Archives for October 2012

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.



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And Still The Wheel Turns

My bike is… fixed, thankfully. I figured that a 250 元 ($38) vehicle, made from thin aluminum and depended on for constant transportation would experience its fair share of booms and busts; and let’s just say that the latter has become the more salient of the two. All other previous fallacies were easily disregarded – the unstable seat, the lost reflector and the falling chain – but breaking my handlebar off cleanly is far from ignorable. So I decided to go to the local bike repair “stand” (not shop) to check it out. Within a few moments, they quickly installed a black handlebar for a mere 35 元,  and that’s how my bike came about being fixed. However this entire fiasco had me reflecting on how common people visit these stands, the obvious, and how fixing my bike metaphorically connects to my life, the abstract.

Moments after fixing my bike I rode off feeling concrete, complete and proud enough to finish my other errands. Of course, I questioned the black lacquered bar, slightly marred by rust, as to whether it could truly replace the shinny and silver handlebar, but I reassured myself that it was a matter of efficiency, not perfection. When I finally stopped at the ginormous electronic store (ironically, to replace my broken headphones), I saw all the neighboring bikes with the same black lacquered handlebar juxtaposed to yellow, silver and blue bodies.

Perhaps the saying “misery loves company” is applicable, but I was suddenly relieved to see commonality of bike malfunctions in Shanghai. Clearly these forms of transportation are far from expendable, and with a little work and elbow grease these wheels will still turn. As we have learned, the Chinese don’t play with their efficiency.

Recently, I’ve been granted plenty of time to be pensive and I find the timing of my bike breaking divine. Metaphorically, I am the bike and in order for me to function as a whole, to churn the wheels and move through life, I need functioning parts that suit my needs. But recently I’ve seen that many parts of my life are obsolete and they are my expendables, ready to be casted away to make room for something new. The truth is, my wheels must continue to spin and will do so long as I desire for them to.

I am not naïve enough to assume that these replacements will trump the replaced – the black handlebar and life changes – but there is always something mystical about doing things anew. I’ve been watching plenty of True Blood and one particular quote come to mind: “It’s all about casting off the empty shell of what’s dead and embracing the mysteries of what is yet to come!” These reparations and novelties in my life may not outdo the previous defaults but within that ambiguity lays the beauty – the beauty of difference. To me, it’s like embracing a new cycle, and after doing such, it will be like churning the wheel all over again. Likewise, I may not know what is yet to come but I am sure that it’s better than the half handlebar or the flawed ties from before.

Fake Goods, Real Money

After reading some of Yi-Chieh Jessica Lin’s book, Fake Stuff: China and the Rise of Counterfeit Goods, I thought back to the first time I encountered a fake goods market. I was eleven years old and in the sixth grade. My step-dad had just been offered a job in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mom and I were excited to tag along for a quick four-day trip to the “Big Easy.” It was my first time missing school for a reason other than illness.

While in New Orleans, we spent most of our time shopping. I guess I had it bad from an early age—I just had to visit Saks Fifth Avenue. Of course, I could only afford a pair of navy blue Polo dress socks but that didn’t matter to me. I still had a purchase from one of the most well-known stores in the world. After Saks we stumbled upon The French Market, a covered shelter filled with vendors selling produce, handmade baskets, souvenir t-shirts, and jewelry. Some vendors sold purses. Many of which resembled those found at Saks and boutiques. Mom immediately began to bargain. Working as a teacher meant that no vendor was going to “steal” her money. Each time she went to the market she left with at least one purse, sometimes two.

This past summer I lived in New York City. Many of the fake goods sold in New York can be found on Canal Street in Chinatown. New York fake goods sellers have to be stealthier about their marketing and selling techniques. Many of the sellers walk around with large plastic bags filled with Louis, Gucci, and Fendi. If a cop is spotted, then a quick getaway is possible.

Shanghai seems to be less worried about selling fake goods. Located on West Nanjing Road, Han City Fashion and Accessories is a three-story mall dedicated to selling fake watches, purses, headphones, shoes, clothes, and even eyeglasses. You could spend an entire day in the mall. Don’t worry, there is a food court just in case you get hungry. Those of you who visited Shanghai five or six years ago might remember Xiangyang Market. Han City is where many of the vendors from that market have relocated.

During my time in Shanghai I have visited the fake market at least three times and have walked away with only two items. While I enjoy bargaining, I just can’t fathom paying the high prices for fake goods, the quality of which, I am unaware of. I also know that since I’m a westerner, the price of a good automatically increases when I walk into a vendor’s booth.

After reading Fake Stuff, maybe I should feel better about buying fake goods. Supposedly the quality can be just as good as the real thing. You just have to keep an eye out for the good fake stuff.

The group will travel to Beijing on Thursday. I have heard the Silk Market there is one of the best places to find fake goods. Fingers crossed! Time is running out. I need to buy some gifts for Mom and Memal (my grandma).

A First Time for Everything

Two weekends ago, I got to visit Taiwan for the first time. Our short four day stay there was a whirlwind experience, but also very fun. Looking back, I’m surprised how much we fit in. Our days were spent visiting popular landmarks such as Taipei 101, Danshui, and Maokong. During evenings we got free time to visit the night markets, eat delicious food, and sing KTV. But while all of these activities were fun, I think what I’ll remember most from this trip are the few talks we got to have with the Taiwanese students our age.

Before this trip, my knowledge of Taiwan was next to none. I had heard about the delicious food its night markets had to offer and knew that there was political unrest between Taiwan and the mainland. Beyond this, I never had much of a chance or reason to give it anymore thought. But going to Taiwan and talking with the Taiwanese students gave me a much different way to think about Taiwan. It was fascinating to hear about their identity struggles and views of the future. What surprised me most was that many of the students seemed not to care as much about independence as they did about keeping the status quo and keeping their democratic freedoms.

Hearing the students talk about their lives and their struggle for a Taiwanese identity helped me to look at my own identity and myself. It gave me a chance to see others of Chinese descent who are trying to put together what it means to have the roots of a Chinese culture while also navigating a separate new home culture. I’ve definitely learned that there is no one specific way to “be” Chinese and that people must go through their own struggle to understand identity. I am glad to have had this chance  to see a different perspective and excited to learn more during my time here.

A Lesson Manifested in Nanjing

As a junior in high school I was astonished by what I learned in my Chinese history class.  Each lesson seemed more and more foreign and I still remember having nightmares about one particular lesson from the gruesome stories I heard: The Rape of Nanjing.  I remember coming home and telling my family all about the Japanese and how they wanted to conquer China, describing all of the atrocities I heard that day in class as if they were elements of a horror story made up in someone’s head.

This weekend I traveled with Fudan’s School of Social Development and Public Policy to none other than Nanjing itself.  We visited the National Museum for the Nanjing Massacre and saw both abstract and very concrete depictions of what had happened during the few weeks in 1936 and 1937 when the massacre took place.  There were explanations of the events and descriptions of people who had killed, been killed, and had helped save the lives of many.  It was more than eerie to be inside that room, reading every plaque and seeing the faces of many of the deceased as well as some of the survivors and knowing that some of them are still alive today living with the heavy burden of the memory of this event.  This experience brought to life what I had learned in a textbook a few years ago and taught me about people’s feelings and reality, but also about the way history plays out and is remembered.

There were signs and plaques throughout the museum that referred to the future and how ordinary people need to remember history in order to avoid conflict and the unnecessary loss of human life in the future.  There was a very paternalistic tone that reflected on peace around the world and ending violence; it implied that everyone should be part of that movement.  Even though this moment in history is taught as an embarrassment for China that could barely defend itself from the small island of Japan, the museum’s rhetoric turns that idea around and points out an embarrassment for a heartless Japan.  It is important to mention that every plaque in the museum was translated into three languages: Chinese, English, and Japanese.  It was clear that through this museum and China’s stance in general that Nanjing was warning Japan, and other countries in general, never to try anything like this again because China is prepared to fight.  The anger and pain that the Nanjing Massacre created toward the Japanese and among the Chinese may truly be “Forgivable, but unforgettable.”