I did not realize it, but bargaining is something that you do in China. Well, you are expected to. I’ll talk about the first time I was in a situation where I was should have, but first I’d like to talk about the time when I actually mastered it. I bumped into a flea market in Shanghai, which was fortunate, because I was looking for a reproduction of a terracotta soldier for two weeks with no success. (A friend asked me for one.) This market was a godsent opportunity to finally find cheesy touristy stuff so I can fulfill the request. The place was amazing. It was a bunch of stalls wedged alongside side-streets running next to a large boulevard. All you could see, that there were gates cut out from the large building running alongside the boulevard, opening to a little hidden world existing next to the busy, modern metropolis. (Shanghai has a lot of these moments.) Nothing indicated from the outside that there were winding narrow streets, little soup kitchens and tiny-tiny parks just around the corner when you were walking outside. You felt as soon as you steped over the threshold, you arrived to a separate world, away from high-rises, Starbucks and madly tooting cars.
The first instance I did not try to haggle on the price; I guess I was taken for a fool afterwards. But next, I actually managed to get 60-70% discount on things I bought as presents. I even got a small fish fossil for 40 yuan (from the original 250), a feat for which I felt particularly proud of. Anyhow, by the end of the souvenir-hunting expedition I felt quite good about my skills. And then it hit me.
A week prior I was walking around in the inner city, and went into an art supply shop. I’m not really sure if it was really an art supply shop, or a regular stationery shop, as Chinese writing is an art by itself. Anyhow, I was looking around, taking in all those brushes, the beautiful papers, all the inks and the equipment you need for calligraphy, and decided to buy a couple of little things as presents for that friend with the terracotta soldier, as she is very interested in calligraphy and writing. I got her a stamp (made of soapstone, and not jade, as it should have been), a couple of brushes and a block of ink, which, according to my calculations would come to 50 yuan. The gentleman at the till smiled at me, and said fifty. And waited. I smiled back, and gave him a hundred. He looked back, waited a bit, then gave me fifty five back. I was a bit flustered to begin with (not speaking the language on another continent does stress you somewhat), so I did not really understand what was going on, but thanked him, and left.
Only on the flea marked did I realize what happened. He waited for me to bargain. And since I did not, he possibly said to himself: “these bloody tourists… you have to do everything yourself” -and bargained five yuan off of the price for me.