19 September 2011

Book Review: Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows is the wife of Atlantic Magazine columnist James Fallows, and this pair, most notably for our readers, lived in China (Shanghai and Beijing) for three years. They traveled to many places in the country and interviewed many leaders, expatriates, and regular Chinese citizens, while also keeping house, shopping for groceries, and doing everything else normal people do.
Deborah’s PhD is in linguistics, so she was naturally inclined to pay attention to not just what people were saying, but how they were saying it. As she struggled to learn Mandarin (not enough preparation time in the States before moving to China; had to dive into the deep end of the pool when she got there) her observational skills were sharpened even more just to function in society at a basic level.
As she eventually got her head around the language she noticed how the language itself was affecting how people interacted with each other. By immersing herself in a different society, learn Mandarin, and talk with all kinds of people, she was able to test the question, “do our thoughts drive our words, or do our words drive how we think?”
After about a year of living in China, she started drafting essays to explain what she’d learned, using a particular word or phrase to illustrate a broader concept about Chinese society. This book is a compilation of those essays, 14 chapters in all, plus a question-and-answer section and pronunciation guide at the end.
Don’t mistake this for an instructional textbook; it’s much more a meditation on how everyday people get along in China, and how a Western stranger can start to make sense of all their different voices. Having said that, the book is an excellent complement to any language-learning you may want to do. She has chapters that explain tones, pronouns, and homonyms more clearly than almost any other source I’ve read, and the guide at the back of the book helps you clearly say nearly 200 common words and expressions. And the information and references are extremely current (hardcover was published in 2010; the paperback edition which just came out has updated web links for further reading.)
Each chapter is a quick read of 10-12 pages, and her writing style is relaxed and conversational. Spending time with this book is like having a cup of coffee with a good friend who’s just returned from Asia with a bag of little gifts just for you.

For other media and product reviews about Chinese culture and travel, visit http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Reviews.html

14 September 2011

Milk Contamination Update - September 2011

Articles in the September 2011 editions of China Today and NewsChina magazines (neither available on their English-language websites) both address recent food safety scandals.

So far in 2011, per these sources and other news outlets, Chinese consumers have put up with contaminated pork, dyed steamed buns (made with cardboard), recycled bread, recycled cooking oil, contaminated duck, poisoned bean sprouts, noodles, and peppers, seen watermelons explode in their fields due to applications of artificial growth hormones, and pork cuts that glow in the dark.

And as we’ve linked on the weninchina.com Formula Concerns page, tampering with China’s milk supply continued well after the 2008 tragedies became common knowledge.

The China Today article lists various regional and local law-enforcement initiatives put forth to encourage the public to report tampering and punish producers who violate the law, inferring that food safety standards in the People’s Republic are similar or better than international and US regulations.

In contrast, the NewsChina article cites a domestic expert saying Chinese dairy products “some of the worst in the world” and the majority of milk available “is no better than ordinary water.”

This article reports the regulations on bacterial density in raw milk were changed in 2010 to allow up to 2 million microorganisms per milliliter – 20 times more than the American standard, and 70 times higher than the Danish regulation. The minimum requirements for protein content were also relaxed and are now well below international standards.

NewsChina claims in the article these changes were in the interest of the two largest dairy companies, Mengniu and Yili (who together control over half the Chinese market), to allow them to use lower-quality, lower-priced raw milk supplies which can be processed at high temperatures, as opposed to traditional pasteurization. The high-temperature method allows the milk product to be shelf-stable for up to 3 months so it can be distributed nationally, but it also requires adding protein and thickening agents. (The melamine added to raw milk in the 2008 scandals was to make the milk appear to pass the protein-standard tests.)

The article notes disagreement among Chinese dairy-industry experts – milk processors cite the low quality of raw milk coming from independent farmers as the reason for needing lower standards, but others say the low prices being paid by the processors are keeping farmers from improving farm conditions and equipment that would create better-quality supply. NewsChina notes Mengniu and Yili have greater spending on advertising and distribution than on efforts to improve their supply chain quality.

Until this market imbalance significantly changes – as it did in Western countries over the 20th Century – to include dairy price supports, farmer-led co-operative production organizations, and independent and rigorous public health authorities, the presence of stiff laws will not prevent further scandals. The China Today article acknowledges this, quoting Xu Hu, deputy director of Public Order Administration of the Ministry of Public Security: “…the cost of lawbreaking is perceived as low, and the law will not really protect consumers and potential victims.”

For families traveling to China for adoption, it is still recommended to heed the 2008 milk powder / infant formula warnings, and bring formula from home or international brands picked up in Hong Kong. For adults and older children just visiting, don’t avoid milk products (like ice cream) outright, but as with any food, pay attention to your senses – if something seems not right, eat something else.

12 September 2011

More Milk Coffee Reviews!

With tonight's milk coffee reviews, we try the original canned coffee - UCC, from Kobe, Japan; a brand we know nothing about - Mocca, from Suzhou, China; and another big brand from Japan, Sangaria, from Osaka.

The UCC and Sangaria products defined what canned milk coffee should taste like back in the early 1970s as they built distribution and became strong brands. The Mocca-brand product, however, is what we'll call shanzai coffee - in fact, I can't really determine just what they were trying to make it taste like.

For the full review, click to http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Entries/2011/9/12_Milk_Coffee_Quest%2C_Part_2.html, and to see our other product and media reviews, go to http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Reviews.html

06 September 2011

Do you have your mooncakes yet?

The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place Monday, September 12 here in North America. Check out the fun selection of different fillings, brands, and packaging at your local Asian supermarket!

Our decorative metal box here has a drawing of Chang'e, the Goddess of the Moon. Our background info about the Mid-Autumn Festival, explaining why Chang'e is so important, is at http://www.weninchina.com/People/Mid_Autumn_Festival.html.

Meanwhile, back in China, Beijing authorities have imposed a Mooncake Tax for when employers give their staff or clients any of these tasty pastries - that the recipient has to pay! They're calling it "unearned income"...

Family-friendly airport guide: Copenhagen

Our second new airport guide released this week is for Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport (CPH). This sleek yet very comfortable facility will be seeing an increase in flights to China; Shanghai service will begin in the spring of 2012, and Beijing is already served daily.

CPH is very easy-to-use for traveling families. Retail and food options have plenty of child-appropriate choices, restrooms are convenient, and there are several play areas for burning off energy. (There are also several great places for relaxing-time, too.) Long-range and short-haul flights are only minutes apart and transfer procedures are efficient and quick.

Whether you're a Scandinavian family heading to Asia, or a North American family visiting Europe, this guide will familiarize you with the layout of CPH, its food and shopping, and security.

Our Copenhagen guide is at: http://www.weninchina.com/Airports/Copenhagen.html

05 September 2011

Family-friendly airport guide: Seoul - Incheon

Our third airport guide released this week is for Incheon Airport, near Seoul, South Korea (ICN).

There may not be another large airport quite so purpose-designed to make the connecting experience for families as smooth as at ICN. Play areas and nurseries are generously-sized and located throughout the facility. An astonishing number of food choices will satisfy any picky eater. There are TV lounges to zone out and Korean-culture activity centers for hands-on creative fun.

Flight transfers are simple, with a simple security check and close-by gates. Stopovers in Korea are also easy in either direction, as visas are not needed for kids with an onward flight. And Seoul has nonstop service to more places in China than any other foreign airport.

Our Incheon guide can be found at: http://www.weninchina.com/Airports/Seoul_ICN.html

Family-friendly airport guide: Amsterdam

We are posting three brand-newairport guides at weninchina.com this week; the first is for Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport (AMS).  This airport has more nonstop and direct service to Chinese cities than any other facility in Europe, and has consistently earned high quality rankings.

Even if you're just traveling into Holland - or through to another European country - this guide will walk you through the different sections of the airport, explain the different security procedures, and point out where to eat, play, and relax.

If you have several hours between flights, the world-famous observation terrace is a must-see. (I wish we'd had more time when we went through there this summer...)

Our Amsterdam guide is at: http://www.weninchina.com/Airports/Amsterdam.html

03 September 2011

Media review: Bilingual Songs: English-Mandarin Chinese Vol. 1

Sara Jordan Publishing is a Canadian educational materials company that has produced over 60 audio and book titles for early childhood; math, language, and social studies; and bilingual instruction. Their products are distributed through educational supply stores and catalogs, as well as directly from the publisher (both in CD form and digital download.)
Sara has dozens of titles available for teaching Spanish and French; this is her first entry into the Mandarin market. I had the opportunity to talk with her in 2009 at an educational tradeshow and purchased this CD from her (at a discount; regular price $17.95) to use informally with my daughter at home so that we can maintain some constant Mandarin exposure. For the past six weeks she’s had this disc playing at bedtime (so I’ve been listening to it quite a bit as well.)
There are 12 songs on the CD, plus instrumental versions of all 12. A songbook is included which shows lyrics in English, Pinyin, and Chinese logograms. Each of the songs are half-English-half-Mandarin; alternating either paragraph by paragraph, or line by line. The lyrics were written by a native Mandarin speaker and sung by native speakers as well. (And the English lyrics and singing are done with a mid-continent American accent - not a Canadian accent.) The songs introduce lots of basic vocabulary and phrases; titles include “The Alphabet,” “Counting to 10,” “Food,” and “Family.”
The music itself is not Chinese and does not use Chinese instrumentation; rather these are Western rhythms performed with instruments often used on children’s music (xylophones, drums, guitars, piano, etc.) and arranged in various peppy, energetic styles - feeling more like music of the Caribbean at times. Sometimes the music tracks overwhelm the vocals, but when you listen to the album frequently - as young kids want to do - you’ll pick up what’s being sung after a couple times through.
What does my daughter think? I have caught her humming some of the tunes during the day, and she is occasionally using Chinese number words. She does enjoy the music and wants to keep the CD on nightly rotation.
As a learning tool, running this CD as background music isn’t going to magically teach your child basic Mandarin vocabulary. This is really meant to be used with the songbook so that you or your child’s teacher can introduce specific words and phrases and reinforce them with the music. Likewise, your child isn’t going to learn anything specific about China or Chinese culture from this album - it’s a culture-neutral product used just to introduce and reinforce vocabulary.
I do recommend this disc; compared to CDs of “Chinese Children’s Music” produced in Asia, the arrangement of vocals and instruments, supporting information, and pleasantness of the music makes it much more suitable for beginning the teaching of Mandarin. The absence of military anthems and obscure poetic forms makes it much easier for kids in Western homes and classrooms to concentrate on learning the Mandarin words.

For more reviews of media, travel products, and other fun cultural items to learn more about Asian culture, click on: http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Reviews.html

And of course, for advice and tips for families planning trips to China for adoptions or just for fun, click on http://www.weninchina.com/weninchina/Home.html