Riding the elevator of my office building the other day, I suddenly noticed that only half of the people in the elevator had face masks on. I was the only foreigner in the elevator. There were 4 with none on at all (including me), 4 with masks fully on, and one with a mask on, but pulled down to under his chin. This is quite different from only two weeks ago.
Looking around on the street, I see a similar trend… Since face masks are required for riding the subway, you see a lot of mask-wearers on the street coming to and from Shanghai Metro stations. But when you get away from those spots, it’s much closer to half-half. In addition, people are much more likely to be wearing their masks in the morning than in the afternoon, and least likely after dark.
I’ve been observing who, exactly, is not wearing the masks, and I can’t really see any obvious trend… male/female, young/old, married/single, Chinese/foreigner… The 50/50 trend I seem to be seeing cuts across all the demographics. (I even see old people pushing babies in strollers not wearing masks.)
Obviously, these are just my own observations. I’m fairly observant, but I’m also not keeping records or running stats. But it is nice to see that things slowly returning to closer to “normal,” and it’s very interesting how long many segments of the population are clinging to the masks, long after it seems really necessary (especially compared with what’s going on in the US).
I wrote that post a while back giving a fairly comprehensive account of “Coronavirus Lockdown in Shanghai.” It’s now almost a month later. So what’s different? Only little things.
Here’s a brief rundown:
Almost everyone is still wearing masks when they go outside, but no one freaks out if I don’t. I wear my mask when required, or when in an elevator or other enclosed space. I do it more out of courtesy than anything else.
The mall near my home stopped doing temperature checks about two weeks ago (but most still do).
Where it’s still in place, “hygiene security” is getting laxer. It’s the little things… For example, we’re supposed to sign in every morning on the first floor of my office building, and yet no one says anything if you blow it off. We’re only supposed to go in through one entrance in my compound (where they’re still doing temperature checks), but the “nice guard” will let me in the side gate when he’s on duty. Visitors are allowed, and when my wife had two friends over last night, they said their temperates were not even checked at the gate.
We’ve been hearing this since at least early March, but it looks like school will almost certainly resume in early May. (It’s still uncertain how the missed school is going to be made up… If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on no summer vacation this year.)
My wife is back to full-time in her office.
The big barber shops chains opened in early April, but a lot of restaurants are still closed. I’m sure many of them are “still closed” because they’re never going to reopen, but it can be hard to tell which those are. You do see a lot of shops getting renovated now, as the new tenant prepares to open a new store as the pandemic fades into the background.
Over the weekend, I took my son to the Shanghai Natural History museum. (It’s pretty great; I recommend it!) It wasn’t super crowded, but there were quite a few people there (all wearing masks).
This past Monday was a holiday, and my family and I went to Chenshan Botanical Garden to see the last of the cherry blossoms, and again: it wasn’t super crowded, but there were quite a few people there (all wearing masks).
Our new webcomic Boring 办公室 (Bàngōngshì) continues (there are 11 episodes as of today), and the characters will keep wearing the face masks for now, to reflect the current situation in Shanghai.
Church services are still canceled, so no church-going for Easter.
Finally, on a lighter note, a few observations from someone who has almost made it through the COVID-19 pandemic in Shanghai…
The three most annoying things about wearing face masks all the time:
I keep forgetting my face mask when I go out! Seriously, multiple times a day.
Chewing gum with a face mask does not work. The mask slowly migrates downward. The effect is more pronounced if you haven’t shaved for a few days.
The iPhone’s facial recognition doesn’t work when you have a mask on. Very annoying when you are 100% used to using it all day long, both to unlock your phone and make mobile payments.
Stay safe, everyone. There is a light at the end of this tunnel!
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:
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.
The advice that I gave in that article still stands: that in a battle of wills where communication is not the goal of interaction, no one really wins. And if you’re interacting with Chinese people both to improve your Chinese and to have meaningful communication with other human beings, it’s best not to participate in these silly “power struggles.”
And yet I can clearly remember routinely participating in these meaningless battles of will, whether at a restaurant talking to the server, or in a store, or getting a haircut… And now I recognize that back in the beginning a big part of what drove the stubbornness to engage in the struggles was insecurity. As if by refusing to communicate with me in Chinese, the other person was insulting the Chinese level I had worked so hard to achieve. I imagine the other person may often have felt the same way. So then you’re left with two egos duking it out over language supremacy, but also not really even caring about the other person’s level.
So nowadays I’m a lot more laid back and compassionate about people insisting on using English with me. Not everything has to be about principles of efficiency or showing proper “respect.” I know, it sure took me long enough to recognize this (and it’s a bit embarrassing), but I think that at the root of it was simply a dearth of quality communication in Chinese. After starting my own company in 2010 and working with all Chinese staff all day every day in Chinese, I no longer felt a need to use Chinese in every other interaction, because I had my fill.
So, to those of you who, like me, like to ponder these sociolinguistic issues, I ask you: do you participate in language power struggles? Do they annoy you? Is your emotional reaction to them (or lack thereof) a factor of your own personality, or do you think it’s related to “having your fill” practicing Chinese? How big of a factor is linguistic insecurity?
P.S. I like the “Han Solo-Chewbacca communication” concept Jared brought up in the podcast!
I got through this winter without getting sick (not more than a few sniffles, anyway), UNTIL two weeks ago, when spring arrived and I got hit by a horrible cough, condemning me to long coughing fits every morning and evening for over two weeks. It was the kind of cough that I thought was “getting better” every day, until evening hit. It was bad, but not bad enough that made me go see a doctor. And it’s now finally almost faded away, about 15 days since it started. (You’ll notice I haven’t been blogging for this same time period.)
But this got me thinking about my own immune system in relation to China. After 16.6 years in China, has my immune system been “trained” at all? I don’t think there’s any way to definitively answer this question, but I’ve got a few thoughts, and I’m hoping others might share their experiences.
Growing up in Florida, I was a pretty healthy kid, especially once I got into my teens. My mom was fond of saying, “you rarely get sick, but when you get sick, you get really sick.” I barely remember getting sick at all in college, including the year I studied in Japan. After that I came to China.
My first year in Hangzhou, I had the obligatory newbie food poisoning incident and it was really bad, which ended with me getting an IV in a hospital (as so many illnesses in China tend to). And then as time went on, I would get colds more frequently in China than I had before. I still get hit by the “China germs sucker punch.”
I would expect, after moving to a new environment with a fairly dense population, swimming with a whole new world of germs, to get sick a bit more often than before. And I think this is what has happened, leading up to gradual new “China immunity” layer in my body’s defenses. And over a decade later, I feel that I do get fewer colds, provided that I don’t get too behind on my sleep. But I don’t feel at all confident anymore saying things like “I rarely get sick” now that I live in China.
All this leads me to a few questions I’ve been thinking about:
Do most expats from the USA (or other relatively sparsely populated western countries) get sick more frequently after moving to China?
Are most long-term expats able to build up a stronger immunity to Chinese germs?
Does a long stay in China lead to a permanently stronger immune system in other countries?
Do Chinese immigrants to the USA get sick less often in the USA than they used to in China?
It would be hard to answer these questions through research, and I realize there are quite a few variables involved (I’m no longer in my twenties, for example) but I’m interested in hearing my readers’ anecdotal evidence. So how about it: in your experience, is China an immunity training ground, or does it simply have its way with you until you’ve had enough?
But rather than simply sharing this list, I thought it might be useful to give my sincere answers to these questions, because none of them are really stupid questions. They’re just kind of hard to answer briefly. So I’ll answer, but occasionally take the easy way out by linking to old entries of mine.
So, without further ado, here we go…
1. “So what is China like?”
This is the most common and hardest one to answer. It would be interesting to see a bunch of different long-term expats answer this in 200 words or less. Or maybe in haiku form. Anyway, it’s a tough question because it’s way too broad. But I actually do get why people ask this, and I think the motivation is good, so I’ll attempt to answer (and you can also see what people say on Quora).
The one time I really tried to answer this question was in a blog post I wrote in 2006 called The Chaos Run. In that post, I described “a near-perpetual state of excitement.” This place really is seething with energy.
Obviously, living in China is not all fun and excitement. Expats complain about life here a lot, and don’t tend to stay too long. An apt description of life in China is that these are “interesting times.” Just as the supposed Chinese curse implies that “interesting” is not always positive, neither is life in China. “Interesting” is good food, amazing work opportunities, and great people, but it’s also food safety issues, pervasive pollution, and infuriating social interactions. How much of the good and the bad you end up with depends largely on where you live in China, what you do here, whether you’re here alone or with a family, what you expect to get out of your stay here, and a bunch of other factors. And, of course, there’s the element of luck and the undeniable role of your own attitude about the experience.
But it’s definitely interesting.
2. “Wow, that must have been a really long flight!”
Yeah, I typically fly 13-14 hours just to get to the States from Shanghai, and then another 3-5 hours in the air to get home to Florida. I have learned that flying into California is no good, because I always need two more flights to get to Florida, and adding in the layover time, that will nearly always results in a trip over 24 hours! (It usually takes me 20-22 hours to get home, though.)
3. “Can you speak Chinese?”
Yes. I knew some broken Chinese before even coming over in 2000, but I wasn’t even conversational, really.
I also run a company called AllSet Learning which helps move highly motivated individuals closer to fluency every day.
5. “What made you decide to go to China?”
I wanted to see the world and learn languages while I was young! I kind of got hung up on the first country I stopped in, though, and I’ve been here ever since. No regrets.
6. “I heard the pollution in China is really bad!”
It is very bad. Beijing and other northern cities are way worse than Shanghai, but it’s not great anywhere.
I am personally not bothered by it here in Shanghai on a daily basis. I’m not as sensitive as some people to the pollution, even if I’m breathing in potentially harmful air 24/7. I would not want to live in Beijing, however, mostly for this reason (it’s a very cool city otherwise).
7. “I heard that in China [insert widely reported misconception]. Is that true?”
I don’t really mind questions like this too much, because I frequently hear crazy things this way that I’ve never heard while living in China. And honestly, truth is stranger than fiction. I hear bizarre stories every day about what’s going on in China. (It’s “interesting” here, remember?)
Websites like Shanghaiist cover this aspect of life in China pretty well. If you want more serious China news, check out Sinocism.
8. “Can you use chopsticks?”
I hear this question from Chinese people much more than from foreigners. Chinese people who don’t have much contact with foreigners are often surprised to see a foreigners using chopsticks. I usually inform them that it’s pretty easy to learn chopsticks, lots of foreigners can do it, and then I quickly change the subject.
9. “Do they have [insert foreign brand] over there?”
Some of the most common western brands you see everywhere are: Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Nike, Apple. This topic is too big for me, though. Here are a few articles on the topic:
Not really. I do have my bad days in China, but that’s to be expected, right?
I’d say it’s probably a good idea to expect culture shock, but actually, the less you expect at all, the less shocked you are. I arrived in China as a wide-eyed 22-year-old full of wonder, and just took it all in.
11. “What do Chinese people think of [insert foreign brand/person/country]?”
The state may control the media in China, but it doesn’t control the opinions of individuals. Sure, you’ll meet lots of people that parrot the party line echoed in the media, but you’ll also meet lots of people with their own ideas.
So what I’m saying is: you’ll find all kinds of opinions on any topic. That’s why the Sinosplice tagline is “Try to understand China. Learn Chinese.” The more people you can talk to, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the diversity of opinions and ideas here in China.
14. “So how much longer do you think you’ll stay over there?”
Most expats arrive in China without expectations to stay too long, and most only last a year or two. (The “interestingness” can get overpowering.) I was originally my plan to only stay 1-2 years as well, but eventually I decided to stay indefinitely.
I anticipate I’ll be spending some part of the year in China for the rest of my life, but I do plan to spend more and more time in the States, as I have started doing in recent years. I want my kids to spend more time with my parents, and to absorb some more American culture. Trips to the U.S. are also becoming increasingly important for my businesses, AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.
One common trend among expats in China is that once they have kids, they tend to leave so that they can put their kids in school in their home countries. (Even the Chinese who can afford it are trying to put their kids in school outside of China, and it’s becoming really common for high school, even, among families that can afford it.) My kids are 5 and 2 now, so there’s not a huge rush, but it is a factor too.
15. “When are you coming back for good?”
Once you marry into China, there’s no “coming back for good,” as far as I’m concerned.
16. “But really… are you ever coming back?!”
These questions are starting to sound like my mom.
Shanghai Disneyland officially opens for business on June 16, 2016, but Disney has been making a limited number of tickets available for many weeks for “testing” purposes. I actually wasn’t planning on ever going to Shanghai Disneyland (I’m from Tampa, just an hour away from Orlando, home of Disney World), but recently everyone I know has been scoring tickets through their personal connections, and my wife was no exception. She scored some tickets through our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s pre-school connections (those guanxi start early!), so the three of us did the Shanghai Disneyland soft opening thing on a rainy May 29th. 30,000 other visitors still showed up.
I’m not going to do anything remotely approaching a full review; this is just a collection of my own random observations.
Everything Looks Nice
For now, anyway, everything looks nice, meeting the standard I would expect from Disney. I do wonder how well the park is going to wear, with a projected 60,000 visitors shuffling through the park daily once it officially opens. Still, it all looked impressive enough to inspire me to take this lame selfie:
One thing that struck me as really weird, though, is that Disney seems to be dying the water in its artificial ponds and streams. Why?? So bizarre.
The Marvel Presence
Disney owns Marvel now, and while there were no major Marvel “rides” or characters strolling the grounds, there was a “Marvel Cinematic Universe” installation. It was there that I witnessed this impressive display of American soft power:
OK, this is Disney, so expect long lines. At one point, in a very brief period of insanity, I got in line for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster even after being told the wait was 3 hours. (My wife and daughter were going to go do the Peter Pan ride.) After I was told the wait was actually 4 hours, I snapped out of it and went and joined my family for the scant two-hour wait for Peter Pan. (Hey, at least we were together!)
One thing that impressed me about Disney was the ubiquitous wheelchair access that is still fairly uncommon in China. It was good to see people in wheelchairs also getting the Disney experience.
I should mention that there is a “Fastpass” option that allows ticket holders to skip long lines if they show up for the designated ride at the right time. I had thought these were for sale in Disney World (adds a nice class struggle aspect to Disney’s lines), but in Shanghai you just have to line up to get them, until all the time slots are gone for the day. So you have to choose between lining up for hours to get on a ride and lining up for hours to get a Fastpass.
For the first half of the rainy day of waiting in lines, I was sort of regretting coming at all, but two things happened to brighten my mood. The first was a random Chinese high school kid giving me an extra Fastpass for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster. I was waiting in line, alone (the line was down to “just” two hours later in the day), and he targeted me to give away his extra Fastpass, practicing his English at the same time.
Yeah, as modern as Shanghai is, there are still plenty of inconveniences that piss off us cranky laowai residents. But then this kind of thing happens. It really improved my mood, and probably my whole opinion of the day at Disneyland.
The Tron lightcycle ride was a lot of fun.
Thanks, random Chinese high school kid!
The other thing that inexplicably brightened my mood and threw me into a bout of irrational childish glee was running into Darth Vader on patrol with two Storm Troopers. The great thing about him was not that he was tall, or that he was commanding, but that he was in character. He didn’t shake any hands or pose for any pictures. He was all business. There was a little boy trailing around behind him, dying to steal a moment of his attention. Vader brutally ignored him.
Then when Darth Vader reached an overlook, he angrily shook his fist at the park below. I liked to imagine that was him resenting his new overlord, the Disney corp.
OK, so there’s this parade everyone seems to make a big deal out of. It was almost canceled because of the rain. The parade was better than I expected, and I found the Frozen ice monster to be the highlight:
Troops of Chinese girls in blond wigs was also kind of amusing (here’s just one):
I mentioned that I’m most familair with Disney World which is, by the way, quite old already. So it was interesting to see how Disney would make use of new technology in its most modern park. The answer? Liberal use of projectors. Projected images on walls, on ceilings, on water, even on a whole castle. It works well, and it’s even quite cost effective. The final light show, which used to be mostly fireworks, now makes a whole lot more use of projectors and lasers. (Also better for the environment.)
Would I go again? No way. At 30,000 visitors, the park already felt very crowded. Lines were ridiculously long. And the projected visitor volume once it officially opens is 60,000 people. That is insane.
The sad part of this is not only that visitors will feel ripped off by their unexpected visit to LineLand, but also that the Disney staff, so carefully trained, are definitely going to have the cheery enthusiasm pounded out of them by the relentless onslaught of Chinese tourists. My wife observed how most Chinese guests coldly ignored all the Disney-style friendly greetings offered up by the staff.
I wish Disney’s famous service could be a shining example for China, but I’m not too optimistic about that.
I was super busy this month finishing up Mandarin Companion‘s new Level 2 Chinese graded reader adaptation of Great Expectations, but it’s now up in ebook format in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2. These two parts, put together, probably make up the absolute longest cohesive low-level Chinese reading experience you can find. We’re talking about a story almost 30,000 characters long. (For reference, our longest Level 1 story was only about 12,000 characters long.)
Combined with finalizing the standards for the new higher level graded readers, that amounted to a loooong editing process. I’ll talk about that another day.
For now, I am just enjoying Florida’s smog-free winter weather while I deal with 2 jet lagged little ones. (Of course I was still able to get away to see the new Star Wars movie.)
Following my trend of writing a series of posts years apart (I’m referring mainly to how I learned Chinese), I thought I’d write an update to my varicose vein (静脉曲张) situation. This isn’t something that all of my readers are going to want to read, but I know from my own googling that there aren’t enough personal accounts of this kind of thing online (a foreigner in Shanghai going through specific medical procedures, with details), so I figured it would be helpful to add my own.
I’ll spare you all the photos; if you really want to know what bad varicose veins look like (and you probably don’t), you can google them. My situation was not as bad as you’ll see in a lot of the pictures online (more similar to the image on the varicose vein Wikipedia page), but they were unsightly and noticeable on my right leg, with the largest twisted lumps of veins concentrated on both sides of my right knee, toward the back.
It was super useful for me to read my own first blog post about my varicose veins on this blog, written way back in 2004, because I had forgotten most of those details. It’s also surprising that it’s been 11 years since I wrote that post! The varicose veins in my right leg did worsen over that time period, but very slowly.
Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of what happened and how it turned out:
– On Oct. 27 when I got out of bed in the morning, I felt pain surging into the bulging veins around my knee as I stood up. Not good, but not too painful, and it got better after I walked around a bit. No big deal?
– I discovered that the pain would return every time I was lying down or sitting for a while, and then stood up. It started getting worse and worse (we always hope these things will just “get better on their own,” right??), and then by Oct. 29 the area on the right side of my knee started to get pink and inflamed. Time to act!
– On the evening of Oct. 29 my wife used an app called 好大夫在线 to send a picture of the situation and arrange a call with a doctor. In true Chinese doctor style, he brought up the scariest possible situation: a blood clot (血栓) had developed inside the varicose veins (thrombosis), and if I was really unlucky, it could dislodge and wind up in my lungs, quite possibly killing me. So stay in bed, don’t walk at all unnecessarily, and get to the hospital ASAP.
– He tried to get us to go to his own hospital in the morning (surprise, surprise), but my wife did a little research and discovered that Tongren Hospital on Xianxia Road (同仁医院、仙霞路) is known for specially treating this kind of issue, and it’s a lot closer to our home. It’s not an international hospital, but it had a good reputation in Shanghai. So that’s where we went in the morning.
– After taking a look, the doctor determined: I had developed a blood clot in the varicose veins of my right leg, so I needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately (and stay off my feet almost entirely), treat the blood clot, then immediately have surgery to have the varicose veins removed.
– I was admitted Friday (Oct. 29). One of the first things they did was use ultrasound to check my deep veins (same as last time, in 2004). There was no deep vein thrombosis; that meant the surgery could proceed.
– The surgery was later scheduled for Tuesday (Nov. 3). In the meantime, I was getting three IV drips a day, which thinned my blood a little and took care of the thrombosis near my knee. By the time surgery day came around, my leg was no longer swollen and already feeling a lot better.
– Prep for the surgery included shaving my entire right leg, then injecting some stuff into the veins, then looking at them through some special machine that allowed the doctors to see exactly where the veins were under my skin, and determine which ones needed to come out in the surgery. (Sorry, this is one of the areas that I never researched to figure out exactly what medical technology was used. Seemed legit though!) The doctor used a sharpie to map out the “bad veins” directly on my skin.
– Although in China it was pretty normal for this kind of surgery to only anesthetize the lower half of the body, the anesthesiologist decided to totally knock me out, because that’s how it’s normally done overseas, and I was, after all, a foreigner. That was probably also a bit more expensive, but I was OK with it. Then I was wheeled into surgery room, which looked modern and clean. As the doctors got ready, I was knocked out with some kind of gas.
– Next thing I knew, I was half-conscious on a stretcher, throwing up a little. Surgery was over, but my stomach was upset by the anesthesia. I fell back asleep, and woke up again later, all cleaned up.
– The surgery had taken about 2 hours, despite initial estimates of 1 hour. My veins were really a mess, apparently. Altogether there were 10 relatively small incisions made in my right leg, the highest at the top of my leg, near my groin, and the lowest near my ankle. Most cuts were around my knee and calf. It was through these incisions that the bad veins were cut off from the “trunk,” cut into smaller lengths, and removed from my leg. Each incision got one stitch. My leg was wrapped in a big bandage afterward.
– My leg was a little sore the first day after the surgery, and also quite bruised. Veins had literally been removed, after all. I could not shower while those stitches were in, and the first day I couldn’t even leave my hospital bed at all. There was the option of using a catheter, but I vehemently insisted I was great at peeing into a bottle while lying in bed. (It turned out I was both a good liar and a quick learner.)
– I ended up leaving the hospital the following Friday (Nov. 6), my hospital stay stretching for almost exactly one entire week. I was prescribed some medication, which was mainly Chinese medicine stuff that was simply good for circulation. It also included aspirin.
– I returned a week later, on Friday the 13th, to have the full-leg bandage taken off for good and all the stitches removed. I could finally shower like a normal person again, but I was instructed to wear a tight elastic sock on my right leg for two years.
– The costs, including the week-long hospital stay, medicine, and surgery, added up to a little less than 20,000 RMB, just as predicted in 2004. My doctor told me I should be glad I had the surgery done in China, as it is a lot cheaper here.
For me, the weirdest thing about the whole ordeal is that I don’t actually need all those veins that were removed. You’d think your body needs all its veins, right? Apparently this is a pretty standard procedure for bad varicose veins. It’s rare that it needs to be done on someone as young as me (I’m 37), but, on the plus side, it means that my recovery was faster.
Hopefully that’s the end. (Please, no one beg me for more varicose vein stories.)
Part 2 (2007): How I coped with no one understanding me after arriving in China, and how I got to a decent (intermediate) level of Chinese
Part 3 (2012): How I updated my goals to help me power through the “intermediate plateau”
This post is more of a look at how I learned, rather than specifically what I did. I’d also like to look more closely at the relationship between study and practice. This balance is essential to any learner’s long-term progress, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
First, a quick timeline of my experiences:
1998-1999 (STUDY): Started Chinese classes at UF. “Practice” consisted of meeting a language partner once a week, but it barely made a difference.
2000 (PRACTICE): Arrived in China and started using my busted Chinese. Was dismayed to discover my Chinese was decidedly not awesome.
2001 (STUDY): Found a professional tutor who was able to help me fix my major pronunciation issues. This, in turn, led to much more efficient practice.
2001-2003 (PRACTICE): Lots of speaking practice with people around me (details here), some self-study on the side, but the major emphasis was practice.
2003 (STUDY): One-semester HSK course helped me identify some holes in my self-studied Chinese, especially in more formal Chinese.
2004 (PRACTICE): My first job in Shanghai was English-related, but I still got to use Chinese for most of my work. I learned a lot.
2004-2005 (STUDY): Prepped for grad school, using a tutor.
2005-2007 (STUDY/PRACTICE): Masters program in applied linguistics in Chinese. Heavy components of both practice (everything was in Chinese) and study (there was plenty of vocabulary and sophisticated grammar to learn).
2006-2013 (PRACTICE): Working at ChinesePod was tons of great practice, but I also learned a great deal, even if I was never directly “studying.”
2010-present (PRACTICE): Building AllSet Learning, learning to run a business, managing Chinese employees, was all done in Chinese. More great practice. And learning all day long.
The Role of Study
Especially in the beginning, you need a helping hand to learn Chinese. It’s very hard to start “practicing” without some kind of structured study. Many learners turn to schools for this, and tutors are another option (both have pros and cons), but it’s hard to argue that some kind of formal study is not helpful for most people.
The key is that study alone will rarely lead to real fluency. At some point (preferably in the elementary stages), you need to be given ample opportunities to speak Chinese in a natural way. Hopefully this is motivating and fun, and not something scary. If the end goal is spoken fluency, you have to start practicing speaking. Exorcise those demons of bad Chinese!
Study itself has many forms, however, and I’ve found that many learners appreciate school lessons in the early stages, whereas 1-on-1 tutoring becomes much more useful once there’s a good foundation, and concrete goals for how Chinese can be applied start to take shape. So for me, the “schooling” was OK as my first three semesters’ foundation and then as HSK prep. Tutoring helped me fix the very specific pronunciation problems I was still having when I first arrived in China (I really needed individualized attention for that). Later, again, tutoring made the most sense once I had the concrete goal of getting into grad school and needed help learning some specific material. (I also had to spend a lot of time managing my tutor, though… There was no AllSet Learning back then!)
I remember very clearly, sitting in my Chinese syntax class in grad school, listening to the professor detail some finer points on the relationships between certain Chinese prepositions and verbs, and thinking, “these are the ultimate advanced Chinese lessons. The meta-lessons that even native speakers are clueless on.” So there was always a strong aspect of “study” within the “practice” of grad school in Chinese. Once I started working, though, “practice” really became the main focus, and “study” was relegated to an ongoing “as needed” self-directed activity.
The Role of Practice
My real “practice” started when I arrived in China. It was the reality check I needed, but also a source of motivation. To quote part 2:
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.
That was kind of rough. It would have been nice if I had been prepared for actual communication in Chinese in progressive stages. I got through the initial shock, though.
The early years of practice in China were both the hardest and the most fun. They were the hardest for me because I had to force myself to talk to strangers regularly, and often my non-comprehension made those conversations quite awkward. Oh yes, I dealt with a lot of awkwardness. But my psyche was protected, in part, by this weird “I can’t believe I’m in China talking to people in Chinese” euphoria that imparted a certain delusion of unreality. And so in many ways, it all felt like a weird, fun dream.
The “delusion of unreality” slowly wears off as you get to the Intermediate stage, however. Most things Chinese people say in Chinese are no longer “funny” or “crazy” because you’re used to Chinese culture, and you’re used to the way people speak. To give a simple example, you stop thinking, “it’s so weird that Chinese people are always asking me if I’ve eaten” every time and you start thinking of it as a normal greeting. You stop “hearing Chinese” and you start just listening to people. And just talking back.
It’s at this point that the practical application type of “practice” becomes really important. For me, it was my initial training job in Shanghai first. Then it was the work of my Chinese language masters program: following the lectures, completing the readings, writing papers, etc. Then it was directing ChinesePod lesson development. And then it was my work at AllSet Learning (and later Mandarin Companion).
It’s all about a Mix
If you look at my timeline, you’ll see a lot of vacillating between “study” and “practice.” You’ll see long periods of “practice” broken up by mostly shorter periods of intense “study.” And you’ll notice that the “study” is heavily concentrated in the beginning, whereas “practice” is heavily concentrated in the later stages.
Hopefully you never have a total lack of practice in the beginning (even if it’s just with a teacher), but practice should really ramp up over time until it’s just “application” (using Chinese for normal communication or work or whatever). Similarly, your “study” looms large in the beginning, but should never go away completely (even advanced learners pick up new vocabulary all the time), as it shrinks down in overall prominence.
It’s not that I concocted this; it’s not a method. It’s a very natural process, and I’m merely reflecting on how these principles played out in my own experience. Through my work at AllSet Learning, I often help frustrated learners, and a study/practice imbalance is one of the major sources of frustration. Some learners have unrealistic expectations about how far traditional “study” can take them, fluency-wise. Others have been immersed in “practice” for far too long and are not even sure how to go about addressing the gaps caused by years of neglecting “study.” I admit that it’s partly just luck, but somehow I managed to strike the right balance over the years.
I can’t say I learned Chinese the fastest or to some mind-blowing level, but I achieved my goals and have the skills to apply it in my career. I’ll never stop studying Chinese (“活到老学到老,” as the Chinese say), but especially due to the strong “practice” components of the past 10 years, I do feel confident in saying “I’ve learned Chinese.” (Just not all of it!)
Sometimes I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with Shanghai.
Sure, I love Shanghai, but there are times I wonder if we should be together. Like the times in the winter when I walk outside and I can smell the air (it smells kind of like gunpowder). Or this past winter, when I got a cold that lasted for two months (my worst colds usually last about a week), and my whole family got sick repeatedly (still not better yet).
But then the weather gets nice, and the sky turns blue again, and it’s easy to forget those offenses, or at least put them out of my mind. I remember what made me love Shanghai in the first place, and almost start to believe that cities can change. At least I can be happy now… spring is here. Best to just enjoy it while I can.
From the original “cannot use” list, the only other one she’s picked up has been personal pronouns (which she’s still getting used to). I really thought it would be a while before I heard 把 come out of her mouth. She’s definitely not using 把 often, but it’s already in that little brain…
It’s been almost 8 years that I’ve worked at ChinesePod, but as of 2014, I’m now spending all my time with AllSet Learning. I’m incredibly proud of all the work I’ve done at ChinesePod over the years, especially of the enormous body of useful, modern lessons the ChinesePod team and I created for a new type of self-directed learner, a learner eager to devour practical and up-to-date Mandarin Chinese lesson material.
I’ll be in touch with the ChinesePod crew for years to come, I’m sure, but I think it’s a good time to reflect on ChinesePod’s greatest asset as an organization: the awesome people that work there or have worked there.
Hank, thanks for your support in a three-year transition from full-time work at ChinesePod to full-time work at AllSet Learning. One of the big takeaways I got from you was the idea that entrepreneurs can be a powerful force for change. It’s this idea, probably above all else, that pushed me to start my own company.
Jenny, I’ve watched you grow from a quirky kid to a mother of two with very polished hosting skills. It’s always humbling to remember you’re not a native speaker of English, and it’s been a privilege hosting podcasts with you over all these years. We had some great times behind the mic.
Ken, you created the product that became the ChinesePod podcast. It’s easy to forget that language-learning podcasts were not “a thing” when ChinesePod started, and the pioneering work you did with audio became the standard for the industry. It was an honor learning from you, and I’ve always respected your vision.
Connie, you’re one of the few of ChinesePod’s “Year 1” crew that’s still around, and your attitude and humor have remained constant over the years. You were always fun to work with, and added your mark, not just to Qing Wen, Advanced lessons, and the dialogs, but also to all those hilarious supplementary sentences you snuck in behind the scenes.
David Xu, you’re another member of the “Year 1” crew, and I still remember your first day, running around in the studio, all nervous. It wasn’t long before your audio editing skills were seriously impressing everybody. I won’t forget that you’re key to why ChinesePod podcasts sound so professional.
Jiaojie, it’s funny to think that we sort of went to school together at ECNU, but we had no idea we’d be working together. Thanks so much for your professional guidance on obscure grammar issues, and I’ll always remember you for your respect of the authority of the dictionary and for your flair for the romantic.
Dilu, you’re the “new kid on the block,” but you’ve become a legendary host in record speed, soaking in all the training and adding a style all your own. Thanks also for reminding us when we’d done a string of relatively boring lessons and it was time to mix it up! We had a blast.
Vera, you really don’t get enough credit for all the hard work that you do behind the scenes. You’re not behind the mic as much, but I’ve always been impressed by your positive attitude and awesome work ethic.
Amber, it’s been a really long time since I’ve worked with you, but those were some great times, and you did amazing work. You imparted something really special to ChinesePod that it’s never quite had since.
John B, you played a lot of different roles at ChinesePod over the years, but one thing was constant: good ideas. (Also trips to the store, but the great ideas were in greater quantity.) I miss working with you.
Dave, you were eccentric, but also genius, and we all know that your tech ideas were a tremendous help in transitioning from “scrappy little outfit” to “serious outfit,” and to ChinesePod’s long-term development in general.
Obviously, there are way more people I could thank. I don’t want to slight anyone, but this post is getting long.
I’ve really enjoyed working with ChinesePod’s translators, from Amber (yes, she played that role too), to Pete, to Jason, Greg, and all the way up to Tom. Those were some fun semantic conversations we had, and they went a long way in shaping my own ideas of how translation can and should aid learners.
Then there’s the other roles, like Steve, Aric, Canadian Matt, Colleen, Aussie Matt, Clay, Catherine, Joy, Nana, Jin Xin, Aggie, Jiabin, Ziheng, Zhang Feng, Carol, Suyi, Xiao Xia, Ross, Eileen, Rian, Sarah, Gulam, Bill, Rob, Hurwitz, J.C., Justin, Ray, Jiao, Vivi… the list is very long.
Thank you, team, past and present, and thank you ChinesePod users.
I’d like to think that after all these trips across the Pacific, I’d have learned a thing or two about how to minimize the effects of jet lag. In reality, though, despite a few beautifully victorious battles back in the day, I realize that I’m losing the war.
It goes something like this:
Indestructible 20’s. Ah, those were the good old days. The “stay up all night the day before your flight, and then sleep the whole way there” plan. It actually worked. I needed like a day to bounce back. I actually remember saying, on multiple occasions, “jet lag doesn’t affect me.” Yeah, those days are long gone.
Slowing down around 30. Eventually I stopped saying “jet lag doesn’t affect me.” I quit feeling like staying up all night the day before a flight was either doable or wise. And I had to start dealing with jet lag the way most normal adults do, over the course of 2-3 days. (Secretly, though, I felt like I was much better at getting over it than the average person.)
Dragged down by a baby. OK, I’m going to do the manly thing now and blame my heinous jet lag on a baby. (It is her fault, though!) The thing is, when we come back to the States to visit, we stay with my parents and stay in the guest room. And even if I’m still “better than average” at getting over jet lag, two-year-olds are most definitely not good at getting over jet lag. And her sleep schedule, when she sleeps in the same room as me, definitely affects mine. So three days of jet lag becomes a week. Ouch!
The moral of this story: enjoy the time you have before jet lag gets its revenge.
Time for a personal update on some of the stuff I’ve been working on….
Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app
Over the weekend AllSet Learning’s Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app (v1.3) was finally approved! I am repeatedly surprised by how much time and effort the creation and maintenance of an iOS app takes. Although the app itself looks great, this is clearly not the best way for developers… it really makes me yearn for HTML5 apps.
That said, I’m really happy with what we’ve done! Sinosplice readers actually contributed ideas for this app’s new content, some of which is free, and some of which is paid. We probably should have added a bit less all at once to this release, but there’s still some more coming. Details about the release are on the AllSet Learning blog post: Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3.
I’m also putting a lot of time into my (sort of) new Chinese graded reader project, but I’m saving more details on that for a future update.
The Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow. We’re adding more sample sentences and more translations across the whole thing, and while it’s already quite extensive in its coverage, it’s also beefing up across the board.
One thing I’ve gotten into personally (for fun, but also research) is Duolingo. I’m trying it out as a purely iPhone experience, and I chose French because I know very little about it, and I know that pronunciation is a challenge. Man, I’ve got some opinions. That’s a future post too, though.
I’m staying super busy, but I have a big long list of blog topics that will see publication on Sinosplice sooner or later. Because I’m spending so much time working on my own projects, it can be hard to not want to blog about them all the time too, but that would get annoying to some of my readers. If anyone has specific questions about what I’m working on, though, let me know, and the answers might just become blog posts.
If you’re interested in updates about all these Chinese-related projects I’m working on at AllSet, please do sign up for the newsletter. We won’t annoy you, and we’ll keep you updated!
My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.
The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水，冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.
Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?
Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.
Photo by Feldore
Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.
She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.
Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?
More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.
Wow, this year December has turned out to be very low on posts. I’ve been trying to update twice a week, but I didn’t pull it off this month. I was in Florida visiting family for more than half the month, and blogging just didn’t happen.
While not blogging, I’ve been thinking a bit about how this 2012 went. I came up with two main conclusions.
It was a good year for AllSet Learning.
Again, I have to thank the exceptional bunch of people that have entrusted us to help them learn Chinese here in Shanghai. Our clients are our investors, and thanks to them, we’re going strong.
In 2012 AllSet Learning launched the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which has more than doubled in number of articles while quality of articles rises across the board (more on this later). We also released the AllSet Learning Pinyin iPad app in the first half of the year and the Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app in the second half. Both are doing well, and I’m just so pleased to be making my designs a reality.
We’ve also had some more awesome interns, a trend which looks to be continuing into 2013. (Thanks, guys!)
It was a bad year for staying in China.
I’ve remained silent on the news buzz about Mark Kitto et al because I don’t really think it’s that much of a story. But the disturbing thing about it all is that this year a surprisingly large proportion of my close friends in Shanghai have either left or announced plans to leave.
It’s not that I expected everyone to stay in Shanghai forever. I always tell people that I’ll be in China as long as it makes sense, and due to the particular career path I’ve chosen, it makes sense for me to stay around longer than perhaps a lot of my friends that have taken up residency here. But it still seems a little strange that so many friends would decide to leave all around the time. I suspect that the “10 year mark” has something to do with it. We humans do tend to attach importance to that number.
The latest to leave Shanghai is Brad Ferguson, of the website BradF.com, which has long since ceased to be his domain, but it’s how I originally got in touch with Brad. He helped me move into my first apartment in Shanghai the first time we met, which I think was a pretty good sign that he was a decent guy.
Brad did one thing before leaving which I thought was quite interesting. He got a Chinese character tattoo. Seems like most of the time the ones getting Chinese character tattoos are white people that have never set foot in Asia, and oftentimes end up inking questionable symbols on their bodies. Brad, however, got a pretty cool Chinese poem tattooed on his arm:
Not sure exactly about the meaning of a white guy getting such a tattoo on his arm as he leaves China, but it makes me think.
I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?
I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…
After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.
And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.
Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.
It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.
The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.
I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.
Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.
Goals do help
So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.
What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.
When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.
Remember that plateau?
The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.
For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…