Shameless Product Placement

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the items I took with me to China which really helped me. Here are some of the products which I think lived up to their names/functions, and which I would recommend picking up if you’re planning on traveling where the environment is challenging. These are products I picked up before going to China. There were goods I bought there which I’m glad I waited to buy – like my walking stick.  There were things I already had (solid walking shoes, multifunctional clothing).

I used Magellan’s to buy several of my products, however their website is down while they switch ownership. TravelSmith is good, but I find them a little overpriced and their goods are catered towards the fancier people. Amazon is Amazon (all hail…) and you can find most of this stuff there as well.

  1. Go Girl

Go Girl

The Go Girl allows women to pee standing up. It’s a flexible silicon tube. It’s great if there is no functioning toilet around you, yet there is still a “bathroom.” This would also work well if you are going camping and have absolutely no bathroom or comfortable squatting area. Make sure that you bring a ziplock bag for it, though being made of silicon it is easy to clean. Note that the packaging suggests you can carry it in the tube in the provided bag. This is true, and is what I did, but I have the feeling that over time the carton could get damaged.

It’s available at Amazon here.

  1. I can breathe! Mask

I can Breathe

I originally found this on Magellan’s, however at one point they stopped selling the mask – though they still carried the refills. Amazon does carry the brand, though my plain mesh mask is not on the list. You can also go straight to the source and look for the ACF Pollution Mask / Honeycomb mask. Simply put, after my first month in China not wearing the mask my chest started to ache. I thought I was dying somehow (see my “Middlechondriac” post), and my brother pointed out that I was knowingly breathing bad air. So I started wearing my mask, and after an additional week of hacking up sticky phlegm, my chest stopped aching. I attribute that to my mask.

It’s a straightforward deal – there is a charcoal filter which velcros inside the mesh mask. I could not wear my glasses and visor at the same time when riding my scooter, due to the fogging. If you are going somewhere which has air quality issues, buy a mask. Skip the fancy colors and patterns unless you are worried about being judged for a lack of pollution fashion sense.

3. Converter Kit Part 1


Don’t skimp on this – buy a decent set. Mine is from TravelSmith and it worked wonderfully. The big point with this is to monitor the lights on top – they’ll blink furiously if the power is wonky. And a nice box like this means you can easily organize the plugs, and you’ll know when you don’t have one. Plus, they work all over the world. I prefer to travel with a converter kit as well as a few extra adaptor plugs, for any dual-wattage appliances I have. I needed the converter to charge my e-reader, but my PS3 only needed an adaptor.

Look ahead of time for the wattage of your travel destination. And don’t leave things plugged in too long – I fried my converter in Spain because it was an old house and I was charging a laptop for too long.

4. Converter Kit Part 2 – PlugBug for Mac

The PlugBug

While getting my laptop updated (before I spilt tea on it one month later, essentially wasting a hundred dollars), I mentioned I was going abroad to China, and the helpful Apple salesman suggested a PlugBug.

Though I only used it a month, I highly recommend it. If you are taking an Apple product abroad, buy a PlugBug world. There is a fantastic built in USB port built into the adaptor, so  you can charge your laptop and a separate Apple product at the same time (instead of having to plug everything into the computer itself). It is a little pricey for a single brand product, but given the prices of Apple products, a little extra insurance feels warranted.

5. Blister Bandaids 


Blisters are the worst. Let’s all agree on this point – blisters are awful. You with me? Good.

I will sing the praises of these bandaids to the rooftops. I will write sonnets to these bandaids. I hike a lot, and China provided me plenty of opportunities to climb. These bandaids saved me from blisters. They’re waterproof so they won’t wash or sweat off. They have medicine in them to treat the blister while you walk. They’re gel-like and cushioned, so you don’t feel any extra rubbing on the affected area. Best of all, they’re inexpensive and you can buy them in any drugstore. Oh, and did I mention that they have a great shape which better contours to toes and fingers? Because they do. They’re magic.

If you plan on hoofing it in Paris, hiking in China, or just walking around Chicago in heels for a night of microbrews, put one or two of these in your purse/satchel, and walk in confidence.



Placebo or not, I bought a bulk container at Costco (3 tubes), and took it regularly. I felt like it worked as a Vitamin C supplement at least, because fresh fruit and vegetables were difficult to find, at least at first. Also, I was told to avoid a great deal of fresh produce if I did not wash it myself in purified/distilled water. A supplement, either through something like Airborne, or a multivitamin, will help you get those immune boosters and vitamins you might miss when being over careful on diet.


That’s about it. I had other things, but these were the ones which I used most often. For example, I had water purification tablets, but I did not use them because bottled water was so prevalent. Had I done more trekking/rural tours, I would have used the tablets and drops.

I took hand sanitizer, and a couple of packets of those disinfecting wipes. Kleenex was available there, as were most of those minor drugstore things.

These are the products I am glad I had with me. I couldn’t afford to buy the fancy items I would have wanted, like a fancy solar charger. I didn’t get germ purification systems or all those awesome little goods that you don’t need but make you feel like you are super prepared. I was going on a relative budget, and I had to be mindful of the long term needs of living abroad. If you’re going to be abroad for a long time, you have to expect to adapt.

I think that’s all for now!

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.


Beijing Day 4: Understanding Stone



We leave Beijing early, as it’s a two hour drive to Mutianyu, our site of choice to climb the Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China. I’ve heard a lot of the hype – visible from space, etc. It is, in essence, a big ole wall, and perhaps it’s because I’m on a tour that I feel my mental edges starting to crackle like burning film. How impressive can a wall be? How big does big mean? I’m worried about the climb and Dad’s knee. I don’t want to be accosted by merchants all selling the same things. My mood is still apparently sour, but I’m determined to be happy.

 It is, I should have known, not a straight shot to the Wall. First, we must stop at a jade market. Jade is perhaps one of the most recognizable Chinese goods, followed by silk and tea. And while I did not want to stop at a bunch of stores to be gouged repeatedly by simpering store clerks, I also could not afford the “no shopping” tour. Yes, some places charge you more to not be hassled. The Jade store is not so bad. The woman walks us past the requisite man working at a specialty saw. He’s making something for the store, apparently. The massive store with rows upon rows of statues of varying shades of Jade, cases and cases stuffed with jewelry. I just wish they could see the flaws in their own presentations. If everything is made in this tiny little workshop with six tables, why is only one man working? And why is each table making the same thing? She takes us around the corner to the store, and teaches us how to tell good jade from bad, real jade from fake.

Hold jade up to the light – it should have a grainy, fibrous quality to it. Fake jade (usually made from glass or plastic, though other stones will also be used) will have symmetrical lines in it. Real jade is also cooler to the touch than you would think, and maintains its coolness for longer. This is why you’re supposed to wear Jade over the heart. Jade is heavier than it looks because it is so dense.

I shop the discount racks – any government-approved store in China is going to hike the price at least fifty percent if not more, and they do not negotiate. You are in essence paying for the undisputed authenticity of a product. Dad, having expressed an interest in a cartouche, is whisked away to the “special” back showroom. I do surveillance, amused. I watch as they show him the jade which costs more than a car, as much as a house in Chengdu.

 The Turks did it better – they gave us pizza and alcohol, and they might have drugged my Mother a little before bringing out the “sapphires.” The Chinese have a harder time, hitting us up when we’re stone cold sober. No, we don’t need that $10,000 keychain thank you. Dad buys a dragon pendant, and I get my pig necklace. The woman shows me fancier and fancier pigs, and while the most expensive has the fewest flaws, I take a mid-range pendant.  Our sales girl, Miao Miao, chastises me for wanting brown string instead of red. “You wear things…much plainer. I like to wear beautiful things,” she says, pursing her lips slightly as she ties my necklace. Whatever, Miao Miao, I think – you have to tell all the English speaking tourists your name sounds like a cat’s meow.

 The second stop before the wall is lunch – another bland affair. I’ve been tempered in hot pot, and now I eat this fake sweet and sour with a bit of a grudge. How many people have complained about the food to get it to this point? Why are they treating us like we’re so fragile.

 Because we are. I was tempered in hot pot, but I also got really sick once. Bland is safe, and probably leads to fewer toilet trips. I grimace at the idea of throwing up in a squat toilet…


And then, we arrive. Mutianyu just completed a brand new tourist information center. It is, in fact, a village – a whole commercial village, empty and awaiting vendors. It’s beautiful stone work and dark wood railings. If and when it is completed it will be a great spot for the bustling crowds of tourists. You can’t see the wall from here. We take a bus up towards the peaks of the mountain range.




It’s old school vendors up near the top – a street packed with tents and shelves of t-shirts, magnets, terra cotta warriors, plastic models – a treasure trove of dollar-store goods. The climb is steep, Dad and I window-shopping all the way up to the cable car. You can sort of see the Wall up above. The stone ramparts stick up from the trees all along the spine of the ridge.



Dad doesn’t know why I’m antsy on the cable car. I explain that there is no secondary emergency cable. There is actually nothing to stop us from falling – we ride up one cable, and one cable only. And it’s a steep climb to the top. All the cable cars are like this – just one cable and a shudder at every junction as the little glass box pauses its ascent for a second.



And then there is the Wall.


Let me tell you about the Great Wall of China. Taken piece by piece it is not much of a sight. It’s old – dark grey stone blocks. It’s nice masonry, and wide. It’s a wide, tall wall with guard towers at regular intervals. Like a medieval castle. You cannot look at one section of the Wall and understand.


You must look at the Wall in your periphery to get it. It’s not that one section is amazing. But imagine a thousand sections, all along the ridge of the mountain, beyond your eye’s ability to penetrate the haze. Up the tops of the mountains and as far as you can see, there is the Wall. In both directions is the Wall. It keeps going, strong and wide and high enough that even if you climbed the mountain you’d still have to climb the Wall.


Those hoards must have been truly ferocious to inspire such total ramparts.


We stay and reflect. I watch dragonflies dance along the treetops. I photograph my panda bracelet, as my Chinese teacher friends told me that it is a custom to photograph pandas on the Great Wall. I eavesdrop on a French tour guide explaining the history of the wall to her one-man audience.


It’s an amazing piece of engineering. It took tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers to build (many of whom lost their lives). And apart from climbing from tower to tower, that is really all you can do at the Wall – walk and reflect. I bet that’s what the guards did – walk the ramparts and stare out at the forests, reflecting on life. I wonder if Wall duty was sought after, or if it was a punishment. Maybe it was required for every soldier to guard the wall at some point.


The climb back down is hard – my legs have decided to hate descending. I stop and haggle for a wood-carving, Dad wants a “bronze” doorknocker. Ted meets us near the busses and buys us both diet cokes, and we sit for a few minutes to catch our breath before continuing down the mountain to our car.


If you get a chance to visit the Great Wall, spend a little more and go to Mutianyu. It is farther away than the Badaling climb site, but the crowds are smaller and the views are spectacular (if the weather is good).


IMG_1917 IMG_1914



A Plum Bum

Photo 1


“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.

“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?

“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.

We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.

Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.

Photo 9 Photo 5

Photo 4Photo 3


We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.

It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.



All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.

Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”

At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.

I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.

As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.


Photo 8 Photo 7

We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.

Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.

By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.

Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.

The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.


Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.

Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.

We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.

Photo 6

They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.

“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.

“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”

I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.

On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.

I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.

It was a wonderful day.


PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.


Photo 10


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!