Thanksgiving hasn’t made it to China, but Black Friday Has


I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when it comes to celebrating appreciation for what you have vs. discounts for MORE things you should have, the latter seems to win most of the time. That may seem cynical, but I can’t imagine how else Black Friday has become the phenomenon that it is in the United States.

Not that Black Friday will have the same power in China. The Chinese already have their own discounted-shopping holiday, Singles Day, which occurred earlier this month (November 11 — 11/11 = singles. Get it?) According to news reports, Chinese shoppers spent $1 billion in the first 8 minutes of Singles Day, which is driven by the mega online shopping platform Alibaba.

Singles Day has been marketed as an “anti-Valentines Day,” allowing poor, sad singletons to treat themselves to discounted goods in order to fill the hole of bleak loneliness inside of them (or so, I imagine).  Alibaba certainly isn’t trying to pretend the holiday is driven by anything else — this year, the company’s Chief Executive Daniel Zhang reportedly said “the whole world will witness the power of Chinese consumption” on Singles’ Day.

Chinese consumers spent more than $14 billion dollars on November 11. It’s difficult to find comparable numbers for Black Friday in the United States, since the numbers are usually released as “Black Friday weekend” figures. And of course, Black Friday sales are both in-store and online.

The most direct comparison to Singles Day is probably Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day in the US. The difference there is stark — last year, American shoppers spent about $1.35 billion on Cyber Monday (November 30), about as much as Chinese shoppers spent in the first 10-15 minutes of Singles Day.





What the hell are the four tones of Mandarin?


I can’t pretend that my spoken Chinese skills are anything other than basic, but I know a decent number of useful words. I can say some everyday sentences (yes, these sentences are mostly related to greetings, shopping and ordering food… but it’s something!).

But even though I know I’m using the correct words, and I know what I’m saying, the local Shanghainese often look at me with confusion when I order my yībēi kāfēi (cup of coffee) or ask for the price (duōshǎo) of one knickknack or another. That’s because my mastery of Mandarin’s four tones can be described with one word: shit.

Mandarin Chinese has four “tones” that affect the way the words are pronounced. While that may seem like a perfectly straightforward concept to understand, attempting to comprehend and imitate those tones can be a struggle.

In Mandarin, each syllable of a word is pronounced with one of four tones: the first tone (high level), second tone (rising level), third tone (falling and then rising) and the fourth tone (falling). Each tone is represented by a different symbol in pinyin. Because many Chinese characters have the same pronunciation, the four tones differentiate those words when they are spoken.

The most commonly used example involves the Mandarin word “ma”.

  • First tone: mā (mother)
  • Second tone: má (to bother)
  • Third tone: mǎ (horse)
  • Fourth tone: mà (to scold)

Moreover, the toneless “ma” is also used at the end of sentences in order to signify a question.

It makes sense in theory. In practice it’s… confusing.

While the English languages does use tone to alter the meanings of certain words or sentences (think of the sharp, falling tone we might use when angrily saying a word like “No!” or the rising tone we use at the end of spoken questions ) they do not heavily influence the language. Our ears – at least my ears – are not trained to pick up these small nuances in vocabulary words and then process those nuances as different ideas. Unless it’s processing sarcasm.

Simply put – it is extremely difficult for me to hear the various tones in Mandarin unless someone is speaking really, really slowly. Trying to imitate those tones, particularly the falling-and-rising third tone, is even more difficult. And often results in a lot of laughter from the Shanghainese watching this bewildered American trying to order a bowl of wonton soup without the aid of a translator app.

For more on the four tones I recommend this video by a Chinese-American woman who made an explainer specifically for English speakers.


Chinese Learning: Phase Three


The Chinese language is nothing like the English language.

Well, maybe that’s not true. There is exactly one thing about Chinese that is similar to English: sentence word order. Simple Chinese sentences often have the same structure as English sentences – subject, verb, object. For example, “I want a cup of coffee” directly translates to “Wǒ yào yībē Kāfēi– word for word, it’s still “I want coffee.” Similarly, “I have two apples”= “Wǒ yǒu liǎng gè píngguǒ” and “I love you” is “Wǒ ài nǐ.”

So sentence word order – that’s okay. It’s just everything else that’s completely different.

My Chinese studies have occurred in phases. Phase one began when I moved to Jinan, Shangdong in early 2014 on whim, without fully realizing that this third-tier city was not a popular home for English-speaking expats. It was (unlike Shanghai) a completely foreign experience, one that I am so grateful for and reflect on fondly. It also forced me to learn basic vocabulary (greetings, numbers, food, directions for taxi drivers…) just so I could function in society.

Side note: I was offered introductory Chinese lessons by my employer in Jinan, which I accepted. The lessons consisted of a university-aged girl repeatedly asking me, “What do you want to know?” Um, I don’t know… how to communicate.

Phase two began during my first months in Shanghai, when I started to take real Chinese classes at a language training school. Although the classes focused on much of the vocabulary that I had picked up in Jinan, it’s emphasis on pronunciation was enlightening because it made me realize that theoretically knowing a word in Chinese is almost worthless unless you know how to say the word.

Pronunciation is key. Word tone is key.

Mandarin Chinese has four tone markers that affect the way a word is pronounced. Two words may have the same pinyin spelling, but their meanings could be completely different depending on the tone marker. Example: Mā (mama) and Mǎ (horse).

Pinyin – the official romanization of Chinese characters — attaches different pronunciation to certain letters. X is pronounced as “sh”; C is “ts”; Z is “ds” (as in the end of the word kids); Q is “ch” and the ZH combination is pronounced as “j”.

Back to the phases. Phase three is now and currently involves my lovely guide, “15-minute Chinese.” Now I know a lot of language guides end up being about as useful as a paperweight, but this one is laid out in a way that makes it easy for the user memorize vocabulary and review material. It also comes with an audio track to help with tricky pronunciation – a constant problem.

(Photo 1) The book’s cover flap can be used to hide the Chinese pinyin, so users can test themselves on vocabulary.  (Photo 2) Each section begins with a warm up to review the previous days’ lesson.

Week one, as you can see, focuses on introductions – greetings, information about relatives and simple sentences. A lot of the early material is already known to me, but I’m going to follow the guide as it is. And I did learn two new phrases from lesson one:

Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ (Nice to meet you!)

Míngtiān jiàn (See you tomorrow!).

So there you go, world… Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ. Míngtiān jiàn!

The Problem: I live in China, and my Chinese speaking ability is laughable.

Living in China was supposed to be a convenient, almost inevitable way of soaking up a language that is so completely different from my native English.

But almost two years after leaving the United States for a “temporary” experience across the world, I’ve learned a pretty consistent truth: The Chinese language skills of most English-speaking expats rarely extends outside of basic necessities, such as “Hello; “Thank you”, “I don’t understand” and “I want coffee/beer”.

I should know. I’m one of those expats.

I’m a writer and present day English teacher in Shanghai, China, My job, teaching and practicing the English language to mostly 25-to-40 year-old adults, is evidence of the multiplying connections between China and the West. Many of my students either work or aspire to work for foreign-run companies, most of which require basic English skills for local staff.

In what is sometimes a pretty stark contrast, many job opportunities for foreigners (particularly native English speakers) require absolutely no knowledge of the Chinese language. Even though we’re living in China.

To be fair, Shanghai — like many large cities in China– caters itself well to English-speaking visitors. Street signs are in English; shop names and information are always translated into English; restaurant menus are available in English. The metro line announces stops in both Chinese and English. There are multiple English-language city guides and news sources online, such as the popular sites Time Out and SmartShanghai.

In a throwback to Shanghai’s city structure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — where the city was split into foreign-run American, British and French concessions — modern-stay Shanghai contains multiple “foreign” neighborhoods. These areas are littered with the trendy cafe’s, restaurants, bars and globally recognizable brand stores (H&M, Gap, Zara, Sephora…. the list goes on and on) that let westerners like me feel perfectly at home.

Here’s where I live – People’s Square, right at the heart of the city’s downtown.


((photo via the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition)

Long story short: As a result of a combination of endless convenience, laziness and working in a completely English environment, my Mandarin speaking skills barely qualify as “basic” It essentially consists of the following:

Hello!  Ní hǎo

How are you?  Ní hǎo ma

I’m good! I’m not good!  Wǒ hěn hǎo/ Wǒ hěn bù hǎoI

know/I don’t know   Wǒ zhīdào/ Wǒ bù zhīdào

I am American     Wǒ shì měiguó rén

I am an English teacher  Wǒ shì yīngyǔ lǎoshī

My Chinese is not good   Wǒ de zhōngguó bù hǎo

Are you American?   Nǐ shì měiguó rén ma?

How is your Chinese?  Zěnme shì nín de zhōngguó?

I’m sorry!  Duìbùqǐ

Thank you! Xièxiè

No problem!  Méi wèntí

I am your American friend. You are my Chinese friend.  Wǒ shì nǐ dì měiguó péngyǒu. Nǐ shì wǒ de zhōngguó péngyǒu.

Where is…? Nǎlǐ ma

What time?  Jǐ diǎn

I want…Wǒ yào

I have…Wǒ yǒu

I like…Xǐhuān

This one   Zhège

I’m hungry  Wǒ èle

I’m full  Wǒ chī bǎole

I’m happy  Wǒ hěn kāixīn

Complemented by vocabulary such as: numbers 1-100 (Yī ,èr, sān…), apple (Píngguǒ), mango (Mángguǒ),rice (fàn), noodles (miàn), egg (jīdàn), tomato (fānqié), dumplings (jiǎozi), pork (zhūròu), chicken (jīròu), beef (niúròu), coffee (kāfēi), beer (píjiǔ), chocolate (qiǎokèlì),people (rén), America (Měiguó), China (Zhōngguó), France (Fàguó), England (Yīngguó), Thailand (Tàiguó), Canada (Jiānádà),north (běi), south (nán),east (dōng),west (xī)

Yeah… no meaningful intellectual breakthroughs are happening at this level. I’m hoping that is going to change.

I\m on a journey to improve my Chinese language skills so I can actually communicate on a higher level than announcing my nationality and credentials (My usual speech upon meeting a new person can be translated as, “Hello! My name is Ashley. I am American. I am an English teacher. How are you? I’m sorry, my Chinese is bad.”)

In this blog, I will document my efforts to become more conversant. Along the way, I’d like to share photos, stories and news about China, globalization and my life as an American woman living in the most populated neighborhood of one of the most populated cities in the most populated country on Earth.