Tag Archives: chinese

A Very Particular Period of Chinese Language Studies

When I first started learning Mandarin Chinese, I relied heavily on a series of Pimsleur courses. I found these very helpful in learning the different sounds and tones of the language, as the Pimsleur method places heavy emphasis on repetition (quite useful for speaking Mandarin).

It has been four years since that time and here I am: still working on the basics.

As part of my journey to pass the HSK 5 I am trying out some new techniques and experimenting with using new material. In particular, I have been very interested in using material from the US government’s Foreign Language Institute.

Today, I actually got around to downloading and listening to one of their tapes. You can find that tape here . (Please note that this site is not affiliated with any government entity and is privately owned).

Now, it doesn’t say exactly when the course was created, but on this particular website it uses the words “many years ago”. After listening to the tape, I realized that they were not exaggerating.

The two speakers I heard on Unit 1 Tape 1 spoke not only very quickly, but also with a heavy Beijing accent. After listening to the tape I found it very curious indeed how people were able to learn Chinese twenty or thirty years ago.

The tapes are interesting from a cultural perspective. They harken back to a time when people in the USA and China did not know very much about each other. I imagine that many of the more experienced China hands I know today learned Mandarin using similar materials.

PS: I could not find a record of the first US student to study Chinese in Mainland China. I would love to know who this person was and their story. If you know, please drop me a line.

Wikipedia Background Links

US-China open door policy and 1978 opening to foreign investment
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Door_Policy

Brief history of Chinese language studies
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_as_a_foreign_language

Riding Electric Scooters in Beijing

When I first came to Beijing I used to commute to work for an hour and a half each way on the subway. That meant most of my time was spent either at work or in the metro.

I think it was in one of those early morning commutes that I vowed to myself that I would never knowingly accept such a commute again if I could help it. In order to make good on that promise to myself I needed to find another job and minimize the time spent commuting.

Since those early days I have switched jobs a few times and apartments as well. A big part of my solution to the original commuter problem is to live in an apartment located nearby my office and to ride an electric moped.

Riding a moped into work is not perfect, (early morning traffic still gives me anxiety), but it definitely beats taking the bus or metro. In fact, the utility I have found in owning a scooter is one of the biggest reasons why I like my job and life in China.

My Current Scooter Set Up

Throughout my time in Beijing I have had two scooters. The first was a beat-up model with wide handlebars that navigated the hutongs more like a boat than anything else. Ever though it was old, it was still useful to commute from the room that I had rented in the city center to my job a few blocks away (this was post first Beijing job).

That bike had many problems and eventually I ended up selling it to a local repair shop for 300 RMB. Considering that I had used it for the better part of a year, and bought it for 800 RMB, I considered it a good purchase.

I purchased my second and current scooter upon getting a new job in a different district and moving nearby the office. In this area, it was very hard to find a good apartment close to the subway, so buying a scooter was a way for me to get around while still living somewhere nice.

While people often go for style when purchasing scooters, I chose a slightly different tact. For me, the most important feature was utility as I was using it as a tool to both commute to work and park nearby the different metro stations. That meant I was concerned primarily with the scooter utility.

When judging a scooters utility there are two important factors: batteries and safety. I decided to go with a very basic, large black scooter and lead batteries for 2500 RMB based on these two criteria.

Battery Life

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six pack lead batteries

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battery price list from local shop

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outside of the lead battery pack

As noted above, perhaps the most important quality of a scooter is its battery system. In China, there are many different kinds of batteries to choose from, ranging from cheap lead, to higher quality lithium.

Lead batteries are of poorer quality. This means that they will wear out much faster and weigh much more depending upon your desired range than lithium. However, because they are less valuable, they are also less likely to be stolen. A box of six lead batteries can cost from anywhere between three hundred to one thousand RMB.

Lithium batteries are much better. Generally speaking, you will only need one lithium battery to power your scooter with excellent range. They are lighter and also last much longer than their lead counterparts.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of lead batteries is the difficulty in charging them. If you plan on using your bike for commuting anything more than a couple of kms, then you will need more than one in your bike. (For the record, I commute 9 kms every day and have placed the entire pack of six batteries in my bike).

To charge lead batteries, riders either pull them out of the bike and lug them up to their apartments, or literally bring their bikes into the elevator and wheel them into their apartments.

The advantage of using lithium batteries is that you can simply pull the battery out and easily carry it up to your apartment. It’s simple, convenient, and incredibly light in comparison to lead batteries.

However, I chose to power my bike with lead batteries because I am honestly too afraid of a lithium battery being stolen. I myself have had two bikes stolen from me in Beijing (one I was watching for a friend) and do not relish the idea of going through this again with a lithium battery bike. Lead batteries allow me to leave the bike nearby the subway and worry less about the costs should it be tampered with.

Safety

Aside from batteries, the safety of one’s scooter is also very important. We can judge safety mostly in terms of how well the parts work: most importantly its wheels and brakes. The size of the scooter is also very important.

My first scooter in Beijing was second-hand and very unsafe.

Looking back at it now, I understand how the poorly maintained brake pads caused me to get into an accident. That … and a lack of concentration.

In order to hedge against poorly working parts I decided to buy a brand new scooter. This was a good way to ensure that everything was as new and safe as possible.

Also, like any good American, my desire to optimize safety led me to purchase the largest scooter that I could find. This idea was put into me at a very young age when my siblings and friends got their first cars to drive. That is, if you get into a crash, the largest car will always come out on top.

For these two reasons I went with a brand new model of the largest scooter I could find. This ensured brand new brakes and tires, as well as something large enough to make sure that I was a presence on the road.

Conclusion

Overall, I am happy with the purchase. It lets me cruise into work safely, and if something happens to the bike then I am not at a terrible financial loss. The size has proved well worth it while riding to and from work and I have not had a problem so far leaving it parked in various places.

However, I think if I were to purchase another bike I would seriously consider upgrading to lithium. As most of my distance gets put on between my compound and place of work, I find that actually I don’t need to worry about parking it that often. Once complaint that I have is that bringing my scooter into my elevator and then apartment multiple times a week is a hassle. I would definitely consider paying a little bit more to solve this problem.

What do you think? Are my scooter criteria aligned with your own? How do you make commuting to work more enjoyable?

Useful  Vocabulary
electric scooter: 电动车 (diàndòngchē)
battery: 电池 (diànchí)
wheels: 车轮 (chēlún)
second hand: 二手 (èrshǒu)

Chinese Markets

Don’t be confused by the architecture or the language or the way others look. We are all actually a lot similar than we might like to think. We all need the basics; food, shelter, water, love. We all worry about the future and the past.

But, sometimes, the color of one’s flag tends to confuse people. It can make us think that we are a lot more different than we actually are.

American exceptionalism.

Chinese copy-cats.

It’s all hot air.

In reality, the differences between our achievements come from how our societies are constructed and the resources which are available to us at a given time.

Americans aren’t necessarily “better” than everyone else. We have just consciously cultivated a place where cooperation, learning, and meaningful work are encouraged.

Chinese aren’t copy-cats by nature. It’s just that their educational system and this particular model suits their country at this point in time. And as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Throughout past four years living in China and coming to understand it, I have fluctuated between wildly outlandish, racist notions, and a more realistic grasp of how basic societal differences shape the people. 

The best way to understand China as a market is to understand the details, while at the same time not letting these perceived differences intimidate or deter you. Yes, living and doing business here is very different from many other places. But, no, it’s not impossible.   

Cross the river by feeling the stones.

Looking outside for desirable things –

day dreaming about Caribbean beaches and sleek sports cars –

thinking about what could happen in the future – or what could have happened in the past.

We indulge ourselves in fantasy.

But what if we focused on making the things we have better, instead of thinking about far away places? Things like our relationships with other people, our daily crafts, and the way in which we go about our lives.

Just like the late Chairman Deng Xiaoping said: we must “cross the river by feeling the stones (摸着石头过河).”

The Heart of Summer in Beijing

I know that summer is coming when the peaches start to appear at the fruit stand in front of my compound. That is about the same time when I start to wear shorts and a t-shirt, although a jacket is still necessary when I ride my scooter into work early in the morning.

Those peaches are hard and bitter, and I often wonder why they even try to sell them in the first place.

As July approaches, the peaches soften up and become sweeter. And when the sun beats down on one’s brow in the heart of the summer, the peaches are sweetest.

I have never eaten a peach as sweet as the ones from Beijing in the heart of summer.

I wash them off in the sink and stand while I eat them. The best ones are so juicy that you have to hold them out in front of you so that the juices don’t drip down onto your t-shirt. When finished, I wash my face and hands to remove the remnants of peach flesh from my mouth.

When the peaches begin to harden and become bitter I start to think about wearing jeans again and where I will spend my golden week. That is the first week in October you get off in a Chinese company. Almost a whole year will need to pass before we can eat Beijing’s sweet peaches again.

The Complications of Beijing Train Stations

 

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I almost didn’t make it.

It was hot and humid in early morning July. The taxi cabs were lined up bumper to bumper around the station and everyone seemed to be in a rush to go somewhere, although no one was quite sure where that place was exactly.

No matter how many times I go to train stations in Beijing, they always seem to confuse the heck out of me. In other cities it’s more streamlined and there are less people. But in Beijing, for one reason or another, it’s always a zoo.

Having bought my ticket to Wuhan on the C-Trip app, I still needed to pick it up at Beijing West Station. First, I tried to use the self service station, but that machine required using a shenfenzheng (身份证), or Chinese ID card.

In a rush I asked a few different shop attendants where I could pick up the ticket. They all gave different answers. Eventually I figured out that I needed to go into the station and stand in one of the lines that oozed out like an ice cream cone in the sun.

The first line moved quickly and I was relieved. I checked my phone, and saw that I would still have time to grab a coffee and something quick for breakfast before departure. Perfect.

Abruptly the line began to thin. Soon I reached the front, only to find out that the attendant was closing the register. Apparently she had been working all night.

I moved onto the next line. This time deciding upon one that read “English Service” above the register.

About halfway into the line I began to hear yelling. Men who were slightly bigger than the others were throwing their voices around in hopes that they could either rush to the front or speed up the already stressed out cashier.

A moment later one of the men appeared in my vision above the crowd, crouching on a metal bar in front of the cashier’s station where a rotating gate stemmed the surge of passengers who pushed each other from behind. Like some sort of line-cutting troll he shoved his ID card under the window and demanded his ticket.

A moment later, another a man who had cut the line was walking away when he got into a shouting and shoving altercation with a man standing in the line that he had cut. They raised their voices and puffed out their chests, cursing each other.

Ultimately the man walked away, throwing insults over his shoulder as the other stood fuming in position at the center of the line.

And yet still we waited, and waited. I checked my phone and realized now that the gap between me boarding the train and it departing was becoming narrower and narrower. Fending off a few more old men trying to cut the line and passing through the steel gates, I managed to pick up both departure and return tickets for an extra five RMB.

Outside, I began to hurry. I now had to find a way to enter into the station, but the heat and crowds of people befuddled my head. Eventually I made my way to another set of turnstiles between the crowd and train platforms.

At the final set of turnstiles, I realized that I again needed a Chinese ID card to pass through. Pleading with the guard to let me jump over the gates as I was in danger of missing my train, she smiled and shook her head.

So, out of time and luck, I made my way as if I was to go back out of the line, but then casually ducked under a red rope to the side of the turnstiles.

Rushing through the final security check, grabbing two meat pies and a bottle of water, the attendant looked at my ticket and urged me to hurry onto the platform before my train departed. I dashed away towards the incorrect cabin, but a cabin nonetheless, and onto the train leaving for Wuhan.

Had I not ducked under the red rope, I would have missed my train and had to return to the line and exchange tickets. A task that would have cost me another hour, minimum, and further exposed myself to the not-to-be-taken-lightly early morning summer sweat.

5 Useful Attitudes and Habits to Adopt When Learning Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn.

When I first came to China in the summer of 2013 I knew zero Chinese, but still I had hope that I could succeed where other language learners before me had failed.

In the beginning I learned the easy stuff. Phrases like “听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng)” for “I can’t understand what you’re saying!” and “没有- (méi yǒu)” for “I don’t have it”.

With time and practice I learned more. However I was still so oblivious in those early days that I would often make some pretty cringe-worthy mistakes. Oftentimes, I would try to bull rush my way through a conversation, speaking quickly and imitating a Beijing accent; hoping that the other person would mistake my incompetence for “a more rustic feel” of the language.

I now look back at this technique and many others similar to it that I employed and see them for what they were: shortcuts.  

Shortcuts are useful in that they help produce results quickly. However, in the long run they are like a festering wound. I was like a man trying to run a marathon without any regard for the physical health of his body.

I wrote these five points to help novice Mandarin learners develop good language learning habits. They do not deal with linguistic or grammatical concerns, but rather the types of attitudes and ideas that many have adopted becuase of their effectiveness. These have come as a culmination of both my own and other’s trial and error.

  1. Tones Matter

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language which means that the tone of each word corresponds with its meaning. Maybe in the beginning you don’t want to admit it, but yes, tones matter. A pronunciation error can completely change the meaning of a word.

Some people might disagree with this, but that’s because their Mandarin isn’t that good. Although you can get away with not knowing the proper tone by speaking fast and glossing over certain words, this shortcut will ultimately handicap your progress

The best way to combat this is to focus obsessively on learning each word’s proper tone. That way, people can understand when you want to buy something, and not sell it (see 买 mǎi and 卖 mài).

Link: https://chinesepod.com/tools/pronunciation/section/17

  1. Learn How to Read and Write Characters

The written system for Mandarin Chinese is complex. It uses both character symbols (汉字 hànzì) and pinyin, which is the romanticized form created in 1958 with tones written above the letters- the same one that I have been using alongside characters here.  

In the beginning it’s common to say that “I only want to learn pinyin, characters take too much time”. However avoiding the deliberate study of Chinese characters is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when learning Chinese. Not only will you not be able to take any of the advance level tests (HSK for simplified characters), but you will also not be able to chat with Chinese friends online or read any of texts in the target language.

A side-note on reading:
Developing reading comprehension is especially important. It helps you to practice the language without having to find a conversational partner. It also allows access to content that will prove invaluable to you as a student of Mandarin. By developing strong reading skills you will have a unique perspective into Chinese society and culture that is often difficult to find as a foreigner due to an undercurrent of xenophobia (possible without, of course, but still inherently difficult).

  1. Work with a Qualified Tutor

There is a certain mythos surrounding those who are able to learn a language purely through self study and immersion. It’s easy for novices to believe themselves “language learning rogues” who will learn the language by “living among the people”. And while participation and interaction with native speakers is certainly important, this belief can be largely damaging to your progress in Mandarin.

Working with a qualified teacher is an effective way to keep your feet on the ground and make steady progress. A good teacher will drill the basics into you early and often. They will motivate you to speak and make mistakes, but will not let you believe that you are invincible.

A personal anecdote:
I was one of those students that didn’t believe I needed a teacher. In the beginning I managed to kind of bulldoze my way through and, as a consequence, I developed a rather gawky, toneless form of Mandarin. At that point in time, many of my Chinese friends told me that I spoke with an incredible amount of slang, which they called 胡同话 hútong huà. (Sidenote: this was/is not a complement).

I eventually hired a teacher and my Mandarin has been all the better for it. There are certainly a lot of positives about self-study, but I have found that a teacher helps me to correct errors that I didn’t know I had. Looking back, I can now also see how they helped me to make consistent progress.

  1. Speak slowly and deliberately

A lot of times when we start learning a new language we get very excited and tend to speak very fast. We think that this makes us sound more authentic and like we actually “know” the language. However the reality of speaking quickly in Chinese before you are ready is that you will hear “tīng bu dǒng” much more than if you were to speak slowly and deliberately.

Slowing down when you speak, and putting emphasis on the right tones, helps others to understand you.

A side-note on speaking:
Think about speaking to another person who is learning your mother tongue. Is it easier when they speak fast and try to add their own “flair” to the language, or when they speak to you at an even pace and try to keep things as simple as possible? If you want to have conversations with native speakers, and so make progress, then you need to do the same.

  1. Do Not Refuse to Speak English

Another tendency of the fledgling Mandarin student, especially while living in a Chinese speaking country, is to refuse to speak English with Chinese friends. This can lead to some awkward situations that you want to avoid.  

The fact of the matter is that many native Chinese speakers have been learning English their entire life and feel very proud of their ability. They don’t necessarily want to make you feel bad about your language level, but it’s slightly awkward and embarrassing when you are trying to have a conversation with someone, and that person insists on using a language they don’t know.

Be tactful with whom and where you practice in the beginning. Don’t, for example, try to respond to your boss in Chinese when she tells you something in English. Have faith that as you continue to study and immerse yourself that your Chinese will blossom like the Beijing botantical gardens, Summer Palace, or… well you get the point.

A side-note on no refusing to speak English:
If you work hard enough, then eventually you will find yourself in many situations where the tables have been turned, that is, your Chinese is better than the other’s English. If you don’t understand what I am talking about now, perhaps you will have more appreciation for this point then.   

Wrap Up

The adoption and commitment to these attitudes and habits will help you improve your Mandarin level and get rid of some of those nasty habits that are holding you back from developing a more thorough understanding of the language.

Until next time, Cheers and 加油!