Born and raised in the suburbia of the conservative Midwest, my severely limited interaction with genuine Chinese culture is hardly surprising. For as much as I would have loved to walk among the Terracotta Warriors or swim in the Yangtze as a child, the sad truth is that, in addition to the embarrassing fact that I knew of neither's existence until well into adolescence, my interactions with Chinese culture were limited to takeout and stereotypes.
China embodied the exoticism of life outside American suburbia, both culturally and geographically (usually buttressed by the wildly inaccurate yet curiously common expression that if you were to dig a hole straight through the earth you would emerge in China). I decided as a child, based off only the most superficial of reasons, that one day I would venture across (or through) the earth to visit the People's Republic.
The image of my future self was as vivid as it was decidedly optimistic: an ultra-confident Renaissance man far removed from the awkward encounters especial of his former pre-pubescent self, effortlessly traversing the vast and exotic unknown. Now reflecting on my time in the suburbs of Beijing, I wonder which of my experiences were truly exotic and which were made exotic by inanely misinformed expectations projected through my over-productive imagination.
Upon arriving in the People's Republic I quickly discovered what I still consider the best dumpling shop in Beijing, which I frequented for roughly nine meals a week. One chilly January night as I walked home from this dumpling shop I noticed a man selling warm clothes in my periphery. He was the only unfamiliar face in the market so I decided to look through his stock, not knowing the next time he might be back.
Most of the racks were filled with egregiously puffy jackets embroidered with the subtle spelling mistakes you might notice only half the time, letters ever so slightly metathesized to read "Woflpack" or "Mountian-tested." It was the last rack, from which a lonely pair of sweatpants dangled and blew in the wind, that piqued my attention; charcoal grey with a red Chinese Adidas logo, I could just imagine these warm, dark pants covering my cold, pasty legs.
Perhaps it was my libidinous panting, hanging heavy in the cold air, or maybe he could simply sense the thick flow of consumerism through my American veins, but the man suddenly looked up from the screen and acknowledged my presence with a quick ni hao as he slid the phone into his jacket pocket, a jacket which was of noticeably higher quality than the ones he was selling. But I couldn't care less about his Patanogias; my mind was set on those goddamn sweatpants.
I knew this would not be a transaction of convenience, but rather an elegant battle of misdirection, a minuet of deceit, a demonstration of willpower not unlike that in The Old Man and the Sea. As we stood opposite one another on that bustling street I couldn't help but think we were playing out a modern-day Western, an anachronistic shootout far removed from the dry deserts of Nevada. But instead of a two shooter strapped to my hip I was armed with a pair of red tube socks I had bought from another street vendor earlier that day, inscribed with the profoundly evocative "forever horses until become." And instead of Butch Cassidy or Billy the Kid, I stood opposite a relatively small Chinese man that had no idea, if any, that we were in a modern-day shootout. The odds were certainly in my favor.
I pointed at the sweatpants and as he turned to grab them from the rack, I myself turned around and walked away. It was somewhere between my sixth and ninth step that I suddenly realized I had never actually haggled before and had no idea what I was doing. I have seen movies about people haggling. I have read about people haggling. I have heard riveting first-hand accounts of people haggling. But it was in this single moment I realized that none of these things constitute me, your humble narrator, having haggled.
As I continued walking it also occurred to me that since I had only pointed at the sweatpants and not explicitly expressed my interest in purchasing them, my nemesis had no reason to call for my return. So around step eighteen I decided to turn around, and around step twenty I executed said turn. I lengthened my stride on the way back and needed only seventeen steps to account for my original twenty.
As I approached the rack of clothes the second time, the merchant looked up at me in clear confusion. I had caught him off guard. Advantage, Ashton. I asked him how much the sweatpants cost, which was more or less a combination of pointing, shrugging, and rubbing my fingers together since I didn't know how to say any of those words in Chinese. He didn't understand. So I continued making these three gestures simultaneously in what gradually amounted to a quasi-sensual full body writhing. Far too deep in the charade to quit, I continued silently squirming, all the while deeply empathizing with the plight of Thamsanqa Jantjie.
By now a crowd of locals had started forming behind me, a crowd I assumed was on my side in this battle royale. A baby cried in the distance. Your move, Merchant. He finally understood my stopgap sign language and told me the price was 150 yuan, a bit steep for my liking. I turned to walk away again when at step four I realized this was the only tactic I knew and I simply couldn't keep doing it. So at step eight I turned around, except my pelvis steered my legs left while my torso decided to turn right. Luckily, I'm quick on my feet and seamlessly turned it into a backstretch, preparing my body for the extraneous power struggle ahead.
As I made my third approach I finally got a good look at the peanut gallery, which was comprised of more locals than I could count in Chinese (which, all things considered, wasn't that high). I have my army, Merchant. Where is yours? Little did I know this was actually his army, a fact which became startlingly apparent several moments later when they all moved to his side of the arena and stood behind him. This was a crippling blow dealt by a double-edged sword; not only was my morale crushed, but the crowd had also been blocking the cold northern wind, now whipping bitterly as ever at my shivering legs. I needed those sweatpants now more than ever.
I pointed at them once again, and once again I was reminded that I had no idea what I was doing. The merchant stared at me, his cold, dead eyes sending figurative shivers down my already literally shivering spine. 150 yuan, he repeated. I attempted to say 70 yuan, which I considered to be a bold move, but accidentally said 170 yuan in the heat of the moment.
As the townsfolk snickered and jeered, I realized I was no longer bargaining for a pair of sweatpants, but rather for my pride. I clenched my fists and spit on the ground near his feet. Prepare for the haggle of your life, Merchant. But I began walking away again, forgetting that this was the only real move in my haggling arsenal and one that I had used twice already with little success. Much to the chagrin of my wildly optimistic former self, I ended up just walking home and ordering sweatpants off Amazon.