]

> Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.

> American: [Not at all!]

> Chinese: How long have you been to China?

> American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]

> Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?

> American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]

> Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?

> American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]

> Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!

> American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]

> Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?

> American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]

> Chinese: I like talking English with you.

> American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]

> Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?

> American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]

The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.



Aug 2009

The Spaced Repetition Party

So you’re at a party. It’s not some crazy kegger, it’s just one of those social mixers you go to every once in a while to meet people. A homely guy walks up to you and introduces himself as Craig. He’s a financial consultant. He soon moves on.

Photo by Wallie-The-Frog

A few minutes later, he walks up again, and asks, “Remember me?”

“Uhhh, Craig, right?” you reply.

“Yes,” he says. “And what do I do?”

“Uhhhh,” you say intelligently as you draw a blank.

“Financial consultant!” he says snippily and walks off.

A few minutes later he’s back again. He walks up to you and looks at you. “Hey, Craig the financial consultant,” you say. He nods and moves on.

He shows up again an hour later, and then one more time before the end of the event. He’s satisfied you know who he is.

The scene described above is a fictional dramatization of how spaced repetition works. Just like you forgot unmemorable Craig’s profession only 5 minutes after meeting him, you forget most things you learn. That is, unless you’re reminded. And it turns out that there are optimal times to be reminded, and that the more you’re reminded, the less often you need to be reminded. This is the “spacing” of “spaced repetition,” and its rules been pretty well figured out.

The famous Pimsleur language learning system is based on the principle of spaced repetition. It was designed for a time when static audio recordings were cutting edge, however, and the latest adaptation of the spaced repetition principle is spaced repetition software (SRS), which has been refined quite nicely in recent years by a Polish man named Piotr Wozniak.

With SRS, you “join the party” by starting up the software. You’re presented with various “cards” or “facts” which you want to remember. Some of them, like Craig, aren’t particularly memorable, and when they come up again, you may falter. No matter; SRS is infinitely patient. The more you have trouble with a fact, the more often it shows up in your review cycles, until eventually you get it down pat and it gets spaced out to the point where you hardly ever see it again.

Sound like fun? In my experience, the idea of efficiently offloading the work of memorization to a computer program tends to appeal mainly to programmers. I was introduced to it by programmer friend John Biesnecker, who was seduced by SRS evangelist and blogger Khatzumoto (also a programmer). I’ve seen another programmer friend, Mark Wilbur, go fanatical about SRS. Meanwhile, linguists and language teachers tend to go, “meh.”

Photo by Tom Lin

Personally, while I have my misgivings about SRS (a topic for another post), I think it’s a fantastic concept. The idea that, through science, we can understand how we forget, describe it in algorithms, and then systematically counteract it through software and learned behaviors is nothing short of amazing. The problem is that most of us aren’t willing to simply plug in and “trust the machine.” We prefer to live our lives unplugged… or at least not to be ritually spoon-fed our knowledge.

Like any innovative new form of technology, SRS has its early adopters. Those people swear by SRS, daily executing their spaced “reps” with the leading software: SuperMemo, Mnemosyne, and Anki. At the same time, though, something bigger is happening. Behind the scenes, SRS methods are infiltrating other learning software, such as Pleco (a popular Chinese dictionary). Although perhaps not completely obvious, SRS methods are a cornerstone of innovative Chinese character writing service Skritter. Cerego, the company behind another learning system earning lots of praise, Smart.fm, describes itself thusly:

> Based on years of applied research, Cerego has built adaptive, web-based applications that accelerate knowledge acquisition. Cerego’s patented core learning engine is driven by algorithms that generate optimal learning schedules for discrete chunks of declarative learning content, called “items”. This intelligent scheduling is achieved by gathering metadata on individual user performance and modeling memory decay patterns at the granular level of every item.

Guess what? It’s SRS.

The fact is, the average person doesn’t need to learn to change his habits to adapt SRS. As various companies and developers realize the value that SRS integration offers any kind of learning system, they’re integrating it into their existing products and services. It’s starting to appear in more and more products we already use. In the next few years, you can expect the slower ones to join the party as well. SRS is coming to you.


Nov 2007

How to Learn to Order Food in Chinese

Back in the good old days, when I lived in Hangzhou, I often hung out with a motley crew of foreign teachers. In that group, when we went out to restaurants to eat, I was usually “the food orderer.” This was partly because I had been in China the longest and was most comfortable speaking Chinese, but it was mostly because I could actually read the menu.

Even if you have an education in Chinese, you can’t really prepare yourself for being handed an all-Chinese menu. I mean, for one thing, it’s all in Chinese, and for another thing, your ability to decipher the characters on that menu directly impacts what goes in your stomach. Now that’s a kind of pressure that mere tests and quizzes can never exactly compare to.

I know what they teach you in Chinese class. You get the words for (rice), (noodles), and (meat) down pretty well, but come on, was anyone really paying attention during that chapter on vegetables? No way! And yet now it’s time to pay that price, because very likely, you’re only going to be able to read one or two characters, tops, in each dish name, and most dish names are four characters long. Yikes. (Insider’s tip: it really may not be too wise to order that “something-something-meat” dish!)

My co-worker JP was recently raving about the site Like a Local, because it was helping him figure out what to order. I also pointed him to How to Order Chinese Food. Both of these will help. But if you really want to learn what’s on those menus, I can tell you a better way. It’s what I did, and it really works.

So here it is:

How to Learn to Order Food in Chinese



Feb 2007

10 Reasons I Hate Chinese New Year

Random photos

I am well known for being positive and upbeat about life in China, but sometimes I just have to vent a little. This one is a special case, because when I first arrived in China I was thrilled to be celebrating the real Chinese New Year, with real Chinese people, the authentic way. With each passing year my enthusiasm has faded just a bit more, until it became this colorless loathing for the alpha holiday of the Chinese calendar.

I suppose “hate” is a strong word, but let me just say I’m not fond of the ol’ CNY. (Still, I’m keeping the word “hate” because I’m so sassy.) So now I give you the 10 reasons I hate Chinese New Year, in the order that they come to me:

1. It’s noisy. Yeah, fireworks are fun. Yeah, the Chinese invented them. Yippee. I always thought the best fireworks were the bottle rockets that exploded midair in colorful displays. Well, here in China, the most common kind is firecrackers, or just any kind that isn’t much to look at but makes a lot of noise. This kind is fun in moderation, but “moderation” is entirely out of the question when CNY rolls around. We’re talking non-stop pili-pala (the sound of firecrackers) for days on end. What? You wanted to go to sleep? Too bad. What? You wanted to sleep in past 6am on your vacation? Too bad.

2. It’s dangerous. It should come as no surprise that an environment seething with explosions is not particularly safe. The Chinese aren’t exactly world-renowned for being “safety conscious,” either. If the public pyrotechnics everywhere weren’t bad enough, this is also the time of year when kids have firecrackers too, and they just go around lighting and throwing them at random.

3. It paralyzes the nation. Not being able to get a taxi or go to your favorite restaurant isn’t the end of the world (although, my regular Xinjiang restaurant, I do not forgive you for going back to Xinjiang for CNY an entire month early — I’m pretty sure you didn’t walk back). The problem comes when you try to do anything bureaucratic. Virtually nothing can be accomplished if CNY is even remotely near. It’s all a smile and a mei banfa (there’s nothing we can do). It’s an excuse that’s not only incontrovertible, but one you’re also supposed to be happy about it. You had better hope your visa doesn’t expire right before Chinese New Year, because you’d be screwed.

4. It encourages craptaculars. The Chinese New Year craptacular (春节联欢晚会) is the mother of all Chinese craptaculars. Watching it is not only a family tradition for many, many Chinese families; it almost seems like a patriotic duty. Year after year, I hear people saying, “the craptacular was crappier than ever this year,” and yet they watch it, year after year after year. This horrible TV tradition somehow imbedded itself in the nation’s cultural DNA, and the populace seems resigned to this.

5. It brings out overzealous hospitality. Chinese food is good. Eating is good. But Chinese hosts are infamous for “hospitably” force-feeding their guests, and this is the holiday when that impulse goes into overdrive. You can starve yourself for days, but it will do no good. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “even a large bucket cannot hold the sea.” (OK, I made that up, but it sure makes my point.)

6. It involves lots of Chinese liquor. I like Chinese food, but I will never like Chinese rice wine. This is one of those Chinese holidays where I have to buck up and just drink it. I’d be a dick if I refused. And man, it is nasty.

7. It causes temporal cognitive chaos. I’ve talked about this before. Around CNY, Chinese people refuse to use the solar calendar for a week or two and cognitively switch over to that alternative universe where the moon determines the dates. If you don’t make the temporary crossover with them, you’re in for some serious calendar confusion.

8. It screws over the little guy. At Chinese New Year, everyone goes home to spend the holiday with their families. Oh wait, did I say “everyone”? I meant everyone except for the wage slaves that have to work in the restaurants for the New Year’s Eve dinner because the city folk don’t like to bother celebrating at home anymore. Oh, and except for drivers and operators of essential public transportation. The more commercialized the holiday becomes, the more people that get cheated out of it. This is nothing new to someone from a capitalist nation, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it when I see it happening anywhere.

9. It’s a mass migration the country can’t really handle. It really can’t. One of my co-workers from Guilin will not be spending the holiday with her family for the first time ever because she simply could not get a ticket home. She’s not the only one. It’s just way too many people trying to “go home” all at the same time. It’s the world’s largest human migration, and it’s only getting worse as more and more people move to the big cities to make a living. It’s one hell of a problem for the government, totally cultural in origin.

10. It’s serious pollution. Those fireworks are more than just noisy and dangerous; they’re bad for the environment. Keep in mind that in China there are way more people more densely packed than in the U.S.; the amount of fireworks going off in one night all across the nation is simply staggering. If China didn’t already have such a great handle on its environmental issues, I might be worried. (Oh, wait a minute…)

I have tried for years to warm up to Chinese New Year, but I have stopped trying. My conclusion is that if you didn’t experience Chinese New Year as a child, you’re not going to learn to like it. It’s an exciting holiday for a Chinese kid… you get to see all those fun cousins, eat lots of great food in ridiculous quantities, and receive a hongbao (red envelope full of cash) from all your relatives. As an adult cultural outsider, I really don’t think I have any hope of ever truly enjoying this holiday.

But, here we go again…


Jul 2006

Good People at Bad Times

It’s something that’s pretty self-evident, but foreigners living in China easily forget: sometimes when you catch good people at bad times, they come across as quite rude. The sad truth is that when this happens to a foreigner in China, it’s all too easy for the foreigner to mentally toss it into the “Chinese people have no manners” file as further evidence. Chalking up each incident as proof of a generalization applied to the whole population requires less mental effort–and most of all, less tolerance–than remembering that Chinese people have bad days too.

I give you an example. The other day I bought a few items at the local convenience store. It was around dinner time and the store was pretty busy, so there were people in line ahead of me, and by the time it was my turn to pay there were people in line behind me. The middle-aged lady at the register was not one of the three familiar faces I knew, so I figured she was a new hire.

My total came to 30.9 RMB. I gave the lady a 100 RMB bill and the 0.9 in exact change. She made a very irritated face and said to me, “don’t you have smaller change?” (A side note here: not having small change is one of the greatest consumer crimes one can commit in China, and will frequently invoke the ire of the cash handler.)

I told her no, I didn’t have change. Giving her the 0.9 in change was the best I could do. Muttering in Shanghainese under her breath, she pulled out the nearly empty change drawer tray and picked up a stack of bills from underneath. She removed a 20 and a 10 from the stack, slapped the rest of the bills on the counter, and proceeded to ignore me.

Had I been a little quicker, I would have realized that the stack she had pulled out was worth 100 RMB, so the stack on the counter was worth exactly 70 RMB in 10s and 5s. But she didn’t say anything to me and I wasn’t especially quick at that moment, so I asked her, “what does this mean?” (but I didn’t say it in a rude tone).

She then snapped at me, “you didn’t have any small change, so that’s what you get!” I took my stack of small bills and left.

Two days later I returned to the same convenience store, and my new friend was on the register again. It was sort of late, and there was only one other customer in the store, just browsing.

My total came to 13 RMB and change. I slapped down three 5 RMB bills and joked with her, “I’m returning some of those 5s you gave me the other night.”

She remembered me and knew what I was referring to, but rather than smiling at my joke, she proceeded to apologize profusely for that incident, telling me that it had been very busy, and she had no other change, and that she really hoped I understood. I told her it was not a problem.

Leaving the store, I realized that if I hadn’t made my pointless little joke about returning the 5s to her, I would have always considered that woman a cranky bitch. But through that little exchange, my view of her had changed.

Sure, assholes exist too, but we also catch good people at bad times every day. Sometimes it’s our first impression of a person, and sometimes it’s the only time we’ll ever meet that person in our lifetime. China is no different from the rest of the world in that respect.

Related posts:

No, I do not have change. (Talk Talk China)
Overcome by Friendliness (Weifang Radish)
Taxi Incident (Sinosplice – wherein I commit the same mistake that I accuse foreigners of in this entry)