Tag: culture


11

Sep 2020

Why do the Chinese hate Disney’s Mulan so much?

Disney’s Mulan comes out in China today. All indications are that this movie is going to be a huge flop in China.

Chinese audiences hate Disney's Mulan

Now, Mulan isn’t getting great reviews in the US either (it’s currently at a 5.5 out of 10 on IMDb), but it’s doing even worse in China (currently at a 5.1 out of 10 on MTime, China’s IMDb). Some of the US reviewers are saying that the film suffered from trying to appease Chinese censors and Chinese audiences.

But Chinese audiences are not at all impressed with the results, and I’m talking about the buzz before anyone has ever seen the movie. Chinese audiences love Disney movies. Chinese audiences also loved Kung Fu Panda, so it’s not simply a “don’t try to do our culture” reaction. So why all the hate for Mulan in China?

I’ve been asking lots of Chinese friends what they think about Mulan. Everyone hates it (without having seen it), and the reasons are various:

  1. The kung fu choreography is terrible.
  2. The plot is poorly written. (Not sure how they can know this before it’s released?)
  3. Disney arbitrarily changed key, immutable “facts” about the legend of Mulan, who is from Henan, not Fujian.
  4. It doesn’t “feel” like a Chinese movie; the stylistic choices made don’t have a Chinese sensibility and don’t appeal to Chinese audiences.
  5. The cartoon version was better.

One Chinese friend agreed that the American creativity showcased in a movie like Kung Fu Panda goes over way better with Chinese audiences because it’s brand new, rather than co-opting “sacred” Chinese tradition.

I can’t help but wonder if the current political situation doesn’t impart a bit of negative energy to an American film release in China. (It certainly doesn’t help!) But clearly, this movie has been a huge, expensive fail for Disney.

I’m just glad that I can go to the movies in Shanghai again, finally. Going to see Tenet this Saturday! (Chinese friends say this one is good.)


Update: SupChina had the same idea, and wrote a much more informative piece on this topic, published the same day! Check it out: Why Chinese viewers hate Disney’s ‘Mulan’


18

Aug 2020

Under-appreciated Undershirts

I will have been in China for 20 years this week. And yet, I still bump into little cultural differences that take me by surprise.

Case in point: the humble undershirt.

Untitled

Fairly normal way to dress, right? But I get asked on an almost daily basis during the summer why I would wear two shirts. “Isn’t it hot?”

I never really noticed until now, but wearing an undershirt to absorb a little sweat is not really a thing here. (Big old sweatstains are, however, most definitely a summer thing here!)


06

May 2020

How to Choose a Chinese Name: 4 Approaches

Should learners of Chinese have a Chinese name? That’s a good question, but it’s not one that I’ll be answering in this article. Assuming that you feel you need a Chinese name, there are several approaches that you can take, depending on your preferences and your needs.

Foreign Name Transliteration

Transliteration means representing the sounds of one language as closely as possible, using the sounds of another language. My last name, “Pasden,” has been transliterated into Chinese as something like “Pa-si-dun.” Names converted into Chinese in this way have a distinctly foreign feel, and there’s essentially a set of “transliteration characters” used for the full text conversion. When a Chinese person sees a transliterated name of this sort written in characters, she immediately knows it’s a foreigner’s name, and she also knows to disregard any meanings the characters might have originally had. It’s just a string of sounds.

This is the type of name you get if you don’t speak any Chinese and are only accepting a Chinese name because you have to. For example, if you’re applying for a work permit in China, they will ask your Chinese name. If you don’t have one, the government worker will do a basic transliteration and use that.

Examples of this kind of name include:

  • 路德维希·范·贝多芬 (Lùdéwéixī Fàn Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven
  • 阿尔伯特·爱因斯坦 (Ā’ěrbótè Àiyīnsītǎn) Albert Einstein
  • 贾斯汀·汀布莱克 (Jiǎsītīng Tīngbùláikè) Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake learns his Chinese name

You’ll notice that this approach also results in the longest possible Chinese names. If your Chinese friends or co-workers actually have to use a name like one of the above, they’ll quickly shorten your name or give you a Chinese nickname.

Which brings us to the next approach…

Chinese Nickname

This approach is undoubtedly the most fun. Many Chinese people love to bestow cute Chinese nicknames on foreigners, and you’ll find that lots of singers and Hollywood actors have well-known Chinese nicknames (because no one wants to use those long, unwieldy transliterated foreign names).

As a non-Chinese, you’re going to have a very hard time coming up with anything clever on your own. These frequently develop organically as a natural result of interactions with Chinese friends, and if you like a nickname you hear, you can claim it as your own. (Just be sure you know what it means!)

Some examples of this type:

  • 郭一口 (Guō Yīkǒu)
  • 铁蛋儿 (Tiě Dànr)
  • 大山 (Dàshān) — this one is less “fun” or silly; it actually came from the name of a character in Mark Rowswell’s first performance

Chinese Familiar Name

If a nickname is too informal or silly for your needs, but you’re not ready to go “full native” with a Chinese name, you might consider just choosing a Chinese surname, and then using the “familiar address” form built into Chinese culture which involves Chinese surnames.

This method usually uses 小 (xiǎo) or 老 (lǎo), plus a surname. This approach has the advantage of being fully culturally Chinese while still being easy, and not requiring full commitment to a Chinese name. This can actually be a good way to “get started” with your Chinese name: choose a Chinese surname, then add a 小 (or possible 老) before it. You can figure out the rest of your Chinese name later, after you’ve “tried out” the surname for a while.

Examples:

  • 小潘 (Xiǎo Pān) — this is what my own Chinese name started as
  • 老马 (Lǎo Mǎ) — this one sort of doubles as a nickname, since it literally means “old horse”
  • 小江 (Xiǎo Jiāng)

Note that this is not a formal name, so I doubt you could use it for official registration purposes. Because it’s a Chinese form of address, don’t be too surprised if the Chinese official responds with a “that’s not an official name.”

Native-like Chinese Name

This is what most learners want: a name that sounds like a Chinese person’s name, and is not readily distinguishable from a native speaker’s name. Ideally, it also has a connection to one’s original name.

Some learners opt for a Chinese name that sounds as close as possible to their real English name while still sounding native Chinese. This doesn’t work well for all names, and when done poorly, can even sound like a semi-transliteration.

Other learners are satisfied with a few token similarities (begins with the same letter, for example) and just go with something “more Chinese” that they like. (This is what I did myself.)

It’s worth nothing that you don’t have to represent both your surname and your given name in a set way. I’ve seen lots of creativity in the way that people choose their names, including the following:

  1. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s surname only
  2. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s given name only
  3. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that swaps the typical surname/given name order, e.g. choosing 周 (Zhōu) as a surname to represent “Joe,” and then choosing a given name that sounds kind of like Joe’s surname.
  4. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that in no way relates to your English name, or does so in a subtle way related to meaning
  5. Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that integrates with Chinese in-laws, e.g. taking your Chinese spouse’s family surname

I’m not going to give lots of examples of these, because the whole point is that this kind of name sounds like a Chinese person’s name. So you might as well look at a list of native Chinese names.

One thing you need to take into account is the feel of the Chinese name, and you’re definitely going to need to ask a lot of native Chinese speakers how they feel about your Chinese name. Keep in mind that no single opinion represents all of the Chinese-speaking world, and expect a bit of conflicting information! Some feedback you might get is that the name sounds “too revolutionary” or “too traditional” or “too literary” or “too foreign” or even just 不好听 (bù hǎotīng: sounds bad!).

Get help from native speakers. (This is not something you can do entirely on your own.) Get lots of feedback. Find a name you love.

Special Mention: Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org and now Editor in Chief of SupChina, has a Chinese name which delights nearly everyone who hears it, but doesn’t fit neatly into any of the four approaches I’ve outlined above. His name is:

  • 金玉米 (Jīn Yùmǐ) literally, “Gold Corn”

金 (Jīn) is a legit Chinese surname, but the use of the word 玉米 (yùmǐ) seems to fall into nickname territory, although it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that an actual native Chinese person could have this as their name. (I’ve heard some pretty bizarre real Chinese names in my time in China.) I think this name would be accepted by Chinese officials as a formal name.

The point here is: there’s room for creativity! My four approaches should be useful for a lot of people, but there’s definitely wiggle room for you to get creative and go your own way.

Podcast Discussion

I discuss this issue on the latest issue of You Can Learn Chinese podcast with my Mandarin Companion partner, Jared Turner. You can tune in here:


16

Jan 2020

Shanghai’s Chinese New Year Melancholy

Recently a Shanghainese friend shared this screenshot on WeChat:

Shanghai-CNY 上海春节的杯具

I’ll transcribe it below as text for you learners:

我们上海人不过年是真的,因为我们没有什么事可以做!过年就是比谁年夜饭的酒店订得早,然后躺在家里看朋友圈欣赏全国各地的人是怎么过年的……我们不怕春运,又不能放鞭炮,也不爱看春晚,没有习俗,也没有土特产,家里亲戚少且关系没那么好,路上没有店也没有人。

And a translation:

It’s true that we Shanghainese don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year because there’s not really anything for us to do! Chinese New Year is just competing who can make the earliest restaurant reservation for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner [年夜饭], then lying around at home browsing WeChat Moments to see how the rest of the country is celebrating Chinese New Year…. We have no fear of the massive CNY migration [春运], and we’re not allowed to set off fireworks anymore. We don’t like the CCTV New Year’s Gala [春晚], and we don’t have any real traditional customs or local specialty foods. We have few relatives, and the ones we do have, we’re not on great terms with. There are no shops open or any people in the streets.

My immediate reaction was, “wow, this is so true! And sad!” I shared it with my co-workers, and a Shanghainese co-worker’s reaction was:

大实话。有时候我会羡慕赶春运的人们。

Translation:

So true. Sometimes I envy those people crammed into trains just to get home for Chinese New Year.

[I had to take liberties translating 春运.]

This year my family and I will spend Chinese New Year in Japan (again). At first I felt uncomfortable with this. You hear Chinese people say all the time, “Christmas is like you guys’ Chinese New Year,” and while that’s not really true in many ways, it is true in that they both are the year’s biggest holiday in their respective cultures, they both mean a lot to the people of that culture, and they’re both meant to be spent with family. But then how could my wife be OK with running off to Japan (without her parents) instead of spending CNY in Shanghai with them? I would not be OK with blowing off Christmas in similar fashion.

One of the ways I’ve made sense of this cultural issue is reflected in the post above: the Shanghainese really do have a bit of a different take on Chinese New Year, and it has evolved rapidly in recent years (as evidenced by the role of WeChat in the original post). The Shanghainese are different.

My first Chinese New Year was spent in Zhuji (诸暨), Zhejiang Province. It was cold, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was non-stop eating and card-playing and tea-drinking chatting. It was undoubtedly very Chinese. It was pretty fun for me, but as an outsider, it’s not something I would really want to commit to every year (especially if it’s not with my actual family).

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not a huge fan of Chinese New Year festivities. But as the traditions have faded in Shanghai and the holiday is left something of a husk of its former self, I can’t help but feel bad for the Shanghainese.


23

Oct 2019

One Key Cultural Difference, Demonstrated

You often hear about “the importance of culture” when you learn a language (and I recently did a podcast on that very topic), and a lot of attention is given to “cultural differences” as well. And yet, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem very real until you’re deep into it yourself. It’s kind of hard to demonstrate simply, in an impressive way.

Well, no more! This image will do the trick:

Cultural Differences
Image by Kiakili

Recently I’ve shown this image to quite a few Chinese friends and co-workers, asking them, “what do you notice right away about this image? What do you think it means?

With very few exceptions, the Chinese people will talk about the cell phone, and then the gun. The skin color of the person is usually entirely overlooked. Obviously, Americans tend to have a very different answer to those questions.

Then, when you explain how most Americans will view the image, expect a very interesting conversation to follow! Try it.


11

Oct 2019

Weighing Elephants and Difficulty

I recently posted a bit about my daughter’s Chinese first grade Chinese language (语文) textbook. I haven’t found the time to dig deeper yet, but I couldn’t help but notice this story from her second grade textbook (and sorry, these photos are not pretty…):

cao chaong 1
cao chaong 2

The story of 曹冲 (Cao Chong) devising a way to weigh an elephant is a classic story in China. I wasn’t aware until now that (apparently) second grade is the time for a Chinese child to learn it, if she hasn’t already.

What struck me as interesting about this story is that the very same story is the subject of an Upper Intermediate ChinesePod lesson from 2011: How to Weigh an Elephant (hosted by Jenny Zhu and me). Much of the vocabulary is the same, and the difficulty level is roughly equal.

So… in this particular case, a second grade reading for Chinese kids matches up with an upper intermediate lesson for foreign learners. I’m still exploring the ways that first and second language acquisition differ, in terms of relevant topics, vocabulary, grammar, etc., but this one really jumped out at me.


28

Aug 2019

Mowing a Lawn in China without a Lawn Mower

There’s a nice green lawn (not too small) inside my apartment complex in Shanghai. I always thought it was weird how I never seemed to see a lawn mower anywhere, but the grass was clearly routinely cut. Then I got my answer:

Mowing a Lawn by Weed Wacker in China

Yes, the entire lawn is routinely mowed by weed wacker. When you think about it, it does make sense for China, but I know I’ve seen Americans mowing lawns half this size using riding lawn mowers.


22

Aug 2019

Kids Ordering Food for the Family

There’s a cultural trend I’ve noticed over the years living in China, and it’s recently come into sharper focus as a result of having my own children and interacting with more Chinese parents. It’s the family habit of letting the child decide the menu for meals, or, in the case of eating out, letting the child decide where to eat or what food to order for everyone. I’m not talking about an occasional thing; I’m talking about a habitual practice.

Chinese New Year 2011 – Lunch
Photo by Micah Sittig

I probably first noticed this when I started dating my future wife. She lived with her parents, and would frequently communicate with her mom on the phone. I noticed that I would often hear her telling her mom what she wanted for dinner that night, and that’s what her mom would make. I thought this was kind of weird, but figured that was just her family, she was kind of a strong personality, she was good at choosing food everyone likes, etc.

Over the years I learned that this was quite common, and it starts early. Children of 4 or 5 years old frequently decide most of what’s on the menu for the evening, practically every day. In some homes, the child decides their own menu while the adults eat an entirely separate meal. It’s no wonder that so many kids in China are picky eaters!

When this started happening in my own home with my own kids, I quickly put a stop to it. “Kids don’t get to decide what’s for dinner,” I said. “They eat what they’re given.” Fortunately my mother-in-law and wife were cool with that, but they had already started falling into what seems to be the “default mode” of letting the children (usually the youngest) decide what’s for dinner in a Chinese household.

One awkward thing about comparing this aspect of Chinese and American families is that I really only have my own “American cultural experiences” to compare to, and those are not at all recent! I don’t have regular contact with many American families, so if this same habit is now super common in American families too, I wouldn’t know. I suspect that it exists as well, but is nowhere near as widespread as it is in China, where the One Child Policy has set off a cascade of new family dynamics, often resulting in spoiled sibling-less children.

Talking to other parents in Shanghai, what I usually hear is, “my kid often doesn’t want to eat, and is already so skinny. So I’d rather let him decide what to eat and eat something rather than eat nothing.” My reply to this, of course, is, “he’ll be pretty hungry and less picky the next day after he eats nothing for dinner. He won’t starve. 4-year-olds don’t go on hunger strikes.” This works in my family (I’ve let my kids go hungry when they decide they’re going to be picky eaters), but I get the definite impression that Chinese parents think this won’t work in their families (or they’re just not willing to let their kids miss a single meal).

We’re working on a new discussion course for intermediate learners at AllSet Learning focused on various topics related to raising children. It’s really a very, very rich vein for discussion, and it’s the reason this “picky eater” and “kids ordering food” topic resurfaced for me recently. If your experience (American, Chinese, or whatever) is different, please share!


17

Jul 2019

American Insanity

I’m in Florida on vacation with the family this July. I’ve managed to get my kids to a respectable bilingual state despite them growing up in Shanghai, but American culture is one thing my kids just don’t get a lot of, and it’s probably one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. Kids adapt to new surroundings quickly, but their reactions to new situations and unfamiliar American culture is super interesting.

Unfortunately, it’s not practical to make a big long list (I wish I had one!). One simple example is wading pools, though. My parents never got a pool installed, but the backyard is plenty big, so we can do the old backyard wading pool thing (fill it up with a hose). Such simple pleasures are utterly foreign to Shanghai kids, but still a blast! (Coming up soon: backyard water balloon fight, “Slip ‘n Slide,” and playing in the sprinkler. Classic American middle class fun!)

Slide 'n' Slip
Image via Gordon on Flickr

Anyway, the insanity part relates to a conversation with my daughter (now 7.7 years old). It went something like this:

Her: Is America insane?
Me: …. Yes. 
Her: BWAHAHAHA!
Me: ….
Her: Why?
Me: ….
Her: BWAHAHAHA!

I guess maniacal laughter is better than weeping. I mean, “chaos is a ladder,” right?


21

Nov 2018

11-11: Blinded by Consumerism

The “Double 11” (AKA “Singles Day”) Chinese shopping holiday has been over for 10 days, but I think this is still worth sharing. This ad by Tmall remains the best (unintentional) metaphor for “blinded by consumerism” that I’ve seen:

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

The mask is in the shape of Tmall‘s logo, a cat. Tmall’s Chinese name is 天猫, which literally means “Sky Cat,” but it seems like it was chosen based on the English name (“T” for Taobao, which owns Tmall, and “mao” sounds like “mall” to Chinese ears).

TMall Cat (天猫)

It’s funny that you sometimes see the 双11 (literally, “Double 11”) manufactured holiday translated in English as “Singles Day” (formerly “Bachelor’s Day”). This day was once celebrated as such, but in a few short years, the shopping aspect has completely taken over the “holiday.” Single people feel entirely irrelevant now. But hey… who cares about human connections when you can spend money on all these great deals??


16

Nov 2018

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

Spotted on a wall in Shanghai:

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

It reads:

勿以恶小而为之,
勿以善小而不为。

Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.

Translation:

Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.

A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:

  • : “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “because” (classical Chinese)
  • : a tricky grammar word usually indicating contrast (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “to do” (classical Chinese)
  • : “it” (classical Chinese)

Words like and are especially tricky because they can mean so many different things! 慢慢来… it takes time to absorb all those different usages.


27

Sep 2018

China Knows Potatoes, Yet Doesn’t Appreciate Potatoes

I like potatoes. I have Polish and Irish blood, so maybe it’s in my DNA. China has a number of good potato dishes, such as the staple 酸辣土豆丝 (sour and spicy potato strips). But it seems like some of the best ones get no love from the local population.

Take this dish for example:

Spicy Potatoes

The original Chinese dish was 椒盐土豆 (“salt and pepper potatoes”), and it was good, but I asked them to make it spicy (spicy version pictured above), and it was so much better. Really amazing.

Years ago I had an ayi from China’s Dongbei (northeast) region, and she learned to make garlic mashed potatoes (with no butter) that were awesome. But Chinese people don’t normally eat that.

Of course, French fries are pretty popular here. But the really good potato dishes get no recognition in China…

Sad Potato


Related: 10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love


16

Aug 2018

Fukuoka 20 Years Later, post-China

I studied abroad in Japan for the 1997-98 academic year. During spring break, a friend and I hitchhiked from Osaka to Fukuoka. We visited from friends of mine, and explored the northern half of the island of Kyushu. Now, just over 20 years later, I’ve just visited Fukuoka again. This time the differences I noticed felt meaningful, and it’s not because of Japan. It’s because of me, and the 18 years I’ve spent in China in the meantime.

Obviously, this is a personal take. So-called “evidence” I cite is anecdotal. It doesn’t take into account the societies as a whole. I know, Fukuoka is not Tokyo. But if you can handle all that, read on.

The overwhelming sense I got which took hold of me early on in the visit and just wouldn’t let go is that Japan hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Of course it’s changed. But having lived in China, where pace of development permanently stuck in “breakneck speed,” Fukuoka really made me feel like Japan’s development is at a standstill. I’m no economist, but I’m into technology, so that’s one of the areas I was constantly checking up on. Remember when Japan felt super high-tech, back in the 80’s and 90’s? Now it feels kind of like Disney’s Epcot center, the “city of the future” conceived of in the 1970’s.

Just a few things that left an impression:

  1. Vending machines everywhere. This is one of the things that’s so Japan, and I take no issue with the approach, except that these are literally the exact same machines from 20 years ago. They really haven’t changed. Meanwhile, China is outfitting these machines with scanners to support WeChat and AliPay.

    "Gachapon" Capsule Toy Vending Machines with WeChat, AliPay

  2. “Cashless” restaurant ordering also means vending machines. My wife’s mind was blown that so many Japanese restaurants use meal ticket vending machines. This way the staff doesn’t have to handle money at all, and no one has to take orders. Makes sense, right? The modern Chinese solution, though, is to just put QR codes on the restaurant tables. Diners scan, order, and pay right away. The restaurant staff knows which table you ordered from. You barely have to talk to the staff, much less give them a ticket. No cash, no paper, no human interaction necessary. Cold efficiency.

    China

  3. Japan’s rail system is still legendary. Again, exactly the same as 20 years ago. You buy train tickets from vending machines. There’s a very real sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can understand that. The train system works so well! It’s easy to use, and the trains all run on time. Shanghai’s subway and light rail system is not better than Fukuoka’s. And yet, there’s this feeling that in 10 more years (if that), Shanghai’s will be clearly superior, and Fukuoka’s will be the same.

    IMG_3764

  4. Japan’s still doing great with recycling and environmental protection. I know, Japan still kills whales and does other bad things. But in general Japan is great at recycling, the streets are clean, and a retreat into the mountains (also clean and relatively unsullied) is never far away. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it would be so great if China could catch up in this respect.

    Lawson Japan

  5. It’s not hard to be alone in Japan. Sure, the cities are super crowded, and apartments are small. But if you need to get away from it all, it feels way easier in Japan. You can hop on a train or bus, and a short ride later be headed into the mountains where you’ll be totally alone. Sure, it’s possible in China, but harder.

    Gen on the Path

I could say a lot of these same things about China and the US, especially if I cherry-pick my cities. One interesting thing, though, was that when my wife told Japanese friends about how we use mobile payments for everything in Shanghai now, they were surprised and blown away. They had no idea.


06

Jun 2018

The Chinese Concept of “Dirty”

As a parent, I am keenly aware of all the work that goes into educating a child on what is “dirty” and how to avoid getting dirty, as well as why getting dirty is (normally) bad. The concept of “dirty” is surprisingly complex when you think about it, since some of it is visible and some not, and the “clean” and “dirty” objects can have all kinds of interactions. You really just have to be taught.

This issue reminds me of an experience I had years ago in Hangzhou. Quoting a blog post from 2005:

Shortly after I arrived in China, I went on a trip to a park with some Chinese friends. It had been a while since I had seen grass, so I was happy to sprawl out on it, which promptly resulted in my Chinese friends’ disapproval. “It’s dirty!” they told me. I just shook my head. In a corner of the world where there’s so little nature left to enjoy, they regard what little is left as “dirty”? That’s so sad! Then, as an afterthought, I ran my hand across the grass. My palm was turned gray. Dust. From the grass.

That little incident drove home that I really didn’t know how everything worked here, even when I was so sure I had it all figured out.

Just like children, as a China newbie, I, too, had to be educated on what was “dirty” in my new environment.

A similar example comes to mind: foreigners often think nothing of storing their bag on the ground next to their desks or chairs, but this frequently causes Chinese acquaintances to recoil in disgust. In China, you don’t put things you want to keep clean (like your bag) on the ground, even indoors. You also don’t put your bag on your bed at home. There are lots of “rules” to learn.

I was surprised, then, to see this ad:

Untitled

“脏”显个性 [“Dirty” shows personality]

Of course we have “dirty desserts” in English as well, which is likely the source of this idea. But this concept feels even more eye-catching in China, where you’ve got to constantly be on your guard against the “dirt.”


16

May 2018

Chinese Perspectives on the Avengers: Infinity War

The Avengers: Infinity War finally hit theaters in China this past weekend. (You might say it was a hit.) Tired of carefully avoiding spoilers, I was among the first in China to see it. Since it’s come out, I’m enjoying the cultural impact and various manifestations of the Chinese perspective on the movie, from Avengers-themed WeChat stickers (with Chinese text) to hilarious Photoshop jobs.

Here’s one I enjoyed (mild spoilers, sort of?):

Avengers Infinity War: Rated

(I would credit the original source, but I can’t read the watermark.)

The Chinese reads:

  1. 超神: super-god
  2. 很厉害: very impressive
  3. 有帮上忙: were able to help
  4. 尽力了: really tried
  5. 废物: useless
  6. 一坨屎: pile of crap

Love the Chinese bluntness!

As for Thanos, what’s going to be the Chinese perspective on a “mad titan” that wants to take out half the population of the universe? That actually sounds quite familiar to citizens of a country with population issues of its own! So you get this:

Thanos: Have some zishu

That reads:

计划生育搞不好 紫薯你都吃不着
If you can’t get family planning right, no purple yams for you!

It’s a whole series; you can see more on Weibo here: @青红造了个白. (This same Photoshop artist has released good stuff before, like the Game of Thrones Chinese street vendors.)


100 Chinese History Keywords

19

Apr 2018

100 Chinese History Keywords

I’m not a history buff. I recognize it’s important to study history, and that no educated person should be ignorant of history. So while I do read about Chinese history, I don’t do it a lot. But every time I do pick up a Chinese history book, one of the things that drives me crazy about books on this topic is that so often there are no Chinese characters given for important names. (Or characters are given, but no pinyin.) Is this so hard?

China Simplified has a new book out called History Flashback. It’s a fun read, beautifully illustrated, and it’s actually pretty short! How does one condense “5000 years” of Chinese history into only 200 pages? Well, it’s possible. And although the book does a pretty good job of providing characters and pinyin for the Chinese names and other words mentioned, it seemed like a good starting point for a list of “essential Chinese history terms.”

So using this book as a starting point, my company AllSet Learning teamed up with China Simplified to create this handy list of 100 Chinese History Keywords. It’s a free PDF; no signup needed. Just download.

Download Free PDF

It was hard narrowing the original candidate list of 500 or so to only 100, but I think we did OK. What do you think? Are there any glaring omissions that an intermediate learner would really want?


Apr. 26 Update: We had a repeat word in the original list. It’s been removed, and we’re still at 100!


24

Oct 2017

Dancer Characterplay with “I see”

I see” is a children’s dance studio in Shanghai. Here’s the logo:

I see  灰姑娘

Can you read the Chinese name? Hint: the first character is not just . (It’ll be much easier if you’re already familiar with the Chinese names of some popular fairytales. Or even if you’re familiar with the Chinese names of Disney animated classics.)

In this case, we’re dealing with the name 灰姑娘, literally, “ashes girl,” which is the Chinese name for “Cinderella.”

Confession time! I think it wasn’t until I learned the Chinese name for Cinderella that I even realized that the “Cinder” part of “Cinderella” was a reference to ashes rather than being kind of like a cross between “Cindy” and “Stella” with a random “er” thrown in for style.

According to Wikipedia, the “cinder” part “has to do with the fact that servants… were usually soiled with ash at that time, because of their cleaning work and also because they had to live in cold basements so they usually tried to get warm by sitting close to the fireplace.”

Anyway, it might be easy to miss that the dancer in the logo next to the character is part of the larger character .

Here’s the full text in the image:

I see灰姑娘
国际儿童艺术中心


20

Oct 2017

Budweiser Wants to Put Something in Your Drink for Halloween

In New York in the 80’s, the Ramones were clearly upset that somebody put something in their drink. Why then, 30 years later in Shanghai, does Budweiser expect us to get excited about it?

These ads are currently in Shanghai Metro’s Jing’an Temple Station:

Untitled

Untitled

Here’s a closeup of that first ad:

Untitled

I posted these photos to my WeChat Moments with the caption “WTF?” I only got about 10 comments, but the response from Chinese friends and non-Chinese friends was quite different.

Chinese friends: Ha ha, cool!

Non-Chinese friends: Are you kidding me?! Not cool!

This is a great example of cultural differences playing out in the world of marketing. I wonder if Budweiser HQ is going to react to this.


19

Oct 2017

Navigating the “Dark Side” of Chinese Culture

This list of issues comes from a Quora post about “the dark side of Chinese culture.” (Each point goes into a little detail on the original post; I’m just listing the points and the Chinese synopsis provided for each.) This list may come across as a bit extreme in its criticisms, but there is some truth to each claim.

Goodbye to the Dark Side

  1. Child abuse [referring largely to psychological abuse]. 打是亲,骂是爱
  2. Disrespect for individualism, due to the “big family” culture. 大家庭绑架个人自由
  3. Parents push their kids too hard. 望子成龙,望女成凤
  4. Mammonism. 拜金主义
  5. Social Darwinism. 成者为王,败者为寇
  6. Banqueting alcohol-enforcement culture. 强迫劝酒文化
  7. Lack of sympathy. 事不关己,高高挂起
  8. Sinocentrism. 中国中心主义

This list is a double-edged sword for non-Chinese learners of the language. On the one hand, Chinese people can be quite sensitive to perceived criticism from foreigners. Just reading out this whole list with an innocent “this is interesting, don’t you think?” is unlikely to get a neutral response because the list as a whole feels prettying damning of Chinese culture.

On the other hand, tons of Chinese people are concerned about these issues themselves (usually presented in less extreme ways), and presenting some of these issues individually and delicately could lead to some enlightening discussions.

One way to “test the waters” with a friend is to just present the viewpoint (just one of those Chinese sentences, individually) without any of your own commentary, and ask a friend what they think. If the friend gets immediately defensive, just nod in acceptance and consider the conversation over (no need for rebuttal). More likely you’ll get a tempered response, which leaves room for discussion. In this situation, I find a good strategy is to play “devil’s advocate” and argue the totally unnuanced, pro-China propaganda stance. (It’s not hard to play a convincing wide-eyed, naive foreigner.) Since very few Chinese people swallow propaganda whole, you are likely to get a sincere elaboration in response (“其实……“).

Perhaps learning to exercise a little cultural sensitivity while discussing real issues which touch on the “dark side” of Chinese culture is the way to avoid turning to the “dark side” of Chinese learning?


15

Aug 2017

Game of Thrones Characters as Chinese Street Vendors

Saw this Game of Thrones / Chinese culture mash-up gem last night on a Chinese friend’s WeChat “Moments” stream. Too good not to share! Apparently a Chinese Photoshop artist created these, and I’d like credit this person, but I’m still trying to figure out who it is!

Enjoy…

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Game of Thrones / Chinese Street Vendor mashup

Too bad they’re not high-quality images… it seems they were intended for a smallish smartphone screen.

P.S. If anyone knows the original artist, please let me know, and I’ll credit his/her ASAP!

2017-08-17 Update: The Photoshop artist is Weibo user 青红造了个白. He/she has tons of other similar works. Thanks to Danielle Li and Rachel for the info!



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