Finders Keepers: The Fifteen Second Rule

Quick!  What’s the national sport of China?

No, not ping pong.

Nope, not kung fu either.

It’s not even spitting, if that was going to be your next guess, fellow China-dwellers.

It’s saving money.  You heard me.

Chinese people are some of the thriftiest people I have ever met.  Frugal.  Some would even go so far as to call them cheap (yes, I might be one of those people, but don’t worry, I’m cheap too.  But Chinese people, man, they are CHEAP!).

Whether it is a new house, a car, a flat screen television, a cell phone, new clothes or shoes, a package of AA batteries at the corner store, or simply a bag of apples purchased from the roadside fruit vendor, people haggle and bargain for the lowest possible price on absolutely everything.  I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen bargaining for the cost of a meal in a restaurant!  No one wants to spend a single mao more than is necessary for anything.

"How much you wanna pay for stick of scorpions? Come on, I give you good price!"

This game of “Can you make the price lower?” is so prevalent, that it is not only accepted, but expected when purchasing almost any item.  If you don’t at least attempt to bargain, you’ll probably lose a bit of face in the eyes of the merchant.  Mind you, foreigners are at a distinct disadvantage, because often the first price you will be quoted is at least a few times higher than the first price a Chinese person would be asked to pay.  Chinese vendors across the country also know that most foreigners are not as comfortable or as savvy with the art of haggling as the locals, and they are more than happy to do their best to exploit that fact (hey, they’re trying to earn a living – who can blame them?).

This also means that most Chinese people are extremely proud of their bargaining abilities and are quite willing to share their successes (and rub in the fact that you got taken).  While in western countries, discussing the prices of possessions or salaries is somewhat taboo, here in China it is very common.   Taxi drivers will almost inevitably ask me how much I earn each month during our ten minute drive across the city.  And anytime I or another teacher (Chinese or foreign) wear something new to school or I bring an item home, we are met with another one of those quintessential Chinese-isms – “How much?”  Just the other day, a Chinese teacher I work with was strutting around the office in a new blouse-y top, asking everyone to guess how much it had cost her, and then squealing with delight every time she was able to tell them, “No! Only five yuan!!”

I'm pretty sure that even the lowest price for Chinese people is still way more than I would ever pay for this pimp-tastic bed.

The fact that I am a foreigner leads to most people being quite disappointed in the price I’ve paid, even when I’ve managed to haggle a bit and received what I think is a pretty good price.  My husband has, more times than I can count, wrinkled his nose a bit, shaken his head, and sighed, “Foreigner price.”  (Expat Tip:  Lie.  Subtract at least ten or twenty yuan from the price you really paid – you’ll likely still get the disappointed look, but it won’t be quite so bad!  Or, feign a poor memory and tell them that you can’t remember how much you paid.)

Anyway, this thrifty attitude doesn’t just apply to purchasing new items.  No, no, if a person can avoid buying something new in the first place, and instead have the old item repaired – well that’s even better!  There are repairmen (and women) for everything, often found on street corners, roaming the residential zones, or on the other end of one of the phone numbers stuck or painted on the walls of the building stairwells.

This in itself is not that different from Canada or America – my parents would just as soon have something repaired rather than purchase a new item every time something breaks, especially when it comes to major purchases like appliances.  However, Chinese people seem to take this to a whole new level, and well past my tolerance limit (I know, it’s crazy that I don’t have the patience to fix something that has just broken for the seventh time in a month, right?!).  Many seem quite content to fix old things over and over and over again, while after a couple of attempts at repairs, I simply feel it is smarter in the long run to invest in a newer, better quality item.

This scooter still ran, despite looking like a gust of wind might cause it to disintegrate!

Not only will a lot of people here fix old items rather than buy new ones, but they will save, or even scavenge for, things that may be fixable or come in handy for fixing something in the future.  In addition to the elderly folks riding around on their tricycles and checking the garbage bins for recyclable materials, there are also those who view the trash bins as potential second hand stores.  Any desk lamps, old kitchen utensils, or other random, possibly useful items will be snatched up and taken home to be examined.  I don’t feel bad about throwing away some of what I view as “junk”, nor do I seek out a place to donate my old clothes; I simply put them in clean bags and set them out beside the trash cans, knowing that someone will find them and give them a good second home.

(As an aside, this scavenging seems to be some sort of competitive sport for some.  I can tell you about one instance when I was cleaning my apartment and packing to return to Canada in 2005.  Wanting to sleep on the plane as much as possible, I waited until the night before I left home to do all this sorting, cleaning, and packing.  At approximately 3:30am, I hauled a few armfuls of bags down to the trash and resumed packing; when I looked out at 5:00am, the bags were still there, but the contents had been thoroughly picked over!)

Now, please don’t think I am condemning the Chinese people for any of this – on the contrary, I think it’s very practical of them.  When you consider that China has only become a modern, urban, economic superpower in the last twenty or thirty years, and that for most of its (long!) history, most of China’s people lived poor, rural lifestyles, you’ll come to realize that these behaviours were not only necessary then, but also are very smart to have today.  Many Chinese today still have low incomes, and with increasing inflation, being thrifty is the only way to save money to purchase a house or pay for their children’s education.

On occasion though, I’ve seen this “finders keepers” attitude taken to new and amusing levels.  Some people here are always on the lookout, it seems, for an opportunity and jump at the chance to seize one.

A few days ago, a number of colleagues and I were in our school van, being driven out to a remote part of the city.  Our little city is like any other in China at this time, and is ever-expanding, so the road was under construction and very rough.  We bumped along with the cargo trucks for a long time, heading out to our destination.  We were nearly there, when the driver spotted a large trench across the road that we would have to drive through.  He crept along as best he could, but as we were pulling out of it, we all heard a loud scrape from the back end of the van, and lots of rattling as he started pulling away again.

Smartly, the driver pulled over immediately and, along with one of my bosses, got out to investigate.  The driver hopped back in after about five seconds, but then after a quick look, realizing that our boss was not in the van, he jumped back out again.

Less than ten seconds later, we discovered not only where our boss had disappeared to, but also what damage had been done to the van.  The side door opened and in they tossed…the spare tire.

But it was what our boss said next that amazed me the most.  After she got back in the passenger seat she informed us that, in the fifteen seconds or so since the van stopped, “Someone tried to steal our spare tire.”

Maybe they thought the tire was a baby?!

Apparently, even in the middle of a construction zone lined with cargo trucks in almost the middle of nowhere, you need to keep a close eye on all your valuables…including spare tires.

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8 Responses to Finders Keepers: The Fifteen Second Rule

  1. All the scrimping, bargaining and saving as you have pointed out might have been the natural reaction to all those years of want in the long Chinese history. Luckily, it is not too bad a thing. At least the Americans should be grateful for this phenomenon for aren’t they are the major benefactor of the huge Chinese savings? How poetic that the Chinese would scrimp and save only to lend money to the greatest spenders in the world who have had many years of plenty while they themselves have had many years of want? Ha ha. Nice post!

    • kjsandor says:

      I think you’re right that it comes from so many years of necessarily being thrifty – and I think it’s a positive and admirable trait (to a point!). Chinese value things much more than we do and are much less of a throw-away society, and that can’t be bad at all!!

  2. T says:

    Heh, cool post. Coincidentally, I came across this article today:

    http://www.economist.com/node/21551028

  3. miravakily says:

    I’m in two minds about this. Yes, the garbage gets sifted through and (hopefully) everything gets recycled, people are more prone to use something till it breathes its last breath (like the e-bike above) and then will still try to get it fixed. The other day I dropped off a couple of shoes at a little cobbler’s and it was filled to the brim with other customer’s shoes needing repair (though I hope the locals pay less than what I was charged because it was not cheap… I need to step up the bargaining I guess!). Anyway, I think that’s great and our Western throw-away culture could really learn from it. On the other hand, a lot of the stuff isn’t made to last and then it doesn’t matter how cheap it originally was. Residential builings aren’t foreseen to last more that 40years (!). Our flat – we were its first tennants, everything was new – started falling apart bit by bit after 9 months. And don’t get me started on the lack of insulation! All of these things aren’t only a waste of money but they’re a waste of resources.
    I am not saying that China is the only or biggest culprit – not at all; I could finger-point all around, myself included. I don’t know if it’s the in-your-face economic boom played out by a colossal construction surge or the stark contrast between wastefulness of the “new” (the construction sites, desire for new amenities and other luxury items, this domineering in the cities amongst those that can now afford it) and the thriftiness of the “old” (the aged recyclers on their rickety bikes, repairing everything, represented by the poorer urban and rural population) but I find myself thinking about these things a lot more since coming here. And ultimately I’m afraid that the newer generations are going to lose that thriftiness very soon.

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks for your comment! You’re absolutely right on all counts. The cheap mentality extends right back to manufacturing – they’ll make everything as cheaply as possible, cutting corners everywhere, so nothing lasts very long and needs to be repaired frequently. Anything to save a mao, right?!

      And I have also wondered about the younger generations, who are now growing up with the excess and the ability to afford luxury, and what they will be like in a few years. It could be a very scary prospect.

  4. Jacob Yount says:

    I think they shake their head and wrinkle their nose at the “foreign price” simply because a foreigner is relaying the information. Just because a foreigner bought it, they are going to assume it’s too much.

    Always enjoy your posts, Kelly.

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