[The following is a version of a segment on Weekend Virginia, first run on August 21, 2010.]
Buying Stuff: Here’s one thing I never got used to: In the U.S. a sales person might say to me “Yes ma’am, may I help you?” But in China, there is no “ma’am. It’s “Lady.” It’s “Hello Lady.” “Lady, I have best price for you.” “Lady you come in here.” It’s like a country full of Jerry Lewises.
I didn't realize he was a Chinese shopkeeper. I thought he was fake French.
While I realize that China is supposed to be a communist country, somebody should tell the Chinese that. When you’d walk by somebody’s booth or shop, they’d hop off the stool as if it had become suddenly electrified. They’d follow you a bit, saying “You want t-shirt? I give you best price. I have new sunglasses. These look good for you.”
Except for this guy.
The shopkeepers would insist that their stuff was good item, good for me, real jade, no worries, how that was the right size for my kids, even though the salesperson had never seen my kids. And that they’ll give me best price. Almost everything you buy- shoes, earrings, drinks, stuffed animals, t-shirts requires haggling. It’s the same exhausting, cognitive dissonance-inducing, manipulation-resisting process you have to go through to buy a Honda. Except shopping in a row of booths down an alley, you get less of a new car smell, and sometimes more the smell of cat pee.
This is what good shopping in China looks like. Serious deals here, baby. But you'll earn them.
And you know my daughter was attracted to this liiike... me to a Diet Coke.
There are three actors in the negotiations: There’s the oversized calculators where the prices are typed and shown, and then you and the shopkeeper, who are – as John Lovitz would put it: ACTING.
You stop and admire something. They type a number into a calculator. You wrinkle your nose in disgust, shake your head, and type a lower number in. They clutch their chests like your terrible, low, offer alone will undo the benefits of a lifetime of eating rice and drinking green tea. So they type a new number into the calculator. In return, you do an impression of somebody from The Godfather, and hope you didn’t screw up and pick Fredo.
But did you know it was me?
And on it goes. I’m not afraid of negotiating, I’ve done it for cars and TVs, but when the thing costs $4 US and you are arguing about the difference of 20 cents, but you still feel like you have to haggle because you don’t want to get taken… Oh just give me the stupid t-shirt already. It may not have been my version of capitalism, where you have to beg a salesperson to help you, and find comfort in the predictable and immutable nature of bar codes, but it sure looked like a profit motive to me.
Don’t feel guilty going to familiar brands in China. First of all, it’s unlikely that something has been reproduced in China exactly how it was at home. For example, Pizza Hut is a nice restaurant, maybe a step above a Ruby Tuesdays. Not a crackly red plastic cup in sight. Instead there’s curry pizza, which I highly recommend.
So that's how you say Pizza Hut in China.
I'm fairly confident that red stuff is some sorta faux suede.
Ready for pizza. See, no red cups.
At McDonald’s, the McNugget dipping sauces include satay flavor as well as a Thai chili sauce. Disneyland in Hong Kong isn’t a little pocket of pure Americana either. Alice from Wonderland is a Chinese woman with a long blond wig. Even my daughter didn’t ask if that was the real Alice.
But they were still thrilled to get their picture taken!
I couldn’t find chicken strips anywhere, but they sell Mickey and Minnie Mouse chopsticks. In some ways, the contrast from the familiar was more informative than something truly Chinese. But there were some universals. I walked into Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and there were Tiffany’s everywhere. They looked exactly like version of those stores any other place I’d been. Except when I was in London- the Burberry there was full of people from Japan.