Saturday, April 4, 2009

Funny numbers

Think of all the words you might need to know, if you were in a new country. "Hello." "Goodbye." "Thank you." "Hot dog." Nothing is more basic, nor more frequently used, than the words for numbers. You have to be able to tell someone how many hot dogs you want.

It is symbolic of my abject failure to advance in Chinese, that until now I have not learned to count in Chinese. The language even makes it easy. 

English numbers are a pain: they're constantly changing form. The numeral 1 is pronounced "one," until it's 1+10, when it's suddenly "eleven." Where did that come from? Then there's "twelve"?! Then suddenly we switch to "teens." "Four" is spelled with a "u," unless it's part of "forty." How did any of us learn this stuff?!

Chinese is much simpler. Over-simplifying a bit, for most numbers you deal with in daily life one simply lists the digits, so that 22 is simply "two-two." 543 is "five-four-three." So really, you only have to learn ten words — just ten! You'd think that a professor of philosophy would be able to learn ten simple words.

You'd be wrong. I've learned two. Here's why I learned those two numbers:

Every time my big bottle of water runs out, I must take it downstairs to the "gatekeeper," give him about $2.50, and remind him of my apartment number. The man speaks no English. I speak no Chinese. The first time I tried, we spoke at each other a few times, each shrugging our shoulders, until finally he gave me a pad of paper so I could write it out: 303.

After about the third time of this, I decided it's silly: I pulled out my "Survival Chinese" book and memorized 3-0-3: "san-ling-san." I spoke it. He didn't believe me. He repeated it back: "san-ling-san?" "Dui: san-ling-san." He made me say it again one more time, and this time he looked a little more like he believed me.

(His skepticism comes from more than just mistrust of my Chinese: he's responsible to get the water to the right place, so in China if it ended up in the wrong place he would have to provide a new bottle out of his own pocket. I suspect that 15 RMB would be a lot more on his salary than it is on mine.)

Nor did I fully trust my own Chinese. I was gone for a long walk that day, and I felt only confident, not certain, that there would be a bottle in front of my door when I got home. There was.

To use is to remember, and I had no problem after that. I spent much of my walk singing to myself "san-ling-san, san-ling-san..." That's how I learned two numbers. If not for that damned repeated digit, I'd know three.

(I was a little disappointed the next time I took the bottle down, because he remembered me and called out "san-ling-san?" Great! I learn two numbers, for the sake of bottle exchange, and the very next time he makes my knowledge obsolete.)

That "language exchange" between me and the gatekeeper took place several weeks ago, and in the mean time I've learned exactly none of the other numbers. Today, for the first time, I happened to order something and hear the magic words "san kui" — "three RMB." But the moment was ruined because the woman was also holding up three fingers. So far, I'm waiting to order something that costs "ling," zero.

It's not that I haven't made some feeble attempts to learn. I've read through them, saying them to myself, a hundred times. But I haven't had to use them, because most times there's too little need for it. The other kind of digits, fingers, takes care of roadside vendors. At Trust Mart, the clerks just swivel the old-fashioned green read-out my direction to show me my total. It's too easy.

But there are cases in which these simple expediencies are inadequate. For example: I get on the elevator of the classroom building, and the operator wants to know what floor, and I can't tell her. Most times, I just push the button myself, with a blush of shame. Once, a throng of professors pressed me back against the wall before I could press my button. The floor above mine was pressed, so I got off there and took the stairs down.

So today I resolved — as blog is my witness! — I am going to learn my numbers. Not only that, but I'm going to do it in the presence of all, right here on this page. Isn't this exciting?

Some of them should be really easy to learn. "One" is "yi." For a Texan, that should be easy: yi-haw! 

"Two" is "er." I wonder how you know if someone's apartment number is 222 or he just stutters: "er-er-er."

I've already got "san." Yi-haw!

"Four" is "si," senor! (It's pronounced differently, but I don't care right now.)

"Five" is "wu." Someday I would love to live in Apartment 55: "Wu-Wu!"

Oh, crap! "Six" is "liu." What am I supposed to do with that?! Oh well, I'll come back to it.

By the way, "si" is actually pronounced "suh." "Seven" is "qi," pronounced "chee." So apartment forty-seven would be "sucky."

"Eight" is "ba." "Eighty-eight black sheep, have you any wool?"

"Nine" is "jiu." Almost like "liu," so that helps. Maybe I can remember 9 jiu-jiu beans.

"Ten" is "shi." That's eashi to remember. It's pronounced like the verb "to be." That helps!

So now, here we go: without cheating, 1: yi-haw! 2: er, I can't remember. 3: san. 4: si, senor! 5: wu-wu! 6: oh, crap, how'm I going to remember "liu"? 7: sucky qi. 8: ba, ba, black sheep... 9: jiu-jiu bean. 10: shi-it, I've got this down!

So there you have it. You have just watched me learn my numbers. I promise I won't make you follow the process of learning every Chinese word!


  1. Love ur blog Robert!
    Keep it up.

  2. What did Forrest Gump's girlfriend tell him when she introduced him to his son?

    Yi Er San Si

  3. wu

    What the fellow with the stuffy nose told Francis Scott Key when the latter kept going on and on about whether that flag was still there?

  4. That's good number work, pal.

    By the way, I'm glad you finally got some icecube trays. A drink without ice just isn't a drink, especially when the heat settles in.

  5. Ha ha. I love it. My first introduction to numbers was that I was to take bus number yo-yo-r or 112. When a kindly retired gentleman told me that 1 was pronounced yi, I told him that I had learned that it was yo. He told me that I was speaking in the Shanghaianese dialect. So I only learned 1,2,3,5 & 8, learned the one handed way to indicate 1-10 and left it at that.