Category Archives: China Impressions

Hanzi: From Pictographic Writing to Simplified Characters

Meaning Jia Gu Wen Jin Wen Xiao Zhuan Kai Shu
sun Chinese symbol for sun; Jia Gu Wen. chinese symbol for sun; jin wen Chinese Symbol for sun; Jin wen Chinese symbol for sun; Kai shu
moon Chinese symbol for moon; Jia gu wen chinese symbol for moon; jin wen Chinese symbol for moon; Xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for moon; Kai shu
human Chinese symbol for person; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Jin wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Xiao zhuan. chinese symbol for human being; Kai shu
mountain Chinese symbol for montain; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for mountain; Jin Wen Chinese symbol for mountain; xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for mountain; kai shu
bird Chinese symbol for bird; Jia gu wen Chinese symbol for bird; Jin wen Chinese symbol for bird; xiao zhuan. Chinese symbol for brid; kai shu
fish chinese symbol for fish; jia gu wen Chinese symbol for fish; Jin wen chinese symbol for fish; xiao zhuan chinese symbol for fish; kai shu

The above from:

Since arriving in China at the beginning of September, 2013, I have been told by many people that in order to really learn Chinese, to truly understand it, one needs to learn Hanzi. This has not been my goal as I study the language in Kunming, Yunnan Province. My only intention has been to try to better understand China and its people by learning a little of the language and by simply living (and travelling) here for eight months. I have, however, found that learning words via flashcards that incorporate both pinyin and Hanzi has really sparked my interest in the meaning and origin of words through Hanzi.

Writing in China has evolved over 3000 years (some even say over 4000 years). Hanzi is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” These characters are symbols that convey the meaning of a word. According to, “[t]he earliest uncontroversial [pictographic] examples are the so-called ‘oracle bone inscriptions’ of the Shang Dynasty period (most of the 2nd millenium B.C.E.).”  Many of these early characters are similar to those used today.

Although Hanzi have evolved for centuries, it was during and after the Communist Revolution that Chinese script underwent a process of development into a standardized and more simplified script. In fact, it seems that Chairman Mao wanted to replace Hanzi with pinyin (a system of Romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese). I am thankful for pinyin since it has made my studying somewhat easier.

Radicals (pianpang bushou) are another important element of Hanzi. They are symbols and sometimes also stroke/symbol components meant to help people understand and distinguish the characters and put them into context. These radicals recur in Chinese Hanzi and may be combined to make up different characters. Some stand alone although most characters include radicals. Therefore, to understand the meaning of Hanzi, one needs to be able to identify the radicals. There are 214 of them. As an example, the mù radical “木” means: wood; tree; or wooden. So, if you combine three of these radicals together like this: 森 then you have the word sēn (forest). 木马 (mù​mǎ) is a wooden horse / rocking horse, and, 木工 (mù​gōng) means carpenter / woodworker.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, learning Chinese is unbelievably difficult; it is slow, frustrating, and seemingly impossible to get past the VERY basic stage. At this point, for me, it still feels tantamount to climbing Mount Everest! To think that I have already completed 2/3 of my studies and can barely speak or understand a thing. And yet I have been told I am doing very well!

Like elsewhere in the world, people in different regions of China speak differently. There are many dialects here: Mandarin, Cantonese, “Kunmingese” (perhaps not a real dialect), Naxi, and many, many more. Despite the fact that certain characters may be pronounced differently, the written language and meaning is the same. Below are links to diagrams of interest that demonstrate how Hanzi has evolved. I have also included just a few examples of Hanzi / Chinese words (in no particular order). I find that Hanzi logically illustrates the meaning of words. Some are so brilliantly visual in how they are put together; they produce a definition or phrase far more evocative than any I’ve seen in the English language:

  • AIRPLANE: 飞机 – fēi​jī (fēi =fly / jī = machine) Notice that “jī” includes the radical mu -木. At one time many machines were made of wood.
  • MAP: 地图 – dì​tú  (dì = earth; land; soil; ground / tú = diagram; chart, map, picture) ;
  • BAD LUCK: 倒霉 – dǎo​méi (dǎo​ = to place upside down; fall over / méi = mildew; mould; bacteria; fungi)
  • LIPSTICK: 口红 – kǒuhóng (kǒu = mouth; hóng = red)
  • IMMEDIATELY (straight away): 马上 – mǎ​shàng (mǎ​ = horse / shàng = on top; above) This word refers to the days when someone needed to get somewhere quickly and hopped on his/her horse.
  • NON-SWIMMER: 旱鸭子 – hàn​yā​zi (hàn​ = dry / yā​ = duck)
  • APPLAUD (clap): 鼓掌 – gǔ​zhǎng (gǔ​ = to drum; beat / zhǎng = palm of the hand)
  • ABOUT (approximately): 左右 – zuǒ​yòu (zuǒ​ – left / yòu = right)
  • AVOCADO: 牛油果 – niú​yóu​guǒ (niú​ = ox; cow / yóu = oil; fat; grease / guǒ = fruit; result)
  • JEALOUS: 吃醋 – chī​cù (chī = eat / cù = vinegar; jealousy)
  • SO CLOSE YET SO FAR: 咫尺天涯 – zhǐchǐtiānyá (zhǐ = an ancient measure unit of length / chǐ = ruler; measure of length / tiān = sky; heavens / yá = border; horizon)
  • SO SO (average; just passable): mǎ​mǎ​​hū​hū  – 马马虎虎 (mǎ​ = horse / hū = tiger) Here is a story behind the origin of this word: Long ago there was a painter who had two sons. One day the older son walked by and saw his father’s work which was near completion. He asked his father “What is that?” The father replied, “A horse.” The son said it looked more like a tiger to him than a horse and walked away. Later that day, the younger son happened upon the painting and asked his dad, “What is that a painting of?” The father answered, “It is a tiger,” to which this son said, “Oh! It looks like a horse to me.” The father decided he may, in fact, not be that good at the art of painting. Clearly he was mamahuhu.

And then of course you could by mistake say, “Wǒ xǐhuān páiduì” (“I like to stand in line”) rather than, “Wǒ xǐhuān pài​duì” (“I like to party”). But that is another story…

Paying the Price for Chinese Fashion

Discount Season on the Street - Selling Stockings

Discount Season on the Street – Selling Stockings

Economics 101 tells us that demand starts with the consumer responding to price. The consumer must both desire the product or service and be able to afford it. Clearly, not everyone can partake in all markets. However, as the price of goods falls, buying increases – just as when prices rise, fewer items (if any) are bought or cheaper items may be substituted for the more expensive. But of course there are exceptions. A costly piece of Louis Vuitton leather luggage or a luxury Aston Martin car, for instance, appeals to a particular buyer because of the status associated with it. Raising prices for these goods does not necessarily decrease demand because they are “Giffen” goods; part of their appeal is that they are expensive. In the retail clothing sector, when merchandise is discounted the demand for these goods increases and they are sold. Discount sales are a highly effective means of clearing merchandise. In the West this has become something of a social custom; Black Friday and Boxing Day are testaments to the success of such large-scale marketing promotions. In China on the other hand, the concept of sales has not been applied evenly in the retail sector. While bargaining is the norm for most transactions in China (haggling is encouraged if not expected), and discounts are common with all cheap and overstocked merchandise, some upscale Chinese clothing brands, still largely unknown in the West, appear to be immune to the “On Sale” convention.

Currently, much of the clothing in China is fairly inexpensive; it consists mainly of domestic brands and is usually sold in small shops or on the street, often in the older city block communities but also in stores for young consumers in the city centre.  It seems that “while the Chinese population is expected to grow 2% by 2020, income growth will continue to outpace population growth — which means more consumers with more buying power. Per capita disposable income is expected to grow 75% between 2012 and 2020, according to projections made by Euromonitor International.” (See: “Reaching the Chinese Consumer,” by Emily Thompson)

Discount Season on the Street

Discount Season on the Street

Typical Middle of the Way Shop - Not Cheap, Not Expensive

Typical Mid-priced Shop – Not Cheap, Not Expensive

Choosing not to offer seasonal discount sales is an important branding strategy for some Chinese retailers. Discounting distinctive merchandise is tantamount to “losing face,” an important concept in social interaction here. In China, “losing face” means that one has lost one’s dignity, social standing, honour, and/or trustworthiness. A common Chinese insult is, “You have no face.” It appears that in the new Chinese consumer culture a sale or discount is regarded as a defeat for those who aspire to buy into the exclusivity that an upscale brand offers. In theory, shoppers can be enticed to purchase clothing at regular prices if they know it will never go on sale. For some nouveau riche, brand-obsessed Chinese consumers, buying clothing at a discount is seen as distasteful and penny-pinching.

No Discount for You!

No Discount for You!

The reality though, is that domestic upscale clothing shops in China are empty of customers and little, if any, sales activity is taking place. Posh retail stores in fashionable shopping malls look eerily deserted; their high prices are out of reach for the majority of Chinese consumers. Would it not make sense to discount these products and sell them in order to divest inventory and make room for new merchandise? And, more importantly, what happens to the merchandise that isn’t sold? Allegedly, stores such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel burn unsold merchandise but a Google search turns up no credible information and has no answers either. What these companies do with unsold goods is anyone’s guess.

The Chinese retail clothing sector is abound with quality, design, and style that the West has not been privy to. Brands such as Exception de Mixmind, ZUCHUG, Ein and Origin have focused exclusively on the Chinese domestic market, providing consumers with “post-modern” styles that are uniquely designed, highly fashionable, and definitively Eastern. Stylish storefronts, strategically placed in China’s major urban boutique malls, exude exclusivity and wealth (and likely charge very high rents). As yankee00 recently commented in GoKunming, “I just Googled images of Exception de Mixmind, and by the looks of them, those things won’t go out of fashion before 2075.” Uma Wang, a Chinese clothing designer, has already made it into the Western market. Although these labels are largely unknown to Western consumers, plans are underway to bring more of them abroad. It will be interesting to see how Chinese clothing brands will adapt to Western retail marketing strategies.

No Discount for You!

No Discount for You!

As in any East-meets-West encounter, when brands from one market expand into another, some degree of compromise has to be reached. Consumer behaviour and expectations in different parts of the world are not the same. Consider the following phenomenon: most upscale clothing chains in North America (or just about any Western clothing chain, for that matter) will receive new seasonal items several times a year and, of course, because this is new merchandise it will not be put on sale. The consumer, however, has been conditioned to wait until the items go on sale – knowing full well that eventually they will be discounted. The sale phenomenon, and the extensive scale of discounts, have become particularly predominant since the late 2000s when the economic crisis decreased purchasing power and affected consumer spending habits accordingly. It appears that sales start earlier each year and discounts are larger. In such an environment, why would anyone pay full price? And how will Chinese brands compete in this type of setting?

No Discount for You!

No Discount for You!

They will probably have to compete on at least two fronts. The first is design and quality. Major Western retailers will have to step it up a few notches to compete with these emerging, upmarket Chinese clothing companies who have quality and unique design on their side. The second and more important issue is price. If Chinese clothing companies, upon entering the Western market, refuse to discount their merchandise they may be out-competed by labels that do offer sales. This issue, in fact, may prevent them from entering the Western market in the first place. Adaptability will be key.  When merchandise is marked down – even once a year – it becomes more accessible to those who can’t quite afford the extravagant. Domestically, Chinese consumers who have less disposable income might consider buying these brands to add to their wardrobes, if they were more affordable. It seems that this would be mutually beneficial; surely there is money to be made in sheer volume of sales in a country with a population such as China’s. The question is, does this conflict directly with the culture of “losing face?” Given that dickering is an integral part of daily life in China, firm and final discounts (and simply lowering prices a tad in the first place) could still allow these companies to save face. 

Acknowledgement: A large thank you goes to Margaret Skwara for instigating this topic, getting it started, and essentially co-writing it with me.

Raising China

Xingbake (i.e., Startbucks)

Starbucks (i.e., Xingbake in China — heavenly/star; wish; subdue)

China is a country full of contradictions and a nation that I am trying to comprehend. I am doing this, in part, by spending close to eight months here and learning the language. This posting is about the disjuncture between the city and the countryside – therelentless expansion of cities and the government’s push to move those in the countryside into the city. Migration from rural areas to urban centres is happening at an exponential rate and scale compared, for instance, to that of the Industrial Revolution in Europe; millions of Chinese are currently pouring into the cities. Cities are growing dramatically and are not, unlike in past dynasties, being built to last, due to both rapidity and poor quality of construction.

Xingping, Countryside

Xingping, Countryside

Where rural life still exists it is clear that its pace is slower than that of the city (even though some villages are being developed by the government for tourism). One can see donkeys and pushcarts carrying goods as well as people hauling heavy loads of produce on their backs. In Guangxi Province farmers grow oranges, mandarins, pomelos, and kumquats, as well as bamboo, hot peppers, and every Chinese green imaginable. They also grow two crops of rice a year and osmanthus flowers for tea. They are still maintaining their agricultural traditions. In fact, millions of people are trying to hold onto their small acreage, that is typically worked by hand – not machine – despite the fact that farmers do not own their land (See: Farming in China Amid China’s Economic Transformation, Many Farmers Struggle by David Pierson, July 07, 2011, Los Angeles Times)

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

Meanwhile, cities are careening forward; after just three weeks away on travel in December, I could see that much had changed near my school in Kunming, where they are building part of the new subway line. Suddenly there is an entrance way and stairs leading down to the subway system where there had been ground to walk on before I went on my short sojourn. Roads have been re-routed and digging/excavation has already begun. Since I was last here in 2012, many areas have been razed and more still are in the process of being torn down, with new structures being built over the rubble. It seems the hope is that if they build it, they will come.

According to Ian Johnson’s June 15, 2013 article in the New York Times, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities:”

The primary motivation for the urbanization push is to change China’s economic structure, with growth based on domestic demand for products instead of relying so much on export. In theory, new urbanites mean vast new opportunities for construction companies, public transportation, utilities and appliance makers, and a break from the cycle of farmers consuming only what they produce. “If half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable,” said Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, part of a government research institute. “Right now they are living in rural areas where they do not consume.”

Foreigners and Chinese alike tell me that the country is developing at an explosive rate. News articles on this topic abound and having visited Kunming twice in two years, I have seen for myself how true this is. In 2012 I spent a few days in the greater Lijiang area of Yunnan and stayed in Suhe, a UNESCO site just a few kilometres away from the old town of Lijiang. It was one of the first settlements of the Naxi people, was part of the silk road for tea trade, and dates back 1000 years (so I have read). A fellow Canadian who has set up a business there told me that in just a few years he has seen the town expand tremendously in the name of tourism – mostly funded by the government. It was clear to us that it is undergoing a dramatic changeand even if these “old towns” continue to be preserved, the surrounding area will eventually look like a large western suburban development, of sorts. During my second visit to Xingping, outside Yangshuo and Guilin in Guangxi province, I saw that this area too is being rapidly developed. I would not be surprised if in the next five years or so Yangshuo and Xingping will simply be extensions of each other.

The youth hostel, and hotel right next to it, where I stayed two years ago, have been obliterated and all that is left is rubble. The plan, apparently, is to build a large hotel on the spot. As of yet, according to those with whom I have spoken, plans and timelines have not been given. Here is a photo of what the area looked like then (photograph courtesy of

Here are photos of what the area has looked like these past five months:

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

As Steve aptly noted in the last posting, Travels with Steve, Kunming is visibly undergoing gentrification. New buildings shoot up daily. People spend much of their free time shopping  – at smaller local shops and local Chinese chain stores geared toward young folk who can’t live without the next trendy, “disposable” clothing. Other stores court new money; one or two sales a day to sophisticated and discerning customers at Louis Vuitton or Givenchy or high-end Chinese clothing and accessory companies (such as Exception de Mixmind) can be all a business needs to pay its rent and salaries, and make a profit. These stores are extremely pricey and (to my eyes) seem to always be empty of paying shoppers. I’ve heard that the Chinese believe that sales devalue an exclusive brand. It appears that in this society that is eager to advance in the world and desires “things,” the few and far between high-status shoppers don’t worry about cost, even if luxury brands are two to three times the price of the same products in Europe.

In his June 29, 2011 BBC News article, “Inequality in China: Rural Poverty Persists as Urban Wealth Balloons,” Dr Damian Tobin (School of Oriental and African Studies) states:

The privatisation of state enterprises and the housing and social benefits that accompanied them, the re-zoning of rural land for industry, and a construction boom, created enormous possibilities for personal wealth.

The 2010 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report noted that these forms of wealth, which accounted for much of the $9,600 in real assets per adult in China, were extremely important forms of wealth creation.

 But they also came at a cost.

Graph showing income in China

Looking only at the data for the whole country, however, conceals the growing disparity between urban and rural areas.

Even after three decades of rapid growth China remains a very rural economy.

Despite the continued growth in urbanisation, some 50.3% of China’s mainland population (or 674.15 million people) continue to live in rural areas.

In 2010, rural residents had an annual average per capita disposable income of 5,900 yuan ($898). That’s less than a third of the average per capita disposable income of urban residents, which stood at 19,100 yuan ($2,900).

I have read (somewhere…) that the Chinese government’s attempt at gentrification, aimed at transforming economically depressed areas, is sometimes doing the opposite and leaving many people unemployed and impoverished because it has not given the displaced population what was promised.  As the government funnels people from the countryside into the developing cities (the goal is to urbanize half of the population of 1.3 billion by 2020, and 70 percent by 2050  – source:, many urban communitiesare left stranded with little help or hope of recovery or improvement.

There is a significant gap between rich and poor in China. Based on a World Bank’s Inequality in Focus document, “The Challenge of High Inequality in China” by Terry Sicular, and the Chinese Gini co-efficient, income inequality “(ranging from zero, which represents perfect equality, to one, perfect inequality) rose from about 0.3 in the early 1980s to… a high of 0.49 in 2008… China is now among the least equal 25 percent of countries worldwide.”  Sicular goes on to show per capita household income data from 2002 to 2007 (source: the China Household Income Project [CHIP]). In 2002 the poorest 10% of the population earned 876RMB; in 2007 it grew to 1282 RMB. For the same time period the richest 10% earned 16,795RMB compared to 32,628RMB in 2007. For greater, more detailed, and interesting insight into China’s poverty/wealth discrepancy, do take the time to read this report.

Kunming Cityscape

Kunming Cityscape

In a more recent New York Times article Ian Johnson writes, ” ‘We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who are moving into these places, but the standard of living for these relocatees has actually dropped,’ said Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who has studied the resettlement areas. ‘On top of that is the quality of the buildings — there was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials’ …For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.”

The difficult conditions for transplanted residents of “improved” urban centres are multifold. “Because these migrants work outside their registered area, the low wage rates conceal enormous personal sacrifices, which include long working hours, poor housing conditions, and, most significantly, a loss in welfare benefits associated with the household registration system known as Hukou.” (Tobin 2011)

Hukou, Hair Salon

Kunming Alley, Hair Salon

Girl Studying in her Mother's Shop

Kunming Alley, Girl Studying in her Mother’s Shop

Shoe Repair Shop

Kunming Alley, Shoe Repair Shop

The local baozi shop in the alleys behind my school closed down a few weeks ago. It was owned by two couples, each with a young child – two siblings with their respective spouses. We always spoke for a few minutes and I felt as if I was, in an honourary sort of way, a part of their community; they were always glad to see me. I do not know how long that shop had been in business or whether thethe owners were born in Kunming but I always wondered how they managed. Clearly it was difficult for them to eke out a living; they worked long hours, seven days a week. I wonder, too, how other similar shops stay afloat.


Kunming Inner City Block

In Kunming, as well as Beijing and other cities, there are three-to-five-storey apartment complexes that were built in the mid-twentieth century, housed inside large city blocks and arranged around communal (often treed) courtyards. These houses had (and still have) a variety of public and private areas for different activities. I have wandered some of these areas during my stay in Kunming.

Hukou with Chinese Card Game in the Background

Alleyway with Chinese Card Game in the Background

It is clear that many of the residents use this outside space as part of their homes, where they cook, wash, eat, and spend time  with neighbours. These areas appear to play an important role in people’s personal and social lives. These complexes and community courtyards are hidden treasures; little worlds unto themselves, often with schools and always with restaurants, hair salons, bakeries, fruit stores, etc. They reveal the way people really live, but slowly (not so slowly, really), in Kunming and elsewhere, these inner city blocks (as well as the remaining older alleyway housing) are being destroyed as the population grows and the city expands and modernizes.

Kunmimg Alley

Kunming Alley

As I wander the back streets and the city, I see that there are fewer and fewer of the 100+ year-old houses left in the alleys. They are all  being torn down. It is just a matter of time until the Kunming of ten or twenty years ago will no longer be recognizable; it is a city with its eyes fixed on the future. At the moment, Kunming is in the process of constructing a world trade centre. (more links:;;

Does urban expansion and the increased availability of consumer goods truly offer a better quality of life to those living in the city? The transformation of China’s cities certainly cannot be driven solely by the government and developers. The Chinese aspire toward some sort of prosperity – and why shouldn’t they? It is clear that there is a growing upper class in China. The government is attempting to build better cities and there is, to a certain extent, a higher standard of living as high-rises (including many luxury complexes) continue to appear. But at what cost this endless development? As Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (May 20, 2013) ,in Dissent, writes in her article “The Costs of China’s Mega-Cities“,

China’s impressive, and speedy, drive toward urbanization has routinely relied on violence and exploitation to achieve results. Some of that violence is visible: urban residents often find their homes marked for demolition, sacrificed by the government to lucrative construction projects. In other instances, less visible structural violence and exploitation take their toll on migrant workers, who move to cities in search of higher wages and opportunities unavailable in their rural hometowns, but do not enjoy the full benefits of urban residence because they lack a local hukou, or household registration, in the cities where they live. (An urban hukou brings with it an assortment of social services, such as access to health care and education; without it, workers are forced to rely on often substandard clinics and schools that serve migrant communities.) People fight back—urbanites have routinely protested the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods, for example—but in the end, the government almost inevitably prevails, and the cities continue to grow.

Game of Majiang

Game of Majiang

Yet, the generation of people whose parents and grandparents lived through the Cultural Revolution are being better educated in a growing new China with connection to the rest of the world through technology, and the opportunities of travel. China is now a more open country and it continues to strive to be a first world nation as it embraces modern life and industry. Urban China is mostly confident in its modernity although one still sees, (I’m glad to say) an older way of life on city streets. The vibrant alleyways of Kunming (or Beijing for that matter)  function at a leisurely pace; people work hard but move unhurriedly, still transport their goods on foot or bicycle, and take time for a game of Chinese chess or majiang.

As a “waigouren” or “laowei” (i.e., a foreigner) and a Westerner, however, I worry about the pace at which China is changing. The seemingly never-ending development continues and includes not only expansion of existing cities but the creation of new ones in areas that are currently farmland. Having met a number of people in my two visits to this country, and spent some time in the countryside as well as the urban back-alley complexes, I find there is still a sense of traditional life that co-exists with the flurry of progress. The younger friends I have made here and my young teachers are interested in analyzing their society and having discussions with me about my impressions of the country. This makes me hopeful that young, educated, people will have long-term views and be able to help temper the overwhelming pace of change in the urban infrastructure, protect villages, and make a positive change, overall, as the Chinese nation grows. 

Kunming at Night

Kunming at Night

Kunming, Alley (Catching up on the Latest News)

Kunming, Alley (Catching up on the Local News)

China’s ongoing plan is to stimulate the economy and help relieve rural poverty by boosting domestic consumption and economic/social growth. Time will tell whether this strategy will succeed. In the meantime, the BBC documentary (filmed over six years), “The Fastest Changing Place on Earth” follows the remote Sichuan farming community of White Horse Village as its residents are wooed by the local government intermediary and sent into furor and disruption as a large metropolitan area literally encircles them over time. It is about conflict, compromise, and concession and above all, change.

So, Just How Difficult is it to Learn a New Language? My First Five Weeks Studying Chinese

Unbelievably difficult. So damned hard.  Not easy. Challenging. Herculean. Trying. Frustrating. Easier said than done, though none of it is easier said! It’s a truly formidable undertaking. I take one step forward and then twenty steps backward. I am working hard at it but feel as if I have not yet begun to acquire the skill. At times learning Chinese has been emotionally trying and I wonder if I will ever get the hang of it. This is very disconcerting and my pride feels a tad bruised. Yet, I have been told that this is how it goes.

While languages do not come easily to me, I want to learn them. For instance, I love the melodic sounds of Arabic and Greek and would be in heaven if I could speak them. I would like to learn Spanish and Italian, too. I fancy the fact that a language can reveal so much about communities or nations. People are distinct and language is part of this diversity.

Class Outing

Class Outing. Here we are outside the Yunnan Nationalities Village. It is said: Among all places of interest in China, one that stands out immediately is the Yunnan Ethnic Village near Kunming. This is a special place which sprawls over a huge area and houses a number of ethnic minorities of the country. If one wants to witness the nuances in the cultures of different Chinese ethnicities, this is the place to be. Here people live according to their traditional lifestyle in small villages that have been created for them in the premises. It is a perfect exhibition of the diverse Chinese culture. I found it more like Disneyland. (Photograph courtesy of Nathalie Karlsson)

I speak and understand both French and Hebrew but cannot say that I have ever mastered either of these languages; I just get by. And yet here I am, in Kunming, trying my hand at Chinese – which is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. Nonetheless, after having visited China for ~7 weeks in 2012 I decided that I wanted to commit myself to acquiring the language – in China. As I mentioned in an earlier post, “By learning the language and living in the country for a period of time… I hope to start to have a deeper understanding of the country and people.” It really is as simple as this. I have no great plans, nor a practical reason (work, for instance) to study this language except to be able to actively communicate / have a dialogue with people in this region of Asia.

So, I am now attempting to immerse myself in the country and language. This, however, is not easy. I am at a private school with other foreigners (lao wei), and where English is the common language spoken outside of class. I go out onto the street and attempt to speak with people by ordering food, asking for directions, etc. Many just stare at me – not understanding a word I say. I clearly need more study and  practice so I have decided that I will ask my few Chinese friends in XIngping and Beijing to Skype with me for five minutes every few days so that we may speak in Chinese, together. Perhaps over time (I am hopeful) I will be able to have a simple conversation – but a conversation, nonetheless!

The only way I will be able to improve is to practice listening and speaking. This has to be done steadily and with persistence and determination. I also have to remind myself that it will take time to overcome the various challenges; there are no shortcuts.

But then there is the reality of stretching my brain in order to grasp the nuances of Chinese. I am discovering that the best way for me to learn is to listen first and then attempt to repeat/speak – over and over and over again. I constantly return to the very basic sounds of the initials, finals, and tones.  Little by little (and I do mean little) I am developing a vocabulary. At the moment though, my grammar is still practically non-existent. Perhaps one day I will be able to converse with someone on the street and not sound like an 18-month-old. For now, I am trying to have fun with this experience, to stay committed, and to applaud my very small achievements. It is in the end, all about personal satisfaction and opening up my opportunities.

I am memorizing vocabulary, I am listening to various online Chinese language resources, and I am trying to follow and understand Chinese films. I watch the movies and take note of the English AND Chinese subtitled words; it is unbelievably useful to a student of Chinese when there are subtitles in both English and Chinese. I listen, watch, read, and match words and characters as best as I can.

SO! Here I am studying at a Kiwi Cafe... how the hell can I immerse myself in Chinese? Fortunately, the workers here are Chinese and do not seem to speak English.

Here I am studying at the Kiwi-owned cafe, Slice of Heaven. How can I immerse myself in Chinese, this way?  Fortunately, the staff are Chinese and do not speak English so we have to talk in Chinese with them. This is a nice, little cafe/resto that two friends and I have discovered. We find it a nice place to go to to drink excellent coffee and eat Western dessert and to study.  (Photograph courtesy of Nathalie Karlsson)

At this point I have not yet started learning Chinese characters; this will begin in the next few weeks. I came to the Keats School expecting to learn through oral language, only, but I have been told by numerous teachers and students that Chinese characters represent words and that studying them will make learning the language easier, not more difficult; it will train my brain and help me visualize the words I learn, and also help me pay attention to detail. We shall see. In the meantime, learning to pronounce Chinese Initials, Finals, and Tones is a very difficult endeavour. With a lot of listening and repetition I am slowly becoming able to reproduce the sounds. Sometimes, it seems almost impossible to do this. I have to remind myself that fluency in Chinese is not about how fast I can speak, or how I put a sentence together, but rather about tones, pronunciation, and grammar. I have no choice at this point but to slow down, focus on the tones and get them right. Perhaps one day I will utter a sentence that is actually correct!

I have been told that it can take many years to become fluent in Chinese. Six months will certainly not quite do the trick but at least I am benefitting from one-on-one classes for four hours/day. If I am able to “get by” at the end of this sojourn in China, as well as I do in French and Hebrew, I will have the satisfaction of having accomplished something. And perhaps, in the process, I will have met and even conversed with some interesting people in this country and gained greater insight into their culture. There are some signs of hope, mind you.

The other day, I went to my favourite baozi (steamed, filled, dumplings) stall and was told by the woman who serves me, almost daily, that my Zhongwen (Chinese) is improving. Conceivably this is true; I had my first 4-sentence conversation with the school’s cook that same day and we understood each other! As I’ve mentioned, little by little…  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-Zi, Chinese philosopher and the father of Taoism (604 BC – 531 BC; The Way of Lao-tzu)

Addendum: Five months into learning the language with one month left and I barely get it. JUST!!! I have been told I try to make my sentences too complicated and I cannot easily communicate simply. This is a very tough habit to break because I want to express more complex thoughts….. all in all… not easy.

First Impressions of China

Jianshu, Yunnan Province, China

Jianshu, Yunnan Province, China

It took me a while to decide how I felt about this country. It is so full of contradictions. It is clear that China is a communist country yet capitalism is everywhere. On the whole it is an impoverished nation – at least Yunnan is –but there is also apparent wealth and growth. Kunming, for example, is becoming a very large city and will have the 4th largest airport in a few years. They are building a metro system and in general this province is viewed as a gateway to many neighbouring countries: Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Ruili. In any area, here, that is larger than a small town, growth is at work in a grand way. When I left Laos, I saw that in its border city, Boten, nearly the whole centre of town was torn down  – and surrounding it were humongous but still empty buildings. In Mohan, a Chinese town on the other side of the Laos border, it seemed as if perhaps the Chinese had joined Laos in turning Boten into a big town that could some day serve as a destination for tourists or even a place for Chinese citizens to move to – from the countryside. Meanwhile, Jinghong and Kunming, the two largest cities in Yunnan, are for their part very enjoyable centres and are growing and growing.

Everywhere else that I travelled to during the first 1.5 weeks in China it was clear that the people there are poor. I wondered about all the old being torn down – replaced by new, large, concrete buildings. Some of the work is done mechanically but much of it is achieved by manual labour. However, when I stop to think about it – despite the fact that tourists want to see the “old China” – no one wants to live in a home without plumbing and heat and with dirt floors. From what I understand as long as you stay in your own province then you obtain benefits from the government as compensation if your home has to be demolished. But (and I am not sure if I am correct — this information is all from my pidgin conversations), if you move to a different province then you do not receive these benefits.



SO!!!!! From the perspective of writing these posts over a year after my trip to China in 2012: China is neither a third nor first world country and is changing at tremendous speed; transportation is is fairly top notch, construction is faster than lightening, consumption is high, and it is hard to tell whether the infrastructure will be able to take all this rapid growth. China is truly a country of contradictions.

It seems to me from what I read in the news that, even though in the financial world China is still considered an emerging market, the power is shifting from the West (read: U.S.) to the East (read: China). It was clear to me during my six-week trip to China that the Chinese are undergoing the shift from a producing country (they, too, now outsource to other countries) to a society of consumers. Even in small towns and villages people have cell phones. The income gap in the west is growing but it is the same in China. So, for instance (and this may seem a little silly) many people still cook over a charcoal burning fire with their one pot or wok and not with a stove and oven.

Clothing is hung up to dry since people do not have electric driers, typically, and many people do not have washing machines (those who do often have the type that was used decades ago in North America where you have to attach and detach the hose to the water tap).



From what I can tell, China is going to have to learn to have a smaller footprint as it grows at such an exponential rate. There is an unbelievable amount of garbage on the streets — especially in the smaller towns and villages.  Flying over Beijing the pollution is like a wall that you bump into.  The pollution is tragic but China does aim to reduce its pollution by 2017. Farmland and village homes are being razed while cities are being developed for the new migration from the countryside to the city. By learning the language and living in the country for a period of time, beginning this September, I hope to start to have a deeper understanding of the country and people than how I get information through the western media. And of course, this will give me an opportunity to speak to the people I meet in their language rather than in English – a language that currently is the lingua franca.