(Note the hilarious crotch detail.)
Those of us that learn Mandarin according to the Beijing standard typically learn the expression 二百五 pretty early. While it seems to be the innocent number “250,” it actually has a slang meaning: “stupid” or “idiot.”
Those of us spending time in China’s south eventually come to a realization: you don’t hear 二百五 that much around here. What you do hear, especially in Shanghai, is 十三点 (“13 o’clock”). While it means basically the same thing as the north’s 二百五, it’s milder, often approaching something more like “silly” or “dopey” (in Chinese, 傻得可爱, or “cutely silly”).
Interestingly, Baidu Zhidao even gives us a poster child for the 十三点 look: a character once played by actress Zhao Wei (赵薇).
Baidu tells us that when it’s used between two people of the opposite sex, it’s often used in flirting (and most often comes out of the girl’s mouth).
As for origins of the expression, Baidu Zhidao gives us two main theories:
1. It’s a reference to an illegal move in a gambling game (6 and 7 can’t be played at the same time, and they add up to 13)
2. It’s a reference to an hour that traditional clocks do not strike (no military time back then!)
I thought 十三点 might be a fun thing to put on a shirt (more fun than “250” anyway), so I made this new one. I think it’s the kind of thing that laowai would enjoy wearing to see what kind of reaction it gets out of the Chinese, whereas the Chinese can’t fathom why a foreigner would possibly want to wear a shirt with that on it. (Good times all around!)
The Sinosplice shop has other conversation-starting Chinese-themed t-shirts.
I’m back from the States with a new visa. I realize now it was a much-needed vacation.
My computer here in Shanghai seems to be infected with a virus (it keeps abruptly shutting off, especially when I use Skype or anti-virus software), so I’m reinstalling Windows today. It’s about time anyway… it’s been almost 2 years on this one install. Still, this kind of thing pushes me one step closer to wanting to buy a Mac.
Anyway, scheduled programming to resume shortly.
To visitors from The World, the work I do on Chinese lessons is actually on a separate site called ChinesePod. Check it out; it’s the best way to learn practical spoken Chinese.
In the interview I talk about my struggles with the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, (basically very similar to what I’ve covered in my pronunciation section). There are other features of interest to the student of Chinese in the language section of Sinosplice.
Thanks a lot to Dan Washburn for pointing The World’s reporter my way.
I’m enjoying being home in Tampa without much to do. My dad’s computer doesn’t have Chinese support installed, and the option to add it is grayed out in the appropriate Windows setting screen. I think I can get it installed if I manage to find the Windows install disk, but taking a 10-day vacation even from Chinese characters themselves almost seems like a good idea.
So last night I was having a few $3 pints of Sam Adams (so much cheaper than in Shanghai!) with my sister and her friends, finding out all sorts of new ways I’ve fallen out of touch with American culture, when I discovered the bar served fried dill pickle spears. Of course, I ordered them immediately, and they were delicious in that weird “fried pickle” way that you might expect. (I’d post a picture, but there’s not much point, because they just look like big french fries.)
Ah, America. Still the intrepid innovator.
This week I’ve been busy gathering paperwork so I can (1) go all the way back to the U.S. to get my new work visa, and (2) graduate for real, like… for real. (And you thought passing the defense was enough? Nope, sorry… Not nearly enough red tape to make it final.)
I’m not too bitter about visa inconveniences brought on by the Olympics. It’ll be good to see my family and take a decent-length vacation from work (a vacation where I have no thesis to work on).
One of my American co-workers has been trying really hard to get to the Olympics this summer, but I can’t stay far enough away. With all the hype and over-the-top emotional build-up, I can’t imagine the Olympics in Beijing turning out better than a half-victory. Lots of things are bound to go wrong, but many will go right.
What I want to know is: after all this is over, what proportion of this country is going to scratch its collective head and wonder, what were we thinking?
Thinking about it now, I find it strange that I’ve never written about James W. Heisig and his landmark work, Remembering the Kanji.
It was in 1997 while I was studying in Japan that I came across the book. I was still in this “I must write every new character a million times every day” frame of mind until I came upon this system, and after discovering it I abandoned the traditional approach forever. The book ignited my imagination and unleashed its energy on Chinese characters. Heisig’s system ensnared me immediately, but surprisingly, the more I studied the method, the more I found myself dissatisfied with Heisig’s mnemonics and devising my own. I bought a copy and wrote all over it, “correcting” it for myself. Personalizing it, you might say. Heisig would have approved.
I didn’t stay with the system forever. I never learned a mnemonic for every last character. There just came a point when everything sort of “clicked,” and memorizing characters wasn’t difficult anymore. Sure, I would forget characters (and I still do), but every time I’d forget one and have to look it up, those old mnemonics returned to me and helped lock that character back in my memory. The important thing is that I never had to write characters over and over again. I’ve passed various written Chinese tests without ever having to do that. I have been able to make better use of my time and of my mind.
Occasionally I would come upon a character that resolutely defied my memory. If the character mattered to me, it would get “special attention.” That meant setting aside some time to deconstruct the character, research the etymology (sometimes, but not always, a helpful practice), and apply some imagination. It might take as long as 20-30 minutes for just that one character, but eventually I would come up with a memorable story mnemonic involving the character components, tailor-made for me. And then I would not forget the character again.
In short, Heisig’s book totally changed the way I approach characters. It’s a triumph of imagination over rote learning. I am very grateful to him for that. If you’re trying to learn Japanese or Chinese, I strongly recommend you get Remembering the Kanji.
The new aggregator in town is Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop, and it’s almost four months old. I really have to wonder if there’s still much of a future for aggregation sites, now that RSS Readers are so freely available. I’ll put that debate aside for now, though.
I became aware of China Alltop when Sinosplice was added to it. I don’t have time to read many blogs these days, but browsing over the various blogs and news sources aggregated on China Alltop, the big ones all seemed to be represented. It’s a good collection of China blogs.
One thing bothered me, though. Some of the most well-known and well-respected blogs (no, not this one!) were buried somewhere down the middle of the page. I started a dialogue with Mr. Kawasaki via Twitter, which led to an e-mail.
Specifically, I argued for higher placement of EastSouthWestNorth, Danwei, China Law Blog, and RConversation, and the addition of the China IWOM Blog (I should have mentioned Peking Duck too!). To my pleasant surprise, the changes were made within hours.
I’m still skeptical about the idea that a limited, static list of blogs can stay current and compete with individuals’ personalized feed readers in this crazy Web 2.0 world, but I’m very impressed with Guy Kawasaki’s willingness to listen and enthusiasm for his product. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.
Related: The China Blog List is still going… Not long ago, all dead blogs were purged. It’s now in the process of collecting more new blogs.
I’ve been asked many times: Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese? Well, the latest time finally inspired me to make this graphic. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but some notes will follow anyway.
In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.
Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).
Chinese pronunciation, is, of course, maddeningly difficult from the get-go. It can be so hard to make yourself understood when your sentence is only three syllables long. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. If you keep at it, though, things get waaayyy easier. And in the later stages, accent isn’t as big a deal in Chinese. There are so many wildly different accents in China alone that once you get your tones under control and can string a coherent sentence together, Chinese people will often assume you’re a native speaker in telephone conversations.
Chinese grammar starts out fairly simple for English speakers. Some find it so simplistic that they say things like, “Chinese has no grammar.” This is not true, of course, and there are a few difficult points to master (like 了, which probably occupies a good chunk of the red area in the middle of the grammar graph), but overall, the grammar is not too rough. If you want true mastery of the language, however, you will also eventually have to study 古文 (ancient Chinese), and that’s quite a bit more work.
Japanese grammar starts out seeming like some bizarre alien code. However, through hard work and determination, the persistent can eventually crack it. Once you get over the grammar hump, and verb conjugations, causative-passive, は and が, and keigo are no longer a big deal, you’re in a pretty comfortable place. But it sure is rough at first.
Just to be clear, this is all based on my personal experiences as a very acquisition-conscious language learner, not on scientific research. Please feel free to add your own experiences with these two languages in the comments.
It’s Euro Cup time, and as soccer fans, the Chinese are loving it. This punny headline caught my eye: “欧，MY GOD！” 欧 is a character most often used to mean “Europe,” but it sounds like the English interjection “oh.” “Euro Cup” in Chinese is 欧洲杯.
This headline took me back to my English teaching days and an issue I faced frequently back then. It bothered me when my Chinese students said “oh my God” in English. It’s not an uncommon expression, and as a fair translation of the Chinese exclamation “（我的）天哪!” its use came to them easily. So what was the problem?
Well, raised in a traditional Catholic family, I had been taught not to use God’s name in vain. There was a commandment expressly forbidding this linguistic behavior, and it wasn’t even #10, but #2, way ahead of more obvious sins like stealing and killing.
I learned pretty quickly that most people (Christian or not) didn’t adhere to this commandment. I always thought it was interesting… it was a habit that was pretty easy not to get into, but almost everyone did, ostensibly because it was defined as a sin by Judeo-Christian dogma. And then the people that didn’t openly violate the second commandment still used obvious substitutes, like “geez” and “gosh.” This kind of behavior struck me as very similar to adolescent rebellion (in both its strong and weak forms), but on a sociolinguistic scale. It was also interesting to me as an example of a chicken-egg cultural phenomenon.
So I had perspective on the whole “taking God’s name in vain” thing, and I had no real problem with other English-speakers’ “my God” exclamations. I never imposed my own beliefs on other people; I just didn’t use the expression myself.
With my Chinese students, however, it was different. These were students with no Judeo-Christian cultural background. They weren’t willfully violating a commandment of a foreign god; they were simply using the language they had learned in a textbook. I recognized this, but I felt they should be aware of the cultural implications. I never told them not to say “oh my God,” but I taught them what the Judeo-Christian second commandment taught, and pointed out that they would never hear me use that expression. They needed to know this, because while I was perhaps not representative of the average native English speaker, I was not a total anomaly. Some people are actually offended by the phrase “oh my God,” and I didn’t want my students to be completely confounded if it ever happened to them. More important, I wanted my students to appreciate this real-life example of culture’s grip on language which their education up to that point had never touched upon.
Unsurprisingly, some students took my point to heart as a significant cultural issue, while others brushed it off.
This “oh my God” issue led me to consider its parallel in Chinese: is saying 天哪 in Chinese a violation of the second commandment? I asked a devout Catholic Chinese friend about this. She gave me a pained look, revealing that I had just opened a can of worms with which she was well acquainted. My Chinese wasn’t good enough at the time to understand everything that she said, but the answer she gave me was something like, “maybe, sometimes.”
Ah, there are times when questions of religion and language make one long for simpler pursuits… Like watching a soccer game.
The Chinese internet has been all kinds of slow lately. Foreign sites load extremely sluggishly, and I can’t upload to Flickr at all.
Enter Firefox 3! The Chinese internet is still damn slow, but at least the browser is faster! Gmail works dramatically faster.
The one problem with upgrading immediately is that many Firefox addons might not be up to date and no longer work. Actually, though, most of these plugins can be forced to work by editing the compatible version range in the XPI file. Since I’ve started using Gladder as my proxy tool of choice, I can’t live without it. I figure some of you may be in the same boat, so I’m sharing my unofficial, hacked Gladder XPI file:
I imagine this is not really a good thing to do, so use only at your own risk. (I just want Wikipedia back.)
Thanks to John B for showing me how to do this.
I can recall a time when I desperately wanted to know what Chinese people around me were saying. It was perhaps narcissistic, but I suspected they were talking about me probably a lot more than they really were. When I got to the point that I could eavesdrop and understand what people were talking about, the reality was hard to accept. These people weren’t discussing me, kung fu, or even the mystic qualities of qi. They were just talking about daily life things. Like normal people. Imagine that!
So, listening in on conversations turned out to be less rewarding than I originally imagined. Still, every now and then I hear something interesting. I overheard this “newbie-level” exchange between two old men the other day on a Shanghai street as I passed by:
> Old Man 1: 你的牙齿很好！ (Your teeth are great!)
> Old Man 2: 假的！ (They’re fake!)
> Old Man 1: 假的？ (Fake?)
> Old Man 2: 假的！ (Fake!)
Yes, old Chinese men talk about old men things too!
I finally finished my masters, but I don’t find myself with lots of extra time for blogging. Why? Because we’re doing so much at work lately. So rather than working on my blog, it’s time for blogging on my work:
FrenchPod. I never planned to learn French in this lifetime (“international language has-been,” I say!), but being involved with FrenchPod, I have gotten sucked in. The FrenchPod Four make a great team, and they’re producing engaging, fun lessons. Check out Can you take a picture? (MP3) for a great sample of the power of creative dialogue in the proper audio context.
I have to say, though, that French is the only other language besides Chinese that has absolutely confounded me with pronunciation. Just as Chinese has its tones, French has its vowels. (Well, I did manage to tame those tones, and some might even say they’re harder than French vowels…) Anyway, I’m getting a lot more exposure to French than I ever have before; the FrenchPod team sits right behind me at work.
ItalianPod. It’s the newest, youngest, smallest LanguagePod from Praxis yet, and it is really impressive. Marco has been livening up the office with his Italian antics for months, but it’s great to see him pouring his energies into lessons, now that Catherine is also here. Be sure to listen to You need a girlfriend (MP3), which gives the French some good competition in the romance department.
Italian has never been high on my list of languages to learn, but after being exposed to downright unhealthy amounts of Italian at work (they really don’t care if you understand them or not), this whole “speaking Italian” thing is looking like a lot of fun (even without factoring in Italian Spiderman!).
- ChinesePod Olympics. If you’re interested in that whole “Beijing 2008” sporting event coming up, this cool mini-site has the language you need covered. The design is very slick, totally separate from the rest of the site. Co-worker Clay did an awesome job designing it. My favorite part: the Olympic Beijing map. Click around!
- JennyZhu.com. This one isn’t directly related to what I do at work, but the biggest star of our company has started a blog and is all of a sudden blogging regularly. Jenny is a joy to work with and a really interesting person. There aren’t enough Chinese voices in the English-speaking China blogosphere, and Jenny’s is definitely one worth paying attention to.
Had lunch with a former co-worker yesterday. I hadn’t seen her since my wedding. She told me she had recently had surgery to have a 畸胎瘤 removed. What is that? Well, 畸 means “deformity,” 胎 means “fetus,” and 瘤 means “tumor” (or similar growth). As far as I can tell, this is called “fetus in fetu” in English.
What happened to my friend is that when she was originally in the womb, she had a twin, but her twin did not develop normally. Her body enveloped her twin’s, which stayed tiny, and was not even noticeable. It lived on inside her as a parasitic twin, without a brain. Over the years, it remained in her abdomen and very slowly grew larger until it was the size of an apple. It was causing discomfort, was discovered, and was finally removed.
Crazy vocabulary acquisition!
P.S. Don’t Baidu/Google image search the words above unless you want nightmares!
UPDATE: 畸胎瘤 is actually teratoma in English (thanks, Henning!). What my friend described to me was fetus in fetu, though, so something doesn’t add up.
David DeGeest pointed me (via Twitter) to an interesting article: Google vs. Baidu: A User Experience Analysis. I suspect most readers of my blog are already quite familiar with Baidu and much of the content of the article, but I did find several points very interesting.
On searching “subprime mortgage” (次级房贷):
>This time google.cn appears to do much better than Baidu. But if we look closely at the top 20 search results, we’ll find there are 7 results at google.com and 5 results at google.cn that direct us to Web sites that use traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and by the overseas Chinese community.
> It can be rather challenging for the mainland Chinese to read traditional Chinese, though they can understand most of the message. Nonetheless, this mix of simplified and traditional Characters is not the most user-friendly approach. Verdict: Baidu wins.
I was somewhat surprised by this conclusion. While it’s true that reading simplified characters is more comfortable for the average mainland Chinese citizen, one would think that breadth of search counts for something. If, for example, I’m doing a search on a Taiwanese politician, I’m likely going to want to see articles from Taiwan (which will be in traditional characters). I also know for a fact that many of my Chinese friends prize very highly information sources from Hong Kong or Taiwan.
I’m not saying the author is wrong in his conclusion, though. I think that the Chinese people I hang out with are a rather international-minded bunch. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Also, while the whole subprime thing is not at all a favorite conversation topic of mine, when I hear it referred to in Chinese, it’s usually by the abbreviated name 次贷. The search numbers for this term are a bit different:
Clearly, searching for 次贷 gives Baidu a clear advantage. I realize perhaps the author was trying to go for the “translation feel” in his search results, but it’s interesting to see the results of the same search “with Chinese linguistic characteristics.”
Language Log recently published a post by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese, in which Dr. Mair talks about a Chinese language newspaper with pinyin accompanying each character called Guoyu Ribao (国语日报). He hails it as a great way to pick up characters.
This is all well and good, but I was quite surprised by this paragraph (bold mine):
> Guoyu Ribao was a godsend in that it enabled me to learn Chinese characters passively and painlessly. By assimilating massive amounts of publications from the Guoyu Ribao people, before long I was able to read texts without phonetic annotation. Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well.
While I agree that overloading new students of Chinese with character memorization is a bad idea, the words passively and painlessly in regards to learning Chinese characters just don’t seem right. (Does Dr. Mair know Dr. David Moser?) Interesting material goes a long way toward motivating students to learn, but no matter how you slice it, there’s quite a bit of work involved in becoming literate in Chinese. Yeah, it’s a bit painful, and yeah, it’s active work. While Dr. Moser exaggerates for fun, Dr. Mair seems to give pinyin a bit too much credit.
Aric was involved in ChinesePod in its early days (that’s where I met him), and was host of the much-loved ChinesePod Saturday Show. Later he was involved in other events in Shanghai such as GigShanghai and GigLive (discontinued). I don’t know all the other projects he’s been working on lately, but he’s also been making regular DJ appearances at Windows Tembo, a bar managed by our mutual friend Brad.
Speaking of Windows Tembo, it has just moved to a new location on Nanjing Lu, and is now called Windows Underground (because it’s underground). Oh, also it has cool live indie music shows. The Grand Opening is tonight (698 Nanjing Xi Lu). I’ll be there.
Sam explains how net-savvy Chinese have re-appropriated the character 囧, using it for what it looks like (a distraught face), rather than for what it originally meant (“bright,” apparently). Sam explains various dimensions of the phenomenon on his blog, but this is really cool for linguistic reasons. It’s not often that a non-pictographic character (with a rather abstract meaning) is reenlisted as a pictographic character and used on a relatively large scale!
Here’s that character again, a bit bigger: 囧
It’s Friday night, and I’m doing the opposite of partying. Tomorrow morning I defend my masters thesis.
Originally I thought I’d be spending the evening going over my presentation, anticipating questions, and practicing my answers, but I suddenly got these three 硕士学位申请书 (Masters Degree Application Forms). I have to fill out six pages of academic history and mini-essays by hand (in Chinese, of course). In triplicate!
What a waste of my time. I can’t wait to graduate…
May 25 UPDATE: As some of you noticed from my Twitter status, I did, in fact pass my thesis defense. It actually went much smoother than I expected. I’ll write more on this soon.
In the meantime, even after my defense is over with and I have been granted an MA, I still have more paperwork to finish before it’s official. Arrgh…
I went to the candlelight vigil in People’s Square with my wife tonight. It gave me some mixed feelings.
I was happy to reverently hold a candle in memory of the many victims of the earthquake. On the other hand, I really didn’t see the need to wave a Chinese flag when people thrust it in my hands.
When people were chanting, “四川，加油！” (Sichuan, hang in there!), I felt good. When they chanted “中国万岁！” (Long live China!) it felt a bit less relevant.
The different types of candle displays reflected the different attitudes of the people in attendance:
I’m glad I went, and it gave me a few things to think about. In any case, “unity through nationalism in the face of adversity” certainly isn’t a Chinese invention.