A visit to the local Chinese church

When you're not able to practice a foreign language, it gets rusty. The best way to practice, of course, is to surround yourself with native speakers. I have always spent a good amount of time doing this, and it always takes some effort. Even when I was studying in China, it took a little push to get out of the foreign student bubble at the university, and now that I've been back in the States a while, I've had to put in even more effort.

Those efforts led me to discover the Morgantown Chinese C&MA Church (摩根城華人宣道會). Let me preface by saying that although I was raised in a traditional Methodist church, I am not a religious person. A friend of mine needed a ride to church, and I was curious about the place and how it might differ from other churches I have attended.  What I walked into was a very traditional service that could have occurred in the church I attended as a child, save for the fact that it was bilingual.

Most of the hymns I readily recognized, though I was not confident enough reading the Chinese lyrics (projected on a screen up front in traditional characters) to attempt to sing with the congregation.  The sermon itself wasn't necessarily my kind, it was heavily reliant on an analysis of a fairly long scripture passage, meaning that the Chinese was somewhat difficult and the English translations felt a little boring.  Other than the formality of the affair, the only particularly "Chinese" thing I heard in it involved a part at the beginning where a Chinese emperor was quoted -- unfortunately I have forgotten the quote.

Of course, there was also the inevitable reaction of the Chinese congregation to the only white person in the crowd.  I was immediately singled out to introduce myself as a new attendee, and did my best to introduce myself explain my reasons for being there in Mandarin.  Afterward quite a few of the congregation came to me specifically to compliment me on my Mandarin ("你的中文很好 / Your Chinese is very good" was heard a lot) and didn't seem to mind that I was more interested in language practice than religion.  Of course, I couldn't help showing off by trying to read the bulletin (mostly in Chinese), just as much as I couldn't resist talking to the little kids in the congregation.

Will I be going back to that church?  I may.  Perhaps not every Sunday, but once in a while it may be fun.  The bottom line is that often you can find cultural experiences where you would never expect in -- in little pockets near where you live.  Get out and try it.

An Android for just $100,000

EDIT: Video (I forgot that wordpress.com doesn't like YouTube embeds.)

I was waiting a while to see if English-language press would pick this up.  Unfortunately, the only news I am finding on my searches from English langauge sources involves another robot in Mexico.

The robot in the video, however, was developed by Cinestav (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados / Center for Advanced Research and Study) in Guadalajara Mexico, and here's the kicker (via Once TV):
La ligereza de su estructura y el bajo costo de su construcción lo hacen uno de los desarrollos más competitivos en el mundo. En él se han invertido apenas 100 mil dólares comparado con el millón y medio de dólares que han costado otros androides similares.

It's light structure and low cost of construction makes it one of the most competitive developments in the world.  Only 100,000 dollars have been invested in it, compared to the one and a half million dollars that similar androids have cost.

And if you're wondering why it's just a tourso, don't worry, they're building the legs in Boston.

Another interesting thing is that the robot has an advanced learning capability, and it seem that it can even dream (via La Cronica de Hoy):
Su cerebro son dos computadoras conectadas a un servidor inalámbrico que serán las procesadoras de información del robot incluso cuando “duerma”. Al desconectar el robot, este cerebro artificial podrá refinar el equivalente a miles de redes neuronales, optimizar parámetros usando algoritmos geométricos y encontrar reglas de inferencia que almacenen la información útil que acumuló durante su actividad, crearle memoria.

Its brain is two computers connected to a wireless server that will process information even when the robot "sleeps".  When the robot is disconnected, this artificial brain wil refine the equivalent of thousands of neural nets, optimize parameters using geometric algorithms and find rules of inference that store the useful information that it accumulated during it's activity, creating memories.

Ok, this android may not be seeing images of electric sheep, but this is something like what our brains do when we sleep, and that makes us just a bit closer to building intelligent robots.  The plan, according to reports, is to improve the robot through several successive versions to develop robots ever more intelligent.  The engineers are already thinking of applications such as household servants and education.

Do People Really "Convenience"?

I listen to the Popup Chinese podcast feeds (for free, no I don't have the money to pay for lessons) in order to get a little listening practice while I have no Chinese classes and don't always have the time or persuasive power to get my Chinese friends to talk to me in Chinese.  The last elementary session brought up a vocabulary term that I have been wondering about for some time: 方便

方便 (fang4bian4) is a Chinese euphemism for using the toilet.  It's literal meaning is "convenience", and it is believed to be derived from translations of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, and that the use as a euphemism for our unpleasant excretions started among Buddhist monks.  What has confused me about this term is the way Chinese friends have reacted to it.  Here are the reactions I've gotten:

  1. pleasant surprise (the usual response when you use something Chinese don't expect you to know about)

  2. saying it's unnecessary (some prefer me to use the slightly cruder 上厕所)

  3. not nice enough (a few female friends have told me this, saying I shouldn't even imply what I am doing)

As  I stated, #1 is pretty much expected.  Saying even a single word of Chinese will get praise from strangers, partly out of flattery and partly from surprise at seeing a white guy who speaks Chinese.  But #2 and #3 have always interested me.  It seems that in some cases, I'm being "too polite", like someone who uses very bookish and sophisticated language while hanging at a friend's house, while in other cases I end up feeling my friends seem a bit like uppity Victorians.  It seems a lot more complex than, say, when I decide to show off my vocabulary of curses (which almost invariably ends with people labeling certain terms as too vulgar or dangerous for a foreigner to use ... EVER).  I wonder, if any Chinese are reading, how do you deal with 方便?  When is it appropriate, and when isn't it?  When it's not appropriate, what do you say instead?

0.0006 yuan stronger! Woohoo!

Ever since China unpegged the renminbi from the US dollar, it looks like people are tracking every miniscule movement in the currency.  Check out this AFP story (via the Hindu):
The People's Bank of China said it set the central parity rate — the centre point of the currency's allowed trading band — at 6.7890 to the dollar, a fraction stronger than Friday's 6.7896. It was the strongest level policymakers have set since China un-pegged the currency in July 2005 and moved to a tightly managed floating exchange rate, but analysts said the move did not signify a major shift. In Monday trade, the yuan was weaker at around 6.7912 to the dollar.

Really?  I'm not an expert, maybe six ten-thousandths is more significant that I expect, but did it really need a story written on it (albeit a really short one)?  Particularly when your unnamed analysts are downplaying it?

What measure is an accent?

So, this is a bit old, took me a long time to get to it, but in addition to they're ridiculous immigration law, Arizona has also been evaluating English teachers by their accents.  Language Log has a pretty good article about it.  For me it basically boils down to this:  These teachers already have certification of their English fluency, and English is very wide-ranging in terms of differing dialects and native accents, including having several different standards for different countries that a certain amount of foreign accent isn't that far from the norm.  Not only that, the same teachers being targeted because of foreign accents may speak the native language of the ESL students they teach, which can benefit their learning.  They shouldn't be discriminated against because they have not 100% internalized the phonology of some native variety of English.

Working for the Census

Recently I have been working for the 2010 Census as an Enumerator.  That sounds like a fancy title, but really what I do is not so glamorous, I'm the guy who goes around door-to-door, finding people who haven't turned in their forms, as well as a couple other things.  While federal privacy laws prevent me from going into too much detail about respondents, I hope it will suffice to say that I have met all kinds of people doing this.  Old people, young people, people from other countries, people out in the sticks, etc.  I have also encountered different attitudes toward the Census.  Most people are very cooperative and understand that it's just something that has to be done.  Others are curious about the Census.  A few others are snarky, but ultimately cooperative.  And then there is on occasion that one person that is afraid of the government, or just doesn't like people coming to their home, and get a little combative.

I may be slightly late in saying this, but to all those who might be getting a visit from a Census taker, keep this in mind: Almost all of the people out there giving the surveys are temporary workers like myself.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that practically all of us are new to the job, at most having worked a little more than a month at it.  Because of this, you might get someone who insists on doing everything strictly by the book, with no time for argument or small talk.  Or you might get someone who tends to forget pencils or information sheets and has to run to their car.  Or you may just run into someone who got lost and needs help finding their next address.  In any case, when a Census person comes to the door, please try to be understanding.  Hopefully, if they are doing things anywhere close to right, the Enumerator will be in and out in ten minutes and you will never see them again.  Whatever you feel about the Census, to these people it's a job, and they want to get it over and done with as much as you do.

I'm not asking for any extra hospitality.  If I come to your door, you don't have to invite me in, you don't even have to come out the door.  Just take a few minutes to answer some questions and I'll be on my way.

7 Words I might borrow from Chinese (or already have)

When learning another language, you will ultimately come upon words that are difficult to translate. This isn't because of some magical insight or a concept that "English just doesn't have", it just comes from that different people will express things in different ways, and because of this different phrases and constructions become popular. In some cases, those terms can get borrowed, though even in borrowings meaning sometimes change (which gives me an idea for another post). And less closely related languages and languages coming from far separated cultures are likely to have more of these differences.

Chinese, of course, is full of terms that don't have a clean English translation. You could write a book on chengyu (成语), the literary idioms that appear often in print and occasionaly in speech (in fact, I hear there are chengyu dictionaries), or about the poetic dish names seen on many Chinese menus. Some of these interest me enough that I want to borrow them, either because they seem to fit into a broad space covered by many different English words or because they cover culture-specific ideas that aren't as easy to deal with using native terms. Here are a few of those terms:

1 事(情) "shi4(qing2)" Often glossed as "matters", "affairs", or "buisiness". 事情 is basically stuff that you do, or that occupies your time. For example, if someone asks you to dinner, but you have other things to do (you have to work, study, see another friend, etc.) one response is 我有事 "I have shi", or 我有事情要做 "I have stuff to do". Shiqing can be used in other ways as well. Asking 什么事? "What shi?" is basically equivalent to "What's up?" (In the more serious sense of "What's wrong?" or "What do you need?", this isn't an acceptable greeting, but that's another post.) So in a way, it's not just abstract stuff that you do (work, school, etc), but also abstract stuff that affects you.

2 境况 "jing4kuang4" Literally "circumstances" or "state of affairs". This is notable not so much in it's meaning (which translates fairly well), but in usage. Chinese seems to use it a lot more than English, making a literal translation sound more formal than it actually is. One speech topic in my kouyu book was 说你家里的境况 "Talk about your family circumstances." Translated literally, that sounds like a psychologist's question about family relationships, but in this instance it was really just basic information: How many siblings/children? What do your parents do? Where do you fall in the family tree? etc.

3 厉害 "li4hai" This is a favorite term for a lot of foreigners. When you look up 厉害 in a bilingual dictionary, some of the first translations are "difficult", "terrible", or "hard to deal with", which confused me slightly the first time a Chinese told me 你很厉害. in reality the meaning is much broader, basically just "extreme" in whatever way makes sense according to the context. So a test that is lihai is probably very difficult, but for a person it could be they are very talented, smart, or athletic depending on what exactly you are complementing. For instance, I have met an Australian guy here who speaks Mandarin fluently (to the point that he can tell funny stories and people laugh -- I can't do that) and knows several forms of martial arts. He is lihai.

4 功夫 "gong1fu" Everyone knows Kung Fu refers to Chinese martial arts. However, in Chinese the meaning of gongfu is much, much broader than that. It actually means "skill" or "hard work". For instance, you may hear a Chinese person say 我花了很多功夫... "I spent a lot of gongfu..." to mean that it took a lot of effort to reach whatever goal he was reaching for. You can also talk about your "soccer gongfu" (足球功夫) or "calligraphy gongfu" (书画功夫), or any other skill that must be improved through lots of time and effort (as such, Linux Kung Fu seems to use the term in the Chinese sense).

5 关系 "guan1xi1" Most people familar with China and Chinese culture already use this term. Literally it translates as "relationship", but when borrowed it's usually used for a more specific meaning something like "connections". I think all cultures have some concept of using connections or personal relationships to get things, but in Chinese culture it has a certain emphasis, partly stemming from the importance of interpersonal relationships in Confucian philosophy and partly because of a society that still lacks somewhat in government services and rule of law.

6 华侨 "hua2qiao2" "Chinese diaspora" or "overseas Chinese". -桥 can be added to any single-character nationality (and maybe some phonetic multi-character ones) to refer to people from that country or with ancestry from that country living in other parts of the world. Many of the friends I have made here are huaqiao, raised in Germany, Italy, or the US but born to Chinese parents. Some of them are more Chinese and others are more German, Italian, etc, for various reasons.

7 方言 "fang1yan2" Often translated as "dialect", though I have read an interesting argument for translating it as "topolect" instead. It most commonly is used to refer to the "regional dialects", or rather the various Chinese languages and their local variants in different cities. The reason I bring up the "topolect" translation is that if you mention a fangyan you're probably referring to a particular place. Not as many people will know about Wu or Min than know about Shanghainese or Suzhouhua (both variants of Wu), or Fujianese or Taiwanese (Min variants).

Chinese domain names on the way

ICANN, the international organization that maintains Internet domain names has announced that they are going to begin allowing domain names using scripts other than the Latin script to be used for top-level domains (that is, the extensions such as .com, .org, etc). Up until now, domains have been restricted mostly to the 26 letters of the English alphabet plus the 10 numeral glyphs of the Hindu-Arabic number system. CNET has a good write-up on all this:

IDNs will allow domain names to be to be written in native character sets, such as Chinese, Arabic, and Greek. In charge of managing domain names, ICANN has argued that IDNs are necessary to expand use of the Web in regions where people don't understand English. Since its inception, the Internet has been limited to the Latin character set used by the U.S. and many other nations.


To expedite the new plan, ICANN will launch a Fast Track process on November 16. At that time, the organization will begin accepting applications from countries for new top level domains, or Internet extensions, based on each nation's character set.

Initially, the change will apply only to local country codes, such as .kr for Korea and .ru for Russia. Major top level domains (TLDs) such as .com, .net., and .org won't see non-Latin editions just yet. But ICANN is pushing to make progress on these major TLDs and hopes to include them in the IDN system before long.

This is definitely an important event in the history of the Internet. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker predicts a new .中国 domain (zhong1 guo2 = China), though I hope for simplicity's sake they keep it .中. According to Wikipedia the effort to allow more character sets other than the basic ASCII set began with a proposal in 1996, and started bearing fruit in 1998. However, though they list several domains as accepting Chinese characters, I have yet to ever see a second-level domain (the main part of the URL) using them, usually I see them with domain names and pinyin. If Chinese-character top-level domains, that may cause them to be more used, as Chinese users won't need to switch out of their IME's to finish the address.

Still, I wonder how many of these new domains we'll see used, other than companies grabbing their own brand names to make sure they have them. Many Chinese speakers do not use a "Chinese keyboard" to use a phrase used by a Tom Merrit on Buzz Out Loud's commentary, but instead a pinyin-based IME, most of which have an "English" setting for typing Latin characters (the default Windows IME works this way), and you still have to switch the punctuation type, unless ICANN finds a way to map 。 to the Western-style period (.) they use as the "dot" in "dot-com". Still, convenient or not, I think Osnos has a point that nationalism and cultural significance will drive Chinese sites to use and advertise their Chinese-character domain names.

Final note: I am by no means an expert on any of this. If I'm off base in saying there aren't so many character-domain names, or if I have misunderstood something about the availability of Chinese character domains, please call me out. I'm still a little confused about the history here, so I might be off on some things.

China and Science terms

Quantum Matter

Originally uploaded by gacorley

One of the things that interests me about Chinese is translations of science and technology terms. Before starting with Chinese I had learned Spanish, where Greek- and Latin-derived science terms are fairly easy to deal with -- you simply have to alter the spelling and pronunciation of the English term appropriately. (Mind you, this is not fool-proof, but it works most of the time.)

Of course, this sort of thing will not work with Chinese, which is very resistant simple borrowing. So, most science and technology terms that come from other countries are calqued, or appoximately calqued, by using a Chinese term or character that comes close to the meaning of the Latin root or English word it stands for.

For example, here in this sign 量子 (liangzi) is derived from 量, meaning "quantity, amount, capacity"as well as "to measure" (I know it mainly from the grammatical term 量次 -- liangci -- meaning "measure word"). "Matter", is 物质 (wuzhi) which also means "substance, material".

Of course, there are plenty of simple coinages, especially for things that developed in China independantly. Mathematics, for example, is 数学 "counting study" (whereas the English word seems a little more complicated).

My Classes at Zhejiang

I thought I'd take a minute and describe my language courses at Zhejiang. Language education in China is pretty old school, teasing out the separate skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. There is also a much higher cultural awareness of the difference between spoken and written registers in Chinese, and that can be seen as you go into higher levels of Chinese language courses. I am currently in the 3-6 class, among the last of the "beginner" classes (probably could be considered low intermediate). The intensive language course is split into four different courses

精读 (reading / grammar): This class so far has put a huge part of the focus on memorizing vocabulary lists, with the bulk of the lecture being usage advice on a few of the key vocabulary terms. Every lesson we have a 听写 (listen and write) quiz on around 40 new vocabulary terms, some of them using new characters, others being compounds of characters we should already know. Many of the new vocabulary are for use in the written register (书面语 "book-language") -- a classmate of mine who is Chinese-German with pretty much native-level spoken Mandarin remarked that a good number of them were new to her. There is also a short reading that goes with each lesson, and we are asked to construct sentences using new vocabulary.

口语 (spoken language): 口语 (kou3yu3) literally translates as "mouth-language", referring to spoken language, which this class was geared toward developing. To me the spoken language class seems to be a bit behind the reading classes in terms of grade level. Each lesson has two dialogues and a list of exercises, which include giving original monologues in front of the class. For me, this is the "fun" class, as I like having some interaction and involvement in my language learning.

听力 (listening comprehension): Older Americans might remember something similar to this class format. We were at separate desks each with a set of headphones and a small media device that was hooked up to the teacher's computer. We then had to listen to recorded dialogues and answer questions about them in a workbook. Pretty much everyone I talked to hates this class, almost universally describing it as "boring". As I said before, language instruction in China is old-school, and continues to use techniques that aren't that common in the US anymore. The highlight of the class is during breaks when the teacher plays Chinese pop songs for us.

阅读 (reading comprehension): This class involved reading a number of short texts and answering standard reading-comprehension questions (mostly multiple choice). The first lesson involved a couple of short essays, an article from Sina.com, some jokes and two poems. This class made me feel that I might have been placed a little too high, since I was missing a lot of information as I tried to read each text. I'll give it some time before I think about changing, though.

All in all, the classes are not too bad. I feel like each one of them gives me some level of challenge. The only class I wish I could get rid of entirely is listening comprehension -- to me it seems to be an outdated format that doesn't add much to my learning and just isn't as stimulating as the other courses.

[categories Expl, Trav, China]

In China

So, I just now have been able to set up my Internet connection. Unfortunately there are a whole lot of problems with it that I can't seem to figure out at the moment.

What works (those things that can't fool me with a cached page, anyway):

QQ (Chinese IM service)

What (definitely) doesn't work:

Web Browsing (as in, I cannot at the moment see any web page that I don't have cached)

I'm thinking there is some sort of serious connection problem. My Gmail won't even show images in emails (and Google reader is showing my feeds, but for some reason all images are missing, which sucks since the RSS feeds I read most regularly are web comics).

Ok, this is getting a bit nuts

Alright, I promise I won't turn this into "swine flu blog" but I thought I might do a little commentary on the news as it stands worldwide.  According to the latest WHO update, swine flu has caused about 25 deaths in Mexico (out of 590 confirmed cases).  Worldwide there are a total of 985 cases that have resulted in a grand total of ... 26 deaths (one was in the US).  That's about a 2.6% death rate -- before counting the extenuating circumstances that probably lead to a higher death rate in Mexico (poverty leading to poor health care and late detection).

So the new H1N1 is no where near as bad as the hype surrounding it.  So why do we have Egypt killing all pigs in the countryChina detaining Mexican citizens even if they haven't been to Mexico in the past months, and of course, the latest in useless, unhelpful measures -- this:

Official Word

Well, it's official, I can't go to Mexico:

It is with regret that the Office of International Programs at West Virginia University has decided to cancel the May 9 trip to Guanajuato, Mexico.

We will be in contact within 24 hrs with further details and with suggestions for alternative programs, both in Business and Economics and in Foreign Languages.

I'm sure most of you are aware of the situation involving the swine flu outbreak in parts of Mexico.  This is the reason for this cancellation.  Our hearts are with our friends in Mexico, and we wish them all the best as they face this difficult time.

Update on Swine Flu

I got an email from someone at la Universidad de Guanajuato.  In between various points I saw this:
6.- En el caso específico de Guanajuato, el Secretario de Salud Pública del Estado, Jorge Armando Aguirre Torres, reitero que Guanajuato esta en alerta preventiva, por lo que consideró innecesario suspender actividades laborales, educativas, eventos públicos o políticos.

6.  As for Guanajuato specifically, the State Secretary of Public Heath, Jorge Armando Auguirre Torres, reiterated that Guanajuato is under preventative alert, for which he considers it unnecessary to suspend labor activities, educational activities, and public or political events. (my translation)

Sounds promising, though I think I'll look at what our people are saying about it.  And it's not too late for it to spread there.

More updates below the fold ...

Swine Flu in Mexico

So, I just heard about the swine flu outbreak in Mexico (WHO notice here PRI "The World" report here).  Been watching reports on El Universal (sorry, no embeddable or linkable versions that I can see).  More to come later when I have a clearer idea what this means for travel.

UPDATE: So far no travel warnings, but it's getting worse.  I think I'll hop to OIP tomorrow and see about my trip.

Got my Shots

(Note: If you've traveled extensively, this post probably contains a lot of info you already know.  If you haven't traveled much, but plan to in the future, some of it might be useful.)

I got the results from my tuberculosis test today, negative as expected.  The TB test was part of a series of needles I had stuck into me Wednesday to make sure I had all the medical stuff I needed to travel.  The TB itself is mainly for China, since I will have a fairly long stay there -- the test is just a baseline, six weeks after I get back I'll have to take that test again to be sure I haven't contracted the virus.  In addition to the skin prick for TB, I got three vaccines:

Flu:  Parts of both Mexico and China are in the tropical regions, which have a year-round flu season.  The travel clinic had some left-over flu vaccine, so I decided to take it, but she told me that I should get another shot in China when this year's vaccine comes out.  This was also the least painful of the vaccines.

Hep-A booster:  Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are required for international travel.  I already had heb B before going to college, and I got the first round of hep A before going to China last year.   Now that I have the booster, I understand I should be covered for life.  I noticed that the hep A vaccine hurt more than the flu shot, I thought it used a higher gauge needle, but the doctor told me that it's just a heavier shot.

Typhoid:  You can find typhoid in both Mexico and China, but again, this is mainly for China, since it's an extended stay.  Typhoid is also recommended for "adventurous eaters" (I can be a tad adventurous, but not too crazy), and for rural areas (which I don't intend to visit all that much, at least for these trips).  There are two ways to get a typhoid vaccine -- the shot runs $60 and lasts two years, and the oral vaccine (taken every other day for seven days) costs about $40 and lasts five years, but it has to be refrigerated.  I don't have a refrigerator in the dorm, and I don't want to deal with having to remember to fill the prescription while I'm home during the summer, so I just got the shot this time.  This was the worst shot, made my shoulder a bit sore the rest of the day.  Not terribly bad, but when I renew in two years I think I'll go with the pills.

Well, that's all for the moment.

Testing 1, 2, 3 ...

So, here's my first post.  I'm really just learning how to use this system.  I plan on using this blog in a few months to report on my experience when I travel to Mexico on study abroad, and later in the fall when I go to China for a semester.  So, unless I get really bored in the meantime, don't expect regular posts for a while.  That said, sometimes I get bored fairly easily, so we'll see.