Jun 2008

False Teeth

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! (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!


Jun 2008

Link Love for LanguagePods

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!
  • 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.
  • Finally, in this work-saturated post, I have to give a shout out to ChinesePod (my roots), to SpanishPod (the original fiesta), and to Ken Carroll (our mentor and inspiration).


Jun 2008

Cool Vocabulary You Totally Don't Need

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, means “deformity,” means “fetus,” and 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.


Jun 2008

Comments on Google VS Baidu

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 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 and 5 results at 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:

Baidu: 6,940,000 results (compared to 1,050,000) 2,180,000 results (compared to 387,000) 2,220,000 results (compared to 1,540,000)

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.”


Jun 2008

Pinyin VS Hard Work

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.


May 2008

Shanghai Diaries, Underground Windows

Dan Washburn isn’t the only one keeping an online “Shanghai diary.” I just recently ran into Aric Queen and found out he has his own video Shanghai Diaries.

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.


May 2008

A Chinese Character for Sad People

Sam Flemming does a great job on the China Internet Word of Mouth Blog, but I have just run across my favorite article yet: Netizens find new channels for self expression.

Sam explains how net-savvy Chinese have re-appropriated the character , 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:


May 2008

Eve of the Defense

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…


May 2008

Candlelight Vigil

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:

People's Square Candlelight Vigil People's Square Candlelight Vigil

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.


May 2008

Cultural Angles on Donations

A Chinese friend of mine told me that at her workplace, there was a fund-raising effort going on for the victims of the recent earthquake. Most employees contributed 100 RMB. My friend wanted to give a bit more, so she was about to put in 500 RMB when a co-worker pulled her aside.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m giving 500 RMB.”

“Everyone else gave 100. The boss only gave 300. Who do you think you are, giving 500?”

My friend ended up giving 100.

At the office where I work, there was a similar fund-raising effort this past week. Everyone was encouraged to contribute.

What blew me away was that at the end of the week an e-mail went out to all employees, listing who contributed and how much!

Ahhh… cultural differences.

Lots of fund-raising events are planned in Shanghai this weekend. Go clubbing to help the victims of the quake. Eat BBQ to help the victims of the quake. Charity, Shanghai-style.

There are a number of ways you can help victims of this disaster.


May 2008

Hanging Up in Chinese

I recall quite clearly the satisfaction I felt when I first became capable of conducting actual telephone conversations in Chinese. It made me feel I had really arrived, and I relished the achievement. It wasn’t long before some communication issues spoiled my victory, though. Chinese people were saying things to me on the phone that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and it didn’t seem very nice. In the end, it was all just cultural misunderstanding, but it would have been nice to be warned. That’s the point of this post.

The “not very nice” things all seemed to come at the end of phone conversations, and often from friends. It made me feel uncomfortable that my phone calls kept ending abruptly, on such unfriendly notes. It turns out that these expressions for ending phone calls are perfectly natural, though… in Chinese, of course.

So here they are, in no particular order, the “hang up lines” you might want to mentally prepare yourself for:

1. 就这样 (“That’s it.”) This one is probably the most common and the most widespread. It’s not meant to be rude, it’s just stating, in no uncertain terms: this conversation is over.

2. 我挂了 (“I’m hanging up.”) Just in case “this is it” is too subtle for your friend, this phrase should get the message across. This one is more likely to be used in informal situations.

3. 我不跟你说了 (“I’m not talking to you anymore [for now]”) Again, an informal one. To be fair, it’s a translation issue into English which kind of makes this one seem like some kind of declaration of anger. It just means “I’m done talking to you for now,” but the unfamiliar phrase in an unfamiliar language can seem a little shocking, even coming from a friend. When I first started hearing this one, I would always question whether I had said something to piss off my friend.

Once you get used to them, these blunt conversation enders do have their advantages; they empower you to swiftly end a telephone conversation that has run its course. They sure make, “well, I better get going now” seem weak in comparison.


May 2008


My friend Illy passed on to me a link to the blackout poems of Austin Kleon. Here’s the one that most caught my eye:


The craziest thing is that I actually had this idea before. I tried to do it with stories about China, and I failed miserably. I’m not sure whether it was the material I had to work with or my own lack of creativity at fault. Cool to see that Austin has more than pulled it off…


May 2008

China According to the Chinese

Micah posts two hilarious maps of China (Chinese required):

China according to the Beijingers
China according to the Shanghainese

Sorry, I’m a bit too busy lately to translate this, but it’s quite revealing culturally, so if you’re a student of Chinese, it’s worth it to get out your China map and a dictionary.

Unkind as it may sound, I got a huge kick out of the labels placed by both groups on the Wenzhounese. (I need to blog someday about Wenzhou…)


May 2008

No Chinese Story Voices

In a comment on my Sign Language Expression post, commenter Justin writes:

> You know what else I noticed? Chinese don’t make any voices but their own when delivering stories. Of course relating real stories my “bad ass dad” voice and “bitchy mom” voice are nothing like my parent’s real voices, but they can reveal a lot about my attitude towards the things they would say to me. (Be it authoritarian or intentionally trying to annoy me by talk on about trivial affairs.)

Interesting observation! I had never thought about that before, but after going over it in my head a while, I couldn’t think of any personal instances to counter Justin’s claim. The only “voice” I can recall Chinese friends doing is the “foreigner accent,” or “Taiwan accent,” which is not the same thing.

I suspect there’s more to this… anyone have any anecdotes to add, or links to linguistic research on the cross-cultural role of “doing voices” in communication?


May 2008

Sign Language Expression VS Chinese Culture

I got several comments on the Deaf, Not Dumb post (one comment actually on the site) relating to Alice‘s facial expressions. The observation was that Alice seems to be much more expressive when she signs than the average Chinese person is during conversation.

I can understand this point. I remember when I first arrived in China and was still learning to communicate in Chinese, I was often told, “你的表情丰富” (your [facial] expressions are very “rich”), in other words, “your face is so expressive when you talk.” I may have been exaggerating my expressions a bit to make up for lacking linguistic ability, but I remember once trying to coach a Chinese friend into being more expressive, trying to get her to raise her eyebrows more, etc., to which she responded, “I can’t. I’m Chinese.” Of course that response is somewhat ridiculous, but clearly there are different cultural norms at work.

When it comes to sign language, facial expression is an integral part of communication. According to Wikipedia:

> In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not “real languages”. Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as true languages.

> […]

> Sign languages, like oral languages, organize elementary, meaningless units (phonemes; once called cheremes in the case of sign languages) into meaningful semantic units. The elements of a sign are Handshape (or Handform), Orientation (or Palm Orientation), Location (or Place of Articulation), Movement, and Non-manual markers (or Facial Expression), summarised in the acronym HOLME.

So, basically, when Chinese culture (less emphasis on facial expression) duked it out with the key elements of sign language (HOLME), Chinese culture had to give.

I think it’s fair to compare facial expression in sign language with sentence intonation in speech. You can still communicate if you’re bad at it, and some students might even think it’s unimportant, but the reality is that it’s essential for natural, native-like communication.

This difference in the role of facial expression can be hard to get used to for students of sign language. As I understand it, the Deaf sometimes chide hearing students of sign language with the remark, “you talk like a robot.”

UPDATE: Alice tells me she has actually been criticized by other Deaf people for being too expressive (especially as a woman) when communicating. Interesting…


Apr 2008

Enslaved by Telecommunications Corporations

An old high school friend recently visited me here in Shanghai with her husband. Our chat made the usual rounds of old friends, life updates, etc., and then settled on China. When it comes to discussing life in modern China, one topic I find myself returning to again and again in my conversations with Americans is the whole cell phone thing. Americans are always blown away by how easy and convenient (for the consumer) the system here is.

My own situation:

– Monthly 30 RMB plan with China Telecom, comes with talk time and plenty of text messages. I don’t think I ever exceed my limit, but if I do, I pay very little extra.
– Cell phone bill paid by prepaid card, which I can purchase at any convenience store in increments of 100 RMB or 50 RMB. I only need to do this about once every three months, and it takes 5 minutes to add the money to my account. China Telecom SMSes me when I need to re-up.
– My account and phone number are linked to my SIM card, which I can remove from my cell phone at any time and use in any other cell phone here in China. Upgrading a cell phone is as easy as removing and inserting a SIM card, and takes less than a minute.
– No mail, no credit cards.

I don’t even know the full extent of the hell that American telecommunications companies put their customers through, because I never had to deal with it myself. I got my first cell phone in China. But it all sounds really stupid. The whole concept of “cell phone minutes” annoys me.

The one drawback of not being enslaved by the telecommunications companies is that any cell phone you can steal you can use immediately by simply swapping out the SIM card. Small price to pay, I say. Just be careful.

The worst part about all this is that when Americans come here and realize that even China has a way better cell phone system in place, they are blown away, but they are nevertheless completely resigned to their fate. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way…


Apr 2008

Deaf, not Dumb: Chinese Sign Language

It’s been a while since I last wrote about sign language, but some interesting YouTube videos by Alice (胡晓姝) recently pulled me back into it.

Below is the video that I found most fascinating. It’s subtitled in Chinese, but worth a watch even if you don’t read Chinese. I’ll sum up the main points in English below the video.

Before I list Alice’s main points, I need to first explain some background. In the video, Alice discusses the Chinese sign language counterparts of the Chinese words 聋哑人 (literally, “deaf mute person”) and 聋人 (“Deaf person”). The former is the most common way to refer to a Deaf person in Chinese, whereas the latter is the word many in the Chinese Deaf community wishes everyone would use. 哑巴 is the word for “mute,” and it’s definitely not polite.

Alice’s main points are:

– The Deaf Chinese are used to using signs for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) and “mute” (哑巴) but these signs are not respectful to Deaf people.
– Overseas, Deaf communities stopped using the expression “deaf-mute” 20 years ago, and only China persists.
– It was foreigners that appreciated that within the character for deaf, “,” is the character , meaning “dragon,” a traditional mythological protector being. That’s pretty cool!
– The traditional Chinese sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) is loaded with negative connotations, but there is an international symbol for for “Deaf person” (聋人) that we should be using.
– The word “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) should also be rejected because “deaf” and “mute” are two separate concepts; deaf does not have to mean unable to speak, and being unable to speak does not mean one must be deaf.
– Some Deaf people believe basic, improvised signs are lowly and spoil the aesthetics of the language. This is wrong, because sign language is the language of the Deaf, developed by the Deaf, with its own grammar and special characteristics.
– There are two kinds of sign language: literary sign language (文法手语), used to reflect mainstream written language, and natural sign language (自然手语), the everyday language of the Deaf.
– Deaf people are not handicapped people (残疾人). We have our own culture and language. Let’s unite and improve ourselves.
– The Chinese Deaf community needs to be bolder, to candidly discuss issues and to struggle together.
– Remember, it’s 聋人, not 聋哑人. Spread the word: 聋人.

I have to say, this video fascinated me. There’s so much there, linguistically (not to mention that it was filmed next to a sushi conveyor belt, which is just damn cool). I think you can tell when a gifted orator makes a stirring speech in a foreign language, and this is the same feeling I get watching Alice deliver her message. It’s inspiring.

My favorite part of the video is the stretch from 1:12 to 1:22. You can easily tell from Alice’s facial expression that the sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人), which uses the pinky finger, is distasteful, and that one should use the index finger instead to say “Deaf person” (聋人). It’s not just a matter of arbitrary signs, though. In Chinese sign language, the sign for “good” () is the “thumbs up” sign. The opposite of that is thumb in, pinky out. That’s the sign for “bad” (不好). So the meaning of the sign for “deaf-mute” is clear: “ears bad, mouth bad.” Quite negative. The newer sign uses the index finger, drawing attention to the ear and mouth without disparaging it. You can watch Alice put down the negativity of the pinky finger and choose the index finger instead.

Check out Alice’s other videos. Not all of them have Chinese subtitles, but one interesting one that does is an interview with Deaf rapper Signmark. Alice interviews him in international sign language.

I haven’t watched them all, but it looks like none of Alice’s videos to date have English subtitles. I’m working on convincing her that it would be worthwhile.


“deaf” vs. “Deaf” (read the explanation on the side)
Signmark rapping in Japan (note the character on the back of the group’s shirts)
– the 2009 Deaflympics are in Taipei, the year after the Beijing 2008 Olympics (coincidence??)


Apr 2008

Office Moved, Life Improved

Life has just gotten way better for me. Last Friday Praxis Language (home of ChinesePod) moved to the Zhongshan Park area (where I live).

Why is this a big deal? Well, it means I can walk to work. It’s about more than convenience, though.

I used to take the subway to work every morning, and then back home at night. My commute took me down Line 2, through the People’s Square exchange, over to Line 1, at rush hour. Hey, millions of people do this every day in this city, so why shouldn’t I? Well, eventually I learned why. Over time the crushing commuting hordes really got to me. I would start every day lying in bed cursing my alarm clock, dreading my commute, and then, after running the gauntlet again, arrive at work in a foul mood. At the end of the day when work was finally over and I could relax, my bad mood would be reinstated by the commute home. It all added up to a significant amount of unhappiness, far exceeding the daily hour and a half I spent in commute.

I tried carpooling, but that didn’t work. Eventually I started taking taxis a lot more. It was kind of expensive, but I learned it was well worth it. I was buying back a pleasant emotional state, and it was a good value.

Toward the end, John B and I started carpooling by taxi in the morning and taking the subway home after work. We had to leave a half hour earlier in the morning to ensure that we’d get a taxi every day, but we could split the fare. Totally worth it.

Starting Monday I’ll be walking or biking to work every day. It’s going to be sweet.

If you’re planning on living in Shanghai and wondering how close to work you want to live, I say VERY.


Apr 2008

Barack Obama in Shanghai (with Evil Obama)

This picture, taken over the weekend, shows Barack Obama with his secret evil twin, “Evil Obama,” in Shanghai. (Evil Obama is recognizable by his mustache, goatee, and evilly slanted eyebrows.) Careful study of this photo shows that no Photoshop work has been done.

Obama and Evil Obama Support Sinosplice

I’m not sure what Obama is doing in Shanghai at a crucial election time like this, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Evil Obama donning an attractive Sinosplice sweatshirt.

Now, as regular readers of this blog know well, I do apolitical China commentary. In this case, however, it’s Obama advocating Sinosplice. Nothing political about that!

By the way, now that the weather is warmed up, you might be interested in these Chinese-related Sinosplice t-shirts:

Sinosplice T-shirts


Apr 2008

Kevin Rudd's Chinese, Analyzed

Kevin Rudd, Wu Bangguo

Kevin Rudd with Wu Bangguo

You may have heard of Kevin Rudd, the latest laowai to become famous for speaking fluent Chinese. This guy is kind of different, though, because he happens to be the new Prime Minister of Australia.

Yesterday’s ChinesePod lesson is about Kevin Rudd’s Chinese. Overall a very positive review, of course, but it’s an interesting exercise for advanced students to hear what 小语病 (little language problems) he still has in his speech.

My co-worker Clay commented that if you compare the Chinese Rudd uses in his public appearances from a few months ago with the Chinese he uses now, it has gotten a lot better. It does make me wonder what kind of coaching Rudd gets on his Chinese, and as the Prime Minister of Australia, what kind of priority does he put on improving his Chinese (a truly powerful diplomatic tool)? Is it worth 10 hours of intense language training a week? More?

Anyway, check out the lesson: ChinesePod Media – 澳洲总理秀中文

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