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!

Conlanging as a Tool for Language Revival?

Hello everyone! It’s been a very long time, and I’m glad to finally be writing an article! I’ve been reading, seeing, and doing a lot recently, what with papers and student events. But, I have something pretty interesting this time around.

As you may remember from a few posts back, I’ve flip-flopped on my opinions about conlangs, or constructed languages. I originally felt that learning constructed languages was a waste of time. I felt that it detracted from time that could be spent on learning natural languages, especially ones in need of documentation and study. However, after working on a research project on Sankethi for the past few months, I’ve done some rethinking.

I’m currently in a Facebook group for discussion of constructed languages, and many of the members have an in-depth knowledge of linguistics. They’re very well-versed in how languages have changed over time, how change occurs, among other things. Their ability to generate usable paradigms for constructed languages, and build an organic structure from scratch is just amazing. I recently read up on efforts to reconstruct languages like Akkadian, the language of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Proto-Indo-European, the postulated shared ancestor of many European and South Asian languages. There is currently a recording of the Epic of Gilgamesh in reconstructed Akkadian that you can hear online. The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European has been in the works since the 19th century.

All of this has me thinking about how many minority languages like Sankethi have a fairly limited technical or literary lexicon. I once thought, “Oh, what if I wrote something in Sankethi and imported Tibetan, Chinese, or Korean words for fun? How would that sound?” It made me think that conlanging could potentially be a form  Of course, there are complications in this, such as ethnic/national tensions. A command of linguistic knowledge could be useful for constructing useful words to build the lexicon of languages without a developed written form. Or one could better introduce and naturalize words into a language.

These are just thoughts, and not a serious investigation into the actual possibility, since I don’t know enough. If you have thoughts on this, feel free to leave comments!

How to Translate Stuff into Chinese

Translation is an often tricky issue for many interpreters and translators. There are varying beliefs about how one should go about it, whether that be keeping the meaning, the style, or word choice. On one hand, keeping the meaning intact seems like the obvious choice, since it’s what most people are looking for, and it gets the job done. Translation is just conveying the meaning of a text in one language in another, right? It’s not that simple. The Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 – Zhào Yuánrèn) remarks that translation is a “multidimensional affair”, in his paper “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese” (Chao 109). In this paper, Chao discusses how translation is rarely a simple task.

Chao observes that “when you translate a text, it is always in a context, and when you translate something spoken, it is always spoken in a situation” (Chao 110). The context of any translation makes the work more difficult since it includes time, place, society, class, education, etc. This is especially true of a language such as Mandarin Chinese, which has changed considerably from its classical form, and of which many dialects exist.

With this in mind, it may then be better to preserve the overall structure and style. However, even this is difficult, since the stylistic choices of an author or speaker are not always evident. Chao argues that “fidelity”, or truthfulness, to the original text, is the mark of a good translation. But, as one might expect, even that is a complex topic. Keeping in with Chao’s theme, which is the art of translation into Chinese.

As some readers may already know, Chinese is a large family of interrelated but mutually unintelligible tonal languages (for the most part). However, they share a writing system consisting of ideographs, or symbols that represent ideas and words. In contrast to many other languages, it is not a simple affair to translate names, places, or novel technological concepts into Chinese. This is because the translator is limited to using the existing characters, and therefore existing syllables available to read those characters.

For example, the word “chocolate” cannot simply be rendered as “cho-co-late” with various tones. In Hindi, and other Indian languages, you can do something like that: चौकलिट (caukliṭ). In Chinese, what has been settled on is a kind of phonetic translation where the individual characters are interpreted only for their sound: 巧克力 (qiăokèlì).

Due to many people trying their hands at translating such words, there are words translated according to different methods, such as semantic translation, where the meaning is more relevant than the sound. This is the case for words such as “taxi” and “plane”, which are (出租车/出租車 – chū zū chē)and(飞机/飛機 – fēi jī), respectively. These roughly mean “rented vehicle” and “flying machine”, respectively. These are what Chao calls “functional translations” (Chao 115), which translate the concepts rather than the meanings of words of a text. Phonetic translation is comparatively rare, due to the clumsy nature of the resultant translations in speech.

An interesting aspect of this predicament in Chinese is that it raises the question of how new words come to be. Technically, all Chinese characters are composed of components called radicals, providing a sound, tone, or semantic element to the syllable. Sometimes, the meaning is not obvious, or the pronunciation is not obvious. But there is definitely a logic to the characters, one that is implicitly understood by native speakers/readers of Chinese. However, it requires a much more developed understanding of that logic to be able to create new characters from scratch.

Now, why would someone need to do that? Well, if you’ve read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, you have read the whimsical poem known as the “Jabberwocky”. It is widely known for using words that sound like English but are not real words at all. This quality of a text is rarely seen, and difficult to translate, which Chao notes in his paper. It is to the point that Chao, who was a gifted polyglot, actually generates his own characters which adhere to the logic of Chinese characters, but are not coined words in and of themselves. This reflects the quality of word choice and stylistic decisions made by Carroll with words like “brillig” and “outgrabe”. To me, that’s pretty amazing, since I imagine you have to be very well read in Chinese to do that. I’ve uploaded a picture of the poem in Chinese below:

Citation: Chao, Yuen Ren. “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 29, 1969, pp. 128. www.jstor.org/stable/2718830.

While Chao used Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system that he devised, I’ve done my best to produce a modern Pinyin version of the romanization of his translation below, in addition to the original Gwoyeu Romatzyh text.

Yeou ‘tian beirlii, nehshie hwojihjide toutz
Tzay weybial jiinj gorng jiinj berl
Hao nansell a, nehshie borogoutz,
yeou miade rhatz owdegerl

Yŏu (yī) tiān béi lĭ, nàxiē huójìjī de tōuzi
Zài wèibià’er jĭnzhe góng jĭnzhe
Hăo nánsì’er ā, nàxiē bōluógōuzi
Háiyŏu miēde rānzi òude gé’er

Feel free to correct me if something’s wrong! My primary difficulty was deciphering what miade was supposed to be, but my best guess is miēde, since according to Chao’s paper, the poem’s pronunciation falls within the Chinese phonemic inventory, and mia isn’t a valid syllable.

Anyway, with regards to translation in Chinese, you’ll find that nowadays, people go with a functional translation for the most part. It’s an interesting translation strategy, and makes being a Chinese interpreter or translator difficult. That said, you shouldn’t feel discouraged about learning Chinese! I hope this article was interesting and informative!

Also, other news: My Hindi guide has been updated and uploaded, so feel free to download it whenever you’d like!

Language in Jeopardy: How to Protect Our Mother Tongues in Public

Take a look at this article before reading on: http://blog.angryasianman.com/2016/06/40-civil-rights-groups-demand.html

When I read this post from Angry Asian Man, I became an angry Asian man, to say the least. This kind of ignorance needs to be stamped out. In an age where Islamic terrorism threatens the lives of innocent Muslims who live in the diaspora, we need to be more vigilant on the behalf of these members of our societies. It is our responsibility to listen to them when they decry Islamic terrorism, rather than ignore them and then ask why they don’t say anything.

But more than anything, this incident’s relation to language struck me particularly strongly. Why the hell are these two men being arrested because some idiotic passenger thinks that any brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand is a terrorist. When this keeps happening on planes, buses, and other forms of public transport, I’m just floored by the people who say they should have been speaking English. Let’s consider the facts: these two men are foreign nationals (Pakistani and Indian respectively) who don’t speak English very well and are in a land very far from home. It’s only natural that they would find solace in finding someone else who speaks their language in a foreign land. Why do people suddenly have to place a label of suspicion on people who haven’t done anything, or cannot be proven to have done anything?

The lack of respect for the Sikh man’s violation of his person by removing his turban, a sacred item in the Sikh religion, is not enough, apparently. This man is apparently not even allowed speak his own language with someone else who does.

Something similar happened with a Chinese woman in Arizona (you can read the article here). Getting punched by someone for speaking your mother tongue in public is racist, prejudiced, and unbelievably horrible in so many ways. Even though I live and go to school in fairly liberal places (California and New York, respectively), I’m dreading the day where I have to be careful about what language I speak in public. As an aspiring polyglot who aims to specialize in Mandarin and Arabic translation/interpretation, these incidents are of great concern to me. These people who hear Arabic, Punjabi, Chinese, and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages in public and then react in these ways are a problem. This needs to stop. But what can we do?

  1. If you hear or see someone making private or public accusations of terrorism based on someone’s appearance or what language they’re using, you tell them that’s not okay. Just because you can’t tell the difference between Punjabi and Arabic doesn’t automatically mean they’re Middle Eastern, and that definitely doesn’t mean they’re terrorists even if they were. Leave them alone!
  2. Start learning other languages! Those who know other languages are frequently more open-minded than others and are exposed to a wider variety of opinions and beliefs than they might be otherwise. We should be instituting the teaching of Arabic and immigrant languages in schools rather than traditionally taught languages like French, Latin, or Spanish. Mandarin in schools is a step in teh right direction.
  3. Help out non-English speaking communities by employing your language to supply them with opportunities for jobs, community, basic amenities, and other necessities for living in a country where few people speak your language.
  4. To immigrant children: Don’t let go of your language. If you never knew it, try to get back in touch with it. Help out those in your community who need you. If you don’t speak it well, it’s never too late to start brushing up (as I can testify in the case of my Kannada skills).

And no, just because this is America doesn’t mean you have to speak English all the time. This isn’t a refusal to speak English at all. But if I want to have a conversation in another language, I have every right to do so. You have no business regulating what and what I can’t say, since we have the freedom of speech. Not everything we say has to be for public consumption. Immigrants and other people use their languages because it’s what’s comfortable for them. We are under no obligation or responsibility to use English if we don’t need or want to. Don’t tell us what to speak.

Stop demonizing immigrants and their languages.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for these articles. They have inspired me to be more active and political in my involvement with language.

Foreign Language Schools and Community

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this post will be concerning a central issue in the APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) communities.

In the United States, particularly on the coasts, there are a series of institutions that teach language skills. You may have heard of some of them, like the ABC Language Exchange, the Middlebury Language School, or the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, all of which offer classes in particular foreign langauges. These are more mainstream and broadly-reaching institutions, but there is another class of language institute, with a very different place within the community.

These are the foreign language schools, particularly for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Where I live in the Bay Area, you could find these just about anywhere. I had a lot of Chinese and Korean friends growing up, and many of them talked about their experiences going to “Chinese school” or “Korean school”. There are also Japanese day schools where the Japanese community can take classes, such as Sakura Gakuen, a particularly famous school in the Bay Area. The events of Japanese American internment, unfortunately, did cause these schools to decline. These schools are more about the community than the language itself, because they exist for a very specific purpose.

Immigrant communities that speak foreign languages, in varying degrees, want to preserve their languages in their children that are born abroad, in order to foster some kind of appreciation for or connection to their heritage. These schools allow for the parents of these communities to send their children to after-school or weekend classes to have their children learn their mother tongue. This kind of place is helpful to parents who have busy jobs and can’t be with their children as much as they’d like, or parents who want their children to have particular degree of competency in their mother tongue. These schools give these families an opportunity to immerse their children in their heritage and community.

Now, my Chinese and Korean friends, by and large, hated going to Chinese and Korean school. This is to be expected, since most children don’t like being given extra work, especially when they want to play or do other things in their free time. But I have noticed that some of them, especially now that a lot of us are in university, regret not paying attention in their Chinese or Korean classes, or regret making their parents taking them out of classes completely. But the thing is that these Chinese and Korean Americans are able to come together and foster a sense of community through their mutual experiences as well as language.

As an Indian American, this is something that I wish I had while growing up. I grew up not being able to speak my mother tongue well, if at all, and it was only after I asked my parents to finally teach me so that I could talk to my family in India that I finally learned. Many Indian Americans don’t really have the opportunity to go to any kind of after school or weekend class for their language, partly due to the sheer diversity of languages spoken by Indians. There isn’t an established tradition of sending children to such classes anyway, because many Indian immigrants can speak English at least conversationally, if not fluently. Many Indian immigrants feel that teaching their children anything other than English is not useful and therefore neglect teaching their children at all. Some also are under the impression that it will confuse their children to teach their children two languages. The latter, at least, has proven by many linguists to be absolutely false. Many children do grow up bilingual, quite successfully (evidenced by me, my brother, and many other children in the APIDA community as well as other communities).

Part of it is that these schools in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese communities have sprung from a need to create community since parents may not speak English and children can learn about their heritages through these communal centers. Another thing is that these communities have been in the United States for much longer than the Indian community (and South Asian communities in general), and are more established, which helps them in establishing these community centers. Language is often the binding glue of community, and brings people together in ways that other things do not, since it is the medium of communication. I think that as time passes, and that South Asian communities do become more established, there will be time where at least Hindi-Urdu language schools will become more commonplace.

Why I Have a Chinese Name But I Don’t Want to be Called “Sean”

Photo credits to freshofftheboatdaily, since this isn’t mine.

One of my friends on Facebook shared the photo in this post recently, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Names are of enormous importance to many people of different cultures around the world, and sometimes the nuances of naming can vary between communities by the language they speak.

In the Indian subculture that I come from, newborns are given their names by the rite of nāmkarna, a Hindu ritual that uses astrology and natal charts to pick names. We believe that the names that we give our children is somehow determinant of their futures, and often, parents will choose a name (within the rules of the process, of course) that includes a kind of wish for who their child will grow to be, something that almost everyone can understand.

Other times, our names are one of the epithets of a Hindu deity. This can puzzle some people in the West, who might view naming your child after a god as a kind of arrogance or self-importance, but the idea in Indian cultures is completely different. By naming your child after a particular version of god (each epithet references a particular aspect of the god), it is both a hope that the child will live up to the name and also fulfills the idea that God is everywhere and in everyone. Calling the different names of a god is also considered auspicious, so naming people after a god is a part of that sentiment.

The cultural backgrounds behind choosing names can be complex and confusing, but also incredibly fascinating, in my opinion. The generational poems of Chinese naming customs allow for an entire generation of children to be named with something in common. I won’t get into the specifics, but you can read a little bit about generational poems here.

That brings me to the title of this post. As you may know, I have a Chinese name that I use exclusively for speaking in Chinese: 羅常羲 (Pinyin: luó cháng xī, Jyutping: lo4 soeng4 hei1). I got this name after multiple Chinese friends of mine asking me if I wanted one, so when I went to a Taiwanese cultural exhibition in Grand Central Station, my friends had a calligrapher make a name for me.

My real name is kind of clunky to say in Chinese (or rather the Sinicized version of my name), especially given the way people call each other in Chinese. Very often, since people can have similar-sounding or even identical first names, Chinese speakers will address each other using their full names. My name is apparently somewhat obscure, so I might be able to get away with just 常羲, but it would be more appropriate to use the full name. I’m OK with using this name partly due to convenience as well as because I didn’t mind having the name, since I kind of like it.

Now, this may contrast with the sentiment of the photo in this post, since you might expect me to tell my Chinese friends to say my name correctly. The thing is, the issue wasn’t that my friends couldn’t pronounce my name, but rather for the purposes of learning the Chinese language, it wasn’t especially suited to being pronounced the way it really is. And that, I’m willing to concede, and like I said: I don’t mind.

The thing is that when I was in elementary school, many students and teachers found my name (Shashank) difficult to pronounce, and many people wanted to call me “Sean”. Maybe because I was impetuous and defensive, I didn’t like that name. I wanted people to call me the name I chose to be called, and they had to pronounce it the way I wanted them to. Today, people trying to nickname me “Sean” still makes me a little uneasy, so I usually politely request that they use my real name. Even now, I still wonder why it was so difficult for them to say, considering my name is only two syllables.

The point is that I refuse to be called anything except Shashank and nicknames that I actually approve of. This goes for anyone, anywhere. You all deserve to have yourself be called what you wish. People should either pronounce the name correctly or shouldn’t say it at all. Obviously, this can sound a little extreme, and I make exceptions for people whose sound inventories don’t include certain sounds. It’s a problem when I know people are more than capable of pronouncing a name correctly, and still refuse to try and pronounce a name the way someone wants, all because they’re too lazy to ask.

In my freshman year at NYU, I’ve met some people who have non-English names, and purposely go with a heavily Anglicized pronunciation of their name, even though it’d be pretty easy for people to pronounce it as it’s written in the language (obviously within reason). At first, I was a little put off by it, but I have learned that how we pronounce our names is up to us, and if that means “white”-ifiying it versus the traditional pronunciation, so be it. I might not like it, but again: it’s not for me to decide.

The reality is that this idea of not using people’s real names or somehow compelling them to change the pronunciation or the name entirely for someone else’s convenience is often discussed in the context of ethnic minorities. This happens to a lot of people with “unconventional” or “foreign” names, regardless of race. But in the context of minorities in the US like myself, this often feeds into very subtle dynamics of cultural repression and assimilation, and it is something that we must work against. But again: the choice is not always ours to decide (if at all).

The fundamental difference between my Chinese name and “Sean” is that I’m OK with one and not the other. Someone’s name is inviolable, and it’s not up to anyone to tell them to change it or how to pronounce it. The moral of this little story is: always ask someone how to pronounce their name, and earnestly try to pronounce it they way they want, not what’s most convenient for you. If they let you off with a mispronounced syllable or sound, then that’s fine. But respect what they have to say. It’s their name, not yours.

What Should We Be Learning In High School?

For many high school students in the United States (as well as other countries), foreign language education is a topic that has mixed responses when brought up. Many of my classmates from high school reviled it as a waste of their time, saying that “everyone speaks English anyway”. Others enjoyed it, like myself, and valued it highly as an important aspect of my education. In the United States, the prevailing languages taught in high schools are Spanish, French, and more recently, Mandarin Chinese.

The general premise of foreign language education is that it facilitates communication between people who otherwise might not be able to, as well as to improve relations between different countries.  There is a kind of cultural bias in English speaking countries where people from the United States and other English-speaking countries can ask people in other countries whether they speak English before attempting to speak in the native language of that country. It’s a poor habit that many Americans fall into, since our foreign language education is often subpar or non-extensive in its covering of cultural nuances.

At New York University, many of the programs require students to complete a foreign language requirement, which can range from completing only the elementary series to having to complete the entire series from elementary through advanced. Universities often provide a fairly wide variety of languages compared to high schools, but Spanish and French predominate as the biggest programs in many schools. NYU, specifically, offers languages including Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Krèyol, and even Quechua!

Now what I’m going to discuss is what languages we really should be teaching in our high schools, since I believe that our current selection is falling out of practical usage. Spanish is still one of the most useful language since many Hispanic immigrants reside in the United States, and Mandarin Chinese has similar applications in Chinese communities around the country. French is where it gets tricky. Very few people in the United States actually speak French in comparison to Spanish and Chinese, and even if Canada is on the border, the demographics of United States do not make French particularly applicable. Below are the top three languages that I think need to be replace French or otherwise be added to the foreign language curriculum of United States high schools:


Arabic, as a lingua franca of the Middle East, is an incredibly useful language due to its applications in refugee and immigrant communities around the world. The Middle Eastern communities will benefit immensely from the acceptance and tolerance for their heritages and beliefs if their language is taught in schools. However, as you may or may not know, Arabic comes in several regional varieties that are not entirely mutually intelligible, including Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Saudi Arabian. There is a standardized variety, known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based off of the Arabic of the Qur’an, known as Classical Arabic. We cannot possibly accommodate the many varieties of Arabic, so it is probably best to teach MSA in high schools, as is done in many universities.

Only at advanced levels can students consider specializing in a particular variety of Arabic, but each has its own merits. Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely understood regional varieties, given much of popular Arabic-language media is in Egyptian Arabic, whereas Levantine Arabic has applications in diplomatic relations and translation/interpretation in the Levant, which includes areas such as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, or Syria (Note: these areas do have their regional variations, but Levantine Arabic does cover all of them to an extent).


While many South Asians do speak English fairly well (if not fluently), Hindi-Urdu is a valuable language to implement in school systems. South Asian communities have a diverse set of languages spoken among them, and Hindi-Urdu does, to an extent, unite them through a common language. Unlike Hispanic and Chinese communities, South Asian communities are not afforded the privilege of having their language being mainstream, which contributes to dynamics of assimilation. Hindi-Urdu is a culturally rich language with a strong tradition of music, poetry, and literature. Part of the barriers to understanding South Asian communities is due to the alienation of their languages, culture, and traditions.

You may think that this is simply to accommodate the South Asian communities in the United States, but the fact is that South Asian Americans exist. Many of us are divided from our heritages due to the lack of ability to connect to it through our languages, and having the language of Bollywood to connect us is a way of strengthening our ties. Yes, we do have our own languages, but we have our own ways (and sometimes not) to connect with those heritages. Hindi-Urdu is one of the few ways that Pakistani and Indian Americans can find something in common in the way of cultural bonds. Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans have their own languages as well, and it is important to recognize that, and in communities with large populations of Bengalis and Sri Lankans, they do find their own ways to promote their languages (as I’ve personally seen in New York City). For the purpose of practicality, I support Hindi-Urdu as a language to be taught in high schools, due to its extensive cultural potential.


Russian is a somewhat practical language to learn, though this is more true on the East Coast with large populations of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. Russian, as a diplomatic language, does have some uses as well, considering that it is a lingua franca in many Eastern European countries. Since I’m not as familiar with Russian communities or the scope of the language, I admit there’s not much else I’m able to say.

The over-arching point of this post is to express that certain languages need to be promoted more than others in this changing world. The prestige of French and Spanish is not a valid excuse to neglect the communities of other nations as well as expand diplomatic and cultural relations with them.


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)

しりとり (Shiritori) and Word Games

Today, while hanging out with a few of my Japanese friends, I learned about a game called しりとり (shiritori), which is a type of word game where people say words, take the final kana (or syllable) and use that to find another word that begins with it. It was pretty difficult for me, since I have a fairly limited knowledge of Japanese words. So, that means if I say umi, the person after me has to say word that begins with mi. Obviously, you have to know the kana spelling of a word in order to play this game properly. The catch is that you cannot play words that end in the kana ん (n), since no words in Japanese end with this kana. On top of that, you can only play common nouns, so no names of places or people. If you are in a position where you have no choice but to play a word that ends in ん, then you lose. A similar game called “word chain” exists in English, though this version has way fewer way to ways to lose, since very few letters in English are like ん for the purposes of the game.

Now, what this made me think about is the fact that the idea of “spelling” is an almost unique thing to English, since nearly all letters have more than one possible pronunciation that overlaps with other letters. In Spanish and Italian, for example, spelling is fundamentally unimportant, since every letter has a one pronunciation and one only, and all words are spelled exactly the way they sound. French could conceivably have spelling-based games, since more letters are ambiguous the way English is. Even if the letter or symbol of a language has multiple pronunciations depending on the position of it in a word, spelling is insignificant so long as there no overlaps with other letters. For example, the letter “f” and the combination “ph” make the same sound, but are used to spell things in different ways. “Ph” is used in almost exclusively words of Greek origin, like “philosophy” or “philanthropy”, and “f” for everything else. But for the unlearned player of word chain, these words have ambiguous spellings.

Another thing that this pointed out to me is that in many languages, this game can end very quickly. For example, in Italian, nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that significantly shrinks the bank of words you can use for the game. Spanish has a similar problem, since relatively few words end in consonants other than and s. In many (if not all0 Indian languages, this game is not feasible, at least if it’s played like shiritori. Using the final syllable is very difficult, since even though Indian languages use abugidas, where each letter is almost always syllable unto itself. The problems come up when you have a syllable that has more than one consonant in it. For example, if I were to use the Kannada word ಮಿತ್ರ (mitra), the next word has to begin with ತ್ರ (tra), of which there are very few. It’s even worse if you play a word that ends in the sound ಋ (ṛ), since there are very, very few words that actually start with this letter. It’s just that the writing system is not suited for such games. For what might be obvious reasons, Chinese languages cannot play this game, since hanzi don’t work that way. Using radicals to determine the next word requires too much knowledge on the part of the player. Also, pinyin finals can’t always start a word, and tones restrict syllables even more.

Some of the languages that I think are suitable for this game (using either the Japanese or English version of the rules) include Greek, Russian, Korean, possibly Vietnamese, maybe Irish, and Catalan. Correct me if you think I’m wrong. One of the keys to this game is that there has to be a letter or symbol that little to no words can start with.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I highly suggest playing it for practice in the languages mentioned. Please remember to share this wherever you think people will be interested!

Listening to Wang Lee Hom (王力宏) to Study Chinese

As I’m continuing to study Chinese, I’ve gotten into listening to Chinese-language music in order to accustom myself to the pronunciation and the sound of the language. Granted, it might be a stylized or exaggerated pronunciation sometimes, but it’s still a good tool. I listen to mostly Wang Lee Hom (王力宏), though I have two songs by Jay Chou (周杰倫). I’m not a huge fan of Jay Chou, because of his strange voice quality.

As for Wang Lee Hom, I really like his songs and the meanings of the lyrics are fairly accessible, even to me, a person outside the culture. Some songs I recently got and liked include 就是現在 (jiù shì xiànzài – “Now Is the Time”) and 你的愛 (nĭ de ài – “Your Love”).

You might think that the reason I encourage people to listen to music in their target language is for acquiring vocabulary. That’s partly true, since you’re being exposed to new words. But more than that, music, especially popular music, is an excellent window into the culture. Popular music incorporates concepts, contexts, and thought processes that naturally occur in the language, and is a part of understanding culture as much as food or art.

For example, some of the titles and lyrics of Wang Lee Hom’s songs include references to Chinese proverbs and poetry. The song, 天翻地覆 (tiān fān dì fù) translates to “heaven and earth overturned”, which is a paraphrase of poetry and has acquired the meaning of “snafu” or “everything turned upside down”. Think of it as a kind of acronym. This use of a reference to a classical art form is likely something that most Chinese speakers appreciate, and it is likely understood as a clever usage. Such things give insight into the way cultures and languages think.

This post was kind of short, but it was just a little thing I was thinking about, so I decided to write about it. In other news, I’m going to be trying to start up my YouTube channel again and make videos, which may be difficult, given all my work at university and lack of a real space to make my videos. Please check it out and also purchase my language guides to help Akshayapatra Foundation feed underprivileged Indian school children! Your purchase is going toward a good cause!