I’m getting ready to do a review of iPad apps that teach writing Chinese characters. I’ve got a few to review already, but I’m very open to additional suggestions. It’s hard to find everything in the App Store.
If you’re a developer with a paid app that teaches Chinese writing, your chances of getting reviewed are much higher if you email me a promo code. 🙂
Have a good weekend!
June 24th UPDATE: Thank you for the replies I’ve gotten by comments and by email. This week has been busy, but the post will come out next week.
As someone who’s taken up residence in China long-term, I’ve had quite a few visitors over the years. One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to do a little “visitor profiling” if you want your guest to have a good time. Two of my own personal “case studies”:
1. My sister Grace visited me in Hangzhou in 2001. I hadn’t been in China long, and had spent a lot more time studying Chinese than trying to get comfortable. I fed Grace the 5 RMB local cafeteria food I was used to eating. When we went from Hangzhou to Beijing, I screwed up on the sleeper “ticket upgrade,” so it was 17 hours on the train in hard seats. In Beijing, we went everywhere on foot, by subway, or by bus. Poor Grace didn’t adapt too well to Chinese food; I think she might have had western food a few times, but she also shed quite a few pounds during her two weeks in China.
2. My parents visited China in 2007. We toured West Lake in Hangzhou, and went on a Bund cruise in Shanghai. We flew to Beijing and saw the sights there, assisted by a driver. We took the cable car up to the top of the Great Wall. We sampled the local food everywhere, while also getting some western food when it felt “necessary.” My parents had a very pleasant stay (but probably didn’t lose any weight).
Fortunately, by the time my parents had visited, I was a bit more compassionate about the needs of my less hardcore visitors (and had had a chance to practice this “kinder, gentler version of China” when my other sister Amy visited in 2004). Grace actually had a really good attitude about the whole ordeal, though. She felt that she had had a taste of “the real China,” and referred to what my sister Amy had experienced as “China Lite.”
I’m not trying to be a China snob here; this “China Lite” concept is useful. With my parents planning another visit, I’m working on perfecting the China Lite experience (without resorting to a tour group, if possible). While the whole “Real China” vs. “China Lite” thing is more of a continuum than a black or white issue, I’ve found it useful to compare the two.
Stay in hostels, crash at friends’ places, or even do some kind of homestay
Stay in nice hotels or service apartments
All Chinese food, and the more street food the better
Chinese food is fine as long as it’s not too weird; some western food (even KFC) is needed to buffer all that Chinese food
Baijiu (that Chinese white grain alcohol) isn’t so bad…
Tsingtao is exotic enough when it comes to alcohol
As much Chinese language as possible; gotta put that phrasebook to use and communicate with the locals
English if possible; translations if not
Travel by bus, train, and bike (with the people) is great
Airplane preferred for long trips; other forms of transportation need to provide appropriate personal space
Pack your own TP, and study the proper squatting position in advance
Never stray too far from a western-style toilet
China is big, and you don’t have much time to soak it all in, so pack that itinerary tight!
China is tiring; plan the itinerary carefully and leave sufficient down time
Consider the whole trip to be “off the grid” or at least “off the beaten path” with just the occasional internet cafe
Plan for internet needs, and provide a cell phone for your visitors if possible (the cost of the SIM card and phone service is negligible in China)
Got any tips to add the the list?
Some visitors are looking for “the real China,” where others are hoping to enjoy “China Lite.” They’re both here, but it’s best to be clear on what your visitors are after.
Pleco has announced its long-awaited Android version (screenshots here)! This is interesting to me, because one of the major reasons I switched from an Android phone back to an iPhone was Pleco. I haven’t seen the Android version in action, but looking at the screenshots, it would seem that the iPhone is getting more Love.
> This is an experimental release of our Android software; we’re making it available now for the sake of people who don’t want to wait any longer for the finished version, but there are quite a few bugs / ugly interfaces, the documentation is almost nonexistent (though you can get a pretty good idea of how it works from the iPhone version documentation), and there are also a few major features missing, so if you’re not very computer-savvy we’d recommend waiting for the finished version to be ready before downloading it, or at least waiting a few weeks to see what the feedback from other testers looks like in our discussion forums.
> In general, though, we’re very pleased with how our Android software turned out and with how much functionality we have been able to get into this first release. OCR (see below) is working beautifully on Android (both live and still, though currently only in “Lookup Words” mode), as are full-screen handwriting recognition, audio pronunciation, stroke order, and all of our add-on dictionaries. We’ve even gotten a significant portion of our document reader module working; there are no bookmarks or web browser yet, and it’ll choke if you try to load the complete text of 红楼梦, but for short-story-sized text files and snippets of text copied in from the clipboard it works quite well.
Meanwhile, the iPhone and iPad versions forge boldly ahead as well. I’m looking forward to the upcoming UI redesign. This part of the announcement was interesting:
> Central to this is a new feature we’re calling “merged multi-dictionary search”; basically, instead of typing in a word and having to flip between different dictionaries to see which matches they come up with, you’ll get all of the results from every dictionary in a single, sorted, duplicates-merged list, providing better information and doing it in a simpler way. That particular feature is actually likely to show up in an experimental form (off-by-default option) in a minor update we’ll be putting out in a few weeks; we want to make sure it’s working really well before we put it at the center of our product.
When I heard that Michael Love was looking for more dictionaries to license for Pleco, my initial reaction was, “why do you need more dictionaries? Add more dictionaries and it’s just too much hassle to navigate through them all.” And that’s a problem that this new “merged multi-dictionary search” would solve. I’m very interested to see what that ends up looking like, and how it affects the user experience.
So what are the new dictionaries being added to Pleco?
1. “the Oxford Concise English & Chinese Dictionary (now known as the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary)”
2. “the Classical-Chinese-to-Modern-Chinese dictionary”
3. “the Traditional Chinese Medicine dictionary”
4. “the expanded edition of the Tuttle Chinese-English dictionary, and its companion English-Chinese title”
5. “a really nice multifunction Chengyu dictionary (detailed explanations, usage notes, antonyms/synonyms, etc)”
6. “a lovely little Chinese-Chinese student dictionary”
7. “another Chinese-Chinese student dictionary that would be our first title ever to be oriented around non-mainland users (i.e., the original print version is in traditional characters)”
Wow. And Pleco is still searching for a decent Cantonese dictionary and a character etymology dictionary to license.
I’ve gotten quite a few questions about VPNs lately. I also opined in a recent comment that, “There was a time when you could reasonably get by without a VPN in China. That time is over.”
For this post I’d like to return to the basic question which so many of my readers seem to have: do I need a VPN for China? Since each person’s situation is different, rather than just flat-out answering that question, I made up a little quiz to help you figure it out yourself.
Do I need a VPN for China? (a simple quiz)
1. Do you need to use Facebook at all? (This includes services like Quora that require Facebook connect, and also every little “Like” button on the internet.)
2. Do you need to be able to see YouTube (or Vimeo) videos? (Remember, it’s not just going to the YouTube site. YouTube videos are embedded in sites all over the internet.)
3. Do you need reliable access to non-YouTube Google services such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, or even Google image search?
4. Do you need to use Twitter? (Remember, whether it’s through the site or a third party app, you’re still going to need a VPN or proxy of some kind to access Twitter.)
5. Did you find yourself uncomfortable with at least two uses of the word “need” above, telling yourself, “well, I don’t really need it…”?
How many times did you answer “yes” to the questions in the above quiz? If the total is 1 or higher, you will likely be much happier in China if you just shelled out the cash for a decent VPN.
Note: I don’t usually publicly share which VPN I use, but if you send me a nice email, I will probably tell you.
This link was too good to not post: Flashcard apps. I really dig the graphical feature display (just mouse over the icons).
Personally, though, so many choices almost makes me want to ignore all these options altogether. So far, Anki and Pleco are a good combination. I do wonder if these 100+ apps offer anything special, though.
I think this is going to be one of Shanghai’s shortest springs ever; we’re practically going straight from winter to summer. And advertisers know it; I saw this ad for skin whitening cream on the Metro the other day:
What struck me about this ad was not the amount of English, but rather the diversity of its usage in the ad:
1. Olay: a famous brand name, untranslated. (This is kind of a ballsy move in China, but some companies do it.)
2. White Radiance: the product’s English name. This is probably mostly for aesthetic effect and symmetry of design.
3. 小S: a name. Yes, her Chinese name is 小S. It might not be her real name, but it’s her name.
4. VS: a term used pretty often in Chinese, appreciated for its simplicity and compact nature. (In Chinese, you spell it out: V-S.)
5. PK: a Chinese verb (derived from “player kill”) popular among the young internet-savvy folk, referring to some type of elimination competition.
The less interesting part is the actual content of the ad. It’s trying to get people to go to a website and vote for the star they think is whiter. Ugh.
Names are an important type of vocabulary. Any native speaker of English can hear a name like “Stephanie” or “Tom” or “Catherine” or “John” and instantly recognize it as a name. Knowing that a word is a name can, of course, have an important impact on listening comprehension.
In Chinese, it’s not the given names that draw from a general pool of “common names;” it’s the surnames. There is a relatively small number of surnames which the vast majority of the Chinese population uses. So knowing what the most common surnames are can come in extremely handy.
I recently discovered the website MingBa.cn (名霸), and among other name-related resources, it’s got a great page on Chinese surnames, apparently from the 百家姓. It has the top 100 at the top, followed by a huge alphabetical list of Chinese surnames, including all the obscure ones (along with pinyin!).
I didn’t like how the font was pretty small, and the top 100 didn’t have pinyin, so I created a vocabulary list for the top 100 on Sinosplice: The Top 100 Chinese Surnames. Enjoy the huge font.
This month my learning consultancy, AllSet Learning, turned one year old. It’s hard to believe that a year has already gone by. So much has happened in the first year, and yet there is so, so much more to be done. It’s a good feeling.
The service is developing quite nicely, although I’m nowhere near satisfied. Thanks to all the Sinosplice readers who have shown your support for the new business, and especially the ones that have become clients. Great things are in store for 2011.
If you’re interested in becoming a client, it’s a good time to get in touch; the number of clients I can serve at one time is limited, so I may have to start a waiting list soon.
How do we foreigners live in China when YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all blocked here? We use VPNs to get around the blocks. Five years ago, it seemed like only a few foreigners I knew in Shanghai found it really necessary to pay money to circumvent the blocks. Now, almost all foreigners I know find it necessary. Tools like Facebook have become too important of a means of communication to just give up.
For a while, it felt like there was a truce. Lots of sites will get blocked, but the blocks are easily worked around through VPNs. Those who “need” VPNs just had to pay for them. Now the situation is different. Recently many VPNs have stopped working, and even those of us that prefer to stay apolitical need to use the internet (unfettered).
Some recent articles about the status of VPNs in China:
I first started hearing about Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) years ago from Brendan O’Kane and Dave Lancashire. A “self-made sinologist,” he was apparently fluent in Chinese and quite well connected, but was also later exposed as a magnificent fraud. A prolific diarist, he also dwelled quite a bit on the sexy details of the Qing Dynasty.
Anyway, it may at times be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in Edmund Backhouse’s story, but it’s quite a story. So I’m really looking forward to reading a new book called Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, which makes a lot of Backhouse’s memoirs available for the first time. From the Amazon page:
> Published now for the first time, the controversial memoir of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, Decadence Mandchoue, provides a unique and shocking glimpse into the hidden world of China’s imperial palace with its rampant corruption, grand conspiracies and uninhibited sexuality. Backhouse was made notorious by Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1976 bestseller Hermit of Peking, which accused Backhouse of fraudulence and forgery. This work, written shortly before the author’s death in 1943, was dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than a pornographic noveletteA” and lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Yet even the most incredible tales deserve at least a second opinion. This edition, created using a combination of the three original manuscripts held by the Bodleian, has been comprehensively annotated, fully translated and features an introduction by editor Derek Sandhaus, urging a reappraisal of Backhouse’s legacy. Alternately shocking and lyrical, Decadence Mandchoue is the masterwork of a linguistic genius; a tremendous literary achievement and a sensational account of the inner workings of the Manchu dynasty in the years before its collapse in 1911. If true, Backhouse’s chronicle completely reshapes contemporary historians’ understanding of the era, and provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle that can only be described as intimate.
Full disclosure: I’m friends with Derek Sandhaus, editor/author of the book. But that doesn’t make this book any less awesome.
Recently Best Buy (百思买) announced that it’s closing its China stores. I normally don’t pay too much attention to this kind of news, but Best Buy is a little different. Somehow it felt a bit more relevant to me this time.
Best Buy is an American chain, and there’s still a huge Best Buy store down the street from where I live. I welcomed the arrival of Best Buy because I hate its domestic competitors, Suning (苏宁) and Gome (国美), which, incidentally, are also just down the street from me. I had high hopes that Best Buy would prove that the citizens of Shanghai, too, are willing to pay for better service and assurance of high quality.
Alas, it was not meant to be. It’s hard to say for sure how much of the equation is price, and how much of it is Best Buy’s failure to live up to the levels of service it upholds in North America. But something didn’t work.
I especially liked this post because Adam shares a lot of my same sentiments. Adam notes:
> …let me note that I would have loved it if Best Buy had succeeded in China. In part, out of Minnesota pride (I’m a native, and still consider it home) but also because I liked being able to shop for electronics in China without having to bargain, worry about buying fakes, or not being able to return items. The laptop upon which I’m writing, right now, was purchased there, as was the printer to my right, the speakers in front of me, and the iPod in my gym bag. I’m as sorry, and as irritated, as anybody that this happened.
Meanwhile, business is booming at the Apple Stores across Shanghai…
After my last two posts, my parents were complaining that my blog was all of a sudden too tech-focused to follow. Oops. So I decided to follow up with something with a bit more universal appeal: smiles!
The following photos are all from the excellent Flickr photostream of Expatriate Games, one of my favorite China photographers on Flickr. Enjoy!
There’s a new version of the WordPress Sinosplice Tooltips plugin out. With the help of Mark Wilbur’s pinyin tone mark conversion code (see it in action on Tushuo.com), version 1.1 added the ability to convert numeral pinyin (like this: “Zhong1wen2”) to tone mark pinyin (like this: “Zhōngwén”), and add that pinyin as a tooltip to text within WordPress, producing a nice little tooltip effect on your WordPress blog or site (like this: 中文).
Installing and using the plugin is by no means difficult, but in case you’re new to WordPress, to blogging in general, or to the idea of tooltips, this is the post for you! Here I’ll just go over quickly how to install it on WordPress 3.0.5 and what exactly you need to do to produce the effects above.
In case you’re not familiar with China, let me tell you what’s surprising.
1. The guy asked for an ash tray rather than just lighting up.
2. The guy (and the other two men with him) accepted the restaurant’s no smoking policy
I guess I just like to celebrate the tiny little signs of social progress I see around me.
I’ve also noticed a sharp divide between the coffee shops in Shanghai. If you accept that the major chains here are Starbucks (星巴克), Coffee Bean (香啡缤), and UBC (上岛咖啡), they fall on a smoking/no-smoking continuum like so:
Costa Coffee aligns with Starbucks, and, at least in some locations, Cittá has recently joined the “glassed-in smoking section” faction, joining Coffee Bean.
You can see how smoking policies align with these companies’ target markets. UBC, with its dedication to universal smokers’ rights, frequently reeks of smoke, and has quite a few middle-aged Chinese men in there talking business (or something). Starbucks, on the other hand, is full of trendy young Shanghainese, and usually at least a couple foreigners. The interesting thing is that Coffee Bean and its ilk seem to have basically the same types of customers as Starbucks, and you rarely see middle-aged people there, even if they can smoke there. Most of the smokers at Coffee Bean and Cittá are young.
What does all this mean? Well, I’m just hoping that there will be less smoking in China’s future. Maybe UBC will even start to reek less!
> Making a left turn just as the light turns green, pulling out before the oncoming traffic. Most people in Pittsburgh allow and encourage this behavior.
> “That jagoff wouldn’t give me the Pittsburgh left!”
“You should honk”
Hmmm, I would have called this a “China Left.” (Usually at a major intersection in Shanghai, the first 2-3 cars in the left turn lane will try to make their turns before the incoming traffic crosses the midpoint. This is totally normal, and no one gets upset about it.)
My friend Jason recently brought to my attention this cool logo for a band called 凶风区 (“Fierce Wind Zone”). This brought to mind a Chinese character game I proposed on my Chinese blog years ago in a post called 转字游戏 (literally, “Turn Characters Game”). I’m not sure why I never posted this stuff in English, but I figure better late than never!
Here are the rules of the game as I originally posted them, in Chinese:
Basically, the aim of the game is to take any character and rotate it (most likely 180 or 90 degrees) to get a different character. So focusing on symmetrical characters like 田 is missing the point. The easy example I gave is the pair 由/甲.
And here are some of the solutions I provided (SPOILERS BELOW!), the second row being a bit less strict than the first row:
Carrefour keeps trying new things to deal with the shopping hoard that flows through its boundaries every day here in Shanghai. I mentioned a “basket-only line” idea a while back. I’m not sure when it disappeared, but it seems that idea is long gone. Lately I noticed another interesting idea:
The text reads:
> 如您前面有4人排队 If there are 4 customers waiting before you
> 请按键 Please press the button
> 减少您的等待时间是 Reduce your waiting time by every second in cashier line
> 我们的承诺 is our commitment
Decent idea, in theory, but the reason that button is so funny-looking is because the button is actually missing (presumably destroyed by all the constant frantic mashing it received).
“Aeviou” is the name of a new input method for Chinese, designed specifically for a new generation of touchscreen mobile devices with soft keyboards. This new input method, which looks to be at least partially inspired by Swype, seems to solve a lot of the problems currently faced by pinyin-centric input methods.
The problem is that while pinyin is a convenient way to enter Chinese on a keyboard, for many, it’s an extremely unforgiving input method. For languages like English, T9 predictive text input on older phones and, more recently, auto-correct on soft keyboards have greatly sped up text input on mobile devices, but neither of these works for pinyin. This is partly due to the shortcuts offered by pinyin input methods. For example, to get 你好, you could enter “nihao” in its entirely, but you can could also enter “nih” or “nhao” or maybe even just “nh”. Most of the pinyin input methods out there now will display 你好 as a top result for any of these inputs. You quickly get used to entering “xx” (or at most “xiex”) instead of “xiexie” to get 谢谢, and the whole thing saves a lot of time.
The way this system of shortcuts is unforgiving is that it depends on every keystroke being accurate. When a single letter is used to represent a whole syllable (and thus a whole character), a typo can be disastrous. When you’re spelling out whole words in English, there’s some leeway which can be leveraged in order to create input methods like T9 and auto-correct. But when you’re shortcutting your way through pinyin, T9 and auto-correct aren’t options. (I have to admit, though, Chinese pinyin-based auto-correct would have results disastrous enough to be way funnier than the ones seen on damnyouautocorrect.com.)
Some Examples of Why You Can’t Auto-Correct
I’m going to give some hypothetical examples based on my Mac’s pinyin input system, QIM. Theoretically, you could get the same or similar results on many mobile device soft keyboards, although each is a little different. The most interesting results would probably occur on an Android phone using Google pinyin, since the input method is synced with your PC’s pinyin input method.
Anyway, the examples (in each case, there’s a typo affecting one letter in the input):
1. Trying to type “hpy” to get 好朋友 (good friend), you type “hpt” and get 很普通 (very ordinary).
2. Trying to type “bjhcz” to get 北京火车站 (Beijing Train Station), you type “bjhcx” and get 北京话出现 (Beijing dialect emerges!).
3. Trying to type “xgmn” to get 性感美女 (sexy beautiful woman), you type “xfmn” and get 幸福吗你 (are you happy?).
OK, so these examples are a little over the top, and no one is going to get by using only the first letter of every syllable to type in pinyin, but the shortcuts are built into the input method.
A New Solution
So the reason the Aeviou is a great solution is that it offers the quickness of the “shortcuts” above through a “swipe” method, made possible by a soft keyboard that updates with each “keystroke” to offer input only of possible syllables. Effectively, it kills the shortcuts but allows full, unambiguous pinyin syllable entry to become quick and painless.
Life in China for us non-Chinese is a never-ending process of adaptation. Some things come easier than others. For me, one of the most difficult to get used to has been going to the dentist. Let’s face it — Americans are pretty vain when it comes to teeth, and we don’t see a lot on a daily basis to inspire confidence in China’s dentistry skill. Does an American like me dare go to the dentist in China? How does one make such a decision?
I don’t claim to have all the answers for everyone, but I can share my own experiences, which may be useful to some of you out there (especially those of you in Shanghai).
I started my China stay in Hangzhou. The only “dental clinics” I ever saw there were tiny little shops on the side of small roads. They often had glass sliding doors opening right into a tiny room with a dentist’s chair, and if you walked by the shop at the right time, you could peer right into a patient’s open mouth from the other side of the glass door, without even going inside. Not exactly private. Some of them also look, to put it nicely, quite “amateur,” and they offer pricing to reflect that. Clearly, they fill a need in the Chinese market, but they’re not the type of place most foreigners are going to entrust their pearly whites to.
Here’s one of the “roadside dental clinics,” this one in Shanghai, and actually looking a lot nicer than the ones I saw back in the day in Hangzhou (click through to the Flickr photo page for an explanation of the characters on the doors):
What I didn’t know at the time, living in Hangzhou, is that many Chinese people actually go to hospitals to have their dental work done. I’ve never done that, but from what I’ve heard the quality of dental work offered at hospitals can vary quite a lot, and the sheer volume of patients going through hospitals means the service is not likely to be of the same caliber as a dedicated dental clinic.
In a big city like Shanghai, western-style dental clinics do exist. They’re more expensive than more traditional Chinese options, but there are also acceptably priced options. For over 8 years in China, I had successfully avoided trying out any of these dental care options, feebly hoping that my faithful brushing and flossing would be enough to carry me through forever. Eventually, an old filling came out, and I had an undeniable need for a dentist. I ended up choosing Byer Dental Clinic (拜尔齿科) in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park Cloud Nine (龙之梦) Shopping Center. It looked very clean, professional, and up-to-date, and respectful of patient privacy.
I was really impressed by the service and price I got from Byer Dental. Make no mistake; it was more expensive than I could have gotten from a host of more traditional Chinese options, but I actually felt at ease. I hadn’t been to a dentist in years, and it was good to see that the facilities were far more technologically advanced than anything I had seen before. The replacement filling used a high-quality white material which hardened instantly under a special blue light. The filling it replaced was from 1998, the ugly metallic green kind, that typically last less than 10 years before needing to be replaced.
I don’t remember how much I paid for my last filling, but just recently another old filling cracked, and I found myself back at Byer Dental. This time the total was 610 RMB (currently USD 93). I’m not a “member” or anything. I made the appointment the day before, was seen at 3pm on Saturday, and was completely done and out of there at 3:45pm. I could eat right away, and even though I had had a shot of local anesthetic, I guess it was just the right amount, because my mouth wasn’t even numb.
The staff is perhaps not super-fluent in English but sufficiently bilingual, and they were happy to talk to me in Chinese. I really enjoyed talking to the dentist about recent advances in dental technology, and the difference between my old crappy fillings and the new ones they put in. She taught me words like 光固化 (“photo-curing”? 光 means “light,” and “固化” means “to make solid,” as in “固体,” the word for “solid”). Really friendly and informative staff every time I go.
This recommendation is based on only two visits to Byer Dental over roughly two years, but I’ve had really great experiences there. I recommended Byer Dental to my friend Hank, and he also had a good experience there. If you’re delaying a visit to the dentist due to fear of Chinese dental clinics like I was, I recommend you give Byer Dental a try before it’s too late.
Obviously, if anyone else has any good (or bad) dental experiences in Shanghai or the rest of China, please feel free to share them in the comments. This information can have a permanent effect on other people’s lives, so please don’t hold back!