The Language Barrier

As I’ve said, I’m working to learn Chinese.  Admittedly, I’m not working very hard… but I’m working.

I understand the 4 (technically 5) tones–even if I’m not very good at them.  That’s the most difficult part.  In English, we use tone to modify a word–make  it a statement, a question, an admonition, etc.  In Chinese, it completely changes the word.  Take, for example, the word “ba”.  It’s not just 1 word; it’s 4 completely different ones–one for each tone.

1 : ba – 8 (the number)
2 : bá – to pull
3 : bâ – a target [1]
4 : bà – dad

While most Chinese who deal with westerners are very forgiving about the tones, mistakes can be quite serious.  For example:  using the wrong tones can change “alpaca” to “fuck your mother”.  Getting the tones right is that important.

So…  I have a reasonably good grasp of the tones.  Pronunciation, on the other hand….

A little background on the Chinese language:  There isn’t one.

First of all, “Chinese” may refer to either of two completely different languages historically spoken in what we call “China”.  Those languages are Mandarin and Cantonese.  They’re about as similar as French and Polish (which could both be called the “European language”).

Mainland China primarily speaks Mandarin.   Except…. that’s not exactly true, either.  It would be more accurate to say that they speak the “Mandarin branch” of Chinese.  We think of China as a single, unified country.  That’s not true.  It’s more like the European Union — a collection of separate nations under one government.  And, just like the European Union, they speak a wide variety of languages.   There are, from what I understand, over 50 distinct dialects in China.  These aren’t just accents, they’re completely different versions of the language.

One  of the things that Mao’s government did was to “standardize” the language.   That’s “Mandarin”.  This doesn’t mean that everyone stopped speaking their regional dialect and started speaking Mandarin; it means that all  students  were required to learn Mandarin.  Essentially, everyone became bilingual.  The 60+ dialects are still spoken, but (almost) everyone also speaks “standard Chinese” (what we call “Mandarin”).  There is no one who speaks only Mandarin–it’s an artificial standard imposed on an entire country.

What does this have to do with me learning Chinese?  Well…. Kunshan is a city that attracts people from all over China because of it’s large industrial base.  Our students are from all over China, and grew up speaking a wide range of dialects.

So… Imagine you’re learning English.  The teachers are:

  • A Scotsman
  • An Irishman
  • A Cockney
  • An Aussie
  • A Cajun
  • And someone from the Bronx

…And they’re all trying to teach you how to speak like Dan Rather.

Then you’ll understand how 4 of us spent at least 5 minutes arguing about how to pronounce “sh”.[2]


[1] Turn the accent mark upside down so that it looks like a ‘v’

[2] You would be surprised at just how many ways there are.

Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s not cooking yet, but…

Spicy chicken with steamed vegetables over  rice[1].   And Bailey’s Irish Cream for desert.  The three American teachers are getting together for  friendly meal and a few drinks.

It’s not Mom’s amazing stuffing, but… it’s a good meal with good people.   I think that’s what counts.

[1] Spicy Chicken (all measurements are just wild guesses)

  • 4 chicken breasts, cubed
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground fennugreek seed
  • 2 tsp sweet basil
  • 1 tsp ground rosemary
  • 1 tsp sage
  • 8 chilis, chopped
  • 3  tsp lime juice
  • 3 whole tangerines
  • 1 head broccoli
  • 1 red pepper
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 whole onion
  • 3 cups rice

Slather the chicken in sesame oil, add ginger, fennugreek, basil, sage, rosemary, chilis, and lime juice.  Let sit for a while.

Cook the rice.

Dice all the veggies, garlic, etc.

Put the chicken in a wok on high to sear the chicken, then reduce heat.  Add the veggies.  Squeeze the juice of the tangerines into the wok.  Let simmer, stirring randomly.  Cover and let simmer for a while longer, stirring whenever you feel like it.

Serve the chicken over the rice.

Make sure to save the leftovers–those chilis really get the whole thing spicy after a couple days in the fridge.



For those of you on Skype, feel free to add me.  My username is my name.  Umm… with one catch:  the first name starts with a ‘B’.  So… FirstnameLastname.

So… if you know me, that should be easy.

If you catch me at home, I can plug in the microphone and webcam and do a video chat.  Otherwise, I can always text chat.

Hope to hear from you!



As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a neat little pub in the bottom floor of my building.  It’s run by Bob and Cherry.  Bob is one of the owners, Cherry is his girlfriend.  These are the two that took me shopping in Shanghai.

Last week I asked Sherry if she’d be willing to model for me.  It’s been forever since I’ve shot a model, and without access to my studio back home, I have to completely change how I shoot.  She was more than happy to oblige.   We shot at the bridge just down the street.  It’s a small park in the middle of the neighborhood.  These are just a couple of the shots that turned out well.

A Daunting Task

When I moved into the apartment I’m in, it hadn’t been cleaned.  They said that they’d send someone over, but they never did.  One of the bad things about this city is the dirt.  Like any city with an industrial sector, there’s a degree of air pollution that’s much higher than what I’m used to in Lodi (though the air here is still better than LA).

The place had sat empty for a while, so the dirt built up.  And it doesn’t look like the people that lived here before were all that aggressive about keeping things clean.  So… I’ve been slowly working on things.

The latest round of cleaning has been the windows–and all the other glass.  I tackle a few each day off.  Last week I did the sliding doors on the balcony one day, and the sliding doors in the dining room the other.  Today it was the windows in the kitchen and dining room.  Each piece of glass needs to be washed at least twice to get it to the point that it’s tolerable–not clean, mind you, just tolerable.  To give you an idea of the task:

  • 10 large windows (not including Patrick’s room)
  • 13 glass doors
  • 6 floor-to-ceiling book cases
  • 6 glass shelves
  • 4 glass cabinet doors
  • 1 glass divider wall
  • 1 architectural mirror

And that’s just downstairs.  Each of them needs to be cleaned at least twice just to get it down to the point of “having streaks and smudges”, and each one of those (except the mirror) needs to be washed on both sides.

6 of the windows are so bad that I will need to pull them out of the casements and go at them with some sort of industrial solvent (or, more likely, toothpaste and a scrub brush).

This is how I spend my days off.