hei/hey there!

When I was living in China, I met a ton of non-native English speakers. Not only Chinese people, but also a lot of European foreigners, many of whom had a very tenuous grasp of the English language. Some of their English was near-native. Some of their English downright sucked. But even if their speech was flawless, spelling and written grammar often proved massive hurdles.

I’m not disparaging them in the least. Goodness knows my Mandarin is merely decent and my French is just a step above abysmal. To even know (or attempt) a second language is a massive feat—one that many, many Americans don’t even bother trying. So when I got a letter from A, a French woman who has lived in China for a really long time, I couldn’t help but smile at her opening: Hei.


I’m guessing she was going for “Hey.” The funny thing is that in China, “Hei” that would actually be somewhat correct. “Hey” is a loanword that many young people use, and when written in Chinese, the character 嘿 (hēi) is used. The character is basically just a sound word/interjection that places a 口 (mouth symbol) next to 黑 (word for the color black), visually representing the sound (but not meaning) of the word for black. And when written in pinyin (romanized), it’s h-e-i.

So basically, it’s kinda like playing telephone. From English to Chinese to Chinese-tinged Franglais, hey becomes 嘿 which becomes hei.

shades of grey and gray

Calm your fluttering little hearts, I’m not about to go into a discussion about that smutty little novel-turned-film. No, instead I’m going to talk about spelling and one particularly annoying variant between British English and American English: the difference between grey and gray.

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Yang Yongliang (杨泳梁), From the New World (来自新大陆) (detail), 2014

If you check the dictionary, it’ll probably list ‘grey’ as chiefly British and ‘gray’ as chiefly American. So … what of those who use both? I am a proud American English user and use the American spellings of color (v. colour), organization (v. organisation), traveled (v. travelled), inquiry (v. the inquiry/enquiry divide), and meter (v. metre). Oh, and the last letter of the alphabet? That’s a ‘zee’, not ‘zed’.

But ya know what? I use both ‘grey’ and ‘gray’. I also use both ‘theatre’ and ‘theater’ – although for different things. The stage ends in ‘-re’ and cinema is ‘-er’ – a distinction that I’m not alone in making. Yet when I use both ‘grey’ and ‘gray’, drawing a difference between ‘gray’ for a warmer hue and ‘grey’ for a cooler/lighter/steelier/bluer variant, suddenly I’m a complete weirdo. Am I? Really now? I checked on the web and there are others who think like me. Then again, on the internet you’re bound to find someone who agrees with you.

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Pang Yun (庞云), Portrait of Trees No. 3 (树的肖像3) (detail), 2014

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Li Jinghu (李景湖), Sea Breeze (海风) (detail), 2009

In general, I use the spelling ‘gray’ to describe the colors on a ‘grayscale’. I fully realize that I am in the minority with my double usage of theatre/theater and that I am practically alone on a deserted island for grey/gray, so as a rule, if I’m writing something official or for publication (peer-reviewed, academic, in print, or must conform to CMOS), then I only use ‘gray’ and ‘theater’ for the sake of consistency and not confusing everyone with my non-standard spelling distinctions. But I guess this duality is what happens when you study so much (British) English that both end up feeling quite natural. Although serial commas are a must.

american english is the correct english

Did you ever see such a controversial statement? Granted I’m biased, but American English seems to be the preferred (or at least more prevalent) form of English in the world. In the process of writing a bunch of text for work, I’ve been slowly but diligently switching every piece of the gallery’s written material into American English. American English for the win! Hoorah! Go USA!

When I first started, I didn’t want to rock the boat so I tried following the existing standards, but that quickly got confusing. So instead of going back after typing each paragraph to add in extra letters or remove commas, I went ahead and switched it all. Now ‘color’, ‘center’, ‘organize’, and ‘traveled’ are all spelled correctly. Oh, and the biggie: ‘one, two and three’ has become ‘one, two, and three’. Oh yes. Ladies and gentlemen, I have introduced the serial comma and there is no turning back now.


This is Panel 3 of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is hodgepodged from a bunch of different sources. It’s only making an appearance in this blog post to facilitate a transition in topic.

The nearby Panel 1 is a somewhat butchered excerpt of the Declaration of Independence, but as in the official text, it lacks the serial comma. How un-American! The Declaration of Independence famously says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Capitalization done in the style of the time (with nouns capitalized) and no serial comma. But did you realize that there’s a different version? I quoted from the text of the signed, handwritten version, which is considered the official version, but the printed version has “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” and Jefferson’s rough draft has the serial comma too! He was a patriot!

Regardless, all is forgiven because this was two centuries ago, and the CMOS had not yet been established. Yay American English! Yay Chicago!

what’s in a name?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II.2.47-48)


I’ve been working at an art gallery here in Shanghai for the past few months, and in that time I have been [job untitled], curatorial assistant, art director, and now curator. My friends on LinkedIn and Facebook are probably as confused as I am. Well, my main responsibility is organizing the exhibitions – coming up with exhibition themes, writing press releases, and deciding on titles. And you know what? Titles are hard! It’s nerve-wracking to try encapsulating a whole idea (of someone else’s work) in a few words. Thank goodness there are nifty sites like this generator to help.

Because I’ve switched from architecture to the art field, I’m discovering a whole different way of looking at and talking about the world. I still consider myself an architect in many ways, but I’m trying to learn the lingo, this so-called International Art English (of which there was a big hulabaloo about), referred to elsewhere as artspeak or “The Joke That Forgot It Was Funny.” Oh gosh. Architects are known for having their own jargon and sometimes talking in a pompous holier-than-thou manner (quoting Foucault with wild abandon for instance), but in general are much more down to earth because they have real things to deal with, like gravity.

But art? Well that’s a whole different ballgame. Oy. I barely followed the Foucault crap. Happy Valentine’s Day! Happy Lantern Festival! The picture is of roses from the Queens Botanical Garden when I went last summer with my grandmother. You know, back when times were simple and a rose was just a rose ….

i … not irrational, just imaginary

I had an epiphany while slaving away on thesis research. “I’m being irrational,” I said to myself. And then I realized that I was, but i isn’t. i isn’t even real!  i is imaginary! And that got me on a train of thought that is wholly irrelevant to my thesis but made me happy, because math humor does that.

But really, what does it mean to be imaginary? In architecture, we use seemingly obvious words to mean specialized or conceptual things, co-opting the English language for our own jargon to confound others. For example: That’s quite the moment, nice flow and form. Where’s the tension, the trauma? What’s the agency? Traditional is not classical – it lacks order … or rather, the orders. Capitals are stone, curtains are glass. No suit and tie to be formal, no speeches at the pedestal, no cash in the vault. Footprints don’t involve feet, scales don’t weigh, and grading involves drawing squiggly lines. Follow the narrative?

Is there a real? Is there an imaginary? Or are they part of the same system? You cannot discount the imaginary simply because it’s not real, simply because you cannot place it in relation to the line, simply because it’s not positive (it ain’t negative either). The imaginary is very much real … just not real real … it’s complex.

Need a moment?

eight treasures = rice pudding = ba bao fan

I really don’t think it’s fair to call this most yummy of desserts ‘rice pudding’, which I associate with nasty gooey white stuff, but that’s what it says on the can. In Chinese it’s called bā bǎo fàn (八宝饭), which literally translates to ‘eight treasures rice’ … but I think most direct translations sound weird. For instance, no one wants to eat ‘saliva chicken’ (I saw that as a menu option once). Instead I tend to use Chinese or Chinglish or a made-up translation that I prefer. I simply call this dish ‘ba bao fan’ because the relative translation is weird too. Because this dish ain’t gloopy. It ain’t pudding.


It’s sticky rice with red bean paste inside, and eight types of dried fruit/seeds/nuts on top. And it’s yummy. Although I’m mostly familiar with ba bao fan from the can. Food connoisseur I am not. But seriously, it sounds like a lot of effort to make, whereas with the canned version, you cut open the top, cut open the bottom, push the thing out onto a plate (or bowl), nuke it in the microwave for four minutes, and voila. Chinese grocery stores don’t always stock it, so when I find it I usually buy a few.

burger + (bar/joint/place)

I had previously posted about a place called Burger Joint in Midtown, so I thought it’d only be fair to mention Mel’s Burger Bar in the UWS. Then that got me thinking … what makes a burger place a ‘burger bar’ versus a ‘burger joint’? Or for that matter, a ‘burger place’ (I’m specifically thinking of Dirty Martin’s Place in Austin)?

These three places are known for their burgers and have that same homey/classic Americana atmosphere … the only kind of atmosphere that allows one to wholeheartedly dig into a scrumdiddlyumptious burger. They definitely differ, but not to the degree that I would be able to identify Dirty Martin’s as a place rather than a joint, so what’s the deal?


Does it have to do with location or how they function? None of the three has real plates. None has multiple locations. Mel’s is a classic sit-down, at Burger Joint you collect your order from the counter, and at Dirty Martin’s you have the option of eating at the counter, inside, or at a picnic table outside. All have beer. Mel’s and Dirty Martin’s have televisions. Mel’s is a few blocks from an Ivy League school, Burger Joint is an ironic fad in a swanky hotel, and Dirty Martin’s is a cultural institution a stone’s throw from the ginormous University of Texas. None of them particularly cares about your health.

Hm. Whatever. I don’t think it really matters. How much do you pay attention to how something is named? At Mel’s I had the W.T.F. burger (seriously, that’s what it’s called) and it had cole slaw and fries on it. If that sounds disgusting to you, it’s okay, I never wanted to be friends with you anyway. Because it was delicious. Much better than Burger Joint, but I don’t think anything could ever compare to Dirty Martin’s greasy goodness …

monument v. memorial

What is the difference between a monument and a memorial? A monument can be a memorial and a memorial can be a monument. Or can they? Take for example the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, on opposite ends of the reflecting pool in Washington, DC. Why is one a monument and the other a memorial? Each is in commemoration of a past president, each is a popular tourist destination, and each can be considered a visually-impressive work of formal art/architecture in its own right.

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The Washington Monument is a monument to (in commemoration of) George Washington, 1st President of the United States. Washington is not represented via figural form. Instead his monument is an impressive stone obelisk.

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The Lincoln Memorial is a memorial to (in memory of) Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Inside is a larger than life-sized marble statue of a seated Lincoln, by the sculptor Daniel Chester French.

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And then there’s the Reflecting Pool, which is technically part of the Lincoln Memorial, but whatever. Positioned between the two and reflecting both structures, it feels more neutral, favoring neither one nor the other. It might seem odd to add value judgments (better, more successful, prettier) to monuments/memorials, but let’s be honest … people visit them because they’re tourist attractions, not to remember the contributions of Washington or Lincoln. You could talk about the memorial aspect of the Washington Monument or the monumental aspect of the Lincoln Memorial, but they’re not called the Washington Memorial and Lincoln Monument simply because those aren’t their names.

The way I always learned it, a monument is an architectural element and a memorial is a memory signifier. So while they may be the same actual object, whether you call that object a monument or memorial depends on what function of that object you’re describing or which takes precedence – the presence of form and physical architecture or the presence of history and transcendent memory. Is that clear? Hm … hope so.

fire engine = fur injun

My accent has been variously described as: adorable, no accent at all, hard to locate, Southern, melodic, and hickish. My accent is a mixture of different locations, experiences, and languages, but these days I speak with a fairly standard American accent … most of the time. Everyone has an accent derived from his/her personal history even though our regional differences are subsiding and people are choosing to mask their accents as our society becomes more inundated with mass media and easily comprehended communication is prized.

For me, artifacts of past accents pop up intermittently via regional turns of phrase (bless your heart) or different terminology (coke) or words that are inherent to the dialect (ya’ll, howdy) or downright bad grammar (had broughten). Or I elongate certain vowels (egg, wow) or pronounce silent letters (salmon) or drop the beginning ‘h’ (humble, Houston) or blend letters together (Louisville, New Orleans). And then there’s the twang that comes out strong with the ‘ir’ vowel combination (wire, iron, briar). So yeah … not so standard American, eh? But who wants to be boring and standard?

Moral of the story? If you’re a little kid just learning to read and you point to an unfamiliar word and think I’m saying ‘fur Injun,’ what I’m really saying is ‘fire engine.’ Sigh. Poor kid, he’s never going to learn to read.

goodbye expo 2010

Last year at this time, Shanghai was completely in Expo mode. The Expo was inescapable. There were tourists milling about, prices were higher than normal, statues of Haibao (the blue Gumby-like mascot) were EVERYWHERE, and the news was basically constant coverage of the Expo. It got to be really annoying, but when the Expo closed in October, it really closed. It got quiet. And the Expo was never heard from again. Sort of.

The statue of Haibao that was once prominently displayed on the campus of ECNU is still on the campus of ECNU. Except that once the Expo closed, it got moved to the storage/junk yard in the back corner of the campus. Where it still is. The only reason why I know it’s there is because I take a shortcut that winds between buildings. Depressing, but despite his ill treatment, Haibao still looks quite cheerful in his bright blue.

Oh, and remember this story? At the time I thought his comment about kissing him came out of left field, but now that my Chinese has improved, I realize that he was making a joke about my dismal Chinese skills. In Mandarin, 请问 (pronounced qing3 wen4) means “May I ask?”, which sounds awfully similar to 请吻 (pronounced qing3 wen3), which means “May I kiss?”. So yeah, mystery solved. Good gosh that was a long time ago.