I bought a pair of silver earrings and necklace today on my way home from work. From a street vendor, both pieces combined cost me 20RMB, a bit less than $3. I’m pretty sure I got a great deal on them, even relative to Beijing standards, but I didn’t feel good about it as I walked the rest of the way home.
Maybe it was because the woman was from Tibet, and all her jewelry had that ethnic silver or turquoise look about them. Or maybe it was seeing the many tattered cotton layers she had bundled on so as to stay warm in the dark. Or perhaps it was hearing her resigned voice when she told me, as she gave me change, that she has never sold those earrings for less than 15RMB, and I believed her dark round eyes.
Or maybe I am just simply too easily fooled …
I felt like shit for having bargained hard, like a good Chinese person. I don’t think she was out to swindle me, and even if she were, what’s another 5 or 10RMB to me? The pieces would have still been a great deal, even if they turn out to not be silver (you never know).
Contrast this with my shopping experience a couple of weekends ago at the Silk Street Market. I have absolutely no qualms about being unreasonably cheap and treating those vendors harshly.
Silk Street specializes in counterfeit name-brands (anything from polo shirts to Louis Vuitton bags, the most popular). The asking prices are usually 10 to 15 times the actual price, and the vendors almost always get away with it. The hordes of Lonely-Planet-carrying foreigners are usually beside themselves with joy when they manage to “haggle” the vendors down to 40%, or even 50%, of the asking price.
I need to remember that most street vendors are not Silk Market vendors. Most street vendors are not locals. Most street vendors do not speak English.
Most of them are from faraway places, hoping to make some money in Beijing that they can send back home.
After sitting at home for a while, I went back out to find the Tibetan woman. I wanted to buy something else from her, at whatever her asking price.
Unfortunately, the sidewalk was completely empty already.