Irony, Chinese Style

A dozen fingers wage a tug-o-war over my t-shirt. “Hey boy you have a look here, we got movie player,” a small, graying Chinese woman shrills. “15 kuai remote control phone charger!” says a leathery-skinned vendor, hand on my shoulder. “Excuse me, hello, just 3 dollars, you buy DVD?” A pimply boy presses a warm, damp cover of Inception against my nose.

Almost instinctively I mutter bu yao (don’t want), a phrase that works like camouflage. Before the second word leaves my mouth, I am invisible to the vendors. The hands start wrinkling the Ralph Lauren shirt to my right, and Inception collects a few more nose hairs.

I’ve come to Silk Street, Beijing’s hub for merchandise, from fake ancient pottery to fake dresses to fake lighters. The avenue has a main shopping center with six stories, each floor with its own genre of fakes. Amid the pushy merchants, tourists, and locals, just getting on an elevator is a contact sport. Sometimes a spunky seller will wedge himself in front of an elevator and offer to move in exchange for a purchase.

The vendors play a game of quantity, not quality. As a stream of wallets flows through the aisles, the sellers prefer to keep tossing bait, rather than chasing. Every once in a while, a timid debutante bites. On this day, that was the man to my right. He hesitated, and the pimply boy guided him in, snickering at the shrill woman who missed the catch.

Greg and I had come for fake sunglasses and watches. We danced through the single-file corridors of the first few levels, christening vendors with bu yao as if it were the Good News. Signs indicated the products each level sold, but we couldn’t see through the throngs. As we reached the top of one flight, five distinct pronunciations of the word “Oakley” rang out. We had found our floor.

In the first sunglasses shop, while we tried-on glasses, the balding proprietor nonchalantly scribbled in a notebook: a power move. If he could evoke indifference, he could slap on higher prices.

Sure enough, when Greg asked, the vendor smirked and blurted a number with two needless zeroes. But he had underestimated us. “This is my second time in China,” I told him in Mandarin. “I know that you’re joking.”

“The guy at the other store offered a much better price,” Greg chimed in.

The vendor responded in quick Chinese, claiming his goods were high-quality. But Greg and I wouldn’t respond in his native tongue. A sprinkling of Chinese serves well to let the vendor know you won’t overpay. For the haggling itself, language is power. Greg and I machine-gunned English idioms in accusing tones. “This price constitutes usury,” I said.

Still the vendor repeated his price. A tough nut to crack. Then Greg and I resorted to the oldest, simplest bargaining tool. We started walking away.

Bingo. The balding vendor scrambled after us. “Okay, 100 kuai cheaper,” he said. Greg waved a dismissive hand. He shaved off another 20 kuai.

“Still too much,” I said.

And then, maybe ten feet outside of his store, he offered our original asking price.

Over the course of the next hour, Greg and I collected cheap trinkets and fakes. As closing time approached, we found ourselves back at the balding proprietor’s shop. This time we wanted lighters. I found one shaped like a fire extinguisher: pull the nozzle, and a flame bursts upward. The vendor showed me how it worked, we shared a laugh, and he agreed to my initial asking price.

Dark humor in a lighter.

“Irony,” I said in Chinese, as he handed it to me. The vendor raised an eyebrow. “Your Chinese is great,” he lied. “You must be very smart. Since you said that, I’ll take 5 kuai off the price.”

As we headed off, I smiled, feeling pretty cool. I’d turned a haggling shopkeeper into a friend.

But then he called me back. “Hey, I gave you a good price, so you’ll come back, right?”


About rickaltieri

The account rickaltieri is shared by Gregory Kristof and Rick Altieri. Greg graduated Scarsdale High School in 2010 and will attend Harvard University in 2011. Rick graduated Regis High School in 2010 and has deferred enrollment at Amherst College until 2011. During their gap year, Rick and Greg will take Mandarin classes in Beijing at Tsinghua University, volunteer at a local school, teach English, and work at a newspaper.
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5 Responses to Irony, Chinese Style

  1. Eileen Flagg says:

    Great stories Rick-keep them coming! All us boring housewives of Scarsdale are living vicariously through your adventures. Thanks-eileen

  2. Jim Sabia says:

    Hi Ricky,

    Your Dad sent me the link to your blog and Brooke and I are enjoying reading about your first couple of weeks in China. As we talked about, I’m so excited for you and your decision to go on this wonderful adventure. As I reviewed some of the replies to your blog, I noticed you are capturing the attention of a few undergrads. Everything is good here in Chicago. I had a rough week; played golf with the Stanely Cup champs on Monday, participated on ringing the closing bell at the NY stock exchange on Wednesday and went to a party hosted by the IMG Fashion Week Models on a roof top in NYC Wednesday night. I took it easy today but tomorrow night I’m going to Wrigley Field to listen to the Dave Matthews band with VIP all access pass…welcome to the beer business. Remember, I’m the largest importor of Tsingtao should you need access to local nightclub. Take care and have a wonderful adventure. Zio Jimmy

  3. BH says:


    I’ve become a fan of your blog. Your stories are both entertaining and nostalgic to me – having lived through much of that experience myself. Keep it coming!


  4. Gregory Manker says:

    I just discovered your blog and found it interesting because I am doing the same thing as you guys–albeit through a different program. I’m 18, have deferred a year at Johns Hopkins, and would love to meet both of you for lunch or dinner sometime.

    Happy National Day,

    Gregory Manker

  5. Lisa Perrone says:

    Thanks for the great stories, Ricky!

    Enjoy every moment of you year and keep us all updated.

    Love, Lisa and family

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