Adventures in Chinese Haggling

Our summer intern Zach had zero Chinese when he started. That hasn’t stopped him from communicating! Here’s how he did with just “Dūo shăo qían?” (how much?) and “TaÌ guÌ le!” (too expensive!).

I started learning Chinese just 13 days ago. My vocabulary is still in the infancy (I can say “delicious” and occasionally ask for water) and my practice of tones sounds like a pitchy falsetto singer sliding around the octave. But with every new word I’ve learned, a little bit more of China has opened up for me. Ordering my own food in a restaurant has become a highlight of my day, although I do get offended when they bring me a fork instead of chopsticks.

This past weekend, I was ready to get out of Shanghai and try a bit of my local tongue outside of Shanghai. I can still only form about six coherent sentences (and one of them is “Nĭ hăo”) but in my mind, I was ready. With a train ticket to Suzhou in hand, my goal was to dive into the culture and see how much I could discover.

Realizing that haggling was a great way to get started, I prepared two phrases for my adventure: “Dūo shăo qían?” and “taÌ guÌ le!” I figured that I would ask the first question, and regardless of the response, I would answer with “too expensive.”
Walking around the souvenir shops of Ganjing Lu, I took careful attention to select the right item. With the temperature and humidity climbing well beyond my comfortable threshold from back home, I decided to purchase a fan. One particular tourist trap had a beautifully crafted selection. I picked one out that featured a picture of Confucius on one side and some hanzi writing on the other.

Nervousness settled into my chest as I realized I was about to have to talk to someone. My pronunciation is average at best. Beyond the few phrases I’ve learned, my vocabulary is almost non-existent. This could be really messy and really embarrassing, but if I didn’t give it a shot, I would never know for sure what would happen.

I waved at one of the women that was walking around and managing the store.

This was the big moment. I was about to enter the world of International price negotiation. I just had to ask one question, give one objection, and suggest a lower price. Then I was going to be the proud owner of a fan.

With a curious look on my brow, I asked, “Dūo shăo qían?”

The woman pulled a small spiral note pad out of her pocket. Cool! I thought. She understood me.

She wrote something on it and turned the pad to face me. It read 19.

Here I go!

“TaÌ guÌ le!” I said, with feigned outrage at the price. Now the real negotiating would begin.

Or at least this is where the negotiating was supposed to begin. Instead, she shrugged, put the note pad back in the pocket of her apron, and walked away.

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I think this raises an interesting point about international travel. Just because I’ve seen how a process works does not mean I know how the process works. In the end, traveling is all about meeting and working with people, and people everywhere are unpredictable.

But this also meant that as I boarded the train back to Shanghai, I had failed in my haggling mission. It was my first weekend outside of Shanghai since arriving in China, and my small limited vocabulary had gotten me nothing.

But as the train clipped along at 297km/hour, I realized the value of putting myself out there in his wildly foreign language. I turned around and noticed the woman sitting in the seat next to me had an empty water bottle wedged in the seat pocket of the chair ahead of her.

I smiled at her and pointed at the water bottle. “Dūo shăo qían?” I asked.

She looked at me and then at the water bottle. It was obvious she was confused. After saying something I didn’t understand, she silently stood up and moved to empty seat across the aisle from me and sat back down.

I did my best to keep to a straight face as I turned around and looked back out the window. Now, I was 0-2, but I was also really proud of myself. Learning a language is a hard process. It can be nerve-racking, but everybody says stupid things at first and makes awkward mistakes in the process. By hopping on trains to new places, trying to talk to new people, and looking foolish every step of the way, I’m learning a lot both as a global citizen and a language student. If shrugged shoulders and extra elbow room on a train are the worst thing that can happen, it is totally worth taking the chance to engage with people.

I look forward to learning more and testing out my skills on future adventures.