Tag Archives: Shopping 购物

Local Victories

We’ve been back in Hangzhou a week now and things are going pretty well. It’s certainly a relief to be in a place that’s clean and dry and relatively warm, not to mention that sleeping in the same bed every night is a treat (for Owen, especially—being a bit of a prince and the pea, he does not take well to hard hotel beds).


We were in Southeast Asia for a full two weeks, and coming back to China has felt in many ways like a reset; that is to say, it felt fresh and new and not-annoying…for about two days. Then I tried to accomplish some basic tasks, and remembered that living here is a constant battle of wills. I share with you the following not to complain, but merely to remark on how China is constantly so different from what I expect it to be. Also, the outcome of both run-ins was fist-pumping success for me, so I have to brag.


Let’s begin three days ago. It was ayi’s first day back working for us, and we all had a happy reunion. (While we were traveling, she went home for a month to celebrate Spring Festival [Chinese New Year] with her family, and she arrived back in Hangzhou around the same time we did.) I proposed to her that we could do some cooking together one day a week, and she said, “Okay, but we are going to need a lot of oil. And a rice cooker.” Fine, fine I said. Let there be Chinese food.


The next day, yesterday, I set out to the supermarket, where I had to choose a machine from the three entire aisles stuffed with rice cookers. (Fully 20% of their inventory is rice cookers—big and small, fancy and plain, white with flowers and…white with flowers.) I chose a smallish one, priced at 129 yuan (around $20), reached the corresponding box on the top shelf, and went to the checkout counter. I had to wait while the old man in front of me in line paid for his bag of live bullfrogs, which jumped and croaked heartily while the checkout lady scanned them. Then it was my turn. She scanned my rice cooker and told me it would be 229 yuan. No, I said, it’s 129 yuan. She summoned the rice-cooker-aisle lady over by yelling at the top of her lungs. The rice-cooker-lady took my rice cooker and disappeared for 10 minutes. During this time, lots of people came up to the checkout counter and plopped their items down, only to be turned away with a hard glance. Damn foreigner, they surely thought. Doesn’t know how to buy a rice cooker. After forever, she returned, without the box. “Where is my rice cooker?” I asked, not too patiently. “It was mis-marked. You will have to pay 229 yuan.” “That’s f-ing ridiculous!” I yelled, in English. (Sometimes it feels good to just yell in English in these situations.) Then I switched back to Chinese and said, “The box said 129 yuan. It should cost me 129 yuan.” They looked at me like I was in way over my head. “Sorry, you will have to pay 229 yuan. It was mismarked.” We repeated this exact conversation 5 or 6 times, and finally I sighed theatrically and said, “Fine. 229 yuan. Just give me the rice cooker.” She hurried away and fetched my box, then presented it to me delicately. I took out my money and gave it to the cashier, and as I did I pulled my last-ditch-effort, my trump card: “Bu xing,” I mumbled unhappily. (Essentially, this means, “Not cool.”) She looked me in the (pink) eyes and adjusted the price on the computer, then charged me 129 yuan. “Thank you,” I said. The rice cooker aisle woman piped up from the other side of the counter, where she had stayed to watch the conclusion of our, um, exchange, “Don’t say thank you. It was my mistake. I’m the one that wrote it wrong.” And that was that. I honestly fist-pumped on my way out the door into the icy rain. And it makes the best rice.


Today I had a slightly trickier task, though it seemed straightforward enough. Since we started our trip in 20-degree Fahrenheit Hunan province and ended in 90-degree Manila, we had to shed some layers along the way. Thus, we sent home a box of our warmest clothes in Xiamen, about midway through our travels. The box was being held at the post office, and I had to take the packing slip there and pick it up. Just to be safe, I brought along my passport and Nick’s passport. It never hurts. I took a cab there, because, strangely, the box was being held at the third-closest post office to our house. Why they didn’t just bring it to the close one, we’ll never know. Anyway, I arrived at the post office, clutching my documents. The four workers all turned to watch me, the lone customer, as I began to explain my situation to the friendliest-looking one, a young man. He took one glance at my stuff and said, “I can’t give you the package, because the name on the packing slip is a Chinese name, and the name in the passport is an English name.” Thus began 45 minutes of wheedling and begging. I called Nick and had him talk to the guy, hoping that a real person on the line, a person swearing up and down that he was Hu Rui Li and also Nick Freeman, would help. I implored the man to look at the signature on the packing slip and the signature in Nick’s passport: the same! No, he told me, these don’t look the same. That is because you do not write English letters, I told him. No dice. The only way to resolve this, he told me at least 70 times, was to take the packing slip to Nick’s school and have them put a stamp on it, verifying his identity as the mysterious Hu Rui Li. (This process would be neither quick nor easy, and possibly a huge pain in the ass.) But he wasn’t turning me away, so I kept trying. “Can we open up the box? I can tell you what’s in it and you can check?” “No, we cannot open the box.” Long pause. Then, it hit me. The perfect argument to change a Chinese person’s mind (I hoped): “Please. Inside that box are my baby’s winter clothes. You can see that it’s cold outside. My baby is cold and he needs his clothes.” Here, I gestured to the cold rain out the door, and I engaged the other workers, who were watching curiously. I pleaded with them all at once, “My baby needs his warm clothes! Please help me.” The oldest woman of the bunch exchanged quick, low words with the young man, and he ran upstairs. I sat glumly in a chair, frustrated and contagious and heavy-lidded, until he returned 10 minutes later. He presented me with the form, on which he had transcribed Nick’s passport number (given to him on the phone just then by the post office in Xiamen). “Please write your name twice, and your husband’s name once.” I did as directed. He went to the back room and emerged with my package. “Next time, ma’am, write your English name, too.” “Yes, thank you.” “Oh, you’re welcome, have a nice day.” Fist pump #2.


So I’m getting things done, one arduous, contentious, repetitive, time-sucking back-and-forth at a time. It’s good to be home.



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Cab Driver Confessionals

Christmas is a’coming, and I needed to buy some seriously hard-to-find items for the Christmas Dinner party we have planned for Friday night (Nick invited 25 of his classmates, a mix of Chinese, Americans, British, Koreans and Kazakhs). On the list of next-to-impossible things: large garbage bags, a pan to cook a turkey in, and canned pumpkin. I set out to Metro, a large restaurant-supply grocery store on the eastern edge of town. It’s a bit like Costo meets a Chinese grocery store meets Home Depot. As such, respectively, there are great deals on meat, economy-size bags of terrible cookies, and lots of heavy equipment rolling around the aisles willy-nilly. It’s in a warehouse and takes 40 minutes by cab. It’s a haul. I go there as seldom as possible and buy as much as I can carry, which is about 85 pounds in a huge Gregory backpack. (I know I’ve succeeded if the backpack is so heavy it makes my pants fall halfway down my ass as I search for a cab.)

Today I had moderate success: miracle of miracles, they had a turkey-sized pan and large trash bags, but, alas, no pumpkin in a can. (I resorted to buying it online from a Shanghai grocery store than delivers, for the thrifty price of $7/can. I know. But it’s pie, so no expense will be spared.) I lugged my goodies towards the door, and on the way a sign in English caught my eye: Metro has a free taxi-calling service. Just ask! Sweet, I thought. You’re about as likely to catch a cab midday in the eastern outskirts of Hangzhou as you are to stand in a bathroom line at the train station and not get cut. I asked at the service desk for a cab, and the woman proceeded to call all the different dispatchers, except she didn’t call them in a row. She paused in between each call to flirt with the stock boy who was (literally) hanging over the desk. I pressed her to keep at it, but who am I except an annoying waiguoren who needs help with a cab? Finally, when she turned her back to me to focus all her attention on the boy, I leaned over the desk and said, “What’s up? Is it coming or not?” And she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “Mei you.” This is Chinese for “there is none,” and it stops a conversation dead in its tracks. If you are smart, you do not pursue a “mei you” further. There is no reason, there just isn’t one. (When we first arrived in China, we wanted to take the subway from the airport to our friends’ house. They had given us directions, but when we arrived at the place where the subway should have been [according to all the signs], there was a security guard with white gloves who waved his hands and said, simply, “Mei you.” And that was that.)

I marched outside, mad at the wasted time, and immediately saw a cab cruising across the parking lot. I flagged him down, assured him that I was the one who requested his services, and flopped in. “They told me there weren’t any cabs,” I said, chagrined. “What? That’s not true. I told them I was eating lunch, and when I was finished, I would come by. I ate, and now here I am.”

In China, it is a lucky day when you get stuck with a garrulous cab driver: once they establish that you can understand even a smidgen of Chinese, they will spout off about various and only loosely-related topics in the most glorious free association the world has ever heard. You as the passenger only has to listen attentively and give a hearty “dui” in agreement every now and again; but you have to stay on your toes, because a chatty cab driver will happily give his rollicking monologue for ten straight minutes, then pause and ask a question of you, at which point, if you are me, you will have to ask him to repeat the question three times before you can stammer out an answer. (Thankfully, my lack of grace and fluency in Chinese does not stanch the cab driver’s verbal diarrhea—he is not dissuaded at all, and will praise my halting speech every time I answer his softball questions.)

Nick has long said that a long cab ride in China lets you put your finger on the pulse of the city in the most enjoyable way possible, and even his International Relations professor (a Chinese man) concurs: when he goes to Taiwan to study the elections, he pays a cabbie to drive him around in circles, just so they can chat. Sociological research is being done here, people.

Today I got exceptionally lucky. What follow are the precious few snippets I understood on my cab ride home from Metro, presented in chronological order so you can see the train of thought:

“In China, women don’t get very fat when they are pregnant, and when they have the baby, they lose the baby weight very quickly. But in other countries, I think it is different: women who have young babies are often still fat. But when I saw you running towards the cab, I didn’t know you had a young baby, because you are not fat.”

“Your baby is 8.5 months old and still drinks breast milk? This is too old; the milk is not good any more. In China, women do not feed their babies breast milk after 6 months. Also, if your baby is still nursing, don’t you think he must be starving right now, since you are not home to feed him?”

“I heard in America people can have as many babies as they want. Is this true? It must be very, very expensive if you have a lot of babies.”

“I see you have a backpack. That’s really good. Chinese women don’t carry heavy bags. They make their husbands or boyfriends carry their bags. It’s ridiculous! Carrying a backpack is comfortable, but a Chinese woman will not wear abackpack, and she will say she cannot carry her purse, so the man has to carry it for her. But, look!”—here he pointed to the crosswalk, where three women in high-heeled boots traipsed by, laden with shopping bags—“Those women are carrying heavy bags from their shopping trip, all by themselves! They can do it!”

Cabbie: “When Chinese people see you, do they yell out ‘waiguoren’?”
Me: “Yes, and I don’t like it very much.
Cabbie: “Well, in China, that’s what we do. Do people do that in America?”
Me: “No, in America, if we see a foreigner, we don’t say anything.”
Cabbie: “But you must say something if the foreigner is a black person, right? For example, in New York City, there are many different kinds of foreigners, like Chinese people and Japanese people, but if you see a black person, you could say, ‘Black person!,’ right?”
Me: “No, we wouldn’t do that.”
Cabbie: “Well, here, we do. But if we see a Korean person, we don’t do that, because they probably look a lot like a Chinese person.”

“Isn’t the rent incredibly high here? It’s high all over China. We don’t make as much money as you do in America, but our rent is much higher.”

“Do you like to eat steak?” (Me: “Um, sometimes. We prefer chicken, or eggs.”) “What? [incredulous] You don’t like steak?”

And then we were at my building. He didn’t have correct change for my bill, so he undercharged me, and before I could protest, he sped off into the afternoon.

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A Tale of Two Comforters: The Fabulous Hangzhou Shopping Scene

It’s turning cold here, so today I headed to the local superstore (an international chain called Carrefour) to buy a winter quilt to replace our thin summer blanket. I picked the appropriate size for our bed, and then attempted to buy a cover for the comforter, but the store doesn’t sell any covers in that size. They weren’t out of stock; they simply don’t sell them. They recommended I buy the cover elsewhere. I decided to take a chance that our existing comforter cover would fit this new winter comforter, and I lugged the cumbersome plastic package home.

It’s a solid 20-minute walk home along the West Lake, which is lovely but crowded. On my way home, a policeman stopped me. I thought he was going to ask to see my receipt, or to tell me I wasn’t allowed to walk with a comforter in the scenic area—hey, it’s China; anything is possible—but, no: he wanted to ask a question. “How much did that comforter cost?” He gestured to the package slung awkwardly over my sweaty shoulder. “Um,” I started, barely able to stifle my surprised laughter, “A little over 400 kuai [around $60].” “Huh,” he grunted, thinking. “Wow.” (This, I surmise, was his reaction because the price was neither very expensive nor a great bargain.) I went on my way, literally shaking my head and chuckling to myself. Hangzhou police: keeping the peace, one expat interrogation at a time.

When I got home, ayi and I tried to make our existing cover fit the new comforter, but, alas, the measurements were slightly off (ours is 200×230 centimeters; the new comforter was 220×240 centimeters…why they manufacture these two incredibly similar sizes is beyond me). So I hoofed it back to Carrefour, receipt in hand, to exchange the new comforter for a slightly smaller one.

The customer service desk has all its regulations (including specific information about returning shoes and electronics) posted in English, but no one there speaks a word of it. I took a deep breath and explained, in my best (very broken) Chinese, that I wanted to return the item and get a different one. They were not pleased. Three customer service representatives crowded around, confused, goading me: “Why do you want to return this? This is very good quality.” I explained that their store did not stock a cover for it, and I wanted a smaller one. They weren’t happy, but they proceeded with my return.

The woman at the computer asked me to show her my 100 kuai [around $15] coupon that I had used when I bought the comforter, and though I swore up and down that I absolutely did not use a coupon (the truth), she didn’t believe me. She called her manager over, and he took my receipt and disappeared for 10 minutes. During that time, a personal shopper took me to the comforter aisle and told me I wasn’t allowed to return my item until I bought a new one. She helped me pick one out (an arduous hide-and-seek when each of 100 comforters is very slightly different, and many are mismarked: wrong size, wrong loft, wrong material, etc.). She was extremely helpful, and we found a suitable alternative. I paid and returned to the customer service desk. The manager was busily entering my credit card number onto a paper form, and he told me, “We can do the return, but not right now. It will take 20 days. The machine isn’t working right now, but we have your number and will enter it soon, and you will get your money back.” I made sure I understood, using terribly basic words: “You tell me I only must wait. Then you give me money. Credit card. Twenty days. Yes? I only wait. Do nothing. Just wait. Yes?” They nodded in unison. I left, triumphant, lugging my new purchase home. No one stopped me this time.

Tonight I was working on some trip planning for our winter trip, and around 9:15PM my phone rang with an unknown number. I picked it up, praying as I always do that the caller spoke English. No luck. It was Carrefour, and after a few awkward back-and-forths I realized the woman was saying to me, “You need to come to the store to give us your credit card so we can process the return.” “What?!” I fake-yelled, trying not to wake up Owen. “I already gave you the card. They said it was okay!” She was calm. “No, we need to see your card.” “Fine, I will come tomorrow,” I sighed deeply. Innocently, she asked, “What, is now not a convenient time?” (Reader, did I already mention that it was 9:15PM?) “No, it is not a convenient time. I have a baby.” Woman: “Oh, a baby. So you will come tomorrow. Are you sure you can’t come right now?” Me: “I will come tomorrow.”

And so tomorrow I will make that 40-minute round-trip trek for the 3rd time in 2 days, and I will tell myself, over and over, that it is worth it for the warm


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It Takes A Village, And All The Shoppers in Aisle 3

Every month, I pay our electric and heating/AC bills at the front desk of our apartment building.  Cash only, and I never have exact change.  A few days ago, I asked about some change they owe us, and was told it would be ready in two days.  I said that was fine, and went on my way. Fast forward to today: I rode the elevator with a female maintenance worker whom I’ve never seen before.  On the 20-second ride up, she asked me if I had gotten my money yet, and when I said no, she marched right up to the woman at the front desk and said, “Give her the change from her electric bill!”  Slightly taken aback, the woman at the desk said, “Uh, it will be ready this afternoon, is that okay?”  “Yeah,” I said, also startled.

A while later, I went out to buy some breads from the Muslim restaurant in our neighborhood.  (Muslim, or Hui Chinese are China’s breadmakers.)  The woman selling bread today was new; I’d never seen her before.  I asked for two rounds of sesame-seed-topped flatbread, and paid her (63 cents) and turned to leave, but she stopped me and said, “Where’s your son?”  “At home, with his ayi” I replied, somewhat but not completely surprised that she knew I had a baby (we do stand out, after all).  “Are you single?” she continued, without missing a beat.  “No, my husband is at school.”  “Oh. Good. Walk slowly,” she chirped.(“Walk slowly” is the traditional Chinese parting).

Hours passed happily at home with the baby:  grinning adoringly at the reflection in the mirror, practicing opening and closing the fridge ad infinitum, spitting up on the leather couch.  I decided to take Owen out.  Beforehand, it is very important to dress him for the weather, both for his comfort and for my own:  if I slightly underdress or otherwise improperly clothe him, I’m subject to the criticism and shaming of a chain-smoker in a nursery.  Today I took careful stock of the weather: windy with a slight nip in the air, and very sunny. This meant: shirt, pants, sweatshirt, socks pulled high, and sun hat for Owen, and I carried an umbrella for further sun protection.  I also put on Owen some cute sunglasses we got him.  As we waited for the elevator, the friendly but business-like woman at the front desk saw the baby’s sunglasses.  She came completely undone, letting forth non-stop high-pitched giggles and covering her mouth with her hand while saying over and over, “So handsome, he is really so handsome, oh my goodness, so handsome, the sunglasses, oh wow.”  She had not yet recovered when we left her.

We strolled to the grocery store, enjoying the cool wind and marveling at the Arctic winter outfits that have appeared since the weather turned from hot summer to warm fall: fur-lined, knee-length parkas; scarves wrapped eight times around the neck and falling to the ankles; babies in head-to-toe fleece-lined down snowsuits. At the store, I paused in the milk aisle to pick my poison (bad joke). But my attention was pulled back by the sound of a woman singing, and I turned to see a store worker (in uniform) literally dancing up and down as she sings Owen a well-rehearsed song.  As if purposely building up the theatrics for a once-in-a-lifetime performance, she produced a red balloon and waved it around in the air, delighting Owen beyond anything I’ve ever seen.  She continued her one-woman Superbowl Halftime Show for almost four more minutes, during which time a small crowd of shoppers and other store workers gathered to assess: her singing, the child, the mother.  The saleswoman has delighted the baby, the baby is cute and foreign; there is palpable jealousy in the air.  The struggle plays out:

Singing/Dancing Store Worker: “How old is the small foreigner?”
Me: “Almost 7 months.”
Singing/Dancing Store Worker: “Ah, then he can now crawl, but he cannot yet walk.”
Older Female Shopper: “His skin is very white and his eyes are very big.”
Older Female Shopper: “It is very, very cold outside.”
“Yes, it is a little cold.”
Older Female Shopper: “The baby must be cold.”
“He is okay.”
Older Female Shopper: “I wonder if he is cold or not.”
Singing/Dancing Saleswoman: “No, he is not cold. Look, he wears socks.”
Older Female Shopper: “Yes, he wears socks, but it is extremely cold and windy outside.”
Store Worker: “But with socks he is not cold.”
[Both women grimace and stare at Owen, trying to divine his internal body temperature based on his facial expression.  Owen chews on his sleeve.]

At this point, I am more than ready to split, but the ornery older woman has now blocked my passage down the aisle.  As the oldest of us three, her child-rearing admonitions should have been given greater deference, and now she is annoyed with the state of society.  The store worker toes her cart, indicating that I need to get by, but she doesn’t budge.  Everything is tense.  Eventually, the the situation resolves when I insistently nudge the shopper’s cart with Owen’s stroller wheels.  For the sake of the baby, she gets out of the way, flashing smiles at Own between long moments of evil-eyeing the saleswoman.  I make a beeline for the check-out.

As I’m bagging my groceries, a woman passes by and yanks Owen’s teething ring toy, on which he is happily chewing, out of his mouth, chiding him, “You can’t eat that!” “It’s okay,” I explain.  This is not the first time.  “It’s a toy. There’s no problem.”  Not sure what to make of this abusive foreign mother who gives her innocent child toys to eat, she smiles, laughs in the way that Chinese use to indicate awkwardness, and walks rapidly away.

It’s my impression that so much of being a Chinese person in Chinese society is being told, pressured, cajoled and shamed into conforming, thinking and behaving in certain ways.  This pressure, intrusive and explicit, comes from teachers and friends, but mostly from family, and is non-stop from birth to death.  A Chinese person simply has no illusions of being an individual unto himself, an independent agent.  He is just one strand in a thick web of family duties, and the other members don’t let him forget it, not for one moment.

The intense pressures and responsibilities of family relationships usually mean, I think, that Chinese simply cannot afford, psychologically, to be concerned with anybody else.  They will physically push a stranger out of the way and cut her in line without thinking twice.  But these barriers break down in the presence of a baby, and the webs of personal involvement extend.  When I step out onto the street with Owen, I am quickly wrapped up in the attention, concern, and insistent coercion of all who’ve ever been told how to take care of a baby themselves.  After a few hours, it can be unbearable.  And yet for everyone around me, that is their life.


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