Sad Newspaper Recycling Man

Way back in 2008 or so I used to ride the subway regularly to get to “the factory,” the original ChinesePod office. Every day as I got off the subway and exited the station, I’d see these “newspaper recycling people.” They were typically elderly, and they stood by the subway turnstiles, near the garbage cans, busily collecting the used newspapers of all the passengers that were already finished consuming their daily paper-based commute reading. The “newspaper recycling people” accumulated quite a stack of papers every morning.

I don’t ride the subway as much these days, but I noticed recently that these “newspaper recycling people” are still there, but they’re a lot less busy than before. They collect far fewer newspapers these days. I snapped a photo of one, tucking his meager bounty into his bag:

Sad Newspaper Recycling Man

Who needs a newspaper when you have the (censored) sum of the world’s knowledge and entertainment in the palm of your hand? Hopefully these enterprising older people can find a new way to make a few extra kuai.

“Correction Brother” is Hilarious

Over the CNY holiday a video of a Shandong guy trying to make a phone call with his in-vehicle voice dial went viral, and it is hilarious:

The guy has an accent, so his tones are a little off, but you can definitely make out the number he’s trying to dial with the help of the subtitles.

The part that reads “X死,” while not polite, is actually not obscene; it’s a Shandong slang term “xie 死” which means the same as “打死” (beat someone to death).

Anyway, this guy has been nicknamed 纠正哥, “Correction Brother,” because he keeps trying to “correct” the system’s misunderstanding of his voice commands.

After the video went viral, he was later interviewed by a reporter:

New information learned from this video:

  1. The band-aid on 纠正哥‘s head is because his friend (owner of the number that keeps getting repeated in the first video) cracked him over the head with his phone when he started getting non-stop phone calls after the original video went viral.

  2. The friend gave the number and the phone to 纠正哥, which is why he has it, and you can see it getting non-stop calls at the end of the interview video.

  3. 纠正哥 got mad because the interviewer guessed he was 45 years old, but he’s only 33.

Thanks to John Guise for bringing this video to my attention, and to Yu Cui for alerting me to the follow-up video and providing Shandong insider knowledge!

Linking Breaking Bad to Better Caul Saul through Chinese

Breaking Bad was an awesome drama. Better Call Saul is looking like it’s shaping up to be another great story. But if you’re not already familiar with both series, it’s far from obvious that the two are connected based on their titles alone. Not so with Chinese!

The Chinese titles of the two series are:

Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul: Chinese Names

And in plain text:

  • Breaking Bad 绝命毒师 (Juémìng Dúshī)
  • Better Call Saul 绝命律师 (Juémìng Lǜshī)

The two differ by exactly one character!

绝命 (not a common word at all) according to my dictionary means “to kill oneself” (but here, while not entirely clear, must mean something like “at the end of one’s rope”), and 毒师 (also not at all a common word) would be something like “drug master” (which you could translate as “drug lord,” but “drug lord” is more commonly expressed in Mandarin as 毒枭). The word 毒师 was likely chosen because it’s similar to 老师, and Walter White begins the series as a chemistry teacher. Meanwhile, 律师 is actually a common word meaning “lawyer,” however. It seems to be just a fortuitous coincidence that the new series name can play off the old series name so neatly.

Now, you could definitely argue that neither is a good translation of the original English series title, but both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Caul Saul” would be extremely hard to translate well into Chinese. It does seem that keeping consistency of translation to link the two is a nice little added benefit when you can’t very faithfully translate the original titles anyway.

Chinese New Year Trumps All Holidays

This Wednesday, February 17, is Ash Wednesday, the Catholic holy day that kicks off Lent. In an interesting turn of events, the church in China made this announcement recently:

Please also note that China Dioceses grant a dispensation from Fast & Abstinence on Feb. 18 this year because it is the eve of Chinese New Year. We are encouraged to offer acts of charity and other sacrifices instead on Ash Wednesday.

CNY Trumps Ash Wed

So when a holiday of firecracker-exploding, gut-busting Chinese merriment clashes with a holiday of fasting and quiet reflection, the Chinese holiday is ceded the victory. (Well, on its home turf, anyway.)

I noticed that this past Saturday, Valentine’s Day, there was far fewer promotions, flowers, and chocolates to be seen around Shanghai, compared with last year. I imagine it was because so many people were already preoccupied with trying to get home for the holiday, and most companies didn’t see the point into putting too many resources into selling to an audience that was paying little attention. (Hey, China has a backup Valentine’s Day anyway, so no big deal.)

Chinese New Year trumps all holidays.

Happy Year of the Sheep!

Chinese New Year Wishes by Dialect

Happy Chinese New Year by Android CaiShen

Photo by Yang and Yun on Flickr

China Simplified‘s blog has a great post on variations of Chinese New Year wishes, all in different regional dialects (AKA fangyan): Spring Festival wishes from around China.

The post has embedded audio for 15 different greetings, covering fangyan from places like Henan, Sichuan, Shandong, Guangdong, Guizhou, Tianjin, Zhejiang and other places.

If you’ve every enjoyed Phonemica, you’ll enjoy this (and it will bring a smile to your Chinese friends’ faces as well).

Happy Chinese New Year! (It’s still 6 days away…)

Very Google Translate

These days it’s not uncommon for an English word to get thrown into a Chinese sentence, sometimes with a disregard for the original part of speech. A typical example is “fashion” (“very fashion,” meaning, “very fashionable“).

One of things things we sometimes do with AllSet Learning clients is give them translation exercises where they have some English sentences, and they have to translate them into Chinese. We make sure that the sentences are practical and not random, so the exercise can be quite fruitful.

Google Translate icon

Occasionally, though, unwanted technology creeps into the “learning process,” and the teacher notices. This was a comment from one of our teachers on a client’s translation exercises:

有几句非常google translate。

“There were a few sentences that were very Google Translate.” Well said.

My Chinese Classroom vs. Our Chinese Classroom

The Chinese textbook My Chinese Classroom has been around since at least 2005; I once reviewed it on this site, in fact. I was amused, then, to see a new textbook, Our Chinese Classroom (《我们的汉语教室》) on the shelf of a local book store, right next to My Chinese Classroom (《我的汉语教室》).

My Chinese Classroom vs. Our Chinese Classroom

Upon closer inspection, the main editor is the same (徐文静), but the publishers are different.

I’m curious: is this the next generation of the series, with a rather unimaginative title evolution, or is this a new project for a new publisher that blatantly rips off the old one?

I didn’t have time to check this out today, but I will examine later. (If anyone knows the inside scoop, let me know!)

Kaiser’s “Dude System” of Tones

Let’s face it, learning the tones of Mandarin Chinese is a challenging endeavor, and the stereotypical “mā má mǎ mà” example isn’t super helpful. Of all the alternate systems to help learners develop a feeling for the tones, my favorite is the “dude system,” originally developed by Kaiser Kuo for The Beijinger. He recently reposted it in Quora, and I’ve gotten his permission to share it here (with a little audio addition of my own):

Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

The Dude System:

  1. First Tone: Dūde, the disapproving tone, as to the clumsy roommate who’s just knocked over your three-foot Graphix and gotten bong water all over your Poli Sci 142 reader: “Dude, I can’t believe you spilled my bong again!”

  2. Second Tone: Dúde?, in the concerned but creeped-out way you might address the roommate you discover sitting naked and cross-legged in the dark, chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and sounding a little brass bell.

  3. Third Tone: Duǔde, scornfully, as if your roommate has asked to borrow 50 dollars so his sensei can align his chakras: “Yeah right, dude.”

  4. Fourth Tone: Dùde!, as if you are exclaiming in triumph to your roommate when coming home from class having gotten a date with mega-babe Elena from your macroeconomics class.

In case you don’t get it and need to hear it, here’s an MP3 I made: dude1234.mp3. (It adheres more to Kaiser’s descriptions above than to the exact Chinese pronunciation.)

[Originally posted on Quora.]

Practicing Chinese Tone Changes

Wow, looks like I started off the year with a two-week blogging break! I’m not finished blogging, by any means, but I’ve been busy finishing off AllSet Learning’s new products, dealing with a sick household, and preparing for a new baby (due next week!).


Pronunciation Pack: A2 Tone Changes

The AllSet Learning Store now has 8 downloadable products, and the latest 3 products are entirely related to tone changes. Tone change rules (referred to in linguistics as “tone sandhi,” or 变调规则 in Chinese pedagogy) are an important concept for learners to master, but you’re never ready for it right after you just learned pinyin and the four tones. Tone change rules need to be addressed sometime in the “elementary” period, and when exactly the learner is ready is going to vary a bit from person to person. You know a learner is ready when she starts truly acquiring individual tones and noticing on her own that what Chinese people say doesn’t always match the tones on the pinyin.

Unfortunately, textbooks tend to force learners to memorize these rules too early, before learners really have a strong concept of the tones in the first place. To give a specific example: New Practical Chinese Reader 1, Lesson 1 covers the sounds of pinyin (pp. 5-6), followed immediately by the four tones (p. 6), followed immediately by “third tone sandhi” (p. 7). Yikes!

Mastering Chinese tones is a long-term endeavor, which starts with learning what the four tones sound like and how to produce them. This foundation is essential before moving on to tone changes. Even after learning all the rules as an elementary learner, it’s going to take quite some time to be able to consistently apply those tone change rules in whole sentences, so most intermediate learners will benefit from more challenging tone change exercises.

Pronunciation Pack: B1 Tone Changes for Third Tones

With all this in mind, AllSet Learning has created the exercises that learners need at various stages. Our new products are:

Feel free to ask questions about the products. Our versioning system makes it easy to update the products and add features.

I’ll be addressing some of the complexities of tone changes in future posts.

“Open” IP in China

An interesting article hit Hacker News the other day, relating to the Chinese model for innovation among hardware startups: From Gongkai to Open Source. The article uses the Chinese words gongkai (公开), meaning “open,” and kaiyuan (开源), meaning “open source.”

Here’s how it starts:

Entangled Sparks

Photo by Ars Electronica on Flickr

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a $12 “Gongkai” cell phone… that I stumbled across in the markets of Shenzhen, China. My most striking impression was that Chinese entrepreneurs had relatively unfettered access to cutting-edge technology, enabling start-ups to innovate while bootstrapping. Meanwhile, Western entrepreneurs often find themselves trapped in a spiderweb of IP frameworks, spending more money on lawyers than on tooling. Further investigation taught me that the Chinese have a parallel system of traditions and ethics around sharing IP, which lead me to coin the term “gongkai”. This is deliberately not the Chinese word for “Open Source”, because that word (kaiyuan) refers to openness in a Western-style IP framework, which this not. Gongkai is more a reference to the fact that copyrighted documents, sometimes labeled “confidential” and “proprietary”, are made known to the public and shared overtly, but not necessarily according to the letter of the law. However, this copying isn’t a one-way flow of value, as it would be in the case of copied movies or music. Rather, these documents are the knowledge base needed to build a phone using the copyright owner’s chips, and as such, this sharing of documents helps to promote the sales of their chips. There is ultimately, if you will, a quid-pro-quo between the copyright holders and the copiers.

This fuzzy, gray relationship between companies and entrepreneurs is just one manifestation of a much broader cultural gap between the East and the West. The West has a “broadcast” view of IP and ownership: good ideas and innovation are credited to a clearly specified set of authors or inventors, and society pays them a royalty for their initiative and good works. China has a “network” view of IP and ownership: the far-sight necessary to create good ideas and innovations is attained by standing on the shoulders of others, and as such there is a network of people who trade these ideas as favors among each other. In a system with such a loose attitude toward IP, sharing with the network is necessary as tomorrow it could be your friend standing on your shoulders, and you’ll be looking to them for favors. This is unlike the West, where rule of law enables IP to be amassed over a long period of time, creating impenetrable monopoly positions. It’s good for the guys on top, but tough for the upstarts.

Very interesting stuff. Read the whole article on bunniestudios.com.

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