March 31, 2006

Chinese that you won't learn in a "Practical Audio-Visual Chinese" textbook

I've been sick, but I'll make an effort to get in a post this week. This is the first installment of "Chinese that you won't learn in a Practical Audio-Visual Chinese textbook." Today's lesson: how to describe the victory symbol that Asians love to flash when they have their photo taken.

to show victory (V) sign: 比ya

The verb is bi3 (比), which means to gesture with the hand. That which is gestured is ya (or yeah), which is a declaration of how happy one is or how unbelievably cool the picture will be. The "yeah!" should be exclaimed as if you were an excited but quiet ten-year-old who just learned that he won an award for coolness. It is possible to make a V with your fingers without saying "yeah," but it is not recommended. What do you mean "it's too hard"? Come on, even a baby can do it. Look, the baby is shaming you with his effortless mastery of the victory sign.

March 23, 2006

Luxurious pizza, anyone?

Today is the last day of the local pizza chain Napoli's large pizza for NT$150 deal. I don't see English listings of pizza toppings on their catchily-named web page, http://www.0800076666.com.tw/, so I'll type them out here for posterity:

Supreme – sausage, ham, green onions, green pepper, mushroom, peas, and pepperoni
Seafood – krab strips, shrimp, squid, and dried seaweed
Hawaiian – ham and pineapple
Smoke House Chicken – smoked chicken and mushrooms
Mediterranean Fisherman – teriyaki sauce, tuna, dried pork, octopus, onions, dried seaweed, and mayonnaise
Japanese BBQ Pork – teriyaki sauce, pork, green peppers, and onions
Vegetarian – green peppers, mushrooms, corn, mushrooms, and peas
Scallop Squid – seafood sauce, scallops, squid, dried seaweed, and red peppers
Roasted Seafood – seafood sauce, krab strips, shrimp, and squid
Luxurious Pizza – shrimp, squid, smoked chicken, bacon, mushrooms, peas, and onions
Smoked Salmon – smoked salmon, olives, pineapple, onions, and pickle sauce
Abalone and Scallops – seafood sauce, scallops, xingbao mushrooms, abalone, olives, baby corn, shrimp, krab strips, and peas

Hawaiian is considered by some to be an unusual pizza, but it is the most normal one here. The supreme pizza should actually be called a supreme plus, where the plus stands for peas and ham. You might be thinking, that's Canadian bacon, not ham! If a pizza restaurant has pizza with tuna and mayonnaise drizzled on top, or if over half of their pizzas include seafood, then I'll just assume that the ham is a piece of lunchmeat and not Canadian bacon until proven otherwise.

It seems that "western" dishes allow chefs to release all the creative energies that are suppressed when cooking Chinese cuisine. For a bowl of beef noodle soup, there just are not many options for spicing it up—the most unusual thing you can do is to add tomatoes. However, when it comes to pizzas, bread, and pastries, anything goes. A cheese pizza is a bare canvas just asking Chinese chefs to let their imaginations soar. Dried seaweed strips? That's a good starter! Baby corn and peas? Now we're talking.

Yesterday, when faced with all this creativity, I tried the teriyaki pork pizza. After eating it, I just don't think "pizza" is the right word for that creation. Today I'll try to order something more traditional, unless curiosity gets the better of me.

March 22, 2006

ChinesePod review

One of the challenges of language learning is the law of diminishing returns. At an advanced level, you just don't get as much mileage out of learning fifty new words, or practicing listening for five hours as you did when you were beginning. However, if you want to get to the level where you can understand the Chinese news well enough that you actually enjoy watching it, you'll just have to put in a lot of hours practicing. (At least that's my guess--the results I have achieved using the non-practicing method are less impressive than expected.) So, how to practice?

I think repetition of the same material is more valuable than just listening to streaming radio, and an actual recorded Chinese lesson sounds like the most direct way of learning, so long as the material is interesting. If you search for Japanese language learning podcasts, there are quite a few available, but for Chinese learning, I've only seen one podcast with a significant amount of material, and that's from www.chinesepod.com. They recently put up a couple of advanced lessons, so I decided to give it a try.

The ChinesePod lesson consists of an introduction, a short vocabulary section in which they describe five to ten words, a text read aloud, and discussion. I think they have done a good job with the very difficult task of producing something useful for all the different levels and types of advanced students.

In the two lessons, I think I only learned one new word, but that does not mean it was a waste of time. On the television news, there are not too many words that I do not know, but it is very difficult to catch everything when the news is read rapidly. Daily conversation, even when spoken rapidly, is just not comparable to news broadcasts. The language of a news broadcast, which is written first then recited, is simply at a higher level then conversational commentary on the same topic. Therefore, I think that one needs to practice specifically for this type of listening activity. Just as ChinesePod has done, it is nice to have a brief introduction to a topic. Proper names can be introduced here, and introduction of any particularly difficult vocabulary is helpful. The main part of a listening lesson should be a piece of news, read just like normal Chinese news, but more slowly. Last, a discussion can help review one's comprehension and keep things interesting.

My biggest complaint with the podcasts is that I did not care for the classroom tone of the show. Co-hostess Liv spoke quite naturally, but hostess Jenny sounds like what can only be a Chinese teacher, with unnaturally perfect pronunciation and intonation, and a tendency to firmly steer the conversation to a planned path. I'm sure a lot of listeners will appreciate the clarity of her voice, but for me it brought back memories of tedious Chinese classes. (I make an exception to the criticism here for reading the news. In reading the news, speaking unnaturally is only natural.) There was obviously a lot of preparation that went into the show, but my advice would be to relax and let the discussion proceed more naturally. If the hosts talk about something that genuinely interests them, then it will probably also interest us listeners.

Another way that this show was helpful was in offering some exposure to the way Chinese is spoken in China, which is different from in Taiwan. Here are a few of the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary that I picked up in the podcasts: shu2ren2 (熟人) instead of shou2ren2, ben3zhi4 (本質) instead of ben3zhi2, yi4yi (意義) instead of yi4yi4, and dan1ci2 (單詞) instead of dan1zi4 (單字). Of those, hearing ben3zhi2 pronounced as ben3zhi4 was the most unfamiliar.

I have to give them a lot of credit to ChinesePod for making advanced lessons available for free. If they could regularly put advanced lessons on the web, I would consider paying for them, but a few lessons here and there seems more like a free service than an attempt to make money. Although a few lessons will not lead to dramatic improvements, they are worth the listen.

No Borders series continues on National Geographic

I said it before, and after watching last week's installment of the series, I have to say it again: The No Borders series on the National Geographic channel is an excellent series of documentaries. After the first series of documentaries was shown, they had been showing reruns for the past couple months, but starting Saturday the week before last, they have begun showing new installments of the series. I didn't write much about them in the last post, and I don't plan to write much in this post because there is simply too much to say about them.

Last Saturday's documentary was "Omar and Pete." The story began with Omar's release from prison, where he has spent most of the last thirty years of his life. Omar is an intelligent guy who became a Muslim while in prison, has been off drugs for years, and is determined to start a new life for himself. His parole agent and most of the people working in the parole system are black, like him, some of them also former addicts, and they believe in Omar. He has a family and community to return to, and he lives in a transition house where his old friend Pete is making a successful transition to life outside prison. Failure is unthinkable.

However, it's not as easy for Omar as it first looks. He talks about momentarily going back to the old thinking, where he starts thinking about getting high, getting a .38 and calling up his cousin to do some damage. For me, watching a horror movie produces about zero grams of horror, but hearing Omar describe how close he was to returning to his old life produced real dread.

Again, there is so much to talk about in this powerful documentary on the subjects of addiction, incarceration, community, and being a man, so I can only recommend that you keep an eye on the National Geographic channel and catch a rerun if you haven't seen it yet. The regular time for the series is Saturday at 11pm, for now.

March 20, 2006

Looking out for your rights (and interests)

Yesterday, I heard that the Japanese word "kimari" is sometimes used to rebut a logical argument, meaning, "that's just the way it is." I wondered what stock phrases in Chinese are used as to justify bureaucracy. In Chinese, you can of course say, "that's the way it is" (jiu shi zheyang 就是這樣) or "there's nothing that can be done" ("mei banfa" 沒辦法or variations such as "menr dou meiyou" 門兒都沒有), but there is another more unique phrase with a more bureaucratic feel to it. When any kind of policy is introduced, it is polite to explain why. For example, if the wastebaskets of everyone in the office were taken away to save janitorial labor, then it would be nice to provide some explanation to the workers. If you can't think of a convincing explanation, then there is a stock formula to fall back on, "To protect the rights and interests of everyone." On the doors of bathroom stalls, there is a sticker that reminds us to conserve the toilet paper. Why? To protect the rights and interests of all employees, of course (為保護全體同仁的權益). In can also be used in conjunction with perfectly valid reasoning. For example, why can't I put open packages in the shared refrigerator? Well, the foul smell might "affect the rights and interests of others" (影響他人的權益). Beware, whoever is munching away on that dried squid, your stinkbag may already be violating my human rights!

Pay attention to that job application head shot!

Job applications in Taiwan often ask for the applicant's height, weight, sex, and a small photo. Ever wonder what they do with that information? Does the hiring manager look at your height and weight and then imagine the size of your belly? Do they use your smile to assess whether you will be easy to get along with, or easy to cow? If you have a good body, would it be in bad taste to include a body shot along with the face shot?

Recently, I overheard some coworkers going through the interviewing and hiring process, so I got a closer understanding of this issue. I was first alerted to the hiring process when I heard three girls huddled around a computer exclaiming how cute one of the job applicants was. However, there was a bit of disappointment when they noticed that his height was not on par with his good looks. After looking through all the applications, they were still disappointed that they could not find a single hunky applicant that was 180cm or taller.

On the more serious side, here is what they were really looking for in a job applicant: The foremost requirement is that he or she graduated from one of the top tier colleges. (There are five public universities in Taiwan that are considered top tier, if I remember correctly.) Then, of course, there is the technical competency and English ability. Next, the applicant must show an interest in the job. (Fake interest will do just fine.) Next, the applicant must seem willing to work overtime. Last, he or she must not be too outstanding. Let's face it, this is nobody's dream job, so anyone too capable will be gone before long.

Also, this hiring process makes no claims to being gender-unbiased. The hiring manager joked that he could hire a cute girl for one of his workers. The co-worker then replied, in all honesty, he would prefer a male co-worker because a male would be easier to teach and to work with. I had to restrain myself from exclaiming, "It's fine if you think that, but you can't SAY that! Don't you realize that the company could be sued (...if you were in America)?" I don't think they would have appreciated that.