Monday, July 28, 2008

Lost in Translation

Last week I followed up with our Chinese teacher, Flora, about the death threat I received when I was shopping at the market with my friend Suzanne. At first Flora was a bit confused by why the sales girl would have told me that, then she realized what the salesperson meant to convey.

Apparently it has to do with a Chinese phrase that doesn’t translate too well to English, as the direct translation is very close to “I kill you.” What it is supposed to communicate is:
“You are my friend and I am offering you such a great deal, that if you do not take me up on it I will have to kill you, because you have clearly lost your mind.”
Flora reassured me that the phrase is only meant figuratively, not literally. She also commented that the sales girl must not have a very good command of the English language since she used the very direct translation. Flora is very adept at explaining the details (or what we consider idiosyncrasies) of the Chinese language and culture. Flora rocks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Shopping, negotiating… and having your life threatened

Negotiating a good deal when shopping in China is always culturally acceptable. The only places you really can't negotiate are stores like supermarkets, book stores, department stores, etc. But even then, the worst that can happen is that they tell you “No,” and you are forced to decide if you want to pay the price on the sticker or not.

To me negotiating feels totally unnatural, and it has taken awhile for me to feel comfortable at the markets. The only things we heavily negotiate on in America are vehicles. And here, securing a purchase price for an everyday item can turn into that sort of fiasco. It feels wrong to ask for a lower price, even if I know they are marking up the price 300-600% if for no other reason than that I’m a lăowài (foreigner).

Negotiations last for several rounds and, the general rule of thumb I’ve heard is to start at 10-15% of their asking price (or of the price that you think is reasonable). From there you work your way up to a price you’re comfortable with paying. It’s typical for negotiations to get heated, which does not put a ceiling on my already environment-induced elevated blood pressure.

Last Wednesday, my friend Suzanne and I were out and about Shanghai, and we had some extra time on our hands so we decided to hit one of the markets. Suzanne has been here since February, knows where various markets are and is excellent at negotiating.

We went around looking for deals and heard “Lady, you want purse, bag, watch…” to no end. Towards the end of our trip Suzanne spotted a boutique-like shop and saw a dress in the window she liked. While she tried the dress on I perused the racks. And then the sales girls speaking very good English swept in on us: Suzanne’s dress turned into four more, and I went from looking to trying on 3 shirts, and a pair of trousers.

We decided on the items we liked and negotiations began. The main sales girl, we’ll call her Mei, was upset because we didn’t want to buy everything we tried on. Suzanne’s negotiations weren’t going as well as she would have liked, so she dropped out of the game. This is a common tactic; if they really want the sell they will drop the price to get you back in negotiations.

But Mei turned her attention to me and my simple tunic. She started trying to sell me the top for 710 RMB, or just over $100. I laughed at her offer and told her that it was not that nice of a shirt and offered about 30 RMB ($4). Her rebuttal was that it was real silk and her priced dropped not more than 20 RMB. I told her it was not real silk, but more like a gossamer. Then she told me that I didn’t know what real silk was. Insults are common in the process, and you just have to know how to play them.

I told her I did not want the top and started to leave. Mei then blocked my exit to the store, but she started to negotiate with me more, dropping her price now in increments of 80-100 RMB. She kept asking what my ‘final price’ was, I was inching my price upwards in intervals of 5-10. When I reached 65 RMB ($9.52), I decided I had enough arguing and enough insults and that it was time to leave. But she blocked me again! So there I was, being blocked in a store by a Chinese woman who weighed no more than 105 pounds. I really would have had to knock her down to get by her. Suzanne is watching all of this from her post outside the store.

I told Mei I needed to go, as I had somewhere else to be. Mei told me that, “If you don’t buy this top, I kill you.” Wow a death threat, I was in total shock. A split second later I see Suzanne who is now in stitches, and then I realize that this too is part of the game too. So I told Mei, “No, I’m bigger, I kill you if you don’t let me out of the store.” Mei was irked off and was still asking me for my ‘best price’, hers was around 200 RMB.

At this point another sales person (she said she was the store owner) stepped in and started to appeal to me that the price I was offering would not cover their cost of purchasing the shirt. I told her fine, that they could sell the shirt to someone else, but I was not going to pay more. Negotiations went on a little more with this woman, but guess what … I got the top for 65 RMB!

Below is a picture of my newest purchase. The picutre doesn't do it justice, so I'll try to get a picture of me in the top sometime.

Suzanne said I drove a good deal.

The difference between 65 RMB ($9.52) and 200 RMB ($29.29) seems small, especially considering the turbulent past the Chinese have endured. At times, you have to wonder if it is worth your time, as the above adventure took at least 35 minutes. But they don’t lack business sense; they will let you walk away if your price is too low.

Part of it too, is how much are you willing to play the game too. A German mother/daughter came in the store after us, and Suzanne said she heard the mother settle on 400 RMB for a pair of sandals.

In the end I always wonder… Did I overpay? If so, how much? And, how many washings will my shirt survive? But this is an experience, which I can say I am definitely having.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dragon Boat Race

Dragon Boat Race
Originally uploaded by jimwink
This particular event is not held during the same time as the national Dragon Boat festival but instead is a competition between the companies in our business park. AMD had two entries in this years event but unfortunately one team had to drop out, which I was a part, because everyone couldn't agree to a practice schedule. Oh well. It was fun to witness the event and cheer on our co-workers. Click on the picture to see the others in the set.

Here is a little history about the national Dragon Boat festival held every year.

Excerpt taken from here

The festival was gradually derived from all of the suggestions and the story of Qu Yuan is certainly the driving power to make it a great festival today.

Like other Chinese festivals, there is also a legend behind the festival. Qu Yuan served in the court of Emperor Huai during the Warring States (475 - 221 BC). He was a wise and erudite man. His ability and fight against corruption antagonized other court officials. They exerted their evil influence on the Emperor, so the Emperor gradually dismissed Qu Yuan and eventually exiled him. During his exile, Qu Yuan did not give up. He traveled extensively, taught and wrote about his ideas. His works, the Lament (Li Sao), the Nine Chapters (Jiu Zhang), and Wen tian, are masterpieces and invaluable for studying ancient Chinese culture. He saw the gradual decline of his mother country, the Chu State. And when he heard that the Chu State was defeated by the strong Qin State, he was so despaired that he ended his life by flinging himself into the Miluo River.

Legend says after people heard he drowned, they were greatly dismayed. Fishermen raced to the spot in their boats to search for his body. Unable to find his body, people threw zongzi, eggs and other food into the river to feed fish, so hoped to salvage his body. Since then, people started to commemorate Qu Yuan through dragon boat races, eating zongzi and other activities, on the anniversary of his death, the 5th of the fifth month.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Zhujiajiao Bike Ride

Zhujiajiao Bike Ride
Originally uploaded by jimwink

Rachel already told you about the first part of our trip in an earlier post (pudong to puxi). Keep in mind that we had already ridden 20km by the time we reached the start of our group trip to Zhujiajiao. Zhujiajiao is a water town about 45 minutes west of Shanghai. After we arrived, the tour guides unloaded our bikes, made sure everyone had water, their lunches and we were off for another 25-30km ride. Rachel started out great but it was soon apparent that the morning ride was just a little too much for her backside to endure. She toughed it out though and in the end appreciated how much fun it was to go site seeing on bike. The beginning of the ride was really muddy so I didn't have my camera out but there was an incident where Rachel fell off the bike and almost ended up taking a swim. I think at this point Rachel was ready to quit but she knew the only way home was to get back on the bike and finish the ride.

Click on the picture to the right to see the rest of the photos.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th!!

I just wanted to take a moment and wish everyone a Happy 4th of July, from China. I've thought more today about what the day really means than I think I ever have in the past. It has been weird, being in China today knowing that this day means something to me that most Chinese would probably not understand.

Today I joined some friends in Puxi learning how to play Mahjong - playing with tiles is totally different from playing on the computer. From my first experience of the game it seems to be very similar to dominoes, if not a little more involved. For more information see: Just incase anybody is wondering, I didn't gamble, we just used chips to keep score and in the end they meant nothing. I didn't do too bad considering it was my first time.

I met some new ladies too, and after the games this morning a group of us checked out some of the market places. I still get overwhelmed when I step inside one of these places because there is so much merchandise.

One of Jim's American coworkers is throwing a 4th of July party tonight that we will leave for in a little bit. They are supposed to have BBQ and fireworks. I'm looking forward to the BBQ, but know it won't compare to Uncle Andy's. I am really excited about the fireworks, since this is the place that they were invented. They sell them year round here, the Chinese culture uses them for celebrations well beyond those classified as national holidays. I think it is common for them to use them at weddings, after the birth of newborns, etc. From what Jim has said the stuff that vendors will sell to any guy on the street here is amazing. I wonder if they will have sparklers...

I hope we get to take some pictures. I also still intend to post pictures from our bike ride last Saturday.

So again, Happy Fourth of July & God Bless America!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Pudong to Puxi & Our First Chinese Offense

On Saturday we signed up for a guided bike tour in Zhujiajiao, a small neighboring town of Shanghai. Jim had been on a different ride with the group before (see posts from May). The group was to leave the meeting place in Puxi at 10am on Saturday, so Friday night we mapped out our bike route to the meeting place. We left Saturday morning at 8am, figuring we were allowing ourselves plenty of times to bike to Puxi.

We phoned ahead when we realized we were going to be late, which in the end was only 15 minutes. So what led to our tardiness? Neglecting the facts that Jim was almost side-swiped by a crazy taxi driver, and I was almost the hood ornament for a black sedan, there was one event that set us back the most.

We were stopped and issued tickets by a policeman for riding our bikes on Beijing Lu (Lu = Rd), a road that is not supposed to be traversed by bikes. Sure there were signs with a bike and a non-smoking-like slash through it, but seriously, who looks at signs when travelling the streets of Shanghai? We thought about just taking off in a different direction for about 30 seconds, but then came to the consensus that we didn’t want to be fugitives on the road in socialist/communist China.

There was another Chinese person that was getting a ticket for the same offense, but when the cop started to write our tickets, we drew a crowd of locals, and I felt like part of a circus act.

Another Chinese man approached and helped the officer translate. He told us that the police officer was a very nice and good man and was doing this for our safety. The police officer was upset too because we didn’t have registration numbers (I think like a license plate) for our bikes either – we haven’t figured out where to get those yet, but we will. By the end of the event, the translator and the police officer both said we were there “pengyou” or friend.

When the officer asked my name, I replied, he rolled his eyes and he just handed the notepad directly to me. The same happened to Jim. We paid our fees to the police officer: 5 RMB each ($0.73). We received our tickets (mine is shown below) and receipts, and were allowed to continue our paths as long as we walked our bikes while on Beijing Lu... We cut a street north and hopped back in the saddles.

The ride to the meeting place turned out to be right at 20km = 12.4miles. Up to this point, the most I had rode in one event was about 18 km. So I was still looking at the 25 km we had signed up for with the group.

We just hope there is no court date associated with this violation, because we have no idea how to proceed if so. We’ll ask our Chinese tutor tomorrow, just to be safe.