Monthly Archives: November 2014

Tianjin: A Foreigner’s City…Without Foreigners

Only a half and hour train ride outside of Beijing lies an amazing city (that almost no one outside of China has ever heard of) called Tianjin. As it is so close to Beijing, I thought it would be just like it. You know, the same types of buildings, architecture, people, food, and so forth. As it turned out, the two cities are extremely different.

Can you guess which of the pictures are from Tianjin?

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It’s hard to be sure, huh? Well, the truth is that they’re all from Tianjin. Without the Chinese characters on buildings and taxi’s, I could have been in any city in Europe. In particular, I felt like I was staying in Greece because our hostel was built to look like a Greek villa (see picture above!).

A long time ago it was occupied by many foreign countries at once. All those foreign people (外国人) certainly left their mark on the city. We saw many French style buildings near our hotel and intentionally went to see both the Tianjin eye (sound familiar?) and the Italian Style town. Even the skyscrapers could belong in any American or European city.

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Despite how foreign the city looked, we only saw a handful of other foreigners. There were a lot of tourists, but they were primarily Chinese. How was that possible? Tianjin was perhaps the most foreign looking city I’d seen in China so far (though I’m reserving my final judgement until after I visit Shanghai). Though, that could be the reason in it of itself. Foreigners don’t often come here because it is so similar to where they come from, and because there aren’t as many business opportunities as in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

They don’t know what they are missing. It’s not just a city of foreign buildings either. The people of Tianjin have taken those buildings and made them their own. One of the most well known (and literal) example of this phenomenon is called China House. We found it by accident (of course). We literally passed it on our taxi ride to our hostel and thought it looked interesting enough to come back to. A Chinese man took an old French style building and covered it completely (and I do mean completely) in ancient Chinese porcelain. It is now a porcelain museum that showcases this type of ancient art in a totally innovative way. The word “China” in the photo below is made of concrete and covered in artfully broken pieces of porcelain.

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I guess Tianjin is sort of an outward example of how China sees itself today. It wants to be a modern country, but with Chinese characteristics. It’s a daunting challenge faced by many countries and people around the world. How do you advance and better yourself while still maintaining your own essence and culture? Perhaps China has the right idea; take the old and make it your own.

Say what?

Chinese is not one language. It is actually composed of tons of dialects, with Mandarin being the main one. Mandarin (普通话) is an extremely difficult language; writing, reading, and speaking all come with many challenges that don’t seem to exist (well, for me) in English. Some of the mistakes I make (fairly often to be honest) lead to Chinese people and my teachers not understanding what I’ve said or wrote.
Chinese characters (汉字) are very beautiful to look at, but they are often complicated to write. If you forget a dot or a tail, it can be an entirely different character with a whole different meaning. See if you can see the difference in the characters below.

1)贝 / 见 2)泱 / 决 3)已 / 己 4)未 / 末

Yeah, this is why I have to be very careful when I write characters. If I write 周未 instead of 周末 then I’ve written a nonsense word rather than the word for weekend. I’ve found that writing characters in the proper stroke order helps me remember which characters are which. Stroke order is the order in which you write a character.

If you don’t follow the stroke order, the character often looks so strange that even Chinese people will read it wrong. That makes for some awkward misunderstandings on my homework. Then there’s the character that have several different meanings and pronunciations. Most of the time you just have to assume based on context. Take 得 for example. It can mean need or have to (pronounced like “day”) or it can be a grammar structure (pronounced like “duh”). If it follows a pronoun, then it means need or have to; if it follows a verb, then it shows how that verb is done (such as done well, done badly, done fast, etc.).
As complicated as the characters are, pronunciation is without a doubt the hardest part of learning Mandarin. In English, the wrong tone can get you in trouble with your parents or teachers, but when you’re in China, the words “watch your tone” take on a whole new meaning. In Mandarin, tones don’t mean the tone of your voice, but the inflection of your voice when you speak. Mandarin has four official tones, but the neutral tone is also used.


I count myself lucky actually. Cantonese has seven. Many foreign students can’t hear the difference in tones. This is a huge problem when we speak because the wrong tone can completely change a character’s meaning. It can be harmless and funny (but still embarrassing) or it can be offensive and cause problems.

shuìjiào (睡觉) = to go to bed, to sleep
shuǐjiǎo (水饺) = boiled dumpling (which are delicious!)
mǎi (买) = to buy, to purchase
mài (卖) = to sell
bèizì (背子) = bad luck
bēizi (杯子) = cup, glass
bèizi (被子) = guilt
cǎo (草) = grass
cào = something that no one says because it is so offensive (not joking)

Now that I am in pronunciation class, I’m more aware than ever of how much pronunciation matters. I can know all the characters in the Chinese language but if other people can’t understand what I am saying because I’m saying it wrong, well, then knowing the characters does me no good. Pronunciation is definitely something I have to master, but I’m willing to learn and China itself is a great teacher.

Bonus! A song created to show the importance of tones.