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.

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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.

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 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.”
“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.

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Xi’an: Not Before my Pomegranate Juice

One of Xi’an’s seasonal products is pomegranate juice. Tom told us this during his introductory speech about Xi’an. It vied to be capital of the entire country, it has several rivers running through it, and it is known for its pomegranate juice. I’m not sure why, but the idea of a glass of pomegranate juice sounded so enticing at that moment, that I decided I would not leave Xi’an without sampling it. Beijing was pushing peaches. Xi’an was proud of its pomegranates.

(By this point, you should want pomegranate juice too – goodness knows I’ve typed the word enough times to be beyond subliminal. This is outré of me.)

So my quest, small as it was, was to obtain some of said juice. I would even risk taking it with ice, because it sounded so damn refreshing. Our second day in Xi’an – our second morning that is – included visiting the Mosque in the Muslim Quarter, and the city walls. Xi’an is close to the Uyghur autonomous region, another area of China with a distinctly non-Han ethnic majority which was never the less absorbed into the greater country. There has been some friction since then, though certainly not as famous at Tibet’s.

The Muslim Quarter was vibrant and loud. Music blared from windows, and the taffy shops had the mallets out. I’ve seen taffy pullers and taffy machines, but never two men with giant wooden hammers beating the ever-loving fun out of taffy. There are lamb kebabs and giant flat disks of unleavened bread with sesame seeds. And pomegranate juice. Tom assures me that I can get some on the way back.

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Once off the main street things grow far more subdued. The change is so abrupt I have a fleeting feeling of being led astray, compounded by the fact that we turn off to walk down an empty alleyway. It’s interesting, the influence of words and rumor. I’d been reading and hearing about attacks in the region (as well as in Sichuan), about the anger of the Uyghur Muslims. The Chinese newspapers at once minimalized the violence, and emphasized that the attackers were Muslim and that was probably why they were violent. And my initial nervousness in the alley stemmed in part from being bombarded with negative imagery and stereotypes. Never mind that the justice system is so strict and unyielding that violence towards a Westerner is unheard of. It’s difficult to be told something over and over and not have it influence you.

The Mosque is beautiful, with teal rooftops and scroll work. Much of the mosque is antique, preserved throughout the years by meticulous care. I liked seeing the Arabic script with the Chinese characters – two languages I don’t know together. Makes me feel hopeful, because there is so much that I could learn.

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On the way out, I see a set of small kites I want to buy. Earlier, in Beijing, I had passed on some tissue paper kites, and it was eating at me because they had been very pretty, very cheap kites. The timing had been wrong. This time, even though we were on a schedule, I stopped to buy some. I haggled the fastest I’ve ever haggled:

Me: I like these kites.
Man: Yes. You want two?
Me: No, just one. How much?
Man: Fifty.
Me: Ha! No. Fifteen.
Man: Thirty.
Me: I have to go. Twenty.
Man: Ok.

Ted was impressed by this, as normally kites are, in fact, thirty. BOOM. He also feels compelled to hurry us along, as my two-minute haggling, and Dad’s desire to stop and admire all the eclectic shops. I stop him, and remind him I would like a pomegranate juice. He assures me I’ll get it. We keep walking, discussing the local food and drink. All the way back to the entrance of the Muslim District, and I’m juiceless. This will not stand. I giggle and make a joke of being insistent. Underneath my giggles, though, I am iron about this juice thing. I will get that garnet-colored juice of the underworld, or I will not budge.

I don’t regret my insistence. The glass of juice is tart and sweet and wonderful, like ambrosia. Content, I pile back into the crazy white van.

Dad does not want to climb the old City Walls, and I do not blame him. It’s hot again, and it’s noon, but we paid to see the damn walls, so I am climbing the damn walls. I have my juice – what’s fifty more stairs? These are city walls in the traditional sense – great thick ramparts in a square around the old city. They have an annual marathon, or at least a half-marathon, on the wall. Ted suggests that if I come back to teach in Chengdu, I should go to Xi’an in April and do the race. I agree to do so, and I mean it. Though it had an unforgiving climate, I really enjoyed Xi’an, and would like to see more of what the city has to offer.

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Ted takes us to the train station four hours early and unceremoniously drops us off. This is my complaint about the tour overall – there’s a certain feeling of being unloaded as quickly as possible. It happened in Beijing, and it’s happening here. CITS tours manages to make me feel like a cash cow in the most unattractive way – get rid of me once the “official” stops are done, and don’t forget to request a tip.

Back on the train, speeding back to Beijing. I demanded a car to get us to the hotel before we departed for Xi’an. Joe said that our tour technically ended once we got on the train back to Beijing, leaving us on our own to make it back to the hotel. I argued that according to the official itinerary on the website, transportation back to an airport was included, so why not a hotel? After some admittedly Western obstinacy on the subject, I got a car and I got it without additional charge.

We leave day after tomorrow. I am starting to feel excited by the prospect of going home.

Night on the Xi'an Promenade near our hotel.

Night on the Xi’an Promenade near our hotel.

A Small Treatise on Tourist Shopping

Here are some of my thoughts on street vendor shopping – particularly in tourist areas:

Don’t be afraid to skip a store. In super touristy areas there will be similar goods in most stores, so you can get a feel for the area without feeling obligated to stop. If you really miss a store, meander back.

Master your peripheral vision – practice looking at things which are not right in front of you. For example, you’re reading this blog post. Don’t look away from these words, and see how much detail you can pick out in your immediate field of vision. Is there a rum and coke to your right? How much is left? Are there any people sitting near you? Practice being able to look at something without looking right at it.

(This skill is helpful when you want a rough idea of what’s inside a store, without stopping to actually see what’s there. Even better is if you can get good at looking at things in the distance – then you’ll know what you’re passing with greater accuracy)

Keep moving. In many places, stopping is a sign of interest. Interest is a sign of weakness. It sounds harsh, but if you were making pennies on every Hello Kitty pillow you sold, you’d quickly learn to separate the weak ones from a flock of potential buyers. You don’t have to run or anything. A feigned disinterested stroll will do, blithely tuned out to the chorus of calls to stop and shop.

– Having said that, if you see something you like, you can stop. Tune out the shopkeeper, who will insist that he’s left a fist-sized real jade Buddha just sitting out on the counter by the chopstick collections. The pressure might be intense and intrusive. I went to buy a little fu dog necklace in a store, and the woman “attending” me kept hurriedly shoving other necklaces at me, in an attempt to rush me and somehow make me buy more. On the other end of the spectrum is the overly-nice attendant who “helps” you by up-selling whatever he or she thinks her or she can get away with, gently (but constantly) suggesting additional purchases.

You just have to be in your own mind until you have finalized your decision. If you ultimately decide you don’t want something, walk away. You can smile if you want, or shake your head, but walk firmly away.

If you know a foreign language, use it. Even if it’s just a few sentences. It creates breathing space for you, as a vendor might not know how to press you if you’re not using Chinese or English.

If haggling is expected, haggle. You can do it on your own – pick a persona that suits you:

  •  The happy traveler (easy) – This place is great! You don’t know what’s fair, but you do know that’s too much! I’ll just keep walking, but thank you! I like this persona because it plays up the whole “ignorance is bliss” angle.
  • The seasoned traveler (medium)– Come on now, we both know this game. Here’s what I’ll give you, and you know it’s fair. A bit trickier, because this persona can come across as tired instead of knowing, which actually makes the shopkeep feel more confident about not budging.
  •  The grumpy gift buyer (difficult) – I don’t need this, buddy. I can keep walking. This is the most difficult persona, in my opinion, because there’s not a lot of wiggle room. If you start put out, you can’t get more put out. It forces your hand.

If you feel bad about negotiating down a price, consider this: Some places will mark up a price into the hundreds of percent higher when they see you. You shouldn’t have to pay 500% of what something is worth just because you’re assumed to have money.
I will admit I have trouble with some of these, which is why I’m sharing them. I’ve gotten really good at the looking without looking thing, especially since my haggling skills have declined. I just don’t have the energy to argue over three or four dollars. It feels low, to press for one more quarter off a five-dollar sale. But haggle we must, for if we don’t haggle, we’re encouraging stores to jack up prices because we’ll pay them. And that’s not fair to the future shoppers.
My dad taught me to always consider where the money goes. Remember: it’s your money, and you get to decide how to spend it, not them. Don’t let yourself be rushed, don’t let yourself feel guilty, and don’t feel obligated to buy something.
Good luck and have fun!