It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in China. There is a phantom menace always lurking. Yes, I’m talking about food poisoning. It got me on Tuesday. Yikes.
After a rough morning, I went into “recovery mode” and slept all day.
There’s a lot I’d like to write about. First step: stop getting sick!
So as of August 20th (last week), I’ve been living in China for 20 years. Twenty years!
It’s not an accomplishment in itself, but it does feel like something of a milestone. As someone who likes to impart meaning to certain events like this, I’ve been struggling with this idea: what does it mean?
Well, at the end of the day, it means I’ve been in China for 20 years. That’s pretty much it. Yes, I’ve had time to do some stuff here… learn some Chinese, earn a degree, get married, start a company, have a few kids… In theory I could have done all that in less than 10 years, though.
I was originally thinking that I might have a party or celebration of some kind. This has not been the best year for parties, but even so, things are normal enough in August that I could. The thing is, most of the friends I’ve made in China are no longer here, or at least no longer in Shanghai.
Part of me wants to just kick the can forward to 22 years, because at that point, I will have spent half my life here in China. But even so, the same questions remain.
I do have one answer, though: No, I am not manually updating the “years in China” count on my homepage. It’s a PHP script. (Mouse over the number for a thrilling surprise!)
I will have been in China for 20 years this week. And yet, I still bump into little cultural differences that take me by surprise.
Case in point: the humble undershirt.
Fairly normal way to dress, right? But I get asked on an almost daily basis during the summer why I would wear two shirts. “Isn’t it hot?”
I never really noticed until now, but wearing an undershirt to absorb a little sweat is not really a thing here. (Big old sweatstains are, however, most definitely a summer thing here!)
Spotted near Zhongshan Park in Shanghai:
广告招商 (guǎnggào zhāoshāng) advertisers wanted
虚位以待 (xū wèi yǐ dài) spots currently available
But what’s perhaps most interesting (infuriating?) about this ad is the way that this text is read…
- First down the left column, then down the right (广告, 招商)
- Then left to right across the top, then left to right across the bottom (虚位, 以待)
Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to figure out how to interpret 4 characters in a 2×2 grid? If you don’t already know the phrases used, this kind of text layout is super hard to read. That’s because there are three possible ways to read the 4 characters:
- Left to right, across the top (modern horizontal)
- Top to bottom, left to right (modern vertical)
- Top to bottom, right to left (classical vertical)
This example is particularly egregious, though, since it mixes two orientations, and the phrase “广告招商” could also be understood as “招商广告”.
P.S. This ad wouldn’t work in traditional Chinese, because 广 (guǎng) in traditional is 廣 (guǎng). No big loss, though!
If you’re an intermediate learner, hopefully you’ve heard of Boring 办公室 (Boring Bàngōngshì), the office-themed intermediate-level Chinese comic strip. We’ve been low-key churning out new comic strips non-stop over at AllSet Learning.
If you like to doing your reading in larger chunks, you can now find all of Season 01 (20 strips) and all of Season 02 (20 strips) linked to from the Boring 办公室 main archive page:
- Boring 办公室 Archive: S01E01~10
- Boring 办公室 Archive: S01E11~20
- Boring 办公室 Archive: S02E01~10
- Boring 办公室 Archive: S02E11~20
And yes, these are all online for free.
Season 03 starts next week.
My friend Brad is the father of young bilingual kids in the US. He recently shared this conversation he overheard between his son and a Chinese friend. I found it super cute.
Adult: 你最喜欢跟家人做什么？ (Nǐ zuì xǐhuan gēn jiārén zuò shénme?)
Child: 椅子。 (Yǐzi.)
Adult: What do you most like doing with your family?
Obviously, this exchange doesn’t translate well into English, to put it lightly! But even a beginner can get why the child misinterpreted the question.
The key to understanding this exchange is knowing that 做 (zuò), the verb meaning “to do,” sounds identical to the verb 坐 (zuò), which means “to sit.” Add into this that many verbs in Chinese don’t require an additional preposition like their English counterparts (for example, we’d say “sit on” rather than just “sit”), and the child’s answer starts to make a lot of sense.
So how do we adults differentiate between the two meanings of “zuò,” anyway? Well, obviously context is key, but the sentence patterns and word combinations we habitually use tend to point quite clearly to one or the other meaning. As a learner, it’s important to get lots of input to build up a “bank” of these common collocations, and eventually, the potential confusion all but disappears.
I wrote a post the other day stating that I felt like we were at “half mask” levels in Shanghai, as COVID-related anxiety eases. A few days later, I went on a walk by Zhongshan Park in the evening and saw this scene:
China never stops surprising me…
I keep seeing this ad for dumplings (水饺), so I finally took a pic:
Here’s the part with the pun, conveniently indicated with quotation marks:
The pun uses the word 领先, meaning “to be in the lead” (ahead of the competition). Adding 者 turns 领先 into 领先者, meaning the “leaders” in the field. In this ad, the 先 (xiān), meaning “first,” is replaced with 鲜 (xiān), meaning “fresh.”
So they’re claiming to be the leaders in freshness when it comes to broth-filled dumplings.
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).
Stay healthy, everyone! 2020 is half over…
We recently had Dr. Terry Waltz as a guest on the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, and it struck me that I’ve barely mentioned her books on my blog before. It’s time for a bit of a spotlight!
Terry is all about improving literacy in Chinese (At the expense of handwriting characters, if need be), and has authored multiple books for early learners. She has pioneered a technique called cold character reading. She is truly a free thinker and an innovator, and the field has benefited greatly from her contributions.
Jared led the conversation in our podcast:
Thursday, June 25th, 2020 is 端午节 (Duānwǔ Jié), the Chinese holiday normally referred to as Dragon Boat Festival in English.
The Chinese name simply refers to the lunar calendar date of the festival, however. Not everyone in China goes and watches dragon boat races on this day… It’s much more common to just eat zongzi (粽子).
I like this zongzi-themed design:
I’ve also noticed a few bizarre, entirely off-theme ads during this holiday. Here are a few:
端午节快乐 (Duānwǔjié kuàilè)！
Nothing too special about this photo… Summer’s here!
“Melon” in Chinese is 瓜 (guā). In this picture we have:
- 西瓜 (xīguā) watermelon, lit. “west melon”
- 甜瓜 (tiánguā) muskmelon, lit. “sweet melon”
This week I worked with former AllSet Learning intern Amani Core to create a resource to help learners of Chinese discuss issues of racial discrimination, social injustice, and effecting positive change. You can find what we created at: Discussing Black Lives Matter in Chinese.
One question this prompted among a few readers was an incredulous WHY? Some readers didn’t see any connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and learning Chinese. I hope it’s obvious that there’s a very clear connection if the learner happens to be a Black American, and Black learners need Chinese language resources relevant to their lives too. But for now I’ll assume this is a white American sincerely asking, “why do I need to learn to discuss this topic in order to talk to Chinese people?“
Once your level in any language is sufficiently high, you’re going to want to be able to have at least some level of discussion on most topics. Quantum physics, watercolor paintings, the life cycle of a frog… it’s all fair game. You don’t need to be able to hold a lecture on the topic to be able to at least follow what the discussion is and say a few words.
But this topic is different. Black Lives Matter, racial inequality, social injustice… these topics go beyond just “something I should learn a for key words for at some point.”
The reason is because if you’re American (or even Canadian, European, Australian, etc.), Chinese people are going to ask you about this. Random Chinese people (drivers, hair cutters, old people in the park, etc.) as well as friends. They’re going to ask you because they’re curious, realize their knowledge of the matter is limited, and hope you can offer some insight. Sometimes the way the question is asked can be quite revealing. I’ve been asked about racism in America in all kinds of ways, including:
- You Americans sure are racist, huh?
- Why are Americans so racist?
- Why do Americans look down on black people?
- Black people in the USA sure have it hard, huh?
No white Americans I know aren’t going to want to just say, “yeah, we’re racist” and leave it at that. They’re going to want to offer at least a tiny bit of nuance beyond “it’s complicated,” even if their Chinese is not amazing. It’s a difficult conversation to have even in English, so it’s certainly not easy to talk about the realities of race in America in Chinese. But because Chinese people come from such a very different cultural context, and the average person really knows very little about this topic, there’s also less pressure.
So if you’re American (or find yourself talking about the US a fair amount) and are studying Chinese with the intent to talk to Chinese people in Chinese, I recommend you become a bit more familiar with this topic, starting at the intermediate level.
Our original blog post contains links to just three vocabulary lists at the B1 (intermediate) level, as images as well as a PDF, but there’s more to come. Vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition, after all.
For more advanced students and teachers, you’ll want to check out the online Google spreadsheet, which includes way more vocab. It will give you an idea of how we plan to expand this resource.
Please get in touch if you have constructive ideas, and check out Discussing Black Lives Matter in Chinese.
That price is for one 斤 (jīn), which is 500 grams (the vendor says that’s 8 eggs).
So that’s 5.8 RMB per kg, or 2.7 RMB per pound.
2.7 RMB, at the current exchange rate, is US$0.38 (per pound).
Even if you’re not buying the cheapest eggs, you can typically buy eggs in Shanghai for less than 1 RMB (US$0.14) per egg.
2020-06-19 Edit: Sorry, people, my original eggs prices were off. Thanks to readers for calling it to my attention.
The real reason I took this photo, though, is as a reminder to learners that your written Chinese characters don’t have to be amazing works of beauty to get the job done.
Since I hardly write by hand these days, my own Chinese handwriting is pretty ugly too, but I don’t sweat it.
On our latest episode of the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, one topic Jared and I talked about was homestays for language learning. Jared hasn’t done a homestay, but he has hosted students in the U.S.
I did a two-semester homestay in Kyoto, Japan when I studied abroad from 1997 to 1998. I credit it for a big chunk of the boost my Japanese got that year. It was exhausting, but I became pretty fluent in that time. Even more impressive, 20 years later I hardly use Japanese in my daily life, but I’ve managed to hang onto that basic fluency. Occasional trips to Japan (and a little erratic studying) have been enough to keep it up.
Perhaps the best part is that when I go back to Japan, my homestay parents still treat me like family. Here’s us, reunited just last year:
How Long of a Homestay?
Clearly, the length of a homestay is important. One day or even one week isn’t going to make a huge difference in your language acquisition, even if it’s an interesting (and educational) cultural experience.
Unfortunately I have mostly just anecdotal evidence to base this on, but it seems like you need at least a month to really “get into” the homestay experience and make noticeable progress. At least three months seems ideal.
Another significant factor is that the homestay will likely be more interesting and less stressful if you’ve already been studying the target language for at least a year or so. Total beginners may not have a productive experience in a homestay.
But what does the actual research say about this?
The research is strangely inconclusive and unhelpful! Admittedly, there are a lot of confounding variables here…
- Some homestay families are just not that committed or “into it”
- Some homestay learners are super shy, or suffering badly from culture shock
- Some study abroad programs may be so full of classes that the homestay is little more than a place to eat and a place to sleep
- There are a million distractions as a student studying abroad, many of which could displace some of the value of the homestay itself
Still, there is research!
…in quantitative studies of college-aged students abroad, the putative home stay advantage has been notoriously difficult to prove, perhaps in part because these students are interpreted by all parties (including themselves) as relatively independent young adults whose goals need not align with those of their hosts…. Our findings suggest that relatively advanced initial proficiency offers many advantages for interaction with hosts, but that students with modest initial proficiency can also develop warm and cordial relationships in the homestay if all parties are so predisposed.
From The Effect of Study Abroad Homestay Placements: Participant Perspectives and Oral Proficiency Gains (Di Silvio, Donovan, and Malone, 2014):
Although the study abroad homestay context is commonly considered the ideal environment for language learning, host‐student interactions may be limited…. Students and families were generally positive about the homestay, with significant variation based on language. A significant relationship was found between students’ oral proficiency gains and their being glad to have lived with a host family. Significant correlations were also found between students’ language learning satisfaction and their satisfaction with the homestay.
More recent research seems to be more positive. Obviously, this is not the year for study abroad, but if you’re considering making a homestay a part of your study abroad experience, my advice is to just do it.
Listen to the Podcast
If you’re interested specifically in the 5-minute homestay discussion, go to 36:20~41:36.
I’d love to hear other perspectives on homestay experiences, specifically how long your homestay was, and how helpful you think it was in improving your fluency. Please leave a comment!
I’ve noted before that my daughter (now 8yo) was a fan of the character “biang” (an unofficial character used to write the name of a kind of noodle in northwestern China). We’ve also pointed out to her that it’s frequently not printed out (just as it’s not in the text of this article) because computers can’t handle it. But it’s been a while since we thought or talked about the character “biang.”
Then recently my wife spotted this use of “biang” in the wild and shared it with our daughter:
Her immediate response was, “they wrote it wrong. It’s missing a 立刀旁 (刂).”
Aaaand, she was right:
We’ve created a monster!
P.S. Technically, there’s probably no true “standard of correctness” for this character, but the one she originally learned (same as the image above, but using simplified components 长 and 马) seems to be the most widely accepted version.
The name of this restaurant is Wan Hui: 皖荟. It’s a pun on the word 晚会, which is sort of like “evening party” (or dinner).
This restaurant in Shanghai’s Changning Raffles City ( 长宁来福士广场) is not mind-blowing, but it’s still pretty special. Cool atmosphere.
I like these character fragment decorations on the walls:
The dry ice and purple lights are a cool contrast to the traditional Anhui-style walls:
As for the food, ummm, it’s OK, I guess? I’m not much of a 吃货 (foodie).
A photo I took the other day in front of a (closed) school here in Shanghai:
When I saw these statues, it was at a time when it was unclear when elementary schoolers would be returning to school here in Shanghai. To me, the masked statues sort of represented a sort of permanence of the COVID threat. And yet, those masks can be so easily removed from those statues… and they will be.
Last Friday, we parents in Shanghai received news that primary schoolers will be returning to school on Monday, June 2. Furthermore, they’ll be letting out for summer vacation only a month later. I don’t think we really expected that.
A funny aside: on WeChat, when I see other parents of young children talk about putting their kids back in school, they frequently use the phrase 神兽归笼, literally, “the magical beasts return to the cage.” (If you do a search, you’ll find a bunch of posts about Chinese parents dealing with kids online learning from home.)
In my last article on How to Choose a Chinese Name: 4 Approaches, I used the example of Mark Rowswell, AKA 大山 (Dàshān). Mark and I have a history of correspondence, so I decided to get in touch by email and get his take. He provided quite a lot of background info (much more than I was expecting), so I thought it would be good to share.
The following is our exchange, starting with his reply.
Mark (大山) wrote:
许大山 [Xǔ Dàshān] was the character name, but I dropped the surname when I took 大山 [Dàshān] as a stage name and then eventually as my all-purpose Chinese name. At that point I completely stopped using the name I had been given in Chinese class at university.
I never use a surname with 大山, as I think of it like “Sting” or something. It’s a standalone name by itself. And I always spell it as one word in Pinyin, which should be the convention for given names. It’s not correct to write it as Da Shan, as some people insist, because “Da” is not the surname. I notice you did spell it as “Dashan” in the article (but you did get “Rowswell” wrong, ha ha). [Since fixed!]
For “official use” it’s actually kind of arbitrary. My legal name is only what appears on my birth certificate, passport, etc. and that’s only in English. The Chinese name has no legal standing. But of course various Chinese organizations sometimes insist on using a Chinese name for official purposes. In that case, sometimes they take 大山, other times they insist on using 马克·罗斯维尔 [Mǎkè Luósīwéi’ěr]. I don’t really care, it’s just paperwork, so I let them use whatever they want. I just think it’s arbitrary because neither name is actually a legally registered name, and how you transliterate into Chinese can be quite flexible. I mean, there is a standard, official translation for “Mark” as 马克 [Mǎkè], but what is the official translation of “Rowswell”? There is none, so you can only follow general guidelines to come up with something like 罗斯维尔 [Luósīwéi’ěr].
Nowadays, when people use something like 啊啊啊啊啊啊啊啊 [Ā’ā’ā’ā’ā’ā’ā’ā] as their name, even with breaking convention by not having a surname 大山 is pretty conservative in comparison, ha ha
大山 like “Sting”… Ha ha, that’s kind of hilarious.
I’m a stickler for proper pinyin most of the time, but I’m surprised I got your English surname wrong. Sorry! It was a typo and has been fixed.
Anyway, I had no idea that “official Chinese names” were so arbitrary. But that’s true of so many things in China… It all comes down to how local officials interpret and carry out the directives from above.
I’d like to run a correction/update on my blog. Would you mind if I quoted your reply in this email? Few westerners have as much China experience as you!
And Mark (大山) replied:
Yeah, I’m kinda dating myself with the old “Sting” reference, and of course Dashan was always way cooler than Sting, but it seemed to be the easiest example.
I’m OK if you want to quote this reply. It’s all pretty basic stuff. The main reason “Dashan” stuck as a stage name is that it’s super easy to remember, and it has the added joke factor of implying the slang phrase 侃大山 [kǎn dàshān], which was particularly popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think a third angle is that it’s a typical peasant name, which is strange for a foreigner. Because the Chinese names we are given when we start studying Chinese are usually very proper and cultured, even kind of poetic, or else they are a strict transliteration, it just seems funny when a foreigner takes a simple peasant name. That was part of the joke of the original skit, and the main reason the name stuck. I grew to like it because it’s down-to-earth and people find it relatable, so it matches the public image I was trying to portray.
Mark touches on a quite a few of the issues I brought up on my original post on Chinese names, so I figured this could serve as an interesting case study of sorts.
Should learners of Chinese have a Chinese name? That’s a good question, but it’s not one that I’ll be answering in this article. Assuming that you feel you need a Chinese name, there are several approaches that you can take, depending on your preferences and your needs.
Foreign Name Transliteration
Transliteration means representing the sounds of one language as closely as possible, using the sounds of another language. My last name, “Pasden,” has been transliterated into Chinese as something like “Pa-si-dun.” Names converted into Chinese in this way have a distinctly foreign feel, and there’s essentially a set of “transliteration characters” used for the full text conversion. When a Chinese person sees a transliterated name of this sort written in characters, she immediately knows it’s a foreigner’s name, and she also knows to disregard any meanings the characters might have originally had. It’s just a string of sounds.
This is the type of name you get if you don’t speak any Chinese and are only accepting a Chinese name because you have to. For example, if you’re applying for a work permit in China, they will ask your Chinese name. If you don’t have one, the government worker will do a basic transliteration and use that.
Examples of this kind of name include:
- 路德维希·范·贝多芬 (Lùdéwéixī Fàn Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven
- 阿尔伯特·爱因斯坦 (Ā’ěrbótè Àiyīnsītǎn) Albert Einstein
- 贾斯汀·汀布莱克 (Jiǎsītīng Tīngbùláikè) Justin Timberlake
You’ll notice that this approach also results in the longest possible Chinese names. If your Chinese friends or co-workers actually have to use a name like one of the above, they’ll quickly shorten your name or give you a Chinese nickname.
Which brings us to the next approach…
This approach is undoubtedly the most fun. Many Chinese people love to bestow cute Chinese nicknames on foreigners, and you’ll find that lots of singers and Hollywood actors have well-known Chinese nicknames (because no one wants to use those long, unwieldy transliterated foreign names).
As a non-Chinese, you’re going to have a very hard time coming up with anything clever on your own. These frequently develop organically as a natural result of interactions with Chinese friends, and if you like a nickname you hear, you can claim it as your own. (Just be sure you know what it means!)
Some examples of this type:
- 郭一口 (Guō Yīkǒu)
- 铁蛋儿 (Tiě Dànr)
- 大山 (Dàshān) — this one is less “fun” or silly; it actually came from the name of a character in Mark Rowswell’s first performance
Chinese Familiar Name
If a nickname is too informal or silly for your needs, but you’re not ready to go “full native” with a Chinese name, you might consider just choosing a Chinese surname, and then using the “familiar address” form built into Chinese culture which involves Chinese surnames.
This method usually uses 小 (xiǎo) or 老 (lǎo), plus a surname. This approach has the advantage of being fully culturally Chinese while still being easy, and not requiring full commitment to a Chinese name. This can actually be a good way to “get started” with your Chinese name: choose a Chinese surname, then add a 小 (or possible 老) before it. You can figure out the rest of your Chinese name later, after you’ve “tried out” the surname for a while.
- 小潘 (Xiǎo Pān) — this is what my own Chinese name started as
- 老马 (Lǎo Mǎ) — this one sort of doubles as a nickname, since it literally means “old horse”
- 小江 (Xiǎo Jiāng)
Note that this is not a formal name, so I doubt you could use it for official registration purposes. Because it’s a Chinese form of address, don’t be too surprised if the Chinese official responds with a “that’s not an official name.”
Native-like Chinese Name
This is what most learners want: a name that sounds like a Chinese person’s name, and is not readily distinguishable from a native speaker’s name. Ideally, it also has a connection to one’s original name.
Some learners opt for a Chinese name that sounds as close as possible to their real English name while still sounding native Chinese. This doesn’t work well for all names, and when done poorly, can even sound like a semi-transliteration.
Other learners are satisfied with a few token similarities (begins with the same letter, for example) and just go with something “more Chinese” that they like. (This is what I did myself.)
It’s worth nothing that you don’t have to represent both your surname and your given name in a set way. I’ve seen lots of creativity in the way that people choose their names, including the following:
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s surname only
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that sounds kind of like one’s given name only
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name (2 or 3 characters) that swaps the typical surname/given name order, e.g. choosing 周 (Zhōu) as a surname to represent “Joe,” and then choosing a given name that sounds kind of like Joe’s surname.
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that in no way relates to your English name, or does so in a subtle way related to meaning
- Choose a fully native-sounding Chinese name that integrates with Chinese in-laws, e.g. taking your Chinese spouse’s family surname
I’m not going to give lots of examples of these, because the whole point is that this kind of name sounds like a Chinese person’s name. So you might as well look at a list of native Chinese names.
One thing you need to take into account is the feel of the Chinese name, and you’re definitely going to need to ask a lot of native Chinese speakers how they feel about your Chinese name. Keep in mind that no single opinion represents all of the Chinese-speaking world, and expect a bit of conflicting information! Some feedback you might get is that the name sounds “too revolutionary” or “too traditional” or “too literary” or “too foreign” or even just 不好听 (bù hǎotīng: sounds bad!).
Get help from native speakers. (This is not something you can do entirely on your own.) Get lots of feedback. Find a name you love.
Special Mention: Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org and now Editor in Chief of SupChina, has a Chinese name which delights nearly everyone who hears it, but doesn’t fit neatly into any of the four approaches I’ve outlined above. His name is:
- 金玉米 (Jīn Yùmǐ) literally, “Gold Corn”
金 (Jīn) is a legit Chinese surname, but the use of the word 玉米 (yùmǐ) seems to fall into nickname territory, although it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that an actual native Chinese person could have this as their name. (I’ve heard some pretty bizarre real Chinese names in my time in China.) I think this name would be accepted by Chinese officials as a formal name.
The point here is: there’s room for creativity! My four approaches should be useful for a lot of people, but there’s definitely wiggle room for you to get creative and go your own way.
I discuss this issue on the latest issue of You Can Learn Chinese podcast with my Mandarin Companion partner, Jared Turner. You can tune in here: