I live in a building numbered with an untranslatable character. This causes confusion.
I live in a lane or xiaoqu (小区, little community) off a busy street running through the Former French Concession in an area known as XinTianDi (新天地, “New Heaven on Earth.”) The neighborhood is a renovated and many-ways overly sanitized version of China. I’m within walking distance of at least two Gucci stores and many other high-end brands, because one should obviously never have to travel too far for their couture. I’m likely underestimating as I haven’t explored all the luxury malls that dominate this area.
To the bafflement of the rental agents I was using and many Chinese people I meet – I wanted to live in an old apartment (laofangzi or 老房子) because of what I’m told is a curious foreigner tendency. More on that later. While there are large developments here with amenities like squash courts and fake beaches, I wanted the “charm” and “character” of an older apartment, to feel like I lived in Shanghai, and not just any big city. In the end, I found one that I love, but it’s not without it’s quirks.
Because of the ubiquitous lanes – Shanghai addresses can be confusing (although similar to those in Taipei). The address is typically the Street Name (Section), followed by the Lane Number, followed by the Building Number, followed by the Apartment Number with the number preceding the category – i.e. Main Street Middle, 5 Lane, 3 Building, 2 Room.
My building is number is 戊.This is the 5th number of an old counting system that is rarely used now, although most people know about it if you remind them.
The problem? The character is pronounced (wù). Which is similar to the pronunciation of the modern five – Wǔ (五) but with a different tone (fourth versus third). Typically this wouldn’t be a problem – you say wu or write 5 or 五 and people know what you’re talking about. However, in my lane there is another building, further down with the EXACT same address – exact same street, exact same lane number, exact same building number except it uses a roman number “5.” This causes endless confusion for deliveries such as potable water.
Before I understood how to explain it, I’d say that I lived at building five, not roman numeral five, nor modern Chinese five but a different five. The person on the phone would say – it’s fine, we got it, five.
Later, the delivery guy comes – and calls yelling about how he can’t find it – I said it was five! but that’s not where I live! He’s standing at five and it’s the wrong place! He’s animated. Anticipating this problem, I go downstairs into the lane and look for the guy. I see him along with several neighbors from the lane all looking about in confusion and trying to help him figure out where he’s going. They see me and say “it’s the foreigner’s!” Foreigners being confused or silly is a good explanation for confusion.
Immediately, I am chastised by both the delivery man and neighbors for causing this great confusion and sending the man thirty feet down the lane to the wrong building. I know – it’s confusing. But when you get chastised by several people all at once you get frustrated – so I’ll say “how would you describe this?” The reply will be “I don’t know – no other way.”
I found this so frustrating that after once such incident when I first moved here – I saw a foreigner walking down the stairs in my building, who I later learned had lived here over a year, accosted him, and said “can I ask you something – how do you translate the building number for deliveries?” His response: “I don’t get deliveries.”
The conclusion: I finally figured out how to explain this on the phone. You have to count the first few numbers in the old system and say its “wu as in jia, yi, bing, ding, wu” (“戊 – 甲 , 乙, 丙 , 丁 的 戊 “). To which people respond: ah! that’s so old – we still use that system? Yes, yes, you do. Needless to say, I get mail delivered to the office, but if anyone wants to test their character writing skills – I’ll give you my address and let you know if I receive your letter.