So, what was the show? (汉语大会)


I posted some pictures while I was in China, but I had a few people asking if I could say a bit more about the competition and what it was all about, and perhaps post some video. I’m #6 in the picture here–it’s a screenshot taken from the video below. The clip is only about a minute long, but it nicely sums up the different parts of the show without boring you:).  In another part of the video, you can see me looking at the host in surprised disbelief, and in another I’m playing my guitar.

To back up a bit, as I understand things, the show (汉语大会) is a cooperation between Chinese Central Television (CCTV4) and another branch of the Chinese government called Hanban.  Hanban is the parent organization of the Confucius Institutes that you see all around the world. Their mission largely focuses on the goal of promoting Chinese culture and language learning; some people call this kind of thing “soft diplomacy”.  In this respect, Hanban’s activities are quite similar to the efforts of other governments around the world (think of Spain’s Cervantes Institute, the German Goethe Institute, the French Alliance Française or The British Council).

With that background, my thinking is that the “star” of the show was the Chinese language.  The principle aim was to celebrate Chinese language learning, show Chinese people that foreigners are indeed trying to learn Mandarin, and perhaps to encourage learners of Mandarin to continue with their studies.

I was one of 72 participants from around the world, and I was part of the “Americas” team with four Americans and a Brazilian.  There were also teams (six people per group) from Africa, Oceana, Europe, Asia, as well as domestic teams from inside China– these teams comprised international students studying at Chinese universities.   Most of the participants were much younger than me, but I actually wasn’t the oldest!

The show basically consisted of three parts: the 6 of us planning/rehearsing/performing a skit to show our understanding of a Chinese idiom; next, the six of us were together as a team in a kind of quiz show to test our knowledge of specific topics in Chinese language and culture; finally, each of us did an individual performance (i.e guitar, singing, martial arts, comedic monologue/tongue twisters).

At the end of the day, I think we did a good job; however, it just wasn’t enough to make it into the semi-finals.  All things considered, it was an amazing experience.  Some of the contestants have truly achieved a level of Chinese fluency and on-camera comfort that is really admirable . I came away from the experience feeling quite inspired to keep going with my studies.

I definitely have to close with a word of renewed thanks to the folks at my local Confucius Institute.  I’m grateful for all the work they do, as well as their continued support and encouragement of all the Chinese learners here in Edmonton!






That time I was on a Chinese TV show…

Hard to put words to this trip, but I’ll offer the following summary and let the pictures do the talking.


In short, I got an opportunity to come to China to participate in this year’s 汉语大会. It’s an annual Chinese proficiency contest that’s put together through Hanban, the people behind the Confucius Institute, and CCTV4, the international branch of Chinese Central Television.  I would only commit to the trip if I could bring my son– thankfully, they obliged my request and he’s here with me.

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The “Chinee and the Coon”: Airing our own stereotypes and dirty intercultural laundry

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a surge in what I might call ‘holier-than-thou’ indignation over a Chinese laundry detergent ad that made the rounds over social media (black man goes into the washing machine, comes out Asian–see below).  The ad itself was actually a rehash/reversal/remix of an Italian commercial from about eight years ago (Italian man goes into washing machine, comes out black—see below).   The Chinese commercial received a fair amount of mainstream news coverage in the US.

I won’t defend the commercial– it was done in extremely poor taste and deserves to be called out, but some folks are talking about it as if North America doesn’t have an ongoing history of making racist jokes/plays on other cultures.  Growing up. subtle jokes like the “Ancient Chinese Secret” Calgon commercial (see below), or the full-on mocking of Japanese (facial expressions, accent, questionable ethics) in the Flintstones episode featuring Rockimoto Judo’s e-to-se-to-ra, e-to-se-to-ra  (see below) were totally acceptable on mainstream TV.

Yes, those are old examples but, even today, mainstream comedians continue to use race as fodder for jokes—(remember the Jimmy Kimmel fiasco with the “kill all the Chinese so we don’t have any debt” joke?).  If anyone complains about these kinds of jokes, you can count on a healthy chorus of people essentially saying “hey, whatever– it’s just a joke”).

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Japanese font that shows stroke order

I went looking for a Mandarin font that showed up with the stroke order included as part of the characters.  I went in thinking “Yes, I know this is a bit special, but surely someone must have already done this”.

Unfortunately, I came up empty handed.  Having said that, I did find a Japanese version of what I was after.  I gave it a try and it works as advertised– if you have Japanese text in your document, you can simply highlight and change the font to this one and ‘voila’, it shows up with stroke numbers.  You can then increase the font size and print it out.

font exampleIn my playbook, I would combine this with the idea of making your own tracing sheets. Making something like the image here is completely with in your grasp with a font like this (it shows up as KanjiStrokeOrders in your font book) installed on your machine.

The reality is that, once you’ve mastered the general patterns of stroke orders (i.e. for left-right split characters, start on the top left and finish the left side first), you can largely ‘figure out’ most characters without a tool like this, but it doesn’t take much to make you question your judgement for characters that aren’t totally predictable.

You can download the font  (漢字の筆順のフォント) from

If anyone finds a Chinese version, please let me know!


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 Chinese Dialogue (includes pinyin)

click to download pdf version of Chinese dialogue (w/ pinyin) for the CNSA scene in The Martian

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.

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 remember once hearing that subtitle translation for movies is a subtle art— because the human eye can only comfortably read so much dialogue as it flashes across the screen, translators need to be concise; in other words, we can’t read as fast as we can listen so sometimes the ‘correct’ translation isn’t the best one.

If anyone finds an error, let me know!

pdf versions:
1. [vocab, characters, pinyin]: Mandarin in The Martian: CNSA Dialogue
2. tracing sheet (click here to see how I use these) — [Chinese characters only]: CNSA conversation in The Martian

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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