My son’s preschool (in China, they still call it “kindergarten,” or 幼儿园) has a little case on display near the entrance to the school which shows what foods are on the menu for that day. The school uses small pieces of actual food for the display. It’s a great way to familiarize the little ones with various types of meat and vegetables, and I use it as a sort of English vocabulary review with my son, since he’s already learning the food vocabulary all in Chinese.
Well, despite having been in China for so long, I was a little shocked to see this last week:
…then this week, I saw this:
Some Chinese friends were a little surprised too, but at least no meat was wasted (unlike for the pork). I have to agree: it’s better that kids know from a young age where their meat comes from, rather than thinking meat just comes from a supermarket, and then being traumatized at the age of 10 to discover people are killing cute little animals just so they can eat them.
Still, I hope we don’t see a big pig head on a pike next week…
As a parent, I am keenly aware of all the work that goes into educating a child on what is “dirty” and how to avoid getting dirty, as well as why getting dirty is (normally) bad. The concept of “dirty” is surprisingly complex when you think about it, since some of it is visible and some not, and the “clean” and “dirty” objects can have all kinds of interactions. You really just have to be taught.
This issue reminds me of an experience I had years ago in Hangzhou. Quoting a blog post from 2005:
Shortly after I arrived in China, I went on a trip to a park with some Chinese friends. It had been a while since I had seen grass, so I was happy to sprawl out on it, which promptly resulted in my Chinese friends’ disapproval. “It’s dirty!” they told me. I just shook my head. In a corner of the world where there’s so little nature left to enjoy, they regard what little is left as “dirty”? That’s so sad! Then, as an afterthought, I ran my hand across the grass. My palm was turned gray. Dust. From the grass.
That little incident drove home that I really didn’t know how everything worked here, even when I was so sure I had it all figured out.
Just like children, as a China newbie, I, too, had to be educated on what was “dirty” in my new environment.
A similar example comes to mind: foreigners often think nothing of storing their bag on the ground next to their desks or chairs, but this frequently causes Chinese acquaintances to recoil in disgust. In China, you don’t put things you want to keep clean (like your bag) on the ground, even indoors. You also don’t put your bag on your bed at home. There are lots of “rules” to learn.
I was surprised, then, to see this ad:
“脏”显个性 [“Dirty” shows personality]
Of course we have “dirty desserts” in English as well, which is likely the source of this idea. But this concept feels even more eye-catching in China, where you’ve got to constantly be on your guard against the “dirt.”
I noticed these ads on the Shanghai Metro recently:
教我的发音 [The pronunciation Teacher Tom taught me]
Amy老师说不对！ [Teacher Amy says is not correct]
今天外教 [today the foreign teacher]
把我的名字 [got my name]
“Dada English” is one of a new wave of Chinese online English learning platforms which includes “VIP KID.” What makes these platforms special is that they all purport to offer native speakers as teachers, and many of them are from North America or Europe. (I understand that some of the competition uses mostly teachers from the Philippines.) The first ad above emphasizes 欧美外教: teachers from North America and Europe.
What about the Chinese teacher of English? A resource long known to be often “less than perfect” with regard to native-like English abilities and yet nevertheless a crucial component of the educational system, is not even a part of the discussion these ads are trying to create. Rather, it’s a matter of where your foreign teacher is from and how professional he is.
I’m really curious if there is enough of the right kind of labor in North America and Europe to keep these business models afloat in the long-term. I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder building and maintaining a team of online freelance English teachers when those teachers are not Chinese or physically in China.
The Avengers: Infinity War finally hit theaters in China this past weekend. (You might say it was a hit.) Tired of carefully avoiding spoilers, I was among the first in China to see it. Since it’s come out, I’m enjoying the cultural impact and various manifestations of the Chinese perspective on the movie, from Avengers-themed WeChat stickers (with Chinese text) to hilarious Photoshop jobs.
Here’s one I enjoyed (mild spoilers, sort of?):
(I would credit the original source, but I can’t read the watermark.)
The Chinese reads:
- 超神: super-god
- 很厉害: very impressive
- 有帮上忙: were able to help
- 尽力了: really tried
- 废物: useless
- 一坨屎: pile of crap
Love the Chinese bluntness!
As for Thanos, what’s going to be the Chinese perspective on a “mad titan” that wants to take out half the population of the universe? That actually sounds quite familiar to citizens of a country with population issues of its own! So you get this:
If you can’t get family planning right, no purple yams for you!
There’s a certain type of question, phrased in the negative, which is answered entirely differently depending on the conventions of the language you’re speaking in. Take this English language exchange for example:
A: You’re not going?
B: No. (I’m not going.)
In English, we say no to the idea of going. Not going, therefore “no.”
Chinese works differently, however:
A: [You’re not going?] 你不去了？
B: [Yeah. (I’m not going.)] 嗯。（我不去了。）
In Chinese, we say yes to the statement itself. “Not going” is correct, therefore “yes.”
This is all fairly well-known stuff. Any English teacher in China is well aware of this issue, and hopefully anyone learning Chinese is as well. Even after you know about this difference, though, it takes some getting used to. You have to think about it for a while.
What I didn’t expect is that this seems to be just as hard for my bilingual kids. Both of my kids attend all-Chinese kindergarten, but I speak with them entirely in English at home. For the most part, they’re quite fluent in English for their ages, but occasionally Chinglish creeps in a little. How they respond to negative questions is another example of this: they respond the Chinese way.
So I’m constantly having conversations like this:
A: You’re not going?
A: You mean “no, I’m not going,” or “yes, I am going?”
B: No, I’m not going.
Not a big deal, but my 3-year-old is especially stubborn about answering these questions the Chinese way. He’ll get it eventually, though.
Still, if you’re feeling annoyed as a learner of Chinese that these are still tripping you up, you may take some consolation that even children, who supposedly “absorb language effortlessly like a sponge,” struggle with this. The big difference is that they don’t get discouraged, and they never ever give up.
Check out the English name of this little shop:
“Born Fried” is almost certainly an overly literal character-by-character translation of 生煎, a kind of bready, fried stuffed bun. Wikipedia describes it like this:
…a type of small, pan-fried baozi (steamed buns) which is a specialty of Shanghai. It is usually filled with pork and gelatin that melts into soup/liquid when cooked. Shengjian mantou has been one of the most common breakfast items in Shanghai since the early 1900s. As a ubiquitous breakfast item, it has a significant place in Shanghainese culture.
That same page gives the literal translation “raw-fried” for 生煎. Still, there’s something about “Born Fried”… it has a cool ring to it.
In case you’re not familiar with this little joyful celebration of grease, here are a few photos from Flickr (not my own; click through for the photographer’s photos):
This ad (spotted in the Shanghai Metro) is interesting for a number of reasons:
What caught my attention was the font. “Blocky” (sometimes pixely) fonts are quite common, but I’ve never seen one so “spaced out” like this before. Yet the word 流行 (“popular”) is clearly visible.
And I didn’t even realize it at first, but the word 流行 is also written backwards! This is not something I have seen before, and I’m not sure what the intended effect is. (Maybe if I were a fan I’d get it?)
Nice of the poster to include the pinyin for 流行 (liúxíng), though!
Chris Lee is the English name for Li Yuchun (李宇春), which some of the older “China watcher” crowd might remember for her rise to prominence on the popular “Super Girl” singing competition in 2005.
I’m not a history buff. I recognize it’s important to study history, and that no educated person should be ignorant of history. So while I do read about Chinese history, I don’t do it a lot. But every time I do pick up a Chinese history book, one of the things that drives me crazy about books on this topic is that so often there are no Chinese characters given for important names. (Or characters are given, but no pinyin.) Is this so hard?
China Simplified has a new book out called History Flashback. It’s a fun read, beautifully illustrated, and it’s actually pretty short! How does one condense “5000 years” of Chinese history into only 200 pages? Well, it’s possible. And although the book does a pretty good job of providing characters and pinyin for the Chinese names and other words mentioned, it seemed like a good starting point for a list of “essential Chinese history terms.”
So using this book as a starting point, my company AllSet Learning teamed up with China Simplified to create this handy list of 100 Chinese History Keywords. It’s a free PDF; no signup needed. Just download.
It was hard narrowing the original candidate list of 500 or so to only 100, but I think we did OK. What do you think? Are there any glaring omissions that an intermediate learner would really want?
Apr. 26 Update: We had a repeat word in the original list. It’s been removed, and we’re still at 100!
After you’re done admiring the map, check out the character 菜 at the bottom:
(Sidenote! I have to wonder: why didn’t they choose to use chopsticks instead of a fork?)
菜 can mean “a dish (at a meal),” or “vegetables,” or even just “food,” depending on context. Here, the text reads:
The ad uses a common idiom. 是我的菜 means “is to my liking” or, oddly enough, “is my cup of tea.”
Interesting enough, it’s super common to use this expression with relation to romantic attraction:
- 你是我的菜 (You’re my type)
- 你不是我的菜 (You’re not my type)
This is a great expression to learn early on because it’s fun, instantly comprehensible, easy to use, and uses only basic words and characters.
China had its Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节) last week, and that meant a three-day national holiday from Thursday, April 5 to Saturday, April 7 this year. (And then we were all supposed to work on Sunday to “make up for” one of those days off.)
The Chinese name for “Tomb Sweeping Day,” 清明节, is a little opaque. Both the characters 清 and 明 are pretty easy, but what do they mean together? “Pure Bright Festival?” Huh? And what does that have to do with sweeping a tomb?
Well, 清明 is “the name of the 5th solar term of the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar,” according to Wikipedia. (Sorry, that wasn’t super interesting.)
I’m more interested in the tomb sweeping tradition. A day when the whole family, young and old, goes to visits the grave sites of their ancestors. What a great time to tell stories about these people, and to ensure that this aspect of Chinese culture stays alive and well.
The thing is, in Shanghai at least, I don’t see or hear about much activity surrounding actually visiting the graves of family members to 扫墓 (sweep the tombs), or at least not on 清明节 itself. What gives? Do people simply not care anymore?
I’ve spoken with a number of friends and family members on this topic, and this is what I’m hearing:
- I used to go with my family when I was young, but now that I’m grown up in working in Shanghai (far away from my hometown), I don’t go anymore.
- My mother goes for the whole family and sweeps the tombs.
- My mother goes for the whole family, but not on the holiday; there’s too much traffic on the roads. She goes a week in advance.
- In Beijing the locals all go.
Here are a few Chinese posts online, showing that there is some uncertainty out there among the younger people:
- 有没有人和我一样 从来不去扫墓的 (is anyone else the same as me, and never goes tomb sweeping)
- 每年都去扫墓，就是孝顺了吗？ (is going tomb sweeping every year filial piety?
- 我该不该跟爸爸一起去扫墓烧香？ (should I go with my dad to tomb sweep and burn incense?
Probably one of the most significant events that impacted how this holiday is observed was its being suppressed in the past as “superstition” or overly traditional and backward. It’s only been officially recognized by the government again since 2008, so the holiday has needed time to make a comeback. At the same time, when people live across the country from where their ancestors are buried, it’s not realistic to visit a far-off tomb over a 3-day holiday.
I think one thing that put this holiday in perspective for me was thinking about how Americans observe Memorial Day. Sure, some people make a point of honoring the fallen soldiers, but a lot of people just enjoy a day off and have a barbecue. I like to think that the Chinese take Tomb Sweeping Day a little more seriously, though. It’s about family, after all.
For those of you in China, did you notice many of your young-ish friends making a point to go tomb sweeping this year?
While perhaps not the cleverest characterplay, I like this treatment of the character 城, which means “city” (as in 城市), or sometimes “wall” (as in 长城). The phrase 不夜城 (literally, “not night city”) is similar to “the city that never sleeps.”
The text is:
Note: The way that “Cloud Nine Mall” (龍之梦) is written breaks the “golden rule” that I learned in Chinese 101: Either write entirely in simplified characters or write entirely in traditional characters. Never mix the two. The simplified dragon character 龙 is written using the traditional 龍. “食代” is a pun on 时代.
Saw this ad on the Shanghai Metro:
The top line of the text is a definition of the English word “carry,” used in the ad copy below:
*注：CARRY = 带领、支撑
Here’s a tip: if you need to define the foreign word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t belong in your ad.
Children with Down syndrome (唐氏综合征) are rarely seen in China, but it’s becoming more common. Still, I was surprised to see this ad in the Shanghai subway last year:
The ad is spreading the idea that those with Down syndrome can still do some kinds of work and deserve our consideration.
The word 喜憨儿 is not a common one. It apparently comes from Taiwan, and is used to affectionately refer to people affected with Down syndrome, while hinting at the condition.
This year I spotted this other billboard in the subway:
The ad is advocating paying attention to migrant workers’ health.
流动人口 refers to the “migrant worker population” in big Chinese cities like Shanghai. Their jobs are hard, their pay is low, they have little job security and few benefits (if any), and on top of that, they’re discriminated against. The Chinese word more often used to refer to these people is 农民工. In Florida we have “migrant workers” (usually Mexican), but in the Chinese case, these workers are actual Chinese citizens.
I was in Gulangyu (鼓浪屿), Xiamen (厦门) again over the CNY break, and I noticed some interesting designs using characters:
This one is a cafe/bar called 东西, which, aside from meaning “thing” or “stuff,” also literally means “east-west.” The fusion is looking pretty intimate in this design.
These three characters (not the two small ones at bottom right) are quite cryptic on this sign! Here’s how the same name is written in another place:
The name is 那些年 (“Those Years”). Can you see those three characters in the previous sign?
Finally, a very simple characterplay on the character 信:
Over Christmas in Florida, my dad gave my son (then not quite three years old) a set of wooden blocks. What’s interesting is that these were Chinese character blocks, featuring both Chinese characters and their stroke orders. And these were made in the USA! (Must have been one of the few toys my kids got for Christmas that wasn’t made in China, and it was a set of Chinese character blocks.)
We couldn’t fit such a heavy toy in our luggage on the trip back, so my dad shipped them over for us: Chinese blocks, made in the USA, shipped from the USA to China. Irony level up!
These are apparently “Uncle Goose” brand wooden blocks, but the ones we have look different from what’s on Amazon. I like ours better… they look like these, and have a map of China on the back, as well as a cool dragon and stuff.
I’m on day 3 of a pretty heinous fever flu thing, and day 2 brought me to a Chinese hospital, late at night. Not an international hospital, but a pretty decent public one. Chinese hospitals are hard because there are always so many people there, and the process is broken down into multiple steps, most of which require taking a number and waiting. So you spend a lot of time waiting with a lot of other sick people. Not fun.
This time, however, I was struck by how patient and professional my doctor was. So often, the doctors are pretty stressed out, seeing cranky patient after cranky patient in a never-ending stream of patients. So the doctors are testy and not terrible forthcoming with information. While this is understandable, it’s certainly not a good experience for a sick person and their concerned family members. And when you get a professional, patient doctor, you really take notice.
I don’t think it’s easy to become a doctor in any country, but in China, the reward for the dedication seems especially paltry. Or, if “helping people,” is all you ever wanted, and that feeling is like a refreshing sip of cool water, you’re suddenly getting a firehose in the face.
I’d be curious to hear the opinion of anyone familiar with both systems: is it way harder to be a Chinese doctor? Is it less rewarding financially? I know it’s not easy being a doctor in any society, but I have trouble imagining either of those answers being “no.”
My daughter is 6 years old now, and aside from yearly trips to Florida, she’s grown up entirely in Shanghai. Her school is a Chinese school, not an international or bilingual school, when means that I’ve had to make extra efforts if I want her to grow up bilingual. I’ve always practiced “One Parent One Language” (“OPOL”), meaning that I never speak to my daughter in Chinese, even though I’m observing her acquisition of both Chinese and English with keen interest.
I’ve written about my daughter’s acquisition of Chinese grammar in the past, but today I want to comment on how her mastery of English has been affected by her Chinese acquisition and mostly Chinese environment.
Since she’s grown up in Shanghai and attends a school where Mandarin is spoken most of the time, it’s safe to assume that my daughter’s Chinese language skills are going to be a bit more dominant. For example, I get the feeling that she’s mastering irregular verbs a bit more slowly than American kids might. I’m not worried about it; her accent is fine, and she sounds like an American 6-year-old most of the time. I’ve certainly never felt she was making mistakes that Chinese learners of English might make. …until recently.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my daughter confuses the words “make” and “let” in her English. This is a mistake frequently made by Chinese learners of English. In Chinese, 让 has both meanings, and context makes the rest clear. In English, if you don’t get these words straight, your English sounds quite weird (and non-native). So I definitely took notice when my daughter said things like:
- *”She was really mean, and let me cry.”
- *”He always lets me laugh.”
- *”What you said let me angry.”
In every case, the word “make” should be used, and the word “let” is used instead. (I’ve never observed the confusion going in the other direction.) She’s generally receptive to corrections of her English (she catches on pretty quickly when I correct her on her usage of irregular verbs, for example), but this one has been a bit more stubborn.
I’m curious: do any monolingual (or at least not growing up in China) English-speaking kids make this mistake? Or is it something particular to this situation? I expect it will works its way out in time, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing happens with my son (who is now 3).
One of the interesting things about living in Shanghai is seeing new technology integrated into daily life across the city fairly quickly. Two significant recent examples include mobile payments (WeChat, AliPay) and bike sharing (Mobike, Ofo). But WeChat is enabling lots of other cool changes as well.
The other day I went to Burger King and there was a fairly long line.
I noticed this banner telling me to scan the QR code and order on my phone to skip the line:
I don’t always go for this kind of thing, as sometimes the “quick and convenient” way ends up being more hassle (the Shanghai Metro’s recent launch of QR codes for subway ticket payments is a great example of that). But this time I decided to give it a shot.
It was, indeed, easy and fast, and I think I got my order sooner than I would have had I stayed in line.
It was pretty clear to me that Burger King is essentially using the same system used to prepare orders for delivery guys: the user orders on the app, and the delivery guy picks it up in the window. This implementation is simply combining the two for one user. And it utilizes WeChat, so it’s not even a totally separate iOS or Android app. The only flaw I saw was that it didn’t auto-detect which store I was in; I had to choose it. Had I accidentally chosen the wrong location, that would have been quite annoying for both sides.
Still, interesting to see this. McDonalds in Shanghai has had touchscreen order kiosks for a while, but shifting the ordering to WeChat (which virtually every consumer in Shanghai uses) adds a new level of convenience.
You hear a lot about the “work-life balance,” and what I want to discuss here is similar, but related to Chinese learning, of course. I’m drawing upon my own experience, as well as the experience of hundreds of clients at AllSet Learning, most of whom are learning Chinese for work-related reasons. Since most of my clients live and work in China, we’re talking about a natural second language learning situation (learning while immersed in the target language environment). Theoretically, at least, they could be using Chinese for their work, in some capacity.
Hence the term “work-Chinese balance.” If you live and work in China, how much do you use Chinese on the job? The answer could range from not using a word of Chinese ever (this is quite common for expat executives working for multinational corporations in Shanghai, for example) to using Chinese all day every day as part of the job.
It should come as no surprise that regularly using Chinese on the job results in much faster learning. Combine that with a practical, customized course of study focused on their work content, and progress can be extremely rapid. This is what I strive to help each of my clients achieve.
Can I have some Venn diagrams with that?
Time to Venn it up! Before getting into my own personal situation, let me just lay out some possible scenarios.
For many of my clients, they can use some Chinese on the job. The challenge is to use their Chinese more effectively, and to expand the scope of work which can be performed in Chinese. So it’s common to have this kind of situation, where some Chinese is used at work, but a lot of Chinese practice happens outside of the work place, and a lot of work is performed in English (or at least, not Chinese):
Worst case scenario is where the client doesn’t use Chinese for work at all, and maybe doesn’t practice much outside of work either (sizes are not meant to be exactly proportional here):
It’s also possible that a client could ONLY use Chinese at work, but only for part of the job:
The opposite would be rarer: the client basically lives in Chinese, and that includes work. (Someone in a situation like this probably already has quite advanced Chinese. This situation would be more common for, say, an immigrant to the USA learning English than an expat in China learning Chinese.)
My Own Work-Chinese Evolution
I thought it would be interesting to chart my own work-Chinese evolution, since I’ve succeeded in gradually integrating Chinese into my career more and more over the years, and it helped me get my Chinese up to a high level. Let’s take a look…
When I first arrived in China I taught English in Hangzhou. I didn’t use any Chinese for my job, but I actually didn’t work a lot of hours every week, so I spent a ton of time studying and practicing Chinese in my free time.
After moving to Shanghai in 2004 I worked for a company called Melody. I was building on my English teaching experience, but starting to work Chinese into my job. This was an exciting time, and I made full use of the opportunities. My Chinese improved a lot, and I even had to speak Chinese on stage, in front of hundreds of teachers, for pronunciation training. A little pressure can be good!
I had to work hard to get into a Chinese grad school program in applied linguistics, and once I did it, I switched to a part-time job doing translation. This was good reading comprehension practice for me, but since I was producing written English and not speaking Chinese, I don’t consider it full “work immersion,” and for the purposes of this article I’m more concerned with speaking. You could also say that my grad school coursework was my full-time “job” at the time (I was on a student visa), and for that, I was fully immersed in Chinese. I got more listening and reading practice than anything, but it was still beneficial to my development, especially in sophisticating my vocabulary and upgrading my academic reading comprehension to adult-level.
Next came my 7+ year stint at ChinesePod. This was a lot of fun, and although I used a fair amount of English to communicate with upper management and other non-Chinese staff, I was also immersed in Chinese for most of my work. I got to geek out discussing linguistic issues on a regular basis. I was able to really flesh out my knowledge of Chinese, making it much more detailed. As a non-native speaker in the industry of teaching Chinese, the constant and long-term incrementing of my metalinguistic knowledge of Mandarin was super useful. I also got to have fun directing the creation of tons of lessons, which had its own learning benefits (frequently cultural).
Finally, I arrive at my current job at AllSet Learning. As a consultant, I’m in frequent contact with my clients, including face to face meetings, and most of that is in English. I also manage all the development of resources like the Chinese Grammar Wiki in English. But a ton of my work is spent working with Chinese teachers and other staff in Chinese. This also includes tasks like teacher training.
As the boss, I actually have control of what I do and what I use Chinese for. I made a choice early on for all office communications to be in Chinese, and I continue to benefit from this (you really never stop learning, as long as you keep paying attention). I even talk to our non-Chinese interns in Chinese! (OK, we do also have some English meetings outside the office.)
If you’re living and working in China, definitely give some thought to your own work-Chinese balance. It could make all the difference.
If you’re learning Chinese outside of China, all is not lost. This isn’t the only path, but it can be the most straightforward. (On the other hand, if you did something radical and got a job in China, then you could pursue something like this, and you wouldn’t be the first to be so “crazy.”)
For a related post on mixing “practice” (often work) and “study,” see also: How I Learned Chinese (part 4).
This ad made me wonder: cultural differences aside, is the bandwagon effect stronger in China because there’s a larger population? Similarly, is the bandwagon effect more powerful when used in advertising in China?
The ad reads:
200 million Chinese people use Miss Fresh
The brand name is 每日优鲜, which could be translated to something like “Daily Excellent Fresh.” But then they called themselves “Miss Fresh” in English, so that’s the name I used.