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:
- xūsuì 虚岁 = traditional Asian age system where you’re born and you’re already one year old (Wikipedia article).
- zhōusuì 周岁 also known as shísuì 实岁 = system where you’re born at zero years old (Wikipedia article).
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?
3. How often is the other system of age calculation used? Only in special situations? With certain generations of people?
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.