Us Against Them

This is certainly not a new topic for China bloggers, but I just finished reading an article on ESWN entitled “How I Was A Chinese Traitor” and it brought back memories of my own similar experience in Beijing.

For those in too much of a hurry to click and check out the article – essentially it’s a translation of a blog entry of a Beijing journalist who helped out a German friend that got swindled by a quite popular tea scam. The Chinese journalist then got called a traitor by the swindlers.

When I went to Beijing last year with Martin we got taken in by the same scam but at about half the cost – we were lucky, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. Yay for looking poor I guess.

The article is really interesting because it shows what is a common China occurance, and anyone with a Chinese girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband would likely agree. Everytime I go to the markets with Maggie the Chinese people – expectedly – rip me off, out right lie to me, and try to cheat me in anyway they can. They do it poorly, and it brings shame to them as it really illustrates their ignorance. I mean, not to sound judgemental here (ha!) but what foreigner is stupid enough to pay 500 RMB (about $75 CND) for a pair of obviously counterfeit Nike sneakers or Converse hoodie?

Maggie then scolds them for being blind idiots that didn’t see that she is Chinese (and therefore SHE would know a fair price – because not in my entire life in the West did I ever need to know the price of products, or even see a shop for that matter, what with being the decadant and agoraphobic person that I am). She then proceeds to barter with them and gets the price down to somewhere between what the Chinese people would usually pay and what the foreigners usually pay (like 30-90 RMB if the original asking price is 500 RMB).

The shopkeepers then, perhaps (but inconsequently) wrongly assuming that Maggie is my tour guide, berate her for stopping them from ripping me off. Much like the author of the ESWN article above, they essentially call her a traitor to her country.

Now, keep in mind I have two very strong principles when I go shopping. A) I understand that these people are poor and as such if they try to charge me a little more than a Chinese person, I’m not offended, as long as that price is not them blatently banking on the fact that I’m an idiot and they can lie to and steal from me. This to me is simply immoral and unethical. B) Should they act this way, I just move on. I don’t bargin, I don’t do any business with them at all.

I like bargaining, when done, as the guidebooks would have you believe, all in ‘good fun’. If the ‘fair price’ for something is say 50 RMB, and the shopkeeper might be willing to go as low as 40 RMB to stop you from buying it at another shop (taking a cut in their margin just to keep the business), I might be willing to go as high as 60-65 RMB just to be done with the transaction. Somewhere in there is the settled price, and that’s fine. But if I walk up and ask how much a pair of sunglasses are and the shopkeeper says “220 RMB” because they are a “good brand” – I walk. No little shop servicing the common people of Dalian is going to sell sunglasses that are either real or expensive. In Canada I’d pay $10-15 for a pair of sunglasses – MADE IN CHINA! Why would I EVER pay more for something IN China than I’d pay in Canada? Despite me explaining this to a countless number of shopowners… the effects have been minimal. They need a newsletter, or Web forum or something… someone should spread the word to them on what common prices are in Western countries.

Anyway, that’s my rant on why I take no shame in shopping at Walmart (fixed prices) for near everything I can. Bargaining may be “fun” for the first little while, but when your white skin removes most of the decency from a person in their quest for the ultimate money grab, buying day-to-day items can become a tiring pain in the ass and after a year and a half here – my ass is sore as.

5 Responses

  1. I’ve also been scammed, in much the same way as you described. It was in Guilin, and I only lost out on about 200 RMB, but still, like you said, it caused me a little loss of faith in the friendliness of people here. On the other hand, some other people have blown me away by how genuinely honest and giving they are.

    Anyway, I’m interested in your take on bargaining. When I first got here, I really hated it, and avoided it — I think mostly because I didn’t know how much the prices of things should be, and so I couldn’t even tell if I was being ripped off or not. Now, though, unlike you, I’m getting to like it more and more. I think I’m getting better at it, but I’m still never quite sure, after I buy something, whether I got as good a deal as I could have. On the other hand, these days, it’s rare when I buy something and decide later that I got ripped off.

  2. Richard really loves bargaining, and is good at it. My favourite one was in Shanghai. I saw a necklace I really liked, they told me it was 480 RMB. Needless to say, we just laughed and started to walk away. The storeowner ran after us, and invited us to make her an offer. Just for fun Richard offered 40 RMB. She looked horrified and said no way could she sell it for that. We said okay, and turned away. Sure enough, she came running after us and let us have it for 40. (It was probably worth 20). I’ve seen the same necklace in Victory Plaza, and they’re asking the same ridiculous price. Just goes to show.

  3. @Chris: Don’t get me wrong, I like bargaining, and I’m fairly comfortable with it. What I’m talking about here is being faced with one of the crappiest parts of humanity (greed) on a daily basis just because I need a new shirt, a pair of shoes, a picture frame, whatever. I also felt that way when I got here, and felt my confidence grow as I knew more and more what the price “should” be… but I just get tired of having to do it for EVERYTHING. Never mind if you have to buy something important and you’re continually wondering if A) it’s fake, B) you’re getting completely ripped off, or C)it’s fake. I wouldn’t care if a pair of socks was fake, but I would if my camera was.

    @Phoebs: Haha, yeah, I’ve more than once got stuck with something I REALLY didn’t want to buy because I did that.

    @All: Something I meant to add, but can’t be arsed to do it anywhere but here – the bargaining thing, and the resentment to locals that help foreigners is very definitely not a Chinese thing. I’ve not been to loads of countries, but my friend in Thailand won’t go shopping with me because of the hate it brings down on her. So… yeah.. there’s that.

  4. Well, having said all that, you know we live out in the sticks and are the only foreigners most of the people in the village have ever seen. However, they never rip us off when we go to the local market or stores. Maybe it’s only the city people???

  5. I found the same thing when I lived in Jinzhou (a town much smaller than Dalian). There was still some bargaining involved, as is the system of things… but they weren’t hardasses about it, and the prices weren’t blatant stealing in hopes that us laowai couldn’t figure out the conversion rate.

    Small towns is where it’s at. I recently went back to Jinzhou (see the Da Hei Shan entry) and realized how much I miss it. Thankfully it’s the hometown of the woman I love, so I’m never short on excuses to visit.

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