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Language Thursdays: Sexism in Mandarin

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb3In this week’s language post I want to examine the gender implications in the Chinese written and spoken language, and the reactions of the Chinese women to the many discriminatory expressions in use today.

Given that most traditional cultures were extremely sexist by today’s standards, it is very common to have sexist elements embedded in today’s languages. In English, for example, there is the old peeve about what to call a female fireman. Latin languages with their gender declensions are even more problematic, to the point that some daring Spanish feminists like to write “abogad@”, to cover all the possible sexes of a lawyer.

The old Confucian tradition in China is hardly an example of gender equality, and given the intimate relation between Confucian scholars and the Chinese script over the millennia, it is only natural that the characters should carry some important bias. As we will see, the spoken language is not any better, reflecting a society where the woman had a limited role even among the common people. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: The Holy Fractions

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

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This is a new feature in my blog. It is a follow up of the initial Language and Culture posts last year, and I commit from now on to continue the series every Thursday that I feel like it. The idea is to post about those language curiosities that I encounter in my study of mandarin and I jot down directly on my study desk.

Professionals like you find in the Language log like to mark the difference between a linguist and a polyglot, and I completely agree with them. While I am a fan of linguistics, particularly those of the descriptive kind, I have never studied the discipline seriously and I couldn’t tell a preposition from a palmiped. I am just a curious language learner, and I’ll stick to what I know.

This thought has discouraged me for a while from writing about language,  considering the rich selection of linguist blogs already available. But then I thought, there is a certain level right between anthropology and linguistics, a space wide open to the speculation of non specialists, where living in language immersion is as important as formal training.

I am referring to the observation of how Language and Culture interact with each other, and how a certain character and a view of the World gets imprinted into the language, form the fossils of the remote past to the process ongoing even today. This is the point of the Language and Culture Series, which consists more of questions than of answers. Here is an example: Click to continue »

Google vs. China: some Funny Stuff

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Some images of the battle of the decade, the non-evil corporation Google against the dark forces of the commy government of China. Below the logo on Google.cn today. Clearly, the big G is sending a message to the Chinese: we respect you, we dig your ancient culture, it is just the disgusting authorities of your country that we don’t like. Those of our own country, on the other hand, are pretty cool…

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But even more wierd is the logo appeared on Google.com: Happy holidays. It is 14 January today, still one month to go for the holidays in China. And I don’t know of any other place where it is holidays today. Does this mean: happy holidays to the GFW and the Net Nanny? A very very long holiday is what those 2 deserve, and to never come back: NO, I get it now, it is Happy Holidays to the employees, G has sent all its Chinese employees on leave and dedicates the logo to them. Sweet!

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But the funniest thing by far I have seen today is this video that was circulating on twitter (thanks Tom!). This is China humour, I will explain it for those who don’t live here: Baidu is the only successful Chinese website that is not completely cluttered with the Wall of Characters and intrusive adverts in the style of the Chinese internet. Why is that? Because Baidu itself is from the start an obvious imitation of Google. The title of the video is: What will happen to Baidu when Google leaves China?

And the quote of the day:

Baidu it and you’ll know, Google it and you’ll know too much…

(from a Chinese tweet, translated by a commentator on the CMD)

UPDATE: another funny article here:

The last great battle of our time was underway last night as Google and China began fighting for control of every living thing on the face of the Earth. A fragile truce between the world’s two biggest powers collapsed as Google accused China of reneging on a deal which would see the search giant control North and South America and those parts of Africa where people can afford netbooks…

What is going on with Google in China?

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

images First of all, read this article posted on the Google official blog. It is all you need to read for the moment because there is no more first hand info out there yet.

It was published some 5 hours ago. What it says in a rather muddled way is essentially:

  1. That Google has detected attacks resulting in the theft of intellectual property, in particular on Gmail accounts in China, not through Google servers but just hacking users computers.
  2. That Google has evidence that similar attacks happened also to other major Western companies in various industries.
  3. That the information targeted was related to advocates of human rights in China.
  4. That because of all this, Google is not willing to continue censoring results on Google.cn and that “we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

This is very surprising news and it is quickly making the rounds of the World Media. Here are some preliminary midday break thoughts. Excuse the Bullet points but I am too excited to do real prose:

Regarding the message and intentions

  • The message sounds inconsistent, because it is complaining against 2 completely different problems. 1- The email hacks affects many companies and it is not necessarily done by the Chinese authorities, neither it is directly related to Google. 2- The Google.cn Search Engine manipulation or SEM that we already saw here.
  • By involving other Western companies Google is apparently sending a signal to them that either they support Google in its plight or else they will be mentioned by name and bear with the PR consequences of that (G is dreaming if it thinks they will follow, as if Chemical companies have much left to loose in this department already)
  • Nowhere in the message it says there is evidence that Chinese authorities are responsible for the email hacks. While this might seem obvious, in Western culture there is a presumption of innocence to apply. The normal sequence is first to seek justice, and only when the authorities refuse justice then complain.
  • You may believe or not in the “non evilness” of Google, but for a company that is handling so much of our personal information, this is not completely disinterested. Non-evilness is Gold for the G, and the minute the World stops trusting Google, the whole expansion plan of of Google apps+phones goes down the drain.
  • It is not impossible then that a calculation is involved: by standing up to China, Google can gain more credit points Worldwide than what it loses leaving China, where its operations are probably not very profitable today. With the new Google phone, the battle to rule the Tech World is at its peak, and goodwill is going to be an important weapon against Apple and Microsoft.
  • Is Google essentially Non-evil, or is it Non-evil just because it suits its business? Is a lion evil because it eats a gazelle, is an oil company evil because it gives you products you want to buy? Such philosophical questions people will be asking today, but I think there is no point in going down that way. Google is a corporation, not a charity, and we should judge its actions first from that perspective.
  • For a company to try to “change the World” on its own is completely out of scope, it is pointless, it leads to its ruin, and it amounts to pursuing political objectives for which it has no legitimacy. If Google doesn’t want to have Google.cn censored, then they are right to force this, but coming up now with a sort of “retaliation” to the Chinese government for hacking activist emails is a different thing altogether.
  • In conclusion, the message sounds inconsistent and improvised, it is difficult to believe that it comes from a careful calculation.  I wonder who really writes that blog, but if this really comes from Google executives it is scary, especially from the shareholders POV. Regardless of the real intentions of Google, my first assessment is that the post is a BAD decision.

Some more thoughts on the consequences coming in my next post.

Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

W020090318258260613327I have been away for a while because all my holiday time has been absorbed by two fascinating stories of Shanghai, one of them a TV serial, the other a novel.

The serial is WoJu, the Snail’s House, stupidly translated to English as Narrow Dwellingness, or whatever. It has been red hot in China since its first broadcast in November. Alice Liu of Danwei and the Youku buzz blog covered it recently.

As those blogs noted, this has been the most explosive success we remember in Chinese TV serials. In less than a month it sparked heated debate on the internet, attracted millions online and off, and with that came the hideous hand of the censors. One reason for its rapid success is the central theme about the problems to buy a house, which just hit the spot among the young Chinese audiences.

But Woju is much more than a tale of real estate and corruption. It is a gripping drama, with rich subplots evolving around a central love triangle, populated with very real characters. A sharp critique of the modern Chinese society, and by far the best product I have ever seen on the mainland TV. Originally it was a novel published  in 2007 by Liuliu, a Chinese writer that we should be watching more closely in the future.

Here are my impressions of the serial now that I have finished the first 15 chapters.  I will focus on the two main points of interest: the informative contents for anyone looking to understand China, and the quality of the product independently of other considerations. In the end are also some funny things I observed related to censorship and others.

Content

This serial is the paradise of the 中国通, the aspiring China experts.  Anyone trying to understand China should watch it. If the characters are not exactly real (no fiction can ever be) their worries, their problems and their motivations are a hi-fi amplified reflection of those moving the young citizens of China today. It is a concentrate of Chinese reality.

All the elements we have been speaking for the last years are there, not a single one is missing: guanxi building, cadres’ 二奶 (lovers), shanghai men bullied by their wifes, working parents who can’t see their babies, illegal high-interest loans, collusion between developers and local officials, the conflict between shanghaiers and outsiders, the overnight rich of Wenzhou, the ethics of the new China, the 拆迁 or "destroy and move", the "nail people" who resist, the shanzhai mobile phones… you name it.

And all is so precise that you can even see how much the characters are earning in their jobs, what interest the loan sharks ask, or how much it costs a party cadre to get his first little 二奶 (lover).

There are surely better books that depict the Chinese society in the past, but the subject is changing so fast they are all outdated. I do not think there is any other work of fiction today that reflects more precisely the Shanghai society circa 2010.

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"Hello, I’m Secretary Song of the Municipal Party Committee  (and I just shagged your girlfriend)"

If you are learning Chinese, the series is a double must for its great idiomatic mandarin. If you are not, then stand by for the DVDs with English subtitles, hoping the pirates get a human translator with his TOEFL levels this time. There is definitely a market for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a movie next year, provided the government doesn’t stop it.

Quality

But more important than all the above is the quality of the product. It is good fiction and good entertainment.

The story is driven by an intense love triangle centered on the young Haizao, played by beautiful actress Li Nian. All the elements listed above, including the winners and the losers of the Real Estate craze, gravitate around this love/hate story that puts in contact two different worlds: the laobaixing and the cadres, the two classes of urban China.

But perhaps the best aspect of the serial, a breathe of fresh air on Chinese TV, is its absolute lack of moral lessons for the public. There are no heroes or villains here. The covetous developer, the unbearably vain wife, the fainthearted Shanghai husband, the enigmatic, outrageous Shanghai girl played by Li Nian. Every single one of them is just human, with weaknesses and ambitions like all of us. Every one of them can be up to the best and to the worst.

Even the corrupt official is all too human. A weak man in a midlife crisis with too much power in his hands and a system that doesn’t check his acts. Corruption, like love, happens as a natural course of events, the result of a sick society and not of an evil personal plan. And Jiangzhou, the Chinese Gotham that stands for Shanghai, is the mighty whirlwind of action where all the characters are hopelessly adrift.

Censorship

Not surprisingly, the serial has been censored by the government. However, it has been censored in ways that strike me as prudish, if not plainly idiotic.

Since I am in Europe now, I have been able to watch the serial on YouTube and compare with the censored one available on the Chinese site YouKu.  There was no censorship on the image above, where a Shanghai Party Official brazenly chats with the boyfriend of the girl he has just raped making free use of his political muscle.

Instead, the images below were censored:

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See the original scene, and below the censored version as shown in China.

This is the first proper sex scene of the serial. In the original version you see the moaning face of Haizao in one quarter of the screen, while the other images correspond to the respective wife and boyfriend, who are shown at home worrying for their loved ones, while they are being made cuckolds of Olympic category.

Is the moaning face of Haizao more obscene than the happy Mr. Song shown above? Draw your own consequences. Also interesting is to note that the producers have participated in the censoring process, and the hot scenes are not merely cut out, but edited and substituted by other originals, as in the larger image of the wife above.

Other Details and Questions

I will come back with more details when I am done with the serial, but for the moment I have 2 questions for the public, and especially for the many Chinese I know who have already watched the whole 35 chapters:

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1- Why does the serial show so prominently the "Coogle" shanzhaied phone of Haizao, is it just to make it more realistic or is it a revenge because Google refused to sponsor?

2- There is one part of the plot I just can’t understand: how can Haizao be a virgin when she first sleeps with Song, if she has been living with her boyfriend for years? Is this a gap in the plot or am I missing some serious (and worrying) element of the Chinese culture?

Happy Christmas. Liu Xiao Bo got 11 years.

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Happy Christmas everyone. Sad Christmas for China, and for all of us who love that country and who believe in freedom, dignity and truth.

Exactly one year ago, on Christmas Day, I published this post about Liu’s Charter. I was critical with the initiative for many reasons: it contained contradictions, it was reactive rather than active, and it was not a Charter to unite all the Chinese. But most importantly, the way the document was drafted ensured that it had not a chance to fly.

The initiative was practically born dead, Charter was never a big subject in China even in early 09, it was the crisis and the stimulus that we watched at the time. The party had won the game from day one, so what point in bullying Liu now, one year later? Clearly, just to set an example to ensure that the rest of the signers will shut up, and to avoid new initiatives in the coming years. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, the Chinese tradition says. And that is NOT justice, but a disgusting mafia trick.

Even if you don’t believe in democracy for China—even if you think (like I do) that the hypocritical governments of the West have no lessons to give here—even if the Charter was probably not the best way to attain the noble principles it professed. Even so, any decent person can see that a document like this should never be a reason for a man to be deprived of his freedom.

The party knows this, and it is again censoring and lying on the internet to hide its dirty deed from the people of China.

Now the story has been picked up by the CNN and it is making some noise. If we are lucky and it goes far enough, maybe even Obama will give us a memorable line. But it will not change anything, because all this is part of the deal with China. And the sentence is nothing more or less than what could be expected of the Chinese government today.

Liu knew this well, and he decided to go on in spite of it. That is because he is an idealist and a hero. He will be remembered.

More on this case here. Also, from my own blog: here, here and here.

These are the principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

China and the World Map of the Internet

Friday, December 4th, 2009

I was tinkering with some statistics last night, considering that strange idea of the Insularity of the Chinese Internet that we’ve been discussing lately. The expression itself is odd, because “internet” and “insularity” form an oxymoron, but you hardly notice these things when you live here. It’s normal routine in the land of socialist market economy.

Whatever we make of the phrase, the fact is that it comes up every time, whether we are speaking of language, media or politics,  all seems to point in that direction.  The pictures below are my attempt to draw a World Map of the Internet to illustrate this insularity, using the data from the site Internet World Stats.

Here is the first idea I had: I got the statistics of all countries with more than 10 Million internet users, that makes 32 in total, from China to Morocco. Then I did an Excel chart where each bubble has an area proportional to the internet users of the country, and crucially, I filled the bubbles with code from the Matrix. Result: the World Map of the Matrix:

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The World Map of the Internet Matrix

One interesting thing in the map above is that Asia is already the largest internet area in the World. Amazing—but not really, after all, it has by far the largest population. And this is nothing compared to what is coming: with the growth of India and China the internet is going to be an Asian joint in the next few years. No hit will be really global on the net without them. Up to now, most people on the net were from developed countries, from now on the majority will be from developing ones. The close contact between our societies will have important consequences online and off. That is, supposing we really manage to connect.

But when we speak of the internet, it doesn’t make much sense to look at political boundaries. There is no such a thing as border controls online, what really unites or divides the peoples is culture. An in particular, the most important parameter is language: regardless of your national origin, what defines you as an user is the language you surf in. That is the reason why my browsing habits look more like this blogger’s than like anyone in my country: ESWN and I have completely different backgrounds, but we have in common our surfing languages.

So I looked up the statistics of the 10 most used languages on the internet, from English to Korean. This time I coloured the bubbles with flags, and I placed them roughly on the center of gravity of their community of speakers. The result is the map of Surfing Languages:

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The World Map of the Surfing Languages

Still, the map is not great. Many of the speakers in the massive English bubble are actually Indians, Spanish should be both in America and in Europe, and Australia is completely out of the picture. Physical distance has no meaning on the net, even less than political boundaries. It becomes clear that geography is of little use for my purpose, so we might as well dump  Gmaps and stick to the bubbles.

My new diagram looks like this, where all the major internet communities are represented together in a Cloud. We are all interconnected, and the only solid differentiator is language. Two people might share a hobby, like soccer , but they don’t go to the same websites if they surf in different languages. Most of the media and resources on the internet are not translated into other languages, but rather re-written and re-interpreted by native bloggers/journalists, who function as border control among the communities.

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Improved World Map of the Internet: the Cloud

One of the things we see on the Cloud is that all the communities are touching each other. But I’m afraid this is not a very precise picture. Normally Russians don’t translate Japanese content, neither do Portuguese translate Arabic. The English language has a crucial role on the internet today, because in most cases it is through English that the rest of the languages communicate: Most content is translated first to English and from there to the other communities. The English bubble, including users from all over the World, is the Center of the Internet.

Another problem with the Cloud is that it shows all the communities equally interconnected, which is not very realistic. Users who speak European languages are much more likely to read English. The Spanish community, for example, includes many Americans who surf English sites as much as their own language. Actually, most of the language bubbles share a significant part of their pixels with the English bubble, so we can represent the Map as a sort of Venn diagram:

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Second Iteration: the Venn Diagram Map

We see the new Map is very different from the previous one. Now there is a cluster of Western languages that share a lot of content with English, two more languages that share a bit, Russian and Arabic, and then the three languages that form the core of the Asian internet today: Chinese, Korean and Japanese. And you may have noticed that I have drawn Chinese at a distance from the rest.

For various reasons that we will see, Chinese don’t use Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube, or MySpace, or eBay. They don’t read Boing Boing or the Huffington post, and they chat in their own QQ chatrooms. They rarely receive the viral emails that we receive, and instead they get others like this one. They have all the things that we have and some more, but they built them in parallel in their separate parcel of the internet.

Whereas the sizes of the bubbles above are based on quantitative data collected by a respected source, the positions are only decided by semi-informed feeling. Any reader could argue that China should not be so far right. There is Hong Kong,  Chinese-Americans, even mainland Chinese who do surf in English. And I will be forced to admit that the Venn Map is flawed, because it fails to show this.

But in such a fast changing World like the Internet, position really means nothing. What holds today may be different tomorrow. What is really significant is the dynamics: which direction is China going, and how will the internet look in 10 years? Everybody agrees that China’s internet community is growing very fast, and that is natural. The worrying part is that it might also be moving away from the rest.

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Third iteration: The Dynamic Map

Because in Western countries internet penetration is already very high and India is still lagging behind, in the next 10 years the Chinese internet will become almost as big as all the rest together. If it continues to diverge, it may grow into a parallel network, like a dark side of the moon, a vast, self-sufficient island that the government can cut out at any moment and most people inside it don’t even notice the difference. This defeats the whole idea of the www.

Whatever the real magnitude of the problem, it is clear to most observers that there is a disconnect between China and the rest of the Internet, and there are powerful forces pulling them further apart. Fortunately, there are also forces working to balance this, and the results in the coming years will very much depend on how those factors play against each other. Here is how my new map looks now:image4

The Forces of the Internet

As we saw before in this blog,  some of the main factors that keep China separate from the World are the following, shown in red in the chart:

  • Linguistic, as we saw in this post, where we proved that Chinese language is beautiful and unique in many ways, but it makes it very difficult for Chinese and foreigners to connect.
  • Cultural, in the broad sense of the word, meaning that the communities have so different views and values that they cannot understand each other. This includes the problems with the Media.
  • Political, the deliberate actions of the CCP in  multiple forms, including Nannies, the Great Firewall of China (GFW) and directly arresting people, as we saw here.

And in green the main factors that go in the opposite direction. Here they are in detail, for the optimists to rejoice:

  • The growing number of bridge bloggers and other internet uses that work to connect the two communities. These include not only the English language Chinablogs, but mainly Chinese people who translate foreign media and other content on the Chinese internet. From this humble blog I also did my bit against the GFW.
  • The post 90s and 80s generations that already dominate the Chinese internet. Their personal tastes in arts, music or cinema will probably be more international, and push them to connect with the World. This point is object of debate though, and some Westerners are very skeptical of the post 80s.
  • Business is one of most important factors that link China to the World. Since the construction of the EU, it is no secret that commerce can achieve the most ambitious goals in World Peace, so whatever your take is on those business minded Chinese, they are probably the main force that is still keeping the Chinese Island connected and holding the World Wide Web together.

What do you think? 你有什么想法?

Do you think I am exaggerating? Or is the problem even worse than this? Any factor I missed in the Internet Maps? Internet friends: you are the pixels inside the coloured bubbles, you know all about this World because it is your home: comment and help me improve my Map!

你觉得这很夸张吗?还是认为问题写得还不够严重?你知道我在互联网地图里忽略了哪些元素吗?网友们:你们是小圈里面的像素,那里就是你们家,帮助我改进我的地图!  U5KMU63NGPP2

Chinese the most Difficult… (and 3)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

In the first two posts of this series, we saw that Chinese is the last language in the World to maintain a complete set of independent vocabulary roots and a non-phonetic script to represent them, what we might call a separate Word System. For this reason I argued that Chinese may be the most difficult language to obtain full fluency, regardless of the linguistic background of the student.

But there are more interesting implications than the mere difficulty of the language, in particular cultural and political ones. Because the refusal to use loans and phonetic script is the result of conscious decisions. There is nothing in the language itself that forbids import of foreign words or use of an alphabet, indeed, there are already some exceptions of direct loans in current use that are written in latin letters, such as DVD or KTV.

Chinese has a parallel Word System diverging from the rest of the World, and the government has an active role in the maintenance of this system. However, this policy is not unilaterally imposed from above. It is certainly encouraged by the education system, but Chinese speakers seem to follow it naturally and often prefer Chinese roots even when not supervised. This is in contrast with the situation in many countries where the system tries to protect local terms, only to find that people still prefer “email” to “courier electronique”.

Anyone living in China long enough realizes how aware Chinese are of their long history and their status as a different civilization. This discourse is irritating for Westerners, because it reminds too much of ultra-nationalistic creeds back home. But it has one essential difference with those creeds: in the case of China, it is true. As we said before, China is justified to see itself as a cradle of civilization, and it is the only such culture that has survived practically independent from World mainstream till modern times. This cultural awareness is the main reason for the preservation of the language as we know it, surviving different regimes and even periods of chaos.

When we study Chinese we are not merely learning another language, we are learning the words of a parallel World, the last independent system of vocabulary and writing that humanity still has. It is the most similar experience available on Earth to learning the language of another planet. If Chinese is really so hard to learn, this should provide enough motivation for anyone to try it.

Political considerations

Mandarin is not in itself a very difficult language, what makes it hard is its complex Word System, which is for the most part not essential (that is, the language could still exist with loans and an alphabet). This System makes it hard for foreigners and Chinese to communicate, and it is a serious obstacle in the education of the Chinese. In the last century,  development has been the main priority of China in order to recover her past glory, and inefficient relics have been torn down without blinking, just like the Walls of Beijing. Chinese words and characters are the last of those obstructive monuments to remain, and by far the oldest of all. It is a miracle that they have survived till today.

The invention of convenient methods to input characters on a keyboard has made the future of the characters seem more secure, but their permanence is by no means ensured. Many famous linguists have argued for the use of pinyin as main written language and elimination of the characters from daily life, not least of them Lu Xun, or the late John de Francis. Much as I admire these men and their work, I am completely opposed to their position as a matter of principles. I don’t suppose anyone will believe me in this age of economists, even less in the China of the new philosophies, but I have this to say: Efficiency is not a supreme value. In fact, it is not even a value in itself, but just a means. And a sad means it would be to recover the greatness of China, if there were nothing left to recover.

I think it is clear to most Chinese today that their Word System is too precious to abandon it for the sake of efficiency. However, some reasonable concessions can be made which might ensure the very survival of the System in the long term. In particular, the acceptance of foreign loans for new technical words might facilitate the access of Chinese to foreign research and the incorporation of foreign talents when the real Chinese brain-drain starts in earnest. The complete acceptance of latin script to represent phonetically foreign Proper Nouns (which is already used informally) would also be a step towards efficiency without sacrificing the heart of the system, and would be of great help for all the Chinese trying to learn English.

Apart from the practical issues considered, no less important is the mentality underlying the Chinese Word System. The growing common vocabulary in all the languages in the World represents the recognition by most cultures that there is a large part of common human culture, and that, since this part is only going to become larger with the progress of technology, the sensible solution is to adopt a common language to communicate it. By deciding to stay apart from this system, the linguistic choice of China represents a stance opposed to the rest of the World, and in a certain way it perpetuates the traditional isolation of the Middle Kingdom even in the age of Global interconnection. The insularity of the Chinese internet community and the misunderstandings between cultures that have arisen from it are, to some extent, a consequence of this choice.

The part played by the language in China’s relations with the World is probably not of the first importance. But even today this part is not negligible, and with the advances in communications, nobody knows how vital it will become in the future. Ultimately, it is only up to the Chinese to decide what language they want for themselves. We can only wait and see, and hope that they find a way to stay connected with us, while preserving their unique heritage of Words.

Chinese most Difficult Language in the World (2)

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Last Friday I wrote a very long post where I ended up including too many ideas. The main point got a bit obscured as a result, but it was simply this: that vocabulary plays an essential role in learning a language, and that because of this Chinese is not only extremely difficult at an advanced level, but also growing more difficult with time.

I don’t suppose this is groundbreaking research, but it is interesting because most people are not aware of it, and also for its implications in the limit betwen language and politics, two fields we like to cultivate in this blog. Here is the argument in full with conclusions, for examples and details see the previous post and its comments:

  • To learn a new language the main knowledge required is in three areas: grammar, phonetics and vocabulary. Grammar and phonetics differ essentially from vocabulary in that the first two are rules applicable to infinite cases, whereas the latter is raw data. We can call them the Code and the Data elements of the language. The Code elements are finite and not growing. The Data element is practically infinite and growing, to the point that it is not completely mastered even by native speakers.
  • When studying a language, the Code elements play an essential role in the basic and intermediate levels, but at advanced level the real obstacle for communication—and therefore for progress—is Data.  For example, in German advanced students may sometimes use the wrong declension, and in Spanish they may fail to differentiate “rr/r”sounds. These things tend to not hamper communication because human languages are highly redundant. I would never understand “pero” (but) when a speaker says “perro”(dog). Ultimately,  imperfections in the Code elements amount to the same as having an accent: most of the times they are only relevant as metadata.
  • But while Code above a certain level is highly redundant, Data remains essential at every level. Borrowing from this great article: The phrase “Jacuzzi is found effective in treating Phlebitis”is meaningless when either or both of the nouns are unknown. A single missing word can often obscure the meaning of a whole paragraph or article.
  • The number of words used passively in real life far exceeds the typical standard lists of language levels. This is because semi-specialized words—such as ionic, jacuzzi or matrix—are not included in vocabulary lists as they are considered too rare. Certainly each of these words is rarely used, but there are so many of them that as a whole they are actually very often used. This Data element is so large that it cannot be memorized in a classroom, and the only way to acquire it is through many years of immersion.
  • The reason why most language learners never realize this problem is because they are “cheating”. In most languages in the World, this high level vocabulary is practically identical and it doesn’t need to be learned. There is a certain limit level for each language above which most modern words are international and the Data is no more specific of the language .
  • This limit level of vocabulary convergence is different for every language, but it doesn’t so much depend on the language family or geographical origin, rather it depends on the size and the development of the community of speakers. That is the reason why even non indo-European languages like Basque are extremely easy above the intermediate level: the community is not big enough to support complex terms, and all higher Data is adopted from International words. Most people tend to misunderstand and attach too much importance to the concept of language families, and they come up with absurd lists like this one.
  • The internationalization of vocabulary is growing with the advances in telecoms and globalization, especially since English has become the only language of scientific research. There is little point in inventing new Swedish terms in science, for example, when all the scientific community are reading/writing their papers in English. Often, in spite of political efforts to promote a local vocabulary, the economics of language revert the higher Data back to Internationalese.
  • There is only one language in the World that for historical, political and demographic reasons has remained an exception to this trend: that language is Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese or others, the difference is irrelevant  here). It constitutes a parallel system of high level Data that has very few words in common with the rest of the Word. Japanese and Korean are partial exceptions in that they draw from both the Chinese and the International System, but modern words are increasingly International and these languages are converging with the rest.
  • In addition to this, Chinese has a ridiculously difficult writing system unique for its lack of a functional phonetic script. This compounds the vocabulary problem: not only there are more words to learn than in any other language, but each word  contains much more information as it needs to be associated with its corresponding characters.
  • Moreover, since there is no standardized way to transcribe foreign Proper Nouns, even names of places and persons tend to be “translated” into Chinese, sometimes completely departing the original phonetics and becoming Chinese Names in their own right. This adds to the already massive Data element in the Chinese language.

All this takes us to the conclusion: Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level, regardless of the origin of the student.

This is particularly interesting because up to now the right answer to this question was only: “depends on your own mother tongue”.  With the possible  exception of Japanese/Korean students,  this post justifies that Chinese is actually the hardest for everyone else.  Inversely,  it is also very difficult for Chinese to learn other languages, although this is mitigated by the fact that other languages do have functional phonetic scripts.

Another interesting conclusion:  Chinese is not only difficult, it is actually growing in difficulty.

As the World grows more interconnected and technology occupies a more important part of our lives, new semi-specialized vocabulary takes an increasing part in everyday language. Expressions that refer to international concepts such as “spam”or “plasma TV” increasingly take the place of expressions referring to  local cultural heritage.  In this sense, we can say that all languages in the World are converging, while Chinese is an island diverging from all the rest.

Then there are the political conclusions that we can draw from this, but I am committed to writing shorter posts, so we will leave that for the next day. Comments and corrections are welcome to my arguments above.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language

Friday, November 20th, 2009

There comes a point in the life of every student of mandarin when he feels the call to write about the difficulty of the language. The time has finally come for me, and I will follow the path of the masters. In fact, I intend to go even further. I am set out to prove that Chinese is the most difficult language in the World.

I know I am treading on dangerous ground, and the sect of the Japanese learners is sure to fall on me with all the weight of their declensions. To make this a fair game, I will define first what I understand by difficulty: the time needed by one average person without previous contact with related languages, to attain a functional level, where functional is understood as being able to execute every normal activity in mandarin without significant disadvantage, such as: writing dissertations, hosting formal meetings, reading at a normal speed, chatting in a noisy a bar. I am taking my own level of French as standard measure of this level.

Of course, this standard and the whole notion of “significant disadvantage” are subjective and difficult to measure, but for the purpose of this post it should be enough. Note that the key factor here is utility: I am deliberately paying less attention to aspects such as accent as long as it doesn’t get in the way of normal communication. The reason is that I am considering the language as a communication tool rather than a mark of status, origin or other possible functions. In China, any possible use of imitating accent is lost to most foreigners because the facial features give them away immediately.

Apart form the accent, important fields like Classic Chinese are given very little weight in my definition of “functional”, for obvious reasons. It is true that by using this definition I am weakening my case for the Most Difficult Language, but we can afford that, because our most formidable weapons are still in reserve.

One more thing before I continue: this exercise has been tried many times already, like here, here and here. I am ignoring previous results because the criteria used in each of them—such as teacher’s perception or comparison of certain conventional parameters—do not have any use in real life. Each student is free to chose his own definition for difficulty and functional level, but it seems to me that the one in this post, summarized as “the level needed to use the language seamlessly in native contexts” is the one that most people would naturally accept.

My argument follows the process of studying Chinese through 3 stages: First I prove that Chinese is easy, then I prove that it is difficult. Finally, I will give the reason why Chinese is THE MOST DIFFICULT language in the World. If you are already familiar with the study of mandarin you might want to skip straight to the third chapter.

Chinese is Easy

The simplicity of Chinese grammar at a basic level and the easy pronunciation and memorization (without tones) of the first lists of words makes for a very mild learning curve at first. I’ve had many occasions to compare with students of Spanish in Spain, and almost always the students of Mandarin in China are faster to start using simple sentences. Apart from the language itself, I suspect that the curious and chatty nature of the Chinese is an important part of it.

If you have been in China long enough you have probably seen some of those miracle students that learnt Chinese in 1 year. I have met a few of them myself, and in some cases I was amazed by the results. These people are essentially natural communicators, they don’t need the tones or the characters because they use a very powerful tool in mandarin, which is context. Their intonation and body language channel tons of information, and so they are able to entertain a band of adult Chinese for hours on end, while you sit there bitterly wondering where to put the 了. That is a real story, by the way.

Of course, not everyone can be such a great communicator, but the point here is: for a certain kind of person and for a certain kind of objectives, Chinese can be in fact an easy language when learned in immersion. That is the kind of superficial level that is referred to when you hear someone say “he speaks 14 languages fluently”. It includes just the most basic characters, practically no grammar and long lists of everyday vocabulary memorized without tones. It is nowhere even near my definition of functional level, but it is useful and rewarding, and for most people it is all they need.

It is for this reason that to every foreigner coming to China, especially the curious and communicative ones, I strongly recommend studying Chinese conversation without characters. At this first level it makes economic sense for most of them to study seriously.

Given a prolonged exposure to mandarin speaking environment, a speaker can go a long way without characters. However, for serious students of mandarin, the non-character path is not sustainable. Among other reasons, because it will make it impossible to read and write, effectively leaving off limits large areas of knowledge.

Chinese is Difficult

The potential student should think very carefully before stepping into the next phase. Because it requires an investment in time that is out of proportion with the study of almost any other language, or even with such complex undertakings as, for example, obtaining a PHD. In the vast majority of cases it does not make economic sense, and it is simply not a rational choice. So if you decide to go there, just make sure you have irrational motivations.

The difficulties that appear in this phase, such as characters and tones, have already been described in the excellent articles mentioned above, so I will not go into details. I will just stress the factors of context and interdependence, which I feel are sometimes understated. The idea, summarized, goes like this: Those two diabolically difficult codes that are spoken and written Chinese are made even more difficult to learn because they tend to be not self-supporting in the mind of the student, but relying on each other, and then both of them rely a good deal on context.

This is the most absurd part of the system, because intuitively one would imagine that a (semi) ideographic script is independent from Speech. The truth is that not only they are not independent, but the whole system is so inefficient that Chinese themselves rely heavily on their Spoken language to interpret the characters. This explains, for example, why it is so easy to come up with characters that your average Chinese cannot read, or why they can read a newspaper knowing only 2000* characters but you cannot, as they successfully use their spoken language to remember/guess the missing characters.

In the other direction, the dependence on written material to learn to speak is common to any second language, as being able to read words in a phonetically significant way makes them much easier to remember.  In China, the existing material in proper pinyin (Latin letters with tonemarks) is practically zero, and the tendency of some letters and tones to vary among regions makes it almost impossible to learn them properly just from listening. To make matters worse, Chinese speakers themselves rely on the characters to solve ambiguities, as is often the case with names of people and places, or when they explain a new word: “My name is Jiang,” they say, “the beauty-woman Jiang” referring to the 2 parts of the character 姜. Ambiguities tend to happen a lot in contextual languages like mandarin, even more when a foreigner is involved.

This mutual influence between speech and writing has many other consequences unique to Chinese: for example, it is impossible to write down or even read foreign words without an advanced knowledge of characters, making it very difficult to understand familiar names both in writing and in conversation.

All  these factors (and many others I haven’t mentioned) provide an extremely difficult learning environment for a foreigner. This is the main reason why it is impossible to reach functional level without following a balanced approach on spoken and written language, plus immersion in Chinese culture. It explains why sinologists with a vast knowledge of characters never get to speak the language functionally, and neither do old China Hands living for decades in language immersion. They both stand on a wobbly platform with one leg shorter than the others.

In short, to study Chinese the effort is similar to learning 2 different languages that need to be pursued in parallel**.  And each of these two languages is a LOT more difficult than French (for an English speaker).

This however, has still failed to impress the students of Japanese, who are already grinding their katanas to come after my head. I will admit that, up to here, the Japanese language still has a good chance of beating Mandarin. Move on to the next section to see my checkmate.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language in the World

Now is when we get to the third phase, that of students at a functional level, without any “significant disadvantage”compared with native speakers.  As far as I am concerned, this phase is just hypothetical: I have never seen a foreigner who got there. I am not saying this person does not exist, I just mean that after 3 years in China I haven’t met any, that is how rare it is.

In terms of the measure standard established, I could phrase it like this: I have still not met a single foreigner who is fluent in Chinese at a level to compete with my own level in French, which is my 4th language, learnt as an adult in 3 years spent in France. I have an accent and a few faux amis, but I can read and write as fast and complex as any of my French colleagues with similar backgrounds, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get something on TV. I challenge anyone to get me a non-native Chinese speaker that can speak or write like I do in French, or even at a comparable level. Excuse me if I sound cocky, I am just writing this because it is the basis of the argument that follows.

But let’s get to the real point of this post: Why is Chinese the most difficult Language in the World?

The main basis for this assertion has to do with vocabulary. I think that in most studies about learning Chinese, this factor has been greatly understated. It is in my opinion the single most important obstacle for a student to get to the functional level. Before I explain why, let me give some background:

In the origin there are deep cultural reasons, that come from the fact that China is seen by its speakers as a cradle of civilization. Actually, it can be accurately said that China is one of the cradles of civilization, and the only one that has kept a living language to this day. Linguists will say that the language has changed completely since the times of the Shang, but this is a purely technical objection. Culturally, it is STILL the same people and the same language, it is felt like this by the speakers, and this entails a series of attitudes that are unique to Chinese.

These “attitudes” include not recognizing Latin or Greek as cultural references, and by extension not accepting English or other foreign roots in the creation of new words. This is the heart of the matter. This makes things extremely difficult for foreigners studying mandarin, and also for Chinese studying foreign languages. And it has implications that go beyond the scope of language learning.

Regarding the practical consequences for the student of mandarin, consider this: the active vocabulary required to obtain a standard level of language—for example, the vocabulary required for highest level of HSK— typically contains no more than a few thousand words, which are more than enough for everyday general conversation. And yet, the HSK11 people that I have met were not even close to competing with my French.

The reason is that for people with a higher education, the passive vocabulary really needed to attain a functional level is much larger than the vocabulary required in any standard test of proficiency.  Think of vector, ion or metaphysical. None of these words enter the standards lists of vocabulary because in theory they are technical terms, and yet they appear in normal conversation and you are expected to recognize them even if you have no idea what an ion really is. You acquire these words through a lifetime of living inside a culture.

So what happened with my French? Obviously,  I just learned the few thousand words necessary to get along, and from then on it was extremely easy…  because the vast pockets of specialized  vocabulary were for the most part already known to me. And that is because, once you have learnt to decode phonetics and grammar, and above a certain level of vocabulary, all the languages in the World become almost the same—except for Chinese, that is.

And as a consequence of this Chinese differentiation, the only practical method for most people to achieve functional level is to spend a lifetime in immersion, in order to acquire the vocabulary in all those fields that are not studied in language school and can only be learned through experience. In summary, for a student to become functional it would take, following our three phases above:

  1. Exceptional communication abilities, talent and motivation.
  2. Years of full-time study to learn reading and writing.
  3. Even longer - min around 10 years? - in 100% immersion in China.

Essentially, we are speaking of a person who is dedicated to Chinese as a career, who has a talent for language and who lives in a total Chinese environment for many years. It is not impossible that this person exists, and we might even have someone in comments below who responds to this description. But the conjunction of those 3 conditions in one single person is extremely rare, and for the vast majority of students, functional level in Chinese will always be out of reach.

Excuse the long post, I wrote it out of frustration the other day when I got stuck in the middle of a sentence containing ionic treatment, partly because the word for ion, 离子 (li2zi3) like many other technical words, does not give you any clue when it is out of the context of physics. I would like to see what the Japanese (who are pretty good at saying “ion” phonetically) have to answer to this. Checkmate.

And Chinese has won the dubious honour of being the most difficult language in the World.

NOTES:

*There has been much discussion about this and the number is probably wrong. The point is that even when you get to know more characters than a native Chinese, he will still be able to read much better and faster than you. This is frustrating.

** I am using terms very loosely here, Written Chinese is not in itself a language but a representation of Chinese. It is not really studying 2 languages, but I find this comparison useful to give a feel of the raw amount of data that needs to be stored into your head.

PS. If  you are interested in this debate,  see the summarized and hopefully more clear post here.

Low on the EQ side: the New Philosophy of China

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

51aVuMO1vSL._AA200_ There are some beliefs that, although not originally from China, were embraced so thoroughly by the Chinese that they became part of the local culture. One example is Buddhism, imported from India in ancient times. Another one, I have found out, is the teaching of the modern management gurus, imported from the USA.

It is interesting how analysts of China continue to explain all the  social phenomena with the Confucian tradition, when it seems to me that the Johnsonian and Golemanian thought must be at least as influential nowadays. Walk into any Chinese bookshop or check out the local pirate’s tricycle to see that self-improvement and cheese management titles rule supreme. The glossiest and most liquid books on the front table are the likes of: “Train yourself to start the next Google”, “How I changed myself from a complete idiot to a Fortune 500 CEO”, or “How I built a company that acquired the  company of the idiot in the previous book”.

Now, I have to warn you at this point: the titles mentioned may not be 100% exact, I am illiterate in the field of self-improvement. As a conceited, self-styled free-thinker I cannot help an almost classist repulsion towards those works, and I frown even on the  tricycle that sells them. During my years in the old Europe I happily managed to stay away from the rites of personal productiveness.  But ever since I moved to China, the new philosophy is lurking at every turn of phrase, and all resistance is in vain.

One of the concepts that appears most often in conversation is that of EQ, or emotional intelligence, coined by D.Goleman in his 1995 best-seller. After dozens of Chinese  spin-offs over the years, it has become an everyday expression here. It is not surprising that an idea like EQ should be so popular in the highly competitive Chinese system, where it provides some much needed comfort: don’t worry if you didn’t make it into a top Uni - the books say - because it’s not IQ but EQ that will determine your future. The pair IQ/EQ is also known in Chinese as 智商/情商,(zhishang/qingshang), although I find that the English abbreviation is more commonly used.

Whenever EQ comes up in conversation I like to point out that the concept is unscientific, especially in the loose form in which it is used here. But my wikipedic erudition always fails to impress the locals, and I have seen my EQ summarily analyzed in multiple occasions. The first time this happened to me was during a lunch with my colleague Jia, an otherwise bright engineer, in the first year of my stay in China. I can remember it almost vividly:

- Uln, your Chinese is getting pretty good.
- Thanks -  I ignored it. The comment is standard icebreaker in mandarin.
- You have a very good IQ -  he continued.
- Hm, thanks, you are also not bad.
- Yes, but.
- But? –

He looked me intently in the eye. It must have been the expression called “frank positive emphatic” in page 362 of the emotional book. When the look had been established, he proceeded:

- IQ is not good enough.
- No?
- No, you should watch your EQ.
- You mean, Ah Q, by Luxun?
- No, I mean E-Q.
- So who wrote that one?
- Nobody did.
- It’s  not a book?
- It is many books.
- Is it any good?
- Listen here. EQ is what explains why some people with lower IQ get further in life than others with higher IQ!
- You mean, like guanxi.
- No, like emotional intelligence.
- Ah, I thought…
- Guanxi is just a part of it. EQ is  about your skills to get on in life!
- I see.

But I didn’t see. That human relations and non-technical skills are essential in one’s career was one obvious thing, that I should check my parameters like a cranky old motor was quite a different one.

- Your IQ is Okay - he insisted -  but you should watch your EQ.
- Like what?
- Like there are open positions in HQ, that would be a good move for your career.
- What?
- A corporate level position is the way to leverage your expat experience .
- But I don’t want to live in Paris!
- You see, that is EQ.

I was beginning to feel a bit annoyed by the philosophy. I weathered another “empathic positive penetrative” while I plotted my counterattack.

- So, why don’t you apply to go to Paris yourself? – I said finally.
- What, me?
- Yes, of course, you have much more experience!
- But I am not an expat!
- So what, it’s not required.
- You know, Uln – he paused slightly - I have my children to take care of.
- There are family packages.
- She would never let me, my in-laws would kill me!
- Hah! –I said victorious - You should watch your EQ!
- But I already do!!

And this time he quickly looked away, forgetting the EQ looks, as if to hide some shameful thought. But too late, I had caught him already. It was my turn to pull the thread.

- Jia?
- Yes?
- You are pretty serious about this EQ, right?
- Er, I … do what I can.
- Building  good connections in the company is a good strategy, right?
- Er..  you might say that.
- Like having a friend in the HQ,  for example, right?
- Huh? No, no, of course I didn’t say that..I wouldn’t…
- Jia?
- Well?
- You have an excellent EQ, Jia, you know that?
- Oh, haha, no, no, thanks, you have an excellent IQ…

First Impressions of Japan

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

First impressions are usually mistaken, but they are also interesting because the eye is alert to any novelty, and the culture clash is rich with ideas. Warning: this post contains sweeping generalizations. Take it for what it is, and if you are serious about understanding Japan you might want to look somewhere else.

I came to Japan quite randomly, I wanted to spend the holidays in a quiet and relaxing place,  and in the week of the Chinese National Day, Japan seemed the only place near enough with the right conditions. I am preparing for the high level HSK later this month, and the plan was to take a few hours a day to practise my characters.

I chose the South of Japan on purpose, with the vague idea that they would probably be a bit more relaxed than in the North, and therefore more suited to my Southern European nature. I soon found out my assumption was wrong.  For one reason, there seems to be no such a thing as “South Japan”. Although this place is clearly in the South, they call it West Japan.  And the character of the people here is diametrically opposed to any notion of latin indulgence I might have harboured.

The cultural shock came right from the first contact. It was the passport controller at the airport of Fukuoka. I had been given the immigration card in the airplane and, like usual, I had quickly filled my “address on destination” box with a lazy “Hotel Nagasaki”. I couldn’t remember the real name of the hotel, and anyway these things are never checked in any reasonable country. In Japan they are.  And that is how I met my second Japanese.

“What did you write in this box?,” said the inspector when I was led to his office, pointing at the place in my card.

“Hotel Nagasaki?” I said.

“There is no hotel by this name”.

“No, no, I didn’t mean it literally,” I explained, “It is short for ‘a hotel in Nagasaki’.”

“Reservation receipt please?”

“Er.. it is in my mailbox, I haven’t printed it out.”

And they took me to a series of offices until they found a place where I could connect to the internet and produce my hostel reservation from hostelworld.  This took about an hour, enough to convince them that I was a dangerous outlier, so the inspector led me to the searching department.

My third Japanese was an older man who did the most meticulous search I have seen in my life, even feeling with his bare fingers all along the sole of my well seasoned travel socks. He searched into every possible hiding place in my bags and my body, except for that precise one that you were just imagining.

All the while, the three of them -my first three Japanese -  treated me with scrupulous respect, constantly smiling, and polite to the point of scary.

One of the things that was shocking in my first dealings in the shops is the “hi!” sound that they emit all the time, to say hello or to hand you something. It comes constantly and accurately, timed like a semiquaver, dressing any human exchange with a singular martial tone.  But the most awe inspiring feature is their absolute, compulsive, anal obsession with cleanliness. This country must be the cleanest place I have seen in the World by a large margin.

I came to this conclusion during lunch in one Western cafe in Nagasaki, were I witnessed some peculiar behaviour. It was raining outside, and every time a new client finished paying his order, the cashier walked around the bar with a clean tissue and bent down to wipe the drops of water left by the client’s shoes. A completely unreasonable action, even for safety purposes, because the other side of the cafe next to the entrance door was permanently wet and left unwiped.

The only explanation, I figured after a while, was that the entrance area was out of the field of vision of the cashier, hidden by the tables. It wasn’t a safety procedure, it was just that she just could not bear the sight of some drops of water on the spotless floor in front of the bar, even if it was almost pure H2O from the immaculate street outside.

I am impressed by this aspect of the Japanese culture, and I wonder how  the thousands of Japanese living in Shanghai cope with the hygiene situation there. I guess this explains why, being by far the largest foreign community in Shanghai, we see so little of them. They must all stick to their Gubei compounds and restaurants and avoid leaving the area unless it is strictly necessary.

The service in the restaurants here is excellent, and the food is prepared with so much care that you actually feel sorry to eat it. The Japanese like things well done, and they manage because, like most Chinese, they are very hard workers. But there is an essential difference in the motivations: Chinese exert themselves for a dream, to buy a car or a better house, or just to avoid being left behind by their fast ecoomy. Japanese already have all those things. Like Westerners, they have little left to dream that can be bought with money.  So it seems that they  work for the sake of work well done, out of a strong sense of duty and perfection.

When I came to Japan, I was prepared to find meticulous people who revere order. I thought it would be somehow similar to Germany, and although that kind of country is not exactly my idea of fun, it definitely fitted the bill for my week of retirement and study. But Japan is not even comparable to Germany. As far as I have seen it goes further in the field of obsession, to an extreme that for a newcomer -a Southern European one, at any rate- feels like borderline pathologic.

I don’t want to judge the character of the different peoples.  Each culture has its own ways, and all is well as long as we get along. I just wonder if the little world of efficiency and perfection that the Japanese have built around them is not but an exhausting illusion, and if, somewhere in the middle of all their productive activity, they find the time to think of what is important and just enjoy. The people I am meeting here-starting from the fourth one- are positive and friendly, and I have no reason to suspect they are not contented.

I have just been speaking with a PhD in electro microscopy who is in Nagasaki for a World congress in the field. He tells me that more than half of the participants are German and Japanese, because these two countries rule in electro microscopy applications. Somehow I am not surprised.

“It is a good thing we have Japanese and Germans,” I told him, “Otherwise we would be in trouble to wipe the dust between the atoms”