The Challenge of Stimulating Curiosity (in China)

Since our baby was born in 2011, I’ve resisted the urge to flood my blog with baby topics. But as our little one learns to talk and begins to explore the world around her, I can’t help but delve into issues of first language acquisition, bilingualism, and culture. These are all topics I’ve thought about before, but never have I had such powerful motivation to really dig into them.

Photo by Maristela.O on Flickr

I recently read this in an issue of Growing Child newsletter:

Many studies performed on both animals and humans have shown that exposure in the early years to surroundings that are dull and monotonous can permanently reduce curiosity.

This results in a vicious circle of intellectual poverty where lowered curiosity resulting from inadequate stimulation leads to still less curiosity, and so on.

I’d be interested to see what the “many studies” were, exactly (leave me a message if you know!), because these two paragraphs strike me as particularly relevant to China.

When I think of my own childhood and look at my daughter’s so far, it’s not hard to apply “dull and monotonous” to a (relatively) small Shanghai apartment, the lack of a backyard, the lack of an open natural environment to explore, etc. I won’t even get into the obvious problems with the local school system.

In addition, here in China the fostering of creativity is often presented as something that needs to be accomplished within schools. In reality, children’s natural curiosity needs to be nurtured much earlier, before the “vicious circle of intellectual poverty” begins.

Is it still possible to stimulate curiosity in children while living in China? Of course! I have no doubt that it is. It just means parents here have to work a bit harder than my mom could get away with: “go outside and play.”

Sinocism for News on China

I keep an apolitical blog and generally maintain a low-information diet (the exception is tech news), so I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to keep up with the news. I have a lot more time for work and pleasure that way, and I’m still able to stay on top of the important issues in the world.

Even so, I’ve come to recognize what a valuable resource Bill Bishop’s Sinocism is. You can sign up for the newsletter and get regular updates on all major issues facing China. I know more than one information junkie that reads every link in the newsletter, but for me, the headlines and blurbs are often enough. I click through when the articles especially interest me (and learn important new Chinese buzzwords from time to time too).

If you’re interested in China and you’re one of the few that haven’t heard of Sinoscism, definitely check it out. Bill Bishop is also on Twitter (@Niubi) and the excellent podcast Sinica.

Chinese New Year in Baoding

This Chinese New Year I went with my family to visit relatives in Baoding (保定), a city just outside of Beijing. The air was OK for our trip, and the famous Chinese hospitality was lavished upon us. The thing that left the strongest impression, however, was the baijiu (白酒). I must have had more baijiu over the course of a three-day visit in Baoding than I’ve had over the previous three years (or more) in China combined. Yikes. Here’s the almost scientific-feeling way that they dish out the baijiu in Baoding:

Baijiu Beaker

Shortly after my Baoding boozefest, I was forwarded this relevant link (thanks, Christian!): So You’re Going to Your Girlfriend’s Hometown for Chinese New Year: Thoughts on Making the Best of It. I’ll quote part of it:

You will notice you have not seen your girlfriend for a long time. The men and women have separated. The men are trying to see how much alcohol you can drink before dying, and the women are interrogating your girlfriend about marriage plans. Go find her. Stumble into the room, sit down next to grandma, put your arm around her, and start acting like you have confused her with your girlfriend. This will either be met with laughter and the grandma will accept you, or you will never be invited back again. Both outcomes have their benefits.

Definitely an amusing read on cultural differences. While my own experiences didn’t lead to much humor for me, it did lead to one (un)sobering realization. It is true what they say: baijiu does get better the more you drink it, and the expensive stuff really is a lot better than the cheap stuff. I didn’t have any hangovers at all.

That said, I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Baoding every CNY…

The Chinese Grammar Wiki Is Kicking Ass

Yes, not often are such bold words warranted when discussing online resources for grammar, but in this particular case, it’s pretty much required.

The AllSet Learning News blog has the full story, but here’s the key takeaway on all the progress the Chinese Grammar Wiki has made over the past year:

  • Increased total article count from 500 to over 1200.
  • Added English translations for all A1 (beginner) and A2 (elementary) level grammar points.
  • Added pinyin to the introductions of many articles.
  • Overhauled search engine for greater accuracy and depth.
  • Added a “grammar box” to the top right of all grammar point pages, featuring level, similar grammar points, and keywords.
  • Added keyword pages (example: ) and keyword index.
  • Set up disambiguation pages for toneless pinyin (example: “hao“).
  • Broke long grammar point lists down into themed sections.
  • Began adding crucial comparison pages, in which two similar grammar points are compared (example: 不 and 没).
  • Began collecting grammar points in earnest for the forthcoming C1 (advanced) list.

Also, there’s now a Twitter account specifically for Chinese grammar-related questions and requests: @ChineseGrammar.

If you haven’t looked recently, it’s definitely time to check out this resource again. It’s not going away, and it’s really gaining momentum.

China’s Iron Man

Recently the WeChat app was kind enough to alert me to this news story:



This, as you know, is an apolitical blog, and stories like this are among the least interesting to me personally. But this guy’s name demands to be noticed. His name is 刘铁男. That’s “Liu Iron Man.” His parents named him “Iron Man.” That’s kind of awesome. I haven’t been forced to take notice of a name like this since I discovered the lovely lass named 黄雪 (“Yellow Snow“).

At this point, I’d also like to give a shout out to a friend who goes by the name of 铁蛋 (“Iron Eggs,” i.e. “Iron Balls”).

Who says you can’t have fun with a Chinese name?

The Shrinking List of Things You Can’t Buy in China

I remember my list of things I needed to buy on my trips back to the States used to be something like this:

  1. Shoes (I’m size 13)
  2. Pants/jeans (I got some long legs)
  3. Deodorant (I like Speed Stick)
  4. Anti-diarrhea pills (there are some things you never totally get used to…)

Nowadays you can find almost everything on Taobao, though. I forgot to get deodorant on my last trip home, but thanks to Taobao, I think I can cross it off the list anyway:

Speed Stick on Taobao

Same goes for item #1:

Size 13 Shoes on Taobao

I’m not going to buy my pants on Taobao (yet), and I haven’t seen the type of anti-diarrhea pills you can get in the States here (when you need ’em, you need ’em!), but I imagine it’s just a matter of time before “the list” is gone completely.

Food aside, what items are still on your list? (And run a search on Taobao before posting your reply!)

Quick Review of PinYin Pal

OK, so I feel a little dirty typing out “PinYin,” but that is the name of the app. (Words can be capitalized in pinyin, but syllables within words should not be capitalized or spaced out.) I guess that’s my main linguistic complaint about PinYin Pal for iPad; it seems to confuse syllables with words. Still, it’s a pretty decent “Words with Friends” clone (read: Scrabble clone), and the incorporation of characters is done in a smart way. The relative short length of pinyin syllables (as opposed to English words) is also cleverly skirted with a purple extension tile.

Some screenshots of me playing an AllSet Learning teacher:

PinYin Pal for iPad

Right from the get-go you can see that we had a little bit of trouble coming up with long pinyin syllables.

PinYin Pal for iPad

Then we started to successfully create longer syllables.

PinYin Pal for iPad

Finally, we were forced to figure out how to use the purple “spacer” block. (It turns into a blank orange square when you place it. You can see it near the top under “jun.” Blank tiles make you choose a letter, and then the letter appears on the tile, but with no points.)

It’s true that native Chinese speakers don’t have a huge advantage when playing this game, since you’re creating syllables rather than words. (In fact, you can’t string syllables together and create actual words, which is a little frustrating.) So in order to play, the learner just has to know what syllables are possible in Mandarin (and I hope you have the iPad Pinyin app for that), and be able to match the syllables you created to one correct character and definition. Tones are added when you choose your character, but you’re not tested on them.

Overall, the game felt less fun than Scrabble. I think it’s mainly because there are so few syllable finals in Mandarin (you can’t end a syllable in m, p, g, z, y, etc.), and this can slow the game down a bit. Still, it was fun playing this classic game in Mandarin, and the app is free! It was also fun playing such a well-known English-language game with a Chinese person who had had absolutely no exposure to Scrabble (or “Words with Friends”). So if you’re learning Chinese, check it out: PinYin Pal.

Unspeakable Travel Possibilities

ChinesePod Jenny was telling me that she read about a story told by the CEO of C-trip (携程). C-trip was trying to make a Weibo post about “independent travel” (i.e. not travel with a tour group). In China, this kind of travel is called 自由行. 自由 means “free” (as in freedom), and is an abbreviation of 旅行, which means “travel.”

Well the word for “freedom” tripped the censorship filter, and the post was rejected.


So they figured that they could alter the word 自由 by using the character instead of . is a part of 旅游, another word for “travel.” That way you get 自游行 instead of 自由行. Identical pronunciation, and the meaning still comes across pretty clearly.

The post was rejected again, for having tripped the filter.

The reason is that they had unintentionally created the word 游行, which is the Chinese word for “demonstration” (as in the protest kind).

Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, Chinese people find this kind of story quite amusing. There’s not much you can do about the current situation but grin and bear it. One does wonder how much longer this particular charade will carry on, though…

[I don’t have a link to the original article; please share it if you have it!]

Chinese Emotions for which There Are No English Words

A friend pointed me to this article: Emotions For Which There Are No English Words. A nice intersection of some of my favorite topics: semantics, translation, psychology, and infographics. You’ll need to go to the site for the full infographic (it’s zoomable), but here are the Chinese words that make an appearance:

Some Emotions For Which There Are No English Words

The Chinese words are:

心疼: The feeling somewhere between sympathy and empathy, to feel the suffering of loved ones.

Literally, “heart aches.” This one isn’t too hard to understand.

加油: A form of encouragement as if you are fighting along with the person, backing them up.

Literally, “add oil.” It does take a little bit of time to get used to how when you say “加油!” you’re actually putting yourself on the same team as the enouragee, somehow. (Similar deal with Japanese 頑張って.)

忐忑: A mixture of feeling uneasy and worried, as if you can feel your own heart beat.

(That one is also kind of famous for its characters… good ideogrammatic fun.)

纠结: Worried, feeling uneasy, don’t know what to do.

纠结 probably gets my vote for “newest super useful slang word that you won’t find in a textbook,” but it’s not just a word-fad that’s going away anytime soon.

I really like this next Japanese choice. It’s once of my favorite Japanese words:

懐かしい: Missing something. The sense of longing, being nostalgic for something, someone, or somewhere.

The weird thing about the word 懐かしい is how often it’s used as a complete sentence, usually as an exclamation. When you’re not used to the word, and you see someone confronted with something dear but forgotten from childhood, and then they bust out with “nostalgic!” it seems very odd at first. It’s like one word to say, “oh wow, that really takes me back.”

Just thinking about using 懐かしい is kind of 懐かしい for me. (I do miss Japanese!)

How Poisonous the Air

How poisonous would the very air you breathe need to be to drive you away from a city you otherwise love? The question seems kind of absurd, but I would think it has become very real to the residents of Beijing (especially the non-locals).

From TeaLeafNation:

> So a 500 reading of particulate pollution was considered “crazy bad” and “beyond index”?

> Try 993. That is a reading recorded at a monitoring station in central Beijing on the evening of January 12, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center.

Shanghai’s was something like 160 the other day, and we thought that was bad. 993 is kind of incomprehensible to me.

My family is currently planning to visit Beijing for Chinese New Year (and taking the baby), but this whole air pollution thing in Beijing is pretty scary…

Page 20 of 179« First...10...1819202122...304050...Last »
Sinosplice and all material found herein © 2002-2015, John Pasden. All rights reserved.
Sinosplice is happily hosted by WebFaction. Design by Dao By Design