Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Fifty hours and a final exam

Is it possible to learn to speak Chinese in a week?

I doubt it, but my son John and I are finishing up a fifty-hour experiment in Mandarin immersion -- thirty hours of instructional CDs , ten hours in the classroom, and ten hours of tutoring with a Shanghainese college student. It's spread out over ten weeks or so, but the total is just over a week.

Observations: While the grammar is simple -- the verbs don't conjugate and the nouns are the same regardless of number or gender -- the pronunciation has been a puzzlement. The use of four major tones as well as a neutral or flat tone, plus an umlauted /u/, mean that Mandarin has in effect thirty vowels -- at least, the way I see it. This straightforward exchange illustrates the challenge:

"Shì sì suì? Haíshì shì shí sì suì?" -- "Bu shì, shì sì shí sì suì, keshì shì sĭ."

Translation: "Is it four years old? Or is it fourteen years old?" -- "No, it is forty-four years old, but it is dead."

The pronunciation sounds something like "Sh-ss-sw? High sh-sh-ss-sw?" -- "Boo-sh, sh-ss-sh-ss-sw, k'sh sh-ss." Granted, this is a tongue twister even for the Chinese, but for an American, distinguishing the difference between "shì" (to be) and "shí" (ten), or between "sì" (four) and "sĭ " (dead), takes a new level of concentration. And this doesn't even begin to address the written characters - if it weren't for the romanized "pinyin" I'd be totally illiterate.

Final exam starts soon. Results will be posted afterward.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Books on China

I've been trying to catch up some on the Far Eastern side of history and culture, but with mixed results.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China - author?. John Hood at the John Locke Foundation loaned me his copy; somehow I knew someone up there could recommend a history. A thorough overview of the country; amazing how much I simply never heard of, and interesting to consider how long China has been a nation -- National Geographic compared the Han Dynasty with the roughly coincidental Roman Empire, but there's not a comparable entity in European history. The absence of a timeline, anywhere, was perplexing, though; it would have been helpful for me if there were more crossreferences to Western history, to highlight the advances in technology which didn't reach Europe for centuries after the Chinese put them in practice.
Art: Good / Message: Neutral / Kids: One or two illustrations may be problematic / Read more: Possibly.

The Art of War - Sun Tzu. An ROTC friend loaned it to me in college; this time I borrowed from the corporate library. A rediscovered classic; the anecdotes added over the centuries are sometimes better than the original text. My favorite this reading is "the doctrine of the sheathed sword" -- the successful general will find a strategem leading to victory without a fight. A little tiring to read but not overlong.
Art: OK / Message: OK / Kids: OK / Read more: ??

The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck. An excellent example of good art, mixed message. Peasant farmer Wang Lung raises his family to the first levels of landed prosperity through hard work and patient suffering. He has a basic sense of shame and pity, exhibits the Confucian virtue of filial piety, and shows a general unexamined sense of ethical behavior; if Francis Schaeffer had been Chinese, he would have called this "the Confucian memory". Wang's gentleness toward his profoundly handicapped daughter ("My poor fool"), in a time when she might have simply been killed off, is a highlight.

On the other hand, Wang worships idols of clay; winks at infanticide; enriches himself with stolen goods; consorts with a prostitute and eventually buys one as a rival to his longsuffering wife O-lan; entices his troublesome uncle and aunt into opium addiction; and generally makes an idol of his land. The ambiguous ending suggests his financial success has led his sons away from his own basic virtues, and Wang Lung's decline into adultery, while reminiscent of David's, dwells too much and too long on his lusts.
Art: Excellent / Message: Mixed / Kids: No / Read more: Maybe

Judge Dee at Work - Robert van Gulik. Five short stories about 7th-century magistrate in China, solving local crimes and administering rough justice. No Brother Cadfael, this - nearly every woman in the book is a "courtesan", though that fact is treated as stage dressing generally. How prevalent that was in historical context I don't know but it pushes this lower on the message side. Judge Dee is fair enough as a jurist but the dialogue is implausible and the style is tiresome.
Art: Fair / Message: Fair / Kids: No / Read more: No

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Now that you mention it

I started the evening commute yesterday with a conference call on my cell phone , with six other people, and found myself on the same cell phone at 11:45 p.m., talking with a freelance writer in Hawaii who wanted to know about North Carolina's statutory attendance laws. This article showed up in the morning e-mail, and while it's nothing new it was certainly well-timed. Northern China, here we come.

The essence of the man

The Heritage Foundation send my wife and I a signed copy of Lee Edwards' new book, The Essential Ronald Reagan, as thanks for help with a local project. This is a short (155 page) overview of Reagan's life, including in the introduction both the North Carolina turnaround in his 1980 presidential bid and the worldwide response to his death in June 2004, by a long-time biographer of the president.

I have a longer review being considered by a state news magazine, but I can say one of the most impressive things I learned about Reagan is that the "intellectual lightweight" reputation was totally an invention of a hostile media. Reagan was actually very well-informed, a voracious reader from the start, but a genius at distilling complex issues into a few key principles. This gave him a clarity of thought and expression that more "nuanced" commentators disdain as shallowness, while in fact it was part of his strength.

An excellent book with an interesting critique of other works on Reagan, including Edmund Morris' authorized biography, Dutch (Edwards found it disappointing).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Oh, it's nothing, just a little typhoid

With a trip to China coming up, various experts recommended I get vaccinated for hepatitis A, a tetanus booster, and most interesting, typhoid fever. That last vaccine comes in a couple of forms, either injectable or oral. Due to the number of victims and relief workers connected with December's tsunami, we've found a shortage of typhoid vaccine in the U.S., and I've ended up taking the oral form. The relevant detail about that is that unlike the injectable vaccine, this is a live product -- genetically defused, sort of, so I don't get The Full Experience, but nevertheless, a low-grade typhoid infection.

The side effects can be "mildly" unpleasant, but it is typhoid, after all. The package insert says

The overall symptom rates from both studies when vaccinated with capsules were combined and shown to be: abdominal pain (6.4%), nausea (5.8%), headache (4.8%), fever (3.3%), diarrhea (2.9%), vomiting (1.5%) and skin rash (1.0%).

Well, call me statistically significant. All I can say is that when one quarter dose produces a reaction within the hour (the oral vaccine is four capsules taken over six days), I'm sure glad I'll have some immunity to the real thing when I get there. Meanwhile I'll just have to deal with "mild flu-like symptoms" for a few days.

Don't tell my office mates.