Thursday, June 22, 2017

7 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITTEN ENGLISH

In today’s world write in a clear and fluent English is the key to reaching a larger audience. It has been a challenge for me, but I found some enjoyable ways to improve my writing.


I started my Italian blog Cucinanto.com in 2012. Back then, the idea of writing in English was simply unbelievable for me. After a while, though, I realized that having an English blog was the key to reaching more readers. I found the courage and started this blog. It was 2013, and my writing skills were everything but good. It took me a whole week to write a single post. After a while, I gave up.
But this year something changed: I released the English version of my novel and writing in English became the priority for me. I need to have an English blog! So, I started studying hard to improve my writing skills. I like this challenge: write in a clear and fluent English is vital to produce interesting blog posts, it can help me to find more websites on which publish my work, and it’s also important to post on Facebook or Twitter without making mistakes.

I’m still in the process, it takes effort and time, but I’m enjoying!

Today I’d like to share with you some of the tricks I use to study written English having fun. Methods that are not boring at all and not time-consuming.

So, you want to improve your written English? Let’s see if my five ‘secrets’ can help you!

1) READ ENGLISH EVERY DAY looks like a silly tip? Be honest: are you reading English every day? Are you googling in English, reading the news in English, watching Tv series in original language with English subtitles? Is the last book on your night table in English? 
I like to follow blogs about my favorite subjects and print some of the more interesting posts. I read them a couple of time, highlighting the words and expressions that I find more useful and original. Then I copy them on my vocabulary notebook (see point 7), and I use them to complete the next point.

2) WRITE ENGLISH EVERY DAY another silly tip, right? And yet, if you don’t commit to your goal to improve your written English by exercising every day, you will never achieve any decent result. The best way to be consistent is to set a weekly schedule, to decide in advance how many words you will write each day. 100, 500 or 1000 depends on how much time you want to dedicate to this project, but once you decide a number, stick to it. 
There are two ways to exercise your writing skills: the first, think about a theme and develop it, like writing a blog post, an article, a letter. The second is to write freely for 10 minutes letting the words flow, without caring about spelling, grammar, or topic: just let your hand write down everything that comes out from your mind. Both of this methods are useful: if the first one lets you develop a text-structure understanding and a proper vocabulary, the second will boost your creativity.

3) CHECK YOUR WRITING you should check what you produced. Don’t do it right after you wrote it though: wait some hours or a day, to be able to review it with a fresh mind. Check the spelling, the grammar, see if your sentences make sense. Rewrite your piece if needed. If you know a native speaker, a teacher or someone very good in English, you could ask them to help you. If you don’t know anybody, there are some great tools on the web (see point 5).

4) READ ALOUD a way to check if your writing flows and is fluid is to read it aloud. By reading, you can feel the music of the words, you can listen to the rhythm of your writing. Is your work making sense? Do the ideas flow logically? How about the punctuation? You could also ask a friend to read it aloud for you.

5) USE THE RIGHT TOOLS the most important tool you need is an excellent online dictionary: it has to be complete, easy to use, updated and with many choices of synonymous and antonymous.
Another great tool that can help you to improve your accuracy is GRAMMARLY. This app can help you check your spelling, grammar and has even a plagiarism checker tool. You can get the free version, which is already very complete and will automatically check everything you type on the web (emails, social media post).
I opted for the premium version so I can check more kind of mistakes - like correctly spelled words used in the wrong context - and I can get suggestions for a better word choice. It’s an invaluable help if English is not your first language, but can be very useful also for natives who want to write mistake-free.

6) HAND COPY take a pen, a piece of paper and copy the inspiring works of others. Sounds unattractive? Studies show that handwriting is an effective way to stimulate your brain and learn better. Copywork was one of the most used methods to teach children how to write and can be, for you, the key to becoming a better writer. It will develop your spelling, grammar, and focus. In the beginning, choose something short - a post or an article that you enjoy. Set aside ten - fifteen minutes each day to sit at your desk and to copy it. After a week you may already see the improvement!

7) KEEP TRACK OF YOUR NEWLY KNOWN VOCABULARY keep a vocabulary notebook in which you can write down all the interesting words or idiomatic sentences you’ll find on your way. You can review your list every day and use it to exercise (for instance, you can decide to write a small story using 10 of your favorite words or expression). 


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

BEING PREGNANT AND GIVING BIRTH IN A CHINESE HOSPITAL

My third son was born in 2015 at Kowloon Hospital, Suzhou. Why did I choose a Chinese hospital? 


I could say it was because I wanted a genuine experience, but the truth is that the luxurious clinics in Shanghai are deadly expensive and I didn’t want to go bankrupt. I already knew I would have had a C-section, and spending more than 20.000 Euro for the delivery was not really the case. The Chinese hospital was much more affordable.

Having a baby in China, for foreigners, is always a matter of money.  If you are a young couple and you are already planning a pregnancy, you can take out a maternity insurance (usually not included in the normal plans), but this is also very expensive, and sometimes your employer doesn’t agree to include it in the benefits. We didn’t have a maternity plan, so everything was on us. We did the math and discovered that giving birth in the hospital would cost more or less like buying a return plane ticket for me to go to Italy (and having the baby there) and for my husband and my other two children to visit me a couple of times. So, we decided I would stay in China. 

What is it like to give birth in China? What are the differences compared to Europe?

The hospital I chose had a VIP section with nurses who could speak good English. They translated everything and were nice. They accompanied me as I did all my tests: blood tests, ultrasound – basically all medical test you may need when you are pregnant. The quality of the medical experience was fine and I didn’t notice any lack of hygiene.

I saw the doctor every month as I did in Italy for my first two children. She measured my belly, asked me about weight, asked me if I was feeling fine. The usual questions. Strangely enough though, nobody EVER visited me inside the place where children come out. And they told me to stop swimming from the 24th week. And they made me sign a paper in which I declared I didn’t want to take my placenta after the delivery and I agreed to donate it to the hospital. 

I didn’t do the amniocentesis because they offered to run a special DNA test, with which they can see if the baby has chromosomic syndromes. In Italy, this test is still uncommon and very, very expensive. 

But when it came to be checked into the hospital, things changed. The room was different as I remembered when we visited the ward: it wasn’t in as good condition as I remembered – and it was rather dirty! And the nurses and doctors barely spoke any English. 

Luckily, that was my third child and I was feeling relaxed enough not to worry about it. 

I had the chance to practice my Mandarin and learned many useful medical words, so not only did I give birth to my third child, but I also had a crash course in Chinese medical terminology. Lucky me!

And, moreover, while my friends who gave birth in the well-known clinics of Shanghai had a real chef preparing food for them, I could eat (?) some traditional and healthy soup instead.

Chinese soup
Yummy and healthy


Sometimes communication was a problem, me not understanding Mandarin and them not speaking English, so the only way to communicate was through the phone translator. But as you may imagine, automatic translation is not always correct and more than once I burst out laughing in front of them (and their surprised expression made me more and more amused). Actually, I wasn’t so amused just before the surgery, when my body had already been tied to the operating table: what if I couldn't tell them something was wrong? What if I couldn’t explain my feelings? As these thoughts went through my head, I began to feel dizzy and my eye span blackened. I took a deep breath and tried to calm down, I closed my eyes and waited for that bad sensation to dissolve. A few minutes later I was fine again. They had taken the baby from my womb and I heard him crying: the best sound a mom can hear from her new-born son! I suddenly felt relaxed: he was fine.

Postnatal care was also slightly different from the one I had received in Italy. For instance, they press your womb a couple of times after the C-section, to make all the blood flow away quickly. This is very painful and I hated it! The nice thing is that they give you painkillers (in Italy they didn’t!).

They don't wash the baby immediately, but only when he (or she) is ready to go back home. And they make them swim a little bit in the warm water like in this picture.

Isn't he cute?


In China there is a very specific postnatal routine that a mom should follow: they call it the “to do the month”, but I will tell you about this in one of the next posts!

Friday, May 26, 2017

CHINA IN FIVE SPICES

Memories are made of images, sounds, but also perfumes, tastes and smells. Something ethereal that reaches our soul, penetrates our cells and stays in our mind forever.



Nothing like food can create memories. It nourishes your body and at the same time your soul, it can help you to adapt to a new environment, can make you happy, or disgusted, or bored. Feelings and food are closely connected to each other.

In our mind, each different flavor is linked to a different mood.

When you move to another country, food is more likely the first local experience you’ll have.

In my case, when I moved to China I've met a very different kind of food: other ingredients, others seasonings are used and sometimes you really need to get used to them! After a while, I unexpectedly discovered that I loved them: they were directly related to my life in China and they carried all the memories of my first days here.

Especially spices, which give food all the various nuances and make it typical of a specific region. 

Five spices are able to make me travel in space and time, and remember things I thought were hidden in the bottom of my brain. 

CORIANDER is the king of spices in Asia! You can find it everywhere, and I even used it as the title for my novel about the adventures of three expat women in China! At the beginning I really couldn’t stand its smell: so pungent, so different! I found it almost disgusting. And now… I can’t live without it! I always use coriander when I cook Chinese style and its smell is so intimately connected to my life in China that I really love it.

PARSLEY like coriander is the king of Chinese cuisine, parsley is the king of the Italian one. You can put it literally everywhere: sprinkled on your spaghetti, lightly fried with garlic to season the fish, minced to create a fresh and creamy sauce. It looks very similar to coriander but its flavor is completely different. Here in China is not that easy to find it and, for this reason, when Grandma came here last year to visit us, she brought some fresh parsley picked from her garden. She had carefully wrapped it with kitchen paper and put it in the luggage trying not to squash it. When we took it out, it was still fresh and fragrant. We put it in a mug full of water and used it a bit at a time. It lasted a long time and its smell was so familiar, so comforting! That bunch of parsley made a long journey to come from her village to the big city in China and will remind me forever how deeply she loves us.

LEMON GRASS what is that? The first time I tried it, I was having lunch at a Thai restaurant, here in Suzhou. So fresh! I loved it. It reminds me how many different and wonderful places I still have to visit here in Asia. This continent has always fascinated me and my dream is to visit all its enchanting countries.

THYME my hometown is a small city laid between the mountains and the sea. The rugged and stony land behind its back is called “Carso” and it’s a very typical landscape of that region. When I was a child, my dad often took me to have a walk up there: I remember the strong wind in winter, the hot sun in summer. I remember he taught me not to go around the stones, where vipers could hide. In that harsh land, there were large zones without a single tree: only rocks, yellow grass, and red soil. Hidden in the dry, tall grass, there was a treasure: small plants of thyme. Their smell gave off at every step. 
Imagine my surprise when I found some fresh thyme here in Suzhou! I bought it and, once at home, I plunged my nose into the box. Sniffing all those old memories, I realized how many things about my life in Italy I have already forgotten. But my unconscious still knows them and will maybe bring them out in the most unexpected moment.

BASIL is another typical Mediterranean herb. Basil means summer, sun and hot weather. The season when, in the Italian countryside, people prepare the delicious tomato sauce made from just-harvested fruits. Those fresh tomatoes are still warm of sun, and sinking your teeth into their flavorful flesh is a special experience. Some leaves of basil are added in every jar of sauce, so when you open it, the following winter, it will still scent like summer.

And you? Which are the spices that make you travel with your fantasy?

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