personal


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。)


09

Feb 2009

Buying a Wii in China

A while back I blogged about buying a PS2 in China, and there was a lot of interest. There’s not much to say about PS3, because it is so far uncracked/unpirated, so everyone who plays PS3 here imports everything. Games are 2-300 RMB each. XBox 360 has similar status re: pirating to Wii in China, but I have almost no experience with it, so will limit my observations to the Wii and its games.

Nintendo does not officially sell the Wii in the People’s Republic of China, so buyers must purchase an imported system. While previously Japanese Wii systems were the most common, now Korean imports are becoming more common. I imagine it is possible buy the Wii imported from the United States and other countries as well.

These are the prices I was quoted at my local video game shop:

– Basic Wii system (one controller) imported from Korea: 1580 RMB
– Installation of WiiGator “backup launcher” (which allows you to play “backup copy” AKA pirated games): free
– Extra Wii controller set (Wii remote + “nunchuk”): 450 RMB
– Wii Fit imported from Japan (with Wii Fit game/software): 800 RMB
– 10 games (not imported, obviously) – free

Wii!

All games work fine as long as you load them through the WiiGator Gamma Backup Launcher 0.3. The system also comes preloaded with Homebrew and Softchip (an alternate backup launcher). The shopkeeper told me only to use the WiiGator Gamma Backup Launcher, but I did actually try out the Softchip launcher, and it worked for most games. The (Korean) Mii section, however, does not work at all. I’ve heard that it can easily be enabled; the shopkeeper I talked to said it’s a waste of precious memory. I didn’t buy any memory upgrades, and so far I’m doing fine without it.

Just like PS2 and XBox 360 games, Wii discs sell in Shanghai for 5 RMB each.

It is expected that “backup launchers” and other alternate Wii firmware will continue to make strides. Currently, for example, online access is impossible, and attempts to use it will likely lock down the offending Wii system. In the event that alternate firmware does release better versions, it’s understood that shopkeepers will upgrade the firmware of their customers’ systems free of charge.

I can’t actually help you buy a Wii; this information is for reference only. If you’re interested, please also see Buying a Wii in Taiwan, a sister blog post by my friend Mark, who lives in Taiwan.


02

Feb 2009

John DeFrancis

I’ve been feeling guilty for a month for not saying something about John DeFrancis’s passing. I have have no words more eloquent or meaningful than these three, however:

– Victor Mair (on Language Log)
– David Moser (on The China Beat)
– Brendan O’Kane (on his site)

Not surprisingly, I especially liked (and identified with) Brendan’s. If you don’t know DeFrancis and you’re at all interested in Chinese, by all means, check out the man’s work.

I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until recent word of DeFrancis’s death that I realized when it was that I first read The China Language: Fact and Fantasy. While I was studying in Japan in 1997, I checked it out from the Kansai Gaidai library. It was perhaps that book, more than anything, that kindled the spark of interest I had in Chinese, impelling me to formally study it after I went back to the U.S., and ultimately to travel to China after graduation.

Thank you, John DeFrancis.


29

Jan 2009

Video Games for Lunch

Happy 牛 Year and all that. I took a bit of a break from blogging this month, and I’ve got a bit of a backlog of things to write about… many just tiny observations like this one.

Last week my wife and I went to DeAll Korean restaurant in Hongqiao for the lunch buffet. The restuarant is typically full of Koreans at lunchtime.

We were amused by the “interaction” at this table of kids:

Korean Kids at Lunch

(Hey, what else are you going to do at lunch?)


19

Jan 2009

Looking Both Ways

I was reading the book Nudge recently, and this passage struck me as odd:

> Visitors to London who come from the United States or Europe have a problem being safe pedestrians. They have spent their entire lives expecting cars to come at them from the left, and their Automatic System knows to look that way. But in the United Kingdom automobiles drive on the left-hand side of the road, and so the danger often comes from the right. Many pedestrian accidents occur as a result. The city of London tries to help with good design. On many corners, especially in neighborhoods frequented by tourists, the pavement has signs that say, “Look right!” (91)


I learned to drive in high school as a 15-year-old through a driver’s ed class. The only really vivid memory I have of that class occurred in a road test. The instructor was in the passenger seat, and he had his own brake. I was stopped at a red light.

When the light turned green, I confidently stepped on the gas. The instructor immediately broke hard, giving me quite a jolt. I glanced up to see that, yes, the light was green. I turned to the instructor, expecting an explanation for his mistake. But no, he was livid.

What are you doing?” he demanded.

“I’m going straight. The light’s green!” I replied.

“Did you look to see if there were any cars coming from the left or right?”

“No, but the light was green,” I insisted weakly.

You didn’t even look, and that can get you killed. I don’t care if the light is green. You still have to look.”


The key part of the Nudge passage was this: “who come from the United States or Europe.” Drivers from those countries have very rigid expectations for pedestrian behavior. Likewise, traffic patterns are so regular and predictable that pedestrians only really need to look one way when they cross the street, no matter what they supposedly learned in driver’s ed.

It’s easy to call traffic in countries like China or Mexico chaotic and uncivilized, and there’s clearly some progress to be made, but isn’t it better for pedestrians to be putting a bit more effort into protecting their lives? Isn’t it better for drivers to be a bit more alert for unpredictable pedestrian behavior?

At the very least, I’m pretty sure after living in China, I don’t have to worry too much about crossing the street in London.


05

Jan 2009

Spelunkying

While I’d like to kick off the new year with an interesting post about language, I’ve been enjoying myself too much recently to put one together. I’ve become addicted to a cool independent game called Spelunky.

Spelunky: Level 1

Spelunky has cool retro pixel graphics. It’s kind of like Super Mario Brothers (physics) + Zelda (items) + Indiana Jones (theme). What really makes it unique, though, is its random level generation. The game most famous for this is the old 1980 classic Rogue, but Spelunky does it in a more sophisticated, fun way.

Spelunky: Level 5

You play randomly generated level after randomly generated level, knowing you will never play them again. And you die many, many times. Randomly generated levels strewn with enemies and traps are often very unfair, yet the design is sufficiently balanced and full of surprises that you keep coming back for more… again and again and again.

Spelunky: Level 9

Well done, Derek Yu. It’s innovative games like this that make me glad I still have a PC and not just a Mac.


Another noteworthy diversion I’ve spent some time on lately is MS Paint Adventures, a webcomic recommended by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. I say “webcomic” because, well… it’s kind of weird. It’s a webcomic pretending to be a Choose Your Own Adventure, posing as a late 80’s Sierra adventure game (think King’s Quest or Space Quest), with elements of RPG and other adventure game genres.

MS Paint Adventures

This one’s not for everyone, as you can probably guess by the above image. If you got all the references in my description above, though, you just might like it a lot.


Have a great 2009… and don’t forget to play!


21

Dec 2008

Dog VS Cat, plus Thoughts

Recently discovered this hilarious video on Youku. Be sure to watch it to the end.

The video appears to be from Taiwan.

This got me thinking… “funny animal videos” (along with “cute baby videos”) belong to a small set of video types which has universal appeal. If you watch funny animal videos on Youku, you’ll notice that most of them come from outside China, and were simply “ported to” (copied and uploaded to) Youku. Obviously, it could go the other way as well, but for now, that’s less common. Why aren’t more “funny animals videos” from China?

Well there are a number of reasons… Household pets are not as common in China yet, and video equipment may not be quite as prevalent (although it must be getting close!). As these two increase, you can reasonably expect the filming of pets to increase, and with that the number of funny animal videos coming from China.

So I wonder… how long do we have before the majority of these videos come from China?


16

Nov 2008

ACTFL, here I come!

This year Ken Carroll and I will be representing Praxis Language at the ACTFL 2008 Convention in Orlando, Florida.

I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the brightest and most passionate language educators that my country has to offer. If you will be in attendance and would like to meet up, by all means, send me an e-mail.


03

Nov 2008

Remember that thesis thing?

I announced way back in May that I passed my master’s thesis defense, and I promised to write more about it, but you’ve seen very little about it here. Why? Let me explain.

First, once the thesis was over, all I wanted to do was breathe a sigh of relief and forget about the thesis for a while. I was in no big rush to blog about the content of my thesis.

After my thesis was behind me, I became much more caught up in work. I found it hard to find good blocks of time to devote to putting my thesis findings on my website. The procrastination that served me so well in the early days of my thesis work had returned to help me out with the thesis website aftermath.

I had long planned to do it all over the October holiday, but laziness and a few days of flu destroyed that plan. It’s much easier to do quick one-off blog posts than to dig back into my research, so it has remained untouched.

Realizing that it will never happen if I don’t put forth a more determined effort, I have decided to put time aside to work on it instead of blogging. So I won’t be blogging at all until I finally get my thesis experiment results up on my website. I expect to finish it this coming weekend (November 9ish).

What you can expect:

– A new item in my Language section devoted to my thesis
– An overview of the experimental procedure
– An overview of the results
– A blog post or two discussing various aspects of the process

I’m not sure whether I’ll put the actual full thesis up for download. I’m definitely not translating the whole thing, but I might put it up in its original Chinese. The only problem is that a data error was identified after I completed my thesis, so if I do put it up, I’ll want to put up a corrected version. That will take more time. We’ll see.


Nov. 10 Update: Taking longer than I expected. (Forgot I don’t have MS Office 2007 on my computer right now, which I need…)

Nov. 16 Update: I’m running into some MS Office-related problems, but more importantly, I have to prepare for a business trip, so this project is going to have to be put on hold again.


29

Oct 2008

Black Toothpaste Video

I was searching Youku for interesting Chinese videos about Obama, but all I could find were a few CCTV news clips. If only average Chinese young people liked to video themselves talking about all sorts of topics and put it online, like American kids do on YouTube!

In the process, I ended up doing a search for 黑人 (“black person/people”). Most of the search results were rap or hip hop or dance related, but there was one bizarre one that stood out:

It’s not even Chinese (not related to “Black Man Toothpaste“); it looks like Thai to me. Apparently the Chinese have no monopoly on bizarre/offensive use of black people in toothpaste advertising.


27

Oct 2008

The Great Firewall of China: Coming to a Browser Near You

China Channel Firefox Add-on

Now anyone can have the frustration of the Great Firewall of China in the comfort of his own home, thanks to the China Channel Firefox Add-on:

> The Firefox add-on China Channel offers internet users outside of China the ability to surf the web as if they were inside mainland China. Take an unforgetable virtual trip to China and experience the technical expertise of the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (supported by western companies). It’s open source, free and easy.

Via TechCrunch.


27

Oct 2008

Danwei and Sinosplice on US-China Today

Yao Xu has written an article for US-China Today titled Expatriate Blogs: An Online Community. For me, one of the highlights of the article was this photo:

The Danwei Crew

At first I thought it was just a random picture of some backpacking foreigners visiting the Great Wall, but then I recognized that red head of hair and that big curly head of hair. It’s a (rare?) group photo of some of the members of Danwei.org! (Left to right: Eric Mu, Jeremy Goldkorn, Joel Martinsen, Banyue.)

There’s also a Sinosplice-related quote from me in there:

> Pasden poked fun at some of China’s issues in the humor section of his blog, “A Pictorial Guide to Life in China.” On a serious note, Pasden says that he has gradually come to an understanding with the country and its problems.

> “Over time I’ve gotten a bit more sympathetic to the Chinese situation,” he said. “The truth is that taking care of 1.3 billion people and their environment at the same time is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. So while it’s true that China is still pretty dirty compared to the West, I don’t make fun of the problem like I used to. As a semi-permanent resident, it’s my problem too. I breathe this air and drink this water.”

Ah yes… I’m kinder and more sensitive now (but my lungs are dirtier).



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