Monday, August 13, 2007

Last column

THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL

Bargaining in Beijing
Is a Full-Contact Sport
August 3, 2007


Some people love shopping in Beijing's markets, huge, multi-floor buildings filled with stalls selling everything from counterfeit Western name brands to custom-made suits. I am not one of them.

While it can be fun and exhilarating, I find the experience tense, frustrating and exhausting -- especially at the giant Hongqiao (pearl), Yaxiu and Silk Markets, three of the city's largest, which all lack the charm of smaller, outdoor markets found all over the world, including China's interior. You can't browse because of the aggressive salespeople -- especially if you're Western -- and you have to negotiate the price of everything. If you get tired or lose even a little will, you immediately become a guppie in a shark-filled pool.

It's gotten easier to bargain as my Chinese has improved and I've become savvier, but I still largely avoid the markets. I don't need to enter them for staple products and other shopping options have improved since we arrived in Beijing. I usually visit markets only when dragged by visitors anxious to find a bargain.

To test just how much better my skills have become and how much I was taken advantage of compared with a native, I ventured to the giant Silk Market with Sue Feng, a Chinese Wall Street Journal researcher. We shopped separately, each armed with 500 renminbi (about $66) and a shopping list: a pearl bracelet; a "Polo" shirt; a silk wine bottle decoration; a child's silk dress; a silk scarf; and a kids' "North Face" jacket.

The markets are filled with counterfeit goods from Versace overcoats to Nike shoes, products I disapprove of though I can't say I always avoid. Gucci, Chanel and other major brands have successfully sued the Silk Market's landlord, with whom they have subsequently tried to cooperate to bring the problem under control. They have had almost no success.

Joe Simone, a friend and attorney for many of the brands, says a market like this would be dealt with by the police in most other countries, but in China they are leaving enforcement to "administrative authorities" who lack the power to investigate and arrest violators.

I certainly didn't note any improvement in this area since my first trip to China two and a half years ago when I visited Yaxiu with Andrew, a Chinese American friend who speaks fluent Mandarin. I was bewildered by the place but also fascinated by the immensity, the intensity and the huge range of products available. Nothing seemed impossible, but nothing quite seemed possible either.

Shopping at these places is a full-contact sport, with vendors screaming "good price for you" and sometimes actually grabbing passersby and yanking them into their stalls. I let Andrew lead the way. The starting prices were twice as much for me as for him, and I enjoyed watching him deftly handle a wide range of different sales techniques. Sometimes they seemed on the verge of throwing punches, other times a young lady flirted heavily, stroking Andrew's forearm and batting her eyelashes. None of this could surprise me now.

Sue and I bid farewell near a huge banner preaching against selling fake items, in both English and Chinese. It read, "Oppose to purchasing merchandise without authorization. Create a rational and fine shopping environment." There were thousands of fake goods a stone's throw away. We were also just beside the booth selling official Olympics merchandise -- the one thing you rarely see counterfeited in Beijing, an enforcement often used to illustrate that the authorities can have an impact when they make the effort. One vendor told me that fake Olympics goods are regularly confiscated.

I should probably have spoken only English to really gauge the differences between a foreigner's and a native's shopping experience, but I couldn't bring myself to abandon my best defense against the wolves -- my hard-earned language skills. I decided to be particularly aggressive, making lowball bids before salespeople could set artificially high starting points.

Rather than negotiating with the woman who offered me a scarf for 150 renminbi, I approached two young women at another stall and, speaking Chinese, offered 20. They laughed and said 60. I said 30. They said 40. "This is the usual foreigner starting price," one said, pulling back a scarf to reveal a 1,676 renminbi ($223) price tag. No one would pay that, I insisted. They smiled: "Someone does every day."

I asked who gets to keep the money if they make such an absurd sale. They answered in unison: "laoban" (boss). Joe had told me that many of these places are really exporters so I asked if I could buy 10,000 scarves. They said sure and took out a phone to call their boss. I said maybe next time and bid adieu.

When I picked up a pretty floral print silk dress, appropriately sized for my four-year-old daughter, the saleslady beat me to the punch, asking for 320 renminbi. I said 20. She said 150. I stuck to my guns and she offered 50. I got it for 30. Again, I spoke only Chinese. Handing me the dress, the salesgirl said, in English, "You tough."

These were good buys, which gave me an insurmountable lead over Sue, who paid 100 for a finer scarf, half the asking price. She paid 70 for the dress, down from 120. I had an advantage, having purchased many of these dresses before.

We both got pearl bracelets for 25, though hers included three strands and mine just one. I have no way of knowing the quality of either. The saleslady took out a knife to scratch powder off mine -- proof, she insisted, that the pearls were natural. Sue bargained down from 50, while I accepted what sounded like a fair price and the "no bargaining" line that came with it.

Sue haggled the silk wine bottle decoration from 25 to 15, while I paid 25, down from 45. Our deals were surprisingly similar for the "North Face" jackets, the first item I felt guilty buying; mine started at 650 and ended at 160. Hers went from 590 to 150. She negotiated an Oxford-style Polo shirt from 120 to 60. I took my short-sleeved Polo shirt down from 100 to 80, flattered by the saleslady's complimenting my Chinese and too tired to put up much of a fight.

Final tally: I spent 380 renminbi ($51) to her 440 ($59). She was a bit embarrassed, and I felt more relief than joy; maybe I'm not always getting ripped off after all. The anxiety I felt was not merely a matter of being a stranger in a strange land.

Over lunch, Sue related an unpleasant experience she had while waiting for me to finish up. She felt forced to buy a silk shirt she didn't want. After bargaining from 300 to 80, she tried to leave, only to have her exit blocked. The story reminded me of a recent visit to a local market in search of workout clothes. It is less intense and more pleasant than its larger cousins -- or so I thought. I bargained one woman down from 200 to 50 renminbi (about $6.50) then noticed that the stall next door had shorts I preferred. I went over and made the purchase. As I left, the first saleslady grabbed my arm and said, in English, "You a crazy man! You said you buy shirt from me, short from her."

"No, I didn't." I started prying her fingers off my arm, but she squeezed tighter to deliver a final message: "I hope you die in a car crash." It was nasty, vicious and unnervingly specific.

Sue told me that she had finally coughed up 80 for the silk shirt, then felt violated and wondered why she had paid the money. It's hard to leave the markets feeling unsullied; I'm not sure if I feel better or worse that this is equally true for Chinese natives.
* * *

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Last week's column about my Chinese teacher Yechen's decision to be a monk drew a lot of mail, including a heavier than usual amount from Chinese readers. The column is also available in Chinese. Here is a sampling.

I just read your article in the chinese.wsj.com about your Chinese teacher leaving for spiritual pursuit. I have the same feelings towards today's world, especially the increasing materialized China, though I have not decided to follow the same path as he did.

--Edward
* * *

Your article touches upon something currently happening in China that is not recognized by the Western media or even by the Chinese. There are a lot of things going on in my country … but most articles are about the Chinese economy, products and government. Your article looked into the changing culture. Although I have lived in China a lot longer than you, I didn't know this was happening until I read your article. Thank you.

--Gong

Thank you for your kind words. As I've said before, it is particularly meaningful for me to hear from Chinese readers. I hope your experience in my homeland is as rewarding as mine has been in yours.
* * *


I read all of your articles in Chinese and really enjoy them. I am a Chinese native who just spent six years as an expat in California. Moving back to Beijing earlier this year made me realize I am Americanized.

-Si

I have several Chinese friends who have lived in America for a long time and struggled coming back here. It is something I hope to write about next year. Best of luck in your transition home.
* * *

I totally agree with Yechen about the disconnect between modern young Chinese and the proud ancient Chinese history. Most of my fellow Chinese-Americans in New York know nothing about Chinese history. I can understand that, but many young people in China also do not seem to respect their own culture, which I can't understand.

--Johnnie Chen
* * *

It is good to publicize this spiritual side of China, when most of what people read about is economic growth and the dog-eat-dog culture that gives rise to. You have been blessed to find a teacher and friend like Yechen.

--Scott
* * *

Yechen sounds like a remarkable individual (as is anyone who can resist the pressures of his "clan" and financial realities of modern living to pursue their dream). Thanks for sharing a bit of his inspiring story with us and providing a hopeful ray that China will be able to preserve beautiful and endangered bits of her culture for future generations.

--Perry Goldschein

Yechen really is an amazing guy and I am very fortunate to have spent two years studying with him. It was really important to me to write about him and his decision.

* * *

The Buddhist practice is not only returning to China, but it is growing in the U.S., as well. As an American Buddhist, I recommend you take the opportunity to explore this great religion with your Chinese friends. You may find your teacher is also a Bodhisattva that had given you the opportunity to explore more than just a language. Learning the practice in China presents a very special opportunity.

--Arthur Hughes

I really enjoyed learning a bit about Buddhism from Yechen and visiting temples with him. I'm not looking for a new religion, though.

* * *

I just want to let you know that your kids will be fine from their experience as expat kids and they will be much more culturally rich and wise.

I speak this from experience, having attended Singapore International School for six years and making many friends who are now spread everywhere from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, Auckland, Singapore, and Bali. One thing we find is that if we meet each other again, the years just disappear and we quickly reconnect. Also many of us are very comfortable where ever our life takes us in this world - whether for business or personal. Maybe that is why many of us continue to excel in jobs requiring international exposure.

Your children will definitely eventually appreciate the experience they are going through and how it will make them better people.

--Bob Salem

I never, ever doubt whether this is worth it and I think that even the good-byes are good for the kids, in helping them understand the real emotional complexities of life. But it never hurts to hear reassuring messages from people like you -- so thanks.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com