Week 2, Day 2: zǎocān, wǔcān, wǎncān

I finally learned how to distinguish between breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Right now, I am having zǎocān(breakfast). This afternoon, I’ll have wǔcān(lunch). I think I’ll go to my local xinjiang cāntīng (restaurant) and chī(eat) xīhóngshì jīdàn fàn (egg, tomato and rice). Unike in Měiguó, (the USA) where I’d eat with a chā (fork), in Zhōngguó (China) I usually use kuàizi (chopsticks).

I don’t have any plans for wǎncān (dinner) yet.

I’m going to tell the truth: I don’t actually try to remember every single phrase in this book. When trying to learn a new language, it’s best to begin with words and phrases that you may plausibly use in your every day life. In my case, my “daily Chinese” usually only consists of basic interactions at restaurants, coffee shops, random street encounters and, sometimes, communicating with my landlord (Again, I’m an English teacher, so when I’m with Chinese speakers I’m typically encouraging them to only speak English).

There really isn’t a likely occasion where I’ll need to ask for a non-smoking table. I’ll focuses on memorizing more personally useful phrases.

Anyway, my point: China now has a public ban on smoking in public places. Why does this matter? Well, for me, it matters because I’m probably not going to be in a situation where someone asks me if I want a Xīyān huò fēi xīyān biǎo (smoking or non-smoking table?). So I’m probably not going to spend time trying to remember that one. Not now, at least.

As an ESL teacher, I always encourage students to focus on vocabulary and language they are going to use in every day life – for business, chatting, traveling, etc. Repetition of a word or phrase, in the context of a real-life situation, is the key to processing and storing information.

In some small way, I suppose that I’m now learning that myself.

Week 2, Day 1″Qǐng wǒ xiǎng yīgè sānmíngzhì”

Week 2, Day 1 starts with a subject I’m quite familiar with: Coffee.

My attempts to practice Mandarin Chinese in my every day life continue, even as I fail to actually update recollections of those attempts in a timely manner.

The first day of Chinese Learning “Week 2” began with a subject I know my way around fairly well, due to caffeine addiction: Ordering libations in a coffee shop.

Coffee shops (Kāfēi diàn) can be found in abundance in Shanghai: Starbucks and Costa Coffee reign, but there are plenty of cute café’s and lounges around for people who would prefer to not sit inside noisy and constantly-packed chain establishment (In China, it’s acceptable – or at least, passively accepted – for patrons to buy one coffee and then sit down and occupy a table all day long. Needless to say, it’s often difficult to find a seat.)

Western-style coffee shops are more difficult to find outside of first or second-tier cities. Outside of those areas, Chinese-style coffee houses (chá guàn) are more prevalent. From what I remember in Jinan, they were more like restaurants and tended to focus on tea rather than coffee.
Hence the vocabulary for the first day of week 2: I can now order three varieties of tea, instead of my usual request: Chá (just “tea”. No specification.)

I usually prefer Lǜchá (green tea), but I also like the occasional cup of hóngchá as well (red tea, a tasty and similarly caffeinated alternative to green tea). I don’t really enjoy mòlìhuā chá, but I suppose it’s still good to know the word (Jasmine tea).

This is the best word I learned this morning: sānmíngzhì
It’s a food item. If you had three guesses, you could probably guess the food item, because it sounds rather similar to the English word – sandwich.

I love noodles (miàn), rice (mǐfàn), dumplings (jJiǎozi) and all of the delicious and readily available varieties of Chinese food available in my neighborhood. But what can I say, I’m still an American girl at heart, and I really love my sānmíngzhì. Especially if it’s a zǎocān sānmíngzhì breakfast sandwich (breakfast sandwich).

Although I’ve known how to order food for about as long as I’ve lived in China, I’ve always relied on using the form Wǒ yào… (I want coffee! I want dumplings!) Now I know how to politely say, Qǐng wǒ xiǎng hē bēi kāfēi (I’d like a cup of coffee, please).

Now, excuse me while I go out and order a sandwich.

Beijing Airpocalypse: Is a day in the toxic air really equal to smoking 40 cigarettes?

ShenyangBeijing isn’t the only Chinese city exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Air pollution in China, particularly in the northeastern cities outside of Beijing, is undeniably bad. I know it, you know it, and just about every person living in the country knows it.

But just how severe is the impact of spending one day, or even one hour, in the heart of China’s Shanghai-Beijing corridor? About 4,000 people die of air-pollution related illnesses every day, according to a study conducted by the independent research group Berkeley Earth, accounting for 17 percent of all deaths in China each year.

I used to live in Jinan, a city that has often been cited as having some of the highest air pollution levels in the country. I suffered from sinus infections, a cough and extreme fatigue during the cold season. Other foreigners, who like me had never experienced that level of pollution, complain about it as well.

10391405_10100341788834361_5152866158292628822_nA photo I snapped of Jinan in January 2015.I could  literally taste the pollution.

The air in Shanghai is a bit better, but it certainly isn’t good.
Berkeley Earth concluded that breathing the air in Shenyang on a heavily polluted day is the equivalent of smoking 60 cigarettes per day. On a similar note, an analysis of the report by The Economist found that a day in Beijing is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

PM 2.5, a fine particulate matter that can be inhaled by humans and lodge itself into the respiratory tract, is the culprit here. PM 2.5 is released by exhaust fumes and other burning fuels – including wood, heating oil and coal. The U.S. embassy in Shenyang has recorded PM 2.5 levels as high as 1000-1400 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Berkeley Earth reports, recommends exposure be limited to a maximum of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA reports that particulate matter may include dust, dirt, smoke, soot, and liquid droplets. Moreover, these particles come in various sizes. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers – hence, the name – are classified as “fine” particles. These smaller particles, which are so fine that they can easily lodge themselves deeply into the lungs, are believed to pose a greater health risk than, say, a PM 10-sized particle.

The potential health consequences? Lung disease, blood clots, heart attack and the inflammation of lung tissue, which can impair heart function as well.


A photo  taken on November 8, 2015 shows a residential complex in Shenyang. Berkeley Earth included the photo in its recent report. (CHINA OUT AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images) 

According to the Berkeley study authors, inhaling 1400 micrograms of PM 2.5 – like the record-high rating in Shenyang – would be equal to smoking 60 cigarettes.

Some say the cigarette claim has been hugely inflated. An August editorial from the news website The Beijinger argues that “nowhere in China is the air pollution anywhere near the equivalent of smoking even one cigarette a day” and cited an analysis that found it’s actually closer to 1/6 of one cigarette per day. The analysis, written up in a 2011 blog post by Dr. Richard Saint Cyr,” reported that on an “average” day in Beijing, an adult “inhales a total of 1.8mg of PM2.5 particles from air pollution, which is 1/6 of the average 12mg of PM2.5 particles inhaled from an average cigarette.”

However, the page now has an addendum at top – added in October –that directs readers to a follow up article since the original post is “far more simplistic than the actual mortality data shows.” The updated article does not attempt to equate air pollution exposure to a certain number of smoked cigarettes. But it does compare the mortality risks of both cigarette smoking and PM 2.5 air pollution exposure.

Cigarette smoking, according to the report is associated with a far higher mortality risk – it’s associated with an 8 year loss in life expectancy for individuals who smoke 20-40 cigarettes per day (cause that’s inhaling a hell of a lot of PM over a lifetime.) Long-term exposure to PM in highly-polluted cities may, by comparison, lead to a three-year loss in life expectancy.

“Air pollution is associated with a much higher excess risk and loss of life expectancy compared to cigarette smoking than would be expected based on the comparative dose of fine PM,” the report concluded, noting that inhaling PM from air pollution may be unavoidable, while heavy smokers actively choose to light up.

At the end of the day, an average day in Northern China probably won’t result in as much PM inhalation as smoking a pack (or two) of cigarettes. But that doesn’t matter. The air quality is still horrible at an almost unprecedented level, with no sign of it letting up any time soon. It really might be an airpocalypse.

“Week one” learning round up


Okay – it’s taken me longer than one week to get around to posting my “week one” 15-minute Chinese roundup. Which some could say totally defeats the purpose of using the guide – it relies on daily, 15-minute practice sessions – at all.

I can’t really argue with that; what I can say is that, while I’m behind schedule, I’ve gotten pretty damn good at the small part that I have studied so far. So yeah… look out world, I can now totally inquire whether Nǐ yǒu háizi ma (Do you have children?) and about the identities of various family members ( Zhè shì nǐ de fùqīn= Is this your father? Zhè shì nǐ de zhàngfū/qīzi ma = Is this your husband/wife?)

I tried to fit in some real-life practice today at my local Starbucks (yes, I’m a yuppie who cannot forgo coffee, no matter where I am in the world) by pointing to a nearby employee and then asking my barista,  (Nà shì nǐ de péngyǒu ma” (Is that your friend?). I think she was extremely confused by my curiosity (why does this strange American girl care if I’m friends with my coworker…?) but she said “yes” and proceeded to give me my change. She responded to my question in English.

I want to practice my limited Mandarin speaking skills with native speakers. The problem is, many Chinese people also want to practice their limited English with native English speakers. Leading to many, many situations where I begin some kind of transaction in Mandarin, and the shopkeeper/barista/waiter/whatever responds to all of my comments and inquiries in English.

This, of course, does not happen everywhere in China. But foreigners – and with that, the English language – have a strong presence in Shanghai, a special economic zone that’s flush with international business. I would say that about 75 percent of my students at the language training center I work for are trying to improve their English either because they work at a foreign-run company or because they aspire to work for a foreign-run company.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of English speakers in China. Fun fact: English is actually a standard part of China’s education curriculum. Chinese students begin learning English in elementary school and some knowledge of the language is essential for passing the gaokao, the ultra-competitive standardized test taken by millions of high school students each year.

However, Chinese-led English classes tend to focus on reading and vocabulary memorization. There is usually little-to-no speaking practice, and many students graduate without being able to verbally string together a sentence more complex than “My name is ____”

So we don’t know how many people in China are really proficient in English. What we do know is that there are about 300 million English learners in the country, the evidence of which can be seen in any major city: advertisements for English learning centers (including the one I work for) are inescapable.


There are about 1.39 billion native Chinese speakers. Although Mandarin is the countries official dialect, there are several alternative dialects and micro-languages in use across the expansive country. (The Washington Post)

Anyone browsing ESL job listings knows that the English-learning trend isn’t solely centered in China. About 1.5 billion people around the world are studying English, according to an analysis from the University of Dusseldorf featured in a report by The Washington Post. And while China may have the highest native-speaker population in the world, the same analysis concluded that only about 30 million people are actively learning the language (China’s official state language in Mandarin, but as the chart above shows, there are several prominent dialects in the country).