personal


17

Sep 2008

This Mascot Hell is Just Beginning

Few would dispute that Beijing pulled off a very successful 2008 summer Olympics. Still, if you wanted to argue that there were five little flies in that craptaculicious ointment, they would be these guys:

Fuwa

The Fuwa (福娃). They’re lame.

Even the Beijing Olympic Committee seemed to get it… the Fuwa did not figure largely in the various displays of “China is so awesome.”

Now, as the Fuwa awkwardly fade into obscurity, Shanghai has to deal with a mascot far more horrible: Haibao (海宝). Yikes.

Haibao (海宝)

If you’re really a glutton for punishment, this song and video from the Shanghai 2010 World Expo website will have you cringing in no time.

It doesn’t stop at Haibao, though. Over the weekend, I found out that there’s a Shanghai Shopping Festival (上海购物节). Its very existence is absurd, but the worst part is that it has two more bad mascots: Kaikai (开开) and Xinxin (心心).

Shopping Festival Me with Kaikai

I’m not sure why China has decided to unleash this mascot hell upon us, but I have a sinking feeling that it has only just begun…


15

Sep 2008

Jobs and Internships at Praxis

Just a quick note about some open positions with the company I work for, Praxis Language (the ChinesePod people):

ChinesePod Product Manager. Help keep ChinesePod running smoothly, while contributing to the best Mandarin lesson on the net. Managerial experience, Chinese ability, and insight into education required. Full-time position in Shanghai.

ChinesePod Interns. Participate in the community and help us improve the product. Great for students of Chinese in Shanghai, as we can be flexible about the work times. Part-time position in Shanghai.

FrenchPod Lead Teacher. Help make the best podcasts for learning French. Teaching experience and fluency in French required, but you can’t be a native speaker of French — this teacher needs to have the learner perspective. Full-time position in Shanghai.

E-mail me if you’re interested in applying. Thanks!


03

Sep 2008

Failed Humor Begets Violence?

I read this article on Discovery.com last week: Telling Bad Jokes Invokes Hostility, Violence. It prompted me to reflect upon my struggles with humor in foreign languages, and in English too.

Random observations:

– The more familiar I am with the people I am with, the funnier I am. Thus, in my nuclear family I am a comedic superstar, while at work or when meeting people for the first time, not so much. Other friends fall somewhere in the middle.
– I never got very fluent in Spanish (and I’m definitely not at my high point now), but I never felt it was very hard to make jokes in Spanish. In general, the humor translated well across the cultural gap.
– It was verrry difficult to be funny in Japanese. Granted, I only lived in Japan for a year, so I wasn’t super fluent, but I repeatedly made efforts to be funny in conversations with friends, and I crashed and burned a lot. My homestay brothers mocked my failed attempts rather mercilessly. (Their cries of “さぶっ!” still haunt me.)
– It was kind of hard to make jokes in Chinese, but I never felt as much pressure to be witty as I did in Japanese. Furthermore, failed humor tends to result in confusion or non-comprehension rather than mockery.
– Even when I make a bad joke in Chinese, rarely does anyone call me on it. The exception, of course, is my wife (one of the funniest people I know), who dutifully reminds me that in Chinese, I am not very funny.

Based on my experiences, it seems like familiarity raises the stakes in humor. When you tell a joke to someone you’re close to, you either score big, or you lose big. And losing big can mean violence (according to the study)?

But I’m guessing that’s pretty cultural. I’m not at all surprised that it’s hard to be funny in France. This is a great quote from the article:

> “I may have been Nancy funny, but I was not French-speaking-Nancy funny,” she said.

I’m curious if any readers have had “violent” reactions to bad jokes in Asia.


Related: When Humor Runs Aground, Dumb Joke [on ChinesePod]


31

Aug 2008

The Chinese Shoryuken

Here’s another illustration from Black Back’s book, 我们丫丫吧:

1-dying

Two nice pop culture references there, but interested in Chinese onomatopoeia as I am, I can’t help but fixate on the Street Fighter sound effect label: 欧由根. This especially amuses me because I remember when I was playing Street Fighter II in high school, my friends and I could never quite agree on what the heck Ryu was saying. We always thought it was something like “Har-yookin,” but apparently at least some of the Chinese hear it as “oh-yoogun.”

For those of you who have no idea of what I’m talking about, or only a very fuzzy recollection, this video, taken directly from the Street Fighter II video game, has plenty of sound bites for you:

Anyway, curious, I Baidu’d the phrase and, on a page about 我们丫丫吧, found some interesting stuff. I couldn’t help trying to decipher these:

欧由根: the classic shoryuken in the illustration above (see 0:11, 0:12, and countless other places in the video)
啊卢给: Hmmm, either it’s a hadouken (0:08), or it’s someone else’s move. (Anyone…?)
加加不绿根: the hurricane kick (0:54)?

If you’re Chinese and you used to play Street Fighter II, I’d love to hear what you used to hear the characters saying.

[Sorry for the excessive early 90’s nostalgia. All you people that liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle post, this is for you!]

28

Aug 2008

Black Back Comics: Chinese Manga for the QQ Generation

Recently at a Family Mart convenience store I encountered 黑背 (“Black Back”) comics, the creations of Zhang Yuanying (张元英). I’ve been a fan of independent comics for a while, but I’ve had trouble finding much I like in China. The main thing that has turned me off of mainland Chinese comics is their highly derivative nature. They all seem like copies of Japanese manga! Not 黑背, though. While it does borrow some elements from Japanese manga, it has its own simple style. And it’s definitely darker than the comics of Zhu Deyong (朱德庸), the wildly popular Taiwanese cartoonist.

Apparently 黑背 gained popularity on Tencent’s QQ community through the author’s blog. Here are the three 黑背 books I bought:

我们丫丫吧 宅男宅女私生活 黑背读奥运

我们丫丫吧

A very morbid little book about suicide. It’s basically a guide to suicide in comic form, going through all the various possible methods, rating them according to various factors such as pain, chances of success, consequences of failure. Each section has a little “commentary” at the end using recycled art reminding you why suicide is actually a bad idea, which I’m 100% sure the editor (or censors?) demanded be added in so that the book can’t be seen as totally condoning suicide.

OK, so I like Edward Gorey; I can deal with morbid illustrations and themes. What I really can’t forgive, though, is that the comic just isn’t very funny. I guess I did learn some new suicide-related vocabulary from it, but I hope that never comes in useful. I have to admit, though, that the Mac-using devil character amused me.

1-devil

Also, after reading most of the book, doing Google and Baidu searches, and asking several Chinese friends, I’m still not sure what the 丫丫 in the title means. That annoys me.

宅男宅女私生活

I guess this one is semi-autobiographical. We learn about the married life of the young artist, in comic form. It’s kind of cute, and definitely less morbid than the other book. Unfortunately, it’s still not terribly funny.

Here’s an example of a simple strip:

2-hit

Again, I like the art, but the “gag” is only good for a smile at best. It caught my attention for its use of the term 河蟹 (river crab), a pun on the term 和谐 (harmonize).

黑背读奥运

I was completely surprised to discover that this book was by far the most entertaining of the three. It seems that the most work went into it (wonder why??). The book gives a humorous history of the Olympics, then goes on to give comic commentary on each event. It ends with some lame pro-Olympics propaganda (seems this book was 河蟹d as well).

This is probably my favorite drawing from the book, illustrating the great variety of foreigners flocking to the Beijing Olympics:

O-aliens

The Value of 黑背

Like I said, I like the style of art. It’s cute and fun, but dark at times. That’s a big plus for me. Unfortunately, 黑背 is not terribly funny (Zhe Deyong is far, far funnier), but the Olympic book showed me that there’s some promise there.

I think that the handwritten Chinese characters are a good form of reading practice for a learner of Chinese. Very few Chinese study materials prepare learners for handwritten characters. While the characters in these comics don’t look like typical Chinese handwriting, the variation will still be good practice in stretching basic character recognition ability.

As for vocabulary, the intermediate (and even elementary) learner should be able to read much of 宅男宅女私生活 (see example above), but the others will pose more of a challenge.


25

Aug 2008

Buying an iPhone in Shanghai

The first time I went to Xujiahui looking for iPhones, I didn’t have much luck. All the shops told me they didn’t carry 水货 (smuggled goods). Later, Brad tipped me off about exactly where to go in the computer market, and when I actually bought the iPhone about a week ago, the iPhone seemed to be for sale everywhere.

iPhone Mania in Xujiahui

The place to buy the iPhone in the Xujiahui computer market is B1 (don’t waste your time upstairs). There are actually two computer markets in Xujiahui (both accessible from the subway); both are selling the iPhone in B1. I recommend the one connected to the big glass globe; there’s more selection/competition. The iPhone 3G can be found, but it’s quite expensive. I didn’t pay much attention to its selling price because the iPhone’s new 3G capabilities are useless in China. Instead, I sought out the original iPhone. The 8 GB version can be bought for around 4000 RMB, and the 16 GB version for 5000+ RMB. I opted for the former.

It can be confusing shopping for the iPhone because of the disparity in vendor prices, and when you try to find out why, you get all kinds of stories. I didn’t see anything that looked like a knock-off, but you definitely have to make sure that the iPhone is undamaged and comes with everything it’s supposed to.

My employer, Praxis Language, is a leader in the field of mobile language learning, so it strongly encourages key employees (in the form of a nice subsidy) to get iPhones. I bought mine with some co-workers on a “company field trip,” and we tried to get a 团购 (“group shopping”) discount. I was quoted a price as low as 3500 per iPhone by one vendor, but we ended up paying 3900 per and going with a vendor that seemed more trustworthy. A telling exchange:

> Me: Your iPhones are all opened.

> Him: Yeah, we have to open them.

> Me: But that shop over there sells them unopened.

> Him: They just re-shrink-wrap them. If you want me to, I can re-shrink-wrap one for you too.

This kind of candor sold us on the vendor. He was also happy to provide all the following services:

– Upgrade iPhone firmware from 1.4 to 2.0

– Unlock/jailbreak the iPhone (so we can use it with China Mobile, and run third party apps)

– Install latest version of Cydia (installer service for third party apps)

– Put on a free screen protector (and also throw in a free case)

Altogether we bought six iPhones. I was the only one that found a defect; I got a phone with a scratched screen. The vendor tried to downplay the defect at first, but gave into my demand to replace the phone even after I had paid.

Overall, a pretty good consumer experience. The iPhones you buy in China obviously don’t come with Apple support or hardware warranties, but if you find a good vendor you can go back to them for help dealing with firmware issues.

Let me know if you have any questions about the experience. I was initially somewhat wary of buying 水货, but the company subsidy was just the push I needed. After learning a lot about the iPhone in the past week, I’m quite pleased with the purchase and with the iPhone’s functionality in China, even despite a recent iTunes Stores block.


Related: Practicing characters with your iPhone


24

Aug 2008

Good Job, Good Boy

ChinesePod and Shanghaiist just kicked off a collaborative podcast called Chinese Soundbites. The first one is about China’s star track athlete Liu Xiang (刘翔). On the show Jenny and Amber talk about current events in China, and give a few relevant Chinese vocabulary words.

One of the phrases in the first episode is 好样的. It’s kind of hard to translate because literally it means something like “good appearance” or “good form.” But it’s used a lot like “good job” is in English (which, conversely, cannot be directly translated as 好工作 into Chinese!).

In the podcast Jenny uses 好样的 to voice her support for Liu Xiang. It’s kind of funny, because lately my strongest association with the phrase is my wife’s use of it. We’re house-training our puppy, and every time he successfully does his business outside, my wife praises him with a “好样的!” (“good boy!“).


21

Aug 2008

China Blocks the iTunes Store

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

> Access to Apple’s online iTunes Store has been blocked in China after it emerged that Olympic athletes have been downloading and possibly listening to a pro-Tibetan music album in a subtle act of protest against China’s rule over the province.

Wow, I sure have bad timing. I just bought an iPhone. I just wanted to download free apps from the iTunes store, but since Sunday evening I can’t connect at all. (I wonder how much business Apple USA gets from China, though?)


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?



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