It isn’t the revelation I’ve had with regard to shopping in China that continues to bother me. It’s the not knowing how to deal with the reality of it that’s the bug in my system.
The reality of the situation was simply put on the table in the most frank and direct manner, so typical of my colleague Linda. I was forced to have this revelation – there was no way of evading it, unless I was prepared to stick my head in a pool of sand called denial.
There was something wrong in the way I was approaching the process of shopping in this mysterious culture. I’ve had encounters with this issue before in my life and I have experienced the uncomfortable sensation of … how should I put it… almost of being scrutinised for my ‘prrrrecious’ money. But I never reached further in unravelling this enigma past the mere question of ‘why do people behave in this way?’ and I continued to stay in my naïve frame of mind to that day, when Linda, practical as ever (I often call her mummy, although I’m old enough to be her mother instead!) considered I was ripe enough for the answer and she simply put it in my face: ‘They ONLY want your money!’
Now, OK, hey! I know that, you know that, in fact… who doesn’t? However, I was still deeply shocked on hearing it and I realised this was the point of no return in my philosophy regarding shopping. Things are never going to be the same again, at least not for as long as I live in China and what triggered it was that little word ‘ONLY’. She pronounced it with such self-assured certainty, there was no space for ambiguity. Only means ‘only’ – it’s simple! There is nothing else to consider, apart from whatever ‘only’ qualifies… in this case money. My money!
All of a sudden I could almost feel the rest of the concepts related to shopping fly out of the window: none of that ‘service to the customer’, forget the ‘rapport between buyer and seller’, what… expanding on the qualities of the product? Features and benefits are too pointless and time consuming to delve into, so forget it – the obvious questions are: what ‘more’ do you want to know?; can’t you see it?; and are you going to buy it? The next overbearing little word is ‘NOW!’ which comes not in sounds, but rather in a measuring kind of look that probably only poker players are practising regularly.
I don’t speak Chinese yet, but I can read the language-barrier free body language and I pick up vibrations from people. My problem lies in interpreting the message, using a mind that’s been filled with the lovey-dovey concepts evidently inspired by my deluded feelings for the goodness in people and the ‘idyllic togetherness’ that … um… brings us together, huh? Mmmaybe, maybe not!
My reaction to Linda’s matter-of-fact comment was a little thoughtful pause. Within a few moments I had recollections of similar circumstances I’d lived before, as well as more graphic scenes from films where the seller would ask upfront ‘Do you want it, or not?!’ Before I embarked on my spiritual journey a few years ago, I wouldn’t give it a second thought – that’s life and that’s all there is to it; but my thinking has changed since and it’s maturing constantly. I shall leave the details about this aspect for another occasion and I’ll stay with the situation in hand: shopping in China.
Now, to put things in perspective, Donghai (the town of my present residence) is also called Crystal City, for its outstanding crystal industry that’s made many local millionaires. I was recently told that the world’s biggest crystal, exhibited somewhere in Beijing, was dug out from this region. Linda knows about crystals and I’ve been waiting for quite some time for an occasion when she would introduce me to the crystal market and that was the day! I was absolutely overwhelmed with the sheer number of dealers, even more buyers mingling among stalls loaded with altogether tons of crystals of all colours, shapes and qualities one can imagine. Why I hadn’t checked the batteries in my camera before venturing to this market beats me, but I wasn’t too upset, knowing this is a regular event. Just taking normal photos wouldn’t do justice to a gathering of this scale – the best way to approach it would be by taking aerial photos of the outdoor market, knowing there are many shops inside the Crystal Shopping Mall… this being just one of them in Donghai! Being informed of this prior to coming to this place made me think of it as a spiritual haven, but how far I was from the truth… I still don’t know!
Linda’s time was limited, so I needed to be quick in asking all the questions I could, but I soon realised one would probably need years to take it all in. As usual, I started to get overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of it – I didn’t feel the sense of spirituality I anticipated.
The offending episode happened when I had a couple of extra questions about some earrings that I could afford, the answer to which Linda considered was best left to vanish in the wind, as it was on par with the abrupt lines you see in films – ‘Are you buying, or what?’ After a few more rounds, she wanted to leave and I stayed a little bit longer, only to feel hassled and pushed into buying pieces I wouldn’t know enough about to feel comfortable spending my limited amount of spare cash on.
In another shop the shopkeeper started to roll her eyes after 3 pairs of shoes (a size bigger than my normal size) wouldn’t fit, so I was diplomatically dragged out of there without a shopping bag in my hand. The local printer shop couldn’t be specific enough about their prices and those quotes which they could commit to were 3 times higher than those of their online competitor Vistaprint, so I had to return repeatedly for more info but only when I could arrange for somebody to accompany me, for translating purposes. Needless to say that no purchase was made from this shop, which was sufficient to make them refuse a printing job that my boss wanted to commission them later, on the basis that he worked with me! What?
During my short reflection break I just realised how the urgency of getting some money out of a prospective buyer could break one’s humane approach to the moment; how it could transform an actual person into a mere walking wallet and even this would only be acceptable if it would open wide and NOW!, regardless; how shopkeepers are more interested in watching movies on a DVD player or have their lunch by the counter instead of entertaining exploratory questions from a buyer, including cases when that buyer brings along another person out of necessity.
The result of my thinking was a deep sense of sadness – even the weather turned gloomy unpredictably, or was it just me? It took me a good few days to shift the weight of this discovery. At the same time, it spurred the second biggest reason for putting me off shopping in China, after the pain of purchasing low quality goods.
However, it also brought up an additional interest – that of attempting to understand not just the crystal market over here, but also the mentality of the local wealthy folks. Life would be boring if we were all the same and what are we living for, if not for learning more in the process?