The last couple weeks my Chinese teacher has been having me read "哪个数字最吉利" ("Which Number Is the Luckiest"). The story starts off with a man shopping for a phone. For an extra fifty yuan, he can pick the last digit of his phone number. The man says he has to run it by his wife first. He returns home and suggests each number, 0 through 9, one by one, but the wife dismisses each because each number sounds like a bad word: 8, 伤疤, "scar"; 6, 流氓, "hoodlum"; 9, 九泉, "the nether world"; 5, 污染, "pollution"; 7, 凄惨, "wretched"; 3 散, "break up"; 2, 二流子, "loafer"; 1, 一团糟, "a complete mess"; and 0, 灵堂, "mourning hall." Of course 4 is right out: it sounds too much like the word for "death," 死. In the end, the couple resolve to pull the number out of a hat.
I enjoyed the story, thinking it a gentle ribbing of the reoccurring sounds in Mandarin as well as a lampoon of superstition. But my teacher had meant it as a culture lesson. I realized this when she said, "All Chinese people think this way." To make this overgeneralization worse, she added, "For you, symbols don't matter, but for us, everything is symbols."