Return to the Middle Kingdom!

Posted in Announcements at 6:24 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’m going back to China!…only for the summer this time though.

About this time last year, after living in China 3.5 years, there was little doubt in my mind that my time in China was nearing an end, and I was ready to acclimate back to my life as an American. However, I always thought it would have been a shame to live in China from 2004-2007, only to miss the Beijing Olympics and all of the hoopala surrounding them. Nonetheless, I have been spending the past seven months settling into my life in Chicago, and must say I do see myself living here long-term. Chicago is the only location in the universe which is both Midwestern and cosmopolitan, and I can’t think of any better location for suburban boy from Kansas to live out the remainder of his 20’s. With that in mind, I had been resigned to the fact I had the amazing years in China, but the Olympics would be an event I’d just have to let pass by.

Two weeks ago, I received an offer to work on an ethnography project from the company I had worked for during my last year in China. After several days of deliberation, I decided that it was a once and a lifetime opportunity I could not pass up on. (I would have made an announcement earlier, but needed to get all the details taken care of, plus tell my current employer, before making the decision public.)

On Friday the 13th of June I will be flying to Beijing. The project will begin promptly, and then wrap up around early to mid July. After that, I am planning to return to Fuzhou to see friends for a few weeks, as well as do some more traveling within China. I won’t finalize my itinerary until I get to China, but at this point, I am leaning towards Dongbei (Northeast China) since it’s one of the regions I’ve still never been to, plus it’s not too far from Beijing.

The Olympics begin on 8/8/08 at 8:08:08 pm, so I should be back in Beijing by early August. To be frank, I’ve never been much a fan of Olympic sports, and am not really concerned whether or not I see too many of the events. My reasons for wanting to be in China this August revolve much more around experiencing how the country reacts to the events, rather than the events themselves. Hosting the Olympics is a major event for any country, but no Olympiad has ever been more significant to its host country than this summer’s games will be for China. It is going to be a coming out party for the New China, and I want to be there to experience everything first hand.

I will be leaving China on September 10 and spending 3 days in Tokyo before returning to Chicago on September 14. During the next few months, I plan to keep this blog updated with reports from Beijing and give “Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom” the kick in the 屁股 that it’s badly needed ever since I left China. It’s going to be an incredible summer and I’m already ecstatic that everything is finally coming together. One World, One Dream, One Ridiculously Expensive Plane Ticket…See y’all in Beijing!



In Search of New China Blogs

Posted in Announcements at 8:53 am by Benjamin Ross

I can’t tell if it’s that I no longer live in China, or if the amount of intelligent discourse on China in the blogosphere is actually dwindling, but it seems like less and less well-written sino-dribble has been coming out in the past few months. Lately, I find myself desperately looking for new perspectives on China, and not finding much. Not that there’s anything wrong with teaching English for a year in China and blogging about people eating fish heads and spitting on the streets, but a truly poignant blog will provide insight on a deeper level. With that being said, here are some of my own current favorites. If anybody has any others to recommend, please leave a comment with a hyperlink, and a brief description for all to see.

Sinosplice – I’m sure most of you have seen it before, but John Pasden arguably puts together the most consistently thought-provoking China blog out there. His focus is on language, but also covers many of the other nuances of Chinese culture that you start to notice when you have been living in China for 7.7 years. His entries are typically only a few paragraphs long, but rarely do I read them without learning something new, or getting a quick laugh. John also currently works for Praxis Language, which puts out Chinese Pod (and Spanish Pod) which are both provide excellent language learning material for those on the go.

Opposite End of China – Michael recently announced he is leaving Xinjiang for Beijing, but fortunately plans to continue focusing his blog on his home for the past 3 years. Xinjiang is a fascinating place, an entirely different world from Eastern China, and Michael provides some excellent press, for this under-represented region.

China Law Blog – There are many people in this world who are well-versed in the world of law. There are also many people who are well-versed on China. What there aren’t many of, are those who fit both criteria. This is where China Law Blog comes in. It’s one of the few places online where you can read about China from a legal and business perspective, from someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

Hao Hao Report – It’s not a blog per se, but this aggregate site, managed by Ryan McLaughlin (aka The Humanaught) compiles some of the best stories from around the China blogosphere and beyond.



你会讲国语吗?…How to Say “Chinese” in Chinese

Posted in Linguistics at 11:29 am by Benjamin Ross

Anytime one moves to a new location where the same language is spoken as in their previous location, a certain degree of modification to their lexicon occurs. Living in Chicago, and doing my best to keep up my Chinese, I have also noticed several inadvertent shifts in my own vocabulary as well.

One such example is the word for the Chinese language itself. Actually, there are several words in Chinese for “Chinese.” The most common is probably 汉语 (han4 yu3) which literally means “language of the Han people.” 汉语 is typically used to describe the language as it comes from a mouth. This, in contrast to 中文(zhong1 wen2), which means “Chinese words” and usually refers to the written language, such as when speaking of a “Chinese book” or “Chinese song.” There is no set rule on the different situations to use 汉语 and 中文 and thus a certain degree of overlap in the use of these terms exists.

In addition to 语 and 文 the character 话 is often placed after the name of a group of people to construct an informal name for their language or dialect, creating the term 中国话 (zhong1 guo2 hua4). This term is not common, but used on occasion to differentiate the speech of one group of people from another’s. So while the technical name for Polish, for example, is 波兰语 (bo1 lan2 yu3) it would not be uncommon for Chinese to refer to it as 波兰话 (bo1 lan2 hua4) in the context of comparing it to say, the speech of Germans. To refer to American English, in contrast to British English the term 美国话 (mei3 guo2 hua4) is used as well. Furthermore in China, 话is used to differentiate the various dialects of Chinese. So for example, the Fuzhou dialect is called 福州话 (fu2 zhou1 hua4). The name of the dialect of virtually any location in China can be constructed simply by adding a 话 to the end of it.*

Yet another term 普通话 ( pu2 tong1 hua4) or “common language” is used to differentiate China’s official language, what we call “Mandarin” in the West, from the many local dialects. Especially in areas such as Fujian, where dialects are still commonly spoken, it is not uncommon to hear to locals use this term, as it is necessary to differentiate the Chinese they speak in their hometowns with the lingua franca used across the country.

One more term exists, and this is one which I have only heard used by Tibetans. 汉话 (han4 hua4), literally means “the words of the Han people,” and is a rarely used by Han Chinese, but is probably the most commonly used term by Tibetan Mandarin speakers.

With the multitude of terms used in Chicago, it will probably come as little surprise that here in Chicago, there is a totally different dominant term for the Chinese language. Literally meaning “language of the country,” 国语 (guo2 yu3) is the most prominent word used for “Mandarin” in Taiwan and Hong Kong…and in Chicago as well. To me, this term has always had political undertones, as to somehow indicate, “that is what THEY speak in THEIR country”…as opposed to 中文, the combined language of the Chinese people, thus including Taiwan and Hong Kong. (I could be totally off base on this assertion, so it would be nice to get the input of some Chinese readers). Interestingly enough, in Chicago I have noticed that even mainlanders tend to use the word 国语 when referring to “Mandarin.” I would imagine that this usage is not connected with politics per se, but rather an adaptation to the collective Chicago Chinese dialect, as laid down by the first wave of immigrants, most of whom were from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Regardless of any connotations, I have also found my own Chinese idiolect has been subconsciously shifting to say 国语 as opposed to 汉语 or 中文. This would have sounded quite strange if I was still in Fuzhou, especially coming from a 6 foot white guy. But in 芝加哥中国话 (Chicago Chinese), 国语 is the name of the game.

*There are several names of dialects which are not constructed this way. For example Cantonese is often called 粤语 (yue2 yu3) or 白话 (bai2 hua4). However terms such as 广东话 (guang3 dong1 hua4) and 广州话 (guang3 zhou1 hua4) would be acceptable as well.



Enjoy The Free Happiness!

Posted in Curious English, Random Goofiness at 8:09 am by Benjamin Ross

Enjoy the Free Happiness

I was filing through my China pictures the other day and discovered this shot, from the Fuzhou Forest Park, one of my all-time favorite examples of Curious English. The Chinese literally means “Enjoy the happiness of free people” but I imagine this didn’t sound as poignant to the sign makers as “Enjoy The Free Happiness.” Here is what I was able to deduce from this billboard. Please feel free to add if I have missed anything.

-Happiness is best expressed through bar-b-cuing.

-Happiness is available and abundant.

-The Happiness must be consciously enjoyed to be taken advantage of fully.

-Westerners like to drink beer out of red cups and grill lobsters.



The Chinese Siesta

Posted in Culture Clash, Down in Chinatown at 11:30 am by Benjamin Ross

There’s a little market called The Mayflower in Chicago’s Chinatown where I frequent about once a week to pick up Chinese cooking supplies and snacks which I can’t find at the big Jewel-Osco mega-grocery store near my house. Chinatown has several of these markets and so far I have found that there are few food products (with the exception of seasonal fruits) which I could buy in Fuzhou, but cannot find here in Chinatown.

The Mayflower, like most shops in Chinatown, jams an exorbitant amount of product into a comparatively undersized storefront. This results in crowded aisles, long check-out lines, and a somewhat stressful shopping experience. I frequently find myself inadvertently bumped into by other customers, as I’m sure I do to others as well, and scooting side to side to let other shoppers squeeze by.

Yesterday I went to The Mayflower to pick up some fresh bamboo and a few cooking supplies, and to my surprise, the store was almost entirely empty. I carelessly strolled through the wide-open aisles without dodging other customers, found my items, and made it to the check-out counter in about half the time it would usually require. Something seemed odd…that is until I glanced down at my cell phone to check the time—it was 12:20 PM.

Beijing delivery driver asleep xiuxi
Sites like this, a Beijing delivery driver taking a nap in the bed of his bicycle, are not uncommon around noontime in the Middle Kingdom.

The idea of an afternoon siesta, or 休息 (xiu1 xi1) is deeply entrenched into the Chinese lifestyle. While the exact times vary based on region and season, business in China typically shuts down around 11:00 or 11:30 and picks back up at about 1:30 or 2. The interim is used both as a lunch break and a nap time. During the mid-afternoon in China, it is not uncommon to see taxi drivers asleep in their cabs, shopkeepers dozing behind the counter, and construction workers playing cards or taking naps on bamboo mats. School children often return home to get fed and take a rest before returning to class, and office workers often do the same. As a general rule, it is also somewhat rude to call or visit someone at this time, as it is likely they are sleeping.

During my first year in China when I was living in Fuqing I found myself sinking into these same Chinese sleeping patterns. All of the teachers and students at my university would take a nap from 12:00 to 1:30, and there was nothing for me to do but take a nap as well. However, before long I found an even better use for my xiu xi time—going shopping and running errands!

Because much of China is asleep at this hour, it the ideal time slot to buy groceries, make a transaction at the bank, go shopping, or do anything other activity which would normally subject oneself to the ubiquitous masses of people which crowd the Middle Kingdom. Before long, I found myself consolidating all of my shopping to the time between 12 and 2 and found both the time and aggravation I was saving myself to be well worth it.

Here in Chicago’s Chinatown, Chinese and American cultures mix, and often result in a hybrid form of Sino-Americanization. While many American customs are adopted by the Chinese in the Windy City, there is also much which remains culturally Chinese, and the xiu xi is one of them. For me, at least I now know that early afternoon is the time to do my Chinese grocery shopping in Chicago too.

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