Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chinese dispatches is moving/ transforming/ evolving!

Since I am no longer sending out dispatches from China, and am back in the States, I think it is time for a new blog. Shanzhai Zhongguo is it! It will be a collection of current China related stories I am reading, of which I am reading so many, plus I will add my own thoughts about the stories themselves and who is reporting on them. I also will revive the (marginally, ha!) popular Chinese Geography series and will add a new Chinese History series as well. So please head on over.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Minxin Pei and Fareed Zakaria

Two of my favorite scholars on China and international affairs sit down and chat about China, India, and the world:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The return of the native

I have come back to this side of the world. It has been a long time, two and a half years since I left to go to China and I hadn't been back since. It feels very good to be back and so good to see so many old friends and my family. I've been pretty busy as of late running around seeing everyone, and I will continue to do so for at least another few weeks. But now that I have come out from under the warm embrace of the Great Firewall I now have regular access to my blog again.


Though it would have been very nice to have been able to continue to post so many more things while I was still in country, I will be making it up by posting thoughts and pictures which I've been saving to post.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The return of the blog!

I have finally caved in and bought a subscription to a VPN so now I can access my blog to post again. It seems to be working nicely. Though I am actually in the midst of creating a new site. I will announce more on that later.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Chinese Education

For the past week or so James Fallows (Atlantic corespondent based in Beijing) has been hosting a discussion about Chinese education in his blog. The most recent discussion has been about the Gaokao 高考 (literal translation: the high test) it is the national Chinese standardized entrance exam. It is the thing to which all the focus of Chinese high school students are aiming for. To enter a Chinese university one must take and pass this test. Depending on where you live, what school you want to attend, and even what your ethnic background is (ethnic minorities in China have a lower hurdle) you must achieve a certain score to enter your school. Most of the discussion on his blog and from persons commenting on it, is about the exam itself and whether or not it is good or bad.

It seems to me that it is much less important in this case how people are chosen to enter college than what exactly goes on within the college. The Gaokao itself is so much less important than the fact that students may not have a free choice to study what they are interested in, let alone what they may be good at. It seems that vast majorities of Chinese students are unsatisfied with the subjects which they study let alone the quality of the classes they take and the quality of the teachers who teach them.

I take my Chinese classes our school's Graduate student building, a few weeks ago was the registration deadline for enrolling in graduate school here. It may shock some people to realize that even graduate students must take a similar test to determine whether they may enter graduate school. And even more improbably it determines which subject you may be allowed to study. Many of my friends did not test into the schools or programs which they were interested in. Some could not even get their second or third choices of fields of study. Which means that students who are interested in a subject may never be able to actually study that subject, or if they are lucky and studious enough may be able to study it as an undergrad or masters student but are forced to switch to completely different field for their doctorate.

I don't put all the blame on the schools or the system. I do recognize that the students themselves are often blinded to what they are doing. I was often baffled as to why these students would want to spend so much time and effort studying things which do not interest them. Getting a bachelors degree in something which is not your absolute favorite thing is one thing, but an advanced degree is something else. I half assumed these thoughts to be because of a misunderstanding on my part, perhaps I was just a naive American judging too harshly. Though after talking with some of my Chinese teachers here, I found that they too share this belief. One teacher of mine commented on all the students lining up outside our building as wasting their time. In her humble opinion they were only applying to study in grad school because they did not want to have to look for jobs, and more than that, that by pursuing this superfluous education were actually hurting their chances for future employment.

Given that college grads or even masters grads here in China are a dime a dozen employers may have their pick. It seems that many Chinese employers look down upon graduates with what they see as superfluous degrees. In their view these students are lazy and unmotivated and undesirable employees. I don't know if this is a fair assessment or not, it may be quite a cynical outlook but it makes some sense to me.

Chinese students generally believe that if they study well and pass the tests they will be rewarded, and many are. But many more are not. There is a very large number of Chinese University students competing with many times smaller number of jobs. It seems that Chinese higher education is not providing its graduates with either a job at the end or the skills to find, or better yet, to create one of their own.

Monday, May 11, 2009

So what's up with that wall you got there?

I honestly had no idea that my wall of characters would provoke so much reaction. One of my classmates upon seeing it remarked, "Alex, are you crazy!?" Well perhaps I am. haha

I had this idea for displaying Characters I was learning/ wanted to learn since I was in Taiwan, just over four years ago. It took me so much time (granted I wasn't doing much Chinese Character studying back in Chicago in the interim period) mainly because even though I had conceived of the idea I still had no clear idea about what I wanted to have posted.

The main reason I had for wanting to do this was that I am a terrible memorized, I have to think of things visually and spatially, and I wanted to set out before me all (well, one small bite) of the characters I wanted to learn. I am very interested in the forms of Characters and I love looking at and comparing radicals and etymology. Since my Chinese is pretty basic I have to stick with my own amateur dabblings in Character evolution and etymology. For anyone else so interested I find the charts at wonderful to look through.

The problem with a traditional dictionary, even a marvelous electronic one like pleco, is that you can only really look up the characters or words that you are looking for. One may browse a dictionary by flipping though it and stopping on a randomly selected page, but it is harder to scan the whole content of the dictionary looking for patterns and connections.

They way I see it, each Character has three distinct pieces of information which must be learned and which could be displayed: the sound (pinyin + tone), the English definition, and the image of the character itself. I could display all three, just one, or a combination of two on the wall. In the end I chose to display the Characters under their pinyin headings, all in alphabetical order as one would find in a Chinese-English Dictionary.

One can buy many posters for teaching Characters and words to Children here. They are fun and helpful but since they are really intended for children they focus mostly on nouns and a few basic verbs and adjectives, they are of limited use. I only really found use for the fruit and vegetable ones, since I like to cook for myself and am always shopping in the outdoor markets. Even the few posters that focus on commonly used Characters never have more than 200. My goal was much more ambitious.

I didn't even really know how many Characters I wanted to display. (In retrospect I think I could have gone though the HSK lists of the most common Characters to find what I was looking for. I may do just that for my second go round. This whole project is continually evolving and I'm sure it will go though many permutations.) Since I didn't really know where to start exactly I picked up my Oxford English-Chinese Dictionary, opened to 阿 (a1) and stated copying down all the Characters I felt I needed to know or should know or wanted to be included on my wall. This was pretty subjective and haphazard way of going about things but I figured I needed to jump in and start somewhere just to get things rolling.

I filled seven and a half pages with approximately 2500 Characters. (I counted them at one point to know how much paper and how much wall I would need, as well as how big I could make each Character to fit them all on one wall. I could go back for an accurate count, but I'm just not that kind of masochist.) From there I figured how big my wall was going to be and how big I could make all the Characters. I wanted to make them as large as possible to make all the components of even the most complicated Characters distinct. The box containing each Character is 2x2 inches. I ended up using the Chinese chess grid already printed on my little work table as a template since it was handy and about the size I was looking for. Each sheet of paper is then seven squares by eleven squares.

(I know all you smart guys and gals out there could go and multiply 77 by the number of sheets of paper I used to find out the exact number but then you would have to subtract all the boxes not containing Characters. Of course I messed up a few times and skipped putting in one or two headings so even that wouldn't be completely accurate, and really I guess an exact count just doesn't mean that much to me in the end.)

Even with all this figured out I still had to decide upon the layout. I chose (perhaps I just like being geeky and difficult) to lay out the characters in the traditional manner (in vertical columns reading right to left). Originally I wanted to have this layout over the entire wall as if it was a single piece of paper, it would have been much more aesthetically pleasing but would have two major drawbacks. First if I ever were to transfer these characters to another wall that new location would then have to share the same dimensions of this wall. But what really did in this idea was that in treating all the separate pieces of paper as one any singe mistake would destroy the whole wall. (I did come up with a way of getting around this but I required me to basically create a second wall to use as a template for the final one. This project was crazy enough as it was and I didn't need to do that to myself.)

So the final layout of the wall is that the Characters are in alphabetical order according to their pinyin (and by tone 1,2,3,4 within that) they are arranged on each paper starting in the top right corner and then moving down the page, reading right to left, top to bottom. Then when I reached the end of the row of pages I skipped down to the next row, and so on. I'll put a diagram up once I upload more pictures.

My next step is to color code all the Characters by tone. My pleco has this feature and I think it would add just enough information without going over the top. So I will soon go out and buy several boxed of either cheap colored pencils or markers and get started. I imagine it will take many hours.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama makes surprise visit to Kaifeng!

I'll bet you didn't expect to see Obama selling condos on the quickly developing western fringes of Kaifeng. Well he is. I got handed this while walking downtown last week.