Grammar Sucks Eggs

I seldom have the luxury of taking a birdseye view of the content of my courses since I’m usually drowning under it instead but when I do it strikes me as amazing that everything is conducted in Mandarin. To labour the point: we read an essay, we discuss it in Mandarin and we write an essay in Chinese which we discuss in Mandarin. I suppose given a) the location and b) the course I’m taking that shouldn’t be too astonishing but it’s quite a contrast from the UK where it often ends up being more about the translation than the content.

I’ll illustrate the bit that kind of tickles me by means of a simple translation of the back of one of my vocab books (I have no idea why I have more than one when I haven’t even organised them by class but one is “oooh that might be useful, write that in the long list” and the other is “omg that one really IS useful write it in the short list”. I have hopes that this will make sense when it comes to my exams but I have at least as many doubts). In the back of said vocab book I write down all the points of grammar we come across (discussed in Mandarin, in case you still haven’t got that point).

One of my favourites is 谓语. This is “predicate” in English but since I don’t have an English language dictionary I’ve had to Google what that means. I can’t say I’m much the wiser although I do remember knowing what it meant once. Among many other parts of speech I also have “pronoun”, “conjunction”, “antonym”, “objective”, “preposition” and my special favourites which are specific to Chinese: 补词 and 附词, for which I cannot find a translation and which would take a few sentences to explain if I knew how.

I distinctly recall my linguistics teacher in my first year at Cambridge saying Chinese grammar was easy because there is none. He then spent the best part of the next four years trying to teach us the many uses of the innocuous-looking 了, read “le” or “liao” depending on its usage indicating a change of state or as a temporal marker, and when we should use 过, read “guo” and broadly equivalent to the usage of “have”+past participle to denote past tense. I’d better stop with that before I get tied up in words.

A friend kindly forwarded to me a recent BBC article which by spooky coincidence I heard being discussed this week in my coffee/homework shop in Beijing. The article concerned a study indicating that there is a linkage between the propensity to save and linguistic structure. If you use tenses, as we profligate Anglo-Saxons are wont to do, then your level of identification with the future you makes that person sufficiently disconnected from the present you for you to feel diminished responsibility for their well-being and thus less necessity to provide for him/her. Utter tosh, thought I, and a convenient way of lumping together cultures which already are known to be higher savers than those who are not.

But when I heard the coffee shop guy talking about it I thought maybe not so stupid, even if still a little bit debatable whether the researcher began with the chicken or the egg. Rather than rehash the whole article herewith the link for you to peruse at leisure:

I do enjoy the rationale but from where I’m currently sitting it seems that the researcher never went through one of my Chinese classes and he definitely never came across 了 or 过. On reflection maybe his chicken did come first after all.

[editor's note: this is not intended to be a serious rebuttal of an academic study, not least because the editor's linguistics professor would probably agree with the academic's analysis of the absence of tense in Chinese grammar. That was what he taught us anyway but it's a fat lot of good when it comes to 了 and 过]


Not just you guys in the UK getting a second bite at winter. I woke this morning after a day in bed with some bug yesterday (address for flowers and chocolates on request) to this:

So purty!

So purty!

I guess it was a white out rather than a pea souper, though hard to tell the difference sometimes.

Slightly Mad

I have noticed a few strange things here. I thought it was just me and my connections but now that our great leaders’ meeting is over Google has suddenly gurgled back into life at a speed approaching 4 horse power versus the last fortnight’s torturous crawl. I’ve also noticed that a) my iPad burns through juice at a much faster rate – God knows what is running in the background unbeknownst to me; b) there really are whole sites that are blocked and c) the system is sufficiently inconsistent that it feels like the blocks are going on live rather than operated automatically by some clever piece of software. Makes you wonder how many people are sitting in a box somewhere reading all the stuff that is being generated every minute and what exactly they are looking for.

I remember reading 1984 here in 1990 as I went around the country by train. I’m sorry to admit that I don’t recall much of the content specifically but I do remember thinking it utterly astonishing that I had found such a book among the few on offer in the sole, government controlled, English language bookshop in the middle of very communist China. How on earth did it get past the sensors? (And yes, that is deliberate).

Back in the day we dealt in FECs or small quantities of RMB from black market trades when people didn’t adamantly refuse to take them from us given it was illegal for us to even have them. Some Cantonese made a good trade from me and my travelling companion down a remote Guangdong dead end one day, giving us rmb15 for our FEC100 in a well practised sleight of hand. But of course you could hardly go to the fuzz and say you’d been had doing something you didn’t oughter be doing in the first place.

Even simple interactions still have something of a 90s hangover for me. One of my classmates was in deepest darkest N Korean borderland in 1992 and had a special friend assigned to her which nearly drove her insane. Even going to the loo alone was something of a bargaining exercise. I need to get over the Orwellian paranoia but the difficulty meeting people now has a similar feel to it.

Things have moved on in many ways but in others 1984 seems as appropriate for today as it was then. The eyes are just a little better hidden and often within our own devices. Let’s see if this post makes it out there.

Mobile Sickness

The topic of Wednesday’s conversation class was fashionable illnesses as exemplified by “mobile phone dependency”. The signs, according to our textbook, are: 1. When you discover your phone isn’t to hand you feel distracted and anxious and can’t focus on anything else; 2. If your phone hasn’t rung for a while you feel out of sorts and subconsciously keep checking to see whether or not you’ve missed a call; 3. You constantly think “did my phone just ring?” to the extent that when someone else’s rings you think it’s yours; 4. When you’re on the phone you sense the radiation in your ear; 5. You often subconsciously feel about for your phone and occasionally take it out and look at it for no reason; 6. You’re often afraid that your phone has automatically switched itself off; 7. You keep it switched on when you’re asleep; 8. When your phone loses signal you feel anxious and helpless and you get irritable; 9. You’ve had the following symptoms: numb hands and feet, palpitations, dizziness, sweats, disrupted digestion (so it’s nothing serious, then). If you have five or more, start worrying.

Apparently far from being upset when diagnosed as overly attached to their phone people get quite chuffed since this indicates that they must be v important or busy at work. I’m talking about in China, incidentally, in case that sounds like it could be someone you know. I’m happy to say I’ve been weaned of any of those symptoms I had before I arrived in Beijing but it’s interesting that this is a fairly global disease.

In our small conversation groups we discussed some other modern societal issues suggested by our teacher such as make-up dependency (who knew? My groupies discussed the fact it was not something we understood though that didn’t help us weave in the day’s vocab), addiction to health supplements and obsession with looks. The energetic and entertaining American Chinese guy in my class was discussing the image issue and how, despite being self-confessedly blurry at the edges, he is considered really quite slim in the States. Plus, he said, it’s no shame to be large back home. “You’re fat? Yo, bro, I’m fat too! High five!” The largest Beijinger I’ve seen here so far was a girl heading into Burger King – thus ensuring I won a bet with myself – but even she wasn’t particularly large on a western scale.

I’m sure I’ve read there are more overweight people here than there used to be since that’s a statistic they like to roll out in the west when talking about the evils of fast food. A quick glance down a street says there are still a few million more burgers to be consumed before it’s a major problem. I’ve always found a Chinese diet quite agreeable from a weight perspective. Perhaps it’s that I don’t dig many Chinese puddings so my sugar consumption is almost non-existent. Or perhaps it’s that more often than not I’ve finished dinner by 6:30 or 7pm at the latest: if you hit most of the campus canteens any later the only food you’ll see is what’s being consumed by the chefs before they clock off. Either way I’m currently still getting away with eating a lot more rice and pasta than I could back home.

Another topic that has come up has been the transformation of society which I touched on in a previous post. I’ve had a couple of conversations now about the pressures on a family engendered by rising house prices, both people with whom the subject came up having been lucky enough to buy their flats at around rmb9k psm about 8 years ago versus a current value of more like rmb40k psm. Since they have to live in their apartments this doesn’t make them feel rich albeit they feel more fortunate than those trying to get onto the ladder now.

But not even the owner occupiers are really off the hook as the expectation is that parents will assist their children, most notably their sons, in buying their own place when they reach their 20s. This expectation is both self and peer-inflicted and most sons don’t seem to be refusing the help since they can’t really afford to. The relative shortage of women has seen their cachet rise, allowing them to make greater demands on a potential spouse and his family. Meanwhile their professional opportunities have also expanded and thus they can be more independently wealthy themselves. If a man and his family haven’t the means to set him up with a place then he’s probably not a contender. Even more so if the woman can buy her own property – why would she merge her assets with someone who has nothing to offer?

The government recently announced the introduction of a property capital gains tax. One woman I know felt this was a problem for her family. She has a flat, her husband has a flat and as a family they are only allowed two places. When the time comes for her to buy for her son they will have to sell one, most likely the one bought earliest as it’s the smallest. She’s not happy that she’ll have to pay 20% on the gain but has no choice if they are to upgrade.

I imagine she is a fairly typical middle class case. In one sweep you encounter the imbalances produced by the one child policy, the widening gap between those who can afford and can’t afford housing and the tightrope the government has to walk to ensure they can raise affordability without upsetting the middle class property owner. Quite a tall order.

Things I Have Seen

I have no idea how to run all of this together into a coherent string of words so for a change I’m just going to post some pics for you.

The parcel service - don't send me one

The parcel service – don’t send me one

It does seem to work though

It does seem to work though

Emergency services in training (on the other side of the field)

Police in training (shuffling along in full uniform but on the other side of the field, sorry!)

The following is a gang of groupies I came across one morning outside the Sohu offices. I was doing my homework in Starbucks and racing back to uni via the loos I came across a small troupe of fans waiting for someone. The security lady had no idea who (but loved my Mandarin). The loo ladies had no idea who (but wah my Mandarin was so much better than theirs!). We hung out together until a photographer told us we were waiting for an American vampire at which point my hunger took over and I left the girls practicing their screams of welcome. I had never heard of the “star” before but if I’d been him I would have been peeved that my publicity guys had whipped up such a tiny crowd. Paul Wesley, in case anyone cares.

Eat Me!

Eat Me!

Alien Veg

Feast your eyes

Feast your eyes

Nothing bent here

Nothing bent here

I read an article once about China taking vegetable seeds up to a newly launched space station. It’s the kind of story you might imagine was an elaborate April Fool’s Day gag, since it ran for a while, but I also have a vague recollection of reading about the produce subsequently: how the peppers were crispier and all manner of veg larger than anything ever grown before. That might even have been in one of my Shanghai propaganda lessons except if the Telegraph reported it it must be true.

Being reminded of this I went online to double check whether I’d made it up but sure enough the records are there

As you may see, but in case you haven’t the infinite leisure to investigate further, they brought the space seeds back to earth and still managed to supersize them. Imagine my surprise as I looked up these links to discover that this is once again current given that in recent months the scientists here have been trialling methods to cultivate Mars.

I can report that the original super veggies don’t seem to have made it into the mainstream yet. Not that there is anything wrong with what I have come across so far. For all the quality control and standardisation of produce in the UK, I have yet to see a vegetable whose cause could be championed by Jamie Oliver and I can’t believe the supermarkets here are prejudiced against bendy carrots.

I never really rate fruit anywhere but I have always been quite impressed by the variety of pears in this part of the world which I find much easier to eat than the sandpaper covered ones in the UK. The apples are also great if, like me, you prefer a Fiji or Pink Lady to a Granny Smith or a Cox. (Saying that, I do miss a good Braeburn).

China being so vast, a bit like the US it already has access to multiple climates and therefore varied growing conditions – so much so obvious. While this has not been commercialised on the same scale as the US, despite the best efforts of a somewhat governance-challenged HK-listed company, regions do specialise in whatever suits them best. So Hami is famed for its melons, Lijiang rings a bell for its pears and Sichuan, as I have discovered this last couple of weeks, has the most beautiful strawberries I have ever seen.

I didn’t believe that the taste could possibly live up to the presentation so the first time I saw their shiny red rows winking at me I just took a photo and moved on. Strawberries can be a particularly disappointing fruit, as anyone who has forked out on a bowl at Wimbledon will attest. Korean strawberries so excite my HK friends that they send round a general text when they spot them marked down and with good reason since they do a very good job of reminding one how a strawberry should taste.

Sichuan strawberries are to Korean strawberries what Korean strawberries are to Wimbledon impostors. No wonder then that I didn’t know how good they would be: the best produce is always kept for the home market. But I might have guessed that if they weren’t considered worth buying by the gastronomical Chinese consumer they certainly would not have been considered worth shipping all the way from Sichuan by the parsimonious vendor. Thankfully I was enlightened just in time to catch the end of the season, if not quite in time to eat enough until the next one comes around.

Pity me then as I finish my latest box and hope there are more tomorrow before we move on to the next thing. If it’s good enough to bring in from the provinces it’s definitely going to be worth trying, even if it hasn’t come from space.

In The Classroom

So far I haven’t said much about my classes and that’s partly because I’ve been too busy trying to get up to speed with them to really think about the content and so on. But it did occur to me this evening, as four character strings echoed around my mind involuntarily, that they are quite effective. I am also talking to myself in Chinese and can say that it is making about as much sense as it does when I talk to myself in English, read that how you will.

I have classes from 1pm to 4:40pm every day more or less with a couple of breaks in the middle of the sitting to clear the mind or change the subject. Lucky me since in the mainstream I have heard tell of classes as long as three hours, officially with no break. Our grade has five subjects: spoken language, general Chinese, essay writing, intensive reading and an option which for me is business Chinese. Thankfully essays are only one slot a week; any more than that and I would revolt and passing out certificate be damned. To compensate for such mutinous thoughts I’m taking an extra optional course in listening comprehension.

We had a lovely passage from the evening news in last week’s business Chinese class which could have doubled as listening incomprehension. I think when they hire people to anchor the news here they test them in speed reading autocues first since honestly you’ve never heard anyone speak so fast. Thank God there were pictures involved so I knew they were talking about share prices. I reckon I caught one word in ten although happily one of the ones I caught provided the answer to my question from the teacher, since I was one of the lucky ones to be called upon in that section. I didn’t really understand what she was after but just said the only word I’d heard which seemed to do the trick.

Generally the workload is about right. You could coast through the classes and not do the homework if you’re willing to risk a pass the basis of the mid and end of term exams alone (c80% subject dependant) or you can easily fill most of your spare time with preparation and revision of the previous classes’ subject matter. Since I switched class from the morning to the afternoon I am now somewhere between the two. Strangely I am not as motivated to get up at 7am for revision as I am if someone is ticking my name off the attendance list at 8am, more’s the pity.

Textbook subject matter has come on a lot since I was last here, in line with everything else. It is actually a bit of a weird paradox. While politics is never touched upon the transformation of modern society and the pros and cons that accompany the shift from a planned to a market economy is a theme running through more than half of the lessons. We have anything from nostalgic essays about “My Teachers” and “My Father” rammed full of four character phrases, chengyu, that need about ten minutes of background each since they often have a parable attached, to social observations about the stresses that have come with China’s transition, what kind of part time jobs are best for students who are self-supporting and the possibility of a caterpillar pestilence due to global warming. It’s quite a change from the political tracts we waded through when I was in Shanghai in 2002.

Perhaps more on that later but now I’ve got to finish my homework.

Subscription Is Here!

Thanks to Mike who has enabled subscription options. You should be able to sign up from the homepage on or failing that from Mike’s tested it, I’ve tested it and it works. (I was slightly thrown by the fact that I signed up two subs from day 1 and neither ever received a thing but it really does work if you do it yourself).

While I’m here: the latest. I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the air or the weather yada yada but it’s so foul it’s completely restricting my ability or desire to do anything else. The sky is nicotine yellow and there is a strong wind today lifting choking dust into big eddies across the streets and pavements. I am wearing the y fronts but they don’t protect my eyes. Nor indeed did they do much to catch the noxious gasses as I went past a building site this morning. Somehow the Macdonalds moped delivery guys weren’t put off stopping to chow down on their wares just under the extraction outflow.

The only thing that cheered me up was the option to order “Pickied Mustard-green with Multifarious Marinated” for lunch. (I did not, so I can’t tell you what it was).

Social Bonding

Those pesky medicine 1 goddesses

Those pesky medicine 1 goddesses

Happy International Women's Day

Happy International Women’s Day

The last two days have been Freshers’ Fair or the Tsinghua equivalent. Yesterday I was hung over and hadn’t done my homework (fully embracing the second coming of my studenthood) so had no time to check it out but today I got sucked into the melee of stalls and recruiters assembled around our local canteen.

I have found it harder than I expected to get involved even in the international cultural exchange groups: I signed up to the Tsinghua Buddy system before I arrived, emailed the rep yet again as she introduced the benefits of the system to us on our induction day and for good measure emailed another society which is all about language and cultural exchange. Not a single response. So hey, I’ll find friends another way.

Saying that, I finally got picked up in the canteen today for the first time since I arrived. A female student sat down opposite me at lunchtime and asked me where I was from. I answered in Chinese and so we continued though I suspect her English was pretty good. She comes from Guangdong and is a research student in the law faculty – there seems to be quite a lot of that about: it’s pretty competitive to get in from what I gather but it’s just as hard to get a decent job on the outside so a lot of students stay on in academia if they can pass the exams.

Her Mandarin was great – I joke but quite often I find Cantonese speakers’ accents impenetrable – and it turns out her family are Hakka (shout out to Angeleen). During the course of our conversation one of the girls across the aisle from us said to my companion “are you Cantonese?” and struck up a lengthy exchange involving some musical chairs so that we weren’t talking in diagonals.

Actually I think it might have been a cunning ruse to break me and my new buddy up as the girl now repositioned beside me has been told by her language teacher that she has to get in 5 minutes of practice a day with a foreigner. I used to hate these language exchange type things but I’m lucky enough to be here surrounded by Mandarin so 5 minutes out of my day speaking English with her isn’t really a big deal. Lisa happens to be off to Nottingham this summer to study business management or somesuch (communication though earnest was not always clear to both sides – something that could also be said of my Mandarin). Her English was already pretty good though with extremely precise articulation. She wanted to know what I thought of Nottingham – not qualified to have a view – and what clothes she should take with her because is it true it rains a lot? They must be using the same textbooks worldwide.

Having exchanged numbers I launched into the Society Fair. About a hundred stalls were set up with societies for everything from breakdancing through to Philharmonia appreciation, orienteering, magic appreciation, stargazing, the ghost society, the wine club and various marshall arts. The most lonely looking chaps were the mu society for the appreciation of maths. No prizes for guessing which of those I might have signed up to but who could resist the chap in a dapper black velvet suit blasting out O Mio Babbino Caro on a boogie box?

Today is also Female Students’ Day so by tradition the boys in all classes make a banner for their female classmates lauding them in one way or another. Throughout the trees they hung red banners with various slogans such as “the flowerbuds which sprout in Yuanmingyuan [the old Summer Palace] flourish brightly in Tsinghua”. That’s not the most poetic of translations but I assume the flowers are the female classmates and that there is a compliment in there somewhere.

Further samples I could just about understand (poetry is beautiful but can be quite mystifying in Chinese) included “It is not innocence that will smash you but the goddesses of class 1 Medicine”, “in one hundred years of Tsinghua, you are that which we have aspired to. Debating goddesses, no one can compare with you”. It sounds a lot better in Chinese. The only one I can really do justice to (although I can’t make it rhyme) is “We will love you for one hundred years, each year as though it were first love”. Aaaaaah.

As an addendum this is all a day late due to technical difficulties with WordPress (another story). I stayed in the coffee shop off campus until nearly midnight last night writing my Chinese essay on “Beijing’s bicycles” (what is student life without an essay crisis?) As I approached my building the football field was covered in groups of students huddled around their own floor level yellow lamp. Much hilarity was underway so I guess they must have being carrying out initiations for their lucky new club members.

Foreign Devils

I have been slightly surprised by how few Westerners I have come across so far, notwithstanding the fact that everyone on my course and in my dorm is a foreigner of some description. The part of Beijing I live in is predominantly universities: the universities of Forestry, International Relations, Science and Technology, Beijing University and Tsinghua are all based here, to name just a sample. While there is a decent number of overseas students in the area, many of them are Asian and the few caucasians I come across outside the school, most likely also students, view each other warily: when China is so hot a subject I guess everyone is potential competition.

I mentioned how few obviously “laowai” people there seem to be in Beijing to a Chinese friend at the weekend. She pointed out that this was like her friend who lived in an industrial district of Beijing. Every weekend, when the factories were deserted, she opened her window and thought “gosh, no one lives in this city!” Evidently perception is greatly skewed by environment.

My friends took me for Sunday afternoon tea in the eastern part of the city and outside the cafes in the shiny glass CBD foreigners outnumbered Chinese at least 5:1. I dont know the official stats but they told me that in the last 5-6 years more foreigners have arrived and their Chinese on the whole is much better than it used to be. Bummer, not so rare any more; mutual evil eyes may be justified after all.

The foreign students learning Chinese at Tsinghua, as in Harbin 20 years ago, are mostly Korean and Japanese, with an added representation of overseas Chinese including my Aussie coffee mate and a Chinese American in my class. But aside from the 400 or so of us here exclusively taking languages courses there are another 400+ on exchange programmes from US or African universities taking anything from an undergraduate semester in Finance and Accounting to an entire Masters in Journalism.

The journalism student I met was from Eritrea and I was impressed that he was studying in Mandarin, but it transpires that after a year here he still doesn’t speak a word: his course is held in English. He made a wry comment about China not being the obvious place to study journalism but I got the impression choices were limited and China and Africa are very good friends. I have met, variously, a Sudanese girl and an Ethiopian guy studying Public Policy and the aforementioned Eritrean taking a Masters in Journalism (along with the Canadian girl upstairs or the overseas Chinese girl next door, I forget which) and all of them are studying in English.

Given the number of undergraduates here on exchange who will never have taken Chinese before it’s a necessity to offer courses taught in English, but that means that the Chinese students are also taking anything from Finance and Accounting to Economics in English at a university in their own country. The mind boggles. I guess this international bent has put both Beida and Tsinghua on the global academic circuit; Beida for instance has close collaboration with LSE through summer schools and double masters programmes split between Beijing and London.

My favourite braintwisters though I met on my first morning here when I found myself hungry in the canteen with no dining card. A couple of gallant Koreans bought me breakfast and then came to join me at my table. I am embarrassed to admit that in mannerless fashion I had already fallen upon my food like the starving but I really didn’t think they should feel obliged to buy my breakfast AND keep me company while I ate it.

It was an interesting exchange. One of them is researching a doctorate in environmental studies – this time in Mandarin. That makes sense enough since the level of knowledge here is on a par with the other leaders in the field and the Koreans (and Japanese) do have the advantage of sharing a lot of characters with Chinese. His friend is doing English Literature. Unsurprisingly he said they don’t manage to get into much depth when wading through Shakespeare and Dickens in Mandarin.