Tag: Hangzhou


Aug 2010

10 Year Chinaversary

It appears to be my 10 year Chinaversary. Thanks to all of you that have congratulated me. It feels very weird, because:

1. Everyone knows exactly how long I’ve been in China because of a nerdy little PHP script I put on my blog a while ago (and refuse to take down)
2. I’ve been in China 10 years (China!)
3. I’ve been in China almost a third of my whole life
4. I’ve been in China longer than some of the Chinese kids I see on the street (and their Chinese language skills will soon be overtaking mine, if they haven’t already)

The script actually rounds up when it calculates how long I’ve been in China. (OK, here’s where it gets super nerdy: mouse over the number on the site to get a more precise calculation.) I originally estimated my arrival in China to be August 20th, 2000, but I just dug through some of my dusty digital archives, and I found some old journal entries. I kept an electronic journal in text files before I ever started a blog. (Ah, those are quite amusing.) Anyway, it appears that my arrival was actually closer to August 8th (how auspicious!), although the first entry is dated August 12th, 2000.

So to celebrate my 10th year anniversary, I’ll post a few snippets from my very first observations of “the real China,” posted by a clueless American 22-year-old who could just barely speak a little Chinese…

> Andrew met me at the airport in Shanghai. His driver picked me up. Andrew’s house is REALLY nice… He said it’s like $5000/month, but his dad’s company pays for it all. It’s sort of a gated community outside of Shanghai. They have Chinese security guards at almost every corner of is neighborhood, and a free bus that goes to and from town on the hour. So, basically I spent my time in Shanghai hanging out with Andrew and his friends. We ate REALLY SPICY Sichuan food one night (I really felt it the next morning), had quite a bit to drink, and socialized with some Chinese girls in a bar. It was nice to get an introduction of China from Andrew. I also got a nice little electronic dictionary. It was meant for a Chinese person, but it’s still quite useful.

> The ticket to Hangzhou was only 29RMB (less than $3!) for a 2 hour ride, and some nice middle-aged lady talked to me the whole time despite my broken Chinese. She knew very little English, but that didn’t stop her from talking to me.

> […]

> Hangzhou is a nice enough city, but I’d definitely call it a city, not a town. It’s bigger than I expected — bigger than Tampa. The Chinese insist on calling it medium-sized, I guess because it doesn’t fit into the silly elite “big” category which includes only huge cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Anyway, it doesn’t have a subway system — only buses and taxis — but it’s big.

> The Chinese are less curious about me than I expected. After being such a spectacle in Japan, I receive relatively little notice here, even though I’ve seen only a few foreigners here in all my jaunts through the city so far. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — I guess it just means I have to be more active in my interactions. That’s OK with me, I guess… I hope they don’t prove to be completely UNinterested in me, though, because that could be problematical for me and my hopes here.

> [Editor’s note: in a later entry I write: First, let me correct what I said earlier about Chinese people not being curious. I was wrong. They’re very curious. For some reason, though, they seem less curious when I’m with a Chinese person than when I’m alone. These days I’m getting plenty of “hello!”‘s and stares. So I guess all is well in Asia after all. hehe]

> Besides its size, I do feel a little misinformed about Hangzhou in a few other ways. It’s supposed to be such a beautiful city… I wouldn’t call it an UGLY city (although it does have its ugly points), but the beauty of it just doesn’t strike me so much. The famed West Lake is nice, but again, not dazzling. The famous Hangzhou women (the most beautiful in all of China) haven’t exactly wowed me either, although there are some pretty women here. Maybe they hide their finest. So what it comes down to, I guess, is that I think I’m just in a pretty ordinary Chinese city instead of some rare jewel of a city that I had been led to expect.

> There’s been a fair amount of frustration so far… Small frustration at unfulfilled expectations, but greater ones of the linguistic variety. Frustration because when people talk to me in Chinese, I understand some, but don’t get what they mean. Frustration because when I don’t understand them, they talk to me in English. Frustration because they talk to me in English without even trying Chinese. Frustration because if they would just speak a little slower, I really might get it. Frustration because my vocabulary is really so small. Frustration because all that stuff I learned at UF and then forgot was really, really useful stuff! Frustration because my pronunciation — even for things I’m sure of — is bad.

> But these are the frustrations of a student who JUST arrived in China. I know I have to give myself more time.

“More time” indeed.


Jun 2007

Reasons to Love Beijing?

The whole Shanghai vs. Beijing debate is somewhat tired, I know, so I’m not interested in rehashing it. I’m not going to bash or gush over either city. Rather, I’ve had sort of a change of heart about Beijing, and I’d like to tell why. To be honest, the more time I spend in Beijing, the more I like it. But I doubt I’d ever voluntarily relocate to Beijing.

Still, if I found myself in any of the following scenarios, I’d definitely choose Beijing:

– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with the Beijing accent or couldn’t stand hearing other dialects (there are many such students, I know)
– If I were a student of Chinese that insisted on only the very best in Chinese pedagogy that the mainland can offer
– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with xiangsheng
– If I were really interested in Chinese politics
– If I were really into the Olympics (this one has a shelf life of only a little over a year, though)
– If I were an artist or musician of any kind
– If I were really into Beijing’s hutong and siheyuan culture
– If I had a love of baijiu, that vile white rice wine
– If I liked big cities but couldn’t stand the pressure of living in a very fast-paced city
– If I were rabidly anti-corporate (I’ve noticed that international chains like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut are much more widespread in Shanghai than in Beijing)

The only one that comes close to describing me is the last one. I’m not real happy that the restaurants which surround my apartment near Zhongshan Park are nearly all chains; it’s hard to find a good, privately-owned restaurant around here. I noticed about Beijing this last visit that there are so many little cafes and bars still. (One of the things Dave misses about Beijing most, it seems.) The only bar in Shanghai I’ve ever really felt comfortable in is the old Tanghui, and it’s long gone. None of the others have that vibe, and most aim for a bigger, “higher class” crowd.

Another thing that does make a difference to me is the fast pace of Shanghai. I don’t like it. It gets under my skin and in my bloodstream. I can feel it happening, but I can’t seem to prevent it. Hanghzou was totally relaxing, and Beijing is a lot closer to Hangzhou in that respect. And yet, in that easy, relaxed atmosphere I feel like I could float along forever and never do anything with my life. One of the main reasons I choose Shanghai is closely related to the fast pace, I think: Shanghai is a better place to get into business. And because I’m in China for the long haul, I’m very interested in where work prospects are best.

I’m not the kind of person that makes a huge deal about where I live. I feel that I could be happy in most environments, if I’m there to do something I want to do. The bottom line is that I choose Shanghai because my wife is here and my work is here. I’m happy here. But every time I go to Beijing I see more reasons to love it, and I think that in another life I could easily see myself in the Beijing camp*.

*Worth mentioning: I’ve never been in Beijing in the winter or during a dust storm.


Jun 2007

4-Man VIP Seating

Now that I’m a “Shanghai snob,” I had to laugh at Hangzhou’s East Train Station waiting room VIP seating:

VIP section


Jun 2007

West Lake No. 1

I love stylized Chinese characters.


It says 西湖一號 (West Lake No. 1). This is a good example of mainland Chinese designers using traditional Chinese characters for artistic effect ( rather than ).

Taken next to West Lake in Hangzhou.


Jun 2007

More Trash Means More Jobs

After eating all Chinese food for about a week, my family was delighted to stop into Starbucks in Hangzhou. (Funny how a familiar corporate logo can engender feelings of fondness.) We had the following conversation:

> Me: You don’t need to gather up the trash. They’ll clear the table when we leave.

> Mom: But the trash can is just right there.

> Me: Still, you don’t need to do it. It’s their job. You don’t want to take away their job, do you?

> Mom: I’m just going to throw it away.

> Me: If everyone did that, people would be out of jobs. To ensure these people’s jobs, I think we should give them more work by throwing all our trash on he ground.

(Yeah, my mom learned to ignore my comments long ago.)


Jun 2007

Chinese Doughnuts

One food that foreigners miss while in China is doughnuts. Sure, Shanghai has its “Mister Donut” shop, but those small, hard doughnuts never impressed me. Then there are those that call Chinese youtiao (fried bread-like sticks) a “Chinese doughnut,” but I find that very suggestion laughable. A proper doughnut is a whole different animal. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to stumble across these yesterday near West Lake in Hangzhou:

Chinese Doughnuts

Fresh, soft, and dusted in powdered sugar. No glaze, and they were a bit heavy (not exactly Krispy Kreme), but they had the familiar taste of the authentic doughnut. The best part: only 1 RMB each.

I hope these make it to Shanghai! Has anyone else out there had true doughnut experiences in China? (I’m much more interested in this kind, pioneered by locals and sold cheaply, than in some kind of ridiculous luxury import scheme.)


May 2007

How I Learned Chinese (part 2)

So I’ve already explained how I arrived in China with a decent foundation in grammar and characters, but some problems with my pronunciation. So what happened next?

Well, first I should explain my initial attitude. Two years previously I had had a great experience studying Japanese in Osaka. I enjoyed the process of learning a new language in a foreign society so much that doing it all over again had become central to my post-graduation plan. So when I arrived in Hangzhou I was very eager to get out there and try out my Chinese.

I immediately ran into two major problems. Overcoming those two problems were key to my early progress in China.

Problem 1: Pronunciation

OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism. Whenever I was not understood, I made a mental note of which words it was I seemed to be having trouble with. When people repeated what I said, I paid especially close attention, because they would often be correcting my pronunciation rather than merely confirming. I was totally focused on every word* that came out of native speakers’ mouths.

[*I have to make a note here: I initially lived in Hangzhou, a city in the southern province of Zhejiang. Southerners are notorious for their substandard pronunciation of the “sh,” “ch,” and “zh” consonants, but I knew this going in. It made listening comprehension very frustrating at first, but once I developed an ear for it, it became a huge strength. Having all that confusing input also made it absolutely imperative for me to look up in a dictionary every new word I picked up to confirm its correct pronunciation.]

With the help of a Chinese friend and a lot of concerted effort, I was able to finally figure out how to pronounce “x,” “q,” and “j” consonants after about a month of living in China. I also hired a qualified tutor (she had a masters in teaching Chinese) to help me, and under her tutelage I finally got the “yu” sound down. The “r” sound eluded me for longer, but with focused observation and a self-critical attitude, I conquered it as well.

Tones continued to be a major problem for a long time, but they got better with time. The important thing was that I was convinced from my early experiences in China that they were very important and couldn’t be ignored. I was constantly looking up words in my dictionary, frequently just to check the tones. Once you’ve looked up a word about twenty times to check the tones, it usually finally sticks. Certain tone pairs gave me problems for a while, but when I began really focusing on tone pairs, I was able to overcome them as well.

Problem 2: Practice

One great thing about modern China is that foreigners are still rare enough in most places that it’s not hard to find someone curious to talk to you. I soon learned, however, that this does not necessarily mean that they want to talk to me in Chinese. I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English. This was very frustrating. On top of that, even if their spoken English was pretty bad, my Mandarin was worse. So if our goal was actual communication, speaking in English was much more effective.

This did not deter me. I saw it as a challenge. What I had observed was that the people that wanted to practice English the most were young people, typically university students. Since they were about my own age and had a lot of free time, they seemed like the ideal conversation partners. However, I eventually had to make a decision to reject them categorically because they were nearly all obsessed with improving their English and I was in a hurry to improve my Chinese. It may sound cold, but I didn’t leave my friends and family on the other side of the world to improve strangers’ English. Teaching English was my job and I was dedicated to it, but in my free time I absolutely had to be practicing Chinese. I decided that language exchanges made no sense; I was surrounded by millions of Chinese. I was sure I could find Chinese people that would be willing to do an old-fashioned “exchange” of ideas and information–entirely in Chinese. And if unwillingness to communicate with me in Chinese was the thorn in my side, then inability to communicate with me in English could be my salvation.

So who did I turn to? Well, I reasoned that with my Chinese as bad as it was, if the conversation was going to be all in Chinese I would have to find someone very patient. That’s not an easy trait to spot. But what I realized is that people can be motivated to be patient if they’re extremely bored. So I set my sights on people who (1) were not in an age range or social status that were likely to know (or want to know) English, and (2) had a job which left them stuck in one place with no one to talk to… bored people.

So my first Chinese friends were the guards at the apartment complex where I worked. Those guys were aged probably 30-45, and sat in a guardhouse next to the gate all day long. Their only daytime duties seemed to be opening the gate for the occasional car and handing out residents’ newspapers. There was always one of them in there, just reading a newspaper or sipping his tea and staring off into space. I noticed that they seemed very interested in me. So I took the plunge.

It was weird and awkward to go into the guardhouse that first time and just start talking in my broken Chinese. I could barely form a coherent sentence. But when I made it clear that I was just being friendly, the guard, in typical Chinese fashion, insisted that I sit down while he poured me some tea. That’s how it began.

I started spending about an hour in the guardhouse every evening. I would bring my notebook and my dictionary with me. It wasn’t because I was so studious that I wanted to write down everything I learned; those were essential tools for our communication! Sometimes I would be looking up three words in the guard’s simple five word sentence. Other times I would need them to write down a word so that I could guess at the meaning and look it up later. To be honest, it was kind of painful. I kept the chats to about an hour, because it was all that my poor brain could take. I left every session absolutely exhausted.

Chatting with the guards was a very humbling experience, but it was the kickstart my Chinese needed. I felt awkward every time I went in to initiate communication, but I was making progress, and those guys really wanted to talk to me. They loved my visits. Their faces would light up at the opportunity to communicate (however excruciating the process) with a real live foreigner.

I later moved from that apartment complex and didn’t get to see my guard friends as often, but I had gained important confirmation: I didn’t have to “buy” Chinese practice time with English. There were people that wanted to talk to me in Chinese–regardless of my level–if I would just seek them out.

From there my practice went in a lot of directions. I started frequently chatting with a young couple that ran a tiny burger joint down the street. They were only busy at mealtimes and had almost nothing to do the rest of the time. The more people I talked to, the more I improved, and the more I improved, the more different groups of people I felt comfortable talking to. I didn’t avoid the college kids forever; I found a way around the insistence on English. I found that by chatting online in Chinese I could focus on grammar and vocabulary without the pronunciation pressure. My goal was simple: see how long I could chat with someone without them catching on that I wasn’t Chinese.

My first year and a half I worked really hard at Chinese. I had no foreign friends, and my dictionary was my constant companion. At the end of that time, my Chinese was functional for the basics. I had made it to the “I’m speaking Chinese!” Stage.

Time travel 5 years to the future for How I Learned Chinese (part 3)!


Nov 2006

Business and Buddies in Beijing

Last Tuesday and Wednesday I was in Beijing on ChinesePod business. I can’t really talk about that, but hopefully our reasons for being there will all be public by the end of the month. This trip was significant for other reasons, though — I got to (briefly) experience Beijing as a non-tourist for once, and to finally meet some guys I’ve been communicated with over the internet for years (that’s hard to believe) without ever meeting.

The last time I was in Beijing was 2001. I visited twice that summer, once with my friend Ari as part of a big long trip, and the other time with my little sister. It had been 5 years since I saw it last, and with all the preparations for the Olympics, I was looking forward to seeing all the changes. I didn’t get to see any, though. My last visit to Beijing had been as a tourist, and this time I didn’t go to any of those same places. Geographically, the visits didn’t overlap a single bit. Even points of arrival and departure were different; this was my first time flying to and from Beijing. So without any physical overlap, I couldn’t really compare from a chronological perspective at all.

My impressions of Beijing were very good this time, though. The weather was great, and the areas of Beijing I spent time in were all pleasant. I think what impressed me most, though, was the laid back feel of the city. I know that Shanghai is extremely fast-paced and business-oriented, but perhaps I had thought Beijing was too, at least to a greater degree. To me, Beijing felt more comparable to Hangzhou in that respect. In Hangzhou, people go to West Lake to just sit around and play cards all day long. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Shanghai.

I met up with Roddy (Chinese Forums, Signese) first, and a little later Joel (Danwei) joined us at a cafe/bar on Houhai. Brendan (Bokane.org) organized a get-together at a bar called Sandglass (a very predictable selection, according to Roddy). There I met David (AdsoTrans) and Jeremy (Danwei, Danwei TV).

It’s always interesting to meet in person the people you only know through online communication. There were some differences between my expectations of these guys and what I actually experienced.

Roddy Flagg (Chinese Forums, Signese)


I have chatted with Roddy a lot over the years, and we’ve helped each other out with online projects more than once. I was already familiar with his sense of humor. Although I didn’t know exactly what he looked like before I met him, there weren’t any surprises there.

Joel Martinsen (Danwei)


Joel has been an extremely helpful commenter on Sinosplice over the years, and has helped me out with various translation issues. As any reader of Danwei knows, the man is an impressive translation powerhouse, and he’s an all around good guy as well. (He even bought me an ice cream.) No real surprises here.

Brendan O’Kane (Bokane.org)


I had actually met Brendan once before in Shanghai, but that time was brief and alcohol tinged. This time I got a better feel for the guy, and I think he’s pretty much exactly like his online persona with one big exception: he’s more cheerful in person.

David Lancashire (AdsoTrans)


What does one expect of a computational linguist who developed a free, impressive online machine translation system? A quiet, geeky guy, that’s what. I had chatted with David over IM multiple times, but I guess I didn’t get a good feel for his personality. In person he was funny and outgoing and didn’t look at all like what I expected. Also, he’s Canadian!

Jeremy Goldkorn (Danwei, Danwei TV)


I have a lot of respect for Jeremy, but somehow I got the impression of a rather formal, business-like person. Was I unfairly stereotyping budding media moguls? Anyway, Jeremy turned out to be a really funny, gregarious guy. It was really good of him to stop by after just getting back from a blogger conference in Hangzhou. I imagine he is quite bloggered out now.

Hopefully I’ll be making trips to Beijing more often in the future. Shanghai is the place for me for the foreseeable future, but Beijing is definitely a place I’d like to spend more time.


Jan 2006

In Your Face, Beijing

The People have spoken through their partner, The China Daily, that unrivaled bastion of integrity on a never-ending quest for Truth. There has been a new survey on the top 10 most livable cities in China.

I am compelled to make a few statements.

1. What number is Beijing? Oh, I see… it’s not on the list. It’s at a distant #15. (Take that, Roddy, Brendan, and Eden!)

2. Hangzhou is #6. True, it’s not number one, but modesty is a very Chinese virtue, you know. (Plus with weather and transportation like Hangzhou’s, it really doesn’t deserve to be #1.)

3. Continuing with the modesty trend, Shanghai is sitting pretty at #8. Also, 8 is a lucky number in China. (Score!)

4. Speaking of lucky numbers, there’s an unlucky number too, and it’s 4. Due to unstoppable homophonal forces, 4 is the Chinese number of death. Which city got the place of death? Chengdu. (Take that, Chengdu!)

5. Tianjin is not on the list at all. What a shame. (Take that, Micah!)

6. Xi’an is not on the list either! (Take that, Matt!)

7. So #3 on the list is… Mianyang? Mianyang? Huh?

8. The #1 city is Dalian. I have a friend who used to trumpet Dalian’s wonders to me nonstop, until he forsook it for Hong Kong. I guess a lot of people agree with you, buddy. (Take that, Derrick!)

Thanks to chinochano for discovering this story before me and writing about it in a post with more CSS image floats than you can shake a stick at.


Oct 2005

The M&M

While I used to live in Hangzhou, I made the observation that Chinese people seemed to have an unreasonable fear of germs. True, China is not always the most sanitary place on earth, and there’s no question that many Chinese germs live out a blissful existence where antibacterial disenfectants are restricted to germ horror stories. Still, I felt that the germ threat was overplayed in a lot of cases. I will offer but one example.

One time before class started, I was eating a little bag of M&M’s and casually eavesdropping on my students’ conversations. I overheard an exchange about germs, and it prompted me to ask my class the following question:

“What if I were to take one of these M&Ms and allow it to drop to the ground — a place that looks clean — and then pick up that same M&M, dust it off, and eat it? What would be the chance that I would then get sick from eating that M&M?”

My students gaped in shock at the mere suggestion. They required prodding to take the question seriously enough to actually answer it. What would be the probability, from 0% to 100%?

I started getting some answers. 80%, one said. 90%. Even 99%. One or two students ventured as low as 40% or so. I couldn’t believe it.

They laughed at me when I told them I thought the chance was less than 5%. I was really tempted to drop an M&M and eat it right there in front of them to prove my point, but that didn’t seem like a very teacherly thing to do. Plus, if I did, by chance, catch a cold (it was early winter), I would never live that down.

For a nation of people that believes in Chinese medicine’s power to boost the body’s natural defenses, I would think they would have a little more faith in the human immune system.

Or maybe they just knew way better than I what had been on that floor…

Snobs in China


Oct 2005

Snobs in China

When I lived in Hangzhou, the “snobs” were the foreigners that lived in Shanghai and thought it was so great.

After I moved to Shanghai, the “snobs” became the foreigners in Shanghai that didn’t learn any Chinese and spent all their time and money in Western over-priced restuarants and bars.

Carl helped me realize how “snobby” I can be, towards foreigners that spend a lot of time in the bar scene (some actually are cool). They’re not all assholes.

There are so many kinds of snobs, really. (Maybe it cheapens the term to apply it so liberally, but who cares?) When I still lived in the US the ones that annoyed me the most were the music snobs. Here in China (and especially in Shanghai), there are so many other kinds of snobs to be found in the expat community…

  • There are the “Real China snobs”. Their experience in China is the real one, in some part of China that the snob deems respectably “rough.” This type of snob holds nothing but contempt for the expats in Shanghai. The funny thing, is, you can find this type of snob in Hangzhou. (Life in Hangzhou is anything but “roughing it.”)
  • There are the “Chinese study snobs”. They’re usually bookish and don’t openly show contempt. But they might mention that they don’t hang out with foreigners.
  • There are the “I speak Chinese snobs”. They speak at least basic Chinese, and unlike the “Chinese study” snobs they do hang out with foreigners, mostly because they’re always trying to impress them with their Chinese skills. Their snobbery is only half-hearted, because they love to be needed by those without the Chinese skills. They limit their contempt for the Chinese-unequipped to occasional snide remarks.
  • There are the “I am so 老百姓 snobs”. These are the opposite of the traditional snobs. They arrive in China and move right into the slums to live with their Chinese “brethren.” They get 5 rmb haircuts and eat 5-10 rmb meals, exclusively Chinese. They usually don’t show a lot of contempt for those who want normal conveniences, but neither do they recognize the absurdity of their own actions. This kind of snob is specific to big cities, but is otherwise basically the same as the “Real China” snob.

I am guessing that some of my readers find me writing about this ironic, as on more than one occasion I have been accused of being one of these types. So here’s where I’ll get honest.

I was certainly never hardcore about it, but I did feel the “Real China snob” in me resisting the move to Shanghai. I lived out my “Real China” snob fantasies in my first year in Hangzhou and when I traveled in my first 2-3 years in China.

I was sort of a “Chinese study snob” my first year in China, but that was mostly because I was poor and didn’t really know any other foreigners. I’ll admit that I am still somewhat bewildered (frustrated? shamed? saddened?) by foreigners who live in Shanghai long-term and don’t make a real effort to learn the language. I’m not sure if that makes me a snob.

Despite the occasional accusation, I don’t think I am a “I speak Chinese snob,” although certain friends of mine might say I have definitely exhibited symptoms. (It was tough love, I swear!) But yes, I speak Chinese, and not badly. If you want to label me a snob for that, have fun.

I am not a “I am so 老百姓 snob,” but I think I know a few people who exhibit symptoms.

So… how many kinds of snobs did I miss? What kind of snob are you?

Marilyn Monroe Five Drops No 5″ 1955


Sep 2005

The ZUCC Chronicle

Jamie’s recent post outlined his history with China. It was a history which crossed mine. The most significant common experience was had in a college in Hangzhou we call ZUCC. (If you’re American, you say Z-U-C-C, kind of like F-B-I. If you’re Aussie or kiwi, you say “Zook,” rhyming with it “book.” I have always wondered about that little cultural linguistic difference.)

In chronicling my three years at ZUCC, I aim to do three things:

  1. Create an easy reference for myself, since I’m very forgetful.
  2. Provide a reference for friends and family with regards to ZUCC friends.
  3. Provide an idea of what kind of salary you might expect. (Yes, I’m going to disclose how much I was paid for each semester I worked at ZUCC.)



Aug 2005

The Foreign Teacher Role

In China foreign teachers are called 外教 (a shortened form of 外籍教师). Literally it means “foreign teacher.” It’s a simple descriptive term. There’s nothing wrong with it.

And yet I don’t like to be called a waijiao. Why? It’s the connotations that usually come with the word. A waijiao can come in many shapes and sizes, but typically:

– A waijiao is white.

– A waijiao is most often male.

– A waijiao is young, likely fresh out of college. (Alternatively, he could be retired.)

– A waijiao is entertaining.

– A waijiao doesn’t speak much Chinese, if any. (If he does, it’s likely entertaining.)

– A waijiao doesn’t really have any skills other than being a native speaker of English. Sometimes they’re OK teachers.

I know… I am white. I am male. I am young. However, I am not in China for anyone’s entertainment but my own, although that’s certainly not my main reason for being here. And I do speak Chinese. I am not without skills. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed.

I was a waijiao for 3 1/2 years in Hangzhou. I enjoyed that job, and I was good at it. Then I was a waijiao teaching kids for a year here in Shanghai. That was a valuable experience too. But now I would like to move on… I like teaching, but I don’t want to make it my career. (Not TEFL, anyway.)

And yet to most Chinese people, if you’re a foreigner and you’re young, you’re either a student or a waijiao. If you’re not young, you’re either doing business here or you’re a waijiao. There’s really not much else.

Ironically, now that I have finally moved away from the role of waijiao with my current job, I’m returning to the pigeon-hole by becoming a student again. Plus they still call me a waijiao at work anyway even though I’ve corrected them on numerous occasions. Micah is a (skilled) waijiao, and I guess it’s too much to remember that we actually have different roles at the company.

When I get out of grad school I’m going to have to wreak havoc on all this waijiao stereotyping.

I do three main things at my job now:

1. I edit a new line of textbooks for Chinese kindergarteners. I don’t decide the lesson themes, but I play a role in determining the vocabularly to be taught, and I write the lesson text. My lessons must be of the appropriate level, but not contain too much difficult or unfamilair vocabulary or grammar. The lessons must also have rhythm, because they are set to music and sung as songs. When these books come out, my name will be in the books as writer.

2. I play the Chinese voice of a cartoon character as well as the English voices of several characters. I also manage the recording of the international versions of those cartoons, which involves putting together a team of voice talents and overseeing the studio recording. (I’m doing that this week and next week.)

3. I translate the cartoon scripts from Chinese to English, which are then used to record the international version of the cartoon. I also translate other parts of the textbook line for the international edition.


Aug 2005

Locking Up My Bike

When I bought my new bike, at the forefront of my mind was “this is so going to get stolen.” Bike theft is so common here that my roommate Lenny tells me he thinks of bikes as a disposable product. I think of it more like gambling. But in this game, “winning” means having your bike stolen, and the more you gamble, the higher chances you have of winning. For this reason I always go with as cheap a bike as I can find. It just has to be fully functional and big enough for me to ride. (If I weren’t so tall, I could find bikes for much cheaper.)

When I got my new bike, I also bought bike locks. I wasn’t sure which kind to buy… I know that some of them are incredibly easy to break. The U-locks for instance, can be opened with a ballpoint pen, I understand. Not cool. No U-lock for me. So which lock is good?

The clerk was amazingly useless. She just kept recommending the expensive ones, and she couldn’t even tell me why they were better. The one that was supposedly “best” was a thick chain lock. In Hanghzou I used to rely totally on the kind of lock that is attached to the back wheel and I never once had my bike stolen. So I bought one of each of those locks. Two locks.

When it came time to park, I realized one reason why bike theft is so common in China. When I used to bike all around the campus of the University of Florida, there were bike racks everywhere. Really sturdy metal frames, set in the ground with concrete. You felt pretty secure when you locked the frame of your bike to one of those. But bike racks are relatively rare here in Shanghai. So I’m finding the chain lock I bought to be of very limited value.

One thing a lot of people do is take their bike into their building and up the elevator. Then they either keep it in the hall by their apartment door, or they actually keep it in their apartment. I don’t like that method at all. Bikes should be kept outside, thieves or no.

bike locks

My apartment complex has this underground parking garage/mosquito farm. I’m not sure how safe it keeps my bike, but it seems safe. In addition, there are locks set in the ground that can lock your bike wheel securely to the ground (above). You have to pay if you want a key to one of those “ground locks,” though.

Left Note

I noticed that a lot of them are unused. I also saw that one other biker used a chain lock to lock his bike securely to one of the empty ground locks. I decided that was a good idea, so I did that too. When I returned to my bike a day or two later, I found this hand-written note on my bike (left).

Without even reading the note, I knew why I had gotten it. But, dilligent student of Chinese that I am, I wanted to know exactly what the note said. Did it threaten me with something, or what? The handwriting was really hard for me to make out, however. I found that I could only decipher about half of it on my own. I enlisted my girlfriend’s help, and it actually took some effort for her to decipher every character.

Can you read it? Take the challenge!

When you’re ready for the answer, drag your cursor from one bracket to the other: [ 如需要 / 地桩锁 / 请到物 / 业申请! / 不要占用 / 别人的地 / 桩锁!!! ]

In English it basically means, “If you need a ground lock, please apply at the office! Do not occupy other people’s ground locks!!!”

I found a thick metal pipe I can lock my bike to instead. Let’s see how long I can keep this bike.


May 2005

Suspicious CBL Issues

John B first reported to me about two weeks ago that he was getting “Document Contains No Data” errors when he tried to view the China Blog List from Hangzhou. Now, since yesterday I’ve been getting the same errors consistently. Other sections of my website seem to load fine, but as soon as I try to go to http://www.sinosplice.com/cbl/ (or http://cbl.www.sinosplice.com/) I get “Document Contains No Data.”

If you are in China, could you please try going to the CBL page and let me know the results? (Warning: if you get the DCND error, you may need to close your browser and reopen it to view any pages on Sinosplice again.) Thanks!


Apr 2005

Suzhou: any good?

I spent Friday and Saturday in Suzhou with Carl and his parents. Carl took his parents for sightseeing, and since I’d never been, decided to tag along.

Suzhou has always been paired with Hangzhou in my mind, due to the famous Chinese saying:

> 上有天堂,下有苏杭。
> Above there is Heaven,
> Below, Suzhou and Hangzhou.

Living in Hangzhou, I had this verse cited to me countless times. Hangzhou was not quite Heaven, but it was a pretty nice city as Chinese cities go. I was always just a little curious to see how Suzhou compared. I finally had my chance.

My first impressions were not good. The touts at the train station in Suzhou are particularly aggressive and annoying. These touts learn a few phrases of English just so they can rip off unwary foreigners. After finally convincing them we REALLY had no interest in their services, we got in the taxi line. It was extremely long.

Then we had trouble finding the hotel we wanted to stay at. That may very well be the Lonely Planet’s fault; who knows. We ended up getting off somewhere and walking for quite a while. We walked through Suzhou University’s campus, which was quite nice. Very green campus, with interesting circle-inspired architecture. Eventually we decided on a hotel right off Suzhou’s shopping/bar street (十全街).

The first touristy place we went to was the maze-like “Garden of the Master of the Nets” (网师园), which was supposed to be the most famous of Suzhou’s legendary gardens. The admission was 30 rmb. Wow, what a let-down. Not interesting, not beautiful. Not even very green. I guess maybe I’m bringing in my own Western ideals of what a “garden” should be, which does not necessarily jive with China’s version throughout its history, but so what? We didn’t like it. Carl, always looking for the good in things, made the comment, “this place would be good for playing paintball.”

That afternoon we sipped freshly harvested Suzhou green tea and played 五子棋 (traditional Chinese “Connect 5” boardgame) while having a nice chat in a teahouse.

That evening Carl and I checked out the bar scene on 十全街. The bars all seemed to be hostess bars or dead. All the bars we came to would be either (a) absolutely lifeless and uninviting, or (b) filled with provocatively dressed girls that tried to pull us in as we passed. I guess that’s just how 十全街 is. We saw a lot of foreigners on that street. A staggeringly large amount.

Carl and I settled on Venice Bar, killed some time there, and then later went to meet up with Matt (of Chabuduo). We chatted at his place for a while with him and his charming young bride Wang Ying, and then we headed out to a nice pub Matt knew (which, thankfully, was not on 十全街!). We had a good bilingual conversation there (Matt, as expected, speaks some good Chinese), put away a few beers, and then headed back into town for a late-night snack of 麻辣烫 (a kind of DIY spicy soup, or “the poor man’s hotpot,” as I think of it). I passed on the 麻辣烫, which for some reason disappointed the others. I’m just not a big fan of it. Then we said bye to Matt and Wang Ying and promised to meet again, probably in Shanghai next time.

The next day the only thing we did of mention before coming back was visit “The Humble Administrator’s Garden” (拙政园), which charged a steep 70 rmb admission. Wow, what a difference from the “Garden of the Master of the Nets”! It was sprawling, very green, had interesting landscaping, and flowers were in bloom everywhere. Carl and I spent a pleasant hour and a half there before the tourist crowds got to be too much and we headed back to Shanghai.

If I had to compare Hangzhou and Suzhou, I’d have to say that Hangzhou would win, hands down. Suzhou may be greener than your average Chinese city, but it certainly isn’t doing much about its pollution problem. The canal that ran by our hotel (which is in a major commercial area, mind you) absolutely reeked, and at one point we saw the green murky water bubbling. Furthermore, Suzhou’s attractions are its gardens, but those are walled off and isolated from the rest of the city, plus admission can be pretty steep. Hangzhou, on the other hand, makes West Lake its public tourism focus, and, indeed, the center of its city planning. The bulk of Hangzhou’s touristy spots radiate outward from West Lake, and the parks are free. Hangzhou has its problems, but it’s on the right track. In any case, it’s closer to “Heaven” than Suzhou. If not for the promise shown in “The Humble Administrator’s Garden,” I probably wouldn’t even recommend Suzhou as a sightseeing destination. And if I did recommend it, it would have to be a spring trip. Even so, I feel no compulsion to see the rest of Suzhou’s gardens.

Conclusion: best two things about Suzhou (that Hangzhou hasn’t got): Matt and “The Humble Administrator’s Garden.”


Mar 2005

Iron & Silk

In my junior year of college I decided that I wanted to go live in China after graduation. Around that time I picked up a well-known book called Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman (1987). It was the story of an innocent young American with a love for kung fu who went to teach English in China in the early 80s. It was a simple story.

[Sidenote: While I found the story to be a reasonably entertaining introduction at a time in my life when I knew very little about China, the one thing that put me off was the author’s claim to be fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese simply through four years of study at Yale. I didn’t buy it. But then, “fluent” is a very subjective word, and it’s frequently used casually in this kind of story.]

A few weeks ago I found the movie Iron & Silk (1990) here on DVD in Shanghai, so I just had to pick it up. This movie holds the distinction of being one of the few movies where the author actually plays himself in his own autobiographical story. What makes this especially interesting is that we get to see Mark Salzman demonstrate on camera his alleged mastery of both Mandarin and kung fu.

The movie was OK. I’m no expert in kung fu, but I studied it for a few months once, and I’ve seen professional demonstrations, and Mark’s 武术 looked pretty good to me. His Chinese was also not bad (although it doesn’t measure up to the other Mark‘s).

After living in China so long, though, I couldn’t help but find the story Disney-esque. The interactions, the cultural lessons learned, the forbidden love (which was never allowed even a kiss)… it all just seemed so cute. Even the “dark side of China,” like when Mark was forbidden entrance to the compound where his teacher was because of a crackdown on “spiritual pollution,” seemed parallel to the level of horror you experience when Bambi’s mom is shot.

Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying the only cinemagraphic window into China should be movies like To Live or Blind Shaft or something…. It’s just that I don’t think this movie has much to offer those already acquainted with China besides a few smiles.

One thing that made the movie interesting for me was that although the original story took place in Changsha, the movie was filmed in Hangzhou. So I got to see imagery of Hangzhou c. 1990. Much of it looked familiar, but some of it reminded me of ugly streets in Beijing. It was fun seeing the protagonist put his moves on the girl at West Lake — a place where I’ve been on quite a few dates myself, back in the day. The movie even found the extras that played Mark’s English students at the Sunday morning English corner at 六公园 beside West Lake. I made the mistake of blundering onto that group only once, long ago….

Lastly, I’m a little disappointed that the title of the movie was never explained as it was in the book. The explanation that Mark’s kung fu teacher gave him, as I recall it, was that he needed to punch an iron plate many times a day to make the bones in the hand thick and strong. He needed to punch raw, rough silk in order to make the flesh of the hands tough.

I’d recommend this movie only to people who have read the book and are curious, or to people without much knowledge of China who are thinking of coming and teaching here, or are just plain curious. One should keep in mind, though, that China changes fast, so this movie is dated. Also, the English levels of Mark’s students are artificially high, and Mark is forced to conduct most communication in English (even with his Chinese teacher, for example) for the benefit of the English-speaking audience.


Jan 2005

CS and the Chinese Military

“CS” is the abbreviation Chinese teenagers use for Counter Strike (rather than the Chinese name 反恐精英), the world’s most popular FPS network computer game. When I taught college English at ZUCC in Hangzhou, there were quite a few boys in my classes that were crazy about the game and devoted almost all their free time to playing it in internet cafes. They even got Wilson (who was teaching there then) to play them.

Tian has a funny post (with pictures!) about the Chinese military using CS as training. Check it out.


Jan 2004

Hangzhou Got Shorted

My sister Amy arrived last Thursday night, which just so happened to coincide with the arrival of rain and considerably colder weather in the Shanghai area. We haven’t done much so far in Shanghai, although we did get to meet Michael of Chairman Meow and Living in China fame and his friends. Very cool group of people. Then we went to Hangzhou.

I gotta say, any decent city in China requires at least a week of touristing. I foolishly only gave us 3 days in Hangzhou, and I regret it. We saw West Lake, Nanshan Road’s bars, Ling Yin Temple, the Silk Market, In Time Department Store, “West Lake Heaven and Earth” (西湖天地), ZUCC, and snow. On Sunday the weather was horrible (even if it did snow), so we shopped all day. Ugh. Then yesterday we went to the silk market and we spent 3 hours there. I wanted to die. I was translator and haggler. I really got some good prices, but I don’t particularly enjoy that.

Amy enjoyed meeting all my ZUCC co-workers and other Hangzhou friends. They’re all really cool people. I should have some pictures of her visit up soon. Got some good ones.

Last night we made the difficult decision not to go to Beijing. It’s the wrong time of year for it (too cold, and it’s the Chinese New Year holiday now), and we just wouldn’t have enough time there. Plus, Amy wouldn’t get to see much of Shanghai even if we went to Beijing for only 3 or 4 days. You can’t see three amazing cities in two weeks.

So tonight is Chinese New Year’s Eve. We’ll be spending it with my girlfriend’s family. Happy Chinese New Year everybody!

John and Amy at Reggae Bar, Hangzhou


Sep 2003

West Lake & Beer

Last night Russell, Greg, John B, and I took the two new Aussies to West Lake. West Lake’s Nanxian (南线) area, newly renovated, looks very nice at night. If you’ve been to West Lake before but not recently, you have no idea what you’re missing. The newly renovated section, Xixian (西线), is opening for the National Day vacation throngs, and it’s also supposed to be very nice, in the old school traditional Chinese style. I’ll go check it out after the tourist crowds depart and put some pictures up (something I haven’t done in quite a long time, as Wilson kindly pointed out to me).

After checking out West Lake at night, we headed over to a very cheap bar I know of. The name is 西部小镇; Old West Town is their translation. There’s a cowboy hat on the sign. It’s in a prime location, in a string of little bars right next to West Lake. It’s not a great bar. It’s very loud, and the music is always bad. The bar serves little more than beer, despite the plethora of Western liquors on display. The bartender’s job is basically to pull out more beers and open them. The one saving grace of this bar is its beer special: 3 West Lake beers for 10rmb ($1.25). West Lake Beer is not the greatest beer in the world, but it’s always so cheap that in Hangzhou I find myself drinking it more than any other beer. Apparently it’s owned by Asahi now.

So we did what so many Chinese people do in bars — drink and play a dice game called chui niu (吹牛). It’s this game where everyone has a cup of 5 dice, and you have to estimate how many of a given number there are out there, under everyone’s cups. Ones are wild. Bluffing is key. It’s a fun game, but not quite fun enough to warrant its popularity in China, in my opinion. Anyway, it was good for the new Aussies, Ben and Simonne, because we played it in Chinese and they got their numbers down (kinda). We left a little while after the bar ran out of cold beers.

On the way to West Lake, I was given this flyer:

> Restaurant Bar Club
Nothing Comes from Nothing.
Nothing comes from Nothing.

> In celebration Z Bar begins a new chapter, in a new city
that mix our minds and drinks our souls.
We stamped the ground and strung the lights to launch this new theme Restaurant-Bar-Club of modern artistry.
Experience the sight, the sound, the taste,
the energy —
We welcome you to experience our

I think English in China is getting better…

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