1999 / 4月
Jack Xiong /tr. by David Mayer
I run a stall at the flea market with one purpose in mind-to make money. That's why I started, and that's why I continue. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that I never tire of counting the money I take in at the flea market, it turns out that the greatest reward comes from another source entirely.
I see and hear so many things at the flea market that I always come home feeling like I've just discovered the New World-not America, but New Zealand. Only three countries in the world take in more immigrants per year than New Zealand, so people from every corner of the earth end up coming to the flea market. When you observe closely, you discover that people from different ethnic groups shop the market very differently.
In Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, there are only about 70,000 Chinese, yet they account for a good 80% of the customers at the flea market. Nine times out of ten, they come to buy fruit, vegetables, and other groceries-the types of things they would not have been able to bring with them when they immigrated to New Zealand. They only come to the flea market to buy perishables, because they like to take just about everything else with them when they immigrate. I have a friend who has been in New Zealand for more than two years, yet he is still using the shampoo that he brought with him, and the toilet paper he brought lasted a whole two years! When Chinese people emigrate, they generally pack all their possessions into containers and ship them to the new country, and the empty spaces inside the containers often get filled with toilet paper. Thrift is a virtue, to be sure, but it's possible to take a good thing too far. You often see people drive up to the flea market in a Mercedes-Benz only to get into long, drawn out haggling sessions just to save a dollar. We Chinese are famous throughout the world for our martial arts, but we deserve just as much fame for our bargaining skills.
Whenever Chinese people stop at my stall, they are sure to rummage through the goods and try to bargain down the price, regardless of whether they have any intention of buying anything! I sometimes wonder why they do that. Are they just bored and looking for someone to talk with? Or are they trying to get a feel for the market? People who really intend to buy come on strong right from the start, and they drive an extremely hard bargain. They just keep coming at you, and use every trick in the book to try to wear you down. And they certainly know their arithmetic! No matter what the price is, you can be sure that they are going to offer you 70%. When I run into an expert haggler, I always end up giving in. It seems ironic that my own compatriots are more reluctant than anyone else to see me making any money.
Some parents once came by my stall to buy a book bag for their son. Don't ask me why they had to first rummage through all the travel bags! After they had finished looking at the travel bags, the father said, "We thought we would give you some business since you're Chinese." No sooner spoken, than the little boy at his side chimed in, "Seeing as we're all from the same place, couldn't you give us a break on the price?" I was amazed! This little kid, with a sweet, young voice and glasses hiding half his face, couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old. I had to hand it to the father-he had certainly done a good job of passing his genes on to his child. He offered $10 for book bag carrying a $20 price tag. Maybe it's because everyone from mainland China knows that street hawkers back home jack up their prices so high that they are actually willing to be taken down 50%. They should also be aware that in a country like New Zealand, with its well-established Western legal system, nobody can get away with bullying people. Compared with regular stores, products usually sell at a quarter to a third cheaper in the flea market. The book bag in question cost me $16, so I was only trying to make four dollars on it. He bargained me down to $17, and then I refused to go any lower. Having determined my bottom-line, he took me by surprise by saying, "I'll give you $33 for two, what do you say?" He was still haggling over a lousy 50 cents per bag! I gave in, but he made no move to pay any money. Instead, he said, "I'll be back later," and walked off. I never saw him again.
New Zealanders of Caucasian descent are totally different. Regardless of whether they look rich or poor, they almost never try to bargain. They just buy what they want and leave. Every once in a while, someone will throw out a gentlemanly "Can you make it a little cheaper?" as they are handing me their money. I always say, "I'm sorry," and no one has ever changed their mind about buying from me. They are not so much bargaining as they are just having a little fun. And then, as they leave, they smile real big and thank me, as if they were the ones making money off of me! I'm afraid I would have to give away my merchandise for free if I wanted to see that kind of smiling face on a Chinese customer. There are other differences, too. Caucasians usually buy what I've got out on display, which Chinese people never do. Caucasians like to ooh and ah over a product's finer points, while the Chinese do nothing but comment on flaws.
Chinese people are not the only people in the world who haggle over price, though. People from other countries do it, too. I like to notice nationality, and when I don't know where a customer is from, I will ask. There are lots of experienced bargainers from Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Central and South America. It is often difficult to tell where a Caucasian customer is from, but because I myself am from a socialist country, I can always tell if they are from Eastern Europe. There's just some kind of aura that we people with that background share in common. The Chinese are much tougher bargainers, however. I have been surprised, nevertheless, to find that we Chinese are not the bargaining champions of the world. That honor goes to our South Asian neighbors, the Indians. Once you have seen them in action, you can only marvel at their bargaining skills! They start off by offering you less than you paid for your merchandise, and it is very rare that you make a sale. An Indian woman about 50 years old once came by my stall and set some sort of record for marathon endurance! She haggled forever over a backpack, and was really trying my patience. The backpack had cost me $12. The price tag was $17, and she offered me eight. I told her "Thirteen dollars, take it or leave it." She left, and came back a little while later. This time, she knew she couldn't knock the price down any lower, so she told me that she would go get her money. When I counted up what she had handed me, however, it only came to $12. She told me it was all she had, so I refused to sell. She then fished in her pockets and, with a great show of difficulty, managed to come up with another 50 cents. I had no more patience to wrangle any longer with her, so I gave in. By the time she had finished picking through my inventory and examining each piece with extreme care, she had taken up nearly an hour of my time, and all I had to show for my trouble was a lousy 50 cents! I felt exhausted. She took the backpack and walked away-with a very dissatisfied looked on her face! If you think that's the end of the story, though, you are mistaken. Even the most imaginative novelist could not have thought up what was yet to come. A month later, that same disagreeable woman showed up again, backpack in hand, glaring angrily. "What kind of stuff do you sell here? This thing fell apart less than a month after I bought it. I want my money back!" After looking at the bag carefully for a long time, I finally managed to find a small hole in the stitching along the bottom. I had sold a lot of those backpacks, and not one had ever been returned. A question occurred to me: Why is it always Indians who ask for their money back? I offered to exchange the backpack for another one, which was standard procedure. "No! I want my money back!" After arguing with her for a while, I finally gave her a refund. After she had left, a Westerner running the stall next to mine told me that they sold the exact same kind of backpack for $12 at another stall nearby. Only then did I understand what had happened. I had to admire the woman for her audacity!
People with the habit of bargaining have one point in common-they all come from poor countries. That does not mean, however, that poverty inevitably gives rise to the custom of bargaining. New Zealand's Maori aborigines and the people from the nearby islands are perhaps poorer than anyone else who comes to the flea market. Many depend on government welfare payments just to get by, but they never haggle over price. They part with their money even more readily than white New Zealanders, and what's more, they always make big purchases. Chinese people who sell at the market are all in agreement that it's easiest to make money from the Maoris and the islanders. If poverty isn't the explanation, though, I wonder how to account for the different attitudes toward bargaining?
There's nothing wrong with bargaining, of course. Individuals and ethnic groups display their intelligence by how they go about this ancient art. At the same time, however, it seems ironic that the people of China and India should do it better than anyone else. I can't help but wonder why it is that the world's two most populous nations, each with an ancient culture and formidable bargaining skills, are not among the world's most powerful economies.
Flea markets are very popular abroad. Just about any household item can be bought there at a big saving.
Things that sit around the house unused can also be bartered for other goods, but there are so many new products selling so inexpensively that you no longer find many second-hand items.