Why you should care
Because it’s a Chinese custom.
Vanessa Hua received the 2014 James D. Phelan Award in Fiction and is a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing. She blogs about living with her husband, twins and widowed mother at threeunderone.blogspot.com.
I thought we had an understanding.
It was a week before Christmas, and I was finishing my holiday shopping at the MBK mall in Thailand, a towering complex filled with a maze of booths. I haggled for a box of tea for my mother, a mango wood vase for newlywed friends, and a T-shirt for my brother. Though I didn’t speak Thai, I bargained with vendors by punching prices into a calculator.
Late in the afternoon, I was fingering lustrous silk scarves in red, gold and green when the merchant asked me in Mandarin if I was Chinese. Yes, I explained, I was born in the United States, but my parents were from China. The vendor was stocky, with a wide smile and a round-cheeked face that reminded me of my grandmother’s. We chatted about my trip to Thailand and the provinces where our families hailed from in China.
“How much did you pay for your plane ticket?” she asked.
“Oh, about $700.”
My smile faded. Her so-called “Chinese” price? The starting price of her competitor.
My Chinese faltered at times, but I did my best to converse with the merchant. She plucked a red scarf and draped it over her arm to show off the length. Then she leaned in and offered me the “Chinese price,” about $2 per scarf.
I was pleased, flattered to be allowed into a circle of trust, given bargains reserved for family and friends. I bought five scarves and left musing about the bond that Chinese share wherever we live: our food, our culture, our value in family and education. Because we understand each other so intimately, we offer favors to each other. Guanxi describes the personal connections and the network of influence that guides all Chinese life. Need a discount on a banquet? A job for your nephew? Find a person on the inside, a friend or a relative, and work the connection.
I strolled to another stall a hundred yards away that sold similar scarves and peered at a handwritten sign poking out of a bin. My smile faded. Her so-called “Chinese” price? The starting price of her competitor.
Some people collect mugs, magnets or silver spoons when they travel. I collect Chinese. In Lima, in Buenos Aires, in Siem Reap, in Seoul, in Tel Aviv, I seek out members of my secret society. I search for Chinatowns, for people like me. I spot the red paper lanterns like a concubine’s boudoir, smell the reek of dried fish that sends the unaccustomed fleeing, hear the clack of mah-jongg tiles and know I have arrived.
As a kid I learned that anything with “Chinese” as an adjective meant weird and inferior.
The Chinese are everywhere, more than 60 million living in the diaspora, after they or generations of their ancestors fled bandits, floods and famine to find a better life abroad. In Baghdad, a determined Chinese proprietor opened the Dragon Bay restaurant, offering takeout even after carjackers robbed an employee delivering $50,000 in payroll and a suicide bomber blew out the restaurant’s front windows. If I trekked to Antarctica, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a convenience store run by a Chinese family selling White Rabbit candies and dried haw flakes, chips and soda, open seven days a week — Christmas too — and closed only for lunar New Year. Our astronauts, when a manned flight to Mars succeeds, may find the Chinese have arrived before them.
The Chinese influence is pervasive. In Panama, blue jeans are known as pantalones chinos, it is said, because of the Chinese-owned factories. In Peru, the national dish of fried rice is known as chaufa — a pronunciation close to the Chinese name chao fan. Unlike America, where as a kid I learned that anything with “Chinese” as an adjective meant weird and inferior. “Chinese cuts”: when you allow someone to cut in line, but only behind you. “Chinese checkers”: an un-fun version of checkers involving marbles. “Chinese fire-drill”: when the car stops at an intersection, everyone gets out, runs around and switches seats.
I’m in awe of my long-lost cousins and what they have accomplished far from the land of their birth. Like my parents, whose origins in the United States began in the early 1960s when they arrived to attend graduate school in the Midwest, first-generation Chinese immigrants are the hope of their country and of their families. My parents would settle in California and sponsor their parents, their siblings and spouses, and their nieces and nephews, changing the course of dozens of lives.
But in Thailand, I fumed. I twisted the scarves between my fingers, the same way I wanted to pinch the Chinese vendor’s arm. I wasn’t angry over the amount of money. It was the betrayal from my own kind. I wanted to hurl Chinese curses at her. Wanbadan! (Turtle’s egg!) Huaidan! (Bad egg!) My husband-to-be talked me out of it. After all, the vendor’s livelihood depended on her bargaining skills. Which, I admitted, were impressive — and familiar. Whether Chairman Mao or my mother, my people are wily negotiators.
Years later now, as I knot the scarf around my neck, I still feel a tinge of anger at being duped — but also a hint of pride.