Asians are known the world over as being “good at math.” This is a stereotype perpetuated by popular culture in the West. But is there some truth to it? Yes, as it turns out. I can say that in daily life, Chinese people do more math than their American counterparts. In fact, one can even say daily life in China is an ongoing math test. Right off the top of my head, I can think of three examples, starting with shopping in China’s capital.
When you walk into any department store in Beijing, chances are there is a sale going on. You will see signs with a single digit number and the Chinese character zhe prominently displayed next to products that are on sale. Experienced shoppers can jump to the conclusion that 7 zhe must mean 70% discount. Alas, the Chinese system encourages shoppers to go one extra step in calculating their discount: i.e., 7 zhe means you pay 70 percent, resulting in a 30 percent discount. Some adults in the West couldn’t do this simple math in their heads. Because, why would you need to? We left all that behind in elementary school.
Another example is the loyalty card, or membership card, offered by retailers, dentists, hair salons and massage parlors, just to name a few. But signing up requires you to do math quickly in your head. The more you spend up front, the bigger the discounts, a not uncommon sales strategy. But commit at your own risk. If that business suddenly decides to close its doors, you will not be refunded, nor will you even be notified.
Shopping for groceries was among the challenges we first encountered in Beijing. Trying to buy milk and yogurt at the local supermarket almost turned into an international incident when, upon seeing all the past expired dates marked on packages throughout the entire dairy section, I demanded to see a manager and tried to bring it to his attention. In vain, of course, as the language barrier prevented us from communicating effectively. Later, a friend explained that those were production dates, not expiration dates, as I had assumed. She also showed me where they helpfully printed the shelf life of each product. So, to put it in American terms, production date+shelf life= expiration date. Again, they are encouraging shoppers to do math.
Newcomers to China will no doubt be confused about this system, which nobody here seems to think twice about. But as an American, it was all very taxing until I got clued in. I often felt put out that I had to be doing math when I simply wanted to buy stuff. But now that I’ve been here a while, I see the wisdom of such a system. Could it be how Chinese people stay sharp into old age? After all, using your brain with word games and riddles are believed to be countermeasures against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related ailments. It appears that in China, they’ve incorporated into ordinary daily life a brilliant system where nobody forgets their early math lessons.