Archive for the ‘Taiwan/China’ Category

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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Cape No. 7  海角七號

Roughly, this film is about a small city in Taiwan that is having a concert which will feature a famous Japanese artist as the headliner, and a local Taiwanese band as the opening act.  The city council chairman wants to show to young people that they don’t have to migrate to big cities to make it on their own, and he believes that a big concert event like this could help the town’s image.  He struggles to pull the town together and find a group of people with enough skill to play in the opening act.  The story is not complex and is somewhat predictable, but the film has the timeless melancholy feel of so many films produced in Asia.

In my opinion, the most fascinating thing about the film is that it features three languages: Mandarin, Japanese, and Taiwanese.  The Taiwanese was like a completely alien language to me and had it not been for the subtitles I would have been completely lost.  The scenery is spectacularly filmed, the small city really felt like some of the small towns I had wandered through in Taiwan.

The film also flashes back to the narrative of letters from a Japanese school teacher to a woman in Taiwan whom he left behind.  I won’t get into the plot of the letters, but they play an important role in the film and perhaps even have some artistic meaning at some level–never my specialty really.  Perhaps the the guilt and resent in the letters represent how the director or writer feels toward Taiwan as a colony of Japan, or the Japanese having to leave Taiwan?

It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but it was worth the time spent watching the film.  I especially enjoyed the “Malasan!” alcohol sales guy.

Last Life in the Universe  地球の最後の二人

I first saw part of this movie when I was living in Japan back in 2006.  I stayed up late one night, not wanting to go to sleep due to work related stress, and I stumbled across this film.  I managed to watch half of it, but due to exhaustion I felt asleep halfway on my sofa and never got to see the end.  I have been waiting since 2006 to see the end of this movie and I never could find it at Tsutaya–the Blockbuster Video of Japan–and finally after all of these years, I found it on Netflix.

This is a Thai film is about a suicidal Japanese man, Kenji,  who works as a librarian in a Japanese government sponsored library in Thailand.  His brother is an Osaka gangster–after all, everyone in Osaka is a mobster–who has fled to Thailand after sleeping with the boss’s daughter. His brother comes and causes a big disturbance in his life.  While contemplating suicide, he witnesses the death of Nid and crosses paths with her sister Noi.  The story follows Kenji and Noi and how they deal with the troubles they find themselves in.

I have two things to say about this film.  The first is that the cinematography is fabulous.  As is commonly found in Japanese cinema, the camera is often left at a fixed point, and we watch the actors move around in their environment freely.  We feel like spectators sitting in the corner of the room watching events unfold with no power to do anything.  The other is that I’m at a loss for words why most films in Asia are always about gangsters.  Whether the film be from Japan, Hong Kong, or Thailand, there is always some gangster plot.  Perhaps all of the movies producers are gangsters or ex-gangsters?

One last note: if you don’t like films that make you guess and think about what the scene is trying to communicate, you probably won’t like this film at all.  The director likes to play with the imagery and use “day dream” scenes to create dual paths of reality: what might have been, and what is.

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NYT on Jackie Chan

The New York Times is also getting around to covering Jackie Chan’s latest gaffe. I read about this in the China blog sphere and I was rather surprised Jackie Chan would say that Chinese people need control. Yes, Taiwan and Hong Kong may be “chaotic,” but they are thriving and vibrant societies.

He owes his whole career and fortune to the fact that Hong Kong is a free society in which he could create films and produce films***.  Had he grown up in the PRC during the same time, it is doubtful he’d be an international film start.  The only thing I can make of this is that Jackie Chan might be looking for a government post in Hong Kong in the near future…maybe?

Although he was reared in Hong Kong by parents who fled mainland China, Mr. Chan, 55, has been an unalloyed Chinese patriot. He sang during the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and he angrily denounced protesters who sought to interrupt the torch relay. During an earlier swat at electoral politics, he called the 2004 presidential elections in Taiwan “the biggest joke in the world.”

Seems like he really has a bone to pick with Taiwan.  Anyway, I almost died laughing when I read the following:

Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s biggest newspapers, used its front page to anoint him “a knave.”

A knave?  I haven’t seen that word since secondary school Shakespeare reading, but I hope it makes a come back.  Good on you, Apple Daily.

***(Speaking of Hong Kong film though, definitely check out the film-noir 2046 with the Tony Leung–Hong Kong film isn’t all Kung Fu)

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The Cages of Taipei

I always complained about the balcony of my apartment in Hachioji.  It is referred to as a veranda by the real-estate agency, and I suppose they use the literal meaning from the dictionary:

a usually roofed open gallery or portico attached to the exterior of a building

Sounds nice, right? These are examples of what I call a veranda, however.  I prefer to call my former “veranda” a narrow balcony, because that is all it is.   It is too narrow for a small table and chair where I could enjoy a cup of tea during good weather. It is also too narrow to allow enough sunlight to support a decent herb garden–we did have success with a small pot of coriander though.

While I thought my balcony was bad in Hachioji, the last time I was in Taipei I realized that it could be much worse–I could have a caged in balcony.  Why is it that most of the balconies and windows are barred or caged in Taipei? Is it because of crime, like in Miami? Do too many people throw each other out of the windows during arguments?  The following pictures were all taken in Yonghe city on a walk-about, by the way.

Barred Windows 8

If it were not for the caged balconies, I would think this picture was taken in Hachioji

Barred Windows 1

Even in the allies the balconies and windows were caged

Barred Windows 2

Plants seemed to be very popular on the balconies though, and I guess you don’t have to worry about them falling over in a typhoon or a strong gust

Barred Windows 3

Some of the grating protrudes from the building, some (like at the top) simply cover the window

Barred Windows 4

The office building on the left vs. the residence building on the right

Barred Windows 5

Even on the tall buildings we find caged windows and balconies

Barred Windows 6

Two different types of caging, same building

I am left wondering whether or not the buildings always come caged.  Does each resident pay to bar or cage their windows?  Now that I have looked at the photos more closely, especially the high-rise building photo, some windows actually don’t have any caging.  Perhaps it is a personal choice that each resident makes?  I’m also curious if this is also practiced in Hong Kong or Singapore.  Someday I’ll have to make the trip!

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Bask in the glory!

China has been developing its own radio access standard for mobile wireless networks.  The name of the technology is TD-SCDMA, and what it stands for is irrelevant.  I just like the banner ad on the technology forum web page.

I have always been fascinated by the propaganda posters from the early days of the revolutions in the USSR and China, and for some reason the tone of this advert strikes a chord.

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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:


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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On Black and White Film

I was cleaning out my miscellaneous shoebox full of all sorts of things when I came across a roll of Kodak Black & White Film  and a roll of Kodak color film that had been used quite some time ago.  Curious about the contents, I went to my local shop to get the film developed.  The color roll came back with almost every picture a blank shot.  There were some pictures where I could make out lamps or items in a room, but I guess the humidity of Japanese summers ate the color film and destroyed whatever I shot.  The black and white film, however, came out with a bunch of photos that really brought out memories.  It was worth the money to get them developed.

Before I get into the photos, I thought I should mention that I have both a film and digital camera.  I love my film camera, but since coming to Japan I have not used it as much as I’d like because developing regular film is costly, especially black and white.  The roll mentioned above cost me 1800 yen or US$18, while the color roll was only about 600 yen or US$6.  I’m convinced that if you’re going to shoot black and white, you must develop the film yourself.  Sure, you could use your digital camera and then use software to convert your color shots to monochrome, but the level of detail feels so different.  The contrast in regular analog black and white film simply cannot be matched, in my humble opinion.  Perhaps someone could refute that?

A slight diversion, I remember as a child my father developing black and white film in the family bathroom with his friend Allen from the office.  And I remember getting in trouble for opening the door or a drawer or something like that where a bunch of light enters the dark room while the process was still happening.  I also remember vocational education from secondary school.  I didn’t max out on academic courses, I balanced the academics with technical education in courses like electronics, mechanical drafting, and graphic design.  In graphic design I remember developing black and white photography and really enjoying it.  There is something really special about taking your photos and then developing them yourself…you just have to experience the magic of it.  Of course Chemists wouldn’t call it magic, but then again I was never that strong in Chemistry anyways…

So, about the roll of film.  I wish I could share some of the pictures with you, but I left my scanner in my room at my parents home in America so I can only describe the contents.  The beginning of the roll takes me to March 2004 when I was visiting some friends who were still in the university and preparing to graduate in May.  I had graduated in December, but I was unemployed, rejected from the JET program to teach English in Japan (what was I thinking…who hires an engineering student to teach English????????), and was getting ready to start working as a warehouse hand at a store that would only hire me as part time, but work me for 35 hours a week. (i.e. no benefits).  In the pictures there is a light snow all over Norfolk, Virginia, of course a shallow snow, but so beautiful.  I really wish it snowed more in Tokyo.  I cannot understand why all Japanese people hate snow so much.  “It makes getting to work hard,” they say, but that is because the employers are whacked out and demand work over natural elements any day.  I won’t get started though on that….any way, I must have taken the photos during spring break as their are no students on campus and the snow is so beautiful.  Among the people in the shots are my good friend from Taiwan, as well as my ex-girlfriend from Malaysia.  It was a different time in my life then.  I truly thought I could land a job and do something meaningful with my life.  Perhaps that is due to the fact that engineering professors are so out of sync with the employment market!!!  Companies aren’t searching for hopeful youth with ideals and dreams, they’re looking for seats to fill to do a repetitive “electrical plumbing* job.  Get your Ph.D. if you have the talent and brains, it is the only way to escape this path.

All of the sudden, the roll of film jumps to October 2004 when I was in Japan and attending the Kawagoe City festival.  I had only been in Japan for three months and it was still so new to me.  It is a nation-wide famous festival and even today I try to get back to see it when possible.  After all, Kawagoe is my wife’s hometown.  Kawagoe is a great small city, of all the places I’ve lived in Japan, I liked it the best (thought it was lonely because not many foreigners make it out to that part of Saitama).  

I really love the photos that I took because when I look at them I can see that I was very different then.  I took pictures of not only the danshi (the wooden cars that everyone pulls down the street), but also of people participating in the festival.  Having lived in Japan for quite some time now, I wouldn’t take pictures of a stranger because I’ve been convinced by everyone around me that it is very rude to do so.  I didn’t know that at the time, and as a result I have some GREAT pictures of ordinary people enjoying the festival.  The black and white film really brings out the contrast and colors of the festival in a way that color film cannot.  I suspect it is because with color film our eyes are directed to the strong colors (red, orange, etc.)  With black and white photos, we have to take in everything, and each person finds his own treasure in the photograph.  If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself.  Only a techno-hippie would still argue for the digital color shot.

Quite honestly, I miss that feeling of being somewhere new and exiting.  Every once in awhile I get the crazy idea that I ought to move my family to Taiwan or China so that we can experience something new and I can add a skill to my resume that might make me more employable in the USA or Japan.  Engineering spreads across borders these days and is a very global market.  I’m sure I could learn a lot, and living in China would probably be an asset to add to my resume some day if I ever escape from engineering in the lab,  but moving a family to a new place just to experience something new is not always a smart idea.  Salaries in Taiwan and China, at the present time, are lower than that of Japan or the USA.  Cost of living is lower, but a lower salary for a foreigner makes it harder to afford air fare to visit family abroad.  Seeing my son after birth made me realize that while he’s just a young child I want to create an environment where he can just run around and play before he has to buckle down and get serious about life.  I always want him to be able to visit his grandparents in America and Japan.  Of course that will cost so much more than when I was a kid and I could visit my grandparents in Virginia and North Carolina.  That tis a drivable distance, after all!  But I still want my son to be able to experience that, and it means I have to make more money.  And unless I’m offered an expat package to go work in China, I suspect I’ll stay in Japan or the US for now.

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