When we were getting ready to move to China, I spent my time hunched over my brand-new MacBook Air attempting to learn Chinese from a white girl named Sonia, whose tutorial DVD’s came in a sleek glossy red box that we’d paid roughly a squabillion dollars for.  Meanwhile, my mother kept muttering to herself and twisting her fingers into what looked like gang signs.


Now, my mom has been known to attend a B-boy battle or two, but she is, as far as I know, pretty much a neutron.  “What the Hell are you doing?” I asked her, tearing my eyes away from Sonia (below, of Fluenz*), who for some reason, makes you really, really want to keep studying with her.


“Oh,” my mom said, “I’m just working on my Chinese number hand signs. One of the books says you need to know them.”


This sounded like just the kind of wacko-craziness my mom would get on board with——since her own educational materials are invariably paper-based and free of charge, they tend toward out-of-date do-it-yourself-ism, and I figured knowing this numbering system to be about as useful in modern-day China as a knack for the abacus.


I rolled my eyes and went back to Sonia, who was teaching me, personally, because I am totally pretty enough and smart enough to hang out with her, how to say Aolinpike youndonghui, or Olympics.  Even then the memory of the 2008 Beijing games was fading, but I knew being able to discuss them would come in handy, because Sonia said it would.


Cut to our first week in Shanghai:  I’m fishing in my wallet for RMB, trying to understand what the woman behind a monumental coal-black kettle of roast sweet potatoes is telling me about how many she's asking per tuber, while attempting to work the conversation around to the Olympics.   Potato-lady doesn’t seem to be much interested in sports, but she was interested in me actually giving her some money, and kept speaking louder and louder, shoving her hand in front of my face and gesticulating.


Suddenly, my mom starts shoving her own hand in the lady’s face, and then they’re both flashing these signs at each other and laughing like long-lost deaf sisters. Before I can even understand what happened, we’re walking away with the sweet potatoes, and my mom is cramming the change into her purse, right next to the free map she'd coaxed out of the real-estate agent.


The girls, seeing this interaction and ten-million others using this system I had been sure must be dead, caught on quickly, and now use the signs at school and on the street: when they are asked how old they are, they just flash the sign for 6, thus obviating the need to actually speak in Chinese. Meanwhile, my husband, taciturn in any language, can conduct an entire conversation using just hand-numbers, raised eyebrows and a few grunts.


I, myself, am still waiting for the Olympics to come up.  I know it will.  Sonia said.



* please note I have nothing whatsoever to do with Fluenz, other than loving their product, which, for me, mitigated the terror of moving here on short notice.


This post originally published on Two Red Scarves blog as Learning to Count

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Comment by Brandon on December 10, 2011 at 9:35am

Nice post - I also ran into this problem quite frequently when entering restaurants actually.

Before China, I had been in Europe for a while where generally you can use thumb & index finger to signal 'two', as in two people for lunch. It took me a while to realize why waiters in China were so confused - I would walk in & say 两位 (2 people) while using the hand sign for 八, 8, people. (thumb & index)

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