Why Mandarin is Not “Hard”

After going home for my winter break, I’m back in Shanghai! I’m meeting some of the new study abroad students, who have varying experience in Mandarin. Among the learners, I hear a lot of concerns about learning Mandarin, which is not that uncommon.

Mandarin, for a variety reasons, has a reputation as a difficult language to learn. The Foreign Service Institute at the US Department of State lists Mandarin (along with Cantonese) as a Category V language. It is described as “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”, requiring 88 weeks or 2200 hours to learn.

The tones in Mandarin are usually what throw people off. That said, I think tones are fairly easy to teach, especially with the aid of pitch charts (see right). I realize that some may find Mandarin easier because of personal aptitude, but I’m not convinced that talent entirely accounts for one’s ability to learn a language.

There are many homophones in Mandarin, which can cause confusion for a learner. However, in my experience, context can often help determine what you mean to say even if your pronunciation was off. For example, the words 腳 and 角 are both pronounced jiăo, but the first means “foot”, and the other means “angle” or “horn”. Realistically, there are few instances where the use of these words could be interchangeable and still make sense.

The real issue in Mandarin has less to do with the language, and more with the way it is taught. In my classes in Shanghai, the radicals of characters are emphasized more for learning new words. Radicals are the basic building blocks  of Chinese characters. In the United States, I find that Mandarin learners are often unaware of the logic and structure of Chinese characters. They’re expected memorize a list of characters and that’s supposed to be the bare minimum. In reality, you need to be able to at least guess at unfamiliar words, through reading and listening to conversations. Because this ability only comes with practice, it requires active commitment to learning the language.

Mandarin itself is not difficult to speak once you’ve learned pronunciation and tones, since the grammar is quite straightforward. The primary difference between most languages in the West and Mandarin (and to some extent Korean and Japanese), is that the grammatical structures center entirely on sentence coordination. Because there are no verb conjugations or noun declensions, Mandarin grammar is mostly about the way you construct a thought, rather than the individual words.

Learning the turns of phrase to express complex thoughts is what can be truly challenging, but only because there are so many nuances and things that you can say. Having a functional, conversational command of the language is not the hard part. Reaching advanced levels of fluency is where one encounters difficulties, but that’s not unique to Mandarin.

In short, I don’t believe that Mandarin has to be as difficult as it’s made out to be. It is the system of teaching that often gets in the way of learning Mandarin effectively, and I think that if we change the way we approach Mandarin and other languages, we’ll find that they’re easier to learn.

Some useful links and apps for learning Mandarin:

All Set Learning (pronunciation, grammar)
Tone Pairs with Yoyo Chinese (tone pairs and tone sandhi)
Pleco Chinese-English Dictionary (has Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations + traditional characters + example sentences); available on the Apple and Android app stores

Week 7: Wanderings

This week, I did a little more independent exploration. Diwali also passed this week, and since I wasn’t home for the occasion, I decided to put on a small dinner party for my friends.

I wandered around Yu Garden, in the Old City of Shanghai. It’s a bit of a touristy place, but there’s still some stuff to see. The Old City is a bit of a ways from Pudong, and quite different from the shopping areas of Puxi. Fuyou Road has a lot of different shopping areas, including one dedicated to tourists. I decided not to peruse their wares, mostly because I was just stopping by.

I was on my way back from the only Indian store in the entirety of Shanghai, which is, as one might expect, a quite small place. It’s called Bhoomi Stores, on Yaohong Road, not far from the Songyuan Road metro station. They stock mostly ready-to-eat meal kits and instant spice mixtures. It’s a little taste of home for the Indian expats living in Shanghai, I suppose. I can’t say that I’m missing Indian food in Shanghai, so much than my mother’s cooking. When you’re cooking mostly variations on stir-fry for dinner, it can make you miss home-cooked food a lot!

A lovely view of the Bund

Anyway, this week was a little more chill. I’m entering midterm season, and working on a lot of different things. At the moment, I’m juggling language learning, my calligraphy Instagram, and schoolwork. It’s not proving to be very difficult, but I have a lot going on, and sometimes it’s a little much to stay focused.

In other news, I had this unexpectedly delicious pasta at Wagas. It was a spinach and pumpkin pasta with tomato sauce, topped with feta cheese and pine nuts. Wagas is a solid place to get vegetarian options for lunch or breakfast, so always keep that on your list.

That’s all for this week!

Week 6: A Daily Grind

During my sixth week, a lot of the initial excitement of coming to China started to fade, though that’s not to say that I’m not enjoying myself. I am certainly following a routine, since I go to class most of the week. The grind is definitely back, though I don’t hate it. I have a lot less to talk about in this post, but fear not, I have non-China(-ish) related news! I started learning Farsi last week because I was reading more about the grammar and it’s actually very structurally similar to Hindi-Urdu. The language doesn’t have noun gender, grammatical case, or tons of irregular verbs, so it’s easy to start learning, especially if you already know Hindi-Urdu (or another Indo-Aryan language), and even a Romance language, to some extent.

Anyway, I still managed to check out a few new places near my school, including the only mosque in Pudong! It’s a really interesting place, since every Friday, there’s a Muslim market where people from Xinjiang and other Muslim merchants sell their delicious wares. Since I’m vegetarian, I couldn’t actually eat that much food there, but I was very pleased with what I could eat.

Muslims in China actually have a long history, and the state of Xinjiang is Muslim majority. There are two main Muslim communities, the Uyghurs and the Hui. The Uyghurs are of Turkic ancestry, and have their own language, which is related to Turkish. The Uyghur language has many loanwords from Persian and Arabic, since most speakers are Muslim, though in recent years more loans have come from Russian and Mandarin. The Hui Muslims are said to be descendants of Persian traders who settled in Northwestern China, as well as converts during the Ming Dynasty.

There aren’t a lot of Muslims in China, but in Shanghai, there are people from all over, including from countries that are majority Muslim. My school has many Pakistani students, some Bosnians, and there are Muslim Malays, among many other nationalities who come to this mosque every Friday. It’s one of the only reliable places to get halal food, along with the small number of halal eateries scattered throughout Shanghai. Fortunately, they’re easy to spot since they’ll have the word حلال (halal in Arabic) written somewhere, usually in green. I’m not Muslim, but I’ve had a lot of interest in Sufi philosophy and the history of Islam in general. A lot of people, unless I tell them I’m Hindu, assume that I’m Muslim because if I start talking about it, I get really into it. It’s really fascinating stuff, but I won’t get into the specifics here.

It was pretty cool walking around, though there was an elderly man who was trying to usher me and two of my roommates (one who’s Indian and the other is Chinese) into the mosque for prayer, assuming that we were Muslim. It was somewhat awkward explaining (in Mandarin) that we weren’t Muslim and we were just looking around. It didn’t help that none of us knew the word for “Muslim” in Mandarin offhand. He didn’t seem pleased with me taking pictures of the inside of the mosque while the Jummah prayer was taking place, so I will not post those photos out of respect for the space.

The market is right outside the gate of the mosque, and there’s a line of vendors selling all sorts of items, including lamb kebabs, freshly baked naan (a different kind from the Indian naan I’m used to), noodle dishes, and even cake! The noodles I had were a simple preparation of knife-pared noodles with cucumbers, peanuts, chili oil, and vinegar. It’s a nice snack, though not especially substantial. That said, it was only 5 kuai, so it’s more than a good deal.

I believe the naan was about 15 kuai; I thought it was quite nice, though it doesn’t taste as good once it cools off. They bake it in these special ovens that are very similar to tandoors used in India to make naan!

But what takes the proverbial cake was the cake! It wasn’t fancy or anything, but it was a substantial slab of sweet, creamy goodness. The pictures really don’t do it justice, but it was really good considering that it wasn’t refrigerated.

It looks like a tiramisù mille-feuille, but it’s difficult to describe the flavor as anything other than milk cream and chocolate. The funny thing is that I essentially ended up eating cake for lunch since the box (when it was full) was 55 kuai. I had actually wanted only about half the amount, but because of some confusion, I actually paid the vendor more, so she gave me enough extra cake to compensate.

For about a 2×2 inch block of cake (please don’t quote me on measurements, I’m really horrible at eyeballing dimensions), it would have been 30 kuai, so, again, a quite good deal. I intend to come back here (especially for the cake), so you’ll likely see these pictures again!

My roommates and I also went to a nearby Mexican restaurant on Saturday night, which was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was kind of a mix between a Tex-Mex place and authentic Mexican in terms of what it was trying to offer, both in terms of food and also aesthetically. I ordered enmoladas, or enchiladas with mole sauce, a type of Oaxacan sauce that is often made with cacao and various chiles. The serving size was actually pretty decent, seeing as most of the type, Chinese serving sizes are pretty small in my opinion.


The restaurant’s name was Pistolera, and isn’t far from Jinqiao Road by bike. If you head down Biyun Road between Yunshan Road and Hongfeng Road, it’ll be there near some other Western restaurants. The food itself was not bad, but quite overpriced at 95 kuai. Foreigners beware: you will pay a premium for any kind of Western food in China, even if it’s not authentic or good. This dish should have been no more than 50-60 kuai, especially since the mole sauce just kind of tasted like a generic bean sauce. I don’t think I’ll come here that often if at all seeing as I’m not exactly craving Mexican food in Shanghai that often.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you look forward to next week’s post!

Week 5: Golden Week in Review

Last week, I got the week off from school on account of the Chinese holiday known as Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节/中秋節 – zhōng qiū jié). The week around the holiday is known as Golden Week, a period of time that is hectic with families traveling home or out of the country to avoid the crowded cities. Shanghai is especially known for being crowded during Golden Week. The nice thing about Golden Week, though, is that plenty of things are discounted on account of the holiday, making for tons of deals!

During my Golden Week, I took a trip a few hours south of Shanghai to Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province. In my mind, I compare Shanghai and other cities to those in the US and India, but Hangzhou was quite unlike any other city I’d been too.

It was very unique in that it was not a huge city, but still fairly busy, and definitely a center for tourism. It doesn’t have all the trappings of a westernized Asian city like Shanghai or Bangalore. 

The only city I can compare it (and only in principle), is Mangalore, a city in Karnataka not too far from Bangalore. Hangzhou is very much a Chinese city in the sense that it is steeped in its own culture but not to the extent that it’s obscure and inaccessible to foreign travelers (as some small towns might be). Mangalore is very similar in that respect, though aesthetically and experientially, is very different from Hangzhou.  Hangzhou’s street market felt very local, even though there were tourist stands selling trinkets that only tourists would buy. The street is lined with all sorts of Hangzhou specialties, including some vegetarian bread items (whose names I neglected to find out). Some stalls had very traditional Chinese sweet dishes, such as Eight Treasure Soup (八宝粥/八寶粥 – Bā băo zhōu) , a kind of sweet rice porridge.

Assortment of Chinese sweets at a stall in Hangzhou’s street market near Gaoyin Street

It’s called that because the eight items used to flavor the soup are purported to have potent medicinal and healing qualities. Popular ingredients include peanuts, lotus seeds, and red bean. In the picture to the right, there’s also a bowl of grass jelly (仙草 – xiān căo), another traditional Chinese sweet often consumed on its own, or more recently, in bubble tea.

Entrance to the temple grounds

About half an hour away by taxi, is the Lingyin Temple, one of the most famous and largest Buddhist temples in China. It’s known as 灵隐寺/靈隱寺 (língyĭn sì), translating as “The Temple of the Soul’s Retreat”. The temple is in a bit of a secluded area, being closer to some of the tea villages than Hangzhou itself.

The temple grounds are sprawling and really quite stunning with a large scenic area of forests and caves with statues of the Buddha. While you’re there, it’s absolutely necessary to see the Mahavīra Hall, where a huge Golden Buddha sits, waiting to hear the prayers of devotees.

The Golden Buddha inside Mahavira Hall

This temple is easily one of my favorite places that I’ve visited so far, and I’m really glad that I made the trip. I have a ton of photos, so I won’t be able to post all of them. They don’t do justice to this place anyway!


Food in Hangzhou was a little more difficult than in Shanghai, partly due to a lack of Western restaurants which might actually have things for me to eat. Fortunately, I was able to get some vegetarian mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐 – má pó dòufu), which often contains pork, beef, or chicken. You should always ask in restaurants whether they can make a dish without meat.

Some partially eaten mapo tofu
生菜 (shēng cài) (I’m not sure what vegetable this is to be honest)






I was able to order a vegetable dish as well, and with rice, it was more or less a complete meal.

At Lingyin Temple, I was able to eat a vegetarian meal made by the temple’s noodle restaurant, which is a common institution in Buddhist temples. These small eateries serve completely vegetarian (and often vegan) food, so if you’re in a temple town near a temple for an extended period of time, it’s a good place to get good-tasting and relatively cheap vegetarian food. The only catch about Lingyin Temple, is that you do have to pay 40 or 45 RMB to enter, and then meal itself will be around 15-20 kuai.

I hope that you all enjoyed this post, and I look forward to writing next week!

Week 4: E-Culture in China

Hello all, welcome to my fourth week in Shanghai update! This week, I’m going to be talking about the immense array of electronic services in China, and what my thoughts on it are.

Shanghai and Phone Culture

One of the things you’re likely to notice in Shanghai is that every single person has a smart phone of some kind, whether it’s an iPhone, Samsung, or the Chinese iPhone mimic, Oppo. All of these are a big part of Shanghai (and perhaps all of metropolitan China), making up the immense network of social media apps and electronic services. It also strikes many foreigners, coming to China for the first time, that cash seems conspicuously absent.

This is because the apps AliPay, from Ali Baba (the Chinese e-commerce giant run by Jack Ma), and WeChatPay are the two most widely used payment services for almost any business, big or small. Small businesses are frequently almost cash-free; even street food stalls may take cash and will ask you to pay with 支付宝/支付寶 (Zhīfùbăo) or 微信 (Wèixīn). Some upscale restaurants will let you pay with WeChat (in addition to credit cards)!

WeChat Pay is by far the most common, and while AliPay is the original e-payment app, you should have both, since some services only take AliPay. AliPay is exclusively used for payments and other financial transactions, whereas WeChat Pay is connected to the messaging app, WeChat. However, it is worth noting that whichever you choose, you can’t actually use either app without a Chinese bank account, which is fairly easy to do. I’d recommend going to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), since they have English speaking staff if your Chinese isn’t exactly up to snuff; otherwise there’s also the China Merchants Bank and Bank of China. China Merchants Bank has a special relationship with Bank of America so that Bank of America debit cards are not charged withdrawal fees.

It was a little strange at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, since it means that I basically never have to carry large amounts of cash on me. For those who live in the US in cities like New York, Berkeley, and comparable cities with large university student populations, you may be used to using a similar e-payment service called Venmo, which is essentially the same thing, though WeChat Pay is more widespread in China than Venmo is in the US, and AliPay is more integrated with a variety of shopping methods than Venmo is.

Taobao, the Chinese Amazon, uses AliPay to have customers pay for items. Some grocery stores have their own apps let customers pay for their purchases ahead of time and pick it up, or get them via delivery. Eleme (better known by its Chinese name 饿了么/餓了麼 – èleme) is the most widely used food delivery app in various metropolitan areas, and uses AliPay as its method of payment.
Deliverymen will come and bring it to almost anywhere, making it so easy to buy food, that some universities have issued policies against letting in deliverymen to deliver food to students!

It sometimes boggles my mind how easy it is pay for and buy almost anything in China, and it’s so quick and seamless that there barely even needs to be a conversation between you and the staff. I feel like it’s a little sad, since it does depersonalize the experience of going around in the city, especially when everyone is already so incredibly hooked onto their phones. When I say that there is a huge e-culture in Shanghai, what I really mean is phone culture. Not computers, but specifically smartphones.

Nowhere else that I’ve been has ever had apps like WeChat Pay so integrated into daily life, or has people on their phones all the time. It’s a little frustrating on trains, when some random lady is more focused on the drama that she’s watching instead of letting people by, when they’re trying to get off the train. It also means that you’re very dependent on your phone, and getting it stolen is absolutely disastrous. You can’t pay for anything if you don’t have your e-payment apps.

I’d be interested to know whether e-payment services make it easier for smaller shops to do business, since it makes it very accessible, as smartphones and phone plans are preposterously cheap in China. The idea of a cashless society seemed impossible to me before coming to Shanghai, and now it seems like a really good thing. People avoid having to keep large amounts of cash on hand, and it’s much easier to keep track of your transactions when they’re all on your phone. It’ll be interesting to see how e-commerce evolves in the future.

This week’s food updates!

Master Xu’s Vegetarian Special

This week, I went to a few relatively more upscale restaurants, though still reasonably priced. The first restaurant I went to was called Element Fresh, which is actually a chain of restaurants that specializes in using fresh ingredients. The food was quite good, and the vegetables were delicious! The assistant manager of their location in the Super Brand Mall, Grace, was kind enough to point out their vegetarian options, and their other staff do speak some English, if you don’t speak any Chinese.

Pumpkin soup with croutons

The menu itself is not of any particular cuisine, but rather has a variety of options, ranging from generic “Asian” dishes to Italian pasta. It was tasty, but I will say that it was a little heavy-handed with the use of pepper. It came with a creamy pumpkin soup that looks deceptively like tomato soup in the dim lighting of the restaurant. I’d definitely recommend going to Element Fresh, as my non-vegetarian friends also enjoyed the food. The price of my meal came out to 59 kuai, so it was very reasonably priced.

I went to an Italian restaurant this week as well, called LA Pasta. It was conveniently located right next to my dorm, so I decided to try it out. There are a few vegetarian items, though the least expensive is 42 kuai. I thought the pasta was OK, but it could have used more garlic or basil to really give it a flavor other than just tomato.

They also have lunch sets that come with drinks, appetizers, or soup at varying price levels, so I will definitely have to check out those some time. They’re pretty good deals for the money, so I’d recommend coming here in case you have difficulty finding something to eat in the Jinqiao neighborhood.

The same night I went to LA Pasta, my friends and I went out to Puxi to Dagu Road, a road with a lot of hidden gems for expats, including a Thai restaurant, a New Zealand restaurant, and other places. But what really stood out is the Shanghai-famous Indian restaurant, Masala Art, which has been lauded by many as one of the best places to get vegetarian food in the city.

Garlic naan and lachha paratha
Saag chaman, Baigan bhartha, and Chicken masala (ordered by my non-veg friends)

I and my friends enjoyed the food, but given that it was quite a far ride out to this restaurant from where I live, it was kind of difficult to justify. The taxi ride was around 60 kuai, and dinner (altogether) was around 67.5 kuai per person. My friends ordered the chicken, so I obviously didn’t eat that.

The two vegetarian items we did order, the saag chaman (essentially saag paneer) and the baigan bhartha, were decent. I’m not a fan of saag (spinach in Hindi) items in general, but the saag chaman was actually quite good, if somewhat heavy on garlic. I thought that the baigan (eggplant in Hindi) was only OK, seeing as the sauce was good, but the eggplant wasn’t marinated long enough, and the inside was very bland. It was also curious that there were whole pieces of eggplant, rather than diced up finely, or as almost a paste. The two naans we ordered were very good, and were thoroughly savored. I think that Masala Art may have other dishes that we didn’t try, so maybe it’s worth coming back to see if there are better items.

That’s all for this week’s post! I will be heading to Hangzhou next week, so look forward to my updates from that trip!

Week 3: Finding the Right Fit

Here’s my rundown of my third week in China! Note: I should probably note that this is actually my fourth week in China, since I spent the first week mostly moving in and doing orientation-related activities for school. But I’m just going to run with the numbers I’ve done so far. With that, here we go!

Shopping in Shanghai

Shanghai is an enormous city, just like New York, and can be divided into at least two areas, roughly speaking: Puxi and Pudong. Puxi is west of the river, and is where most nightlife, shopping, restaurants, and generally fun things to do are located. Pudong is primarily a financial district, with many of Shanghai’s corporations, banks, and other companies having buildings here. It’s also where NYU Shanghai is located, so I’m in Pudong most of the week. That’s not to say there’s nothing to do in Pudong, since there are a few malls here and there, along with food stalls that open

On the weekends, I usually go to somewhere in Puxi with friends, and this weekend, shopping was a big part of my travels. Specifically, I was trying to find a new pair of shoes, ones that I could wear for going out, but not casual. Regardless of what I was looking for, I wasn’t going to find it in any store whatsoever.

I’m a fairly large person, even in the US (though definitely on the smaller end of plus size individuals). This is especially true in China, where people my size are few and far between (yes, I’m aware that people like Yao Ming exist). But the trouble for them, and expats of my size, is finding clothing items that fit them. For me personally, finding clothes wasn’t a huge issue, since if I go to Western stores like Zara and Uniqlo, there will usually be larger sizes like XL and XXL available (my usually size range when shopping). Chinese brands are a little harder, and XL is considered quite big, and generally speaking, I have to look for at least a size larger for a given item to fit.

IFC Mall

However, shoes are the biggest problem. I wear a US size 13, which is about as far as most US outlets go, though some stock up to 14 or 15 (I haven’t seen anything larger). But in China, they use the European sizing system, which I believe is in centimeters. It is ridiculously difficult to find my size in China!  Contrary to most sites with equivalency tables, a 46 is NOT a size 13; it’s a 12.5 at best, since I ordered a pair of size 46 shoes from Taobao (the Chinese version of Amazon, though with much lower prices), and they were too small! I started asking for 47, but even in most Western brand stores, the largest size I found was a 44. The one time I did find a size 47, it was in a Clarks, and it was ridiculously priced at around 1800 RMB for a shoe I didn’t feel was particularly worth the expense.

My online searches seemed to indicate that the only recourse was to find stores that explicitly stock plus-sized shoes, look more online, or go to places like Charles Philip to have a custom pair of shoes handmade (which I don’t recommend unless you have the money to spare). For now, I’m sticking to trying to find something online again. If anyone has some ideas, I’m all ears!

Adventures in Food

My travels in food this week brought me to relatively more upscale places than I usually frequent in New York. When you’re vegetarian in the US, it’s commonly assumed that you really can’t eat anything, and by extension, anything you can eat is relatively inexpensive. I am used to paying no more than $13-14 USD for my meals in New York (which I consider somewhat pricey, given my frugal upbringing).

I was surprised to see that the vast majority of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Shanghai seem to be fairly upscale. I can’t really guess as to why this is the case, but since the RMB is only around $0.15, and I might not get the chance to do this again, I figured that spending a little extra on food is not such a bad thing. At my school’s cafeteria, my meals run from about 10 to 30 kuai, the colloquial word for the RMB in English, from the word 快/塊 (kuài), which is the measure word for currency in Mandarin. Interestingly enough, the colloquial word for the RMB in Mandarin, 元 (yuán), is sometimes used as the formal term for the RMB in English, labeled as the CNY (Chinese yuan).

Anyway, my vegetarian meals at restaurants in Shanghai are also usually no more than about 20-30 kuai, though sometimes I’ve spent 40-50 kuai, usually by buying a drink. Specialty drinks, such as mocktails or freshly brewed tea can often cost an extra 10 to 30 kuai, depending on the restaurant. This weekend, my friends and I went to the Portmann Ritz-Carlton, and checked out the restaurants near there, including one called Beef and Liberty, which is to the left of the entrance of the hotel as you walk toward it (to the right if you’re coming out). Coincidentally, Saigon Mama (the Vietnamese restaurant I went to from last week) is directly across from Beef and Liberty.






Beef and Liberty is a fairly small American burger restaurant, and despite its name, serves a variety of different burgers, including a vegetarian falafel burger! Be warned, as it is pricier than most restaurants I’ve been to so far. Sadly, the only vegetarian burger they have is their falafel burger, but fret not, as it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had! (That means something coming from someone who doesn’t really like burgers in the first place!)

The Falafel Burger (with a side of fries)

The falafel burger burger has a sesame sauce and a harissa yogurt sauce on it, so it has a bit of a kick, but the yogurt tames it a little bit (I would have preferred plain harissa, to be honest). While most people tend to thing of veggie burgers as not real burgers or not substantial enough, this burger was a hefty one, with a thick, crunchy exterior, but soft and almost fluffy inside. Each burger comes with a side of fries that aren’t oily and not too crunchy either, which I quite appreciated, and it certainly filled me up.

Aerial view (for an idea of how big it is)

But something must be said about the ketchup. Now, most ketchup in the US (which is often Heinz ketchup) is very sweet and seems unnaturally smooth and shiny. I usually avoid ketchup in favor of hot sauces like Sriracha and Cholula. Beef and Liberty provides bottles of Wilkin and Sons ketchup on each table, which was far better than most ketchup I’ve had, with a sweetness that came from the tomatoes and a little sugar, rather than corn syrup (the predominant sweetener in the US). It was more natural-tasting, and I really enjoyed the meal overall. The bottles don’t have a lot in them, so be careful about running out (I don’t know if they charge to replace them)!

The whole meal came out to 78 kuai, plus 30 kuai for a drink (a Liberty Lemonade, a sparkling lemonade with mint essentially) . For 108 kuai, which is around $16.33, I paid for a meal that I quite enjoyed, and certainly for which I will be back in my time in Shanghai. I might not get the drink next time, simply because I usually don’t order them, and I didn’t think it was anything special. I then proceeded to pay 88 kuai for a “temperance cocktail”  (fancy word for a mocktail) at the Waldorf Astoria Long Bar, called the Secret Garden. It was quite good, flavored with elderflower, kiwi, and apple.

I don’t drink alcohol, but alcohol prices in China are also fairly low compared to the US (so I’m told). My friends frequently buy several bottles of soju and beer from the nearby Family Mart (the Chinese 7-11; called 全家 (quán jiā) in Mandarin) every weekend after dinner (if not more often). Restaurants may charge around 20-50 kuai for a glass of beer or wine.

ರಕ್ತ (rakta – blood; Kannada) superimposed onto 家 (jiā – family; Mandarin)

Another interesting thing I came across was that one of my favorite stores, Muji, is completely different in China. It’s mostly a clothing store in China, whereas in the US, their products primarily consist of home goods and stationery. I can’t speak to the quality of their clothing, but they sell a variety of pens, notepads, and other stationery that are quite good quality (especially the pens). The pens don’t bleed and they come in different sizes. The Chinese locations sell brush pens, which they seem to have discontinued in the US, and it’s a shame because they’re really quite good quality! To the right is one of my calligraphy pieces using a Muji brush pen.

However, I discovered another oddity at Muji: ASIAN FOOD KITS. I’ve never seen these items at the Muji stores in the US, and I had no idea they make these things. I don’t know about the quality, but I will have to try it some time (the prices on these seem a little high in my opinion).

Anyway, that’s all for this week, and I look forward to writing next week’s post!

Week 2 in China: Seeing the Sights

Hello everyone! Here’s my post on my second week in China, and this time, I went exploring with my friends to different restaurants and new parts of the city that I hadn’t seen before.

Exploring Puxi

This week, my friends and I took to Puxi (浦西 – Pŭxī), which is the area located to the west of the 黃浦江 (Huángpŭ Jiāng), the Huangpu River. You can either take Line 2 on the metro for about 6-10 RMB each way, or take a taxi for 40-60 RMB, depending on how far you’re going.

We first visited the fake market at AP Xinyang Market, also known as AP Plaza, which is located inside the train station underneath the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. A “fake market” is a massive marketplace of imitation goods of popular brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as well as silk items and various souvenirs. A lot of the items here are of potentially dubious quality, such as leather goods not being real leather, but you do find very good imitations of luxury brands, which are often more durable than the real thing. If you’re OK with not having the genuine article, this is the place for you.

AP Plaza Fake Market

If you’re not into clothing, there’s plenty of other items to buy, like mahjong sets (~200 RMB), calligraphy items, decorative chopsticks, tea sets, and even jewelry. The Yada Pearl Market does boast genuine pearls, but they may not be of the best quality, especially considering that you can haggle with the shopkeepers. Tip from my friends: never settle for more than 30-40% of the original price. That said, there is at least one stall that sells calligraphy display pieces, which are mass produced ink prints made by a real artist, and the shopkeeper will write a name in Chinese for you. This is probably the only “real” shop in the entire market!

Beware that the calligraphy items like name stamps are not durable, and will scuff and break fairly easily (I was forced to buy one because the edge of my raincoat knocked it off the shelf)! They’re often made from low-quality stones, unlike the genuine carved stamps, which are often made of jade or marble. That said, they work just as well, so long as you take care not to damage them.

We then moved on to the People’s Square, and then Nanjing Walking Street, which is just beyond the square (which is pretty small, and is essentially just the entrance to the metro station).

人民广场/人民廣場 (Rénmín Guăngchăng) – People’s Square (during the day)

There’s a lot to see here, since it’s lined with all sorts of shops, ranging from Chinese sweets shops that sell 蛋挞/蛋撻 (dàn tă), or egg tarts, which are flaky pastries with egg custard brought by the Portuguese to Macau and Hong Kong, and now popular all over China, especially in southern China. I didn’t get an egg tart there yet, but I did buy a yogurt drink called 酸奶 (suān năi), which is essentially just yogurt. It comes cold, but apparently can be heated on request. I personally didn’t think it was anything special; it’s tart and a little sweet, and if I wasn’t told, I would have said it’s just sweet lassi, a similar drink made from buttermilk from the Punjab in India.

Visiting Lujiazui

On Thursday, my friend and I went to 陆家嘴/陸家嘴 (Lùjiāzuĭ – Lujiazui), a part of  town just near the river, and across from the Bund. I saw the Pearl Tower from up close during the day, which is pretty cool. 

Lujiazui is on Line 2 as well, and very accessible via the Century Avenue station. The IFC Mall is also located near the Lujiazui Station, a massive luxury mall with brands such as Dior, Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, and many more (it’s a ridiculously huge mall). I didn’t think to take pictures, mostly because my friend and I needed to go to the Muji that’s also in the mall to get some stationery, which seems to not be the focus of this particular location. The Muji in New York, just off Astor Place, is primarily stocked with stationery, and I didn’t know there was a significant home goods and clothing line until I went here.

A temple amidst consumerism

On Saturday, my friends and I continued to explore Puxi, going to 静安寺/靜安寺 (Jīng Ān Sì – Jing’an Temple), the most famous Buddhist temple in Shanghai. It’s difficult to miss, with golden roofs and massive lions at its doors. There is a train station (named Jing’an Temple) located right next to the temple, also on Line 2!  Entry is 50 RMB per person, so keep that in mind when you go.

静安寺/靜安寺 (Jīng Ān Sì) – Temple of Peace and Tranquility

The temple is beautiful, and there’s incense you can light for free (although they ask that you donate 5 yuan to the temple). There are four shrines, one with the Golden Buddha and another with a camphor wood statue of saint-goddess Guanyin, a unique feature of Chinese Buddhism. She is revered as a deity of mercy, and she is said to have guided Xuanzang, the monk who recovered copies of the Buddhist scripture to translate into Chinese, to India. Being a fairly observant Hindu, I made my own obeisances and many people do come from all over to offer their prayers to the Buddha.

It was nice to see that there were still monuments and places dedicated to Buddhism in Shanghai, and in such pristine condition. The temple was turned into a plastic factory during the Cultural Revolution, but now is a tourist attraction and a holy place for Chinese Buddhists. The temple, truthfully, is nestled in an odd place, being surrounded by high-end restaurants and clothing brands (there’s an Armani Exchange next door!). It seems to be a symbol of the cultural institutions that survived the Cultural Revolution. China changed thereafter, and continues to be in a state of flux with its current period of economic prosperity and booming consumer class. The temple truly is a space of tranquility in the middle the chaos of markets and consumer culture.

This week’s tips on food

This time on my travels as a vegetarian, I found Indian and Thai food! Along with Indian food, Thai food is one of the most reliable cuisines for vegetarians traveling in Asia, with a rich tradition of Buddhist cooking that continues today. I ordered a yellow curry, papaya salad (not pictured), and a dish called “crispy ear silk”. I know that this doesn’t sound vegetarian, and I didn’t think it was until I asked the waiter. He checked with the kitchen, and it is indeed a vegetable (if I go back at some point, I will update this article with the Chinese name).

Crispy “ear silk” and yellow vegetable curry at Hantai Restaurant on 4F 8座 (Block 8) of Jinqiao LifeHub

I also visited a very popular Indian restaurant in Shanghai, known as Bollywood, which has an interior decorated with many pictures of Bollywood stars. The restaurant is big, has performances every so often, and plays classic Bollywood music videos on a screen on the side of the restaurant. Indian food is literally a godsend for me, since it’s reliably vegetarian, and reminds me of home. Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the food, so you’ll have to settle for a picture of the entrance. The restaurant is located on Hongfeng Road, just past Biyun Road. The food is flavorful, but I suggest asking for the food to be spicy if you want it, since they may have toned down the food for my non-Indian suite mates. The vegetarian dishes I ordered were the Veg Jalfrezi, Kadhai Paneer, and Daal Makhani. The vegetarian dishes were very popular with my non-vegetarian suite mates, so that should say something about the quality of the restaurant! It was also quite nice when they told us that NYU students get 15% off, so I will definitely be back again while I’m here.

A little bit of home so far away from it

A tip for vegetarians (particularly those learning Mandarin) when perusing a Chinese menu (even if there’s English), you should look for the character for “meat”, 肉 (ròu) so as to avoid it.

However, this is more true of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dishes, since there are foreign dishes, such as spaghetti bolognese, that have meat, but may not necessarily include the character for “meat” in its Chinese name. The best thing to do is to determine what kind of dish it is based on pictures, look it up on a dictionary (such as Pleco, my preferred choice), or if your Mandarin is good enough, ask. Asking is quick and the waiter or waitress almost always knows. It’s not like the US where the waiters don’t know what it’s the food, and keep you waiting an extra 10-15 minutes while they go ask.

Handy tip: If it does have meat, the answer is often 有(肉)的 (yŏu [ròu] de), and if not, the answer is 沒有(肉) (méi yŏu [ròu]). The sounds very obvious, but it wasn’t when I first came to China, and I couldn’t understand what the answer was until I listened closely.

I also had Vietnamese food at Saigon Mama, a small Vietnamese cafe near the Portman Ritz Carlton, not far from Jing’an Temple. There are exactly two vegetarian things here, one of which is an appetizer (a tofu vegetable roll), and the other is a vegetarian bún (pictured below). At 55 RMB, this is a little pricier than usual, but given the size of the meal, I thought it was worth it. I also got a pretty little drink, called the Orange Ocean, at a bar near my dorm. My friends really wanted to get alcohol, but since I don’t drink, I was pretty pleased to see that this place made tasty non-alcoholic drinks. They’re technically for brunch and breakfast, but the staff (who are all very nice) were willing to make it for me.

I know that this post was really long, but they probably will be this long, given that I’m covering a whole week. I hope that you all enjoy these updates, and I look forward to writing next week’s post!

Week 1 in China: Food

Hello all! My first week in China is over, and I have a few pictures and stories to tell. This post will be about my vegetarian food findings, since I have a lot to share, and I’ll probably make another post later. Because I’m vegetarian, I will be talking exclusively about vegetarianism, and I can’t really vouch for the availability of vegan options (Sorry!). With that, here we go!

Number One: Knowing Mandarin makes your life infinitely easier in China.

I don’t care what other travel bloggers have said, but knowing Mandarin is strongly recommended if you go to China. This is mandatory if you’re a vegetarian, since there are only a handful of restaurants and eateries that are truly vegetarian. Knowing the following few phrases will help you if you’re vegetarian:

我吃素/斋(齋)*。- Wŏ chī sù/zhāi. – I am vegetarian
我不吃肉。- Wŏ bù chī ròu. – I don’t eat meat.
海鲜(鮮)不可以。- Hăixiān bū kĕyĭ. – Seafood is not okay/I can’t eat seafood.
請你別放肉。- Qĭng nĭ bié fàng ròu. – Please don’t put meat.
請問,這個有肉嗎?- Qĭng wèn, does this have meat? – Excuse me, does this meat?

*I haven’t used 我吃斋(齋) yet, but I’ve been told that it’s less vague than 我吃素, since it specifically relates to a Taoist/Chinese Buddhist vegetarian diet, which excludes eggs, milk, and many other animal derivatives that are not always considered meat in India.

萝卜糕和芋头糕/蘿蔔糕和芋頭糕 (Luóbo gāo hé yùtóu gāo) Fried radish and turnip cakes 

Being vegetarian in China is 100% possible and not very difficult, so long as you have a grasp of Mandarin and are willing to put a little more effort into find places beforehand, not to mention asking questions. Always, always ask. As someone who’s been vegetarian since birth, I can attest to the fact that you should never take anything for granted when it comes to food, and always ask the waiter or food providers if there are meat products in the food. If it means being that person at the table, so be it.

There are plenty of options at many restaurants; you need only ask or simply leaf through the menu. A lot traditional Chinese restaurants will have vegetable dishes with tofu or seitan (a gluten-based meat substitute), and you can order rice as well. For Western-style restaurants, such as Pizza Hut or Italian restaurants, it’s pretty hit and miss, and it is not uncommon for food items (including vegetarian ones) to actually sell out at relatively lower scale eateries. You can also find one or two things to eat at ramen restaurants, like this mushroom and vegetable ramen from Ajisen Ramen in Jinqiao Lifehub:

Generally speaking, food is pretty cheap in China right now, with 100 RMB going for about $15 USD. Items in upscale restaurants can be close to 100 RMB, which means that most items in other places are much less. This means a full bowl  bibimbap for around 25 RMB or a nice pasta dish for 60 RMB.

One of my favorite things in Shanghai so far is 蛋饼/蛋餅 (dàn bīng). . A 蛋饼/蛋餅 is kind of like a burrito, except that the filling is usually meat, vegetables, and sauce. For 7-8 RMB, it can serve as breakfast or a quick bite. The outer crepe part is similar to an Indian paratha, and I always get mine with an egg, ketchup, lettuce, and cheese. Because it’s on-the-go, I can go get my order from across the street, come back to my dorm room, and add stuff I have in my fridge (like fried mushrooms or Sriracha hot sauce).

After: with a little Sriracha sauce on top!
Before: a simple 蛋餅 with one egg, lettuce, cheese, and ketchup

The one downside (depending on how you look at it), is that you might be left a little hungry between meals since vegetables do have fewer calories. However, sweets are always vegetarian, and you can get ice cream, pastries, bubble tea, or other things that can satisfy a sweet tooth.

That’s all for this week, and I’ll hopefully have other interesting things to share with you all! Feel free to share this blog with your vegetarian friends who are thinking about a trip to China!

Guess Where I Am!

Hello everyone! I know that it’s been a while since I last posted, but I’ve just been so busy this summer with an internship that I never really found the time to post again. I spent this summer doing a lot of vocabulary review in Mandarin (went up to HSK Level 3), Hindi, Kannada, Italian, and Spanish. Every day on the train back to and from work, or at my lunch break, I did Memrise sessions to improve my vocabulary retention.

And now, I’ve made an even bigger jump than simply going from my small hometown in California to New York City for college. I’m in Shanghai, China for an entire academic year to study abroad! In addition to studying Mandarin Chinese, I’m also taking two classes in comparative politics as well as a class in Chinese bamboo flute.

In the future, I will be trying to use this blog more often, but it will include more stuff about my studying abroad in China. The topics I cover will be mostly about traveling, learning Mandarin, as well as some other things that I see and do in China. Since I’m a vegetarian, I’ll definitely be making quite a few posts about my experiences in China relating to that as well.

Hope you all enjoy this new series of posts!

The Art of Calligraphy

(Sorry I haven’t posted in a really long time! I’ve been studying for finals and finishing up my freshman year of university, but I’ve produced a lot of good work that I’m somewhat satisfied with. This is part of a larger work that I started as a project for a class that I’m going to expand in the future.)

Calligraphy has fascinated me as an art form because its artistic components and the analysis thereof have always mystified me. It seems like just pretty handwriting, and indeed in the case of Chinese calligraphy, it is often the case that calligraphy is used as an example of good handwriting.

The pedagogy of calligraphy in Chinese is highly focused upon small details. Stroke order, stroke rhythm, the correctness of the stroke, and the structure of the character are essential to the art. Apprentices begin by practicing 永 (yŏng, “eternal”), its eight strokes representing many of the most common ones, as well as its particular structure being good practice for learning proportion and shape. Deviation from the standard of the master or other teachers is seen as unthinkable, and to me, this presents a particularly puzzling issue. Copyright laws that impede the imitation of others’ works also make it difficult to maintain the tradition of following the work of masters. What defines the artistry of Chinese calligraphy? Where is there room for new stylistic choices? These questions are very important to the art of calligraphy, in my mind. Because different strokes represent different ideas, and the ultimate meaning of the components of a character comprise the final artwork’s meaning, it is very difficult to achieve mastery in calligraphy.

The meaning contained in Chinese characters, utterly unitary in their art, is contrasted with Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy in the Nastaliq script is strongly connected with the expression of ideas and beliefs outlined in the Qur’an, since figurative depiction is forbidden in Islam. Calligraphic representations of verses and words can be difficult to understand, since meaning is distributed along the horizontal and vertical axes. Words and letters overlap one another and where the work begins and ends can be difficult to see, especially in non-singular compositions. Arabic, being a language written more or less phonetically from right to left is not well suited to the styles of Chinese calligraphy, seemingly separated into invisible boxes. Further contrasting with Chinese, Arabic calligraphy is significantly more free-form, with a higher rate of occurrence of curved lines, and other decorative forms added to further illustrate the beauty of the words.

The fundamental differences between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy lie also in the linguistic differences. Chinese calligraphy is composed of glyphs with meaning unto themselves, whereas Arabic is written in multiple symbols strung together for meaning. Each letter, however, does have numerological value, similar to the values assigned to strokes in Chinese, each with a unique classification and mode of formation. The consonantal roots of Arabic make it an interesting step away from the formation of meaning in Chinese. Chinese forms meaning through the construction of a glyph from multiple different strokes, but all of the meaning exists in one place. Words in Arabic are constructed from usually triconsonantal roots, inserting different vowels around the consonants.

For example, the root k-t-b is related to writing, and different insertions of vowels can change the meaning of the resulting word, within the limits of the spoken language, of course. But what this means is that meaning is suddenly abstracted, free from tense, gender, plurality, voice and other grammatical qualities. Only the vowel marks, which are not mandatory and in fact are discouraged, contextualize the root. Only in works concerning the Qur’an and other religious texts are the vowel marks included to ensure the absolute correct pronunciation and reading of the text. Here we see yet another contrast: meaning is inherent in the root in Arabic, whereas in Chinese meaning is derived by the construction of its parts.

This brings us to non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts, where there is no inherent meaning in strokes and letters. This includes scripts like Latin, Devanagari, or Cyrillic, all three of which have small but present calligraphic traditions. English has used Latin calligraphy for older written documents, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta, mostly for representation of heightened qualities of official documentation and aesthetic value. Sanskrit and other Indian languages have used Devanagari for transcriptions of the Vedas and other religious texts, similar to Islamic Arabic calligraphy, but mostly manifest in regional variations which evolve into different scripts in the north of India. Cyrillic languages use calligraphy in their everyday cursive handwriting, similar to the Chinese art of modeling handwriting.

Now, the reason I discuss calligraphy at such length is because of the nature of non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts restricts the artistic scope of calligraphy in the languages in which they are written. They are purely aesthetic traditions, and there is little artistic meaning ascribed to anything inherent in the letters or the language. What I wish to do is establish a set of parameters for calligraphy in Kannada, a language near and dear to my heart, as my mother tongue. I wish to cultivate an artistic tradition with real meaning in the real world, one with which people can channel their ideas in significant ways. The word, “calligraphy” in Kannada is often translated as ಸುಂದರವದ ಅಕ್ಷರ (sundaravada akṣara), or “beautiful lettering”. This does little justice to the artistic, narrative, and semantic beauties of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, and therefore I propose a different word: ಸುಬರಹ (subaraha). Composed of the root ಸು- (su-, good) and the word ಬರಹ (baraha “writing”). While simplistic, I wish to ascribe special significance to the “goodness” of the writing. Calligraphy is an artistic medium through which semantic meanings are conveyed through an aesthetic manipulation of its physical form, thereby invoking a more esoteric dimension in the writing. As such will ಸುಬರಹ be defined.

The basic components of ಸುಬರಹ shall be enumerated as follows:

  1. The choice of word(s) – The semantic and narrative choices of the artist; It goes without saying that the language of the word must be in Kannada, and if derived from Sanskrit or another language, it must be appropriately altered.
  2. The manipulation of the letters:
    1. The length of strokes – The expanse of meaning of the syllable or root
    2. The proportion of diacritics and components of each letter relative to the base form of the letter – The interpretive expanse of the work (narrative) or the ornamentation of the work (aesthetic)
    3. Shapes contained (depicted or not) and perceived in the letters – Associative elements meant to narrow the focus
  1. The thickness of the instrument – The levity of meaning, precision of interpretation, or intended intensity
  2. Color of the medium – Associative meanings through color
  3. Canvas or setting – Contextualizes meanings of the work as appropriate

The artist may ascribe a poem, subtitle, or other form of description to the work. The original, printed version of the work’s content should be included somewhere in the work for clarity of comprehension, along with the artist’s signature (their real name or pseudonym, whichever is preferred). While none of these rules are set in stone, they should be regarded as the core elements of the Kannada calligrapher’s repertoire. It falls to the artist to indicate special stylistic choices that are heterodox or unexpected. Below are a few example works for you to examine and understand, given this new set of criteria.

Abhirāma Ilindra – A friend’s name
Mahāmitra Arasa – Another friend’s name
H̱ūni – Murder/Death
Ēṣiyāda Paraṃpare Tingaḷu – Asian Heritage Month
Qānuna – Law
Ṛtā – Order/Harmony/”The Way” (error: should be ṛtaṃ)