Thor's China Diary

Virtue versus the Quick Buck

@4 March 2000
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A couple of times a week I buy baozi with bean paste inside from a pastry & noodle shop under the Hong Shan building. There's a guy there who kind of grins stupidly like I'm from outer space, and a rather pretty girl who always serves me - two packets of ready to steam baozi. Costs Y6 for two, or is it Y3.50 each? Now I'm not sure. But today there was a teenager there, a boy who spoke some English and is probably the hope of the clan, maybe the girl's brother. He charged me Y7 for two. Well that was a chance to test his English. I paid up but scowled that last week it had cost Y6. I could even say it in English for once. As I walked away I could see them go into conference. Ten minutes later he had found me in the supermarket upstairs and sheepishly handed over Y1. Still don't know if the change of heart was a genuine correction or "mei guanxi" for a unique customer.

That place has a steady stream of trade and could no doubt do without my contribution, but these little shops sometimes value custom in a way that the sleepy employees of the big places don't. In a department store they'll say "don't have" (as the Chinese language abruptly puts it) if your need is two counters away. But then I recall the lady who sells popcorn as a sideline to a small camera and battery shop. She chased me 500 meters up the road to return five jiao that she decided I'd been overcharged. Well yeah, this sort of honesty is smart business, but there are remarkably few merchants in China or any other country who have the wit to know that.

What "cultures" do, I think, is to generate fuzzy guidline rules, average patterns of behaviour. In Chinese cultures for example (not only Chinese cultures..), there seems to be a fairly explicit belief that friendship (in all its varieties) should be based on a quite tangible benefit to the parties. That can mean cold cash, or privilege, or career opportunity, or sex, or whatever. When the benefit comes into doubt, all bets are off. Well, that's the general outline of expectation, but individuals decode it in different ways. It is not difficult to find characters in China, male & female, who will swear eternal friendship in the hope of some small gain, then betray you without a qualm when the benefit is past. They feel entirely within their interpretation of their culture. Others though will make a "bad hargain" in terms of those amoral rules. They will be generous to a fault, honest beyond reason, and loyal past any hope of recompense. Nowadays I hope for nothing, and thank the garden gods for small acts of charity.

"Virtue versus the Quick Buck" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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