Episode #2 – Homosexuality in China

Attitudes towards homosexuality in China can be surprisingly open-minded and liberal. How do the Chinese view homosexuality? What kind of social pressure do homosexuals face? What freedom and rights do they enjoy? Jenny discuss these topics and shares how her family deals with a homosexual family member.

Episode #1 – Cost of Living & Career Prospects for Foreigners Living in China

What does it cost to live in China? How do the cost of living and salary differ in first-tier cities from smaller ones? What should a foreigner expect to make in their first year in China and how does lifestyle and job prospects stack up for foreigners in China? If you are considering to move to China, listen to this show as Jenny talks to 2 expats living and working in China.

Why do Chinese like taking photos of food?

I very much live up to this stereotype. But why? I certainly can’t speak for the group. I can only speak from my own experience and anecdotes from friends to try to shed some light on our obsession and its implication.

  • We love cutesy displays of joy. Remember those booths that you squeezed in with your BFFs to make cutesy poses and take photos on stickers?  The fad started in Japan and took the entire Asia by storm. I guess that was pre-web 2.0 Instagram. For some reason, our aesthetics are prone to sweetness and cuteness. We also love staging and capturing those magical moments in a snapshot. Have you seen wedding photos in China and people wearing matching ‘lovers’ sweaters? They are a badge that declares the status of happiness.
  • We love eating and there’s plenty of places to eat. The most photo-worthy food needs to tell a story of where you are, what you are eating, why you’re eating, etc. The variety, diversity and backstory of food in China make it possible and fun. In that sense, the act of documenting our meals is somewhat similar to Anthony Bourdain making a TV show travelling around the world to eat, explore and share.
  • This point is quite personal, but for many Chinese suffering from decades of being closed off from the world and even other regions in China, the freedom of eating food from different places and cultures means much more than just the food. I think there’s void in the collective psyche even for relatively young people who lived through lean years as kids. Food is your passport to travel gastronomically to different places without leaving where you are. And when the travel really does happen, it’s all the more special. Although Chinese tourists are flocking abroad in recent years,  it’s still a relative privilege. Those who make the trip broadcast their experiences through food. It makes for great story telling and social capital.
  • There’s not a whole lot that the Chinese can share freely on social media. Food seems to be a safer bet.
I’ll end with my own food photos. A montage of places and flavors that I experienced for the first time.

Jenny to Keynote Alongside Colin Powell at Learning 2012

One of my highest career highlights was a keynote speech I gave at one of the most inspiring learning conferences in the world, Learning 2007. It’s an annual event organized by Elliot Masie, a thought leader, a futurist and to his own dismay a guru in the world of learning.

I was invited by my dear friend Jonathan Kayes, then Chief Learning Officer of the CIA to introduce how ChinesePod was leading the way in teaching the world Chinese. Elliot interviewed me on how we made learning one of the more unfamiliar and “hard” languages enjoyable and effective.

5 years on, Elliot and I have become partners in learning. We are now working on the Masie Asia Project, an initiative that aims to develop a new set of programs and collaborations with major organizations in Asia on changing learning models and how organizations can help their staff meet the dramatic demand of working as global teams. I want to thank various friends who I got to know through ChinesePod who are now part of our network.

This project allows me to build on my skills in the field of learning. 7 years of work at ChinesePod (has it been that longs?!) opened my eyes to the passion and desire people have for learning for personal growth, interest and advancement. I hope Elliot and I can facilitate much needed conversations between organizations in the US and Asia on how globalization compels us to constantly learn and adapt to different languages, cultures, technology and professional skills.

I will be keynoting along with guests such as General Colin Powell at Learning 2012 in Orlando.

If you are interested in sharing your work about learning and development, please contact me at jenny@masie.com

I feel very lucky to keep doing my work at ChinesePod and have this amazing opportunity to expand my horizon.

A Tour of the New ChinesePod Office

From our very humble beginnings in a run-down factory on Huangpi Road, ChinesePod has come a long way in every sense of the phrase. We recently moved to a new office near Shanghai Stadium on Longhua Road.

Our office is part of 2577 Creative Park, an artsy office complex converted from an old military factory (you will see the PLA signage on your way in). It’s also right next to the Shanghai Revolutionary Martyr Cemetery and the historic Longhua Temple. So much history packed in this area!

I took a few photos of the new ChinesePod office and our immediate surroundings with my iPhone. Enjoy and in case you want to drop by, please take note of our new address: building 28/29, 2577 Longhua Rd (near South Wanping Road). 龙华路2577号28-29幢,靠近宛平南路。

The studio

The tech guys and their beloved pool table

Walking up the stairs

Me outside the office


2577 Creative Park (2577创意大院)

The ChinesePod Story

ChinesePod was my first job out of university 6 years ago. It has turned out to be a deeply fulfilling role both professionally and personally. I went from a happy-go-lucky 22 year-old to a mother and entrepreneur approaching her 30′s.  Thanks to filmmakersJoanna Wong, Van and Weiwei, the ChinesePod story was told in this incredibly authentic, inspiring and cute (?!) piece. Enjoy!

Why is there no Canadian strategy on Mandarin? from Asia Pacific Video on Vimeo.

Jenny’s Guide to Finding a good Ayi in Shanghai

One of the major benefits of living in China is the readily available pool of affordable help. They are mostly women of all ages coming from rural China in search of a better life in cities. Many middle class Chinese families and expat families in Shanghai rely on their ayi (阿姨/āyí) to clean their house, cook their food, wash their clothes and raise their kids. My life would be radically different without the help of 2 great ayis. One is a 钟点工(zhōngdiǎngōng), who comes in for 4 hours everyday to do household chores including cooking. The other is a live-in nanny who helps take care of my 1-year-old son.

Finding the right ayi can often be an ordeal for both Chinese and foreigners alike. Of course much more so for foreigners. I’ve heard many stories of expats paying US rates to their ayis in Shanghai. So I want to share some tips on where to find an ayi, how much you should pay and how to manage and work with them.

1. Where can you find an ayi?

There are plenty of 保姆介绍所(bǎomǔ jièshàosuǒ) or ayi agencies in Shanghai, mostly nestled in the cheap end of residential areas.  Look for 6-story housing projects or a local wet market, you are likely to find an agency nearby.  You can find all types of ayis, hourly ones, live-in child caretaker, live-in elderly caretaker and even one to clean your office.

You can also find ayi’s online on sites such as 58.com or baixing.com.   Many agencies now list their ayi’s online. But some of these tech savvy agencies or individual ayi’s might charge you a higher premium, which brings us to the next point.

2. How much does an ayi cost?

Costs vary depending on the type of work they do and the type of arrangements you make, e.g. if you employ someone for 2 weeks or come in for a few hours per week, the rates will be higher than someone who comes more frequently. 

  • Hourly based (钟点工/zhōngdiǎngōng): this is the most common type of ayi. They come in for several hours everyday to do household chores. As inflation soars in China, the wages of lower end labor has increased significantly in the past year. Last year, the average salary of an hourly based ayi was around RMB12/hour. But this year, it’s at RMB15.  The type of ayi who also cooks and cooks well could command an even higher salary to around RMB 20. My ayi who cooks for us gets RMB1700 for 4 hours everyday from Monday to Saturday.  But some ayi’s who have worked for you for a few years and are in good terms with you might work for less. (The ayi who has worked for my parents for 10 years is working for RMB12/hour because she gets along with them very well). And if you are just looking for someone very short term or come in for a few hours every week, you could be paying around RMB20-25/hour.
  • Live-in child caretaker: this is a highly sought after type of ayi as many Chinese parents both work and it requires more skills and experience than someone who just cleans.  I have been very blessed with the nanny situation. My nanny, Xiao Wang was the first nanny I hired and she has been working for almost a year now. When she started in February this year, she asked for RMB2500/month. 5 months onwards, the market price has risen to about RMB2800 to RMB3000. So I gave her a raise. And next year, she will be getting RMB3200 because this is what the market price is. So I’d say anything between RMB3000-3500 is a reasonable number in Shanghai now. If you have more than one young kind, expect to pay around RMB5000. But sometimes the nanny would refuse higher rate and insist on you hiring a second nanny.  I have to say though live-in nannies are no easy feat. They practically work 24/6 tending to your child and help with minor household work. (Usually they take a day off each week).
3. Job Responsibilities
This is a crucial issue to clarify with your nanny at the very beginning. The convention in China is that ayi’s are specialized. So the hourly based ones just clean and cook. The live-in nannies just take care of kids. If you ask one to do the other type of work, they are likely to refuse. My nanny made it abundantly clear that she would’t clean and cook, because they were not part of her responsibilities.  And in the case of a small child, I doubt she would find the time to do those anyway. However, if your kids are older, aka. started going to preschool, some nannies transition their role to help you with more household work. There are more versatile type of ayi’s who multi-task. But those are slightly harder to find and they charge more (cheaper than to hire 2 though).
4. Age, experience and personality
From my experience, the hourly based ayi’s tend to be middle aged (40 and above). While the more experience the better, there’s no need to be over-obsessed with experience because it’s relatively easy to learn how to mop and vacuum. Live-in child caring nannies tend to be younger as the job requires more energy and a higher level of education. I also found that it is much easier to communicate with a younger ayi (my live-in nanny is 30) because they tend to be more open-minded, plugged into the world and more confident. My nanny loves eating pasta and has worked in Thailand. Another great benefit is that younger nannies tend to communicate with your kids better. My nanny treats my son almost like a buddy. When it comes to personality, it’s safer to go with someone not overly enthusiastic and confident. My mom once hired an ayi who was extremely affable and talkative at the interview. But 2 months into the job, she wanted a raise and threatened quitting.
4. Raises and Bonuses:
There was a time when wages stayed flat for 2 or 3 years for ayi’s. But not lately. The rising cost of living in China makes a compelling case for a raise. My experience is that ayi’s won’t be shy of asking for raises unless they’ve worked for you for many years. But often Chinese ayi’s raise request could come in the form of resignation. Don’t take it too literally or as an offence. It’s often their awkward way of asking for more money. Should you give it to them? Usually if you are paying the benchmarks I’ve given, it’s fine for at least 6 months to a year. And if an ayi asks for a raise within 6 months of employment,  you have to find a compelling enough reason such as the market price is rising or she has done an amazing job (but even the latter doesn’t qualify for a raise so soon).
In general, you should give your ayi some bonus over Chinese New Year. If she’s only been with you for a few months, RMB200 would be fine. If she’s been with you longer and does an amazing job, you could max it out to an extra month’s salary. But that’s rare and not expected. I also give my live-in nanny a small bonus (RMB100) on Mid-Autumn Festival and Children’s Day (to buy gift for her daughter).
I’d also suggest giving your ayi’s some small gifts such as your hand-me downs if they are in good condition.
5. English skills:
This is an area that I don’t have experience in. But obviously ayi’s who can speak or understand some English or operate Western appliances and cook Western food could justifiably charge a premium. But I feel it should not be more than double of the rates mentioned earlier.  
6. What if your ayi quits?
Understand the cause. Is it about money, workload, distance or personal circumstances? If it’s about money, keep it fair based on the market price. And should your ayi quits,  don’t panic. It’s relatively easy to find hourly based ones. But if your nanny wants to quit (whom you like), try your best to make them stay.  And you can always get ayi to refer their friends for you.
On a final note, many ayi’s would take up to 20 days or even a month off during Chinese New Year. Make prior arrangements. But bear in mind that it’s very hard to find a temp because almost all ayi’s go back.

Top 5 Gifting Taboos in China

Gifting is an essential part of Chinese culture. It comes with many idiosyncrasies that one should be aware of and observe. Some things are strictly “NO” as a gift choice in China, mostly because they sound like something else which is ominous. In this post, I will share a few most prominent gifting taboos in China.

1. Clock: although clocks are not really a top gifting choice to begin with, it’s a categorical ”NO” in China, because the Chinese for clock is 钟/zhōng and to gift a clock is 送钟/sòngzhōng, which sounds the same as 送终/sòngzhōng, meaning to say goodbye to someone who passed away. Although intricately made clocks were a popular Western gift to Chinese emperors during the Qing Dynasty, they are avoided at all cost in contemporary China. Giving clocks is the capital taboo. Giving watches is fine though.

2. Apple: an apple a day might keep doctors away. But in Shanghai, you should never bring apples to a patient because apple in Shanghainese (bíngù) sounds like the Mandarin word 病故/bìnggù which means to die from an illness. The good news is in other parts of China, this rule does not apply.

3. Green hat: this is probably the most well-known Chinese gifting taboo. 戴绿帽子/dàilǜmàozi/to wear a green hat is an expression referring to a man whose wife is cheating on him with another man. It is seen as the ultimate insult to a man.

4. Umbrella: the Chinese for umberlla is 伞/sǎn, which sounds like the word 散/sàn/to separate. But this is a minor offence  on the scale of gifting taboos.

5. Pear:  to stray a little from gifting but staying in the theme of things that sound ominous, Chinese believe that a pear shouldn’t be shared among families and friends because to share a pear is 分梨/fēnlí which sounds the same as 分离/fēnlí/ to separate. It goes against the traditional ideals of social structure in China. However, this is not strictly observed in China nowadays.

There is a surprising curve ball in gifting: miniature “gift coffins” are a symbol of prosperity.  棺材/guāncái/coffin sounds like 官/guān/officialdom、财/cái/wealth. Some government officials with a good sense of humor like being given mini gift coffins. But don’t try it randomly. This is an esoteric gift.

Lastly, should you be wondering what gifts to buy for a Chinese friend, I’d suggest giving things that Chinese are wary of buying in China. For example, health supplements are an excellent choice because the local marketplace is rife with fake products and they work on different ages and genders. A few bottles of DHA and multi-vitamins will make you a very savvy gift shopper.

The Cult of Celebrity Teachers

I believe in edutainment, especially for the adult learner who is juggling competing time demands and would opt for a Cold Play song rather than a Chinese lesson on their iPhone. To some extent, teaching is attracting. The best teachers are those who thrive under the spotlight, who own the lecture hall, who inspire students to give up evenings at the bar for the classroom. And no one does edutainment the way cram schools in Hong Kong do it. If there’s not already an HBR case study on them, there ought to be one.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I witnessed the power of edutainment and the cult of celebrity teachers. On street billboards and bus ads, huge posters of celebrity teachers exude the confidence and glamor of A list movie stars. And A list they are in their own right. There are over a dozen superstar teachers in Hong Kong who bank over HK$1500 million a year. They do well when the economy is good and even better during downturn. They pull in tens of thousands of students each month, travel from one school branch to another with their lectures live broadcasted in other locations in Hong Kong.

While the success of celebrity teachers largely depends on what they can help students deliver, the star making efforts behind the scenes are also indispensable.  In Hong Kong, the two largest cram schools are two publicly listed companies, Modern Education and Emperor Education, the latter belongs to a huge entertainment conglomerate. They pluck potential candidates and put them through intensive academic training as well as personal rebranding. Each teacher is given a carefully crafted classroom persona and thorough styling guidance. Their photo portfolio is updated every season to ensure their image reflects the latest trend. Why? Hong Kong cram schools figured out that the best way to make a teenager sit in a classroom rather than being at a pop concert is to make the teachers look and act like a pop star. Imagine what would happen to junior high maths competency if Justin Bieber taught teen girls maths?

An average Hong Kong middle class family spends about $300/month on a cram school for their kids. Schools that glam up can charge an even higher premium. But more importantly, the celebrity teachers are not just fluff. Beneath the hair gel and lipstick are Ph.D degrees from top universities and excellent track records in student success rate.

No longer do teachers conjure up dowdy images of unionized workers, Hong Kong shows how education can be sexy, desirable and edutaining. Students want to be in class and learn while the best and brightest aspire a teaching career. Perhaps it takes a little dumbing down to make things smart.


10 Wonderful Chinese Words without English Equivalent

A recent blog post wonderfully captures the idiosyncrasies of languages. Titled “15 Wonderful Words without English Equivalent”, the author lists phrases in a dozen languages packed with social, philosophical and anthropological back stories whose wonderfulness are lost in English. My instinct to this quirky list is let’s make one for Chinese!  Of course most chengyus and suyus fall beautifully into this category, but I am talking about basic, high frequency words that you struggle to find an English equivalent. Here’s my own list to get the ball rolling. Please add yours in the comments!

1. 客气 (kèqi): often translated as “polite”, this word is a fine specimen of Chinese culture. 客 means “guest”, 气 means “chi” or “an air of”. So 客气 means to act as if you were a guest. It’s often used in the phrase 别客气(bié kèqi/don’t be so guest like). The irony is in most cases, the recipient of the phrase is indeed a guest. However, since Chinese culture prides itself on being hospitable, we want guests to not feel like guests. That’s why Chinese are always trying to get guests to eat more, drink more to the point of pushiness.

2. 辛苦(xīnkǔ):  It means to work  laboriously, be it manual or intellectual. Often used in the phrase 辛苦了(xīnkǔ le), which is an acknowledgement of one’s hard work and contribution.  I feel it’s almost the Chinese version of “great job” or “well done”.

3. 小吃(xiǎochī): often translated as “snacks”. These are little dishes  or nosh often eaten on the street and are representative of the local food culture. Examples of Shanghai 小吃 include 小笼包(xiǎolóngbāo/steamed dumplings). In Beijing, it’s various sorts of 串儿(chuànr/sticks of food).  小吃(xiǎochī) can come in all sizes, shapes and forms, making it hard to translate.

4.  馋(chán): this means you are easily tempted by food and always want to eat. However, it doesn’t mean you are hungry or an over eater. Rather  you see food as a form of entertainment rather than just necessity, but you are not quite a refined foodie. We often use this word to describe kids and teenage girls since they always want to eat or snack in order to entertain themselves.

5. 鲜(xiān): another food term. This flavor is hard to describe. It’s the taste and sensation of MSG if it were natural and healthy. It’s not just salty or savory. It has more substance. Although 鲜doesn’t describe sweet taste, a dish can be unsalted but extremely 鲜, for example, Chinese style chicken soup or hairy crab. The more well known Japanese version is umami.

6.  山寨 (shānzhài): if you live in China, you are probably no stranger to this relatively new term. It’s not knock off products. It’s products entirely “inspired” by a famous counterpart. However, these 山寨 products usually have their own brands, e.g. “Adibas” or “uPhone”.

7. 气质(qìzhì): this means an intangible quality one carries as the result of a good upbringing and education. If a woman 有气质, it means she is not necessarily beautiful, but has a lot of substance and elegance. The example I often use to explain this word is Hilary Clinton有气质, Kim Kardashian没有气质.

8. 没办法(méibànfǎ): literally “no solution”. It’s a sense of disappointment and acknowledging that life has its limits.  It’s one of those words that truly reflect the national psyche of China.

9. 上火(shànghuǒ): ever heard of eating spicy things, chocolate or mandarin oranges will ignite your “internal fire” and cause you to have pimples or constipation?  You may call it pseudo science, we live by it to balance the ying and yang in our body.

10. ? Let me know your wonderful Chinese word without English equivalent.