New show: Granny knows best 奶奶最懂得 (2019, TV series)

jamie bilbow cooking with granny

In his new show “Granny Knows Best” Jamie Bilbow takes the audience on a journey to rural China to learn from the true kitchen heroes – Chinese grandmothers. How did the British moderator become so fluent in Mandarin?! Three reasons why you should watch the show.

About 奶奶最懂得 (2019)

  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 8 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The series’ rating on Douban (04.12.2019)

Three reasons to watch the show

  • Expand your cooking vocabulary and culinary horizon
  • Be impressed by Jamie’s Chinese skills and how smoothly he communicates with the locals
  • Meet 16 wonderful grannies and discover places in China you have never seen before

The 16 inspiring women I met on my journey were such a pleasure to film with and I can’t wait for you to meet each and every one of them! The show promotes the universal message that grannies are the cornerstones of families, they bring us together and their cooking provides an important reminder of how good simple traditional food can be.

Jamie Bilbow on facebook about his show Granny Knows Best (09.10.2019)

How did Jamie (大米) become so fluent in Chinese?!

Jamie Bilbow speaks Chinese amazingly fluent, knows his cooking vocabulary and has his way of communicating with the locals, making them feel at ease and disclose their culinary secrets. How did he become so fluent?

Jamie (1988) was born in England and moved to Hong Kong at the age of one, but but didn’t learn Mandarin or even Cantonese during the first 18 years of his life. Learning Mandarin became a crucial goal, once he realized that he wanted to become a chef de cuisine in China and learn everything about Chinese food.

His recipe for success: “I say yes to any opportunities that present new challenges, even if they aren’t related to the ‘final goal’. I say yes more often than no and put myself into as many new situations as possible.” (South China Morning Post, 14.06.2017)

These challenging situations include training chefs in North Korea, peddling a hummus cart business, publishing a Western cookbook in Chinese and running a cooking school in Beijing. Before he got famous in China, Jamie also participated in Chinese language competitions with other foreigners.

Jamie Bilbow selling homemade hummus through the old streets of Beijing (Source: Jamie Bilbow on LinkedIn)

Not that his fame and Chinese skills don’t speak for themselves, but Jamie actually holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as well as a Chinese teaching degree from the Institute of Education, UCL, both based in London.

You can find more about his activities on facebook or weibo.

Watch all episodes of Granny Knows Best here.

Should I read texts above my level?

Some people get fed up with coursebooks and graded readers, because the more they progress, the less challenging those texts become. But moving on to more daring stuff, they discover that reading turns into an uphill struggle again. Deciphering just one page of text takes ages. How much of a struggle should reading be? What’s the best strategy to improve your reading skills?

Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?

My advice would be to do both, but to concentrate your time and effort on “less demanding texts”.

Why so? Because – it sounds all too obvious – the best way to improve your reading skills is to read. A lot. You must cover some miles every day. But not just random characters or unreadable prose from the Ming dynasty. Preferably, something meaningful that your brain can process in an enjoyable way. In other words: extensive rather than intensive reading.

Which doesn’t mean you should abandon intensive reading altogether. 80 percent = extensive, 20 percent = intensive worked out really well for me.

To read intensively is to completely deconstruct a text, with the goal of absorbing as much meaning from it as possible. This is done by taking a text, and systematically looking up every word, phrase, or collocation that you do not understand.

Luca Lampariello (01.12.2019)

Reading a lot above your level is “applaudable”, but doesn’t necessarily result in picking up all that new vocabulary. On the contrary, I would have forgotten most of it by the next day. And to counter that, I would spend more time reviewing than actually reading.

Reading on your level means that you are familiar with 95 to 98 % of the words in the text. For each 1000 words you should only have to check 20 up to 50 words on average. It should feel more like a relaxed Sunday morning walk.

Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it.

H.P. Lovecraft

Extensive reading of texts suitable for your level is the best way to accelerate. I tried both strategies and I’d say extensive reading is the most helpful means to absorb new words through context and read faster. It shouldn’t cost much effort, since you’re (speed) reading the text as opposed to studying it to extract every detail for eternity.

Extensive reading is also helpful when your preparing for HSK tests, especially the higher levels where reading speed becomes more crucial. Only reading textbooks and HSK tests may not be enough. What you need is all-round reading experience. Once your brain is trained to process Hanzi faster, you’ll extract the meaning from a random HSK question without much guessing.

Should I look up every unknown character?

Admittedly, I often do this myself, however it’s not a good habit to develop. For three main reasons:

  • Looking up characters interrupts the reading process and makes you slow.
  • Looking up every unknown character isn’t necessary to understand what you’re reading. Often you can guess the meaning, or it becomes clearer after a few pages.
  • The more characters you have look up, the harder it gets to remember them and the less time you have to read.

Unfortunately, looking up 1000 characters every month doesn’t result in learning 1000 new characters every month. You have to be a very committed and skilled learner to pull that off. I’d suggest reading easier texts and looking up a limited amount of key characters only.

What about Pinyin written above the characters?

It’s an unnecessary distraction. As helpful Pinyin is when you are just starting out reading Hanzi, after a while you should allow your brain to focus on characters only. It needs time to adapt.

Focusing on Hanzi: this is an old-fashioned graded reader with CD and Pinyin cover mask.

The (non-Chinese?) brain cannot ignore Pinyin and prefers to process alphabetical letters first. Try it yourself:

That’s even more true for English translations added below the Chinese sentence:

So it’s better to get rid of the Pinyin in an early stage and allow your brain to absorb the characters. That doesn’t mean you cannot occasionally uncover the Pinyin if you’re unsure how to pronounce a character.

What’s a healthy reading speed?

This depends on your reading strategy. If it’s intensive reading, take 10 or 15 minutes per page if you have to, since you are really studying the text.

For extensive reading, you shouldn’t take much more than 4 minutes per page, only occasionally consulting a dictionary (or better, consult it after reading). Remember that you don’t have to understand every detail and analyze sentence patterns, grammar points and so on.  

How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?

The free reading tool DuShu enables you to analyze Chinese texts on their difficulty level. It shows you detailed statistics like the percentage of vocabulary in different HSK levels and give a difficulty ranking. Like “lower intermediate”, “intermediate”, “upper intermediate”, “advanced” and “highly advanced”. The actual reading experience doesn’t always match this ranking, since the tool doesn’t know what you know, but it’s clarifying anyway.

This tool cannot tell the difficulty of a text, but it filters out the HSK vocabulary. Useful when your preparing for a HSK test and want to focus on HSK characters only.

Chinese Text Analyser can do all those things and more, but you need to purchase the software first.

Should I read children’s books for a start?

I wouldn’t recommend children’s books for beginners. Books for children are much harder than you would assume and usually contain lots of irrelevant vocabulary, since they are meant for kids.

As for content, expect to be bored quickly, unless you are into little rabbit becoming friends with fat piggy in the green forest. More grown-up stories like Harry Potter, The Hobbit or The little Prince require plenty of skill to read and enjoy in Chinese. Try cartoons and graded readers instead.

Reading Xiao Wangzi
Reading 小王子 in an early stage of my learning. I translated character by character. What was even worse: I couldn’t tell which characters belonged together and failed to recognize common grammar patterns. Honest effort, but not a recommendable reading strategy. The little Prince is a good read though.

Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Free online resources:

Non-free online resources:

What are your experiences with reading Chinese texts? Where do you find useful resources? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)

Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.

One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)

From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring new interpretations to the plot and characters.

Key to understanding China

Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.

Still the best: 1986 (TV series)

  • Year: 1986
  • Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese and English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.

Reading Journey to the West

I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.

Other adaptations

Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.

1996 (TV series)

Disappointing

1999 (TV series)

This is the second season of 86′ version.

2000 (TV series)

Disappointing

2010 (TV series)

Disappointing

2016 (Movie)

Watchable. Famous actress Li Gong plays the “white bone demon”. The actor who plays Sun WuKong does a good job as well.

2018 (Movie)

High budget, heavy on special effects, but not convincing.

2019 (TV series)

This seems to be a remake of the 1986 CCTV-adaptation.

Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube

This is the CCTV-version from 1986 with English subtitles.

One essential podcast for serious Chinese learners

I’m talking about the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast. It’s not about teaching you Chinese in 15 minutes or getting 100 percent fluent while you’re asleep or some other click-bait nonsense. No, it’s an expert panel for everything related to learning Mandarin.

Why I recommend the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast

  • Experts views on how to study Chinese effectively and everything related to studying the language
  • Delivers answers to questions many serious learners of Chinese are struggling with. From improving your pronunciation to gaining fluency in speaking and reading and lots of other topics.
  • Great interviews with other Chinese learners who share their stories about how they mastered Mandarin. Some of them, Steven Kaufmann for example, learned Chinese during the seventies. In other words, before the internet and apps like Pleco or Anki revolutionized language learning. Yes, you can learn Chinese: They started out much earlier, without all the tools and resources we have at our disposal today, and still were very successful.
  • Critical discussions about new developments in Chinese teaching and learning from insiders and experts. Doesn’t sound too interesting? Teaching Chinese as a foreign language is a relatively young field. Many questions still need answering: Why is Chinese taught the way it is taught in China today? How do non-natives effectively learn to read Hanzi? What’s common practice in “traditional” Chinese teaching isn’t always backed by solid empirical research, to say the least. The podcast keeps an eye on those new developments, so if a promising method has been invented, you’ll probably hear it here first.

The podcast is all about the meta-level of learning Mandarin. The format doesn’t aim at teaching people the language, though you can pick up some words occasionally. It’s hosted by Mandarin-experts John Pasden and Jared Turner and I really recommend it.

Douyin: Don’t do it!

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In case you have never heard of Douyin: it’s a Chinese short-video app with over 200 million daily active users in China. Or so they say. Can you use Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – as a tool for learning Chinese?

The ByteDance family

The company behind it (ByteDance) is still spectacularly unknown, although that may be about to change. Since its app TikTok has come under suspicion of political censorship in China’s national interest. Outside of China, ByteDance is best known for TikTok. This app could be called the global version of Douyin: same features, different users.

Here you find out more about the company behind it.

What makes Douyin so popular in China? One thing works really well: Douyin’s self-learning algorithm “personalizes” your feed. It does so based on your viewing behavior (interaction, viewing time etc.). It adapts almost immediately. The more you engage with the app, the more it’ll show that kind of content Douyin thinks you want to see. That’s why when my friend from Russia opens his app, he only sees half-naked women dancing around.

If you want to know more about China and learn Mandarin, could Douyin with it’s massive Chinese user base be a useful tool?

Well, potentially yes, and here’s why:

  • Content: On Douyin you’ll find a broad variety of content: singing, dancing, cooking, sports, animals and sightseeing. There’s also a lot random everyday, normal life stuff going on from all over China which usually is more interesting than the more fancy “premium” kind of videos. This makes Douyin an endless source of raw and local content.
  • Your personal feed: It’ll give you what the algorithm thinks you want to see. Whether you want to watch squirrels climb up trees or prefer watching people eating turtles and snakes, the app will figure it out for you. (Or actually content moderators who label all those videos accordingly and feed the right categories to the algorithm…)
  • Interact, get famous: you can create your own content, make duets, comment and engage with the community 24/7. If you stand out from the crowd, you might even get a lot of views. With the right mindset, you can get very big on Douyin. But don’t say anything wrong.
  • As for learning: not everybody speaks Standard Mandarin, some post stuff in their local dialect which is fun for other Chinese, but hard to understand for foreigners. I do see a lot of options to interact with Chinese people.

Interact with Chinese people? BUT AT WHAT COST?

Here we go:

  • Douyin and data protection are antipoles. Douyin’s data privacy equals almost zero. The moment you’ll install it on your phone, it will absorb everything like a black hole. From your contacts and numbers to your fitness data. Even if you customize your privacy settings: where and how they store your data, with whom they share it and for what purposes, I really couldn’t tell.
  • Douyin drains your battery and uses a lot of storage. Even when it’s only running in the background, it’ll constantly be updating and inviting you back in.
  • Commercial crap: Advertising! Apart from gathering your personal data, they run advertisements. No, let me rephrase that: they gather your personal data, so people who sell stuff like to advertise on Douyin. So be prepared for commercial content or run away while you still can! You can’t always differentiate between ‘normal’ and commercial content, because everything’s in the same Douyin format.
  • Douyin addicts: The app is very addictive and time-consuming. It’s designed to keep you on the app for as long as possible. An Indian kid was reported to have fallen from a roof while on TikTok. It can turn people into walking zombies whose only concern is the number of likes on their videos…
  • The kind of stuff people do for likes: if you have spent some time on these apps, it all becomes too obvious. Girls start to wear sexy outfits and hang their boobs into the camera. Why? Because it works. And people copy each other.
  • No politics or “controversial” content: no, I wouldn’t do that. Unless you want to get banned or worse. Douyin is not the right place for that kind of discussion.

Don’t do it!

Douyin might be fun (like facebook used to be cool and fun once), but it comes at a high price. I can’t recommend an app which I cannot trust. I can’t recommend an app that shares my personal information with … I don’t know WHO or when and for what reasons. I can’t recommend an app that might be using the faces of its users for facial recognition software. I don’t want to be a slave of another big data company which claims to create value, but only throws an addictive toy at the masses to get people’s personal data.

Please feel free to comment below.

Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

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Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?

Recently, someone send the following statement to me:

In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.”

I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?

No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are student of Chinese in 2019.

But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?

In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.

Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?

1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner

bored looking guy holding tablet in a bar
“the apolitical learner”
(Photo by mentatdgt, Pexels)

Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.

For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?

2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing

“If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 70 years ago”

If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.

If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?

3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:

Government vs people
“people ≠ government”
(Photo by pixabay)

No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…

One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.

This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).

And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.

4. Pragmatic

The pragmatist’s view: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping)
(Photo by Helena Lopes, Pexels)

News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way you would expect.

Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.

Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.

5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor

China is back!

Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is drifting off in a totalitarian direction.

And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.

Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.

Does it demotivate me?

Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (We’re afraid of China! Afraid of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.

Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.

For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, the USA or Europe. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?

Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.

Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.

Anyway, philosophy, arts AND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.

Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.

Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.

The online Chinese cooking community

What’s the one thing that always gets Chinese people excited? It’s food!!! Yes, my friends. Chinese can talk endlessly about it. You like to pour some panda sauce into the wok too? If you enjoy Chinese cooking, then you’ve come to the right place.

The most hungry online cooking community in the world

Xia Chufang
The main page

下厨房 (xià chúfáng) is a Chinese platform where users can share their recipes with an online community. Xia Chufang is the platform in China where Chinese cook out of passion AND – welcome to the new world – for likes, followers and views.

Like and comment or save the recipe, cook it yourself and share the result

What I am showing you here, is the desktop version, but it also runs on mobile (and I have no idea which personal data they process or where they store it, so be warned).

You want to discover some new recipes, but the ingredients are all Chinese to you? If you haven’t installed it already, this is where a pop-up dictionary comes in handy. Now you won’t get lost.

If you are a cooking fanatic yourself, you can make your own profile, upload your creations and get in touch with other online cooks. The vast majority out there is from mainland China and most recipes come in Mandarin. A chance to put your language skills into practice!

Xia Chufang, user profile
Create your own profile

Here are some nice dishes to start with:

  1. 番茄炒蛋 (tomato scrambled eggs)
  2. 蒜蓉西兰花 (stir-fried broccoli with garlic)
  3. 家常蛋炒饭 (home-made egg fried rice)
The most popular dish seems to be “cola chicken wings” with over 68.000 people making their version of it. Most used keywords are 家常菜 (home cooking), 早餐 (breakfast), 豆腐 (Tofu) and 红烧肉 (red-cooked meat).

But you can find recipes for all levels. Enjoy!

PS. I wrote “Chinese cooking”. A reader from China pointed out, it’s not that simple. Just imagine someone from Sichuan eating Shanghai cuisine where they add sugar to everything. Unthinkable. So I received this map with China’s eight major cuisines (中国八大菜系地图) and we get a little closer to the truth:

China's eight major cuisines