Restaurants in China

Girl serving beer

I’m heading to China in a few weeks, to study and then do some work at the Mogao Caves, the World Heritage Site at Dunhuang. I’m worried about ordering food. I hope I don’t come back thin as a rail. I can order order dumpling and beer [ yi pan jiao zi, yi ping pi jiu] but it’s sketchy after that. How long can you survive on dumplings and beer? Well, I guess there’s always point and indicating, I want that.

My Chinese friend tell me some restaurants ask for pay before they serve you food. Some places are so crowded, she says, diners can just disappear. Chinese version of dine and dash, I guess. I’m glad she told me, I’m sure I’d be confused if the restaurant proprietor was demanding money when the meal hadn’t been eaten. That’s not everywhere, of course, just some places. And she says be sure to order bing pi jiu: cold beer. And don’t be surprised if cold beer costs more than warm. “Electricity is expensive. You pay a little something extra for the refrigeration.”


Young Chinese at leisure at the Singing Sands, in the desert outside of Dunhuang City in Gansu province. Domestic tourism has increased hugely along with rising incomes and better infrastructure.


Studying Chinese is hard, especially sitting in my small office in Seattle. I sometimes think, if I had put this much time into studying Spanish, I’d be so much further ahead. Chinese has tones; no alphabet to aid with pronunciation; no overlap with romantic or European languages to provide some shared cultural stepping stones. It’s utterly foreign. Chinese is about four times as hard as Spanish. That estimate comes from the State Dept. In fact I think it is number one on their list. And Spanish is spoken all through the United States.

My friend Mark went to Taiwan to study language and tai chi, but after six months back in the US most of his Chinese had vanished like water vapor. Now if he meets a Chinese speaking person he can say a couple of phrases, and they gush, oh, you speak Chinese so well, but he knows the reality.  The reality, especially for those of us coming to a second language later in life, is that if you do not keep it up regularly it disappears in a blink. Heck, if I go a week without reviewing my lessons I start backsliding [ I use the Integrated Chinese textbooks, very popular].

What’s the word for beverage again?

I have some work affiliation with the World Heritage Site at Dunhuang, the Mogao Caves on the Silk Road, and so have a professional interest in pursuing Chinese language and Chinese culture. And China with its great population, economy and energy is poised to be the defining giant of the 21st century. Those are great reasons for studying Chinese. But it takes a great deal of time and daily commitment.

Bobblehead and Practical Uses for Chinese

Do you think a bobblehead would be a good gift for your mother?

It was our mom’s 80th birthday, we’d been casting about for what to do. A Groupon-like deal had crossed my desk, $50 off a custom bobble head, and I thought a bobble head of mom might add some levity to the birthday festivities.

“Well, maybe,” said my sister.

I bought the discount, and immediately started the process, as my mother’s birthday was coming up quickly. You had to send in a frontal picture and a profile, along with certain information like eye color, skin color, hair color: They offered tiny swatches to choose from. That was hilarious, I thought. Build a head. Plus you selected the body type and clothes from a stable of pre-sets: office casual, slinky girl in a shoe, bathing suit babe, and any accessories you might want, like glasses, or watch, or something printed on the clothes like, take me shopping.

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Why Study Mandarin? The less polite version

Sometimes necessity makes you do things.

This was part of the same short trip to Beijing as the previous post, and we took a car to the pearl market, located in a department store-like building. We passed levels with luggage, clothing, shoes etc. and went to the pearl vendors. They occupied an entire floor, hundreds of them, each with a small, same-sized station in the cavernous room. They had big numbers displayed on poles, so you could find your way to a particular one. It was noisy and confusing, kind of like the stock exchange floor. My friends, fluent in Mandarin, both American but one born in China, had purchased before, so we muscled our way through the throng to Vendor #268.

Hardly occupying more footprint than a card table, the vendor presided over an array of pearls from a high stool. They were simply hung on strings, arranged by kind, size and quality. A waterfall of preciousness displayed as casually as onions. Hundreds of coils, fresh and saltwater, some tiny like grains of rice, others approaching golf ball size. Plus red coral, jade and precious stones I didn’t recognize.

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Why Study Mandarin? Summer Palace

Around Kunming lake at the Summer Palace, Beijing.

I had several challenging experiences in China that led me to study the language. I was in Beijing with a friend who was there on business. We were staying on the Tsinghua University campus. He went off to his meeting. We agreed I would go to the Summer Palace. It was a warm summer day, and the skies were uncharacteristically blue. A perfect day for a walk among the hundreds of beautiful acres. He wrote the address in Chinese characters on a piece of paper, as well as the return address for where I needed to go, and put me in a cab.

The Summer Palace was wonderful. I strolled on the paved walkways, enjoyed the classic pavilions, the studied vistas, the greenery, the vast manmade lake, but most of all enjoyed the people enjoying themselves: families, clusters of young girls, couples, kite flyers, people licking refreshing ices.

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Community College

Community college was my first stab at learning Mandarin, started after a brief trip to China. I signed up for the beginner class, but to my surprise it was hardly a beginner class. Two dozen students were enrolled. Many dropped out quickly, upon realizing how daunting Mandarin really was, leaving 15. Of those, half were “running start” students, meaning high school students who were now in early enrollment in college; these folks had taken two or three years of Chinese in high school! So, while the instruction in high school “sucked,” they had certainly been exposed to Mandarin and the singsong tones of Chinese words. And they had supple brains.

The other half of the class were Chinese-Americans who had ignored auntie when she had sat them down at the kitchen table and tried to teach them Mandarin. Headstrong  six-years-old Americans. Now, two decades later, they were wanting to learn Mandarin and understand their cultural inheritance. Naturally these people picked up speaking and understanding quickly.

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