Dec 2005

Chinese Kid Art

Kid art! Dontcha just love it? I mean, how can you not get some interesting results when you combine children’s undeveloped fine motor skills, a severely incomplete understanding of the world in virtually every aspect, and ART? It’s a clear recipe for entertainment, I say. Sure, you may get the occasional four-year-old’s disgustingly pathetic attempts at cubism, but you also get some real gems.

About a year ago, a kindergarten gave me a pack of postcards which were made from their students’ artwork. It’s actually some really innovative work. The design company, “Redo Studio” (上海瑞德美术设计有限公司), created most postcards by combining several children’s artwork and adding fancy Photoshop effects. The results are worth a peek. I scanned them and put them in a new “Chinese Kids’ Art” Flickr album. Some sample thumbnails:

头头是道 对对碰 海底总动员 亮眼睛看世界

I was briefly tempted to do Maddox-style art evaluation, but apparently I’m just not that mean. Plus I really do think these postcards are a cool idea.


Dec 2005

Exploding Dog in Chinese News

Have you ever heard of Exploding Dog? It’s a website where Sam Brown, the artist, takes suggestions for titles, then turns them into simple, awkward drawings that can leave quite an impression. I’ve known about Exploding Dog since way before my more recent affair with webcomics, and I’ve even linked to it here once (wow, that old entry feels a little embarrassing now…).


Exploding Dog

Anyone at all familiar with Exploding Dog knows that although the drawings are very simple, they have a very distinctive style. Therefore when 21st Century (China Daily’s youth-oriented English language newspaper) put an Exploding Dog illustration on its front cover, it wasn’t hard to recognize. The use of the image was not approved. The illustration is only marginally relevant to the text beside it, and Exploding Dog isn’t featured anywhere else in that issue.

21st Century: cover

Click on the image at the right to see a larger image of the newspaper cover featuring the Exploding Dog art. Apparently someone removed the text from the original artwork and then did a mirror image of it.

Ah, plagiarism in Chinese news. Not news, really. I just happened to notice it this time because, being an “old-timer China blogger” I was interviewed for that edition. My painstakingly crafted interview responses were then trimmed way down and branded “EASY.” Heh. Take a look.


Dec 2005

Shanghai Education Story

Recently I was discussing the Chinese education system with a Shanghainese friend, and she told told me a story. [Note: This is just one person’s story, not a blanket generalization. I’m sharing it because I found it interesting.]

When I was in fifth grade, there were two girls that were at the top of the class. One of them was my friend. The other was the teacher’s favorite. I remember that there was a big test, and my friend got an amazing score of 98%. The other girl had earned a 95%, but the teacher had given her five extra “neatness points” giving her 100%.

I really didn’t think that was fair, so in front of everyone, I pointed out to the teacher that my friend’s test paper was every bit as neat as the other girl’s, and if it weren’t for those five extra “neatness points” my friend would have the highest score in class. The teacher rewarded my sense of justice by making me stand for the rest of the class.

When I went home, I told my mom about the incident. She told me that I shouldn’t have opposed the teacher, and that I had a lot to learn.

Chatting in that coffee shop, I had felt quite at ease. But then when my friend came out with that story, I suddenly felt so foreign again.


Dec 2005

Christmas Classics in Cantonese

About a year ago I presented a Hakka version of Jingle Bells and a lot of people enjoyed it. I thought this year I’d share another Chinese take on the Christmas classics. This time it’s a band called Cookies (曲奇) singing in Cantonese (so to me it sounds almost as bizarre as the Hakka song). You have to listen to a bit of Canto-pop before they get into it, but at the 1:26 mark they start singing to the tune of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” followed immediately by “Jingle Bells,” then “Joy to the World,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Deck the Halls,” “Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and finally “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (don’t be alarmed when they only slip into English briefly during those last two). It all has a very bizarre Canto-pop hyperactive feel to it.

You can find and download the song easily through Baidu; just follow this 曲奇圣诞歌 search link, then either click on one of the 试听 (“listen first”) links, or click on one of the song titles and then download the song from the MP3 link on the new page.

While I’m at it, I thought I’d throw in some Chinese Christmas flash fun as well. Check out these links (also found through Baidu):

– What do Santa Claus and a skiing alien accompanied by snow pigs have in common? Watch this “origin of Santa Claus” cartoon to find out.
Chinese Jingle Bells Rap. Nuff said.
圣诞结 (that’s someone else’s pun, not my 错别字), the most depressing Christmas song ever. It has lyrics like, “of all the people I’ve loved / not a single one is left by my side / only loneliness keeps me company throughout the night / Merry, Merry Christmas / Lonely, Lonely Christmas.” On this joyous holiday, this is a great song to remind you how miserable it makes some people. (Note that for many modern Chinese, Christmas is seen as a day to be with a boyfriend/girlfriend).
Hit Santa with a Snowball. This game is not fun, it’s just hilarious to me because the animation is so awful and the “music” has about a 3 second loop. Well, that and the fact that you get presents out of Santa by knocking him silly with snowballs.
Santa does Mission Impossible. And also some Chinese song covers.

Merry Christmas!


Dec 2005

More Christmas Than You

Recently I set up the little artificial Christmas tree my girlfriend bought for my last year. When I went to put the Christmas lights on it, I found that one of the wires had come disconnected from the switchbox. I probably wouldn’t be able to fix it without a soldering iron. Since I didn’t have time to get new Christmas lights, I just left the tree plain.

The next day my ayi came over and I pointed out the Christmas tree to her. I thought maybe she hadn’t seen a Christmas tree in someone’s home before. She proceeded to good-naturedly advise me that it was too bare, and I should get more ornaments and lights to decorate it properly. I just smiled and agreed with her.

ECNU Chinese Dep. Teachers

ECNU teachers

On Wednesday I went to a party for the Chinese department teachers of ECNU. (I’ve been teaching them English at their request, and it seemed like a good excuse for a party). The party was held in the nice home of one of the teachers. She had a real Christmas tree! It was the planted kind, and it was decorated in a simple but nice European style.

I had wanted to buy eggnog to share at the party, and I was pretty sure it could be bought at City Supermarket, but it turned out that City Supermarket had no holiday foods at all. Same goes for 久光, the supermarket near Jing’an Temple that carries mostly Japanese imports. Both supermarkets were fully decked out in Christmas decorations, but neither contained a single Christmas-themed food or drink item. Even Starbucks, with its overpriced (158 RMB, I think?) gingerbread house had more to offer. So instead of eggnog I took a bottle of Bailey’s I had been saving for a special occasion.

The party was briefly educational because I brought the mini Nativity scene that my parents gave me about two years ago. I explained who each figure was, and they all got a kick out of the cute little figurines.

X'mas at Plaza 66

via ShanghaiStreets

It seems like the department stores in Shanghai are getting more and more lavish in their Christmas decorations with each passing year. The things are really getting huge. Plaza 66 (a mall on Nanjing Road) has even set up a Christmas ferris wheel. Each “seat” is a case holding some overpriced bag or other item, and the whole things slowly turns, showing off the mall’s expensive offerings.

I guess maybe it’s because of all the over-the-top decorations everywhere that I am very content this year with an under-decorated tree and a very simple Christmas celebration.

Anyway, Merry Christmas!


Dec 2005

Jam = Tea?

In the past few months I’ve discovered a weird new kind of tea. At first I thought the people drinking it were just freaks. I watched some people scooping out spoonfuls of what appeared to be jam, schlopping it into mugs, adding hot water, stirring it up real good, and drinking it. I was shocked by this behavior. Clearly, jam is meant for bread and crescent rolls and such, not hot water.

Citron Tea

Citron Tea

These people explained to me, however, that the stuff in the jar was not jam. It was, in fact, tea. This kind of tea comes from Korea, I understand. The most popular flavor is “citron tea.” It’s made with honey. I dunno… looks like jam to me.

So I tried this so-called “tea” and I found it really good! It’s sweet, like the “fruit tea” (I think it’s just Kool-aid) you get in teahouses. When you get to the bottom of your cup, there’s always these grapefruit shreds. They’re pretty tasty too.

The scientist in me has this urge to find out just how different this “tea” is from jam. That would probably involve spreading it on a piece of bread. Either that or adding some real jam to hot water and drinking it. But I don’t think I want to do that… My passion for science has its limits.

[Update: I got brave and tried mixing lemon jelly with hot water. I like it! It’s like the lemon-y water that some cafes serve, with a bit of sweetness. Or like watered down hot lemonade.]


Dec 2005

My Chengyu Top Ten

I was talking to John B recently about his latest project: It involves chengyu (成语), those special (usually) four-character Chinese idioms. It got me to thinking about the study of chengyu and their relevance to Chinese study. I’m of the opinion that chengyu study is not crucial at the early stages, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to pick a few up early, either. I view chengyu as sort of the icing on the Chinese ability cake. Yeah, they’re nice and all, but you better have the cake to put the icing on!

Anyway, I decided to put together a list of what I consider the “top ten chengyu.” My top ten is determined by what I think a beginner/intermediate student is most likely to hear in conversation in China. I consider these ten the most useful, and the easiest to use.

Top Ten Chengyu

1. 乱七八糟 – be in a mess. This one is so common that I hardly even think of it as a chengyu. It’s used all the time, particularly for physical states of disorder. If your room is messy, you can say it’s 乱七八糟. If the road is being repaired, it’s gonna be 乱七八糟. I once even heard a Chinese person say that someone “长得乱七八糟” (looks like a mess). Learn this chengyu right away.

2. 入乡随俗 – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. This one is extremely useful because as a foreigner in China, it applies to so many aspects of your life. Plus, it’s really easy to use because it’s basically a sentence by itself. You can use it as an explanation for why you use chopsticks, or why you prefer to speak in Chinese, or why you ride a bike everywhere in China. You will almost always get an appreciative grin from this explanation.

3. 胡说八道 – talk nonsense. This is another one you hear so often that it barely feels like a chengyu. It’s also really easy to use. When someone is trying to make some absolutely ridiculous point that you will not stand for, you can just blurt out, “胡说八道!” Or you can directly tell someone to cut the crap by telling them “别胡说八道!” Simple.

4. 不可思议 – inconceivable. I’m not sure if this was the translation used for all those lines in The Princess Bride, but it very well could have been. The one is used quite often, and can also be used as an exclamation all by itself.

5. 莫名其妙 – be baffled (usually used as a criticism). This one can be used in several ways. It can be used as a semi-independent sentence: “我不知道他在想什么。莫名其妙!” (I don’t know what he’s thinking. Crazy!). It can be used like an adjective: “莫名其妙的女人” (a baffling woman). It can be used as a complement, as in Wenlin’s example: “我被问得莫名其妙” (I was baffled by the question).

6. 半途而废 – give up halfway. This second half of the list is decidedly less useful than the first half, but still well worth learning. This one is pretty straightforward. You use it like a verb: “我不想半途而废” (I don’t want to give up halfway). You could also use it to accuse someone: “你总是半途而废!” (you never finish what you start!).

7. 一塌糊涂in a total mess. This one is very similar to 乱七八糟 (#1), but it’s less common and usually more abstract in nature. It also tends to emphasize that the mess is the result of some other action. So you see a lot of uses like: “弄得一塌糊涂” (make a total mess of it).

8. 万事如意 – may all your wishes come true. Yeah, this may sound mighty cheesey to Westerner, but it’s said quite a bit in China — especially at Chinese New Year. It’s easy to use… it can be a sentence in itself, or you can add two characters to the front: “祝你万事如意!”

9. 一路平安 – have a safe trip. This one should be used on trips of considerable distance (i.e. not for a 10 minute bus ride), but you’ll find it quite useful. This is not the only way to express this sentiment (there’s also 一路顺风, for example), but it’s the easiest for the beginner to learn. You can use it as a sentence in itself, or add two characters to the front: “祝你一路平安!”

10. 能者多劳 – the capable should do more work. This one is not extremely common, but it’s so useful that I had to include it. You use this sentence to justify making someone do more/extra work, while flattering them at the same time. It’s great! You can also use it to comfort yourself when someone is pushing more work on you and you can’t get out of it.

I’d be interested to hear what chengyu readers think should be included in a top ten. Remember, my criteria are: (1) used in spoken conversation, (2) useful for foreigners, and (3) easy to use.


Dec 2005

The Ayi System

Assuming that you’ve given it some thought and decided to hire an ayi (housekeeper), you might still be unsure how this whole thing works. I’ll try to answer a few questions based on my own experiences.

How do you find an ayi?

The first way is the referral system. People that have found a good ayi usually love to recommend her. Most ayis need multiple jobs to make a decent living, so they welcome the introductions. People also enjoy the satisfaction of “discovering” a great ayi and connecting her with new clients. You could ask foreign friends, Chinese friends, co-workers… even the administrative office of your apartment complex might be able to help you out with this (although it won’t necessarily be free).

The second way is through agencies. They might not be immediately obvious to you. They won’t have big “Ayis Are Us” neon signs. Most of these agencies are very small businesses tucked away in a tiny office. Your apartment complex might offer this kind of service, so it’s a good place to start looking. The independent offices will usually have a sign out containing the word 家政, which means “house management” (housekeeping). Most often the sign will read 家政服务 (housekeeping services). Their services cover typical housecleaning and cooking.

Basically, you just walk in and tell the administrator in the office that you need an ayi. You will need to explain what tasks (typically cleaning and/or cooking) you need an ayi to do for you, at what time(s), and how often. You may be asked how much you’re willing to pay, so you should find out the going rate for your city in advance. (As I mentioned perviously, in Shanghai the going rate is 6-8 RMB/hour.) You will need to give your name and a phone number for them to contact you. You will have to pay a service fee. I have gone through this procedure twice in Shanghai. The first time the service fee was 50 RMB (in Jing’an District). The second time it was 30 RMB (in Changning District). Hold on to your service fee receipt, because you need it to exercise your right to get another ayi if the first one doesn’t work out for whatever reason.

After the initial matchmaking, the relationship is out of the agency’s hands and between you and your ayi. There’s no need to ever go back to the agency if there are no problems.

How do I pay my ayi?

Officially, ayis are seen as a kind of 钟点工 — a wage worker. That’s where the 6-8 RMB/hour comes in. In practice, though, it’s usually much more convenient to pay your ayi a fixed amount monthly. This monthly payment method is called 包月. Both systems can have problems.

The hourly system encourages slow work. I think this is pretty obvious. Why should the ayi wear herself out doing work quickly when that just means she gets paid less? Most ayis will not overdo this trick, but don’t expect snappy cleaning when you’re paying by the hour.

The monthly system encourages fast work. I paid my first ayi in Shanghai on a monthly basis. At first everything went well. She was a pretty good cook. But there were no absolute hours specified from the get-go. It was more of a “come and cook, and then do a bit of cleaning” arrangement. As time passed however, she started leaving earlier and earlier. The “cook and clean” routine went from two hours each time to barely over an hour. Her cleaning efficiency suffered quite a bit.

I think the best balance is to pay monthly, but insist on fixed hours. It was my mistake for not doing this. I’m sure my ayi was trying to finish quickly so she could rush off to another job. I don’t really blame her, but I think I made a rookie mistake. If your ayi knows she has to stay for a certain amount of time, there’s no temptation to do a sloppy job in order to leave earlier. I think it’s also a good idea to make the monthly payment a bit more than just the hourly rate multiplied by the total number of working hours per month in order to keep your ayi happy.

The other option I haven’t mentioned is the live-in ayi. I have never tried this, so I don’t have any experience with it.

How does the cooking thing work?

The first problem is ingredients. If you go grocery shopping regularly, you might buy everything your ayi needs and maybe even have (Chinese) menus in mind. That’s fine. If you’re like me, though, you hire an ayi to save money as well as time. I prefer that my ayi buy the groceries she needs to cook. I give her “food money” (菜钱) pretty regularly, and she keeps track of how much she’s using for my groceries. If you want, she can leave that record with you. (It’s good to have not only to keep everything open, but also so you can have a clear picture of your food bill.)

Where your ayi buys groceries brings up another trust issue. If she buys groceries at the local vegetable market (菜场), she’s not going to have any receipts. You’re going to have to take her word for what she pays at the vegetable market. If you don’t want to do that, then you have to insist that she buy everything at the supermarket (超市), which provides a receipt. Assuming your ayi is honest, this will cost a little bit more.

Your ayi will be buying fresh ingredients every day, so I think it’s only fair to compensate her for the time she spends buying your food. I add about half an hour for shopping per day into the calculations.

As for what she cooks, expect only Chinese food. I know there are lots of ayis out there that know how to cook spaghetti and other Western dishes, but they’re typically well out of that 6-8 RMB range. I have always just made a list of the foods I don’t eat, and let my ayi determine the menu. I usually don’t have to tell her very often that I don’t like a dish (or to stop making a certain dish so often), and any time I think of something I’d like to eat, I can just ask her to add it to the menu. I imagine your ayi may be receptive to learning how to cook new dishes, but I’ve never tried that.

I probably make all this seem more complicated than it is. If you’re considering hiring an ayi, I recommend just trying it out and see what develops. The worst that’s likely to happen is a few bad meals.

This entry is part two of a series on ayis. See also: To Ayi or Not to Ayi, Farewell to Ayi, My Ayi Crush

Related blog entry elsewhere: Hiring an Ayi


Dec 2005


2002年我建立了China Blog List(“中国博客表”简称CBL)。CBL上的博客都是关于中国,用英语写的博客。有的是中国人写的,但大部分是生活在中国的外国人写的。原来CBL在华结这个网站上,但今年它已经独立了,有了自己的网站

CBL独立之后有些新加的内容。首先它现在还有非英语写的博客,和英语写的博客分开。大多数是用法文写的,但还有用西班牙文、德文等写的。其次这个月也加了汉语为第二语言(Chinese as a Second Language,简称CSL)博客表。现在有十多个外国人用中文写博客,我不过是其中一个,也并不算写得很好的一个。请大家看一下CSL表。其中有不少好的博客,他们启发了我多写我的中文博客(亲爱的读者们,你们别绝望!)。



Dec 2005

Sweet Tomato Juice

There’s this brand of Chinese juice called 味全每日. The brand’s juice (and it actually is juice, instead of flavored water) is pretty good… with one exception. The tomato juice is sweet. At first I just thought that this is one of those little cultural differences I would get used to. I got used to sweet popcorn instead of salty popcorn, and I even like the stuff now. But no, there are some things you have to just declare vile and never look back. For me, sweet tomato juice is one of those things.

Sweet Tomato Juice

As long as I’m mentioning 味全每日 juice, I should mention another thing. This brand’s juice bottles have a special status here in China, especially among students. In the winter, when everyone is drinking boiling hot liquids nonstop all day long, many drinking containers are required, sometimes of the disposable (or at least extremely cheap) variety. You can’t use a regular plastic water bottle for that, because they crumple and shrivel when boiling water hits them. 味全每日 bottles, however, are nice — thick and sturdy. They hold even boiling water. Thus they can hold your hot drink, and simulataneously keep your hands warm without burning them (the plastic is just the right thickness). These bottles are the makeshift thermos/hand warmer of choice.

There’s only one problem. The inside of the bottle opening is quite rough. I find drinking from these bottles rather uncomfortable on my lips. Chinese friends don’t agree, though. Apparently I have wussy white man lips.

P.S. I had some technical difficulties yesterday related to vulnerabilities in old scripts I had left on my server. Yikes. With great scripting power must come great responsibility. Remember that, people!


Dec 2005

Mysteries of 鸡毛菜 Revealed

A little while ago I posted Micah’s “Wholesale Vegetable Prices” and there was some discussion as to what, exactly, 毛菜 (AKA 鸡毛菜) is. Well, just last night, as I started digging into what I thought was a tasty but otherwise ordinary dish of 香菇青菜 (Chinese greens with mushrooms), my ayi mentioned to me, “that’s 鸡毛菜, you know.” (I had asked her about it around the time of the veggie prices post, and she remembered me asking, so she mentioned it to me.) So I got a picture of it, since the internet apparently does not have enough pictures of this vegetable. 鸡毛菜 mystery… solved! Exciting!


Wow, I managed to get in another post related to my ayi in between a series of posts about ayis. What is with all this ayi-mania on Sinosplice lately?? I don’t know, but just let me get it out of my system. You can’t keep this sort of thing bottled up.


Dec 2005

To Ayi or Not to Ayi

Ayi (阿姨), among other things, means housekeeper/maid in Chinese. The word’s pronunciation is similar to saying the letters “I-E” in English, which results in occasional confusion with a certain outdated web browser by Microsoft (or very niche jokes).

Ayi” is a word that many foreigners learn soon after coming to China even if they pick up very little Chinese, simply because ayis are very affordable in China. The going rate for a non-pro ayi in Shanghai is 6-8 RMB per hour. [Ayis that work in this pay range are typically from out of town and don’t have any kind of special training.] If your salary in China affords you a rather comfortable lifestyle, why not hire an ayi, considering how cheap they are?

Well, it isn’t actually that simple. Here are some issues that complicate the matter:

You may not be able to get a good rate. The 6-8 RMB per hour that I specified is the going rate for Chinese people. If you’re not Chinese, don’t have Chinese people looking out for you, or don’t speak Chinese, you’re probably going to have a hard time just finding an ayi, let alone getting the going Chinese rate. The ads you see in free expat mags aren’t offering 6-8 RMB/hour ayis, I can assure you.

You may be uncomfortable hiring an ayi. I know some foreigners feel that hiring an ayi puts them into a position of power with vaguely imperialistic undertones. Or maybe they’re just uncomfortable having someone see their mess and/or clean it up. Or maybe they were raised to believe that cleanliness is a personal virtue that should not be delegated. Whatever the reason, I was a little surprised to find how many foreigners in China are opposed to hiring a housekeeper on purely non-economic grounds such as these.

You may have communication issues. If you want a cheap housekeeper but can’t communicate with her well, you’re asking for trouble. Ayis in the 6-8 RMB/hour range typically know “hello,” “bye-bye,” “OK” and that’s about it. This is great for Chinese practice which has the potential to expose you to other varieties of spoken Mandarin, but it may come with some misunderstandings. Can you explain to your ayi in Chinese when to come and when not to come, what to clean and what not to clean, not to use the rag she uses to wipe the floor to wash the dishes, which foods not to cook, how to adjust her cooking to your tastes, etc.? This can be worked out at the beginning with the help of a Chinese friend, but if you can’t personally communicate with your ayi, you really may start to feel like that imperialist overlord.

You may have trust issues. Will you always be home when your ayi comes? You may or may not need to give her a key. But then, you may not want to. Do you mind the ayi going through your stuff when she dusts? Personally, I think that most ayis are honest, hard-working people that just need to find work, but any large group of people is going to contain some of the less-honest variety. I think it’s important to know how you feel about this. I also feel that if any dishonesty is going to occur, it’s less likely to happen when there is free communication going on. In addition, inability to communicate could breed feelings of mistrust even when there is no real basis for it.

Now I’d just like to quickly go over where I personally stand on these issues.

In the past my ayi was arranged through an agency by my Chinese girlfriend. The last time, I arranged it myself. In both cases, I agreed to 8 RMB per hour, and then increased it a bit later to keep my ayi satisfied. I think a foreigner would really be pushing his luck to try to get a rate that’s low for the Chinese (6 RMB/hour in Shanghai, for example). It would breed resentment, as foreigners are often seen as rich, regardless of their real financial circumstances.

I’m not uncomfortable hiring an ayi. I do it to save money because I don’t cook much, and hiring an ayi to cook five days a week is cheaper then eating out a lot. I also see hiring an ayi as a positive contribution to the local economy. These people just really need work. I chat with my ayi and I’m never a jerk to her, so the relationship is good. So far, communication has not been a problem.

I have a roommate, and the way it works out for us, there’s always someone home when the ayi comes. So we don’t need to give her a key. We don’t watch her or anything; we have no reason to distrust her. Nothing has ever turned up “missing.”

Ayis may not be for every foreigner that lives in China, but hiring a housekeeper and the human relationship that comes with it can definitely enrich your understanding of Chinese culture, so it’s an option every foreigner in China should consider.

This entry is part one of a series on ayis. See also: The Ayi System, Farewell to Ayi, My Ayi Crush

Blog entries elsewhere on ayis:

Chinawhite: An Interesting few days, new Maid and new Chinese Teacher
KW in Shanghai: Hiring an Ayi – ethically sound?
Aussie In The Orient: When the Ayi Strikes Back


Dec 2005

Foreigners Blogging in Chinese

The phenomenon of foreigners blogging in Chinese was once extremely rare. I remember when I started back in early 2003 there didn’t seem to be anyone else doing it. Then Alaric came along and blogged in Chinese with dedication (something I’ve never pulled off). He has gained quite an online following. Then came Todd, offering Chinese readers similar dedication and a different point of view. Another very noteworthy blogger is Carlo. His written Chinese is superb. A friend of mine has even started up his own: 帅土包子曰.

I fully expect the number of foreigners blogging to continue to grow. There’s a name for these blogs: CSL (Chinese as a Second Language) blogs. Now, they have even made it into their own page on the China Blog List. Bloggers represented in the list come from Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

If you read Chinese, check out the CBL CSL list (RSS feed to come). If you’re studying Chinese, these bloggers just might inspire you.

A big thanks goes to Todd, who collected about half of the links in the list.


Dec 2005


Recently Andrea invited me to Douban. I had never heard of it, but I checked it out. My first impression was negative. Although it’s not a photo sharing service, the site’s design and “Web2.0” social networking structure was completely ripped off of Flickr. But I explored a little.

I found that I really liked Douban! The site allows you to share what books you are currently reading, what books you have read, and what books you’d like to read. Obviously, the real value is in the “sharing” aspect of it. It’s great to see what books your friends are reading. It’s also great to see that one of the books you want to read is currently being read by one of your friends also in Shanghai (that’s you, Phil!). It does all this with attractive book cover images and the same navigation that Flickr has made comfortable.

Douban also does the same thing for music albums. This is cool too, although I’m way more impressed by for my music Web2.0 social networking needs.

Douban was originally launched in Chinese (called 豆瓣), and has been so successful that it just launched this Beta English version. The Chinese version allows users to share movies in addition to books and music.

I think one of the things that impresses me most about Douban is that it started out as a Chinese service, and then it branched out to embrace an English-speaking audience. I’m not totally up on all the new Chinese websites (I would have known about Douban long ago if I were), but I’m of the opinion that this is rather rare. What you see much more often is something akin to what happened with Flickr. Flickr came up with a great new service. Some Chinese users embraced it, but before it could really catch on in China, a handful of Chinese companies copied and translated Flickr as best they could and released it to China. Most Chinese surfers would then go with the Chinese copy. Either they don’t know about the original, don’t care, or don’t want to bother with English. All understandable.

I think that the resulting division of the community is a real shame. If all the social digital photographers in China were using Flickr instead of whatever second rate Flickr clone they’re using, it could be a huge boon to the community. Furthermore, I think the Chinese users would really feel a difference, using the service of the original innovator instead of a poor imitation.

Even though Douban is not especially innovative (none of the ingredients of the site are new), the execution is good, and I like the effort of bridging to English. There’s even talk of merging the two systems, I hear. Not sure how that would work.

It makes me wonder, though… what can an innovative new service like Flickr do to avoid losing their potential Chinese audience to second rate imitators? The only solution I can think of is to release a Chinese language version of the site as early as possible (and make sure that the servers are fast in China too).

Read more about Douban on the great new blog China Web2.0 Review. (If you hadn’t heard about it elsewhere, you would have known about this blog a few days ago if you follow the new CBL additions.) China Web2.0 Review is part of the same network that does blog中文翻译.


Dec 2005

People Who Date Only Asians Comics

OK, so it only takes a tenuous link with China to make me link to Daily Dinosaur Comics. I love this webcomic! (Click the image below to read the whole thing.)

I’ll admit, this one isn’t particularly funny. But many of them are.

As for the real “people who date only Asians” discussion… I don’t really understand why anyone cares. (Cast your vote of disapproval for this boring topic by not commenting about it!)



Dec 2005

Chinese Character Mnemonics

John “I build an entirely new weblog every two months” Biesnecker has just put up an interesting article on his newest new weblog, My Chinese Life. The article deals with mnemonic devices for memorizing Chinese characters. (You probably want to read it before you continue if you want to understand fully what I discuss below.)

John talks about how he remembers the characters (“manure”) and (something like “business”). For the former, he uses the actual meanings of the character’s constituent parts: 米 and 共. For the latter, he assigns his own meaning to the character in order to remember it. Both work.

This mnemonic device thing is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time… I think most Chinese would be quick to suggest that students learn the actual etymologies of the characters in order to remember them, but in many cases, this task is ridiculously complex and just places more of a burden on the student. It reminds me of my Calc 2 teacher’s response when we asked if we could use a formula sheet for our tests: “why would you need a formula sheet? If you forget a formula, you can just derive it on the spot.”

An example of the complexities involved in using etymologies to memorize characters is the way that a human “hand” is written as part of many characters. Can you identify the seven components which each mean “hand” in the following four characters?

友 祭 授 手

If you can do it without some really lucky guessing, it means you know your Chinese character etymology. The problem is that the forces which created the modern Chinese character set were often not systematic, or at least not systematic enough to make memorization by etymology a simple matter.

The logical solution, then, is to use a mnemonic system not totally based on etymology. There are two approaches to this. One could take the “semi-etymological” approach to mnemonics by using the real Chinese meanings of the character components in mnemonic devices. For some characters (such as John’s example of 粪), this is not hard to do at all. Your mnemonic may very well be very similar to the logic of the character etymology. In this case, etymology is your ally. For other characters, however, this proves quite ineffective.

When studying the etymology and analyzing the meanings of the component parts doesn’t work for you, what can you do? Well, you could use some kind of rote memorization method, or you could try the other approach: the “to-hell-with-etymology” approach. In this approach, you make up your own meaning for the component parts (like John did for 商).

I first read about this method while I was studying in Japan. I discovered it in an excellent book by James W. Heisig called Remembering the Kanji. Heisig’s method for associating meaning with form readily abandons the original meaning of characters’ component parts if the original meaning does not aid in systematic memorization through simple mnemonics. It works, although the specific system Heisig developed for Japanese limps in a few areas.

I think that this concept of devising a self-consistent mnemonic system for remembering Chinese characters is the holy grail of Chinese character pedagogy, considered impossible (for very good reasons) by many. It’s a problem I hope to tackle down the road. There’s just got to be some systematic method of learning a large quantity of Chinese characters that’s better than rote memorization.


Dec 2005


She was tallying up my purchases. I saw that she had written 42. I pulled out a hundred RMB bill and two 1-RMB coins. I placed them on the counter.

“Do you have 6 jiao?” she said. “It’s 42.6.”

“Oh, 42.6!” I repeated. I had missed the amount after the decimal. I found that I didn’t have 6 jiao. So I gave her an extra 1-RMB coin and a 1-jiao coin.

She gave me a confused look. “What’s this for?” she asked, pushing back the one-jiao coin.

“Trust me,” I replied, pushing it back to her. “This way you can give me 60.5 in change.” (I don’t like carrying around the 1-jiao coins. I much prefer to have 5-jiao coins if I can.)

She didn’t think I knew what I was talking about. She started tapping away on her calculator. The figure 60.5 appeared.

“Wow!” she said. “You’re smart.”

“You haven’t been doing this job long, have you?” I asked. “Do it a while longer, and you’ll be thinking like this too.”

“But I always just use the calculator,” she told me.

“Well, maybe you could use your head more,” I replied.

She nodded and handed me my change: six 10-RMB bills and five 1-jiao coins.


Dec 2005

Spitting, Peeing, Snot Rockets, and Me (part 2)

My time in China has exposed me to my fair share of public spitting, peeing, and snot rocketing. Thoughtful fellow that I am, this makes me all introspective. What are the effects of five years of phlegm? How potent is the power that all that pissing poses to me, personally? Let us examine.


I hope I’m not disappointing anyone, but I’m not going to tell stories about Chinese people spitting on the floor or peeing in the living room. This is about me. And I don’t pee in the living room. (I don’t know any Chinese people that pee in the living room either, fortunately.)

This is actually about shower behavior.


Back home in the States I somehow got in the habit of swallowing a fair amount of water while showering. I’m not sure why I did it, but it seemed like a fine idea at the time.

When I got to China, it was clear that this habit would not work. If I didn’t cut it out, I’d be getting diarrhea from every shower, and that’s not cool! Still, habits are hard to break. As a result, I find that I frequently get water in my mouth while I shower, realize what I’m doing, and then have to spit it out. If I want to get as much water as possible out of mouth, though, I have to be fairly enthusiastic in my spitting.

As a result, I find that I spit in the shower quite a bit in China. There’s no phlegm or anything, though, so I don’t see it as gross in any way.


OK, I’ll admit it. I pee in the shower from time to time. Some online research confirms what I suspected: a lot of people pee in the shower. Some people are even of the opinion that everyone does it. Furthermore, if you’re not peeing on the shower curtain or on someone else, I don’t see how it could be considered dirty. You just aim for the drain.

From Wikipedia:

> Although urine is commonly believed to be ‘dirty’ this is not actually the case. In cases of kidney or urinary tract infection (UTI) the urine will contain bacteria, but otherwise urine is virtually sterile and nearly odorless when it leaves the body. However, after that, bacteria that contaminate the urine will convert chemicals in the urine into smelling chemicals that are responsible for the distinctive odor of stale urine; in particular, ammonia is produced from urea.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I harbored some emotional resistance to the idea of peeing in the shower while back in the States, but I don’t anymore. I still don’t do this regularly, just when necessary. (And I never pee on the shower curtain.)

Snot Rockets

OK, now we’re getting down to the real meat of the entry. This is the question that inspired this whole two-part entry.

Let me give you a scenario. You have a really bad cold. You’re taking a shower. Suddenly your nose starts to run something awful. It seems like sniffling is the only thing you can do, but it doesn’t solve anything and it’s only getting water up your nose. You have to do something.

You have two choices: (1) Stop your shower and dry off a bit to blow your nose, then continue your shower. There is no guarantee that you won’t need to blow your nose again almost immediately. (2) Do a snot rocket into the drain.

Last week I found myself in this desperate situation. I actually remember being in this same situation back in the USA once, and I stopped my shower to blow my nose. I felt there was nothing else I could do. Not this last time, though. I have been influenced by my surroundings. I chose the snot rocket. Everything seemed to get washed down the drain immediately.

Immediately afterward, though, I had to ask myself: was that just completely disgusting? It brought up lots of other questions:

– Do other people do this?
– Will my friends still like me if they know I’ve done snot rockets in my shower?
– Is mucus water soluble? (it’s gotta be, considering it’s mostly water)
– If I had a really nasty infection (which I didn’t), could doing that clog the drain?

OK, I think that’s about all the “introspection” you readers can handle for a little while….


Dec 2005

Spitting, Peeing, Snot Rockets, and Me (part 1)

My time in China has exposed me to my fair share of public spitting, peeing, and snot rocketing. Thoughtful fellow that I am, this makes me all introspective. What are the effects of five years of phlegm? How potent is the power that all that pissing poses to me, personally? Let us examine.



It’s no secret that freedom of expectoration is a widely held ideal in the PRC. Some of the enlightened city folk of this great nation are fighting the good fight of hygiene, but if they’re making any progress, it’s extremely slow.

How am I affected? Well, I haven’t picked up the habit. I tried spitting once when I was about 10. A neighbor boy convinced me that swallowing my own saliva was uncool, and I enthusiastically followed his example for a week or so. Pretty soon I realized, though, that there was really no point. I had no surplus of phlegm to purge, and as I rarely found myself atop tall buildings, I gained nothing from the habit. I dropped it.

China hasn’t offered any compelling reasons to pick up the habit again. (Maybe the laobaixing snob thinks otherwise?) Still, I now find that if I ever have something unpleasant in my mouth while outside, I don’t hesitate to expel it orally. Back home I might have hesitated.


Ah, public urination. One of the (finer) joys of being a man! There are a few unwritten rules to be observed when participating in this glorious ritual in China. They seem to be: (1) do it outside, and (2) face a wall. That’s pretty much it.

Do I do it? No. At least I won’t admit to it. If I were to do it (hypothetically), it would have to be at night. None of this daytime peeing. It would have to be a relative emergency. I wouldn’t water an innocent wall if I could hold it until I got home. Also, I wouldn’t want anyone to see me doing it, because (1) I’d be embarrassed, and (2) I wouldn’t want to look like a Western hypocrite. (We Enlightened Occidentals must be a shining beacon of model urination to the misguided micturating masses, you know.) So I’d have to find some out-of-the-way, semi-private urinary sanctuary. Such circumstances might conceivably conspire to occur in China — hypothetically — very late at night after I’ve been drinking. I guess.

Snot Rockets

The Chinese have the “Four Great Inventions” to be proud of. With all the enthusiasm with which they celebrate its exsitence, I would be wholly unsurprised to learn that the snot rocket is a technique bequeathed unto the world by the Chinese as well. Who needs tissues when you’ve perfected the art of snot rocketation?

Well, I do. Which is not to say that I’ve perfected its execution… I just can’t bring myself to do a public snot rocket ever. I guess some cultural mores remain secure.

Tune in tomorrow for PART 2: INDOORS!


Dec 2005

Laowai Delusions of Fluency

Kakis, a regular commenter on Talk Talk China, recently left this one:

I always love to speak Chinese to laowais, in fact, I am really good at teaching, be it language or Engineering stuff. A lot of laowais like the way I teach them how to pronounce ’si & shi; zhan & zhang; lan & nan;….’. But the thing is, laowais like to show off their Chinese whenever they are in the meeting or some conferences. They think their Chinese is already up to a standard whereby they can involve some serious discussions. But the fact is, they suck. They can speak some basic Chinese pretty well, some even have Beijing accent. But the truth is they are really far far away from being professional.

This is so true. I’m not trying to trash talk other foreigners’ Chinese; I’m talking about myself. It’s easy for me to say that I’m “fluent” in Mandarin because I’ve got the pronunciation down pretty well and basic conversation is a piece of cake. But when the discussion gets abstract or intellectual, I fumble. I’m reminded of this fact repeatedly in grad school. It’s usually not so difficult to follow the conversation, but to actually make a contribution on par intellectually with my classmates is no easy task!

I remember a while back my girlfriend once said to me, “when I talk to you, I don’t feel like I’m talking to a foreigner. I feel like I’m talking to a Chinese person. But it’s an uncultured (没有文化的) Chinese person!” I feel this is mainly due to my lack of sophisticated vocabulary, which I blame on years of self-study and taking a practical approach to language learning.

I know I’m not the only student of Chinese facing this issue. I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but I think that it’s important to stay humble. It takes a lot of hard work to become “conversationally fluent.” I know. But it’s still a long, hard road from conversationally fluent to “educated fluent.” Kidding yourself about your Chinese level doesn’t get you anything but awkward pseudo-intellectual conversations.

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