Uncreative CNN

John over at Zero Dispance recently linked to a CNN story about the likely decline of the global importance of English and ascendancy of local languages. One language highlighted was Mandarin Chinese.

None of this really surprises me. Aside from just loving the language, practical matters such as future importance in the world market also motivated my academic pursuit of Chinese. So the message of the article doesn’t come as a shock to me.

CNN.com graphic

What did catch my attention was the ugly graphic included in the story. I mean, come on! It’s just dumb. A red box with han zi (“Chinese characters”) written in it. A black background with a fuzzy character tree, clearly taken from zhongwen.com (they call their tree system 字普 — zipu). Random characters reading “speak Chinese” and “individual character,” and a generous helping of just the word CHINESE in English slopped about, along with a “stylish” gray transparent stripe. Weak. What’s most disappointing, though, is that if you click on FAQ at the top of the zhongwen.com homepage, you’re already at the page where everything for the graphic was lifted from. Look at the entry for 字 and the zi pu. It’s all there.

Western media, devoid of imagination, indirectly stealing from Chinese in its news. How ironic.

Greg's ESL Cafe

It’s an instant classic, if you ask me. Greg (with the help of Jamie) has compiled “a more than adequate list of activities, lectures, debates and games you can use to aid you during your semester of teaching here in China.” I don’t think useful is the right word for it, but funny is an extreme understatement. Check it out ASAP!

NOTE: Greg’s humor is the “no holds barred” type, so if you’re looking for PG humor, it might not be for you.


There’s a new blog in the Sinosplice Network called Nostaljia. It’s kind of a different concept from the others in the scene. A girl in Shanghai approached me with this concept: it’s a blog not about someone’s personal life, politics, entertaining links, or any kind of news. It’s a blog about “foreign” products a Chinese person discovers abroad. The blog is bilingual. In this way, the average Chinese person can find out about some interesting products not available in China, and foreigners can get a Chinese person’s light-hearted take on the utterly normal products from back home which are conspicuously absent in China. Current examples include cheese, Twix, Centrum, baby cut carrots, and deodorant. It’s one to watch, and won’t take up much of your time.

Lost in Translation: Thoughts

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

I recently saw the movie Lost in Translation. My major in college was Japanese, I have lived in Kyoto for a year, and I still have friends there (both Japanese and foreign). So I had been looking forward to this movie for some time.

I liked the way the movie used language to alienate the characters, particularly in Bill Murray’s scenes — the Suntory photo shoot, the hospital visit, and the ridiculous talk show. There are no subtitles. The effect was a little spoiled for me because in each case I actually understood what the Japanese people were saying, but this really only added to the comic effect. (Here’s a translation of the first Suntory photo shoot to give you an idea.) I imagine a lot of the “acting” was really just improv between two people who really couldn’t communicate in real life.

(Of course, when I was laughing during these scenes and my girlfriend was only smiling, she wanted to know what was so funny, and then I needed to translate from Japanese to Chinese for her, which is a hard switch for me to make if my attention is partially diverted — which it was — so sometimes my “Japanese to Chinese translations” would come out as Japanese paraphrased in more Japanese. Oops. That really confused her.)

One of the reviewers on IMDb felt that the movie was overrated, and that Coppola largely ripped off Wong Kar-Wai. Interesting claim. I don’t know how much the movie was hyped overseas; I missed all that. I do know that I enjoyed the movie, but perhaps largely due to my familiarity with Japan on a personal level. I don’t usually enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s movies.

One thing I hate about the American media is its neverending charade of “look how wacky those Japanese are!” The American media loves to find the most bizarre aspects of Japanese society and then exploit them. Yes, cultural differences are interesting, but the overall message that the media seems to be trying to convey is they’re not like us, and that can be dangerous. Lost in Translation presents cultural differences (and, indeed, even wackiness) in a way that seems very human. It didn’t annoy me; it made me smile. (Meanwhile my girlfriend, who has been to Japan but doesn’t speak much Japanese, was saying, “Haha, the Japanese really are like that!”)

I’d like to see Hollywood come out with more movies of this “being a foreigner in a distant land” variety. It seems like other countries do it a lot more. (I guess it’s because the terrorists, aliens, and natural disasters all converge on the USA every time, so naturally, that’s where we make the movies.) No, Midnight Express and Spy Game don’t count; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Hollywood movies that address the reality of expat life. I’m sure you could get something equally entertaining set in Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, or even (gasp!) Mainland China.

[NOTE: I don’t pretend to be a movie expert, but that’s my take. I’d love to hear about other movies like this, or links to stories about Lost in Translation.]

Calling All Engineers

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but what about spite? Does it fit into the invention family somewhere?

I have this great idea for a new invention. It’s this box that attaches to the wall or ceiling of one’s apartment. The box emits sound exclusively in the direction of the surface to which it is attached, which is then amplified by conduction. Sound selections might include “Deafening Pounding,” “Metal Scraping Broken Glass,” and “Jungle Beast Armageddon.” It would come with a remote control for ease of use, which would also feature volume control and a timer function, so that the sounds could be programmed to play at any time of the day or night. The sounds could be played when the owner is not even home (but his neighbor is).

I can see the conversation now… “Oh, is my noise bothering you? Sorry about that, I’ve been doing some remodeling lately. It should only last a few more weeks. You were remodeling too, recently, weren’t you? I think I remember hearing it every single day, really early in the morning. Anyway, gotta get back to remodeling. Nice talking to you, bye!”

"Chinese" Tea

Last week I went to a school and taught some kids. In the few minutes before the class, I chatted with the principal. She asked if I would like a hot drink while I waited, and I gratefully accepted.

From the other room, she called out, “coffee or tea?” Tea, please, I told her. I heard another woman in the office commenting on how “foreigners like Chinese tea.”

Then the principal returned with my hot “Chinese” tea. Lipton.

Soy Sauce from Human Hair

I don’t know — maybe I missed it — but I haven’t noticed this story yet in any of the mainland blogs that I read. Several friends back in the States have mentioned it to me, and so have several Chinese friends. Yet Google News turned up absolutely nothing for all my searches. I finally found one very short article which discusses it (via Dan, via Fark.com, reportedly, though I can’t find the story on their site). That article is so short that I quote it here in its entirety:

China has ordered a crackdown on domestic ingredient makers after it was discovered one plant had been illegally producing a base for soy sauce made out of human hair.

Apparently this happened in Hubei province. The company discovered that human hair contains amino acids very similar to soy sauce. They could obtain hair from barber shops, boil the amino acids out, then add that to a water/brown sugar/salt mixture, add a little coloring, and viola! — “soy sauce” that meets China’s national standards, without the pesky fermentation process. This unorthodox method of obtaining amino acids came as a result of a huge demand for it in China.

Unfortunately for the company, besides just plain being a disgusting thing to eat, human hair also contains harmful substances.

A quote on “QS” (quality standards) from Beijing’s China Condiment Association Secretary, Bai Yan:

Previously, when the quality inspection bureau tested Beijing’s soy sauce products, more than 90% met the standard. Before that, it also tested the soy sauce from all over the country, and over 60% met the standard. Customers can use the majority of the output produced by official businesses. There’s no need for concern; it’s reliable.

For those living in China, the soy sauce brand name to avoid is 红帅 (hong shuai).

Chinese News Links:

  • csonline.com.cn provides CCTV video.
  • This link provides an (indirectly related) picture, but it’s the same story you’ll find in a multitude of Chinese news sites, originally published in 北京娱乐信报, and is also the main source for this article.
  • 繁体 editorial.

UPDATE: The story in English, via anonymous reader comment.

I've seen you before…

My company makes materials for teaching small children English. Then the company markets and sells those materials all over China. I assist in this process, also providing Chinese teachers with training, and occasionally I teach a class of kids myself. I probably only teach kids one or two hours a week. I really like this because I am able to keep a firm grip on my sanity (I don’t know how other teachers like Wayne do it every day!), but I am still provided with frequent reminders of the final objective of this whole English language resource production and distribution process.

Yesterday I taught a class of 5-year-olds. It was my first time at the school, so I first met the principal, and then she took me to the classroom. I arrived a little early, so the teacher there asked me to just sit down with the kids and wait a few minutes. Then she inexplicably left the room. So there I was, it not yet time to start class, surrounded by all these wide little eyes. And then the little mouths opened.

“Teacher, I’ve seen you before!” “Yeah, I’ve seen you too!” “Me too, I’ve seen this foreign teacher before!” “Really? You’ve seen me before?” “Yeah, I’ve seen you before!” “Me too!” “So have I!” “I’ve seen you before too!” “A lot of foreigners look alike to you, don’t they?” “…” “…” “…” “I’ve never come here before, so you couldn’t have seen me before.” “I’ve seen you before!” “I’ve seen this foreign teacher before!” “Me too, I’ve seen him before!” “I have too!”

They really are cute.

The gnomes, the gnomes!

Just yesterday, when I was hanging out with Michael, we were talking about apartment noise. Living in a colossus of a city, traffic is bound to create a lot of noise pollution. Fortunately, neither he nor I suffer from a very noisy apartment location.

One reason Chinese apartments can be very noisy, however, is not because of the noise from without, but rather the noise from within. When you buy a new apartment, it comes completely bare. A concrete shell. Walls, floors, everything — must be constructed. That makes a lot of noise. Hammers, drills, buzzsaws (?) — whatever. And noise travels all too well through solid objects.

Michael is in the unfortunate situation of having a lot of neighbors who are remodeling. He can never sleep in. I told him I was very lucky in that respect, because I rarely hear that kind of noise.

Well, wouldn’t you know it. I jinxed myself.

I made the difficult decision to sleep in today, but the noise started around 9am. I managed to sleep through it a while, fitfully. But it’s been going on all day! (It may be Valentine’s Day, but my girlfriend’s in L.A. I have little better to do than play Gunbound.)

It sounds like there’s a little team of friggin’ gnomes behind my walls, eagerly tap-tap-tapping their way into my room. First they were trying to come into my bathroom from the ceiling. Then they were behind the kitchen wall. Now they want to break in behind my bedboard.

Damn gnomes. I have no choice but to blast my music.

Familiar Strangers

I have been walking to and from work for the past two weeks. I need to be at my workplace at 8:30am. I get off work at 5:30pm. The walk is about 20 minutes. Routine.

On day one, as I waded into the flow of pedestrians, I started reflecting about all these people and all these routines. Shanghai has a huge population, but how many people are on West Nanjing Road every morning from 8:00 to 8:30? And for how many of those people is it a routine? If their routine overlaps mine, I’m liable to see the same people again and again, depending on the degree and consistency of overlap between our routines.

It wasn’t long before I had an answer to my question. On day two I saw a familiar face. Over two weeks, I have only been able to identify three definites:

Japanese-looking Girl. Japanese-looking Girl looks Japanese. That’s not to say she is; there are Chinese-looking Koreans, Thai-looking Japanese, etc. But she has a dye job and a perm, as well as a certain sense of style that strikes me as Japanese-looking. She was the one I recognized on day two, and I see her almost every single day because a long stretch of our routines, running in opposite directions along West Nanjing Road, overlap. I like Japanese-looking girl because she has a kind face, and she always wears a thoughtful expression.

F4 Reject. This guy bears a striking resemblance to a member of the Taiwanese boy band F4, which used to be all the rage in the PRC. He’s got the long hair, and seems to be going for the “casually stylish” look. He always wears jeans, frequently wears black shirts. Differences are his looks are not boy band caliber, he wears glasses, and he has the unattractive habit of walking around with his mouth agape. He seems to always be in a stupor, plodding determinedly ahead.

Aryan Duo. Only one of the two has blond hair, but I just liked that name. They appear to be a couple, they’re tall, they both wear black trenchcoats, and they walk fast. They look very unfriendly, as if Shanghai is holding them captive. They may be just as shackled to their routines, because I only see them if I can get out the door around 8:00am (which isn’t often). I don’t miss them.

Why mention these people at all? Well, what strikes me as interesting is that as quick as I was to identify them as fixtures in my routine, I imagine they should have begun to recognize me by now. At around 6’5″, I’m not a foreigner that is often overlooked in China. And yet day after day, their eyes show absolutely no recognition. So that’s my challenge. These people are going to recognize me.

I tried to smile at Japanese-looking Girl, but that’s kinda tricky, because I don’t want her to think I’m coming onto her. I’m sure she’ll crack eventually if I just make a small friendly smile as we pass (every single fricking day!). I wonder how she would react if I commented on a change in her hairstyle as I passed her.

There’s little hope for F4 Reject. The guy seems half-catatonic sometimes. (I bet he’d noticed me if I jacked him in the jaw!) His open mouth reminds me of myself as a kid, because I once had this bad habit myself. My grandma would say to me, “whatcha doin’ there, catchin’ flies?” I bet F4 Reject has caught a few.

I don’t plan on seeing the Aryan Duo again. Why leave the house in the morning before 8:05 if I don’t have to?

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