Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Day 5: Breakfast, Bruce Lee and Haggling Lessons

Street Food of the Day: Tamarind Gingerbread
While yesterday's culinary highlight was unquestionably the heavenly Peking Duck (see Andrea's blog), our breakfast was well worth a mention. Purchased from a tiny bakery in our local Hutong, this slightly sweet, lightly spiced gingerbread had chunks of what I believe to be dried tamarind fruit in it. These trees grow everywhere here, and their fruit is collected and dried by the locals, who call it Zhao. It tasted a lot like gingerbread, but was slightly less dense, and the dried fruit had a subtle taste that perfectly complimented the flavor. As we walked down Financial Street towards Qianmen stuffing our faces with this stuff, locals made sure to take a close look at what the laowais were eating. In fact, almost everything we buy, or bring home in plastic bags is scrutinized with real curiosity, as if it holds some clue to the nature of our strangeness.

Bumper Sticker of the Day: Bruce Lee IN CAR
Learning Experience of the Day: Haggling
While we were waddling home from Qianmen in a roast-duck induced haze, we noticed a large market that we hadn't yet visited. Walking in, we saw that it was primarily a clothing market, consisting of hundreds of tiny stalls hawking everything from traditional outfits to track jackets to shoes and handbags. After completing a full lap of the first floor, Andrea decided that there was something that she couldn't live without: an olive green sweater with a vaguely military look, but executed with a level of subtlety that many Chinese clothes lack. So, we went back to the stall, where she tried the thing on, and found out to the delight of the middle-aged ladies running the stall that it fit perfectly. Then came the hard part: haggling. They wanted 280, to which I fanned myself against the heat of the place, laughed and shook my head. Then I made my first mistake: I gave them a price I could live with (100). They put on their best looks of outrage and shook their heads furiously, coming back with an offer of 250. I then made my second mistake by revising my price upwards by almost twice what I initially offered, to 175. Smelling blood in the water, the ladies insisted that they wouldn't go below 210. Embarassingly enough, we only had 190 between us after getting ripped off for our roast duck, which they took, but only after giving us a long look of pity and sadness.

As inexperienced as I showed myself to be, I was glad to get the practice before heading to the cutthroat Panjiayuan market this Saturday. I had read in several market guides that you should wait for the vendor to give you two prices before giving them your price, which should be somewhere in the range of 10% of the initial asking price. Then you should revise slowly upwards in small increments, possibly even walking away in disgust to make it clear that you want a reasonable price. In short, you have to play hardball in these situations, which sounds easy on paper, but is actually pretty tricky in practice. Shopping in the west is a fairly genteel process, where high prices usually ensure good quality, good service, or some kind of status. Here, prices are all over the place, and everyone seems to enjoy a good haggle... it's all kind of a big dance. Not only do we have bullseyes on our backs because we are laowai, and people assume we have tons of money to throw around on junk to bring home as souveniers, vendors are also very adept at using high pressure sales tactics that take advantage of our language deficiencies and ignorance of the culture.

Oh well, lesson learned. Andrea got a sweet sweater that would easily cost $40 or so in the US for about $20, and we got our first real taste of market hardball haggling. Here's hoping we keep our nerve a bit better next time.

1 comment:

AmbivalentMonk said...

That's awesome! Haggling is DEFINITELY important to know how to do. I once saw my mom haggle a pair of sunglasses from 100+ yuan to 14. Amazing.