Skip to content

Archive

Category: Observations

This weekend the whole area around where I live in the San Francisco Chinatown was filled with stands for the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節), also known as the Moon Festival. Truth be told, it was an odd experience. Having lived for several years in Taiwan and a couple of years in Beijing, I’ve been through quite a few of these, but never one quite like this.

SF Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival


continue reading…

It’s such a hard thing when old students want to add me on facebook. One of my very nicest and hardest working students who I taught for a year and a half just sent a message and tried to add me yesterday. The problem is she’s 10 which isn’t even old enough to be allowed on facebook, and I don’t have a 100% kid-safe feed.

I sent her a message saying how great it was to hear from her, and asked how school was going. I gave her my email and said to pass it on to her mom, who used to talk with once or twice a week, and I said maybe I’d say hello next time I visited Taiwan.

Her response:

“ok~ thanks! Can you be friends with me??”

What can you say?

“No! Go away!”

would be hurting a very kind-hearted little person who literally put in hundreds of hours of work, trying her hardest to earn my approval.

In the end I sent a kind of lame reply saying, “Of course I’m your friend! It was wonderful teaching you all that time and I’ll always hope the best for you… but facebook isn’t really made for kids. Have your parents add me instead, and they can share things from my feed with you.”

Facebook has privacy settings but due to frequent updates and ill-chosen defaults it’s just not that safe. Heck, even Steve Yegge, a famous employee of Amazon and then Google, messed up on Google+ and sent a private post out to the entire internet. Incidentally, Google+ has a much better design for handling different levels of privacy than FB does.

The easiest solution I see is to have multiple personas. If it were allowed by FB, I might have a main profile for actual friends and family and then a second one, a “Mr. Wilbur 老師” for the many students and parents I’ve known over the years who want to stay in touch. I don’t really want them to see pictures of me out at a bar or KTV with my buddies, but cutting them off from everything feels wrong, too. I’d like to share a feed, but one I could be certain was no more objectionable than Mr. Rogers. I put my heart and soul in to teaching for the better part of my 20’s, and in retrospect I feel far more fulfilled by what I did for my students than by learning Chinese, running a business or any other personal achievements. I really do like to hear how they’re doing and I don’t think that will change over the next 10 years or over the next 50.

This video is an overview of the educational children’s app market. It’s probably most useful for an indie developer wondering, “What educational app should I make?” I talk about what I’ve seen over the course of the hundreds of EDU apps I’ve downloaded and those I’ve extended as part of my work. Some areas of the market are clearly over saturated and there are gaping holes in others.

For those who don’t have time for a video, my advice is don’t make the same ABC app or arithmetic app everyone else is! Unless you can create clearly more compelling content, you’ll probably get buried. Make something between the ABC level and the storybook level… or a fun math app!

Probably the second most common question I get emailed from readers of this site is this:

“I’m from the US/Canada, I’ve just graduated and I want to teach English abroad and I want to learn some Chinese. Should I teach in Taiwan or teach in China?”

With my experience of having grown up in North America and then spent most of my adult life in Taiwan and then China, teaching in and later running an EFL school, I definitely have some opinions. But there are a lot of factors involved in making a decision about where to live for a year or more of your life and Taiwan and China both have their pluses. Another factor to consider is that the situation for foreign teachers has been changing fairly quickly, especially in mainland China.

What are your goals?

The best place for you depends on what you’re looking for…

Learning Chinese

If your main goal is learning Chinese, then I can unequivocally recommend China, preferably the northeast. Why? Well there are several factors that make learning Chinese in Taiwan harder. First of all, people there speak more English and they expect to speak more English with you if you’re white, black or anyone who doesn’t look like a Chinese speaker. Secondly, it’s not even clear if Mandarin is the primary language of Taiwan yet. A lot of people speak Hokkien (also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua) as a first language. Furthermore, of the people who speak very little English are more likely to be older and also more likely to be comfortable speaking Taiwanese instead of Mandarin. The issue or regional dialects also comes up in southern China, but in the northeast, pretty much everybody is a native Mandarin speaker.

Another issue is the accent. I know from personal experience that the accent and dialect considered “standard” in Taiwan is hard for a lot of mainland Chinese to understand. This is problem since the vast, vast majority of Mandarin speakers are from mainland China. On the other hand, if you speak in an accent similarly to what’s on TV in China, you’ll be understood on both sides of the strait. Finally, the Chinese characters used in Taiwan are traditional characters, or fántǐzì (繁體字), whereas China and Singapore use simplified characters, or jiāntǐzì (简体字). This means that even if your Chinese study in Taiwan is successful, you may find yourself unable to understand simple words like “car” or “from” when you go to China.

This said, you can learn Chinese in Taiwan (or even back home) if you’re willing to work hard. Another minor plus in Taiwan is that there’s more interesting media to learn from. China has been catching up in that regard, though.

Quality of Life

Here, once again it’s no contest. Taiwan is amongst the best places to live on the entire planet. Life in general is convenient. The island is covered with 7-11s, and you can not only pay your bills there but you can pick up stuff you buy on the internet, too! The government has done an excellent job in terms of public transportation. Taxes are low. There’s universal health care that’s both top-notch and affordable! People are nice. I don’t just say that. I actually lost my wallet on a bus once and the driver found my student ID, called my school, got my number and returned it to me! I can’t even imagine that happening in China. The air quality in Taiwan may not thrill some of us used to pristine Rocky Mountain air, but it’s not too bad.

In China, there are also a lot of people that will be nice to foreigners they befriend. Unfortunately there are a lot more who will try to make a living off of you. I was never scammed in 7 years in Taiwan, but I got ripped off several times in my first week living in China! A lot of restaurants have 2 sets of menus… regular ones, and bilingual ones with higher prices! Racism and nationalism are also significant issues. While there’s a lot of mostly “innocent racism” in Taiwan that’s due to sheer ignorance, I’ve seen more cases of outright hatred here in China… especially towards the Japanese. Sometimes it works out in the foreigner’s favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since the two issues of race and nationality are often conflated, it can also make for some unpleasant situations for foreigners of Chinese decent (i.e. “ABCs”, “CBCs”, etc..). I don’t want to make it sound all bad, though. I really do like living in China. It’s just that it requires a thick skin. I’d say that you also need to have a bit more social awareness. You can do just about anything and do okay in Taiwan. In China, it’s easier to piss people off.

One plus for China is prices. As long as you don’t get ripped off, a lot of things can be had for half the price they would cost in Taiwan. Things that usually get all kinds of sin taxes, such as beer or cigarettes are insanely cheap in China! Less than half a US dollar for a beer at a local restaurant is common. A pack of smokes can be bought for about $1.20.

Salaries

This is a factor that has changed a lot in the last few years. When I got to Taiwan, English teaching salaries were two or three times as high as in China. Now, though… you can probably earn more in first-tier Chinese cities. In Taiwan, the salary for new teachers seems to stay around 600NT/hour, which is about 20USD/hour. In Beijing or Shanghai, the average is about 150RBM/hour which is about 24USD. Private classes usually start around 200RMB or 32USD per hour. I have friends making over 300RMB/hour. Housing prices have risen to about the same levels as Taipei, but everything else is cheaper. Purely in terms of money, China is now a far, far better choice. That’s not how it was a few years ago.

If you’re planning on a long term stay, it’s possible Taiwan is still better, though. In Taiwan, foreigners can start businesses such as foreign restaurants, clubs or even software companies relatively easily. In China, the only way to avoid having a Chinese partner with 51% control is to set up an extremely expensive Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise. That’s a reasonable solution if you’re IKEA, but not if you’re starting your own business.

The Internet

This really belongs above under “Quality of Life”, but the internet in China is so fucked up that it deserves its own section. Everything cool since 2004 is blocked. Unless you pony up the money for a VPN, you can’t use Facebook. You can’t use Twitter. You can’t use Blogspot or WordPress. You can’t use Youtube. You can’t even access Google Docs or Dropbox. You can have Gmail, but it’s a bit unreliable. Basically, you’re back in 2003.

The bottom line

  • If you want to learn Chinese, go to China
  • If you want to live the good life, go to Taiwan
  • If you want to make money, go to China
  • If you the best of both worlds, go to China, learn Chinese well and then go to Taiwan to settle down!

If you want a more detailed comparison that also includes Korea and Japan, then check out my mini-guide: A Comparison of English Teaching Markets in Asia


Over the years, I’ve offered an extra bed or at least a couch to a number of online friends who have stopped by Taipei or wherever I happened to be living. I’m not sure my grandmother would approve, but I think the conventional wisdom about is wrong on this topic. The risks are mostly over-stated and the benefits are often overlooked. People are mostly good and on the whole and as far as I can tell, helping travelers out is a net gain for both the traveler and the host.

The online friends I’ve invited over fit into three groups. Some, such as Brian, keep mostly to themselves, spend a lot of time on their laptops blogging or doing whatever it is they do and don’t really impact my routine one way or the other. Without exception, they’re always good for an interesting conversation or two. Hosting them is definitely a net positive. The second group are people like Darin. They make plans to come and I offer them a place to stay, but then they end up canceling the trip. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained… except maybe an increased chance of them offering me a place to stay when I visit the country where they live. The third group is those like my friend Wayne who end up becoming great friends and hanging out with me regularly for months or even years. That’s not only worth it, but it’s enough to upset the risk of a really bad guest (which I haven’t experienced yet).

One other thing that has been absolutely wonderful is that an unusually large number of people have let me crash at their places. John, when I visited Shanghai, PR when moving in Taipei, Matt before I left Colorado and now Ben in Kunming. I can’t really draw any connection between me having other guests at my place and them inviting me to stay at theirs, but if I did believe in earthly karma this experience would certainly reinforce that belief.

Now that I’ve been in Kunming for a couple of weeks, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what the city would be like to live in for six months to a year. I’m still not sure whether if I want to stay here that long or go somewhere else, but here are my thoughts so far.

Costs

Kunming is cheap. My friend and his roommate are staying in an awesome apartment, far better than any I ever lived in in Taiwan and they’re in the middle of the city in about the most expensive part of town. They only pay 1400RMB (about 200USD) each. They also have a maid come by to clean each week, a water jug delivery service, reasonably fast internet and all the other amenities that go with a nice place in China.

Kunming is deep in the interior of China, though, and any imported goods have to be shipped across thousands of kilometers of poor roads to get there. Things like imported fruits or cereal are really expensive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a lot of locals eat more noodles and fewer vegetables for monetary reasons. It’s not that poor in the city at least, but the incentives are definitely set up in a way that encourages a poor diet. Electronics prices don’t seem to be affected.

Language

This is a bummer for me. Mandarin is less dominant of a language here than it was even in Taipei. I’ve met well off, well-educated college students and found them really happy to talk to me in Mandarin… but they still talk to each other in Kunminghua. I don’t mean to be a language elitist, but it’s juts not a language I feel like dealing with my whole time here. Yes, I was interested in learning Hokkien and Cantonese, but both those language have 50+ million speakers and Taiwan and Hong Kong each have all kinds of TV shows, songs and movies to learn from. Kunminghua would be much harder to learn and it just doesn’t do much for me.

Transportation

Busses are uncomfortably crammed full of people, but they’re really cheap– like 1 or 2 RMB. All in all, the small size of the city is a big help. Cabs are ridiculously hard to get here. I’ve actually had to wait 30 minutes to find an open one on a few occasions.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as Taiwan was, but a lot of people here own scooters. They’re in their own traffic lanes which are physically divided from the cars! It’s a wonderful system that could probably save thousands of lives if implemented in Taipei. The scooters are all electric, too, which is very cool. They’re not the noisy, smelly beasts I’m used to. On the down-side, though, they can approach very rapidly and quietly. Pedestrians beware!

Another consideration is that I were to live in the center of the city like my friend, I could walk to a lot of places.

Environment

Kunming is not the relatively city I had expected. Pollution is seriously bad. The sky may look blue compared to Beijing’s, but I get a headache walking by the street. Busses smell foul. Things might get better once the subway opens in a year or two, but that doesn’t really help my decision for this year.

Conclusions

It’s kind of hard to decide. I think Kunming would be a great place to get a lot of programming done. I could live on very, very little, even splurging a bit on good food. On the other hand I do want to take my Chinese to the next level, too. It’s not my main goal, but if I were to ever use it professionally back in the US, I’m sure I’d be better served by a standard mainland accent and the ability to read simplified characters comfortably than by my current Taiwan-style Mandarin.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicing program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing local’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One even refused to believe me that I was a tourist and not someone who had been living there for a while! The best boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have focused their stuff on HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered people who downright insisted on using English with me all the time, often even from people with terrible English. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.

I’ve just recently arrived in Hong Kong for the first time. It’s not at all what I’d expected from all of the HK movies I’ve seen, or even from what my friends have told me.

The Airport

The airport in Hong Kong was fantastic. It was very clean and new-looking. I found the immigration and security processes quicker and freer of hassle than those when I visited LA International Airport last year, and there was a lot of help for a newly arrived foreigner such as myself. The tourist information desk was great. Not only were they familiar with the hostel where I planned to stay, but they were able to give me directions to get there cheaply by bus instead of taking another train. A++!

Transportation

Actually, I found the public transportation very much the same as it is in Taiwan. There’s an MRT, but they call it an MTR. There’s an Easy Card (悠遊卡) for the subway and buses, but in Hong Kong, it’s called an Octopus Card (八達通). As in Taiwan, the card can also be used at convenience stores. In short, the transportation is excellent albeit a bit pricier than in Taiwan.

Prices

I didn’t find prices anywhere near as bad as I’d been lead to expect. From what people had told me, I’d had the impression that everything in HK would cost huge sums of money and I’d burn through my entire savings in a single week. The reality was much more mundane. The subway, buses and taxis were all a bit more expensive than Taiwan, but by less than a factor of two.

Food was the same for local stuff, cheaper for Chinese food of varieties hard to find in Taiwan, the same for fast food and ridiculously expensive in western style restaurants and pubs. 7-11 seemed about the same, but had more expensive options (e.g. Starbucks coffee for sale right next to the Mr. Brown). Beer in HK was cheaper.

Housing was definitely a bit more, but it was hard for me to judge since I was staying in a youth hostel. I paid about $150HKD (~$19US) for a small room and my own small bathroom. That in Kowloon, but less than a 5 minute walk from the subway.

All in all, I’d say that HK is a bit more expensive than Taipei, but you could spend far more if you love western-style pubs.

English and Mandarin

Unlike what I’d been told, most people in Hong Kong actually speak pretty bad English. There are more westerners there than in Taiwan, but of the locals I’d say that less than one in fifty really spoke good English. The travel agent’s English was far worse than that of those in Taiwan in areas with similar numbers of foreigners. The clerks at a lot of western stores and restaurants knew the English they needed to sell their specific wares or food, but it wasn’t universal and that was usually about it. On the whole, I’d say a higher percentage of people in HK are capable of the bare-minimum levels of English than in Taiwan, but it’s certainly not like you won’t be isolated from the society if you’re a mono-lingual English speaker.

Mandarin on the other hand, is pretty widespread. About three quarters or so of the people I met in HK spoke much better Mandarin than English. It was still heavily accented, and mixing in Cantonese words here and there wasn’t uncommon, but communication wasn’t a big problem for short conversations. I even met some westerners there who studied Mandarin, but not Cantonese! I’m not sure I’d have made that choice though. Cantonese is clearly the language of the land.

Haggling!

I was kind of surprised to find that haggling is so common in such a rich, well developed territory! I bought some hair clippers at a pretty nice looking electronics store. Originally, after seeing the price of $285HKD, I decided to wait until getting to Guangzhou to buy them. I told the clerk I’d have to think about it and started heading for the door. At that point, he chased me down and said I could buy them for $250. My movement towards the door hadn’t even been a negotiating tactic, but I guess he took it as one. I’d never ever try bargaining at that sort of store in TW, but after realizing the price was negotiable, I came back with a lower offer and the game was on!

Annoying Salespeople

On my way home to my hostel, a charming Indian man came walking up to me with a gigantic face-splitting smile. “This shahrt!”, pointing to his admittedly slick-looking button-up dress shirt. I was a little shocked and didn’t react. “These trousahs! I can make a suit for you!”, he continued with the same grin.

I pointed to my shorts and T-shirt and said, “I’m not a suit guy!”

“Come on! Just let me show you something…”, he continued. I have to say the salesman exuded charm and somehow made a tailor’s shop sound like the most exciting, wonderful place in the world. I smiled to myself and continued on walking. It wasn’t so easy to continue smiling after the third or fourth Indian guy stepped out in my path with the same offer, after a differently accented guy tried to get me to buy a watch, or especially after the streets filled with self-promotional prostitutes.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I once read an English writer who claimed that the fastest, simplest measure of the civility of a place was whether you had to hail a taxi or if the taxi drivers all hailed you. Hong Kong doesn’t do well by that measure.

For Mandarin speakers, 尖沙咀 is a terrible name!

I was staying near the Tsim Sha Chui (尖沙咀) MTR station. As an aside doesn’t that name look terrible to a Mandarin speaker!!? 尖沙 is pronounced jiānshā, which is 姦殺 or “rape and murder”. I don’t know what’s going on at that station, but it sure sounds bad!

World Cup Madness

What a difference from Taiwan! There probably aren’t many places more crowded and less conducive playing a game that requires lots of space and well-conditioned runners, but these guys love it here! I was in a huge mall called iSquare in the 尖沙咀 area, and they had a big screen up for people to watch for free and it looked like about a thousand people were crowded in the area watching a game! I could hear their moans of agony on missed goals from the street outside!

Aggressive, but friendly people

I’ve definitely seen more aggressiveness in general in Hong Kong than I’m accustomed to, but people were still pretty friendly. It may be a by-product of not working, but I found it surprisingly easy to meet people. I liked HK, except for the harassment from salespeople and I’m sure I’ll come back in the future.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been learning a bit more of the Taiwanese (AKA Minnan) language. One interesting thing I’ve recently discovered is that Minnan is one of the many languages included in the spaceship voyager’s greeting message.

I was listening to the greeting message NASA sent out of our solar system to see how much I could understand, and was very surprised to hear something understandable as Minnan at about 2m50s into it. After a quick check at NASA’s website, sure enough there was Amoy, the prestige Minnan dialect! Below is the Amoy clip from NASA’s page.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I never would have guessed this would be one of the languages we sent in our greeting, though in terms of the number of native speakers, I suppose it makes sense.

I’ve long been an occasional user of the Perapera-kun plug-in for Firefox. It’s pretty handy for quickly looking up Japanese words online.

Once it was installed, you could right-click on any web page, pick “perapera” from the right-click menu, and then hovering the mouse over any word bring up a pop-up display with both the English translation and the pronunciation of the word in question. The Chinese version worked pretty much the same way.

Unfortunately, the developer decided to merge the Chinese and Japanese plugins and abandon the old right click interface and instead add an icon at the bottom right hand corner of the screen (incidentally, the same spot I use for my pinyin plugin). Instead of text, the developer decided to use flags.

Here is the result:

Why a flag?

Using flags is a poor user design choice

Needless to say there are a lot of people in Taiwan who would rather not fly the PRC flag on their desktops. Though I’m not a very political person myself, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this on the computers at my office after the upgrades today. I doubt the secretary would much care for seeing it and while I could explain it to her, it could be more awkward if students see it on the computers.

An icon with the character 中 would be a better choice. Also, from a purely functional standpoint, I miss the right-click interface. It was much quicker than having to go to the lower right-hand corner of my browser and make two clicks.