personal


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.


05

Mar 2009

No Excuse Not to Learn in China

calligraphy

Learning by minxlj

Many an eager young laowai has arrived in China with the goal of learning the language. This is an undertaking I whole-heartedly support. But why stop with Chinese? Human labor is high in supply and low in price here, and this principle applies to all kinds of teaching and training services as well.

What can you learn in China besides Chinese? Tons of things. Here are some examples:

  • Cooking (there are a million styles of Chinese cuisine, appreciated all over the world)
  • Musical instruments (eastern or western, from guzhen or erhu to drums or guitar, it’s all here)
  • Sports & martial arts (from tennis or soccer to tai chi or even taekwondo)
  • Art (drawing, painting, scultpure, calligraphy, etc.)
  • Chess, Chinese chess (象棋), go (围棋), “Connect Five” (五子棋), mahjongg (麻将) etc.
  • Other foreign languages or dialects (rather high Chinese level recommended)

The more international your city, the more your options. For example, I know one person studying taekwondo in Shanghai, but taekwondo, not being Chinese, is probably not an option everywhere in China, whereas cooking and musical instruments will be.

I had better head off a few excuses here:

learning piano

Learning by M. Hoffmann

Language is not a huge issue. If you’re a student of Chinese, using and hearing Chinese to learn something else will only enhance and accelerate your acquisition of Chinese. The more physically demonstrable the subject matter (e.g. cooking or musical instruments), the less your Chinese ability will matter.  If you’re not studying Chinese or are really just way too early in your studies to apply it to another field of study, you should still be able to find a teacher. Tutoring an English-speaking foreigner is an opportunity that many teachers will jump at; it allows them to practice their English while focusing on exactly the language that applies to their field of expertise.

There are channels to help you find tutors. The Chinese way is to start by asking your friends and acquaintances for recommendations or introductions. In addition, some universities provide cheap tutoring services by offering their students as tutors, and collecting only a small processing fee. Going through such an agency makes it easier to switch tutors if necessary and to add additional study subjects if you so wish. (My alma mater, East China Normal University in Shanghai, offers such a service. I’ve used it in the past, and can attest to both its affordability and effectiveness.) There are also small companies which offer various kinds of tutoring or training at market rates; just ask for some help in finding them.

You have time if you’re really interested. I’ve been feeling especially busy with work lately, but I’m not a machine, so I still take time to relax at night. Watching DVDs or surfing the net are two ways to unwind, but if I’m taking lessons in something I genuinely enjoy, it’s a much more satisfying way to spend my free time. So I’ve just recently signed up for a weekly piano lesson in a small school near my home. (Click here to see what the school charges for lessons.)

I’ve always regretted not studying piano (or some instrument) when I was younger. China has given me a very affordable second chance, although I didn’t recognize it immediately. If, like me, you live in China and have been wanting to take lessons of some kind but denying yourself for some reason or another, hopefully this little nudge will help you to get out there and start learning!


03

Mar 2009

Flawed Plan

From Twitter, ajatt says:

> Another problem with going to the country to learn the language is that by design, just as your skill is peaking, it’s time to leave.

I can attest to that. It’s one of the big reasons I never left China.

I once did have a plan to stay in various countries for relatively short periods of time, just long enough to gain fluency. It does make me wonder… who is heartless enough to leapfrog across the globe, mastering one language after another, gaining precious insight into those cultures, only to leave each one behind?


23

Feb 2009

Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice

Commenter 維特利 recently made this observation:

From reading different blogs I see that there are two kind of situations in mixed families in China:

  1. American husbands speak Chinese with their Chinese wives and therefore wives aren’t fluent in English.
  2. Chinese wives speak English with their American husbands and therefore American husbands aren’t fluent in Chinese.

It looks like that real bilingual families are not easy to find:-)

The comment rings true, and it’s something I always suspected was partly due to language-learning motivation of one of the parties. In my case, I preferred not to date Chinese girls that wanted to speak to me in English because I was in China to practice Chinese, and at least this way I could be sure I wasn’t being used. (I wasn’t just using, of course… I did fall in love.) Still, this explanation isn’t terribly compelling. Not every cross-cultural relationship is sparked by a burning desire to learn a language.

A study by Ingrid Piller called Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication examined the languages used by German- and English-speaking cross-cultural couples and made some interesting observations.

In the following excerpt from the study, Deborah speaks English and her husband speaks German:

Deborah: […] well, my husband and I decided to speak English together, and I guess mainly that has to do with the fact, that, when I first arrived here in Germany two years ago his English was considerably better then my German, and in order for us to communicate, even on a basic level, it was- it was necessary for us to speak English. And I think we’ve just kept that up, because it became a habit, and also I think it’s sort of a, … a way for him to offer some sort of sacrifice to ME. because I had to give up, all my things, my culture, my language, my family, and my friends, to move to Germany. and he had everything here around him. And I guess the only thing he COULD offer me was his language. […] it- it’s STRANGE for us when we speak German with each other. because we met in the States, he was teaching German at the university where I had studied. and I had already graduated but he was giving me private lessons. and that’s how we became friends, and we just spoke English together THEN. and we have always spoken English together, and it just seems strange that- that once I came here, that we should then speak German. […]

It’s interesting that Deborah sees her husband speaking English as a sacrifice, because I think both my wife and I see our communication in Chinese rather than English as an opportunity sacrifice for her which was necessary not just because I was enthusiastic about learning Chinese, but also because it’s more important for me to be fluent in Chinese in China than it is for her to be fluent in English in China.

The excerpt above was followed by this analysis (bold mine):

Deborah finds it strange to use the majority language with her husband because that is not what they did when they first met. The fact that couples find it difficult to change from the language of their first meeting to another one can probably be explained with the close relationship between language and identity. In a number of studies in the 1960s, Ervin(-Tripp) (1964; 1968) found that language choice is much more than only the choice to the medium. Rather, content is affected, too. In a number of experiments, that have unfortunately not been replicated since, she demonstrated that in Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) the content of picture descriptions changed with the language (English or French) a person used. When she asked English-Japanese bilingual women to do a sentence completion test, she got the same dramatic results: the sentence completion changed from one language to the other. Her most famous example is probably that of a woman completing the stimulus “When my wishes conflict with my family…” with “It is a time of great unhappiness” in Japanese, and with “I do what I want” in English (Ervin-Tripp 1968: 203). Likewise, Koven (1998) shows in her study of the narratives of French-Portuguese bilinguals that the self is performed differently in these languages. She argues that these differing performances point to contrasting experiences and positional identities in the two linguistic communities. So, there is evidence that bilinguals say different things in different languages, which makes it quite obvious why intercultural couples stick to the language of their first meeting: they might lose the sense of knowing each other, the sense of connectedness and the rapport derived from knowing what the other will say in advance if they switched.

Very interesting (and a little scary).

Yet I’d still like my wife to know the English-speaking me better, and I would hope that someday not too distant the Chinese-speaking me can converse with a bit more sophistication. Meanwhile, the English-speaking her is shy, but shows a lot of promise.

People change. Identities evolve. Maybe it’s not the norm, but I imagine marital language relationships can develop too.


21

Feb 2009

Counterfeit Money, Payrolls, and Banks

I received this e-mail from a reader recently:

I just read your piece on counterfeit money. I work for a school in a western province which paid me just before NY. About one third was counterfeit money which I’m having a tough time with, groceries to buy, transportation and so on; nobody wants to take my money and school isn’t back in for another month. My employer is out of the country and doesn’t return my emails. What to do with counterfeit money which he got from the bank himself?

I wasn’t sure how to answer this… My first thought was that the employer was lying, and he didn’t really get it from the bank. He might easily have bought a bunch of counterfeit bills himself, and cut all his employees’ paychecks (or maybe just certain ones’) with them to save money on his payroll.

That said, I live in Shanghai, and I’m not sure how things work in the “western provinces.” The banks themselves could be mixed up in counterfeiting as well. Does anyone have any experience? (中国朋友,不要害羞!写中文也可以。)



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