19 September 2010

Learning Chinese is no walk in the park

Two posts in two days!  I'm on a roll!

I heard a report on NPR a couple of weeks ago about the book Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows.  Since I'm in the process of learning some Mandarin before the trip, the lead-in to Melissa Block's interview of the author caught my attention: She said, "When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin lessons. But when she got to Shanghai, she found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying." (I recommend giving the report a listen, and I plan to read the book.)

My heart sank when I heard this. If she, with months of classroom study, could not speak a single word of understandable Mandarin, how could I, with a few weeks of sporadic lessons in Rosetta Stone and some flash cards of Chinese characters have any hope of successful communication on our trip?

Well... So what?

I've enjoyed--still enjoy--learning a few words. I can recognize some characters. I'm even interested in trying to write some characters, although the simplified characters I'm learning may be less aesthetically pleasing than the traditional characters one is used to seeing in Chinese calligraphy. Pronunciation is is what I've found to be the most challenging. The tones are killers! If I have the Pinyin transliteration, I stand a chance of reading a word or short sentence correctly (well, to my ear, anyway--and Rosetta Stone approves, most of the time). But remembering the pronunciation, meaning and tone of a random character, let alone enough to formulate a sentence? Fuggedaboudit. Not there, yet. I will have fun recognizing a few characters on the trip, recognizing a few words or phrases, and maybe speaking a few phrases. Hey, I can say hello (ni hao), goodbye (zai jian) and thank you (xie xie). One can go far with just that. And if I ever have to say, "These women are eating rice" (Zhe xie nu ren zai chi mi fan.), I'm all set.

(I know I'm learning because the other day I was channel surfing and ran across the movie Red Corner, which stars Richard Gere as an American attorney on business in China who gets arrested after a Chinese woman he met the night before is murdered in his hotel room. He must stand trial in Chinese court, and things look grim when the young defense lawyer he is assigned has trouble believing his story. Anyway, at one point, the lawyer, played by Ling Bai, gets a phone call late one night. When she obviously receives some news she wasn't expecting, she says, "Shen ma?," which I immediately recognized as, "What?" It's only one little word, I know, but that moment of understanding told me that I'm making progress.)

Some other books I've purchased: The Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary is a terrific basic dictionary. Clearly laid out, readable, with many useful tables and explanations. It includes an index to characters by radical and a handful of useful phrases, and is reasonably priced.

I also purchased the Mandarin Chinese-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary published by Dorling Kindersley. Well organized and visually appealing (the hallmark of all DK books) it suffers from its small format. Although its size makes the book more portable, the labels for the visual elements are so small that I need a magnifying glass to read them, limiting its usefulness.

I've also downloaded a half dozen apps for my iPod Touch. The one I'm using most, whenever I can, is the Flashcard Fu app, which features 5,000 flashcards of simplified characters arranged into decks of 20 characters each. I've mastered 66 characters so far, although I would not say "mastery" is the best word to describe the ability to pick the right answer for the name or meaning of a character from a list of four possible answers on a flashcard. I am making progress, though, and enjoying the process. Also downloaded: Qingwen Chinese Dictionary, Marty McDonough's Mandarin Chinese Free, My Chinese Library by TrainChinese, Chinese Learner (for learning how to write characters), and a few others not used so often.

Anyone have any other recommendations for books or apps about China or learning Mandarin? Leave a comment!

18 September 2010

When you have the occasional 15 minutes to kill...

Since my last post, I've been reading China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture by May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai. As much as I learned from reading Going Dutch in Beijing, there was much more to learn in the Chai book. The brief chapters are arranged, as promised, in alphabetical order, which I found great for browsing the book randomly--you know, when you have the occasional need to find something to read for 15 minutes or so (wink wink)--or when you can settle into reading for a spell.

Some of the information was immediately relevant to me. In the "Pinyin Spelling System" chapter, for instance, I was schooled in the most confusing Pinyin sounds for English speakers.  Right up there: C is pronounced "ts" like the end of "bats," never like "kuh," which explains some confusing pronunciations I've heard in Rosetta Stone. Also, Yi is pronounced "ee," not "yee," and "J" and "Zh" both carry the hard "j" sound, never the soft "j," but Z is pronounced "dz," like the end of "buds."  X is pronounced "sh," and Q is pronounced "ch" as in "church." Finally, G is pronounced with a hard "g," never like "juh."

Some if it is just fun: In the "Names" chapter, I learned that Ronald McDonald is called Uncle McDonald in China. From a marketing standpoint, giving ol' Ronald a family apellation makes him seem more familiar and friendly.  The book says he even has a partner to abet him in perpetrating American fast food cuisine on the Chinese--Auntie (or maybe Aunt) McDonald--although I've been unable to confirm her existence.

The chapter entitled "Hand Gestures" was enlightening. For instance, the correct way to say "Come" is not to extend a hand palm up and curl the index finger, as we do in the U.S., but to extend the hand palm down and curl all the fingers toward's oneself, which may look like a wave if one isn't familiar with the gesture.  Speaking of the index finger, I forgot to mention in the last post that the author of Going Dutch in Beijing says that pointing is a no-no in the East, including China. The China A to Z book says, if one does point at oneself or another, one points at the nose, not the chest. Finally, when indicating numbers from one to ten with one's fingers, numbers 1-5 are the same as in the U.S., but numbers six through 10 are very different. The Chinese gestures are designed to resemble the Chinese characters for those numbers. Thanks to American movies, most Chinese know the meaning of the ol' middle finger, although the gesture is not a traditional Chinese gesture. In China, the preferred offensive gesture is the extended pinky, which means, "You have a small..." you know. So, no raising your pinky when drinking tea!

There's a section called "How to Avoid Eating Unbearable Things" in the "Banquets" chapter. Now here is crucial information! Tip number one: Feign chopstick incompetence. Thrash those chopsticks around in your food and never let anything quite reach your mouth before you drop it. According to the authors, "Your hosts will be so embarrassed for you, you will become truly invisible." If your hosts send a server to help you, quietly whisper to the server to take the offensive dish away.  This will save the face of the server, who, after all, didn't order the food. On a tour, the book says, be sure to let your guide know your diet preferences.  I will be trying to think of a way to tell our guide, Jasmine: No fish heads or pig's faces, please.

China A to Z has many more interesting chapters about Chinese customs, history, personalities, politics and places. As a heretofore armchair traveler to China, I found it very interesting and informative.  I look forward to comparing what I learned from it to my actual experiences.

06 September 2010

What not to do when in China

One of the perks of being a librarian is that one has an opportunity to peruse the new books that come into the library. Every morning, we spend time straightening up the new books and pulling off titles that need to be moved to the regular shelves. This can be looked on as either a blessing or a curse. On one hand--as many people who love books imagine working in a library or bookstore can be--it's a little like being a kid in a candy store.  On the other hand, if, like me, you are not a fast reader, such a wide and unending selection sometimes feels like a curse. It is the proverbial case of "too many books, too little time."

Recently, I was straightening in the 300s--the section of the Dewey decimal system that includes customs from around the world--and I came across a fascinating book called Going Dutch in Beijing: How to Behave Properly When Far Away From Home by Mark McCrum (Henry Holt, 2008). I immediately flipped to the index to see what was listed for China and found several entries. While perusing the pages over the next several days (OK, how long has it been since my last post? That long), I compiled an enlightening list of "dos and don'ts" for the trip.

For example, Mr. McCrum says that Westerners tend to find the Chinese interpretation of "personal space" to be quite different than our own.  He says to expect that Chinese may stand very close while talking, and may come right up to investigate someone who is, for instance, blonde, as my cousin and his wife discovered last year when their daughter was constantly approached and photographed by strangers while they were in China.

More don'ts: Don't make eye contact for too long when shaking hands--it's considered disrespectful.  Don't talk about Tibet, human rights, sex, religion, bureaucracy, or refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China or, God forbid, "Free China."

Don't give a clock as a gift. (Good gifts to give are a fine Cognac or a fancy pen.)  Don't lose your temper in public, which would be considered an embarrassing loss of face. More no-nos in the face-saving department : Acting confrontational, calling attention to someone's error, or bringing embarrassment upon oneself or others.

Don't rearrange the furniture or other items in a room--especially in southern China: You may be upsetting a carefully planned Feng Shui arrangement. Don't use green (unlucky) or blue (funereal) as backgrounds in a PowerPoint presentation (or, presumably, for other purposes). And try not to get sick in China. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is used widely, and the concoctions Mr. McCrum describes are decidedly unappealing (then again, isn't medicine supposed to be unappealing? Maybe I'll pack a few spoonfuls of sugar).

Now for some DOs: Do wear socks with sandals--bare feet are not acceptable. Do things in threes, sixes or eights (six and eight are lucky numbers), but not fours, which is considered unlucky. Do expect to haggle for things--the Chinese are all about finding the Tao--the way--between two sides.

If applauded, the appropriate response is to applaud in return. If you have a business card, keep it in a breast or hip pocket of a jacket--never in a pants pocket--and offer it (or accept someone else's) with both hands.

I learned two other interesting facts from perusing this book: Chinese names, as many westerners already know, are arranged in reverse of the western order: The surname comes first, and the given name last. The middle name is used to indicate the generation of the individual. Presumably, family members of the same generation in a family will have the same middle name.

Also, when Chinese women get married, they keep their maiden names. This answered the obvious question that arose about this photo of my grandfather's parents, which listed them as Yin-ching Chien and Van Hsien Mao.