January 15, 2008

Blockin' and Fakin'

One interesting dilemma about being in zhong guo (hah, don't I sound pretentious) is the GFOC. Yes, it exists, and no, it's not a joke. What's neat is that people here perceive is as normal. Like "oh yeah, couldn't get to your flickr page, it was blocked yesterday." No biggie, no sweat, just a part of life. But the funny part is that some of the blockades come and go. Like over the weekend, flickr was all good. Then on Monday during the day, it was getting blocked intermittently, before being shut down for good on Monday night. Now it's back up again. Oh well, c'est la vie. I can't be too concerned, since my main audience is ya'll lao wai anyway :-)

What's weird is that individual web sites, like Slashdot, might not be blocked, but their RSS feeds are. In fact I think the entire feedburner.com domain is blocked, which is trouble because most sites I check use feedburner to track subscriptions to their RSS feed. Also this morning, blogspot (my gracious host) suddenly became unblocked, when it's been blocked since I've been here. But strangely enough, when I was here in November, it wasn't blocked. Somebody must have just gotten arrested. You can see how confusing this is on any given day :-)

My theory is that some censor in Beijing, let's call him Xian, is maybe having a bad day. Maybe his wife leaves him, he wakes up and sees an eviction notice on his apartment door, and then he gets chewed out at work for being late. Then he accidentally spills coffee on his new shoes. Now he's in a terrible mood, like a walking thundercloud, and he's like "Lousy wife/landlord/boss!! Always pushing me around. I'm gonna block flickr! Yeah, that'll make me feel better." He sits down at his desk, cracks his knuckles, and double-clicks an icon on his desktop. Bam, no more flickr for the entire country. It's like releasing a pressure valve. Then a week later, he meets a new girl, he's able to pay his rent so his landlord gets off his back, and he gets a promotion at work. Oh, and he gets some new shoes. Congratulations everybody -- flickr is now back online!!

That's my theory anyway.

It's freezing here. No -- literally, freezing. So I bought a jacket today. Like a bigass thick heavy jacket. In a metro station. Yes, many metro stations have underground shopping plazas in them. The goods in there are probably of dubious quality. For example, as I was shmying (there; I just added Yiddish to the list of languages in this blog) and chatting with a store owner who spoke pretty decent English, I noticed the label on one jacket read French Concotion. I couldn't help but laugh. Not only that, but I pointed out the misspelling to the girl and offered to proofread her labels in the future. She pretended to study the label as if it were somehow just defective, but to her credit, she wasn't all offended and defensive as if I'd insulted her store's merchandise, haha.

So with that in mind, when I saw the Ralph Lauren Polo label on a jacket in a different store that I actually wanted, no one could have convinced me that it was actually Polo. But I bought it anyway. Here's how:

The store keeper and I chatted for a little bit, I pretended to be interested in some sweaters and different shirts, and then when I landed on the jacket and said "how much?" she started me off at 1250 RMB -- $172. But then she said "special price" and knocked it down to 850. Really??!?! A special price just for li'l ol' me??? (She said it was because I spoke such good Chinese. Ah, she knows the way to a man's heart.) Blue Light Special.

Suddenly I'm in one of those situations the travel guides tell me about. She is typing these prices on a calculator and then she hands it to me. I falter for a minute and then type in 750 and hand it back to her. Oh man, the look on her face, you would have thought that I'd shot her pet dog. Oooh, just gets me right here in the heartstrings, man. Right here.

She comes back with 830. That's still tai gui, which I repeat to her. The great thing about a phrase like tai gui is, both words use the fourth (falling) tone, so it's really easy to sound disappointed when you say it, like:
"I'm shocked and appalled at your greed, you cur. You have impugned my honor! It's pistols at high noon."
At this point I'm like well, I'm here in this underground mall, I'm not super desperate for a jacket, and it's not like textiles are in short supply around here. So I start in with "Oh, you know, I'm gonna just walk around some more, bu yao, bu yao xiexie, zai jian." I was being honest, but I'm sure all of you reading this know what happened next: she offered to cut the price even more, even more. I kept refusing, and she kept asking, and it's funny because she is saying "How much would this cost you in mei guo?? Is cold in mei guo!!" And I'm laughing and saying "Yeah but we're in zhong guo! Zhong guo!" Oh, the hilarity. I should buy her a book on Aristotelian logic.

At this point I'm moving out the door and back into the plaza, and she follows me, tugs on my jacket and says "Five hundred! Five Hundred! Final price!" Now, even though this isn't a Ralph Lauren Polo or anything, it certainly isn't a piece-of-shit jacket. It definitely is warm and thick and, what's more, it fits my tall ass rather nicely. I've no idea what it might run for in the States, not that it matters, and it doesn't even matter what price she started at -- now she's pricing it at $68. That's too much (or too little) for me -- I give in. She's got me now.

She follows me to the ATM across the way, stands like 50 feet behind me while I withdraw my money, and bam, I've got a new jacket. She even throws in a cheap bag (which I promptly discard outside the subway station, it's so useless). She completes the sale by saying, essentially "I only give you this price because is last sale of day. You come back tomorrow, price not be so good."

Uh huh. Sure.

So there you go. Robert tells me that everyone gets screwed on their first couple haggling gigs but that you get better at it. I'm not sure if I got screwed -- I have no perspective just yet. I'm sure she still made a tidy profit off me, but that's all well and good, because I got a decent jacket at (what I think is) a good price. And boy is it ever warm. I just hope that, y'know, it doesn't start falling apart in a week. Or that there's not a family of mealworms living in the armpits. (Yum! Special direct import from Malaysia.)

Outside in the plaza, I was waiting in line for a taxi, and this guy struck up a conversation with me about how cold it was. He said he was from Singapore via the US, and I said "where in the US?" you know, just being friendly. And he goes "Austin, Texas." No fucking way! What are the odds of that? Turns out he works for Freescale. So yeah, now I have another expat buddy from Austin, not even from work.

I took a cab to the Thumb and walked around, kind of feeling out my new jacket and making sure it is as warm as I thought it was when I was buying it. (It is.) I ended up at -- damn, can't remember the name of the place, but I had the fried lotus root and some kind of spicy chicken dish. Oh, muy delicioso. And it cost -- well, I don't really want to get into money too much, because I think talking about it makes me sound cheap. But just trust me, shit here is cheap. Hahaha.

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