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.)
> “Naked wedding” refers to not buying a house, not buying a car, not having a wedding ceremony, not buying wedding rings, and just directly registering legally for marriage as a way to save money. Since ancient times, marriage has always been seen as a major event in a person’s life, the pomp of the ceremony directly reflecting a family’s social status. The gradual popularization of the “naked wedding,” however, has emerged as a new wedding trend for the post-80’s generation.
Industrialization and commercialization in a society are inevitably followed by a generation that rejects the new materialistic forms of social status, right? Here’s another sign that the forces for such a social change are building in China…
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!