10 June 2009

bye, bye Taiwan; welcome new, enlightened life;

After I came to Taiwan, I had many strong impressions and wrote a lot about them in my blog. After about half the time, I started to see more details of Taiwanese life, and it became harder to draw simple conclusions. Also my language class changed the teacher, I was much impressed with the new one, and struggling between doing Chinese homework or working on my thesis -- with the result of not getting much done of either.

My blogging stalled for a while because I couldn't make any easy theories about Taiwan and the Chinese culture any more. I found out that many of the simplistic things that I had written before are actually not so true, but the actual more situation just eludes my ability to describe in written form. I think that's why most books and especially blogs will always only carry a one-sided view of another country and another culture -- the true truth is too hard to express. It is best not to make generalizations. But then we are left with an overwhelming pile of details.

I did not want my lack of understanding to prevent the written preservation of my adventures, so I started to write a diary instead of posting to this blog. I started a paper diary and an text file on my computer. Both of which I am still continuing to write today.

Already in the last days of my stay, I have made notes for a concluding post to this blog and now I resolved to write it.

The true religion for Chinese people is their own five thousand year long history. I think you could convince any Chinese of anything if you managed to make a good argument using a historical example and quotation.

My first day back in our grad student lab, one other student asked me the very smart question: "So what is your conclusion after having gone to Taiwan?" Although I had thought about the same question since the last weeks of my stay in Taiwan, I was surprised by her directness and how she got directly down to the matter. Puzzled, the reply I said was: "There are people who are very poor and who have to work very hard and still they are happy. So I should be happy, too."

In retrospective, this was a good reply and one of the main things I think really matter. The other main things are:
  • My current purpose in life is to do research (and a little teaching) and to advance myself I have to face the challenge of turning my ideas (which look so great in a presentation) into something tangible and something publishable.
  • According to the motto "Be the change that you want to see in the world." I shall try to incorporate into my life, the things which I like best about Taiwan. Two of those things are friendships and Taiwan's famous food. I have thus resolved to cook more for myself, especially try out new, different vegetables (which I think make up an important part of Taiwanese food's greatness).
  • Replicating the Taiwanese attitude to social relationships is harder, if only because it's so intertwined with life, situations and personalities of people that I can't even describe it. But one thing that stands out is how often I have traveled in stayed over night in friend's apartments even those places were very small and the friends were sometimes not very close. I find that it is much preferable to sleep on a carpet or to share a large bed than to stay in an hotel. Cultural immersion. I want to offer the same opportunity for other people, too!
  • Chinese people often react very enthusiastic when they notice that I speak a little Chinese. They feel good to see that a foreigner actually makes a real effort to learn their language. After coming back to Toronto, I have had a similar feeling whenever one of my fellow grad students spoke German to me. It is also a conclusion of my stay, that I will continue language exchanges with people to teach my language and to learn theirs. Language exchanges are not just a way to broaden your own horizon without spending money, helping somebody else to do the same, it is also a grass-roots way to promote the understand between different cultures thus to help accomplish one the goals of my religion: "to end all wars, forever". (After all, wars are always plotted by those in power who are tricking the common people to see others as their enemy. In a society where all are too smart to be tricked, there is no more place for war to spin his evil plots.)

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many pass one way, a road is made. -- Lu Xun 鲁迅

As well, as providing me with a bunch of surprising insights, my Taiwanese adventure has also left me with more new questions than it has answered:
  • Do I have talent for languages? Will I ever go back to Taiwan or China (except for visiting friends)? What use if any will my Chinese language have for me (and the world)? Will I ever elaborate and publish my invention of a new Chinese writing system?
  • Both Taiwan and China are changing fast. What is the constant focal point amidst all that change? In some respects where they were far behind Western Civilization they have already caught up and even passed other developed countries. For one thing, Beijing's fight for clean air has passed the more developed Taipei by a huge margin! Can anybody predict where the voyage of those countries is going to go? Will China be peaceful and democratic one day? (Given how flawful Western democracies are, it is not hard to imagine that a newcomer to democracy will even surpass them.) One thing, I am sure of is that I will always keep in touch with my Chinese friend in Beijing and I also think that the situation in China will never be as bad as to force her to leave. So I'll have at least a foot in the door for eternity.
  • Do I love the Chinese so much because there is a little bit of Chinese in myself? Is there a little bit of Chinese in everybody? Or is it just because Chinese are so different, yet so alike, and living there helps me to break free from my own cultural corset?
  • Who am I? Where do I belong? Will I be able to contribute to society by –in Chunming's words– "living a happy life and being a good person"?
There's no place where I can be, since I found serenity.

18 May 2009

How to translate your name to Chinese? --or-- How to pick a Chinese name for yourself?

Say you are learning Chinese or visiting China (or Taiwan or any other place where Chinese is spoken). Why would you want to have a Chinese name in the first place?
  • First, because in speaking Chinese, the language flows much easier when it is not interrupted by foreign-language names. Even if you only learn very few traveler's phrases, it will be easier to say them when there a all-Chinese and not interrupted by a foreign-language name: Wô jiào Xiàofeng, ni3 ne?
  • Second, I don't like things pronounced wrong and it is easier for me to learn how to pronounce my Chinese name, then to teach everybody how to pronounce my foreign-language name. Besides I am guest in the country and it's better I adapt then ask people to adapt. (Now I know some people don't care about wrong pronunciations and will come to the habit to see their wrongly-pronounced foreign-language name as some kind of Chinese name. I think that's exactly how pidgin-languages are formed. But I don't like pidgins. I think we can make an effort to speak two languages properly! And I am willing to do my part of it.)
  • Third, having a Chinese name makes it possible for Chinese people to read it from the written form, and instantly recognize the spoken form as a name. (Of course, the name must be recognizable as a name and not something entirely made-up.)
So, now how do you pick a name? Here are some ground rules:

First, choose the name from a set of existing names, so that people will recognise it as a name and not think of something else. It is possible to make up a new name (that is, one not in common use in the Chinese language yet), but this requires excellent language skills and talent to a level that even many native speakers don't have.

Second, when you have found a name, make sure you ask some friends about it, to check what connotations it has. Some very old names might not be thought of as names any more and rather be allusions to some historic concepts and event. You might be lucky and pick a name that signifies historic beauty and bravery (maybe at the expense of sounding fulsome and corny), but you might also have picked a name that stands for historic treason (such as 吳三桂), which is really unacceptable (or at least ridiculously strange).
Furthermore, your potential name might be shared by a contemporary public figure, which can play in your favor if it is a well-liked person or somebody, but it also can badly backfire if the name is shared by a famously corrupt politician or an actress know for sleeping her way up. You can easily avoid this embarrassment by asking a few Chinese people first. But ask people from the place you are going to, since Chinese from another place might not know the local celebrities. (For example, overseas-Chinese share a common history, but often don't share the common affairs with the mainlanders.)
Finally, asking for name feedback will help avoid having a name that is really a good name by itself but whose pronunciation is the same as some other thing that you really don't want to be associated with. This is especially important since your pronunciation might be a "little bit wrong" or ambiguous. If there is a word with very similar pronunciation you at least want to be aware of it and take care to pronounce your name so it clearly does not sound like that thing.

Third, and last, ground rule, it never hurts to ask your Chinese teacher or any other well-educated person about a name that you have in mind. People who are professionals in language (or at least very interested in language and culture) often have some additional information about names and their meaning. For example, only a few people knew of the Kung-Fu relation of my name and only one person actually knew the author of the famous Kung-Fu novels which use the name.

So, after reading those basic rules you wonder where to get a name from in the first place. Here are the possibilities:
  • Transliterate your name.
  • Translate the meaning of your name.
  • Pick a name from a list that sounds nice.
  • Pick a name from a celebrity or historical person or fictional person which you like or revere.
  • Pick a name which in some way describes you.
  • Just ask a friend whom you like to give you a name.

Now, here's what the means in detail:
Transliterate your name. This means you simply pick some Chinese characters that are pronounced similar to your foreign-language name. Usually anybody who can write Chinese can do this for you, but the better educated they are the more likely it is they will choose characters with fitting (and positive!) connotation. This transliteration might end up with a name that is also a proper Chinese first name, or it might end up with a character combination that is not used as such. Then people seeing will usually deduce that it is some kind of transliterated foreign name.
Furthermore there are some foreign names, especially English names and those of foreign public or historic figures who have already been transliterated and for which one transliteration has become standard. A typical example is the name David, whose standard Chinese form is 大卫/大衛 (simplified/tranditional). Other typical examples are the first names of American presidents and famous actors. If, for example, you pick the standard translation of George (乔治), the Chinese will link you to George Bush and George Clooney. If on the other hand, you don't want to be linked to those people, you can intentionally choose a non-standard transliteration which gives you a different Chinese name that it still linked to your name, George.

Translate the meaning of your name. This is a very interesting way, because most Westeners don't think of their names as having meaning or at least not as much as Chinese names have.
But what is the meaning of a name? It can be the name's origin, it can be it's connotations. Many Western names are of biblical origin or go back to some king or queen. Others originally were descriptive of desired qualities -- just as Chinese names are! It is certainly worth looking up the etymology of your name to provide you with input for your name choosing. Once you know about your own name, you can ask Chinese people for Chinese names of similar meanings or origin.

Picking a name from a list. I think you should at least be familiar with some common, popular names to get a feeling for their sound and structure. A simple list with popular names is easy to find (TODO: where did I bookmark that link... can anybody help?) If the list contains notes about the name connotations even better. But once you know a little Chinese, you can also look up the characters in a dictionary.

Picking a name that describes you. There are countless of names that allude to beauty, filial piety, studiousness and all the other traditional Chinese virtues. A friend of mine is 静 (meaning: "calm") and she really is a quite girl (now a woman). It will be harder to find a name that represents a Western virtue such as "confidence" -- boo!, we Chinese want "modesty"! If you want to pick a name for yourself rather look out for which Chinese virtues you represent (or revere) and pick reflecting those. It will be a more natural Chinese name than translating Western concepts which do not exist in China.

Picking a name that sounds well.
Obviously you need to pronounce it correctly. If you don't know much Chinese, best thing is to have it read by a friend. Also make sure that you pronounce your name well. If it is too difficult too pronounce for you, rather pick something different!

All of these sources can be used together. In fact, you will want to have a name that sounds well and has a nice, fitting meaning.

Finally I shall say where my own Chinese name comes from. My Chinese family name in traditional characters is 衛 (the simplified is plainly 卫) and it is a transliteration. The character 衛/卫 is often used for transliteration. It is also used as a family name in China. So it is easy to recognize as a name and still links to my family well.
My first name is 啸风 which I picked from a Chinese pirate character in one of my favorite movies. The individual characters have nice, powerful meanings (风 means wind, 啸 is used to write several different words, one of them being Tsunami) and the name itself is also used in some Kungfu novels. This name expresses my energy to stir things up and also my love for the sea.
Before I went to Taiwan and when I didn't know much Chinese I used the names 小虎 (from a Kungfu movie made by my favorite director) and, later, 小猴. The latter refers to my birth year, which is a year of the monkey. It also portrays me as me being a cute little guy. I don't like that so much any more, but would accept being called so by very close friends (and my lover).
Finally, there is one transliteration of my Western first name which I like a lot: 萝卜, which means Raddish. I like this because I like to eat 萝卜糕. It's also fun because it can be combined with the imaginary family name 白 to yield 白萝卜 which is even more precisely a vegetable: White Raddish (Daikon or Japanese Raddish in English).

As you can see, names can be a lot of fun. A way to define and extend your identity. Don't waste the opportunity to get a little closer to the Chinese culture. Pick a Chinese name for yourself!

12 March 2009

war in China

From a recent article in the English section of the Taipei Times:
The Pentagon said in a statement: “On March 8, 2009, five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters.”
Highlighting mine. This sound to me just like what I've heard about Mainland Chinese people's driving behavior!

After have read so much about China, I will finally go visit the Mainland a couple days from now. Stay tuned for first-hand reports!

PS: I don't think that I will go sailing, but I wouldn't miss out on an opportunity if it would present itself. :-)

PPS: On China's military expansion rhetoric:
“They claim Taiwan, obviously. They claim the Senkaku Islands, which are between Taiwan and Japan. Japan also has sovereignty over those at the moment. They claim the Paracels, which Vietnam claims. They claim the Spratlys, which Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia claim.”
“They claim lost territories basically wherever you can find a piece of Chinese porcelain from 500 years ago,” [Democratic Senator Jim] Webb said.

10 March 2009

a method to divide and conquer Chinese characters

Writing this other lengthy post helped me to sort out my thoughts on Chinese characters and increase my understanding. Shortly after, I had a mental break-through: as many characters are composed of other characters it seems that two different methods of learning are necessary: one method to memorize the shape of a non-composed (atomic) character; and another wholly different method to memorize which parts make up a composed character. Some of the recurring parts of characters are not characters themselves and they make learning harder, because you have to learn the part while also learning the composition. The key insight is to factor out those parts, give them invented names and memorize them seperatly!

This idea revolutionized my learning of the Chinese script. While the thousands of characters still remain arbitrary, there is at least an optimal, non mind-numbing method to memorize them. Don't look for a deeper meaning; just decompose and memorize along the actual shape of the character. Realizing this and using it in practice I also realized how uneffective the "etymological method" of teaching the characters is: first of all, you learn sometimes have to learn components of a character that used to be components in earlier forms, but are not any more represented in the current form. This way, you first learn a wrong character and then add the correct, modern version without any further story to memorize the modern component. You only know that it is somewhat similar and simpler than the original one, but that's not precise enough to memorize it. It is especially ridiculous when comparing it to the length and elaboration of the story explaining the old, now wrong version of the character. Furthermore, the etymylogical approach does not help to memorize small differences between characters which are very similar by appearance, but have a completely different ethymology. I already complained how this approach makes it hard to locate a character in a dictionary. It's a trial and error process that's completely unnecessary: character lookup should be based on shape alone, since that's all that the user has when he needs this function at most!

Right when I had this insight to split my learning into memorizing of basic shapes and memorizing of of compositions, I thought that I should turn my notes into an interactive website just like zhongwen.com. Using Unicode it is technically trivial now to display characters on the web and typing them up on a website with links is not much harder then typing them into a notes file as I currently do it.

I had already started to plan the design of such a website when I thought that my idea being so obviously great, somebody might have had the same idea already. And indeed! No long websearch was necessary to reveal the wonderful book Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters I bought it, and I really like it. This book takes the only reasonable approach: no matter how insane and complex the Characters are, just look at what's being given --the character shape-- and memorize it using the most efficient approach. If I should ever seriously try to learn the Chinese script, I will do it using this book. And I will use the same method for learning characters which are not in the book -- using zhongwen.com and other sources to research the character components.

05 March 2009

Taiwanese encounters

Unexpected rain led to three unconventional encounters. Here comes the summary.
一。I was packing up Bunny to take the MRT when suddenly somebody held the bike for me, so that I could easily wrap it up. I since I was bent down to hold I bag, I couldn't even see who was helping me. When we were done, the young man started a conversation with me (the typical where are you from... how long are you staying...) and after the most typical things were said he offered me to exchange contact information, so I can call him when I need any other help in Taiwan. He said that he might go to Germany at some point and would like to know somebody there. So this somebody would be me. He told me that he just graduated from school and wants to try to work in several foreign countries. He was really very nice and so we exchanged addresses.
二。In the MRT the train windows were steamed from inside since the rain cooled the outside down. A girl was drawing Tictactoe on the window. I drew a grid next to hers and we played a game. Of course it was a draw. After a short pause, I decided to start a conversation like Taiwanese do and asked "How old are you?". We had a short conversation and she couldn't guess where I was from. Unfortunately she got off at the next stop. Sometimes it is so interesting to talk to people, but unfortunately not many people offer such a nice ice-breaker as Tictactoe.
三。Off the MRT it was still raining a lot. I saw a man waiting at the MRT exit, waiting for the rain to subside I thought. What hope did he have that it will end soon? I asked myself. Maybe if he is waiting I should wait to. In great conversation mood I greeted him and asked: "Where do you have to go?" and another nice conversation followed. He told me many things of which I understood some. He said that he expected the rain to lessen in half an hour (but now, 90 minutes later, it still seems to be raining). After twenty minutes I decided to go and brave the rain and he parted, too.

I never had so much smalltalk with strangers on any day in my life before. But here in Taiwan it's really interesting. People are not the same as home and it's a way to get to know them. When I am waiting somewhere where other people are, I am always debating with myself to start a conversation or not. At home (be it Germany, France, or Canada) I usually don't do this kind of smalltalk and I am usually happy that way. Here it's different...

28 February 2009





昨天夜晚我看了大陆电影。他的发音很清楚,但是大部分我听不懂。有一个句子我听懂了我觉得很美丽。“我心里没有你。你心里没有我。” 很美丽,也很愁绪。

20 February 2009

Why I don't like 中文字譜(zhōngwén zìpǔ) that much anymore.

I was much impressed by Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary and the associated website zhongwen.com when I bought the book and started using the site. But am starting to be disappointed and eager to try out other resources. Here's why:
  • Even though finding a character in the dictionary is easier than with a traditional radical-based dictionary, I still sometimes get stuck in dead-ends and skimming through long lists of very tinily printed characters is no fun.
  • The etymological ordering in the dictionary is great to find components of a character and characters that use the same components which is a great help for learning. However, since the ordering is etymological and not just by character-shape, this is often not what I want. If a component of a character looks like 日 (for example) then I want to memorize it what that component and not with some other more complicated component that is given as the root in the dictionary and was shortened to 日 during the course of history.
  • The website has some bugs (characters not displayed properly) and is not very much maintained any more. (Although it is running Google Ads on the side and I suppose the author is still making good money from it, as well as the book royalties, given how popular both are.)
  • The website precedes unicode and all the characters are embedded as graphics. That's really impractical compared to newer dictionaries to and from which I can simply copy and paste characters to my notes or directly input a Chinese character from the keyboard, instead of doing a search for it. Hardcoded graphics also mean that the website is stuck with a very small font that clearly shows pixels and sometimes has the (complex Chinese!) characters unreadable in the list views. (Note: some of the historic characters and only-component characters are probably unexistent in unicode, but they could easily be kept as (better quality) graphics while the rest of the page is transformed to use scalable (and anti-aliasable) fonts.)
In spite of all this, I am still using the site to dissect all the new characters I want to learn...