personal


31

Oct 2007

Tipping Hell

I grew up in the US, so when I’m there, I know how to tip. It’s not too hard to know how to tip in my adopted home, China, because you just don’t do it. You almost never tip in China. Easy. Thus, I was totally unprepared for Turkey on the tipping front.

Somewhere around the year 2002 I abandoned the Lonely Planet and guidebooks altogether. I figured it’s more fun to just get by on scattered intelligence gleaned from friends, random strangers, and haphazard internet searches. This has always worked. But when I got to Turkey, I wasn’t sure what to tip.

I’ve got to say, not knowing what to tip really sucks. We couldn’t tip like rich foreigners on vacation because (1) we’re not rich, and (2) for a while we were having problems getting our Chinese credit cards to work, so we were tight on cash. So we were trying hard to tip only when we needed to.

At one restaurant, though, we clearly under-tipped. We didn’t realize it until we were already on our way out and we the waiter’s reaction to what we left. Man, that does make you feel like a jackass. We were at the point where it was too late to add to the tip, and we didn’t have the change to do so anyway (you don’t supplement a lousy $3 tip with $50).

For days, we were caught in this tipping hell.

Lesson learned: get the tipping rules straight before you go. (You gotta love China!)


29

Oct 2007

New Notebooks

Shopping for stationery in Japan is an absolute pleasure. In China it’s sometimes fun as well. Looks like at least part of this latest round of designs is Korean-inspired:

notebook01

notebook02

notebook03

UPDATE: Brendan has a good post on how English like in the top notebook above comes to be.


27

Oct 2007

Fabricating the Known from the Unknown

This past week I started studying Spanish again after not studying or using it for over 7 years. I really didn’t know how I was going to do in my one-on-one lessons, considering my teacher would use only Spanish and I was expected to respond in Spanish. In my high school days I was reasonably fluent, but that was over 10 years ago.

It turns out that I did OK. I understood probably 95% of what my teacher said, and I managed to express myself. Sure, I blanked on words, I screwed up conjugations and prepositions, and had to pause for uncomfortably long periods of time while I reached back into the recesses of my mind and fished around for the Spanish I needed. But it really wasn’t so horrible, and it was good to be that struggling language student again.

I am sure that 7 years is enough time to completely forget a foreign language, but I think I know why I haven’t completely forgotten Spanish. The main reason is that I made a conscious resolution not to forget Spanish.

You see, when I graduated from high school and started at the University of Florida I was fairly fluent in Spanish, but I was tired of studying it, and I had never used it for real communication (i.e. in a Spanish-speaking environment). It was for that reason that I started studying Japanese and basically quit Spanish. I made a sort of decision about Spanish then: “I don’t need this anymore.”

Only two years later, after an amazing experience in Japan, I decided I did still want my Spanish, but was shocked at how much I had already lost. It was as if my brain had overwritten the old, unwanted Spanish with Japanese. I spent my third year of university reclaiming what I had lost, and a summer in Mexico to ground it in reality and bring it to life.

After that, I basically stopped using Spanish and shifted to Chinese, but I gave my brain a command: don’t lose this again. And I really haven’t, even if my Spanish is not even close to fluent anymore. But I’ll drag it all back to the front of my brain, chunk by chunk, and I’ll get there.

But a funny thing happened after my Spanish class on Thursday. I was on the subway and walking through the streets of Shanghai, and I could swear I was hearing Spanish all around me. Just random words, not coherent conversations. If I’d listen carefully and concentrate, I’d hear that the people around me were speaking Shanghainese. But it was as if my brain, trying hard to please me, was conjuring Spanish out of unintelligible (to me) Shanghainese noise. Rationally, I knew they weren’t speaking Spanish, but through my brain’s cognitive slight of hand, I just couldn’t stop hearing it. I couldn’t turn it off.

I’m back to normal now.


25

Oct 2007

Stage6 for China

Well, YouTube is still blocked, but Stage6 isn’t. Although you can’t beat YouTube’s sheer quantity of content, Stage6 has much higher quality video (much of it looks fine at full screen!), much longer videos (hour-long documentaries no longer need to be split up into multiple videos), and a decent download speed for those of us in China–often better than YouTube’s was. You have to install a DivX plugin to watch the Stage6 movies, but the huge improvement in video quality alone makes it worthwhile.

Here are some China-related Stage6 videos to get you started:

China, From Red to Green (25:27): sustainable design in new construction in China.

Why Democracy – Please Vote For Me (52:06): A documentary following the elections for class monitor in a 3rd grade class in Wuhan, China. Please Vote for Me gives a glimpse into China’s contemporary urban middle classes. It won the Sterling Feature Award at Silverdocs in 2007.

Chinese Megacities and Transport (5:42): A short documentary about China and Chinese megacities and how they deal with strong urbanization and automobilization trends. Two cities, Wuhan and Nanjing, are introduced and their approaches towards these problems are addressed.

The Battle for Oil – China vs. USA (50:07): China’s sky-rocketing growth and shortage of sufficient resources is forcing China to set its sights outside its borders in a frantic search for oil, but the major oil-producing countries are kept off-limits by the United States, forcing China to do business with the rogue states, African dictatorships, Iran and former Russian states – to get the oil they desperately need.

The People’s Court (55:05): Experiments with the rule of law in China.

China vs India – Race to the Top of the World (23:02): While China is growing and moving very fast, there are some people still believe that India has a better chance to become Super Power and sustain the growth rate.

MotoGP Babes of China

Chinese pop music videos

For you “naughty” viewers, there are also a fair number of videos that the Chinese government would probably be blocking if it were paying attention. Events of 1989, separatist movements, etc…. you can find videos about them on Stage6, and they load in China.


23

Oct 2007

Crabs Run Amok in the Shanghai Subway System

I had a great “only in China” moment this morning that had me chuckling. On my commute to work something smelled fishy (quite literally) ahead of me, and as soon as I saw the scene I realized what had happened.

blue crabs

by Aapplemint on Flickr

Apparently a woman was carrying a basket of live crabs on the subway, and on the transfer from Line 2 to Line 1 in People’s Square Station, she dropped her cargo. The basket ripped open, and three large blue crabs (about the size of an American football each) fled from their prison, scuttling off in three different directions. Despite clearly being somewhat afraid of the crabs, the woman was desperately trying to collect her precious cargo (I’m not being sarcastic here; the Chinese really love their crab, and these were some pretty big crabs). As busy commuters passed by, they couldn’t help but linger for a few seconds and smile at the comical scene.

Sadly, none of us helped her out, and none of us snapped a picture.


21

Oct 2007

Life without YouTube in the PRC

So you may have heard that YouTube is blocked in the PRC. Those of us who live here have come to depend on YouTube for little 2-minute clips of entertainment which keep us smiling throughout the workday. So now what do we do?

Well, I was all set to recommend Divx’s Stage6 as a substitute. It worked on Friday. I’ve been getting into it because it has such superior video quality and also hosts long videos. However, as of yesterday, it, too seems to be blocked. I turned to a TechCrunch article on YouTube alternatives and found that many of them are not loading for me. Here are my results (Oct. 21, 10pm in Shanghai).

Accessible Video Sites

Metacafe
Yahoo! Video
ifilm Spike
Brightcove
Veoh
Viddler
Vimeo
eyeVio (Japanese)

Inaccessible Video Sites

YouTube
Stage6
Revver
Dailymotion.com
Google Video (has never worked in the PRC; not a block)

Of course, if you want Chinese video, those sites still work. Tudou is #1, but I prefer Youku (Danwei lists more choices).


20

Oct 2007

No One in Beijing Can Cut Hair

Yeah, I’ve had exactly two experiences whereby hair was removed from my head in Beijing, and both were less than satisfactory. So I feel complete confidence in making this huge generalization: no one in Beijing can cut hair.

The first time was when I was doing the tourist thing with my parents over the summer. I decided to try to get a shave from a barber shop rather than do it myself. Big mistake. I should have been clued in by the hesitation when they replied that “yes, they can give me a shave.” Maybe it was my morbid sense of curiosity as to how well they could do it. (Not well, as it turns out.)

They knew it involved a hot wet towel, some form of lubricant, and a razor. (Yes, a new, clean razor.) They didn’t use shaving cream, so I think it was some form of lotion (or maybe hair gel… ha). The shave was kind of painful and took waayyy too long. They didn’t have chairs that reclined to the right angle, so one of the barber shop guys’ job was to hold my head during the shave. (That must have been tiring… I have a big head, and it’s relatively full of stuff.)

Anyway, it took over 40 minutes, and I was left with a shave that looked OK, but was clearly a bad shave if you touched my face.

Last Thursday night in Beijing I decided to shave my head. I had been attempting to grow my hair out a bit, but I was getting tired of it, and I also came to the startling revelation that I am not a hippie. So Frank Yu and I ended up in a tattoo/piercing parlor at midnight, where the guys said that shaving my head was no problem.

Photo by sandyland on Flickr

The thing is, their electric razor choked and cut off about 2/3 of the way through shaving my head. The front was still long. They got the razor working again, just long enough to give me the traditional Chinese little kid haircut, and then it quit again. (I like to think it was my thick, manly shock of hair that choked the feeble device, but realistically I think they just didn’t charge it well enough.)

Anyway, what should have been the simplest haircut ever ended up taking over an hour as they struggled to get the electric razor working. In the end, the barber had to finish the job with scissors.

So, after living a lie on this blog for over a year, probably, my haircut once again matches the one in the picture at the upper right corner of Sinosplice.


17

Oct 2007

Beijing Beckons

Late Monday, Beijing flashed the Pasden Signal into the dark night. So now I am on my way to the capital for a quick trip.

More blogging when I get back!


14

Oct 2007

When a Fever Is Not Just a Fever

Towards the end of September, on one particularly nice Friday afternoon, I suddenly came with a fever. I went home to get some more sleep.

fever

Photo by DooogwoooD on Flickr

My wife got home and proceeded to freak out. To the Chinese, a fever is serious, much more so than a cold. Somewhere in the Chinese psyche there’s a line about “fevers kill people” and modern medicine has yet to edit that line. My wife wanted to take me to the hospital that night.

I didn’t see what the big deal was. Our honeymoon to Turkey was coming up the following week, but I felt confident I would quickly get over whatever little bug I had caught. I didn’t remember ever going to the hospital for a fever growing up, and I had a few fevers back in the day. My mom also never seemed overly concerned when it happened. To me, fevers just meant temporary discomfort. I even thought they were kind of cool, the human body’s rather “creative” way of trying to burn its invaders.

From Wikipedia:

> Theoretically, fever has been conserved during evolution because of its advantage for host defense. There are certainly some important immunological reactions that are sped up by temperature, and some pathogens with strict temperature preferences could be hindered. The overall conclusion seems to be that both aggressive treatment of fever and too little fever control can be detrimental. This depends on the clinical situation, so careful assessment is needed.

> Fevers may be useful to some extent since they allow the body to reach high temperatures. This causes an unbearable environment for some pathogens. White blood cells also rapidly proliferate due to the suitable environment and can also help fight off the harmful pathogens and microbes that invaded the body.

fever

Photo by Tinn Tian on Flickr

But when my fever didn’t go down, my wife called her mom and they started group worrying. I was afraid my mother-in-law might even come over. So to spare the womenfolk their worrying, I agreed to go to the hospital that night. Unsurprisingly, I was given an antibiotic IV, and also a shot in the butt (just below the waist, really) to make the fever go down. Over the weekend I started feeling better. I went back to work on Monday feeling like I had a normal cold.

Then Tuesday I woke up with another fever. I called in sick. My fever went back down by that evening. I felt OK Wednesday.

Thursday was the day we left for Turkey. Over the night I came down with a fever again, and had horrible fever nightmares all night. They were horrible not because they were scary, but because they were maddening, like a kind of unsolvable logic puzzle that nevertheless had to be solved. It was something about building an ever-changing machine out of steel and fur that contained all the functions necessary to allow me to get to Turkey. Every time I thought I had my furry device complete, it would change, thwarting my departure to Turkey over and over and over again.

When my wife found out I had a fever of 39.2°C/103°F (again), she flipped out. She was upset not because she was afraid we couldn’t go to Turkey that night, but because I had a fever for the third time, and it was so “high.” She thought I was dying of some mysterious disease.

I explained to her that I actually felt OK, that I had had higher fevers before and never even went to the hospital, but she wasn’t having it. Secretly, I was wondering if those heat detectors at the airport set up during the SARS scare would detect my fever. Reason told me I had better not try to get on an international flight with a fever. Curiosity wanted to just try it (yeah, curiosity can be kind of dumb sometimes).

So that afternoon I was back at the hospital, luggage in tow and plane tickets in hand, for another IV and another shot in the butt. My wife had the hilarious idea of getting my IV “to go” and doing the drip in a taxi on the way to the airport, then ditching the bag at the terminal. Unsurprisingly, the doctor didn’t go for that scheme.

My first five days in Turkey involved dutifully taking my medicine three times a day and my wife frequently feeling my skin for signs of a fever (that got interesting after I got a sunburn in Cappadocia). Still, it was an amazing trip to Turkey.

More on Turkey next post.


12

Oct 2007

WP 2.3

Despite all the dire warnings against it, I just upgraded to WordPress 2.3 without disabling any plugins. And it went fine! Whoo-hoo! Don’t try this at home, folks. I live on the wild side.

It didn’t work for my Chinese blog, though. I had Ultimate Tag Warrior installed, and the upgrade totally broke the blog. I had to go in through PHPmyAdmin to manually deactivate that one plugin to get the blog working again. Then after running the upgrade script, I got two errors (which I plan to just ignore, reckless fool that I am). Shouldn’t matter much, considering how seldom I update that blog these days.

Regular posting (not about WordPress) to resume this weekend!


08

Oct 2007

Not Missing

You know blogging is a real part of your identity when you stop blogging for a little while and people start e-mailing you asking if you’re OK. Thank you for the concern.

I was sick for a week, then went to Turkey for a week. The blog had to wait. It’s been a nice break.

Regular blogging to resume very soon.


22

Sep 2007

Chinese Skanking

Some wisdom I gained the other night:

> You can teach your Chinese wife to skank to old Less Than Jake tunes, but you can’t make her really enjoy it.

OK, I’ll admit, I don’t enjoy Less Than Jake now nearly as much as I did at the Gainesville shows back in the day. Despite the somewhat disappointing outcome, it was more than worth it to see my wife skanking. (Has anyone ever been to a ska or ska-punk show in China where the whole crowd was skanking?)


18

Sep 2007

Choose Your Stereotype

Fight Fraud!

Image from Authorize.net

I’m probably just being over-sensitive here, but when I saw this image on Authorize.net‘s website, this is what went through my mind: Is this “positive racism” (read: Asians are smart and good with computers, so they can protect you well from fraud) or “negative racism” (read: guys in China are totally trying to defraud you)? I’ve had enough issues trying to use an American card in China and being flagged for fraud (despite repeatedly telling the bank that I live here) that I’m inclined to suspect the latter.

Of course, I’d like to be able to say, “it’s just an Asian guy’s face in a graphic,” but I’m American, and everyone knows Americans are obsessed with race. We just can’t let it go.


16

Sep 2007

A Report on the New HSK

Jonathan of The Art of Living has e-mailed me with a link to his report of the new HSK. Although not yet officially in use, the new Chinese proficiency test is apparently already being tested on groups of students.

Some telling passages from Jonathan’s report:

> I have to say, it was a big improvement. The test was neatly organized into four sections that covered all aspects of
communications: listening, speaking, reading, writing. The old test only covered listening and reading (receptive abilities) and ignored speaking and writing (productive abilities), which encouraged the Korean study bugs to lock themselves in their dorm rooms with tapes and books and totally avoid actually talking to Chinese people.

> They also cut out all the one-liner grammar questions, fill-in-the-blank segments, and dissect-a-sentence sections, and focused exclusively on reading comprehension, which was always the most challenging anyway.

> The listening was pretty much the same, and the writing was just a simple composition assignment, but the speaking component was crazy: we were given 15 minutes to prepare a five minute oral presentation that addressed the specific prompt questions of two different scenarios: in one scenario, we were calling a friend to arrange details for a weekend outing; in the second scenario, we were factory workers lodging a complaint with a boss.

And, perhaps most interesting to me:

> The new H.S.K. couldn’t care less about 成语. The content was fully geared towards operating efficiently in modern Chinese society: the listening content included a customer-service hotline dialogue and a television ad for cell phones. The reading comprehension material included a standard business contract and a report on a recent summit on environmental protection. For our writing assignment, we wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper to share our views on recent local government policy (how democratic!).

For the whole thing, go read Jonathan’s account.

(more…)


10

Sep 2007

Big Brother Godzilla

Godzilla

Godzilla photo by Nanther

For reasons which will become clear soon, I was researching Godzilla recently. I was curious about the name. Godzilla seems like a great English name, but it’s a Japanese creation, and the Japanese name is ゴジラ (Gojira). So I had to wonder… did the Japanese start with the English name “Godzilla” and transliterate into Japanese, or did they start with “Gojira” and semi-transliterate into the fantastic “Godzilla?” The use of katakana for the monster’s name to me suggests the former.

According to Wikipedia, it’s the latter. The Japanese name is a blend of the Japanese words for “gorilla” (ゴリラ) and “whale” (くじら), referencing Godzilla’s enormous size and power. That “Gojira” transliterated so neatly into “Godzilla,” a name which conjures images of god-like power in lizard form, is largely coincidence. I don’t know how the Japanese feel about the name, but I can’t help but feel that the connotations of the English translation of the name are even better than the Japanese original.

Then there’s the Chinese translation of “Godzilla”: 哥斯拉. All three characters could be considered meaningless transliteration, and only the first one could be considered remotely relevant semantically. means “big brother.”

So let’s sum that not-very-objective analysis up in a nice visual aid:

Godzilla Translations


08

Sep 2007

Cross-cultural Honesty Catalysis

I recently read an interesting and provocative article about a movement called radical honesty. The founder posits that everyone would be better off–that we’d be taking the steps to true communication–if we would all just say exactly what is on our minds. It’s not meant to be hurtful; you don’t insult people and walk away. After you speak your mind you stick around for the fallout, because radical honesty tends to beget radical honesty, and once you strip away the white lies and false smiles, revealing true emotions, you have a basis for a genuine human connection.

I’m not saying I’m a convert, but the ideas are worth thinking about. And it makes for a very entertaining article.

It also got me thinking about whether this could ever conceivably be tried in China, and about some people in my life who might be considered unknowing practitioners. It seems to me that the ones who come closest are certain English-speaking Chinese women, in their dealings with foreigners.

The standard explanation is that due to cultural differences, even if you speak another culture’s language, you can come across as very forward or overly blunt in the context of another culture. This could happen to a Chinese person trying to emulate the brashness of characters she sees in Hollywood movies. But then, maybe she’s trying to carve out a piece of radical honesty in her own life, and the microcosm of foreign culture seems the best place to do it. Maybe she wants to be blunt and direct, because ordinarily she never can be.

It makes me think back to my early days in Japan and China, struggling to make conversation. I could be remarkably direct back then, because I didn’t know how to say a lot, or I simply couldn’t think of much to say and I wanted to keep the conversation started. And it’s true… radical honesty begets radical honesty. Interesting things are said. I think that’s one reason some people like talking to foreigners that don’t speak the local language well… they’re refreshingly blunt in their views.

I am even reminded of a friend who was told by a taxi driver that he was going to commit suicide. Why would he tell a foreigner?

Society will never have that degree of honesty, but I do believe people are looking for it outside their own cultures.


OK, this post is a little over the top… but I think that’s exactly what you should expect of something inspired by radical honesty.

Related Link: Radical Honest homepage


04

Sep 2007

Who can memorize the Chinese family tree?

A recent ChinesePod podcast got me wondering: how many foreigners really learn all the forms of address for family members? I’m not ashamed to admit that I never did. Not only do you have separate words for whether they’re on your mom’s side or your dad’s side, related by blood or by marriage, older or younger than your parent, but there are also issues of formal vs. informal and regional variation. I think most of us give up on learning any of this vocabulary unless it’s immediately applicable (i.e. you’re going to be calling someone by their title while you’re staying with them). It’s the kind of thing that you forget right away even if you go to the trouble of memorizing it.

Does anyone actually learn this stuff?


03

Sep 2007

Tickets to Turkey?

My wife and I would like to go to Turkey soon. However, over the past few weeks I’ve been discovering that it’s kind of difficult for Chinese people to go to Turkey. Difficult… but not impossible.

Now that we’re sure we can both actually get in, we just need to buy plane tickets, but we want to go during–you guessed it–the October National Day holiday. Somehow we kind of forgot that there are a freaking bazillion* people in this country, and a good number of them also plan to leave the country during the same time period. Demand drives plane ticket prices up. Good old capitalism.

Anyway, if anyone has some suggestions for travel agencies or other good ways to get to Turkey from Shanghai, please let me know, either by e-mail or comment. Thanks!

* Rough estimate



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