My daughter is now one and a half years old, and while she can’t say much yet, I know that little brain of hers is hard at work acquiring language.
One thing that’s become really obvious lately is how much she values the words she already knows. Every morning, as soon as she can, it’s all “Mommy! Mommy, Mommy…” and “Daddy! Daddy, Daddy….” It’s not just that she’s happy to see us in the morning; I’ve come to realize that she’s still slightly uncertain of her mastery of her earliest words (she still occasionally fumbles with the words she knows). She wants to use these words as much as possible because she worked hard to learn them, and doesn’t want to forget them.
And I couldn’t help but wonder: how much do we learners really value the words we learn? I mean, we value them enough to “learn” them in the first place, but do we value them enough to put in the ongoing effort to keep them? When we learn words that we know are useful, do we make damn sure that we use them right away, repeatedly, so that we never let them go?
Granted, not every vocabulary word is going to be as crucial to us as the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” are to a baby. But still, with applying a fraction of that earnestness would go a long way. I’m finding myself grateful for this new daily reminder I have.
(I think I would totally eat insects if any of them were as delicious as shrimp, the grasshoppers of the ocean. Alas, I’ve tried eating various types of bugs in China, and they’re just not that tasty. Or… maybe they take quite a bit of getting used to?)
Anyway, reading the article, two China-related thoughts jumped out at me:
1. China should be eating more insects
With this massive population and the multitude of food safety issues, it makes sense, right? And look at the abundance of edible insects in China (especially compared to the U.S.)!
2. What would China’s “percentage of animal edible” figures be?
I know that the U.S. and China have very different thoughts on “percentage of animal edible” for all kinds of animals, including poultry, pork, beef, and lamb. So which numbers are these, and what are the differences between the numbers of the U.S. and China?
The Chinese have never been squeamish eaters, and as long as the cooking methods themselves were Chinese, I can imagine a China where people eat insects in larger quantities.
The interview includes a number of questions I’m frequently asked these days by foreigners in China. Here’s an example from the interview:
> You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?
> Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.
> That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.
There’s a lot of talk in the Shanghai Catholic Church about recently deceased bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (金鲁贤). It’s kind of a shame, because he seems like a really interesting man, but I didn’t really hear much about him while he was still alive. Probably mostly my fault, but nothing to do now but educate myself.
> Jin Luxian is considered by many to be one of China’s most controversial religious figures. Educated by the Jesuits, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained priest in 1945 before continuing his studies in Europe. In 1951 he made the dangerous decision to return to the newly established People’s Republic of China. He became one of the many thousands of Roman Catholics who suffered persecution. Convicted of counter-revolutionary activities and treason, he was imprisoned for 27 years and only released in 1982. His subsequent decision to accept the government’s invitation to resume his prior role as head of the Shanghai Seminary and then assume the title of Bishop of Shanghai without Vatican approval shocked many Catholics.
> Bishop Jin was ordained bishop without Vatican approval in 1985, but this was later granted by the Vatican in 2004.
The book is very new, and there are no reviews for the book on Amazon yet. Anyone read it? (It’s nowhere to be found in Amazon.cn, which I suppose is a good sign?)
Oh, and here’s a little taste of the political drama that is Catholicism in China (via the LA Times):
> Jin’s first anointed successor as acting bishop, Joseph Xing Wenzhi, resigned last year for reasons still unclear, and his replacement, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, was placed under house arrest at Shanghai’s Sheshan Seminary after enraging party officials by renouncing his membership in the party-controlled Catholic association.
I was surprised to discover a new little dropdown option in the Gmail menu bar today, with the Chinese character 拼 on it (for 拼音, pinyin). After playing with it, it became clear that it’s an in-browser input method–a way to type in Chinese characters. Most people install Chinese IMEs at the operating system level (Chinese input is supported by Windows, Mac OS, and Linux now), but now Gmail is offering a way to type pinyin without the OS-level IME. It’s all in the browser. What’s more, it’s surprisingly fast. It’s pretty much exactly like using Google Pinyin for Windows, which I used to love, but gave up when I switched to using a Mac. This is very cool.
It’s not only for Chinese, though:
I’m not sure why it was auto-enabled for me, but if you’d like to try it out, just open up your Gmail settings. It’s right at the top:
More info from Google here. (Thanks, Luke, for that link!)
I’m pretty into geeky tech stuff, so I’m excited about Google Glass. On the new promo site, though, I noticed this strange photo:
My first thought was, “where can you buy vegetables in Chinese by the pound?” Must be in Chinatown in the U.S.
I showed this to my wife, and her immediate reaction was, “they wrote the 苗 in 豆苗 wrong.”
If you’re using Google Glass to buy vegetables in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and possibly while getting realtime help from Google Glass).
Wow, I would love for AllSet Learning to be a part of an initiative like that! We’ll see how long it takes us to get our hands on Google Glass and onto the streets of Shanghai…
Since our baby was born in 2011, I’ve resisted the urge to flood my blog with baby topics. But as our little one learns to talk and begins to explore the world around her, I can’t help but delve into issues of first language acquisition, bilingualism, and culture. These are all topics I’ve thought about before, but never have I had such powerful motivation to really dig into them.
> Many studies performed on both animals and humans have shown that exposure in the early years to surroundings that are dull and monotonous can permanently reduce curiosity.
> This results in a vicious circle of intellectual poverty where lowered curiosity resulting from inadequate stimulation leads to still less curiosity, and so on.
I’d be interested to see what the “many studies” were, exactly (leave me a message if you know!), because these two paragraphs strike me as particularly relevant to China.
When I think of my own childhood and look at my daughter’s so far, it’s not hard to apply “dull and monotonous” to a (relatively) small Shanghai apartment, the lack of a backyard, the lack of an open natural environment to explore, etc. I won’t even get into the obvious problems with the local school system.
In addition, here in China the fostering of creativity is often presented as something that needs to be accomplished within schools. In reality, children’s natural curiosity needs to be nurtured much earlier, before the “vicious circle of intellectual poverty” begins.
Is it still possible to stimulate curiosity in children while living in China? Of course! I have no doubt that it is. It just means parents here have to work a bit harder than my mom could get away with: “go outside and play.”
I keep an apolitical blog and generally maintain a low-information diet (the exception is technews), so I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to keep up with the news. I have a lot more time for work and pleasure that way, and I’m still able to stay on top of the important issues in the world.
Even so, I’ve come to recognize what a valuable resource Bill Bishop’s Sinocism is. You can sign up for the newsletter and get regular updates on all major issues facing China. I know more than one information junkie that reads every link in the newsletter, but for me, the headlines and blurbs are often enough. I click through when the articles especially interest me (and learn important new Chinese buzzwords from time to time too).
If you’re interested in China and you’re one of the few that haven’t heard of Sinoscism, definitely check it out. Bill Bishop is also on Twitter (@Niubi) and the excellent podcast Sinica.
This Chinese New Year I went with my family to visit relatives in Baoding (保定), a city just outside of Beijing. The air was OK for our trip, and the famous Chinese hospitality was lavished upon us. The thing that left the strongest impression, however, was the baijiu (白酒). I must have had more baijiu over the course of a three-day visit in Baoding than I’ve had over the previous three years (or more) in China combined. Yikes. Here’s the almost scientific-feeling way that they dish out the baijiu in Baoding:
> You will notice you have not seen your girlfriend for a long time. The men and women have separated. The men are trying to see how much alcohol you can drink before dying, and the women are interrogating your girlfriend about marriage plans. Go find her.
Stumble into the room, sit down next to grandma, put your arm around her, and start acting like you have confused her with your girlfriend. This will either be met with laughter and the grandma will accept you, or you will never be invited back again. Both outcomes have their benefits.
Definitely an amusing read on cultural differences. While my own experiences didn’t lead to much humor for me, it did lead to one (un)sobering realization. It is true what they say: baijiudoes get better the more you drink it, and the expensive stuff really is a lot better than the cheap stuff. I didn’t have any hangovers at all.
That said, I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Baoding every CNY…
This, as you know, is an apolitical blog, and stories like this are among the least interesting to me personally. But this guy’s name demands to be noticed. His name is 刘铁男. That’s “Liu Iron Man.” His parents named him “Iron Man.” That’s kind of awesome. I haven’t been forced to take notice of a name like this since I discovered the lovely lass named 黄雪 (“Yellow Snow“).
At this point, I’d also like to give a shout out to a friend who goes by the name of 铁蛋 (“Iron Eggs,” i.e. “Iron Balls”).
I remember my list of things I needed to buy on my trips back to the States used to be something like this:
1. Shoes (I’m size 13)
2. Pants/jeans (I got some long legs)
3. Deodorant (I like Speed Stick)
4. Anti-diarrhea pills (there are some things you never totally get used to…)
Nowadays you can find almost everything on Taobao, though. I forgot to get deodorant on my last trip home, but thanks to Taobao, I think I can cross it off the list anyway:
Same goes for item #1:
I’m not going to buy my pants on Taobao (yet), and I haven’t seen the type of anti-diarrhea pills you can get in the States here (when you need ’em, you need ’em!), but I imagine it’s just a matter of time before “the list” is gone completely.
Food aside, what items are still on your list? (And run a search on Taobao before posting your reply!)
How poisonous would the very air you breathe need to be to drive you away from a city you otherwise love? The question seems kind of absurd, but I would think it has become very real to the residents of Beijing (especially the non-locals).
Wow, this year December has turned out to be very low on posts. I’ve been trying to update twice a week, but I didn’t pull it off this month. I was in Florida visiting family for more than half the month, and blogging just didn’t happen.
While not blogging, I’ve been thinking a bit about how this 2012 went. I came up with two main conclusions.
It was a good year for AllSet Learning.
Again, I have to thank the exceptional bunch of people that have entrusted us to help them learn Chinese here in Shanghai. Our clients are our investors, and thanks to them, we’re going strong.
In 2012 AllSet Learning launched the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which has more than doubled in number of articles while quality of articles rises across the board (more on this later). We also released the AllSet Learning Pinyin iPad app in the first half of the year and the Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app in the second half. Both are doing well, and I’m just so pleased to be making my designs a reality.
We’ve also had some more awesome interns, a trend which looks to be continuing into 2013. (Thanks, guys!)
It was a bad year for staying in China.
I’ve remained silent on the news buzz about Mark Kitto et al because I don’t really think it’s that much of a story. But the disturbing thing about it all is that this year a surprisingly large proportion of my close friends in Shanghai have either left or announced plans to leave.
It’s not that I expected everyone to stay in Shanghai forever. I always tell people that I’ll be in China as long as it makes sense, and due to the particular career path I’ve chosen, it makes sense for me to stay around longer than perhaps a lot of my friends that have taken up residency here. But it still seems a little strange that so many friends would decide to leave all around the time. I suspect that the “10 year mark” has something to do with it. We humans do tend to attach importance to that number.
The latest to leave Shanghai is Brad Ferguson, of the website BradF.com, which has long since ceased to be his domain, but it’s how I originally got in touch with Brad. He helped me move into my first apartment in Shanghai the first time we met, which I think was a pretty good sign that he was a decent guy.
Brad did one thing before leaving which I thought was quite interesting. He got a Chinese character tattoo. Seems like most of the time the ones getting Chinese character tattoos are white people that have never set foot in Asia, and oftentimes end up inking questionable symbols on their bodies. Brad, however, got a pretty cool Chinese poem tattooed on his arm:
Not sure exactly about the meaning of a white guy getting such a tattoo on his arm as he leaves China, but it makes me think.
As most of us in China know, fortune cookies are not a Chinese thing. They’re an American thing. ChinesePod just recently did a lesson on American Chinese Food, and user he2xu4 linked to this TED talk which gives more detail on the issue: Jennifer 8. Lee hunts for General Tso. (ChinesePod also once did a lesson on the fact that you can’t get fortune cookies in China.)
The thing is, it looks like now you can get fortune cookies in China. I took this photo in my local Carrefour supermarket:
OK, so it was in the “imported foods” section (they seem to be from Japan), but the packaging is in simplified Chinese. They come in two flavors: “cream” and “chocolate.” It says on the package: 装密语签语饼干, which means something like “Secret-containing Fortune Cookies.”
Probably the best thing about these fortune cookies, though, is that they feature Pac-Man. The Japanese may have had the invention of fortune cookies stolen by the Chinese in the United States, but at least as they introduce fortune cookies to mainland China they’re sneaking Japan’s home-grown video game icon into the mix!
The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai is helping U.S. citizens mail their ballots back to meet the state deadlines:
> Returning your ballot by mail. Place your voted ballot in a U.S. postage-paid envelope containing the address of your local election officials. Drop it off at the Consulate and we’ll send it back home for you without the need to pay international postage. If you can’t visit the Consulate in person, ask a friend or colleague drop it off for you. If it’s easier for you to use China’s postal system, be sure to affix sufficient international postage, and allow sufficient time for international mail delivery. If time is tight, you may want to use a private courier service (e.g., FedEx, UPS, or DHL) to meet your state’s ballot receipt deadline.
> You can submit your ballot to us to be delivered by diplomatic pouch at the entrance to the consular section at the 8th Floor, Westgate Mall, 1038 Nanjing West Road, between the hours of 8:30am and 5pm on weekdays. Your ballot must be sealed in the security envelope and mailing envelope. However, since it takes up to three weeks to send mail to the U.S. via our diplomatic pouch, we recommend you drop off your ballot of no later than next Tuesday, October 16. After that time, we recommend you use an express private courier service such as the ones mentioned above to ensure your ballot arrives on time.
Email source: “Message for U.S. Citizens: Completing and Returning Absentee Ballots” from ShanghaiACS@state.gov
> If you find that street maps are shifted after upgrading to iOS6, check the settings in the Help tab. Choose “Enable shift” if you use AutoNavi-powered maps for China-purchased devices, choose “Disable shift” if you use TomTom-powered maps for international-purchased devices.
Huh? What’s going on here?
I’m no expert on this issue, but essentially, the Chinese government is paranoid about the use of GPS, and screws with it. This affects Google Maps, it affects camera GPS, and it even affects runners’ watches. It’s been going on for years. Chinese companies with government approval (like TomTom) can get their services/devices working properly, but foreign devices which try to rely on good old-fashioned “satellite positioning” and maps lose out, and have to build in a “shift correction” feature if they want their apps’ GPS positioning to work properly.
It’s really sad to see the government continuing this charade in all its forms. It doesn’t work. When developers don’t solve the issue directly, there are workarounds to the map issue for pretty much any device, if you really dig. It’s just a huge pain in the GPS.
As Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (中秋节) approaches (this year it’s September 30th), there is a lot of mooncake buying going on in Shanghai. It’s still a tradition to buy mooncakes (月饼), and although some people like them, a lot of the mooncake purchases are for clients, employees, etc. But exactly what the mooncakes are is changing quite a bit, and some of the new forms (like Haagen Dazs’s) have a bit more hope of appealing to younger palates. The traditional recipes are getting cast by the wayside more and more, it seems, as modern corporations muscle in on the holiday market.
Over the past month, I’ve taken various snapshots of the current state of mooncake commercialism.
Just to be clear, we can see the type of traditional mooncake that young Chinese people don’t like much anymore in this Christine ad:
The demand is still fairly strong, and there have been mooncake lines going around Shanghai’s Jing’an Temple for at least a month. But you’ll notice that most of the people buying them are middle-aged or older.
Here’s a Hong Kong mooncake trying to do a more modern take:
Haagen Dazs seems to be championing the idea, “if people are going to keep buying mooncakes, let’s give them tasty, pricey alternatives.” And it’s the most visible “traditional mooncake alternative” this year:
I’m really expecting traditional mooncakes to become something of a rarity over the next 20 years.
It’s almost National Day holiday in China. That means wacky vacation schedules (it’s not too bad this year, though) and tons of Chinese people traveling. Those of us that have tried traveling within China during the holiday tend not to repeat it too many times (or at least not to really popular tourist destinations).
This year my wife and I are going to make a trip out to Chengdu. Should be fun (as long as the crowds aren’t too overwhelming). We’re going to try time-shifting our holiday a bit (leaving early and coming back in the middle of the holiday) to offset the holiday rush. We’ll see if that works!
Recently I saw this advertisement, which I assume was timed to appeal to would-be National Day travelers:
The text reads:
> There is no starting line. There is no finish line. You set the route! Rent!
Of course, the first thing that went through my mind when I saw that ad was, “you’re never going to find a road like that in China.” It’s not that the “open road” doesn’t exist at all; they’re just way too remote for the average driver setting out for Shanghai, that’s for sure. A Chinese “road trip” tends to feel more like driving in the city than like the “open road.” I’ve been on a few road trips in China, and I can now appreciate why the road trip is a great American tradition and not a Chinese tradition.
I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?
I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…
After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.
And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.
Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.
It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.
The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.
I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.
Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.
Goals do help
So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.
What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.
When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.
Remember that plateau?
The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.
For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…