Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Don't get rid of Chinese characters!

... but do get rid of learning to write all of them, especially by rote!

I came across this article by Victor Mair twice this week, once when checking the context for a Volokh Conspiracy post which my father sent to me, and then again when it was posted in a WeChat group for alumni of my college in Asia. In both cases, Mair's post was being used to postulate that Chinese characters may be outmoded, an argument spelled out by Geoffrey Pullum here.

I disagree with this conclusion. Speaking as a second language learner of Chinese, I never bothered to learn the writing of the characters. I agree that starting from Pinyin and learning to read first is optimal, and could almost certainly be employed to decrease the amount of drudgery for first-language learners of acquiring the written language. However, I personally would hate to see people not learning characters at all, since I find them beautiful and fascinating; they were and continue to be the largest source of my interest in learning Chinese in the first place.

The Chinese equivalent of "antidisestablishmentarianism"

Racism and the foreign experience in China

Last night1 was another night of involuntarily being made to play the foreigner. At a "cross-cultural New Year's" party, I was the only non-Chinese person. The hostess went out of her way to talk to me in English, and if I was talking to my friend Eric in English, told other people that he was 'translating' for me. A few people at the party remembered my name, but generally I was referred to 外国人 wàiguórén - foreigner, or literally, "person from an outside country".

It's incredibly psychologically damaging to be made an outsider - regardless of the intent. I have no doubt that the hostess was not intending to be at all offensive. She probably assumed I was in on the joke. Perhaps if I were of a different temperament I might have been. But the effect for me was to make me feel like I was under a constant spotlight as the outsider.

Living abroad has proved the distinction between intelligence and wisdom, in that I've come to understand many things that my intelligence could not lead me to grasp a few years before. Racism is one of them. I'm pretty sure that the white Americans who complain about reverse racism - I used to be one of them - are wrong. Because it's impossible to understand what it feels like to be in the minority when you're in the majority.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Thoughts on some excerpts from the ISIS propaganda magazine [non-China]

I found out that ISIS publishes its own propaganda magazine. Taking a look at a couple of issues, I'm amazed at the modernness of the writing and formatting, combined with what seems like a complete rejection of the basic values of modernity.

This is a scary passage:

This one projects quite a different image:
But then it's back to the same:

This passage suggests it's a cult (though I guess that's true of most religions, to a certain degree):
The amazing thing for me about this is how the people who made this can be so primitive in their opinions and yet so media savvy. The degree of intelligence and cultural awareness displayed, side by side with the brutality and closed-mindedness, surprises me. Their complete faith in their interpretation of Islam, despite its conflict with the humanistic ideas that I think of as a major product of civilization, seems primitive. But they're clearly media savvy and engaged in the global culture. It's not like they don't know about the beliefs. They just choose to reject them.

Sources: Issue 4, Issue 2

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Learn Mandarin Now's Top 10 Ways to Learn Mandarin Chinese

I was one of the people surveyed for a project on the best ways to learn Chinese undertaken by Learn Mandarin Now. My personal three top picks were:
  1. dictionary
  2. Hanping Chinese dictionary for Android
  3. Chinese dictionary
Here is the infographic with the results of the survey!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Why I love languages

One of the profile questions on OKCupid is:

If you had to name your greatest motivation in life thus far, what would it be?


What's your answer? Mine, without a doubt, is knowledge.

As I was watching this video, I came to a realization:

Minds like mine - minds that love knowledge - are drawn to mysteries.

When I watch a video of someone speaking a language I have absolutely no exposure to, I see something which makes absolutely no sense to me and yet is meaningful for both the speaker and his audience. I feel compelled to learn more so that I can know what he is saying.

Chinese has always particularly fascinated me because it is such a mystery.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

On going home

I live in Beijing. Although my books and old clothes are stored in my parents' attic in Connecticut, the things I need day-to-day are here. My girlfriend (and best friend) lives here, and though she came to the US once with me, it was more like a vacation than a homecoming.

However, I'm far from being a citizen of China. The number of people who are naturalized into this country is incredibly small. Part of this is because of the government, which (like America's) is paranoid about foreigners, and makes renewing one's visa a constant hassle.

But I think that even if the government relaxed its controls, the nature of Chinese society would keep most people from staying here forever. There have been several pieces published recently about why, but in short, China is dominated by a monoethnic culture which makes it nearly impossible for someone who is non-Han and/or not born in China to fit in completely.

To give just one example of the cultural chasm between China and the US: In America, when you go out for a meal, you choose between American food, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, etc.

In China, on the other hand, the nationality of what you eat is taken for granted. Chinese people eat Chinese food. What you choose is what you want the base of your meal to be: rice, noodles, or porridge.

Similarly, but more serious, are the effects of a single race society. My skin color, although it affords me enormous privilege here in the workplace, also poses an insurmountable barrier to assimilation. Though the US is far from a perfect melting pot, Americans generally wait until they hear someone's accent to judge whether or not they're a fellow countryman. But in China, white, black, or brown skin marks you as a foreigner before you even open your mouth. Even those expats who don't bother to learn Chinese know the meaning of "laowai", a semi-offensive epithet that you'll hear said about you if you go anywhere outside of the expat districts.

So, I'm still a US citizen, and will be for some time to come. I pay my US taxes (voluntarily, since I doubt the American government has any way of knowing how much I make here). But my identification with America has somewhat diminished. When you live in a place outside of America, you realize that just like most other societies, America exaggerates its own importance and correctness, in ways that are nearly impossible to see from the inside.

To take one example, how many of us are taught about the Korean War? We laugh at Chinese people's ignorance of the Cultural Revolution but act as if racism ended with the Civil Rights act.

But really, it's not the negatives of America that makes me reluctant to identify completely as American, but the positives of China. Beijing is a really exciting place, but I'm sure the same could be same of many cities. What's different for me about Beijing is that, like a Tough Mudder race, it's an environment of constant challenge. If you survive, it feels incredibly gratifying.

So for me, when I go back to the United States, it seems like a strange combination of home and not-home. Familiar but yet strange, it feels a lot like going back to one's old middle school. You find that the place hasn't changed, and yet it seems quite different - because you are not the same.

Friday, October 3, 2014

But we're speaking Chinese!

Translated into Chinese, this happens to me all the time.
In fact, in China, if you reply "no" (in Chinese) when someone asks you (in Chinese) whether you can speak Chinese, you can have an extended conversation (in Chinese) about how foreigners can't speak Chinese.

I'm not saying people should assume all foreigners can speak Chinese. I'm saying people shouldn't assume that all foreigners can't.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Will Dan McLaughlin be a professional golfer by 2018? [non-China]

The efforts of Dan McLaughlin to become a professional golfer through sheer determination are fascinating for anyone who's wondered about the roots of high ability. Given that he's already more than halfway through his 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, I wondered if it was possible to say by now whether or not he'll succeed.

CIW: Sports: Dan McLaughlin from Chicago Ideas Week on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On Bitcoin [non-China]

I'm a bitcoin optimist, for several reasons. One of them is that I experience the inefficiencies of the current monetary system on a routine basis as someone who lives in a foreign country. Every time I want to transfer the money I make in Chinese RMB to my American bank account, I have to pay PayPal a 4% transaction fee. I hate having to use such an expensive way to transfer money, but it's better than the alternatives! (See how to use PayPal to do so here.) Compared with a wire transfer, at least PayPal is instant, and avoids the wire transfer fees from a bank which would come out to nearly as much.

PayPal's fees. 0.5%-2% sounds nice. The problem is, PayPal doesn't allow you to link a Chinese bank account!
Why should transferring money from one country to another cost so damn much? This is one of the questions that Bitcoin sets out to address. With Bitcoin, there's no banks holding your money and charging high fees to send it somewhere else. Once you own bitcoin, it's yours.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A perfect China day

Living in China is hard. But it's like Ice Cube said - the more difficult your environment is, the better it is when it cooperates.

The weather was gorgeous. My English classes went by quickly. And to cap it all off, I got a bicycle.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On knowledge and the meaning of "ex aequali" [non-China]

The advantages which Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia have brought to the curious mind are enormous. The amount of knowledge available to me at any instant is greater by a thousandfold than in the pre-internet era. I use Google and Wikipedia every day, and can't imagine going back to paper encyclopias and libraries.

Yet, as Socrates reminds us in the Meno, not all facts available to us are truely knowledge. Some, Socrates says, should rather be considered merely true opinions, since we believe them to be true without knowing why they are true.

But what the internet brings us is not even true opinions, but merely the capability to acquire such opinions. That is, it hasn't actually made us more knowledgeable, it's just given us the tools to more easily acquire opinions.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A minor milestone on the path to fluency in Chinese

Last week, I got a question that made me feel good about the time I've invested in learning Chinese. It happened in the subway station on my way to a teaching job. He was asking me about being an English teacher, a topic about which I've talked many times before. After asking me a bunch of rapid-fire questions, he said “我说这么随便你怎么都能听得懂?” - You can understand me when I speak this quickly? When I replied in the affirmative, he asked me, "are you a native Chinese speaker or...?"! Of course I told him I wasn't, though it might have been funny to see (a la Fluent in 3 Months) how long I could pretend I was. (And yes, there is at least one white native speaker of Chinese.)

Today, I got a mail delivery. Unlike in the US, parcel delivery in China isn't always to your door (probably because everybody lives in apartment blocks). It's delivered by motorized tricycles with parcel carriers on the back, whose drivers will often stop at the gate to your complex or (in my case) the plaza of your school and call you to tell you that your mail has arrived and to come pick it up.

Anyway, when I arrived at the plaza and met the guy with the package, he seemed a bit surprised. After handing over my parcel, he told me that I spoke very good Chinese, and that "我没有听得出来" - that he hadn't heard it. I'm pretty sure he was referring to me being a foreigner!

In both cases, I hadn't said much yet. And in the latter case, some of what the delivery man had said, I hadn't understood, but had just ignored it since I knew the routine for getting the mail. So, in actuality I'm still far from having the competence, not to mention the accent, of a native speaker. But it's good to still be reaching new milestones in this incredible and incredibly challenging language.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Kunming incident & thoughts on terrorism

It was pretty scary to hear about this incident from a friend of mine. I've been to Kunming - my Facebook profile picture used to feature the train station where the shootings took place - and I'm sure for him, as someone from Kunming, it was far worse. However, my opinions on the matter may be different from those of my friend, or of most people.

Below is a translation of a short article by China's state-affiliated Xinhua News Network, followed by my thoughts on terrorism.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A note from the underground: pollution in China

For the past week, Beijing has been deluged under the worst pollution I've ever seen. Here's a terrifying photo a friend of mine took this morning in Guomao, the trade center of Beijing: