Stuart Beaton is back with another fabulous guest blog post. This time he explains the difference between shopping in China and shopping in the west. Here’s Stu!
Deng Xiao Peng once famously said, “To grow rich is glorious!”
Unfortunately, the path to glory isn’t through my wallet.
It seems that there’s a trend amongst Chinese merchants to regard foreigners as cash cows, ripe for the milking. One glimpse of blonde hair or pale skin, or a syllable of English can cause prices to instantly treble – on a good day.
On a bad day, they’ll be inflated out of all proportion.
Recently my wife (who is Chinese) and I were out shopping, and she was feeling footsore. I suggested that we take a three wheeled bike to our next appointment, and she agreed. Then she told me to stay where I was, while she went and negotiated the price with the driver.
So I waited until I was beckoned over by her, and got in. Where upon the driver suddenly let loose with a long stream of what sounded like very heated words indeed. Not understanding any of it, I asked her for a brief summary.
It transpired that if he’d had known that the second person involved was a foreigner, he would have charged ten yuan instead of five. To top it off, he was disgusted that my wife had robbed him of this extra five yuan by not telling him!
Now, you might view this as a rather trivial thing. “What difference does five yuan make?”
Well, it makes a big difference to me. To be charged extra because I am not Chinese is hardly fair, is it? Why should I be penalised for an accident of birth? Are disabled people charged more for the same things as everyone else?
I think not.
Unfortunately, such overcharging isn’t limited simply to quick rides in pedicabs. It’s a scene repeated time and again when I attempt to buy anything. I’ve stopped buying things outside of shops where the prices are marked, simply because when I do so, I am charged more than a Chinese person making the same purchase.
And before you doubt me, I have run a couple of experiments. I’ve sent my wife, or students from my class, off to buy items from local markets. When they come back, I note down the price, and then I go off to buy exactly the same thing myself. Almost every time, I have found the price to be higher, merely because I am foreign.
Perhaps this behaviour harks back to an earlier time, when barbarian hordes rampaged across China? Maybe then merchants charged them more, merely to try and earn back what had been taken from them? Or is it a reaction to Colonial times, when foreigners came and took what they wanted, and paid little for it?
All I know is that I am not, by any definition of the term, “wealthy”. In a way I was much more wealthy in my youth, teaching in Korea. Now, I have a mortgage, bills and other expenses to pay. I have to feed and clothe myself, and provide for my wife. I am not a spendthrift, I must make every yuan count. So to be deliberately overcharged wounds me to the core. That money, once gone, cannot be spent again, and something must be gone without.
If I was to set up a shop in Australia, and charge foreigners over the odds, the Office Of Fair Trading would come and have me punished for my actions with a fine or imprisonment. Word would spread, and I would go out of business for my greedy actions.
Even here, if I sold things at a lower price to non-Chinese, I would be punished – maybe not with a fine or jail, but more immediately, with a beating. Yet on a daily basis, some Chinese merchants look up from their wares, see a foreign face, and make leaps of mental arithmetic.
It’s enough to make you remind them that, whilst “To grow rich is glorious”, the flip side of the coin is also true – “poverty is not socialism”.
You can catch Stuart’s amazing author podcasts at http://rastous.podomatic.com.