Odd Sightings Archives

March 4, 2009

The Unluckiest Phone Number in China

Anyone who’s opened a fortune cookie knows that the Chinese are no stranger to lucky numbers. On second thought, fortune cookies are a Japanese invention popularized in California.

But the fact remains. While Chinese hotels routinely have a 13th floor, Chinese people often avoid phone numbers with the number 4, pronounced ‘sì’ which sounds like ‘sǐ’ meaning ‘death.’

Conversely, the number 8 is in hot demand, although the reason is somewhat harder to understand. The story goes that ‘bā’ (8) sounds like ‘fā’ from ‘fācái’ ‘get rich,’ arguably the most culturally sanctioned action in China.

The result is that business numbers tend to be barked over tinny bus speakers, making Chinese sound strange even to locals, “Please call ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba!”

Phone numbers are so meaningful here in China that I, at one point, earned (undeserved) cool points for owning a phone number that ended in 007, as James Bond is known in China. Those cool points ran out either when I changed numbers or back when my Chinese friends realized that I bore no resemblance beyond the number.

Phone numbers full of 8’s abound, but I would guess that China has never seen a phone number made entirely of 4’s. Barring that, the title of China’s unluckiest phone number must fall on a number brought to my attention recently:


In pīnyīn, that sounds a lot like: Yāosānbā! Sǐ sānbā a! Sǐ bā! Sǐ bā!


She-devil! Die she-devil! Die! Die!

It’s astounding that a phone number could convey such information. That’s the magic of a language with such an astounding number of homophones.

The crux of the unluckiest phone number is that 38 ‘sānbā’ is the same as ‘March 8th.’ That particular date was borrowed as a derogatory term for women, probably because that day is also International Women’s Day. 4 is ‘die’ again, while 8 (when not denoting ‘she-devil’) here is now ‘bā’ a particle that makes the sentence a command.

I can only imagine what that would sound like shouted over a tinny bus speaker.

March 12, 2009

China's Ancient Cell Phone Rock

Perhaps more famous than China’s most famous mountain, Huangshan, is the “Welcoming Guest Pine Tree” that graces one of the peaks. This oddly shaped pine tree shot to stardom for the accomplishment of embodying the Chinese value of welcoming guests. Part of the pine bends over as if to provide shelter for weary hikers.


This single pine tree is so famous that it’s reproduced in houses, hotels, tea cups, and t-shirts across the mainland. The park authorities have even had to set up a system for visitors fighting for a picture with the popular pine, where a sign instructs picture-takers where to line up to get their shot.

But the Welcoming Guest Pine was not what shocked me about Huangshan. After all, anyone who’s visited a Chinese mountain has inevitably noticed that the scenery is always labelled in relation to its resemblance to animals and people. Appreciation of nature for nature itself seems to get lost somewhere in the process, although that shouldn’t be so surprising seeing that my Chinese-bought dictionary defines animals in reference to their usefulness to humans.

The result of all of this is that Chinese tours are organized very differently from Western tours. As I discovered by tailing Chinese tour groups to Yunnan’s Stone Forest, Chinese guides to natural areas are well-versed in pointing out the various “natural” wonders:

“If you look over there, that rock looks like a dog.”

“That one looks like a mother carrying her daughter.”

“That’s a man riding a dragon.”

Strange, I think, I thought the rock formations looked like the awe-inspiring beauty of nature in the form of a petrified forest of calcite.

Upon my winter visit to China’s most famous mountain, Huangshan, I discovered just how hilariously out of hand things had gotten when I saw the sign accompanying this rock:



Chinese culture doesn’t seem to share the same streak of Ludditism that has graced America since at least Thoreau. Yet the marvel of the rock that nature graciously had the foresight to shape into the form of a cell phone shocked me still. If China has any qualms about the place of technology in one of the world’s longest continuous cultures, then it’s certainly not showing it.

April 19, 2009

The Traditional Superstitions of Car Tires

The hutongs in my historic neighborhood are lined with pieces of tradition that beg for explanation. The drum-shaped stone pedestals by doors are there because they used to be used by residents to climb onto their horses. The fish emblazoned on many doors are there for good fortune because “fish” is pronounced just as the word for “surplus.” But how to explain the cardboard squares tipped against car tires?


After painstaking research, I’ve discovered that the cardboard squares are to prevent dogs from urinating on the tires.

But why should we care whether the odd dog here and there relieves itself on our car tires? The local belief is that the urine contains harmful chemicals that will damage the tires.

Hutongs date back to the Yuan Dynasty; Fengshui beliefs date back centuries or millennia further, probably to folk wisdom for selecting habitable caves. No one knows for sure just how far back these beliefs about the toxic interaction of dog urine and car tires go, but it’s clear that traditional beliefs are getting with the times in China.

May 4, 2009

The East is Red

My Chinese friends don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between blue-sky days and this-is-why-lung-cancer-is-the-number-one-killer-in-Beijing days, but I think we can all agree the sky should not be red like it was in a hutong near my home the other day.


My camera’s night mode tends to bring out colors, but Beijing’s night sky on days of heavy pollution is clearly red with a naked eye, whereas stars are clearly visible on clear nights. The East certainly is red.

May 22, 2009

Is this picture offensive?

“All you foreigners always talk about is how poor and backward China is,” my friend Confucius complained to me in Guangzhou.

“Why can’t you talk about the good things? How the economy is changing?”

Confucius’s response is exactly what I heard from another Chinese friend when I took the picture below:


I’m only one of a legion of foreigners in China who have taken this very type of picture. And though I’ve managed to take a dozen of these pictures, I still haven’t figured out whether this picture’s offensive like my Chinese friends say.

In the eyes of my Chinese friends, what’s going through my mind when I take this picture is: wow, look how poor China is!

There’s no denying that this picture is pointing at a phenomenon on the bottom of the economic ladder. Scrap collecting is undeniably a job taken by those on the bottom of the economic ladder. There’s probably a reason why my entire collection of scrap collector pictures are taken from behind.

Yet pointing at poor things shouldn’t necessarily be offensive. This man’s act is a feat of packing and cycling. Similarly, a man trucking a pile of gold down the road would cause me to take a picture, as do peasants holding conference calls on their cell phones in rural China, but not because they show how poor China is. That this billboard shows an amazing technological and social leap is why I took this picture in rural Jiangxi:

Farmer%20cell%20phone.jpg farmer%20cell%20phone2.jpg

I’ll leave the question unsettled; the status of my scrap collector album is on hold.

June 22, 2009

Gender Roles in the Middle Kingdom

China’s never been known as a center of brawny masculinity. This could explain a sight I’ve seen in China from north to south, east to west, seen here in Changchun’s Puppet Forbidden City:


It’s a Chinese virtue to pamper your girlfriend—to be thoughtful and take care of her needs—just as girlfriends are expected to thoughtful toward their boyfriends. Thus, step out onto nearly any busy street in China (check that, no need to qualify streets in China as “busy” and “not busy”), and you’re likely to see a boyfriend with his girlfriend’s purse slung over his arm—a sight you’re hard pressed to find in the States.

As a long-term resident in Chinese society, I find myself picking up habits from the environment around me whether I like to or not, like a home-schooled kid’s orientation week at Oberlin. Yet no matter how much I soak up, I’ve decided I’ll draw the line at walking around with a purse. Like my continued desire for breakfast cereal, some American habits never die.

July 8, 2009

Traditional Beliefs and Market Prices

The Beijing Youth Daily’s hard-hitting, near-daily coverage of the price of watermelons in the capital city has dropped a bombshell: these “western melons” have risen nearly 1 Yuan in price this summer.


The reason? Floods, hot weather, and … traditional beliefs.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, foods are separated “hot type” foods and “cold type” foods, according to their affect on the body. Lychees, oranges, pineapples, pomegranates, mangoes, green onions, pepper, alcohol, and garlic are all “hot type,” while strawberries, mung beans, watermelons, tomatoes, and bitter melons are all “cold type.”

The classifications are paradoxical at times, as when something with a hot temperature is said to make the body cooler. Hot pu’er tea is supposed to make the body cool, although you’d be hard pressed to drink a steaming cup when you’re sweating through a hot day.

All of this combines to mean that during the recent heat wave that struck Beijing, Beijingers were out in force complaining of having “caught fire” and searching for the nearest watermelon stand. Pretty soon, these traditional beliefs had the price of watermelons doubled—and had me looking to turn my courtyard into a Chinese watermelon farm.