Every day I have these conversations with Jiang Yi, my driver. We usually start out with some commentary on the weather or how I slept last night or how badly he slept because he stayed up watching cowboy movies. Sometimes the pleasantries last all the way to work, other times I use them as language lessons and try to pick his brain about some sort of Chinese subtlety that I think I will need down the road. Occasionally though they head off in some crazy direction that I never intended. These can be good because they get me into a whole new universe of words and phrases, or they might end up with him grunting and pretending to understand what the heck I’m talking about. Or me doing the same thing.
Today as we neared work it popped into my head to verify my understanding of the hand signs that the Chinese use to symbolize numbers. These are useful when it comes to small transactions out on the street, for fruit or vegetables, but I’ll honestly say that I’ve never used them in practice. But just like the hand sign alphabet I taught myself back in 5th grade (having seen it in the dictionary my mother lifted from her job at KAD) it was one of those things I became obsessed with mastering. The hand sign alphabet would have come in handy had I been able to convince any of my 5th grade friends to learn it – a secret way of communicating without being caught by that ogre, Mrs. Siller – but they just didn’t have that finely curious 5th grade mind that I had. So instead I used it and practiced it, spelling out things to no one for the next 10 years until I was able to demonstrate my skill in a senior level college course where I impressed some nun. It was useless knowledge, but I felt good about having it. And the same thing applied to learning the Chinese number signs.
As we passed through the customs gate to my factory, I asked him the signs for “7” and “9”, the two I can never remember. One through five are easy as they are just your fingers. Six is fun because you get to wave your hand back and forth. Eight is simple to remember because you make the sign of a gun and say “ba”, the word for “eight” which sounds like a gun sound. Ten will forever be locked in my brain because of the time I tried to take a picture of a guy in downtown Dalian who had a monkey. He kept making the “10” sign and I was promising to pay him when an unsuspecting pedestrian came along. The monkey grabbed the guy’s leg and started to climb up and I started laughing uncontrollably because the Monkey Man kept demanding his 10 kuai while the pedestrian was violently trying to shake the monkey off his leg. The Monkey Man eventually figured it out, rescued the pedestrian and retrieved his pet. I paid him 10 and got my picture.
He showed me the sign and told me that it was his favorite because it was lucky. He then went on to say that he had heard on the radio that Americans don’t like the number 13 and asked me why that was. Now we were close to parking and this was going to tax my Chinese so I figured I’d use the Christian explanation. I told him that Yesu (as He’s called in Chinese) had 13 friends, 12 good and 1 bad. I wanted to explain that the 13th friend had betrayed Him but I didn’t have the right words for “Romans” or “Ancient Jews” so I went with what I knew. I told him in Chinese that the 13th friend had told the Italians where Yesu was and that the Italians had come and grabbed him and killed him. I didn’t have the word for “arrested” so I kind of muddled through with “took.” He thought about this for 30 seconds and changed my sentence to use the proper word for “arrested” and I agreed that this was the story.
As we parked he said, “The Italians don’t like Yesu?” And I started to fumble around that saying that they weren’t really Italians in the modern sense of the word, but rather “Lao de Idaliren” – old Italian people.
“Oh”, he said. “You mean the Luomans!”
“Yes”, I said. “The Loumans.”