Decisions

Today’s post comes after reading a guest post on the Adventurous Kate blog

When a Travel Blogger is Stuck at Home

This post is not directly related to my current feelings, but I found it very interesting nonetheless.  I am currently ‘at home’, but have been planning on setting out come summer.  It seems that another large decision has been put in my path.  Having been temporarily promoted at work (my boss left the job, and I am now interim boss until the beginning of the summer), I must decide what my next course of action will be.  On one path, I can decide to apply to this position with the hope of taking it full time.  This path, should I actually be hired, comes with some serious benefits; stable income, benefits, a great addition to the resume.  With these times of economic shakiness, it’s hard to look at such an opportunity and not be drawn in.

The second path starts with me leaving this job, buying a plane ticket and heading to Asia for a while.  While this is certainly not the more stable of the two choices, it has just as much merit as the first.  I will no longer be employed, but I do have some leads in China, and worse comes to worst I will just end up studying or traveling for a while.  In many respects, traveling would beget studying, so win-win.  China and Asia have remained my focus for the last couple years, and I am dying to go back.  Side note- Last night I had a dream that I was in France, but could only remember Mandarin.  Even if I went for three months, ran out of money and had to head home, I would not be unhappy.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing jobl security; in this case, it actually extends to my financial, health and employment future.  This is a great job, and one that I would not be unhappy to take.   But the world just seems to call to me-  I cannot account for the feelings of wanderlust that creep forth.  In the end, I can only hope that I am able to find what I really seek, but at the moment I am at an impasse.

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Buddha, Revisited

If you haven’t been able to tell, I’ve been having a hell of a time trying to find things to post and write about.  Earlier on, I was scanning through the large number of photos that I haven’t yet used in any of the blog posts, and happened upon these two that I quite like.  They are both from my visit to the giant Buddha carving in Leshan, Sichuan.  They where taken from the top of the cliffs, looking out on to the confluence of the rivers way down below.

I remember standing in these two spots quite well, and they remain one of the highlights of the trip.  There was something both mysterious about this spot, and the emotion that it carried has been hard to pinpoint.  As I posted a long time back, this spot is known for it’s turbulent waters.  The massive Buddha was originally carved with the hope that it would stay the anger of the river that had a reputation for sinking boats.  Because it happens to be the confluence of three rivers, it is not surprising that the water is turbulent.  On this particular winter day, it did not seem to be so angry.  The characteristic regional fog and low lying sun added to the mystery of the place, and looking way out into the distance I could see fisherman working on the shoals of the river just as they have been doing for the past few centuries.  The shoals on which they stand are the result of turbulent water, piles of rocks that have been pushed and shaped by the current.  The relentless force of water, revered in the past for it’s ability to take life, has created a natural rocky platform by which many others are able to support themselves.  Strange thought.

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Facebook China?

It sounds a bit too far fetched to ever become a reality, but in the last few days I have been hearing and finding bits of small talk that suggest that the facebook empire may be opening it’s doors in the middle kingdom. Or, at the very least, Mark Zuckerberg (Founder) is trying.

Given the vast and limitlessly restrictive nature of the Chinese censors, a social platform such as Facebook doesn’t seem like it would be compatible with the government interest in the PRC; How can such a widespread social network survive within the restrictions that exist in China? The government is terrified of opening the gates to any method by which large groups of people could be sent messages encouraging unrest. Facebook is the perfect platform for doing such, at least in it’s current form. I suspect that if it were to gain access to the world’s largest audience, it would only be able to do so with drastic changes and limitations from the current American format.

Gady Epstein, Beijing Bureau Chief for Forbes Magazine, has just posted a short but concise article on his thoughts about the prospects of Facebook within China, making note of the fact that although Zuckerberg will certainly have obstacles to overcome, it seems that his drive is strong enough to bring his media platform to life within this new market. Check out the article right here:

Facebook China? What would the U.S. say about it?

Even if he does sacrifice some of Facebook’s networking power in appeasement of government censors, a success in this arena will be very profitable.

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Chinese University Acceptance Letter

I’ve been accepted to a few different universities in China on several different occasions, and have a stack of old acceptance letters sitting around.  For various reasons, these planned trips simply didn’t pan out.  On some occasions, I applied for the hell of it.  While cleaning out my mailbox a few days back, I found a more recent acceptance letter from Beihang University in western Beijing.  I hadn’t even bothered to open this one (possibly a sign that I have been at this process too long).  I figured that it would be entertaining to post a few pictures of the documents that they sent me, and so I opened the letter, three months after receiving it from CUCAS

The funny thing, and one that I think most of you will catch on to quite quickly, is the the entire acceptance letter, along with everything else in the packet, is written entirely in Chinese.  I can make it through most of the letter and have a pretty good idea of the instructions it gives, but I think that it would be quite entertaining to have applied a year or two ago for the same program, at which point I would have been without a clue.  Perhaps it is a test, a way of trying to filter out a few people.  I doubt it, though.  I think it’s just very Chinese.

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The iPhone Experiment: Creating a Global Phone

I’ve taken a bit of a financial risk, but I think it may pan out to be quite interesting.  Having read that the iphone can be unlocked and quite aptly used within China (or really anywhere, for that matter), I have taken the plunge and bought one on ebay.  Now this will seem like some to be a bit of risky business, but I think that the payoff will be worth it, if it should work.  If not, I’ll just throw the darn thing back into auction.

At present, I am using an ipod touch.  While most people use their ipod with the primary function of a music device, I use mine almost exclusively for the Pleco Chinese app.  If you haven’t checked it out already, I strongly suggest taking a look.  It has aided in my study of the language to no end, and is free in its basic form.  Because I already have the program on an apple device, I’d like go straight to the iphone as this will allow me to sell my ipod to cover some of the cost.  Beyond this, I won’t be carrying the Ipod and a phone at the same time while traveling.  One less device to worry about smashing or having stolen.

The networks within China all fall under the category of GSM.  The iphone is a quad band device, meaning that it is capable of working on any of the four major frequencies that are used by phone companies around the world.  Some countries do not fall into these four bands (I’ve heard that Japan is tricky), but the majority do.  The beauty with this is that once you have succesfully unlocked the iphone, you are able to use a SIM card from any carry to talk.  Whereas almost all of the carriers in the United States require their customers to be a part of a plan, providers in most other countries do not have such a system.  Customers instead purchase a SIM card with a phone number and minutes, and add more as need be.

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Chinatown Mega Tour: New York City

It was a grand plan, to say the least, but unfortunately it seems that the Chinatown Mega Tour is not going to be coming into fruition anytime in the near future.  This is in part because of a lack of time, but also just because it wasn’t going to be the cheapest endeavor.  I have not given up on the idea, though, and at some point, or perhaps over many points, would like to visit the various Chinatowns in the United States.  For now, though, here is a bit from one of my more recent trip to the Chinatown in downtown New York City.

Holding status as the largest congregation of Chinese outside of mainland China (Revised: My Mistake,  New York Chinatown is not the largest Congregation outside mainland China, rather one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere), the New York City Chinatown is quite a thing to behold.  Most people who have visited (or believe they have visited) this region tend to speak of Canal Street and a few of the smaller areas south of Canal and west of the Bowery.  Though this area does comprise a significant chunk of Chinatown, it is not necessarily the best representation of the region as a whole.  This section has a much higher tourist traffic than some of the other areas, and as a result many of the restaurants and shops cater to such needs.  This is particularly the case on Mott and Pell streets, where you can still find any number of crap trinket shops that line Canal.  Despite such touristy tendencies, this southwest corner of Chinatown also represents some of the oldest territory, with a rich history.





Chinese started to move into this areas west of the Five Points region as early as the middle of the 19th century, but it was not until about 1900 that the population truly boomed.  These early immigrants primarily held jobs selling hand rolled (and reportedly gross) cigars, as well as the more common Chinese hand-laundries.  Up until 1965, the population was severely limited and controlled by the Chinese Exclusion Act, but once this was lifted there was a large exodus from the Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton) as well as Hong Kong.  Both of these regions speak Cantonese, and as such this was the predominant language within Chinatown until the 90s, when a large influx of illegal immigrants began to appear from Fujian province, on the coast north of Hong Kong.

Pell Street, of which I spoke earlier on, has the look and feel that I believe many tourists want to see when they visit Chinatown.  It is a smaller street adorned with a large number of banners and signs, and looks very much like the depictions of southern China seen in the movies.  This street is frequently referred to as “Hair Street”, as it contains one of the largest grouping of hair cutting salons anywhere in the city.  On the downtown side of Pell, just after you have turned off of Mott Street, you can find the First Chinese Baptist Church, a great old landmark from New York’s older days.

At its halfway point, Pell street is intersected by a small and mysterious street called Doyers, featured in several movies that require a “China” scene.  Looking unlike anything else in the city, Doyers is immediately recognizable, as it is one of the rare curved streets within Manhattan proper.  Not just a curve, but a full 90 degrees, making it impossible to see around the corner.  This street stems back all the way to the days of the Five Points, and was known as the Bloody Angle due to its being the frequent location of violent battles between the Chinese Tongs, gang-like crime organizations that controlled Chinatown and its population for a hundred plus years.  If you look in the picture below, you can see a large, copper green building in the far background, just left of the middle.  This is the old opera house.  I particularly like this building as it is said to be the original connection point for the rumored Chinatown tunnel system.

During the heaviest days of fighting during the Tong wars, it was convenient to have a tunnel by which to escape a fight.  At present, you are able to enter a through a small doorway to the left of the old opera house, head down several flights of stairs and find yourself within what appears to be a piece of these old tunnels.  You can walk all the way from Doyers street to Wing Fat Mansion on the Bowery.  This tunnel has given me the creeps in the past, so users be warned.  Doyers has a long history of violence, slave trade, indentured servitude as well as opium dens.  Simply dripping with history and culture, a must-see if you travel to Chinatown.

Now if you want to have a more ‘authentic’ experience, I suggest heading above Canal Street.  This section has traditionally been little Italy, and in the past it was a well known fact that members of either nationality put themselves at great risk by crossing the Canal Street border.  In more recent years, however, Chinatown has grown significantly, and a block or so north of Canal (from Baxter Street all the way to the Bowery) contains some of the finest and most interesting markets that you will observe.  This is especially the case, as most tourists do not head in this direction.  I will note that you should sometimes use discretion if taking pictures.  This area can get quite congested with shoppers and deliveries to the markets, and store owners are not always that receptive toward camera toting gawkers.  While I was traveling through this area, I got to witness a large group of people from the Midwest being led around by an exceptionally brazen tour-guide.

“this is the best place to see some really odd stuff.  If you head to the back of any number of these shops, you can find tanks of eels and even turtles”

True enough, but despite the attraction that some of these oddities can provide, if you aren’t buying, store owners don’t like you blocking the path of those who are.

β

The final of the less travelled portions of Chinatown exists to the east side of the Bowery, just north and south of the Manhattan Bridge.  This region is home to a number of smaller restaurants, large residential areas and any number of fruit stands.  Travelling in this area is quite an adventure, but more of a hike than may be worth it for most people.  I recommend this area to those who just have to see it all.

Some good sites for those interested in making the trip:

New York Chinatown

If you are interested in getting to any of these areas, transportation is pretty easy.  My favorite method is to take the N, R, or Q or any of the myriad of subways that arrive at the station on Canal and Broadway.  From here, simply head east on Canal.  Once you arrive at Mott Street, follow your heart’s desire!

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Literature Review: Deborah Fallows’ ‘Dreaming in Chinese’

Amazon.com $12.94

2010

It wasn’t that long ago that I last posted a literature review, and so it seems strange that I am posting one so soon afterward. I purchased Deborah Fallows ‘Dreaming in Chinese’ a while back, and have had it on my waiting list. Having finished ‘Mr. China’, I picked it up and managed to finish it within just a few days. I have been left with very mixed feelings about this work, but hopefully this review will give you some further insight.

‘Dreaming in Chinese’ is written by Deborah Fallows, wife of the Author James Fallows who has written a number of great things, many of which for The Atlantic. Amazon led me to believe that this book focused on the author’s journey through learning Mandarin as a language, which I interpreted to mean that this book would read more like a novel or a memoir, at the very least holding a consistent story line that followed the course of the author’s experience. I was a bit mistaken to say the least. But I think before I go any further, it is important to give Fallows a proper introduction, as it would be wrong to continue without. The author is a linguist by education and sometimes by trade, and has lived around the world, having spent years in Japan and China (namely Shanghai and Beijing).  She certainly has the credibility to make comment on the Chinese culture. Keeping her academic background in mind, the work that she has presented in ‘Dreaming in Chinese’ will make more sense to most readers.

Fallows has written her work in an attempt to show the endless nuances of Mandarin Chinese, and in many respects has done an amazing job. Most languages hold deep ties to the culture from which they stem, but Chinese has a particularly strong connection; it would not be unwise to say that the language and the culture are inseparable. This is a point that Fallows does an excellent job of conveying through recounting shorts experiences from her time abroad, and then linking them to Chinese written characters that hold particular significance within the context of the story.

The very curious image in the footage was the profile of the carrying: everyone, from soldier to young child, was carrying someone on his back. In America, this “piggyback” posture is usually part of field-day games. But in Sichuan, this style is still pervasive.

Bei 背 “to carry on one’s back.” When I asked my Chinese friends about it, they said, “Oh yes, that’s how you do it in Sichuan. The terrain is hilly and treacherous and steep. You’re usually on mountain paths, and the only way to carry is on your back. That’s the way Sichuan people do it. Bei.”

This example comes from Fallows’ recollection of the days following the massive earthquake in Sichuan, in May of 2008. In English, it is possible to convey the idea of carrying something or someone on your back with just as much clarity as you can within the Mandarin language. Mandarin, however, has a word that has the specific connotation of carrying on one’s back. There is much more culture tied into this one character, 背, then there is within the equivalent words in English. This is the case with Mandarin as a whole, in which most words hold significance that takes at least a few words to convey within other languages. In addition to bei, Carry on one’s back, there are characters that suggest carrying on one’s person, as well as carrying in the arms or hands. As Fallows’ demonstrates through the statements of her Chinese friends, this word contains a very specific focus, and a strong cultural tie within China. This word worked very well not only to describe what the soldiers and people of Sichuan were doing, but also fit the culture of Sichuan as a place.

Having words with such significant meaning begets a language that is incredibly complex and rich. The distinction between carrying ‘on the back’ and ‘in you hands’ gives each situation its own being, making the choice of words very important. This complexity, however, can result in frequent confusion and misunderstanding between speakers, something that is not uncommon even with a native speaker of Mandarin. It has often been said that less is more, and this is certainly the case with Mandarin, except that is seems as though less, in this case being sounds, leads to more confusion. As Fallows notes, Chinese only has around 400 syllables, whereas English is more in the range of 4000. That’s quite a leap. The result is simply that there are large numbers of words that sound identical, yet have radically different meanings, resulting in a frequent need to revisit and clarify one’s meaning in conversation.

“Sometimes when talking on the phone in English, it’s hard to distinguish between the sounds for “s” and “f”. If context isn’t enough to sort out the confusion, you can seek clarification by saying “S” as in Sam.”, or “F as in France.”

The Chinese use this, too, with whole syllables. Say there is a word in Chinese, like xin, which I know means “new” 新. I hear the word xin used in a context where it can’t sensibly mean “new”, so I might ask the speaker, “Xinnian de xin?” (New as in “New Year?”). He might respond, no, “Kaixin de xin” (Heart as in “open heart,” which means “Happy”) where xin 心 means “heart” and kaixin means happy.”

In this particular chapter, Fallows explores this world of simple yet complex. Because so many words are similar if not identical in pronunciation, Chinese is an ideal language for use in both jokes and wordplay as a whole. The Chinese are very aware of the capacity that their language holds for phonetic manipulation and greatly enjoy seeing it put to use. It can also be advantageous in avoiding the government sensors that restrict use of certain words and language online, allowing the ‘netizens’ to convey their controversial feelings without being flagged by the sensors.

All in all, Fallows does a very nice job of portraying these nuances and the way in which the language ties in with the culture. And yet, for one reason or another, I still didn’t particularly enjoy the book. In part, I think that I started out with the wrong mindset. Even midway through the book I was still waiting for the main storyline to develop, and finally realized that it probably wasn’t going to work out that way. Ultimately, I don’t think that I can really discredit Fallows for this. It is, in essence, more of an academic examination of the language than it is a story. Fallows is very methodical in the way that she cuts each chapter with a focus on a specific aspect of the language. One of my complaints about the work is simply how short it is, and that the Chapters seems to close before you feel as if you have gotten into them. Once again, academic in nature. The book accomplishes what it sets out to do; to give a sense of the complexity that exists beyond the simple framework of Chinese, a language basic in structure but massive in culture and commitment required to master.

The question remains, then, of who should read this work. I think that this book will appeal to quite a number of people. If you are early in your study of the language and want to know what you are getting yourself into, then I believe you will certainly find some interesting aspects to what Fallows writes. If you are a fourth year student and feel like you are stuck and making no progress, I also think there is much to be gained from reading this work. It can show you how much there is to learn beyond the matter of gaining vocabulary and grammar. Now if you are out to read an intriguing story, this probably isn’t for you. There isn’t a whole lot that actually “happens”, and I didn’t come close to being able to draw out any sort of narrative progression. Long story short, if you are a committed language student, this is for you.

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Dreaming in Chinese

I’ve got just a moment to post this, but by tomorrow or the day after I should have a review done out of Deborah Fallows book ‘Dreaming in Chinese’, a small work on her process toward gaining and understanding of the language.  Its alright, so far, but we’ll get the full details out in the next day or two.

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Literature Review: Mr. China

I just finished reading Tim Clissold’s ‘Mr. China’, a part memoir, part retelling and analysis of his first decade of business in China, starting in the early 90s. Although it is fully title ‘Mr. China: A Memoir’, I think that this is perhaps a bit misleading, but we will get more into that later.

First published in 2004, this book documents the period in which the most significant foreign investment was happening within the PRC.  Deng Xiaoping had taken his now legendary southern tour and radically expanded the prospects for a capitalist market, establishing special economic zones for foreign investment.   Clissold creates a compelling narrative following his role as a sort of intermediary between the interests of a huge business personality, the high rolling financiers back on Wall Street and ultimately the numerous business ventures within China through which they hope to make a fortune. At present, it is not uncommon to hear those in the business world gleam about the prospect of harnessing the potential within a billion plus consumer market; this notion a ten-fold in importance at the time of Clissold’s story, and sets the stage for much of what occurs. The title, ‘Mr. China’, is a dubious reference to those individuals, then and now not small in number, who thought they could so easily dive in and manipulate a market that they couldn’t understand.

I greatly enjoyed this read, as it seems to be an honest portrayal of one man’s true interests as a young venture capitalist. Clissold makes no attempt to tone down his intentions of being greatly successful, and is very capable of looking back on his failures with an introspective attitude. The story is told though a serious of mishaps that occur during the authors time in the business. With a mixture of rebellious factory leadership, disgruntled workers and a pervasive feeling of cultural misunderstanding, the author does an excellent job of using his descriptions to bring readers to agree with his feelings, but then to turn around and show you why you fall prey to the same misconceptions that brought him down. It is very difficult to view such difficulties from anything but a Western sense of the way business (and ultimately society) should function, but in the end one must bring to point the fact that this is not a society built on the same framework.

This is all well and good, but I did feel that Clissold could have delved a bit further into these ideas during the course of the narrative. Instead, he touches on such vital aspects only slightly during the middle, and then waits until the final ten or so pages before really digging in to find out why things are the way they are. His conclusion, I felt, is too sudden and a bit hard to join with the rest of the story, and in the end you are left to make many conclusions on your own. But hey, this can be a very good thing for those with a bit more time to really think. In closing, who should read this book? History students, economy buffs and aspiring venture capitalists the like will enjoy this work. Will it help you on your road to establishing businesses within the worlds largest market? Probably not, but it will really make you think about what you might actually be trying to accomplish.

I place this book in my top 10 for China reads. Get a copy from Amazon- you won’t regret it!

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CUCAS: Large Cost, Reasonable Results

A long while back I went on a bit of a rant over the China University and College Admission System (CUCAS), as I felt that I had been mislead by their representation of the service that they offered. I have since moved on from those feelings, and will now acknowledge that if you are in the market to apply at a Chinese university, the online application provided by CUCAS is probably your best bet.

The alternative to applying through this system is to apply directly to the university. Although this is typically a cheaper method (CUCAS requires that you pay a service fee of their own in addition to the school application fee), it is significantly more work, and in some cases it can be difficult to determine whether you are sending your money and paperwork to the proper office, or in some cases, just a random address. Should you send it to the wrong place, chances are slim to none that you will receive any answer.

Paying the CUCAS fee provides processing for six applications of your choice, greatly reducing the odds that your money will be directed to the wrong or even fraudulent location. In addition, they can greatly expedite the process of communication between the applicant and the university. I have also heard that they can provide assistance once you are within the country, though I have yet to test this out. I have applied several different universities through them, and have received my acceptance paperwork much faster and with significantly less hassle than on the occasions when I tried to do so on my own. I also slept a little better not having to worry that I might be mailing a stack of Benjamins to a crafty individual somewhere in Beijing.

I have sent out a request for application once more, this time to Beihang university, and will hopefully hear back from them in the next month or so.  The program is a summer language course, which would be great as my contract ends here in mid June.  Here’s to hoping for the best.

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