Monday, October 29, 2007

Chinese Students: Happy Every Day

"What are English students in China like?" you may (or may not) have asked yourself. Well, this Powerpoint slide and accompanying e-mail from one of my freshman students should give you an idea:

Dear teacher :
happy weekend! just now ,i send a slide to you. it is my fist slide that i just study how to make it , although it is not a good , i want to send it my teacher , hoping you can have a good mood every day . there is a smile like sunlight . as matter of fact ,i do not be good at computer , later ,i must study computer well, making many
beautiful slides to send my teacher and friends , hoping they are happy.
every thing is best ! May success and prosperity crown all your undertakings.
all my best wishes for the future!

They certainly are endearing. And I may start signing future e-mails with "May success and prosperity crown all your undertakings!"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Little Humor Today

The Onion

The Chinglish Files
(one of my favorites is in the July archive, on July 5th)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Oh What a Nice Little Devil Your Child Is!

The Chinese language is confusing. Like any language very different from one's native tongue, a person who has never studied Chinese might be tempted to say Chinese words "all sound the same." But to a native English speaker there is a glimmer of truth in that--Chinese has only 400 different sounds (monosyllables). By comparison, English has 8,000, a full twenty times as many. That means a whole lot of Chinese words have the same sounds, but they are distinguished by the four tones in Chinese (high and level, rising, falling and rising, and sharply falling). This is pretty interesting for the linguist or dedicated learner but a small nightmare for the absolute beginner trying to learn Chinese pronunciation. How important are tones? A few examples of words with the same sounds that are differentiated only by tone (the marks above the letters show the tone):

小姐 xiǎojie - miss/young woman/prostitute (in northern China)
小节 xiǎojié - (in music) one measure
小结 xiǎojié - summary

打算 dǎsuàn - plan/to plan
大蒜 dàsuàn - garlic

上海 Shànghǎi - Shanghai (the city)
伤害 shānghài - to injure

公里 gōnglǐ - kilometer
巩俐 gǒnglì - Gong Li (the actress)

眼睛 yǎnjīng - eyes
眼镜 yǎnjìng - eyeglasses
燕京 yànjīng - Yanjing (city name)

贵子 guìzi - precious (such as a child)
鬼子 guǐzi - devil (such as a child)

要是 yàoshì - if
钥匙 yàoshi - (door) key

杯子 bēizi - (drinking) glass
被子 bèizi - quilt
辈子 bèizi - a whole lifetime

病人 bìngrén - patient
兵人 bīngrén - soldier

You'll notice that this is not a problem in written Chinese because the characters for these words are completely different (though getting the thousands of different characters mixed up is another story). To my surprise I haven't seen too many funny or embarrassing misunderstandings, although being simply misunderstood is par for the course. Once a student asked me if the food her and her classmates had just gone through the trouble of cooking for me and Andrew was delicious and I said "no," to her surprise and her classmates' amusement. When she said xiāng (delicious) I heard xiǎng (would like) and thought she was asking if I wanted any more. I read a story about a foreigner asking for a banana (xiāngjiāo) cake in a supermarket and getting a bizarre look because he had accidentally asked for a rubber (xiàngjiāo) cake.

But one of the better stories I can remember about confusing tones came not from China but from a friend named Jenny in Thailand, where the language is also tonal. Whenever she referred to Thai boxing, known as muay thai, it would get a great reaction from the class. It's not always easy keeping the students' interest so she would refer to muay thai as often as possible in class, only to learn later that the way she was pronouncing it she was not talking about Thai boxing at all, but rather Thai pubic hair.

Any other stories/easily confused Chinese words out there?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

During my trip to Ningxia I visited the provincial museum in Yinchuan, which included an exhibit about Hui culture. The Hui are one of China's national minorities and Ningxia is their "autonomous region," a province in which an ethnic minority is theoretically given a lot of control in the provincial government (Tibet is also an autonomous region). There are plenty of Hui in Zhangye, and though quite assimilated into Han Chinese culture they are distinguished by the practice of Islam and the distinctive white hats worn by the men. Part of the fun of Chinese museums is reading the captions, which tend to have a very Chinese flavor to them:

And of the many pictures chosen to represent Hui culture, my favorite was definitely this one:

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Daytrip to Inner Mongolia; or, "At the Ends of the Earth"

This week I spent exactly one day in Inner Mongolia (a northern province or more accurately "autonomous region" in China, not Mongolia the country), in a town called Bayan Hot (or 巴音 Bāyīn in Chinese). I live in a fairly remote city, but this really felt like heading out into the middle of absolute nowhere. It was a journey of close to three hours to the city, the last half of which being through pure, desolate desert with almost no signs of civilization. It's a small place that I knew little about besides it being in Inner Mongolia, the main inspiration for going.

Besides the slow pace of life and a chance to see Mongolian writing on all the signs, the town provided one of the ample opportunities to view the dichotomies and contradictions of modern China. Immediately outside the town limits, one can see the traditional clay and brick housing common in northwest China:

Mere streets away, inside the town, I was a little taken aback when I turned a corner and saw this modern monstrosity of a building:

This stadium could clearly hold the entire population of the town, and seemed a bit out of place, as well as ill-used. I asked a couple of locals and they said it was already closed for the winter but in the warmer months they hold art shows and the like. I've read that the provincial government is prone to flashy displays of development in lieu of more practical spending, and a 60,000 capacity stadium has been built in provincial capital Hohhot that with the exception of the opening celebrations is unlikely to fill up. In the near total-silence of this small town it felt a bit surreal to stand in front of it, like an apocalyptic future in which most of the population had been wiped out. Near total-silence is surreal in China anyway.

The main attraction of the town is a Mongolian temple, which was similar in style to others I've seen as many Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism. One monk who I guessed to be in his 30's had an obvious affinity for Westerners, and once he discovered I could speak Chinese quickly engaged me in conversation. This turned into a fast-paced and passionate 40 minute lecture about his thoughts on the society around him that fascinated me as much as it gave me a headache; he didn't pause much and I could only catch around 30% of what he said. The main idea was that he's become greatly disappointed in the loss of basic decency and morals that has accompanied fast economic growth. He thinks people in China are interested in money, success, and the approval of others at the cost of everything else. Though he said there are still decent, honest Chinese people around, the whole society is promoting economic success as the be-all and end-all of life, and it's wrong. He also is disappointed in the attitude towards Mongolians like himself; he told me they are seen as stupid, slow and uncouth by many Chinese, and they aren't truly understood. It's true that almost every time ethnic minorities come up during conversation with a Han Chinese friend they have used the word 野蛮 yěmán, which means "barbarous" or "uncivilized" and have made several disparaging remarks (generally students, who also claim during class that there is no discrimination in China). This disillusionment with society inspired him to become a monk two years ago. He hoped I would learn Mongolian and travel to Mongolia proper someday, an idea I've toyed with anyway (the traveling part at least).

I've noticed a pattern of minorities opening up to foreigners in China, whether it was Uyghurs in Xinjiang or Tibetans in Qinghai. I suppose complaints to Han Chinese would often fall on indifferent or even hostile ears (I've heard comments like "those minorities, always complaining; they have it good enough") and we provide a fresh and interested source of conversation that is outside the system. The Chinese tourists walking past us during my talk with the monk paid little attention, the only exceptions being a student who giggled and wanted to ask me where I was from, and a woman who interrupted to ask the monk if she could take pictures. I think images of Confucian scholars and Tang poetry had given me the impression of the Chinese as quite thoughtful and spiritual, which wasn't necessarily on the mark. Whatever other virtues modern Chinese society has I wouldn't put deep spirituality at the top of the list, and famous temples are pure tourist attractions with guys in their new cowboy hats taking pictures of their girlfriend while she gives the "V" sign and smiles (more on that soon).

After leaving the monk I took a bus back to Yinchuan, and on the way out saw this billboard:


roughly translated:

Development is the #1 duty
Enriching the people is the #1 goal
Harmony is the #1 mission

Chinese Words and Phrases 4: 和谐社会 héxié shèhuì

Hexie shehui means "harmonious society," and is a phrase that pops up a lot in China these days. One of the current favorite government slogans, it was adopted by the Party in 2004. In the wake of such rapid growth China is experiencing well-publicized social problems including a large gap between the rich and the poor, environmental devastation, and protests by Chinese who have been forcibly moved from their land in the name of development. According to the government "a harmonious society is defined as a socialist democracy, with rule of law, social justice, honesty and credibility, balancing human activities and natural resources." If asking citizens to help build a "harmonious society" sounds vague to you, apparently the government agrees, as according to China Daily the government has recently decided to create "an index system judging social harmony." Hm. Today the terror threat in America is the color green, and the social harmony in China is around 6.4 out of 10. Another popular government campaign is the "8 Virtues and 8 Vices" or "8 Do's and Dont's," which I spied in English during my traveling:

I'm intrigued by the Party slogans, and the propaganda, much of which is perfectly well-meaning. You just don't see "Cherish Life; Give Up Drugs" painted in giant letters by the government on walls in America, or billboards encouraging you to "Carry out the Three Represents." Signs like these would be mocked to death in the West. When I first started studying Chinese I looked forward to being able to understand the signs, posters, and billboards, which are pervasive. The most common theme is probably the one-child policy, with signs reminding the populace that "Having a girl is the same as having a boy," "Carrying out the one-child policy is every citizen's duty and obligation" and "Girls are the builders of our future." I'm not sure how excited many Chinese get about getting behind the slogans anyway; for instance, Chinese bloggers who get their blogs blocked now sarcastically write about being "harmonized."

Anyway, whatever President Hu Jintao and the rest of the Party meant by Harmonious Society, I hope it wasn't this:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ningxia Travels I: Capitalism Run Amok, Pyramids in China

It is time again for the National Day Holiday in China, a time for the Chinese to reflect upon the founding of their socialist republic and the myriad way it has improved their lives. And what would make the dear Chairman prouder on the anniversary of his establishment of Communist China than sales, sales, sales!

I particularly like the man in the gorilla costume, let's see a close-up of that:

I've been in the city of Yinchuan for the start of the holiday and more than the pleasant museum and tranquil pagodas I can't help but notice the capitalist orgy taking place on the streets. Need a Nokia phone? A wedding dress? In the mood for audience participation, games, prizes, karaoke, or just silly dancing? The streets of a Chinese shopping district during a holiday are the place to be. Despite the sarcasm I do actually enjoy the oral assault and chaos you sometimes get in China, especially when I know I have a small, relatively sleepy city to return to. There is something to be said for the sight of adults old enough to have been through the Cultural Revolution giggling and fighting over the chance to thrown plastic rings at cell phones for a prize. Even during normal times Chinese stores know how to open or remodel in a grand way--giant inflatable archways, confetti, firecrackers, and for the really ambitious, cannons. Inevitably there is a also a mammoth stereo system playing upbeat pop or a stage with live karaoke singing.

As much fun as I'm having otherwise (is that a pizza buffet??) one of the main reasons to come to one of China's smallest and most obscure provinces is for a bit of history, in the form of thousand-year old pyramid-like tombs left by the Xixia kingdom. These are the centerpiece of the few remains of this fearsome and somewhat mysterious kingdom which at times rivaled the Chinese dynasties of the day, but was destined to be destroyed by Genghis Khan and the Mongols. In their heyday they controlled a sizeable piece of northwest China, including Zhangye.

In the end the real reason I came to Ningxia province is because no one else wants to. Traveling to and from a popular destination during a Chinese national holiday is between very difficult and a nightmare and only those with extensive experience in China can appreciate the feeling I had when I bought an overnight sleeper ticket for the train in less than four minutes. I also appreciate being simply a novelty rather than a target for harassment by vendors.

It rained heavily at the park today, and a group of us found shelter and entertainment listening to an elderly musician in a pavilion, which I probably enjoyed more than any of the ticketed attractions around town. Many curious locals have come up to talk to me and find out why I'm here; on hearing I was American one woman remarked "but aren't Americans black? Your skin is so white!" For the thousandth time a woman encouraged her shy child to "say hello to the American uncle!" and a woman suggested the violinist "play a song for our foreign friend over there." If willing conversation partners are one of the keys to learning a language, China might well be one of the best countries in the world to do it.