While the article is about Beijing, this paragraph definitely reminded me of some of the things I’ve also felt about Shanghai:
> Beijing, after all, has much going for it in these heady days. Possibilities abound. Opportunity knocks. There’s a buzz here, a palpable energy. It’s a city with edge, full of quirky characters doing interesting things. Change is the one all-pervasive constant. The Beijing zeitgeist is a shape-shifting polymorph, the city a suitable setting for self-reinvention. It’s impossibly big and yet it offers the intimate charms of a small town – that sense of community that many of us found missing back home.
Those that have taken root in Beijing probably might be forgiven for assuming that this feeling is not to be had in Shanghai. I’d say the main difference is that Shanghai is not “impossibly big.” Part of its charm is that the “downtown” city area (obviously, Pudong is not included) is actually relatively small.
Shanghai has changed quite a bit since I last blogged about Thanksgiving dinner in Shanghai in 2005. And the Thanksgiving dinner buffet business is booming. Even the Mexican restaurants are doing Thanksgiving dinner spreads. Here are some of the listings:
In 2005 I called “reasonable prices” around 150 RMB per person. Now it’s difficult to find T-Day dinner deals for less than 300 RMB per person, and many are around 5-600 RMB. Kinda makes you want to stay home and be thankful you don’t have to participate in the consumption orgy.
But what if you want to have an American-style Thanksgiving at home in Shanghai? It’s possible, but also not cheap. The biggest problem is that if you want to buy turkey, you have to buy a whole bird. I don’t quite understand this. Why can’t the birds be carved up and sold in pieces? Most Chinese people aren’t crazy about turkey, but would probably buy some to try out if it could be purchased in moderation. As for me, I’d like some turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but I’ll be staying in this year, and I’m certainly not capable of taking down a whole turkey.
China’s “Bachelor’s Day” (光棍节) is becoming more and more internationally known. It is still, however, not what you might call “well-known” (that Wikipedia article, for example, is the shortest Wikipedia article I’ve seen in years!). Urban Dictionary offers this definition for “bachelor day“:
November 11, a day represented by four digits of 1, dubbed by young single Chinese. The “Bachelor Day” has been initiated by single college students and, although enjoys no holiday leave, has become a vogue of the day among single white collars.
I wish I could get lucky on the Bachelor Day this year.
It seems that this holiday has yet to catch on outside of China, but one is the loneliest number in any culture, so it may just be a matter of time. Sadly enough, this particular holiday is going to be more and more relevant to China, as the sex ratio imbalance here worsens. Already, I get the sense that the holiday is more relevant to single men than to single women here.
Anyway, the date for Bachelor’s Day this year is 2011-11-11, which is not only a rare concurrence of lots of 1’s in a date, but also extra bachelor-y.
Here are some images I collected from the web which show how this modern holiday is seen in China (and how it seems to focus on single men more):
There seem to be a lot of stick-like foods in the imagery, such as 油条 (fried dough sticks) and Pocky, and also a lot of cigarrettes:
And, of course, the holiday is also being used for marketing promotions. Taobao even set up a special page just for its Bachelor’s Day (AKA “Singles Day”) promotions: 1111.tmall.com:
I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more and more about this holiday in years to come.
Finally, on a personal note, today is the day that my own daughter (our first child) was born! Hopefully we’re not condemning her to a life of loneliness.
I’m not planning to do any baby posts here (at least, not until the language acquisition begins), but I might be posting a bit less in the (sleep-deprived) days to come.
Over the weekend I met up with Patrick Lin, a former student of mine from ZUCC in Hangzhou. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 10 years since I first taught him English all those years ago. At the time, I was a 22-year-old kid fresh out of college, and the students in that class were 21. Now he’s married and has a kid already.
After college, Patrick went to Scotland and studied golf course design. He later moved to Beijing, where he applied what he had learned for a while, but apparently got the entrepreneur’s itch and opened a coffee shop in Beijing. (Lesson learned: don’t start with a big coffee shop.) Later he decided to open a business in Shanghai selling gourmet popcorn under his own brand called Momochitl.
Anyway, this past weekend I finally made it out to Patrick’s shop and got to try some of his popcorn for myself. It’s imported American corn and ingredients, and it’s good stuff! You can even order it on Taobao if you’d like to try it.
I’m proud of a former student for starting his own business in largely uncharted territory. He’s got all kinds of ideas for his business, and I’m interested to see how it grows.
One of the most interesting details for me, though, was the name: Momochitl. It starts out sounding Japanese (“momo” means “peach” in Japanese), but then “chitl” is decidedly un-Japanese and just un-Asian altogether. It sounded Aztec to me. Sure enough, Patrick’s explanation is:
> “In the 16th century, Aztec Indians would use local popcorn as decoration in worshiping their gods,” explains Momochitl owner Patrick Lin. “Momochitl is the earliest word for popcorn.”
“The earliest word for popcorn!” Nice. If you Google “momochitl,” you’ll find that Patrick’s business is already overtaking the search results, but one interesting page is simply the Wikipedia page for popcorn, in the Nahuatl language. Nahuatl is the modern term for the family of languages descended from the Aztecs.
Interestingly, Patrick is marketing his popcorn mostly under the name Momochitl, but if you insist on Chinese, it’s 蘑球 (“mushroom balls”??). If you like popcorn, give it a try!
Albert Camus was my favorite of the authors we read in high school; The Stranger (《局外人》 in Chinese) was my favorite book. Recently I was reading some of Camus’s famous quotes, and I was struck by how applicable many of them are now to modern China:
“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”
“Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny.”
“The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”
“The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” [Uh oh…]
“Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”
“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”
“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”
“Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.”
“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”
“It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” [Many, many Chinese people I know would whole-heartedly agree with this statement.]
“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”
“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”
In my experience, Albert Camus (阿尔贝·加缪) is not very well-known in China.
Not long ago, my wife and I went to see a Chinese version of the classic play 12 Angry Men. Over the October holiday we decided to go see another play (comedy this time), and what better play to follow 12 Angry Men than a new independent “micro-play” (微话剧) called “Thirteen” (拾叁, which is 大写 for “十三“)?
We ended up really enjoying the 90-odd minute performance. It was created by a group which calls itself “Why Not” in English, and 歪脑 (a transliteration into Chinese which means something like “skewed brain”). The whole play was performed by only three talented young actors:
The promotional poster for the play we saw:
Here’s my partial translation of the micro-play’s description, taken from the introduction on the Why Not website:
> Micro-play “Thirteen” (Society)
> Keywords for “Thirteen”
> comedy, lives of the people, current events, micro-play, improv, interactive, experiential
> History of “Thirteen”
> Shísān: shortened form of the classic Shanghainese slang “shísān diǎn” (thirteen o’clock). “Shísān diǎn” was originally a transliteration of the English word “society,” a pejorative term used in the last century for those who closely followed the trends of the times and obsessed over socializing. Later it was extended to refer to people or things which are “not normal, fun, funny,” and can often have a positive connotation.
> English “society” could refer to the whole of society, a club, or social life.
> The micro-play “Thirteen,” makes use of the “funny, spoof” meanings, but puts more emphasis on the “society, lives of the people” aspects.
> Tagline for “Thirteen”
> Use the “thirteen” attitude to view this era, which 1.3 billion (13亿) people are experiencing together!
> Content Outline of “Thirteen”
> This is the funniest era. It is also the evilest era.
> Here, total luxury and homelessness coexist, Lamborghinis and tractors coexist; here, food prices and rocket ships soar, as do oil and Maotai. Here, there are both Li Gang and Li Chengpeng; there are both Guo Guangchang, and also Guo Meimei. There are the Olympics and the World Expo, as well as the Red Cross. Here, both “China’s Got Talent” and “China’s Sick People” are on every day, while both the country’s GDP and the water levels in its flooded cities are rapidly rising…. Here, what follows hope is disappointment, but following disappointment, a new hope may spring up yet again….
> As it happens, we’re living in just this confluence of events. But without all these events we witness; this play could not exist.
> Whether you’re worried about the stock prices (as disappointing as the Chinese soccer team), or our food quality (as unreliable as the new bullet trains), or, like the Forbidden City, you just can’t hold onto what you treasure most, to tell you the truth, we can’t solve a single one of these issues. But there is one thing we can do: as these dog days make faces at us, we can at least find an opportunity to make some faces back. This opportunity is in “Thirteen.”
> So come on, take 90 minutes of time, 1000 square meters of space, audience and actors, stage and backstage, laughs and curses, pretenders and morons, and let’s all make faces back, and at each other.
> Content and Segments (these may change at any time; this is a Chinese characteristic, if you know what we mean):
[I left these “segments” out, because they didn’t seem to reflect what I saw, as the site warns. Here are the segments we saw, in my own words:]
– Teacher and student skit
– A crackdown on street vendors skit
– A “I won’t stay with you if you can’t provide for all my material needs” modern woman skit
– A series of interview skits
– A kung fu monk skit
– A doctor seeing patients skit (including a very racy but cleverly acted scene where a prostitute brought in a customer who had OD’d on Viagra and collapsed)
– A visit from Cecilia Cheung (张柏芝) skit
This play was quite challenging to follow, because not only was it performed with rapid-fire delivery, but it also referenced a lot of current events, with internet culture thrown in too. There were references to both the Wenzhou bullet train wreck as well as Shanghai’s recent subway accident, for example. Plenty of social commentary.
I enjoyed all three actors, but 苏永豪‘s was especially memorable (pictured above; the guy in glasses). He played so many roles, including several hilarious cross-dressing ones and a number of accents, and he was very funny in all of them. He was also really good in the impromptu audience interaction parts. A real pro performer.
Anyway, if you’re up for the challenge of trying to follow a modern Chinese play, this one probably isn’t an easy one to start with, but it’s definitely an interesting one. It had a fair amount of slapstick and action, too, which would keep you engaged even if you don’t follow a lot of what’s said. At 120 RMB per ticket (here), it’s not cheap, but it’s a much better entertainment investment than Transformers 3!
Maybe I don’t read the right blogs, but it seems like China Daily Show isn’t getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This China-centric Onion-style “news” site is hilarious. It describes itself like this:
> China Daily Show is not affiliated with China Daily or The Daily Show and is intended for humorous purposes only. All events, characters, names and places featured are products of the authors’ imaginations, or are used fictitiously.
Here are some recent headlines to get you started:
There are a lot of buskers in Shanghai. I’m not sure how most people feel about them. I certainly don’t mind the blind guys playing erhu, or the guitarists in the park. But rarely do I actually really like their performances. I enjoy hearing this guy every time I catch him on the stairs of Exit 2 at the Zhongshan Park Line 2 subway station:
He plays piano music on his boombox, and then accompanies it on his (amplified) violin. It sounds really good! I’ve heard mostly classical pieces by him. He’s playing Pachelbel’s Canon here.
His sign reads:
In English, it’s something like:
> Wife has breast cancer
Son in college
Your kindness will be rewarded
Note: I took liberties with the 功德无量 line, which comes from Buddhism, and is translated as “boundless beneficence” in the ABC dictionary.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, a day late. I managed to get out of eating moon cakes this year. (Whew! My moon cake eating contest days are behind me…)
Photos of Shanghai residents lining up to buy moon cakes (月饼), rain or shine (but always with umbrellas), from Jing’an Temple in the month leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival:
I’m not going to say much on economics, but this whole “moon cake economy” thing strikes me as quite interesting. While in a taxi the other night, a guest on a radio talk show made some interesting points:
1. The value of moon cake coupons has exceeded the value of the moon cakes themselves.
2. Some people eat moon cakes, but a lot of people just pass them around, gifting and regifting. (The actual quote was: “买的不吃，吃的不买,” literally, “those who buy them, don’t eat them, and those who eat them don’t buy them.”)
3. As the moon cake economy evolves, more and more products are being used as substitutes, such as ice cream moon cakes, soft mochi moon cakes, non-traditional cake as moon cakes, etc.
It’ll be interesting to see where this tradition goes in the next ten years. Will the Chinese try hard to preserve it as is, or will they morph into into something else?
Recently ChinesePod was preparing to do a podcast on some of the “Four Greats” (四大) of China [more info in Chinese]. If you’re not familiar with any of these, you might want to listen to the podcast (it’s free). Otherwise, a quick sum-up of some of the most famous ones will suffice:
Today marks the end of the summer internships at AllSet Learning. We had our first intern, Donna, last summer. That was when the company was just starting out. Since we now have quite a few more clients and a whole team of teachers, there were a lot more interesting tasks for this summer’s interns, Lucas and Hugh. And their internships were pretty cool, directly related to learning Chinese.
Some of the things the AllSet Learning interns got to do:
– Take demo lessons to help evaluate different teachers’ teaching methods
– Play with “Chinese character building blocks” (a children’s educational toy set), experimenting with Chinese character constructions
– Provide feedback on various types of learning materials, from comics to Communist Party doctrine to iPad apps
– Help research and compile Chinese grammar information
– Test the effect of regular tone pair drills
– Participate in game-like components of teacher training sessions
– Play Settlers of Catan (and explain it in Chinese)
– Eat 东北菜 (pictured above)
One of the things I personally gained from having the interns around the office was a reminder of the very specific early challenges learners of Chinese face. But I also saw firsthand how the new generation of learners is coming to China much better prepared and knowledgeable. One of my interns, Hugh, even has an excellent blog on learning Chinese called East Asia Student. I’ve mentioned it before, but the days of coming to China clueless and expecting to have opportunities thrown at you really are winding down (or at least moving to China’s smaller cities).
Anyway, if you’re a bright young mind looking for an internship that offers the opportunity to learn Chinese, we’ve got them at AllSet Learning.
And finally, a sincere thank you to Lucas and Hugh for their hard work this summer. You guys were great!
You know “the Chinese font“? The one that just screams Oriental, because it looks like it’s made out of bamboo pieces (?), mystically arranged by a wispy-bearded kung fu master?
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me remind you:
Well, the above font is one that, in my experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find in mainland China, especially in Chinese. (Anyone out there have a different experience?) Most typed Chinese here is in one of about 4 fonts, and “Oriental” isn’t one of them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose; the Chinese just have no reason to parody themselves.
There’s a place on the way to the AllSet office in Shanghai that actually uses the “Oriental” font, though, in Chinese. This is a rare find. Here it is:
That’s a dry cleaner’s window. The “Oriental font” is in the middle. It says, 八折价, which means “80% of the original price.”
The Sinosplice blog has recently undergone a few minor upgrades, including:
1. Vastly improved search. (It was terrible before. I myself used to use Google to find content on my own site.)
2. Social sharing icons. (I tried to avoid this for quite a while, but it’s a trend that won’t be ignored! My reward for waiting was being able to include G+ easily.)
3. Automated related post info. (I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time. Scroll down on a post or page to see related posts, NYTimes-style.)
4. iPhone optimization for cell phone viewing.
5. Tiny style tweaks.
Please let me know if anything doesn’t sem to be working right for you. You may need to clear your cache and/or reload the page a few times.
Thanks to Ryan from Dao by Design for once again doing a great job and being so easy to work with.
My friend Tom (mentioned once before here) has put together a really cool event which he’s calling “United Verses” (译站 in Chinese). The concept is basically a bilingual poetry reading event. Each Chinese poet will read his poems in Chinese, and then an English-speaking partner poet will read English translations of them. That English-speaking poet will later read his own poems, and his partner poet will read the Chinese translations.
This is a really cool cross-cultural activity, and I applaud Tom for putting it together. It took a lot of work to coordinate translators behind the scenes, because the poets themselves aren’t usually the translators. Additional translators are needed, both native Chinese speakers and native English speakers.
I participated as a translator myself (as did one of my AllSet Learning clients), and I found it a really interesting and rewarding experience. Not only do you get to discuss the meaning behind the poem with the original poet, but then you also get to discuss your translation into English with an English-speaking poet. This isn’t just basic off-the-cuff translation, and the resulting translations are quite solid.
Unfortunately I won’t be able to be at the event myself, because I’ll be out of town. I leave you with a photo of “my poet,” 叶青, a very interesting Shanghainese man, pictured here in his study.
Finally, the event details in plain text:
> United Verses (译站)
> July 23rd, Saturday 7pm (event starts around 8pm, but seats are limited)
> at Anar: 129 Xingfu Lu, near Fahuazhen Lu (幸福路１２９号，近法华镇路)
The other day I went to Chinese electronics retail giant Suning (苏宁) to pick up a new USB drive. I’ve never been impressed by either Suning or Gome (国美), but my most recent visit made me wonder if with Best Buy’s recent closing, they’ve just kicked back and completely stopped trying altogether.
I was looking at Sandisk’s USB drives, eyeing the 8 GB one, and then I noticed an equally compact 16 GB version. I asked the price, which wasn’t listed. The exact same model 16 GB drive was quite a bit more than twice the price of the 8 GB model. Hoping against hope, I asked if this wasn’t a little strange (check here for an example of normal pricing on Amazon), and that if she might have gotten the price wrong. I forget what the salesperson said, exactly, but the message was clear: “I think you’re confusing me with someone who gives a damn.”
Anyway, I decided to go with the 8 GB version, but I forgot that I wasn’t at Best Buy anymore. I couldn’t take my selection to checkout, I had to take a special number to the far side of the store to make my payment in a carefully hidden location. But the amusing thing was that my order number was not printed out, or even handwritten on a standard form. No, it was scrawled on a random scrap of paper. Classy.
Anyway, I found the cashier in a desolate corner of the store and made my payment. (Apparently the number wasn’t made up, at least.) I located the original salesperson, wondering where my purchase was. She had cast it aside on a random shelf under some earphones. She retrieved it for me. I asked for a bag. Sorry, no bags.
So, walking towards the exit with my unbagged purchase, I wondered how I looked any different from a shoplifter just making off with an item plucked from the shelves. Many Chinese stores that use the “cashier all the way across the store and nowhere near the exit” system have a guard at the exit who checks for a receipt. At Suning, there were no guards, no employees in sight. Just a big wide swath of apathy pointing the way out.
Yeah, I must admit that I miss Best Buy. I still think “service” is a good idea.
With the movie Transformers 3 now out, Transformers are popping up in Chinese media more too. The other day I snapped these pictures of an ad campaign involving 舒化 milk. (Sorry the photos are blurry… I have yet to figure out the best way to consistently get clear photos of back-lit subway ads with my cell phone.)
OK, kids like Transformers, kids drink milk. Still, badass robots drinking milk? It seems kinda off. (Stop messing with my childhood memories!)
Quite a while ago I made a shirt which had 请讲普通话 (“Please speak (standard) Mandarin”) on the front, and started selling it on the Sinosplice store (through CafePress). The idea is that if you challenge the people around you to talk to you in Chinese, they probably will. It wasn’t until my last visit to the States in February that I was able to pick up my own “Please speak Mandarin” t-shirt, and not until the weather warmed up recently that I was actually able to see the effect.
The first time I used it was in a cafe, where the waiter insisted on talking to me in English, even though I initiated in Chinese. It was a classic language power struggle. I pointed to my shirt and asked him to 请讲普通话, which was incredibly awkward for me to do. He then got it, but clearly found it extremely difficult to not use English with a foreigner.
Later in the day, I caught several girls reading my shirt, laughing, and pointing it out to their friends. They didn’t talk to me.
So, it’s only been Day 1 of the experiment, but so far empirical evidence suggests that this shirt may be amusing to Chinese girls. (My wife, on the other hand, found it a little embarrassing.)