Language Lessons

On Thursday afternoon I set out with a group of students from my Chinese Marketplace class to try and find Chinese high school students we could interview for our group project for Pan Laoshi.  Our project focuses on Chinese high school and college students who want to study abroad in the US for undergraduate or graduate school.  As the number of students wanting to pursue education abroad increases, agencies have emerged all over China to help guide and assist students through the US application process.  These agencies help students with essays, provide mock interviews, and try to advise students as to the differences between the Chinese and American higher education systems. Many students who study abroad will use, or at least consult, one of these agencies during their application process.

Our goal on Thursday was to speak with some high school students and get their thoughts on both traveling abroad to study and if they planned on using an agency to assist them with their applications.  For the interviews our group consisted of Ray, a Fudan student native to China, Nallely, a Boston University student from Texas, and me.  The questions themselves were not very difficult and ranged in topic from how old the students were, to if they were planning on studying abroad, and if so were they going to use an agency.  The whole thing would take no more than five minutes, if that. We had written the questions as a group, but decided since we were in China interviewing Chinese high school students, that we should let Ray ask the questions in Chinese so as to make the process easier on the students. We set off towards the high school with this in mind hoping to find lots of people to talk to.

When we got to the school a good number of students were leaving – with Ray asking the questions, Nallely holding the microphone, and me running the camera – we dove right in to try and speak with some of them.  One mother and daughter pair spoke openly with Ray about their plans and we were feeling pretty good about our prospects.  Over the next few minutes, however, every student that Ray approached turned him down.  Ray would say hi to them in Chinese, mention that he was a local college student studying at Fudan, and wanted to ask them a few questions about college.  Without fail every one of them turned him down.  At this point we began to get worried.

Ray suggested that I take the questions and try to ask the students to speak with me.  I was sure it was not going to work because I didn’t think any Chinese students would want to talk to some random American girl asking all these questions in English and not even trying to communicate in their native tongue – I was sure I was just going to make them mad.  But as every good researcher does, despite my doubts I set off to try it anyway.  I started by just going up to a group of girls and asking in English, “Hi, can I ask you a few questions about colleges?” To my surprise they said yes and seemed very excited to speak with me.  We made sure that it was ok with them that we recorded the interview and then started with the questions.  By the end of the first interview Ray was smiling from behind the camera and content that he had been correct in thinking that the students would rather talk to the random foreigner than him.  I on the other hand, was not so convinced that I would have as much success as he thought.  Nevertheless we charged on with me cornering more Chinese high school students and all but two of the eight agreeing to speak with me.

Most of the students we spoke with had actually given some thought to the idea about studying abroad.  Even the ones who said they were choosing to stay in China had reasons why they felt that it would serve them better to stay here rather than go abroad for their education.  Of the ones who were interested in going abroad, most wanted to go to the US and sited the excellent college system and freedom of expression as big reasons they wanted to study in the US.  Not only did we have a fun time interviewing the students, but we learned an interesting life lesson as well.  We were so convinced that the students would rather speak to Ray in Chinese than speak to us in English that we did not even try to speak with them until Ray forced us to.  He told us from the beginning that we were going to end up doing the interviews and we thought he was crazy.  Our thinking, however, stemmed from our asking the questions in Chinese out of courtesy.  I can converse some in Chinese but there was no way I was going to be able to do the interview in Chinese.  Neither Nallely, nor I ever though that we would end up conducting the interviews in English with such success.  It just goes to show you no matter what you expect to find when you walk into any given situation, you must always be ready to adapt and try a different approach, if not you may miss out on a wonderful opportunity. Language lessons have come in many varieties here in China, but this is not one I expected to encounter.

Traditional Pride

After telling my family in Taiwan that I was studying at Fudan University in Shanghai for a semester, the first question I was asked was “Why are you going to the Mainland?”. When I told them I was going to improve my Chinese, they were ecstatic, especially after my 17 years growing up with the proficiency of a 6 year old. However, it wasn’t before long before one relative lets out a loud and nasally, yet classic Taiwanese interjection, “ayennn, so are you learning to write too? But wait, they use simplified don’t they? So sad”. This is the usual dialogue I have with each of my Taiwanese relatives since I’ve been “home”.  I’ll almost certainly receive a few comments if they catch me practicing characters around the house. Often times, they’ll sit down with me and show me characters that don’t make sense, have lost their true meaning, or are too simply confused with others. Then they’ll explain to me that they still use Zhuyin or “bo, po, mo, fo” that was also phased out of the PRC when the language was simplified. At first, I merely regarded their comments as chauvinistic Taiwanese pride, but as they confront me more and more, I’m slowly beginning to regret my year and a half learning simplified. Since being in Taiwan, I’ve been able to decode various traditional characters and many of the transitions are quite seamless, logical. I can begin to understand that living in Taiwan next summer won’t be quite the challenge I had imagined, however it’s the entire learning process that I resent the most.

As I do my homework at the dinner table with my cousin who’s 8 years old, I glance over at her Chinese workbook and see the beautiful pictures, bright colors, and playful stories. Then, I go back to reading The New Chinese Practical Reader and about 王小云 picking up her uncle at the train station as boredom consumes me. Examining her book more closely, I notice the Zhuyin next to each character. I then learn there are entire children’s books written with Zhuyin next to it and more importantly, during my grandfather’s worship, she was able to read scriptures while I was left in the dust. Perhaps, my frustration is with consistency, but it goes a little beyond that. Zhuyin does not have the adverse effects that I’ve noticed with Pinyin. As a native English speaker, I often rely too heavily on the pronunciation of my native tongue rather than learning the new pronunciation sounds that come with a new language. Zhuyin doesn’t allow this. An entirely foreign set of symbols, each paired with a sound, forcing a new learner to memorize these sounds. Although inapplicable to a person without experience with the romantic alphabet, I find that there would be a “two birds with one stone” scenario in learning Zhuyin first and allowing Pinyin to come naturally. In text, I find my lazy eyes more drawn to the pinyin written under the characters than the characters themselves. Zhuyin is written directly to the right of a character, forcing the reader to first recognize the character before it.

Traditional characters are another story. With a year and a half of study, I understand a tiny percentage of the etymology behind characters and the differences between Traditional and Simplified script. However, from what I’ve learned from my peers and family, Traditional characters just make more sense. I’ve noticed that the Chinese language has inherently more depth than English. Seldom are we taught in schools the roots and etymology of English words. We simply learn to spell it and memorize a definition. However, the key to memorizing thousands of characters is to understand them and be able to conceptualize how they are formed. A memorization technique, meaning, and sound bundled into one. Then when my aunt shows me words that were simplified because they sounded the same at the cost of the radicals that differentiated them, it turns learning some simplified characters into pure memorization. I also can’t help but feel inadequate when my young cousin can breeze through my text, while I can read 50% of hers just because the transition from traditional to simplified is more fluid than vice versa.

Perhaps I’ve been easily brainwashed by my Taiwanese heritage, perhaps I’m lazy and need a more fool proof method of learning so I don’t distract myself from learning characters, perhaps I just need to suck it up because there are millions of people learning pinyin and simplified characters just fine and without complaint. Still, I can’t help but have a subtle urge to be taught the way my family was; to retain the fullest meaning of a language without shortcuts.

 

 

Picture 1: http://www.inews.com.tw/images/mempic/news/1304666418.jpg,

Picture 2: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2009-07/17/content_8439397.htm

 

Chongming Island (崇明岛) Part Two

Julie, Feng Ran, and I made our second trip to Chongming Island this weekend. This time our team went equipped with a full filming kit: a Canon Rebel T4, Sony Bloggie, Rodi microphone, H4 microphone, tripod and other accessories (spare batteries, Neewer light disc reflector and SD cards).

We arrived on Saturday night to review our plans, prepare the filming equipment and get a good night’s rest for Sunday. During our trip we interviewed a migrant farmer, a local farmer, a local land owner/developer, two migrant fishermen and a local driver. Below are my reflections on our team’s first filming experiences.

TECHNICALITIES

Before we arrived to Chongming, our team practiced filming and testing our microphone’s audio just once. So, I was a bit nervous while setting up the equipment for our first interview. While Feng Ran made casual conversation with the migrant farmer, Julie and I mounted the Rodi microphone to the Canon and the Canon on the tripod. Just before this, we realized the H4 microphone was out of battery, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the Rodi microphone would capture satisfactory audio. As Fuji stresses, good audio is even more important than the video.

Alas, our team forgot to plug the Rodi microphone cord into the camera during the first two minutes of filming. Julie luckily noticed this mistake early on, and we were able to capture the introductory content, once again, at the end of the interview.

With around 3 hours of nonstop filming completed, the Canon Rebel’s battery was running extremely low and the SD card was filling up faster than we anticipated. We were forced to exchange the battery pack and SD card during the middle of the second interview. This was irritating because it disrupted the flow of the interview and thoughts of our informant. Nonetheless, these interruptions can be easily fixed with editing later on.

Lesson learned: spare batteries and memory storage are necessary. Also, it doesn’t hurt to take a lunch break to charge up the dead batteries and to free up some space on the primary SD card.

The Sony Bloggie also caused our team some technical problems. The Bloggie’s battery died around the same time as the Canon, but we did not know how to recharge it. I plugged the Bloggie into my computer, but the computer did not recognize any activity from the USB drive. Additionally, we had no Internet at our hotel on Chongming, so searching for the solution was not an option. Consequently, the Bloggie remained uncharged for a good portion of the trip, and we missed out on opportunities for footage and various angle shots during interesting interviews. At the end of the trip we figured out our mistake: the Bloggie must be turned on when plugged into the computer for the battery to charge and files to transfer. By this time it was a little too late. Nonetheless, Julie and I did capture around two hundred shorter video clips on the Bloggie during our stay.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

In Shanghai and around Fudan University’s campus, I will often here English or other international languages spoken on the streets, subways and buses. This is not the case on Chongming Island. Especially among the farming and fishing communities, there were no English speakers. In fact, some people we spoke with declined an interview, claiming even their Mandarin was not good enough.

Since all of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin, Julie and I did not ask any questions during the interviews with the Chongming subjects. Collectively, our team brainstormed topics and questions for each interview beforehand. I was able to follow some of the introductory conversations, but most of my attention was diverted toward filming. During our visit to the fishing village, I wandered off and spoke to our driver and fishermen on another boat. It was exciting to use my Mandarin, but still some parts of the conversation were lost in translation. I asked the fishermen about their children and they asked me about my flight to Shanghai. They even offered to give me a sampling of the crabs they caught. I politely declined, having neither the kitchen nor skill to cook the crabs.

With around 50 GB worth of film, the next steps for our team involve tedious video cataloging. Since Julie and I do not have the necessary language skills to interpret the interviews, we cannot divide the work and conquer this task in a third of the time. Instead, we must sit down as a group and filter the abundance of film down to the most important parts based on Feng Ran’s translations.

A-ROLL AND B-ROLL

A-roll and B-roll together make up any film. A-roll is the video footage of the main subject, like an interviewee speaking about his or her family. And B-roll is the video footage of the surroundings and other contextual images, like shots of an interviewee’s children playing in different parts of the house. The difference between A and B-roll is particularly clear in most documentaries. In my opinion, the interplay of A and B-roll keeps the film interesting. When a film elegantly jumps from the main subject to other scenes that complement the dialogue and content of the piece, it is able to express a more complete story. Using relevant clips apart from the A-roll will improve the illustration and portrayal of the story’s narrative.

During our time on Chongming Island, Julie and I shared the responsibility of capturing A-roll and B-roll while Feng Ran interviewed. We alternated A-roll and B-roll jobs after each interview session. We filmed A-roll on the Canon Rebel and B-roll on the Sony Bloggie. I found filming A-roll more serious and structured. For the most part this job required placing the interviewee in the frame and making sure he or she did not come out of focus. On the other hand, filming B-roll allowed me to be more creative and explore the surroundings. While filming B-roll, I experimented with angles, scale and perspectives. Just for fun I created a short video (see below) of some of the B-roll Julie and I shot this weekend. Now, I need to think about how to pair our team’s A-roll and B-roll footage for our project this semester.

Chongming Island B-roll from Chai Lu Bohannan on Vimeo. Music: “Pretty Girl from Merlefest” by the Avett Brothers.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Reading with Angelina

When we first arrived in China, my classmates and I expressed our interests in connecting with local Shanghai people. Shen Yi Fei, a professor at Fudan University, suggested pairing each of us with a young Chinese student for English language lessons and practice. This arrangement would reward both parties; Davidson students would experience more cultural immersion and the Chinese family would receive a free tutoring service.

I met my “Chinese family” this morning. They picked me up from my apartment and brought me to their home, so I wouldn’t get lost using the public transportation. The mother, Ling, and her sister, Emma, were more than welcoming. For the remainder of the semester, I will be helping Ling’s daughter, Angelina with her English speaking and reading skills. Angela is a third grader who enjoys math, playing with her friends and watching movies. We already got off to a great start today. Angelina read dialogue passages from her English practice book. She also read two of my own childhood favorites, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Listening to her struggle with the longer or trickier words made me think more about the process of learning a language. After reading the three books, she was exhausted, and I could relate. My brain always seems to hurt after Chinese class or any intensive readings. Thinking, reading and speaking in a different language is tiring. So, we called it a day. Plus, it was Angelina’s birthday, so we didn’t want to make her read too much.

While I was at Angelina’s home, I noticed different signs of a Chinese family. For instance, Ling prepared snacks and tea for my visit. She kept on offering me more and more snacks, which reminded me of my mother scooping more and more food onto my friends’ plates back home. When Ling asked if I wanted a banana, she peeled the banana and placed it into my hands before I could politely decline. Additionally, the family’s car had a decorative hanging of Guanyin, also known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion or the “Goddess of Mercy”(Palmer 2011: 107). Guanyin is a venerated figure in Chinese popular religion. These are just two of the most obvious observations I made. I hope to learn more about their family and family traditions over the last ten weeks I have in Shanghai. Today, I learned that Ling is a judge in Shanghai and Emma is a banking and finance lawyer. I think it would be interesting to hear their stories and opinions about women in the Shanghai workforce. On Wednesday night, I will return to their home for another visit. 

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

“阿姨,请给我买单!” “Ayi, Please bring me the check!”

Yesterday, I was enjoying a sushi dinner when I heard one of the other customers call the server 阿姨 (auntie). She would reply by calling all of the customers 孩子(child). While it would not be uncommon to hear a waitress in the States be called Mama, or something similar, this got me thinking about names and the ways that they are used differently between cultures.

As we discussed in class last week, I’ve found it interesting to see how different people address each other in various cultures. While I can’t say exactly how people interact in other cultures, I know that the Chinese way of viewing other people you know is to treat people like family. Growing up, I was always told to address people older than me as Uncle John or Auntie Gina. Whenever my friends came to my house, my mom always reminded them to call her Auntie Katharine. Even if it was the first time I had a friend over, they’d immediately be treated like family. My mom would bring out fifteen different snacks, and come check on us even five minutes to make sure we were eating. When I asked my mom to let us hang out in peace later that evening, she told me that it was important to make our guests feel at home at all times. She made it clear to me that I should always be sure to make my guests feel at home, and that giving them food was a great way to do this.

For little children, I’ve noticed that is also very common to use terms like 哥哥 (gege, older brother) and 弟弟 (didi, younger brother). Back home, when I went over to my friend’s house, her cousins were often there. While I had no relation to them, it was common for them to call me Gege Alex. During my time here in China, I’ve noticed this happen as well. One time when we were playing Frisbee on the Guang Hwa Lou lawn, a little boy approached my friend and me. He asked her if he could join us. While we were playing, I noticed that my friend would address the boy as 小弟弟(little brother). He referred to her as 姐姐 (older sister). While I’m sure these names were simply used as a sign of respect and not out of the ordinary, it surprised me when I first heard them.

While I cannot say from personal experience what relationships are like in other cultures, I’ve found it interesting to see how people here in China interact with others around them. It’s been fun to compare what I see here with many of the customs I grew up with back home. There are many simple things that I’ve gotten used to doing that I did not realize were more Chinese than Western. While I’ve often done them out of habit, now I am getting a chance to see people around me doing similar things. I’m excited to learn more about the Chinese culture and the small easily forgotten aspects of everyday life.

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