I recently read an article titled 16 Things Expats in China are Tired of Hearing Back Home. My immediate reaction was: this is so on the money. I have definitely heard all of these. Having just spent 3 weeks in the States, I have very recently heard many of these.
But rather than simply sharing this list, I thought it might be useful to give my sincere answers to these questions, because none of them are really stupid questions. They’re just kind of hard to answer briefly. So I’ll answer, but occasionally take the easy way out by linking to old entries of mine.
So, without further ado, here we go…
1. “So what is China like?”
This is the most common and hardest one to answer. It would be interesting to see a bunch of different long-term expats answer this in 200 words or less. Or maybe in haiku form. Anyway, it’s a tough question because it’s way too broad. But I actually do get why people ask this, and I think the motivation is good, so I’ll attempt to answer (and you can also see what people say on Quora).
The one time I really tried to answer this question was in a blog post I wrote in 2006 called The Chaos Run. In that post, I described “a near-perpetual state of excitement.” This place really is seething with energy.
Obviously, living in China is not all fun and excitement. Expats complain about life here a lot, and don’t tend to stay too long. An apt description of life in China is that these are “interesting times.” Just as the supposed Chinese curse implies that “interesting” is not always positive, neither is life in China. “Interesting” is good food, amazing work opportunities, and great people, but it’s also food safety issues, pervasive pollution, and infuriating social interactions. How much of the good and the bad you end up with depends largely on where you live in China, what you do here, whether you’re here alone or with a family, what you expect to get out of your stay here, and a bunch of other factors. And, of course, there’s the element of luck and the undeniable role of your own attitude about the experience.
But it’s definitely interesting.
2. “Wow, that must have been a really long flight!”
Yeah, I typically fly 13-14 hours just to get to the States from Shanghai, and then another 3-5 hours in the air to get home to Florida. I have learned that flying into California is no good, because I always need two more flights to get to Florida, and adding in the layover time, that will nearly always results in a trip over 24 hours! (It usually takes me 20-22 hours to get home, though.)
3. “Can you speak Chinese?”
Yes. I knew some broken Chinese before even coming over in 2000, but I wasn’t even conversational, really.
And yes, I would say that learning Chinese is hard. But it’s worth it.
4. “So you must be really fluent in Chinese now.”
Fluent enough. You can read about how I learned Chinese here on this website.
I also run a company called AllSet Learning which helps move highly motivated individuals closer to fluency every day.
5. “What made you decide to go to China?”
I wanted to see the world and learn languages while I was young! I kind of got hung up on the first country I stopped in, though, and I’ve been here ever since. No regrets.
6. “I heard the pollution in China is really bad!”
It is very bad. Beijing and other northern cities are way worse than Shanghai, but it’s not great anywhere.
I am personally not bothered by it here in Shanghai on a daily basis. I’m not as sensitive as some people to the pollution, even if I’m breathing in potentially harmful air 24/7. I would not want to live in Beijing, however, mostly for this reason (it’s a very cool city otherwise).
7. “I heard that in China [insert widely reported misconception]. Is that true?”
I don’t really mind questions like this too much, because I frequently hear crazy things this way that I’ve never heard while living in China. And honestly, truth is stranger than fiction. I hear bizarre stories every day about what’s going on in China. (It’s “interesting” here, remember?)
8. “Can you use chopsticks?”
I hear this question from Chinese people much more than from foreigners. Chinese people who don’t have much contact with foreigners are often surprised to see a foreigners using chopsticks. I usually inform them that it’s pretty easy to learn chopsticks, lots of foreigners can do it, and then I quickly change the subject.
9. “Do they have [insert foreign brand] over there?”
Some of the most common western brands you see everywhere are: Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Nike, Apple. This topic is too big for me, though. Here are a few articles on the topic:
- These are the 15 western brands Chinese people love the most
- Defying Tough Times, These Four Foreign Brands Are Successful in China
- Hurun Best of the Best Awards 2015
10. “Do you ever get culture shock over there?”
Not really. I do have my bad days in China, but that’s to be expected, right?
I’d say it’s probably a good idea to expect culture shock, but actually, the less you expect at all, the less shocked you are. I arrived in China as a wide-eyed 22-year-old full of wonder, and just took it all in.
11. “What do Chinese people think of [insert foreign brand/person/country]?”
The state may control the media in China, but it doesn’t control the opinions of individuals. Sure, you’ll meet lots of people that parrot the party line echoed in the media, but you’ll also meet lots of people with their own ideas.
So what I’m saying is: you’ll find all kinds of opinions on any topic. That’s why the Sinosplice tagline is “Try to understand China. Learn Chinese.” The more people you can talk to, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the diversity of opinions and ideas here in China.
12. “What does China think of Trump?”
Again, lots of opinions here. Many people think he’s an idiot, and many think he’s an accomplished businessman. I wrote about this a bit last year.
13. “Do you have a Chinese [wife/husband] yet?”
Yup. I’ve been married since 2007.
14. “So how much longer do you think you’ll stay over there?”
Most expats arrive in China without expectations to stay too long, and most only last a year or two. (The “interestingness” can get overpowering.) I was originally my plan to only stay 1-2 years as well, but eventually I decided to stay indefinitely.
I anticipate I’ll be spending some part of the year in China for the rest of my life, but I do plan to spend more and more time in the States, as I have started doing in recent years. I want my kids to spend more time with my parents, and to absorb some more American culture. Trips to the U.S. are also becoming increasingly important for my businesses, AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.
One common trend among expats in China is that once they have kids, they tend to leave so that they can put their kids in school in their home countries. (Even the Chinese who can afford it are trying to put their kids in school outside of China, and it’s becoming really common for high school, even, among families that can afford it.) My kids are 5 and 2 now, so there’s not a huge rush, but it is a factor too.
15. “When are you coming back for good?”
Once you marry into China, there’s no “coming back for good,” as far as I’m concerned.
16. “But really… are you ever coming back?!”
These questions are starting to sound like my mom.
How much would you pay for a little plastic box of Nintendo nostalgia? In the US, the NES Classic is going for around $200 on Amazon, while the Euro version is selling for around $230, and the Japanese version for $140 (which you better read Japanese for). I’m not sure how guaranteed the device is to be in stock, even at those prices, however.
So I was a little excited to find stacks of these things at a game shop in Shanghai on West Beijing Rd. (北京西路), near Jiaozhou Rd. (胶州路). The price for the Euro version is 900 RMB (about $130 at current exchange rates).
If you’re in Shanghai and want to seek out the shop, stay on the south side of the street east of Jiaozhou Rd, and look for a blue Playstation sign.
I like these subway ads for the QQ阅读 app:
The ads have been running for months already. The app is QQ阅读, an ebook reader app. 阅读 in Chinese can mean “to read” or “reading.”
The main line in the ad is:
The more you read, the more you understand yourself.
It’s a great usage of the 越……越…… (the more… the more…) grammar structure. But, in case you didn’t notice… it’s also a pun. It’s an ad for QQ阅读 (Yuèdú), and it starts with 越读 (Yuè dú).
This is one of the least cringeworthy ads I’ve seen in Chinese marketing, I must say! (No, I haven’t tried the app.)
I’ve been back from ACTFL for a while, but immediately upon returning I discovered that a bunch of my websites (all hosted on the same shared server) had been infested with malware. So I had that to deal with, in addition to a mountain of other pre-Christmas things.
The server was likely infected because an old WordPress install (that should have been deleted) was exploited. The best fix was a clean wipe: change passwords, export WordPress content via mySQL database dump, re-install WordPress, and re-import each website’s content. Fortunately, my web hosting service, WebFaction, was really helpful. They detected and alerted me of the malware in the first place, and provided useful guidance helping me clean it up. WebFaction is not the best service for anyone relatively clueless about tech, but if you can handle SSH and, like me, don’t mind Googling Linux commands occasionally to get stuff done, it’s really excellent.
But back to ACTFL… It was great to talk to the teachers I met there, and although I was there representing Mandarin Companion this time, I also met teachers familiar with Sinosplice, AllSet Learning, and ChinesePod. It was invaluable to get this rare face-to-face teacher feedback.
Here are my observations from the conference:
- I was last at ACTFL in 2008, when almost all Chinese teachers in attendance were university instructors, with a sprinkling of teachers from cutting-edge high schools. Now there are plenty of high schools, middle schools, and even primary schools represented. So one unexpected piece of positive feedback was that even middle schools can use Mandarin Companion’s graded readers, and the kids like them.
- In 2008, pretty much all Chinese teachers in attendance were ethnically Chinese. The only exception I can remember was my own Chinese teacher from undergrad at UF, Elinore Fresh (who was a bit of an anomaly, having grown up in mainland China). But now many of those non-Chinese kids that studied Chinese in college and got pretty good at it have become Chinese teachers themselves, and are also attending ACTFL. I’ve always been a proponent of the learner perspective in language pedagogy, so this is a fantastic trend to see. Chinese and non-Chinese teachers can accomplish so much more by collaborating.
- There’s a strong TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) faction at ACTFL, the lead proponent for its application to Chinese pedagogy being Dr. Terry Waltz. I got a chance to talk to her about her methods, as well as other practitioners such as Diane Neubauer, who contributes to a great blog dedicated to TPRS for Chinese called Ignite Chinese. It’s very encouraging to see classroom innovation in this space, and I am researching TPRS more.
- Boston is a pretty cool city. I regret that I didn’t have the time to check it out properly.
When I attended ACTFL in 2008, I met the guys behind Skritter, which went on to become a world-class service. I didn’t make any similar discoveries this time, but there’s no substitute for direct communication with all the teachers back in the USA working hard to prepare the next generation of kids for a world that needs Chinese language skills more than ever. I expect to be attending ACTFL pretty regularly in the coming years.
Now for some photos!
I’m now in Boston for the ACTFL convention. It’s a gathering of a bunch of professional language teachers from all over the U.S. The last time I was here was in 2008, representing ChinesePod. This year I’m representing Mandarin Companion. (We’ve got a new book out, by the way: Journey to the Center of the Earth.)
I’ll be connecting with a few people at the convention, and meeting up with my Chinese teacher buddies. I also get to visit my sister Amy and high school friend Steve. If you’re a Sinosplice reader and you’re at ACTFL, though, please seek out Mandarin Companion and come by and say hi!
Thanks to reader Lucas, who lives in 张家港 (north of Suzhou), for sharing this image:
The pun is pretty simple:
- 啤酒 (píjiǔ) beer
- 顽皮 (wánpí) naughty
So the 皮 was swapped for the 啤 (they sound identical), and “naughty beer” was born!
It’s 2016, and I thought my days of using a fax machine were well behind me. It turns out, however, that Hillsborough County in Florida allows mailed-in ballots and faxed-in ballots, but not emailed-in ballots. And due to the unreliability of regular post (I find that a lot of letters and packages simply never arrive these days), my options are down to fax or using an international delivery service like UPS or FedEx. But since those two each cost over $50 to send in my ballot, I opted to go the more archaic route: fax.
Since any major hotel in Shanghai has a “Business Center” (商务中心), I figured going to a nice hotel would be a good place to fax a document. Sure, it wouldn’t be the cheapest faxing option, but it would certainly be much less than $50, and I could get the help of the professional staff of a five-star hotel.
After calling ahead to the Jing’an Hilton and the Jing’an Shangri-La Hotel (both within walking distance of my office) to make sure both offer international fax services, I set out Friday afternoon to fax in my ballot.
Reality was a bit more complicated. The staff of both places (as well as a third, Yan’an Hotel, which I tried out since I was walking past it anyway) were actually not very familiar with using a fax machine, much less sending an international fax. Every trip resulted in a polite affirmative from staff that they could fax the document, followed by lots of calls on how to send an international fax, multiple attempts, and ultimate failure. The worst part was the way the fax machine’s “failure to send” message result was worded: “no answer or the line was busy.” “Or”?? Seems like in this case, the result could be clearer.
I began to suspect that the fax machine was only on during business hours, and also decided to take a friend’s suggestion and use an app. So I scanned my document, got it on my phone, and used an app called Genius Fax to send it in Friday night at around 8:30pm. Success!
I honestly thought that going the more human route would be easier and more certain, but when it comes to using an increasingly outdated technology, which relies on another increasingly outdated technology (international telephone calls), it just didn’t work out. I still don’t even know for sure if the main issue really was simply one of business hours and time difference, but at least the fax went through in the end.
So if you’re voting abroad, a few pieces of advice:
- If you can’t vote by email, vote by fax. You have to waive your right to secret ballot to do this, but at least you can be fairly sure your vote has been received.
- If you use the fax option, use an internet-based service. I used Genius Fax, but friends on Facebook also recommend FaxZero and HelloFax.
- If you’re voting from abroad and you’ve received your ballot, it’s not too late to vote. So even though today is the official voting day, you still have time, especially if you choose the fax option. Votes from abroad can decide a close election!
Hopefully this helps somebody. Get your vote in! Coming from the state of Florida, I felt additional pressure to be sure to vote in this presidential election, and getting that “successfully received” message from the app was quite a relief.
My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.
Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:
What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?
Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!
The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)
I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.
In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is 脚 (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as 角 above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?
I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:
Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?
Her: It means “five legs.”
Her: [thinks for a minute]
Her: …or “5 corners.”
I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.
Summer is over, but I can’t help sharing this 一下 / 一夏 pun:
The “喝一夏” part is punning on a very common use of 一下 after a verb, whereas the “冰一夏” part is punning on the same usage in a less typical way.
An uninspired translation would be, “have a drink and cool off.” (Sorry, I have no inspired translation!)
This place brings a smile to my face as I pass by:
A while back I wrote about What 80% Comprehension Feels Like, and I quoted the English examples used in Marcos Benevides’ excellent presentation which simulate 80% comprehension in English by including made-up English-like vocabulary words.
I’ve been thinking about that presentation a lot, both about the impact of such a demonstration, as well as about how it could be accomplished in Chinese. I ended up creating my own examples in Chinese. I’ll go ahead and share that first, and follow up with some discussion of the considerations involved.
(Before you attempt to read the following, please note that if your Chinese is not at least at an intermediate level, the following exercise is not going to work. Like its English-language counterpart, these examples are most effective with native speakers.)
Here is 98% comprehension:
Here is 95% comprehension:
Here is 80% comprehension:
The tricky thing about reading Chinese is that it’s not just a matter of vocabulary and grammar; there’s an issue not present in English: the issue of Chinese characters. When a learner reads a difficult Chinese text, all three of these components tend to play a part in the difficulty: vocabulary, grammar, and characters.
But for the example to work for both learners and native speakers alike, there needs to be a way to guarantee that parts of the text were incomprehensible, as accomplished with made-up words in English. How can one do this in Chinese?
How I did it
First of all, to maximize the chances that the “intelligible” parts of the Chinese sample text are also readable by learners, I used as simple a text as I could: a Level 1 Mandarin Companion graded reader. For these examples, it was The Secret Garden.
Then, I had to be sure I chose the more difficult content words to swap out, and that I got all instances of them in each sample. Obviously, I had to count the words to make sure I got the desired percentage right. But equally important, to make my samples representative of real-life 98%, 95%, and 80% comprehension experiences, the words chosen should “cloud” reading comprehension to the appropriate degree, no more, no less.
But here’s the tricky part: how to represent characters the reader doesn’t know. The obvious way would be to create my own characters that don’t really exist. I enjoy doing this, but it’s time consuming, and to make it look truly credible it would have to not stand out at all when mixed in with the other characters. Too much work.
So I turned to the Unihan database of Chinese characters. Over the years, more and more obscure characters have been added to this set of characters, and I found a list of the most recent additions. (Most recently added should mean most obscure, but I chose Extension D from this page because it was both recent and a small download.)
A quick check confirmed that these characters were indeed obscure, but many of them didn’t look like simplified Chinese characters, or were just too weird, so I had to choose carefully. After making my choices, I also had to check to make sure that educated Chinese adults didn’t recognize the characters (guessing doesn’t count).
After that, I selectively swapped out characters in the samples. (My 80% comprehension text sample is the shortest, because I was running out of “good” obscure characters, and I didn’t want to have to find more!)
One interesting side effect of using such obscure characters in my texts was that most software couldn’t render them. Whatever fonts they used just didn’t include those bizarre characters. Only Wenlin, with its custom font designed to render all kinds of obscure characters, could display them all. So I had to do screenshots of Wenlin’s interface.
How to use this
I used these passages as part of a presentation on extensive reading at LanguageCon in September. I got the effect I wanted: Chinese members of the audience giggled (embarrassedly?) at the characters they didn’t know, especially when they got to the 80% comprehension example.
Chinese learners smiled wryly: there wasn’t much amusing about a fake recreation of the challenge they face on a daily basis, trying to read Chinese.
More than anything, I hoped that the Chinese audience could empathize with the learners of Chinese. Most Chinese people never know what it feels like to have to learn so many foreign characters as a part of a foreign language learning experience. Through these examples, though, they can get an inkling.
Actually, maybe they were chuckling in relief… at least they’ve got that challenge behind them.
The AllSet Learning blog also has a similar Chinese language article on this topic: 80%没有你想的那么多.
This image has been on posters all around Shanghai’s Jing’an District this past summer:
Each character is related to traffic:
- 让: yield
- 车: car
- 慢: slow
- 停: stop
Actually, each character is merely “decorated” in the traffic theme. It’s not true “characterplay” in the sense that characters are constructed or represented in some non-standard way for artistic effect. I’ll take it, though!
As I write this the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump is underway. I tried hard to view this debate, but in the end I guess I just chose a place with a lousy internet connection. (Despite the ubiquitous use of VPNs, internet issues like this are still a source of daily frustration for foreigners living in China.)
The other day a question on Quora caught my eye: How are the Chinese media covering Trump? Good question! I am not an avid consumer of Chinese media. I do scan headlines and read occasional sources, but for issues like the American presidential race, I tend to stick almost entirely to English language sources. It’s not an easy question to answer objectively, that’s for sure, so it’s nice to see a variety of responses:
I did a research by going through all of Trump-related reports on China Daily since August. And here is what I found. Out of 711 articles under the section of “US and Canada”, how many times has Trump’s name made headlines? 11. One of them, technically wasn’t related to the election per se, it went Trick or Trump: The Donald, Pizza Rat among top Halloween costumes. And just out of curiosity, how many times has Panda Bei Bei? 4. Not bad, Bei Bei!
Trump is a comic star in Chinese media. Many people, mainly from two groups, wish he will be the next president of the U.S.
The first group are the rubbernecks. There is a saying in Chinese: 看热闹的不嫌事大. Basically, it means rubbernecks like to see boisterousness and do not care how serious the consequences would be. A typical comment from this group would be like “we would have four long years of comedy to watch if Trump wins.”
The second group believes that the best gift you can have is a stupid opponent. Typical comment is “I can’t wait to see how badly Trump can mess the U.S. up.” Though Trump has many hostile sayings about China, his capacity of doing anything of real harm is questionable.
Xiao Chen also links to this article which includes some very interesting poll results, essentially asking those polled which candidate they personally prefer, and which candidate will be better for China. Results below:
It’s worth noting that this poll is from February 2016. (Anyone know of a similar, more recent poll?) See the full article for more details: What If Chinese People Could Vote for the President of the United States?
I noticed these posters near my home a while back:
They’re propaganda from the Changning District police department, telling people not to tolerate 10 types of illegal behavior. But the first 7 of the 10 items in the list relate specifically to 机动车 (motorized scooters), including illegal parking, blocking lanes of traffic, reckless driving, etc. All are extremely common on the streets of Shanghai.
These 机动车 are often blamed for bad accidents, and the drivers of motor scooters can be seen to flagrantly ignore traffic lights and other traffic rules all over Shanghai. The drivers frequently do not even have legal plates. Many in Shanghai (especially drivers of cars, but also pedestrians) have been hoping for a police crackdown for quite a while, but normally very little is done. There are rumors that Shanghai may eventually ban them entirely. I sure wouldn’t mind.
But what’s with the fists in the graphics above? Is this some kind of subtle suggestion that violence is the answer? It definitely feels odd. (Although the graphic of the fist punching through the wall sums up pretty well how the drivers of these motor scooters can make other residents of Shanghai feel.)
Here’s one that seems a little less extreme (and more in keeping with the usual propaganda style):
Here’s the text of the 10 illegal behaviors (same on all 3 posters) if you’d like to study it:
Note: This article originally mistranslated 机动车 as “electric scooter,” when “motorized vehicle” (normally referring to a scooter, not an automobile) is the correct meaning. “Electric scooter” would be 电动车 or 电瓶车 (both normally referring to scooters, not electric cars). Thank you to reader E.T. for pointing out this mistake!
It’s almost that time of year again: China’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (or as the Chinese like to call it, “Chinese Thanksgiving,” without all the thanks giving and turkey). It’s that time of year when people eat a little snack called a mooncake.
Like many foreigners (and many modern Chinese), I am not fond of the mooncake (despite once participating in a mooncake-eating contest). Yes, I am aware there are many kinds. I have long since tried all the traditional kinds, such as 豆沙 (sweet bean paste) 莲蓉 (lotus seed paste), and 蛋黄 (egg yolk), as well as the fancy new kinds made with ice cream or Japanese mochi. Not a fan. But then I just recently had a freshly baked (not sweet) meat-filled mooncake, and I am a fan:
Yes, it took me 16 years in China to discover a mooncake I liked. It wasn’t exactly top-priority. The filling is referred to as 鲜肉 (it’s pork).
So, if you don’t like mooncakes, I feel your pain. But this kind (fresh!) is actually decent. I hear that is the kind people line up all day to buy.
Pretty much everyone knows that Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary app. It’s the best free Chinese dictionary app, and it’s got the best paid add-on Chinese dictionaries. The add-on bundles, while not super cheap, are a good investment for any serious student embarking on the long-term journey of Chinese study.
But why do so few people know about the clipboard reader? It’s free! From Pleco’s (iPhone) documentation:
Most of Pleco’s document reading functions are part of our paid “Document Reader” add-on, which you can purchase from the Add-ons screen. The one exception to this is the “Clipboard Reader” function, which is available even in our free app.
Note: this feature is apparently called the “Clip Reader” in the Android app, but it’s also free.
So what is it? Well, if you’re looking up a word, use the Pleco dictionary. If you have a chunk of text and can’t even begin to read the Chinese, use something like Google Translate. But if you are getting a handle on Chinese characters, the clipboard reader is what you want. Simply copy the text message or article out of WeChat, or your mobile browser, or whatever. Then open up the clipboard reader, and it’s automatically pasted in. Tap words to see definitions in a popup.
I’ve seen people paste whole sentences into Pleco’s dictionary function, and Pleco does a pretty good job of parsing sentences into words and showing the definition for each word. But that’s not really what the dictionary lookup is for. It’s much better for your learning if you first read what you can (without help), and then tap on the words you don’t know to get the pinyin and English.
You might also notice that you can also adjust the bounds of the word you’ve tapped on, in case Pleco gets it wrong. You can also use the arrows at the bottom of the screen (which don’t change position) if you’re going to be looking up almost every word.
Thanks to Mike Love of Pleco for continuing development of such a great tool all these years, and for making such great features free. Enjoy!
This is an interview with Nick Lenczewski, who served as a camp counselor at Concordia Village this summer. Although Nick is already a practicing interpreter in Minnesota, he doesn’t have many opportunities to practice Chinese in a fun environment, or to share in the enjoyment of the endeavor. In the interview below, I ask Nick for some details on what exactly he did, and what he got out of it.
John: Could you explain what the Concordia Language Village is? Who is it for?
Nick: The goal of Concordia Language Villages is to create global citizens. They do this through immersion language camps in many languages including Mandarin, Japanese, German, Swedish, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and more. Programs are available to kids ages 2-18 and adults ages 18 and up. During the summer there are 4-week, 2-week, and 1-week long sessions. There are also weekend programs available for adults and kids during the academic year. The language villages are located in northern Minnesota, USA at different sites around Bemidji, Minnesota.
Students have a schedule which consists of classes in their target language, meals, activities like swimming, biking, or other cultural activities such as mahjong for the Mandarin camp. Everything is done in the target language and students are surrounded by several dozen counselors speaking the language to them throughout the day during their classes, at meal times, and in between. Every night there is an evening activity which is usually a game of some kind that involves speaking the language and usually learning the culture of the language. Each night there is a campfire. There is lots of singing done throughout the day every day.
John: What do you mean by “create global citizens?”
Nick: A global citizen is someone who is fluent in more than one language and understands and appreciates cultural diversity. A global citizen should express empathy for their neighbors in the village and be globally minded.
John: What was your role at the Concordia Language Village this summer?
Nick: I worked as a counselor at the Mandarin camp, which is called 森林湖 (Senlin Hu). (All language camps are called “forest lake” in their target language.) My main duties were working as a small group Mandarin teacher and as an activity teacher. Most of the 40 counselors had the same duties. I taught a class of 6-8 students ages 6 to 14 for my first two weeks at the camp. Their Mandarin level was the lowest of all groups and I usually had at least a few students with no Mandarin background. The students were there for one week each. After this I taught a mahjong activity class. For this class I taught it with another teacher since there were fewer students last two weeks of camp than the first two weeks. We had 8 students each time we held the activity class. I think it ended up being one of the most popular activity classes. The kids really liked mahjong. All of these classes were taught in Mandarin, though with the students with no language background I did speak some English with them some of the time.
Besides my duties as a teacher I slept in the same cabin along with three other counselors with students, and sat at a table (AKA 家) with students during their meals. Some of the activities are done during the camp are done as a cabin and some are done as a 家. In these instances I would be in charge of this group of students. Activities could include putting on a play, playing some games in a competition with other 家, or cleaning the 大楼 (building) toilets. In addition to the duties of a normal camp counselor, my job was to speak Mandarin with them.
John: Do you think the summer program is true immersion? What are the pros and cons?
Nick: Although we speak mostly in Mandarin with students, there are times when it is permissible to speak English. These times include anything involving safety announcements. In the evenings before bed each cabin has a meeting or 木屋会 (muwu hui), where everyone shares their highs and lows of the day. If it is too difficult to express something in Mandarin it is okay to speak in English. Besides speaking in Mandarin, the goal of the 木屋会 is to share what has been troubling you and what has been going well for you and not necessarily to practice Mandarin. This is done mainly to help students emotionally.
If immersion is having Mandarin spoken 100% of the time, then the camps would not be considered true immersion. At the same time, for Mandarin learners I think it is an awesome opportunity learn Mandarin. Some of these students had no Mandarin background before coming to the camp and within 4 weeks were speaking passable Mandarin. They were better than some of the foreign English teachers in China I knew who’d been studying for months.
In some ways I think total immersion like in China might not be as good as having an 90% immersion environment like this at Concordia when first beginning to learn Mandarin. It can be daunting to be in a true immersion environment and try to figure out a new language with no English assistance. However, at Concordia Language Villages English is used sometimes in order to help students learn.
A con of this system is having really little kids in the camp (below age 10). Simply by being at camp and away from home camp can be an emotionally challenging experience for many students (I myself was extremely homesick the first time I went to camp when I was 11). Learning a language on top of this is extremely difficult, definitely not the ideal state of mind for language learning. If you are not mentally calm it is very hard to learn a new language.
John: What are the pros and cons of being a counselor?
Nick: The biggest pro of being a counselor was meeting all of the other counselors. They were super cool, from all over the US, China, and world, and loved Mandarin, music, travel, and people. Bonding with them through classes, orientation, and the little free time we had, was easily the best part about the camp in my opinion. The friendships made with some of the students was also great.
Being a camp counselor is also a good opportunity to improve your own Mandarin. Many of the counselors I met had never been to China or only once for a short amount of time, but they still had great Mandarin. I think they owe this in part to being a counselor at camp over the years. Many of them had been a counselor for multiple years. I’m also an author and for me this was a great opportunity to promote my book.
A major con is that the pay being quite low. Even with room and board it is still pretty low, just over $1,000 for 4 weeks. Another con is that there is almost no free time. From the time students wake up at 8 am to the time the go to sleep (somewhere between 10 and 11 pm, typically), you always need to be on and ready to help in some way. This includes Saturday and Sunday as well since we also had activities and things for students to do on these days.
John: Describe the kids that are there. Why are they there, and what do their attitudes tend to be?
Nick: The students came mostly from all over the US but there were also students from UK, Singapore, Japan, and I imagine other countries as well. These students had all different levels of motivation. Some had great Mandarin and others didn’t know anything. Some students were eager to learn Mandarin while others were there more for the camp experience regardless of the language immersion aspect. I expect some students were there because their parents wanted them there, while others were there because they wanted to be. Many students had been to the camp multiple times, some at least 5 times.
One activity we did every day was called 中国通 (Zhongguo Tong) where students were given a special name tag and had to speak only in Mandarin the entire day. If a counselor heard them speaking English, they would take it away and thus they would not receive a 中国通 bead for that day (the beads are a way of rewarding students). Those students who really wanted to be at camp were able to get a dozen or more of these beads over the four weeks they were there by speaking lots of Mandarin and no English, while those who weren’t as keen on speaking Mandarin at camp were only able to get a few. They did this not by speaking Mandarin, but by not speaking any English and speaking a little Mandarin.
John: Can you share a story or two about special “learning moments” you witnessed or were part of?
Nick: During my time as a counselor I was placed in a cabin with the male students, ages 13-16 who were with the camp for 4 weeks. Two of these students had never learned Mandarin before so I was curious to see how much they would be able to learn in 4 weeks. Each night during our 木屋会 everyone shared one high and one low from the day. In the beginning these two students needed to speak in English since they had no Mandarin abilities. But by the end of the second week they were able to tell us their highs and lows. Highs often consisted of having a good meal, making a new friend, or finishing a test. Lows included the hot, humid weather, the mosquitos, or their homework load. I was amazed at how quickly they progressed in just a few weeks.
One evening activity we did was called 三国 (“three kingdoms”). Students formed three separate countries with their own special cultural taboos, greetings, languages, and exchange rituals. The object of the activity was to send out people to a different country to collect their sacred item (pool noodle, badminton racket, basketball). But in order to collect the item, one needed to figure out the culture of the other group by successfully greeting them, blending in with their culture, and completing their ritual of exchange, all without messing up. There was therefore a lot of trial and error. One group’s culture revolved around dancing, another around being anti-social, and the third around worshiping a burping deity.
At the end of the activity at our evening campfire we talked about what it was like for the students. We also spoke in English since we wanted everyone to be able to freely discuss what happened. Based on the amount of student engagement this was the most successful evening activity we did in the 4 weeks I was at camp. As counselors we asked students what it felt like to try to understand a new culture, we asked them to consider the biases they had about a culture before interacting with them. One student said it was hard to blend in with one culture because they did not accept people who smiled and she smiled a lot. Another said it was difficult to blend in with the dancing culture because he couldn’t dance well.
Some students talked about the prejudices that they had towards each other at the beginning of camp but that they were able to overcome differences and become friends. The experience taught everyone about how to be accepting of others, not only those of other cultures, but also those within the same city or state.
John: So what is your takeaway from the experience? Do you recommend becoming a Chinese camp counselor to others?
Nick: If you are looking to improve your Mandarin I think being a counselor at the language village is a good opportunity. For someone like me who has been studying Mandarin for 9 years and has worked as a translator and interpreter for several years in China and USA, it was not necessarily as big of a help. I didn’t make that much of an effort to improve my vocabulary by using new words in conversation with other counselors, but I did learn a few dozen words passively, mostly words like 篝火 (camp fire), 防蚊液 (mosquito repellant), and 防晒霜 (sunscreen).
For me, as a counselor, the real value of Concordia Language Villages was meeting the other counselors, all of whom all love languages, traveling, music, performing, or living abroad. In addition to bonding with the other Mandarin counselors, there was a week-long orientation at the beginning of the summer camp where counselors of all language camps were able to meet and prepare for camp. Meeting all the people from other camps (Italians, Russians, Japanese, Spanish), listening to their music, and trying to connect with them made me want to learn their languages, experience their cultures, and see their countries. In my opinion, learning a language is not a goal, and instead a means. The goal is to connect with and understand another person; the language is the means to do this. Learning their language shows you care about them, and caring about someone is the building block for having a good interaction with them. Life is all about love and there is a whole lot of it at Concordia Language Villages.
This interview was not intended to be an ad or direct endorsement for Concordia Language Villages, but I had heard of the immersion camps at Middlebury, and I had no idea there were others in places like Minnesota. Then when I met Nick and discovered he was going to be a counselor at one, I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about them.
If you have questions for Nick, please leave a comment on Sinosplice or get in touch with him through his website.
If you’re learning a foreign language and you don’t know what extensive reading is, it’s time to learn. This presentation deck by Marco Benevides is a great place to start: Extensive Reading – How easy is easy? (Excerpts below from: Extensive Reading: Benefits and Implementation. Benevides, Marcos. J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Presented at IATEFL 2015 in Manchester.)
One of the major principles of extensive reading is that if a learner can comprehend material at 98% comprehension, she will acquire new words in context, in a painless, enjoyable way. But what is 98% comprehension? Humans are actually really bad at gauging this, partly because schools rarely teach this way. 98% comprehension means that only 1 in 50 words is unknown. But still, it’s hard to have a feeling for exactly what that’s like.
This is where Marco Benevides’s presentation is so genius. Here is 98%:
You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…
(And in case you’re not a native speaker of English or don’t quite get it, yes, there are nonsense words in there. Those represent the uncomprehended 2%.)
Here’s 95%, which represents a departure from extensive reading, because it requires more effort, and tends to be slower and less enjoyable:
In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. “Where is dowargle?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. “Off the street!” he shouts. “Go home, lock your door!” “What? Why?” you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone.
Finally, let’s skip to the oh-so-frustrating 80% comprehension level:
“Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…
I run into this number “80%” quite a lot in my work. Maybe it’s because of the 80/20 rule; I don’t know. But what I do know is that many learners think 80% comprehension in a conversation or in a business meeting is enough to follow. In reality, 80% is extremely frustrating because you can get so much of the conversation, but you’re still fairly clueless about a lot of the meat of the discussion. Generally speaking, you’ll know the topic, but fully understand virtually none of the details discussed. Pretty maddening.
This isn’t actually bad news… It doesn’t change the numbers of hours of focused practice needed to become fluent in a language. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining that intermediate plateau, as you slog from an average of 60% comprehension or so to closer to 90%. That’s why you’re learning so much but don’t feel the breakthrough. It’s also why it’s so important to have a good teacher, and materials at your level.
It’s quite the cliche to talk about “the Uber for x” in the startup world. Those types of businesses tend to not work when they’re not Uber (and Uber itself had a had time in China). But there’s one that I really like: Mobike, AKA 摩拜单车. Like Uber, it’s app-based, and you open up the app to see not where drivers are, like Uber, but to see what parked Mobike bikes are near you.
Then you use the app to unlock the bike and pay 1-2 RMB for each ride. Lock the bike somewhere public when you’re done. So simple!
If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you can even try out the app (without riding a bike) just to see what how many bikes are parked around you. There’s usually a decent number wherever I am in Shanghai. Once you know what a Mobike looks like, you’ll start seeing them everywhere in this city. (The new “punch buggy”??)
The only “catch” is that you have to pay a 300 RMB deposit to start using the bikes. That’s fair. Coincidentally, 300 RMB is also my “cheap bike budget.” It’s the amount I’ll pay for a bike that’s “good enough” to ride but is not likely to get stolen. Not a bad price for never having to worry about your bike getting stolen again.
Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting attitudes toward public spaces here in China. One of the most perplexing, from a western perspective, is one where one’s own home is kept as pristine as possible, while public spaces are treated with much less respect. Taken to the extreme, you might even say public spaces are sometimes treated like a dumpster: littering, dumping of liquids, and worse.
What blew my mind about this “public spaces don’t need to be kept clean” (AKA “the world is your dumpster”) attitude was how clearly and finely the line can be drawn. In some cases, I’ve seen apartment residents treat the hallway right outside their own apartments with this kind of total disregard for cleanliness: stacks of garbage, leaky garbage bags, and other jetsam dumped right outside their own apartment doors. (The idea is that it will be disposed of later, either by the resident who dumped it, or by the cleaning staff of the building. In either case, the garbage is kept out of the clean home, and anyone else who has to share the hall just has to deal with it.)
But I’ve also noticed a less common phenomenon that’s kind of the opposite: claiming public spaces for personal use. To use the “public space” of the apartment hallway as an example again, a resident might discover that the building storage closet in the hallway is not normally locked, and then store some of his own (not so valuable) stuff in that closet.
I noticed a pretty weird example (not at all typical, I’m sure) of this “the world is your closet” attitude just behind my Shanghai office building. Take a look at this apartment building:
See the stuff stacked outside the window? Yes, the roof has been turned into a closet.
I’m not sure how well this works, considering how often it rains, but there you have it.