Thanks, Magnus. This is a first for me, and I’m flattered!
Thanks, Magnus. This is a first for me, and I’m flattered!
The “Language Speakers” bubble chart image below was created as part of IBM’s Many Eyes project:
It’s a really cool project which enables the creation of various types of visualizations given certain data sets. Language lovers will also be interested in the Phrase Net on the Many Eyes blog.
Ryan of Lost Laowai recently interviewed me for a series he’s doing. He asked some good questions.
Yao Xu has written an article for US-China Today titled Expatriate Blogs: An Online Community. For me, one of the highlights of the article was this photo:
At first I thought it was just a random picture of some backpacking foreigners visiting the Great Wall, but then I recognized that red head of hair and that big curly head of hair. It’s a (rare?) group photo of some of the members of Danwei.org! (Left to right: Eric Mu, Jeremy Goldkorn, Joel Martinsen, Banyue.)
There’s also a Sinosplice-related quote from me in there:
> Pasden poked fun at some of China’s issues in the humor section of his blog, “A Pictorial Guide to Life in China.” On a serious note, Pasden says that he has gradually come to an understanding with the country and its problems.
> “Over time I’ve gotten a bit more sympathetic to the Chinese situation,” he said. “The truth is that taking care of 1.3 billion people and their environment at the same time is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. So while it’s true that China is still pretty dirty compared to the West, I don’t make fun of the problem like I used to. As a semi-permanent resident, it’s my problem too. I breathe this air and drink this water.”
Ah yes… I’m kinder and more sensitive now (but my lungs are dirtier).
A little story from much-loved ChinesePod user AuntySue:
> In hospital I ran into a few Cantonese speaking patients and visitors, who in some cases spoke no English. With the luxury of ample time, I was able to say things I don’t really know how to say, by finding inventive ways to use the few words I did remember. For example, instead of asking if she’d mind opening my water bottle top because my hands were too weak and the cap is tight etc etc, I simply asked “please, can you?” and held the bottle at the top. Worked like a charm. But I’d spent half an hour agonising over the words before accepting that a simpler method was not “cheating” but rather “communicating”.
> When learning a language I too often make it hard for myself by fixating on the words I don’t know rather than finding more uses for the words I do know. Lesson learned. I got my water, the “it’s a talking dog!” look, and a new friend.
Dr. Orlando Kelm, a man of impressive linguistic ability, recently made some related observations:
> My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers. You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too. We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.
I often wonder how good I want my Chinese to be. I have lots of room to expand my vocabulary and improve my ability to express myself, but there are two big questions: (1) do I really need to? and (2) do I really want to?
I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive linguistic motivation, and the longer I live, the more practical I become. The truth is, I’m not a terribly talkative person, and I’m already pretty comfortable in Chinese. I don’t want to be a Chinese spy (ha!), and I really don’t want to memorize the damn chengyu dictionary. I’d rather get my Spanish and Japanese back to levels where I’m more comfortable and able to enjoy the experience of speaking.
Yes, I think I’ll do that.
By now, many of my readers are well acquainted with a relatively new blog called chinaSMACK. It’s kind of like “EastSouthWestNorth Lite,” in that it takes Chinese media and translates it to English for a foreign audience, but stays away from the heavy political topics.
Here’s an excerpt from the chinaSMACK manifesto:
> I decided to make this website and share a “slice of Chinese life” with English-speaking foreigners. I will collect and repost all of the hot, popular, interesting, outrageous, and shocking things that I see on the Chinese-language internet so foreigners can understand, experience, and enjoy also. Maybe there will be some cultural differences and maybe not every foreigners will understand what Chinese think is funny, sad, angry, or ridiculous but I will try to translate and explain the “cultural context.”
> No politics! I will not talk about politics. I do not want to. It is too serious and not fun. Other people can do that if they are bored.
> I just want to show a piece of the real China, real Chinese life, and real Chinese people. I want to show our beautiful side, our fun side, our sexy side, and even our ugly side. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, does bad things, and hurt other people sometimes. Chinese people can be serious and Chinese people can be silly too. We love and we hate. We have dreams and we have fears just like everyone else. We have sex and we fight too. Even if we are from different countries and different cultures, everyone laughs and everyone cries. I hope my website will help foreigners realize that Chinese people are very similar to them and not so different.
If you’re unfamiliar with chinaSMACK and the above sounds good to you, take a look.
My friend Sean has a hilarious post up about cultural differences compounded by generation gaps in China. This particular drama revolves around toilet paper. Here’s an excerpt:
> By the time the night was finishing up and the massage was over, it was quite late, around 10:30pm. The parents live in a slightly remote part of Shanghai, only accessible by bus or taxi, and they always refuse to take a taxi because its too expensive (even if I offer to pay). I told JJ to tell them to just stay the night at our house, that made the most sense and it was totally fine by me (and of course by JJ). We do have an extra room and I did buy this couch bed for this very reason. So it only made sense for them to stay, especially since it was holiday and JJ was not working.
> Here comes the kicker. They were at first totally against it. Why, you might ask? Well it was not for the normal reasons you might imagine, such as ‘we don’t want to intrude’, ‘we have plans tomorrow morning’, we simply want to get home’, ‘we don’t like the couch bed’. None of these things mattered to them. Instead, the issue at hand was literally:
> We don’t know if we want to stay because the toilet paper I buy is too soft for them and they really don’t like using it.
Read the rest of the post for Sean’s reaction.
The type of “toilet paper” the parents prefer is called 草纸 (literally, “grass paper”), although it’s sometimes just referred to as 手纸 (which, amusingly, are the same two characters used to write the word for “letter” in Japanese).
I used to use 草纸 as paper towels back in the day. I tried to find a decent picture of it online, but this was the best I could do.
> I also no longer think that Shanghainese are snobby. Somewhat, and some of them are, but not hugely more than anywhere else. The Shanghainese are proud, and they are defensive. That a scruffy, disparate batch of immigrants and refugees could have fused such a coherent urban culture in the face of foreign colonialism and domestic disdain is amazing. As is the fact that their identity is positive and optimistic rather than a dark bunker mentality, given the endless attacks upon “Shanghaineseness”.
And regarding spoken Shanghainese:
> I remember early weeks in Shanghai overhearing a conversation in Sangheiwu [Shanghainese] between two colleagues. Afterwards, I asked what they were arguing about. “Arguing? We were saying what a nice day it is today!”
Lisa also links to the Sinosplice Shanghainese Soundboard and asks for more resources. I’ve covered the textbooks before, but if you’re interested in video lessons intended for Mandarin-speaking Chinese, you can find those online as well:
The new aggregator in town is Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop, and it’s almost four months old. I really have to wonder if there’s still much of a future for aggregation sites, now that RSS Readers are so freely available. I’ll put that debate aside for now, though.
I became aware of China Alltop when Sinosplice was added to it. I don’t have time to read many blogs these days, but browsing over the various blogs and news sources aggregated on China Alltop, the big ones all seemed to be represented. It’s a good collection of China blogs.
One thing bothered me, though. Some of the most well-known and well-respected blogs (no, not this one!) were buried somewhere down the middle of the page. I started a dialogue with Mr. Kawasaki via Twitter, which led to an e-mail.
Specifically, I argued for higher placement of EastSouthWestNorth, Danwei, China Law Blog, and RConversation, and the addition of the China IWOM Blog (I should have mentioned Peking Duck too!). To my pleasant surprise, the changes were made within hours.
I’m still skeptical about the idea that a limited, static list of blogs can stay current and compete with individuals’ personalized feed readers in this crazy Web 2.0 world, but I’m very impressed with Guy Kawasaki’s willingness to listen and enthusiasm for his product. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.
Related: The China Blog List is still going… Not long ago, all dead blogs were purged. It’s now in the process of collecting more new blogs.
David DeGeest pointed me (via Twitter) to an interesting article: Google vs. Baidu: A User Experience Analysis. I suspect most readers of my blog are already quite familiar with Baidu and much of the content of the article, but I did find several points very interesting.
On searching “subprime mortgage” (次级房贷):
>This time google.cn appears to do much better than Baidu. But if we look closely at the top 20 search results, we’ll find there are 7 results at google.com and 5 results at google.cn that direct us to Web sites that use traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and by the overseas Chinese community.
> It can be rather challenging for the mainland Chinese to read traditional Chinese, though they can understand most of the message. Nonetheless, this mix of simplified and traditional Characters is not the most user-friendly approach. Verdict: Baidu wins.
I was somewhat surprised by this conclusion. While it’s true that reading simplified characters is more comfortable for the average mainland Chinese citizen, one would think that breadth of search counts for something. If, for example, I’m doing a search on a Taiwanese politician, I’m likely going to want to see articles from Taiwan (which will be in traditional characters). I also know for a fact that many of my Chinese friends prize very highly information sources from Hong Kong or Taiwan.
I’m not saying the author is wrong in his conclusion, though. I think that the Chinese people I hang out with are a rather international-minded bunch. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Also, while the whole subprime thing is not at all a favorite conversation topic of mine, when I hear it referred to in Chinese, it’s usually by the abbreviated name 次贷. The search numbers for this term are a bit different:
Clearly, searching for 次贷 gives Baidu a clear advantage. I realize perhaps the author was trying to go for the “translation feel” in his search results, but it’s interesting to see the results of the same search “with Chinese linguistic characteristics.”
Language Log recently published a post by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese, in which Dr. Mair talks about a Chinese language newspaper with pinyin accompanying each character called Guoyu Ribao (国语日报). He hails it as a great way to pick up characters.
This is all well and good, but I was quite surprised by this paragraph (bold mine):
> Guoyu Ribao was a godsend in that it enabled me to learn Chinese characters passively and painlessly. By assimilating massive amounts of publications from the Guoyu Ribao people, before long I was able to read texts without phonetic annotation. Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well.
While I agree that overloading new students of Chinese with character memorization is a bad idea, the words passively and painlessly in regards to learning Chinese characters just don’t seem right. (Does Dr. Mair know Dr. David Moser?) Interesting material goes a long way toward motivating students to learn, but no matter how you slice it, there’s quite a bit of work involved in becoming literate in Chinese. Yeah, it’s a bit painful, and yeah, it’s active work. While Dr. Moser exaggerates for fun, Dr. Mair seems to give pinyin a bit too much credit.
Sam explains how net-savvy Chinese have re-appropriated the character 囧, using it for what it looks like (a distraught face), rather than for what it originally meant (“bright,” apparently). Sam explains various dimensions of the phenomenon on his blog, but this is really cool for linguistic reasons. It’s not often that a non-pictographic character (with a rather abstract meaning) is reenlisted as a pictographic character and used on a relatively large scale!
Here’s that character again, a bit bigger: 囧
My friend Illy passed on to me a link to the blackout poems of Austin Kleon. Here’s the one that most caught my eye:
The craziest thing is that I actually had this idea before. I tried to do it with stories about China, and I failed miserably. I’m not sure whether it was the material I had to work with or my own lack of creativity at fault. Cool to see that Austin has more than pulled it off…
Below is the video that I found most fascinating. It’s subtitled in Chinese, but worth a watch even if you don’t read Chinese. I’ll sum up the main points in English below the video.
Before I list Alice’s main points, I need to first explain some background. In the video, Alice discusses the Chinese sign language counterparts of the Chinese words 聋哑人 (literally, “deaf mute person”) and 聋人 (“Deaf person”). The former is the most common way to refer to a Deaf person in Chinese, whereas the latter is the word many in the Chinese Deaf community wishes everyone would use. 哑巴 is the word for “mute,” and it’s definitely not polite.
Alice’s main points are:
– The Deaf Chinese are used to using signs for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) and “mute” (哑巴) but these signs are not respectful to Deaf people.
– Overseas, Deaf communities stopped using the expression “deaf-mute” 20 years ago, and only China persists.
– It was foreigners that appreciated that within the character for deaf, “聋,” is the character 龙, meaning “dragon,” a traditional mythological protector being. That’s pretty cool!
– The traditional Chinese sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) is loaded with negative connotations, but there is an international symbol for for “Deaf person” (聋人) that we should be using.
– The word “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) should also be rejected because “deaf” and “mute” are two separate concepts; deaf does not have to mean unable to speak, and being unable to speak does not mean one must be deaf.
– Some Deaf people believe basic, improvised signs are lowly and spoil the aesthetics of the language. This is wrong, because sign language is the language of the Deaf, developed by the Deaf, with its own grammar and special characteristics.
– There are two kinds of sign language: literary sign language (文法手语), used to reflect mainstream written language, and natural sign language (自然手语), the everyday language of the Deaf.
– Deaf people are not handicapped people (残疾人). We have our own culture and language. Let’s unite and improve ourselves.
– The Chinese Deaf community needs to be bolder, to candidly discuss issues and to struggle together.
– Remember, it’s 聋人, not 聋哑人. Spread the word: 聋人.
I have to say, this video fascinated me. There’s so much there, linguistically (not to mention that it was filmed next to a sushi conveyor belt, which is just damn cool). I think you can tell when a gifted orator makes a stirring speech in a foreign language, and this is the same feeling I get watching Alice deliver her message. It’s inspiring.
My favorite part of the video is the stretch from 1:12 to 1:22. You can easily tell from Alice’s facial expression that the sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人), which uses the pinky finger, is distasteful, and that one should use the index finger instead to say “Deaf person” (聋人). It’s not just a matter of arbitrary signs, though. In Chinese sign language, the sign for “good” (好) is the “thumbs up” sign. The opposite of that is thumb in, pinky out. That’s the sign for “bad” (不好). So the meaning of the sign for “deaf-mute” is clear: “ears bad, mouth bad.” Quite negative. The newer sign uses the index finger, drawing attention to the ear and mouth without disparaging it. You can watch Alice put down the negativity of the pinky finger and choose the index finger instead.
Check out Alice’s other videos. Not all of them have Chinese subtitles, but one interesting one that does is an interview with Deaf rapper Signmark. Alice interviews him in international sign language.
I haven’t watched them all, but it looks like none of Alice’s videos to date have English subtitles. I’m working on convincing her that it would be worthwhile.
– “deaf” vs. “Deaf” (read the explanation on the side)
– Signmark rapping in Japan (note the character on the back of the group’s shirts)
– the 2009 Deaflympics are in Taipei, the year after the Beijing 2008 Olympics (coincidence??)
Some good things I recently came across:
1. Gladder: an auto-proxy addon for Firefox. Very convenient! Unlike TOR, it’s not either “always on” or “always off.” Just works for the sites you need it to work on. How did I not find out about this sooner?? (Via JP)
3. The Deadly Huashan Hiking Trail: a photo journey. Don’t let the use of Comic Sans fool you; this is one hardcore mountain climb. Make sure you see the pictures toward the end…
OK, I’ve gotten over this annoying message I see anytime I try to access a Google Video:
I’ve gotten over it mainly because I don’t ever use Google Video. YouTube has everything. Today, for the first time, I got this:
(Text reads: This video is not available in your country.)
Thanks a lot for spreading this helpful practice to YouTube, Google. This is so annoying. Has anyone else in China gotten this? Fortunately I’ve only gotten it once, for this video.
While I’m on the subject, Flickr has been misbehaving a lot recently too.
P.S. I’m up to 12,000 characters in my thesis. 2,000 more to go for today…
Urge to make cynical smartass remarks… nearly overpowering… URRGGgg…
All right, I’m OK now. But seriously, that video is just begging to be made fun of.
On a positive note, it’s a nice collection of everyday Chinese scenes (set though they may be in a parallel harmonious universe).
A recent post on LanguageHat called Bad Language got me thinking about the laowai (老外) issue again. Yes, it’s a rather tired (often overly emotional) discussion, but I think that LanguageHat’s very rational view on the topic offers a new perspective on the matter.
Basically, LanguageHat’s view is this:
1. When the privileged and powerful use originally neutral terms for groups of people “beneath them,” their contempt naturally creeps into the language they use.
2. Those groups targeted by the contempt-laden language object to it more and more over time, until politically correct alternatives come along.
3. The privileged and powerful are presented with the new language, and “PC language is a cheap substitute for actually treating people equally, so they usually go ahead and do it.”
Makes sense to me. But how does the laowai issue fit in?
Here are some key differences:
1. The laowai issue is cross-language, cross-cultural. We’re dealing with the way Chinese people talk about foreigners, in their own language. Just to make it absolutely clear, a similar thing would be Americans objecting to Mexicans calling Americans gringos when they speak Spanish. (I don’t believe the two examples are actually equivalent, though.)
2. When we look at which Chinese people use the word laowai, we’re definitely not dealing with the privileged and the powerful of Chinese society. Most often, it’s exactly the opposite. Some might claim that the educated of Chinese society don’t use the term laowai, but I maintain it’s the Chinese who have significant contact with (often hypersensitive) foreigners that avoid the term laowai. It’s pure pragmatics.
3. On average, foreigners get excellent treatment in China. It’s not uncommon for Chinese people who give extra favorable treatment to foreigners use the term, and it’s also used by the guys that yell “hello” and laugh at the “big-noses.” So the term is not a part of a larger picture of negative discrimination.
Again, this brings me back to my previous position: the term laowai in Chinese is not inherently derogatory, nor is it used in the familiar pattern of other offensive labels for groups of people outlined above.
I’m not looking to rehash the previous debates. If that is what interests you, please see this post.
Taiwan-based blogger Prince Roy visited Shanghai recently. It’s weird, because I’ve “known” the guy for about five years through the internet, but we only just met face to face.
On his blog he writes about his impressions of Shanghai in one post, and his encounters with John B, Micah, ChinesePod, and me in another post. Prince Roy talks about food a lot, so I’m happy that he wasn’t disappointed with the Hunanese restaurant I took him to.
He took some nice shots of the food:
Yum. Yes, it’s nice to be able to eat food this good any time you want, and to pay next to nothing for it.
A while back John B introduced me to a blog called All Japanese All the Time, in which the author describes how he became fluent in Japanese while living in the States, in a relatively short amount of time. The key, as the name implies, is to immerse oneself in Japanese as much as possible. In our world of digital media, it’s not too hard to find listening material for a language like Japanese. Load this stuff onto your iPod or whatever, and soak it in. Obviously, you’ll need to be doing lots of studying as well.
Khatzumoto, the author of All Japanese All the Time, advocates finding a DVD you know well that has audio in the language you’re studying, getting familiar with the movie in that language, and then ripping the DVD audio. The idea is that you start out familiar, and with enough repetition, all those lines in the movie become yours.
I liked this idea, but I wanted to try it a slightly different way. Not long ago, my wife bought a cute animated Japanese movie called Arashi no Yoru ni. She was listening to the original Japanese dub, and watching with Chinese subtitles. I noticed in passing that the original Japanese was not difficult at all, and the plot was quite simple.
Here’s the plot (from the Wikipedia page):
> A goat named Mei wanders into a barn during the night for shelter from a storm. In the barn, the goat finds another refugee. The two can neither see nor smell each other, yet huddled together fending off the cold, they begin to talk and eventually develop a friendship. They decide to meet at a later time using the password “one stormy night”. The next day, when the two meet, Mei learns that his companion from the night before was a wolf named Gabu. Despite the fact that the two are naturally supposed to be enemies, they share a bond and begin meeting regularly. However, Mei’s flock and Gabu’s pack eventually find out about this and forbid their friendship. Mei and Gabu, hoping to preserve their friendship, cross a river during a storm, hoping to find an “emerald forest” free from persecution for their friendship.
> However, Giro, the leader of Gabu’s old pack, holds a grudge against all goats, and views Gabu as a traitor to his kind. Gilo and his pack go on the hunt to track down the two companions. Gabu and Mei, having reached the summit of a mountain and exhausted from fighting their way through a snow storm, stop and rest. Gabu hears his pack approaching and hides Mei in a nearby cave, ready to defend his goat friend to the death. As he is about to go face the wolf pack, there is an avalanche. The next morning, Mei digs through the snow blocking the cave and sees the “emerald forest” they had been searching for in the distance. However, Gabu has gone missing…
(If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an online trailer.)
OK, so now the basic question is: how well could I understand this movie in Japanese only by listening to it? That’s the point of the experiment.
The good news is that this same movie also has a high-quality Mandarin track (those Taiwanese do good work!), as well as a Cantonese track. There is no English track. I’m putting all these MP3s online for other people to give it a try as well.
If you give this a try, I’d really love to hear about the results. For example:
– Do you find there’s too much music to concentrate on language-learning, or does the music help?
– Can you follow the story?
– Is it enjoyable in audio-only format?
(And if you’re an angry lawyer representing Arashi no Yoru ni, just e-mail me.)