By Jim Ferri
Most people who travel to China are intrigued by the usual big sights: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army at Xion, Tiananmen Square. I was intrigued by the minutia that evolved about just doing ordinary things.
Almost every American and Canadian who goes to China is pre-warned that everything you find in the markets are knock-offs and counterfeit, which makes you wonder why anyone would want to shop there in the first place. But when your guide drags you off to the market you realize it doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference since you see plenty of people struggling under shopping bags the size of Volkswagens.
I think I’m a typical male shopper – if I need shoes I go to the store, see a pair and head for the register, all in about five minutes. In China, though, every time I wanted to buy anything I had to go through the hassle of haggling for a half-hour, finally paying about 20-25% of the asking price. And if I stopped in a market to buy just a little pack of Kleenex, which was probably counterfeit anyway, I had to run a gauntlet of half the population of Beijing. If I shopped for one hour, I needed three to recuperate.
But the most intriguing thing I saw in all of China was the sideshow that unfolded whenever I changed money at the front desk at the Regent, the hotel where we were staying in Beijing. I had to change money three times in a week while we were there, and then did it a fourth time not because I needed to, but just because I wanted to watch the sideshow one last time.
It went something like this: I would approach the desk and, after exchanging daily pleasantries, would hand over dollars for exchange. Quickly, of course, would come the request for my passport, which I would produce, and then step back to watch in amazement.
First, the clerk would very carefully count my money two times, even if it was only five 20-dollar bills. Then he put it through a machine that quickly flipped it through, counting it, scanning it or doing God-only-knows what else to it. He then put it through a second time, flipping, counting, scanning, etc.
Then he would then take the money from the machine and count it a third time, probably just to ensure the little contraption wasn’t skimming anything. He would then go over to a computer and type in the serial number of every bill. After all of this he would hand me a receipt to sign before he began the process of counting out the Chinese Yuan, done only once thankfully.
One morning I almost made the trip out to the Great Wall in less time than it took to change money for the taxi fare.