personal


11

Aug 2008

Cucumber Jenga

Jenga

Flickr photo by sadeog

At lunch with co-workers Christophe (of FrenchPod) and Marco (of ItalianPod), we noticed something interesting on the photo-laden menu. In the photo of the obligatory raw cucumber dish, the pieces were curiously arranged. In fact, they looked just like a stack of Jenga pieces. Cucumber Jenga pieces.

We had to investigate. The waitress said that yes, it looked like that. Yes, it was 6 or 7 layers high (enough for a game of Jenga). Satisfied, we placed our Cucumber Jenga order. It arrived with the pieces on the plate in an entirely un-Jenga-like configuration.

Not to be thwarted so easily, we erected our own Jenga stack. Oh yes, it worked.

Cucumber Jenga: The Setup

We realized intuitively that Cucumber Jenga should be played with chopsticks.

Cucumber Jenga: Game On!

It didn’t last long, because our other food arrived, and we were hungry. Marco lost.

One interesting feature of the game from an architectural standpoint is the shape of the pieces. They’re rough quarter-cylinders, not rectangular solids. Obviously, this makes a difference to the structure of the tower.

Engineers and fellow vegetable gamers, if you’re interested, the restaurant is at 886 Loushanguan Road, just a bit south of Changning Road (娄山关路886号,近云雾山路) [Dianping link]. You’ll know you’re at the right place when you check the menu and spot the Cucumber Jenga. [Note: It may be possible to play this game even without going to said restaurant.]

Give it a try. More fun than Moon Cake Shuffleboard, guaranteed.


Related Jenga Dishes on Flickr:

Asparagus Jenga Potato Wedge Jenga Fish Stick Jenga French Fry Jenga


08

Aug 2008

8 8 8 8

It’s August 8, 2008 (08-08-08), and I’ve now been in China 8 years. (Yes, it’s my Chinaversary!)

It almost feels like something special should be happening on this day…


Related: There’s a #080808 craze sweeping the internet! (via Ryan)


03

Aug 2008

The Future of Live Music in Shanghai

Prophetic words from Brad Ferguson:

> I think live music in Shanghai is going to continue to suck progressively less and less over the next few years, and eventually it won’t suck. [source]

Elegantly put.

It’s too bad about Windows Underground, though. Without either live music or Brad’s presence (and music collection), I’m pretty much out of reasons to go there. (Their 10 RMB “special hamburgers” are pretty good, but not that good.)


01

Aug 2008

DVD-selling Tenacity

From the SmartShanghai newsletter:

> This week’s newsletter goes out to my DVD lady, who not even one day after being told to shut shop by the filth, opened right up again and ripped me off on a shite copy of Hellboy II.

> That’s the kind of tenacity that’s going to make this the century of China.

I’ve heard about the “Olympic DVD Crackdown,” but I haven’t tried to buy any lately. With my computer in the shop, though (it was the video card fan that broke, causing the computer to overheat and shut down), I might try.


28

Jul 2008

Solitude, Basketball, and Rain

I’m not sure what “reverse culture shock” is, really. I never feel a “shock,” or a strong sense of being out of place while I’m home in the USA. Perhaps I never go back for long enough. There are always different things that I notice, though. I’m well beyond “wow, Americans are fat” observations. This past trip, my most poignant “American” experience was on a basketball court.

I’d been meaning to practice my shot. I’ve played basketball precious little since I moved to Shanghai, years ago, and it shows.

There’s a little park with a basketball court in my parents’ neighborhood in Tampa. The park is public, but it’s usually empty. Since all I wanted to do was practice my shot, an empty court was exactly what I was looking for.

My second trip to the park was the last day of my visit. It was great to have the court all to myself while I slowly worked my shot back towards the “acceptable” range. As I felt the first few fat drops of rain, I knew that no one would be joining me.

In Florida when it rains, it rains with a sense of purpose. The rain comes down in earth-drenching torrents, but within several hours the sky is clear again. In Shanghai, on the other hand, the rain dawdles. It rains lightly, in stops and starts, for days, accomplishing little more than the creation of mud and the destruction of mood.

As the rain soaked me on the court, I felt amazingly clean. The ground looked just-washed. The rainwater in the gutter rushing to the storm drain was crystal clear. I walked home, acid-free rain in my eyes, feeling enormously satisfied.

I don’t blame China for what it is, but this combination of solitude, basketball, and rain cannot be had there.

rainy court
Photo by purrfecjisteq on Flickr


26

Jul 2008

The Name Nazi in Chinese Translation

Reader Kevin informs me that one of my classic blog entries, The Name Nazi Defied, has been translated into Chinese and widely circulated. Totally uncredited, of course.

It’s actually very good to see interest in what I had to say about the choosing of English names, and if you look at the comments on the postings, they’re mostly in agreement. It would be nice to be credited, though.

Here are a few of the translation postings:

老外受不了:中国学生这样的英文名让人耻笑
老外都受不了!中国学生取这样的英文名只能让人耻笑
老外都受不了!中国学生取这样的英文名只能让人耻笑

Oh, and in case you’re curious, they translated “Name Nazi” as “姓名纳粹.” (“姓名” seems like an odd choice for “name,” considering it was pretty much all and no involved in the nazi-ing, but oh well…)


22

Jul 2008

13 o'clock

Those of us that learn Mandarin according to the Beijing standard typically learn the expression 二百五 pretty early. While it seems to be the innocent number “250,” it actually has a slang meaning: “stupid” or “idiot.”

13 o'clock

Zhao Wei: 十三点

Those of us spending time in China’s south eventually come to a realization: you don’t hear 二百五 that much around here. What you do hear, especially in Shanghai, is 十三点 (“13 o’clock”). While it means basically the same thing as the north’s 二百五, it’s milder, often approaching something more like “silly” or “dopey” (in Chinese, 傻得可爱, or “cutely silly”).

Interestingly, Baidu Zhidao even gives us a poster child for the 十三点 look: a character once played by actress Zhao Wei (赵薇).

Baidu tells us that when it’s used between two people of the opposite sex, it’s often used in flirting (and most often comes out of the girl’s mouth).

As for origins of the expression, Baidu Zhidao gives us two main theories:

1. It’s a reference to an illegal move in a gambling game (6 and 7 can’t be played at the same time, and they add up to 13)
2. It’s a reference to an hour that traditional clocks do not strike (no military time back then!)

13 o'clock

13 o’clock: the shirt!

I thought 十三点 might be a fun thing to put on a shirt (more fun than “250” anyway), so I made this new one. I think it’s the kind of thing that laowai would enjoy wearing to see what kind of reaction it gets out of the Chinese, whereas the Chinese can’t fathom why a foreigner would possibly want to wear a shirt with that on it. (Good times all around!)

The Sinosplice shop has other conversation-starting Chinese-themed t-shirts.


19

Jul 2008

End of Vacation

I’m back from the States with a new visa. I realize now it was a much-needed vacation.

My computer here in Shanghai seems to be infected with a virus (it keeps abruptly shutting off, especially when I use Skype or anti-virus software), so I’m reinstalling Windows today. It’s about time anyway… it’s been almost 2 years on this one install. Still, this kind of thing pushes me one step closer to wanting to buy a Mac.

Anyway, scheduled programming to resume shortly.


12

Jul 2008

Mini-Interview with The World

The World, an online public radio program from the BBC, did a brief audio interview with me last week, and it appeared in today’s edition. Here’s a direct link to the 4-minute piece [MP3 download].

To visitors from The World, the work I do on Chinese lessons is actually on a separate site called ChinesePod. Check it out; it’s the best way to learn practical spoken Chinese.

In the interview I talk about my struggles with the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, (basically very similar to what I’ve covered in my pronunciation section). There are other features of interest to the student of Chinese in the language section of Sinosplice.

Thanks a lot to Dan Washburn for pointing The World’s reporter my way.


10

Jul 2008

Fried Dill Pickles

I’m enjoying being home in Tampa without much to do. My dad’s computer doesn’t have Chinese support installed, and the option to add it is grayed out in the appropriate Windows setting screen. I think I can get it installed if I manage to find the Windows install disk, but taking a 10-day vacation even from Chinese characters themselves almost seems like a good idea.

So last night I was having a few $3 pints of Sam Adams (so much cheaper than in Shanghai!) with my sister and her friends, finding out all sorts of new ways I’ve fallen out of touch with American culture, when I discovered the bar served fried dill pickle spears. Of course, I ordered them immediately, and they were delicious in that weird “fried pickle” way that you might expect. (I’d post a picture, but there’s not much point, because they just look like big french fries.)

Ah, America. Still the intrepid innovator.


03

Jul 2008

Visa Games

This week I’ve been busy gathering paperwork so I can (1) go all the way back to the U.S. to get my new work visa, and (2) graduate for real, like… for real. (And you thought passing the defense was enough? Nope, sorry… Not nearly enough red tape to make it final.)

I’m not too bitter about visa inconveniences brought on by the Olympics. It’ll be good to see my family and take a decent-length vacation from work (a vacation where I have no thesis to work on).

One of my American co-workers has been trying really hard to get to the Olympics this summer, but I can’t stay far enough away. With all the hype and over-the-top emotional build-up, I can’t imagine the Olympics in Beijing turning out better than a half-victory. Lots of things are bound to go wrong, but many will go right.

What I want to know is: after all this is over, what proportion of this country is going to scratch its collective head and wonder, what were we thinking?


28

Jun 2008

China Alltop

The new aggregator in town is Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop, and it’s almost four months old. I really have to wonder if there’s still much of a future for aggregation sites, now that RSS Readers are so freely available. I’ll put that debate aside for now, though.

I became aware of China Alltop when Sinosplice was added to it. I don’t have time to read many blogs these days, but browsing over the various blogs and news sources aggregated on China Alltop, the big ones all seemed to be represented. It’s a good collection of China blogs.

One thing bothered me, though. Some of the most well-known and well-respected blogs (no, not this one!) were buried somewhere down the middle of the page. I started a dialogue with Mr. Kawasaki via Twitter, which led to an e-mail.

Specifically, I argued for higher placement of EastSouthWestNorth, Danwei, China Law Blog, and RConversation, and the addition of the China IWOM Blog (I should have mentioned Peking Duck too!). To my pleasant surprise, the changes were made within hours.

I’m still skeptical about the idea that a limited, static list of blogs can stay current and compete with individuals’ personalized feed readers in this crazy Web 2.0 world, but I’m very impressed with Guy Kawasaki’s willingness to listen and enthusiasm for his product. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.


Related: The China Blog List is still going… Not long ago, all dead blogs were purged. It’s now in the process of collecting more new blogs.


22

Jun 2008

My God

欧,MY GOD!

It’s Euro Cup time, and as soccer fans, the Chinese are loving it. This punny headline caught my eye: “,MY GOD!” is a character most often used to mean “Europe,” but it sounds like the English interjection “oh.” “Euro Cup” in Chinese is 欧洲杯.

This headline took me back to my English teaching days and an issue I faced frequently back then. It bothered me when my Chinese students said “oh my God” in English. It’s not an uncommon expression, and as a fair translation of the Chinese exclamation “(我的天哪!” its use came to them easily. So what was the problem?

Well, raised in a traditional Catholic family, I had been taught not to use God’s name in vain. There was a commandment expressly forbidding this linguistic behavior, and it wasn’t even #10, but #2, way ahead of more obvious sins like stealing and killing.

I learned pretty quickly that most people (Christian or not) didn’t adhere to this commandment. I always thought it was interesting… it was a habit that was pretty easy not to get into, but almost everyone did, ostensibly because it was defined as a sin by Judeo-Christian dogma. And then the people that didn’t openly violate the second commandment still used obvious substitutes, like “geez” and “gosh.” This kind of behavior struck me as very similar to adolescent rebellion (in both its strong and weak forms), but on a sociolinguistic scale. It was also interesting to me as an example of a chicken-egg cultural phenomenon.

So I had perspective on the whole “taking God’s name in vain” thing, and I had no real problem with other English-speakers’ “my God” exclamations. I never imposed my own beliefs on other people; I just didn’t use the expression myself.

With my Chinese students, however, it was different. These were students with no Judeo-Christian cultural background. They weren’t willfully violating a commandment of a foreign god; they were simply using the language they had learned in a textbook. I recognized this, but I felt they should be aware of the cultural implications. I never told them not to say “oh my God,” but I taught them what the Judeo-Christian second commandment taught, and pointed out that they would never hear me use that expression. They needed to know this, because while I was perhaps not representative of the average native English speaker, I was not a total anomaly. Some people are actually offended by the phrase “oh my God,” and I didn’t want my students to be completely confounded if it ever happened to them. More important, I wanted my students to appreciate this real-life example of culture’s grip on language which their education up to that point had never touched upon.

Unsurprisingly, some students took my point to heart as a significant cultural issue, while others brushed it off.

This “oh my God” issue led me to consider its parallel in Chinese: is saying 天哪 in Chinese a violation of the second commandment? I asked a devout Catholic Chinese friend about this. She gave me a pained look, revealing that I had just opened a can of worms with which she was well acquainted. My Chinese wasn’t good enough at the time to understand everything that she said, but the answer she gave me was something like, “maybe, sometimes.

Ah, there are times when questions of religion and language make one long for simpler pursuits… Like watching a soccer game.


18

Jun 2008

Firefox 3 + Gladder

The Chinese internet has been all kinds of slow lately. Foreign sites load extremely sluggishly, and I can’t upload to Flickr at all.

Enter Firefox 3! The Chinese internet is still damn slow, but at least the browser is faster! Gmail works dramatically faster.

The one problem with upgrading immediately is that many Firefox addons might not be up to date and no longer work. Actually, though, most of these plugins can be forced to work by editing the compatible version range in the XPI file. Since I’ve started using Gladder as my proxy tool of choice, I can’t live without it. I figure some of you may be in the same boat, so I’m sharing my unofficial, hacked Gladder XPI file:

Gladder 2.0.2.1: unofficial hack for Firefox 3.0

I imagine this is not really a good thing to do, so use only at your own risk. (I just want Wikipedia back.)

Thanks to John B for showing me how to do this.


13

Jun 2008

False Teeth

I can recall a time when I desperately wanted to know what Chinese people around me were saying. It was perhaps narcissistic, but I suspected they were talking about me probably a lot more than they really were. When I got to the point that I could eavesdrop and understand what people were talking about, the reality was hard to accept. These people weren’t discussing me, kung fu, or even the mystic qualities of qi. They were just talking about daily life things. Like normal people. Imagine that!

So, listening in on conversations turned out to be less rewarding than I originally imagined. Still, every now and then I hear something interesting. I overheard this “newbie-level” exchange between two old men the other day on a Shanghai street as I passed by:

> Old Man 1: 你的牙齿! (Your teeth are great!)

> Old Man 2: 假的! (They’re fake!)

> Old Man 1: 假的? (Fake?)

> Old Man 2: 假的! (Fake!)

Yes, old Chinese men talk about old men things too!


11

Jun 2008

Link Love for LanguagePods

I finally finished my masters, but I don’t find myself with lots of extra time for blogging. Why? Because we’re doing so much at work lately. So rather than working on my blog, it’s time for blogging on my work:

  • FrenchPod. I never planned to learn French in this lifetime (“international language has-been,” I say!), but being involved with FrenchPod, I have gotten sucked in. The FrenchPod Four make a great team, and they’re producing engaging, fun lessons. Check out Can you take a picture? (MP3) for a great sample of the power of creative dialogue in the proper audio context.

    I have to say, though, that French is the only other language besides Chinese that has absolutely confounded me with pronunciation. Just as Chinese has its tones, French has its vowels. (Well, I did manage to tame those tones, and some might even say they’re harder than French vowels…) Anyway, I’m getting a lot more exposure to French than I ever have before; the FrenchPod team sits right behind me at work.

  • ItalianPod. It’s the newest, youngest, smallest LanguagePod from Praxis yet, and it is really impressive. Marco has been livening up the office with his Italian antics for months, but it’s great to see him pouring his energies into lessons, now that Catherine is also here. Be sure to listen to You need a girlfriend (MP3), which gives the French some good competition in the romance department.

    Italian has never been high on my list of languages to learn, but after being exposed to downright unhealthy amounts of Italian at work (they really don’t care if you understand them or not), this whole “speaking Italian” thing is looking like a lot of fun (even without factoring in Italian Spiderman!).

  • ChinesePod Olympics. If you’re interested in that whole “Beijing 2008” sporting event coming up, this cool mini-site has the language you need covered. The design is very slick, totally separate from the rest of the site. Co-worker Clay did an awesome job designing it. My favorite part: the Olympic Beijing map. Click around!
  • JennyZhu.com. This one isn’t directly related to what I do at work, but the biggest star of our company has started a blog and is all of a sudden blogging regularly. Jenny is a joy to work with and a really interesting person. There aren’t enough Chinese voices in the English-speaking China blogosphere, and Jenny’s is definitely one worth paying attention to.
  • Finally, in this work-saturated post, I have to give a shout out to ChinesePod (my roots), to SpanishPod (the original fiesta), and to Ken Carroll (our mentor and inspiration).


02

Jun 2008

Comments on Google VS Baidu

David DeGeest pointed me (via Twitter) to an interesting article: Google vs. Baidu: A User Experience Analysis. I suspect most readers of my blog are already quite familiar with Baidu and much of the content of the article, but I did find several points very interesting.

On searching “subprime mortgage” (次级房贷):

>This time google.cn appears to do much better than Baidu. But if we look closely at the top 20 search results, we’ll find there are 7 results at google.com and 5 results at google.cn that direct us to Web sites that use traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and by the overseas Chinese community.

> It can be rather challenging for the mainland Chinese to read traditional Chinese, though they can understand most of the message. Nonetheless, this mix of simplified and traditional Characters is not the most user-friendly approach. Verdict: Baidu wins.

I was somewhat surprised by this conclusion. While it’s true that reading simplified characters is more comfortable for the average mainland Chinese citizen, one would think that breadth of search counts for something. If, for example, I’m doing a search on a Taiwanese politician, I’m likely going to want to see articles from Taiwan (which will be in traditional characters). I also know for a fact that many of my Chinese friends prize very highly information sources from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

I’m not saying the author is wrong in his conclusion, though. I think that the Chinese people I hang out with are a rather international-minded bunch. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Also, while the whole subprime thing is not at all a favorite conversation topic of mine, when I hear it referred to in Chinese, it’s usually by the abbreviated name 次贷. The search numbers for this term are a bit different:

Baidu: 6,940,000 results (compared to 1,050,000)
Google.com: 2,180,000 results (compared to 387,000)
Google.cn: 2,220,000 results (compared to 1,540,000)

Clearly, searching for 次贷 gives Baidu a clear advantage. I realize perhaps the author was trying to go for the “translation feel” in his search results, but it’s interesting to see the results of the same search “with Chinese linguistic characteristics.”


31

May 2008

Shanghai Diaries, Underground Windows

Dan Washburn isn’t the only one keeping an online “Shanghai diary.” I just recently ran into Aric Queen and found out he has his own video Shanghai Diaries.

Aric was involved in ChinesePod in its early days (that’s where I met him), and was host of the much-loved ChinesePod Saturday Show. Later he was involved in other events in Shanghai such as GigShanghai and GigLive (discontinued). I don’t know all the other projects he’s been working on lately, but he’s also been making regular DJ appearances at Windows Tembo, a bar managed by our mutual friend Brad.

Speaking of Windows Tembo, it has just moved to a new location on Nanjing Lu, and is now called Windows Underground (because it’s underground). Oh, also it has cool live indie music shows. The Grand Opening is tonight (698 Nanjing Xi Lu). I’ll be there.


23

May 2008

Eve of the Defense

It’s Friday night, and I’m doing the opposite of partying. Tomorrow morning I defend my masters thesis.

Originally I thought I’d be spending the evening going over my presentation, anticipating questions, and practicing my answers, but I suddenly got these three 硕士学位申请书 (Masters Degree Application Forms). I have to fill out six pages of academic history and mini-essays by hand (in Chinese, of course). In triplicate!

What a waste of my time. I can’t wait to graduate…


May 25 UPDATE: As some of you noticed from my Twitter status, I did, in fact pass my thesis defense. It actually went much smoother than I expected. I’ll write more on this soon.

In the meantime, even after my defense is over with and I have been granted an MA, I still have more paperwork to finish before it’s official. Arrgh…



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