How Old Are You on Mars?

Here’s a pinyin transcript of a recent conversation with a little boy at my favorite jiǎozi 饺子 restaurant. I’ll give you the hanzi and English in a moment, but first try to figure out what was going on just from the pinyin (because when you’re listening to someone speak Chinese, that’s all you really have, right?):

Me: nǐ jǐ suì le?

Boy: shí suì bā suì.

Me: shí suì ma?

Boy: shí suì bā suì.

Me: (looking confusedly at the mother) tā jǐ suì le? bā suì háishì shí suì?

Mother: tā yǒu bā suì…(something I couldn’t understand)…shí suì.

Me: suǒyǐ…tā…um…yǒu bā suì…le…ba…de…ma…ne…qǐlái?

Ok, so I might be exaggerating with that last line, but the point is: I was grasping at straws! I was shocked that I could be so stumped by such a simple question. It’s one of the sure-fire ways to commandeer a conversation: ask a question that requires a simple number as the response. The problem was they seemed to be telling me that the boy was both 8 years old (bā suì 八岁) and 10 years old (shí suì 十岁 ).

OK, no doubt you’re all pointing at your computer screens laughing at me because you know all about the traditional Asian age reckoning system that counts a child as being one year old at birth. Well I did too. But, as so often happens in Chinese, there was yet ANOTHER way of saying it that I didn’t know, thus adding to the nightmare of listening comprehension.

The Chinese Wikipedia sorted it all out for me:

So they were saying “according to the system where you’re born at zero years old, this boy is eight years old.”

That clears it all up except for one little thing: why would they think that I, a laowai in China, would want that extra information? I guess they were just being very thorough with their answer? But the kid himself said it to me first. Is that how he and his friends talk on the playground at school?

Kid 1: How old are you?

Kid 2: Eight

Kid 1: Earth years?

Kid 2: Yeah, so?

Kid 1: Which system of age calculation?

Kid 2: Zero years old at birth?

Kid 1: Oh, OK. I’m only five, but that’s in Martian years.

Kid 2: OK, so I’ll call you gēge 哥哥.

I mean, it just seems a bit overly clear for an eight-year-old unless he’s used to dealing with both systems.

So, my questions for dàjiā 大家 (especially my two Chinese readers):

1. Which system of age calculation do you use most often?

2. When stating your age, do you also usually state whether you’re talking about xūsuì 虚岁 or zhōusuì 周岁 or is one of them tacitly understood as the default?

3. How often is the other system of age calculation used? Only in special situations? With certain generations of people?

But mostly:

4. Why would this kid (and then his mother) tell me that they were talking about shísuì 實歲.

Thanks for your help.

*BONUS* If you’ve got Quick Time installed, you can find out how old you really are on Mars.

12 Replies to “How Old Are You on Mars?”

  1. Great post, Albert. As always.

    Actually, sometimes when I’m listening to Chinese, I get thrown by really stuff. In the same way that you took 實歲 to mean “10 years”, when I hear names – whether actual Chinese names or transliterations of Enlish names, I sit there trying to work out what those words mean. And by the time I figure that’s it’s just a name and thus doesn’t need to be translated, I’ve missed the next 3 sentences. Sigh.

    (Amusingly, in the West we have other age-related expressions that need to be interpreted. For example, when someone says they’re 29, I bet most of the time they’re actually in their 30s 🙂

  2. I am told that it is very uncommon to hear people talk like this. It is apparently much more common to hear kids say wo3 xu1 sui4 ba1 sui4 because it makes them sound older. Adults would normaly say their age assuming they are 0 at birth as simply er4 shi2 sui4 or what ever, without either a shi2 sui4 or xu1 sui4.

    • John,
      Yes I thought, especially for kids, “older is better.” Strange that he jumped right to the smaller number.

      Thanks for the encouragement and sympathy. I get thrown by names all the time which is why I’ve got my little, “shì bú shì rénmíng? dìmíng ne?” 是不是人名? 地名呢? routine I always go through.

  3. Hm… interesting
    I’ll answer your questions first.
    1. I have always used ZhouSui, where I’m zero at birth.
    2. I normally assume that ZhouSui is the default.
    3. The Xusui system is only used, as I have ever encountered in regions not from mine,especially in southern regions such as Guangdong or Fujian.

    I was born in Beijing, so I consider the customs there native to me. The other side of my family is in Fujian. The first time I visited Fujian was the first time I had ever heard that I was 2 years older!! I think there are also slight differences in exactly when your age begins depending on what region you are in.

    I also believe my age was rounded up.
    I was something like 20.5 years old, but they said I was 22!

    In our local culture (in Beijing) we always thought (as kids) that people who used Xusui were completely outdated. Why would anyone still be using a system from generations ago?
    Even my grandparents (the ones in Beijing) accept both systems. But my grandparents from Fujian have little regard for the Zhousui system.

    Perhaps Beijing just isn’t as ‘traditional’ as southern regions like Guangdong or Fujian. It’s very much westernized and so was not my preferred destination when I first came to China. Looking back, I ‘m really glad I was in Guangdong. Nanjing is less interesting in comparison.

    4.Perhaps the mother thought that since they were talking to a foreigner, that since foreigners don’t use Xusui system. Maybe they had assumed you wouldn’t understand otherwise.

    Another similar topic that might be related to this is the use of solar and lunar calendars. You might also ask that same mother and boy what’s his birthdate. Do you think the response would be a date by the solar calendar? or the lunar calendar? If his date of birth was recorded by lunar calendar, you’d have to convert it into the correct day of the year according to the solar calendar.

    Anyways, keep sending these lil’stories.
    I am able to find little amusement and entertainment here.

    Take care~

    • Crystal,
      Great to hear from you. You’re perspective is always valuable.

      Thanks for pointing out the simp/trad mistake. Correction made. And I’d never heard of maosui before. Very interesting indeed. Do you think it merits addition to MDBG?

  4. Hi, Albert, I’d like to answer ur questions. Hope it would help.
    1. We only use the “xu sui” system in my hometown(Zhejiang Province).
    2. When people from outside of my hometown asked about my age i just told them in which year i was born.
    4. In some parts of China mainland, people tend to use the “shi sui” system more often in public,but still use the “xu sui” system at home. So the kids might be by his parents that he should use the “shi sui” system when out home.

  5. When I was living in Taiwan I only heard people say their xu sui. Every once in a while a woman might say ‘but by your counting system I am actually (age minus one or two years)’

  6. Albert,

    I found your posts very interesting so I’ve added you to my “cool sites”.

    To answer your questions:
    1. I always use 实岁 system. I’m from Taiwan.
    2. I don’t state which one I’m talking about and I think 周岁 is used as the default everywhere in Taiwan.
    3. You may still hear my mom’s generation using 虚岁 and you may hear some kids talking about their 虚岁 because their grandma told them. 虚岁 is also used for people who pass away and elder people when it comes to celebrate their birthday.
    4. To be honest, I don’t know why since I’m from Taiwan.

    Have a great day~~~

  7. My buddy from Fujian had a strange way of calculating his age based on 虚岁 and also a lunar calendar birthday. For a while I called him 大哥 because I thought he was several years older than me, but I eventually found out he was about a month younger!

    When stating my age, I first went with 周岁, then switched to 虚岁. Now, however, I state the year I was born, and ask people for the year of birth (or, less effective, Chinese star-sign). So, if you were born in, say, 1985, you would answer an age question with 我八五年(出生的); you can also drop the if someone else has stated their age that way already.

  8. As an American who lived in Zhejiang for 3 years, I have always found this to be very confusing. In my experience, most people there use 虚岁 almost always (although apparently not all parts of China are like alike ), even in English, unless they had been pretty educated about other cultures. Apparently this was never emphasized in elementary language classes when they were taught how to talk about their age in English. But I found it unpredictable, because there what are some people who would know that it was appropriate to use 周岁 when talking to me, so I found that it was more straightforward in general to just talk about one’s birth year.

    likewise, my wife from Inner Mongolia is quite easily confused when thinking in zhousui. When an American customs official ask her for her age, she responded 29. Her xusui was 30 and her zhousui was 28…….! Oddly enough, the date of birth written on her 身份证 ( which is really supposed to be in the solar calendar! ), is somehow her lunar birth date, so officially she is about 1 month older than she really is. so, maybe the 2 systems confused Chinese people too?

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