Chinese New Year Migration

[singlepic id=37 w=320 h=240 float=right]The annual migration has started. The streets outside the Lotus office here in Beijing are much quieter than usual for a Monday morning. It’s more like a Sunday afternoon, but then, Sunday afternoon traffic in Beijing is not what you’re used to back home. Recently I’ve noticed a lot more inter-city coaches making early morning and late night departures. A few days ago there were five coaches parked on the sidewalk waiting for passengers to board. This is not a usual practice around here. Lately there are always people on the subway, luggage in hand, on the way to the train station.

I’ve been searching for accurate numbers on how many people travel during this period, but it’s rather difficult to pin down reliable numbers. I think it’s safe to say that in the four to five day travel period around the beginning of the New Year holiday, more than 100 million people will travel home. I’m sure you’ve heard it described as the largest migration in human history, and in China, they do it every year at the beginning of the New Year holiday, and then again a week later. The total number of people traveling is probably higher, but it’s spread out over several weeks as students and others who have longer holidays go home earlier, and return later.

[singlepic id=36 w=320 h=240 float=right]I for one will be staying away from the trains during this period. I have been tempted to hop on a train and go somewhere just to have the experience of participating in the largest migration in human history, but I think the novelty would wear off quickly.  Besides, New Year train trips aren’t entertainment, for most people they’re a major headache.

Learning Tools Part II – Dictionaries

Continuing with the expose of our blog’s learning tools, I move on to Part II: Dictionaries.

I’ll admit, albeit a bit embarrassedly, that I love dictionaries. Although I am not one to sit down and read one cover-to-cover, I do enjoy a well put-together dictionary. In order to learn Chinese, it never hurts to thumb through a physical dictionary and reinforce stroke-orders, pinyin, and radicals, but in this day and age, digital dictionaries are king. Here are a few of our favorites, and feel free to get back to me on yours.


Physical dictionaries are my favorite, but digital are much easier to use.


Dictionaries are key for continued study of a language. Beyond print copies, there are many electronic options, both online and in the mobile space. An iPod Touch, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, or Palm all serve as ideal platforms for mobile dictionaries. Here are some of the favorites of the Lotus staff.

Despite being self described as a “cool word space always ahead of the competition,” nciku (pronounced n-cíkù) is a great place for both beginner and advanced learners of Chinese. The site’s video notes section provides video explanations for Chinese words with similar meanings. Dictionary notes provides a way for the community to give explanations about tricky subjects and give back to the project.


Pleco, the best option for a digital dictionary

PlecoDict: Arguably the best mobile dictionary available. With apps for iPhone, Windows Mobile, and Palm, it is very usable and comes with a free set of basic dictionaries. It is further expandable with paid dictionaries for advanced users.

A Chinese based dictionary with extensive English to Chinese capabilities. Also has many community tools, but mainly in Chinese.

The dictionary and tools are powerful, but also primarily in Chinese.

Wenlin is a desktop dictionary for advanced users, available for PC and Mac. Although somewhat dated, Wenlin provides extensive background for individual characters, including their origins and seal script forms.

Studying in a Coffee Shop

I’m currently volunteering part-time for Lotus while I study Mandarin here in Beijing. Part of the arrangement I have includes living in the office apartment. I think it’s always good to get out a bit instead of staying in the same place all the time. Besides going out to eat at night, when it’s time to study I like to go to one of the nearby coffee shops to crack open the books.

img_4698If you’re volunteering at Lotus or studying in the Small Class program, then you’re going to be in the Lotus neighbourhood quite a lot. If you like going to a coffee shop to study or surf the Internet, then this post is for you. There are actually quite a few coffee shops in the neighbourhood, and I’ve visited almost all of them. This will give you the low-down on which ones I think are best.

All the coffee shops around have free wireless internet access. They all sell coffee at roughly the same prices. That is, “fancy coffee” prices, about 5 USD/cup. There is no drip coffee, the most basic coffee around is an Americano and it costs just as much as it does back home.

img_4699My two picks for coffee shops are Lava Coffee and Monet Cafe. They both have a good atmosphere, free wireless internet, and are less than five minutes’ walk from the Lotus office. Most of the time there aren’t many customers so you’ll have no trouble finding a seat along with some quiet time for practicing your Chinese characters. Also, neither of them will charge you extra for cream. Yes, that’s right, some coffee shops charge extra for cream. Regardless, you’ll have to ask for extra cream, because every coffee shop serves coffee with a single creamer and single packet of sugar on the side, by default.

As an alternative to the “fancy coffee” places, you can also go to any KFC or McDonald’s and get a cup of drip coffee at ¼ the price of a coffee shop. Unfortunately fast-food joints lack the atmosphere, wireless internet and quiet you might need for studying. But they won’t charge you extra for extra cream. If what you’re looking for is cheap drip coffee, a fast-food joint might just be the thing.

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Click on the map to zoom in and see the location of these two coffee shops. If you come to Beijing before my time here comes to its end, then I can show you the way.

Calligraphy Lesson for Lotus Students

In December, Lotus organized a Chinese calligraphy class for students currently living and studying in Beijing. There aren’t many students during the winter so those of us who attended got lots of personal attention from the teacher. There was a student from Australia, the US and myself, from Canada. One of Lotus’ Beijing staff also joined us for part of the lesson. Quite a good representation!

The character we worked on was “heart” (心). Ms. Jin, our teacher, explained that we start with this seemingly simple character because its simplicity helps the student learn the balance that is required in Chinese calligraphy.  Ms. Jin, with her dry sense of humour, encouraged us to strive to make our calligraphy beautiful. As you can see from the photo below of my own calligraphy, I didn’t quite achieve the goal!

This calligraphy lesson was a great opportunity for me. One of the reasons I chose to learn Chinese is because of the writing system. Both because of its linguistic uniqueness and because of the beauty of written Chinese.

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Learning Tools Part I – Learning Communities

In order to release the language tools from its upper left hand corner purgatory, I am going to do a three part release of its content.

There are many online and computer resources for learning Chinese and discussing Chinese culture, and you found your first one! The Lotus Educational Foundation has been teaching foreign students Chinese language and culture since 2003. This site expands upon our student and alumni community and opens it to new students interested in the language. Welcome! Join the conversation in our comments sections.

Confucius in Tiananmen Square

Confucius just recently made a home in Tiananmen Square after a long banishment from official discourse. Source:

For learning about traditional Chinese culture in modern China, the blog site Useless Tree is unparalleled. The blog centers on the confluence of modern and traditional China in today’s Beijing. I highly recommend taking a peek.

Here are some other resources that you mind find useful in your quest towards learning Chinese and obtaining the unobtainable: fluency in a foreign language. The Chinese forums website, although very ugly, has a lively community of students and professional Chinese teachers sharing their understanding of the language. The community is very active, and your question no matter how simple or complex will get an answer.

The ChinesePod Community Site piggy-backs off of the commercial offering of ChinesePod, but also has a lot of free content, and anyone is allowed to join the forum in order to post questions.

China’s competitor to Google, Baidu, has many resources the are useful for advanced students of Chinese. The website is under Chinese law concerning political material (so don’t expect to get in depth analysis of sensitive topics), but Baidu Baike provides a very good outline for any topic concerning China. Consider it like the Wikipedia of China. Often if a Wikipedia article fails you in China, Baike can pick up the slack. It is all in Chinese. Also Top Baidu gives the top searches in China with definitions and background. It is a good resource if you run across a word or phrase in a news article and have no idea what it means.

That is it for learning communities. Let me know of your favorite hangouts in the comments. More learning tools will follow this week.

November Senior Center Visit

Lotus, along with several of its host families, volunteers, and students, made it’s most recent trip to a senior’s center last November. We put on a talent show for the seniors, which included songs, a poetry recital, and live music. We also had a small birthday celebration for the elders.

After the performance was over and the birthday cake was gone, Lotus volunteers made the rounds to visit residents who weren’t able to attend the event. We also distributed gifts of moisturizing cream to all the residents to get them through the cold, dry winter months in more comfort.

Below are some photos of the visit for your enjoyment.

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