Friday, September 1, 2017

Chinese Lessons - 中文课

Summer is almost over and I start teaching again on Monday. All my free time is about to evaporate. It will be nice to have something outside the apartment to do again. However, it really takes away from the task I have poured myself into all summer.

Red and I have been taking Chinese language lessons.

After living in China for almost a year and being essentially clueless about everything the entire time, we've decided to finally tackle the language.

I've made and memorized hundreds of flashcards.

I have notebooks filled with pages
of practiced Chinese characters

As I mentioned in a previous post about learning Chinese (click here), there are literally thousands of characters to learn. And so many of them seem to make the same sound when pronounced. The difference is very subtle. And for the many that actually do make the exact same sound, you just have to pull the correct meaning from context. From context. In a language I am already clueless about. This seems more and more like an insurmountable task, but I'm tackling it anyway.

Despite its difficulty, learning Chinese definitely has it moments. For example, last week I learned the character 太. This is a very simple character that pops up quite often. It is an adverb that basically means 'too'. If something is too much or too loud, you would use the character 太.


However, almost every character can be paired with another character to create an entirely different word. For example, the character 天 (day or sky) when paired with the character 气 (air) produces 天气 (weather). It makes sense.

Here are a few others:

女(female) + 人(person) = 女人(woman)
买(to buy) + 电(electricity) = 买电 (power bill)
长(long) + 大(big) = 长大 (grow up)

Pairing two characters together to make another word prevents having to create a separate character just for that one word. Since there are already thousands (have I mentioned there are thousands?) of characters to learn, I am less suicidal very grateful for that. Especially when you see some of the entertaining pairings. Earlier, I explained that 太 means 'too; overly; excessive', but what happens when you pair it with itself.  e.g. "overly excessive.

太 (too) + 太 (too) = 太太 (wife)

There is no explanation needed here.
The joke writes itself.
The married guys get it.

Since I can now recognize some (0.0000417%) of the characters, all the signs and ads around the city have words that jump out at me. This means that they are starting to make a little more sense.

This is one of the stops on a subway near my house.


Before taking Chinese lessons, I only saw this as Dawanglu, but I have since learned that 路 (Lu) is a word for street or road. So, it's Dawang Street. I've also learned that 大 (da) means 'big'. That means that this subway stop is for Big Wang Street and who isn't curious about a big wang? And whose wang was SOOOOO big they named a street after it?

Because I can only recognize some of the characters on a sign, I have to try to infer the meaning through context. For example, here is a sign that is outside a construction area near our apartment.


Now, I can't tell you exactly what it says, but knowing enough of the words paired with the context of the surroundings means I can deduce the general meaning.

In the middle of the day,
a person who is 21 must go out to get beer.

It is good to know that the construction company takes care of its workers, but does it in a legal way.

For weeks, I've seen this (↓↓↓) advertisement on the wall in the subway station and never had any idea what the product was for.


After this week's lesson, I now recognize the last two characters on the ad. I'm not positive about exactly what each word is, but I feel that I finally understand its purpose.

人 (person)
生(to be born)

This ad seems to be urging people to consider traveling to the mountains to have their babies on this beautiful waterfront. It's an excellent marketing campaign.

Until I can read and speak every word that I see, I must keep my nose in the books and practice with every Chinese person I meet. And there is no shortage of Chinese people in Beijing.



Here's how most lessons seem to go.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to Basics

We moved to Beijing on September 27, 2016 and earlier this month we went back to the States for the first time since moving here. Despite the Trump presidency and everything we've been told in the media, the country was still there and we got some much needed work done.

It was great to get to see family again, but this trip was intentionally planned to serve two main purposes. We needed to empty out our storage unit and sell Red's car.

We had a 5x5 foot storage unit in Indianapolis full of all sorts of stuff we couldn't decide what to do with when we first came to China. When we moved here a year ago, we literally brought three suitcases with us. That's it. Our entire lives were condensed down to what could fit into three suitcases. That is all we brought to Beijing.

To get it down to so little, we got rid of tons of stuff.
  • Threw crap into the dumpster
  • Took truckloads of furniture and clothes to Goodwill
  • Donated to food pantries and shelters
  • Contacted people in neighboring apartments to come see what they wanted
  • Cried out to people on Facebook to take things off our hands
  • Posted sales flyers in the laundry room to unload furniture
  • Gave dozens of bottles of liquor to wandering vagrants

However, there were items that we just couldn't part with despite knowing that we couldn't bring them with us. And items that we didn't want to pitch if we were going to be coming back in a year. That was part of our dilemma.

We were going to China almost completely blind. We knew frighteningly little about what we were getting into. We had encountered endless difficulties getting straight answers to the questions we asked and had encountered a quagmire of legal chaos in obtaining the gargantuan amount of paperwork required to work in China. We had no idea if this venture was going to pan out and how long we would be staying which made it difficult to decide what to do with our stuff.

See, if we were going to be back in a year, it would have sucked to come back to nothing and have to start watching for abandoned furniture on the side of the road again. However, we couldn't take on the expense of shipping it all to China if everything is just going to fall apart and we were going to have to ship it right back again in a year. Since we didn't know how long it would take to track down a Chinese fortune teller once we got here, we decided to get a storage unit and come back in one year to empty it. At that point, we should know what we are doing and will be able to make better decisions about our belongings.

Something happened on this trip that I hadn't expected. We ended up just pitching about 75% of the stuff that we originally thought we couldn't live without. After going without that stuff for an entire year and never really giving it a second thought, we realized that most of it was just stuff. We really didn't need it. We tossed it in dumpsters, gave more stuff away, and made many more generous donations to Goodwill. We ran up to Red's sister's house to leave a few things with her (family cedar chest, dresser drawers, and a few other things), but once again got our "needed" belongings down to a few suitcases. However, this time we don't feel like we left anything behind. We have everything that we need.

Plus, everything is so cheap in China, we can just buy stuff here if we need it. That's how I got my panda.

After we got our stuff taken care of, we found a buyer for Red's car. So now, we don't have a car sitting in the States that we are still making car payments on.

No car payment + no car insurance + no storage unit fee = about $400/month

Now I can buy more pandas.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Forbidden City, Great Wall, Monster Trucks, Etc.

It has been a crazy week. In the last few days, I have celebrated my wife's birthday, attended Monster Jam in Beijing, visited the Forbidden City, and walked on the Great Wall of China. I'm exhausted. And tomorrow, we're hopping on a plane to fly back to the States for the first time since we moved to China.

MONSTER TRUCKS! - A whole lot of this.
A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from my high school best friend's high school girlfriend's little sister. She informed me that her soon-to-be sister-in-law worked for the monster truck show Monster Jam and they were coming to Beijing. Would I be willing to show them around?

Now, I don't know this girl, so...I jumped at the chance.

You may not know this, but when you move 12 time zones away from everyone you know, you tend to not get many visitors. Whether you actually know the person or not has no bearing on the excitement level.

I quickly friended this woman on Facebook and started informing her of some of the things she may need to know for traveling to China. When she texted me to inform me they had landed, I made it to their hotel before they did.
As soon as they got checked in, I took them to the Nanluoguxiang Hutong to get them an authentic Chinese experience right off the bat. Over the next few days, as soon as they would finish working, I took them to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, out for a Peking Duck meal, and the Beijing Harley-Davidson shop.

I walked up 58 flights of stairs for this shot.
I hope you appreciate it.

I finally caught my breath enough to lift the camera again.

The petals are Peking Duck.

The (not so) Forbidden (anymore) City

Just like every other Harley shop in the world.
Except the t-shirts say BEIJING.
Other than the meal, this was all stuff that I had never done. Despite living in Beijing for the last 10 months, I spend most of my time setting panda traps to keep them out of my garbage. So, I was excited to get to knock something else off my bucket list. Walking on the Great Wall was #127. Now it's time to run with the bulls in Pamplona.

After such an eventful week, they gave me tickets to attend the monster truck show and then I had to sleep for two days. After all the running around, I went for a massage and decided to try another new thing. I asked for the cup treatment where they heat up glass cups and attach them to your skin to suck the toxins out of your muscles.

6 hours later, I look like this.
It's been a good week.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Chinese Language is All Greek to Me

The title of this post isn't really accurate because I took biblical Koine Greek in college. Saying something is "Greek to me" is supposed to mean that it makes no sense, but the fact that I actually know Greek takes away the punch of the statement. However, if I were to say "it's all Tagalog to me," the purpose of the idiom would be lost and some people may even have to pause to look up what Tagalog is which would sever the continuity of the thought and I would have to stop to explain everything. Which it looks like I may have to do anyway.

Maybe I should just say learning Chinese is like walking into your bedroom because you thought you heard a pygmy goat being strangled by a Mormon divorce attorney, but when you open the door the floor is covered in slimy eels wearing clown makeup and a naked Roseanne Barr is sitting on a beanbag in the corner asking if you brought any cheese. It just makes no sense. Especially since I don't own a beanbag.

Oh, and Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines.

I only say all this because after living in Beijing for 10 months, Red and I have finally started taking language lessons and it has been…um, challenging.

Chinese doesn't really have an alphabet. At least, not as we understand an alphabet. It is thousands of separate characters. And by thousands, I mean thousands. This is not an exaggeration.


We don't really have to know the characters in order to speak and understand the language, but that doesn't help when trying to read a menu, street signs, bus schedules, or apartment notices. This note is in our lobby right now.

Are they doing maintenance? Fumigating?
Evacuating the building?
I kind of need to know!

So, we are learning it all. We need to understand the language when we hear it. We want to speak it, read it and even be able to write it when the need arises. This means we have decades of memorizing seemingly obscure chicken scratch patterns ahead of us. As well as learning what they all mean and how to pronounce them while stringing them together into comprehensible sentences.

However, before we even get around to learning those characters, first we need to learn pinyin. Pinyin is the method for learning how to say the different characters.


Each of the thousands of characters is pronounced with a combination of the initial sound (pictured above to the left) and the final sound (pictured above to the right). And, as if that isn't already difficult, it is not enough to be able to recognize those apparent English-looking letters because the pronunciation is rarely what it appears to be.


The sounds of the letters have to be relearned to make the Chinese sound. And since I already have a background in not only English, but Greek, Hebrew and Spanish as well, it is often maddening to try to remember and produce the correct pronunciation since each of these languages use letters however they want without regard for what the rest of the world is doing with them. And let's not forget that Chinese has plenty of sounds that don't even exist in any of these other languages meaning I have to do 90 minutes of tongue yoga before every lesson to get it limbered up.

Then, once I feel like I might have a decent handle on pronunciation of a word, I am told that I used the wrong tone. A single sound can have up to five different tones and each tone gives the word an entirely different meaning.


For example, the above chart shows four of the five ways that the word 'ma' can be pronounced. These tones are important. Otherwise, you could end up calling your mother a horse or you might really confuse your weed dealer.

It also shows the two different ways that each word is written in Chinese. Yeah, that's right. When you learn Chinese characters, you have to decide which of their TWO alphabets you want to learn. Isn't this fun?

Using the word 'ma' from the chart above, I can just use that word several times, but with different tones to produce an entire sentence. Ma ma ma ma. That means "My mother scolded me for feeding her hemp to a horse." And if I tack the fifth use of the word 'ma' (neutral tone) to the end of the sentence, it becomes a question.

Simple enough, right?

For now, my goal is to be able to read my Frog and Toad books in their original Chinese by Christmas.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Did I Do Wrong?

I love Thursdays.

My teaching schedule is Monday through Thursday, so it is the last day of my work week. Plus, on Thursday nights, I go to an English salon. It is a place where a bunch of Chinese adults get together to hang out with native English speakers and practice their English.

At the very least,
a burger has to be made of ground meat.
I don't know why it's called a salon. The Chinese sometimes have funny names for things. For example, any piece of meat served on something that even slightly resembles bread, they will call a burger.

As near as I can tell, a salon is basically an informal teaching setting. The English salon that I attend is in the front room of a school, but it's set up like a living room. It's usually me and 5 or 6 Chinese locals who all want to talk to me. And this is great for me because I love to be the center of attention. Plus, I'm pretty awesome, so it works out for everyone.

We talk about the differences between China and America. We talk about food. We talk about travel and spend a lot of time talking about American politics. Everybody always wants to know what I think about Trump. The conversation flows freely. There are no suggested topics. It is just conversation that happens naturally. Once again, the purpose of this is just to give them an opportunity to practice their English outside of a classroom setting. I love going to this every week and I even get paid to be there. It's great.

Since I don't have to work the next day, when it is over I am not usually in a rush to get home. My wife, on the other hand, has an early day on Fridays. This is why she never attends these events and is generally in bed pretty early. Since she will be in bed when I get home anyway, I often find excuses to find something to do. Sometimes I wander the streets and call one of my friends back in the States. Some weeks, I will go try out a new restaurant or explore a new part of the city I've never seen. Last night, I just decided I would walk home instead of taking the subway.

It's only 9 subway stops. No big deal. Right?
It's over 7 miles, but I didn't know that yet.


The school is right next to the subway stop and the number 10 subway runs right under the Third Ring Road. I live next to that same road. All I had to do is follow the road and I would see some parts of the city I'd never seen above ground. I popped into a convenience store to grab a Pepsi and started be-bopping up the road. I enjoy exploring big cities and this night was no different.

About 20 minutes into my walk, I started to become very aware of the 96 degree temperature, but was determined to push on and I kept walking. I walked and walked and walked and walked while the sweat poured into my eyes. It was miserable, but I began to see this as a challenge to overcome and stayed my course. I maintained my quick pace and made it back to my apartment building in just over two and a half hours.

I was so happy to step into the elevator and begin the ride up to my shower. The ride seemed to take forever due to the Chinese belief that air conditioning is unhealthy and I no longer had the benefit of the night breeze. I was roasting in that metal box. I finally hit the eleventh floor and found my way to our apartment in the dark (the Chinese also seem to have some belief about light being bad for you). I turned the handle and pulled the door only to discover that it was locked.

Red doesn't lock the door on Thursdays before going to bed because the sound of me unlocking it always wakes her up, but it appeared this week she had changed her mind. I dug out my keys and tried to turn the lock slowly to keep the noise down, but the key turned too easily.

It wasn't locked.

I tried the door again and realized she had locked the bolt on the inside. The bolt cannot be unlocked from the outside. It is a hand bolt on the inside only.

Crap! Now, I'm going to have to wake her up.

I knocked on the door while also being careful not to disturb our neighbors. After all, it was after midnight. There was no answer. I knocked again louder, waited 30 seconds and then knocked even louder. Nothing.

I pulled out my phone to call her, hoping that she had not turned the sound off. As I started to dial, I thought, "Wait. Is she mad at me? Is that why she locked me out?" I started running through the day's events in my mind to think of what I might have done.
  • I ordered food to be delivered while she was in the shower without checking to see if she wanted anything.
  • When she apologized to our Chinese teacher for distracting the lesson by talking too much, the teacher said, "Oh. It's not a problem." I was too quick to say, "Just wait."
  • I had bragged all day due to all the retweets my joke about her squishy boob was getting on Twitter.
  • When our attractive female Ukrainian friend suggested Red use some of Red's essential oils on her, I asked if I could watch.
No, it couldn't be any of that. I do that kind of stuff all the time and I'm precious.

I called her phone. No answer. I sent her a text message. I left a voice message on WeChat (Chinese social media app). I called again. Nothing.

I knocked on the door much harder. I have to wake her up (or apologize). After several more attempts, I began to realize that I was not going to be spending the night in my bed.

I started looking around for a place to lie down and quickly ruled out lying on the filthy concrete floors in our hallway. I was going to have to go outside, find a bench and ride this out until morning.

I checked my phone. It was at 40%. I figured if I stayed off my phone, then when she does wake up and realize I'm not there, she will probably call or text to find out where I am. If, and only if, I haven't drained my battery, I would get the call letting me know that she was now awake. I didn't know where I was going to go, but I knew I was tired and hot and really needed to get back out to that breeze and find a place to ride out the night.

My sweaty hands made my finger slide off the elevator button when I pressed it and I began contemplating what a miserable night this was going to be. This was going to suck. As I waited for the elevator, I thought I'd use those last few seconds trying again. I knocked one more time and then immediately again hoping to further register the sound in her sleepy mind, but still got nothing.

Defeated, I lumbered back toward the elevator. As I waited, I heard a small click behind me. She was fumbling with the lock! I ran back to the door. "It's me. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that or eaten all the food or tweeted about your boobs. Please let me in."

The door slowly swung open and she's crouched down covering her naked body with her hands and peering into the dark hallway. As I stepped inside, I could see that she wasn't really awake yet. "Why are you crouching like that?"

She said, "I'm naked and didn't know who it was."

"And you opened the door anyway. I love you. Go back to bed. I need a shower."