Monday, October 27, 2014

Your Personal Stalker

Some Chinese shops seem to have a very strange idea about customer service. As a Swede - springing from a less-talkative, chillier culture - I'm most comfortable if the clerk says hello and asks if they can help (not saying hi is rude, OK Sweden?), but lets me do my own looking once I've declined.

Here, though, entering a shop might get you hitched with a bodyguard/parasite/human surveillance camera. A staff member who does not say hello or welcome or anything at all will latch onto you and silently follow you around the store. At some point they might try forcing wares on you or informing you about deals (which, often, you won't be able to understand). But it doesn't matter whether or not you are interested: they will keep heeling you until the moment you leave. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be some sort of butler concept or if shoplifting is a big problem in China, but it makes me feel like either a wanted criminal, or someone being stalked by a restless ghost.

general tip: if your staff is giving off a slenderman vibe, you're probably doing it wrong?

In other stores, they take customer service to unprecedented heights. I visited a small shop selling hair accessories. Its two rooms could easily have been staffed by one, two, or perhaps even three people on a busy day, but there were five or six women working simultaneously. Several women would greet you as you walked in and one would follow you, anticipating what you wanted to look at as soon as you took a step or turned your head. It was extremely difficult to move around because each customer had their own attendant standing behind them - usually in another customer's (read: my) way.

A Beijing tea shop actually had two women race each other to see who could get to my friend first. The entire time we were there we had the shop assistant breathing down our necks and shoving teas in our faces for us to smell. At a clothing shop with no other customers, the girl behind the counter followed me with her eyes and proffered products to me but didn't speak a word. It's really weird. And usually makes me leave a shop prematurely, because I'm not comfortable shopping while my spine crawls.

I mean, I understand that the shop personnel are going to be extremely annoying in a fake-goods market where all that matters is being able to hawk the loudest and most insistently. But in a genuine store? Terrible idea, that drives customers away. Independence is the name of the game.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Class Time

Here, finally, is what you've all been waiting for: the big reveal of what I do in school.

[awed gasps]

I have 20 hours of class a week, meaning four class hours per day. Each class consists of two 45-minute periods, with a ten-minute break in between. Two days a week, I have two different classes on one day; the other three days are each spent with a massive four-hour stretch of the same class. For extra in-depth learning, and extra exhaustion by the end! The perfect deal.

I'm in 中等一级, or Intermediate Level 1. At this level, Chinese learning is divided into five different classes that each focus on their own aspect of the language.

Intensive Reading(精读)
This is the most straightforward class. Our textbook is split into lessons, each consisting of a text, a list of new words, and grammar exercises. We learn all the new words and read the text until we understand it completely, then do the exercises. The following week, we have a dictation where the teacher reads out a selection of the new words (and, if we're ~lucky~, sentences) that we have to write in Chinese characters. This is the most structured and familiar class. It's relatively easy to study for, and I feel like I really learn a lot each week.

Extensive Reading(阅读)
One of the more challenging classes, all the material for Extensive Reading is way too freaking hard. However, this is all deliberate, since we're not supposed to understand every single word and sentence - or in some cases, not understand anything at all. Extensive Reading teaches you how to read a text, and focuses on structure and different ways of finding relevant information. There's also some work on character radicals, morphemes, and other more linguistic aspects of Chinese, which not only gets me very excited but also proves beyond a doubt that I am a humongous dork.

My least favorite class, for a variety of reasons. Since I'm largely self-taught, I did very little listening practice and feel a bit behind in that department. But then there's also the combination of a poorly designed textbook and a lack in the teaching department: aka, a perfect recipe for disaster. One of my main beefs with the way the class is laid out is that we just listen to extremely fast texts and are then expected to answer extremely specific questions, usually hinging on one or two completely new words. This doesn't mirror what listening comprehension is like in real life, where it's more context-based and intimately involved with speaking and discussion. Oh well. I just hope I pass the exam :(

Writing class really makes me aware that we are at the intermediate level. It focuses less on what you write and more on how you write it: you get extra points for making the text varied and interesting to read. That's why I find it kind of enigmatic that the topics are still so pedestrian (daily routines, where you are from, coming to China etc). I wish we'd actively learn more sentence structures, grammar patterns, and stylistic devices. That would help a lot more than the teacher reading through five people's texts, in a row, in front of everyone, as time moves slower and slower and attention spans grow shorter and shorter.

This class is one of, if not the, most immediately useful and practical classes. Most other classes consist of listening to the teacher, taking notes, and reading in the textbook, so there's very little active participation on the part of the students. Speaking class is the complete opposite: we're there to talk. Even if it can feel awkward, it's so important just to get the ball rolling. After all, if you say something wrong, you can always correct or explain yourself. If you say nothing at all, well, no one will ever know what you're thinking. For a chatterbox like me, the choice is simple.

All the classes are taught entirely in Chinese. (I never cease to be amazed how I can understand and follow 95% of what the teachers are saying, but be completely baffled as soon as I have an encounter with an actual, out-of-classroom Chinese. Or, well, the listening class CD.) This has both good and bad sides. The main con is that the teachers will often ask questions that I know the answer to, but my Chinese just isn't good enough to express it yet. Becoming actively involved in class can be difficult when you're simply missing communicative ability. But, of course, the positive aspect of being totally immersed in Mandarin greatly outweighs this nuisance. It also gives you a goal to work towards. So on we soldier. 加油!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Suzhou story

I mentioned that during Golden Week I made a day trip to Suzhou with some other Swedes I met at Starbucks. Here's the payout: a picture-heavy post.

Train station packed with Golden Week traffic

First we visited this Buddhist temple, and climbed all the way to the top. Much taller and steeper than it looked from the outside...

Suzhou is famous for being built on canals.

Then there are the quaint streets and shops. Very touristy, geared mostly at Chinese tourists (featuring popular delicacies such as chicken feet), so we agreed we wouldn't really want to go back. Worth a day's look, though!


an interesting offer
Also found a cat café! Pretty much all of the cats were asleep, but I can cross another item off my bucket list. I would like to visit one with more sociable cats, though, and I've heard rumors of one in Shanghai's Tianzifang...

Monday, October 13, 2014

I get to stay!

So after much ado, I finally got my residence permit!!

This little sticker is my key not only for living in China, but also for traveling in and out as much as I want to. I don't know if that will be often, but I've actually booked a trip already...

That's the good news. The bad news is that my cold has gotten worse, with the added bonus of pinkeye. This did, however, let me locate the school hospital and manage an entire doctor's appointment in Chinese. We only had to use a phone to translate two words ("allergy" and "conjunctivitis" so who can blame me). Suddenly those boring textbook passages don't seem as pointless anymore.

Friday, October 10, 2014

What's been up

I haven't been around in realtime for a while, and of course everyone is dying to know exactly what has been going on, down to what I've been having for breakfast.

The past week was a holiday, courtesy of the Chinese National Day. Hence Sunday school last week, and Saturday school this week, because nothing comes for free. Because so many people are off during this holiday, touristy locations are absolutely packed, making travel pretty pointless unless you're really cool with sharing your space. Along with a lot of others, I stayed in Shanghai for the duration of the week, exempting one day trip to the nearby city of Suzhou. More pictures will come in another post!

I have also gone swimming, for which I had to buy a Chinese swimsuit. Made the mistake of trusting the lady who said the cute cherry-patterned one would fit me, only to realize later that the chest is about 3 sizes too small. It was a fight against gravity, hard-won.

The Shanghai swimming pool was an experience in itself. To get in, you first have to sign a form confirming that you do not suffer from an array of ailments, including diarrhea, AIDS, and hemorrhaging conjunctivitis. In the pool, you are required to wear a cap to avoid getting hair in the water. There were about 6 lifeguards on duty at once. The sign marking the deep end of the pool was charmingly translated as "profundity zone." A perfect example of what China is like: the same, but always different.

Briefly visited Xintiandi, and an exhibit about the Communist Party of China, where a Chinese guy in a knockoff t-shirt sporting the Republican elephant and the word "EVERYONE" was seen having his picture taken in front of a patriotic Chinese display. A guy in our group found this so hilarious that he chased the pseudo-Republican down and made him pose for another picture.


The exhibit itself was, of course, extremely biased. But it made me wonder how biased the information in textbooks and museums in the West really is. My guess is: probably not as much as here, but a hell of a lot. Source criticism and awareness, guys.

I've also been exploring some of the restaurants available in the area and appreciating the amazing joy of late opening hours. I can come home from school, nap all afternoon, and when I wake up around six or seven I can cruise down to the malls and window shop until after 9 PM. Being able to hang out in the bookstore pretty much around the clock is a privilege everyone should have.

Finally, and most disappointingly, I've gotten sick. I am now juggling classes with a cough and a bit of headachiness. Today I bought myself a rescue kit in the shape of chamomile tea, honey, and an herbal Chinese cough syrup recommended by a friend. We'll see how well it works, but the first verdict is that it's extremely delicious and I could probably just drink it straight out of the bottle if I didn't know better.

11:00 AM - 1 comment

Crouching Blogger, Hidden Facebook: Using a VPN

Internet censorship is one of the first things foreigners going to China start worrying about. As most people know, a lot of our most commonly used websites are blocked, including Facebook, YouTube, and various Google platforms. The way to get around this is called VPN (Virtual Private Network).

I am (regrettably) not a tech-head, so I'm not going to explain the hows and whats of VPN, simply because I don't know. But as of recently, I have experience as a user, which I will share here. So, if you've been wondering how to internet from China, I tell everything I know in true-to-goodness clueless layman's terms under the cut. Don't Trust Anything I Say.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Beijing To-Do: Hit the Stage

This is the last post about my trip to Beijing!

You know the Great Wall and the Forbidden City already, but what else is there to do in Beijing? Well…

Through London musicals and theater-student friends, I’ve recently discovered how much fun it is to go see a real on-stage performance. It feels more genuine than a movie, since the performance is happening live, right in front of you. In Beijing, we went to see two stage performances that were both well worth the money.

First, the incredible acrobatics show at Chaoyang Theatre is absolutely necessary for anybody visiting Beijing. Think people flying through the air, 12 girls 1 bike, and some crazy shit with motorcycles, and you’re getting there. If you book tickets in advance by emailing the theatre, you get a lovely discount of 150 yuan, making good seats quite affordable.

i wasn't kidding. from

Then, we went to Chang’an Grand Theatre to watch an opera. The show for the evening wasn’t a traditional Beijing opera, but a modern piece from Henan province. This might have been lucky for us, since Beijing opera is notorious for being hard on foreign ears. Anyway, even though we couldn’t understand much of what they were saying, the costumes, singing, and incredible live orchestra music made this worth our while.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Any serious learner of Chinese needs to download Pleco. Sure it's named after a sucker fish, but you're the only sucker if you don't have it already.

I was getting by with another dictionary app (i.e., being a sucker) until a friend tipped me off to this one, and it definitely is the bee’s knees. I've been using Pleco for about a year, and it has yet to disappoint.

Besides having clear but thorough definitions, usually with examples, Pleco’s interface is smooth, minimalistic and easy to use. There are a number of customizable options so that you can decide for yourself how much, and how detailed, information you want to see. It has all kinds of words, too: how about "克苏鲁 (Kèsūlǔ) = Cthulhu, fictional cosmic entity created by writer H. P. Lovecraft"?

Pleco also isn’t idiotic; if you type in a string of characters, the app will split it into different words on its own, rather than telling you that you’ve fed it something garbled it can’t decipher.

Best of all, though, is the handwriting function. You can draw any character with your fingertip and the app will bring up suggestions. This is invaluable for a language with no phonetic alphabet. I got through the entire first volume of Sailor Moon in Mandarin with Pleco by my side.

Oh, and did I mention this is just the free version?

Pleco is available for Android and iOS!