Orwell’s “198Kors”

There is a place in Beijing called The Silk Market. It’s a… six-story mall, all steel and glass. The top floor is restaurants, and the basement connects to a metro tunnel in theory. I managed to find the two other nearby tunnels, both a block away.


There is a sign on the outside of the building – if you are dissatisfied with anything you buy, you can call a number for a refund. The Silk Market is all about customer service, about ensuring that their products meet your needs.


 The Silk Market is a knockoff haven.

Every floor is dedicated to a different product – bags and leather goods in the basement, clothing on the ground floor, electronics on the third floor, etc. Any brand you want, especially if it’s high end, is somewhere behind a glass wall in the Silk Market. And at every door of each little stall is a voice, yelling for you to stop. To buy, to just take a look. It’s the stereotype, that chorus of catcalls. If you pause, even for a moment, you will be accosted by “helpful” shopkeepers convinced you are, in fact, going to buy whatever it is you thought you saw.

There are signs, on many of the doors, which provide the following guidelines:

  1. The shop is government approved.
  2. Haggling is not allowed
  3. Everything in the shop is genuine

So it was that I walked into a handbag shop, to buy my sister a Michael Kors bag. The woman wouldn’t let me hold any of them for very long. She kept juggling them out of my hands, a deft maneuver to get me hooked on several (and thus more likely to buy more bags). I was having none of it. I knew what I wanted.

I’ve talked about bargaining and haggling before. This type of haggling – for high-priced knockoffs – requires a slightly different approach. I knew which bag I wanted before I walked into the store, having walked nonchalantly around the basement level three times, taking a break to walk up a level or two for awhile. I let the woman hand me bag after bag while I walked around the cramped interior. You can’t show interest. You can’t want anything. It has to be a chore, looking for something. Even if you find the most beautiful thing in the world, you can’t admit you’ve seen it.

And so when I eventually decided I’d seen enough bags, I gestured to the one I was going to pick up. The “genuine” “Michael Kors” “leather” handbag.

 “How much for that one?” I asked.

“Two for one?” she countered.

“No. This one is enough,” I said.

“You pay rmb or US?”

“I’m from the US”

“350 rmb? Perfect!” I exclaim. This prompts a cackle.

“You said you pay US – 350 US!”

“Sorry to be confusing. I’ll pay rmb.”

“4000 rmb.” She shows me on the calculator in her hands.

“That’s too much. I can’t afford that!” I say, and set the bag down. The bag levitates back into my hands and an arm around my shoulder twirls me back to the interior of the store.

“How much you want to pay?” She asks.

Now, there is a sign on the door, clear as day and bright as the fluorescent lights above, that says that the price is fixed. That this bag is the real deal and that I am not allowed to haggle.

“400 rmb,” I say. The woman makes a strangled sound. Her compatriot, who is still convinced that she can sell Dad a “Gucci” wallet, laughs.

“No, no, no! Too little! 3500 rmb,” she counters. And now we’re haggling.

Tip: When looking for the quality of a fake, check the interior. The outsides will always look good, even perfect, but the inside is a dead giveaway. For example, the inside of this Kors bag is filled with nylon-like cloth, sort of like a cheap windbreaker.

In his classic novel “1984,” George Orwell introduces the term “doublespeak.” It’s when you can believe two things at once, hold two separate truths in one’s mind at the same time. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia. We aren’t haggling over this bag. It’s more than believing a lie – we believe lies and tell lies all the time and with ease. Sometimes I think that lying is one of our great accomplishments as human beings.

Why I describe what we’re doing as doublespeak is because there are signs saying that we can’t do the very thing we’re doing, and we aren’t doing the very thing we’re doing, but we can and are. Both are true. This whole building should be in quotation marks – a “market” where you can buy “quality,” “authentic,” “brand name,” “goods.”

“1000 rmb – good price. My final price,” she says.

“I live in Chengdu. I can get it for 550 in Chengdu.” (This is my lie – they don’t have many high quality fakes in Chengdu yet.)

“Ok, my sister, ok. Be nice to me.”
“I am being very nice to you. I’ll go up to 550.”

“This is real Michael Kors! High quality!”

“Yes it is. I can go to 600.”

“Yes – ok.”

I’ve been swindled. Twenty minutes of work and I’ve overpaid. I just get so guilty when I bargain. It’s hard not to feel like I’m being a total bastard. But then I remember that they’d bleed me dry and hang me from the rafters to get the last pennies from my pockets, because to them I am a millionaire.

It’s exhausting.

If you go – be it for a calligraphy set, a pair of Beats by Dr Dre, a Gucci purse, or a canteen with Harry Potter in a Communist hat – go well-rested and well-fed. Go at the top of your game, and go with a heart made of stone.


The Perfume Road: Part 2

Just got out of the shower to knocking at my door. I don’t know how to say “busy” in Chinese, but looking through the peephole I see the two housekeepers. Since I can’t say “busy” I figure that if they see I’m still in a towel and clearly not ready for conversation they’ll give me a minute.

I am, in a word, wrong.

No, we have a whole conversation, even though I’m gesturing now with my free hand to my non-clothedness. It takes a couple of very awkward minutes, until I give them the paper I just wrote with the perfume names and prices on them, and the one returns my gesture about not being dressed. I shut the door and change, feeling unready for round two.

The one housekeeper pays me the rest of the money for the perfume. They are both disappointed in the prices on the paper, but it’s the best option. It would be just as much to buy cheaper versions in the States and have them shipped over (plus I would charge a fee for that much of my time). Ultimately, they ask for one bottle of the Fuel for Life.

Meanwhile, I’ve been talking to my TA Vega, prepping him for this perfume hunt in Chengdu. That poor kid is going to have some crazy stories to take with him to college! And I come to the conclusion that I am alright parting with the Diesel because I have found a new perfume that actually works with my natural chemistry and I like it a heck of a lot more – that would be Manifesto by Yves Saint Laurent, waiting patiently for me back home.

The housekeeper points to my battery and asks something. I know that word! It means scooter! Hao! They talk, and at this point I resort to Google Translate and the microphone button, which is sort of useful. I mean, it translated the following from Chinese: “Tomorrow you have the time you have time to play with us,” but that’s enough for me to understand that roughly these friendly housekeepers want to go hang out. But we don’t do well on time: “You played the national colors of day you go.” Maybe it’s the dialect – they don’t actually speak Mandarin Chinese here in Sichuan. They have their own dialect they use. I suggest after work, but we settle on “Another day we’ll play with you.”

Maybe in the near future, once I locate this Sephora and find the perfume and get this whole thing straightened out, I will go scooter driving with Du Rong and her friend.

I was going to walk to the movie theater tonight, but I feel intellectually exhausted. I mean, there’s only so much misunderstanding I can handle before I just give up. I don’t know if I want to venture into more confusion. It’s hard, and this language is not forgiving.

Although there was one other thing I did understand – I understood when Du Rong said that when I speak English, they don’t understand. I said I understand that they don’t understand. That I don’t understand Chinese. So let’s all not understand each other and smile!



Final update:

I think Du Rong is angry that she is not getting a 250 deal. No tea nor cups have been put in my room in two days. *Sigh* Road to Hell and all that…

The Perfume Road

My call to Dad drops at the same instant there’s a knock at the door.

Two of the housekeepers stood there, all smiles. I wondered what I did wrong, or what they did if anything. Perhaps they wanted to apologize for waking me up that morning? No, that wasn’t it. They entered the doorway, and one of them started energetically talking and gesturing to my perfume bottle.

My lack of language skills is so painfully…well, painful at this point. I get the impression that the woman is interested in my perfume. It’s my every day wear perfume – Diesel’s Fuel for Life. They stopped selling it in the department stores because apparently I was the only one who liked it. The bottle currently on my nightstand I had saved for a year after buying it in Paris, not knowing when I would be able to get it again. China seemed like a good time to have it with me. And now I have found someone else interested in it as well.

The two of them don’t speak a word of English between them. I break out my translator apps and notebook and proceed to get thoroughly confused. I understand she wants “three” of something – does she want to sample the perfume? No, I get the idea she wants to buy it – she’s gesturing to her pocket. So I write down what I paid for it – $50 USD. This is an undersell, actually. Given the strength of the Euro to the dollar, I probably paid more like $65 for it – well, maybe $60 (the dollar was rebounding a little). I show the number to the woman, and write the amount into RMB – 330. This is a slightly over the mark, because currently the exchange rate is 6.2 RMB to the dollar. I don’t know what it is compared to the Euro (I would look it up later). It all sort of evens out in my head.

After much discussion and more character writing I decide I am getting nowhere. No matter how slowly they speak I can’t respond. I figure out what she’s trying to say, sort of, but I don’t know how to formulate my responses. The words I translate do nothing to facilitate – they only lead to long explanations and laughter. So I say very slowly “1 minute…” and take off for the lobby. Tina is there, thankfully. Tina, who speaks moderately good English and is polite and patient. Tina translates one of the character sentences: “I would like to buy your shampoo.”

Breakthrough. So I trot back upstairs to my room, to the two laughing housekeepers, and write a discounted price down on the paper – 250rmb. It’s roughly $40, and my reasoning is that even though I haven’t used that much of the perfume, it’s still not new and I have used it, so charging full price wouldn’t be fair. I also appreciate that for $40 I could eat out every day for a week if I wanted, or eat lunch at the cafeteria every day for a month. But something is up – the one who wants to buy is still saying “three” something. It’s not 300 – because there’s no way she’d be asking to pay me more than I asked. The other one is trying to help my speaking slowly in different words, but I’ve hit my wall and there’s no going through it.

I do what I’ve been avoiding – I call reception and ask for Tina to come up to my room. I don’t like being an inconvenience, but I can tell when I’m in over my head and need help. Tina arrives like very polite cavalry, and through multiple translations we finally iron things out. The women want three bottles of perfume, and want to know when I can get them. I explain I only have the one, but that I could try to find some more for them if they wanted. Part of my brain is sarcastically asking when I’m planning on flying to Paris in the next couple of weeks. Then more details emerge – one cleaning lady wants a bottle like mine, the Fuel for Life. The other wants to buy my current bottle, and wants me to try and find two more Diesel perfumes which are not Fuel for Life. They both really like the smell.
Forget the Silk and Jade Roads – It’s the Perfume Road which runs through WenJiang…

I offer a couple of solutions to Tina. I can have my family find the perfume and ship it to me. Or I can try to locate it myself. Either way, I will find out the cost and let them know. The one gets serious – it’s her last day. And I am scheduled to check out soon – what happens if I find the perfume but I’m not at the hotel? I respond that even if I check out, I will bring the perfume back with me and drop it off with the other housekeeper, the one who is staying. I find the idea a little laughable – that I would go buy a bunch of perfume and then keep it.

Money in hand, perfume off the table, an outpouring of thanks to Tina, and then it is quiet in my room. Dad has gone to bed – I will have to apologize. And I am now reflective.

What just happened…?

In the hustle and bustle of miscommunication, I have somehow sold a bottle of perfume I’d been holding onto for over a year because it was one of my favorites. I sold my favorite perfume at what was most likely an undervalued price because…

I have no answer to this. That concerns me. Because someone else liked it and I can find more? Because I don’t remember to wear perfume most of the time anyway? Because it was a nice thing to do for a couple of ladies who maybe don’t see Western perfume that often? Because it’s just perfume and just money and really in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter? Because I have a real problem with not being able to say “no” to people, which I have not yet resolved? It’s a little of each, with a lot of that last one.

And now I’m hunting for perfume online? In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. Let’s see…I bought the perfume at a Sephora. There’s a brand new Sephora in Chengdu! And according to the Chinese Sephora website (which does not have an English translation button, for shame!) the Diesel line of perfume is available. Cost…460rmb. Huh – so those ladies got a steal for my 85% full bottle. If the store in Chengdu carries it, then my little treasure hunt becomes much easier.
Let’s see, as of March 29, 2014:
45.50 Euro = 65 USD
45.50 Euro = 388 RMB
65 USD = 403 RMB
460 RMB = 74 USD = 54 Euro

So perfume is considerably more here in China than back home in the States, and more so than Europe as well. The price of smelling good….

Oh, and if you’re in China and put in http://www.sephora.com, you get taken to http://www.sephora.cn and there is no way to get to an English site. If you click on the “International” link down at the bottom you get taken to a host of other Sephora sites, none of them English. The Canadian site links back to the Chinese site. I can find information in Czech, French, Italian, Greek, and a host of other languages, but not English. Thank goodness brand names stay constant.