Tag: personal


31

Jul 2012

How I Learned Chinese (part 3)

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…


Plateauing

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.

plateau

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.

HSK Ho!

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…


11

May 2012

Back to Jing’an (thoughts)

When I first moved to Shanghai, I lived in the Jing’an Temple area, behind the Portman Ritz Carlton Hotel on Nanjing Road. It was a cool place to start out my Shanghai experience, and I enjoyed my time there (even if there weren’t many good eating options nearby). I discovered the joys of Shanghai morning walks to work there, and the whole “familiar strangers” thing was interesting. Later, though, I moved to the Zhongshan Park area, where I’ve been living for about 7 years now.

Jingan Temple in Late Morning

photo by Neil Noland

Well, now that the AllSet Learning office has established its new office in the Jing’an Temple area, I’m spending a lot more time here, and really liking it. I can’t realistically walk to work every day anymore, but this area sure is nice to wander around in. I’ve also got new neighbors now, and it’s good to be able to more frequently see friends that live in this area. (If you live/work in the Jing’an Temple area and want to meet up and do lunch or something, get in touch!)

The move has been keeping me busy (and away from this blog), together with hiring new employees. Building my own team of passionate staff has been a really great experience, though. They say that when you start a new business, it never turns out how you expected, and while my business plan is going more or less as planned, the aspects that turn out to be the most challenging and rewarding have been surprising. Hiring, training, and building long-term relationships with Chinese staff have definitely been at the top of both the “challenging” and “rewarding” lists.

In 2007 I wrote two posts about “how I learned Chinese”: Part 1 and Part 2. I always intended to write a part 3, because I definitely feel that I’m still learning Chinese very actively after all this time, but have not yet written it because it was never clear in my mind what the next stage was, where it began, and where it ended (or will end).

It’s now clear to me that “Part 3” was grad school in China plus work at ChinesePod, and “Part 4,” a huge new challenge, is starting and running a business in Chinese. A kind commenter, after reading through this blog’s whole 10 year archive, has recently reminded me that I’ve written very few personal articles on Sinosplice lately, and that it sort of feels like something is missing now. Well, I’m planning on writing some thoughts on these experiences soon; and hopefully my readers will find them interesting or helpful in some way.

In the meantime, friends in Jing’an should hit me up… (and I’ll be getting caught up on my email soon!)


16

Apr 2012

Sinosplice is 10 years old

Sinosplice 10th Birthday

It’s hard for me to believe, but the Sinosplice blog is already 10 years old today. My first post was April 16th, 2002. You can see 10 years of blog posts all on one page.

Through my early “China is so crazy” observations, to my English teaching posts, to my move from Hangzhou to Shanghai, through my Chinese blogging experiment, to my 3 years in grad school in Shanghai, to a stronger focus on Chinese pedagogy and technology, the only thing that’s really remained constant has been the “China” angle.

But what do I take away from the experience after blogging here for 10 years? Well, it was totally worth it. It wasn’t always easy to keep blogging all these years, but I’m totally glad I have. I frequently tell people that this is one of the single most rewarding activities I’ve ever devoted time to. It’s not that it was non-stop fun, or that it made me rich or made me into a great writer, but it’s connected me with people in ways I never expected. I met some of my best friends through my blog. I got my job at ChinesePod in 2006 through my blog. I’ve made many professional contacts through my blog, and it’s a great channel for new clients to discover my work at AllSet Learning. None of this was planned!

Nowadays blogging feels very corporate, or if independent, usually highly niche. When you look at the Sinosplice blog archive as a whole, it’d be hard say my blog is niche, because it’s changed so much over the years. Content, design, readers… it just keeps changing. I think a certain degree of flexibility with one’s theme is an important ingredient to keeping a blog alive long-term; when you’re overly focused you can write yourself into a corner and run out of things to say (or you just get bored).

So I’d just like to end this post by saying thank you to my readers, past and present, and to encourage those of you out there to put your voice online if you’re at all tempted. You don’t have to have an amazing start, and you don’t even have to be fiercely niche, but somewhere along the way you may find you have a lot to say, and keeping at it can really pay off in unexpected ways.


15

Feb 2012

Ideas for Moms’ Trips to Shanghai

I’ve been away from blogging recently as my parents were here visiting their new granddaughter. It was only their second trip to Shanghai, and before they got here I spent some time wracking my brains for good things to do. There are tons of things to do in this city, but so very few of them are obvious. The best ideas always seem to occur to me too late.

Mary Ann, an AllSet Learning client of mine who is a mother herself, had recently compiled a list of mom-friendly activities for her own mother-in-law’s visit, and she kindly shared it with me, along with her comments. I thought some readers might find it useful, so here it is, with her persmission:

Urban Planning Museum. I find it interesting, and I think most people who like cities are usually into it. The top floor now shows a short movie which shows a 360 panoramic view of Shanghai from Hongqiao to Pudong. I haven’t seen it but my kids and visitors have and everyone has liked it!
– “Ghost Market.” That Antique market on early mornings on Saturdays and Sundays near Yuan gardens. I find it fascinating that so many people come to Shanghai from the countryside to sell ceramic shards. I like to watch the background social scene but picking through some of the stuff is fun too.
Old China Reading Room on Shaoxing Lu. Restful place to browse books and drink tea (nice Austrian cakes at Vienna Cafe nearby)
Glasses Market above the Railway Station. Since your parents aren’t shoppers, the one market that they might be able to get something at and take part in Shanghai commerce madness is the Glasses Market. They should bring a prescription with them from the U.S. and get some glasses made. People with glasses can always use a spare and much much cheaper than in Europe, I’m assuming the same in the U.S. My friend’s ophthalmologist sends all her patients to Bright Eyes Optical (stall 4056). I have taken people to get glasses done there and they were all were happy afterwards. Speak to Linda; she speaks English (in case your parents go on their own).
Historic houses on/around Sinan Lu. Visit the ones converted into museums.
Walking Tour. Yes, I’m insisting on this! And no, you can’t walk them around with an app instead! All parents like this sort of thing. Of course skip the cheesy ones but do go for the historian-led ones, or at least the ones led by guides with more street cred. The highly recommended guy who does the tours of the Jewish Heritage sites is an Israeli journalist/historian who runs shanghai-jews.com.
Hang out at a Tea House. You probably know of a good one. [Actually, not really!]
Foot Massage or other treatment at Xiao Nan Guo (Hongmei Lu). Have you been here? I’ve only eaten there a few times. The spa part of it has all spa typical treatments available PLUS there’s entertainment, which I think is daily. I think it would be great to take them to a foot massage while watching a show of russian dancers. Why, they may ask? Well… why not? Sounds kooky but that’s the point. Anyway, supposed to be pretty affordable so it could be something to do.
Propaganda Poster Museum.
– I accidentally came across a place in the Old town where they sell books by weight… quite amusing. Have you seen this? Isn’t one of your parents a librarian? Might be worth a bit of a hoot if in the area…
Spin Ceramics on Kangding Lu. Something for themselves or for a gift. Do you know this place? Fab stuff at great prices.

Sadly, my parents only got to do the first thing on this awesome list, but they did have a great time (despite Shanghai’s inhospitable winter weather). Hopefully someone else will find it useful.

Another client recommended Shanghai Pathways for tours, but we ended up just not having time for so many activities.

If you’ve done any of these things or have anything else to add, please leave a comment!


Related Posts:

China Lite (2011)
Micah and John on Touring Shanghai (2008)


25

Jan 2012

Personal Experience with the Other Particle “ma”

I remember quite distinctly the way I learned the sentence-final particle . I had only been studying Chinese for a little over a year, and thus was quite familiar with the yes/no question particle , but not this new , which seemed a bit more complex. I might have studied it before and just ignored it, but once I was on the streets of Hangzhou and hearing it all the time, I knew it was time to start figuring out what this was all about.

So I broke out my trusty old Oxford dictionary (we still learned Chinese from actual books in those days), and looked up . Here’s what I found:

Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.)

> : ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对~! Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子~! Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你~,就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.

I know some people hate learning from dictionaries, and grammatical concepts especially can be difficult to learn that way, but for me this explanation was a revelation: used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious.

I think a lot of us have personal experiences in which we acquire a new word, and the memory of those specific vocabulary acquisition experiences stay with us long after we internalize the words themselves (one of my own personal examples is my attempt to buy a bug zapper light). This is quite natural, and it’s also one of my key misgivings about SRS. The way we naturally acquire language stays with us and reinforces the entire process, tightly binding words, meaning, and real-world experience. SRS (or simple word lists in general) can’t really offer this deep of a connection.

But back to my dictionary example… How is this any different from an SRS learning method, divorced from a real-world connection? Logically, I feel like looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t much different from being presented a word electronically. Sure, there’s the tactile interaction with the book, and the effort involved in getting out the book in the first place, and the act of physically flipping to the appropriate page, then locating the appropriate headword with my finger. How much “momentum” do these behaviors actually amount to, in a learning context?

Although I can’t think of many compelling instances besides my example, I definitely feel that there are words which I learned (and not just “learned,” but developed a strong connection to) largely due to a dictionary. This leads me to two important questions:

How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?

For me, I think the dictionary’s explanation struck me so poignantly because I had actually already expended a significant amount of mental energy on the use of but I had not yet been able to express the ideas concisely, and the entry did just that, right when I needed it.

Please share some of your own personal learning experiences in the comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.


Related Grammar Links:

Yes/No Questions with 吗 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)
Expressing the Self-Evident with 嘛 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)


11

Nov 2011

China’s Bachelor’s Day

China’s “Bachelor’s Day” (光棍节) is becoming more and more internationally known. It is still, however, not what you might call “well-known” (that Wikipedia article, for example, is the shortest Wikipedia article I’ve seen in years!). Urban Dictionary offers this definition for “bachelor day“:

November 11, a day represented by four digits of 1, dubbed by young single Chinese. The “Bachelor Day” has been initiated by single college students and, although enjoys no holiday leave, has become a vogue of the day among single white collars.

I wish I could get lucky on the Bachelor Day this year.

It seems that this holiday has yet to catch on outside of China, but one is the loneliest number in any culture, so it may just be a matter of time. Sadly enough, this particular holiday is going to be more and more relevant to China, as the sex ratio imbalance here worsens. Already, I get the sense that the holiday is more relevant to single men than to single women here.

Anyway, the date for Bachelor’s Day this year is 2011-11-11, which is not only a rare concurrence of lots of 1’s in a date, but also extra bachelor-y.

Here are some images I collected from the web which show how this modern holiday is seen in China (and how it seems to focus on single men more):

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

There seem to be a lot of stick-like foods in the imagery, such as 油条 (fried dough sticks) and Pocky, and also a lot of cigarrettes:

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

And, of course, the holiday is also being used for marketing promotions. Taobao even set up a special page just for its Bachelor’s Day (AKA “Singles Day”) promotions: 1111.tmall.com:

Ad for Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Ad for Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more and more about this holiday in years to come.


Finally, on a personal note, today is the day that my own daughter (our first child) was born! Hopefully we’re not condemning her to a life of loneliness.

I’m not planning to do any baby posts here (at least, not until the language acquisition begins), but I might be posting a bit less in the (sleep-deprived) days to come.


23

Feb 2010

Why China for Grad School?

I chose to earn my master’s in applied linguistics here in Shanghai, through a Chinese-language program at East China Normal University (华东师范大学). While I’m certainly not the only foreigner to ever do this, I get a lot of inquiries about it, as more and more non-Chinese focus on China. Although I’ve written a bit about different aspects of grad school in China in the past, I find it difficult to offer a very useful comparison simply because I’ve never attended any graduate courses in my home country of the United States; I’ve only ever done it in China. Still, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on one big question: why would an American choose to do graduate studies in China?

Why not?

The question implies that there are good reasons not to pursue higher education in China. Indeed there are, so I’d like to get them out in the open right away. I obviously can’t cover the issues for every school and every program in China, but these are the big ones I personally encountered:

You have to have the Chinese level for it. Remember, this whole post is about earning a degree all in Chinese, not through an English language program. To be fair, it’s not as hard as you might imagine; most Chinese programs welcome foreigners with the minimum Chinese language skills to handle the curriculum. The entrance test you’ll be given is not the same one the Chinese students must take, and the selection criteria tend to be far more lenient. Still, you’re going to need an HSK score of 6 or better, and you’re going to need to be able to write Chinese (yes, by hand) if you want to get into one of these programs.

Inferior instruction. Ouch. Yes, I said it. In many cases, you’re simply not going to be getting a great education (by international standards) at a Chinese university. Many programs are not up to date on the latest theory in the field. Do your research.

No strong emphasis on originality. When it comes time for term papers, teachers actually stress: don’t download your paper from the internet. Yes, they have to say it.

Much less wilingness to experiment. As a master’s student at ECNU, I was repeatedly discouraged from doing an experiment, urged instead to rehash some grammatical topic from a slightly different angle (keep in mind the field is applied linguistics). I gather from anecdotal evidence that in many fields, the academics most interested in research go abroad (and often don’t come back).

Less academic freedom. Your advisor makes a huge difference. I know of multiple cases where an advisor would not allow his student to pursue her own academic interests because the advisor didn’t know enough about that topic to be helpful (or perhaps the advisor wanted the student to research something else for his own reasons). Students often have no choice of advisors, which can sometimes mean that a student has very limited input on his own thesis topic.

The “extended undergrad” experience. It’s a tough time to be a young Chinese graduate. The job market is not good. As a result, many undergraduates are continuing on to grad school to delay their job search and to try to improve their qualifications for the jobs they do eventually compete for. The result is an overall dilution of the academic passion and initiative you might expect in a graduate program.

Boring teacher-centric teaching model. In my case, in four semesters of courses, only two placed any emphasis on discussion. (Those were my two favorites.) For most classes, the professor simply stood at the front of the class and lectured.

Then why China?

Aside from reduced cost, there is one main reason a westerner might choose to go to grad school in China over a western country: because one’s object of study is inherently Chinese. This includes Chinese history, Chinese art, Chinese language, etc.

A reader once wrote me for advice on graduate level studies, saying:

> I want to do field research on speech patterns of Chinese-Mongolian bilingual speakers in Inner Mongolia, specifically how their exposure to Chinese affects their command and use of Mongolian.

In this case, it appears studying at a Chinese university makes sense, although she shouldn’t rule out the possibility of completing coursework in the States, but going to China for the field research. But she’ll have to dig for programs like that.

In my case, because I intended to stay in China long-term, it made sense to study in China both for career reasons and for Chinese study reasons. This does not mean that I found the master’s degree a “perfect match” however. I was fortunate enough to have a great advisor, but I really struggled to stay motivated when encountering some of the issues above. And although I was in a good location to conduct the experiment I wanted to do, I received little to no guidance in its execution. There were definitely times when I wondered if doing the degree in China was worth it.

By going through it, I did gain a deeper understanding into Chinese academia, even if what I experienced as a foreigner was “Chinese academia lite.” We did take the same courses, have the same professors, and get forced to attend the same student meetings. One question I cannot yet answer, however, is if those insights are worth some of the other aspects of my education which I sacrificed.

As I mentioned above, I can only speak from my own limited experience, but I would love to hear from those of you that can add to the picture.


25

Apr 2009

Civilizing Me

Earlier this week I set out for work one morning only to discover that my bike was missing. It wasn’t where I parked it in my apartment complex, and it wasn’t anywhere nearby. I was surprised that a bike as uncool as mine, with both wheels locked, would be stolen from my apartment complex, but these things happen every day. I walked to work.

That night I decided to look for my missing bike a little more. The thing is, I had parked in an area I’m not technically supposed to park in. There’s a sign on the wall that says “don’t park here please,” but after seeing other bikes parked there on a daily basis for months on end, I decided to join them. It’s a more convenient parking place. (The proper place is underground, requiring use of the stairs.)

So I didn’t want to ask the guards, because that would mean admitting that I parked in the wrong place. I went to the nearest underground parking section, and sure enough, there was my bike. It had this note attached:

Be Civilized!

Transcript:

> 文明小区靠大家
谢谢您的配合
与支持

Translation:

> A civilized community depends on everyone.
Thank you for your cooperation
and support.

I had thought my bike was stolen all day, and I don’t appreciate that. But I’m really glad to see the rules being enforced a bit more. All around me, I see rules ignored on a daily basis: traffic lights, various kinds of queues, no smoking policies, etc. It’s good to feel a little progress. I’m happy to be civilized.


03

Mar 2009

Flawed Plan

From Twitter, ajatt says:

> Another problem with going to the country to learn the language is that by design, just as your skill is peaking, it’s time to leave.

I can attest to that. It’s one of the big reasons I never left China.

I once did have a plan to stay in various countries for relatively short periods of time, just long enough to gain fluency. It does make me wonder… who is heartless enough to leapfrog across the globe, mastering one language after another, gaining precious insight into those cultures, only to leave each one behind?


23

Feb 2009

Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice

Commenter 維特利 recently made this observation:

From reading different blogs I see that there are two kind of situations in mixed families in China:

  1. American husbands speak Chinese with their Chinese wives and therefore wives aren’t fluent in English.
  2. Chinese wives speak English with their American husbands and therefore American husbands aren’t fluent in Chinese.

It looks like that real bilingual families are not easy to find:-)

The comment rings true, and it’s something I always suspected was partly due to language-learning motivation of one of the parties. In my case, I preferred not to date Chinese girls that wanted to speak to me in English because I was in China to practice Chinese, and at least this way I could be sure I wasn’t being used. (I wasn’t just using, of course… I did fall in love.) Still, this explanation isn’t terribly compelling. Not every cross-cultural relationship is sparked by a burning desire to learn a language.

A study by Ingrid Piller called Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication examined the languages used by German- and English-speaking cross-cultural couples and made some interesting observations.

In the following excerpt from the study, Deborah speaks English and her husband speaks German:

Deborah: […] well, my husband and I decided to speak English together, and I guess mainly that has to do with the fact, that, when I first arrived here in Germany two years ago his English was considerably better then my German, and in order for us to communicate, even on a basic level, it was- it was necessary for us to speak English. And I think we’ve just kept that up, because it became a habit, and also I think it’s sort of a, … a way for him to offer some sort of sacrifice to ME. because I had to give up, all my things, my culture, my language, my family, and my friends, to move to Germany. and he had everything here around him. And I guess the only thing he COULD offer me was his language. […] it- it’s STRANGE for us when we speak German with each other. because we met in the States, he was teaching German at the university where I had studied. and I had already graduated but he was giving me private lessons. and that’s how we became friends, and we just spoke English together THEN. and we have always spoken English together, and it just seems strange that- that once I came here, that we should then speak German. […]

It’s interesting that Deborah sees her husband speaking English as a sacrifice, because I think both my wife and I see our communication in Chinese rather than English as an opportunity sacrifice for her which was necessary not just because I was enthusiastic about learning Chinese, but also because it’s more important for me to be fluent in Chinese in China than it is for her to be fluent in English in China.

The excerpt above was followed by this analysis (bold mine):

Deborah finds it strange to use the majority language with her husband because that is not what they did when they first met. The fact that couples find it difficult to change from the language of their first meeting to another one can probably be explained with the close relationship between language and identity. In a number of studies in the 1960s, Ervin(-Tripp) (1964; 1968) found that language choice is much more than only the choice to the medium. Rather, content is affected, too. In a number of experiments, that have unfortunately not been replicated since, she demonstrated that in Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) the content of picture descriptions changed with the language (English or French) a person used. When she asked English-Japanese bilingual women to do a sentence completion test, she got the same dramatic results: the sentence completion changed from one language to the other. Her most famous example is probably that of a woman completing the stimulus “When my wishes conflict with my family…” with “It is a time of great unhappiness” in Japanese, and with “I do what I want” in English (Ervin-Tripp 1968: 203). Likewise, Koven (1998) shows in her study of the narratives of French-Portuguese bilinguals that the self is performed differently in these languages. She argues that these differing performances point to contrasting experiences and positional identities in the two linguistic communities. So, there is evidence that bilinguals say different things in different languages, which makes it quite obvious why intercultural couples stick to the language of their first meeting: they might lose the sense of knowing each other, the sense of connectedness and the rapport derived from knowing what the other will say in advance if they switched.

Very interesting (and a little scary).

Yet I’d still like my wife to know the English-speaking me better, and I would hope that someday not too distant the Chinese-speaking me can converse with a bit more sophistication. Meanwhile, the English-speaking her is shy, but shows a lot of promise.

People change. Identities evolve. Maybe it’s not the norm, but I imagine marital language relationships can develop too.


05

Jan 2009

Spelunkying

While I’d like to kick off the new year with an interesting post about language, I’ve been enjoying myself too much recently to put one together. I’ve become addicted to a cool independent game called Spelunky.

Spelunky: Level 1

Spelunky has cool retro pixel graphics. It’s kind of like Super Mario Brothers (physics) + Zelda (items) + Indiana Jones (theme). What really makes it unique, though, is its random level generation. The game most famous for this is the old 1980 classic Rogue, but Spelunky does it in a more sophisticated, fun way.

Spelunky: Level 5

You play randomly generated level after randomly generated level, knowing you will never play them again. And you die many, many times. Randomly generated levels strewn with enemies and traps are often very unfair, yet the design is sufficiently balanced and full of surprises that you keep coming back for more… again and again and again.

Spelunky: Level 9

Well done, Derek Yu. It’s innovative games like this that make me glad I still have a PC and not just a Mac.


Another noteworthy diversion I’ve spent some time on lately is MS Paint Adventures, a webcomic recommended by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. I say “webcomic” because, well… it’s kind of weird. It’s a webcomic pretending to be a Choose Your Own Adventure, posing as a late 80’s Sierra adventure game (think King’s Quest or Space Quest), with elements of RPG and other adventure game genres.

MS Paint Adventures

This one’s not for everyone, as you can probably guess by the above image. If you got all the references in my description above, though, you just might like it a lot.


Have a great 2009… and don’t forget to play!


13

Aug 2008

Losing Japanese to Oversensitivity

rusty

Photo by EugeniusD80

I’ve lived in China for close to a decade now, and I’m much more comfortable with Chinese, even if I once majored in Japanese. When I arrived in China in 2000, though, my Japanese was much better. At the time, some people used that slippery term “fluent” to describe my Japanese speaking ability, but I definitely wouldn’t get that compliment now.

What happened to my Japanese skills is not as simple as plain neglect, however. During my first few years in China, I made several visits to Japan. While I practiced Japanese very little in China, I was determined not to just “let it go,” and I was able to retain a lot of what I had learned. The big problem, though, was that I wasn’t practicing.

Why not? It’s not because I never met Japanese people in China. The real answer may sound a little strange. I had struggled hard for my right to speak in Chinese here in China, and I was sick and tired of people trying to use me for English practice. I just couldn’t bring myself to pester Japanese people in the same way. I didn’t want to be perceived as another user.

I know my intentions were good, but I was being oversensitive (as I often was doing the harder days of the language power struggles). My Japanese was (and is) conversational; attempting a conversation in Japanese with a Japanese person doesn’t automatically amount to “language rape.”

Still, the end result has been the loss of many Japanese speaking opportunities, potential Japanese friends, and communication in Japanese. I am reminded that a good language learner needs to be adventurous, friendly, bold, and… not so damn sensitive.

These days my Japanese is quite rusty. Although reading and listening are not problems, I just need to get out there and speak Japanese again. Now that I’m done with my masters, I have the time to do it, and I’m making it a priority. If anyone has suggestions for Japanese speaking opportunities in Shanghai or Japanese tutors, please let me know. (I’m not interested in classes; four years of Japanese class was plenty.)


Related Link: 上海ヴォイス (SHvoice)

P.S. Be on the lookout for the upcoming Language Power Struggle intermediate lesson on ChinesePod — inspired by true events!


08

Aug 2008

8 8 8 8

It’s August 8, 2008 (08-08-08), and I’ve now been in China 8 years. (Yes, it’s my Chinaversary!)

It almost feels like something special should be happening on this day…


Related: There’s a #080808 craze sweeping the internet! (via Ryan)


08

Mar 2008

Pickles

I haven’t been married for long, and one of the challenges is getting used to having Chinese in-laws. Mine are great, so it hasn’t been very challenging, but I’m always looking for more common ground and good conversation topics. Besides our love for one particular Chinese girl, we really don’t have a ton in common.

When it comes to food, my father-in-law and I usually agree. (I may not be as fond of the rice wine, but at least we can agree on beer.) Recently my mother-in-law bought a jar of “Russian style” pickles at the grocery store and was delighted to find that both of us loved them.

The last time my in-laws came over for dinner, my father-in-law and I finished off another jar of those pickles. As I was smiling at the idea of pickles bringing two very different people together, my father-in-law reached for the pickle jar. “They’re all gone,” I was thinking. “What’s he going to do?”

And then he drank the pickle juice.


27

Oct 2007

Fabricating the Known from the Unknown

This past week I started studying Spanish again after not studying or using it for over 7 years. I really didn’t know how I was going to do in my one-on-one lessons, considering my teacher would use only Spanish and I was expected to respond in Spanish. In my high school days I was reasonably fluent, but that was over 10 years ago.

It turns out that I did OK. I understood probably 95% of what my teacher said, and I managed to express myself. Sure, I blanked on words, I screwed up conjugations and prepositions, and had to pause for uncomfortably long periods of time while I reached back into the recesses of my mind and fished around for the Spanish I needed. But it really wasn’t so horrible, and it was good to be that struggling language student again.

I am sure that 7 years is enough time to completely forget a foreign language, but I think I know why I haven’t completely forgotten Spanish. The main reason is that I made a conscious resolution not to forget Spanish.

You see, when I graduated from high school and started at the University of Florida I was fairly fluent in Spanish, but I was tired of studying it, and I had never used it for real communication (i.e. in a Spanish-speaking environment). It was for that reason that I started studying Japanese and basically quit Spanish. I made a sort of decision about Spanish then: “I don’t need this anymore.”

Only two years later, after an amazing experience in Japan, I decided I did still want my Spanish, but was shocked at how much I had already lost. It was as if my brain had overwritten the old, unwanted Spanish with Japanese. I spent my third year of university reclaiming what I had lost, and a summer in Mexico to ground it in reality and bring it to life.

After that, I basically stopped using Spanish and shifted to Chinese, but I gave my brain a command: don’t lose this again. And I really haven’t, even if my Spanish is not even close to fluent anymore. But I’ll drag it all back to the front of my brain, chunk by chunk, and I’ll get there.

But a funny thing happened after my Spanish class on Thursday. I was on the subway and walking through the streets of Shanghai, and I could swear I was hearing Spanish all around me. Just random words, not coherent conversations. If I’d listen carefully and concentrate, I’d hear that the people around me were speaking Shanghainese. But it was as if my brain, trying hard to please me, was conjuring Spanish out of unintelligible (to me) Shanghainese noise. Rationally, I knew they weren’t speaking Spanish, but through my brain’s cognitive slight of hand, I just couldn’t stop hearing it. I couldn’t turn it off.

I’m back to normal now.


20

Oct 2007

No One in Beijing Can Cut Hair

Yeah, I’ve had exactly two experiences whereby hair was removed from my head in Beijing, and both were less than satisfactory. So I feel complete confidence in making this huge generalization: no one in Beijing can cut hair.

The first time was when I was doing the tourist thing with my parents over the summer. I decided to try to get a shave from a barber shop rather than do it myself. Big mistake. I should have been clued in by the hesitation when they replied that “yes, they can give me a shave.” Maybe it was my morbid sense of curiosity as to how well they could do it. (Not well, as it turns out.)

They knew it involved a hot wet towel, some form of lubricant, and a razor. (Yes, a new, clean razor.) They didn’t use shaving cream, so I think it was some form of lotion (or maybe hair gel… ha). The shave was kind of painful and took waayyy too long. They didn’t have chairs that reclined to the right angle, so one of the barber shop guys’ job was to hold my head during the shave. (That must have been tiring… I have a big head, and it’s relatively full of stuff.)

Anyway, it took over 40 minutes, and I was left with a shave that looked OK, but was clearly a bad shave if you touched my face.

Last Thursday night in Beijing I decided to shave my head. I had been attempting to grow my hair out a bit, but I was getting tired of it, and I also came to the startling revelation that I am not a hippie. So Frank Yu and I ended up in a tattoo/piercing parlor at midnight, where the guys said that shaving my head was no problem.

Photo by sandyland on Flickr

The thing is, their electric razor choked and cut off about 2/3 of the way through shaving my head. The front was still long. They got the razor working again, just long enough to give me the traditional Chinese little kid haircut, and then it quit again. (I like to think it was my thick, manly shock of hair that choked the feeble device, but realistically I think they just didn’t charge it well enough.)

Anyway, what should have been the simplest haircut ever ended up taking over an hour as they struggled to get the electric razor working. In the end, the barber had to finish the job with scissors.

So, after living a lie on this blog for over a year, probably, my haircut once again matches the one in the picture at the upper right corner of Sinosplice.


14

Oct 2007

When a Fever Is Not Just a Fever

Towards the end of September, on one particularly nice Friday afternoon, I suddenly came with a fever. I went home to get some more sleep.

fever

Photo by DooogwoooD on Flickr

My wife got home and proceeded to freak out. To the Chinese, a fever is serious, much more so than a cold. Somewhere in the Chinese psyche there’s a line about “fevers kill people” and modern medicine has yet to edit that line. My wife wanted to take me to the hospital that night.

I didn’t see what the big deal was. Our honeymoon to Turkey was coming up the following week, but I felt confident I would quickly get over whatever little bug I had caught. I didn’t remember ever going to the hospital for a fever growing up, and I had a few fevers back in the day. My mom also never seemed overly concerned when it happened. To me, fevers just meant temporary discomfort. I even thought they were kind of cool, the human body’s rather “creative” way of trying to burn its invaders.

From Wikipedia:

> Theoretically, fever has been conserved during evolution because of its advantage for host defense. There are certainly some important immunological reactions that are sped up by temperature, and some pathogens with strict temperature preferences could be hindered. The overall conclusion seems to be that both aggressive treatment of fever and too little fever control can be detrimental. This depends on the clinical situation, so careful assessment is needed.

> Fevers may be useful to some extent since they allow the body to reach high temperatures. This causes an unbearable environment for some pathogens. White blood cells also rapidly proliferate due to the suitable environment and can also help fight off the harmful pathogens and microbes that invaded the body.

fever

Photo by Tinn Tian on Flickr

But when my fever didn’t go down, my wife called her mom and they started group worrying. I was afraid my mother-in-law might even come over. So to spare the womenfolk their worrying, I agreed to go to the hospital that night. Unsurprisingly, I was given an antibiotic IV, and also a shot in the butt (just below the waist, really) to make the fever go down. Over the weekend I started feeling better. I went back to work on Monday feeling like I had a normal cold.

Then Tuesday I woke up with another fever. I called in sick. My fever went back down by that evening. I felt OK Wednesday.

Thursday was the day we left for Turkey. Over the night I came down with a fever again, and had horrible fever nightmares all night. They were horrible not because they were scary, but because they were maddening, like a kind of unsolvable logic puzzle that nevertheless had to be solved. It was something about building an ever-changing machine out of steel and fur that contained all the functions necessary to allow me to get to Turkey. Every time I thought I had my furry device complete, it would change, thwarting my departure to Turkey over and over and over again.

When my wife found out I had a fever of 39.2°C/103°F (again), she flipped out. She was upset not because she was afraid we couldn’t go to Turkey that night, but because I had a fever for the third time, and it was so “high.” She thought I was dying of some mysterious disease.

I explained to her that I actually felt OK, that I had had higher fevers before and never even went to the hospital, but she wasn’t having it. Secretly, I was wondering if those heat detectors at the airport set up during the SARS scare would detect my fever. Reason told me I had better not try to get on an international flight with a fever. Curiosity wanted to just try it (yeah, curiosity can be kind of dumb sometimes).

So that afternoon I was back at the hospital, luggage in tow and plane tickets in hand, for another IV and another shot in the butt. My wife had the hilarious idea of getting my IV “to go” and doing the drip in a taxi on the way to the airport, then ditching the bag at the terminal. Unsurprisingly, the doctor didn’t go for that scheme.

My first five days in Turkey involved dutifully taking my medicine three times a day and my wife frequently feeling my skin for signs of a fever (that got interesting after I got a sunburn in Cappadocia). Still, it was an amazing trip to Turkey.

More on Turkey next post.


17

Aug 2007

The Filthy Foreigner Flaw

You may have heard foreigners complaining about sanitation in China once or twice. It happens. What those foreigners don’t know is that behind their backs, the Chinese are also talking about westerners’ dirty habits. Dirty bedroom habits.

Now, before I lead your imagination even further into the gutter, let me elucidate: it’s about showering and sleeping.

photo by Heidi McKay on Flickr

I believe it was in college sometime that I started showering in the morning. I considered myself a hero of hygiene for going to the effort of showering daily, and I did it in the morning to help wake myself up. I started each day clean and bright-eyed. Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong.

Shortly before we were married, my wife laid down the law. She told me that I walk around all day, working up a good smelly white boy sweat, and it was not cool for me to get into the bed every night without cleansing myself first. The Chinese shower nightly, and that was the way it had to be.

Naturally, I had to object. My system was flawless. True, I may get sweaty during the day, but I’m clean again to face the world every morning. So maybe my sheets get a little grungy… so what? I emerge from my cocoon of filth and go right into the shower every day, no harm done.

Well, obviously, that didn’t fly. My bachelor ways were fine as long as I was single, but in our new married life I was going to be sharing a bed with her every night, and my “cocoon of filth for two” plan was not an option.

You have to choose your battles. I don’t always give in to my wife, and I have the scars to prove it. Honestly, though, the Chinese way makes more sense. Your sheets do stay cleaner longer when you shower before bed every night.

However, if you still think that showering in the morning makes more sense, well… I guess you’re just a filthy foreigner.


15

Aug 2007

Avast! Fails, Google Pack Wins

I’ve been battling viruses/trojans on my computer the past few days. I think I was using an outdated copy of Norton. The worst thing is that I think I got infected when I borrowed a software CD from a friend. There’s something especially sinister about a CD with a virus burned onto it.

I while back I used AVG. I like to use free software when I can. But then it failed me and I got infected with something or other, so I abandoned it.

Most recently I tried avast!. At first I was impressed by the quality of the free software, and I’ve got nothing but respect for the pirate connection. Avast! cleaned up my system a bit, but there was a trojan or two it could detect but couldn’t eliminate. So then it was just constantly warning me, running boot scans, and failing every time.

I put up with it for a while. It wasn’t crippling my system as far as I could tell. It seems like a lot of users in China just don’t worry about “benign” virus infections. But eventually I just had to exterminate the infestation completely.

Finally what worked was the combination of Norton Security and Spyware Doctor that come with Google Pack. Norton Security only found 1 item that needed attention, but then Spyware Doctor fixed over 200 issues (including those pesky trojans). Best of all, it’s free!



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