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Archive for the ‘Chinese’ Category

Finally a place to get noodles!!!

Japan and America have a wealth of options when it comes to culinary experiences. Mediterranean, Indian, Thai, Italian, Sri Lanken…you name it. Each country, however, has a weakness that drives me mad. In Japan, it is almost impossible to get any Mexican or even TexMex food outside of a few places in the business distrcits of downtown Tokyo. In Eastern America, on the other hand, it is impossible to find a place selling Chinese or Japanese styles noodles. Sure, you may find a Japanese restaurant selling ramen or udon, but they are using the imported instant soup bases, which I can buy myself at the grocery marts. What I’m looking for is a true soup broth, one slow cooking away for days with bones leaking juices into the soup–a true carnivores soup base. I don’t want soup made from dehydrated powders! Nongshim already does a damn fine job at that!

Charleston is even worse than any other place I have lived when it comes to Asian cuisine.  To make matters worse, my local Pho shop closed doors!!!  NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I need my noodle fix!!!  There is only one Pho shop left now, but it does not serve Pho Ga (Chicken soup with rice noodles), and my spouse is no longer interested.  For the record, I’m a Pho Bo (Beef soup with rice noodles) guy.  Anyway, I’m out of luck in this rural, southern backwater excuse for a modern city!!!

Luckly, Grand Asia Market opened up a new store outside of Charlotte, NC.  I visit Charlotte a few times a year, so I think I have found a place to get my fix.  They also have a cafeteria that serves a variety of Chinese food, including Peking Duck.  To my delight, they also have their own Taiwanese beef noodles.

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Make sure to come with an empty stomach, because this bowl of Taiwanese beef noodles is full of good stuff and will keep you satisfied for hours.  Flour-based noodles, beef, spinach, pickled greens, green onions…and of course the aromatic and flavorful beef soup broth.  And this will only cost you $7!  A bowl of Pho in Charleston will cost you $11 and will have half the amount of noodles, and very little beef or greens.

Oh Charleston…forget the shrimp ‘n grits…just give me a good bowl of noodles.

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Dinner with Chairman Mao

It’s been awhile since the last post.  Since starting graduate school in the evenings, that, on top of work full-time has kept me very busy.  I suppose that is for the best because it is winter in Charleston, which means it rains, rains, rains and rains.  No time to enjoy the good outdoors in the cool weather I’m afraid.

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Tonight I was in the mood for cooking, so I decided to make a Hunan-style dish called “Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork” (毛氏红烧肉).  According to Fuchsia Dunlop, this is a dish that Chairman Mao Zedong craved even while living in Beijing.  There is nothing too exotic in the dish: pork, sugar, cooking wine, ginger, chili peppers, soy sauce and cassia bark (or cinnamon, which I used).  I made it rather mildly tonight, next time I will add more chili peppers to give it a real kick.  The color, believe it or not, comes from caramelizing sugar in cooking oil and cooking wine–it is not due to additives.

After making this, I definitely need to do more exploring with Hunan cooking.

Recipe (how I made it, not exactly how the cook book stipulates):
Pork – cut into 2cm pieces
2 tbsp. sugar
1~2 tbsp. cooking wine
2cm ginger – peeled, diced finely
2 chili peppers – I used dried Thai chilies, and I recommend more if you like a little kick
1 piece of cassia bark or 1 stick of cinnamon
soy sauce and sugar for flavor

1) Heat oil at a lower temp in a wok, then add sugar and wait for it to melt, then raise the temp and stir the sugar until it caramelizes.
2) Add the pork and then add about tbsp of cooking wine (I just used Japanese cooking sake, I did not have Shaoxing Chinese cooking wine) on top of the pork — try to avoid dumping it on the wok itself…I did that and cleanup was fun afterward.
3) Add water enough to cover the pork, then add the ginger, chilis, cinnamon stick, and any other spices you fancy.  The recipe calls for exotic ones like star annse, but I don’t have any.   I suppose you could also add paprika to get an even better red color.  Give it a good stir to mix it all up.
4) Bring it up to a boil, and then return it to a simmer for 40 minutes.
5) After the time has passed, turn up the heat to boil away the the sauce.  Splash a little soy sauce and sugar for flavor.  I also added some corn starch to thicken the sauce.
6) Top with scallions for flavor and garnish just before taking it off the heat.

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Chinese Reading Materials

Sponge Bear recently asked me about the materials I use for learning Chinese.  I thought I’d share here in the blog for the aid of the link surfers. Because I have not had much luck with 21st century learning methods like SRS, Podcosts, Heisig methods and what not, I won’t focus on them here.  I may address that in a future post when I also address some learning aides that make Chinese less painful.

After working 50+ hours a week (70+ during my years in Japan), I rarely have the patience to sit down and battle with resources used by natives.  Though the grammar is getting easier over the years, the sheer amount of vocabulary is just always too tiring and turns me away from learning.  To be honest, I really enjoy Chinese readers designed for learners because both grammar and core vocabulary are introduced at a maneagable rate, and reapted throughout the lessons for better retention.  If that is not your thing, don’t bother reading ahead then.

So my foray in Chinese language began in December 1999.  I had been trying to sign up for Japanese courses at my university, but being a lowly underclassman, the classes were always full.  The Mandarin course, however, had many vacant seats, and since I was interested in Chinese characters through Japanese anyways, I thought I’d give Chinese a try–a decision I am grateful for today.  My instructor was a Taiwanese Ph.D. student from the business school, and before the class began in January 2000, she asked that we all read Speaking of Chinese by Raymond and Margaret Scrogin Chang.  The book is dated now, and the topics addressing the technology required to work with Chinese electronically would make anyone laugh.  Yet the chapter on the Mandarin-speaking tourists in San Francisco’s Chinatown ordering from a Cantonese waiter by simply writing down their order has stuck with me to this day.  While this book does not teach Chinese, it introduces you to the Chinese language and is a great place to start if you’re completely unfamiliar with Chinese culture and language.

In the course we used two sets of textbooks.  The first is the dreadful Integrated Chinese from Cheng & Tsui, and the second was the fabulous Communicating in Chinese by Cynthia Ning from the Yale University Press.  Integrated Chinese is arguably the most popular Chinese textbook in the USA, and I don’t know why.  The units cover very little material, and the bubbly doodles that are used as an excuse for illustrations make the book feel quite cheap despite the rather expensive price.  Communicating in Chinese, however, came in two books.  The first was a listening and speaking book that focused on pronunciation and dialogs, with only pinyin and no Chinese characters.  The pinyin pronunciation table in the back was a great reference too.  The reading and writing book was also fabulous, because rather than using dialogs, it used signs, business cards, short sentences, and other visual aids.  You don’t need to read all of the characters in each part, you’re just supposed to be picking out the ones in the unit and understanding how they are being used.  I thought this was a very novel approach, and after living in Japan for five years I can vouch that such a method is useful…you’re never going to be able to read everything.

While in college, I struggled through Integrated Chinese with the help of some Taiwanese friends, but my study was not serious due to the immense amount of lab work from my engineering program.  After moving to Japan, however, I wanted to pick up my Chinese again so I brought two books with me, both published by Cheng & Tsui: Taiwan Today and
A New Text For a Modern China.  I have the dated versions from the mid-1990s, but I believe both have been renewed in the past few years.

Having been exposed to Taiwan through university classmates and flim, I thoroughly enjoyed Taiwan Today.  Each unit consisted of a one-page essay on some aspect of Taiwanese culture and society: night markets, women in society, pollution, education system, etc.  It also had grammar points with clear examples, and like Communicating in Chinese, there were often signs, menus, or other real language sources that were used to reinforce the ideas of the lesson.  It was through completely this text that I was able to make the transition to intermediate reading and writing skills.  I then moved onto A New Text For a Modern China, which covered social issues in the PRC and was also very fun to read, though much more challenging.  I largely worked this this text alone, often having to post questions on Internet forums so that I could further my understanding.  But the grammar skills gained from this text have stuck with me and I’m proud of the hard-work and sweat it took to get through this book.

In 2005, I flew to Taiwan to attend a friend’s wedding and do some site seeing.  I stopped by Caves Bookstore in Taipei to check out their Chinese learning materials.  I picked up a two-part set of the Suplimentary Chinese Reader Series (Vol. VII & VIII), titled Chinese Folk Tales(中國民間故事 I&II) by 正中書局, the publisher.  I haven’t actually completed this one yet, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  As you develop reading skills, you also gain exposure to traditional Chinese folktales as well as Chengyu(成語), sometimes translated as idiomatic expressions.

This past spring I decided to hire a Chinese tutor via Skype, and this has been working wonders.  My communicative skills were non-existent and my study regime was very infrequent, especially after my son was born.  Having a weekly one hour lesson has really helped me to focus and study regularly.  I made a detour from Traditional-character materials to Simplified-character materials since my instructor is in Tianjian, China.  At first I found it difficult, but if you can read Traditional you can pick up Simplified very quickly.  I don’t plan on giving up on Traditional characters though.  I selected the following texts for my lesson from the Peking University Press:

  • Cultural Interpretations of China, An Advanced Reader I
    文化中文 中国文化阅读教程I
  • Getting into Chinese Thought, An Advanced Reader II
    解读中国 中国文化阅读教程II

These books consist of 25 units each, and each unit has an essay of decent length exploring Chinese history and culture followed by exercises.  It introduces quite a bit of idioms, and the vocabulary I’ve picked up from the books has been tremendously useful.  Though some of the terminology for Confucius ideology is not useful, much of the vocabulary can be used in every day situations. Without an instructor or native-speaker to help you understand difficult parts, I think these books would be difficult.

For private study, I’m also slowly working through the following from the Peking University Press:

  • Intermediate Hanyu Listening 1-3
    中级汉语听力 1-3

I have a hard time sitting down and listening to recordings, however.  I need to find a way to focus more and work on the lessons to help supplement the conversation from my guided lessons.  Finally, for future use I purchased the following:

  • An Intensive Reading Course of Advanced Chinese I
    汉语精读教程 I  (Peking University Press)
  • 世一文化 兒童經典文學
    Journey to the West (西游記)
    Three Waring States (三國演義)
  • The Independent Reader by Vivian Ling
    從精讀到泛讀 (SMC Publishing Taiwan)

I purchased the third back in 2005 knowing one day I would use it.  I still don’t have the vocabulary level to really enjoy and it and get the most from the text, but I’ll get there one day.  The second set are actually children’s books that have Zhuyin Fuhao (BoPoMoFo) beside each character, and rather than having to spend a lot of time looking up character readings and meanings, I can focus on these two epic stories of Chinese literature.   The first book is just another advanced reader from which I hope to gain more grammar and vocabulary from before trying to tackle The Independent Reader.

So there you have it.  If you move to China or Taiwan and live there for a year you’ll probably be much better than I will ever be after reading all of these books.  If you’re like me and don’t foresee any opportunities coming your way anytime soon for living in a Chinese speaking society, then hopefully some of the book recommendations are helpful.  If an opportunity to work in Hsinchu Science Park ever came my way, however…

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Propaganda in Chinese Learning Materials

The majority of my Chinese language resources and learning materials were published in Taiwan or North America.  When I started my online Mandarin tutoring back in March, I decided to go with an advanced text published by Peking University Press.  The reasoning for the change is that the texts are cheaper in China and it is also easier for my tutor to obtain texts published in China.  Overall I really like the text, it is the first in a two part series with the first book mostly covering traditional and modern Chinese culture.  Two things about the text, however, seem to set it apart from all other learning materials I have used.

  1. There is an implicit assumption that the learner is from the Western hemisphere and understands things better when compared with the West
  2. The author likes to take a swing at Japan when given the chance

On the Japan issue, one chapter is titled “從皇帝到戰犯到公民”–“From Emperor to War Criminals to Citizens”.  The chapter explores the fall of Imperial China, but does not mention anything about Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek, and the early Republic before the Japanese invasion.  And while the Japanese did commit war crimes in China, I find it interesting that instead of saying “Japanese Invaders” as one might say in a more neutral text, the author explicitly chooses to use “War Criminals”.

So it may not be propaganda, but I surely am able to discover how the author feels on the subject.

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This year I have a couple of things I’d like to learn to do on my computer.  The first is that I’d like to figure out how to edit home videos and create DVDs from the videos.  The second task is that I’d like to create better language learning materials from podcasts and old cassettes. The latter seems much easier, so I decided to give it a shot today.

While I find listening to podcasts or recorded audio for language learning is fun and interesting the first time, when I want to review the core material, I don’t want to fiddle with rewind/fast-forward, and I certainly don’t want to hear the hosts’ banter and idle chit-chat.  What I want is repetition so I can practice getting the flow of the language.  Unfortunately, many podcasts and many language learning materials don’t offer the repetition that I’d like, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I found a free tool, Audacity, which offers the ability to chop up audio data into pieces visually on your PC or MAC. This tool is very easy to use–you do not have to be an audiophile or a computer expert to make use of it.  I first played around with recording my voice from the mic, and seeing what I’d get on the screen.  After fiddling with the settings, I saw that the tool can also use a PC or Mac built-in audio input jack to read an input signal.  This is the same jack you might use for a hands-free headset or an external mic.

I got out my old copy of  Communicate in Cantonese, which is a great little Cantonese course that comes with an audio tape containing the dialogues, vocabulary banks, and audio exercises.  While I don’t want the exercises for review, I would like to separate the vocabulary banks and dialogues into separate audio files so that I can listen to them for review whenever I’d like.

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The Audacity GUI – while it might look technical, it is quite intuitive and user-friendly

Working with Audacity was very simple, and the following was my basic work-flow:

  1. I connected my cassette player’s headphone jack to my Mac’s input jack with a stereo patch cable.  This will work whether you have an old walk-man (you didn’t throw yours out, did you?) or a cassette deck in your component stereo system.
  2. I clicked the record button in Audacity, and then hit the play button on the walk-man.
  3. After I had a few minutes of input, I stopped both.
  4. Using the play, pause and stop buttons in the software, I found the sections of the recorded input that I wanted to isolate, and I selected a section by clicking on the start position and holding the mouse down, not releasing it until I came to the end position of the section.
  5. Using the copy/paste options from Audacity’s Edit menu, I copied the selected audio data
  6. From Audacity’s File menu, I created a new window, and in this window I pasted the previously selected data.  For the dialogs, I pasted the selected data ten times, each time moving the cursor to the end of the previous paste-action such that the next “paste” would be appended.
  7. Once I was satisfied, from the file menu, I exported the contents of the new window to MP3, and voila, I was in business.

Skip this paragraph if you’re not interesting in the technical details, but for the curious: Audacity reads from a built-in mic or input jack and saves the data in pulse code modulated (PCM) format to a temporary file, which is simply the amplitudes of the input signal recorded serially in time.  From this format, it is possible to export to many different audio formats, such as the ubiquitous WAV on Windows(and Mac) or AIFF for Mac.  With the proper free plug-ins, it is also possible to save your files in MP3 or AAC encodings for your iPod, or any other popular encodings such as WMA or OGG.

While the process is very straight-forward, here are a few suggestions:

  • input jack gain – in the GUI the gain is set rather low, and I recommend that you don’t increase the gain over 0.5.  Increasing the gain causes more “hissing” and white noise in your audio data
  • cassette player volume – if the input volume is too small, try increasing your cassette player volume to the max volume.  This avoids the “hissing” noise that comes from increasing input gain on the audio input jack, but increases the level of your input signal
  • When trying to copy/paste audio data, make sure the original data has been “stopped.”  When I tried to do so with the original data “paused,” the copy/paste actions were greyed out and unavailable
  • If you export MP3s, for music, audiophiles will want a 256 kbps bit-rate, but for  language tapes, a bit-rate of 128 kbps is fine and it keeps the file size smaller
  • for language learners – if you’re very patient, you can try inserting gaps between sentences in a dialog so that you can repeat the previous utterance, or perhaps take a stab at answering the question in the previous utterance before the actual answer comes.

While it does take time away from your study to make custom learning materials, I believe that we gain more from the ability to focus on the areas that of interest to us.  While I’m commuting to work or even sitting at my desk and doing my job, I can listen to the dialogs passively as I won’t be distracting trying to rewind or fast-forward my language learning materials.  Hopefully this will help make me more productive with my language studies this year.

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新年快樂

Happy Chinese New Year to all out there that celebrate the occasion!

Though commonly referred to as the “Year of the Ox” or “Year of the Cow”, it is actually the “Year of the Earth-Ox”.  Each year in the Chinese calendar is made up of a stem and a branch.  So this year, the the stem is Earth (己) and the branch is the Ox (丑).

Having read a little about this, I’m now  very interested in the calendar.  Perhaps a topic for a future post? Anyway….

Happy 己丑 Year!

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Japanese terms in Taiwanese Mandarin

I have been watching a Taiwanese television drama on the Internet lately to try and pick up some new Mandarin vocabulary.  After all, being entertained and learning new vocabulary is the best way to learn, right?  Certinaly it is more interesting than the often dry, but necessary, Chinese reader texts.  The drama is in Mandarin (with that Taiwan-style slur) and has subtitles in English and Chinese.

In the drama, I burst out laughing at the following utterance that one of the male characters said teasingly to a woman in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties:

真的好像菜市場的歐巴桑啊

Translated to English, it means, “you really are like a vegetable market auntie,” which is not something a young woman would like to hear.  For those not familiar with it, “auntie” is the term used for a woman in her late thirties and up.  It doesn’t have anything to do with family relations in this usage.  “Aunities” typically talk in a loud voice, gossip with the neighbors, have strong opinions that annoy the youth, et cetera.  Aunties are not unique to Chinese culture though. Japanese refer to the same category of women as おばさん (obasan).  In the Philippines, though I don’t know any Tagalog, women of the above category are also “aunties”.  

What is interesting about this sentance is that it uses 歐巴桑 for “auntie.”  歐巴桑 is pronounced “ou ba sang” in Mandarin, and this immediately caught my attention because “ou ba sang” and the Japanese “obasan” are strikingly similar in sound.  Taiwan seems to often look to Japan for its trends, and I guess the Taiwanese also adopt Japanese words as well.  歐巴桑 has absolutely no meaning as characters, they simply provide the phonetic sounds “ou ba sang.”

I’d love to know it his is just something unique to the drama, or if this term is commonly known and used in Taiwan.

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