Chinese Corner

Chinese Corner teacher demonstrates counting to ten using your fingers. The hand expression of numerals six through ten mimics the Chinese character, instead of directly expressing the numeric amount.

Chinese Corner at South Seattle Community College. The  teacher is demonstrating counting to ten using  fingers of one hand. The expression of numerals six through ten mimics the written Chinese character, instead of directly expressing the numeric amount.


Chinese Corner . The standing folks include Chinese language high school students helping out. The teacher is against the wall. Note the clock. I liked it so much I bought one for my home office.

The standing folks include Chinese language high school students helping out with Chinese Corner.


Clock in Chinese Corner room with Chinese characters for the numerals

Clock in Chinese Corner room with Chinese characters for the numerals. I liked it so much I bought one for my home office.

Chinese Corner is the all-purpose name for gatherings where students of Chinese gather to practice or learn usually with native speakers. They run the gamut from sophisticated presentations to casual meet ups. Recently I’ve been going to the Chinese Corner at Seattle Central Community College near the Chinese Garden. This one is for beginners, with an emphasis on Chinese culture, but I have the chance to speak and listen, which is great. A critical problem I have trying to learn Mandarin in Seattle is lack of folks to speak with and listen to. So I come to this Chinese Corner whenever I can, even though its late afternoon time is often not convenient.

Among the attendees this past quarter were John and Viola, who hadn’t one word of Chinese between them. Ni hao, I said. Why do you want to come to Chinese Corner? I asked.

“We are adopting a baby from China,” they explained. Why from China? I asked. Several of her family members had Asian babies, Viola said, adding it was a practical decision based on an factors like cost, access to medical records and how many weeks you had to stay in the country when picking up the child.

“It’s very complicated,” she said. “We’ve been trying to adopt for a couple of years.”

“We could hear as early as Monday,” she continued, “but certainly over the quarter.”  Gong xi gong xi (congratulations).  But as it turned out their smiles turned to frowns, as of the last class still no adoption.

Another person, Leslie, was there with her two daughters, the older a freshman in high school who was “wild for learning Chinese.” Chinese was one of her school’s language electives and she started this year, for no special reason. Now she loves it. “She wanted to be an exchange student this year but I was nervous about her going to China and said no,” said mom. “Maybe next year.”

Stephanie was there with her 2-year-old son. The toddler was going to daycare three times a week, speaking Spanish in the morning and Chinese in the afternoon. Stephanie said her son loved to sing in Chinese and she wanted to be able to help and maybe sing with him.

“Doesn’t that confuse him, having three languages in a day?” I asked. “Spanish, English and Chinese?”

Yes, it does, she said, but the principal said by the time he graduates preschool it will all straighten out, and he would be truly tri-lingual.

With all these Seattle youngsters on the path to learning Chinese,  students of the future should have plenty of people to practice with.

Great Wall Shopping Center


I was speeding down state route 167 outside of Seattle when I spotted the Great Wall shopping center. The name conjured up something exciting. I imagined dragons and upturned roofs, and roast duck. I quickly exited. While looking for a parking spot close to the bevy of pan Asian stores, I translated Great Wall shopping center into Chinese: Changcheng shangchang.

What a startlingly horrendous mouthful! Great Wall shopping center falls off the tongue so nicely in English. Not so in Mandarin! I had discovered a Chinese tongue twister right off highway 167. A garble of ch’s and sh’s, ang’s and eng’s, with the consonant and vowel sounds both shuffling and scuffling like tango dancers.

I could hardly follow the verbal dips and twists. Of course you must say it with the correct tones – as if the oh so similar sounds weren’t already tying my synapses in knots. Cháng is said with the rising or second tone, and chéng also is said with a rising tone. Two consecutive rising tones can be tricky, because you have to quickly return to a lower starting point in order to once again make a rising tone sound. So saying cháng chéng is more deliberate than easy.

I had encountered cháng chéng, Great Wall, before, but had always immediately forgotten it. This time around I was more familiar with the component words and their meanings, which helped the task of remembering.  Cháng means long. And chéng means city, town or city wall, as for example with zhong guo (China) chéng (town), the word for Chinatown. So cháng chéng, or Great Wall.

Besides cháng and chéng I was able to recall the term for shopping center: shāng chǎng. Shāng, first tone, means commerce. Chǎng, third tone, means large place used for a specific purpose. Thus for example there is fēijī (airplane) chǎng, place for airplanes, that is, airport; or in this case, shāng chǎng, a place for shopping, in other words, a shopping center.

I drove around the bustling parking lot saying aloud, cháng chéng shāng chǎng. It sounded like babble even in my own ears. Cháng chéng made me think of Cheech and Chong, which was no help.

I couldn’t say chángchéng shāngchǎng fluidly. Rather I had to break it into parts and reinvent production each time. First I had to say cháng, remembering to use a rising tone, pause to establish the next consonant, the hard ch, and then say chéng, again with a conscious effort to use the rising tone. Shāng was a little easier; then pause and reestablish my mouth shape to pronounce the hard ch and the third tone ang, stressing the third tone dip I often overlook: Chǎng. But when I tried to say the whole thing as a simple whole my brain froze. I couldn’t utter a word. I had to reboot my seized brain and start again.

Pitfalls like this keep me amused studying Chinese. I was exhilarated to have discovered the tortuous phrase all by myself in the Great Wall shopping center parking lot. I sat in the car, like a boy who just tumbled into an abandoned well, stunned at the predicament, yet also a little thrilled. Tongue twister hidden in plain sight! I could freeze my brain at will!

Turns out there’s some poetic revenge. The proper name for the shopping center was Great Wall Mall. I’ll have to ask one of my Chinese native friends to try saying that five times fast.

Western Hills (Xi Shan)

I made an early start for Xishan, the Western Hills, to make a weekend day of it. The forest preserve on the outskirts of Kunming is the city’s preeminent landmark and favorite destination, with wooded paths, pavilions, the famous Dragon Gate and panoramic views over Dian Lake to the city.

 Pavilions dot the wooded preserve.  There are five mountains, the tallest about 2000-feet above the lake.


Despite my best efforts to communicate correctly in Mandarin the taxi driver took me to the cable car station instead of the main entrance: I had wanted to walk up the mountain, a pilgrimage. But I went with the flow and took the cable car, 70 RMB roundtrip, about $12.

View from cable car

The cable car crossed Dian Lake, picturesque with water flowers and channels, then ascended directly up the mountain. A fast way to gain elevation. The cable car was the most reliable-looking thing I’ve seen in all of Kunming, where infrastructure generally seems a little shoddy and rundown, albeit functional. Fully automated, gleamingly clean, made in Switzerland, the mechanism chugged with reassuring smoothness and the gondola was as red and shiny as a ladybug.

Exiting from the cable car halfway up the mountain I found a visitor center with shops, hotels, street food and restaurants. There was a building housing another chairlift to go further up the mountain. I kept telling the young man at the info booth I wanted to hike up the mountain, not take the chair lift.  He kept directing me inside the building.  No, I said in my best enunciated Mandarin, I want to hike. He directed me by words and gestures to the chair lift. This was repeated several times over the course of fifteen minutes.  Finally I realized he was telling me that to go to upper half of the mountain you had to pay an entrance fee, and by the chairlift was where you buy that ticket. I am indeed an exasperating foreigner, but fortunately the Chinese are very friendly and forgiving.

I paid my 40 RMB entrance fee, declined the chair lift, and ascended on stone stairs. I arrived at the chair lift terminus after 25-minutes of pleasant walking through the woods.

Many of the Xishan’s paths are well-crafted stone steps

From here I had the choice of going to the Dragon Gate, the summit, or into the Xishan woods where ghosts may linger. I decided to go first to the Dragon Gate and to my surprise the way now steeply descended. Despite having read several guidebooks this point of orientation had escaped me.

The steps, wormed into the cliff face, were worn smooth and slippery by countless feet. At one point the path went through a perilous tunnel that seemed more like a toboggan chute. Taoist monks created the path and honored their beliefs with grottoes along the way filled with bright gold and blue religious statuary.

Taking pictures by one of the grottoes cut into the cliff face

The Dragon Gate itself is a small painted doorway, and a well-used photo opportunity with expansive views out toward Kunming and the lake 2,000-feet directly below. However the narrow path easily becomes crowded, and incense and cigarette smoke hung outside the grottoes.

The Dragon Gate, center


So, back up the twisting stairway to the Dragon Gate entrance, then to the mountain summit. Since I’ve been eating so many noodles and dumplings the sweaty exercise was welcome. At the top was Lingxu pavilion and panoramic views.

Pavilion at highest summit. It was a little cloudy, so moody views

I took some pictures and then explored. So nice to hear birds and see almost nobody. There were occasional signs in the woods in red letters, some directional, others I suspect saying, do not enter, but I couldn’t read them. That was unnerving in a fun sort of way.

Mysterious signs

On the way down I bought a peach from an ethnic minority woman and her son sitting quietly in the shade. The white flesh was memorably sweet. I wondered if she had grown them. I also worried I had overpaid. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and there’s plenty of stories of prices doubling because you are a waiguoren, a foreigner. But later I found out the price was more than fair, and felt bad for being suspicious.

A distant pagoda in the Western Hills

It was mid afternoon when I exited the upper pay area of the mountain, and discovered many people young and old at the visitor center and nearby greenery, playing cards, eating and enjoying a relaxing day out of the city.

There is a road to this point, closed except to buses and minivans, but you can also walk from the main entrance through the woods via the Taihua Ancient Passage. This was the route I had originally planned. I walked down the road to find the Ancient Passage terminus. I was a bit confused, so everything was a discovery and seemed a little dodgy. That’s pretty much the constant state of affairs for me here in the Middle Kingdom. I’m never quite sure if I’m being understood, if I truly understand, and where exactly I’m going. A cloud of mystery hovers over every activity. It’s like a permanent state of quantum physics uncertainty.

It was now 3:30 PM and the ticket woman had been at pains to write on my ticket the cable car stopped at 5:30. That at least was quite clear. So I only had time to visit the first temple along the ancient passage. Rundown in places, the Taihua temple main building was spotless and two workers were touching up freshly-painted statues.

Taihu temple

The temple had extensive well-tended gardens with old camellia and magnolia trees, and stone chairs and tables. There was a pond, and amaryllis in bloom. So serene and peaceful.

Pond at Taihua temple

I lingered as long as I dared and then returned to the cable car, riding down with a older man and his grown daughter. He was diminutive, worn and dark, a laborer, with a big smile and yellow teeth. She was tall and smartly dressed, and visiting from somewhere distant. Their affection was plain. They sat across from me in the gondola, our knees almost touching, and symbolized for me the great changes in China in just one generation. As we dropped down the cliff and then across Dian lake we spoke in Mandarin, following the standard script, how long in China and where was I from, but the dad also wanted to know much my language school cost, and did I have any American money I could show him.

Amaryllis at Taihu temple

Black Stone Forest, Kunming

Path leading into the Black Stone Forest, 55 miles southeast of Kunming

The stone forest is must see for visitors to Kunming. It’s an hour out of town by car or longer by bus or train. Travel arrangements can be sketchy. Want to take a bus tour from your hotel? Be prepared for stopping at innumerable shops selling souvenirs and craft items.  Want to go in a minivan? Prepare for possibly switching from a nice one to a rattletrap. You just don’t know. That’s part of China’s challenge and allure.

We made arrangements for a private car and driver, sharing the RMB 500 cost among several, but in the end we paid more. Tolls, the driver said, demanding an extra RMB 50. It’s hard to disagree when your Chinese is so limited. But we did. It’s good language practice. You take it when you can. However the Chinese have a different sense of appropriate volume. They often talk in a way that seems loud and angry to Westerners. Sometimes you think two people are having an argument, but they are just having a conversation. So it felt like the driver was shouting at us.  It was disconcerting. Like an onslaught of angry crows.

We’d gone to Naigu Shilin, the Black Stone Forest, part of a complex in Lunan Yi [an ethnic minority] Autonomous County. The entire area could be thought of as a giant Chinese garden. The contorted, sharp-edged limestone pinnacles stretch up 20, 50, 100 feet. If you have a feel for rock this is a great place. And so nice to breathe in the fresh high-elevation air, and hear the sharp cry of hawks and other birds.

Stone artisans have created paths in and around the formations, carefully scribed to the rock. Some paths lead to winding steps and views of the red-soiled agricultural countryside. In other places the rocks crowd the path like night to create a cave, dark and close, even a little scary.

This smaller Black Stone Forest doesn’t have the thronging tourists and buses of the other, better known stone forest, called simply Shi Lin [“Stone Forest”], or the cloying nomenclature found there for rock formations [“Two Birds Feeding Each Other,” “Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon”]. But It also doesn’t have any services, or food and water for sale. And information is hard to come by. The guidebooks are not so helpful and there are not good websites. You might find large parts of the stone forest closed, for example, after you have entered. You just don’t know. And if you want to look up the birds that have such distinctive cries after your visit, well, again, good luck.

Entrance fees are surprisingly high, RMB 175, about $28 dollars. However the price is in line with other cultural heritage sites throughout China. The intent appears to be some combination of making the sites self-sufficient, profitable, and keeping the number of visitors manageable. There are plenty of well-off Chinese who want to see their country, and can afford the tickets for themselves and families. About 3 million visitors a year come to the stone forest area.  You can also purchase an annual pass for only RMB 25 more,  RMB 200.

Local Sani woman doing handicrafts in the shade of natural archway


The day we visited we were the only non Chinese we saw among the families with kids, and tour groups with the Chinese woman all carrying umbrellas to fend off the sun and keep their complexions white and attractive. The weather was hot. Everyone was sweating. There were small guard stations placed about, with tall green flags on bamboo poles to locate them; most of the guards were in the shade with their shoes and socks off, reading.

My companion Joe became thirsty and went back to the entrance for a drink and snack. When he didn’t show up at the rendezvous time I became worried. I waited a while then hightailed it back the stone forest entrance, where



I found him practicing his Chinese character writing. It was the middle of the afternoon but the place was desolate except for a sleepy ticket taker and a ticket seller. What happened? I asked.

Joe on path at Naigu Shilin, Black Pine Stone Forest

“They wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “They wanted me to pay the entrance fee again.” That was dumfounding because there was literally no one around and he’d only taken a few steps into the building. And of course there was no sign, at least in English. But oh well. You just don’t know. And as he discovered there was no water or snacks for sale.

On the ride back we stopped for lunch and Joe bought a colorful embroidery from a local Sani woman. He negotiated an RMB 15 price and gave her a RMB 20 note. She gave him the embroidery, then a couple of embroidered geegaws. No RMB change. Just the geegaws.

“I was tricked,” he said to me in his soft spoken English.

You really have to be on your toes. But after such a relaxing day in the stone forest it hardly seemed to matter.

Sani woman selling embroidery

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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