Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Internet Shopping and The Trouble with Numbers

One delivery company has packages piled up on the ground just before classes let out.  A few minutes later the whole area was filled with lines of waiting students.
It was only several years ago when we asked students about online shopping and they said, “Oh no, we wouldn't do that. We couldn't trust it.” Judging by the many hundreds of packages delivered to our school, I guess most students have now decided differently.

It was only a few years ago when we ourselves had our eyes opened to the broad shopping horizon known as Taobao. Taobao is like a Chinese Amazon marketplace (there is also Chinese Amazon, but their things tend to be more expensive). You can find pretty much anything on Taobao. Clothes, toys, furniture, produce, live hedgehogs. The selection is wider and the prices often much lower than in stores. And you can avoid actually having to go shopping, which I think is a big plus. I buy most of the girls clothes on Taobao, some harder to find or bulk grocery items, and a lot of odds and ends I don't want to have to search for in real life.

The only tricky part can be figuring out the names of things in Chinese. “Girls winter boots” is pretty simple, but sometimes I have to do a lot of guessing and baidu translating to get what I'm actually looking for. A lot of import items are also available, but they are usually still expensive.

November 11th is “Singles Day” in China (11 or “double 11”). Thanks to the owners of Taobao, in recent years this holiday has been turned into a Chinese Black Friday. It is now the biggest shopping day in the world (because you know, China has an awful lot of people). We waited until the holiday to buy things for ourselves and our teammates, and the past week we have been getting multiple packages a day.

If you live in a regular neighborhood, delivery companies will deliver packages to your house. Since we live on the university campus, they deliver to several designated areas and we have to go pick them up. There are close to a dozen different small delivery companies with different locations near different school gates. The delivery company sends a text message letting you know you have a package to pick up, generally around lunchtime but recently as late as 8 or 9pm.

This past week the companies were seriously overloaded with Singles Day packages. Hundreds of packages delivered through each company, multiple shipments a day. When we went to pick up packages, there were often 30-40 people waiting in line at each location. Fortunately the delivery companies have improved their organization. Instead of searching through an incomprehensible organization of 100 packages, they now text you a package number.
Students lined up at another delivery location.
As I went to pick up several packages the other day, waiting in one of four lines while harried delivery workers called out, “What number? Next! What number??” I realized that I still have trouble with Chinese numbers. The numbers themselves are pretty elemental and one of the first things I learned in China. But I still find it hard to read off a series of numbers in Chinese, like a phone number or a 5 digit package number. “That's kind of ridiculous,” I thought.

But then I realized, I also have trouble reading numbers aloud in English. They make sense when I see them, but to say them out-loud I feel like I have to translate the numerals into words and my brain or my mouth gets easily confused. So naturally it is hard to read numbers in Chinese, when my brain has to first figure out what the numerals mean and then into Chinese words.

I also have a terrible time remembering numbers. I still don't have my phone number memorized, and I have had the same number for 5 years! I have tried memorizing it several times and it just hasn't stuck.

Well, I always knew my brain had a tenuous relationship with numbers, despite their color connections.  Isn't it reassuring that I am the one teaching Juliana math?

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