In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I find it ironic that I’m buying clothes in China when every little corner store in the United States sells items made here. But we’ve traveled across the world to a foreign country, and it’s inconceivable that we wouldn’t bring gifts home. Kevin, my husband, wryly suggests, “Let’s buy the clothes at home and say we got them here.” I shake my head. “They’re cheaper here, there are different kinds available, and besides, part of the joy of travel is the struggle to fit gifts into your suitcase.”
We’re window-shopping along one of Beijing’s better streets, hoping that buying from a store instead of a street vendor will eliminate the enervating bargaining process. We want to purchase something and leave within ten minutes.
The sunlight beats down heavily through polluted air, and a thick humidity coats everything with shimmering beads of moisture. Our knapsacks contain Chinese phrase books, maps, bottles of water, fruit, and raincoats for the cloudbursts that suddenly appear no matter what the weather report, drench us, then give way to steamy sunlight once again. We glance into shops, which have proven remarkably homogeneous, and pretend not to see the inviting gestures of salespeople. Entreaties trail us, a chorus of voices saying, “Shop here. Good prices!” We resolutely continue on.
Finally we select a small shop because its wide windows are spotless and the silk blouses, jackets, scarves, pajamas, and ties appear well-made. Also we are just plain tired. Once we enter through the open door, however, we’re dismayed to discover that nothing has a price tag. The attractive young salesman greets us with “Ni hao,” followed by “Hello.” His jeans and white linen shirt are casually elegant. His confident smile, shining hair, and careful examination of us suggest he is a member of the rising middle class. His stance is aggressive — legs slightly apart, head thrust a bit forward — implying that he enjoys dickering, maybe especially with Americans. I sigh and fight the impulse to flee. Bargaining seems a national sport here, a way of demonstrating one’s superiority. I’d grant his superiority right now if I could be spared the haggling process.
After the required pleasantries — Where are you from? Are you here on business? Are you enjoying China? Where have you been so far? — the vendor quotes a ridiculously high price for the blouses we want. He smiles, but there’s a hard edge in his eyes. It’s obvious that he’s a master at this, interspersing friendly questions with quick, jabbing offers — a boxer dancing lightly around us until he lands the knockout punch. I offer a price I feel is fair, one I’m not prepared to go above. He immediately counters with one barely below his original quote. I shake my head and repeat my original price. He shrugs as though to say, We have to do this, and makes a counteroffer: a mere one yuan less.
Kevin and I have made it a point to be polite and generous when we must bargain, aware of the Chinese need to save face and that most Chinese live on very little. We also know, however, that Americans are regarded as gullible and considered wealthy, and there is a certain obsequiousness on the part of vendors that is insulting.
Outside, the ever-present car horns reach a crescendo, and I turn and look out the window: a traffic jam. Drivers lean out of their cars to scream at each other. The salesman shakes his head and calmly closes the door, and the noise fades to a manageable roar. I have the beginning of a headache and realize that I’m gritting my teeth. I long for the air-conditioned tranquillity of a tea shop: the swift pouring of boiling water over tea leaves; the release of the tea’s delicate fragrance; the porcelain cups on lacquered tables. “Look,” I say, “we didn’t come in here to bargain. We hate it. We want two blouses, a pair of pajamas, two ties, and some scarves. We’ll pay a fair price, but it has to be fair to us also.”
At the salesman’s silence, I turn and motion to Kevin that I want to leave.
The salesman grabs my arm. In the States, this kind of physical contact is rare, but it’s common in this part of the world. In Tibet I often needed to peel a vendor’s fingers off my biceps one by one.
“Wait, wait. We can agree on a price,” the salesman cajoles. His smile is conciliatory. “All Americans like to bargain.”
I carefully reclaim my arm. “Then I must not be a typical American.”
His look of disbelief feels provocative, but then, how can I accurately interpret the gestures, the idiomatic expressions of a culture so different from my own? “Look,” he says, “we have factory workers to pay. They need to earn a living.”
This ploy is ridiculous. The factory workers’ paltry salary is predetermined. Whatever extra we pay will remain here in this shop. I wonder if he imagines us that naive.
“You don’t have to accept our price,” I say. “You’ll have other customers, and we can go to another store. I’m just trying to be reasonable.”
He shakes his head. “What an American considers reasonable may not be what a Chinese considers reasonable. You are a rich country.”
“I’m American, but I’m not wealthy. I’m here on a budget. The price we’ve offered is reasonable to both Chinese and Americans.” I’m unhappy at being drawn into a conversation I feel certain is designed to provoke guilt.
“I have a cousin in Chicago,” he says. “I know what Americans think.”
“I have a Chinese daughter-in-law,” I say. “I know what Chinese think.”
His face grows hard. The playful friendliness vanishes. He steps closer to me and hisses, “I hate George Bush.”
Kevin inhales sharply behind me. I feel as if I’ve been punched. “I hate George Bush far more than you do,” I say in a trembling voice.
He smiles cynically. “But you’re American.”
There it is: I’m American. I flush a deep, hot red. Shame rises up in me so strongly I can barely breathe. How did this happen? How did it become shameful to be an American? My grandparents fled Eastern Europe to the safety of New York with my mother and her sister. Yet every political conversation I have with friends ends with embarrassment at being Americans. Right now, I want to say to this salesman, I’m not a typical American. I grew up in a ghetto. I worked my way through college while supporting two children. I hate the current administration. I sign petitions. I write letters. I drive an old, fuel-efficient car. I do volunteer work at a prison. My husband is an environmental scientist. He and I marched in New York City to protest the invasion of Iraq.
But as the salesman and I stare at each other, I suddenly see myself through his eyes. It doesn’t matter that the clothes I wear are from a secondhand store and my sneakers are from a factory outlet; they are easily affordable to me. Kevin and I own a house — smaller than many, but ours. I can travel to China, even if on a budget. I’m in this store to buy gifts for others back home who already own more than they need. To the majority of Chinese, I am wealthy. I have never recognized or acknowledged it before because I compare myself only to other Americans. The only place I am not a typical American is at home; everywhere else I am an American. Period. Why did it take so long for me to understand this?
I remember how, as Kevin and I demonstrated against the war alongside college students and mothers pushing strollers, Jewish antiwar groups and Catholic clergy, military veterans and grandmothers, an old Paul Simon lyric kept running through my head: “They’ve all come to look for America.”
At this moment, in this little shop in China, thousands of miles from home, I have found America: I am America.
I sigh deeply and smile at the puzzled young salesman, who has been watching me as I’ve stood lost in thought. “I am an American,” I tell him, “but I hate George Bush’s policies, and so do plenty of us. We fight them all the time. You would have no way of knowing that, but believe me, there are millions of us he doesn’t represent.”
He stares, arms still crossed tightly in front of his chest, and shakes his head. I feel like crying. His government is no better than ours, but he and I are not our governments.
I add, “I really do have a daughter-in-law who’s Chinese.”
Something slowly shifts in his face. His arms drop to his side, and he looks at me appraisingly. “Where does she live?”
He smiles. “Hollywood, Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite.”
“Yes,” I say. “All of that.”
He pulls a little calculator from his pocket, punches buttons for a few moments, and finally quotes a price only two yuan above my original offer. I pay him. Our transaction is done. He has saved face. The tea shop beckons. Outside, clouds cover the sun, a sure sign of rain and a temporary reprieve from the heat.
“Tell your friends to come here,” the salesman says as he puts our traveler’s checks into a little cash box. “I give Americans a good price.”
“We’ll tell them,” Kevin says, and we all shake hands. The salesman’s palm is soft, his fingers slender and strong, like those of a piano player. The smile he offers is warm, with no hint of contempt. He walks us to the door and swings it open. A blast of noise hits us.
As we walk out, the salesman says, “I really do have a cousin in Chicago.”
“Chicago Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, Sears Tower,” I say.
“Yes,” he answers. “All of that.”