The Perils of “This Week” and “Next Week”

Sometimes Chinese seems to warp the fabric of space-time. It’s true; culture can warp our perception of reality with Sapir-Whorfian aplomb. I exaggerate, though; I’m talking about interpretations of the phrase “this week.”

At the crux of the matter is the fact that the Western American week starts on Sunday (星期天), whereas the Chinese week starts on Monday (星期一). Most of the time this causes no problems… Unless you’re trying to make plans for the next 7 days on a Sunday. This is such a simple matter; it shouldn’t be so confusing. But if you forget that this discrepancy exists, misunderstandings abound. It’s embarrassing, but I admit: even after all this time in China, if I’m careless in my thinking, I still make this mistake occasionally. (The key is that one doesn’t often make plans for the coming week on a Sunday.)

Here are some diagrams to make the issue clearer:

Understanding "next week" in English

Understanding "next week" in Chinese

So, in the examples above, if I say “这个星期三” on a Sunday, thinking I’m referring to the coming Wednesday (May 9th), I’m actually referring to the past Wednesday (May 2nd).

OK, now here’s the annoying part (for us native speakers of American English): the Chinese way is more logical. Here’s how it works:

  1. If you refer to any day of last week (even if it’s yesterday, technically), you use 上个.

  2. If you refer to any day of this week (Monday through Sunday, even days already past), you use 这个. It just means, strictly, “of this week.” No ambiguity.

  3. If you refer to any day of next week (even if it’s tomorrow, technically), you use 下个.

As long as you remember that the week starts on Monday and not Sunday, it’s all very consistent and logical. The reason this is confusing to non-native speakers like me is that the system that we use in American English is kind of a mess. I hear that many British speakers follow rules that are basically the same as the Chinese ones, but I know from experience that the system used in the USA is much more muddled (examples here, here, and here).

OK, it’s not actually that hard. I’m not trying to add a new item to “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” But it’s a pretty bewildering experience when it happens to you the first time. The joys of intercultural exchange!

Update: In the original post I said “Western” when I should have said “American.” Apologies for the inaccuracies. The point of the post still holds true (particularly for us Americans).

Journey: East Asian/Islamic Design Mashup

The PS3 game Journey has recently been released to rave reviews. Here’s a little taste of what people are saying from the Escapist:

Journey

It’s not something you can commit to words, really, it’s something you have to feel. Should you choose to play the game – and I really hope you do – your trek through the ruins will be a very personal experience, the impact of which only you will truly understand. It won’t change your life, but it just might change your thoughts about what videogames can accomplish.

The review above is fairly typical. The word “magical” tends to come up a lot in other reviews. Clearly, the game is extremely well designed, and people are duly impressed. But at the heart of the design is a fascinating mashup of Chinese, Islamic, and even Tibetan design elements. I was a bit disappointed that I’ve so far been unable to find any in-depth coverage of the design inspiration for this game. My original impression was something like: aliens + mosques + 8-bit + Chinese characters + Lhasa.

Journey

Journey

It’s probably the alien glyphs that impressed me the most. They have an 8-bit style, and the (sort of Moroccan?) desert setting guides your mind to the idea of Arabic calligraphy, but the style of the characters themselves tends more toward over-grown Hebrew letters. Each glyph has a clear four-part internal structure to it, though, which feels like a nod to the structure of Chinese characters. Later on in the game, you end up in a temple level, where the glyphs are covering the walls in a neat grid, and it definitely felt like some of the places I’ve been in China.

Journey for PS3 (PSN)

Graveyard_1P_Shout

The game Journey is a rather obvious metaphor for life, but the mix of religious themes is striking too. Mosque elements are blatant in the beginning, and snowy mountain monasteries at the end, but the single culture woven throughout the game is consistent, and there are ongoing themes of meditation and murals of spiritual significance. No “religion” is ever mentioned (in fact, the glyphs and beautiful music are the only “language” that appear in the game), but the intensely personal nature of the quest and the white-clad enlightened ones returning to help the new pilgrims (a game mechanic built into the game’s trophies) feels very Buddhist.

Journey for PS3 (PSN)

Canyon_1P_Ancestor_Meditation

The makers of Journey wanted to do something different with Journey by innovating around the emotional response a game could evoke. In this way, games can appeal to wider audiences, and perhaps even come closer to “art.” But Journey is a worthwhile experience for anyone interested in Middle Eastern or East Asian culture, especially from a design perspective. The writing system alone is worth admiring. If you have access to a PS3, check this game out.

Canyon_1P_Solitary_Lookout

Journey for PS3 (PSN)

Exit HSK

I recently met up with an old friend who said she had started studying for the HSK. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Wow, the HSK, huh?

Her: Yeah, I know… I felt it was finally time.

Me: So you’re planning on leaving China soon?

Her: Uhhh… I didn’t say that…

Me: Yeah, I know, but if you’re not planning on doing some kind of university program here, the main reason to take the HSK is to get a score for your resume.

Her: Exactly. I’ve gotten my Chinese to a decent level here, but I don’t have any kind of degree in Chinese, so I figured it was time.

Me: So are you leaving?

Her: Not sure yet, but possibly.

Few see the HSK as a useful test. It’s a necessary evil for certain purposes. HSK test prep is definitely not very helpful for improving one’s communication skills. It sure is ironic that for many, it has become the test you take when you decide to leave China.

Awesome Speech Habits of Americans

I’ve been slowly reading through Professor Orlando Kelm‘s book, When we are the foreigners: What Chinese think about working with Americans, and right in the first chapter I was highly amused by this passage:

Recently, Mr. Jorgensen has been working closely with Xiaoliu Li, the human resources manager for TPC China. Upon entering her office, an aura of competence is immediately apparent. Young, pretty, polished, professional, and easy to engage in conversation, Xiaoliu Li gives the impression that she loves her job. In fact, Mr. Jorgensen usually introduces her to others by saying, “I’d like you to meet our highly competent human resources manager Xiaoliu Li.” Almost sheepishly, she acknowledges the the introduction, always noticing, however, how extraordinary it is to hear “highly competent” when making an introduction. Those types of phrases are, in fact, one of her observations about Americans. “You Americans think everything is great, wonderful, fantastic, amazing, cool, or awesome.” Not only do Americans think everything is awesome; they also say so, using these terms in both casual and formal conversations. That style of speech and feedback seems out of place among Chinese. “Chinese aren’t prone to use those types of words when describing people,” observes Xiaoliu Li, “much less when directly talking to them.” Basically, My. Jorgensen is oblivious to the effect of the way he uses vocabulary. To him, it’s just a matter of having a positive attitude.

My wife has made almost exactly the same observation. She claims that it’s hard to know what Americans really feel about something because everything is “great” or “awesome” or “amazing.” (This is, of course, the opposite of what is often said about the Chinese, who always seem to be “hiding their true feelings,” forever inscrutable to most foreigners.) So to her, it’s not that Americans “think everything is awesome,” it’s that they say everything is awesome, which can, in her mind, only be construed as (at least a mild form of) insincerity. So I guess that’s what we Americans get for being positive and enthusiastic about life: suspicion of insincerity!

Anyway, I’m enjoying this book, because instead of trying to make blanket statements about culture, it takes the case study approach and shares real people’s views on real incidents. (Now if only I had more time to read…)

Ramen by Infographic

I was introduced to this ramen infographic recently by the creator.

Ramen (ラーメン) is actually Japanese, but it has (somewhat unclear) historical connections to Chinese noodles, which could possibly be either lamian (拉面) or lo mein (撈麵 / 捞面).

We Love Ramen Infographic
Created by: HackCollege.com

Big Fat Rent

The style of the character “租” (meaning “rent” as in “for ~”) below really jumped out at me when I saw it in a store window:

租

Amazing how good a simple sign can look when the handwriting looks good…

Interview with Rachel Guo of No Drama Real China

Everyone seems to really enjoy No Drama Real China, so I thought I’d follow up my last post with an interview of the creator, Rachel Guo


John: What inspired you to start No Drama Real China?

No Drama Real China host Rachel Guo

Rachel: It’s a long story. My very first trip to America was on July 7, 2011, and the first thing that surprised me the moment I stepped out of JFK airport in New York was how familiar everything was to me! Yes, I watched too many American movies, TV shows, and everything for years, and I even have a little bit of an American accent. What a powerful soft power! And after 40 days of travel in New York, D.C, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and a small town two hours from the Canadian border in Washington, I found the other thing that SURPRISED me was that many Americans know so little about China, they asked me questions like:

  • “Are there highways in China?”
  • “How do you come here? Yes, i know by plane, but HOW?!!”
  • “I heard a story that many Chinese families saved money for years so they finally could afford a refrigerator, but then the refrigerators they bought all broke after a while. So the Minister of the Labor Department ran into the refrigerator factory and shot the factory director because they produced bad quality products.”

There’s a lot of drama surrounding China, but where does it all come from? Form the media, American newspapers, and the Internet, which focuses on attracting attention to China’s problems and abnormal things. Some people see one drop of the ocean and think it IS the ocean. It’s not their fault; they don’t get to watch Chinese TV like us Chinese watch American TV, because most Chinese movies and TV shows suck, and the government channels are too cliche. I really want to show something normal to people who want to know a real China, not through a colored lens, no slant, no drama… Oh there WILL be some drama, of course–drama is a part of reality–but not all of it.

John: How long have you been doing No Drama Real China?

Rachel: In September 2011, i bought a small camera and got started.

John: What are your plans for the show, if it becomes more and more successful?

Rachel: 1) Make the program better and broader. If it gets successful, which means there will be sponsors and volunteers, or i can afford to hire somebody, I will get voices from all over the country, which will make it more real. If I could get some better equipment, I could make the production quality better too.

2) Make the program more diverse and more targeted. My group could do interviews in a particular region in China, or focus on particular issues (still no politics though), or do documentary videos, always keeping the style of putting real people’s real lives and real voices in front of the camera, with as little explanation or interpretation as possible. Because once I talk it’ll become subjective, the people will become the way I see them.

3) Use the program to collect data for cultural and commercial research. Maybe it could be a tool for consulting.

4) Actually I just want to keep doing what I believe in and see where it goes. Life always surprises me!

John: Can you describe the process you go through when creating a new episode?

Rachel: Collect questions, interview people, edit, translate, put music in, make an intro video, sometimes I need to find or make some extra material (like the Beat It! Dance). Then, upload, AND THEN do a little marketing. That’s something… it’s so difficult to get people interested in my interviews while sex and drugs stuff get people’s attention. Many thanks to my friends and friends’ friends who helped me a lot by sharing my videos.

John: Are all those people you interview your friends? If not, how did you approach them? (How do you know the old lady?)

No Drama Real China host Rachel Guo

Rachel: Those are my friends, family, people I meet everywhere in my social life, and some random strangers too. Again, thanks to my friends who support me and introduce people of different occupations to me to interview. It’s so difficult to get strangers to be open to you in China, to be natural in front of the camera, and to share their real feelings. For example, when I travel on the train everyone is stuck together in a small space, so I can do a small warm-up and explain what I am doing, win some trust, and then interview.

The old lady who is a little deaf is my grandma. :)

John: Is there a way to submit questions for the show?

Rachel: People usually leave their questions in the comment sections on the ND/RC YouTube page, I check it every day and answer every comment. I’ve also just started a FaceBook page, so please join me there too! I think a lot about the questions people give me; it’s really very helpful. I hope I can have more ways to reach people, so people will feel its easy and fun to ask questions.

John: Is there anything else you’d like to say to your non-Chinese viewers?

Rachel: This channel is actually made for non-Chinese viewers. That’s why it’s on YouTube. I want to say THANK YOU to all people who appreciate it and share it. Your words, your suggestions, your questions and ideas are the greatest support for me. One of my friends works in the U.S. State Department, and he says it’s so difficult to make the right decisions for America-China-Asia issues, because the media only shows the drama, some voters are misled, and they don’t see how important this is. I want everybody to try not to be part of the problem but the solution. That’s what I also want to say to people who hate my program: PLEASE always give truth another chance!

John: 有没有什么想对中国观众说的话? [Is there anything you want to say to your Chinese viewers?]

Rachel: 多谢大家的支持,相信懂得汉语的观众朋友们会看到画面背后更多有趣的信息。欢迎参与与分享。 [Thank you, everyone, for your support. I’m sure viewers that understand Chinese will notice that there are even more interesting details behind the videos. You’re welcome to participate and share.]

Types of Tone Mistakes

Huh?

As a learner of Chinese, you’re going to make mistakes with your tones. A lot of them. It’s unavoidable. It can be helpful to reflect on the kinds of mistakes you’re making, though, because it can help you realize that despite all the mangled tones, you’re actually making progress.

No, I’m not just talking about the stages of learning tones which I’ve written about before, I’m talking about mistakes which are fundamentally different in nature. As your Chinese gets better and better, you’ll keep making some mistakes, but the types of mistakes you make will change.

Types of Tone Mistakes:

  1. Mistakes of Control

    When you first start studying Chinese, you have no idea at all how to properly make the tones. Even if you can hear a difference, you can’t do it yourself. Or maybe you can hear and repeat it immediately after, but then quickly forget how to do it. This is all part of the process of learning tones.

    Don’t think this type of mistake is only for beginners, though. Even after you can accurately produce individual tones in isolation, you’re going to have problems with tone pairs and tones across whole sentences for a while. (For me, the most insidious of these was the 3-2 tone swap error.)

    Relax! Persistent effort will totally pay off. No one masters tones in 2 weeks. It takes time.

  2. Mistakes of Ignorance

    Sometimes you don’t know the tones of the words you want to use. Don’t worry; it happens to all of us. If you only use words for which you’re 100% sure of the tones, then you’re doing it wrong. Not knowing the correct tones but blundering on through anyway is just part of the learning experience.

    The key here is that you eventually make the effort to learn the proper tones for the words you’re unsure of. This takes time, patience, and lots of dictionary lookups. Eventually your accumulated tonal knowledge (and proper execution) make you start sounding less like a “stereotypical foreigner” when you speak Chinese.

  3. Mistakes of Memory

    For me, this is always the most frustrating tonal mistake of all. Have you ever been sure that you know the right tones for a word, and always took care to properly pronounce that word, but then found out much later that the tones you thought you had down cold were actually wrong?

    I remember when I first came to China I was sure that the word for “north,” , was pronounced “*bēi” (first tone rather than third). I was horrified to finally learn the truth. I’d been confidently saying it incorrectly for half a year.

    Nothing to do but make the mental correction and move on. Memory is never perfect, and you can’t really avoid these mistakes.

  4. Mistakes of Influence

    This one can also be frustrating, but I’d say it’s more confusing than anything. So what happens when the dictionary says a word is pronounced one way, and your friend tells you it’s pronounced a different way? Or two friends give you contradictory information, but it’s all different from what the dictionary says? Sadly, these issues invariably plague the intermediate learner of Chinese.

    There are several reasons that these discrepancies arise. First is regional variation. Different parts of China pronounce some words in different ways, and although at times you’ll hear unquestionably “non-standard Mandarin,” at other times it’s unfair to call a certain regional variation “wrong” or “right” (although some Beijing have no problems at all doing this).

    Second is the widespread use of dated reference materials. Printed dictionaries simply aren’t keeping pace with the rapidly evolving language of the Chinese people. New words are created, and pronunciations change (sometimes just the tones) relatively quickly.

    Third is a cultural tendency to submit to the recognized authority (i.e. the outdated reference materials). So you often get exchanges like this:

    A: How do you pronounce the character 血?

    B: “Xuě.”

    A: But the dictionary says it’s either “xuè” or “xiě.”

    B: Oh yes, that’s right.

    A: But you just said…

    You get the idea. But what can you do? Know that dictionaries are not perfect, and no single person can be an authority on a whole language. You’re going to have to assemble your mental map of the words of the language over time, from the mouths of many speakers, not one “omniscient” teacher.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They’re inevitable, and they help you learn. But as long as you’re going to be making these mistakes, you might as well look a little closer and gauge how your language ability is growing and your unruly tones are slowly but surely being tamed.

No Drama, Real China

A friend of a friend has started a new video series in Beijing called No Drama Real China. The host is a Chinese girl named Rachel Guo. The concept is simple: ask a cross-section of Beijing’s population some interesting questions related to Chinese culture, and present the hodge-podge of answers in all its heterogeneous glory for the benefit of cross-cultural understanding (so, with subtitles, obviously). The result is interesting, funny, and perhaps even educational (especially for all you students of Chinese).

Here are some of my favorites:

Are Chinese People Rich?

Is China a Superpower?

What Are Chinese People Afraid Of?

For the linguistically sensitive, this next one has Rachel dropping what appears to be a few strangely out of place gratuitous F-bombs, but apparently she’s quoting a rather rude online user:

Do Chinese People Eat Everything???

(The video above also has a particularly amusing scene where the old lady can’t seem to understand the clear Chinese of the interviewer.)

No Drama Real China shows a lot of promise! Please have a look at these videos. If you can’t access YouTube, there are also a few on Youku.

Keep up the good work, Rachel!

Dict.cn does Shanghainese

Shanghainese dialogs on Dict.cn

I was recently informed (thanks, Mark!) that Dict.cn, one of the popular, free online Chinese-English dictionaries, now offers Shanghainese content. I was pleasantly surprised to see a big list of mini-dialogs in Shanghainese! The bad news is that the dialog text is in characters ( for , etc.), and there’s no IPA or other phonetic transcription. They only have one speaker doing the audio, but there’s audio for every sentence (tip: mouse over the little speaker rather than clicking on it), so that’s not bad.

I asked my wife what she thought about the speaker’s accent. She said it was 新派上海话 (the form of the dialect spoken by modern young Shanghainese), and she felt that the female speaker was too (cutesy-sounding). But, hey… it’s Shanghainese.

I also recently did a little research on Shanghainese lessons in Shanghai. Interestingly, some of the schools that I know used to offer Shanghainese classes no longer do. Is the demand dropping? Have any readers out there taken Shanghainese lessons at a local university?

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