Aug 2006

What is Liangfen?

Liangfen (凉粉) is a kind of Chinese food which Wenlin translates as “bean jelly.” This is a pretty good translation; liangfen is made from beans and is about the consistency of jelly (although often a bit stiffer). In restaurants, liangfen can be served up like noodles and often looks something like this:




Doing a search for these liangfen images, I was reminded of a very different liangfen which became extremely popular last year:


(That would be 张靓颖 of “Super Voice Girls” fame. Her nickname is 凉粉. She also has a Chinese blog. [Correction: the fans of 张靓颖 are called liangfen, not 张靓颖 herself.])

Tonight I paid a visit to my advisor to discuss the coming semester’s classes and my master’s thesis. His wife brought out a big platter of watermelon slices. He insisted on making me a cup of iced coffee (which was quite good). His son gave me a Glico green tea-flavored snack to munch on. And then the special surprise came: 广东凉粉 (Guangdong liangfen). According to them it’s a traditional Guangdong summer snack, served chilled. You can’t find it in Shanghai, they said. It looked like this:

black liangfen

My only question before digging in was, “does it have animal blood in it?” (I would have eaten some anyway, but I just wanted to know.) They said no.

How did it taste? Well… it was basically “Chinese medicine flavored Jello-o.” Yum yum. Fortunately the flavor wasn’t too strong.


Aug 2006

Chinese Style Snakes on a Plane

I watched the much “celebrated” Snakes on a Plane with John B and our wives last night. I picked up the DVD on the way over to his place. The DVD guy outside of the 好得 (AKA “All Days”) convenience store had it. Here’s what the cover looks like:


A very evil-looking Jackson on the pirated Snakes on a Plane DVD

Thanks to Matt at No-Sword I knew what to expect in terms of the movie’s Chinese title, but I certainly didn’t expect the French title, or this camcorder edition’s laughtrack (yes, a French laughtrack). Really, though, when you’re expecting ridiculous, I guess it only adds to the experience.

The main and secondary titles on this cover confirm two of the mainland Chinese titles that Matt dug up:

空中蛇灾 — “Midair snake disaster”
航班蛇患 — “Snake woes on a flight”


Aug 2006

The Commutants

The Shanghai Metro (subway) commuters are infamous for their “enthusiasm.” The subway philosophy of 先下后上 (let people off first, then board) is blasted repeatedly during rush hour by station attendants each and every day, but it always falls on deaf ears as the hoarde surges to board the subway cars the split second the doors open, forcing the passengers who wish to disembark to shove and claw their ways through the subway doorway battlefield. It really is insane, and it shocks most newcomers to Shanghai.

I once said to a Chinese friend that the rush hour commuters are “like animals.” That comparison didn’t sit too well. Although at rush hour they may be doing their best imitations of subhuman creatures, the commuters are, in fact, human beings deserving of respect (if only because they are human beings). Somehow Shanghai’s particular societal circumstances–including cultural factors and a massive population–contributes to this inexplicably barbaric commuter behavior.

I’ve been riding the subway a lot lately on my way to ChinesePod, and I am forced to ride both Line 2 and Line 1 (the Evil Line) every day during morning rush hour (oh, the horror!). I have quite a few thoughts I plan to share about these commuters with whom I rub elbows (among other things) on a regular basis.

But somehow the term “commuter” doesn’t seem entirely appropriate. Social conditions have transformed them into something beyond what the mere term “commuter” implies; their behavior has already mutated into something else. They are… Shanghai’s commutants*.

Fear them.

* OK, I’m aware that commutant is a mathematical term, but I think you know what I’m going for here.


Aug 2006


> Chinaversary n. pl. Chi·na·ni·ver·sa·ries
The annually recurring date of one’s initial arrival in China, especially when of great personal importance, as in the case of a “China expat.”

No, I can’t say I coined the term. I just learned this amusing word last week, which was quite timely because this month I had my 6 year Chinaversary.



Aug 2006

Am I Married?

I haven’t mentioned my “girlfriend” in a long time. This is not only because I don’t like to talk about certain aspects of my private life here; it’s also because I’m not sure what to call her anymore. This is all due to the peculiar features of getting married in China.

You see, we are already legally married, but we have not yet had a “proper wedding.” To her and her family, that means a proper Chinese wedding banquet. To me and my family, that means a proper wedding in a Catholic church. All that will happen next year.

Furthermore, we are not living together. She still lives with her parents as before, and I live with my roommate Lenny. Our lives after becoming legally married remain almost exactly as they were when we were just “engaged.”

(So why did we get legally married so early? It’s largely to simplify the breaucratic headaches that arise from my nationality and her employer, and to save me from having to make another trip back to the States right before the wedding next year.)

I can call her my 老婆 in Chinese and this isn’t strange at all… Many Chinese couples here call each other 老婆 and 老公 long before they’re married (which really kind of annoys me for some reason). But calling her my wife–in English–feels wrong to me, because my whole life my idea of my “wife” has been the woman I spend the rest of my life with after we go through that sacred ceremony in church. And we haven’t done that yet.

In China, the wedding banquet has tremendous social significance for both families, but no legal standing. I know a Chinese couple who waited for years for the wedding banquet because they wanted to be legally married but couldn’t yet afford a nice reception. I also heard of a couple that had the wedding banquet but then split up and were never legally married in the first place. In the US, saying “I do” in a ceremony in front of a priest and other witnesses is a part of the legal process (in addition to the marriage registration).

So basically the feeling I get is that we’re taking that minute or so when the man and woman each say “I do” and the priest pronounces them husband and wife, and stretching it out to about a year. It’s a little strange, but I don’t think it’s all bad. Marriage is, after all, a big adjustment.

Update: Dan Washburn recently had a similar marriage experience.


Aug 2006

Travel by Train: China vs. the USA

My friend Shelley used to live in Dongying, Shandong Province. He is now traveling in the States. Here is an excerpt of an e-mail I recently got from him:

> I arrived in LA this morning after 3 nights on a train and couple hours stopover in Chicago. I learned a few things about the differences between US and Chinese train travel. I should first mention that this trip closely mirrors a trip I took just last year in China. It also involved 3 nights on a train with a short stopover after the first night. However, my US train took me entirely across the country, from Washington D.C. to L.A. My Chinese train took me from Kashgar (far northwest) to Xi’an, which would be more like Seattle to Chicago in the US. But I think this had more to do with the speed of the train. Anyway…

> From my half-dozen Amtrak trips between Sacramento and San Jose, I knew that 1) there would be very few people on the train, and 2) there are electrical outlets and tables by most seats. From the info I had gathered from Amtrak’s website, I knew 3) private cabins would cost a bit more than a flight (around $350) but would allow me to travel in great comfort.

> Yeah, well, I was wrong about all that stuff. I must have been looking at the seat prices because my seat from D.C. to L.A. cost me $299. Private cabins cost $1,000 and were booked up “until September” according to one conductor. The train was also overbooked, and I witnessed the familiar sight of people scrambling to get on the train before everyone else. See, I had a ticket for a seat, but not a specific one. Some people got put in the lounge car until seats cleared up in the coach cabins. And finally, you guessed it, no tables or electrical outlets. There were 3, only 3, outlets in the lounge car within an unused snack counter area. I managed to get up early enough one morning to stake a claim on one and charge up my cell phone and iPod. And believe me, I protected my outlet from other power-starved travelers like a lion over its kill fends off circling hyenas.

> Now, a seat on a Chinese train for 3 nights would be an amazing feat of stamina and bladder control. I’ve never done that. The longest I went for was a 26-hour stint which I emerged from as if I had just climbed Everest. A seat on a US train for 3 nights is about a hundred times more comfortable because it’s 1) a bucket seat and not a bench, 2) much better climate controlled, 3) bathrooms are clean and well-stocked with necessities, and 4) the lounge car provides another place to hang out with wall-to-ceiling windows and TVs showing movies in the evening.

> That said, however, I wouldn’t recommend the train to anyone who wasn’t ready to spend a boatload of cash to make it more comfortable. While the seats were spacious, they didn’t fully recline and I never found a comfortable sleeping position. I mostly passed out from exhaustion. Several times I pondered the pros and cons of sleeping in the aisle, but the cons always won out.

> Also, the train is not merely kept well air-conditioned, it’s kept refrigerated. I actually love to crank the AC up, but I was absolutely freezing during the first night. I noticed that everyone else on the train took out thick blankets and heavy sweaters. They had obviously done this before. I shivered all the way to Chicago. During that stopover I bought a hooded sweatshirt, which wasn’t easy to find but I knew my health depended on it. And folks, I’m really not exaggerating. It was amazingly cold. Amtrak might be experimenting with cryogenics. Well ok, now I’m exaggerating a little.

> The food available wasn’t all that bad but keep in mind that my standards for western food are very low. It was definitely overpriced microwaveable stuff. But they really had a great variety of it. Still, this is no advantage over a Chinese train. If I were on a Chinese train the food would come to me on snack carts roaming the cars every half hour or so.

> In conclusion, I would have to say that Chinese trains are better. Really. Because for the same price as my US train seat, I could have bought a super nice cabin (soft-sleeper) on a Chinese train and traveled in great comfort … with an electrical outlet!

> I kept wondering why so many people were on the train at all. “Um, excuse me, doesn’t anyone here realize we could’ve flown for cheaper?” Apparently not.

Thanks to Shelley for letting me publish this.


Aug 2006

"I'm your Papi" T-shirt Man

Dear Mr. “I’m your Papi” T-shirt Man,

You don’t know me, but I know you. Sure, we’ve never met, but you’re a “familiar stranger” to me. I pass you almost every day on my walk down Huangpi Nan Lu. I’m sure that I see certain people often on that walk and they just don’t stick in my mind, but you, sir, stick in my mind. Why? I think it’s because of your t-shirt.

In the searing Shanghai summer sun, you wear a black t-shirt every day. Furthermore, it has the words “I’m your Papi” boldly emblazoned on the front in big white letters. You are not a small man, and I can see your message from a long way off.

I just have to ask, though… Why “I’m your Papi” every day? I can tell you’re not poor; you’re always listening to your iPod, have nice shoes, and a shoulder bag that looks like it might contain a notebook PC. So clearly you can afford other clothes. I’ve caught you several times wearing a black “Batista unleashed” t-shirt, but I got the distinct feeling you were just wearing that so you could wash “I’m your Papi.”

At first I thought you had a thing for latinas (which I can certainly understand). If the “I’m your Papi” message was taken to heart even once, it might make the marathon worthwhile. But now I realize you’re just a fan of the WWE. And that’s fine…

…but “I’m your Papi” every day??

Related Classic Entry: Outfit Streaks


Aug 2006

Researchers of the Future

Last Thursday I met up with Dr. Lyn Jeffery, Research Director of the Institute of the Future and co-author of the excellent blog Virtual China. I invited her to stop by ChinesePod HQ to see what it was all about. Since what we’re doing over there is the “education of the future,” Dr. Jeffery was very interested in ChinesePod.

Accompanying Dr. Jeffery was Dr. Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at Pew Internet & American Life Project.

At lunch we chatted about internet usage, Chinese BBSes vs. American blogs, the China Blog List, our blogs, and other things. You know… the future. (The future is clearly very nerdy.)

At the time I opined that the Chinese probably prefer BBSes in general because blogging is very much an individual activity, putting one person in the spotlight, whereas BBSes offer a sense of collective security. Sure, BBSes can get shut down too, but no one person is likely to be targeted for action if the BBS members keep the scope of their comments within certain limits. Bloggers, on the other hand, are taking more of a risk. I admitted, though, that I’m no expert on Chinese BBSes, nor do I even read them often at all. I’m no Sam Flemming.

I later talked about this issue with a Chinese friend whose job in Shanghai is intimately related to the internet. He had a less political take on the issue. He felt the Chinese prefer BBSes because blogs are seen as private. BBSes are public forums, places where you can post something that can be read by thousands if you write something worth reading. Sure, blogs can be read by thousands too, but a lot of time and hard work is required to build up that kind of readership, and many just aren’t interested.

I consider myself very priveleged to be in a time and place where I can do work that appeals to me and just really stimulates me creatively and intellectually. It’s all part of the crazy exciting China feeling. Next week there will be a new editor to help me out with some of the day-to-day academic work at ChinesePod, so that will free me up for more creative and progressive work.

Frank Yu set up the meeting, and I thank him for that. It was good to see him when he visited from Beijing for ChinaJoy recently.


Aug 2006

In-Lawed at The 88s

fish out of water

I have not read a blog entry as funny as “In-Lawed” in a long time. The author describes the various ways that his Chinese in-laws–under normal circumstances “generally reasonable and open people”–are gradually driving him insane during their visit to the US. Just two examples of these “small things”:

> – Dad, I got you the chicken McNuggets. I got you the little cup of ketchup for them. I got you a hot fudge sundae. I then watched in amazement as you dipped each of your ten McNuggets into your hot fudge sundae. I explained that the ketchup was for dipping, the sundae was desert. You slathered each McNugget in hot fudge and ice cream anyway. Dad, you rock.

> – Mom can’t be in the sun. Apparently she is a vampire and the sun melts vampires. Mom can’t be in the car. She gets car sick after 10 minutes. Mom doesn’t like to walk. It is too tiring. Mom doesn’t like to fly. It is too expensive. Mom wants to know where we are going today.

There are 14 more of these, and the above were not the funniest ones. Just read it.

I think part of the reason I am so amused by this story is that I know that in a year or two I will be in the exact same situation. I am pretty sure my in-laws will be a lot more “international” in their behavior, but I could be dead wrong. Hilarity could very well ensue for me as well.

P.S. The 88s is a great blog, and I should read it more often, but I’ve been so busy with work lately that I’ve been reading only about three blogs. So I must admit that I found this article through the Hao Hao Report.


Aug 2006

Chinese Hip Hop Riddle

Micah sent me a link to this great riddle:

> 猜一个中文字:
(Guess the Chinese character:)

> “一个人在树上唱hip-hop”
(“a person in (on) a tree singing hip hop”)

> 什么字?
(What’s the character?)

I think the riddle is “great” because I doubt many Chinese people could get it, and this helps even the score just a tiny bit. (Not that I guessed it, though…)




Aug 2006

China Welcomes Musical Hegemony

Musical Hegemony in China

Musical Hegemony

Forgive me for the phrase “musical hegemony”–I’m not sure exactly what to call it. The fact is, foreigners in China routinely affronted with horrible pop music (and I’m talking more about the Western variety than the Chinese variety) desperately want to control the music of the Chinese locales they frequent. The good news is that it’s remarkably easy to do so, and you may even earn the eternal gratitude of a store manager by imposing your musical taste on her.

Brad used to be quite the musical hegemon. He would find a small bar he liked and make it his own. By “make it his own” I don’t just mean he would hang out there a lot and get to know the manager and staff, I also mean that he would make mix CDs for the bar, and the bar would happily play his musical selections (almost) all the time.

It doesn’t work only at bars, though. The last time I went for a haircut, I took a mix CD with me. The staff were thrilled to get it, and yanked their own CD mid-song so they could start playing my offering immediately. I amused myself by creating a ridiculous eclectic mix for the CD, a hodge-podge of classic pop (the decent stuff, i.e. not “Right Here Waiting” etc.) and semi-obscure stuff that most Chinese people wouldn’t know, but all with Chinese musical sensibilities in mind. Some selections:

Out Hud – It’s for You
– Concrete Blonde – Joey
Chromeo – Mercury Tears
– Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl
– Lisa Loeb – Stay (I think this one was a hit)
– Bryan Adams – Summer of ’69 (his only good song)
– Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun
– Sublime – Santeria
– Gin Blossoms – Hey Jealousy (sadly, I think this song was “too heavy”)
John Frusciante – Murderers (you can’t not like this song)
– ABBA – Dancing Queen dance remix (this was my idea of a joke that I believe will be misinterpreted as “good music”)

I also took The Album Leaf’s “In a Safe Place” album to SPR Coffee, where the staff was happy to add it to their Winamp playlist. Oh yes, my tiny sphere of musical influence in Shanghai is growing (but I still cower before the might of, say, Brad and Aric).

So if you’re in China, start burning CDs and give musical hegemony a try with one of your local hangouts. You have nothing to lose, and quite possibly the prolonged sanity of many expat neighbors to gain.


Aug 2006

The Scallop that was Chicken

Chicken or Scallops?

Chicken… or Scallops?

Recently Mark visited Shanghai. One night having dinner at my place, there was a conversation that went something like this:

> Mark: This seafood is really good.

> John: Huh? What seafood?

> Mark: This seafood!

> John: That’s not seafood. That’s chicken.

> Mark: Really? Oh. In that case…

It wasn’t the first time that has happened. Sometimes chicken in China gets mistaken for scallop-like seafood. It’s not that the chicken tastes fishy, it’s that the texture is very much like scallop meat.

Why is this? Does anyone out there know? Should I be worried? What the hell am I really eating??


Jul 2006

Greatest American Hero: ChinaMan?

No, I’m not talking about that Chinaman. I’m talking about ChinaMan!

So I grew up during the 80’s. I still like some of that cheesey stuff like ewoks and Adventure for Atari 2600. Not long ago I discovered that I could acquire all three seasons of the old TV show “The Greatest American Hero” through the magic of bittorrent. Acquire it I did, and I’ve been getting a real kick out of those old episodes (especially all the parts about fighting the commies). What really surprised me, though, was the logo on the main character’s suit.

Greatest American Hero

The Greatest American Hero

When I first watched the show some twenty years ago, the logo meant nothing to me. Now when I look at it, it very distinctly looks like a stylized Chinese character 中 (meaning “middle” or “China”).

Of course the resemblance is most likely just coincidence, but when I showed the show to a Chinese friend, the question immediately arose: “why does he have a 中 on his chest?” I responded, “yeah, it does look like a 中, doesn’t it? But it’s not.” That got me a, “what are you talking about? It’s a 中!”

So is the Greatest American Hero actually ChinaMan? Or maybe the “aliens” that gave him the superpower suit in the first place were actually just the Chinese?


Totally not photoshopped

One more weird GAH/China connection: in Episode 1 of Season 2, the hero stops a bus marked “CBL.” CBL also happens to stand for the China Blog List, which, as luck would have it, also uses “中” as its logo. Coincidence??

OK, yes. That one is a coincidence.

But what’s the deal with the Greatest American Hero and 中?


Jul 2006 is back!



For many, Brendan O’Kane is one of the most beloved China bloggers. It was distressing, then, to see his blog go for months unupdated. It looks like those days are over. The site is looking a bit plainer than it used to, and it’s not even blue and orange, but I think maybe that’s just temporary.

Brendan also writes an amazing Chinese blog.


Jul 2006

Dumb Joke in Shanghainese

After hearing lately about how YouTube is now the undisputed king of online video, I did a search for 上海话 (Shanghai dialect) to see what it would turn up. A measly two videos! Here’s the only one kinda worth watching:

Here’s a translation of the joke, in Mandarin and in English:

> 冰箱里有两只蛋在聊天
Two eggs were chatting in the refrigerator

> 一只蛋对另外一只蛋说
One egg said to the other:

> 你看 这只蛋傻吧
“Look at that egg. Doesn’t he look dumb?

> 身上长毛了
He’s covered in hair!”

> 然后那只蛋就发火了
The third egg was furious

> 就敲了它一下
and hit the first egg.

> 说 傻瓜 猕猴桃也不认识
He said, “You idiot! Don’t you know a kiwi fruit when you see one?”

Har har.


Jul 2006

Learning Korean in China

Since I don’t have classes over the summer, I figured it was a good time to start learning something new. I started learning Korean. To fit Korean into my hectic schedule, I hired a Korean foreign student from ECNU to come to my apartment and tutor me once a week. Why Korean? Well, I have several reasons:

1. Korean looks cool. I’ve always liked it. I like the way it sounds, too (more than, say, that overrated language French).
2. Korean (mostly) uses a phonetic writing system. The last two languages I tackled seriously have been Japanese and Chinese, and let me tell you, I don’t have time for any more of this “memorizing thousands of characters” crap.
3. It would be great to have some ability in all three of the official languages of East Asia. With English and Spanish, I’ve already got most of North America, South America, Australia, and Europe covered.
4. Outside of Korea itself, China is a pretty good place to study Korean (see below).

Anyway, I have had three classes so far, and I’ve learned a few things:



Jul 2006

The Chinese Work Ethic

I always think it’s kind of funny when I hear people talking about the “Chinese work ethic.” Usually it’s an American who knows plenty of successful Chinese immigrants in the States and just assumes that China is a nation of the same kind of people. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that the hard-working Chinese immigrants in the States were able to immigrate to the States because they’re smart and hard-working, and so many of them are successful in the States for the same reason. (There are exceptions though.)

Of course there are hard-working Chinese in China too, but it is by no means a universal cultural trait. I thought I’d give one little story related to just one tiny facet of the complex “Chinese work ethic.” (The more I think about it, the more I think that the idea of a unifying work ethic for a nation as large and diverse as China is almost entirely meaningless, but I’m going to tell a story anyway.)

I left the subway station and took a shortcut down an alley on the way home. I passed by a low wall, and lying stretched out on the wall, sound asleep, was a young man. Judging by his appearance, he was a migrant worker. Next to him on the wall was an electronic produce scale, and just behind the wall was a big cart full of apples. It was late afternoon.

Right after I passed the sleeping guy, I saw another man and a girl coming down the alley towards me with another cart of apples. I guessed that they were working with the sleeping guy, so after they passed me I walked a few steps further and then stopped to observe what happened next.

Life for immigrants to Shanghai is not at all easy. Migrant workers have to work extremely hard for very low wages. I wasn’t sure what the relationship between the two men was, but I fully expected the older man to really let the young guy have it for sleeping on the job.

The older man stopped by the younger man and walked around to the other side of the wall, near the apples. I saw the young guy stir, and he noticed the older man. The older man said something, and I saw a smile spread across the young guy’s face. He slowly sat up, and the two men began chatting happily. The girl looked on, a big grin on her face.


Jul 2006

Female Roommate Needed

No, not for me. A Chinese friend and former co-worker is looking for a roommate here in Shanghai. She hopes to find a female foreigner. No, she’s not a language rapist, she just finds foreigners interesting and enjoys their company. This is a great opportunity for a female foreigner. The apartment is in Pudong near the Century Park subway stop. You don’t need to already speak Chinese, but it might be more convenient if you do.

E-mail me if you’re interested.

(No, this space is not turning into a classifieds board, but I’ve been really busy at work this week, so it seems like a good time to put these up.)


Jul 2006

Jobs in Shanghai (now!)

If you need a job in Shanghai, like right now, I might be able to help you. Two people have been after me lately to help them find foreigners to do these jobs. Both are jobs I might consider myself if had time and needed the work.

The first is a job teaching Korean kids. From what I understand, the pay is 200+ RMB/hour (which is quite good), and class size is small. A Korean classmate of mine is trying to help the school find teachers.

The other is a translation job (Chinese to English) for an educational company I used to work for. The nice thing about this one is you can do it from home, but you have to be in Shanghai to meet the employer and then receive your payments.

I put both job offers on the newly reformatted Sinosplice Jobs page. (Yes, there are a few ads. Deal with it.) If you want to contact me about either of these jobs, please use the “jobs@” e-mail address linked to on that page.

UPDATE: There’s now a third job on the page (also for someone in Shanghai).

UPDATE 2: The job teaching Korean kids is no longer available. Go to the Sinosplice Jobs page for the most up-to-date info.


Jul 2006

Ode to Summer

Ode to Summer

Ode to Summer is a 3D animation by Ron Hui. The concept was inspired and the execution is amazing. The animation clip starts out with an ordinary Chinese painting… those familiar faded colors on yellowed parchment. Then the camera zooms in and takes you on a 3D tour of “Chinese painting land.” At first it teases you, making you think that it’s just some 3D objects interacting with a rather flat “3D” Chinese environment. But then things get all 3D-rotational and cool. I especially liked the effect of the Chinese calligraphy verses hanging in the air. Check it out.

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