Question: John, I really enjoy your column, and have learned a lot from it, especially relating the mistakes that you have made, and how you learned from them. What was the first time you felt you had reached the point where you really understood Chinese culture? How long did it take?
Answer: Honestly, after more than 22 years, I’m still learning. And as you mention, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years. But I can share one of my favorite memories, the first time that I felt I was at least starting to understand and adapt to Chinese culture successfully.
It was 1995. I’d been in China for two years by that point, and was in the marketplace, shopping for gifts to take home to my family. As anyone who’s been in China for more than five minutes knows, you never accept the asking price. Always bargain. Even for Chinese, this is required; as a very obvious foreigner, I was inevitably charged even more than Chinese, and no matter how hard I tried to bargain, I always ended up paying more than my Chinese friends. And it wasn’t because I didn’t know how much I should pay, or couldn’t speak the language…it was because I hadn’t mastered ‘the game’.
But on that day, it all changed. I had spotted a particular stone carving that I wanted to buy for my parents, and from watching others, I knew that the price should be around RMB 60. Now, by this time, my Chinese was fairly good, but I pretended to speak very, very bad Chinese. I asked, in halting Chinese, how much it was. The vendor informed me, with an anticipatory smile, that it was RMB 250…but that because I was a ‘foreign friend’, she’d sell it to me for ‘only’ RMB 200.
There was a shocked silence, and then everyone around me started laughing as they realized that I’d been the one fooling them…
I thought about this, then responded by telling her that I’d give her RMB 40. She looked absolutely mortified at such a suggestion, and lowered her price to RMB 150. This proceeded for about five minutes. Now at that time, foreigners were still very much an oddity, and a foreigner bargaining in the market place provided irresistible to the Chinese crowds around us. I soon had an audience of at least 50 people not only watching me, but commenting on my bargaining ability, and betting with each other about how much I’d end up paying. Of course, since I was using very poor Chinese, they assumed I couldn’t understand them; and it was rather disheartening how low their opinion was of my bargaining skills.
When the vendor got down to RMB 90, she stopped, and would not go any lower. The Chinese standing around were commenting about how that was too much, but foreigners were rich, and didn’t know how to bargain. And at that point, I switched to semi-fluent Chinese. “Oh, but please, do you know why I am in China? I’m a teacher in your university. You know that teachers in China have very low salaries, and I could make much more money in Canada. I came here so that I could help your students. I really want to buy this, and give it to my parents, but RMB 90 is too much. I came to China to help your students…can’t you help me by giving me a better price?”
There was a shocked silence, and then everyone around me started laughing as they realized that I’d been the one fooling them…and they all joined in to support me, telling the vendor that I was a teacher helping their students, and she should give me the best price. She affected a disapproving look…but then offered it to me for RMB 50. I got a lower price than even the local Chinese would have gotten! And then she smiled, and gave me a huge hug. After that, every single time I went to that market, she’d spot me and pull me to her stall, then tell everyone who would listen the story about how I’d out-bargained her.
That was the day that I started to feel that I’d finally started adapting to and understanding this fascinating, complex culture. More than that, I learned that bargaining doesn’t always have to be confrontational; that at least in some cases, it’s more about the interaction, about making them laugh. About both sides understanding that this is an intricate dance, and you just need to master the steps.
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15 years, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.
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