Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Another near-murder

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I was out pricing DVD-RW drives for the heck of it when the following occurred.

Me, pointing at one of two boxes on display: “How much?” (Even people with zero English know this phrase and “Hello”.)

“Oh, it is very great—” and he starts to repeat all the technical information I can already read on the box, but I cut him off.

“No, how much?”

“It is wonderf—”


He writes down “¥580”. (I’ll be charitable and assume he forgot his numbers in English and was stalling so he could remember and say the price instead of writing. Which doesn’t make it any less rude.)

I point at the other box. “How much?”


“Yes. How much?”

“No no no no no, it is old.” He tries to talk more about the first one; I cut him off again.

“I know how much for that one already. How much for this one?”

“No no no, it is slow.”

“Yes yes yes, how much?

“You no want that one.”

Five more minutes of this occur, before I finally browbeat him into pretending to believe for half a moment that, yes, I really do have a much better f***ing idea what I want than he does.

The price he wrote for the “very old” “very slow” second drive that was, in fact, half the speed of the first one?


About $2.25’s worth of difference.

But there were witnesses, so instead of slashing his throat I just left.

The brutal part is how utterly common this is.

Almost any time I ask a question — of nearly any Chinese person, friend or stranger — the conversation instantly transforms into a combination information-wrestling-match / insult-to-my-intelligence. I (and perhaps all laowai, I don’t know) appear to be such a miserably stupid fuck that I am utterly incapable of phrasing even a simple question which will elicit the information I “really” want.

When these interactions do not inspire thoughts of murder, it is only because torture seems more appealing. Electroshock Therapy by remote control truly appeals — 15,000 volts for each non-responsive reply, perhaps.

And before anyone pleads “cultural differences”, know that when the hypocrisy test is applied and I do unto them as they do unto me, they get very nearly as offended and angry as I get, and very nearly as quickly, too.


Written by [IMH]

19 December 2005 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Shanghai Stories

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  1. I’m curious to know how the locals go about obtaining price information in such a scenario.

    Could it be that this whole time these clerks have simply been trying to do their job according to time-honored and well-understood traditions, and that they have been harboring similar fantasies of brutally murdering the effing laowai who can’t be bothered to go about shopping in the polite, proper way?

    Have you considered hooking up with a non-westernized native, and learning how they obtain the information, goods, and services they want, without bypassing the customary rituals and browbeating the clerk?


    20 December 2005 at 2:06 am

  2. In this particular case, there was no excuse, but you are right, I am not mentioning the time-honored way of doing things here, which I well know.

    In China, and Shanghai especially, you are supposed to bargain on every single price (unless at a western-style market or department store). That means that the vendor begins by naming an outrageously high price, you counter with an outrageously low price, you both insult each other’s character and intelligence (by implication only), and eventually come to an agreed price.

    When I can (and when I have the time and patience), I do drag along a native to dicker for me, usually one of my students who wants some in-the-street practice speaking English to me.

    But this method is horribly inefficient by any objective measure, and it’s stacked against laowai to begin with — since prices aren’t written down, and since all laowai bleed american money, the initial quoted price is often outrageous even by Neiman Marcus standards, rather than typical Shanghai standards. Plus, most vendors expect laowai not to bargain at all, if they’re alone, since the tourists readily pay the initially named price more often than not. So the vendors think we’re all unbelievably stupid into the bargain.

    So, in short, if I get them as honked off at me on occasion as I sometimes get at them, good! (I really should label these posts as “arrogant bastardry” too, shouldn’t I?)


    20 December 2005 at 12:00 pm

  3. I’ve experienced this many times. One of the most frequent occurences is in restaurants. A friend of mine just last week asked for no onions or ginger to be put in the food. The dish comes, and it has onions. Well of course they explain that this is Chinese custom, we put onions in this dish. Yes, all well and good, but we don’t want any. We send the dish back, and it comes back again with onions. We send it back a third time, again it comes back with onions. (My friend’s Chinese is perfect, so there is no communication problem.) Yet a fourth time it comes back with onions. Now there were fewer onions each time, but still. Many Chinese people have the idea that Westerners are absolutely clueless about anything Chinese, so they must guide us in making decisions.

    You’re right about the stupid tourists. I went to the Silk Market in Beijing a couple of years ago and bought a handbag. The intial price was something like 700, and I told the woman 50. She said 680 and I said 50. I had to repeat 50 about 5 times before she laughed and we go to the real process of bargaining.


    20 December 2005 at 1:57 pm

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