personal


16

Aug 2009

Physalis: Another Weird Fruit in China

One of the things I love about living in China is that I just keep on discovering bizarre things. I thought I had already seen pretty much all the “alien” fruits China had to offer, and then recently a co-worker brought some “姑娘” back from China’s northeast. Apparently these are called physalis in English. (How did I miss them all this time??) Anyway, bizarre, and kinda good!

From Wikipedia on physalis:

> The typical Physalis fruit is similar to a firm tomato (in texture), and like strawberries or other fruit in flavor; they have a mild, refreshing acidity. The flavor of the Cape Gooseberry (P. peruviana) is a unique tomato/pineapple-like blend. Physalis fruit have around 53 kcal for 100 grams[2] , and are rich in cryptoxanthin.

Here are some photos from Flickr, all taken by their respective owners:

Unfortunately, none of the photos I was able to find on Flickr included a picture of what the inside of the fruit looks like. I attempted a photo at night with my iPhone, and it didn’t turn out great, but you get the basic idea:

Physalis

The seeds kind of reminded me of green pepper seeds, but smaller. Here’s a Chinese article with more pictures and info in Chinese.


15

Aug 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

Today I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of stories which owes its title to this great quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Custom-House:

> Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

Well put.


11

Aug 2009

Tone and Color in Chinese

In his book Chinese through Tone and Color, author Nathan Dummitt presents his system of color-coded tones. In his own words:

> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.

From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.

Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:

Tone-color

Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?

The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.

An Alternate Color Scheme

OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?

In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:

1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.

2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.

There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:

> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.

> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.

These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.

Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.

As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.

The results:

Tone-color-sinosplice

(more…)


28

Jul 2009

America through In-laws

It was a great trip to the States. I had been bracing myself for wacky cross-cultural antics, but nothing particularly noteworthy transpired. I didn’t have many surprises of my own, either. Rather, this time I enjoyed seeing my country through my the eyes of my in-laws.

Here are a few little notes:

– My father-in-law cooked himself a waffle at the hotel breakfast buffet and then ate it with salt and pepper, lamenting that there was no hot sauce.
– On the very first day in Tampa, I woke up to my Chinese family all watching TV. Curious what show they had been sucked into, I was amused to discover that it was Jerry Springer. “Why are these people so angry?” they wanted to know.
– When there’s no common language, gestures can be quite misleading. Trying to communicate, “I’m full and it was a great meal, but I need a toothpick” can somehow become, “I have heartburn and I need medication immediately.”
– My in-laws exclaimed at how crisp and sweet fresh American corn is. I was horrified to learn they preferred it mushy and/or chewy.
– American food comes in enormous quantities, and is frequently way too sweet. (My wife demanded to know why American cake always has so much frosting… which she weirdly calls 奶油, a word which more commonly means “cream.”)
– No one would go on the Montu at Busch Gardens with me except for my mother-in-law. That was pretty awesome.
– My father-in-law, who thought he could eat spicy food, has a newfound respect for Mexican chilies, courtesy of a dish called camarones a la diabla, from Del Valle on Fowler Avenue, Tampa (best Mexican food I’ve had outside of Mexico!).
– In the absence of a gas range, an electric wok is pretty all right for home-cooked Chinese food.
– My in-laws were impressed that total strangers kept greeting them everywhere they went. The friendliness of strangers was something they felt they could really get used to.
– No one took much notice of how fat Americans are.


25

Jul 2009

Backwards Website Promotion on a Van

In China and Japan, it’s common to see company names printed in Chinese characters on the sides of buses and vans. Unlike English, which is always written left to right, these names frequently appear left to right on the left side of the car (running from the front end of the vehicle to the back), but right to left on the other side of the car (still running from the front end of the vehicle to the back).

I’d like to show a few normal examples of this, but I’ve found them surprisingly hard to find online. (Anyone have some examples?) It makes me suspect that photographers consciously avoid photographing the right side of a vehicle in which characters are printed right to left, simply because left to right is much more natural nowadays if there is a choice of orientation. Even so, I didn’t expect photos of the phenomenon to be hard to find.

Here’s an example of that practice where the company website is also included on the side of the van. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem like such a good idea to print the URL right to left.

Backwards URL

In normal orientation, the characters on the van read:

> 上海金帅办公家具有限公司 Http://www.sh-jinshuai.cn

(Note that the image is not reversed; the characters and letters are all facing the right way. They’re just printed right to left.)


08

Jul 2009

Busy July

I’ve spent the last few weeks reexamining my priorities and trying to free up a bit more time to do the things I enjoy most. Work remains both rewarding and demanding, but progressing in piano and continuing to work on Sinosplice are important to me. So far in July, however, I’ve needed to spend a lot of my free time just trip planning.

I’m preparing to go back to the U.S. this weekend for a two-week visit, and I’m taking with me not only my wife, but also my in-laws. My mother-in-law has never left China. Oh, and we’ll be attending my little sister’s wedding. It’s going to be an interesting little cultural affair.

Also, at already over a year since graduation, I’ve finally started putting my master’s thesis online. Now that all the pain of the actual writing is nearly forgotten, I’m starting to recall more clearly that my topic was, in fact, pretty damned interesting. It deserves a few posts.

First, though, it’s time for a visit to Obama’s America. I’m looking forward to it.


28

Jun 2009

Michael Jackson Matters to China

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about Michael Jackson’s passing, but when it came up again and again and again in my conversations with Chinese friends, I was forced to acknowledge something: although the average American pop star goes largely unknown in China, Michael Jackson really mattered to China. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting the reaction which his death provoked — the text messages, the email tribute forwards, the many conversations. What made this pop star so important in China’s eyes?

Michael Jackson (迈克尔杰克逊) rose to stardom as a solo artist around the same time post-Mao China was starting to get re-acquainted with the world outside. He was a singer that young and old alike (both then and now) knew, across China. You’d be hard-pressed to find a foreign star of that magnitude now.

It’s never easy to predict how one country’s stars will fair in foreign markets (David Hasselhoff in Germany?), and the Chinese market can be tricky. Something about Michael Jackson, though, hit all the right notes in China. I do wonder what, exactly, it was.


See also: Chinese newspapers mourn the death of Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson Is Dead, Chinese Netizen Reactions


16

Jun 2009

10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love

I’ve always been good about eating my vegetables, but coming to China was a total game-changer for me, vegetable-wise. Here were veggies I’d long since written off as “nasty,” forcing me to reevaluate them in their new oriental guise. And reevaluate I did! In the end, I found myself growing to love the Chinese version of many of the vegetables I thought I didn’t like. (It’s probably more than just the effect of MSG.)

Of course, then there are also the ones I’d never heard of or seen before coming to China. One of them even made it all the way to #1 on my list. Definitely noteworthy!

The pictures below all come from Flickr, and each photo was taken by someone other than me. Please click through to see the photo on Flickr, and comment there if you would like to praise the photographers. Anyway, in reverse order, here are the top ten vegetables China taught me to love:

10. Cauliflower (花菜)

This one was always disgusting to me in the US, unless it was drowned in cheese. Good old Chinese MSG and spices seems to take care of the issue, though!

(more…)


30

May 2009

Dealing with a Hacker on Dreamhost

Earlier this year, my Dreamhost webhosting account was hacked. I’ve been dealing with it for months, but I’m no programmer. The information provided by Dreamhost customer support, while helpful, has been far from sufficient to actually resolve the problem in a satisfactory way. That’s why I’m writing this blog post: to help others than might be in a similar situation.

How the Hacker Got In

I’m pretty sure the hacker got in through an old abandoned WordPress install that I had forgotten to delete. (It’s essential that you either keep all web apps up to date, or delete them. To do otherwise is to ask for trouble. Hackers will eventually discover the old installs with security vulnerabilities.)

After gaining access, the hacker uploaded a PHP backdoor script which allowed him to get back in easily and upload or edit any files he wants, even after I deleted the old WordPress installation that had the vulnerability. The backdoor script he used is called PHPspy, and is freely available on the internet. (Interestingly, it’s also Chinese.)

(more…)


24

May 2009

Sinosplice in a Webcomic

I meant to blog this earlier, but my vacation got in the way. Magnus of MandMX.com drew a comic about Sinosplice (English and Chinese) which is relevant to Sinosplice this month only!

Thanks, Magnus. This is a first for me, and I’m flattered!


15

May 2009

Two Kinds of Communists

While on vacation this past week, I finally had a chance to dig into Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. This passage jumped out at me:

> There are two kinds of Communists: the arrogant ones, who enter the fray hoping to make men out of the people and bring progress to the nation; and the innocent ones, who get involved because they believe in equality and justice. The arrogant ones are obsessed with power; they presume to think for everyone; only bad can come of them. But the innocents? The only harm they do it to themselves. But that’s all the ever wanted in the first place. They feel so guilty about the suffering of the poor, and are so keen to share it, that they make their lives miserable on purpose.

Hmmm, I wonder what the Chinese would think about that.


11

May 2009

Cultural Universals

I’m not sure if the people in this picture are Chinese, but I found it through Baidu Images:

Cultural Universals

This reminded me of a similar funny photo I’d seen before. Turns out there are quite a few, if you look. Here’s one gallery, and another with more photos, and of a more international nature (but also more NSFW).


03

May 2009

Visa Fest!

My blog posts about visas probably generate more e-mails from random strangers than anything else. This suggests to me that a lot of people are out there scouring the internet for more info on the subject, so I’ll share a bit more. In the past two weeks, I have been involved, to some extent, with 5 Chinese visa applications: three to the USA, one to Japan, and one to Thailand.

USA

It’s been a while since my wife and I had to go through the visa ordeal. Now we’re married, and we want to take her parents with us this summer so they can see Florida as well. We were a bit worried that it would seem like the whole family was trying to immigrate to the US, but all three of them got their visas.

Some relevant details:

– My father-in-law has been to the USA once before in 1992; my mother-in-law has never left China
– My in-laws own property in Shanghai and have savings
– My wife was in the USA last in 2005

Japan

I haven’t been to Japan in close to five years, and my wife and I have been meaning to make a trip for a while. We finally settled on this May, but realized we had a visa problem: the typical Chinese tourist to Japan must go with a tour group and stay with the group the whole time. I refused to do that, and my wife didn’t want to either. We wanted to hang out in the Kyoto/Nara/Osaka area and take it easy, rather than the typical tour’s “10 cities in 5 days” approach. If we didn’t want to go on a tour, though, we would have to get my wife’s visa “sponsored.”

The process is kind of complicated, so I won’t go into it to much here [Chinese link, Japanese link], but the bottom line is that your Japanese friend needs to supply a lot of paperwork, including:

1. Proof of a relationship with the Chinese visa applicant
2. Acceptance of responsibility if the Chinese visitor remains in Japan illegally
3. Lots of personal information, including tax information

In the end, our visa application failed because our visa sponsor filled out the form with all the tax information but didn’t include full information for their income history. After several mail exchanges between China and Japan (faxes are no good for this procedure), we were already cutting it close time-wise with our application, and we didn’t have enough time to fix the last problem.

Really, though, we didn’t want to fix the last problem! My former homestay family was so nice about sponsoring my wife and filling out all the paperwork — even including their tax information — and I really did not want to ask for even more personal financial information. It just doesn’t seem right. I’m close to my former Japanese homestay family, and they attended our wedding in Shanghai, but asking for someone’s tax and income information is just not cool. What a shitty passive-aggressive way for the Japanese government to discourage Chinese tourism.

Fortunately, the situation is changing as early as this fall, as Japan changes its regulations to let in individual Chinese tourists that are rich enough.

Thailand

Thailand is one of the easiest countries for the Chinese to get a visa for. Even with the recent unrest, while tours have paused temporarily, individuals can still get visas easily.

So forget Japan… we’re going to Thailand!


25

Apr 2009

Civilizing Me

Earlier this week I set out for work one morning only to discover that my bike was missing. It wasn’t where I parked it in my apartment complex, and it wasn’t anywhere nearby. I was surprised that a bike as uncool as mine, with both wheels locked, would be stolen from my apartment complex, but these things happen every day. I walked to work.

That night I decided to look for my missing bike a little more. The thing is, I had parked in an area I’m not technically supposed to park in. There’s a sign on the wall that says “don’t park here please,” but after seeing other bikes parked there on a daily basis for months on end, I decided to join them. It’s a more convenient parking place. (The proper place is underground, requiring use of the stairs.)

So I didn’t want to ask the guards, because that would mean admitting that I parked in the wrong place. I went to the nearest underground parking section, and sure enough, there was my bike. It had this note attached:

Be Civilized!

Transcript:

> 文明小区靠大家
谢谢您的配合
与支持

Translation:

> A civilized community depends on everyone.
Thank you for your cooperation
and support.

I had thought my bike was stolen all day, and I don’t appreciate that. But I’m really glad to see the rules being enforced a bit more. All around me, I see rules ignored on a daily basis: traffic lights, various kinds of queues, no smoking policies, etc. It’s good to feel a little progress. I’m happy to be civilized.


19

Apr 2009

Cell Phone Eavesdropping Tools in Shanghai

The other day a friend told me that there was some kind of cell phone wiretapping device being used on her friend. The guy was sure he was being eavesdropped on, because immediately after discussing sensitive information on a special deal with a supplier, a competitor immediately called the same supplier offering a better deal with almost the same terms. The supplier called him back, wanting to know what was going on, and how the other company could have known about the deal.

I quickly forgot this story… industrial espionage is not something that I think about much. But a week or so later, I received this spam message via SMS:

> 专业制作移动,联通卡,做出来的卡能窃听对方所有通话及收发短信,测试满意付款。电话150xxxxxxxx林经理

Translation:

> Professionally manufactured China Mobile, China Unicom cards which let you listen in on someone’s every call, as well as send and receive their text messages. Test first, pay if satisfied. Phone: 150xxxxxxxx Mr. Lin.

So I guess these 窃听 (eavesdropping) things are becoming fairly common now. There seem to be a few similar devices on Taobao too.


08

Apr 2009

Translator Interview: Megan Shank

Megan Shank

Megan Shank has a background in journalism (both freelance and as former editor of Newsweek Select in Shanghai). She has recently relocated to New York City after living in both Dalian and Shanghai. She also keeps a blog. This is the sixth and final interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.


1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

I’m primarily self-taught (many hours writing and rewriting characters at the kitchen table) and have also worked with some tutors. For two semesters, I took advanced intermediate Chinese classes at the Dalian Foreign Languages University. I never took a translation class, though I’m still interested in enrolling in some sort of program to improve my skill and speed.

2. How has living in China helped prepare you to become a translator?

For me, living in China has proved essential to my Mandarin studies. Opportunities abound for students to directly apply and test what they’re learning; they can use the language to create real connections. In terms of reading and writing, the characters fly out at you on the street, on a menu, in the subtitles of the late-night news. They dazzle and envelop you; you can’t escape them. Finally, in my experience, I’ve discovered the Chinese love their language. People from cabbies to park-side chess sharks have patiently drawn out characters for me on their palms and explained the radicals. I owe much to these patient and priceless—literally free—teachers.

(more…)


24

Mar 2009

English through Shanghainese

My coworkers Jason and Daini at EnglishPod have released a series of English lessons. But they’re taught not in English, not even in Mandarin, but in Shanghainese! They call it 上海话教英语.

If you’re interested in Shanghainese, this is better material than a radio show, because you’ll understand the English, which means you’ll be able to better follow the discussion of it in Shanghainese than you would a random topic.

Also, you might recognize the voice of one of the dialogue actors in this one:

Get the rest of them at 上海话教英语.


16

Mar 2009

Learning Piano

In my recent post on learning in China, I mentioned that I started piano lessons this month. Some of my experiences illustrate nicely a few of the points I made in that post, so I’ll share them here.

A bit of background first. I studied piano just a little bit when I was in high school. I learned the basics of reading music, the notes of the piano keys, etc. Then, about 6 years ago in Hangzhou, I took piano lessons in exchange for English lessons for about half a year. So I’d say I’m still a beginner, but I’m not starting from scratch.

In my first two lessons I’ve taken quite a bit of criticism from my teacher. I don’t pay enough attention to my finger positioning or movements. My left hand accompaniment is not staccato enough, and my right hand isn’t playing the melody smoothly enough. (Who knew Oh Susannah could be so agonizing?)

So here’s how it works out for me linguistically:

piano

Photo by sobriquet on Flickr

Finger positioning. This requires little to no Chinese to learn. I’m hearing things like 不对 (“not right”) and 手指应该这样 (“the fingers should be like this”), all the while being shown the proper form, or, in some cases, having my fingers bent/moved for me. It may be difficult to conform to all the rules, but it’s certainly not hard to figure out what one is doing wrong, no matter the Chinese level.

Vocabulary. I’m hearing a lot of the same words over and over in my lessons: 节奏 (rhythm), 伴奏 (accompaniment), 断奏 (staccato), 连奏 (legato). Hmmm, do you see something these words have in common?

When I first started my lessons, I knew the word 节奏 (rhythm). The rest of the terms mentioned above all kind of made sense in context, and the second syllable zòu, which they all share, isn’t a very common one in Mandarin. So when it wasn’t entirely clear, I was still guessing that each word was somehow related to rhythm. Still, the frequency that those words came up drilled them into my head, and while possibly related, the terms clearly did not mean the same thing as rhythm. So I was compelled to look each one up when I got home, just to make sure I was understanding my teacher correctly. (You muddle through when you can, but once the repetitions reach a certain level, muddling starts to feel silly.) So I’ve already had those new additions to my vocabulary reinforced more strongly than any other words I’ve learned in a long time. This is learning.

piano

Photo by kulp on Flickr

Pedagogical background. The biggest difficulty we’re having communicating is that my teacher expects all her students to be familiar with the do re mi fa so la ti do technique for referring to notes in a scale (those in the know seem to call this solfège), but to me, that’s pretty much just just a song in The Sound of Music. I know the notes, and I’m fine with assigning numbers to them, but if you want me to play mi-mi-fa-re in the key of C right now, I’m lost. Fortunately, my teacher is accommodating and switches to names of the notes that I actually understand… when she remembers. I just give her that blank look every now and then to remind her.

My teacher doesn’t use English with me, but she mentioned that she has one or two foreign students with whom she has to use English. (This reinforces my point that speaking Chinese is not an absolute necessity for this stuff.)

Besides learning a few words, I’m starting to feel that I understand just a bit more of the pain of being a Chinese kid. Fortunately there’s still no Chinese mom making me practice piano when I’d rather go play.



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