Stirring Up Alliances

The Student Activities Fair is a much anticipated event on Fudan University’s campus where students are given the opportunity to showcase their talents and efforts so as to recruit new members into their clubs. Some of the clubs being showcased were service-based while others were just for fun and still others were affiliated with sports teams. Chinese students were enthusiastic and welcoming, especially the ones who spoke English well or could find a representative to explain their club’s purpose and goals to the wide-eyed American students on the hunt for some new local friends. Each club had a group of students standing in front of its booth holding posters and dressed up to attract attention and potentially new members to help achieve its goals for the 2012-2013 school year. Some of the clubs I came across were the Global Awareness Club, the Theatre Club, the Technology and Education Connecting Cultures Club and the Association of Philharmonic along with the ever popular Coffee and Cocktail Society, which is particularly emblematic.

The representative for the Coffee and Cocktail Society was dressed in a tuxedo and invited me over to chat with him and to take a look at the booth he and his friends had set up. I could see that this group was not created to incite debauchery; instead, it was created to teach Chinese students an American outlet for establishing “guanqi,” or personal connections, which is a traditional Chinese idea. As Lyn Jeffery describes in her article “Placing Practices: Transnational Network Marketing in Mainland China,” marketing has changed the way many social interactions occur among Chinese people and between Chinese and Western peoples. Chinese are now more aware of Western practices and many times try to appeal to Western ideals of typical social situations in order to properly establish guanqi, even if that means learning how to drink coffee and make cocktails.

Bargain Culture

“Aight here’s the plan: DJ, don’t have more than 700 Yuan in your wallet. We’re going to stroll in, and Ima tell him that we found a gym that’s charging 700 Yuan but is much closer to our dorms which is why we want an extra 50 Yuan discount. Shanel, I need you to randomly ask how much it costs. Just give him some hope that we might be bringing some more customers, that way he’ll be more inclined to give us an extra discount. Also, DJ… just don’t say anything! Got it?”

My roommate inquires as he lays out a course of action to bargain. Nicky is assertive when it comes to bargaining and I’m just a novice. Until recently I thought that I understood the whole bargaining system, but the extent to which Chinese citizens bargain is unbelievable; my roommate, however, seems to have mastered the skills effectively. And with them, I watched in (contained) amazement as the gym membership prices dwindled from 900 to 700 to 650 yuan (元) for the entire three months. Directly after my roommate’s demonstration of effective bargaining, I began to practice those skills (as if tenants) to buy a Burberry jacket at what I shall call the “Name Brand Store”. As all of this transpired, the following questions fluttered to my mind: Are these products even real and either just redistributed or just stolen? If so, is this why the prices are super inflated with extreme flexibility? If not, what can I conclude about their quality?

The Name Brand Store

While I tried to reason with the sales associate over the relatively expensive price of this Burberry jacket (less than $100), Shanel tried desperately to reduce the price of 4 pairs of Tom’s to even less. I think what fascinated me most was watching the strategized discourse manifest between buyer and seller, comprised of sellers’ calculated shouts of intimate terms (friend, buddy, 很 帅) and buyers’ premeditated walkout with feigned frustration. In my case, the seller chased me outside the store to buy the jacket, after settling for two-thirds of the initial price and slapping me a couple of times. It seems that prices are overinflated because the perception is that Westerners are willing to pay for expensive names, even though it appears to me that those products were impeccable knock-offs (I know, ironic). Nonetlesless, there are other sentiments among our group. “Me and my roommate concluded everything is real,” Shanel started. “It’s probably just stolen…” So what am I bargaining for? Authenticity?

The concern for authenticity in this consumer world is ludicrous, self-contradictory, and yet astute in identifying our (Western) skewed association with brand and function. In short, we would rather pay the “extra” for the famed name associated with the product despite its function and/or quality. Although seemingly real, my inauthentic “Beats” are great headphones, with outstanding quality and surprising durability. Plus, Nicky bargained them to half the price ($60 to $30) of the knockoff and maybe more off the original brand. The only implication that they are inauthentic is a small typo on the prepackaging, which is so passible it’s basically real. If they are indeed fake, then it seems that Chinese producers go to extreme lengths to replicate every minute detail. This possibility resurges my concern for quality over famed name, and further leads me to conclude that a) the effort they place in replicating the products almost ensures genuine quality and b) even though the will prices are inflated, I can bargain down to almost the production cost.


Price is another big concern and it causes me to question if the locals are being offered deflated prices, if they have to bargain also, or if they are even being targeted at all. The Name Brand store seems to attract many foreigners with a poster that lists all of the brands present in stock, even eebok (Reebok?). On the flip side, there was an equal influx of Han browsing in the sections. Since the merchandise is apparently real (but stolen), it will appeal and entice Chinese locals – another means to continue this path to both modernity and cosmopolitanism. Plus, I will assume that they are being offered the same prices. But since bargaining is such an intricate part of Chinese culture, I will likewise assume that they are ideal bargainers. Conversely, street vendors who encouraged me to purchase those Beats knockoffs, may not be as appealing.

I feel that bargaining, an inherent aspect of Chinese culture, is vanishing and overshadowed by Globalization and Consumerism. Albeit not discussed often, the rise of multinational corporations (MNC’s) and other franchises fuel this Chinese desire liberate oneself, to be “relieved of the burdens of home, history, and tradition…” (Chinese Religious Life). In this liberation process, traditional businesses and market techniques (i.e. bargaining) become marginalized, maybe even ostracized by society. I’ve even noticed that it’s impossible to bargain at the Wanda marketplace (my favorite); I just wonder if Chinese bargaining will cease completely as the society continues to commercialize…

Still, I guess that I can and must take advantage of bargaining in my time here. I’ve only been here approximately a month and despite my recent success, I am still a novice at it. Although my findings are not empirical, my experiences taught me the following: a) this is foremost a business, b) drop all naiveté or ye be scammed, c) be unrelenting and resilient, and d) never settle until satisfied. With these guidelines, bargaining is a lot more effective and successful. I know for a fact, I will be schlepping Western merchandise from China to the States, whether fake or not – and of course after having bargained for them first.

Money Talk

“And they say money talks, well it’s my spokesperson…”

Lil Wayne, “Hold Up” (2010)

My bargaining skills are outstanding (shout out to 15 years lived in 3rd world countries). Unfortunately, my powers are considerable diminished over here. Let’s face it: my skin tone immediately gives away the fact that I’m foreign. The fact that I’m foreign and in Shanghai is an indicator to merchants that I [most likely] have Dollar or Euro purchasing power. And they are right. I therefore have to resort to theatricality and deception in order to not get ripped off:

– I try not to look like your typical, oblivious, annoying tourist who’s shopping for souvenirs. Vendors know this species and that is why most places don’t have prices tags: the prices vary depending on your ethnicity, body language and attire (which is why I hate showing that I have an iPhone because it is equated to a symbol of wealth, thus ruining my bargaining power). I try to look confident like I know Shanghai just as much as they do. I also give the impression that I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to lose which means that this transaction needs to happen fast and to my liking otherwise I will be out there in a blink of an eye if I’m unhappy.

– Ultimately my level of Chinese gives away part of the persona I previously described. So I need a backup plan. Recently, I’ve used my two closest friends on this trip (Shanel Tage and DJ) to help me out with theatrics.

– When bargaining for our gym memberships I made Shanel (who had no interest whatsoever in getting a membership) inquire about the price and even request a visit of the facility. Along the same lines, I tell vendors that if they give me a good price, I’ll tell my other American friends (“who have more money than I do”) to come shop in their store.

– I only keep a small portion of my money in my wallet because they look at how much one has when one pulls it out. If they see that one has a bunch of bills, further bargaining will be a waste of one’s time.

– The oldest trick in the book is to start at 50% the price and concede to pay a higher price incrementally. But they obviously know this trick so it needs a few enhancements:

A trick merchants like to use is one where they tell you they won’t have anything to eat or feed their kids if they lower the price. They usually use that once you have them in what I call their Comfort zone (or Orange zone, see graph):

In the comfort zone, they’re still making profit but not the amount they had expected to. This is where one uses the second oldest trick in the book: walk away. Indeed, at this point one starts to notice little signs of frustration and indecisiveness on their faces. They could just not make the sale and sell that unit to someone else at a price within the Yellow to Blue zone; but who knows how good sales will be that day? Maybe this is his or her only chance at selling that good today, and it would be irrational to not make any profit at all. In the latter case the vendor would not only be bearing the cost without any profit, but would also have to incur whatever inventory costs are associated with not selling the item.

If all goes well, they will come after you and try to keep the negotiations going. But even though they come after you, they will typically still pull out the empathy card and try to explain to you that you’re American and have money so it’s [basically] unfair for you to even bargain with someone poorer in the first place. This is where I pull out what I call the Reverse Empathy card:

I tell them I’m a student without my parents and I have no money. I attend Fudan University, which is very expensive. I then open my wallet and show them the [previously reduced] amount of money I have, and explain that if they do the math themselves, they’ll see that I won’t be able to eat tonight if I buy the item at their demanding price. In other words, I make it obvious that it would be illogical for me to accept a higher price. Finally, they give in.

Using these tricks, I was able to:

– Lower the price of 2 gym memberships from 1800¥ to 1300¥ ($300 to $215).

– Help Shanel get 4 pairs of TOMS for 380¥ instead of 480¥ ($80 to $60).

– Help DJ get a great Burberry windbreaker for 400¥ instead of 600¥ ($100 to $66).

I doubt Shanel’s purchase will result in 4 pairs of TOMS being donated to kids in Argentina as TOMS Shoes promises (see their website). And while the provenance of the goods remains a mystery, their quality is undeniably excellent. I do realize however that the graph illustrating my bargaining theory is flawed in that we have no idea what the original cost was for the seller. I may think I made a totally good deal, when in actuality the seller was still in his or her actual Yellow or Blue zones. I’ll never know… But after doing some math, I feel like that’s irrelevant: our total savings were ¥900 ($150) that day, or 30 succulent and generously portioned meals for one person. How much is meal plan at Davidson again? Yeah I thought so…

Highly Developed Linguistic Skills

Chinese 101: There are four tones when speaking Mandarin. These tones are crucial because depending on the tone one uses the sentence will have a whole different meaning. For instance, the verbs “to buy” and “to sell” are written and pronounced the exact same way: “mai”; even their respective characters are very similar (买 and 卖). Only the intonation will let a Chinese interlocutor know which term one is referring to.

In my opinion, the only thing harder than writing Chinese is getting those tones right. Surprisingly though, I never had to worry about tones until the end of my 4th semester of Chinese (CHI 202). While it was one less thing on my workload for me to worry about, I do regret that tones weren’t emphasized and here’s why: many times when speaking Chinese, I know exactly what word to use and how to pronounce it (and even write it). But when I say it, my tones are off and my interlocutor will not understand what I’m talking about, lest I pull out my iPhone and let him or her read the word. And I hate doing that for reasons I’ll explain further on.

I have however found a way around this. I noticed that people here speak really fast, the same way we [unconsciously] speak english really fast. I thought to myself: “there’s absolutely no way they’re speaking that fast and pronouncing every single tone correctly.” So I tried something. Instead of speaking at a regular speed, I talk as fast as I can. The reasoning behind this is that the less time I spend on a word, the less time I have to emphasize the tone. How is that working out for me? I’d say pretty well: I started that last week and I feel like my linguistic skills are improving even faster. A good indicator is that I haven’t had to pull out my iPhone out as much. And I don’t know to what extent this theory is farfetched but I feel like the constant pressure I’m putting on my brain to express itself in Chinese at a fast pace, is making it amalgamate every available resource it has in order to meet my demand for Chinese that it [normally] cannot supply. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you but it simply means that my being immerged in this environment is helping me improve my Chinese exponentially:

I was at the gym yesterday and a girl told me that she was working out because her boyfriend said “her behind was too round”. If you know me well enough you can probably imagine the look on my face upon hearing that nonsense (her behind was… beautiful, to say the least). I had the moral obligation to advise her to move to the States where I assured her, It would be extremely well received. That earned me a playful, but strong slap to the face followed by a long laugh (and a lot of stares from the gymaholics who had tripled their efforts upon her arrival). This was significant to me because for the first time, I made someone laugh and it wasn’t because I’m black; all this in Chinese and… without my iPhone.

While I’m still far away from dreaming in Chinese the way I do in French, English and Comorian (my 3 maternal languages), I’m hoping this deep immersion in Shanghai will get me past the 5-year-level of Spanish I have, to the point where I can practice my favorite hobby: making fun of people. Until then, I’ll just keep using Chinese as much as I can.

To find out why I don’t like pulling out my iPhone, please read my next post here.

Blue Frog Restaurant: Best Burger Place in Shanghai

Blue Frog: Bar and Grill, the best burger restaurant found so far, is only found in Beijing and Shanghai, China. The establishment started in April 2003 and has continued to flourish till now. I stumbled upon it when Alex Bau led an outing to Pudong. A Monday night special of buy 1 burger get 1 free caused a group of 6 to take an hour long subway ride to this magnificent place. Located in the basement of the Financial Center, customers see expensive marble floors and high quality facilities everywhere. Blue Frog is hidden in an inner alcove of the basement. The first thing we see is an awesomely decorated restaurant with a vibrant atmosphere. Not too light but not too dark, Blue Frog is definitely a cool place to hang out. The most surprising yet welcoming thing is the English speaking waiters. They do not speak perfectly, but it is always a pleasure to hear a language I can fully understand in China. I had a Montana burger with curly fries. It was amazing! The burger was juicy and delicious, while the fries were tasty. That experience alone made another group go to Blue Frog for brunch another day. The price on the other hand seemed steep. A currency conversion shows we spent 20 dollars, and because of the deal we only spent 10 dollars not including the drinks. But I believe to a native of China in the middle or lower class, the price of 85 kuai for a burger and 20-50 kuai for a drink is definitely still out of reach or a once a year type of meal. Looking around the restaurant, there were mostly wai-guo ren, or foreigners in Blue Frog. There were some Shanghai locals but at most 9 or 10 in the whole establishment. Blue Grog definitely does not receive a lot of Chinese customers and its market focuses on foreigners. So, China’s GDP may be growing exponentially every year, but the income of its people has not yet reached a level where the majority can affords cosmopolitan food. Modernization is slowly happening. Shanghai is transforming into an advanced and beautiful city. However, the people are far from consuming the products of urbanization. It may happen in a couple of decades but I believe the majority of people will stick to eating their 10-30 kuai meals.