Lost in Translation

One of the great things about travel is the ability to see what is different both different and the same around the world. But what is most fun is to explore what is different…and why it makes us laugh.

Some things are just quintessentially Chinese…

Nothing says snack time like Roasted Squid flavoured Lays…

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Proof that McDonald’s menus reflect regional tastes…

McPork..gray buns, pork, bacon. Because bacon makes everything taste better. Even pork.
McPork..gray buns, pork, bacon. Because bacon makes everything taste better. Even pork.

And now for a selection entitled, “Maybe run that sign by someone who speaks English before going to print.”

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Paddling? My canoe?
Especially in Beijing traffic. No one needs to add drunkenness to that chaos! Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Especially in Beijing traffic. No one needs to add drunkenness to that chaos!
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Um what??!! This is from the state-sanctioned silk shop in Beijing. There were plenty more of these curious and confusing instructions describing the processing of silk. Clearly no one who's first language is English was consulted in the making of these signs. Makes me wonder if the Chinese is any more clear. Anyone know? Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Um what??!! This is from the state-sanctioned silk factory in Beijing. There were plenty more of these curious and confusing instructions describing the processing of silk. Clearly no one whose first language is English was consulted in the making of these signs. Makes me wonder if the Chinese is any more clear. Anyone know?
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
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Will do. Who is this Slippery, though?
But it's made of concrete!
But it’s made of concrete!
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It’s hard to argue with the sentiment…
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Inspiring confidence in the boat.
Think about it first.
Indeed. One must think about it first.
...nor rolling, one imagines. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
…nor rolling, one imagines.
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
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Cottage? We are at a temple. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Up the Yangtze without a Paddle

Cruising down the Yangtze river is all about the journey rather than the destination. The Yangtze is …wait for it…China’s longest (there it is again) and most scenic waterway, and the world’s third longest river.

It is also a very welcome escape from the endless marathon bus rides and multiple plane journeys (by the end of the 12 day trip, I will have amassed 7 plane trips).

The Sinorama Diamond river cruise ship will depart from Jingzhou and for the next 5 days drift toward Chongqing, a city of approximately 32 million people (just a shade fewer than the population of Canada), and a city I have never heard of. I find it astonishing that China is populated with innumerable cities of multi-millions, the names of which most of us have never heard. How is this possible? It speaks of the relative insularity and somewhat impenetrability of this country, that’s for certain.

Along the way, we’ll pass through the Three Gorges and their locks, visit the White Emperor Town, a half submerged village, now operating more like a Disneyland than a working village, and visit the massive Three Gorges Dam project, the world’s largest artificial generator of electric power from a renewable source (are you still keeping track of the longest, biggest, more awesome-est references here? How many have we amassed, dear reader, and we’ve only journeyed through a mere fraction of this country?)

It is also the rainy season along the Yangtze…we are in a place that sees 280 days of rain each year. In a word, it’s moist.

What has intrigued and impressed me most about the tourist highlights I’ve seen is the number of Chinese tourists in their own country. They are as curious about these places as we, the big noses (their charming nickname for us), are. They take as many photos as we do, and ask as many questions…well I assume they’re asking questions…

And so, as pictures are worth a thousand words, I give to you…pictures along the Yangtze River…

My sincere thanks to Sameer Kamal, who I met on this trip and who takes the most astonishing photographs. If you are impressed by any of these photos, it is likely he took them.

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Three Gorges Dam project in miniature. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
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Yangtze River Bridge (I think…one loses track sometimes) Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Lock, stock, and three smoking ships (diesel, that is). Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Wow! Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Wow! Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

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Car manufacturing is huge in Chongqing and so flotillas of cars drift up and down the river. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

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Between amazing vistas, cities of millions suddenly emerge. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
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White Emperor City. Courtship ritual — he (in blue) sings to her (in red) to capture her attention and woo her into wedded bliss.
Water Village Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Water Village
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Because who doesn't love monkeys?? Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Because who doesn’t love monkeys??
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

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Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Shibaozhai, a 12-storey, 56m-high wooden pagoda built on a huge, river-water-encircled rock bluff, Qing Dynasty (1662-1722) Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Shibaozhai, a 12-storey, 56m-high wooden pagoda built on a huge, river-water-encircled rock bluff, Qing Dynasty (1662-1722)
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Surrounding the Shibaozhai pagoda is the Hello Market where one can purchase any number of souvenirs and items to eat. It was here that I considered, and then decided against, purchasing a bag of peanuts from a very old woman. This, despite her showing me her gnarled, arthritic wrists, presumably indicating my purchase stood between her and certain poverty. She was asking too much for the nuts, and I declined. Walking away I suddenly heard her behind me (she was quick for someone so disabled by chronic pain, I thought idly), and then felt her both grab my wrist and thrust a shopping bag of peanuts into my other hand. Politely I demurred her request. Then she got mad. I don’t know what she said, but I could tell Grandma was quite irritated. I couldn’t loosen myself from her grip…I put the bag on the ground and twisted my arm. Those arthritic fingers held tight (so much for them being an impediment to her life)…and I’m thinking “I don’t want to knock an old lady to the ground, but geez how do I get free of her vice-like grip??“. It took both my writhing and Sameer, a fully-grown man, to wrestle her off me. Next time I’ll just buy the damn peanuts.

Crossing the Bridge of Heaven. One must do it in odd-numbered steps, 3 being the most advantageous. Those of us with shorter legs find it awkward, but not impossible. Not unlike getting into heaven, one imagines.  Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Crossing the Bridge of Heaven. One must do it in odd-numbered steps, 3 being the most advantageous. Those of us with shorter legs find it awkward, but not impossible. Not unlike getting into heaven, one imagines.
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Allan, our enthusiastic Cruise Ship Director (like Julie from The Love Boat), who will encourage us in all things fun onboard the Sinorama Diamond. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Allan, our enthusiastic Cruise Ship Director (like Julie from The Love Boat), who will encourage us in all things fun onboard the Sinorama Diamond.
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

And finally, the Passenger Talent Show…aka Bus #3 Got Talent (all photos courtesy of Sameer Kamal).

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Terracotta Barbie

To call Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BC) a megalomaniac would not be an understatement. Considered the first Emperor of China, once in power at the ripe age of 13, he immediately began preparing for his death by enlisting thousands of his subjects to build an army which would protect him in his afterlife.

Not a man to do things by half measures, his public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled China with an iron fist until his death in 210 BC after a futile search for an elixir of immortality…although by building this staggering monument, one might argue he found his elixir….

Love a man in uniform, but this one looks a little stoned...
Love a man in uniform, but this one looks a little stoned…

Accidentally discovered by 4 farmers digging a well, archaeologists have uncovered only a fraction of the Terracotta Army. Smashed into pieces, reconstructing the soldiers and horses is painstakingly slow work, hindered by the fact that while the soldiers are brightly painted, the paint fades almost immediately.

Giant jigsaw puzzle
Giant jigsaw puzzle

The Chinese have yet to figure out how to slow down or stop the oxidation process so to that end, they don’t want to uncover too many before they can truly preserve them all. To date, they have unearthed about 7,000 statues in 3 pits and have yet to find two who look the same. In addition to soldiers, there are 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, and non-military figures including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.

Chariots of Fire(d terracotta)
Chariots of Fire(d terracotta)

Each has a distinct face and features, which likely reflect the faces of the men who created them.

Terracotta Barbie...a most unusual example
Terracotta Barbie…a most unusual example

Walking into Pit One, the most excavated site in the vast territory, is awestruck. We are faced with thousands of stony faces, each intent on protecting their Emperor in the afterlife. It is almost incomprehensible the extent of this project, the labour that must have been involved in its creation, and the ego that initiated it all.

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Another Great Wall…this one slightly smaller but no less impressive

Because I am a rule breaker, I leave the tour once again. Despite it having been a long day of Terra Cotta warrior-ing, I am keen to see one of the most ancient cities in China (Xi’an) up close. I mean really, don’t tell me you’re taking me to one of the oldest places in China, one that it still surrounded by its original wall, and then don’t give me time to explore! That’s just waving the red flag of challenge in front of me.

Ancient Xi’an is alive and thriving. Behind the Bell Tower, an iconic building in the dead centre of the walled portion of the city, is a bright and shiny mall. Capitalism and consumerism are both very much alive and well in modern China.

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Bell Tower (with mall behind), Xi’an China
Go fly a kite in the night sky. It must be a kilometre long. Held by the woman in the white sweater.
Go fly a kite in the night sky. It must be a kilometre long. Held by the woman in the white sweater.

The night market in the Muslim Quarter of the city is a hive of activity, even on a Tuesday evening. I am bombarded with a sensory overload of interesting and sometimes incomprehensible food on a stick, trinkets for purchase, loud music, people yelling, and scooters whizzing by. Chaotic and fascinating, I immerse myself in the tastes and sounds of the night market, stopping only to pamper my now tired feet with a fish pedicure.

Here fishy fishy...
Here fishy fishy…
It's a little startling at first.
It’s a little startling at first.

At $4 a shot I would totally get one every week (okay, I’ll admit, having tiny fish nibble at the dead skin on my feet did take some getting used to…) even though polish isn’t included.

Ancient Chinese Secret

While modern China is all high rises and multi-lane highways, traditional Beijing is made up of hutongs, neighbourhoods of homes built around courtyards on winding lanes with communal living areas…a place where everyone knows your name (and your business…no secrets here). Following the founding of modern China is 1949 (there’s that pesky Cultural Revolution again), many of the hutongs were destroyed to make way for new building and to try to erase a traditional way of living. Finally recognizing the historical significance of these unique living areas, many have now been protected from further development and some have developed a thriving tourist trade.

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Hutong...where everyone knows your name...and our business
Hutong…where everyone knows your name…and your business

We climb into rickshaws for our tour of the hutong, and it’s a bit like the Amazing Race, with one rickshaw driver attempting to out maneuver and pass another through the winding, narrow lanes, showing off their mad peddling skills for us tourists who have paid about $2 each for the privilege, until we reach a hutong home where we will have lunch.

Rickshaw Babes
Rickshaw Babes
Our rickshaw driver
Our rickshaw driver
Whizzing through the hutong
Whizzing through the hutong

There are 31 of us in the group, so we are separated into 3 small rooms of the house, my group situated around a round table in what I imagine is otherwise the living room. From the hutong kitchen, which is no larger than the interior of a medium sized car, comes 8 or 10 dishes per table of traditional and delicious hot and cold food. It is clearly an amazing feat of organization and must have been the morning’s work of several women to prepare, cook, present and clean up after so many strangers. I am truly touched to have been invited into the interior of someone’s life so graciously. There are many massive wonders of the world and UNESCO designated heritage sites in China, but I memory I’ll most cherish is the invitation into a very personal and very small part of real Chinese life.

Another Brick in the Wall

What is initially most startling about China…beyond the architectural, artistic, culinary, and language differences, is the traffic. Beijing traffic is insanity. Just 10 or 15 years ago, prosperity came in the form of one or maybe two bicycles per family. Today, prosperity is measured in the number of cars a family can acquire.

Yesterday a group from our hotel left for the Great Wall of China at 8:30 am, a trip that should take approximately 2 hours.

They arrived at the Wall at 4:30 pm.

Luck (and Sunday traffic) must be on our side, because our journey to the Wall s relatively painless. For Beijing.

And what a Wall it is!

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The longest wall in the world (see there’s that biggest and longest and most awesomest again), it was built (although never completed) over the course of hundreds of years using countless “dispensable” labourers, many of whom found their final resting place at the base of the Wall, as a defense against foreign invasion and to protect the very precious trade along the Silk Road.

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I imagine the invading hordes of Mongols, after traversing mountains and other gigantic natural barriers, reaching the Wall and saying, dejectedly, “Awww crap, there’s a wall…we’d better turn around and go home!” (in Mongolian, of course…)

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Chairman Mao, who is regarded by the Chinese to be the father of modern China…notwithstanding the terrible things he did to his population and the country’s cultural artifacts during the Cultural Revolution (although apparently the Chinese are either quite forgiving or have short memories for these sorts of things because he’s still regarded quite fondly) said, “One cannot be a hero until one has climbed the Great Wall.”

Taking that genuinely to heart, the Badaling section of the Wall, the most traveled section, sees up to 70,000 visitors per day in the high season. So you know those photos of the Wall without people? The ones that showcase long stretches of empty space? Doesn’t happen.

The Wall is packed. After making my way through the endless gift shops and entrance gate, I’m faced with my first decision. Do I go left or right? I take the Southern route, mainly because it is the road (ever so slightly) less travelled. Despite its name, I am told the Southern route apparently points towards Siberia (I’m no navigator, but isn’t that North? I suppose it bends).

I start walking. Walking soon turns to climbing.

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What did I think, that the Great Wall of China would be smooth and gently sloping?
The Great Wall is steep and uneven, making the climb invigorating and a definite challenge. Heroism doesn’t come easily.

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Okay,,,what?
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Unabashed Heroism…or Catherine thinks she looks carefree in a “fun photo”…in reality she looks like a goofball.
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Sound advice

I make it to the 4th gate tower before I turned around (no need to accidentally end up in Siberia, or Tibet because with my sense of direction, it could totally happen), at which point I feel a gentle tap on my arm and turn to see a young Chinese couple with a camera. The young woman gestures that she would like to take a photo with me. Many rural Chinese have never seen a Caucasian, and to have a photo with one is apparently exciting and exotic. Me…exotic and exciting!! (It will happen again and again during my time in China.) I oblige, and will now be a treasured memory in someone’s photo album.

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“One cannot be a hero until one has climbed the Great Wall.” Chairman Mao

So, I may not have walked the entire Wall, or run the annual marathon along its winding length, but to at least one young couple from somewhere deep in China, I am a hero…or an oddity…

Wonder what Mao would think of that?

Made in China

I take for granted the tag on most of my belongings will read Made in China. Regardless of your personal locavore predilections, the reality is that most of what we purchase is made overseas, and the overseas in question is predominantly China.

You can understand something in theory, but it’s oftentimes made much more clear when put into practice. It has now become suddenly and painfully clear to me how FAR those goods have really travelled. Having now done the journey myself, I can attest that by the time I arrived in China, I was less than freshly pressed…and I didn’t even come over crammed in a shipping container.

In fact, while I imagined China Eastern Airlines to be the flying equivalent of a rusty metal tube, in reality the almost-new plane and the flight were both pretty good… including the spaghetti Bolognese and red wine with dinner, and the in-flight entertainment selection which, much to my relief, included more than just kung fu movies and weird game shows. So that’s saying something.

But even through these distractions, it is painfully obvious that…

China is far. Really far.

Seventeen hours on a plane with a total of 24 hours in transit gives me a long, long time to muse about the lost days of elegant air travel….and to get serious about collecting enough air points to start regularly flying business class…
After 24 hours in transit, the bus ride through Beijing is foggy…both mentally and because of the pollution. The hotel is 6-star and very elegant, and I slip into bed, hungry for vertical sleep after countless hours of upright plane napping…only to find the bed is just slightly more cushy than a wooden pallet. According to Chinese medicine, a hard bed is best for the back. I drift to sleep assured my back will be in the best shape of my life by the time I leave China.

Saturday, October 24, 2014
It is rarely sunny in Beijing. I carry my sunglasses with me in the vain hope they will be useful against anything except air pollution. They are not.

We follow our local guide Jerry on to the bus that will ferry us around Beijing. Jerry, like Tom and Jerry, he says. Not sure what his Chinese name is. Jerry, I will soon come to learn, is more interested in whining about his love life than pointing out the sights we drive slowly by in the endless Beijing traffic jam. Due to the one child policy (which was repealed several days into my trip), there are more males in Jerry’s age group than females. I presume this limited supply of women tilts the choice in the girl’s favour and fellas like Jerry have to step up their courtship game. Sadly, I fail to see what Jerry brings to the proverbial marriage table. In fact, we as a group decide Jerry is in no way marriage material…unless the young woman in question is looking for a somewhat whiny, cheap, mama’s boy. Poor over-indulged, Little Emperor Jerry…he doesn’t know it yet, but there will be no little Jerrys for his mother to dote upon.

Tour Guide Jerry. We will follow his fish all around Beijing.
Tour Guide Jerry. We will follow his fish all around Beijing.

Jerry will be with us for the next three days, and we will quickly learn that his indoctrination has been complete. He actually says at one point that the Chinese are very lucky because whenever anything bad happens – floods, earthquakes, major disasters – the people do not have to worry in any way as the government will take care of it. There is only happy news on the TV and in the paper, extolling the great triumph of the government. No wonder Facebook is banned…no chance of an Arab Spring-like revolution fostered by social media here.

Tienanmen Square
The thing about the Chinese is that they like to have the biggest of everything. The biggest population (China), the dam that used the most cement in the world (Three Gorges) and of course, the biggest square in the world (Tienanmen).

It’s immediately understandable how a space this vast might encourage a gathering of the masses, which might in turn encourage protest, protest such as the one that unfolded right here in 1989 on the ground under my feet…that iconic image of the student, standing firm against the tank moving ever closer toward him that we in the West remember so vividly…is totally absent from the collective Chinese conscious. The state-owned media simply didn’t report it. Therefore it didn’t happen.

Tienanmen Square
Tienanmen Square

Instead, families and tourists file in through the security gates to take in the Square’s vast vista and watch the ceremonial raising and lowering of the flag. Much like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, there is great precision and unsmiling faces, firm in the knowledge that their job is of great national significance and personal pride, with Chairman Mao gazing appreciatively from his mausoleum above…

The Ever Present Chairman Mao
The Ever Present Chairman Mao

I look around. Today there are no tanks. Only groups of tourists posing for photographs in the world’s biggest square…and to my left, the Centre for Chinese Re-Education….in case you didn’t totally absorb all the rhetoric from Mao’s little Red Book, which any number of ruddy faced guys are willing to sell to me for cheap.

Marching for Mao
Marching for Mao

The Forbidden City
No longer forbidden to the common man, the Forbidden City was once the seat of power from which the Emperor ruled his vast empire. Only the elite were permitted to enter the outer courtyards and even fewer permitted to step foot into the inner sanctum.

Not So Forbidden City
Not So Forbidden City

Having flung opened the gates wide, today literally millions of people tread in the footsteps of the Emperor and remind themselves of the experience by trolling the Forbidden Gift Shop for appropriate mementos. I bought a Coke.

The Forbidden City is also home to a 2-star toilet (rating courtesy of China Tourism and Culture). It earns its 2 stars because it has a selection of toilets – sitting and squatting – running water, and a bathroom attendant who keeps the place tidy and monitors the flow of people in and out, ensuring overcrowding is not an issue. “Happy Paper” not included. In comparison, a 5-star toilet has not only the above amenities, but includes toilet paper, hand dryers, piped-in music and video entertainment on the back of the stall door. Several days later I will use one of the many public toilets in China – no stars provided – which is not nearly as horrific as I imagined. Indeed it was cleaner and fresher than some in the Toronto Subway system. This may not, however, be representative of all public toilet conditions in all places…

The Temple of Heaven
Once a Temple reserved for the Emperor who came to pray on behalf of his subjects, the Temple of Heaven and the gardens that surround it are now the hip meeting place of Beijing’s senior community. Everywhere I turn, spry seniors are practicing tai chi, playing hacky sack (!!), honing their calligraphy skills, playing mahjong, or taking a ballroom dancing lesson in the shadow of the Temple of Heaven.

Ballroom Dancing Seniors
Ballroom Dancing Seniors
Calligraphy practice
Calligraphy practice
Temple of Heaven...not just for Emperors anymore
Temple of Heaven…not just for Emperors anymore

The Pearl Market, or Getting Out My Great Wallet of China
All pagoda and Emperor’ed out, I take to the Beijing underworld…
The Beijing subway, that is. Because I am in China with a tour group, I am required by the Group Leader Lilly, to essentially write myself a permission slip absolving her of any responsibility should I become permanently lost in Beijing.
I happily sign myself out of the tour and go in search of faux designer goods at rock bottom prices.

Turns out, Beijing is my city. I am a person who almost entirely lacks a sense of direction. Even in my own home town I take the same route each time so I don’t get turned around. And yet in Beijing, I negotiate the subway and several walking kilometers without once getting lost. I can’t explain it.

Beijing subway station...not so hard to use
Beijing subway station…not so hard to use

The Pearl Market is a vast, multi-level mall crammed with stalls selling virtually the same thing over and over. First floor electronics and daily necessities. Second floor scarves, handbags, and shoes. Third floor jewelry and fourth and fifth floor, increasingly more expensive pearls.

You might assume the pretty, smiling, friendly young women running the stalls would be a haggling push over. You would be wrong. Behind the complimentary exterior of “good price for you. You are pretty, you are my friend” lies the bargaining prowess of a cut throat pirate. Suddenly you are holding a wallet or wearing a scarf that just a few seconds ago you didn’t know you wanted, and the bartering begins.
First volley: sales lady. She shows me on her calculator the incredibly over-inflated price that she claims other vendors would likely show me for the goods in question (variation: she shows me the incredibly over-inflated price she would show other people, but not of course me, as we are already friends).

Second volley: sales lady. She shows me on her calculator the first price at she’s willing to part with said item.

Return volley: me. I am shocked at the price and offer half less 100 yuan.

Return volley: sales lady. She is offended and absolutely could not accept this price. Her children would starve! She composes herself, thinks a moment and makes a return offer, which is still miles too high.

The ball is now in my court. I am equally shocked and make a return offer, which is still too little, but comes up just enough for the negotiations to continue.

We go back and forth like this for some time, each giving a little on either side, until we come to the moment when we each state our best price.

This is the moment of truth. Do I pay or walk away? The game is won only if I am willing to walk away from the purchase. I can’t want it too much, or the other side will win….

Walking away has only two outcomes…pay the buyer’s best price or lose the item all together.

Each time I end up paying my best price, but I know in my heart that I’ve likely still overpaid. But that makes both of us the winner – each thinking she got something over on the other – and we both walk away happy.

Made in China
Made in China

Although all the things I ultimately purchase are most certainly faux…heck everything in China is a reproduction – from the Pelee Island wine served with dinner (spelling mistakes on the bottle give that one away), to the scarf that came in a bag marked 100% silk but whose tag said 100% silk like feeling polyester – to the Hermes belt, Chanel wallet, Burberry scarf and Louis Vuitton scarf I walk away with, they are indeed are leather, cashmere (made in Inner Mongolia!), and silk. They most certainly didn’t originate from any of those illustrious French design houses, especially since I paid less than $135 for the lot, but I’m thrilled with my purchases and exhilarated from the thrill of the hunt. (And let’s just leave the conversation of copyright infringement and illegal reproductions to the side. Again, it’s China. They don’t just limit their copying to foreign goods – even the Chinese beer I’m drinking as I write this is a copy of the Tsing Tao beer I’m used to drinking at home. )