Helping foreign friends, or minding my own business?

Updated: 2011-09-20 08:02

By Usha Sankar (China Daily)

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Helping foreign friends, or minding my own business?

As I stood in a stall of Beijing's Silk Market, waiting to exchange a silk garment, I watched in amazement as the young vendor, displaying supreme confidence, pulled out silk nightgown after nightgown for the perusal of a foreigner, who sounded like an American, but frankly could have been from any English-speaking Western country.

I was right behind the man in the cramped stall that had just enough space for the three of us. There was no one else there.

"This color," said the vendor as the man hemmed and hawed. "Your beautiful wife, what color hair she got? Like mine?" she asked, holding up her ponytail, "or golden colored."

I couldn't quite hear what the man mumbled, but I next saw her pull out a bright, purple nightgown and say, "This one, very good."

The man appeared satisfied and presumably asked how much it cost, for the vendor pulled out her calculator with a flourish and punched in 800.

I could see, as I was right behind. I flinched. And gulped. And gasped. After all, I was holding a similar gown in my hand for which I had paid all of 60 yuan ($9.39) just the previous day.

The vendor ignored me entirely and was entirely focused on the Westerner, who then proceeded to open his wallet and pull out eight crisp, 100 yuan bills.

I wanted to scream and say, "Wait, you are being taken for a ride".

My heart was pounding and I wondered what I could do as the man's back was to me and the vendor was holding him in her steadfast gaze.

After collecting the money, she asked in an oh-so-sweet voice: "Are you happy?" and he responded, "Oh, yes, very happy. What about you?"

So she says: "Hmm, yes happy but can you give me a bit more, say 830?"

Just as I braced myself to step in now, he politely refused and walked away with the gown tucked under his arm.

After she had put the money away the vendor turned to me and most readily agreed to do my exchange. I was by then fuming at the injustice I had just witnessed and was not surprised at her accommodation.

"She's just made a killing," I thought.

As I moved away from the stall a thousand thoughts swirled in my mind. After all, it's caveat emptor - let the buyer beware, I thought. But what if that man was from a part of the world where bargaining is not the norm and actually believed the so-called silk gown was actually worth 800 yuan - that's downright cheating, another part of me said.

Well, he's probably a tourist who just fell into a tourist trap, I thought. But this was no "trap", this was a sinkhole. Imagine paying 12 times the price !

Should I have just aggressively stepped in and called the bluff? I may have saved the man from the rip-off but could have invited danger to my self. What if I got pushed down the escalator? After all, it was a busy Sunday.

Maybe I could have pretended to seek help with some English from that man and punched in a message on my iPhone that he was being had?

My head was bursting with all these thoughts as I returned home.

When I narrated the incident to some of my friends, most seemed to think it was unfortunate but one couldn't fault the vendor. Everyone visiting China knows, or ought to know, that bargaining is a way of life here, they said.

Although I do agree that the man should have been better informed, it just doesn't seem right that the place to which busloads of tourists from all over the world are brought and made to believe is a Mecca for shopping in Beijing, should be allowed to get away with such daylight robbery.

I still think I should have done something about what I witnessed. What about you?

Helping foreign friends, or minding my own business?