First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

From Polite to Pushy: How China Transformed My Family

Editor's Note: This title is courtesy of my sister.

Sing along! "I'm so lonely...so lonely... so lonely and sadly alone!"

Yes, I am once again a bachelor. My parents and sister flew out two days ago, and my wife just left this morning, meaning I'm once available to regale you with my stories about purchasing fruit and crossing the street - a much better life than spending time in the company of loved ones!

But I'm happy to say everyone had a great time. I won't go through all the details, but today's post will feature a few stories from their trip.

The second day my wife was here, I wrote that we had gone to the antique market and bought some things and I commented that we weren't very good negotiators. My wife read that last night and scoffed - over the past few weeks, China has hardened her into a VERY good negotiator.

Probably the best example came last Wednesday, the day after the got to my apartment. I come from a large family, and my parents wanted to bring back souvenirs for all of their grandchildren - all 27 of them.

They decided to buy Beijing 2008 Olympic baseball caps - gender neutral, relevant for the next year, and relatively easy to find. But then there were some difficulties - the shops in the hotels were grossly overpriced; the street vendors wouldn't have 27 at once; and low-quality knockoffs abound.

Near my apartment, though, is a small 2-story market where vendors sell, well, pretty much everything. Upstairs they found a t-shirt and hat shop with a good selection of decent quality Olympic hats. The bad news: they were priced at 85 yuan, more than $11.

Of course, everyone knows that's a joke. The way it works is, you walk into a shop, and whoever is there yells at you "HEY LADY! (or HEY MISTER!) YOU WANT(insert product here)? GOOD QUALITY!" In a market like the one we were at, you can have up to 6 people yelling at you at a time. The more aggressive merchants actually try to force something into your hands while yelling at you, or grab your arm to pull you in.

If you pause to look, you will be engaged. If you actually pick something UP, the dance begins.

First they ask how much you want to spend. You ask them to name a price. A large calculator appears and they punch in a number. "Just for you," they say. "Anyone else I charge twice as much."

Now you laugh at them - a deep, disbelieving laugh, as if they just asked for your liver and one kidney, plus $100. Say "Tie gway luh" - (too expensive) - take the calculator and punch in maybe 15% of what they entered. They laugh at you, and so it goes until you settle in the 40-55% range. Often you'll have to walk away more than once, and go through two or three rounds of 'best price, period' on both sides. But if all goes well - presto! - you're the proud owner of a non-color-fast t-shirt.

Except when Shannon's driving the calculator. I wasn't there, but apparently it was an epic battle, and when the dust cleared, my parents walked out with a garbage bag full of hats - for 12 yuan each, just 14% of asking.

When we visited again a few days later, at least 4 vendors recognized her.

Now, keep in mind, my mother is the sweetest, most nurturing woman on the planet, and I'm not biased at all. But her constant smile and friendly temperament are like a siren's song to everyone looking for a buck. Vendors, beggars, everyone comes like moths to a light simply because she's too nice to say no. Or at least she was when she got here.

At one point on their tour, a girl came to my family's table with a tea mug and a toothpick holder and some kind words about what a nice family they were. "How nice!" my mother thought, even briefly assuming this might be a gift.

Well, of course it wasn't, and my mom didn't really want to buy anything, but she didn't want to be rude either. So they kept talking, which the vendor took to mean my mother wanted MORE cups and toothpick holders, which she would occasionally run back to grab. Round and round the conversation went, with more and more mugs and toothpick holders appearing, until the table looked like this:

Needless to say, my mother bought one, but the vendor had to have been disappointed.

But what finally turned my mother was the panhandlers. They are like the vendors, but ruder, louder, more persistent, and if you give to one, the others will hound you incessantly. They will chase you as long as they can, grab you, yell at you - one little boy even hit Shannon in the back when she looked through her pockets and came up with nothing (she really didn't have anything).

Now, before you write me snide ivory-tower comments about fat uncaring Americans, let me be clear: Yes, I know that I have so much by their standards. Yes, I know these people are probably desperate. No, I'm not making fun of poverty. And yes, I probably could give them my loose change and never miss it.

But the reality is that eventually, everyone living in Beijing develops that thousand-yard stare and ability to hold a conversation over the head of someone who is grabbing your belt with one hand and hitting you in the stomach with a cup in the other.

As we were leaving Franks on July 4, there was an older woman waiting for us. She had hit us up earlier in the day and was probably just doing her rounds of places foreigners go. We kept walking as she tried to get underfoot for me, yelling "MONEY! MONEY! MONEY! HELLO!" as loud as she could. Then she saw my mother walking parallel to me 10 feet to my right.

Like a flash, the panhandler charged my mother, making her case - "MONEY! LADY! HELLO! MONEY! MONEY!"

It was then I knew my mother had had enough. My mother actually broke into a run, jogging down the street, the panhandler chasing her for a full block until we got into a taxi.

We are Midwesterners. The only thing we hate more than uncomfortable encounters is physical contact. But China is a good cure for that.

Forming a line is still a strange concept to many Beijingers. The city actually will name a day "Waiting in Line Day," and on that day, observers will go to intersections and crowded public places and encourage people to wait their turn in line, rather than just make a beeline for the place they want to go.

My sister got a lesson in the old-fashioned way of getting places at the Summer Palace one day last week. The situation: Two people are walking side by side away from the observer down a long path. A four-foot tall grandmother is walking in the same direction but at a faster pace behind them.

She reaches the couple, places her left hand on the right hip of the person on the left, her right hand on the left hip of the person on the right...

...and pushes them apart...

...saving her from having to veer ever so slightly to one side.

By the time I saw my family, they were practically shoving old people out of the way like big, American snowplows.


I know there are some other stories as well, but I'm still hoping Shannon will write a guest entry about her experiences with the transportation sector, and I don't want to spoil all the fun. So until next time, adios, amoebas!