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Unless you are very rich, or you prefer to travel to uninhabited location, one of the first experiences with any new place will be the flow of pedestrian traffic – the way people go about doing their shopping.

Beijing and Shanghai are different from any places I’ve ever been to. (I’m not Sinbad, I give you that.) You remember those Axe commercials where hordes of bikini-clad women are rushing towards one helpless guy with the force of a tsunami? Well, every time the door of the underground opens, you kind of feel like that. Pretty girls and all. People just do not wait for you to get out. They pour in. If you’re in the way, that’s too bad for you, but they will still push in; it’s up to you to get out of (or into) the vehicle. People from behind cut in front of you when you wait in front of the door to open, trying to force their way in or out, even though you are right in front of the door. Once a guy in his 40s did a leaping jump into the metro from 2 meters while the doors were closing, slamming into me with full force, but he did not even acknowledge the full-contact rugby-tackle. He just stood up, and started to read his phone.

The same thing can be seen with queues: there is no concept of what a queue is. While during the London Riots, even the looters queued up while they were looting. Here if you’re not pushy, you will not get served. (Or get onto the escalator. Or anywhere where queues are formed.) While I was waiting to pay for some gifts in a typical tourist-trap, I saw a girl standing in line waiting. When her turn came, a middle-aged woman simply jumped ahead of her from the side (she was lurking there, bidding for her time), and the girl instead of tearing her throat out with her bare teeth (like I would have done) simply waited until she finished.

Interestingly, just as with driving, there’s no aggression here. It seems to be a social contract -every man for themselves -, and nobody takes it personally. This was something I had to keep remind myself of, because public transport can sometimes be a very nerve-fraying experience.

There is one peculiarity in most of Chinese shops, even in large shopping malls. The way you pay.

In most countries you walk around, pick up the stuff you want to buy, bring it to the till, where it will be scanned. After that you’ll be presented with a bill, and your bagged new belongings.

In China this process is completely different in most of the places. Instead of standing in line once, you stand in line three times. The first time you hand in everything you have collected to a smiling young lady, who will take it from you, compile a list, and give you a receipt, which you will take to the next queue: the till itself. There you will pay for your items, and get your receipt stamped, which you promptly take back to the original young lady, and once it’s your turn, receive your bagged brand new whatever it is your little heart desired so much you just put up standing in a queue for. (That is something else, which will be the topic of the next post.)

This is a very peculiar system. It is a throwback to the old Communist customs, but it certainly makes an interesting shopping experience.

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.

The traffic is insane. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is simplified as “survival of the fittest” in
popular culture, is completely true in this situation. Vehicular traffic is governed by the rule of “the
bigger car has right of way”. Also: the car has a right of way to a scooter. The scooter has right
of way to a pedestrian. Even on the walkway. Headlights -just as on racing cars- are purely
ornamental on scooters. And many of them are electric, therefore completely silent on the top of
this. These stealth doomsday scooters are quite dangerous when you are out for a walk, because they can
come from literally anywhere.
What really surprised me, though is that even though the drivers treat the traffic rules like pirates
treat the pirate code, there are no fatal accidents at every crossings. (Which is not to say there
are no accidents…) Since everyone expects the crazies shit from their fellow drivers, and more
importantly, nobody drives with anger, it all seems to work out. They wait while you do a U turn in
a 3 lane road; they wait until you find a parking lot, and they don’t shake their fists when you cut in
front of them. The only thing they do is the constant sounding of their horns to advertise their
presence. All these factors together might be the reasons why I did not see terrible, hundred car pile
ups with massive casualties at every mile while I was there. Perhaps drivers back home
(mother, I’m looking at you) could learn from this attitude.

One thing you have to realize that the Chinese are an old, proud and very sophisticated culture. It’s too easy thinking of China through the distortions of the movies, the Mao caps, the Chinese markets in Europe, the strange foodstuff they are supposed to be eating, the Apple sweatshops, and the rest of the stereotypical (and not very flattering) stuff you come across.

However having a girlfriend from Beijing made me realize something. They think we are barbarians.

The first reason is obvious: their history and culture is longer than ours. Europe pulled some real douche moves on China during the centuries, too.  

Also, we are hairy as hell compared to them. And we stink. No kidding; there is a big difference in body odour. I had serious problems finding deodorant in Shanghai, because men simply don’t use them, unless they feel particularly metrosexual. And the weird thing is? You are not drowned in the fumes. Not on the metro, where crowds can (and do) build up, and not on the market, where people work hard under the sun all day. There is something with difference in sweat glands between Far East Asian and European populations, and you can read about it if you want to. But it’s quite astonishing. (And unfair, I might add.)

And yet, there seems to be a trend: many Chinese girls I’ve seen in Shanghai and Beijing had Caucasian boyfriends (I was quite self-conscious of the fact; it felt like I’m in some sort of a club every time we came across another couple), and only a few Caucasian women had Chinese boyfriends. Women apparently like barbarians.

So there I am, waiting for someone in a McDonald’s. Why McDonald’s of all places, you ask? Because they have wireless, and because the center of my life has left me there until she took care of some university business. I had no intention of eating there, mind you, so I got a coffee and the Cafe part, and sat there reading stuff on my tablet. Anyhow. I said hi in Mandarin, and thanked the barista in Mandarin. The rest of the communication was in English as these were the only two words I could master.

There were these two Americans entering the establishment. Middle aged, tall, in cargo shorts, and checkered shirts, the silly fisherman’s hat on their heads, and quite loud -the stereotypical American tourists. I sat there quite smugly (wearing my girlfriend’s father’s Armani shirt), thinking “the first thing these guys do when they arrive to China, the culinary capital of the world, is to go to a McDonald’s. Typical.” The hypocrisy did not escape my attention, but I kept saying to myself that I was only there for the web. This self-righteous smugness lasted about two minutes. One of the Americans turned to the barista and started talking to her in Mandarin. A lot. And she answered. And they laughed together.

I wanted to quietly disappear behind my tablet, and hide my burning face.

China is big. And they don’t have a 4th floor in their hotels.

Aside from that? Three weeks in Shanghai and Beijing did not get me knowledgeable about the country enough to actually write something meaningful and deep. So I’ll stick to small anecdotes and things I’ve seen.