New Year, New Beginnings – Part 2

As I look ahead to another week of working from home, I’m thinking a lot about how to keep myself occupied in my free time. So far, I’ve upped my cooking game, done some dance workouts, and invested in a PS4. I love my apartment, so being at home is really peaceful for me, albeit a little lonesome.

Over the Chinese New Year with Melissa’s family, we spent a lot of time on our phones to keep ourselves entertained, but we also enjoyed some typical activities for Chinese people. In this post, I’d like to share some of our activities, as well as a few more traditions.

TV / Phones

Let’s start with the obvious. China is a very technologically advanced country, and these days, you can do almost anything on your phone. In moving to Beijing, one of the biggest changes for me was adjusting to using my phone to pay for everything. The two biggest apps used for making payments are called Alipay (支付宝 – zhīfùbǎo), owned by Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and WeChat (微信 – wēixìn), developed by the company Tencent. Even in the smaller towns, you will always find these apps’ QR codes in shops. Just scan one, type your passcode on your phone, and you’ve paid. These two companies are HUGE in China, and their influence spreads throughout Asia.

Another popular app here is Tiktok (抖音 – dǒu yīn), which has become popular in the U.S. recently as well. While staying with Melissa, I finally downloaded Tiktok after over a year and a half in China. As I knew would happen, I was entranced by the endless scroll of cute, funny and talented videos, and I found it hard to put my phone down.

Image result for 中央电视台春节联欢晚会 2020
Source: https://chunwan.cctv.com/

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, everyone was sitting around the TV with their phones handy. The special program, called the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (中央电视台春节联欢晚会 – Zhōngyāng diànshìtái chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì), is a spectacular hours-long live show of performers from all over China. Last week, I watched the Superbowl Halftime Show and was so unimpressed after having seen the Chinese New Year show. It was something on the scale of the Olympics shows, and must have cost a fortune. The show included Chinese celebrities, singing, dancing, comedy skits, acrobatics and Chinese opera. If you’re interested in watching it (and you have 4 hours available), the entire show is on Youtube.

As part of the excitement, some big companies, such as Alipay and Tiktok, had promised to give out billions of Chinese yuan to their users. All you needed to do was use their apps and play games during the live show. Just before midnight, a large sum of money was given out to all the users who had participated. As I found out that night, billions of people use these apps, so billions of yuan split between us all didn’t amount to very much. My final prize? About 8 yuan (a little more than $1)!

We got hongbao from Melissa’s parents 🙂

The companies gave out the money in digital “red packets,” or hongbao (红包 – hóngbāo). Hongbao are traditional red envelopes used to give monetary gifts. They are especially given to children and employees during the Spring Festival. Nowadays, though, they are often given digitally via apps like WeChat or Alipay. I’m pretty familiar with hongbao because they are given on special occasions at my job. Whenever a hongbao appears in a one of my company’s group chats, people hurry to click it and receive a (usually random) small sum of money. Hongbao can also be a light-hearted punishment. Some of my colleagues keep all their fitness buddies accountable with threats of hongbao. Whoever doesn’t go running tomorrow has to share a hongbao in the group!

Embracing Traditions

One thing that really fascinates me about China is how the modern and the ancient coexist. Though posting complex poems on your door sounds like something medieval (actually it’s older!), it’s a typical part of the Spring Festival traditions, and you won’t find a door without one. Spring couplets (春联 – chūnlián) are two symmetrical, pithy lines of poetry, usually expressing some hope for good fortune in the coming year.

Fu (福 – fú) is both the character for “good luck” and the name of another banner people usually hang on their doors or around their homes. The banner is square and it’s often hung upside-down. Why upside-down? Because “upside-down” (倒 – dào) in Chinese is a homophone of the character 倒 (dào), which means “arrives.” 福 (fú) being 倒 (dào – “upside-down”) can also sound like 福 (fú) is 倒 (dào -“arriving”), hence “good luck arrives.”

As you may have noticed by now, red is an important color in Chinese New Year festivities, and Chinese culture in general. Red envelopes, red banners, red lanterns, even red pajamas! Red is the color of happiness and good fortune in China. It is the color of fire, and of vitality. It is the color couples wear when they get married. Red is also a color which is meant to scare off evil spirits.

Nian (年兽 – nián shòu) is the lion-dog monster that comes around once a year to eat people and animals. It’s scared of loud noises, fire and the color red. Red envelopes, red banners, red lanterns… these are all meant to protect us from evil creatures like Nian. And of course…

Fireworks! Since I moved to Beijing after they banned fireworks over Spring Festival, I hadn’t had the chance to enjoy the chaotic euphoria that fireworks comes with Chinese New Year’s Eve until I stayed with Melissa’s family in Qihe.

That night fireworks were going off constantly in all directions, disregarding anyone’s safety or eardrums. I’ve always loved fireworks, so this was a real treat for me. A few days later, we purchased a pile of fireworks to set off, including personal, 100-shot “wizard wands,” as I like to call them. Our assortment also included a “peacock,” a whizzing car, spaceships, sparklers and tiny poppers.

Our choices

 

Yeah, okay, I have a lot of pictures of fireworks. But I really, really, love fireworks!

“Wizard sticks”

What’s that you say? More fireworks pictures? Well if you insist…

Sparkler Nian

And that’s the last of them…

Hope this soggy red mess keeps Nian away

I hadn’t intended this to be a trilogy of posts, but since I’ve still got more to share, and I’ve exhausted your patience with photos of fireworks, we’ll have to carry on in Part 3. In the next post, I’ll review some activities that aren’t exclusive to Spring Festival (like the calligraphy lesson I promised I would write about in this part, alas!) and maybe some musings about art. If you like learning about China and Chinese things, stay tuned!

New Year, New Beginning – Part 1

I’m writing from my home in Beijing, as the neighborhood settles into another eerie and unusual silence. Although I don’t live in the busy city center, most days my compound is full of people, dogs, scooters, and their respective noises. The past few days have been another story. As fear over the Coronavirus mounts in the city, everyone is staying indoors. So far, though, there’s little apparent danger.

The virus isn’t the only reason it’s quiet. It’s the tail-end of the Spring Festival holiday, also known as Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. About a week ago, Beijingers made a mass exodus from the city, most returning to the hometowns they grew up in (老家 – lăojiā) to spend the new year with their families. Since the government extended the holiday until Monday, most are only just returning to the city.

It’s not my first experience with Lunar New Year, as I spent three years in South Korea and now almost two years in China. In addition, I’ve enjoyed the celebrations in the Chinatowns of the U.S. and other countries. This year, though, one of my friends invited me to spend the holiday with her family in their town close to Changde, China. It was a new kind of experience, and one I’d like to share here.

Family

Spring Festival is a family holiday, so I considered it an honor to be invited to spend it with Melissa’s family. A lot of people live in big cities like Beijing, where they can find better-paying jobs and more opportunities than in their hometowns. Before the holiday, everyone needs to get home. Getting a ticket at this time of year can be difficult, and it’s important to plan ahead. Luckily, Melissa arranged all the tickets for us and we flew directly to Changde. Her parents’ home is about 40 minutes from the airport, in the smaller city of Qihe.

Left to right: mom, Melissa, me, grandpa — all being comfy!

Qihe has some of its own traditions. Although most towns celebrate with a big reunion dinner on the eve of the lunar new year, Qihe families have a big breakfast that day. It was important that we arrived the night before Lunar New Year’s Eve, so we could share breakfast with her family.

Breakfast wine should really be more of a thing

Before we ate, Melissa’s parents prepared three bowls of rice and three cups of wine for their ancestors. After saying a blessing, the rice is put back in the pot with the other rice, or given to elders. Ancestors are also honored with candles and incense.

Tomb-sweeping is another ancestral tradition. On the eve of the new year, it was raining heavily and bitter cold, but Melissa’s dad still took the trek to his mother’s tomb to burn paper money and incense. The paper money (纸钱 – zhǐqián) is not real money, but symbolic money for those in the afterlife. Around this time of year in Beijing, don’t be surprised if you find piles of ash on sidewalks or at intersections.

Over the next few days, I met more of Melissa’s family — uncles, cousins, grandparents and an aunt. Despite not speaking much, or any, English, they all welcomed me and found ways to make me more comfortable. Like many Chinese families, Melissa calls her cousins “brothers,” and was comfortable being the bossy big sister! On the other hand, her 22-year-old cousins implored their “big sister” to buy them wireless earbuds. Although I grew up with a pretty rigid concept of “immediate” vs. “extended” family, I can appreciate the inclusive nature of family member words in Chinese (especially when they included me, too).

Food

What’s a holiday without lots and lots of food? Being a vegetarian, I didn’t try everything on the table, but I did learn some of the superstitions around different kinds of food. For example, one staple item for a Spring Festival meal is

Chicken feet.. for your hair?

taro. Everyone needs to eat at least one taro ball for good luck in the coming year. When I asked why, Melissa thought taro’s round shape might signify “reunion,” a common theme during Spring Festival. Another story, not necessarily related to the holiday, was about eating chicken feet. Though it might seem like a bizarre dish in the States, chicken feet is a normal dish for Chinese. Melissa’s family advised us that eating chicken feet will help with messy hair (perhaps because they are like combs??) or getting more money in your career (because the claws can grab more money!)

Lianousu is named after the lotus because of its shape

When I told her parents I eat fish, their response was “We have fish, but you can’t eat it!” One fish is always included in the Spring Festival meal, but it’s not eaten. The saying, “年年有余” (niánniányǒuyú) means “Year after year, may you have surplus” but contains a character that is a homophone of 鱼 (yú) meaning “fish.” Therefore, the tradition is to leave some uneaten fish on the table for a plentiful year. Many Chinese traditions and superstitions are based on similar wordplay.

 

Between meals, there were always plenty of snacks. In Qihe, I found a snack (lianousu) that tasted like a cross between Honeycomb cereal and a Rice Krispie Bar. Later, I discovered how amazing this honey-flavored snack is with peanut butter, but no one else quite shared my enthusiasm for lianousu. Another snack, tang yuan (汤圆 – tāngyuán), reminded me a lot of Korean songpyeon (송편). Both dishes are made of glutinous rice balls or cakes filled with a sugary filling such as sweet sesame. The main difference is tang yuan is served as a soup, so the rice ball is softer than songpyeon.

Traditional tang yuan

One night at Melissa’s aunt’s house, we attempted “home barbecue.” As an aside, I have to explain how it’s possible to have a barbecue indoors in that part of China. These homes have large front doors, which are kept open even in cold weather. The first room you walk into is a spacious living room with a hard floor. To me, it was a strange juxtaposition to see the TV and couch in this room rather than somewhere cozier (and more secure) upstairs. In my hometown, the TV would be stolen pretty quickly and no one would feel secure with large, open doors. Here, though, with family living down the road, it makes sense to have such an open place to gather, and no one feels worried.

Back to the barbecue. We set up a fire in a small grill in the middle of the living room. We put some vegetables on sticks and sat around the fire like kids waiting for their marshmallows to brown. That plan didn’t work out so well, so we wrapped the food in tinfoil and set it on the grate. All-in-all, we weren’t terribly successful, but we had fun trying.

I believe these two words, “family” and “food,” are closely connected, not just in Chinese culture, but in all cultures. It’s something we have in common. Spring Festival is as important a holiday in China as Thanksgiving or Christmas is in the west, and they share common values. The heart of it is taking some time to spend with family and share meals with them. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

In my next post (part 2!), I’ll share more about Chinese traditions and entertainment, including snapshots from my calligraphy lesson with Melissa.

Thanks for reading, and stay healthy!

Teaching / Learning Tip: Make a Splash

“Splash”

The other day I was teaching the song “I’m a Little Teapot” to a student. If you don’t know, the children’s song goes likes this:

“I’m a little teapot, short and stout.
Here is my handle, here is my spout.
When I get all steamed up, hear me shout:
‘Tip me over and pour me out!'”

I had woken up 10 minutes later than usual that morning and, as a result, had skipped my morning cup of tea. However, I wanted to show how awake I was (◕ᴥ◕), so I grabbed my cup of water to demonstrate the phrase “pour me out.” I did not intend to pour water in my lap, but that’s what happened. And I hope my student will never forget the meaning of the word “pour” again.

Think back to something you’ve remembered well from your own education. How did you remember it? For example, the definition of “mitosis” is stuck in my head because it was a running joke on the TV show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Whenever Sabrina would get together with someone to study, they’d start with “Mitosis is…” and then get distracted and not finish the sentence. Finally, in one episode, they said, “Mitosis is… the process of cell division!” It didn’t matter that they only said it once — it stuck.

As an adult language teacher or learner, how do you get new words to stay? There are various specific strategies, but the obvious thing they have in common is making meaning memorable.

Memory itself is a complex topic (and one I hope to write more about after I’ve read this book), but for now, let’s look at the basic processes.

Here’s the boring scientific explanation of memory:

(Skip down to the fun examples below if you’d prefer to see how it applies to language learning.)

There are three main stages to memory: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory.

Sensory information such as sights and sounds are stored* in your sensory memory for less than a second. Whether or not the information is then transferred to short term memory depends on if you are paying attention or not.

Once in short-term memory, information only lasts for about 20-30 seconds. Short-term memory can only hold about 5-9 things at a time, so any new information pushes the old information out, even before the 20-30 seconds is up.

Lastly, if the brain decides the information is important enough, it will be encoded into long-term memory, where it will stay. You can retrieve memories from your long term memory and bring them back to your short-term memory.

That was all a huge oversimplification. If memory science interests you, you can read more about how memory works at howstuffworks. Please remember to come back here to learn how all of this applies to language learning. 😀

Now for the fun examples!

Read this string of words, then quickly cover it with your hand and answer the questions afterwards:

black, quack, hunt, itch, adventurous, bat, cover, art, mailbox, worry, grape,
best, education, plain, enjoy, stem, stocking, lively, shivering, match,
splendid, rob, end, precede, tie, slip, cowardly, size, jittery, air.

Questions:

Did you read it?**
Oh good. Now, how many verbs can you recall from the list? Maybe you can think of a few, but chances are you’re not going to be able to recall most of them. I didn’t draw your attention to the verbs in any way, there were too many items in the list, and the list wasn’t connected in any meaningful way.*** I set you up for failure, sorry.

Let’s try another vocabulary set. Read these sentences, then cover them with your hand and answer the questions:

The rhino is coming for the giraffe. Run, giraffe, run!
At the last minute, the giraffe steps aside, and the rhino bumps into the fierce lion instead.
Oh no! The lion is verrry angry. He starts chasing the rhino, but he is distracted by a group of gazelles.
The gazelles scurry over to hide behind their friend, the elephant. The elephant doesn’t mind.

Questions:
Did you read it?*
Great. Can you name all the animals that were in the sentences? I bet you can! There were only five of them, I put them in bold to bring your attention to them, and they are all part of a (somewhat) meaningful story. I even added in some extra memory-helpers, like repetition and humor.

Those animal words are already in your long-term memory, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to remember them easily. If we had a test on them a week from now, you might not remember them. There are ways to increase our ability to remember them, though, and those are the ones that we need to pay attention to as teachers and learners.

How to make meaning more memorable — the promised tips!

For each of these tips, I have one specific application for teachers and one for self-studying students.

First, how you put information into your long-term memory helps determine how easy it will be to recall. The more senses involved, the “stronger” the memories will be when they are encoded in your long-term memory. For example, if I had added pictures to the animal sentences, you might be able to remember them a week from now. But what if we acted out the whole story as a play? What if we made it a musical? Chances are, you’d still remember it months from now.

  • Teacher’s Tip: When you’re introducing new vocabulary, try to use as many senses as possible. Don’t just teach the word “ball,” bring one to class and toss it to a student. Touching it while saying the word “ball” will be a much more vibrant memory than just looking at a picture of a ball.
  • Learner’s Tip: Interact with your vocabulary. Limit yourself to 5-9 new words at a time, and try to pay close attention to sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Every time you experience some sense in relation to the word, say that word out loud.

Another factor is how often you retrieve the information from your long-term memory and think about it consciously. Simple repetition can be useful while you are encoding it in your long-term memory, but after that, you want to aim for thinking of it independently many times over a longer period of time. You can remember something by either thinking of it directly or being reminded of it through associations.

  • Teacher’s Tip: After teaching a new set of vocabulary, make a point of reviewing it after a few minutes of doing something else. Then after a longer interval, such as at the end of class. Put vocabulary cards on a wall to review them first thing at the beginning of the next class. Then turn them over and ask for students to recall the words freely at the end of the second class. In the following class, just have students run to the board to write the words.
  • Learner’s Tip: Buy a label-maker. Label all the things in your house in your new language. Whenever you see the word, read it out loud. After a couple days, take off the labels and try to say the words from memory. I did this when I was a kid studying Russian, and I still remember the words for “basement,” “refrigerator,” and “orange” (I had some orange chapstick), despite having forgotten many other words which I didn’t label.

The last way to improve memory which I want to mention is building schemata. Schemata are like systems or webs (hey-o!) based on prior knowledge that help our brains quickly organize new information. So instead of storing a new word like “rhino” in a new mental box labeled “animals,” I might put it somewhere on a schema of familiar animal stories that follow the pattern “conflict — complication — climax — resolution.” There’s a lot more to schemata, so here’s a good article that summarizes schema theory, without getting too academic.

  • Teacher’s Tip: Consider the context of new words. Try to connect them as much as possible in related groups, such as “detective stories,” or “common advertising techniques.” Draw attention to these schemata and figure out how familiar they are to your students. Only build off of structures they already know.
  • Learner’s Tip: If you’re studying on your own, first come up with some schemata that you are familiar with. Try to find vocabulary that belongs to those frameworks, or, if you’re studying from word lists, use your imagination to connect the new vocabulary to what you already know about a subject.

Last thoughts and a question

As a English language teacher, I have to remind myself that my mission is not to be dignified, or clever, or entertaining, except insofar as those qualities help my students succeed. However my students think back on my lessons, I hope they do remember them, at least!

I had started this post intending it to be something rather light-hearted, but I realize that I ran out of gif-able things to say pretty early on. I’m happy we arrived here, though, and I hope that you have learned something useful.

I’d love for this blog to be more conversational, so I’ll end with a question. Please leave a reply below!

What is one vocabulary word you’ve learned that you’ll never forget, and how did it stick in your memory?

Go out and make a splash. But not like this.

*Words like “store,” “transfer” and “retrieve from” are essentially metaphors for what your brain is doing with memories. There is no literal “storehouse” of memories, and you don’t “pick them out of” a collection. However, it’s a much easier way to talk about these processes.
**Yes, that question is just there to keep you from accidentally reading the questions first. Hehe, I’m tricky like that.
***Since humans are really bad at coming up with truly random strings of words or numbers, I used this random word generator.

An Introduction

Welcome to Gossamer Word!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a website. In fact, my last one was a Harry Potter RPG and I made it when I was about 13. Hopefully, this blog will be a little more sophisticated, but just as fun. Though there is not much here yet, I have plenty of ideas cooking and it won’t look empty for long!

First, I just want to answer some basic questions about Gossamer Word and me.

Who am I?

I’m an English as Second Language (or ESL) teacher, language enthusiast and sometimes expat.

I first tutored students in English while I was studying abroad in Italy, just outside of Rome. Prior to that, I never thought I’d be a teacher. A volunteer project elective was offered through my university, and a group of us visited a nearby town called Marino to “teach” (read: “play with”) a few Italian elementary school students throughout the semester. After graduating college with a BA in English, and mucking around in hospitality for a bit, I earned my Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). I then applied to the English Program In Korea (EPIK) and was placed at a school on a beautiful island called Jeju. I ended up spending 3 amazing years there, traveling around southeast Asia and mainland South Korea whenever I could.

A Volleyball Tournament in Jeju, South Korea (2014). I’m the one with the ball.

Currently, I’m an independent contractor with an online English tutoring company called VIPKID. After returning to the US, I sought out a way to earn money from home, according to my own schedule, while still doing something I loved (more on this later)! It’s been great catching up with family and friends back home; however, I’m excited to be moving to Beijing soon to join VIPKID’s full-time staff.

Here’s how I teach now –live video chat lessons with VIPKID!

I’ve always been interested in languages, and have, at various points, dabbled in Russian, Italian and Korean. At present, I am studying Mandarin Chinese in preparation for the big move. Of course, I love my native language, English, and I’m always learning more about etymology, usage, regional dialects, idioms and the like (all of which I hope to post about in this blog).

Why am I starting this blog?

This blog is the seed of an idea I had which I hope will eventually grow into something far more expansive and useful. For now, I plan to use it to share what I’ve learned about teaching English, learning a new language and living abroad. “Start simple” was the good advice I was given. Gossamer Word is also a personal story, for anyone who is interested in my adventures and observations.

What’s in a name?

The name “Gossamer Word” was partly inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The poem presents the image of a spider flinging a “gossamer thread” into the wind, hoping the wind will pick it up and carry the spider somewhere else. (For those who want to go down the rabbit hole of English etymology already, I found this fascinating 3 and a half minute podcast on the origins of the word “gossamer,” which also references Whitman’s poem.)

Whitman’s metaphor is poignant and may serve as a symbol of many different situations, but I found it particularly apt as a symbol for language learning and moving abroad. There is this act of flinging one’s soul out into the unknown, like the spider with his gossamer thread, that is so vulnerable, so brave, and yet so ordinary.

Gossamer itself is the fine, intricately connected webs that spiders make across the grass, usually in autumn. Although “gossamer” can have the connotation of “thin” or “delicate,” it is not that sense which I am trying to evoke with Gossamer Word. Rather, I hope that through this blog I can shed light on the connections of our words and cultures, the strange, heroic process of taking on a new language, and that mad instinct that provokes us to explore.

You might recognize this stuff. It’s gossamer. “Gorse Spider Mite” by Adrian Colston, used under CC BY 4.0.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

By Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.