The Nanfang / Blog

Chinese Delighted by Expat’s Curious Method of Learning Putonghua

Posted: 10/15/2014 1:55 pm

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learningChinese people love watching foreigners learning Chinese, but one particular foreigner has shot to fame in Shenzhen because of his unique learning methods. He has even been lauded by Chinese netizens as nothing short of “genius”.

Robert, who originally hails from the UK, has been trying to learn Putonghua for five to six years without much luck. He decided to take another crack at it recently by changing tactics, which is what has drawn so much attention.

READ: CCTV’s Praise Of Japanese Creativity Ignites Firestorm

Instead of using words to write definitions for each Chinese character, Robert draws a picture to better relate to each word, a technique inspired by English memory coach Tony Buzan.

Michelle, Robert’s wife, was inspired to post some of Robert’s personal study notes online, which have gone on to draw acclaim for their creativity and humor. See for yourself below:

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learningFor the Chinese characters 对面 (duìmiàn) which means “across from you/it”, two faces are seen in a drawing confronting each other.

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learning请假 (qǐngjià) means “to ask for leave”, and in this picture a man thinking about a boat in the sun is asking a question to a man with a hat sitting behind a desk.

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learning对不起 (duìbuqǐ) is the Chinese word for “apologize”, and is used to say “I’m sorry” or “I beg your pardon”.

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learning历史 ([lìshǐ) means "history" in Chinese. In the above visual explanation, Robert draws a successive line of people that progressively get smaller until the end of the line is symbolized by what looks to be an amoeba.

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learning同意 (tóngyì) means "to agree".

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learning出去 (chūqu) means "to go out".

foreigner tries to learn putonghua robert expat chinese learningAnd in a similar looking drawing, Robert makes an explanation for 回来 (huílai) which means "to return".

For the word 麻烦 (máfan), meaning "an irritation brought on by trouble or worry", Robert drew two small children, saying "If your family has two children then you'll know, they are very troublesome!" For the word AA制 (A A zhì) meaning "each person pays their own way", Robert drew a windmill because "people in Holland are really stingy".

Here's some reaction to Robert's famous drawings:

Hahaha, so easy to understand!

Cartoon genius.

Isn’t it enough to add a few English notes afterwards?

So what’s good about this Englishman? Is he handsome? Rich?

Robert obviously isn’t the first to devise unique ways to learn a new language. Chinese themselves have employed a number of witty tricks to help with learning English.

READ: Guangzhou Photographer Reveals the Lonely Face of Foreigners in China

As many an English teachers will know, sometimes a student in China will use pinyin to substitute for English words. When you say “Hi” to them, they are actually saying 嗨  with the pinyin hāi, while saying “Yeah!” in English is emulated in Chinese with 耶 with the pinyin .

With that in mind, some ingenious Chinese phrases have been created as pinyin “cheat words” that have related meanings. For example:

  • English word: ambulance
    Chinese pinyin cheat word: ǎnbùnéngsǐ
    Chinese characters of cheat word: 俺不能死
    Cheat word meaning: ”I can’t die”
  • English word: ambition
    Chinese pinyin cheat word: ǎnbìshèng
    Chinese characters of cheat word: 俺必胜
    Cheat word meaning: “I must win”
  • English word: pregnant
    Chinese pinyin cheat word: pūgěnánde
    Chinese characters of cheat word: 扑个男的
    Cheat word meaning: “Devote yourself to a man”


Photos: Southern Capital Report, Yangtse Evening Report


Jesse Appell of Gangnam parody “Laowai Style” talks to The Nanfang about comedy

Posted: 07/2/2013 1:00 pm

Last year, Fulbright scholar Jesse Appell became an online sensation in China when his music video “Laowai Style” went viral. Since then, he has continued to develop his art and entertain more Chinese people, and China hands, with his talent.

Recently, after seeing an impressive stand-up act he gave at the Bookworm in Beijing, The Nanfang asked him to take time to chat. He kindly agreed.

Like the conversation itself, this write-up may meander at times because it’s difficult to stay on topic when you talk with somebody who has so many interesting things to say.

We started off discussing how stand-up comedy, as we know it in the West, is very different to the Chinese tradition of xiangsheng, which is usually translated as “crosstalk.”

One difference is in the audience-performer dynamic. In crosstalk, Appell said, the audience dynamic is more similar to a play, where the audience is expecting to be engaged but does not actively engage themselves. In stand-up comedy, the comedian’s persona is more often than not an everyman, lessening the distance between performer and audience. For this reason, direct bridge-building between performer and audience is a lot more common in Western stand-up comedy. Many young Chinese comedians who are attracted to the Western way of doing things enjoy this more direct engagement.

We then discussed how simply talking about how he’s a laowai has become central to his act. “There are two things to say about this,” he said. “Number 1, I wish it wasn’t the case. Number 2, we have no choice.”

Unlike in America, if a person who doesn’t look Chinese speaks the language and shows knowledge of the culture, people can’t get past the fact that they want to know why, Appell opined. The result is that people are curious about how and where that person learned these things, and that curiosity colors and overwhelms the reaction to laugh. “You have to get this out of the way at the start of the show, you have to acknowledge the fact that you’re a Laowai speaking Chinese,” he said.

However, unlike the CCTV comedy “Laowai Laile” he avoids jokes that revolve around the limitations of his Chinese or his understanding of China.

“Ultimately, my hope is to show through comedy that foreigners can and do understand China, so telling stories about how I misspoke one time or found myself in an awkward situation because of lack of knowledge about Chinese culture doesn’t help with that,” Appell said.

Despite his unwillingness to pander, Appell takes pride in the inoffensiveness of “Laowai Style” in the eyes of the Chinese viewer. There are many things that foreigners can’t be joke about in China, including making offensive implications about their host country and its government. And so creating comedy that engages people has been a challenge. Yet continutes to think of comedy as a force that transcends cultures.

Appell added that the reason many foreigners will speak the language well but never blend in in China is due to lack of understanding of the culture and how body-language works, he said.

We hope that Jesse can continue to learn enough to enlighten us and make us laugh for many years to come.

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