Seven months have flown by since I arrived in Beijing, China. The reason I am here? I came to this faraway country to study Chinese. I am currently studying at Beijing Normal University. These days I am having a relatively good time thanks to having adapted myself to my new circumstances. But when I first came to China, everything seemed to be going from bad to worse.
I started to worry about everything - ‘Can I live far apart from everyone for a whole year in a strange place where I do not understand the language and the culture is different?’ There was one particularly infuriating episode from the beginning of my life in China, when everything was new to me, that I would like to tell you about.
Buying something is never easy in China. The key question is how can you strike a good bargain with the seller in a situation where there is no fixed price. Depending on the result of one’s bargaining, the price can vary by many times. Foreigners who first travel in China may find it a delightful place to visit. However, I still remember one particular silly incident related to bargaining, over any other memories.
In September 2002, when I arrived in Beijing, it was already fall but the weather was still warm. I decided to buy a refrigerator as I was going to stay in Beijing for a year. So I asked other people where I could buy a used refrigerator and how much it might cost. Then I went to the market with my roommate. We caught a taxi. The driver asked us why we were going to the market. We told him, and straightaway he offered to help us buy a refrigerator.
We appreciated his kindness but did not want to bother him. He gave some advice on how to bargain well. Namely, if the merchant says 500 yuan you should say 300 yuan, and if he asks for 300 yuan you should say 200 yuan. We thanked him for his good advice and got out of the taxi.
Soon after we entered the market, the atmosphere felt odd. Unidentified people started following us and we were scared. So we entered one shop in a hurry.
Looking around the shop, a good condition refrigerator caught our eye - fairly clean and a well-known brand in China. We asked the price and the shopkeeper responded that it was 400 yuan. We said, “Too expensive, can’t you make it cheaper?” He suddenly frowned and replied, “I can go no lower.” We asked again for a cheaper price with some trepidation, because we were not used to buying things in China at that time.
The shopkeeper started to get more and more angry and the men who had followed us from market’s entrance joined forces with him. The atmosphere gradually took a turn for the worse. Finally we said we would not buy the fridge.
The shopkeeper, however, stopped us at the moment we went out of the shop. “OK,” he said, “Name your price.” We said “250 yuan.” He said that he would not sell it at such an unreasonable price and could sell it at 350 yuan. All the while that we were heading out of the market, the bargaining continued and he finally agreed to 250 yuan.
The buying went well, but there was still one problem. They demanded we pay 150 yuan for delivery. We found this absurd and abruptly thought ‘Their eyes are bigger than their stomach’.
Because we were tired out we agreed. So we paid 400 yuan and four men brought out the small refrigerator which a man on his own would have been able to carry, and carried it to a delivery van, complaining heavily. After arriving next to the van, they made no move to load it into the van and asked for more money yet again. They explained to us that 150 yuan was the delivery charge from the shop to the van, and “If you want us to carry it to your boarding house you have to pay more.”
We could only stare at them in amazement. Moreover we were surrounded by ten men. I immediately resented not being able to speak Chinese. I started crying bitterly. Are women’s tears really a weapon throughout the whole world? In the end, the men relented and said they would deliver free of charge and loaded the refrigerator into the van.
Our refrigerator full of vicissitudes was safely delivered to our dormitory and we are still making good use of it to this day. Though I only found out later, I heard that delivery is supposed to be free of charge. Maybe it is only through this difficult experience that I came to learn effective ways of bargaining.
To finish, I will tell you a few tips I have learned about bargaining in China. First, make sure you halve the seller’s original price and use this as your unconditional first offer. While you are bargaining, first say, “There is no way I can pay that much.” Purchasing is a process of tuning, of raising and dropping the price with the seller. Thus you can end up paying the price you hoped for in the beginning.
Second, using your charms will not go down well with them and they may get pissed off with you. I realized that putting on a stern face while saying “So expensive!” is more effective than a smile. I hope these tips might come in handy if you ever travel to China.