Language Learning on a Restricted Diet, or Why Chinese Menus Don’t Seem Too Hard

Some people learning Chinese find menu-reading particularly challenging.  I, however, never found menus to be hard relative to reading other things in Chinese.  I know someone who used to study Mandarin at Shida who was also adept at menu reading and who could run circles around her classmates when it came to food vocabulary.  I also met an American in Japan who generally cannot read Japanese, but who can read ingredient lists in Japanese, including the kanji.  Heck, *I* can read ingredient lists in Japanese, and my Japanese is way behind my Mandarin.

There is something the three of us have in common.

We all live on restricted diets.

The former Shida student is lactose-intolerant. The American in Japan is gluten-intolerant.  And I am vegan.

Lactose-intolerance brought the former Shida student uncomfortably close to death (she loved that Taiwanese food uses cow’s milk sparingly).  I actually met that American in Japan (who I also mentioned in this post) just after she had spent all day lying in bed because eating some gluten by mistake had made her so sick that she could hardly stand up (she let me borrow her laptop, which I used to write a couple blog posts). They were both incredibly motivated to learn how to read the names of foods in Chinese/Japanese. For them, it is a matter of life and death.

Though non-vegan food can make me physically uncomfortable (my digestive system is not used to it), my life is not on the line. Other lives, of course, are on the line, so this is a serious matter for me.

It is possible, because avoiding the wrong food is so important to all of us, that the names of foods in different languages and writing systems makes a stronger impression on us that it does on language learners who care less, and thus we require less review to get food vocabulary/characters into long-term memory, though I do not have solid evidence for this.

However, I know that we also get a lot more review/reinforcement simply because we are in the habit of reading food labels for everything (and making inquiries when food labels are not available … and having conversations about what is or is not in food). That adds up to a lot of practice quickly.

Also, we all make a significant effort to understand what we are eating even in our native languages. It is a part of our lives. Learning how to read food labels/menus in Chinese/Japanese does not seem much different, so we do not notice.

So what does this mean for Chinese learners? Well, I advocate becoming a vegan on ethical grounds (if you do eat animals, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read this, this, and this) but this post is about language learning, not ethics. I do not have any shortcuts for learning how to read menus in Chinese, but I can say that, if you are motivated and practice a lot, it is possible to learn how to read Chinese menus with relative ease.


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Thyroids, Late Bloomers, and Asexuality

When I read this post by Ace Muslim about Hashimoto’s disease, I had no idea that in less than two months I would get diagnosed with a thyroid auto-immune disease myself (I still have not been diagnosed with a specific auto-immune thyroid disease, but the endocrinologist is convinced that I have one).

The publication of the post was delayed by the “Beidawushan Series”. When I wrote this post, I didn’t know my thyroid hormone test results yet. Now I do know, and it doesn’t change what I wanted to express.

My mother has been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, and my grandfather had it too. Maybe I got DNA which predisposed me to thyroid auto-immune diseases. Maybe I got Hashimoto antibodies by drinking my mother’s breast milk (though I think this is unlikely).

As I’ve noted before, my mother considers herself a late bloomer. Due to details I will not disclose here, it is probably a coincidence that she ‘bloomed late’ and has Hashimoto’s disease, but it is probably possible for Hashimoto’s to delay the onset of sexual attraction/sex drive/etc.

When my mom first told me about her diagnosis, she mentioned that loss of interest in sex is a symptom. I do not know why she pointed that out. Perhaps she mentioned it because she experienced it (I don’t know whether or not she has experienced a loss of interest in sex). Or maybe she was making a hint about my asexuality (i.e. maybe I’m asexual because of this thyroid thing). I sent her a link to that post at Notes of an Asexual Muslim, so if she ever did think about linking this thyroid thing to my asexuality (and I don’t know if it ever occurred to her) … she is now informed.

I think it is possible that my hormones are connected to my asexuality. As someone who has a low sex drive in addition to a lack of sexual attraction, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell ‘low sex drive’ and ‘lack of sexual attraction’ apart.

Scratch that, I’m certain that my hormones are connected to my asexuality. Hormones are a part of who I am – if my hormone levels were different, I would become a bit different. Asexuality is also a part of who I am. Hormones affect how I express myself, and I am asexual.

Of course, when most people suggest that hormones are related to asexuality, what they are really saying is that ‘abnormal’ hormone levels ’cause’ asexuality.


Maybe not.

It doesn’t matter.

Even if my asexuality is 100% caused by my hormone levels, my asexuality is just as real as if it were 0% caused by my hormone levels. I experience the world as an asexual, regardless of the ’cause’ (by the way, what causes people to be heterosexual? Why is it that people only ask about the causes of non-heterosexual orientations?)

I’m never going to ‘defend’ my asexuality by commenting on my hormone test results. I have deliberately avoided mentioning the results precisely because it is not important whether I have hyper-, eu-, or hypo-thyroidism (okay, it is important for my health/well-being, but it’s totally unimportant for determining the ‘validity’ of my asexuality). Instead, if asked, I’m going to say that asexuality is real, whatever the ’cause’.


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Taking Responsibility for What You Eat

The first thing I do when I consider buying any packaged food is go straight to the ingredients list. I have been like this ever since I could pick out food for myself since my mother does it too, and she taught me to avoid ‘bad’ ingredients.

When you are with someone who does the same thing – for every item of food – it is a pretty good bet that they have some type of dietary restriction. We can recognize each other this way. Someone in Osaka figured out that I have a restricted diet, though she did not know for what until I told her that I am vegan.

One time, when I was doing the ingredient check, an acquaintance said ‘oh, you don’t want to look at that – you do not want to know what is in it.’

That shocked me. I have been trained since childhood to check the ingredients list for ‘bad’ things. I know most people are not that diligent – but the idea that you want to avoid looking *because* there might be something bad? If you think there might be something bad, why would you eat it?

Ah, but if you are aware of what is going on, you have to take responsibility for it.

For example, if you are aware that a lot of palm oil comes from plantations in Indonesia, and that prime rainforests are constantly being cut down to make way for more plantations, and *then* you become aware that a certain food has palm oil … if you go ahead and buy that food, you have to find a way to rationalize supporting deforestation. But if you choose to ignore sources which might educate you about deforestation, and choose not to know about the ingredients – basically, if you are willfully ignorant – then you do not have to think at all about the issue – and do not have to take responsibility.

Some people do not have the ‘luxury’ of willful ignorance. That person I met in Osaka who figured out that I live with a dietary restriction? She has gluten intolerance. Eating gluten causes her to get sick and, if she ate too much, could lead to death. If she wants to stay healthy and, you know, alive, she has to know about everything that passes through her digestive system. In this this regard, being vegan is much easier – if I make a mistake, or if somebody deliberately tricks me, however offended I may be, my well-being is not directly threatened.

Of course, being ignorant does nothing to reduce the harm done by ‘bad’ ingredients. If the harm is merely being done to oneself, then I have no objection – if someone prefers not paying attention to what they eat at the cost of their own well-being, that is their business. When the harm is being done to others … well, I think that refusing to know what you are eating because you are afraid it might be unethical is … unethical.


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An Obstacle to Finding Close Companionship

The theme of this month’s Carnival of Aces is ‘Obstacles’.

As an aro-ace, I doubt I or my partner(s) would be happy in a close romantic-sexual relationship, at least not without a ton of negotiation, and staying out of that is easier.

Yet I do want more close companionship in my life. People who I can share physical affection (I am thinking about things like playing with hair). People with whom I can share a very personal part of myself.

One of the obstacles is that this is something which, in the societies I have lived in, is reserved for sexual/romantic relationships, and perhaps is also available in family relationships.

Now, I can get some of the close companionship I want from my parents … when a) we are all in the same physical location, and b) I actually talk to them. This has pretty much not been happening since I started this blog (e-mail does not cut it), though I do plan to be with my parents again before the year is over.

Being with my parents will help, but it might not be enough.

Yet most people in Anglophone society pursue this type of close companionship within the context of sexual-romantic relationships (and even when they do this with family as well, I cannot suddenly become a part of someone else’s family). I have talked a a bit about what it is like in Taiwan before – the short version is that Taiwan is not a good place for me to pursue close companionship, and yes, this is one of the factors which persuaded me to finally leave.

So, if I try to form these relationships with people, they a) do not expect it in a non-sexual/romantic context b) if they already get their need for close companionship met from their sexual/romantic relationship(s), why do they need to bother with understanding my issues as an aro-ace? c) having a close relationship with me may bring up jealousy issues within their own sexual/romantic relationship(s).

Some people might say ‘find other aro and/or ace folk’. Well, there are not so many of us, and even less of us who are aware, and I am probably not compatible with every single aro/ace out there.

In a culture which was more open to close companionship with people outside one’s biological family in a non-sexual/romantic context, this would not be so much of an issue. But this clash between my aro-aceness and a culture/society which considers sexual-romantic relationships *the* way to pursue close companionship is an obstacle towards getting what I want.


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Monks, Nuns, and *ahem* Celibacy in Wuxia: Part 3

I suggest reading Part 1 and Part 2

Wuxia writers are very comfortable with chastity; it’s really common in wuxia stories. Wuxia writers are also comfortable with characters being celibate for long periods of time, possibly a lifetime, especially if they are being celibate because their One True Love is not sexually available and they are too in love to have sex with anyone else.

What wuxia writers do not seem comfortable with are people who completely take sex, romance, the possibility of procreation, and even couplehood out of their lives.

Even though sexless marriage does happen in wuxia, it is never presented as an ideal state. At best, the characters are simply waiting for the right time to have sex and make a baby. And if the characters do not wish to have sex and babies together in the long run … then something is wrong with the marriage. At the very least, the sexless marriages are still a form of pairing up.

People who take monastic vows are not waiting for their One True Love or the ‘right time’ to have sex/romance/babies/couplehood. They are choosing a different path. Granted, people are generally allowed to leave Chinese monastic orders should they no longer wish to live that way, but most wuxia monks and nuns have no intention of leaving their order when they make their vows.

And this seems to be something which wuxia writers cannot seem to wrap their heads around.

Hence the monks who cannot control their sexual urges. While many lay male characters seem to be able to manage their sexual urges just fine, sexual urges are used to make it impossible for the monk to keep on rejecting coupling.

Hence the nuns who must be involved in romance. Wuxia writers generally cannot wrap their heads around female characters who have worthwhile stories which are not about romance, and so the nuns must have romantic entanglements.

I have pointed out The 36th Chamber of Shaolin as being an excellent exception – a monk whose story really does not have any sex or romance. But San Te is only allowed to choose to be without sex and romance because he’s doing it for his parents’ sake. In traditional Chinese culture, just about the only thing which is more important than getting a mate and making babies is respecting your parents. If San Te had kept his vow of celibacy because he lacked an interest in sex and romance, that would have been radical – but keeping his vow of celibacy because he is honoring his parents does not threaten traditional values (note: it is possible that San Te also lacks interest in sex and romance, but the movie does not state this – it simply does not bring up sex or romance at all).

While compulsory sexuality is at play here, as well as compulsory romanticism, I think the real crux is that everybody must get on the wuxia equivalent of the relationship escalator – while the wuxia escalator is, in my opinion, more flexible than the relationship escalator in mainstream American middle class culture, there is still this idea that everyone should wish for at least one established partner (both polyamory and extreme monoamory are common), and eventually make babies. People who take monastic vows are rejecting that. So the wuxia writers try to make it seem that it’s not really possible to keep those vows, or at least that it’s not possible to have a meaningful story about people who do choose to live without sex, romance, and pairing up.

I think there are many possible story-lines which can revolve around monks and nuns in which sex and romance do not come up at all. The fact that this is so rare in wuxia implies that wuxia writers cannot imagine a worthwhile story about a monk in which he actually keeps his vows, or a nun who has a life that is not centered on romance.

Speaking of vows, Buddhist monks and nuns also often (though not always) need to abstain from alcohol and meat. Breaking this vows is also a common theme in wuxia. It reminds me of something Swankivy wrote.

Now, I must say there is some truth to the depiction of monks having sex. In Asia, some sexual predators do become Buddhist monks to serve as a cover for their predatory behavior, and I’m sure there have been monks who have broken their vows of celibacy since forever. Likewise, there probably are nuns who have romantic feelings for other people since this is something which cannot be completely controlled.

However, I am also sure that, if 1% of all humans are on the ace-spectrum, then probably a lot more than 1% of monks and nuns are on the ace-spectrum. I do not know how many monks and nuns are aces because I am not aware of any research on this question. However, if I were an aromantic asexual in imperial China, especially if I preferred not to marry, I think joining a monastic order would be one of my best options.

Regardless of the character’s orientation, only telling stories about people who break their vows of celibacy erases the experiences of people who choose their celibacy and actually keep it. And while asexuality is not celibacy, there is a significant overlap between ace-spectrum people and people who voluntarily abstain from sex.


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‘That is such an obscure thing’ – an Example of Abled-Privilege

So I once had a conversation with a couple of Canadians about how awful the United States is and about how they would never want to live there. I certainly agree that the United States has great problems, but as far as I can tell, this is true of most of the world – not excluding Canada. They challenged me to name one thing that is better about life in the United States compared to Canada, and the first example that came to mind was the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how accessibility for people with disabilities is generally better in the US than in Canada.

Well, they said that they think Canada has its own ADC, and I said nope, it does not (I later checked and found that Ontario has the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination based on disability – but this does little for the people in, say, Nova Scotia). They then said that they see accessible facilities all the time – which means they have not spent much time in the Montreal subway system (neither have I – but I have seen Je me souviens: Excluded from the Montréal subway since 1966). They then claimed they would rather be disabled in Canada than the United States. They could not cite evidence, they merely *believed* it must be better.

Then they said – and this is the point I really want to bring attention to – that this was such an obscure issue and that, even if accessibility is better in the U.S. than in Canada, it is such a small matter that it should not count. They were laughing about how obscure it is. Even after I said that 20% of Canadians are disabled, they still insisted this was a minor thing (I later found out that, according to the Council of Canadians with Disabilities only 14.3% of Canadians are disabled, but I still think that is substantial).

Now, I do not want to make this about whether Canada or the USA is less awful to disabled people, because both should be much better and there are certainly points in Canada’s favor (the health care system is a huge point in Canada’s favor). What I want to make this about is a) how unaware these people were of disability issues and b) how trivial they think the matter of, say, people with wheelchairs being able to use trains is.

Now, people in the USA are just as ableist as people in Canada – North Americans in general are very ableist. The ableism manifests itself in the ignorance of the major problems people with disabilities face every single day, and in not realizing just how much society does to exclude people with disabilities. And they think it is funny that some people consider this an important issue.

Oh, and the first issue the Canadians brought up when trying to explain why Canada is way better than the United States? The fact that Canada uses the metric system. Because that is a much bigger deal than disability rights [/sarcasm]. And then they made a big deal about gun violence. I know people who have been affected by gun violence … but you know what? I know more people who have been affected by accessibility or lack thereof, and this is a much bigger deal in their lives than gun violence is for the people who have been at gunpoint only once or twice.

I think most people reading this blog have little awareness of disability issues. Today happens to be Blogging about Disablism Day, so this is a great time to learn more about disability. I always learn a lot from the many great posts which come out every year.