Tag: culture


27

Sep 2018

China Knows Potatoes, Yet Doesn’t Appreciate Potatoes

I like potatoes. I have Polish and Irish blood, so maybe it’s in my DNA. China has a number of good potato dishes, such as the staple 酸辣土豆丝 (sour and spicy potato strips). But it seems like some of the best ones get no love from the local population.

Take this dish for example:

Spicy Potatoes

The original Chinese dish was 椒盐土豆 (“salt and pepper potatoes”), and it was good, but I asked them to make it spicy (spicy version pictured above), and it was so much better. Really amazing.

Years ago I had an ayi from China’s Dongbei (northeast) region, and she learned to make garlic mashed potatoes (with no butter) that were awesome. But Chinese people don’t normally eat that.

Of course, French fries are pretty popular here. But the really good potato dishes get no recognition in China…

Sad Potato


Related: 10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love


16

Aug 2018

Fukuoka 20 Years Later, post-China

I studied abroad in Japan for the 1997-98 academic year. During spring break, a friend and I hitchhiked from Osaka to Fukuoka. We visited from friends of mine, and explored the northern half of the island of Kyushu. Now, just over 20 years later, I’ve just visited Fukuoka again. This time the differences I noticed felt meaningful, and it’s not because of Japan. It’s because of me, and the 18 years I’ve spent in China in the meantime.

Obviously, this is a personal take. So-called “evidence” I cite is anecdotal. It doesn’t take into account the societies as a whole. I know, Fukuoka is not Tokyo. But if you can handle all that, read on.

The overwhelming sense I got which took hold of me early on in the visit and just wouldn’t let go is that Japan hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Of course it’s changed. But having lived in China, where pace of development permanently stuck in “breakneck speed,” Fukuoka really made me feel like Japan’s development is at a standstill. I’m no economist, but I’m into technology, so that’s one of the areas I was constantly checking up on. Remember when Japan felt super high-tech, back in the 80’s and 90’s? Now it feels kind of like Disney’s Epcot center, the “city of the future” conceived of in the 1970’s.

Just a few things that left an impression:

  1. Vending machines everywhere. This is one of the things that’s so Japan, and I take no issue with the approach, except that these are literally the exact same machines from 20 years ago. They really haven’t changed. Meanwhile, China is outfitting these machines with scanners to support WeChat and AliPay.

    "Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

  2. “Cashless” restaurant ordering also means vending machines. My wife’s mind was blown that so many Japanese restaurants use meal ticket vending machines. This way the staff doesn’t have to handle money at all, and no one has to take orders. Makes sense, right? The modern Chinese solution, though, is to just put QR codes on the restaurant tables. Diners scan, order, and pay right away. The restaurant staff knows which table you ordered from. You barely have to talk to the staff, much less give them a ticket. No cash, no paper, no human interaction necessary. Cold efficiency.

    China

  3. Japan’s rail system is still legendary. Again, exactly the same as 20 years ago. You buy train tickets from vending machines. There’s a very real sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can understand that. The train system works so well! It’s easy to use, and the trains all run on time. Shanghai’s subway and light rail system is not better than Fukuoka’s. And yet, there’s this feeling that in 10 more years (if that), Shanghai’s will be clearly superior, and Fukuoka’s will be the same.

    IMG_3764

  4. Japan’s still doing great with recycling and environmental protection. I know, Japan still kills whales and does other bad things. But in general Japan is great at recycling, the streets are clean, and a retreat into the mountains (also clean and relatively unsullied) is never far away. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it would be so great if China could catch up in this respect.

    Lawson Japan

  5. It’s not hard to be alone in Japan. Sure, the cities are super crowded, and apartments are small. But if you need to get away from it all, it feels way easier in Japan. You can hop on a train or bus, and a short ride later be headed into the mountains where you’ll be totally alone. Sure, it’s possible in China, but harder.

    Gen on the Path

I could say a lot of these same things about China and the US, especially if I cherry-pick my cities. One interesting thing, though, was that when my wife told Japanese friends about how we use mobile payments for everything in Shanghai now, they were surprised and blown away. They had no idea.


06

Jun 2018

The Chinese Concept of “Dirty”

As a parent, I am keenly aware of all the work that goes into educating a child on what is “dirty” and how to avoid getting dirty, as well as why getting dirty is (normally) bad. The concept of “dirty” is surprisingly complex when you think about it, since some of it is visible and some not, and the “clean” and “dirty” objects can have all kinds of interactions. You really just have to be taught.

This issue reminds me of an experience I had years ago in Hangzhou. Quoting a blog post from 2005:

Shortly after I arrived in China, I went on a trip to a park with some Chinese friends. It had been a while since I had seen grass, so I was happy to sprawl out on it, which promptly resulted in my Chinese friends’ disapproval. “It’s dirty!” they told me. I just shook my head. In a corner of the world where there’s so little nature left to enjoy, they regard what little is left as “dirty”? That’s so sad! Then, as an afterthought, I ran my hand across the grass. My palm was turned gray. Dust. From the grass.

That little incident drove home that I really didn’t know how everything worked here, even when I was so sure I had it all figured out.

Just like children, as a China newbie, I, too, had to be educated on what was “dirty” in my new environment.

A similar example comes to mind: foreigners often think nothing of storing their bag on the ground next to their desks or chairs, but this frequently causes Chinese acquaintances to recoil in disgust. In China, you don’t put things you want to keep clean (like your bag) on the ground, even indoors. You also don’t put your bag on your bed at home. There are lots of “rules” to learn.

I was surprised, then, to see this ad:

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“脏”显个性 [“Dirty” shows personality]

Of course we have “dirty desserts” in English as well, which is likely the source of this idea. But this concept feels even more eye-catching in China, where you’ve got to constantly be on your guard against the “dirt.”


16

May 2018

Chinese Perspectives on the Avengers: Infinity War

The Avengers: Infinity War finally hit theaters in China this past weekend. (You might say it was a hit.) Tired of carefully avoiding spoilers, I was among the first in China to see it. Since it’s come out, I’m enjoying the cultural impact and various manifestations of the Chinese perspective on the movie, from Avengers-themed WeChat stickers (with Chinese text) to hilarious Photoshop jobs.

Here’s one I enjoyed (mild spoilers, sort of?):

Avengers Infinity War: Rated

(I would credit the original source, but I can’t read the watermark.)

The Chinese reads:

  1. 超神: super-god
  2. 很厉害: very impressive
  3. 有帮上忙: were able to help
  4. 尽力了: really tried
  5. 废物: useless
  6. 一坨屎: pile of crap

Love the Chinese bluntness!

As for Thanos, what’s going to be the Chinese perspective on a “mad titan” that wants to take out half the population of the universe? That actually sounds quite familiar to citizens of a country with population issues of its own! So you get this:

Thanos: Have some zishu

That reads:

计划生育搞不好 紫薯你都吃不着
If you can’t get family planning right, no purple yams for you!

It’s a whole series; you can see more on Weibo here: @青红造了个白. (This same Photoshop artist has released good stuff before, like the Game of Thrones Chinese street vendors.)


100 Chinese History Keywords

19

Apr 2018

100 Chinese History Keywords

I’m not a history buff. I recognize it’s important to study history, and that no educated person should be ignorant of history. So while I do read about Chinese history, I don’t do it a lot. But every time I do pick up a Chinese history book, one of the things that drives me crazy about books on this topic is that so often there are no Chinese characters given for important names. (Or characters are given, but no pinyin.) Is this so hard?

China Simplified has a new book out called History Flashback. It’s a fun read, beautifully illustrated, and it’s actually pretty short! How does one condense “5000 years” of Chinese history into only 200 pages? Well, it’s possible. And although the book does a pretty good job of providing characters and pinyin for the Chinese names and other words mentioned, it seemed like a good starting point for a list of “essential Chinese history terms.”

So using this book as a starting point, my company AllSet Learning teamed up with China Simplified to create this handy list of 100 Chinese History Keywords. It’s a free PDF; no signup needed. Just download.

Download Free PDF

It was hard narrowing the original candidate list of 500 or so to only 100, but I think we did OK. What do you think? Are there any glaring omissions that an intermediate learner would really want?


Apr. 26 Update: We had a repeat word in the original list. It’s been removed, and we’re still at 100!


24

Oct 2017

Dancer Characterplay with “I see”

I see” is a children’s dance studio in Shanghai. Here’s the logo:

I see  灰姑娘

Can you read the Chinese name? Hint: the first character is not just . (It’ll be much easier if you’re already familiar with the Chinese names of some popular fairytales. Or even if you’re familiar with the Chinese names of Disney animated classics.)

In this case, we’re dealing with the name 灰姑娘, literally, “ashes girl,” which is the Chinese name for “Cinderella.”

Confession time! I think it wasn’t until I learned the Chinese name for Cinderella that I even realized that the “Cinder” part of “Cinderella” was a reference to ashes rather than being kind of like a cross between “Cindy” and “Stella” with a random “er” thrown in for style.

According to Wikipedia, the “cinder” part “has to do with the fact that servants… were usually soiled with ash at that time, because of their cleaning work and also because they had to live in cold basements so they usually tried to get warm by sitting close to the fireplace.”

Anyway, it might be easy to miss that the dancer in the logo next to the character is part of the larger character .

Here’s the full text in the image:

I see灰姑娘
国际儿童艺术中心


20

Oct 2017

Budweiser Wants to Put Something in Your Drink for Halloween

In New York in the 80’s, the Ramones were clearly upset that somebody put something in their drink. Why then, 30 years later in Shanghai, does Budweiser expect us to get excited about it?

These ads are currently in Shanghai Metro’s Jing’an Temple Station:

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Here’s a closeup of that first ad:

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I posted these photos to my WeChat Moments with the caption “WTF?” I only got about 10 comments, but the response from Chinese friends and non-Chinese friends was quite different.

Chinese friends: Ha ha, cool!

Non-Chinese friends: Are you kidding me?! Not cool!

This is a great example of cultural differences playing out in the world of marketing. I wonder if Budweiser HQ is going to react to this.


19

Oct 2017

Navigating the “Dark Side” of Chinese Culture

This list of issues comes from a Quora post about “the dark side of Chinese culture.” (Each point goes into a little detail on the original post; I’m just listing the points and the Chinese synopsis provided for each.) This list may come across as a bit extreme in its criticisms, but there is some truth to each claim.

Goodbye to the Dark Side

  1. Child abuse [referring largely to psychological abuse]. 打是亲,骂是爱
  2. Disrespect for individualism, due to the “big family” culture. 大家庭绑架个人自由
  3. Parents push their kids too hard. 望子成龙,望女成凤
  4. Mammonism. 拜金主义
  5. Social Darwinism. 成者为王,败者为寇
  6. Banqueting alcohol-enforcement culture. 强迫劝酒文化
  7. Lack of sympathy. 事不关己,高高挂起
  8. Sinocentrism. 中国中心主义

This list is a double-edged sword for non-Chinese learners of the language. On the one hand, Chinese people can be quite sensitive to perceived criticism from foreigners. Just reading out this whole list with an innocent “this is interesting, don’t you think?” is unlikely to get a neutral response because the list as a whole feels prettying damning of Chinese culture.

On the other hand, tons of Chinese people are concerned about these issues themselves (usually presented in less extreme ways), and presenting some of these issues individually and delicately could lead to some enlightening discussions.

One way to “test the waters” with a friend is to just present the viewpoint (just one of those Chinese sentences, individually) without any of your own commentary, and ask a friend what they think. If the friend gets immediately defensive, just nod in acceptance and consider the conversation over (no need for rebuttal). More likely you’ll get a tempered response, which leaves room for discussion. In this situation, I find a good strategy is to play “devil’s advocate” and argue the totally unnuanced, pro-China propaganda stance. (It’s not hard to play a convincing wide-eyed, naive foreigner.) Since very few Chinese people swallow propaganda whole, you are likely to get a sincere elaboration in response (“其实……“).

Perhaps learning to exercise a little cultural sensitivity while discussing real issues which touch on the “dark side” of Chinese culture is the way to avoid turning to the “dark side” of Chinese learning?


15

Aug 2017

Game of Thrones Characters as Chinese Street Vendors

Saw this Game of Thrones / Chinese culture mash-up gem last night on a Chinese friend’s WeChat “Moments” stream. Too good not to share! Apparently a Chinese Photoshop artist created these, and I’d like credit this person, but I’m still trying to figure out who it is!

Enjoy…

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Too bad they’re not high-quality images… it seems they were intended for a smallish smartphone screen.

P.S. If anyone knows the original artist, please let me know, and I’ll credit his/her ASAP!

2017-08-17 Update: The Photoshop artist is Weibo user 青红造了个白. He/she has tons of other similar works. Thanks to Danielle Li and Rachel for the info!


13

Sep 2016

The only good mooncake is a MEAT mooncake

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

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

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

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


18

Aug 2016

The World Is Your Closet

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

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

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

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

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

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


08

Jun 2016

Shanghai Disneyland: Fun but Crowded

Shanghai Disneyland officially opens for business on June 16, 2016, but Disney has been making a limited number of tickets available for many weeks for “testing” purposes. I actually wasn’t planning on ever going to Shanghai Disneyland (I’m from Tampa, just an hour away from Orlando, home of Disney World), but recently everyone I know has been scoring tickets through their personal connections, and my wife was no exception. She scored some tickets through our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s pre-school connections (those guanxi start early!), so the three of us did the Shanghai Disneyland soft opening thing on a rainy May 29th. 30,000 other visitors still showed up.

I’m not going to do anything remotely approaching a full review; this is just a collection of my own random observations.

Everything Looks Nice

For now, anyway, everything looks nice, meeting the standard I would expect from Disney. I do wonder how well the park is going to wear, with a projected 60,000 visitors shuffling through the park daily once it officially opens. Still, it all looked impressive enough to inspire me to take this lame selfie:

Selfie at Shanghai Disneyland

One thing that struck me as really weird, though, is that Disney seems to be dying the water in its artificial ponds and streams. Why?? So bizarre.

Blue-Green Water at Shanghai Disneyland

The Marvel Presence

Disney owns Marvel now, and while there were no major Marvel “rides” or characters strolling the grounds, there was a “Marvel Cinematic Universe” installation. It was there that I witnessed this impressive display of American soft power:

Captain America "Soft Power" at Shanghai Disneyland

The Lines

OK, this is Disney, so expect long lines. At one point, in a very brief period of insanity, I got in line for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster even after being told the wait was 3 hours. (My wife and daughter were going to go do the Peter Pan ride.) After I was told the wait was actually 4 hours, I snapped out of it and went and joined my family for the scant two-hour wait for Peter Pan. (Hey, at least we were together!)

Long Lines at Shanghai Disneyland

One thing that impressed me about Disney was the ubiquitous wheelchair access that is still fairly uncommon in China. It was good to see people in wheelchairs also getting the Disney experience.

Wheelchair Access at Shanghai Disneyland

I should mention that there is a “Fastpass” option that allows ticket holders to skip long lines if they show up for the designated ride at the right time. I had thought these were for sale in Disney World (adds a nice class struggle aspect to Disney’s lines), but in Shanghai you just have to line up to get them, until all the time slots are gone for the day. So you have to choose between lining up for hours to get on a ride and lining up for hours to get a Fastpass.

For the first half of the rainy day of waiting in lines, I was sort of regretting coming at all, but two things happened to brighten my mood. The first was a random Chinese high school kid giving me an extra Fastpass for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster. I was waiting in line, alone (the line was down to “just” two hours later in the day), and he targeted me to give away his extra Fastpass, practicing his English at the same time.

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Yeah, as modern as Shanghai is, there are still plenty of inconveniences that piss off us cranky laowai residents. But then this kind of thing happens. It really improved my mood, and probably my whole opinion of the day at Disneyland.

The Tron lightcycle ride was a lot of fun.

Thanks, random Chinese high school kid!

Star Wars

The other thing that inexplicably brightened my mood and threw me into a bout of irrational childish glee was running into Darth Vader on patrol with two Storm Troopers. The great thing about him was not that he was tall, or that he was commanding, but that he was in character. He didn’t shake any hands or pose for any pictures. He was all business. There was a little boy trailing around behind him, dying to steal a moment of his attention. Vader brutally ignored him.

Then when Darth Vader reached an overlook, he angrily shook his fist at the park below. I liked to imagine that was him resenting his new overlord, the Disney corp.

Darth Vader at Shanghai Disneyland

Parade

OK, so there’s this parade everyone seems to make a big deal out of. It was almost canceled because of the rain. The parade was better than I expected, and I found the Frozen ice monster to be the highlight:

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Troops of Chinese girls in blond wigs was also kind of amusing (here’s just one):

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Projector Mania

I mentioned that I’m most familair with Disney World which is, by the way, quite old already. So it was interesting to see how Disney would make use of new technology in its most modern park. The answer? Liberal use of projectors. Projected images on walls, on ceilings, on water, even on a whole castle. It works well, and it’s even quite cost effective. The final light show, which used to be mostly fireworks, now makes a whole lot more use of projectors and lasers. (Also better for the environment.)

Laser Light Show at Shanghai Disneyland

Worth it?

Would I go again? No way. At 30,000 visitors, the park already felt very crowded. Lines were ridiculously long. And the projected visitor volume once it officially opens is 60,000 people. That is insane.

The sad part of this is not only that visitors will feel ripped off by their unexpected visit to LineLand, but also that the Disney staff, so carefully trained, are definitely going to have the cheery enthusiasm pounded out of them by the relentless onslaught of Chinese tourists. My wife observed how most Chinese guests coldly ignored all the Disney-style friendly greetings offered up by the staff.

I wish Disney’s famous service could be a shining example for China, but I’m not too optimistic about that.


11

Nov 2015

Chinese Picture Books as Learning Material

I remember the first time I had the great idea to use Chinese children’s books as study material. I had been in China for about a year, and having exhausted my old textbook, I was starved for more interesting material. I came upon a book store, and, realizing how cheap books in China were, had the revelation that I should start learning from Chinese children’s books. It was so perfect, and so obvious… why hadn’t I done this earlier?!

Then reality came crashing in. There was a very good reason why I everyone wasn’t already doing it already: Chinese children’s books are meant for native speaker Chinese kids, and as such, they generally don’t make good material for foreign language learners. But why??

Before I talk about my conclusions as to why, let me just share a few examples from my local book store. This is no scientific survey, but I did my best to select from a number of different publishers and different types of children’s books. The pages I photographed are more or less random. I’m adding a few comments about the suitability of these stories for a high A2 (elementary) or low B1 (intermediate) learner.

Fairy Tales

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– Note the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character… both annoying for a learner of Chinese.
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 果然、蹲、急忙、吩咐、目露凶光、黄灿灿、铜钱、打火匣、看守、披

Chengyu Stories

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– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 南辕北辙、中原、楚国、却、驾车、满不在乎、盘缠、摇摇头、糊涂、方向

Morality Tales

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– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 恰巧、沼泽、女妖、魔鬼、祖母、参观、酒厂、老妖婆、地狱、一尊、石像、整天、烂泥、妖怪、谈论
– The density of hard words in this book is really high, based on this page

Xiyangyang

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– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is less formal here, and the words used feel more oriented to kids, but a lot of the words are the type that native speaker kids could understand in the context of a story but would not use themselves; these are the words that would really trip up a lot of foreign language learners.
– You can see that on this page the character is being taught, and yet there are much, much more difficult characters on this page. This highlights the fact that the book is meant to be read to the child; the child is not meant to read it.
– Notable difficult words: 懒、踢、脚、穿、接住、并、蹦、跳、突然、轰隆、一道、裂痕、瞬间、掉

I Go to Kindergarten

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– This is my favorite of the bunch; I actually bought this book for my daughter as psychological prep before she started kindergarten.
– The characters are not too hard, but no pinyin! Finally…
– The tone is informal, and this is the kind of language that Chinese parents would expect their children to fully comprehend, in context.
– Somewhat difficult words: 嗨、全班、春游、别提、运动鞋、背着、排好队伍

Marvel Superheroes

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– No pinyin here, and this one is definitely higher difficulty level.
– Difficulty-wise, a high B1 (approaching upper intermediate) learner could probably tackle this, if sufficiently motivated.
– Notable difficult words: 技术、拯救、反派、威胁、社会、消灭、责任、邪恶、存在、身影、而、则、视……为……、心腹之患、试图、保护、善良、顺利、或者、完成

Conclusion

Most Chinese children’s books are too hard for Chinese learners. It’ll be a frustrating slog to read many books (especially those chosen at random), and all the pinyin is likely to be less helpful than you think. There are some good ones suitable for foreign learners out there, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Randomly choosing children’s books for reading practice is not recommended.

But WHY???

I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time already, and my conclusion is that when the average Chinese parent reads a book to her child, the goal is more education-oriented than pleasure-oriented. I know a lot of American parents that work very hard to instill a love of reading in their children, so enjoyment is extremely important. Chinese parents, however, are under a mountain of pressure to get their kids into the best schools in an environment of intense competition. Of course they hope their children like to read, but it’s kind of beside the point. The real goal is to help their children pick up characters and vocabulary as quickly as possible.

If the goal is acquiring characters and vocabulary, it makes sense that the language introduced in these Chinese children’s books is going to be more advanced than one would expect. The children are native speakers, already fluent in Mandarin, and the story provides a clear context. Therefore, why not drop a few extra difficult words and characters on every page? It’s for the kids’ own good!

But wait… there’s HOPE!

There is hope for learners that really want something to read. (Little disclaimer: the following is going to be partly self-promotional, because this is one of the major problems in the Chinese learning industry that I’ve devoted my career to solving.) If there is enough interest among my readership, I’ll consider compiling a list of Chinese books by Chinese publishers suitable for learners (kind of like the kindergarten book above). For now, I’ll focus on several resources that are available to those outside of China.

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park is a print bilingual picture book by AllSet Learning, adapted from its original app form. The language is practical and informal, perfect for A2 adult learners as well as children. It’s now available on Amazon.

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park

The Chairman’s Bao is a website that takes news stories and simplifies them into simpler, shorter articles. See my longer review here. This is great for intermediate learners that want to start working toward reading actual news. Includes audio.

The Chairman's Bao: home page

The Chairman's Bao: so many girlfriends

Mandarin Companion creates graded readers (short novels without pinyin or translation) meant for learners of a high elementary or low intermediate level. We’ve got five Level 1 books out, and feedback is great. Our next two Level 2 books are coming out any day now. Books are currently available on the international Amazon website, but not the Chinese one.

Mandarin Companion: Level 1 Titles

Chinese Breeze is the original Chinese graded reader brand. It has cheaper books and more titles out, at levels ranging from high elementary to intermediate. If you’re going for quantity, look here. Books are currently available on both the international Amazon website, and the Chinese one.

If you have any other reading material to add, please leave a comment and share!


08

Oct 2015

A Graffiti Theory on Love

I feel like this message is not something you’d see in American graffiti:

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It reads:

> 爱情最终目的是婚姻

> Àiqíng zuìzhōng mùdì shì hūnyīn

> The ultimate goal of love is marriage

Hmmmm, not hard to guess the story behind that one.

The same graffiti “artist” seems to have left this as well:

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幸好 is a word meaning “fortunately”, but the final character ( on ?) appears to not exist? The character comes close.


04

Sep 2015

Can Chinese Names and English Names Co-exist?

I recent saw this question on Quora and liked the following answer by Raj Bhuptani:

Do Americans prefer that Chinese people use their original Chinese name or an English name?

> I think either name is fine, but personally something that annoys me is when a Chinese person gives his Chinese name to his Chinese friends and his English name to his non-Chinese friends. The reason for using an English name should be that you prefer the English name, not that you think your Chinese name is too hard for an American to pronounce. In addition to feeling a bit patronizing (“My name is Mingyuan, but you can call me William”), using different names with different friends can lead to confusion when you have both Chinese and non-Chinese friends (in college, more than once have I had an epiphany along the lines of “Ohhhh! Lucy and Lu Xi are the same person?!”)

I totally agree with this answer, but I also understand that Chinese people with a name like “Xu Juan” or the like basically have no hope of Americans pronouncing their name correctly, so it’s kind of a dilemma.

I personally arrived in China eager to use a Chinese name (I chose 潘吉), but over the years started to feel it was a little silly, and just reverted to my English name. In my case, “John” is quite easy for Chinese speakers, and now, pretty much only my in-laws call me by my Chinese name (which is fine).

It’s safe to say, though, that most Chinese names are harder for English speakers than most English names are for Chinese speakers.

Solution: The world needs to learn Chinese! (ha… OK, maybe just pinyin?)


06

Aug 2015

Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Cultural Gaps

xiyouji-dashengguilai

I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).

Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)

Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.

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  1. 唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
  2. 孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
  3. 猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
  4. 沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
  5. 玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)

OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:

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  1. The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
  2. In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
  3. When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
  4. Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
  5. 唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
  6. The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
  7. Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
  8. The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
  9. Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)

If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.

I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:

Music video with scenes from the movie:


Additional Links:

西游记之大圣归来 on Baidu (Chinese)
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on IMDb
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on Wikipedia
Journey to the West on Wikipedia


23

Jul 2015

Watermelon Man’s Secret

I was tempted to use a title like, “You think this guy is just selling watermelons, but you won’t believe what he does next!

Anyway, on my morning commute, I passed this dejected-looking vendor, eyes downcast, as he shirtlessly watched over his truckload of watermelons. He was staring at his scale, and I imagined he was thinking about how absurd it is that this electronic device determines his income.

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As I got closer, I saw what he was actually doing.

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Yeah, that’s an iPad. Watermelon guy was watching some kind of drama (but due to bad luck, the screen was black right when I snapped this shot).


21

Jul 2015

A “Home” for Escher in Chinese Design

Here’s a poster I spotted in a mall recently:

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The character there is , meaning “house,” “home,” or sometimes even “family.”

The first thing I noticed was its Escher-like quality, updated to a modern aesthetic. (Reminded me of Monument Valley even more than Escher directly, actually.) Very cool, and not something I see much in China, for sure!

The second thing I noticed was that the stylized character on the poster is missing a few strokes. If this character is , then the bottom part is supposed to be , which has 7 strokes. Instead, the bottom part looks more like the 5-stroke , minus the top stroke.

I found this odd, because this is a pretty big difference, and in my experience the Chinese don’t take character mutilation too lightly, especially when it’s not just private use. My wife’s response was just to shrug it off, though, with a, “yeah, but it’s still supposed to be .”

What do your Chinese friends think? Cool design, or heinous affront to the sanctity of the 10 strokes of the Chinese character ?


15

Jul 2015

Steve Jobs Ice Cream in Shanghai

Passing by Chinese “Italian-style” ice cream shop “Iceason” with a friend yesterday, we were startled to see an ad featuring “3D printed” ice cream bars in the likeness of the late Steve Jobs:

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Steve Jobs Ice Cream

The surname “Jobs” is normally written in Chinese as “乔布斯,” or “Qiaobusi” in pinyin (a transliteration, where the characters are chosen for phonetic value only, and essentially have no meaning). For this ice cream bar, it’s written as “乔不死,” also “Qiaobusi” in pinyin, but with different characters so that it includes the phrase “not die” (不死).

The same shop also sells “3D printed” ice cream bars in the shape of the Apple watch and iPhone.


18

Jun 2015

Dragon Boat Festival: who needs the boats?

One thing that many non-Chinese may not realize is that the average Chinese person doesn’t really care about dragon boat races on Dragon Boat Festival. Sure, we call it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English, but the dragon boats (龙舟) are just the easiest part of the festival’s traditions to translate. In fact, Wikipedia uses the name Duanwu Festival for its English article, reflecting the Chinese name 端午节.

Duanwu Jie truth

The most visible tradition of Duanwu Festival for me personally has always been the zongzi (粽子), those bamboo-leaf-wrapped, stuffed glutinous rice triangle-ish things. They’re quite tasty (although you might want to be careful if you have an aversion to pork fat; some of them are a little high on fat and low on meat).

One of the traditions I just recently became aware of is the Duanwu Festival use of a plant called 艾草 (Artemisia argyi in English). It’s a strongly aromatic plant, and the idea is that you hang it by the doorway of your home to ward off bugs and disease.

Apparently this tradition is not observed by young people very much (at least in Shanghai), so I’m not sure how long this particular tradition will be around. But today I snapped some pictures of (mostly old) people loading up on 艾草 at the wet market in preparation for Duanwu Festival. (Those bundles are two for 5 RMB, which to me seems to reinforce the idea that only old people buy it.) Photos below.

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Here’s what a zongzi gift set looks like:

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This one, sold by a Korean bakery chain that pretends to be French (巴黎贝甜), includes 12 zongzi and retails for 158 RMB. (Normally individual zongzi sell for less than 10 RMB.)

In 2015 端午节 falls on June 20.



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