How I plan to become fluent in Chinese (in short: Skritter)

skritter-logoI drafted this post 10 weeks ago, after arriving in Shanghai, but never published it.

I intended to stay in Shanghai for 6 months, perhaps longer, but will now be going back to Silicon Valley by mid-June.

I’m publishing anyway because I hope my original plan, and suggested tips/tools/websites, can be helpful to others. The plan has worked well for me in the 3 months I’ve been here.

How well?

For one, the Chinese government administers a Mandarin test called the HSK (汉语水平考试). It’s like the Chinese TOEFL. There are 6 levels, from 1 (beginner) to 6 (expert).

To pass level 1, you need to read and write ~150 words. To pass level 6, you need to read and write ~5000 words. At this level, you’re essentially at native fluency.

When I first got to China, I could barely pass level 4 (~1200 words).

In 3 months of following the below plan, I can now pass level 5 and if I stayed around for 3 more months, I’m confident I could pass level 6.

Now, that’s not saying I’ll be truly fluent – getting there requires using the language (both verbal and written) on a close-to-fulltime basis, which is something I don’t do.

The people I’ve seen come closest to true fluency typically work in an all-Chinese office. Even with a Chinese girlfriend (which is a tactic, of sorts), your Chinese will plateau fairly quickly since most conversational Chinese is relatively superficial.

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I’m glad to be spending time here in Shanghai.

My main priority is to really invest in learning Mandarin (汉语, which literally translates to “language of the Han”).

Why am I doing this?

Understanding my heritage – which comes through speaking the language – is important. There are of course career opportunities.

Also, I love learning languages! The process is tough but the results are immediate and tangible. You learn to think and express yourself in new ways.

People who intensively study languages show significant growth in areas of the brain. Interestingly, the same thing does not happen to med school students.

Immanuel Kant believed that when you do something like learn a new language, it connects you with a world that was inaccessible before. This “enlargement of thought” was a central and driving purpose of life and in theory put you closer to an all-knowing, all-speaking God.

While it was fun to be in Rio for 10 days, I would have experienced it on a deeper level had I understood Portuguese.

Here’s what I’ve been doing

1. Using Skritter to memorize HSK vocabulary

This is where you should start.

Skritter is an iPhone app, a Chinese character-writing game which *almost* makes the process of memorizing characters fun. It tracks your progress (I love seeing stats like how many new characters I learned last week) and adjusts to your skill level and progress.

As Tim Ferriss says, content is more important than process. I agree it’s a key part of any efficiency-maximizing language learning process.

It’s clear what words are needed to pass each HSK level. Here’s a great example. You just load those lists into Skritter and you’re on your way!

*Skritter is not cheap. There is a 15-day unlimited trial period, then you pay $14.99/mo for access. However, I use it 30-60 minutes a day and I can say it’s easily the best pound-for-pound language-learning-investment I’ve made

2. Private tutoring sessions

I take classes with That’s Mandarin last week. 3 sessions per week, 2 hours per session.

I chose them for 2 reasons:

1. Their classrooms were the nicest. Free coffee and tea. That they put so much attention into their learning space is indicative of their commitment to students

2. Their teachers had the most nuanced understanding of Chinese. As my friends know, I ask “Why” a lot, and they were able to answer more “Why” questions than other teachers

One teaching method they employ is to watch popular Chinese movies together, pausing after specific exchanges to discuss exactly what’s going on. For those that read Chinese, the movie we’re watching is 杜拉拉升职记.

Other language centers showed me outdated language books which still talked about stuff like SOEs and “iron rice bowls” (铁饭碗)…irrelevant crap from the 70s and 80s.

*Tutoring sessions are particularly helpful for taking characters I study in Skritter and learning to write/read/speak them in the right context

3. Reading, and lots of it

The HSK is primarily a reading test. There are writing, listening, and speaking components, but the most important skill is quick and thorough reading.

I’ve been reading the essays of a famous young Chinese blogger named Han Han (韩寒).

The software and tools I’m using

A. Skritter – as mentioned above, a critical piece of the puzzle; if you’re serious about learning Chinese, download Skritter now. Thanks to Linus for sharing it with me

B. Pleco – far and away the best iPhone Chinese dictionary

C. Han Han’s blog posts (eg, content you enjoy reading) – here’s a link to an English translation, which includes links to the original posts

D. FluentU – I enjoy using this to read and learn Chinese song lyrics

The biggest obstacles to reaching HSK 6

1. Shanghai is such an international city that I usually spend an entire day only speaking English. I hang out with few locals, and even then the conversation is 80% English

2. The people who reach fluency fastest are FORCED to use it. Sometimes this is a full-time, immersive language-learning environment. Other times it’s because they work in a Chinese-speaking office (which can be a GREAT forcing function). I have neither…

3. The distractions of the city itself. Shanghai is like New York – it can lead to too much socializing, too much headless-chicken-syndrome

If you’re interested in mastering Mandarin, please download Skritter!!

What language are you learning? What tools/methods do you find most helpful?

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Thanks to Morgan Freeman and Charles Srisuwananukorn for reminding me of this great poem. Gotta memorize it again! :)

Invictus was a solid movie, but I have no regrets waiting until I could torrent.

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Things I’m grateful for

Comparison is the thief of joy – Teddy Roosevelt 

Bottom line: I suck at appreciating what I have.

This essay is an attempt to codify life’s good stuff. In shitty times, I can re-read this and remind myself of how fortunate I am.

1. Family

So important. Dominic Toretto values family:

O’Conner: Maybe the Letty we once knew is gone
Toretto: You don’t turn your back on family, even when they do

In better times
In better times

From a biological perspective, we’re here to make babies. The Gao’s have been doing so for generations which is why I’m alive.

That means at some point I need to find a wife, have kids, and do a semi-competent job raising them.

Clay Christensen talks about how we often underinvest in long-term goals (like actively raising our kids), and overinvest in short term ones (like answering work emails). Then we hit 50 and wonder why our kids don’t come home for Christmas holiday. Hmm…

Family knows you.

Your mom cleaned your naked, super-smooth baby butt countless times. She loves you unconditionally. I couldn’t even begin to describe how much moms must love their sons. Something we miss out on as dudes.

Imagine feeling a LIFE grow inside you, heart beating, legs kicking, getting bigger in your stomach and then it comes out and it grows and one day it’s taller than you and healthy and beautiful.

And YOU – as the mom – made that happen. Sure sperm played a part, but the sperm were involved, the MOM IS COMMITTED.

I won’t even begin to talk about dads, cousins, uncles and aunts, etc. Needless to say they have always been there for me and for that I’m incredibly grateful even if I sometimes do a poor job showing it.

The only problem with family is that they know the worst sides of you too – all the embarrassing mistakes that you’ve tried to forget. Sometimes the distance we feel with family members is because we push them away – but that’s just a reflection of our own insecurities.

I notice as I get older: The things I dislike in others? It’s really just what I dislike in myself.

2. Health

The very fact that I can walk to a coffee shop and write this blog post means I’m blessed.

I’m blessed to have the physical strength to walk, the mental strength to write, the overall health to be productive.

Health is one of Maslow’s fundamental priorities. We take it for granted because it’s always there, until it’s not. The minute it’s taken away is when all the so-called-priorities in life, like getting laid or making that first million, seem less important.


I’m starting to understand why people who lose their legs in catastrophic accidents return to their pre-accident happiness levels in 6 months. Whether conscious or not, they’ve replaced what they had taken away with an increased appreciation of what’s left.

If you play chess, imagine losing your queen. You appreciate your rooks so much more.

I’m obsessed with living forever not because living to 250 is the most important thing in my life (although who am I kidding, that’d be awesome), but because it reminds me to do important things like exercise, socialize, get proper sleep, and eat healthy foods.

3. Friends

I’m grateful for friends who put up with my shit. I think guys mellow out over time, and I’ve mellowed out some, but I can still be a pain-in-the-ass and I’m thankful for patient friends who try to focus on my good qualities. The stories, the trust, the respect that builds over time.

In general, I’m grateful for GOOD people. Most moderately successful people are selfish and full of ego. To be truly good – considerate, genuine, and reliable – is a gift. One I don’t yet have.

4. Abilities

This is a catch-all, but includes things like:

  • The ability to earn a living doing what I enjoy – starting companies, creating technology, writing
  • The ability to define meaningful goals and act on them
  • The ability to travel and live in new places
  • The ability to choose the people I spend time with, in every capacity

I believe ability is not given to you at birth – it comes from lots of focused hard work. Just read The Talent Code or Outliers if you don’t agree. I hope to respect and nurture and continue investing in them.

So that’s it. There are many other things – like these lists that pop up all the time – but I’ll keep this post short by my standards :)

What are you grateful for in your life? How do you continually remind yourself of those things?

Fukuoka cherry blossoms: more observations from my 2nd Japan trip

Each subway stop has its own cute little symbol
Each subway stop has its own cute little symbol

I still really love Japan. People who know me are a little sick of it by now.

I have some half-assed guesses why, but it still surprises how much I enjoy walking around Japan and eating food in Japan and meeting people in Japan. I feel like it’s filling a piece of my soul.

Japan: the only country where I continually lament the fact that it took me 28 years to visit. Why? I now have fewer years to go back. Silly, but it expresses how deeply the experience has affected me.

At some point, I’d love to write a book about Japanese culture. Spend a long time there understanding the people and their lives, and share that with the rest of the world.

Here are more over-generalized, marginally-researched observations after 3 days in Fukuoka.

1. Sakura is amazing

Like I said on Facebook, I just feel lucky to have seen it. To cross it off my list.

It was indescribably cool to feel the breeze and watch the sakura petals fall to the ground.

One of several park entrances
One of several park entrances
Even had sakura shrines in the underground mall...
Even had sakura shrines in the underground mall…

2. Introvert-friendly

Maybe not true at all, but that’s the fun part of having your own blog.

I have so many questions about Japanese culture and society. I didn’t realize this on my first trip, but I feel like Japan caters to introverted people…or at least, people who prefer their privacy.

Ichiran provides walled-off booths for customers to privately enjoy their ramen. A McDonalds in Fukuoka had nothing but solo tables for diners.

Maybe in such a collective society, individual time and space are highly prized?

3. Where are the young people?

I spent 3 weeks in Shanghai prior to the trip. In Shanghai, you are overwhelmed by young people. Little kids bumping into you, gangly teens in big groups, ambitious students with backpacks and matching uniforms. Everywhere you look.

I don’t see the same numbers and magnitudes in Tokyo or Fukuoka. The people look and feel older, which is confirmed by data on Japan’s aging population.

4. Big city vs. small town, FIGHT!

Fukuoka felt like a small town – and small towns tend to make me more introspective.

Big cities like Shanghai and New York make me more social and outward-facing. There’s just so much stimulation around you.

At night there was a party where these glowing balls covered the river...
At night there was a party where these glowing balls covered the river…

5. Scent of a shopper

Shopping in Japan reminds me of the role scents play in creating great user experiences.

The Wynn Hotel in Vegas is a great example. Walk in and, with that first inhale, you KNOW you’re in the Wynn. You KNOW you’re in Vegas. It relaxes you AND energizes you, and after a few visits you crave that smell. Amazing recall power.

Many Japanese retail stores have a unique scent, which is subtle but memorable, and combined with each store’s unique and considerate layout, design, and decor, elevate the mundane to the near-sublime.

6. The Japan moment

There’s something I like to call the “Japan moment”.

On my first trip, it was when hundreds of identically clad lolita-looking teenage girls crowded the Shibuya subway platform as we exited the subway car. Brain fried.

There were at least 2-3 more experiences which left similarly deep, almost scarring mental imprints, including my first bowl of Ichiran :)

Hello old friend. We meet again
Hello old friend. We meet again

7. Details matter

Steve Jobs obsessed over details. No details are needed here.

In Japan, it’s an amazing experience visiting A CONVENIENCE STORE. The organization, the selection, the background music, the friendly employees, the lack of odd smells…

the organization...the variety...the colors...the drinks!!
the organization…the variety…the colors…the drinks!!

The parallel for entrepreneurs: if you can make the shopping cart and checkout experience awesome, you’ve won. In other words, if you can turn the mundane into the awesome…you’ve won.

8. China, Japan

Small anecdote: the Japanese often use face masks (like these) to indicate that they’re sick and don’t want to get others sick.

In Beijing, you wear face masks because you don’t want people (and air) getting YOU sick.

9. Filling your gaps

I am a somewhat chaotic person (there’s a reason this blog isn’t called kevinmethodical).

Japan is highly-organized and detail-oriented. It helps nurture in me something that I lack. The culture’s commitment to details and rules in all facets of life also means that, to an extent, you are required to make fewer small decisions in a given day (for example, part of me is annoyed that at Starbucks, I need to specify cup size, and type of tea – not just green but tazo or green tips or whattheheckever, and hot or cold…and that’s one of the simpler drinks).

That means I can spend more time thinking about stuff that matters. There’s a downside, too.

10. Close airports, yes! 

I love flying into a city where the airport is close to town. Fukuoka airport is two subway stops (~5 minutes) from Hakata, one of the big downtown areas.

By contrast Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport is 35 minutes by taxi with no traffic. New York’s JFK is the same way. Even Austin’s Bergstrom International is 15-20 minutes from anything meaningful.

11. Fukuoka kaedama

For my fellow ramen lovers, kaedama originated in Fukuoka. Yes, thanks to Fukuoka you can get that extra bowl of yummy, fresh, hot noodles and continue the party!

At the earliest Ichiran branch, the bowls are rectangular (yes, I know I have a problem)
At the earliest Ichiran branch, the bowls are rectangular (yes, I know I have a problem)

This is a great ramen blog if you have absurd amounts of time to waste.

12. I’m from America

I love the Japanese visa waiver for U.S. citizens. For once, it pays to have a U.S. passport (it usually doesn’t).

For example, Argentina has a “reciprocity fee” because we charge Argentinians the same fee. You pay online, and print out a piece of paper that you then carry with your passport at all times. Basically a single-page, 2nd passport.

Why not just add a passport stamp like a normal country? You could even do it at airport customs to save time.

13. Walk and walk some more

A bit unrelated, but I enjoyed Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker piece, in particular his love of getting to know NYC by walking it. I love doing that in Japan.

So many great hidden restaurants, secret & serene parks, absurdly cute pets, groups of cosplay kids. And it’s safe, too.

Can’t wait for my next trip. Hoping to see Hokkaido and Kyoto and Osaka. And if you haven’t read my post on Tokyo, maybe it’s worth your time. Probably not.

Movie mini-reviews

What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area.
What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area.

In an effort to get more out of the absurd amounts of media I consume, I’m launching movie mini-reviews.

This post will include one thought from each movie I watch. No thumbs-up or 5 stars or any of that bullshit.

My full Movies page will include a lot more random thoughts. Still no thumbs-up or any of that bullshit.

I LOVE movies, but these days TV is a far superior art form for telling rich stories and developing nuanced characters.

The best TV shows I’ve watched (like Breaking Bad) are FAR better than the best movies (like Shawshank Redemption).

Watching a great TV show is like making a best friend – it takes time and there will be ups and downs, but you’re left with something deeper and longer lasting.

Watching a great movie is like having a fun one-night stand. You’ll have the story, but that’s about it.

My long-winded way of saying at some point, I’ll launch a TV page too.

I’ll put all of the reviews on the Movies page. And I’ll write an update post every month or two.

From the past few months:

Aristocrats [Rotten]

  • The access is incredible – they interview every great comedian. It’s a great format – would love to see something similar for 50-100 once-great, now-retired athletes

Dredd [Rotten]

  • Really like Olivia Thirlby. Unconventionally sexy and captures your attention

End of Watch [Rotten]

  • Another interracial bromance-y cop movie set in the ghettos with a smell-from-a-mile-away tragic ending? I’m there!

Equilibrium [Rotten]

  • Big Mac movie – enjoy it while you’re watching it, no long-term value and feel gross at the end

Fast and Furious 4 (aka Fast and Furious) [Rotten]

  • Paul Walker’s the J.R. Smith of actors. If you don’t understand what I mean read Bill Simmons
  • Bonus: Why does Jordana Brewster always wear a summer dress?

Following Sean [Rotten]

  • Boy raised in crazy house, grows up normal

Headhunters [Rotten]

  • Jaime Lannister as the bad guy. Watch it

House of Cards [Wikipedia]

  • Stopped after 10 minutes. Couldn’t stand Kevin Spacey with a Southern accent while breaking the 4th wall. I do like Robin Penn, but not enough

Lincoln [Rotten]

  • Joseph Gordon Levitt is EVERYWHERE (Premium Rush, Dark Knight, Inception, 500 Days of Crap). Reminds me of Hugo Weaving on that tear with the Matrix…and Lord of the Rings…and V for Vendetta…

True Romance [Rotten]

  • WHAT a cast: Dennis Hopper, Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, a stoner Brad Pitt, a borderline-normal Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini as a sadistic underling

Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2 [Rotten]

  • Poor man’s X-Men (or poor woman’s, since they CLEARLY had the better powers)

Wreck-it Ralph  [Rotten]

  • How many guys my age fondly reminisce about Street Fighter 2? And of those, how many think they were god’s gift playing Ryu or Ken or Sagat? Because everyone else pretty much sucked…even Sagat to some extent…and Ken…