Counting to ten in Chinese using one hand

The Chinese language is full of subtleties. There are hundreds of dialects throughout the country and the inhabitants of a region often find that their neighbors speak a foreign language.

This is an additional difficulty for any laowai (litt. « foreigner ») who is already having a hard time learning Mandarin. Although Mandarin is the official language, not everyone speaks it, and sometimes you may have to find another way to communicate.

Despite these linguistic differences, the Chinese have a common way of communicating numbers. These are gestures performed with one hand, which refer to the corresponding characters. This method was also designed to avoid confusion between similar sounds (eg between 4 which pronounces « si » and 10 which pronounces « shi »). This is why it is also used even between Chinese people who speak the same dialect but want to avoid any kind of confusion.

Although numbers from 1 to 5 are expressed the same way as in Europe, it is not the case for numbers from 6 to 10. Try it, you can learn it very quickly! It can prove useful when it comes to bargaining…



Easter, tradition and globalization

Religious Easter celebrations

Easter is a religious festival celebrated in many countries. For the Jewish religion, it commemorates the passage of the Red Sea (Passover) and the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. At the end of Holy Week, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

Although originally, Easter was a religious celebration, it has become a universal celebration of spring and rebirth.

Traditional Easter symbols

Easter bells

In France and Belgium, the Easter Bunny brings eggs to the children and adults.

In Christianity, the bells stop ringing from Thursday to Saturday of the Holy Week. The legend says that they left to Rome and came back on Easter Sunday, spreading all kinds of eggs for the kids to look for in gardens, houses or apartments.

Easter eggs

The tradition of Easter eggs goes back to antiquity. Back then, the Egyptians and Romans already offered colored eggs in the spring as the symbol of life and rebirth. During the fourth century, the Church forbid the people to eat eggs during Lent. As hens kept laying eggs, those were kept, decorated and delivered. Nowadays, fasting is no longer strictly observed but the tradition of offering eggs, including chocolate eggs, remained to delight the young and old.

Easter bunny

The bunny once symbolized fertility and renewal. The tradition of Osterhase started in Germanic countries, and was later exported to the United States in the 18th century by German immigrants. The children used to make a nest in the garden, hoping that the Easter bunny would fill it with eggs during the night.

Easter around the world

During Easter, numerous cultural events take place. Some have pagan origins, others come from mythology, others remain very faithful to religious beliefs. Throughout the world, this festival is celebrated in many ways.

In France, Christians go to church to celebrate the Christ’s resurrection. As for Easter dinner, families gather around a traditional lamb roast. Then it’s time for children to go look for the eggs planted by the bells on their way back from Rome. In France, it is more and more common to offer gifts for Easter.

In Spain, Easter is marked by numerous processions and other religious ceremonies. The traditional dish is the Mona de Pascua (or Mona), a golden brioche often topped with eggs which symbolizes the end of Lent.

In England, the English name « Easter » finds its origins in the name Eostre, the God of Spring worshiped by the ancient Saxons who had an annual feast in his honor. During Easter, the English eat ham instead of lamb as the pig is a symbol of good luck to them.

In the North of England, the English roll Easter eggs.

In the U.S., it’s the Easter Bunny which brings eggs and other sweets to children. On Easter Monday, a big egg hunt is organized by the President in the gardens of the White House : it’s the White House Easter Egg Roll.

In Germany, children and their parents gather around the Easter fire at night. According to an old German tradition, the Easter fire symbolizes the sun and it is a way of celebrating the spring and the end of bad weather.

The bunny (Osterhase) puts chocolate eggs in small nests made by the children.

Another German custom is that of the Osterbaum, the Easter tree. The tree is decorated with colored eggshell which look like pieces of fruit. It symbolizes the return of good weather.

There are many other customs! And over the years, these traditions have spread to many countries around the world, and have become mixed with local customs.

Feel free to share your way of celebrating this holiday!

Happy Easter!

7 Things you need to know before learning Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is known to be extremely complicated. As we have learned Chinese in France and China (even if we’re not perfect at it), we would like to give a few insights on the subject for passionate people who want to learn this “language of tomorrow”.

1.       A significant personal investment

La gare de Kunming, 2008

Motivation is your moto!

We’re not going to try to hide the truth: learning Chinese isn’t easy. It requires time, motivation and most of all, perseverance. As westerners, we don’t have any point of entry into the Chinese language, contrary to what happens with Latin or Germanic languages. When starting to learn, we are faced with a completely unknown system of sounds, grammatical structures and signs…

People often say that it takes ten years to learn Chinese. You have to be prepared and not give up! Da Shan, a Canadian expat famous for his impressive mastery of the language, claims that after living in China for 27 years he’s still learning!

2.       Tones, or how to get used to them

Mandarin Chinese is a monosyllabic language. Pinyin, a phonetic system inspired by the Greek alphabet, helps learners to know how to pronounce a character without having to guess. The language has 4 tones, and it is necessary to know them in order to be understood. They are easy to get at the beginning, but to pronounce a whole sentence with the right tones is another matter entirely! A wrong tone can change the meaning of a word entirely, and surprise the person you’re talking to.

3.       Learning Chinese in Europe then going to Beijing and… Nobody understands you!

To learn Chinese in Europe is a great way to start, but be careful not to think yourself fluent before coming to China. You might be greatly disappointed. It is the same for all languages: your teacher understands your accent, and knows what you are trying to say. That will not be the case at the ticket office of the Beijing railway station! You will repeat your sentences ten times, using every possible tone. You will mimic as much as you can. You will pray for an interpreter to cross your path. It’s okay… Just be prepared!

4.       Chinese characters: they’re not so hard to get!

People often say to us « But do you also know how to read and write? ». Reading and writing Chinese characters is truly doable. It is a mental exercise you have to get used to. The writing follows a pre-established order, and you have to respect that. It is the same thing in English: you don’t put the point on top of an « i » before you’ve written the letter.

You have to train by writing lines of characters. Beware of the computer trap, or you might find yourself unable to write a simple « thank you » note. A modern Mandarin dictionary contains about 50.000 characters, but by learning only the 2.000 to 3.000 thousands most commonly used characters, you should be able to read the newspaper.

5.       Computer: the new generation’s Holy Grail

Older generations of learners were true heroes! They had to look up words in dictionaries, which made the search very slow, even for the best of them. Dictionaries can still be of use, of course, but nowadays computers gave birth to plug-ins that can show you the way a character is pronounced when you hover over it. There are also a lot of online dictionaries, most of them in English. Also, Youku, the Chinese Youtube, Baidu, the Chinese Google and 人人 « renren« , the equivalent of Facebook in China, can be funny ways to practise.

Looking for the lost character

6.       Practice with Chinese friends!

Like we said previously, Mandarin is a language that is not commonly found in our Western society, so you have to find a way to practise regularly with Chinese friends. By doing this, you will learn a lot more than you can imagine: about culture, history, the ways of life of our respective countries. Mandarin, as it is spoken every day, isn’t found in books! Moreover, it will give you a taste of what you will face once there.

 7.       Speaking Chinese: a true pleasure

"Good luck!"

To conclude, we want to say again that we are very glad to have chosen to learn Mandarin. This language is the symbol of an age-old civilisation that can teach us a lot. Chinese people are always grateful to meet « laowai » 老外  (foreigners) who speak Mandarin and can chat with them around a cup of tea.

Be it in France for its usefulness in the workplace, or in China to discover a wonderfully rich culture, we encourage you to get started!

February Interview

This month, we decided to interview a young French-born Chinese: Elisabeth Wu.

Elisabeth is currently studying for her last year of master’s degree at ISIT (she will graduate in 2012) with French, English, Spanish and Chinese as her working languages. She is also doing an apprenticeship at Lafarge as an E-marketing and communications project officer for Ductal®, an ultra-high performance concrete.

Her specialities include web-marketing, social media and search engine optimization. During her studies at ISIT, she went to Asia a few times, notably in Taiwan for a 6-month exchange semester and in Singapore for a one-year internship.

Her detailed profile is available here.

Elisabeth en Malaisie

Elisabeth in Malaysia

First of all, can you tell us what links you to interculturality? Why is it important for you?

Interculturality plays an integral part in my life. My parents are Chinese but I was born and I grew up in France. I have been immersed in interculturality since childhood; one could say I am at the crossroad of the East and the West. Nowadays I also get to experience interculturality everyday in my personal life. Before joining ISIT and travelling to Asia, I was not really aware of the part interculturality played in my life and my interactions with people. Of course interculturality is important. You can understand lots of things about how people think and react by analysing the culture of their country of origin.

Have you ever watched or experienced intercultural conflicts or misunderstanding in your personal or professional life?

I experience it every day in my life, for example in my love life as my boyfriend is German. France and China both have strong implicit cultures, whereas Germany adopts a direct and explicit communication. Sometimes Tim is a bit lost when we chat.

In my familial life, I often  note cultural discrepancies, especially with my mother because she has kept a very Chinese point of view on some subjects. But since I can detect and explain these elements that are characteristic of the Chinese culture, I got used to it.

You have chosen to study Chinese, to transform a particularity into your specialty. Why?

I began to study Chinese in my fourth year of secondary school. My mother forced me to attend classes provided by an association in the third district of Paris. Since I have never had a rebellious nature, I went. At that time, China was beginning to emerge on the international stage. I continued studying Chinese after my A-level, at ISIT that had opened a Chinese department just a year before. Although it was difficult sometimes, I managed to do it. I hope that from now on I will have plenty of opportunities to use my linguistic skills in my professional life.

What are your feelings towards the Chinese language?

Chinese is the language of my ancestors, so I took an interest in it and I began studying it. In addition, the social pressure and my Asian features made it obvious I should learn Chinese.

How do you define yourself? As a French girl from a Chinese background, as a French-Chinese girl, as a French-born Chinese or does it simply not matter to you? Does it matter to people?

I would say I am a chameleon because I can pose as “anything and everything”. First and foremost, I am French, but it does not bother me to be described with those three expressions.

French and Westerners in general do not care about that. When I tell people I am French, they ask me about my origins and start chatting about Chinese topics. With China’s increasing media exposure, people get more and more interested in this country and want to talk about it with me. I keep up with Chinese news in order to develop my point of view and my knowledge of China, and to stand as an “expert” on the matter.

However I often have to give proof of my nationality in Asia. I feel like people do not believe me when I tell them that I am French! In fact, it is important to remember that the words “French” and “Chinese” can have different meanings depending on the cultures: for a Chinese from China, a Chinese expatriate or the descendants of an expatriate remains first and above all a Chinese. Therefore those people will not understand if I present myself as French.

On a funny note, when I travel in Asia, people sometimes start to talk to me in their local dialects extremely quickly; it is quite embarrassing when you have no idea what they are speaking about.

What advice would you give to a French person who would like to learn Chinese or to emigrate in China?

Learning Chinese requires discipline as well as motivation passion and rigour.

If you are going to emigrate and already know a few things about China, forget about them, get rid of your prejudices. Once there, keep your mind open. Also be careful not to idealize China. Just like any other country, it has its good and bad sides.


"Enjoy your trip !"

How to distinguish written Korean, Japanese and Chinese?

Many Westerners seem a bit lost when it comes to making the distinction between Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters, even though it is very simple! Without going into technical considerations, here are a few « tricks ».

First, it is a matter of writing direction.

Although, Korean, Chinese and Japanese used to read from right to left and from top to bottom (see Figure 1), it is no longer the case nowadays. Modern Korean and Chinese have adopted the reading direction of most Western media, i.e. from left to right and from top to bottom (see Figure 2). As for modern Japanese, it now reads from right to left and from top to bottom (see Figure 3).

So all you need is to identify punctuation and then deduce how you’re supposed to read it.

Second is the way the characters look.

Take a basic sentence: « I like vanilla. »

In Korean, it translates into « 난 바닐라 좋아 ». The characters have relatively few strokes, and consist mostly of squares, dots, L-shapes and lines that overlap in various ways, making it look very « round ». But there is an exception here: the fifth character, which looks more complex. The reason why is that much of the vocabulary outside of everyday language comes from Chinese.

In Japanese, it translates into « 私 は バニラ の よう ». Here the characters are mainly composed of one to two strokes and look very fluid. Again, there is an exception: the first character. Why? As in the previous example, many words originally came from Chinese. These characters are called kanji, as opposed to the other characters  that are called kanas.

In Chinese finally, this phrase translates into « 我喜欢草莓 ».  Sinograms are obviously more complex and have a very square shape.  They also represent ideas (which is why they are called ideograms), unlike Japanese and Korean characters which mainly transcribe sounds (called phonograms) (excluding those words borrowed from the Chinese language, obviously).

Et voila! Without speaking a single word of these three languages, you now have all the keys to distinguish written Korean, Japanese and Chinese!

January Interview

This month we chose to interview a young Indian woman who just graduated in European studies.

Deepika (pseudonym) chose to learn European languages at a very young age. She already spoke English and two Indian languages, and started learning French early on, at the Aliance Française. She then turned to other European languages like Spanish and Italian, and of course their cultures.

Deepika just finished her end-of-studies internship in France, for a company specializing in intercultural training for future expats.

Hi! Could you explain to us your experience with interculturality, as a student and as a professional?

I first experienced interculturality for real when I studied in Europe. After that, even if I didn’t have a degree in interculturality I got an intership in a company that trains future expats in Asia so that they can expatriate easily.

What does intercultural communication mean to you?

Intercultural communication means understanding someone who has a different culture without resorting to stereotypes or comparisons to one’s own culture. It is not easy to communicate with someone who reacts differently to a situation than what you culturally expect. But the most important thing is to open a dialogue without being judgmental, and to accept cultural differences.

Could you tell us an anecdote to illustrate this?

I am Indian, so people ask me a lot of cliché questions about my country. The questions demonstrate their curiosity for my country, but often they cannot understand how we view arranged marriages in India. For them, if it’s not a love match it’s a forced marriage. I tried time and time again to explain it, but I can’t explain it well enough.

Do you have any personal thoughts on Indian/French communication?

I think that some French don’t really understand Indian culture even after they’ve lived in India. They try to generalize on the whole country according to the few Indians they met, and they also try to speak with other French people when there’re here so that they don’t feel lost. India is huge and it’s almost useless to try and generalize given the diversity of people and cultures. It is easy to generalise but difficult to understand diversity.

For example, you often hear Europeans who lived in a part of the country -say, the capital city- explain that Hindu marriages last for three days. It’s not always true. In the West, they last all morning, in the South they start at midnight, depending on the family.  We are all Hindus, but we speak different languages and our customs are very different.

What would you recommend to French people, to make expatriation easier?

I think that it’s very difficult to live in India, and I understand perfectly the need to meet French people in order to feel less lost. However, it is always a good idea to speak the local language, even if only a little, to be able to communicate with people and make friends.

Are there people who find it easier than others to adapt to/integrate in India?

To adapt, certainly. I am not really comfortable with the idea of integration, though. It’s a continuous process, which can take years, so it’s difficult to feel “integrated” when you’re in India for a short stay. I noted that people who speak English find it easier to get by.

What made the biggest impression on you the first time you came to Europe? Is there something you still can’t get used to even after all this time?

European people are really autonomous. Everything needs to be done alone –from finding your way in the city by following street signs, to almost everything in adult life. Sometimes, this autonomy leads to a kind of individualism that you don’t see in India because we are really attached to the notion of family.

What is for you the biggest difference between France and India in the professional world?

There are almost no internships offered, and the notion of unpaid internships is very rare. We start working as soon as we finish our studies, so it isn’t really an option. However, there are some “apprenticeships” in technical fields.

When Santa Claus ventures in Asia

Only a few years ago, Western houses were decked with thousands lights and children put their little shoes underneath the Christmas tree for the long-awaited Santa Claus, while halfway around the world Chinese kids lived an ordinary day. Celebrating Christmas was as foreign to them as the Duanwu Festival or the Lantern Festival to Westerners.

But the galloping globalization has led our good ol’ Santa Claus to the Middle Kingdom. Every year, Chinese people are getting more fascinated by this tradition and by Santa Claus. Coming straight out of Coca-Cola advertisements, the latter got stuck on the windows of shops and restaurants from Kunming to Shanghai, as much as in Xi’An.

"Merry Xmas China" by numb3r

In big cities, where shopping malls are popping up by the dozen, Christmas is an opportunity to indulge oneself and to spend money like in Europe and the United States. And just like French parents dress their children up for Halloween to imitate their neighbours, Chinese parents spoil their kids in order not to disappoint them. In less developed towns, one or two Santa Claus are also put up on the windows of the local restaurant, and the cheap tinsels and Christmas balls appear among dry fishes and second-hand bikes.

Let’s now go to Singapore where the situation is quite different. The city-state is a former British colony and has always welcomed newcomers. Most of the inhabitants used to come from China, India or Malaysia, so there is a great diversity in cultures and religions, which is visible through the various celebrations: Chinese New Year, the Hindus Deepavali, the Muslim Eif ul-Fitr, the Buddhist Vesakha or the Christian Good Friday. December 25th is thus a holiday for all Singaporeans, be they Christian or not, and celebrating Christmas has been an habit for decades.

Christmas illuminations in Singapore, by Jerry Wong.

As soon as November comes, the atmosphere in town becomes very festal. Shop windows are decorated for the occasion, streets are adorned with illuminations or even Christmas trees, and Christmas songs ring out in every shop. Some malls also offer shows with snow guns, others enable kids to meet Santa Claus. Orchard Road, the Singaporean “Champs Elysées”, offers the most impressive show and attracts lots of tourists. Many Christmas-themed special events are organized, such as concerts, parades and shows. Singapore spares no expenses for this celebration.

Christmas decorations in a shopping mall in Singapore, by William Cho

Christmas is usually spent with family, friends or even colleagues. Many companies throw a small party, and employees offer a gift to the person whose name they drew. Western influence, conveyed notably by American films and series which are very popular in Singapore, can be felt on the local way of celebrating Christmas: a sumptuous meal including a turkey (or a durian for the most adventurous peoples), gifts, Christmas trees, illuminations, Santa Claus, etc. In addition, Singapore is generally considered a shopping paradise. Thus, Christmas is also an opportunity for shops to launch sales and to see a turnover soar. The shopping frenzy before Christmas does not spare this part of the world. Christmas is everywhere, which is quite disconcerting when you know it is 32°C outside.