eating turtles

It’s hard to miss the big turtles swimming around in the tanks at the grocery store and the markets… At first I wondered what pets were doing in the seafood section… Then I started noticing them in menus (mostly high end restaurants…)

One friend from church said she tried a soft shell turtle when she first arrived in China.  She said it tasted mainly like cartilage, until she got down to a bony, hard section of the shell. 

So, I almost tried turtle once at a restaurant, but due to a friend’s shellfish allergy, we restrained ourselves. 

Anyway, it ends up that when I mention this to any of my Chinese friends and associates, they usually look at me in disgust… “We don’t eat turtle!”  Then they stick their tongue out, the way most Americans would after being propositioned to eat turtle….

I’m beginning to think that the turtles are just for the rich foreigners that want an exotic China tourist story…

Kind of like the Scorpions and spiders they sell on a stick that was pretty much the extent of the Olympic coverage of the food in China.  It ends up that on the Street vendor row, there’s probably 50 stalls, of which most of them sell chicken, lamb, beef, pork, dumplings etc.  Then there is one stall that has scorpions and spiders that no one is buying anything from…

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Bargaining

The Chinese are masters of negotiating.  It’s because they have to do it everyday.  Americans in general probably do it once every 3-5 years when they have to buy a car.  And even then, it’s getting easier now with all the information on the Internet.  In China, almost everything  except for groceries and restaurants are negotiable.  So, it’s like buying a used car every time that you want to get some pants, shoes, camera, etc..

In the U.S., you just look up almost any product on Amazon, and can get a decent feel for what something is worth.  For the advanced, there are sites like pricewatch and froogle.com.  In China, there is no such thing.  So, when I went off to buy a digital camera last week, it was a very different experience. 

I find that I do well in negotiation situations when I really don’t need something… like another pair of tennis shoes… However, I really needed a digital camera, because my wife’s just suddenly broke down and started making unnatural noises.  We considered just ordering one to my mom’s house, then having her ship it to China, but it would cost between $20-$30 extra and take at least 3 weeks.  I figured, we’re better off trying to find something here.

The first thing that I noticed was that there is no good place to find a good baseline price.  There are several websites, but I am told that the prices on there are all higher than they should be, and when you go to the electronics market, you can usually negotiate the prices down.  So, I went.

I did a little preparation by looking up 3 different cameras on cnet and amazon for reviews and pricing.  The electronics market is row after row of stores that apparently sell the same things.  There’s a floor of digital cameras, a floor of computers, a floor of accessories, a floor of computer parts, etc, etc.   Then if you don’t like anything from the one of the hundreds of stores in that building, you can walk down the street to another building with another 6 floors of electronics stores.

After some strolling around the aisles, I finally went into a store and started looking at the Samsung L210 which was one of the cameras I was interested in.  (Also note that the same cameras in China are labeled differently than in the US.)  A man came over and asked me something, so I asked him how much the camera was.  He gave what seemed like a reasonable answer (20%-30% above what I’d pay at Amazon.)  so I asked if I could see it.  He pulled it out for me, but I noticed it didn’t have a battery.  He explained this to me with some pantomiming than motioned for me to follow him.  I followed him to an elevator where we had to cram in with an incredible number of people.  The buzzer started going off and the door wouldn’t close.. Everything started yelling at each other until a few people in the front started stepping off one by one.  Then the door closed and I was taken up to the 10th floor.  There I was taken to an office.  This was the used car sales office of digital cameras.  There was a nice sofa.  The guy gave me a cup of water to drink.  He then got 3 different cameras, and got some batteries and let me play with them.  After playing with the Samsung, I quickly found that the video feature was horrible.  It was clearly stuttering.  The other two cameras I did not recognize, so I asked if he also had a Canon IXUS80.  (In the US, it is called the SD1100.)  He brought over the camera, along with 2 others, then handed me over to another guy who looked much more confident.  He seemed like the wheeler and dealer.  The pro.  (Uh-oh).  I looked at all three cameras carefully, because I didn’t want to give away that I really wanted to IXUS80.  I asked for the prices on all of them.  The IXUS80 was 1350, which was surprisingly low.  It was about $200 .  On Amazon, I saw it for $150.  When you add tax and shipping it’s probably about $180 or so…. Then I’d have to consider the cost to ship it to China as well as the wait.  So, $200 sounded definitely in my range. 

However, the dance was not yet finished.  I could probably shave a bit off of that price, I thought.  But, as I was planning my next move, the pro looked at me, pointed at the Canon and said, “Bu Hao”  (It’s bad…)  Then he took a picture of my hairline and showed it to me… He, then, brought over a Nikon and took a picture of my hair line.   The Nikon CLEARLY looked better.  Sharper, more depth of color, etc… So, I asked, “How much”?  He first said “seven thousand something… “He lost me after the seven thousand… That’s $1000+..  I told him, “Tai Gui le!”  Too expensive… and he said, “How much do you want to pay?” 

Clearly he misunderstood… I didn’t mean that’s too expensive for that camera… But, that’s just too much camera for me… It could be  half off, and it’s still be too expensive.  I just told him, “Tai tai tai tai Gui le”…

Then, I just cut to the chase… 1250 RMB for the Canon.  He said, “no”.  I stood up, said “ok, thank you…”  And started for the door.  Hoping that they would grab me by the arm and renegotiate the price….  No arm grabbing took place…

My heart sank… now I have to do this stupid dance with another store… So, I went back downstairs to the 2nd floor and tried to find another store.  At least now I know which camera I wanted.  I went to several stores and pointed out the camera I wanted.  Almost each one tried to play the switcheroo on me… and grabbed other cameras that they tried to pitch to me… This is also a car salesman tactic.  You want to sell your customer a product that they know the least information about.  Likely they have studied out one or two of the products and have an idea of what it’s really worth.  But, if you can get them hooked on a product that they know nothing about, there’s a lot of room for profit…

Ends up that in 3 other stores, I got all kinds of wacky prices that ranged from 1600 RMB to 1900 RMB.  I’ve probably spent more than 2 hours now trying to find a camera.  It was almost time for me to go to get to my Chinese lesson.  I did not want to walk out of this building without a camera.  I was in desperation mode, and the price for which I would pay for a Canon IXUS80 seemed to be rising. 

Fortunately, I found a place where the starting price was 1400 RMB.  I told them 1300 thinking I’d be able to justify walking out of the first place, if I could get 1300.  He came down to 1380.  I started walking out wondering if I could really find another place… Then the salesman grabbed my arm and asked me to punch in a price on the calculator.  Whew… I got a motivated one…. I reluctantly punched in 1350, and he said ok.  He made a phone call, and it took about 15 minutes for the camera to come.  I paid the 1350, and I was out of there.  I probably could have done that without spending the extra hour, but without good pricing information, it’s really difficult to figure out if you’re getting a reasonable deal or not. 

I think my strategy going forward is just to let them know that I’m going to look around, but I’ll be back.  That way, no one feels bad, I can always come back if I can’t find a better deal….

I’ll admit though… it’s pretty draining…

Kung Fu

Kung Fu is the primary martial art of China, so we thought it appropriate that we enroll Caleb in a class.  We found a class for little kids a few blocks away.  He’s not quite Bruce Lee, yet, but it’s sure fun to watch…

Dinner and a show

 

Today was our first date night.  Our Ayi, Luo, came over at 5pm.  I was a bit lame and didn’t have anything planned for our first date night.  However,this morning, when I went to go clean the church, a young couple invited us to a dinner and a show.  He said he reserved a table for 10, and they had 2 more seats…
We took the subway and met them at the group at the Huixinxijie Beikou subway stop at the C entrance.  We took a short walk South, then took a left at the first light and kept walking until we found a restaurant called Da Zhai Men.  The group was pretty young, and we were the only couple with children.  One of the couples had a baby due in the next few weeks, though.

One of the guys there was a Chinese Canadian and could speak well.  He asked if I wanted to try turtle.  Who wouldn’t?  It ended up that one of the guys at the table had allergies to shellfish and Oceanic creatures which had hospitalized him before.  Well, the turtle had a shell, but we didn’t think it’d be considered a shellfish… and our Chinese Canadian friend assured us that it was probably a fresh-water turtle.  Nevertheless, we played it safe and passed on the turtle.  Maybe next time Franklin.

In general, the dinner was fantastic food.  Because we were in a big group, we got to try a whole bunch of things, and that was fun.   But, the show was where it got really interesting.  There was a man who came out dancing in what I can only describe as a samurai type costume.  Now and then, he would flick his arm up and down over his face, and the mask he was wearing would change.  It was actually quite amazing.  He did it so quickly.  None of us could figure out where the mask was going or coming from.  And then at the end, he blew out a humongous flame out of his mouth.  We were in the front row.  It was hot.

Then, a lady came out.  She had enormous thighs.  It didn’t take long to figure out why.  She laid down on her back on what looked like a bench press bench.  A man came and put a 10 gallon ceramic jug on her feet which was raised straight up over her body.  She started twirling and rolling it with her feet.  Sometimes she was spinning the jug so fast, it seemed like it would come crashing down into the audience.  Then she carefully put the jug down with her feet.  An MC came out and said a bunch of things, and four young men came out and lifted up an enormous jug.  It looked like a planter that hold trees on city streets.  It was about 4 feet high and about 3 feet in diameter.  The young men strained to move it.  It looked heavy.  The hoisted this jug up on top of the lady’s feet.  She then started rolling and twirling that jug, too.  Then they asked for a volunteer from the audience.  A man of light build in a suit came walking up to the stage.  One of the men told him to go inside the jug and showed him how to sit inside.  After the volunteer crawled in and sat Indian style in the jug, they hoisted up the jug again on to the lady’s feet.  This looked like a lawsuit waiting to happen.  But, my guess is that liability law is not too strong in China.  You might get a sorry, but you’re probably not getting any big triple damage settlements…  Anyway, the lady slowly rotated the jug around on her feet, and we could see the volunteer holding on for dear life inside the jug as he spun around atop this lady’s feet.  After they put the jug away, I went over to try and lift the jug to see if they were just putting on an act to make it look heavy when it wasn’t… It was heavy.  In fact, I think if it would have slipped and landed on you, it could cause severe injury if not death.  Certainly any small animal would be killed.

Finally, a trio of Kung Fu people came out and started doing some wild forms on the stage.  Then two of them left and one guy remained on the stage performing what looked like breathing exercises.  Towards the end of the exercise, one of his teammates brought out what looked like steel bars banging them against each other.  The breathing guy took one of them and after some intense focus, smashed it into his head and the bar shattered into pieces.  Then a second guy started the breathing exercises.  Two of his assistants brought out a pane of glass (1/4" thick), a balloon, and a needle.  We were all trying to guess what was going to happen.  Tenille thought that he was going to put the needle in his arm, then pop the balloon with the needle sticking out of his arm.  The breathing man took the needle between his thumb and fore finger and continued his breathing exercises.  One man held out the balloon, and the other put the glass pane between the balloon and the breathing man.  With a big yell, the breathing man struck the glass with the needle.  The balloon popped.  The glass guy held up the glass and there was a tiny hole in the glass, kind of like when you get a ding in your windshield.  The glass guy came out to the audience for everyone to see and touch the hole.  That was pretty amazing…

We got the brochure, so my guess is that we’re taking all of our visitors to this place.  The show was free, and the dinner came to $20. 

 

 

Chinese People – Myth busting

I think there’s a general myth out there believed by foreigners that the Chinese are a rude people, especially to strangers.  First, it’s probably a bit presumptuous to slap a label on a billion people… but it’s not difficult to see why there is this surface impression after being in the city for a day or two… You see how people drive and how people shove each other on the subway, and you start thinking that there is no common courtesy in this place.

However, I’m writing to put that myth to rest.  First, neither Tenille or I ever had to stand in a subway while we were holding a baby, no matter how crowded it was.  (And it gets super crowded…)  When people see us holding Andrew, people jump out of their seat and insist we sit down. 

Also at first, the noise from all the honking makes the city feel a bit like New York.  One big difference is that the horn is used in China (in general) as a courtesy, much like how bicyclists in the US use their bell or yell “To your left!”  In America, the horn is an outward expression of anger, and hence considered rude to use.  I’ve never seen someone use the horn in the US like they use it in China.  In the US, often the horn is accompanied by gestures and colorful language.  I think as an American, this is one possible confusion and misinterpretation of the noisy traffic in Beijing.  And honestly, it’s crowded over here.  There needs to be some simple mechanism for coordination to move as many cars, people, and bikes without major disasters on every corner…

The 2 Chinese people that we now have regular contact with – our Chinese tutor (Bill) and our Ayi (Housekeeper) Luo – are genuinely wonderful people.  Always eager to please and going out of their way to be of service to us.  We are very lucky to have associations with both of them.  And they are certainly both a wonderful representative of their people.  It could be argued that we may not be getting an accurate impression because we’re their customers and paying them.  However, I’ve had enough bad “customer” experiences that I don’t believe being a customer necessarily mean you are treated nicely.  An experience at the customer service desk in a French airport comes to mind…  And I don’t mean that the Chinese are better than the French (as the French are a wonderful people in their own rite), I’m just saying that a customer relationships doesn’t necessarily mean friendliness nor courtesy.

The other day, I was walking around an unfamiliar part of town with Andrew (in a frontpack) looking for a piano store.  I had an address printed out in my hand.  It basically said “300m East of the Music Conservatory.”  The taxi dropped me off at the Music Conservatory.  After about 5 minutes of walking around, it was clear that I was lost.  I asked an elderly lady, maybe in her 60’s.  She at first didn’t understand me and kept walking, but then saw Andrew and came back to look at my paper… Then she gestured to follow her.  I must have followed her for about 1/2 mile.  Then we stopped, and she started saying something.  My guess was, “But, it should be right here!”… Then I heard the pianos… it was just about a 100 feet away.  I thanked her, and she smiled and then started walking back the other way…  She walked 1/2 mile out of the way to lead me to the store! 

Finally, I was having a conversation with one of my Chinese coworkers who just recently got back from his annual trip to visit his parents.  He wistfully told me that he wished he could stay there forever.  I felt I had a small glimpse of the many hundreds of people packed in that cafeteria who are the only child in their family working in a far away city from their proud parents.  I’ve asked a lot of people about their Chinese New Year and the answer is almost always the same.  Spent it with my parents and family.  It was fantastic!  Ate too much! 

The folks I’ve been associating with are a people with value akin to my own as well as our many friends back home.  They love their family.  They look out for each other.  They express common courtesy.  Now, don’t get me wrong… there’s definitely a network of folks that are out to defraud you… but I just wanted to report back that all of our associations so far have been kind and wonderful people.

Restaurant adventures

Tenille has been surprisingly adventurous in our eating habits here in China.  She has been buying and cooking foods she’s never seen before, and we’ve been visiting all kinds of restaurants.  One of our favorites has been right in our same complex that we found accidentally.  We were just walking through the court yard, and a lady aggressively invited us in through a door.  In a mood for an adventure, we acquiesced.  We were led through the back door through the kitchen and popped out into a restaurant.  It was a small hole in the wall restaurant.  The kind we probably never would have dared set foot in when we first moved to China.  It was packed full of people, and that always gives us some confidence… In my mind I’m thinking, all these people couldn’t possibly get sick, could they?  This, in a country where hundreds of thousands of babies got sick from milk….  I guess it’s a positive superstition that allows me to eat in more daring places. 

Anyway, it ends up the place was pretty good.  There were no English menus, and no pictures… so we had to go to where they were cooking the food, and point to stuff.  We probably got enough food for 2 dinners… and it came to about $10…  Some stuff was really good, and some were one-timers.  That’s just how it goes here… but next time, we’ll know what to order… (or to point at…)

I think one of my goals is to be able to go into one of these restaurants without an English menu and no pictures, and be able to order a decent meal… (with words… not by pointing…)  It’s something to aspire to…   I ordered a camera, so I’ll start taking pictures of the more interesting morsels….

Conversation Embryos with cab drivers

This last week, I’ve been having what I would consider seedling conversations with cab drivers.  I’ve had about 3 conversations that all went something like this:

Cab driver:  You speak kind of funny.  (I think that’s what they’re saying at least.)

Me:  I don’t speak Chinese very well.  (When my wife says this, usually they smile and nod.  When I say this, they give me a weird look as if asking, “Are you disabled?”)

Me:  I’m an American (Then they smile and nod usually saying something that I imagine to be, “Oooooohhhhh, I see…”)

Cab Driver:  No, no… you speak very well (usually with a chuckle).

It’s a start… Hopefully, soon I’ll be able to start making small talk about the weather.