The Road to China

Chapter 10: 

A Rolex for Christmas

Me at the Board.

"Will everyone who plans on taking the IELTS test in December please see me after class?", I said after returning from the weekend at Mt. Taishan.  About 5 students showed up; surprisingly some of my best English speakers had no interest in taking the exam.  

"Many of you have asked me to help you pass the IELTS test.  Well, I can't do that.  That is something only you can do.  What I offer is an opportunity to practice your spoken and written English with a native speaker so that you can improve.  And since there's not enough class time for that, I will be holding an 'English Only' party every Wednesday evening in my new apartment for those who want the extra practice. We can all talk, we can conduct practice tests, and you can all help me grade papers from my other classes.  You are all cordially invited."

And that was that.  From that point on I started to re-introduce engaging activities into my curriculum.  For my first act, I told them "You are all writers in a television newsroom.  OH, NO!  Our newscast starts in 1 hour!!  Break into groups of 3; you all have 1 hour to prepare your 3-minute live segment!", and then I proceeded to assign Headlines, sports, weather, business news, local news, and 3 commercials to the groups.  They all responded to the pressure, and came through in time for the broadcast.  Teaching is fun again!!  

Same student; different day.

I am also balancing these activities out with weekly vocabulary lists and exams; followed by reading assignments which use the words they just studied.  Their reading comprehension for English texts may be near-zero, but these kids sure know how to memorize things and take tests!!  An increased vocabulary can surely enhance that ability.  


New apartment

The new apartment was somewhat of a surprise to me.  After all, I was actually pretty happy in my modified dorm room, and the only thing I kept asking for was Internet Access (which they agreed to include in my contract).  After the 5th week of asking, I was told "You'll be moving into a new apartment next week.  We'll get you ADSL in your new place".

That seemed like a pretty extreme move just to get internet access!  Later I discovered that all of the English teachers were being moved to an apartment complex which sits on the campus property and is owned by the 

The living room of my new apartment.  Click the picture to view a 3-minute video tour.  (Size: 3.3 MB)  Click Here for Larger Version (88 file)

school so they can renovate the first-floor dorms.  It had nothing to do with my request.  This new place has a large bedroom, a large kitchen (well, it's large by European standards; but quite tiny by any other reference), and a living room for people who don't intend on doing much living.  Still, it's a little larger than my old place, and now I can come and go at all hours if I want to, and host "English Only" get-togethers for my students.  

It was very clearly built in the Soviet era, with a dungy entrance and exposed pipes that give new meaning to the term "indoor plumbing".  Click on the picture to the left to see a short video giving you a tour of the place.  

Oh, and the internet access I was promised?  "The phone company was supposed to come today" I was told on move-in day.  "But their recent promotion of "free installation" proved so successful that there's now a backlog for installation."  "How much time?"  "About one month".  

I think I'll get the internet access I was promised on the day my passport expires.  


A Rolex for Christmas

The Flea Market that goes on forever.  Heaven if you enjoy bargaining.

Across the street from the Holiday Inn Lidu hotel (a 5-star hotel for foreigners) you can find what I think might be the world's longest and skinniest flea market.  The market seems to go on forever, stretching the length of a VERY large city block, and takes about 1/2 an hour to traverse.  Within it you can find every imaginable type of gift targeted at tourists -- jade Buddhas, Chinese fans, artwork, sunglasses, jewelry, name-brand clothes which are probably excess from the legitimate Chinese subcontractors, and fake Rolex watches.  Most fascinating to me was the fact that all of these stores were pretty much all selling the same things -- not variations on a theme, but the exact same merchandise.  Whatever you're looking for, there are 20 vendors here who can sell it to you.  

I thought this strange until I remembered Shanghai, where all the competitors were also grouped together.  Walking down one city block you'd find 10 stores selling wedding gowns; another block would be 12 stores selling motorized scooters; a 3rd block was nothing but stereo shops.  This is amazingly convenient for the person who knows what they want to buy, but I cannot see how the store owners benefit from this.  An experienced businessman could really take advantage of this layout and do something evil!  (A person like me, for example...)

A wedding gown shop in Shanghai (one of 10 on that block).  Red dresses are the most popular since red symbolizes "good luck" in China; while white carries no particular significance. 

Every business transaction in China is a game.  In these foreigner-targeted flea markets especially, it is accepted that when you ask how much something is you get a hyper-inflated price, and then you're supposed to haggle with the shopkeepers until you think you're really getting a bargain.  Well, westerners are usually not comfortable haggling, and even then one is not assured of getting the best deal.  Time to pull out a page from the Federal Procurement playbook.  

"How much is this fake Rolex?"  "485 RMB" came the answer.  (Most of the merchants there speak English pretty well.)  That works out to be about $58.00 U.S. Dollars.  A typical westerner would think that's a good deal even before the bargaining process, and so whatever concessions they get while haggling will be icing on the cake, and they will most likely leave feeling victorious.  Well, I never liked doing what everyone else does.  I pulled out my notebook, and wrote down in very large letters,

Today I will buy 10 Rolex watches from the store that writes down the lowest price.

and then I drew an empty list with booth numbers on the left and bid prices on the right.  With pad in hand, I walked down the long aisle and handed it to each store that was selling fake Rolexes, explaining (multiple times!) what I was going to do.  As I progressed, each store could see what the other stores were bidding, and what they had to beat in order to get the business.  I was not going to haggle with anybody; I was going to pit all the stores against each other and let them have all the fun!  

You want thingamabobs?  She's got 20.

Hear me now and listen to me later: you have never seen so many professional hagglers squirm as I saw while going through this exercise.  Many would go on and on about how the quality of their watches were superior to the others; still others continued to chant they only thing they knew: "Give me the price you want and I'll tell you if I can meet it".  (I interpreted both of these as a "no-bid" and started to walk away.  3 out of 5 vendors I did this to chased me down and finally entered a bid.)  As the prices rapidly spiraled downward I started to hear all sorts of complaints about how they're not making any money, and how the store who bid XXX will never sell it to me for that; and how this is not the way business is done.  I interpreted these all to be allergic reactions; it was a sign that my strategy was working.

After the first 10 stores the price dropped from 485 RMB to 75 RMB (about 9 U.S. Dollars); 20 stores after that the bids started to stabilize at around 60 RMB.  When I reached the end of the infinite mall, I went back again to show the early bidders the new prices, and I asked for a "Best and Final Offer", and the prices dropped still further.  

Tackiest thing I've seen to date.  Now I want a Hitler and and a Stalin watch to complete my collection.  

I won't tell you what the winning bid was, since I'm going to be giving these watches away as gifts, and I don't want the recipients thinking I'm a cheapskate. :-)  Suffice to say I successfully worked the system and got a better bargain than any normal westerner could hope for.  

And, true to the haggler's code, the nanosecond the transaction was completed it was completely forgotten, and I was treated to the standard high-pressure pitches trying to sell me something else.  "You want a jacket?  A hat?  A silk robe?  I'll give you a good price.  You have a friend?  How much do you want to pay?"  They don't miss a beat.

I don't want to go back there again unless I'm buying ten of something.


Meet the Students

Recently I gave my students a writing assignment.  I told them "I have a friend in America who's putting together a book entitled "What It's Like to Live In...".  It is a book targeted for American children, which provides stories from people all over the world, explaining what's it's like to grow up in that country.  I'd like you to write about what life was like for you growing up in China.  Write about whatever you think is important."

I thought some of the essays I got were so interesting that I'd share them with you.  The first comes from one of my 2nd year students at the Beijing Information Technology College.  Here are her own words, completely unedited.

From my Mother’s Love 

By "Julia" Ren Hong 011011H 

I don’t know where should I begin. When I was remember my mother there will always have some noise by my side because my mother often shout to me.  

Julia Ren

OK I will introduce my mother’s love from 3 parts. First is about my study.  My mother non-stop talk, and said if you don’t study hard you will has less money.  So I study hard.  But she still said if you don’t go to the University, nobody would respect you.  When I study in the college, my mother said if you can’t pass the “College English Test” you can’t find a good job.  I always heared those 3 words: “study”, “job”, and “money” from my mother’s mouth.  I have no break time during the study.  If I want to heared listen ten minute music, do you know what will my mother said?  I think you have guess it already.  Yes, my mother will said, “No, you must pay all attention to your study!”  That’s what my mother said when I was study. 

Second is my life.  She pay attention to the clothes what I had wear, pay attention to the food what I had eat, and which style hair did I choose.  I have a diet table which was made by my mother.  She said “You are a girl. You shouldn’t be fat, but must have enough nutrition, and no stimulation food, because it would bad for your stomach.  And most of the clothes bought by my mother.  I shouldn’t wear so much skin outside, and must looks like a good student or beautifully lady.  

And the last things is who could I can make friends for.  That was the most boring things.  I have a boy friend now, he name is Hunter. I love he very much, because of his talent.  But he don’t have a well-off family and he has a bad health.  My mother always said you should think it carefully.  That’s means you should change your boyfriend who has well-of family, has strong and healthy body, and talent as your husband in the future.  When my mother’s friend or neighbor introduce a boy to me, my mother will said it again.  That’s was the most boring things. 

But, however, my mother show her love to me, she want me to be the best in the world. She love me, and I love she also.


Until next time...

"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"

November 7, 2003


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