Just Checking In

September has not been my most productive month here on the blog. And it’s not for having been too busy. There have been a number of issues that have prevented me from writing, which become more clear over the next few posts. Thank you for bearing with me. I appreciate your readership.

Chinglish

A short while ago, I made a post about how the Chinese seem to be oblivious to the building block nature of their language. This is both true and not true, because the Chinese are hyper aware of Chinglish.

Chinglish is all the wonderfully bad translations that the Chinese make when they’re not exactly sure of a proper translation. The Chinese are all extremely embarrassed when they are caught doing it, and sometimes will pre-empt the corrector with, “That’s Chinglish, isn’t it?” Case in point, my current roommate Fiona called herself a “north person” and immediately remarked upon the Chinglish nature of her translation. She was translating the word 北方人(bĕifāngrén) directly from Chinese to English. Once my former roommate asked me how to translate 洗头 (xĭtóu) into English. When I told her that we say “wash hair” she was astonished. “Sounds like Chinglish,” she remarked dryly.

Shortly after I arrived in Shanghai, I got terribly ill. Immediately upon entering the local pharmacy, the English-speaking employee walked up to me with a face lacking any semblance of emotion and said, “Hello, what’s wrong with you?” I awkwardly spat out a laugh and quickly covered my mouth. She didn’t know any better. Actually, it was kind of cute.

Many people will have you believe that with the improvement in English education all of the embarassing Chinglish has disappeared from public establishments. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Walking downtown in one of the busiest areas of the city, you’ll see signs like “Styles the Hair and Things Company” in large silver letters on the sides of buildings1. This is perhaps the only country where one can buy “Nice Claup2.” One of my students wore a shirt recently that read “I’m pretty ladey raindow,” while a parent wore a shirt that I would love to own myself “Do you happy? Yes I do!” I only wish I owned a camera, so I could take pictures of these examples when I see them, and not rely on my pathetic human memory.

Perhaps my favorite example of Chinglish is a store not too far away from my current apartment, with the most inscrutable title I’ve ever seen. Month also know. This name confuses me to the point that I am unable to properly end this blog post.

1 As a side note, I should add that the establishment’s Chinese name is 美发美容用品公司, literally: beautiful hair cosmetics goods company. So their translation is even more of a mystery to me.

2 When asked, I was informed that “claup” meant the combination of all beautiful things.

ACATT / ACMOTT

For many online studiers of Japanese, the blog AJATT (All Japanese All The Time), is a household word. Its progenitor, Khazumoto, espouses an idea of language acquisition that works extremely well for the impatient (like me). Rather than concentrate on text books, classes, teachers, and other boring stuff, use as few “actual” learning materials as possible. Instead, focus one’s attention on media meant for native speakers that one would enjoy regardless of language, convert all one’s regular activities (such as software/website interface) into the target language, and rely as little on translation as possible. His website offers many resources for the learner of Japanese, and I highly recommend it. I, however, am learning Chinese.

Thus, I give you: ACATT, All Chinese, All The Time. In less than five months, I was able to read about 1000 characters (though I still cannot write more than six), understand basic premises of conversation as well as television shows, and read simple blogs with relative ease. I’d even began reading simply-written short stories. I’ve yet to meet the person who studied Chinese in a classroom that’s advanced half as quickly as I have. And I wasn’t even doing all Chinese all the time, really, more like all Chinese MOST of the time (ACMOTT). Just imagine what a little more diligence could attain!

First, I must admit, that I’m focusing more on ACMOTT than ACATT, simply because due to my schedule, but I guarantee that this is the absolute fastest way to learn Chinese, period. Here’s what I use:

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar by Claudia Ross & Jing-heng Sheng Ma
Read perhaps a few chapters per week, then assign weeks purely for review
Anki – an online flash card system, or SMS, to learn 汉字 characters
download the New Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi to learn useful vocab
http://www.beelinetv.com to watch Chinese television
http://www.zein.se/patrick/3000char.html to learn characters in order of usefulness
nciku.com as a dictionary and reference guide (BUT BE CAREFUL! A LOT of the example sentences you find are not very useful or not very standard! I learned this the hard way…)
chinaSMACK – a lovely website about contemporary Chinese issues, has a lot of the Chinese blogosphere opinions with translations
sharedtalk.com – plenty of Chinese looking to improve their English, and many of them are willing teachers of Chinese for the interested learner like yourself!

And then just find blogs about subjects that interest you, and read them (at first) slowly and painfully until you get a grasp of language. I’m still in the slow and painful phase, but I’ve been extremely lax about studying Chinese in recent months. Learning Chinese doesn’t have to be a hard and unenjoyable process. Learn it quickly, easily, and have fun while doing it! And most of all, don’t let the Chinese have the satisfaction of thinking their language is too difficult to learn! I’ve been living in China for less than five weeks, and my ACMOTT preparation has made improving my listening skills amazingly fast. My coworkers often communicate with me solely in Chinese, and I’ve been asked how many years I’ve been studying. When I say, “Oh, a little less than seven months,” their jaws drop to the floor. “Oh, you must be a genius,” they say. You want to be called a genius, don’t you? Then get out there and study some Chinese – the FUN way!

Laowai Smash

Maybe you’re familiar with Azrael and his infamous blog, Gaijin Smash, which chronicled his adventures as a large black man living in Japan in the early part of this century. I’m not certain if he coined the term or not, but the idea of the “gaijin smash” is pretty popular; basically it denotes the nearly limitless power of the foreigner—gaijin—to get away with social taboos, or sometimes even minor illegal activity simply because they are foreign. This could stem from a number of deeper causes, such as Japanese intimidation at the outsider, inability to communicate, or the sheer size difference, but nonetheless it appears to be something of a rule for foreigners in most parts of Japan.

Lo and behold, the same is certainly true in China. Being a laowai—Chinese for gaijin—means immunity to many social mores. Back of the line for the subway? Laowai smash. Don’t quite feel like paying for the bus? Laowai smash. Sidewalk traffic moving too slow? Laowai smash. Just pretending to speak no Chinese at all makes me immune to the myriad salesman trying to push their product on me, and when there are people in my vicinity saying less than polite things about me in Chinese, “accidentally” making their lives more inconvenient is all chalked up to my laowai insensitivities.

Don’t get me wrong, being as obvious a foreigner as I am can certainly lead to a very isolated existence; the hardships of relocating to an entirely different civilization for whom nearly every aspect of the lives of its citizens varies wildly from one’s own can hardly be smooth sailing. I like to think of the laowai smash as a gift from the people of Asia to the bewildered westerner. It certainly has the tendency to brighten my day.

Some things I’ve noticed

Pornography is illegal here in China, but if it weren’t, it would probably go a little something like this: Start with a sexy seductress sitting behind a 2 centimeter thick glass wall, eyeing the camera wantonly. For every button she undoes on her white dress, she slides a stack of papers in the viewer’s direction, pointing to an area to be filled in triplicate and signed in black ink. After about thirty rounds of this, it is revealed that she’s wearing what seems to be an infinite regression of white dresses. Eventually, her lust is palpable, and as she bites her lower lip, she pulls out the Red Stamp and starts to slowly, sensuously mark the appropriate papers with her crimson seal of approval. Only then is the first hint of flesh exposed to the camera.

Bureaucracy is only one of the many fetishes here in the Middle Kingdom. Another one is for escalators. Where there is a narrow escalator, you will find potentially a hundred Chinese crowd to board it while the wide staircase to its side remains conspicuously empty. While you’re noticing this, you may see a few foreigners walk past in the background. Your eyes will meet, very briefly, but you will not say anything to each other. This is what I dub the Awkward Foreign Stare™.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the Chinese love to take English names, for whatever reason, and usually they are reasonable, like Jenny, Billy, or Lucy. But there are definitely a few popular names whose origins I question, such as “Echo,” “Jelly,” “Usher,” “Brain,” “Happy,” and the nearly ubiquitous “Apple.” I think it would be a nice academic pursuit to find out just why there is no shortage of names of this caliber.

In most places in the English-speaking world, it’s quite common to find foreigners interacting in their native tongue, they take a slight break to interact with English speakers, then return to the language that’s more familiar to them. This feeling of exclusion essentially comes with the territory of being American. It is wonderfully refreshing to be the foreigner interacting in a tongue lost to everyone around you, only to break occasionally to interact in the local language.

One thing that I regret somewhat is the fact that at least in the more traditional establishments women don’t drink. I’ve yet to see a Chinese woman deign to let alcohol touch her lips. I always feel so ashamed when ordering a beer, which is quite a shame because Xinjiang beer is genuinely really good. I highly recommend it. Even if you do happen to be a traditional Chinese girl.

Blow Wind Machine

To the mind of the Westerner, the Chinese language is inherently poetic. Its (modern) vocabulary is largely bi-syllabic, comprised of two characters with distinct meanings who when combined create a new idea. There are many words, generally newer, in which three or more characters all lend their individual meanings to create a larger idea. Some examples follow:

电话 (diànhuà) = “electric speak” = telephone
饭馆 (fànguăn) = “rice establishment” = restaurant
能力 (nénglì) = “can power” = ability
洗手间 (xĭ shŏu jiān) = “hand wash room” = bathroom

There are many, many more that do not conform to this rule of relative sense-making [why 小心 (tiny heart) means “be careful” or 东西 (east-west) means “thing” no one may ever know] but that’s a subject for another blog entry.

Strangely, the Chinese seem to be largely oblivious to the atomic building block nature of their language. Take for instance the scene that transpired a few mornings ago between myself and a couple Chinese girls. We were pointing to things around the room which we did not not know how to say in the opposite language. One thing neither of us knew was how to translate was hair dryer. They told me that it was called “chuī fēng jī.” In order to remember new words, I always think about the constituent characters and given the large number of homophones in Chinese, it’s always necessary to specify these as soon as you learn the new word. I knew the last two characters had to be 风机 or “wind machine” but I wasn’t sure about the chuī, so I asked which it was. One of the girls promptly explained, ignoring my previous deduction, that the machine was for drying hair. After several minutes of linguistic teeth-pulling I finally found that it was the chuī that means “blow.” Blow wind machine. Of course. It was so simple. But when I said this out loud, I was met with puzzled looks.

I’ve had situations like this several times. 香草 “fragrant grass” means vanilla, and 山东 “eastern mountain” is a place, but when I say this aloud, the Chinese think I’m being silly. They seem incapable of separating words into the individual meanings of their characters the vast majority of the time. Despite the fact that you won’t get much help from native speakers, I still recommend thinking of words in this way. I find it very helpful when trying to memorize characters, which I think I’m doing fairly quickly. I wonder if there are any aspects so seemingly obvious about English to which native speakers are systematically blind.

Serena

Ah, my darling Serena. My lovely Chinese doll. How I adore your tiny features and cute awkward laugh. Whatever shall I do with you, darling Serena?

It is hard for me to fully form an opinion of Serena, but I can say with all honesty that she is the most perfect example of a traditional Chinese girl living in the 21st century as I’m likely to come by. Born down south in Jiangxi province, she’s a fresh graduate living in Shanghai just long enough to earn some summer money. At twenty-two she’s never had a job before, is painfully obedient to her parents, is obsessed with losing (nonexistent) weight, getting a proper gentleman boyfriend, and making a lot of money. At the Muslim restaurant where we typically have lunch, she complains that the music is “too original” and that she prefers pop. Within 48 hours of my arrival, she was the first Chinese to openly call me fat. After almost a week of spending time with me, she’s still almost belittlingly surprised to see me read Chinese.

But it is with Serena that I have had some of the most illuminating conversations. We spend a great deal of time talking about differences in Chinese and American culture. A couple nights ago, while on a stroll, she admitted that she’d spent the last few years immersed in western culture because she majored in English literature, and she felt embarrassed when I asked her pointed questions about traditional Chinese culture to which she had no answers. She had no idea that westerners could be as interested in Chinese culture as I seemed to be and that I had given her a fresh appreciation of her own culture.

Perhaps most notable, however, has been our discussions on western individualism versus eastern conformity. This is an area that I think people on both sides of the issue have extreme lack of understanding. I attempted to explain our philosophy in concrete terms. For instance, I like to dress somewhat flamboyantly. I wear lots of different colors that make me stand out even more than I already do. Over several days, I have explained that the reason I dress this way is a matter of self-expression which is one of the core ideas behind individualism. She explained promptly that when the Chinese think of “individualism” they think of selfishness, which simply isn’t the case. Westerners are giving in ways the Chinese can’t possibly fathom. Open witnesses to violence or personal distress in America in the vast majority of cases react. Charity organizations are nonexistent in China due to government insecurities, but they abound in America.

Serena explained that when the Chinese think of individualism, they associate it with the idea that Westerners seem to be too straightforward and oblivious to the feelings of others. At first, I completely disagreed with this notion. If anything, it seemed to me that the Chinese are too straightforward, in asking very personal questions and being open about the shortcomings of others. Westerners absolutely care about subtlety when it comes to others’ feelings, I initially insisted. But the next day, Serena offered an example that made me reconsider my position. A Chinese employee sees an expensive car that he likes and can afford. But he doesn’t buy it because his boss cannot afford such a car. What would his boss think to see someone beneath him prospering where he does not? This kind of empathetic sensitivity is almost entirely lacking in Western culture. Westerners do not, in most cases, like to guess what someone else is thinking and react to that guess. We have no formal system like the Chinese do for deciphering others’ unspoken emotions, nor a guideline as to how to respond to them. I feel that this is because of another core idea behind individualism, self responsibility. Westerners, Americans in particular, strongly believe that in virtually all aspects of life, one is the author of one’s own destiny. We thrive and fail by own hands entirely (this isn’t entirely true).

I don’t feel fully informed enough to make any sweeping remarks about the eastern side of the equation, but I feel like the situation basically comes down to the pursuit of happiness. Westerners appear to believe that in order to create a happy society, one must work from the bottom up. Happy individuals create happy societies, and the best way to make people happy is give them freedom of expression and personal pursuits. Easterners appear to believe that no man is an island and that the best way to create a happy society is to insure harmony among its citizens before all else. More so than most, I align with the Western idea of the individual’s pursuit of happiness, but I’m also aware of the profound importance of societal support and group cohesion. The two philosophies need not be mutually exclusive. I dare say they cannot be in order to maximize potential. Although the two may never fully reconcile during our lifetimes, it is good to know that the seeds of change are being sewn throughout the world, not least of all on the streets of Pudong between an overly opinionated lăowài and darling, sweet Serena