going fruity

August 8th, 2014

IMAG1903

I’ve noticed more and more stores like this popping up around the neighbourhood recently. The earliest ones started to appear a few years ago, but there seems to be a sudden increase in them. Here’s a few points I’ve noticed about them:

1: The aesthetic seems to be largely the same among all such stores, from the general layout right down to the colour schemes, size, style, and fonts on the signage.

2: Although they are generally green grocers, the focus is definitely on fruit – to the point where the names of the stores, be they independent or branches of a chain, always feature the character (guǒ, fruit). In this photo, the store’s name is 果蔬鲜 (Guǒ Shū Xiān), which, in addition to having quite a pleasant sound, means literally “Fruit Vegetable Fresh”. Another new grocer I’ve seen is called 多果多 (Duō Guǒ Duō) – “Lots of fruit, lots”.

3: This is perhaps the important bit: These stores seem to be occupying a previously vacant niche between supermarkets and markets. The example in the photo above is located in a residential area right around the corner from a lane that becomes an impromptu market in the mornings. Not far away is the large, 2-storey barn that the local outdoor market was moved in to a few years back. About 500 metres down the road is a supermarket. And so the locals have choices: They could buy their fruit and veges from people squatting behind blankets spread out on the ground; They could walk a little further and buy from a market which is certainly cleaner and has a full range of other daily goods and necessities, but is still very much small stallholders, with all the nagging little questions about where they’re really sourcing their products from; They could trek down to the supermarket and pay definitely higher prices while getting no greater a range of produce to choose from; Or now they can shop at this new green grocer, which has a good range of fruit and vegetables, and whose set-up and signage projects that same air of security and confidence as the supermarket.

Now, Zespri is doing a very good job. Zespri is easy enough to find, especially in higher end/international supermarkets. Zespri is doing well enough that I’ve seen cartons of kiwifruit in suspiciously Zespri-like colours with suspiciously close to IPR-infringing labels. But I don’t see a lot of other New Zealand fruit around. It seems to me that New Zealand has two huge advantages when selling fruit to China, namely its clean, green, quality reputation and the off season. These new stores seem to me a good sign of the demand among ordinary Chinese for better quality goods and a better quality experience. Surely New Zealand could step up?


China Connection

July 18th, 2014

Note: This is a  very slightly altered version of a post I wrote on my Linked In profile. There’s a link to my Linked In profile on the right sidebar if you’re interested.

The New Zealand Herald has been running a China Connection series by Paul Lewis in association with the BNZ every Friday, and as the series continues it gets more interesting. Today’s instalment looks at SMEs and China, and there are three points that grabbed my attention.

The first point may well come across as a bit nit-picky on my part, but I will explain. Look at this sentence:

“Last month, BNZ took a delegation of exporters – dairy farmers, croppers and mixed agri-business interests – to Shanghai, Beijing and Xian, checking out export opportunities.”

There is a spelling mistake here, and it is not as minor as it seems. The problem is in the names of those three Chinese cities. Now, it is fair to not include tone diacriticals, as a strict adherence to the rules of Hànyǔ Pīnyīn would dictate, firstly because the article is in English and aimed at a general anglophone reader base, and secondly because very few Chinese people bother including tone diacriticals. Far more important, though, is the missing apostrophe. In Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, when the spelling of a word creates some confusion as to whether it is one syllable or two, or where the break between two syllables is not made clear by the spelling, an apostrophe is used to separate the two syllables. Xian is one single syllable, and therefore one Chinese character, perhaps 先 (first), 县 (county) or 线 (line). The name of the capital city of Shaanxi Province is Xi’an – the apostrophe makes clear that it is two syllables and where those two syllables break. In Chinese characters it is 西安 – you can see the difference between the city name and the monosyllabic possibilities above.

This is not just a writing teacher being unnecessarily or excessively fussy about spelling, nor is it a Sinicised version of the rage some feel at the sight of the infamous ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. Attention to detail is important. David Cunliffe’s electorate office recently had a bit of bother digging up some old documentation because somebody had filed it under ‘Lui’ instead of the correctly-spelled ‘Liu’. I am aware of a recent case where somebody’s inattention to detail has caused quite a lot of strife for some new graduates, to the point where one has lost a job because her paperwork did not arrive in time, and other people’s jobs or enrolment in masters degree courses could be affected. Inattention to apparently minor detail can have some surprisingly big real world consequences.

The second point that grabbed my interest was this:

“The interests of the two countries tended to be complementary – Australian business tended to focus on beef and grains and minerals while New Zealand’s primary interest was dairy.”

The first reason that grabbed my attention is the image of the two countries playing to their relative strengths. That is absolutely what needs to be done. Unfortunately, in my experience in education, it is something that all too often fails to happen. I have seen far too many rely on something vague like “the English language” or “quality education”, perhaps with “comparatively cheap” thrown in. This is the wrong approach because plenty of other bigger, better known countries have exactly the same thing to offer. New Zealand is a very small player in a very large world, and so New Zealand needs to be very specific and very loud about the precise advantages and strengths that New Zealand has to offer. This applies to the country as a whole and to every specific company, organisation and institution looking to break into the China market. The deal EIT is doing with Qilu University of Technology that I posted about on July 4 (I hope that link works – I’m still getting used to Linked In’s set-up) is a good example of how things should be done – EIT playing up the specific strengths it and its region have to offer to a university and a region that stand to benefit directly from those strengths.

The third point to grab my attention was this:

Asked whether the two countries had a different approach to doing business in China, Healy said: “I think New Zealanders have a natural advantage in working well with other cultures. You can see how that comes out of daily life here.

“New Zealanders perhaps come across as more culturally aware whereas Australians maybe tend to be more strongly perceived as Australians. It means New Zealanders do well overseas, when dealing with locals from different cultures.

My experience has been different. Yes, New Zealanders do generally get along. I think that’s the advantage of coming from a conformist, non-confrontational culture – from an early age you are taught to find ways to blend in and compromise. But, well, put it this way: Although Americans have the reputation for being bad, ungrateful and ungracious travellers, I have met Americans who speak standard Mandarin better than most Chinese. All the Americans I’ve met in China who do not speak Mandarin have been apologetic about that fact. I have heard two New Zealanders boast about having lived in China for years and not speaking a word of Mandarin beyond the bear necessities to travel between work, home and play and keep themselves fed and watered. I have seen New Zealand programmes in China fail in part because management was blissfully unaware of the linguistic, cultural and social aspects of what they were trying to do in China. Quite simply, New Zealand does not value foreign language or cross-cultural communication skills anywhere near enough, and too few New Zealanders appreciate the importance of the linguistic, social and cultural aspects of business.

This ties into a theme that runs through Lewis’ article: Preparation. To succeed in China you must be well prepared. I have seen some arrive in China apparently thinking that Jim Morrison’s advice to Wayne in Wayne’s World 2 is all they need: “If you book them, they will come”. No.  In addition to all the usual legal, financial and commercial considerations, you need to remember that you’re dealing with a very different culture and a very different society, and that everything is going to be translated into a very different language. It sounds obvious, and it is obvious, but I’ve seen too many forget this. For example, your posters full of pictures of young people climbing mountains, surfing, skiing and kayaking might be great for recruiting New Zealand students who are looking as much at lifestyle considerations as they are at study opportunities, but they will have Chinese parents saying no and moving on – and yes, I have seen this. But wait, “New Zealand students”, “Chinese parents”? Well, yes. If it’s education you’re selling you need to understand that there is a very different set of equations governing who makes the decisions and how. So how do you attract Chinese students? What is written about China in English represents only one tiny part of the picture. To keep up with how things are changing in China and how those changes are going to affect your business, whether it’s milk powder or IT or education, you need to get a fuller grasp of the overall picture. During Fonterra’s recent DCD and botulism scandals the New Zealand media passed on Fonterra’s and the MPI’s assurances that everything was fine. The Chinese media reported something rather different.  You need to be able to listen to Chinese people and read what they write.

 

naive?

July 4th, 2014

Well, I’m kinda hoping for David Shambaugh’s sake that there’s a bit of misreporting going on here, quotes being taken out of context, or something like that, because:

“Google is down. Yahoo is own Bing is down. You can’t access the outside world.”

And that, dear friends, is

BULLSHIT!

I have my gmail open in another tab, I just googled David Shambaugh and opened the Wikipedia article on him and his page at the George Washington University website, and all of that without a VPN or any other jiggery pokery to get me outside the tender embrace of Nanny and her Great Firewall.

Yes, censorship exists, and yes, many websites are blocked. No NY Times, Youtube, Vimeo, Le Monde, Guardian or Blogspot. And now Flickr has disappeared (at least, for me) since Tuesday. Gee, I wonder what could’ve happened somewhere in China on or about Tuesday, pictures of which the CCP would prefer people not to see? But news of the birth of the Great Chinese Intranet, though long rumoured, is still most appropriately filed in the “grossly exaggerated” basket.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Shambaugh’s reported comments on China’s foreign relations. I would’ve thought somebody who’s been coming to China very regularly for 35 years and makes a living studying China’s international relations would have a more nuanced view of things. But this article gives the impression he takes a Cold War-tastic Us vs. commie Them view, and he expects (as so many North Americans and Europeans do in that, “Oh, we just assumed…” kind of way) New Zealand to fall very firmly in the Us camp. Then he discovers New Zealand isn’t quite toeing the expected line:

“Australia is doing it, Asean countries are doing that, India is doing that, Japan is doing that, the United States is doing that so it seems to me that New Zealand is a bit of an outlier in terms of regional relations and even global relations with China.

“To have good relations is not a bad thing but you have to have multi-faceted relations. You can’t just have relations with a country based on economic interests alone.”

Well:

  1. I don’t see the necessity for any particular country to jump on the “arm ourselves up to counter China” bandwagon. I don’t have a problem with countries that have active territorial disputes with China keeping their militaries up to date with a view to countering the perceived China threat, but I don’t see why Australia or the US need to join in, and I don’t see how their taking sides helps matters at all. I’m also growing rather tired of the automatic assumption implicit in this and so much reporting of China issues that China must be in the wrong. So far as I can tell, China’s territorial claims are just as in/valid as everybody else’s. There are no Goodies or Baddies here, just a whole lot of waving about of historic documents of dubious origin and relevance and chest-puffing buffoonery.
  2. Yes, I would agree that John Key’s government seems to focus international relations on trade relations to a rather excessive extent, but I can’t help but feel Shambaugh has focussed on that excessive focus to a greater extent than warranted.

As for the more serious of Shambaugh’s reported claims:

He said the repression was the worst it had been for 25 years

Well, I don’t know how you quantify such things. There certainly is much to worry about. But the article goes on:

He noted positively some reforms including the loosening of the one-child policy, an enhanced role for the market in determined resource allocation, making Government budgets more transparent, more fully funding public welfare and establishing agencies such an a super environmental agency.

There were also suggestions from the plenum that there could be other reforms in the financial sector, the banking sector, an improved foreign investment climate, enhancement of property rights, the tax system and legal and judicial reform.

He said there was real potential for policy break-through but he anticipated great bureaucratic resistance.

“It is not very common in world history for those who have wealth, power and privilege to voluntarily divest it in the broader interests of the nation.”

He suggested the party itself could now be the greatest impediment to reform.

Which suggests to me that Shambaugh’s views actually are considerably more nuanced than it first seemed. Now, I need to run off and print a couple of things before lunch, so let me keep this short:

Yes, there is a lot I’m seeing, on the streets, on billboards and banners and posters, in the media, and online that has me, shall we say, concerned. But there is, as suggested in the above slightly too large quote, plenty going on that gives cause for hope. I’m finding it really hard to figure out how things are going. But the idea that “multi-faceted relations” means “beefing up the military to contain China while still trading with China”, as this article implies, seems to me to be only marginally less simplistic and considerably more dangerous and less responsible than simply trading with China.

well, well, well

June 19th, 2014

And now that I have access to Blogtown again…. This post at the Repatriates I would’ve preferred to put here, but wound up posting over there thanks to a crapped out connection yesterday.

And now over at Public Address Russell Brown has weighed in. I find myself agreeing with him.

in which I rant a bit

June 7th, 2014

I didn’t quite know where to put this particular rant, as it doesn’t quite fit on any of the little online projects I have going. So I put it over here. Short version: I find the idea of requiring foreigners to pass a test before being allowed to drive on New Zealand roads obnoxious and ridiculous.

xenophobia?

June 4th, 2014

*note: This was written yesterday, but my connection to Blogtown crapped out so I couldn’t post it, so I posted it over here instead. Now that Blogtown is accessible again, I’ll post it up here where it belongs:

Xenophobia of many kinds seems to be a fairly common weapon in politics, and New Zealand is no exception. But what’s got me interested is the talk of foreigners in NZ politics this year, what with the election coming up. You’d think it’d be the same old Winston Peters hating on Asians, but no.

First up is National’s apparent inability to stop its ministers from having their relationships with Chinese business people revealed. Potentially dodgy relationships, like Judith Collins and Oravida, or relationships with possibly dodgy people, like Maurice Williamson with Donghua Liu. And apart from bashing his partner and apparently using his political connections to ease the residency and citizenship process, it turns out Liu was involved in a corruption case back in Chongqing. He wasn’t charged, it seems, but gave evidence as a witness. But look at this:

According to a court judgment obtained and translated by theHerald, Liu – as general manager of real estate development company Chongqing Tianlong – sold real estate to the political leader and his wife at heavily discounted prices, purchased some back at inflated rates and waived debt to a total benefit of $375,000 to the couple.

In return, the Chinese politician used his position to support Liu’s construction and cement businesses by approving projects as well as land permits and mining licences.

[......]

“Although Liu didn’t make a specific request in exchange for the gift, the intention was clear that as a county party secretary Ping Ma would have the power to benefit the companies in the future,” said the verdict of the Intermediate People’s Court of Chongqing.

[......]

“Although the behaviour is different compared to directly receiving properties, it is only a different method of covering their criminal acts of bribery.”

Aha. And:

Liu’s Auckland-based lawyer, Todd Simmonds, said that neither Liu nor his company was charged with any alleged offending.

“The involvement of Mr Liu in these proceedings was simply that of a witness,” Mr Simmonds said.

“Mr Liu does not wish to make any further comment in relation to this matter.”

It would be useful if he did make further comment. Because it certainly seems as if even if his business practices were legal, they certainly seem to have been unethical. Otherwise why would he have been a witness in a trial whose decision mentions his business practices in such an unfavourable light? “Although Liu didn’t make a specific request in exchange for the gift, the intention was clear that as a county party secretary Ping Ma would have the power to benefit the companies in the future” certainly seems to make it clear the judges considered Liu’s behaviour to be something other than squeaky clean.

And somehow Liu was granted first residency then citizenship against official advice. How and why? And what was that official advice? What were the reasons given recommending his applications be declined?

Of course, a major problem for Labour in all of this is that some of those dodgy decisions made against official advice were made under Labour’s watch. But those two big questions remain: Why did the relevant officials recommend Liu not be granted residency then citizenship? And why were so many Labour and National politicians so keen to help him out despite the advice of their own officials?

And what does this have to do with xenophobia? Well, nothing, directly. Whether it’s Oravida or Donghua Liu, it’s business people apparently getting favours from politicians. That reeks of corruption. Trouble is, they all involve Chinese business people, which would seem to play right into the hands of those crying Yellow Peril from whatever soapbox they can find.

But then there’s the fuss over Labour’s new questioning of immigration and threats to limit the number of immigrants. There’s good discussion, as always, over here at Public Address, and as Russell says, there are real issues that need discussion without people immediately reaching for the xenophobia card. But something is bugging me about all this. Maybe I’m reading too much into it all. Maybe it really is just an odd series of coincidences. Maybe I have too much invested in all these issues to see it clearly. But I’m just not comfortable with Labour’s questioning of immigration. But, there are, as noted, real issues to be discussed, and the case of Donghua Liu seems to highlight one of them, which apparently Labour wants to look at:

Labour is looking “very closely” at changing the rules for foreign investors who can get residency in New Zealand by paying $10 million.

[......]

Immigration spokesman Trevor Mallard said yesterday that one of the categories Labour would consider changing was business migrant schemes, introduced by National in 2009.

[......]

The Investor Plus scheme allowed an applicant to get residency if they invested $10 million in New Zealand and committed to living in the country for 44 days a year, even if they spoke little English and had no business experience. The Investor scheme required a $1.5 million investment but had stricter language, age and travel tests.

Now, this does not seem to be a very smart way to dish out visas, not to me. So they’ve got money. So they might agree to spend a tiny fraction of each year in New Zealand. Woopdedoo. Start a token business and fly in either for a Northern Summer ski holiday each Southern Winter, or flee the Northern Winter to enjoy Christmas and New Year at a more civilised time of the year. But of course, going to the Immigration website and finding out the actual rules is the smart option. Now look at that table. Yes, indeed, as the Herald article states, for an Investor Plus visa you only need to invest NZ$10 million for three years and spend at least 44 days of each of the last two years of that investment period in New Zealand. That’s it. You don’t even need any business experience. Contrast that for the requirements for the regular Investor visa, which are not especially stringent – overall band 3 in IELTS, wow, so you need to be competent enough to handle buying your own groceries – but do at least include some minimal business experience, and therefore proof that you may have actually earned your money and might know one or two things about investing and doing business.

Of course, there are health and character requirements for both Investor visas. But check out character. Based on the little publicly known about Donghua Liu, it’s only on that last bullet point that Immigration would’ve had grounds to recommend he not be granted residence. And that is a rather vague bullet point.

Tangent: This Entrepreneur Work Visa seems much more robust. I’d much rather be working for or with somebody who’d entered NZ under those requirements.

But this brings us to some numbers from that article on Labour’s rethink of the Investor and Investor Plus visas:

Immigration New Zealand data showed the number of successful Investor Plus applicants jumped from nine to 21 between 2010 and 2013, and from 30 to 99 people in the Investor category over the same period.

So we’re not talking a large number of people, which is strange because in all articles I’ve seen so far on Labour’s thinking on immigration, we see this, from earlier in this particular article:

The party has said it would place further controls on immigration after Treasury predicted net migration would soon increase to almost 40,000 a year, but it has not given details about cuts.

Uh huh. So how, precisely, is a review of two visa categories that apparently allowed a grand total of 120 people into New Zealand in 2013 going to have any affect on this predicted spike in net migration to forty something thousand? And if, as the government claims, a large part of the predicted net migration spike is due to Kiwis not jumping on planes to Australia and Kiwis facing an economic downturn in Australia jumping on planes home, then how is tinkering with immigration policy going to realistically affect anything?

So yeah, I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that at least some in Labour are cashing in on the happy confluence of National’s apparent ([ahem] Chinese) corruption problem, stubbornly skyrocketing housing prices and this predicted spike in net migration to try and drum up a little more support. “Oooh, look at the people National’s letting in! And they‘re buying up all our houses, driving the prices up so real Kiwis are priced out of the market! We’ll crack down on them!”

And then I read things like this piece by Lew over at Kiwi Politico, and Labour’s new focus on immigration just rings even less true.

an interesting idea…

March 23rd, 2014

This news is three days old, already, but I missed it on the day and only came across the story via an NZ Herald editorial published yesterday, but which I didn’t have time to read until today. It’s an interesting idea, boost New Zealand’s profile in China by having the All Blacks visit, but I’m not convinced. It’s not much of a story, little more than yet another of the “Oh, look, John Key!” puff pieces the NZ media has gotten so good at, and it seems to be based on even less, just a throwaway comment by John Key on seeing the China Agricultural University rugby team perform a haka:

The Prime Minister made the comment after he was greeted with a haka by a rugby team at the China Agriculture University (CAU), where rugby is a popular sport.

He said he believed the All Blacks should visit at some point.

“It’s the same thing we see happen in a number of other countries. They play exhibition games and I know the Rugby Football Union … are thinking a lot about this market.”

Mr Key said the CAU rugby team should travel to New Zealand to play universities. “I think those guys were good. They were big and strong and young and fit.”

And that’s about half the story right there.

Now, I think it’s a great idea for the CAU rugby team to visit NZ. Especially if they’re going to go performing haka for visiting NZ dignitaries, then they need to go to the source and understand what it is they’re doing. And any other Chinese rugby team, too. Just so long as they get decently-matched opponents. There’s also nothing wrong with having the All Blacks visit China.

But there is a really huge problem with all this. Rugby is not big in China – there you go, there’s my entry for understatement of the decade. Using rugby as a base for NZ-China sports diplomacy would mean NZ needing to start its marketing from a baseline of near zero awareness. For starters, rugby shares a Chinese name with American football, and apparently other codes with similarly-shaped balls. Every time students ask me what sports are popular in New Zealand, I tell them rugby, they reach for their dictionaries, and then it takes several minutes to stop them constantly repeating “Oh, American football” so that I can explain that the two forms of “olive ball” (literal translation of the Chinese name – 橄榄球/gǎnlǎnqiú, gǎnlǎn meaning olive, qiú meaning ball) are two completely different sports. But even then I find it nearly impossible to persuade people that rugby and American football are not the same. The overwhelming majority of Chinese people know nothing about either of these two sports beyond the fact that something called gǎnlǎnqiú exists and is played in faraway countries – and the USA, being so big, rich, powerful and the object of so many people’s obssessions gets a lot more brand recognition than any of the rugby powerhouses, therefore gǎnlǎnqiú is more likely to bring to mind men in tights, huge shoulder pads and helmets than rugby.

Also, mention “New Zealand” to any random Chinese person on the Mainland streets and if they know anything about the place, they’ll happily talk till the cows come home about beautiful natural scenery, sheep, and milk. It is exceedingly rare that anybody will mention any sport. The sports NZ is strong in simply do not register on Chinese radar. Not only that, but it is my experience that when exposed to sports NZ is strong in, Chinese people tend to think we’re a bit, well, mad.

And if the Rugby Football Union (who was Key referring to there? The NZRU? The IRB?) is as interested in the China market as Key seems to think, then they’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do not just raising rugby’s profile [ahem] building almost from scratch a profile for rugby, but also marking out a clear differentiation in Chinese minds between rugby and that other code involving men in tights, huge shoulder pads, and helmets. For example.

So I dunno, interesting idea, but it’s an idea that’s going to need a hell of a lot of work building up a foundation for it to have even the slightest chance of being noticed outside China’s infinitisemally small rugbyhead community.

proper schools

February 23rd, 2014

A department of China’s Ministry of Education and China Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) have announced a list of over ten thousand “standard” or “regular” overseas schools so that Chinese people looking to study abroad can make sure they choose “proper” schools and not be fooled by diploma mills.

An aside: “diploma mill” in Chinese is “野鸡大学” – yějī dàxué – pheasant/unregistered and illegal/prostitute university.

The list of proper schools covers 44 countries, including the USA, UK, Australia and Canada. Sina’s repost of the Beijing Times article says the purpose of the list is to protect Chinese students travelling to study overseas at their own expense. The article says three problems have appeared with the rise of such students in recent years: The appearance of poor quality private schools in certain countries, several of which have gone bust; the poor abilities of some of these students to study abroad, especially their inability to live independently, meaning they have a hard time adjusting after they leave China; and “black agents” – agencies getting up to all kinds of shenanigans, passing out fake information or not living up to their responsibilities.

The article also says there are two ways prospective students can get information about studying abroad: One is through the website of the above mentioned department of the Ministry of Education or the website of the CSCSE, the other is through the Ministry of Education’s Study Abroad Service Centre, Chinese diplomatic missions abroad or through the diplomatic missions of foreign countries in China. The problem I have with that is that the website of the above mentioned department of the Ministry of Education I can not persuade to open in Firefox, Maxthon or on my phone, nor by Baiduing it. And a Baidu search for “Ministry of Education’s Study Abroad Service Centre” (in Chinese, of course), is not overly helpful – the best results are for CSCSE. And the links at the bottom of the article to the four lists of schools deemed genuine? Well, they’re on that Ministry of Education website I can’t persuade to open.

Naturally, my first reaction is to try and see where New Zealand’s universities are on these lists – or, perhaps, if they’re on the lists. Trouble is, with websites that don’t open, I’ve had to poke around the CSCSE website. A lot of the information  on that site is a tad out of date – especially the English version. But I did find this list. It has all eight universities, many (most? all? things have changed while I’ve been in China…) polytechs, Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School (what is its status? I honestly don’t know. And why “Te Kura”, which Toi Whakaari does not seem to use?) and some of what were called Private Training Establishments (PTEs) last time I was in NZ for any extended period of time. But again, I’m not sure how up to date that list is, because it includes Tairawhiti Polytech, which apparently merged with EIT in 2011.

Curious, and perhaps a story to keep an eye on.

And the Mountains Echoed

February 11th, 2014

My wife has suddenly turned into a bookworm – this is a most interesting development – and as part of this sudden transformation, she bought And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, giving it to me to read first. And read it I did. It’s one of those mesmerising books that you can’t put down until you’re in a zombie-like trance from a lack of sleep. It’s subtly seductive, gently wrapping its story around you until you feel an intimate part of it. The back cover quotes Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times thusly:

[Hosseini's] most assured and emotionally gripping story yet…]

Except it’s not a story, or at least, it’s not one story. It’s several stories of a diverse set of characters from and in Afghanistan, California, France, and Greece, some via Pakistan. Their stories intertwine to weave a beautiful tapestry. A terrible tapestry.

This isn’t really a story or stories so much as a description of all the myriad ways we hurt each other, especially those closest to us, whether through resentment at being overshadowed by a more beautiful, talented or extroverted sibling, cousin or parent, the shame of or disappointment in a child who doesn’t measure up to the parent’s wishes, the frustration and slowly building rage at constantly cleaning up and cleaning up after a melodramatic and self-absorbed family member bent on self destruction, impotent rage at poverty and the shame and self-loathing for the actions and situations it forces one into, the suffering and disappointment we cause others through our own inability to rise above our circumstances. It describes the pain inflicted on us not just by our own actions or inactions or those of our closest loved ones, but by the simple passage of time itself, the unfolding of life as it happens, events of which we, not even Vladimir Putin, have even the slightest semblance of control, pain inflicted by simple, cold, inevitability.

This is not a story or stories, this is a paean, a love song to life in all its glorious filth, a song which holds out the promise of a possibility of some small measure of redemption, though never the redemption we desire. A redemption perhaps best analogised by Hosseini in his description of the Pont Saint-Bénezet:

It’s a half bridge, really, as only four of its original arches remain. It ends midway across the river. Like it reached, tried to reunite with, the other side and fell short.

And that’s how it is for the most successful characters in this novel – without giving away too much (I hope), one fairy, blown away by the wind, returns too late to find what she craved for so long. A younger fairy discovers she was born too late for what she thought she desired. But together they find they can make some measure of redemption, no matter how incomplete, but something with a future.

The book has its imperfections, I hasten to add. I found the dialogue of the characters in Paris and Tinos a touch too American in flavour. And riding elephants in Kenya? I’ve never heard of African elephants being domesticated. Could Asian elephants have been taken to Kenya during colonial days? I suppose. But that was jarring. Perhaps I’m being obtuse and it was meant to be jarring, to highlight the superficiality of the character that made that claim. I don’t know, but it broke the spell woven by the book, if only, mercifully, for a split second.

But what’s so powerful is the style of narration. For all the brutality in the book – and given how much of it is set in Afghanistan, or how many of the characters are at most one step removed from Afghanistan, there’s plenty of scope for brutality – the brutality is purely domestic in nature and is described in such a calm, relaxed, matter of fact way that you won’t feel that superficial moral outrage you feel whenever you watch the news on TV or pick up a newspaper. What you feel is deeper, in your marrow, a warm, almost comforting ache, a horror most familiar.

I very much recommend this book, it is superbly structured and brilliantly written. But beware, those of a weepy persuasion will need a large supply of tissues as they read.

*As the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, New York, 2013.

sentences, sentences

February 8th, 2014

Further to Mr Pasden’s musings on first language acquisition in a bilingual child, and, just like him, basing this purely on observation of my own daughter (so extremely rigorously scientific, of course):

My daughter, not quite 3 years old, has been able to say complete sentences in Mandarin for quite some time now. “Oh sure”, you say, “really simple sentences.” Well, yes, but she had the infamous “把字句” down pat a long time ago, and that’s something that gives a lot of adult second language learners trouble. Well, to be fair, Chinese as a foreign language textbooks do tend to offer rather inadequate explanations of the 把字句, especially failing to answer the questions “When do you use it?” and “But, WHY?!” – hence the link to the wonderful Chinese Grammar Wiki. Anyways, moving on, as I was saying, my daughter has been saying complete sentences in Mandarin for a while now, but her English has been limited to single words or short phrases, often inserted into otherwise Mandarin sentences.

Now, I haven’t been particularly worried about this. She’s still little, there’s plenty of time for her to learn, she has plenty of English-language books and DVDs and I’m very strict about only speaking English to her, and besides, she’s in an overwhelmingly Mandarin language environment. She attends a normal Chinese kindergarten where she is surrounded my monolingual Chinese staff and pupils, and I am the only one who regularly speaks English to her. But her English will come with time.

But over the last few days she’s suddenly started coming out with complete English sentences. We were at Decathlon the other day, where we found her a wetsuit. We also showed her a boogieboard/body board, and she liked the look of that. Then she told me “I go swimming at the beach”. Just like that, unprompted. Later she was watching the Dora the Explorer episode Pablo’s Magic Flute, and she picked up her own flute (actually a 葫芦丝/húlúsī, and a toy plastic one at that) and started playing. I asked her, “Are you playing your flute?” and she replied, “Yes, I play the flute.” Still later, she told me, “I am pretty, I am ML*”

You’ll notice something in those sentences. Apart from ‘am’, there is a definite lack of conjugation of verbs. Well, that’s not something she has to worry about in Mandarin, of course, although she does hear me conjugate verbs all the time. Still, it’ll come. English grammar is more complex than the grammar of spoken Mandarin, so it’s to be expected that these niceties will take  a little more time. At least she doesn’t have to worry about grammatical gender or the declension of nouns, and she’ll only have to get her head around a few ragged remnants of a case system hanging on in pronouns.

Then, as I was trudging through the snow on the way to pick her up from kindy yesterday afternoon, I got to idly wondering if she would be able to form English sentences by analogy to Chinese. I mean, could she be thinking, “I know these Mandarin words and can join them together this way to express this idea. I know these English words, could I join them together just like I do in Mandarin?” Well, of course she wouldn’t be thinking exactly as expressed in those words – still no conjugation of verbs, for starters. But could that process be going on in her mind?

Let me give a few examples to explain.

When she was 18 months old we told her she was only allowed her dummy (pacifier in American, 安抚奶嘴 in Mandarin, don’t know what other English dialects may call such a thing) when she was thinking. She looked at us thoughtfully and somewhat cunningly for a minute or two, climbed up on the bed, lay down, and told us she wanted to sleep. We gave her her dummy, sceptically, because she’d just not long gotten up, and she closed her eyes and happily sucked on it, opening her eyes just a crack to make sure we were fooled by her ruse. Even at that age she was able to understand perfectly a rule, a rule that she had been told clearly in both her languages, and quickly figure out a way to use that rule to get what she wanted. If that’s the kind of thinking she was capable of at 18 months, could she be analogising at almost double that age?

My wife isn’t quite as strict as me on the One Parent One Language rule. I don’t mind that, because although my daughter sees plenty of evidence of me being bilingual, she only ever hears my wife speak English when we Skype my family in New Zealand, and then only a little bit of English. My wife occasionally using a bit of English with my daughter means the wee one gets a bit more evidence that both her parents are equally bilingual. But also, this helps just a little bit more in balancing out the language equation. What’s interesting, though, is that my daughter will very often refuse to let my wife use the English word for things. My wife will say, “Umbrella”, and the wee one will insist, “不是umbrella,是雨伞,好不好!”, but then I’ll say “Umbrella” and the wee one will agree that the 雨伞 is an umbrella. So she is quite aware that English and Mandarin are two separate languages and that Mandarin is for speaking with Mummy, and English for speaking with Daddy.

But, of course, her English so far lags quite a bit behind her Mandarin, so she’ll usually just speak to me in Mandarin with a few English words thrown in.

Having said all that, I was quite interested this morning when, watching Pablo’s Magic Flute again, she wanted her flute, but we couldn’t find it. She said to me, “I 没有 flute!” Then she said, “妈妈, I 没有 flute”, correcting herself to say “Mummy, I 没有 flute”. Could it be that, watching an English-language DVD and talking first to me and second to her Mummy, she decided English was appropriate, but then, realising that not being able to conjugate verbs on her own yet and therefore not being able to form the negative of ‘have’, or ‘can’ (though I don’t know if she knows ‘find’ yet), she fell back on the Mandarin word she does know? At least that way she gets to complete her sentence.

Unrelated to sentence formation, but another aspect of English grammar the wee one has yet to grasp is singular/plural. She’ll often say “a socks” or “a shoes“, final s bolded to emphasise that it is clearly there in her speech, it’s not just a toddler twist of the tongue. Last night we were reading a poster with her – one of those character recognition posters with pictures of loosely unrelated things an a Chinese character and English (often Chinglish) word for each picture. There was a picture of a bunch of bananas and a picture of a banana (the poster was trying to express the concepts of ‘many’ and ‘few’), and when we pointed to the bunch she said “bananas”. When we pointed to the single banana she said “bananas” again. We went through “one banana, many bananas” a few times, emphasing the lack or presence of that final s, but I don’t think she realised the difference. Oh well, there’s time.

And one final bitlet of toddler cuteness: The wee one tends to pronounce ‘bananas’ as ‘bunanas’.

*She actually stated her name, I’m just continuing an old policy of loosely disguising names of real-world people who haven’t given express consent and aren’t in any articles online I’m discussing in the blogpost in question.