A Canadian in Beijing: Dancing the Bargaining Dance

I have tried my best not to spend too much time at the markets here in Beijing. It’s easy to do. They’re addictive. I think it’s the action combined with the colours and the diversity of people you can see there. Not to mention the fact that “things” are so cheap here (by Canadian standards) that it’s hard not to get excited when you find a gift for a friend that costs a fraction of what it would back home.

And let’s not forget the bargaining.

One of my friends on campus, Daisy, is an expert bargainer. She is from France and she is just starting to learn Chinese. After only two months here studying the language, she has mastered most of the bargaining lingo and she chats easily with the shopkeepers in a dance that I find highly entertaining. Watching Daisy bargain is like watching a stage show by an expert choreographer. It’s not just her words but also her facial expressions – the disdain, the disgust, the surprise – and then her exaggerated body language that communicates a complete and utter disregard for the item in question no matter how much she would like to purchase it.

It’s awesome.The first time I went shopping with Daisy, I felt as though I should apprentice with her when it comes to bargaining; she is the master and I am the student and I watched her technique closely for subtlety and style. She has a gift.

Here in Beijing, there are several kinds of large shopping complexes. So far, I have experienced the “Yaxiu” markets down near Sanlitun area (very geared towards tourists) as well as the Wudaokou Fuzhuan markets which are here near my school. Both markets were vast and carry stall upon stall of stuff, stuff, stuff. Both feature overpriced clothing to start with that can be bargained down to a reasonable compromise after engaging in the dance. Both are exhausting, in that enjoyable kind of way.

Yaxiu markets is a huge building with several floors. Each floor has its own character. There are floors that feature only accessories like belts and purses, another for children’s wear, another for adult clothing, another for silks and materials, etc. We only spent time on three different floors before we left again, but I managed to bargain myself into two new t-shirts and a pair of jeans – with pant legs mercifully long enough for my tall self.

We noticed the presence of lots of foreigners at Ya Xiu and the obvious mark-up on the clothing as a result. As soon as a shopkeeper saw us, I felt sure that the price doubled thanks to our appearance. Clothing that I’d seen in the Wudaokou markets for just fifty or sixty kuai was suddenly being quoted at two-hundred kuai here. A standard response of ours was “tai gui!” (too expensive!) which was always responded to with “wo gei ni pianyi yidiar” (I’ll give it to you cheaper!)

Well, of course they will – otherwise, where’s the dance?

Daisy came away with several bags worth of skirts, shirts and shoes. I asked her how she was going to be able to send all these clothes back to France with her and she said that she probably wouldn’t send them home. “They wear out too quickly anyway,” she said, “They’ll probably break before I need to go home!”

And herein lies the problem:

When I first arrived and was asking about markets, my friend Traci said this to me: “The great thing about China is that the clothing is cheap.” Then she paused for a moment and followed that up with, “But the bad thing about China is that the clothing is cheap.” I laughed at these double meanings, but it’s so true. These clothes aren’t made to last, to be sure, and Daisy’s approach is one of many.

For me, I have been trying to avoid these markets because I can easily get sucked into the incredible discounts and the fun clothes. I don’t want to contribute to all this consumerism, but I’m as susceptible as the next person. What I know to be true is that the more I buy here, the more will be made and the more this cycle (and production) of disposable goods will be fuelled. I have already had to sew a tank top I bought a few weeks ago because the stitching came undone at the seams. I’m working on a moderation theory. I’ll let you know how it goes!

The Wudaokou markets are more casual than Yaxiu. Fewer tourists and lower prices to start with, narrower passageways, and just as much stuff. There are also food stalls, manicure booths, stationary stalls and I even saw a whole stall devoted to custom sticker making. Outside, there are merchants selling goods out of the backs of their cars. It’s a circus and I love it. I stand in the midst of the chaos and smile.

Then, I turn and see Daisy in the midst of another choreographed bargaining scene and I take a look at what she’s after. She’s handing a pair of shoes back to the shopkeeper gruffly and she’s at the point where she is not only poised to leave but actually walking away, flippant and irritated. This is the “piece de resistance” because it generally gets her the price she wants. The shopkeeper will fear losing the sale and concede to her final offer by calling her back as though this amount is her name. Today was no exception. Money was exchanged, the shoes went into a bag and the bag went into her hand.

I saw a smile flash in her eyes but she kept her cool and showed no reaction in front of the merchant.

She’s my new shopping hero.

Pictured from left to right are David (Canada), Daisy (the shopping hero from France!), Daniel (South Africa) and Tobias (Switzerland). These are some of my dorm friends here at Beijing Language and Culture University.