rcintheprc

Mnemonic plague

June 29, 2011
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Meet Yao.  Yao is a bug-eyed alien with the a flat antenna and the body of a woman.

Yao wants to be taken to your leader.

Yao has to be taken to your leader.

Yao is also a simplified Chinese character that means both “to want” and “to have to.”  I’m not really sure where the top part (Yao’s head) of the character actually comes from, but the bottom (Yao’s body) is indeed the symbol for female.

When you have to memorize 30-40 characters a day, you start getting desperate with the mnemonics.  At first, I refused to use mnemonics other than historically accurate ones (i.e. actually knowing what the component pieces mean).  But those days are over.  My pride is gone.  Besides, I think Yao’s kinda cute.

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Chang chang qu chang cheng

June 29, 2011
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There’s a famous little story in Chinese that can be told entirely with homophones.  It’s about a poet who likes to eat lions.  Go figure.  Anyways, here’s a link if you want to see the characters, pinyin, and English translation.

Well, I’m not skilled enough to come up with an entire paragraph of homophones yet, but there is one phrase that has already caught my eye: 常常去长城, or chang chang qu chang cheng.  It means “to often go to the Great Wall.”  Now, people with a background in Chinese, cover your eyes for this next sentence.  For the rest of you: the aforementioned phrase, when said quickly, sounds to my minimally trained ears like “chang chang cha chang chang.”  It sounds like someone doing a stereotypical imitation of Chinese.  Cracks me up every time.  Oh, and there’s a Taiwanese actor named Chang Cheng, so you could turn this crazy phrase into a crazy sentence by saying, “Chang Cheng chang chang qu chang cheng.”  Not bad, eh?


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Conversation frustration

June 28, 2011
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I would really love to talk to people.  Unfortunately, with a vocab of about a hundred words and pronunciation of… well… a foreigner who’s been studying for only one week, I’m kinda limited in the communication department.

While I was dancing two nights ago, the woman next to me started asking me questions I managed to tell her that I was 22 and that I was a college student (not really true, but try explaining in a language you don’t speak that you just graduated college and are currently participating in an intensive language program before beginning teaching in the boondocks of China. “College student” starts sounding like a pretty reasonable answer, right?) and that I was studying over there at BIE (much hand waving towards BIE).  But it turns out she didn’t want to know where I studied in China but where I studied in my home country (actually, she thought I was British… possibly something I mistakenly said or possibly just a wrong guess on her part).  She had to recruit a college-aged Chinese girl to translate that last part of our conversation.  I guess it would qualify as a wobbly conversation, but not a total failure.

Total failure occurred when I went to buy dumplings last night.  First thing I knew, a shirtless dumpling salesman was correcting my pronunciation, next thing I knew, he was having me repeat all kinds of things after him much to the amusement of everyone in our vicinity.  I have no idea what I was saying.  Hopefully it was nothing too bad.

This morning was a big fail too, actually.  Somebody called me.  It was a wrong number, but I didn’t know how to explain that.  The dude was talking way too fast, so I stammered the equivalent of “am not!  am not! am not!” and then… I hung up.  In retrospect, I do know how to say, “I am not your friend.”  But, maybe that would’ve sounded too mean.

Anyways, it’s the worst when somebody wants to talk to you, and you want to talk to them too, but you just don’t know enough words.


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Wushu

June 27, 2011
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Maybe this was silly of me, but I didn’t expect we’d be hitting each other just 15 minutes into the very first class.  When the teacher started making us do one-shoulder somersaults 25 minutes in, I got the heck out of there for fear of what would come in the remaining hour and five minutes.

No more wushu for me.  I’ll stick to dancing with the old folks in the public square.


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Public Dancing

June 27, 2011
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I was going to call this post “random public dancing,” but then I realized that “random” doesn’t actually describe what I’m going to talk about.  This public dancing is hecka organized.

My campus is about a 5 minute walk from the Exhibition Center, which is a big building where I suppose exhibitions take place.  Out in front of the building is a large flat cement area, that rather reminds me of Beinecke Plaza at Yale, but is much, much bigger.  During the day, people wander through and occasionally fly kites there, but the night is when this place really gets hoppin’.  There are still a few kite flyers, but the plaza tranforms itself into 2 roller rinks with 4 or so dance floors and and a couple bandstands (without the stands, just the bands).  It’s incredible.  I’ll put up a picture once I get one.

Last night, I joined in the dance that looked the easiest and didn’t involve waving any scarves or dancing with a partner (although I was there with a friend–so we could have made a pair–partner dances are much harder to follow).  Now, as I mentioned before, this is NOT random dancing.  These rather large herds of people stand in rows (or circles for some ballroom dances) and do a choreographed dance.  The choreography for each song is repetitive, and once you get it down, it’s very easy.  I probably danced for about an hour last night, and it was wonderful.  I plan to go back every night that I possibly can.


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长城 (Great Wall)

June 26, 2011
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Well, I saw the Great Wall of China.  It looked pretty nice.

Great Wall o' China

It’s picturesque how this thing winds along the mountain ridge.  I actually looks delicate in the above image.  The really amazing thing, though, is how hulking huge it is and the fact that people built this 2,000 years ago.  When you’re climbing it, it doesn’t look or feel delicate at all.  I definitely would not have enjoyed participating in the manual construction;  I was sweating like crazy just from hiking a small segment.

I can confirm what any China tourist book will tell you: the Great Wall is worth seeing.  And of course, where there’s good and accessible sightseeing, there are hawkers.  All the way along the bottom of the path, there are people trying to sell random junk: t-shirts that say “I climbed the Great Wall of China,” calligraphy brushes, parasols, hats, metal plaques, post cards, fruit, etc.  More than I’m a sucker for pretty things, I’m a sucker for bargaining in languages I barely speak.  So, I bought some stuff.  I got a silky bathrobe for 35 yuan (bargained down from 100) and a cool stone stamp of my Chinese name with a snake (my zodiac thing) carved on top for 80 yuan (bargained down from 145).  Did I still get ripped off really badly?  I have no idea.  But I bonded with the dude who carved my stamp, so I don’t mind so much:

我: 我姓孔, 叫孔瑞琦 (Me: My last name’s Kong.  I’m called Kong Rui Qi)

他: 我也姓孔!(Him: My last name’s also Kong!)

我: oh!

他:你的爸爸也姓孔?(Is your father’s last name also Kong?)

我:他不姓孔,他姓 Corbin。(His last name is not Kong.  It is Corbin.)

他:谁给你你的名字?(Who gave you your name?)

我:我的朋友的爸爸给我我的名字。(My friend’s dad gave me my name.)

他:他是中国人吗?(Is he Chinese?)

我:他是中国人。(He is Chinese.)

Yay!  My first full conversation with a stranger in Chinese!

It says "孔瑞琦“ on the bottom.


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医生 (Doctor)

June 24, 2011
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Gosh, it makes me so excited when I can title my blog posts in Chinese.  By the way, these Chinese titles are not generated by GoogleTranslate but by my own hard earned knowledge.

Yeah.  So, today I went to the doctor.  Well, the doctors.  There were many of them.  And I needed all of their approval in order to get the paperwork that will prevent my deportation.  A receptionist checked me in and gave me a checklist and a sheet of stickers with my information which I carried around to the 6 stations.  Each doctor in turn signed off on my good health.  Or at least, they signed off that they had looked at me.  Come to think of it, nobody actually game me any results.  In any case, I had a chest x-ray, blood test, ultrasound, ENT exam, vision test, and EKG (called an ECG at this particular health clinic which makes SO much more sense to me, given that the acronym is supposed to stand for ElectroCardioGram, right? Oh, hey, Wikipedia says EKG is from the German.  Good to know.).  The blood test sucked, but no more than usual.  They swabbed my arm with iodine, which was different.  The ultrasound tickled, but I don’t know how to say “I’m ticklish,” in Chinese; I tried to minimize my squirming.  The x-ray assistant had one yellow and one orange shoe lace.  All in all, it was a fun time at the Beijing clinic.  Efficient and pleasant.  Those doctors must have a great sense of humor because they spend a considerable amount of time examining the health of aliens who don’t speak their language.


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Air quality index

June 23, 2011
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AQI stands for Air Quality Index.  It turns out that this index runs on a scale from 0 to 500.  The higher the number, the more particulate junk is in the air you’re breathing.  When this scale was originally invented by some American air quality experts, they figured that 500 was only a theoretical score, that no air would ever be that bad.  So, they actually labeled 500 as “crazy bad” on their computerized system that spits out numbers and descriptions of air quality.  Well, guess what!  One fine day last year, Beijing hit 500.  Needless to say, it caused some embarrassment when the US Embassy’s AQI report for Beijing read “Crazy Bad.”  The description has since been changed. (check out:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/19/us-embassy-beijing-air-qu_n_785870.html )

In any case, the Beijing AQI has been around 200 (which is still not good) most days I’ve been here, but yesterday it went above 400.  Yikes.  Above is a photo of me from yesterday.  I’m wearing a mask that is probably not doing much, but makes me feel a bit better.  Also of interest: the lovely new glasses frames and the sign for the campus where I’m studying.


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照片(Photographs)

June 23, 2011
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Before coming to China, I had been told by many people that doing EVERYTHING would be more difficult here.  Language barrier aside, there’s a lot of bureaucracy to deal with, so some things tend to take a while while others become impossible for no clear reason.  I’m sure that this is true in many situations.  However, it’s definitely a generalization.  Some things are a lot easier here.  Easier, and even more pleasant.

Yesterday, I went to buy some passport photos.  Non-citizens are required to carry around a lot of documents (okay, I guess that’s one example of the bureaucracy).  To obtain some of this certification, which I’ll need to keep with me throughout my extended stay, I need to be examined by Chinese doctors (chest x-ray, ear/nose/throat exam, EKG, blood test, etc.), and at my exam, I need to present with 3 passport photos.  My exam is tomorrow, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it soon.

But back to the photos: getting them in China was actually… fun!  In the US, I paid 20 US dollars for 4 measly photos that were taken by a Walgreens employee who clearly didn’t give a crap about how bad I looked in my picture.  At the Chinese Kodak store, things were different.  A friendly Chinese man spent a long time correcting my posture before taking 6 photos of me.  He loaded them on a computer, helped me pick the best one, and then photoshopped it to make my hair look less messy (my hair frizzes like crazy in the Beijing heat).  Like in the US, it cost me 20 units of currency to buy 4 photos, but 20 yuan is much less than 20 dollars.  I almost want to go back and buy more just for the fun of it.


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Characters

June 21, 2011
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I always used to say that Chinese characters made no sense whatsoever.  I would say that they were an utterly inefficient method of written communication, and that it must be terribly difficult to remember a distinct set of tiny little strokes for every single word of a language.  But that was before I had ever even tried studying characters, so I had no right to criticize.

Now, however, I do study Chinese characters.  With my greater understanding, I still say the exact same things.  But this time, my opinion counts for something, right?

Chinese people always say, “Oh, it’s not that bad!  Characters are just combinations of smaller elements.  So, you don’t have to memorize every stroke of every character; you just have to know the component chunks.”

But really, it is that bad.  These component chunks often have nothing to do with the average person’s perceived meaning of the word they encode.  For example, in class today, my teacher tried to tell us that memorizing how to write America isn’t that hard: you just have to remember that it’s composed of the symbols for beautiful (which, by the way, is itself composed of the symbols for “big” and “sheep”), and the symbol for jade inside the symbol for mouth.  Ah, yes, of course.  How could anyone forget that America is the land famous for it’s jade-mouthed large sheep?

I like to joke around about characters, but I am also excited to be learning them.  I think they’re ridiculous, but not in the way that would push me away from them.  They just make me laugh, and laughing is good.  Let’s learn some more characters, aka han4 zi4 or 汉字.  What, you can’t guess that those pictures mean “characters” just from looking at them?  Don’t worry… neither can I.


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