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[10-Year Club]: John Pasden of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning

A trip down memory lane with long-time Shanghai-based language specialist John Pasden. Dude speaks Chinese with the intensity of 1000 exploding Da Shans.
Last updated: 2017-01-17

The ”10-Year Club” is a SmSh Column in which we interview long-term Shanghai expats on their life and work in China — expats who've done at least a dime in Shanghai with basically no end in sight. We’re wondering what keeps them here, what lessons they’ve learned, insights they’ve accrued, and how stuff was way back when.


Even before I personally moved to China four (million) years ago, I had language blog bookmarked. Well-written, informative, and inspiring, I still follow it years later, dusting it off whenever the guilt-induced urge to improve my own Chinese crops up, which is, hey let’s be honest, pretty rare. Sinosplice went online way back in 2002 and is still a great read.

(Man, the English-language blogosphere back in 2002. Shout out to Image Thief, Shanghai Scrap, Like a Local, Weird Meat, JQ’s Jazz Blog, Shanghai Streets, Kungfuology, and this absolute gem: Shanghai-Nightlife. The old girl’s still running!)

Sorry. Got off track there. Sinosplice. Here’s an excerpt from a recent piece “16 Sincere Answers to 16 Tiresome Questions about Life in China”:

Obviously, living in China is not all fun and excitement. Expats complain about life here a lot, and don’t tend to stay too long. An apt description of life in China is that these are “interesting times.” Just as the supposed Chinese curse implies that “interesting” is not always positive, neither is life in China. “Interesting” is good food, amazing work opportunities, and great people, but it’s also food safety issues, pervasive pollution, and infuriating social interactions. How much of the good and the bad you end up with depends largely on where you live in China, what you do here, whether you’re here alone or with a family, what you expect to get out of your stay here, and a bunch of other factors. And, of course, there’s the element of luck and the undeniable role of your own attitude about the experience.

But it’s definitely interesting.

The brush cut behind Sinosplice, and various other Shanghai-based pedagogical projects over the years, is American transplant John Pasden, currently on a 16-year piece in Shanghai. Aside from Sinosplice, Pasden oversaw academics and product development at ChinesePod and now heads his own language consultancy company AllSet Learning. AllSet’s approach is custom and personalized language programs, tailored to individual needs and goals.


SmSh: So where are you from and how long have you been in China? Were you always planning on relocation to China indefinitely?

John Pasden: I'm from Tampa, Florida and came to China right after graduating from the University of Florida in 2000. Since my major at UF was Japanese, I think it's fair to say that it was never my long-term plan to come to China. It's an idea that I got in my head while studying in Japan in 1998. And even then, I was only planning to stay for 1-2 years to learn "a little Chinese."

Plans change!

SmSh: What do you do? How did you come into that line of work?

JP: I'm an applied linguist specializing in adult acquisition of Mandarin Chinese. I got to this point by starting with my own language-focused blog (Sinosplice), later doing a masters degree in applied linguistics in Chinese here in Shanghai, and then from there developing lessons and hosting podcasts at ChinesePod for a while.

Eventually I wanted to branch out and do more with tech and with individual learners. So I started AllSet Learning in 2010, and my main thing there is creating intensive, highly customized Chinese courses for individual learners. We're creating more and more of our own products, of which the Chinese Grammar Wiki is the most well-known. I've also developed a series of easy-to-read Chinese novels called Mandarin Companion.

SmSh: What are some of your own favorite posts on Sinosplice?

JP: Hmmm, I don't really have favorites, but there are a couple things that really needed to be said:

  • Language Power Struggles: for a while I felt like I was going crazy, but eventually I had to accept that some people really were purposely avoiding talking to me in Chinese (or even pretending not to understand my Chinese). That's when I knew that this whole "language power struggle" dynamic needed to be brought to light.
  • Why Learning Chinese Is Hard: you've probably noticed that there are some people out there that claim that Chinese is actually easy, and usually they're selling something. This kind of pisses me off, because I don't think it's easy at all. I actually want more people to study Chinese, but I don't want to convince them to learn it by lying to them. I would hope no one is deciding to learn Chinese just because they think it's super easy.
  • Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese: this is just something people ask me about a lot, and I'm a nerd that likes graphs, so there ya go. It's also a nice, easy-to-understand comparison: Japanese pronunciation is easy in the beginning, but hard to truly master. Chinese pronunciation is the opposite. Chinese grammar is easy in the beginning, but gets more and more complicated the further you go. Japanese is the opposite.

I also enjoy what I call "characterplay" (creative alterations of Chinese characters), and simple Chinese puns that don't require knowledge of Tang Dynasty poetry to understand, but those aren't individual posts.

SmSh: Remember China Bounder?

JP: I do, but nothing to say, really…

SmSh: What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in Shanghai over the years? How do you feel about the city these days and the direction it’s heading in?

I've seen the rise of the cell phone, and then the smartphone. The rise (and fall) of QQ, MSN Messenger, and Weibo, and now the rise of WeChat. I've seen the rise (and fall) of an awesome bar called Tanghui.

JP: I've seen a lot of changes, but it's hard to classify them. To give a little context, when I first arrived in Hangzhou in 2000, people were still using their "BP-ji" before they had cell phones. So I've seen the rise of the cell phone, and then the smartphone. The rise (and fall) of QQ, MSN Messenger, and Weibo, and now the rise of WeChat. I've seen the rise (and fall) of an awesome bar called Tanghui. When I first arrived, I was told, "Chinese people drink tea, not coffee," and now there are three Starbucks within 10 minutes of my home. Now Shanghai is all about mobile payments and Mobike.

I'm happy to see Shanghai embracing new technology and new cultural norms, but I don't think any of it has any more real direction to it than the streets of this city (what the hell is the deal with Huashan Lu, anyway??).

SmSh: What’s one thing you’d change about Shanghai if you could?

JP: I want easy access to the WHOLE internet. This is the one thing about life in China that drives me crazy. It affects me every. single. day.

I get it, I really do, but this issue even affects my video gaming, which is just a bit hard to take.

A few of the books available at Mandarin Companion. Monkey's Paw — Ooo, that doesn't end well.

SmSh: What is your favorite part of the city? Is there a specific neighborhood or area you like being in?

JP: I'm not big on Xuhui, but I used to really enjoy biking around the part of the city where the East China Normal University campus is. It's also one of those areas that's really been knocking down old housing blocks to put up new apartment buildings. I don't really mourn the loss of old crappy housing, but it is certainly interesting to see change of this magnitude happen so fast around me.

SmSh: What are you favorite parts of greater China?

JP: Yunnan, Beijing, and the mountains of Zhejiang. I'd like to see more of Taiwan, too.

SmSh: What are some of the things you’ve learned here that have helped you out in your daily life here? If you could go back and meet yourself stepping off the plane in Pudong for the first time, what’s one piece of advice you’d tell yourself?

JP: Find a way to buy as much real estate as you can! Now normal people can't afford anything.

SmSh: In your span of years here, what are some of the highlights you’ve experienced?

JP: I probably shouldn't have hitchhiked in Yunnan, but it made for a good story.

SmSh: What are some of the lowlights?

JP: That time Astrill stopped working for weeks was the worst.

SmSh: Any good, secret-ish restaurant recommendations you’d like to funnel a bunch of cracker SmartShanghai readers to?

JP: I've got a business to run and two kids to raise, so I don't go exploring a lot of new restaurants these days, but I try to make it out to Co Cheese at least once a week. (My favorite old Hunan restaurant got torn down a few years ago.)

SmSh: What’s the first restaurant you remember eating in when you first moved here?

I remember riding the subway and thinking it was so complex, but there were only TWO LINES back then!

JP: When I first got here, a friend showed me around. Everything was so crazy and new, my memories of that time barely even match up with the Shanghai that I know now. I remember riding the subway and thinking it was so complex, but there were only TWO LINES back then! We ate super-spicy Sichuan food at some kind of outdoor dapaidang under an overpass. I have no idea where that even was, but it's long gone now. Then we drank free summer beer at Goodfellas on Julu Lu (also gone now).

SmSh: I know you get this a lot — speaking specifically to your job, what are some tips for people trying to learn Chinese?

JP: You have to get out of your comfort zone. I know a lot of people that get out of their work "expat bubble" and talk to Chinese friends, but they're only talking to Chinese people with pretty decent English. Not enough discomfort! Try talking to your ayi about her kids, or ask the fruit stand guy how much he pays for rent, or try to convince the guard in your apartment complex to stop smoking. You may think your Chinese isn't good enough, but you're not giving yourself enough credit. Look up a few words or phrases in Pleco, and give it a shot. Those are the conversations that will NOT be comfortable at first. You will likely fail hard at some of them, but those people are not going to switch to English, and they're likely to have more patience for your bad Chinese than you do. And if they laugh, just assume that it's because you made their day by even trying to talk to them in Chinese.

SmSh: Going to be here forever?

JP: Forever is a long time. No, not forever. But I imagine I'll keep coming back until I die or they won't let me in.


John's links: Sinosplice; Allset Learning