As a newly minted Beijinger, there were certain things my brain quickly scrambled to make room for: the exact time I needed to leave home in the mornings to avoid being squashed into human dumpling filling on the rush-hour subway ride; the location of the best spots for mala xiang guo (a stir-fried version of hot pot); and to never, ever attempt eating a soup dumpling by putting it straight into your mouth (poke and slurp, people!).
One task, though, seemed impossible: remembering my QQ number. As the only foreign employee in my department, I was also clearly the only one with this problem. My Chinese co-workers had no difficulty rattling off their own 10-digit, or in some cases nine-digit, IDs. If you asked me what my QQ ID was, after more than 104 weeks of living in China and using this messaging service, I would not be able to tell you.
I once asked the British guy working in the office next to ours if he remembered his. He did not. Neither could my two American friends. "What do those numbers mean?" we'd whined to each other. "There's no order of any kind to them. Why not just use letters?!"
I had been tempted to place the blame squarely on our collective terrible memories but turns out, there was possibly more to this.
None of the locals we'd asked seemed to find anything unusual about remembering not only long strings of QQ digits, but also various other sets of numbers in other areas of their everyday lives. They turned up in website domain names. They were part of internet slang. Certain numbers assumed significance in cultural beliefs: some were auspicious; others were to be fled from at all cost. It seemed living in China meant being constantly bombarded by numbers, much more so than in other countries and cultures.
"I've heard the train fares on the CTrip website are kinda high," my Sichuanese roommate told me, back when I first moved here, as we discussed my Chinese New Year travel plans. "Why don't you try 12306?"
"Um. Is that a helpline number?" I'd asked. Turns out, no, it wasn't a helpline. 12306.cn is China Rail's official website and app. You know, just like email service websites 163.com and 126.com.
Turns out the reason was likely the same as the one behind every one of my life choices: it involved the least effort.
As Frankie Huang, a writer based in Shanghai, told me over email, numbers are far easier to type for purposes like websites' names, as compared topinyin.
"Not everyone in China has perfect grasp of pinyin. If websites have pinyinnames, it might actually be difficult for some people to figure out which letters to write," she said. A string of numbers is easier to commit to memory than words in a foreign language.
Unlike the QQ IDs, the digits in a website name usually aren't random. For instance, 163.com is the website address of Chinese internet company NetEase. It's a throwback to the days of dial-up, when customers had to enter 163 to go online. The phone companies China Mobile and China Unicom simply re-appropriated their well-known customer service numbers as domain names, 10086.cn and 10010.cn, respectively.
This is also where homophones get involved. Among e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba's various platforms is 1688.com, with the numbers pronounced "ee-lio-ba-ba" in Mandarin.
You can order your McMuffin online by typing 4008-517-517.cn because "517" in Mandarin is wu yi qi. Almost like wo yao chi or "I want to eat". Website 51job.com sounds awfully close to "I want a job". All Chinese digits are monosyllabic, making them easier to remember.
It's often something tourists might notice too. On my way up to an apartment, I noticed the lift panel had no fourth floor. There was 1, there was 2 and then there were 3A and 3B. The reason is that the pronunciation of the word "four" in Mandarin sounds way too close for comfort to the word for "death". My real estate agent informed me, that often, apartments numbered 4 or 44 tended to be rented out to foreigners.
Number 8, on the other hand, is the luckiest, as it sounds like the Mandarin word for prosperity. Car number plates with multiple 8's have likely been paid a fortune for by their owners.
So 748 is telling someone to go to hell, 555 basically means a crying emoji, 233 means you're laughing, and 520 is "I love you". And if you wanted to really kick it up a few notches, there's 2010000, which means "I love you for 10,000 years".