A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

Me: Hi, how’s it going?

Student: [confused] Going?

Me: Hello, how are you?

Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.

China Daily Show is great

Maybe I don’t read the right blogs, but it seems like China Daily Show isn’t getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This China-centric Onion-style “news” site is hilarious. It describes itself like this:

China Daily Show is not affiliated with China Daily or The Daily Show and is intended for humorous purposes only. All events, characters, names and places featured are products of the authors’ imaginations, or are used fictitiously.

Here are some recent headlines to get you started:

My Favorite Shanghai Busker

There are a lot of buskers in Shanghai. I’m not sure how most people feel about them. I certainly don’t mind the blind guys playing erhu, or the guitarists in the park. But rarely do I actually really like their performances. I enjoy hearing this guy every time I catch him on the stairs of Exit 2 at the Zhongshan Park Line 2 subway station:

The Violinist Busker

He plays piano music on his boombox, and then accompanies it on his (amplified) violin. It sounds really good! I’ve heard mostly classical pieces by him. He’s playing Pachelbel’s Canon here.

His sign reads:


In English, it’s something like:

Wife has breast cancer
Son in college
Your kindness will be rewarded
Thank you

Note: I took liberties with the 功德无量 line, which comes from Buddhism, and is translated as “boundless beneficence” in the ABC dictionary.

Ode to a Paper Dictionary

The Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary is a solid dictionary. It’s a great compromise between “comprehensive” and “portable,” and it’s the one I had with me in my early days in Hangzhou, when I had to look up every other word that I heard. I started with the “handy pocket-sized” version, but I quickly realized that even though it was half the size, it was still a little brick of paper I had to slug around, and the characters were just way too small at that size. So I used the medium-size brick of paper comfortably for years.

I still have that dictionary, although it’s showing its age. Over the years, I have had to use packing tape to reinforce its edges and spine, but at least I managed to do that before it started totally falling apart. Here’s what it looks like now:



Slightly worn, you might say.

When I used this dictionary regularly, I used to highlight words, phrases, and sentences that popped out at me as being useful or somehow study-worthy. What’s great is that I can still browse the dictionary now and see what I once highlighted. Sure, nothing is dated; there is no metadata. But it’s enlightening and amusing to flip through this paper record of my progress.

A little sample:

  • 避免 to avoid
  • 关心 be concerned about
  • 关于 about; on; with regard to; concerning
  • 上当 be taken in
  • 下流 obscene; dirty
  • 大海捞针 look for a needle in a haystack [I’m pretty sure I never ever had a chance to use this, even if I managed to memorize it briefly]

You get the idea.

But the point of this post is not to recommend a great dictionary. I used that dictionary every day for a very important period in my life, and it facilitated all sorts of conversations on a regular basis (yes, I was one of those annoying students that would occasionally put a conversation on hold if there was a word I felt I just really needed to know right away). And yet, I don’t recommend that dictionary much at all. Nowadays I regularly recommend Pleco (and sometimes Wenlin) to AllSet Learning clients, but not paper dictionaries.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons…

  • Most people don’t want to carry around a heavy book, but they take their cell phones everywhere
  • Most people find looking up words in a paper dictionary quite a hassle
  • Electronic dictionaries are so fast, and with one more touch you’ve saved the word as well for later reference

I remember when I first came to China, lots of people were using mini hand-held electronic dictionaries. They were great, except that (1) they rarely provided pinyin for English-Chinese lookups, and (2) they had short dictionary entries with very few sample sentences. Well, those days are over. The day has finally arrived, and entries are now bursting with information, while internet connectivity offers potentially limitless sample sentences.

So why am I still a little sad? Well, there’s definitely something to be said for idly flipping through those pages made of paper. I’m not sure why dictionary serendipity of the eyes-to-paper variety feels more special than dictionary serendipity of the search-and-related-data variety, but it does. And looking at that old battered paper dictionary, its mere existence does feel meaningful. I beat the crap out of that thing with my learning, and then did just enough work to keep it on life support. And now I neglect it, relegating it to a bathroom book, while computer-based dictionaries serve my daily needs.

We had some good times, paper dictionary. It’s not you, it’s me. But relationships change.

On Moon Cake Economics

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, a day late. I managed to get out of eating moon cakes this year. (Whew! My moon cake eating contest days are behind me…)

Photos of Shanghai residents lining up to buy moon cakes (月饼), rain or shine (but always with umbrellas), from Jing’an Temple in the month leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival:

Jing'an Temple Moon Cake Sales

Jing'an Temple Moon Cake Sales

I’m not going to say much on economics, but this whole “moon cake economy” thing strikes me as quite interesting. While in a taxi the other night, a guest on a radio talk show made some interesting points:

  1. The value of moon cake coupons has exceeded the value of the moon cakes themselves.

  2. Some people eat moon cakes, but a lot of people just pass them around, gifting and regifting. (The actual quote was: “买的不吃,吃的不买,” literally, “those who buy them, don’t eat them, and those who eat them don’t buy them.”)

  3. As the moon cake economy evolves, more and more products are being used as substitutes, such as ice cream moon cakes, soft mochi moon cakes, non-traditional cake as moon cakes, etc.

It’ll be interesting to see where this tradition goes in the next ten years. Will the Chinese try hard to preserve it as is, or will they morph into into something else?

Related links:

Chinese Characters for Servers

My friend Juan recently brought this amusing use of Chinese characters to my attention:

The characters used are:

  • 目: mù
  • 鈕 (simplified: 钮): niǔ
  • 器: qì
  • 明: míng
  • 員 (simplified: 员): yuán
  • 管: guǎn
  • 自: zì
  • 開 (simplified: 开): kāi

Pinyin Typist for iPhone, iPad

Pinyin Typist is an app for the iPhone and the iPad which allows for easy pinyin input with proper tone marks. Note that it is not an input method; you can’t use this app to switch between English and pinyin input like you can with Apple’s built-in language input support. But it turns out that Pinyin Typist works even better as an app rather than an input method.

In the screenshots below, I’ve used the iPad version of the app. Note that you can adjust size of the pinyin text (larger text makes pinyin tone marks much easier to make out). Pinyin tone input works pretty much as expected; just type out a syllable, then hit a number to add the tone mark. You can be pretty sure that tone marks are implemented correctly, because even Mark Swofford (of pinyin.info) has given it the nod. I have found no problems with it.

Pinyin Typist

Pinyin Typist

Pinyin Typist

In case it’s not entirely clear, the way to use this app is to open Pinyin Typist, type pinyin with tone marks, then hit the app’s handy “Copy” button, switch to another app (like the “Mail” app pictured above), and paste in the pinyin.

[Update: clarification from the developer] Actually, in Pinyin Typist you can also directly email the text in its Pinyin Typing tab view, and you can also directly email the title and text of a saved snippet from its Snippets tab view, without leaving the app and switching to another one. (The button that reveals those direct emailing commands is the one on the top right.)

I find switching apps to type pinyin and copy it over is actually a good way to do it, simply because I don’t use pinyin very often. Yes, I do use it occasionally, and for those occasions this app is very handy. But if the pinyin were an actual input method, it would be pretty annoying to have to cycle through it every time I wanted to switch between English and Chinese input (which is often). I had to remove Chinese handwriting input because pinyin input is almost always faster to input, and having the extra input method there in the way was just too annoying.

The one problem I have found with the app is that because I’m actually typing in English mode, iOS’s autocorrect (damn you, autocorrect!) sometimes “corrects” a pinyin syllable. This isn’t a problem when there’s a tone mark on the syllable, but it’s sometimes a problem when the syllable has a neutral tone. For example, when I typed “zhīdao” above, iOS originally correct it to “zhīSao” (no idea why). It’s a fairly minor issue, though.

The app is not free (it’s currently $2.99), which raised in interesting question for me: how important is it to be able to type pinyin on iOS? I’ll admit that I use pinyin a lot more on my regular computer than on my iPhone or iPad. I do need to frequently provide pinyin for AllSet Learning clients, but not via my iPhone or iPad. It seems like this app would be especially useful for a Chinese teacher who frequently texts students, or who sends a lot of email on an iPad or iPhone.

I raised this issue with the developer of the app, Wayne. He’s also very interested in learning more about how potential users will use his app. As a result, he volunteered to provide 5 free copies of Pinyin Typist for Sinosplice commenters who leave an insightful comment below and explain why the app will be useful to them on their iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. (If you have other comments about the price, you can leave those too, but be nice.) The developer will choose the 5 winners from the comments himself, and I’ll provide him with the email addresses so that he can award the app to the 5 winners (so be sure to use your real email addresses; the blog will never publicly display them).

Update: The developer has chosen the 5 winning commenters; you should be hearing from him shortly!

The Four Great Ugly Women of China

Recently ChinesePod was preparing to do a podcast on some of the “Four Greats” (四大) of China [more info in Chinese]. If you’re not familiar with any of these, you might want to listen to the podcast (it’s free). Otherwise, a quick sum-up of some of the most famous ones will suffice:

The funny thing is that in addition to the “Four Great Beauties” (of ancient China), there are also “Four Great Ugly Women” (who don’t seem to have their own Wikipedia page):

  • 四大丑女 (the Four Great Ugly Women)
    1. 嫫母 (Mo Mu)
    2. 钟离春 (Zhong Lichun)
    3. 孟光 (Meng Guang)
    4. 阮氏 (Ruan Shi)

I talked to a ChinesePod co-worker about these famous ugly women. The conversation went something like this:

Me: So these women were so ugly that they went down in the history books just for that? Isn’t that kind of mean?

Her: Well, they weren’t just ugly. They also had great talent.

Me: Well, why not just call them “the four great women of talent” then?

Her: Well, they were also ugly.

Point taken. Cultural lesson learned!

Shanghai Internships for Learning Chinese

Today marks the end of the summer internships at AllSet Learning. We had our first intern, Donna, last summer. That was when the company was just starting out. Since we now have quite a few more clients and a whole team of teachers, there were a lot more interesting tasks for this summer’s interns, Lucas and Hugh. And their internships were pretty cool, directly related to learning Chinese.

Some of the things the AllSet Learning interns got to do:

Lucas and Hugh

  • Take demo lessons to help evaluate different teachers’ teaching methods
  • Play with “Chinese character building blocks” (a children’s educational toy set), experimenting with Chinese character constructions
  • Provide feedback on various types of learning materials, from comics to Communist Party doctrine to iPad apps
  • Help research and compile Chinese grammar information
  • Test the effect of regular tone pair drills
  • Participate in game-like components of teacher training sessions
  • Play Settlers of Catan (and explain it in Chinese)
  • Eat 东北菜 (pictured above)

One of the things I personally gained from having the interns around the office was a reminder of the very specific early challenges learners of Chinese face. But I also saw firsthand how the new generation of learners is coming to China much better prepared and knowledgeable. One of my interns, Hugh, even has an excellent blog on learning Chinese called East Asia Student. I’ve mentioned it before, but the days of coming to China clueless and expecting to have opportunities thrown at you really are winding down (or at least moving to China’s smaller cities).

Anyway, if you’re a bright young mind looking for an internship that offers the opportunity to learn Chinese, we’ve got them at AllSet Learning.

And finally, a sincere thank you to Lucas and Hugh for their hard work this summer. You guys were great!

The Rare Chinese Font

You know “the Chinese font“? The one that just screams Oriental, because it looks like it’s made out of bamboo pieces (?), mystically arranged by a wispy-bearded kung fu master?

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me remind you:

The Pagoda

Chop Suey

Long Wong's

Well, the above font is one that, in my experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find in mainland China, especially in Chinese. (Anyone out there have a different experience?) Most typed Chinese here is in one of about 4 fonts, and “Oriental” isn’t one of them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose; the Chinese just have no reason to parody themselves.

There’s a place on the way to the AllSet office in Shanghai that actually uses the “Oriental” font, though, in Chinese. This is a rare find. Here it is:

The Rare "Chinese" Font

That’s a dry cleaner’s window. The “Oriental font” is in the middle. It says, 八折价, which means “80% of the original price.”

Mystical indeed.

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