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Ayi Goes Bananas


Hey Ayi,
Yesterday while buying bananas, the local in front of me paid RMB3 and I was asked to fork over RMB30. I was so mad I knocked over the fruit stand. I realize I may have overreacted, but why should I pay ten times more for the privilege of a big nose? What should I do differently?

Freddie Frugal

Dear Freddie,

We Chinese have been haggling for millennia, although it really gained entertainment value with the emergence of the foreign shopper. In Ayi's day, we bargained for everything including the kitchen sink, but now what's subject to negotiation varies from place to place. Most private and state-owned shops discourage it. But large hotels often give discounts on rooms upon request. The many street markets around Beijing should be considered fair game. You can bargain for virtually anything from chopsticks to the latest line of Versace casual wear.

Remember, bargaining in China is a game, not a battle. It is not an uncommon sight to see a foreigner entering into a melee of screams and threats with a stall owner over the price of a t-shirt. Although watching Chinese people haggle over the last mao for wilted vegetables may appear like a duel to the death, they are merely entering into the spirit of what is in fact a complex art. Prices often soar skyward for a number of reasons, ranging from the color of your skin to the cut of your shoes. This can be frustrating, but unless you too enter with the necessary politeness and sense of humor, all will be lost. Since this complex social skill takes even a China Hand many years to perfect, it is the least your Ayi can do to pass on some insider's advice.

Be prepared. The first time you go to a market, it is worthwhile to eavesdrop a little in order to find out the prices other people are paying or alternatively go with someone who has been there before. That way when you are charged eight times the amount for that "North Fake" jacket you've had your eye on, you will be ready to convincingly feign alarm.

Remember that vendors can smell desire, and drooling over something you may have been spending a lifetime looking for will not aid your cause. Stay calm, try not to break into a sweat, and instead of going straight for the kill pick up another item and ask the price. When the vendor comes back with a number that could buy you a small tropical island, reel backwards and protest loudly, making a counter offer at a quarter of the price.

It is now the seller's turn to have a coronary, wailing and declaiming poverty. The price comes down. This procedure carries on for quite a while until you feel confident that a stalemate has been reached from which neither of you will budge. At this point sigh, and with an air of resignation pick up the item next to it - the one you really want. The seller's stamina should be well and truly broken by the time the process starts all over again.

If you're a newcomer it might be worth your while to employ the help of a Chinese friend, with whom you can embark on a secret ritual of hair-scratching and head-nodding. To befuddle vendors, the foreigner should play the savvy, stubborn embodiment of practicality while the local plays the swooning, smitten sucker who absolutely must have the item in question. While the laowai feigns complete resistance to purchasing anything, the local forms an "alliance" with the shopkeeper to lower the price to get the spendthrift foreigner to cough up the cash.

Although the use of Mandarin in bargaining will increase your leverage dramatically, the more adventurous could alternatively try the well-used system of hand signals to indicate a price. These alone will certainly get the job done. Your Ayi has often observed foreigners using digital dialogue for serious bargaining.

If you look carefully, you can see many traditional bargaining techniques in practice on the streets of Beijing. One of these is the Crab Claw, where the would-be buyer approaches the item in question quickly and ferociously, latching on with the tenacity of a crab. On hearing the price, the buyer then instantly lets go and begins to scuttle away in a crustacean manner. The price will drop as surely as the jaw of the stunned vendor, who seconds earlier had been confident of an easy sale. Price gougers won't easily forget the bite of the Crab.

Eye of Hawk, used for high-end goods, can turn the strength of the vendor into weakness. As the object is approached and the haggling begins, the buyer uses the Eye both to scrutinize the product intensely and to stare piercingly into the eyes of the vendor during price negotiation. If the gaze of the seller is strong, causing the buyer to flinch, all is lost. But if the buyer is pure of heart, the strongest-willed vendor will yield.

I hasten to remind you that, as with all of the Chinese arts involving personal interaction, bargaining techniques are grounded in a deeper philosophy. Before brandishing the might of the Crab Claw, one should determine the necessity of bargaining for every last jiao. Ayi suspects a few of her foreign friends won't go hungry if they fall short of the rock-bottom price by a couple of mao, or even ten kuai for that matter. It is worth keeping in mind that these sellers are earning a living and will not sell at a loss. So, the next time your friends bring you to shame by saying they got the same shirt in Silk Alley for five yuan less, Ayi recommends you respond with a heartfelt "Who cares?" Bargain well, keep smiling and remember: the true warrior wields his weapons with discretion.


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