Monday, March 26, 2007

On Learning Mandarin

Ni hao, world outside of my Chinese textbooks! Allow me to explain those little scribbles that dance through my head.

As part of the NYU program here, all students are required to take Chinese. With my handful of Arabic phrases, Spanish minor and extensive knowledge of Plump Dumpling's menu, that puts me smack in Elementary I. This translates to six hours of class a week (90 minute classes, Monday-Thursday morning), two hours of mandatory tutoring and countless hours glued to my notes and Chinese books, jotting down characters, listening to bizarre sounds and making noises that I'm sure are raping the ears of any native speakers. And yes, I've been here for a month now.

I have an amazing teacher and tutor and have even resorted to taking my flash cards and textbook to the gym. But something about Chinese just doesn't stick to my brain. It's been frustrating (red ink on a quiz) and satisfying (recognizing a character on a street sign) and I'm trying to take it all as part of the "cultural experience." I haven't decided whether or not to continue my intensive study of Mandarin when I get back to the states, but I've already decided that, as hokey as this sounds, learning such a completely foreign language is a humbling experience beyond words or characters. I can now convey basic information to street vendors, cab drivers and security guards, but often feel like with every new character I learn, an old on pops out of an ear.

For those who aren't familiar, Mandarin is the official language of China, but I've already been warned that the variation in dialects in China is so intense that billions of people can't understand each other anyway. It has four tones, no concrete alphabet, and they say that to get the gist of a newspaper, one must know 1,000 characters. Most educated Chinese people know anywhere from 6,000-8,000 and last I heard, there are 30,000 in the whole language. I know about 60. These characters combine to form an infinite number of words and expressions and all have distinct sounds, which are written out in Pinyin, which is practically a language itself, but a godsend to foreign learners. Locals are extremely receptive and eager to help with any pronunciation and even fling some English in return. The other night, I sat in the front seat of a cab and yammered out my 4 or 5 sentences. At the end of the ride, he takes my fare and says "I speak English. Thanks!" I wonder what the Chinese word is for "blargh."

Well, zaijian, for now. Back to my Monday night reality.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pikshures: Hoppin Cages

Yes, those are rabbits in the cages above and lordie only knows what you're supposed to do with them. I saw this guy on my way to the gym the other day and snapped a photo before he yelled at me. In fact, without even realizing it, I've developed quite an arsenal of "weird-things-for sale-on-the-street" photos (and an even stranger bank of oddities that I didn't catch on film...) As I struggle to balance learning Chinese, reporting, meeting new people and navigating Shanghai, please enjoy these snapshots of...
-Fully-gutted chickens (some are mysteriously black)
-Alive chickens (bonus points for guessing their fate)
-Pig hooves (the behind is in the back)
-Still-wiggling fish
-Tiger claws on goat claws
-Live eels and a man gutting them.

P.S.- A PG-13 dispatch for Gridskipper.

Friday, March 16, 2007

I now have 20 Chinese Children

The above photos are a glimpse into how I spent my amazing afternoon today. I was flung into a Chinese public school classroom with a bag of White Rabbit candy, no lesson plan and no teacher for an hour today and I can't remember ever having such fun. My students were fourth graders with a wide array of English vocab words ("America!" "Camera!" "Candy!") and smiles that would melt even Mao's heart. About 20 percent of the students in th school are children of migrant workers and all hail from various parts of urban Shanghai.

Granted, it's been a long time since I've been in fourth grade, but allow me bullet some observations:
-My students were extremely polite. They bowed and said "thank you" at every given opportunity.
-They're all only children, thanks to the One Child Policy, which makes for a fascinating birth order case study. Watching them interact (or not interact) with each other at times reminded me of bumper cars.
-We played Simon Says and they rocked it...I think repitition and following directions are much more revered in the commie early ed system than that of the loosey-goosey individualistic West. In fact, when they flubbed, the looked genuinely concerned that they hadn't paid close attention. I had to laugh it off.
-Much like their older counterparts, they all dance the same (hip wiggle). It's adorable.
-They seemed shocked at the idea of coming up to the board and/or participating in the teaching aspect of took a little ice-breaking for them to take on leadership roles.
-They LOVE candy. But who doesn't?
-For those who are wondering, there ARE red flags hanging in the classroom and I just barely missed watching their synchronized aerobics routine. More photos to come.
-They knew all the words to "heads, shoulders, knees and toes."
-I gave out candy and many of the kids left it sitting on their desks, unwrapped, saving it for later. What restraint!

So in short, I've decided that the only thing cuter than one Chinese child is 20 of them. From now on, you'll know where to find me on Friday afternoons.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Pickshures: Plate Dancin'

This image captures my experience thse last two weeks in China: delicate, strange, crowded, exotic, eloquent, enchanting and ensconced in white polyester. Okay, so maybe the plate dancers were among the lamer acts of the crazy, early 90s acrobat show I saw last week, but they get they totally get the spirit award. But when the old men on motorbikes started driving around in a giant orb, I knew that I wasn't in America anymore.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Enough people have asked me why a white girl from Eugene, Ore., ended up in Shanghai, China, that I've jotted down some rather cheesy thoughts. Here's a draft of a travel essay that won't be available online anytime soon. Enjoy the blabberrhea.

Sitting in my sandbox as a child, I began to dig a tunnel to China. From what I gathered in picture books, movies (this was the pre-Mulan era) and grown-up conversations, China was America’s foil. Chinese people looked different, spoke a strange language, didn’t write like Americans, drank green tea instead of coffee, lived under a different government system, ate different food and at the time seemed completely alien to me.
About two feet into my dig, I realized that as badly as I wanted to see this exotic land, my narrow burrow barely made a dent in the earth’s crust. Understanding China would take more than a plastic shovel.
Years later, I stand on a crowded street in Shanghai as bicycles, cars and speedy walkers whirl by me. It’s the end of Chinese New Year and pigs (this year’s animal) adorn every shop window, lamppost and dumpling cart. I’m blissfully confused.
What shocks and perplexes me about Shanghai isn’t how radically different life is on the opposite side of the tunnel, but by how similar it is to metropolises back in the U.S. Skyscrapers, most brand-new, shoot up into the sky, Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFCs line the streets and Chinese youth belt out Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” with vehemence.
“Modern” bursts out of local mouths enthusiastically. Everyone from executives to cab drivers to street vendors use it as a selling point. Shanghai is literally bursting at the seams and leading the pack of rapidly growing and Westernizing nations. It only takes one glance at a KFC advertisement with a traditional Chinese family eating fried chicken or a perusal of Ralph Lauren imitation polos to see that American culture, with a distinctly Chinese spin, is exploding like New Year’s fireworks and globalization is speeding faster than the famed Maglev train. Rickshaw drivers chat on a brand-new Nokias, traditional characters spell out different types of frappecinos and the latest gossip from Hollywood beams in on subway flat screens.
But the paradox of east and west, formal and informal persists. Chinese students try to shrug off their British English accents and “speak like Americans” while still speaking local dialects at home. The Chinese government engages in high-profile censorship of the Internet, blocking all or portions of such popular websites as Wikipedia, the BBC, Myspace and most recently, Live Journal, but is subverted by the web savvy of Chinese youth’s use of proxy servers (in less than a week, my enthusiastic language tutor had me surfing the web freely).
Contemplating China’s future is a new hobby for economists, journalists, sociologists and former tunnel-diggers like myself. What’s happening in China is not assimilation, nor is it straightforward assimilation. It is the development of the modern East, a term not used enough by Western observers, and prompting new generations, both west and east to go beyond sandbox excavations.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Eye of the Tiger: The Shanghai Zoo

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm a closeted zoo junkie. So when I heard that I lived near the Shanghai Zoo I busted out the safari lens and frolicked over with some friends, eagerly anticipating pandas, giraffes, tigers and Asian animal goodness.

The landscaping was truly impressive: pagodas, streams and quaint little bridges. But some rather strange things happened whilst we strolled around. Stray cats and dogs scampered around. Animal habitats resembled Manhattan apartments rather than African savannas and the zoo was eerily void of people, even though it was Friday afternoon.

The animals seemed really happy to see us, which was neat from a tourist perspective (it's not every day that one finds thyself face to face with a tiger), but ultimately depressed us all. There was no evidence of animal trainers or regular interaction with these critters. Most came right up to us, then continued to mope around their filthy cages as soon as we walked away. Then again, if I lived in a sewage pit of neglect, I'd be pretty melancholy, too.

And since the cages were filthy, the animals had plenty of opportunity to roll around in their own feces. Zebras were less distinguishable (eeewwww) and litter was strewn about, in addition to algae, mud and overall murk.

From a Western perspective, perhaps the strangest (and ultimately disturbing) part of the zoo was a section full of terrariums about the size of a closet with a dog occupying each. Most of the dogs reeked of puppy mill and traumatized most of us, as each of them reminded us of our own doggies. Their cells were mocked up to look like mini houses complete with linoleum and cheap furniture. The dogs were filthy, barking and yearned for someone to play with them. I don't actually think that their treatment was any worse than the other animals' just struck a chord with us to imagine our own childhood canines eating their own poops out of boredom.

Other than the animals, there were some strange statues, signs in Engrish and rusty fair rides. As the sun began to set, we fled the scene, feeling like we were trapped in the beginning of a bad horror movie. We shook off the horror of the afternoon with a traditional Chinese feast and some authentic karaoke with locals, but I woke up this morning thinking about urine-soaked pandas and knew that the Shanghai Zoo really happened.