Slow Chinese

Studying Chinese without the help of a teacher is no small challenge; I would go so far as to discourage those who really want to make progress from trying to do so on their own, at least in the beginning.  Gaining a strong foundation is essential in the quest for language mastery.  The further on progresses, the more difficult it becomes to correct bad habits developed early on.  With this said, there comes a point for most people when a teacher is not available.  Having graduated, I have been without proper instruction for over a year.  Although it is much more difficult than I thought it would have been, it is possible.  The greatest thing that I have found the be lacking is a good method for the improvement of listening and pronunciation skills.  Over the last few months, I have been relying heavily on a fantastic blog, Slow Chinese, that provides mp3 dialogues and PDF transcripts to help more advanced learners of the language to continue improving their skills.

The site has about fifty five different articles pertaining to Chinese culture, all of which have a nicely recorded, clearly read mp3, as well as an accompanying PDF.  Perhaps my favorite aspect of the site is that it can all be obtained via podcast.  Although the author has started to charge for the PDF transcript of more recent article, it is not a substantial amount, and for the help that it has provided me, I will quite willingly purchase the new articles once I am done with the first fifty.  At almost a page per post, that should keep a person busy for a good amount of time.

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Post-Mao Photos

Liuheungshing Photograph China 1970s maoMy usual excuse is that I don’t have enough time to write, but over the last two weeks this has not been the case.  I simply don’t have anything to write about!  I’m reading a good book on Vietnam (Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”), and spent some of today creating a new header for the blog.  Other than that, nothin’ doin’.  I was browsing Google’s image search looking for some good examples of the Big Character Posters that were such a menace during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Although there are any number of great examples, I was led to the Three Shadows photography website, which is quite nice.  These photographs are from the late seventies/early eighties, so they are not the big character posters that I was looking for (I am interested in the ones that appeared in 1966 and 67), but they are great pictures nonetheless.  Take a look!

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Water Leak, Wikileaks

I’m back in the Valley, and to no one’s surprise it is raining once again.  This seems to be the common November, December trend.  Raining doesn’t really do this weather justice; it is more as if the ocean was coming down on the earth.  Everything is leaking

Chinatown New York Bayard Meat Market Store Sign

Speaking of leaks,  I’ve been trying to access the super-hot wikileak page with the hope of reading some good stuff, but as of the last few days it has been inundated with a crippling data request, effectively crashing the server.  I suspect that even if the site was not under attack, the level of traffic would still be high enough to bring it to a halt.  I do  not condone the actions of wikileaks, but the damage is already done, so why not read the stuff myself?  Beside which, I think making your own judgment on such documents can be far more reliable than listening to the ‘experts’ and their reports.
I have only heard a little bit of speculation on what was said about China, but what I have heard has not sounded terrible.  Something about China seeking the reunification of North and South Korea, but I haven’t read any of this firsthand and I’m sure that it is more complicated than that.  It always is.

I’m still working on the first section of the Chinatown Mega Tour.  It will probably be ready by mid to late December, but not until I have really found something of interest to write about.  I have some good pictures, but this is no photoblog!  You want written content, and written content you shall receive.  My most recent trip to the New York Chinatown was good, but I did not manage to visit any restaurants or interesting stores, which I believe will ultimately make the experience one that is worthy of documentation.  Until then, I must wait.  Hope everything is well in your respective world.

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Black Friday

Shopper Woodbury Common Black FridayBlack Friday may be my favorite day of the year.  It is the essence of free market economics, the pinnacle of consumer euphoria;  it is liquor to the wallet.  Even the most hard bargaining of shoppers can be seduced into the grips of commercial madness.  It’s a no holds barred circus of spending, 24 hours of mind bending gotta-have-it fun.  And for these reasons, it was necessary for me to wake up at three in the morning.

Last year I wrote a post just like this one, except that I had generally failed in my original mission.  I had wanted to attend the Midnight Madness special that takes place at Woodbury Commons, a massive retail outlet down the road from my mothers house.  It went all according to plan, save for the fact that we didn’t actually make it inside of the mall because of massive traffic jam in the parking lot.  With strong memories of this chaos, I made it a point to return this year and to document what must have been madness.

βGucci Store Woodbury Common Outlet Line Black FridayβCoach Store Woodbury Common Outlet Black Friday

The problem with all of this, though, is twofold.  First, Black Friday always falls the day after Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving is usually accompanied by a significant amount of Champagne.  Thus, by the time eleven PM rolled around and I was ready for my adventure, there was no way in hell that I was qualified to operate a vehicle.  Mission delayed.  I set my watch for three in the morning and went to bed.  The second problem, and one that proved to be equally devastating to my plans, is that Champagne tends to give me a very robust hangover, and as such, there wasn’t a bargain in the world that was getting me out of bad that early.  Game over.  And so, the following morning at around nine, my mother and I set out to the mall, in exactly the same fashion as we had done the year before.
I was disappointed as soon as we arrived in the parking lot.  Although it was not all that full, there was garbage on every square inch, and indication of the kind of insanity that must have taken place in the early hours of the morning.  For all of you music fans out there, think of the pictures that were taken at the close of the Woodstock music festival.

βMacy's New York 34 Black Friday Crowd
βMan Macy's new York black friday

Woodbury Commons is an outdoor mall, in that you must walk outside in order to get from store to store.  It always makes me think of something that you would find in aspen, as the complex is comprised of quaint, clean white storefronts, along with some small mountains in the background.  It was crowded enough that most stores had set up entry lines in order to do some crowd control.  Burberry, Coach and Gucci had by far the longest, and I can never help but gawk at the people who stand on line to enter.  It is reminiscent of the lines that you witness outside of attractions at an amusement park.  Or perhaps it is like the premier to a Harry Potter movie, in which everyone dresses as their favorite character, except in this case everyone was dressed in the clothing of the store to which they were waiting entry.

βGirl Red jacket Macy's Black Friday

The best part about the whole experience is that almost everyone shopping in this outlet is foreign.  Busloads of tourist arrive from New York City and spend the day shopping for their favorite brands.  Because of the great exchange rate, most of the clothing is significantly cheaper for them to purchase in the United States.  It is not uncommon to encounter groups of eight and nine Japanese business men going from store to store looking at suits and very expensive leather shoes.  I was told at some point or other that some of these men fly to the United States specifically to come shopping.  True?  Who knows, but in either respect, this place has become a Mecca of retail, and these are pilgrims, devout followers of a label.

βNew York 42 Fourty Second Street Times Square
βTimes Square New York 42 Fourty second  street crowd

My trip to outlet concluded, and I continued on the my next destination, none of than New York City itself.  I particularly wanted to visit the massive, original Macy’s that sits on 34th street.  As far as I could count, it has seven floors and sells just about everything in the way of clothing and accessories.  I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on the experience here, because it can generally be summed up in a few words.  People.  I have never seen so many people in one store.  I actually got shoved and knocked over a large display of mascara.  The guy who bumped into me declared “well that was close”.
The last few pictures in this series are from Times Square, which, on Black Friday, was about as crowded as I have ever seen it, save perhaps New Years Eve.  There was a street performance happening, and you would have thought someone was handing out money.  The lights were crazy, the crowds were brutal and I decided to make my way on to the next stop.

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Foreign Exchange Certificates

While writing the previous post on the things that I had seen at my grandmothers house, I had forgotten to show one more, and perhaps the coolest of the bunch.  Prior to my trip to China last January, my grandmother had given me a few bills that she had left over from her trip.  “Take these”, she said.  Funny enough, none of them were of any use.  Several of the bills are from Hong Kong, and one of the, a small slip of paper, is actually a foreign exchange certificate, dated 1979.  It is valued at .10 Fen, making it worth next to nothing, and I don’t think there is any place in China were it could be used at this point.  Measuring a little bit more than an inch wide and about 4 inches long, it is a peculiar size.

β China Foreign Exchange Certificate Currency Fen yuan friendship store moneyβββββ

China Foreign Exchange Certificate Currency Fen yuan friendship storeββ

The most interesting part about this bill is the history behind it (not this particular one, but this type).  In reality, it is not actually a bill, it is a certificate; a Foreign Exchange Certificate.  As I had pointed out, it was printed in 1979, just one year after Deng had taken power and China was beginning its process of opening to the world, the famous time known as ‘Opening and Reform’.  Deng was extremely conscious of the need for China to build its economy in order to achieve success.  At the time, the nation was working to pull itself from the rock bottom that had bit hit during the cultural revolution (The revolution ended just three years prior, at the death of Mao in 1976).  Deng wanted to draw in foreign investment in some of China’s coastal cities, taking the foreign money in exchange for China’s large and eager work force.  At the same time, it was important that the money that was invested within China stay with China.  Deng didn’t want foreign visitors taking Renminbi out of the country.  In order to prevent this, the government made it illegal for foreigners to possess the natural currency, instead issuing them these ‘Foreign Exchange Certificates”.

Instead of doing a direct money exchange, foreigners would be forced to purchase these certificates at a rate slightly higher than a direct exchange.  This was part of the process of generating some capital from the transaction.  To go one step further, the certificates limited the purchasing power of the buyer.  Foreigners were confined to shopping within the Chinese Friendship stores, areas of commerce that were limited to foreigners, and at which they would only accept the Foreign Exchange certificate.

Following the death of Mao, many people in China’s government feared the economic reform that Deng Xiaoping sought.  His ideas went contrary to the programs put forth by the communist party for three decades prior.  Deng was aware of this, and proposed that they could safely experiment with open-market style reform by limiting commerce to very specific cities (the special economic zones), as well as by heavily controlling what goods and funds were available to foreigners, by means such as the Foreign Exchange Certificate.  It was almost like a sub-economy within the larger one.  The plan worked with incredible success, and eventually the limitations of the exchange certificates became apparent.  They were taken out of service sometime in the 90s, I believe.  Pretty cool little piece of history.

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Grandma’s Trip to China

While I was in the city, I took a bit of time and went to visit my grandmother who lives on the upper west side.  She recently turned 89, but despite here age manages to continue living alone and very independently.  When I was much younger, my grandmother would often speak of China and how China was destined to take over the world.  She visited the recently opened nation in 1986, and the trip left a great impression on her.  When I took a liking to the PRC, she quickly joined on to my cause and has remained a great supporter of my sometimes rampant interest.
China Passport Nanjing Visa StampShortly after arriving at her apartment, she asked me if I was still planning on getting back over to China at any point.  After leaving the room for a moment, she returned with a red folder containing a big set of old passports, all of which she had used at one point or another.  It was interesting to look through these relics, seeing each proceeding photo of the woman some 10 years older than the last.  My grandmother traveled extensively, visiting much of Africa, India and China.  Looking through these expired passports, I was able to find the one that she had used to enter china.  I asked here what the experience was like.

China Tourism Visa Passport Nanjing Hongkong Stamp“Everyone was very disappointed because they didn’t stamp our passports.  We had to ask them to do it”.

I opened the book and found that it did not contain anything in the way of a Visa, but did have a large number of entry and exit stamps from China and Hong Kong, placed in not particular order.  The most prominent of these stamps is from the Nanjing airport.  It is interesting that the passport received this stamp not once, but three times.  Perhaps my favorite bit about these two pages is that the dates stamped by the customs official is quite different on each stamp.  The Nanjing officials stamped ‘ January 1996’. Another stamp shows the trip as having occurred during 1990.  I pointed this out to my grandmother, asking her if she had visited a second time.

“No, just 1986.  I don’t think the date mattered to them.  They weren’t planning on stamping my passport in the first place”.

China Tourist Itinerary Travel Guangzhou Guilin Shanghai 1986The final picture is of my grandmothers itinerary for her trip.  Check out the interesting spelling of Guilin, as well as my grandmother use of ‘Joe’ as a substitute pronunciation guide for Hangzhou.  Good stuff from the archives of the elderly.

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Camera

DSC_0019A few months back, I began to have a great desire for a new camera, one which I thought would be able to deliver pictures of a finer quality.  Up until this point I have been using a Nikon Cool Pix, which, for its price, takes relatively decent pictures, but lacks good depth and rich color in some situations, especially landscapes.  It seemed as though the pictures I truly desired could only be achieved through use of an SLR.  Glorious as their pictures may be, these cameras don’t run cheap by any means.  The most introductory level starts at about five hundred dollars, and goes up quickly from there.  Want as I did, I wasn’t eager to spend that kind of money.
During a short trip to the city yesterday afternoon, I stopped in at J&R, the renowned music and electronic superstore in downtown Manhattan.  The best deal they could give (a black Friday special), was the Nikon D3000 at $450.  DSC_0002Now this was lower than I had seen in the past, but still out of the range I was hoping for.  I had to continue to fight off the urge and tell myself that a day would come when I could afford such a thing.
I went out with my mother this afternoon to the local BJs superstore to buy a few more things before the holiday.  My mom lost here phone and was interesting in seeing what, if any, deals were being prepared for Black Friday.  Feeling that it was worth a shot, I dropped by the electronics section to look at the cameras.  They had a moderate selection, but most were far out of my range.  But then, as I was walking away, in the bottom of the case I saw one more line of cameras, a selection of former display models that were being sold, and there, among a sad looking line of point-and shots, sat a D3000 almost two hundred dollars less than standard.  Finding this too hard to believe, I asked to see it, tried it, made them promise me that it came with a warranty, and then bought the thing.  Even if I hate it, I can put it on eBay for about 50 dollars more than what I paid.  It appears that it might have a flash release issue, but nothing that cannot be fixed.DSC_0005

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The Chinatown Mega-Tour

New York Chinatown Signs StreetA long while back I read a very nice post about Manhattan’s Chinatown.  The article was photo based, and gave some good background on the predominantly Cantonese speaking population.  I liked the article because of the historical element that it presented, as well as the simplicity with which it was presented.  Good pictures and some info about what you were seeing.  I have been to the NYC Chinatown many times, and each time find that there are small nooks which I have never seen before.  It is densely packed, and although the main strip of Canal street is a tourist hell, it is possible to loose yourself in smaller back streets that have preserved stronger elements of Chinese culture.

Thinking back on this article, I had an idea; It is time to do an East Coast Chinatown mega-tour, covering each of the significant Chinese enclaves in the region.  Queens, Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., Baltimore.  All of these cities have noteworthy Chinatowns.  I heard that Atlanta was also a possibility, but that it pretty damn far from here.  I would like to visit each one, take some pictures, try some food and make some good comparisons between the bunch.  I have only ever been to the regions in the Boroughs, and find it hard to believe that they would all be the same.  I’m sure I could find out by searching the web, but that just wouldn’t be a true adventure.
To truly top off the experience, I am planning on riding the mind-trip of bus services that are generically referred to as the ‘Chinatown Bus’.  These busses are significantly cheaper than most other lines, an initial marketing ploy used to make them appeal to the largely lower economic class that exists in the regions that the busses connect.  At least this was how they originated.  Seeing the success of the original idea, some larger companies such as greyhound have opened their own lines designed with the same super cheap bottom line principal (Bolt is one such of these brands).  As comes with the territory of a discount ticket, the clientele can range from the super bizarre to the occasionally terrifying, and the service on the bus is definitely hit or miss.  I have heard any number of terror stories from the classic Chinatown busses.  I believe it is the only acceptable method by which to travel for this trip.

Now, here’s the true question: What amount of time is acceptable to spend in each location in order to gain a good sense of what there is?  I would love to spend a couple of hours in each city, but I am also aware that I would have to spend significantly more money if hotel stays were required.  I could easily make it to Boston and back in a day, staying at my aunts house in Brooklyn.  This would also include visits to the immediate options of downtown Manhattan and Flushing, Queens.  This leaves Philly, Baltimore and D.C.. I have an Aunt in Philadelphia, and I’m sure I could turn the trip into a visit, as she would probably be happy to spend the day visiting things around the city in conjunction with a Chinatown excursion.  The question that remains, then, is whether or not it would be feasible to visit both D.C. and Baltimore in one day.  I will have to look at a map and a bus schedule to answer that question.  I’m not even going to consider Atlanta until I have a better idea about the others.  For now, I believe I will start with the trip to Boston and Manhattan, as these are in immediate range and I can hop on the bus with pretty short notice.

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Mandarin

Zhongwen Chinese Mandarin CharactersI have never enjoyed any undertaking quite as much as I have enjoyed my pursuit of fluency in Mandarin.  It has been a challenge like I never predicted.  I sometimes hear people speak of their passion and how it ‘saved them’, or something like that.  Surfers, extreme athletes, a wide variety of people who claim that they would be someplace very different if they hadn’t found their passion.  Could this really be true, these statements that are, in their own ways, professions of faith?  I sometimes want to laugh at these statements, simply as a reaction to their extreme nature, but one cannot refute the power of a person who has found something in which they can truly focus their energy.

I often worry about Chinese.  On several occasions I have referred to the language as my problem Child.  I feel true guilt when I fail to study as much as I should, and periodically have bad dreams in which I realize that I have forgotten how to speak.  In part, it is a fear of the amount of time that will have been lost should I fail to gain fluency; hours and hours upon weeks of time would go down the drain.  But it is more than this.  The language has become a part of me, one which I do not think I could separate myself from, even if I tried.  Oh, and let me put it out there that I have tried.  I spent several months without really spending time studying, and for a while I was happy.  But eventually the feeling came back, the panging sense that something was missing, that an elemental piece was out of place.  The world wasn’t quite right.

And so I went back to studying, but as I have found each day, studying this language without the aid of a teacher is quite the challenge.  To say that it is a matter of discipline is true, but it is also a matter of endurance.  There are days when it is a pure drudgery to wake up and write three pages of the damn characters.  I say this with the greatest love and respects for the characters, but god damn them.  Learn one, learn twenty, learn them all and there are always more.  Learn one, understand it and then realize that it means something entirely different than what you had first learned.

But this is what had initially drawn me to both China and to Chinese.  The living nature of the language and the culture is something that I have never experienced.  The more you seem to know, the more there is to be learned and the deeper the implied meanings become.  Beyond this, the language and the culture are almost inseparable.  A language is its culture, always, but in the case of Chinese this is especially true.  I believe that I could study for a decade and still not quite grasp all of the underlying layers to this wonderful language.  And so I worry that in stride with what I understand, I will realize, in equal measure, that I am still so far away from my goal of true fluency.  Defeat has never really been a threat, it’s just that the road seems long and narrow.

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Chicken Vindaloo

Chicken Vindaloo IndianIt is a well known fact that I have little to no cooking ability, something which I have wanted to remedy for quite some time.  Hailing from a long lineage of superb cooks, it is nothing short of a crime that I am unable to make anything beyond a pizza.

With this in mind, I decided on my last day off the make a change.  Sliding up to one of our computers, I printed off a recipe for one of my favorite dishes, the famed fire-ball of Chicken Vindaloo.  I looked at a few recipes for this Indian dish, and to my surprise found that it is in fact more frequently attributed to the culinary designs of the Portuguese, only to be brought to India and modified slightly into its more recent format.  As a spice fanatic, I can think of nothing better than a well prepared plate of Vindaloo, other than one or two types of Hotpot that I had while in Sichuan.  It registers high enough on the heat scale that I typically find myself sweating, but at the same time it manages to maintain the thickest of flavors.  I figured it made sense to cook something that I actually enjoyed eating.

Vindaloo requires a large variety of spices, and though the majority of them are easy to find, it was not a cheap endeavor.  My girlfriend and I had purchased a large amount of meat at the local butcher, and I was able to use the chicken breast that was included as part of the package.  The only ingredient that gave me real trouble was the Tamarind, a long bean pod that gives the dish a strong bite, backing up the other flavors.  Unable to find this in raw form, I had to use a pre-made sauce, which I would guess reduced the potency by a large factor.

The making of the dish was a matter of pure faith.  Among many other things, it required three cloves of garlic and two whole onions, and I couldn’t but wonder how it would ever be edible.  Here is the ingredient list:

Despite such misgivings, the meal finally came to fruition, and although it wasn’t quite to the standard of a Indian restaurant, I found it more than satisfactory for something I didn’t think stood any chance of being good.  Note to self, always mix your spices ahead of time.  It was almost disastrous as we rushed to put them together while the chicken was cooking, almost confusing tablespoons for teaspoons.  I want to try making the dish again in the future, but with a different recipe to see how it compares.

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