Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The wondrous items of Middle Earth

[I have lapsed in my posts a great deal; this applies to last Friday. All is now well in Middle Earth. Well, all is now well in regards to that which kept me from writing. As you shall see, all is not well with the adventurers…]

Our day of commerce in Beijing involves two basic goals: to purchase instruments for the children (a cello and a violin, and, if he wants one, a bass for Victor), and to visit the Pearl Market. Let it suffice to say that it is a banner day for capitalism. Mao, stick it in your ear.

We start with the instruments. Zhou has found a music shop that claims to have both violins and cellos of good quality. As Caitlin is not (and shall not be) bigger than a very petite sprite, she requires at largest a 7/8ths cello. Kina shall get a full-sized violin.

I shall not bore you with the particulars of shopping for instruments, especially not instruments whose precise function I do not understand. What I do understand is that the girls feel a little pressured to perform at these places, when all that is really needed is to hear the sound of the instruments. It is the instruments, and not the players, who need to perform here.

This place, this action, though, reveals what China teaches us. The girls seek to explain why they do not play perfectly. This instrument is too big; it is difficult after becoming accustomed to one instrument; we have not practiced in some time. “Stop making excuses, girls. That’s not what they do here,” says Andrea.

She’s right. Just that morning I watched as a two-year-old boy in split pants peed on the sidewalk. But as he did, he counted to five in English, said “hello” and “good-bye”, and responded to “how are you?” I contrast this with the ESL teacher I met at the hotel a few days earlier. We spoke in English; he indicated he was heading to South Korea. “So you speak Korean?” I asked. “Hell no! I’ve lived here six years and I don’t even speak Chinese.” The people of the Middle Kingdom learn what they must, and excuses are inexcusable.

The instruments work out pretty well; I keep myself out of things. It is generally rude, I think, to involve oneself in purchases when one is not footing the bill.

After the instruments, we head for the Pearl Market. It is not merely a pearl market; it is an emporium of everything under the sun. Pearls, antiques, jade, electronics, handbags, clothing. They have it all in spades. Some of it is even real. Joy!

I love places like this. These are the only places I like to bargain. Generally, I don’t like bargaining at all. It’s silly; we have a world of posted prices. There’s no need to talk about it. You tell me what you want for it; I’ll tell you if I want it.

But bargaining here is multidimensional. First, there is the bargaining over the stated price. “Hen gui!” Too expensive, says I. The shopkeeper enters a new number in her calculator. “Renmingbi,” she says, lest I think she’s quoted me a price in dollars. This is my least favorite form of bargaining; it’s too basic. Also, I usually don’t know what a given thing is worth, so I often lose.

The second form of bargaining is over volume. It is often in tandem with the first form of bargaining. I like volume discounts, but I prefer that they be pre-ordained. Except, of course, when the volume includes exotic weapons and ancient coins. Then I enjoy trading in and out this trinket for that and seeing how the price changes. A very valuable method for finding the supply curve, that.

The final form of bargaining, however, is my favorite. It’s very easy: do nothing. Just stand still. If you stand still in an antique shop long enough, staring without intent at nothing in particular, the shopkeeper inevitably opens some nook or reaches below some table and pulls out what you really want to see. And the less impressed you look, the cooler the stuff you get.

The coolest thing, the Thing That I Should Have Bought, was a 100-year-old Chinese sword (I expressed my disinterest, nay, my marked distaste for anything from Japan. That also helped.) made of Damascus steel. For the uninitiated, that means it was hand-hammered hundreds of times from a single sheet of metal. It has a marbled look to it as a result. It could cut through many things. Such as a person. In a car, for example. Or a person in a Toyota pickup truck wielding a hammer. Just sayin’.

The sword stays in Beijing. I buy a smaller artifact. I cannot buy that sword. The owner cannot bargain on it, which suggests that it is the genuine article. And were I to have it, the temptation to use it as the genuine article would be too great.

It is better that it stays behind anyway. It belongs in the hands of someone with even less impulse control than I. Someone who knows what it is good for, and who uses it accordingly. We need fewer hammer-wielding truck drivers, after all.

No comments: