Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why is it called ChinaSprout?

I often get compliments about ChinaSprout's name. A lot of people say it's a cute name, while a few have asked if we sell vegetables! Of course, many want to know who thought of the name and why.

I studied marketing in an MBA program and know how important it is for a company to have a good name. When I was thinking to start the business, I considered lots of names. First I thought we should have a name like Friendship Store or Arts and Crafts Store in Beijing. (They were the main department stores where Westerners shopped in Beijing at the time.) Then I decided they weren't good choices because they don't have "China" in the name, and they don't sound right for a place selling educational products. Since I wanted to help adoptive parents and their children learn about China, I often thought of those children as "sprouts." These "sprouts" from China are growing up in the US. When I asked my friends about the name ChinaSprout, they all liked it (no one thought it meant selling vegetables) and ChinaSprout was born!

Interestingly, a few years later my son started preschool at a place called Beansprouts. When we decided to send him there, we didn't think much about the name. But then we realized it is another "Sprout." And then we also realized my son's Chinese name is Shimeng – sprout of the world. What a coincidence!

Now ChinaSprout has grown up, but we keep the name because lots of things continue to sprout from China, like the Chinese language and Chinese culture. I hope we will always stay fresh, young, and growing!


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Chinese Characters – Simplified or Traditional

Chinese is already a difficult foreign language to learn, as Level IV compares with Level I Spanish and French. We make it even more complicated by talking about simplified or traditional characters.

Traditional characters are the original Chinese characters standardized since the 5th century in China, and they’re currently used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s in mainland China and are used in China, Singapore and by the United Nations. People who come from or have lived or visited in either region seem to have strong feelings for which characters to use. They have endless good reasons why students should learn one version or the other. Traditional characters advocates say traditional characters represent Chinese culture, Chinese calligraphy can only look good with traditional characters, and if you learn the traditional version first, it will be easier to learn the simplified version later. Advocates of simplified characters say you should learn the version that most Chinese use. If you go to China, you see only simplified characters, and they’re much easier to learn. So who is right and whom we shall listen to? In my opinion, they both are right, but you still have to decide which version to learn. It really doesn’t matter which comes first or whether you learn only one. That’s because if you have a good foundation of either, you can learn both – even if you don’t master both. Why?

Do you know there are only “350 singly simplified characters, whose simplifications cannot be generalized to other characters” and only “132 simplified characters and 14 simplified radicals, which can all be generalized to other characters?” To learn more about this, please click here This means fewer than 500 Chinese characters actually have different forms among 5,000 characters that we use on a daily basis. And if you read Chinese daily and see both versions here and there, you can automatically read either of them. I am from mainland China and have learned only simplified characters, but I can read traditional characters without any problem, even though I cannot write them. Likewise, my suppliers in Taiwan and Hong Kong learned only traditional characters, but they have no problem reading my hand-written simplified characters. You may have heard some Chinese say that they cannot read simplified or traditional characters. I have to say, it is not that they can’t, it is that they don’t want to. If they want, they can!

I have also heard some teachers saying that we don’t need to teach Chinese characters, that Pinyin is enough for students to understand and speak Chinese. They say if students really need to know the characters, they can type Pinyin on the computer and pick the right ones. I am not sure I agree. Writing can help you memorize the characters, and if you only type Pinyin a few times and choose characters from the screen, how will you remember them? If you cannot recognize Chinese characters, you can’t even read street signs in China or in Chinatown. So choose whichever version you think best for your Chinese learning/teaching endeavor. In the end, you’ll know both characters and can read endless street signs in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore!

To learn more about Chinese characters, visit Wikipedia’s Chinese character site, a great page with everything you want to know about the Chinese characters.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Top 5 Things To Know About the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

1.) Auspicious Starting Date
In the Chinese culture, certain numbers are believed to be fortuitious because they sound like the qualities that bring good luck. The number eight “ba” sounds similar to the word that means “prosper” or “wealth”. Because of the auspiciousness associated with this number, people often go to great length to choose them for street addresses, phone numbers and bank account numbers. For this reason, the Beijing Games will start at 8:08:08 pm on the eighth day of the eighth month in 2008, the best way to try and ensure its luck and success.

2.) “Dancing Beijing” Emblem
Every Olympics city emblem has always had a symbolic meaning to it. The “Dancing Beijing” emblem is a Chinese seal that stands for peace, friendship and progress of mankind. The dancing man in the center of the emblem is inspired from Chinese calligraphy, with the latter character of the city’s name “Jing” that is the form of the dancing man. His open arms in the emblem say that China is opening its arms to welcome the rest of the world to join the Olympics in a celebration of “peace, friendship and progress of mankind”. Red is the color of this seal, which is the traditional Chinese color of happiness and good luck.

3.) The Five Friendlies
Not just cute fuzzy friends, the Official Mascots of the Beijing Olympics are called “Fuwa”, whose name signifies friendship, peace and good wishes to children worldwide. Not only do they draw their color from the Olympic rings, the Fuwa also embody the natural characteristics of four of China’s most popular animals – the Fish, the Panda, the Tibetan Antelope, the Swallow – and the Olympic Flame. Each of Fuwa has a rhyming two-syllable name – a traditional way of expressing affection for children in China. Beibei is the Fish, Jingjing is the Panda, Huanhuan is the Olympic Flame, Yingying is the Tibetan Antelope and Nini is the Swallow. When you put their names together – Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni, which means “Welcome to Beijing” in Chinese.

4.) A Slogan That Unites All
The slogan of “One World, One Dream” illustrates the essence of the Olympic spirit, which is unity, friendship, progress, harmony, participation and dreams. A pursuit of harmony between Man and Nature and building a harmonious society have always been the fundamentals of Chinese philosophy. “One World, One Dream” conveys the idea of the Beijing Olympics as a way for China to share with the world their dream of peaceful development in a harmonious, happy society.

5.) The Interlocking Rings
Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, believed that the rings had great significance as the symbol of the union between men. The five rings, blue, yellow, black, green and red, represent the five parts of the world that compete against each other in the Olympics. Their colors are those that appear in all the different national flags at the founding of the Olympic Games in 1894.


Endless Things to Say About Education

Just like any parent, I have endless things to say on the topic of education, specifically Chinese education. I am not an expert in either field but would like to share my experiences, thoughts, and knowledge with you. I also have many questions about these issues and hope to get answers from our readers.

First, everyone is aware of the importance that the Chinese place on their children’s education. I would like to share this article with you about a 5 year old girl’s education in Beijing. As you see in this article, unlike kids in the US who go to boarding schools beginning from middle school, it is a common practice for Chinese parents to send their children to such schools at a much younger age. Of course, not all the best schools are boarding schools, but this is a perfect example of the stress that Chinese parents place on their children regarding education. Nowadays, Chinese children not only spend about seven hours every day in school, but also about two hours finishing their homework. In addition, many children go to different classes to learn piano, swimming, karate (yes, not Kungfu) Olympics math, Oxford English, you name it, everything that can keep children learning, learning and learning! These kids are lucky if they can finish everything by 9 p.m. This routine is common to almost all children in cities across China. There is very little recreational time left for them.

When I was young, we also had to study very hard, with long school hours and lots of homework that consisted of endless math drills and Chinese character practice. But at least there were no piano, swimming, karate, Olympic math, and Oxford English classes, and of course, there was no TV either, so I had quite a lot of time to play games such as jump rope, Ping-Pong, badminton, hopscotch and more. Unfortunately, these days, I don’t see children in China playing such things anymore. They either study endless hours, or they play GameBoys and watch TV in their little spare time.

Having witnessed my son growing up in the American educational system, I often wonder which one is better and if we can combine the better parts of two educations. American education encourages children to learn not only from textbooks, classes and homework, but applies these methods in such a way that they can also be fun, engaging, creative and open-minded – all the things we have not yet learned in China. Yet, sometimes, I also wonder if all these fun activities can really build solid foundations in which children can grow up to be successful in the workplace and compete in a competitive global environment. Then I look at every advanced technology and innovations worldwide and notice that the majority of them are American-invented. So I really don’t know if I should push my son toward Chinese or American education. How will my son compete when he grows up if he doesn’t learn basic math skills at school? Or when he feels that a half-hour’s homework is too much, and if he thinks that writing a Chinese character 10 times to memorize it is considered suffering. If only he went through what I did with writing whole pages of them in grid-books. Oh, I have not mentioned, he attends one of the best public schools in the city, he does get some fours (not all fours as I wished) in his report cards, and he always gets 90+ for his Chinese tests. (Of course, I would be even happier if he gets 100. I know I am very Chinese in this perspective, even though I do believe learning Chinese should be fun!) I have been discussing these issues with my Chinese and American friends and still have not found all the answers. I guess I will know it when he grows up, and hopefully it won’t be too late.


How did I start ChinaSprout?

You might be surprised at how little I learned about traditional Chinese culture while growing up in Beijing. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution in a not-tradition-focused family in Beijing. We didn’t celebrate many traditional festivals except for Chinese New Year and Moon Festival. I was not forced to memorize Tang poems or the time line of Chinese ancient history. I never used Nin (您) (you) to talk to my parents as most Beijing residents do. But after leaving China more than 20 years ago, I became fascinated with Chinese culture and love to share it with Westerners.

I founded ChinaSprout in June 1999. The idea for my company came from experiences I had during outings with my son, Simon, around Park Slope in Brooklyn, where I met many American families who have adopted children from China. I often found myself approached by these families wishing to know more about Chinese culture. I was impressed and moved by their enthusiasm and really wanted to help. I realized that most of these families had one thing in common: an incredibly strong desire to carry on their children’s cultural heritage. Although many of them didn’t have access to authentic Chinese or educational products, most of them spent time online looking for these things During that time, I became very interested in the Internet and e-commerce while studying for my MBA at Baruch College. I realized that I had found a niche market that had not been penetrated online. The logical next step was to create an online store to reach these families and to help them learn the Chinese language and culture. Thus, ChinaSprout was born.

While I am proud of what I’ve achieved, I also appreciate all the support and feedback from our customers, the hard work of my colleagues, and understanding and support of my family! So please let me know how we can improve our product line and services to make ChinaSprout an even better destination for you to learn about China, Chinese culture and Chinese language.