Alex Sieh
The China Monologues: I’m not too proud to beg

The China Monologues

I’m not too proud to beg

As we meandered around Hanoi’s Old Quarter in Vietnam, a friend and I stopped to scan a cooler for a bottle of juice.

“30,000,” the vendor muttered, lazily looking up from her phone.

My friend staggered back. No way was she paying 30,000 anything for a bottle of sweet mango goodness.

“Oh for f***s sake, dude. It’s like a dollar,” I said.

The curse of the sticker shock can happen everywhere, but Asia is especially tricky. Currently, one U.S. dollar is about 0.89 euros, 6.48 Chinese yuan, 111.79 Japanese yen and 1160.63 South Korean won. In Vietnamese dongs? (That’s right. Dongs.) Just $1 is 22281.64 dongs.

With tens of thousands of dongs in our pants — er, pockets (I’m a child) — we had to keep in mind that seemingly outrageous prices really weren’t that unreasonable.

After haggling our way to buying cool pants and knock-off books, we converted back to U.S. to assess the damage. We shuddered. Did we really just haggle some kindly Vietnamese lady over $0.45? Were we those people?

In our defense, that’s just Asia. It’s common knowledge that if a vendor (especially in China) isn’t offended by a buyer-suggested price, then the customer is being swindled. It’s a game to bicker, haggle and make sport of settling on a price.

After seven months of watching taxi drivers and shop vendors jack prices up to triple the market value, my friend and I were starting to lose our American hesitation — in more ways than one.

It’s custom to call across a restaurant for a waiter’s attention with, “fuwuyuan!” and a snappy hand gesture. If pedestrians don’t push back on the subway or in busy crowds, they’ll get knocked over. (I actually spent a good five minutes blocking a cordoned-off area, just so two shorter women couldn’t sneak past me in line. With feet spread and arms cocked out, I looked like a deranged linebacker staving off line-cutters.) This is all perfectly acceptable here. When living abroad, expats learn to adapt (much to our chagrin, sometimes), or fall fast behind.

“Tai gui le (too expensive),” my friend said, with insistence, cajoling an electronics vendor to drop the price on a laptop case. The vendor, not amused, looked thoroughly pissed over a 5-yuan price drop. (I stood awkwardly a few feet away, embarrassed, because I can’t haggle. Not even a little.) Eventually, the vendor forked it over, along with a keyboard cover, and retreated to bitch about stupid foreigners, I’m sure.

I turned to my friend, with a smile, as she smugly packed away her new case: “Damn. We’re going to be true-blue assholes when we go back home.”

Less than a year abroad, and we were already abandoning American standards.

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