In 2004 I wrote a blog post called To Stay in which I shared my intention to stay in China “indefinitely.” I can’t think of it as anything but a great decision for my career and my personal life. Since then, I’ve gotten married, had two kids, gotten my masters degree, had a good run at ChinesePod, and founded AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.
Is life in China challenging? I guess… Internet issues are the #1 (almost daily) frustration, but obviously pollution and food safety are major concerns, especially now that I have children of my own.
What I totally didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of seeing my parents grow old from afar. In that previous blog post, I even acknowledged that “the years before [my parents are] actually old were dwindling,” but I don’t think I fully appreciated what that meant. How could I?
This is the reason for my recent silence, pretty soon after resuming writing in June. My parents are now old, and my father’s health is suddenly not good, so I’m trying to get back to Tampa more often to see him (and my mom). Once a year no longer cuts it.
So I’m working a few things out, but I’m hanging in there. “Indefinitely” hasn’t changed, but I think I’ll be taking a lot more plane trips now.
One of the things we do at AllSet Learning in Shanghai is to continually train our teachers. Of course it’s not that our teachers have no training; in fact, many of them have masters degrees and many years of teaching experience. The issue is that many of the academic degrees and classroom teaching experience attained in China draw on an outdated teaching tradition, largely a variation of how the Chinese educational system teaches Chinese children.
Add to that the fact that our service is based on deep personalization for individual learners, each with her own goals, needs, interests, and quirks, and you pretty much have an endless bounty of teaching issues to discuss and improve upon.
As a result, we’ve been sharing some of our ideals, methods, and tips with our teachers in Chinese on WeChat. Then we also post a lot of the same material to our own blog. Some articles come from old Sinosplice posts (like this one), sharing the foreign learner perspective with Chinese teachers (like this one), while others share more specific teaching tips. (We have a number of articles of this type which haven’t yet been ported from WeChat.)
The point of this post is to ask the question: What do you wish your Chinese teacher knew? I’d be happy to make it into a topic that we address in Chinese in a constructive way, and share online.
Obviously, we’re not talking about politics or cultural differences. It’s issues like:
- I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
- I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
- If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
- This textbook doesn’t even have the word for “cell phone” in it… why can’t we update?
Please share your ideas in the comments, or on Facebook, or whatever. All constructive feedback welcome! This is about working to improve the situation, not simply whining.
I keep reading about how Pokémon Go is so wildly popular everywhere, and I tried to play it in China, but it just doesn’t work. I managed to use a VPN to create an account using my Google login, and I even caught one little creature (I think it was just part of a beginner tutorial), but then the virtual world (in China) was a vast wasteland… nothing to play. Later, I couldn’t get the app to connect to the server over 4G while I was out and about. Still later, the app acted like I didn’t have an account anymore.
I see now that there is already a Chinese Pokémon Go clone. This is one of the things that disturbs me so much about using the internet in China. It’s not just that we’re so often forced to use cloned apps instead of the real deal (although that, too, is annoying). It’s that we’re cut off from the rest of the world’s users, isolated.
Which is, of course, exactly the point. Even for Pokémon Go.
This is a clothing store in Shanghai’s Jing’an Metro Station:
The name of the shop is 布言布语 (Bù Yán Bù Yǔ). The pun involves the character 布, which in this case, is a substitute for 不.
The original expression is: 不言不语, which means “to not say a single word.”
The pun gives us 布言布语 (the pronunciation matches exactly), riffing on words like 布料 (“cloth”) which use the 布 character.
Truth be told, 布言布语 is not a vey clever name. Sure, it has the pun, but 不言不语 has nothing to do with clothing. Still, somebody thought it was good enough for a clothing shop name.
Other Chinese brands have similarly used a language theme in their names. The first one that comes to mind for me is “BreadTalk,” which is 面包新语 in Chinese.
In March 1985, Wham! took a break from recording to embark on a lengthy world tour, including a ground-breaking 10-day visit to China, the first by a Western pop group. The China excursion was a publicity scheme devised by Simon Napier-Bell (one of their two managers—Jazz Summers being the other). It culminated in a concert at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing in front of 15,000 people. Wham!’s visit to China attracted huge media attention across the world. Napier-Bell later admitted that he used cunning tactics to sabotage the efforts of rock group Queen to be the first to play in China: he made two brochures for the Chinese authorities – one featuring Wham! fans as pleasant middle-class youngsters, and one portraying Queen singer Freddie Mercury in typically flamboyant poses. The Chinese opted for Wham!
It would be cool to see those two brochures, if they still exist. (They’re probably in hilariously bad Chinese, if in Chinese at all.)
So how did the concert go? The Guardian gives an amusing account:
According to Simon Napier-Bell, the band’s manager, Michael tried to get the spectators to clap along to Club Tropicana, but “they hadn’t a clue – they thought he wanted applause and politely gave it”.
He said some of the more adventurous Chinese did eventually “get the hang of clapping on the beat, even learnt to scream when George or Andrew waved their butts”.
The diplomat reported that “there was some lively dancing but this was almost entirely confined to younger western members of the audience. Some Chinese did make the effort, but they were discouraged in this by the police.
How do you turn a forest into a grave? Check out this innovative ad I spotted on the Shanghai Metro:
The (altered) character is 森, meaning “forest.” The text below it reads:
If the trees all disappear, forests will turn into graves.
To understand the message, you have to know that the character 森, meaning “forest,” is made up of three 木, which each mean “tree.” And 木 does indeed look like a little cross when you take away the two diagonal strokes.
Part of what makes this interesting to me is that crosses are, of course, not a feature of Chinese graveyards at all. Here’s a picture of a Chinese cemetary:
Still, innovative ad that drives the point home. Well done.
This is one of those things that’s quite commonplace in Shanghai, and you even forget how bizarre it is. Take a look at the scene of this accident, which I photographed myself on Wulumuqi Road (乌鲁木齐路):
You can see that two scooters and two people are lying on the pavement. It might look like the people are holding their heads or even writing in pain, but actually they’re both on their phones. Bystanders seem unconcerned for their well-being mostly because the two people on the ground seem totally fine.
So why are they lying on the ground like that?
This is standard operating procedure in Shanghai: if you’re on a scooter or a bicycle of any kind and get hit, never get up. Lie there until the police arrive, and make sure that you obtain some kind of compensation to cover your “injury.” Get your cash on the spot, and don’t get up off the street and leave until you get it.
This “system” is super annoying, because every little accident results in a much worse traffic jam than necessary. It points to a serious systemic problem, though: this is what the common people feel they have to do. They have to look out for themselves, even if it means lying on the street and faking or exaggerating injuries, because no one else is going to.
There’s a brand of high-quality wigs in China called Rebecca. The Chinese tagline for these wigs is:
The simple slogan (great for beginners!) sets up a nice contrast between the words 假 (fake) and 真 (real). It doesn’t translate well into English, though, because the word for “wig” in Chinese is 假发, quite literally, “fake hair.” So here are your two most obvious direct translation candidates:
- “Fake hair, real me”
- “Wig, real me”
Pretty bad. The wigs themselves look pretty gorgeous, though, and Rebecca hired Chinese superstar babe 范冰冰 (Fan Bingbing) is their model:
The Rebecca wigs also occasionally stray into the “slightly less than practical,” apparently:
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.
OK, sorry for the cheesy title, but I’m glad to finally complete the transition so that I can start blogging again. I have a whole “pile” of topics to write about “stacked up” on my phone.
To make this transition happen while I was busy getting a Chinese Grammar Wiki ebook published, talking to potential investors, and generally dealing with two little kids (now ages 4 and 1), I had to repeatedly reduce the scope of the changes I wanted to make, so what is now up is a stripped-down version of what I want to do. But it works. And the good news is that I can now resume blogging and gradually make the additional changes over time.
The other good news is that my site is finally fully responsive (mobile-friendly). Yeah, I’m a little late, but it’s finally done. Also, it has bigger type now. Yay!
Anyway, more soon! The long hiatus is over.
I had a much-needed break from blogging in December during my annual trip home for Christmas, but I’m going to need another break of a few weeks or so in January to upgrade the site.
It’s hard to believe, but I haven’t given Sinosplice a redesign since 2011! A lot has changed since then in the world of web design, and Sinosplice is sorely lacking a clean, responsive design. A few other minor things have broken recently, so it’s high time I stripped the site down to the basics and rebuilt it as a modern, responsive site.
So when I write again (hopefully after just 1-2 weeks), it’ll be using the new site design.
Just a quick note from my family vacation in Florida… Merry Christmas! (Christmas songs in Chinese here, for anyone still looking.)
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.)
Lots planned for 2016!
It’s hard to believe how far mobile payments have come in China in such a short time. This picture (via Ryan King) illustrates it well:
Family Mart is a Japanese convenience store chain doing extremely well in Shanghai. The four mobile payment options offered in the photo are:
– AliPay (支付宝)
– WeChat Pay (微信支付)
– BestPay (翼支付)
– QQ Wallet (QQ钱包)
(And yes, those are condoms on sale, right under the register. Seems to be a Family Mart thing.)
I saw The Martian (火星救援) in Shanghai over the weekend. I had read the book, and I was looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen. Overall, I found that it was a decent adaptation of the novel, and I enjoyed it. China seems to be enjoying it too! There were two things that caught my attention, watching with a Chinese audience, however:
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”
I was looking forward to seeing how this line (seen in the trailer above at about 01:30) was rendered in Mandarin:
> “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
(The part I was most interested in was the later half, where the word “science” is used as a verb, and in a crudely amusing way.)
Here’s the Chinese translation:
I would translate that back into English as:
> “I gotta fucking find a way to survive.”
The movie’s translation is not horrible; it captures the meaning and the tone of the original, but it seems more grim and determined than humorous, because it sacrifices the science! Oh well.
Accidental China Pandering Still Counts
The other thing that amused me was the Chinese audience’s reaction to the way China fit into the plot. [SPOILER ALERT!] Chinese audiences aren’t dumb, and they know when they’re being pandered to by Hollywood. In this case, the Chinese Space Agency’s involvement in the rescue of Mark Watney was actually a part of the plot in the original book; it wasn’t inserted by Hollywood in a bid to ensure box office success in China.
But the way the scene was done, cutting to China out of nowhere, just felt so similar to the infamous Iron Man 3 scene (with the Chinese doctor and the Fan Bingbing nurse cameo), that as soon as the audience realized that China was about to save the day, they all laughed. They laughed! They weren’t proud or appreciative, it was just an, “oh puh-leeeze, here we go again…” reaction.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the Chinese reaction the producers were going for; hopefully Hollywood gets better at this!
Still, entertaining 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.)
AllSet Learning is doing some teacher testing, and we could use the help of a few learners. So if you’re looking for about an hour of free Chinese practice talking to several different teachers, it’s your lucky day. Our office is in the Jing’an area.
– Activity dates are Monday, Nov. 23rd, 3pm …OR… Thursday, Nov. 26th, 7pm
– Location is at the AllSet Learning office in Shanghai (map here)
– Sorry, no Skype! This has to be in person
– Your level should be in the A2-B1 range, which means elementary to intermediate (OK with most basic communication, but perfect by no means.)
– You have to be OK with us recording the session for private analysis (we will never make the recording public)
– We will provide materials and give you a litle time to prep (it’s not going to be just the same boring taxi driver conversations you’re used to)
– Email me, and we’ll coordinate beforehand, so I can choose material you actually want to discuss
It should be a fun way to get some free practice in. Please email me if you’re interested!
I remember the first time I had the great idea to use Chinese children’s books as study material. I had been in China for about a year, and having exhausted my old textbook, I was starved for more interesting material. I came upon a book store, and, realizing how cheap books in China were, had the revelation that I should start learning from Chinese children’s books. It was so perfect, and so obvious… why hadn’t I done this earlier?!
Then reality came crashing in. There was a very good reason why I everyone wasn’t already doing it already: Chinese children’s books are meant for native speaker Chinese kids, and as such, they generally don’t make good material for foreign language learners. But why??
Before I talk about my conclusions as to why, let me just share a few examples from my local book store. This is no scientific survey, but I did my best to select from a number of different publishers and different types of children’s books. The pages I photographed are more or less random. I’m adding a few comments about the suitability of these stories for a high A2 (elementary) or low B1 (intermediate) learner.
– Note the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character… both annoying for a learner of Chinese.
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 果然、蹲、急忙、吩咐、目露凶光、黄灿灿、铜钱、打火匣、看守、披
– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 南辕北辙、中原、楚国、却、驾车、满不在乎、盘缠、摇摇头、糊涂、方向
– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 恰巧、沼泽、女妖、魔鬼、祖母、参观、酒厂、老妖婆、地狱、一尊、石像、整天、烂泥、妖怪、谈论
– The density of hard words in this book is really high, based on this page
– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is less formal here, and the words used feel more oriented to kids, but a lot of the words are the type that native speaker kids could understand in the context of a story but would not use themselves; these are the words that would really trip up a lot of foreign language learners.
– You can see that on this page the character 天 is being taught, and yet there are much, much more difficult characters on this page. This highlights the fact that the book is meant to be read to the child; the child is not meant to read it.
– Notable difficult words: 懒、踢、脚、穿、接住、并、蹦、跳、突然、轰隆、一道、裂痕、瞬间、掉
I Go to Kindergarten
– This is my favorite of the bunch; I actually bought this book for my daughter as psychological prep before she started kindergarten.
– The characters are not too hard, but no pinyin! Finally…
– The tone is informal, and this is the kind of language that Chinese parents would expect their children to fully comprehend, in context.
– Somewhat difficult words: 嗨、全班、春游、别提、运动鞋、背着、排好队伍
– No pinyin here, and this one is definitely higher difficulty level.
– Difficulty-wise, a high B1 (approaching upper intermediate) learner could probably tackle this, if sufficiently motivated.
– Notable difficult words: 技术、拯救、反派、威胁、社会、消灭、责任、邪恶、存在、身影、而、则、视……为……、心腹之患、试图、保护、善良、顺利、或者、完成
Most Chinese children’s books are too hard for Chinese learners. It’ll be a frustrating slog to read many books (especially those chosen at random), and all the pinyin is likely to be less helpful than you think. There are some good ones suitable for foreign learners out there, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Randomly choosing children’s books for reading practice is not recommended.
I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time already, and my conclusion is that when the average Chinese parent reads a book to her child, the goal is more education-oriented than pleasure-oriented. I know a lot of American parents that work very hard to instill a love of reading in their children, so enjoyment is extremely important. Chinese parents, however, are under a mountain of pressure to get their kids into the best schools in an environment of intense competition. Of course they hope their children like to read, but it’s kind of beside the point. The real goal is to help their children pick up characters and vocabulary as quickly as possible.
If the goal is acquiring characters and vocabulary, it makes sense that the language introduced in these Chinese children’s books is going to be more advanced than one would expect. The children are native speakers, already fluent in Mandarin, and the story provides a clear context. Therefore, why not drop a few extra difficult words and characters on every page? It’s for the kids’ own good!
But wait… there’s HOPE!
There is hope for learners that really want something to read. (Little disclaimer: the following is going to be partly self-promotional, because this is one of the major problems in the Chinese learning industry that I’ve devoted my career to solving.) If there is enough interest among my readership, I’ll consider compiling a list of Chinese books by Chinese publishers suitable for learners (kind of like the kindergarten book above). For now, I’ll focus on several resources that are available to those outside of China.
Oscar & Newton Go to the Park is a print bilingual picture book by AllSet Learning, adapted from its original app form. The language is practical and informal, perfect for A2 adult learners as well as children. It’s now available on Amazon.
The Chairman’s Bao is a website that takes news stories and simplifies them into simpler, shorter articles. See my longer review here. This is great for intermediate learners that want to start working toward reading actual news. Includes audio.
Mandarin Companion creates graded readers (short novels without pinyin or translation) meant for learners of a high elementary or low intermediate level. We’ve got five Level 1 books out, and feedback is great. Our next two Level 2 books are coming out any day now. Books are currently available on the international Amazon website, but not the Chinese one.
Chinese Breeze is the original Chinese graded reader brand. It has cheaper books and more titles out, at levels ranging from high elementary to intermediate. If you’re going for quantity, look here. Books are currently available on both the international Amazon website, and the Chinese one.
If you have any other reading material to add, please leave a comment and share!
David Moser recently attended a professional conference and shared this observation about code switching. I’ve edited the content just a little bit to anonymize it, but preserved the original text when possible:
> I attended an all-day series of talks today. Some of the panels were in Chinese, some in English. One that I found particularly interesting was an afternoon panel with [quite a few big-name CEOs]. The panel was supposed to be in Chinese, but I found it hilarious that all of these participants, steeped as they are in American and Western culture and business, seemingly can no longer speak pure Chinese. It is simply impossible for them. Some of the panelists could hardly speak even one sentence without throwing in an English word or two. I started writing down some of their code-switching, but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying. Here are some examples:
- 我们公司最近 celebrated 我们的 16th birthday.
- 小刘，我 wonder 你能不能预测这个 market trend 如何？
- 你要上课，必须得上那些可以 get involved 的东西。
- 你最好还是 enjoy 这个过程。
- 这么做，我真是出于 passion 才行。但这个 passion 的 definition 是啥?
- 这个 particular 中国 market 是非常 fragmented, 但那 bubble 后来 busted 之后，我们可以 reconsider 我们的 options.
- 他们从 blood 里面就有 business 的 DNA, 他们就算 natural innovators.
- 我觉得中国人比美国人有更多的 desire.
- 张先生是不是觉得有点被 left out在外, 我建议你参与进去就会 live up to 她刚才说的职员的那种 expectations.
- 我要讲一个 personal experience, 你可以 believe it or not.
- 没有，我 just kidding, 但不妨 tell you the truth…
- And this delightful misunderstanding:
A: 这是为什么有人说我们中国人是 the Jews of the Orient.
B: The juice of the Orient? 东方的橙汁？？
> And on and on. These poor elite CEOs literally can no longer speak like normal people. This kind of linguistic mixing is incredibly common in China, as we all know, but I’ve never experienced such an orgy of code-switching in my life.
I like #6 the best. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Moser!
It’s been a few weeks since I finished Dan Simmons’ sci-fi classic quadrilogy, the Hyperion Cantos. It was a great story, full of grand sweeping ideas, and one thing that got my attention was the repeated use of Chinese names (especially in Book 4).
Anyone studying Chinese might be a little thrown off by the use of the (mostly) Wade-Giles transcription instead of pinyin, but the names are all right out of Chinese history and geography (with a few errors).
Here’s a list of all the major ones I caught, with notes following (please leave a comment if I’ve missed anything):
|T’ien Shan||Tiān Shān||天山||[Notes]|
|Hsuan-k’ung Ssu||Xuánkōng Sì||悬空寺||[Notes]|
|Hua Shan||Huà Shān||华山||[Notes]|
|Heng Shan||Héng Shān||衡山 / 恒山||[Notes]|
|T’ai Shan||Tài Shān||泰山||[Notes]|
|Sung Shan||Sōng Shān||嵩山||[Notes]|
|O-mei Shan||Éméi Shān||峨眉山||[Notes]|
|Chiu-hua Shan||Jiǔhuà Shān||九华山||[Notes]|
|Wu-t’ai Shan||Wǔtái Shān||五台山||[Notes]|
|P’u-t’o Shan||Pǔtuó Shān||普陀山||[Notes]|
It seems odd to bring together the city of Qingdao (青岛) and the southern region of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) into a name for a planet. In fact, the only way they make sense in my mind is drinking a Tsingdao (beer) in Xishuangbanna (a touristy region of Yunnan Province). Maybe that’s Simmons’ little secret for this planet?
Tian Shan (天山) is actually a system of mountains, so it makes sense to use as a name for a mountainous planet. It’s also got a nice picturesque name, meaning “mountains of heaven.” Those of us the live in Shanghai might recognize it from the street name: 天山路.
Normally referred to as the “Hanging Temple” in English, this fantastical Buddhist structure is a real thing, located in China’s Shanxi Province.
Hua Shan (华山) is one of China’s “Five Great Mountains,” so it’s an obvious candidate for inclusion. Interestingly, at one point in Rise of Endymion the mountain is referred to as “Flower Mountain” (花山), but this is almost certainly a mistake based on similar romanization, considering that there are no obvious candidates from the list of possible 花山s in China, and pretty much all the other mountains listed can be found on this list of the “Sacred Mountains of China.” (There’s another Shanghai street name here too.)
I’m not sure whether Heng Shan refers to 衡山 or 恒山; both are in the list of “Give Great Mountains,” and the pinyin (including tone) is identical. I’m assuming Simmons wisely used one “Heng Shan” for both.
Tai Shan (泰山) is another of China’s “Five Great Mountains.”
Song Shan (嵩山) is another of China’s “Give Great Mountains.”
O-mei Shan, Chiu-hua Shan, Wu-t’ai Shan, P’u-t’o Shan
The mountains Emei Shan (峨眉山), Jiahua Shan (九华山), Wutai Shan (五台山), and Putuo Shan (普陀山) are China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, so they’re also easy choices. The “flower” translation mistake happens again with 九华山 at one point, and as I final question, does anyone else see “Chiu-hua” an think, “chihuahua”?
It’s cool to see a Western author drawing on Chinese names in his world-building, and before you cry “Pander Express!” keep in mind that these novels came out in the 90’s.
Feel free to leave a comment if I missed something or you have something to add.
I’d say that the Chinese name of Starbucks’ new flat white coffee is adequate proof that Starbucks hates Chinese learners. (The other piece of proof is that Starbucks employees in China probably play the fiercest language power struggle game of any other group I know.) Anyway, the Chinese name of the flat white is 馥芮白:
Yeah, don’t feel bad if you don’t know those first two characters. They’re not at all common. And that fist character… wow.
A little more info about the two hard one characters:
– 馥 (fù) fragrant. (The right half is the 复 you might know from 复旦大学.)
– 芮 (ruì) small / surname. (I am familiar with this one mainly because of the “Réel” mall (芮欧百货) near my office.)
So in this case, even if you’re trying hard to use Chinese as much as possible, I’d say don’t feel bad if you took one look at this Chinese name and opted to use English.