All the produce in China is priced per 500g. So, when you see a sign announcing 2.20RMB for a papaya, it actually means 2.20RMB/500g, or 4.40RMB/kg. Now, then, I’ve figured out why they do that–it’s to confuse the tourists! No, really. I can prove it.
Most tourists, say an American (or a Jamaican who used to live in New York), thinks in terms of pounds. 1kg is actually 2 lbs, so when I see 2.20RMB, I think it’s 2.20RMB per pound, but it’s not. That’s confusing enough, but here’s where the trick comes in. The street vendors who sell produce use an entirely different system of computing prices. It’s called “free market, mood-based opportunity capitalism.” In other words, they charge by the pound, gram, kilogram, weather, nationality of the purchaser, color of your shirt, or day of the week, it really could be anything, depending on mood of the seller.
In 2009, when I visited China for the first time, I walked into a shop in Shanghai–within about an hour of landing at the airport–to buy a small 250ml bottle of water and asked the price. Storekeeper told me 2RMB. Now I know enough to know it should be no more than 1RMB, or perhaps I was simply sensing intuitively that “the game” was on. I stepped out of the shop, called my translator in (at the time, I was traveling with Chun Yu Wang, author of Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin,) and had her ask the price. She’s Chinese. Caught in the act, the owner shyly admitted to her it was 1.00RMB. We all laughed at his obvious, failed attempt to play and win the game.
On another day, in Wuxi, I walked into a store to get a bag of cashews (7.50 RMB) and a bag of dried fruit (12.00RMB) with prices plainly written on the items. The shop cashier/owner punched in the prices in a calculator (she didn’t use the scanner like she did the day before), turned the small screen toward me indicating that my bill was 30RMB. Ahem. Now, I may not speak Mandarin, lady, but I went to school to be a civil engineer. We covered basic addition. First day, even. Heck, I can even do that one in my head. I took the calculator, silently punched in the numbers myself, turned the small screen back toward her showing her I would be paying 19.50 RMB. She waved her hand in disdain, took the 20RMB bill, gave me my .50 RMB change–all this in a wordless exchange of calculator buttons, bills and screen displays.
You might have already read my tale of The Greedy Innkeeper In Xishuangbanna.
Here in Hainan, I went to buy some nesberries, (that’s what we call it in Jamaica) sapodilla in America. The street vendor put my three nesberries on the electronic scale, punched some mood-based numbers, and asked for 20RMB, I gave him 10RMB, he laughed. I took my fruit and walked out. Say it with me now, “Someone will pay it….it just won’t be me!”
Around the corner from the Lost Hostel here in Sanya, there’s a vendor selling fruit. Asking price for a small papaya? 20RMB. Now, I shop at the supermarket in the city centre, so I know that a small papaya costs about 5RMB. I laughed and walked away.
The next day, as I returned from shopping, I decided I wanted a mango. I knew about what it should cost from my supermarket shopping experience. So, I walked towards Mr. Papaya’s stand, and fortunately, at the same time, there was a Chinese woman also buying mangos. So, sensing my own opportunity, I pretended to browse a little longer, delaying my purchase, lingering for a bit to give the lady a chance to select her mangos and pay for them. Then, I watched the screen of the electronic scale carefully, and noted that Mr. Papaya punched in 17RMB/kg for her mangos. (A day or two before, he had entered 29 for my mangos.) So, now that he had her mangos on the scale and told her the price, I approached him at the scale.
He knew that I had seen the price per kilogram that he had punched in for her. I knew that HE knew that I saw the price per kilogram that he had punched in for her. So, perhaps to avoid embarrasment, he had no choice but to give me the mangos at the same price. I could be mistaken, but he didn’t seem happy, though. I paid 15RMB for my two mangos (about what I would pay at the supermarket). He gave me my fruits and said “goodbye,” (An unusual thing for him to say, actually. I’ve never had anyone tell me goodbye before. Guess he wanted me to say “goodbye,” too (in other words. leave!) before I discovered the Chinese prices for everything on his stand!
Would you buy a 20RMB papaya from this man? (Mr. Papaya)
I imagine that some people would have paid Mr. Papaya the 20RMB for various reasons:(1) to avoid a scene because they dislike confrontation, (2) Feeling ill-equipped to communicate effectively if there’s a language barrier, (3) It’s still cheap given the conversion rate to their native currency, and (4) perhaps other reasons I simply can’t relate to. However, there’s just something in me that won’t allow me to willingly pay for something when I know the price is being inflated simply out of what I perceive to be opportunism based on a stereotype of the unaware, easily-manipulated, easy-target foreigner.
It’s a way of business I’ve seen in many places–different prices for different customers. It’s done in the tourism business on Saipan. It’s done in Laos, and everyone who travels has likely experienced it to some degree. Business is about seizing the opportunity to get the most you can get at any and every given moment. The cost is variable and based not on any pre-determined intrinsic or objective value, but the ability and willingness (unwitting or otherwise) of the consumer to pay.
Now, maybe I’m being too forgiving, but I’ m not mad at the people who practice “opportunity marketing.” You know, In some ways, it’s no different from a hair stylist charging John Edwards $400 for a haircut. Yes, it’s a bit stressful for me, since I already hate shopping. But, I don’t want to impose an outsider’s standard of how business should be done. But, I’d like to hear what YOU think.
After he negotiated a good rate for my High Season Hainan Hotel room, my friend, Jian, emailed me the following:
“hey Walt,I read the news last night. People are complaining to the media that the whole tourist industry of Hainan is taking advantage of the Spring festival (Chinese New Year). The local Chinese government official commented: “This is normal.” (that is, no big deal. Don’t fuss.) Now you see why people say the Chinese capitalism is actually more real than the western one.
It occurs to me, as I enjoy my 5RMB supermarket-bought papaya here in Hainan, that my friend Jian is right!
February 7, 2011 No Comments
Addendum March 5, 2011: Great news! There’s actually now a Real Coffeepot Cookbook, inspired by the blog post!
Okay, there’s something you need to know about me for when we hang out together for the Jamaican in Russia adventure: I take my diet very seriously. At the same time, I’m not ruled by my gut, at least not the same way other folks are.
So, when I say that I don’t eat meat, I don’t mean just for today. I mean yesterday, today, tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. I’m not suddenly going to forget and take the piece of pork you’re offering me because YOU forgot that I don’t eat meat. (I had a hard time explaining that on a date in Xishuangbanna.) I’ve been vegan since 1992, so I mean never. It also means I don’t eat fish, because last time I checked, fish aren’t vegetables.
When I say I’m fasting, I just don’t mean “just for right now,” and then proceed to take the rice you’re offering because it’s after 5pm. When I fast, it means I’m not eating.
And when I say I don’t eat MSG, or meat flavoring cubes or white sugar or table salt, that’s just what I mean.
So, today as I slowly resume eating from my fast, I felt like I wanted something warm rather than the fruits I’ve been eating for the past 2 days.
However, for reasons I’ve just stated, I won’t eat in a non-vegan restaurant, because I can’t be 100% sure that even though I request no MSG, no salt, no meat oil, no eggs, etc. I can’t be sure that the chef will honor those requests to my satisfaction.
So, even though there’s no kitchen in my hotel room I will still cook today, because I have…..wait for it….wait for it……The Coffee Pot Cookbook!
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, The Coffee Pot Cookbook by Walt F.J. Goodridge, healthy meals you can make with just a coffee pot and a little creativity! I had the idea for this back in Kunming, but didn’t get around to blogging about it, so now it’s time.
Today’s dish is Walt’s Nomad Veggie Soup and noodles from Chapter 7 of the cookbook.
Electric Hotel Coffee pot (provided in most hotels)
Soup bowl (borrowed from the hotel front desk)
Empty water bottle
bok choy not shown
INGREDIENTS (purchased from local supermarket; grab some extra plastic bags while there)
4L bottled water
Rice noodles (optional)
Sea salt (ordered from iherb before leaving Xishuangbanna)
Before beginning the process below, If you’ve only got one bowl, you can pour hot water over dried rice noodles, let soften, remove from bowl, place in hotel teacup, and enjoy as a side dish or include in soup.
Wash bok choy, tofu and scallion with your bottled water. If no basin or pot is available, cut the top off a smaller empty 1.5L water bottle (shown) you’ve been saving in your room for just this sort of thing, insert vegetables, pour in water, cover with palm of hand and shake vigorously.
Finely dice garlic, ginger and scallion. If no cutting board is available, spread a piece of plastic (the extras you got from the produce section of the supermarket) across the wooden desk of your hotel room. Dice gently, then discard the sheet when done.
Dice tofu into cubes
Place diced ingredients, tofu and bokchoy into soup bowl.
Boil water in coffee pot.
Pour boiling water over ingredients in bowl. Cover with plastic sheet or plate if you have one. Let simmer for a few minutes. Stir occasionally.
Add sea salt to taste.
(Total preparation time: about 10 minutes
Total cost: 20.70RMB = 3.18US
Next time, we’ll make brown rice in a coffee pot. This could get messy.
Addendum March 5, 2011: Great news! There’s actually now a Real Coffeepot Cookbook, inspired by the blog post!
January 23, 2011 2 Comments
Subject: Jamaican in China!–It’s all about the food!
Date: October 18, 2010 10:42:28 PM GMT+08:00
A new friend and fellow vegan mentioned yesterday that our lives seemed to revolve around food. That came as a surprise to me–a slim, 135-lb vegan who eats only one meal a day–but, as I thought about it, I realized she was right!
We had just finished lunch with the Vegan Social Club of Beijing (food), and she had another dinner get-together with friends later that day (food).
I had arrived late to the social club lunch, and so I didn’t eat (no food), so she agreed to accompany me to my favorite restaurant for another meal (food).
After our meal, I told her I was headed towards BHG Supermarket to get a certain brand of organic, wheat-free, breakfast cereal that isn’t sold in regular supermarkets (food).
So, as we went from lunch to dinner to another dinner (for her), and to a supermarket (for me)… it seemed it was all about food!
Well, see, it’s like this. Unlike most of the other folks on the planet, I have to make special trips to get what I want and can eat. I can’t just pop into a McDonalds, or a local bodega to get my kind of food, so it usually requires a special trip to a special supermarket or a special restaurant.
And so, the people I meet, for friendship or dating, tend to be people I meet at the places I frequent, so I end up dating girls who work at, or whom I meet at vegetarian restaurants or health food stores.
What’s more, the phrases in Mandarin that I needed to learn first have to do, for example, with ordering brown rice instead of white, requesting a knife and fork instead of chopsticks (when I’m REALLY hungry and chopstick-sized portions just won’t cut it) , or asking for the check.
Not only that, but the Chinese characters I’ve learned to recognize have to do with identifying which soy milk has sugar, and which doesn’t.
Add to that, as I start planning for accommodations in Shanghai, (my next adventure), I’m specifically looking for apartments that have a kitchen and that are near to a green grocer or veggie restaurant where I can get organic produce. (That’s about the food, too!) Hmmm…. I guess it IS all about the food.
Speaking of which, here are a few of my favorite recent photographs taken at, um….restaurants!
My favorite waitress at my favorite restaurant. (Restaurant:Tianchu Miaoxiang– 天厨妙香素食)
Ahhhh. Food, glorious food! (Restaurant: Beijing Vegan Hut)
October 18, 2010 No Comments
Subject: SPECIAL Jamaican in China!–Life as we know it (a missive fi di massive)
Date: September 1, 2010 12:36:34 PM GMT+10:00
I will make this brief.
This is a special email. It is being sent out of sequence to a select group of people to share with you what just happened on my second day in China (even though you haven’t received the first day’s chronicle yet), because the significance of what I’m about to share with you defies adequate description in words, and can not be overstated.
Life on the planet as we know it, has been irrevocably altered.
And, in the familiar Yin/Yang ”good news-bad news” construct:
First, the GOOD news:
Today, I found a VP2 style restaurant in Beijing!
For those of you who knew me in New York, you’ll recall the Chinese vegetarian restaurant, Vegetarian Paradise 3 (VP3), in New York’s Chinatown, which closed after Sept 11, and whose remaining sister location, VP2, is now thriving on West 4th Street in The Village close to New York University.
If so, you know what that restaurant represents to my life and gastric happiness, so you can already appreciate the earth-shattering, life-altering significance of what I’ve just shared with you.
The name of this restaurant is Tianchu Miaoxiang Vegetarian Restaurant (Chinese name: 天厨妙香素食(朝外店); found it on happycow.net). Out of courtesy to those who aren’t familiar, I won’t get into too much detail, but for those who know, it’s VP2 and then some! They’ve got a menu of about 20 pages, with all the mock meat, seaweed and veggie dishes we know and love, plus more stuff that exists here “at the source!”
Sample of a page of the menu
The manager, Christina–as the only one on staff who speaks English–catered to me, explaining dishes, and making suggestions. (I think I’m in love.)
Me and Christina
And finally, at the end of a sumptuous meal, which cost only 114RMB or about 16US, she refused to accept a tip–explaining Chinese culture and restaurant policy to me in the process. (A restaurant that won’t accept tips! Can life get any better than this?? Tell everyone you know: Heaven’s got a sign at the gate: “Cheapskates Welcome!“)
This in a city where everywhere I go, I’m besieged by friendly Chinese ladies who stare, smile, offer their numbers, and are making life quite pleasant. So, in any event, that’s the good news.
Now, the bad news.
um…today, I found a VP2 style restaurant in Beijing, China.
This means–my dear, sweet, close friends and family–you who’ve made my life special for all these years, and who mean the world to me–this means, you will likely never, ever, ever see me again.
flap, flap, flap, flap, flap….
[the sound of a curtain fluttering in the breeze....]
September 1, 2010 No Comments