Wolverines abroad: The art of haggling

Thursday, June 28, 2018 - 10:36am

“We’re sorry, but this price is firm. You’re welcome to come back if you change your mind.”

The words from the shop attendant fell on my defeated ears. I had spent about 15 minutes haggling back and forth in vain with the shop attendant for a couple of nice-looking (albeit fake) anello backpacks. My friends and I had decided to visit the open-air markets in Shanghai. While I was familiar with the market itself, I had never chosen to actually haggle, preferring to purchase at malls. As a child, I had seen my grandmother successfully haggle for nearly everything at the market. I was hoping — to no avail, in this case — that some of my grandmother’s skill would possibly transfer to me. Accepting defeat, we left the store to wander the rest of the market. I had never felt comfortable with the idea of haggling, but since I was the most familiar with Chinese among my friends, I had become an impromptu tour guide and translator for them— which unfortunately meant that I was also in charge of haggling. After all, it wouldn’t be much use to try to haggle in English when everyone else speaks Mandarin. Trying to haggle in English would simply get you laughed out of the store or an apology from the store owner that the price was final. For the sake of my friends, and to try to fit in, I at least attempted to barter for goods that my friends wanted to buy. I felt a little bit disappointed — after all, I felt an obligation to help get good prices for my friends, and since I was essentially the head of the group due to my knowledge of the area, I didn’t want to look like an incompetent leader. I let out a frustrated sigh and trailed behind the others in the group who were browsing the many stands and shops in the market.

I couldn’t help but fixate on the words the shopkeeper had said. Suddenly, I felt like the foreigner in Shanghai, despite having spent many summers visiting family there. At home, my mom always jokingly called me and my brother “bananas,” highlighting the fact that despite our Chinese ancestry, we still had very American names and a limited Mandarin vocabulary at best. What this meant for me growing up was that I never really quite felt comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes, I felt as if there was a cultural Great Wall in front of me when it came to learning Chinese.

At the market, these feelings came rushing back. I must have alarmed my friends, since they asked if I was all right. Of course I was all right, but I felt mentally winded, and all I could do was vacantly nod. Eventually, my friends also decided they had enough of the market. They ultimately still decided to purchase the backpacks at the original price the shopkeeper had listed and thanked me for at least trying to barter for the backpacks. Exiting the market, I suggested going to the nearby mall instead — not only did the shops have better selection, I argued, but there were many brands that my friends were interested in at the mall itself. It was also a way to return to a more comfortable, polished, and clean area like the malls I was familiar with in Shanghai— and a way to get away from the crowded bustle of the market where people had to pass each other single-file due to all the stalls. It was an interesting contrast; on one side of a narrow one-way street was a residential district and crowded open-air mall, but on the other side was a brand-new and shiny mall.

In retrospect, my limited vocabulary might have been one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to haggle successfully with the store owners in the market. But I was also forgetting some other important ideas: The key to bartering successfully is to be invested in the thing that you are haggling for in the first place — otherwise, there isn’t really a point in bartering at all. Similarly, in a bargaining situation, the shopkeeper has the greater power, since after all, they’re the one with the stuff you want to buy. Of course, my grandmother mentioned these to me after my friends and I returned from shopping. It also definitely helps, she added, if you can work a little bit of attitude towards the seller, and if you don’t haggle for such drastic drops in prices. In the end, while the prices at the market for some of the goods are a bit absurd, you can still manage to score some deals with some knowledge of Chinese.