Chinese Hand Signals: A Guest Post by B

Before we knew our numbers very well, we’d ask how much something cost and instead of writing it down or typing it into a calculator, the clerks would tell us a number and then, if we didn’t understand, use a hand signal.

One through five are straight-forward enough, but six through ten are esoteric. Our local newsstand guy said, “Ba,” then held up his hand with his index finger and thumb extended in the (I thought) universal signal for, “I have a gun.” It turns out that making a gun out of your hand means, “eight.” (Naturally.) And “hang loose” means “six.” And “I’m about to tickle you” means “nine.” It’s all very intuitive.

Anyway, we had to look up the hand signals on the Internet. This was how we became aware that, for simplicity’s sake, multiple hand signals correspond to a particular number. So there are two ways of showing seven, and three ways of showing 10. (Too bad there aren’t 10 ways of showing 10; I think I’d like the recursiveness of that.)

Saturday, January 17, I took three of the kids to lunch. (The other kid was busy doing something else. I didn’t leave him home because I’m a jerk. My jerkiness manifests in other ways.) As we walked past an alley market, we saw a guy selling pineapples. One of our family’s favorite parts of Thailand and Cambodia was street pineapple, so I said, “If he’s still here on our way back, when I have change from lunch, remind me to get a pineapple from him.”

He was still there on the way back, so I stopped and asked, “Duōshao?” He held up a single finger, which, according to everything we’ve seen online, all our previous experiences, and all God-given common sense, means “one.” But one yuan for an entire pineapple didn’t seem like a believable price. Even in Thailand, they start at 30 baht, which is about five yuan. So I said, “Yī yuán?” and the man nodded and held up his solitary finger at me again. He bagged our pineapple and handed it to me. I pulled out some bills and offered him a one-yuan note and said again, “Yī yuán?” Finally, he pointed at the ten-yuan note in my other hand. Because one finger by itself means “ten”?!

As for him not responding with words or responding correctly to my words, I’ve found that many Chinese people are so unaccustomed to encountering a foreigner that speaking Chinese with any accent AT ALL is unintelligible to them. Especially lower-class workers. It’s just like all my frat-boy classmates at Kansas who couldn’t understand any non-American professors. But my pineapple salesman had to know I wanted to know how much it cost, and for some reason he thought one finger was an excellent way of communicating “ten.”

It was really good pineapple.