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.
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!!”
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.
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.”
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.