Job Hunting: An Endless Cycle

First and foremost, I need to give a hat tip to Ardent Lee, who calls his bilingual (J/E) blog The Sleeping Sun.  He wrote a post last week that struck a chord with me about the painful first steps of trying to get your career started when you don’t have any experience, and the very fact that you don’t have any experience seems to be preventing you from even getting your foot in the door.

It’s graduation season at my university, and I’ve recently been having conversations with friends and colleagues about our career aspirations and motivations.  As a result, Ardent Lee’s post, which he called Job Hunting: An Endless Cycle, came at an interesting time, and made me think back to my original plans when I was a student.  I wonder what ‘university-me’ would make of the mid-career life I’m currently living, and my original decision to study Japanese?

So, buckle your seatbelt– it’s story time.


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Mandarin in The Martian: CNSA Dialogue

I recently borrowed The Martian (Matt Damon as Mark Watney, stranded on Mars) from my local library; having only seen a fragment of a trailer for the movie at some point, I didn’t know much more than the basic plot line–it’s always nice when you can see a movie without having seen too many spoilers!

Apologies if I’m spoiling the movie for anyone here, but it was a pleasant and totally unexpected surprise to see a scene shot with Mandarin dialogue.  I’m sure many students of the language shared my delight in following along with the dialogue.

The Martian Mandarin Dialogue

There were a couple of words that I couldn’t catch, so I hit rewind and then ended up trying to search online to see how words like ‘orbit’ and (rocket) ‘booster’ are written  (i.e. in Chinese characters).  To my surprise, I wasn’t able to find the whole dialogue in one place, so I thought I would transcribe and capture it in one document and share it here.  Surely I can’t be the only language enthusiast who wanted to stop and soak up this dialogue?  If you’re looking for the Mandarin spoken between  Guo Ming (played by Eddy Ko) and Zhu Tao (played by Chen Shu) in the CNSA offices, I hope this pdf (click here or on image above) is useful for you!

The English you see in the movie subtitles is very accurate, save the small edits made for brevity. For example: “Their astronaut is going to die” (movie) vs. “Their astronaut is going to starve to death” (see above).  I had a friend study translation in university– I remember her talking about movie translators having to be as concise as possible because the human eye can only pick up so much dialogue when it is flashed on a screen too quickly.  Sometimes the ‘correct’ translation, simply won’t fit.

If anyone finds an error, let me know!

vocab and dialogue: Mandarin in The Martian: CNSA Dialogue

tracing sheetCNSA conversation in The Martian tracing






When you’re stuck at that ‘not quite’ phase with your language

I simply had to share this video–‘Skwerl’.  The Youtube title is “How English sounds to non-English speakers”. For me, the experience of trying to follow the dialogue perfectly captured the deliciously frustrating feeling that all language learners get when we feel like we should have the skillz to be able to understand native speakers speaking everyday language, but it’s just not happening.  During these moments, the goal of understanding spontaneous conversation seems so very…… far…… away…….. yet…… somehow… tantalizingly within reach?   You find yourself wanting to laugh along with jokes, even though you don’t really understand what’s happening……. suddenly, the mood of the room changes and you’re wondering why everyone is upset, and you’re still clueless…. wait….pineapple sparklers?…. what just happened?

“What to do?” to progress from this point is where many language learners get stuck.  More grammar? More vocabulary? More listening?   Ask ten people how to get through this stage and you’ll get ten answers, but I think we can all relate to this feeling.

Having said that, I should note the fact that there is nothing quite like the euphoria that comes when this phase begins to fade, and you finally get to ‘surface’ into feeling like an ‘intermediate’ speaker of the language; things start to come together, and you feel like you can begin to connect with people and expand the topics you can talk about…. you still end up experiencing moments that feel like this video, but the scope starts to narrow, and then you’re able to focus your study of specific vocabulary, cultural reference points, etc.

Brilliant idea for a video!

video source:

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war to be a phoenix’s tail?

I was talking to someone about learning proverbs/idioms/expressions in other languages the other day, and the person’s principal comment was that they wanted to study modern metaphors and culture, as opposed to stuffy old literary references, etc.

I understood what they meant, especially when you look at it from a perspective of the modern media culture that is so pervasive in the West; however, the neat thing about Chinese is just how often these kinds of devices are still used in modern language–and how universally understood they are.  I still find it surprising just how often Chinese people use these kinds of proverbs/expressions as a kind of metaphoric shorthand for summing up a situation (as a learner, it can actually be frustrating because if you don’t know the reference because you can be perfectly in tune with a conversation and then suddenly become unsure of yourself because someone has dropped a four-syllable idiomatic reference to make their point).

 Chinese Idiom: Rather be a chicken’s head than a phoenix’s tail (宁做鸡头,不做凤尾) — Things Beyond Z

Seeing the latest post on Things Beyond Z, Rather be a chicken’s head than a phoenix’s tail (宁做鸡头,不做凤尾) ,  I started thinking about other ways of saying that expression in English beyond “big fish in a small pond”, when a line from Pink Floyd came to mind:

“Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”

If you’re a Pink Floyd fan, I think “Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?” captures the essence of 宁做鸡头,不做凤尾.  But not everyone is a Pink Floyd fan, are they?  If the song “Wish you Were here” isn’t familiar to you, the reference may not speak to you in the same way.  Perhaps you are (like me), the kind of person who only knows a few Pink Floyd songs, and knows the words to even fewer. Even if you know the song, you may be not be the kind of fan that really gets into all of the lyrics, and you just hum until the chorus comes.

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Use Google to find TV commercials in the language you’re studying!

Like many folks these days, I don’t have cable– the media that I do watch comes from borrowing from my public library or streaming online content to my TV. As a result, I don’t see as many commercials anymore.

Having said that, seeing this Japanese commercial took me back to memories of just how much cinematic awesomeness is often packed into commercials in Japan— they’re so catchy and play with words in a fun way; when I was a student, I learned a TON of Japanese from watching commercials and talking about them with Japanese people.  If you think about it though, companies spend an extraordinary amount of money to design messaging that grabs your attention and sticks in your head.  As a language learner, sometimes this kind of stuff is gold.

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Typing/Keyboarding practice


When I completed the written section of the French DELF exam a few years ago, one of the things that struck me was how rarely I even did that much handwriting in one sitting, even in English (i.e. an in-class written essay).  My hand/wrist ended up feeling sore, and I left thinking that the next time I prepared to write the test, I should take some time beforehand to simply practice writing by hand more often.  Around the same time, I heard a story about Hunter S. Thompson who, early in his career, sat down and re-typed one of the great American novels, The Great Gatsby; supposedly, he did it because he wanted to experience what it would be like to have the words of a classic novel flow through his fingertips….

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Raising Bilingual Children: what’s your strategy?

After posting about bilingual households, I came across a post about strategies for raising a bilingual child that really resonated with me.  I liked the dad’s honesty about how he originally had plans of being able to talk about his effortlessly bilingual son who could possibly have been starting to learn a third language at some point.  When my son was born I had the very same thought, and I definitely remember relatives fully expecting me to pour all of my language skills into my son’s little noggin. It’s hard to argue with the idea of teaching a child to speak more than one language; however, as someone who grew up in a monolingual household, I was left to ponder the not-so-small question of “how do you actually go about doing that?”.

My wife and I were confident from the beginning that we wanted to raise our son to be bilingual.  We quickly settled into a pattern of her speaking to him in Mandarin, and me speaking to him in English.  Surely, we thought, he would ‘naturally’ pick up both languages and would soon be speaking both languages with fluid ease.

As it turns out, my son had some opinions of his own:) It quickly became apparent that he wasn’t quite that excited about speaking Chinese. Mom would speak to him in Mandarin, but he would respond to in English– if she pretended not to understand, he quickly figured out that he could come to me and say “tell mommy that …….” or some other ploy to get me to interpret for him.

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Language learning, like a marriage, takes work: Chinglish within bilingual Couples

I just read an interesting article/interview about someone who is doing a study about semantic language use within couples coming from mixed-language (Mandarin/other) backgrounds. Does this sound like you? If so, Susanna Wickes is hoping that you’ll take a minute to complete her online survey (in either English or Chinese).  [The article ran in the Beijinger as: Scholarly Chinglish: Scottish Masters Student Studies the Semantics of Interracial Couples]

From what I’ve seen, most couples gradually shift into one language; the unfortunate reality (at least in my thinking) is that language is usually English. Chinese people as a whole have studied more of the fundamentals of English at school so, even though many don’t feel fully satisfied with their language abilities, the language barometer will more often end up shifting the equilibrium toward English.  I don’t want to speak in absolutes— I’m sure this trend is definitely better for couples living in China, but I think it’s a fair observation to say that fewer bilingual households end up primarily speaking Chinese at home.


Reading the article actually brought up some fun memories for me; when my wife and I got together, we very quickly settled into a comfortable pidgin-mix of both languages that made us feel like I was speaking amazing Mandarin and she was speaking amazing English. The only trouble was that my expat friends (we were living in China at the time) couldn’t always understand her English; similarly, I was still feeling the daily sting of having Chinese friends and coworkers around me not understand me once the conversation moved beyond superficial pleasantries, and my pronunciation wasn’t really that clear.

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Chinese Idiom: The iron tree blooms (铁树开花)

I’ve been trying to rescue this Jade plant after someone else gave up on it; it probably suffered from some root rot, and looked like it was a goner.   Just when I was about to throw in the towel, an unlikely sprout came out of the end of a branch, so I repotted it and pruned back most of the dead branches.   There was actually a pair of sprouts, but I clipped the other one off to see if I could start afresh in a different pot with some clippings from another plant. We’ll see how it works out!

Anyway, Cornelius posted another keeper of an idiom-image yesterday and the picture of the iron tree blooming made me think of my fledgling jade plant…. I hope it completes the comeback!



Thanks to Lydia Lin for the suggestion. 铁树开花 [鐵樹開花] tiě shù kāi huā tie3 shu4 kai1 hua1 the iron tree blooms a highly improbable or extremely rare occurrence ≅ “once in a blue moon” ⇒ S…

Source: Chinese Idiom: The iron tree blooms (铁树开花)


Chinese idiom: To kill a chicken in front of a monkey(杀鸡给猴看)

Things Beyond Z strikes again— Cornelius, this is brilliant!

He included links in the post to several pages with explanations, but this is indeed an ‘honest-to-god’ true Chinese idiom that is commonly used in modern speech (it’s used to highlight a situation where someone punishes/admonishes one person as a warning to someone else— i.e. “careful, or you’re next!”).

杀鸡给猴看 [殺雞給猴看] shā jī gěi hóu kàn sha1 ji1 gei3 hou2 kan4 to kill a chicken in front of a monkey Thanks again to Raymond (Wordsummit) for the suggesting this one.

Source: Chinese idiom: To kill a chicken in front of a monkey(杀鸡给猴看)