Thursday, August 23, 2007

Last week's column


How Cash Cools Tempers
In Chinese Traffic Mishaps

August 17, 2007

Ever since I got my Chinese driver's license, I worried about getting in an accident. The packed roads and erratic driving made me fear for my and my family's safety. But even setting aside those primal fears, I had other concerns.

I have heard stories of Westerners being surrounded by crowds and harassed in the wake of accidents. A Chinese-American colleague of my wife, Rebecca, told me that once, years ago, she got into an accident with a pedestrian. She got out to check on him and was surrounded by a crowd of people demanding that she give him money. Her feeling of being taken advantage of was particularly acute since she felt fairly sure she hadn't really hit him -- that he slapped the car and fell over. After much discussion, and feeling very intimidated, she eventually drove him to a doctor, who declared him unscathed.

If that could happen to her, fluent in Chinese, I wondered what would happen to me. I also recalled a conversation I had with an American woman giving me a ride home within weeks of my arrival in Beijing. She told me that her husband's employer, a Fortune 500 company, gave her an emergency number to call and instructed her to lock herself in her car and wait for help to arrive in the event of an accident.

There are plenty of opportunities for confrontation since law and custom dictate that following an accident, the involved cars do not budge until the police arrive to photograph and document the scene. I often see two cars stopped, and the drivers discussing the situation -- usually calmly, sometimes aggressively. I have also noted that these drivers occasionally wait hours for the police to arrive -- and that they will not move an inch, even if traffic is snarled for miles.

In my first seven months driving here, I piloted a beater 1992 Jeep Cherokee with more dinged than smooth surfaces and had no problems. Within two months of buying a new car, however, I backed into a compact car, looking right over its low rear end as I attempted an absurd reverse merge onto the busy Jing Shun Road. The driver charged at me, waving a cigarette and screaming, but I quickly calmed him by accepting responsibility and assuring him I would pay. His rear panel was badly dented. In America, it would be a $500 repair; I had no idea what it might cost me in China.

I called Rebecca's office, where the office manager told me that someone would come help me. I handed the phone to the other driver. He didn't want to wait for anyone to arrive from downtown and just wanted 300 renminbi (about $40). I only had 250 renminbi on me, which he accepted with a smile and a friendly wave good-bye. A small crowd watched all of this from a distance. They never pressed forward, and I never felt the least bit threatened. It seemed like a good deal and I even felt bad I didn't have 300 renminbi on me.

Months later I had a less happy experience. I was driving down a small road alone with 6-year-old Eli and Anna, then 3. My merge onto Jing Shun was blocked by a stream of buses, so I stopped and was there for two or three seconds before I was slammed into from behind. The impact was relatively mild, and the kids were a bit stunned but totally unharmed. I walked back to check on them, and then got out to inspect the damage.

The car that hit me was a late model VW sedan, the driver a guy about my age who looked solidly middle class. We grunted at each other, I checked my bumper, saw that it was bruised and scraped but not badly damaged, said "mei wenti" (no problem), waved at him and turned back to my van, ready to drive away. Because the rear car is always at fault in a rear-end collision, if I said it was OK, then it was OK. Or so I thought.

He replied, "wenti wenti," (problem, problem) walked to the front of his car and pointed to the right front panel. Above the wheel were a crumple and a small tear. I called Rebecca's office manager again, explained what happened and asked her to talk to him.

Her report back to me: "He says it was all your fault. You stopped suddenly and were in his way." She said I should wait for the police to arrive and sort it out, but I dreaded the delay. She said I could surely pay him off, but I refused. This just wasn't my fault.

As I stood there, cars were swerving around us at absurd angles to get onto the main road, and I thought it was a dangerous and vulnerable position; I didn't want to be rear-ended again. So I moved the car, just a few feet up and over onto the shoulder, to free the lane and allow access onto Jing Shun. It seemed the sane thing to do.

Before I got back out, I told Eli we had to wait for the police and he burst into tears. "Just drive away, dad. Don't let them get you." I assured him that I wasn't under arrest and the police would just take pictures and he calmed down a bit. The other driver, however, had grown agitated, apparently by my violating protocol by moving my vehicle.

As I stepped back out, he returned, speaking rapidly. I couldn't understand him, so I called the office manager back, they had a long conversation, and then she told me that he wanted 500 renminbi. We both agreed that was ridiculous; maybe he thought I was toast since I had moved. She advised me to wait for the police.

"But they'll just blame me anyway," I said.

"Probably so," she agreed. "But your insurance will pay, not you."

"In America, if you are rear-ended, it is always the back car's fault," I said.

"You're not in America."

"I know; I want to know if that is the law in China as well."

"I don't know. I don't drive here. I'll find out and call you back."

Our conversation was interrupted by a scream from within the car. I ran over and found Eli beating Anna over the head with a Luke Skywalker figure. She had spent the last 10 minutes provoking him until he couldn't stand it any more. This was an untenable situation. I took 300 renminbi out of my wallet and handed it to the guy, telling him he wasn't getting a penny more.

He did not object. I felt slightly abused, but happy to be on my way home for less than $50.
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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. Read comments by readers on my last column about bargaining at Beijing's Silk Market.

As a Westerner who visited Hangzhou to train my client's Chinese office, your column brought back memories of our time in the markets. You definitely aren't alone. One of the Chinese women who helps us out says she feels "dirty" after a day of shopping -- she and most of the girls never go to the markets to shop, unless with visitors. One of the men who is an expert bargainer (his parents used to run a stall in a rural market) regularly gets yelled at after helping visitors get bargains.

That being said, there are some great prices available. My custom suit cost $120 and my silk tie to go with it cost a buck!

-- Charlie

My New Year's resolution is to embrace custom clothes.
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Damn! I thought they meant it when they said "special deal just for you" at the markets when I lived in Hong Kong.

When I told my Beijinger wife about you doing better than the Chinese, she showed her skepticism by saying "check the quality".

-- Paul Hamill

Please tell your wife that my buys were definitely on par with Sue's, except where noted (her scarf was nicer).
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Your article made me reflect on the ups and downs of finding bargains -- shopping in street markets can range from enjoyable haggling with the establishment of instant "friendships" to full-on battles ending with a death wish. I have wonderful memories of street market shopping in various countries throughout the world, though. This stands in stark contrast to my shopping experiences back in the U.S., unremarkable for the experience and focused purely on the end result. I often enjoy stepping across the border to Shenzhen -- I find that a day of rigorous shopping helps to develop the negotiation skills I use in my daily work.

-- Rick Abelmann

That's an interesting point. These markets are definitely basic training for day-to-day life in China, but they can also harden you a bit too much.

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Full contact sport is right! I shopped at the Yaxiu Market several times. I spoke only English, but started all my bargaining at 20, or lower depending on the item. I found the fleecing of foreigners and the counterfeit goods distasteful, but the bargaining can be fun. I was taught by other expats that it is important to enter into the spirit of the game and that there are some rules involved. Most importantly, don't start bargaining for an item unless it is something that you are willing to buy if your price is met! You are then obligated to buy the item.

-- Nancy

You are not the only one to point out this rule. That is what happened to Sue when the salesperson bullied her into buying the shirt she really didn't want.