Earthquake Again

Posted on August 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 2 comments

Felt a pretty decent-sized earthquake here about ten minutes ago…biggest one I’ve felt since the “big one” of 1989. No details just yet, though I suspect some will emerge a bit later. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: I pieced together a short piece for GoKunming about the earthquake, to which Chris had added more information. Apparently, roughly 25 people were killed, most in Sichuan.

Today I felt two more earthquakes, a fairly big one at 4:30 and a slightly smaller one an hour later. What’s going on? So far I haven’t come across any news about these latest ones, but I’ll keep looking.…

Clever Banners

Posted on August 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

ESWN flagged this funny banner, hoisted by Nigerian soccer fans at the Olympics

It says: “Our gymnastics are no good. Our ping pong is no good. But our soccer is good!”…

Counting Characters and Such

Posted on August 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Language, Useful Links. 2 comments

Praxis, the company behind the LanguagePod series, has started a cool new blog called Learning on Your Terms. It’s written by John Biesnecker, a veteran of the China expat blogging scene and a Praxis employee. For insight into learning a foreign language (not just Chinese), there’s a lot of interesting material there.

Through a link on this post I found a list of all Chinese characters by frequency, all the way up to 10,000 or so.

As I mentioned in my first ever post for Lost Laowai, there isn’t a magical number of characters one has to know to achieve “fluency”, and in any case few people actually can quantify their own personal “character count”. I’ve always been morbidly curious, anyway, so for fun I read through the list.

Characters 1-1,250- no problem.
1,250-2,250- iffy. Know some, don’t know others
2,250-3,000- few and far between
3,000-10,000- nada

John guesses 3,500 characters are necessary to achieve proficiency, though as we know characters don’t really matter, words do. So while I was feeling sorry for myself a bit, I remembered that about a year ago I’d probably be limited to 200, and a year before that no more than 40. So hey- progress is progress!…


Posted on August 25th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 1 Comment

I’m of two minds regarding Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate. To articulate my mental struggle, here’s an imaginary dialogue:

A- Great pick. Biden shores up Obama’s inexperience with foreign policy, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also has been among the most intelligent and rational thinkers on the Iraq War and is one of the few to propose something resembling a concrete solution- soft partition. Biden will be an asset to Obama’s foreign policy team, and foreign policy is one area in which the executive branch has enormous control.

B- Yes, Biden does have an impressive background in foreign policy, but remember he voted to authorize the Iraq War. Doesn’t this undercut Obama’s emphasis on having been right about Iraq the whole time? Also, as sensible as soft partition may have seemed, remember that the idea has been roundly rejected by the Iraqi government and is now essentially a non-starter. Shouldn’t America’s No. 2 at least have some clout with al-Maliki and co.?

A- Would anyone, really, have any clout? I suppose if McCain were to nominate David Petraeus, then, but that’s unlikely to happen. The point is, Biden has gravitas and experience. He’ll reassure voters who like Obama but might be unwilling to pull the trigger based on his inexperience. Also, his long membership of the Senate could lead to legislative breakthroughs.

B- Biden’s experience would indeed be valuable from a policy making standpoint, but his long association with Washington goes against Obama’s “change” mantra, doesn’t it? It’s hard to imagine a shake-up of establishment Washington emerging from a Vice President who has been there since the Nixon Administration.

A- True, but frankly- John McCain is a Washington man himself, so Obama-Biden probably gets the “outsider” label by default. Plus, Biden’s outgoing manner might distract the media from their cozy relationship with McCain. Biden has never been shy about expressing his viewpoints, and that’s a welcome relief for the tightly-controlled Obama campaign.

B- Never been shy, true, but to a fault. It was Biden, of course, who infamously called Obama an “articulate black guy” during the primary campaign. And don’t forget his 1988 campaign, derailed first by his silly “IQ” exchange with a voter and then by a plagiarism scandal.

A- Biden’s not perfect, but then again, nobody is. I always appreciated his ability to treat American voters as adults, and he’s a welcome contrast to the substance-free John Edwards of 2004.

B- Good point. Nobody’s worse than Edwards.

If I could have anyone as Obama’s running mate, it’d be Virginia Senator James Webb. Like Obama, Webb was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, a Washington neophyte, and as an ex-Republican he encapsulates Obama’s “post-partisanship” message. He also represents a crucial swing state, appeals to white male voters leery of Obama, and has refreshing candor. Unfortunately, Webb removed himself from consideration a couple of months ago. The remaining choices weren’t great, and Biden doesn’t excite anyone.

Then again, Biden may make voters less skittish about the prospect of one Barack Obama in the White House, and possesses a good combination of seriousness and charisma. Not knowing whom McCain might pick, it’s difficult imagining anyone taking Biden to the cleaner’s in a debate. But we’ll see.…

Olympic Success

Posted on August 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 5 comments

I still recall turning on the television on September 29, 2004, the first full day I ever spent in China. On CCTV9 (the only channel I got that was in English), I noted with amazement at the number of advertisements there were for the Beijing Olympics, then nearly four years away. After all, the previous Olympics in Athens had only finished a few weeks before.

Yesterday, the Olympics finished. The whole country, as far as I can tell, is thinking: “what now?”. It isn’t so much that people here believe something will happen, but the Olympics have been such a dominant theme in China over the past several years that their completion leaves something of a void in the national psyche. Somehow, the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai doesn’t have the same cache. What will the Chinese rally around next?

One would have to think that the Olympics were pretty successful by all accounts. China won the most gold medals, but America the most overall, allowing each country to plausibly claim victory. There were the brilliant individual performances of Michael Phelps in swimming and Udain Bolt in track, achievements that will be remembered for a long time.

The pollution wasn’t bad, meaning that the Chinese strategy of shutting down factories and ordering cars off the road actually worked. Fears that the bad air would cause major problems for the athletes proved to be unfounded.

There were mini-controversies, but none were significant enough to ruin the Olympic vibe. Most troubling, to me, was the detention of two seventy-year old women attempting to protest a land dispute within the sanctioned “protest zone”. Eerily reminiscent of the Hundred Flowers Movement, China’s inability to tolerate any dissent whatsoever remains chilling, far more so than lip-synching or underage gymnasts.

The New York Times published an inevitable post-mortem today, written by Beijing correspondent Jim Yardley. Will China’s leaders pursue a glasnost-like series of reforms, or will their belief in the righteousness of their rule be strengthened? Bet on the latter.…

Wikipedia Is Amazing

Posted on August 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Media, US Politics. No Comments

The Wikipedia entry for John Edwards’ extramarital affair, an event Edwards admitted to roughly two weeks ago, has over 100 citations. Think about that- either someone took the time to compile the article himself, or enough people collaborated and cobbled together what was a very well-researched, thorough explanation. Either way, it’s just amazing.

While we’re on the subject of Edwards, here are some stray thoughts.

– I always thought there was something fishy about Edwards, even when he first emerged on the scene and young liberals swooned for him. He always had a messianic flair about him, as if he were dispatched from above to end poverty in America. On subjects with which he lacked authority, he was badly outclassed- witness his 2004 debate with Dick Cheney. His speeches sounded good until you realized he never said anything new. I always wished he were more of an actual politician and less of a character in a John Grisham novel.

– And what does it matter if his wife’s cancer was in remission when he carried on the affair? Is that supposed to excuse everything?

-Something interesting about Rielle Hunter, Edwards’ “other” woman. She was apparently the inspiration for the vapid, slutty, cocaine-fueled female characters in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “American Psycho”.

– Edwards carried on his affair, admitted it to his wife, decided to pursue the presidency anyway, lied about it to the press, and then came clean. Can you imagine if he had actually won the nomination? Talk about a gift to John McCain. Edwards had to have known that the story would have come out eventually, yet felt it was so important for him to be president that he was willing to risk the fortunes of the Democratic Party to get what he wanted. During the primary season, Edward acted as though the nomination was his save for the inconvenient fact that Obama was black and Clinton female. We can all be thankful the majority of American voters weren’t persuaded by his charm.

I for one, feel sorry for his children and especially his poor wife, but fairly delighted that we won’t have Edwards to kick around anymore.…

Olympic Coverage- China and the US

Posted on August 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

June Shih has a dispatch in Slate entitled “You think NBC is bad? You haven’t seen CCTV” in which she skewers the state-run Chinese behemoth for its breathlessly patriotic Olympic coverage. While I do agree with her fundamental point, the example she provides to illustrate her point seems a little dubious to me:

Instead of soft-focus profiles, what you get from CCTV is raw, one-sided footage. Predictably, the cameras were trained exclusively on the Chinese gymnasts. During the early rotations, when the Chinese unexpectedly found themselves in fifth place, CCTV broadcast little or no footage of the teams in first, second, third, and fourth. Instead, even as the Chinese gymnasts waited for their scores, which often took several minutes, and other competitors were performing, the CCTV cameras stayed with them as they sat doing nothing. To fill the air, commentators offered thoughts such as “the team seems really tight. They really need to open up 100 percent. If they open up 100 percent, they will perform better.” But we had no idea how well the other teams were performing. “Let’s see some Americans!” my sister yelled.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but am I the only one who hates the “soft-focus profiles” that dominate American Olympic broadcasts? Frankly, it’s refreshing that the Chinese coverage eschews these maudlin background stories in favor of, you know, actual sporting event coverage. In the past hour, I have watched (consecutively) women’s field hockey, men’s fencing, and women’s wrestling. These are all interesting sports that would be ignored by NBC, who seems to think the Olympics consist only of gymnastics, swimming, basketball, and track. I watch the Olympics because I love sports, and because I relish the opportunity to watch sporting events that have a low profile during non-Olympic years. I don’t need to know that Athlete X came from a small mining town in West Virginia, trained really hard, suffered adversity, found Jesus, and is now kicking ass in the Olympics. I’d rather see competition, and for all of its silly patriotism the Chinese coverage provides that in spades. And as far as her sister’s desire to see more Americans, sorry! If that’s a priority, why bother coming to China to watch?

Shih then writes:

But CCTV couldn’t bear to look away from its own team yesterday. It was a reminder that, at the end of the day, it’s still a large cog in a giant propaganda machine. NBC is patriotic because patriotism sells; CCTV is patriotic because patriotism is the law. Telling a story is not CCTV’s priority; it’s conveying the glory of China and the Chinese regime.

This is undoubtedly true. In China, where most media is government-controlled and the rest heavily censored, television networks and newspapers function as vessels of state power. The American media is drawn to the bottom line- what sells? In China, criticism of the ruling Communist Party is not permitted. In the US, networks and newspapers will take any opportunity to bring the government down, because if they don’t someone else will.

Yet in terms of the Olympics, the overall effect is the same. Both American coverage and Chinese coverage is patriotic and biased, but I for one don’t mind watching the games here in China because at least there are more broadcasts of actual events rather than the “Behind the Music”-style stories that NBC specializes in.

In high school, I had an eccentric Latin teacher who would return to his native England every four years because he couldn’t stand to watch the Olympic coverage in the US. European coverage, we can agree, is indeed superior- lots of sports, lots of coverage, and only a smidgen of patriotism. Why don’t we just have them cover the games for the whole world?…

Why Chinglish Exists

Posted on August 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Media. 5 comments

In 1984, the American television journalist Lesley Stahl produced a report that rebutted several of President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign talking points. Not long after the special was aired, she received a call from one of Reagan’s advisors. Expecting him to be angry at her negative coverage, she was stunned when the advisor thanked her. As it turned out, interspersed with Stahl’s critical analysis of Reagan’s politics was video footage of the president smiling, shaking hands, and looking sunny. These images reinforced Reagan’s “Morning in America” slogan, and were far more powerful than Stahl’s words.

A new bakery opened in Kunming recently, selling mainly European-style bread and Italian coffee. On its sign (adorned with a photo of several smiling Chinese wearing chef caps) is written perhaps the most mangled English slogan I have ever seen. Unlike Chinglish that is unintentionally hilarious, this makes absolutely no sense. The Chinese written next to it, of course, is perfect and expresses what I imagine the English message intended to.

Malaprop English in China isn’t particularly noteworthy, as few billboards and signs here are written perfectly. I used to wonder why, if a business went to the trouble and expense of having an advertisement in English, they didn’t bother making sure that the English was correct.

The story of Reagan’s imagery provides an answer. In mainland China, having English advertisements represents modernity, internationalism, and sophistication. Most Chinese people wouldn’t realize that the actual words were nonsensical, as most don’t read English. Besides, their eyes would immediately go to the (properly written) Chinese text first. Just having the words there is what matters, not what the words actually say.

A corollary to this phenomenon are the Westerners with embarrassingly stupid Chinese characters tattooed on their body. Since most Westerners don’t read Chinese, it doesn’t matter what the characters mean, just what image they characters represent. A Chinese tattoo indicates depth, internationalism, mysticism, and sensitivity even if the tattoo reads “my mother eats maggots”.

Chinglish is a great source of mirth for both English-speaking Chinese and foreigners here, but we aren’t the target audience. Just as in American politics, image matters more than substance.…

Caption Contest

Posted on August 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 7 comments


Being a Foreign Woman in China and Japan

Posted on August 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

The conventional wisdom for the issue of female laowai in China is that finding a relationship can be frustratingly difficult. Why? Because while few Western women find Chinese men attractive, quite a lot of Western men find Chinese women attractive. This, at least, jives with my own observations as well as from countless conversations with Western women.

When discussing this with Rebekah yesterday, she remarked that her foreign friends who lived in Japan had it even worse. In addition to the white guy/Asian girl phenomenon found throughout the continent, Japanese women:

1. Tend to be less traditional and thus more willing to engage in relationships with foreigners
2. Come from a wealthy, developed country and thus have less motivation to go out with a foreigner because he’s rich
3. Are far more familiar with Western culture than their Chinese counterparts and thus have an easier time relating to foreigners.

According to Rebekah, the situation for foreign women in Japan got so bad that most stopped caring about their appearance, as if in total surrender.

For those of you who have experience as expats in both countries, could you shed any light? How true are Rebekah’s friends’ observations?…