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!

Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

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!

My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!