Consummate dilettantism!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Simplified Characters Are Barbaric

The more one studies Chinese, the more one realizes that the introduction of simplified characters in mainland China was a mistake, an abject and utter mistake. I have come to conclude that there are absolutely no logical arguments that can be made in favor of the system. Its biggest practical flaw? It wrecks written intelligibility across time and space. Your average mainlander has quite a bit of difficulty in reading books using traditional characters, which are still found in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas communities. Time? Yes; when Chinese people can’t go to a gravesite and read the inscription, your system is quite clearly fucked up. Next up? The Chinese government, in the pursuit of increased writing speed and ease of learning, simply lopped off parts of characters, threw around radicals, merged various pieces, etc*. What does this mean? Only that it is now more difficult to tell what a character sounds like or means from the character itself. Consider the traditional character 廣. Its phonetic component, 黃, sounds like the word it’s a part of, and the radical, 广, gives you a clue as to its meaning. But the simplified version (广) simply has no phonetic component, leading to possible confusion with the character 廠, simplified 厂. Other simplified characters remove or change radicals, accordingly altering the ancient meaning; 買, meaning “to buy,” has as its radical the cowry shell (the pictographic 貝), providing an interesting insight into Chinese civilization through characters. The simplified? 买, whose radical is 乙, the second heavenly stem. Yeah, certainly more insight there. Or scare, 驚, whose radical “horse” has been replaced in the simplified with the less interesting “heart.” (To say nothing of the simplified characters that have replaced multiple traditional characters, a wrench in the cog of automatic computer translation.) To be sure, many of these forms have been in use for ages, but the key here is that they have never been considered formal. It would be as though, in the interest of improving writing speed and literacy, the American government promoted “kthxbye” in place of “okay [itself a simplification of, by some accounts, “all correct”], thank you, goodbye [itself also a simplification, here of “God be with you”].” This would certainly improve speed and at-a-glance learnability, but ability to recall? Ability to peer into the lives of the ancients**? Ability to understand? Certainly not. (This is a zero-sum game, as I have heard it called; the more you eliminate “redundant” barriers to memorization [and thus improve writing speed], the more you make the written language ambiguous and harder to read.) I do not object to their use to speed up writing and to abbreviate, but to replace the formal equivalents? Aesthetically and pedagogically troublesome in the extreme. Why formalize the abbreviations? They are designed to speed up writing, and are not to be used to educate children; first the complex (accurate) forms must be learned, and only then can the shortcuts be taken. You can’t just go straight to the shortcuts, skipping right over the understanding; you must know the rules before you can break them, as the proverb goes. So all the government has done is to add to the burden of the Chinese student and the Chinese themselves.

And the saddest of all is that when people study the characters, what they’re studying is often some bureaucrat’s idea of what meaning should be. It thus becomes more difficult to acquire a proper understanding of Chinese character components, and it’s so frustrating to see people who’ve studied Chinese for months or years and still can’t figure out the way Chinese characters are formed (yes: the natural forms, despite or rather because of their complexity, followed real, easily perceptible rules).

So why promote simplified characters? Becoming proficient in both is rather difficult, but knowledge of both is absolutely necessary to have a serious understanding of Chinese culture. This fucks with the foreign student who wants to study Chinese, for he has to study both. As for writing speed, the only possible advantage, it is fitting here to emphasize again that yes, many of the simplified versions were already widely used before the government stepped in, meaning that the only speed advantage is in formal writing, now mostly done on the computer and therefore negated (in mainland China, characters are typically entered into the computer by the way they sound, not the way they look).

Of course, the real reason is that power-hungry maniacs, who otherwise lack the merit to be remembered after they die, seek to imprint their insignia onto whatever they can get their hands (or pens) on. Thus simplified characters.

*Now, this isn’t quite fair, because they apparently did follow some systems, but so haphazardly as to be completely ridiculous. You can’t figure out the rules by studying the characters.
**If you doubt how interesting this can be, consider 好 [good] and 姓 [family name]. The first combines the words “woman” and “child,” the second “woman” and “born.” Good is a woman and her baby, last name is woman and giving birth. Possible evidence of matrilineal naming in ancient Chinese society? I don’t know, but it’s fun to think about!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Look, don't hate me, but I want generic American Chinese food. Help me!

Shannon V. says:
Yeah yeah yeah authentic is good OBVIOUSLY but lately I have been craving middle-america food court, americanized, generic chinese food. i can't help it! it's the nostalgia factor! I'm talking like one-note but tasty thick chow mein, crispy mandarin chicken, etc. I live in the nob, so i have had plenty of chinese food in chinatown, but now i want old school. well, my old school. help!!
Tsada K. follows up with:
What I miss is New York Jewish Chinese food.

This means:

Lo Mein
Fat Muthafuckin Eggrolls (filled with sawdust and floor sweepings)
Chow Mein (the kind that is just snot, bean sprouts, celery, and shrimp, with the fried bucket of crackery noodles on the side)
And then:
I'm pretty sure you can't even get that in New York anymore.
Maybe in Great Neck.
Yes, Tsada K., in fact, you can get exactly this kind of food in Great Neck. Yum. Talk about old school, though. Straight out of the 1970s.

Plus, it'll probably be kosher.

"Indescribably Thrilling" Is A Description

Is not the act of describing something as "indescribably thrilling" an act of description?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

I Love You, Digg

From Digg:
A friend of mine gave me this advice once :

"If you pic the ugly ones, they'll do what ever you want and you can treat them as bad as you want because their too scared to lose you, she cant do better. You can giver it to her anally and she'll still suck you clean, begging for more."

His exact words, and he's one of the happiest guys I know.
Is this related?

The Beggars Of Beijing

The beggars of Beijing are so famous only because everyone who visits goes to the same places, all filled with beggars, of course, many of whom hawk the same (I mean identical) wares and tell the same stories. I saw one lady with a gruesomely disfigured child, evidently seeking monetary sympathy -- I was kind of surprised at first, but I've come to realize that this is a common tactic. In places like Tiananmen, which really isn’t so great, you can’t walk five paces without being accosted by vendors and “art students” and every variety of salesman. This is no Beijing to experience. My advice: if you plan to visit, don’t spend too much time at Tiananmen or Wudaokou or Sanlitun. (The Great Wall is, however, one site you must visit, regardless of, as they call themselves, the 這裏的農民 [local peasants], who sell overpriced drinks*. Walk around, try the street food, and buy stuff in the market – you'll have a blast, as the non-touristy areas are actually, at least in my opinion, more exciting than the touristy ones.

A note of caution: in these places, practically no one will speak English. You should learn at least the number terms and characters to get the most out of them.

*It is very fun to bargain with them. After I complained to one about the price, she noted, rather fairly in my estimation, that she had come this far down the wall to provide foreigners with water, and wasn’t going to sell for less than 十五塊 (15 yuan, a little over two U.S. dollars, a ridiculous price for a bottle of water in China). I eventually got something for 7 yuan from another vendor, still around four or five times the average cost of a small bottle of water.

Forgetting America

A little Chinese boy was talking with his mom on the subway. He asked her why we weren't speaking English (in Chinese), and a little while later he asked me in his own (clear) English, with the cutest accent, "where do you come from?" I returned a broken "America"; a second later I realized the word sounded so unfamiliar. America? Did I mean 美國? I dunno; I ran it through my head again. "America". How odd.

I don't know -- which is it?

Also, did some more bargaining today; I'm getting pretty good at this. Breaking out the Chinese and watching their jaws drop is indescribably thrilling.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"buying food in a cafeteria"

China’s English T-shirts are nuts. Today I saw a woman wearing one that said “buying food in a cafeteria”, with the “i”s hearted, of course. (I want this one, actually; kinda cool in a super*-ironic way. What made it even cooler was that she actually was buying food in a cafeteria, though I doubt she put it on just for that purpose.) It’s as though throwing English on T-shirts automatically makes them cool, regardless of how meaningful the English actually is. (The Western equivalent is this.)

And I keep seeing this one T-shirt that has “British culture”, “Enquired”, and “Ask” emblazoned on a British flag, as though the cultural characteristic the British rally around most is an extremely minor and completely insignificant spelling variation (“enquire” is the more British cousin of “inquire” -- maybe the shirts are referring to an even more obscure usage distinction, but that's even more ridiculous). In fact, I doubt most Americans get this one, or even if most British do.

*This has got to be, like, super^3. I mean, this is mad super.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Yogurt In China

Yogurt and yogurt drinks are very popular in China, and I'm not quite sure why, especially since it is rare to see dairy products in dishes or milk for sale. Asia Times says the reason is "consumers' increasing preoccupation with personal health", but I suspect there is another: this stuff is just really, really tasty. And cheap. Cheap and tasty. Like everything else here. I love you, China.

Bargaining At Yashow Clothing Market

I went with a Chinese friend (who is not a native speaker of Chinese and is at my level in the program) to the Sanlitun Yashow Clothing Market to buy stuff. Well, at first we hadn't really intended to buy anything, but the place soon won us over with its astonishing selection of items. There were four floors: the first and the second seemed to have mostly clothing, which we weren't really too interested in, but the third had these awesome Chinese knickknacks, and we soon relented, whipping out our cash-flushed American wallets. But of course, as the place is packed with foreigners of all kinds (mostly continental Europeans and Africans; I didn't spot any other native English speakers), the asking prices are very high, so we had to engage in China's national pastime: bargaining.

At the first stand we visited, the shopkeeper was already engaged with a man whose English was decent and who could speak a little Chinese (from his accent, I guessed he was Israeli), so we had time to browse the wares unmolested. There were jade objects, huge swords, opium pipes, etc; presumably they were mostly fake, but they were awfully beautiful and high-quality. I broke out my Chinese, and I was delighted to receive compliments from both the shopkeeper and the Israeli -- how I have improved in a month! My friend wanted a jade buddha, I wanted a lovely wooden dragon pipe, and we managed (using exclusively Chinese) to halve the asking prices. (Protip: Saying you're a poor student, you only have 90 kuai, and you need at least 10 kuai for the cab ride home works wonders.)

At the next stand, after receiving more extremely generous compliments (and no doubt genuine; the shopkeepers were very friendly and candidly joked with us about their prices and what we could afford), the two of us whittled down the price for these two huge statues that my friend wanted to give to his mother. Here there were more swords, and also a pair of awesome spiked gloves with metal nails -- oh, China...

Chinese And The Great Wall

(Posted here too.)

On being a foreigner in China:

The Chinese still are not especially accustomed to the presence of foreigners. Or they are, but if they are, there is an odd sort of dissonance that you begin to notice – on the one hand, they are extraordinarily genial when engaged in conversation*, even if your Chinese is not so great, but on the other, they will often take a second glance at you on the street, chuckle, and nudge their friends. Sometimes, you feel completely and utterly Chinese, in lockstep with everyone around you, but sometimes you feel a little off. (But then again, I’m sure it's partially contingent on where you are and whom you are with.)

*I love talking with Chinese people. My Chinese is good enough that I can initiate small talk and sustain it, but not good enough that I can withhold opportunities for smiles from native speakers. Fortunately, they’re usually smiling at the novelty of the experience, not at the mistakes I make; all in good taste. And most of the time, at least where I live, you’re treated as any other Chinese would be in your situation, which is a really refreshing sort of immersion – it’s very nice.

Of course, I love this country.

Great Wall:

The Great Wall is magnificent. It stretches on for miles and miles, vanishing into the misty distance. To think – a gigantic, indefatigably long wall in the middle of nowhere, with seemingly no purpose. It makes you wonder. The farther sections from the start are in disrepair and are somewhat dangerous; I almost lost my balance once or twice. But it was worth it. The Great Wall of China is a magnificent structure, and it is something you must visit while in China. You can disregard the other tourist attractions entirely for the sake of this one. (It was quite exhausting, though, and I nearly vomited at one point.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Not Quite, Actually

Unless you’ve got money to burn, paying 99¢ or more per tune can add up."

Whether or not you've got money to burn, 99¢/song "adds up", the only difference being in how you perceive it.

Also, spending "$3 or $4 for coffee—over and over, day after day" is nothing but a brutally callous and disgustingly flagrant waste of money, and it's a fucking shame we tolerate it at all, or even consider it within the realm of normal behavior. You're addicted to caffeine? Fine -- get that shit pure, like the slimy drug-addled crack baby you are. Or if you like the taste, take it straight -- real straight.

Drinking In China, Again

Drinking beer? Openly? On the street?! With no paper bag?! No guilt, paranoid glances?! Gasp! Think of the children!

At least there's one country that treats me like an adult. Even communist China begrudges me the simple pleasure of relaxing with a cold bottle of beer (few drinks in China come cold, so here cold beer is an especially lovely treat), so why the fuck doesn't the U.S.?

(Of course, in China, the internet is not free. No, not like that.)

Black Coffee Makes You Cool, Right?

You think you're a badass 'cuz you get your coffee "black"? Try putting 1.8 grams of instant coffee mix on your tongue and swallowing with a gulp of water. Yeah, that's what I thought. Sure does work, though...

Sunlight Is The Best Disinfectant?

No, it's not. You try leaving meat out in the sun. It attracts flies, of course.

Pure ethanol works much better.

Heh. I'll be here all night, folks.

Homosexuality and Male Superiority

If you think that homosexuality is morally justified by the widespread existence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom, you should also think that male domination of women is justified by natural mammalian male social and political superiority. The idea that the "male power structure" among humans is somehow socially constructed is dealt a death blow by the same argument that animates discussions of the immutability of homosexuality. (In fact, having watched my fair share of BBC documentaries, I can tell you homosexuality is far less common in the wild than male domination, despite the fact that this piss-poor Wikipedia article has been cleansed of the term "alpha male" and remains pitifully undeveloped. Compare it with Wikipedia's extensive and well-documented article on homosexuality in animals, and you have a pretty clear example of bias.) The answer is that the existence of homosexuality and male superiority among animals means only one thing: the eradication of these behaviors among present-day humans is impossible. But morally speaking, these facts are simply not relevant.

Well, not if your morals are to follow nature. And even if they are to maximize happiness, it's possible that many women are equally happy under male "domination" as under liberation (see here). I think the best case can be made for the following proposition: Women should be free to select for themselves family life or working life, because though most women probably find the former more fulfilling (in the absence of truly societally constructed "feminist" opinions, that is), many do not, and they should have the opportunity to compete as men can. Women should not be subjected to societal pressure to choose either path.

The same applies equally to homosexuality.

China Is Fast

(For those of you who haven't figured it out yet, I'm currently living in Beijing, China. I will be here for at least a year. I'm sorry I haven't been able to write much of anything lately; Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, and often Google are blocked here.)

(This is also posted here.)

It’s a little hard to describe the overwhelming speed and efficiency of this country. I’ve been here for a mere three weeks, and I’ve already come to realize that much of the culture shock – which exists, make no mistake – has to do with the simplicity and timeliness you encounter in daily interactions. Your building’s janitor will fix your room’s problem not only in less than five minutes, but more importantly, within five minutes of when you hail him. The cafeteria lady will serve your food and have the price on the screen almost before you order. And your teachers will have your homework, tests, and other assignments graded and corrected before you leave class. There is none of this indulgent nonsense we put up with in the United States – women doing hard manual labor? Under a week to get your room fixed? Goods served quickly? Shocking, really.

(Nor is this an observation restricted to the Chinese in this country. I have noticed similar tendencies in overseas Chinese in the United States, especially among University of Chicago Chinese teachers, who have the habit of grading all the assignments of everyone in the class in one night and returning them all the following day.)

Walking and bicycling* are things the Chinese love to do, and they can because most places are well within walking distance. (“Walkable communities” is a novel idea in the United States, but in China it is fulfilled. Down with zoning laws!) Everything is extremely convenient; I think because of the incredible density**, the Chinese are forced to maximize efficiency, and it shows. There is no "fast food" in China, because every restaurant beats McDonald's when it comes to speed. The Chinese can't afford to wait. There is no time to be lazy.

*This includes things like three-wheeled motorized pickup scooters, odd contraptions the Chinese seem to be fond of. I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.
**On some nights, every inch of Beijing is packed with men, women, and children. It’s striking, because even in New York (to say nothing of Chicago), once you leave Times Square, everything gets dark and deserted. How odd it is to see little kids playing in a public square at ten o’clock.

A Couplet

The throes of ecstasy in which conceived,
Unto me grant a rather long reprieve.