Along with the language, there have been a few other things that cause miscommunication here for me in China. I do an obscene amount of shopping here. Sometimes, I am in a nice Western style store with set prices, English speaking staff, and blasting air conditioning in the summer. Sometimes, however, I am in a market or a warehouse, or on the street with vendors who might know a little bit of English, but not enough for me to get by with my extremely imperfect Chinese. I am getting better at communicating, of course, and I am frequently amazed by how much I understand. But the important thing to remember here is that these things are in context. No one ever calls me on the phone to randomly start talking about prices and no one in the markets ever tries to start a conversation with me about things outside the realm of buying and selling. This makes it easier. There is no scrambling around in my brain searching for the few words I know in a sentence to try to guess at meanings. When I am in a restaurant, people talk to me about what I want to order almost as if we were following a lesson in a textbook. When I am buying clothes at the fabric market, people talk prices and quality. I don’t always get it, but I can get by. One thing I didn’t anticipate (an unfortunate theme thus far here in Shanghai for me) is the differences in hand signals and symbols.
I should have seen this coming, of course. As an English teacher I have taught this lesson myself a million times. I choose to focus on all of the vulgar symbols and gestures because those tend to be the ones my students need to know. In Sydney the foreign students were always amazed that gestures they thought were harmless were actually the reason they were getting into so many fist fights. Who knew? Luckily, I have managed to steer clear of accidentally offending anyone (as far as I know!), but I have discovered that my ability to communicate with my Chinese salespeople and taxi drivers has been less than successful because of the way I count on my fingers. I don’t know how to count correctly!
The first time it happened, I was at the flower market and arguing over prices with one of the vendors. I was having trouble understanding her, and she didn’t have a calculator or pen and paper to help clarify things. She kept putting her two pointer fingers together in the shape of a cross as she repeated the same information over and over. Fingers in a cross? What did that mean? The same thing happened a few minutes later when a vendor gave me what I thought was the symbol for “hang loose.” It seemed a little out of place for what we were talking about. Hang loose?! Sure, but how much were the flowers?
Later, my Chinese teacher cleared things up for me. Apparently the Chinese use specific hand symbols for numbers. Symbols that I was seeing, but not understanding. One through five were the same, but I could start with the pointer or the pinky. Once we got to six, things got crazy. There was the hang loose. Seven was like a shadow puppet. Eight was what I would think was air guns. Nine was scrunched fingers that I had a hard time replicating. And ten? There were three possibilities for ten, one of which was the crossing fingers using the pointers from both hands. Or you could cross your first two fingers on one hand. Or you could make a fist. Which one was more common? It depends, apparently. So you might see any of them. Three lukewarm cheers for variety!
So you want to know how to count like a pro in Mandarin? Want to add those quirky hand signals?
You are welcome.