Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Traveling Thoughts 1

Sometimes one wonder if there is any good in this world. Sometimes one wonder if there is any good inside one’s own self. When one listens to and looks at the calm roar of sea, when one catches life stirring in the leaves at the ends of the branches with a light breeze, when one feels that first rain drop against one’s skin, when one sees a child and the innocence in the eyes, one believes there is good in the world. One tries to find some corner inside himself, some reason inside himself for being good, and if one does not pretend the goodness is lost.

And sometimes one wonders if the world is just a place for all the means and ways of making the best out of every opportunity for you, a place where all the ways that move you forward are good, where the good does not have to be necessarily good. A place where everything should be measured against what is being achieved.

Walking out on the sidewalk someone hands you a card which offers you a special kind of service. The number of the special kind of bars is overwhelmingly large on the street for one to have an uneventful walk on this street in a foreign place. The temptations one can succumb to are manifold. And one wonders if it is good to give into certain desires, in fact all the desires. And one wonders what is good? Who judges it for you? You. Society. Who? One finds a mirror the best, and in a way the worst, of the judges.

Walking down further you dial the number on the card. Someone speaks in a language which you have been trying to learn a few words for the last few days. You cut the call laughing at the idea and partly at knowing the fact that it is next to impossible for you to go ahead with the idea. After a while you get a sms telling you the price for the service. Maybe they found someone who can speak English. It seems to be very expensive place. They are distributing cards so must be a high profile service. You play along. The fact is Chinese like to bargain. One is walking on a street in China. The price you say gets the reply “It is impossible”. That was the purpose of the low bid. Goal achieved. You smile and still keep walking. Every time one has tried to get a pro and somehow managed to fail in the attempt, one felt relieved in the failure and still one would attempt again. Wonder what it would be like if one succeeds. Later that night when you are fast asleep you get a call from the same number. It is more like early morning. They must have thought that any money is better than none. You turn on your side, look at the time, curse them, curse yourself for playing the game and keep sleeping. Of course next day before you return the phone card to office you will clear the messages and call logs (which incidentally one forgets). And still you walk, still you continue to figure the good. Inside. Outside. Still walking.

You cross the road. You find China more to your liking than Australia or western countries when it comes to traffic, the way they drive and especially the way they cross the roads. Being over billion people India and China at least have similar problems on the road. Crossing the road was an after thought. Plan was to go around the building and walk back. You saw two especially good looking girls cross the road. Instinct drove you and you cross the roads. You look at them or rather stare at them like an ogre and keep walking. You cross them. After a while you slow down and let them catch up. “Hello, good evening”. To your surprise one of them greets you in English. There are very few people in China who speak English and most of them are employed in good hotels for the benefit of the few traveling businessman and tourists. If it was not for the language China would be the superpower and not the US. Whatever you have seen so far suggest the same. The infrastructure in general, roads, airports, and buildings, everything suggests the same. Maybe you have been traveling along the cities, the roads, the airports etc. developed for the Olympics. Maybe not. But if rest of the China is half like whatever you have seen so far, US is lucky Chinese cannot handle English. India, you are lucky too. By the way did one mentioned that Chinese map also indicates the captured part from India in there territory like Pakistan does with POK/Azad Kashmir.

“Hullo there”, you reply. “Where you from”, she asks. “India.” “You are very handsome.” Both of them giggle as the one who speaks English throws this at you. That was surprising and much uncalled for. You later realize she must be saying this to every guy. That was part of her job. You reply generously, “You are very beautiful”. “Oooohh dhunkeeu.” Understanding Chinese English is one of the toughest parts of traveling in China. You have to concentrate real hard. She starts a conversation with you, her other friend who is absolutely gorgeous in every sense just speaks one or two words every now and then. She does not know English. From the clothes they are wearing they give an impression of being-on-the-road (Salman-Rushdie-style). “Where are you going”, you ask when the conversation falls into silence. “To work”, the English speaking one says. They have told you their names before. Did one say understanding Chinese English was difficult. One must be wrong. Remembering Chinese names tops that list. Try your luck at that. They all sound same to one. This has created few embarrassing situations for one already in past few days. After spending a whole day with people at office one would call Khoung – Jung, call Yung - Ling, and call Yang some thing else. One does not remember the name of the girls; they had a sound of jheechin and jhiuchiu or something similar. One uses sir, madam, hi, hello as names for most part.

And this is where in one’s story one stops addressing one as one.

“To the bar”, she elaborates “we work in bars.” From what people have told me here this much information is good enough to confirm that they are pros. They are extra friendly with me, probably looking for a potential customer on their way to the bar. This is the way used pretty often. I realize this later. We are at cross roads. They have to go separate ways. They work in different bars jheechin tells me. Now there was a situation I had never faced before. Choosing between two girls. They both obviously wanted the customer to come their way. Jhiuchiu was too good to be refused but it was jheechin’s English that made the decision. Spending whatever time I did in the bar trying to understand Chinese did not sound fun.

Over the last few days I have realized when it comes to bargaining Chinese have broken all limits of decency. The way bargaining works here has killed the meaning of bargaining. Indians think we are good at bargaining. No. Chinese put us to shame fair and square. The starting price of everything is 10 times the value if the buyer is Chinese. If the buyer is a foreigner and one who does not understand Chinese or do not have a Chinese friend along, God have mercy. Now from whatever bargaining we do in India we know that in most of the markets we bargain off 20-25% maximum from the starting price. Do this here and you are broke before you realize. I wonder what happen to people from west who have no bargaining in their blood.

Over all the trips abroad I had planned to get stuff for all who ask back home but generally avoid most of the time due to the price tags (actually the prices what the tags become after conversion into INR). So I thought China would be an ideal place to make amends. It is. Only if you can be shameless. Speak of anything, any brand and the local markets have exact duplicates of everything. You pick something. You ask the price. It never starts below few thousand yuan. And it never values more than a hundred. And you should never pay more than few hundreds. Here is how the bargaining for a Nokia mobile went. He starts 2200. We are dealing in yuans (some call it RMB, I do not know what it stands for). The interaction happens on a calculator. I have entered a market called ‘The market of exotic’. It is a wonder they got exotic right. It could very well be ‘The market of erotic’ if the painter had his way. English spellings, grammar rules, sentence construction hardly matters in China. http://www.langerie.cn/ is advertised on big banners across various highways, if not for the model on the signboard I would not have realized what the ad was for or maybe realized but with a small effort on the brain. ‘No photoing and videoing’ greets you at international airports. Just for your information, it is not related to what we are talking about here, they don’t have a ground floor. The receptionist told me IT office is on third floor. After climbing stairs to what I thought was third floor I realized I have climbed one too many.

I was instructed hard by colleagues at the office (there were two poor Indian souls working at the Schlumberger base in Tanggu, one very happy that he was getting transferred in a month and the other wondering when he will get his orders) that all shops will sell at one-tenth of what they ask. I type on the calculator 400 (remember we are buying a Nokia mobile). He shakes his head in wonder. As if he has never been so amazed in his entire life. As if I have told him the biggest joke ever. “Nho nho nho” he exclaims. “Nhokhia N95 bbery good. Thoo betteries. Bberryyyyy guuud.” He shows me the memory card, 256MB it says. I shake my head and point at the calculator. He thinks for a while and types 2150. “bhesht deal.”

The shops in ‘The market of exotic’ are about two meter wide open kiosks arranged in parallel rows. Each row sells one thing. Watches in one row. Mobiles in another. Mp3 mp4 players in one and all kind of imaginable electronics and leather stuff in others. Its closing time nearly and usual crowd has left the market. Other shop owners are slowly closing their shops and a small crowd of shop owners build around the guy I am dealing with. I give in a bit. 450 I type. An Indian trying to match a Chinese. I cannot win this match, I know. My 400 starting point is higher than what this guy would have sold the mobile for. Conventional wisdom said start around 200. I couldn’t. I thought of the number but was too embarrassed to say that. Still I fight. I turn the calculator to the shop owner. He shakes his head even more. As if I have actually reduced the bid. I realized after two three shopping stints that all the shopkeepers play as one. It is the way they overwhelm a novice like me. They form a team that works together with expressions, comments and mostly shake of heads. And if the customer is someone who does not understand Chinese, do they have a blast. Everybody shouts and the commentary is relayed across the entire row of shops and everyone is participating in the deal. It is like a ritual to them. The ways of bargaining at its best. Though they have jumped in the skies and left the bar to be gained in bargaining way below is what I understand. But they are oblivious to it and enjoy every bit of it. And with them I am having fun as well.

The shop owner I am dealing with consults a lady who looks like his mother and very bravely moves to 1800. I type 500. 1700. 550. 1600. 600. It is like a never ending battle. If I was in an Indian market it would be one or two deals and either I buy or the shopkeeper throws me out. Here the tempo and interest are still building. Chinese are the hardest working people is what I had experienced in whatever interaction I had with them. They for sure can persevere infinitely to achieve any end as was obvious in the bargain.

After few days it became very clear to me that most of the markets here do not have a fixed price and irrespective of the kind of deal if you don’t bargain to your wits end you lose. I learnt my lessons the hard way. I think after paying about 2000 yuan for the stuff I could have bought with 1000 very easily and that too after all those bargaining skills acquired over the years. Didn’t I say Indians are lucky that Britishers gave us English?

After a brief pause in our ever so slowly converging price curves the guy typed 1500. “bhesht price” he insisted. By now I have realized that I have already given in too much. I typed in 600 again and made a moving gesture. This or I leave, I meant. “Nho nho.” The group expressed a collective shock as if I had said something unthought-of. They were playing well, but I was determined not to let this game go their way. Someone back home has been insisting on a mobile for a long time and I did want to get him this one. So I took one step back after taking two away.

To be fair this is the fate of a tourist in most of the places, especially Asia. India itself is a nightmare for foreigners. Prices shoot up from INR 5 to INR 500 the moment they smell a foreigner. This was no different. It was usual. But the Chinese do it their special way. The guy realized that he was about to lose the deal. He came down to 1000. 600 I stood firm. 800. Very shaky but 600 I stayed on. 700. I was sweating despite a comfortable 15-20 degreeC and a nice wind. I knew I had the guy. I took a deep breath. 600 I confirmed once again. Now the group broke into a discussion and most of them started leaving, waiving arms and gesturing. This is their way of recognizing that they have got the best price from the customer and the group cannot help any further. Now it is upto the owner to sell if he wants to. They have played their part.

It’s the good and the bad that plays its part here. The bad in us, the buyer, and them, the sellers, not here but everywhere, but also here right in the middle of so acclaimed non-capitalist world. The bad trying to rip each other as much as possible. Trying to make or save your living as much as possible. The good in world keeping this “bad transaction” disguised in the invisible cloak of fun.

He consulted his mother, probably his mother, again. 605 he gave. Pointing at 5 and gesturing with his hands that that’s what he is making as living. I smiled. I wanted to give him that extra 5 but there was still some bargaining to be done and I was just learning the Chinese way of doing it. You never give away 1 yuan if you don’t have to (though even after the lesson learned I got ripped every time I shopped). I typed 603. Now he smiled and gave me a helpless look. I changed my mind and said ok and typed 605. I paid him. He did not take the five. He returned it. I insisted. He insisted back. The good was being given a chance after all the bad. I paid 600, put the five back in my pocket, packed my shopping and moved away. “Shee shee nee”, I said. “Thank you.” One of the four Chinese words I learned in the week.

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