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How Buying a Computer Turned into a Lesson on How China Works (or Doesn’t)

Even going to an electronics mall to buy a computer is a lesson in Chinese culture.

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Buying electronics in China is not recommended, but it is, for sure, a cultural experience.

My computer kicked the bucket, and I was in need of a new machine, so I went over to Xiamen’s electronic’s district and began browsing the five floors of the giant Buy Now and the broader electronic mall that surrounds it. Buy Nows are not like typical electronics stores, they are basically flea markets full of vendors selling all types of computers, phones, and pretty much anything else that lights up after being plugged in. There perpetually seems to be incredible amounts of venders trying to coral surprising few shoppers. Going into these places is like being a lone female in a Navy bar. You don’t need to be hot property to be feasted upon. As I walked through the aisles salespeople would yell out to me, when it became apparent that I was looking for a computer they began shoving them in my face. So far, so normal.

In these electronics malls the vendors tend to work together. So while they may appear at first to be competitors, this is really just in appearance. They may have different owners, but they’re all on the same team. So they exchange merchandise between each other and what not. At one point I had three different shops show me the exact same computer. When the forth one told me to wait a minute while they went to get the model I requested, I told him not to bother: everybody else had already shown it to me.

The only difference is the pricing. I was quoted prices for the same machine that differed by 1,000 RMB. The price, I suppose, depends on how much the salesperson thinks they can get out of you — and the tags in front of the computers are mere decorations, they mean absolutely nothing.

When you stop into a stall and begin looking at their merchandise an obstacle is invariably put in your path. The obstruction takes the form of a sales person, and they apparently think that bugging the shit out of you is going to make you want to give them money. Or maybe this is their subterfuge: it’s incredibly difficult to look at a computer and make a decision about it with a human being breathing in your ear and virtually resting their chins on your shoulder. They don’t stop talking. If you ignore them they think you can’t speak Chinese, and they will cackle about you with their coworkers. If you talk back that only encourages them to keep going. In all cases you end up paying more attention to the sales person than what it is you’ve come to actually look at. Maybe Chinese customers like this attention, but for me it’s repulsive.

buy-now

But there is really no other way. I tell them to wait a moment or to please go  away, but it doesn’t really work. Being a foreigner they are especially all over me. It’s not my impression that this is because they think they can really rip me off more than it is that they think I’m incredibly clueless and dumb. It’s a double irritation: not only do I have to deal with pushy salespeople but also people treating me like some numbskull child. This is no better manifested than when I’m looking at a computer running Windows 8 and the salesperson jumps in front of me and start moving the desktop icons across the screen with their finger tips as though it was some kind of new toy that would make me ogle, giggle, or something.

“That’s stupid, nobody needs that on a laptop,” I would say over and over. I would have called it tits on a bull but I was not confident it would come out in translation. At any rate, after making this known the salespeople would generally agree with me: Windows 8 doesn’t impress the Chinese either.

When in this situation I’ve found that I’m basically chosing a sales person rather than anything that had to do with their stock. With perhaps an exception for the Apple vendors, just about ever sales person in the entire electronics district had the ability to get me just about whatever computer I wanted. So I walked through the mall and the shops looking for a sales person I liked. Sometimes I’ve been able to turn them up, but not on this occasion.

The first night I went home without really digging in. The next day I was ready to make a purchase.

I eventually began negotiating for a computer with some jabber jawing, 20 year old bullshitter, and got him to give me a good price. I paid him the money, and then another guy in the shop stuck a flash drive into the machine. He told me that he was installing an English language version of Windows. Good. Then the screen went black. I’m unsure what exactly happened, but it seemed as if the boob broke it.

The salesmen had a powwow in a corner, and I knew things were not going to end right. They returned and made up every excuse they could think of to give me my money back without telling me that they broke the computer.

“I don’t want my money back, I want my computer.”

“We can’t sell it to you.”

“Why?”

[Chinese “Uhnt” noise]

“I gave you money, just give me my computer. I have a friend who has English Windows, you don’t need to install it.”

[Chinese “Uhnt” noise]

“Is the computer broken?”

[“Uhnt”]

The first two “uhnts” meant, “Please don’t ask me that.” The third was an unequivocal “yes.” They shoved my money in my hand and shooed me out of their stall, telling me to come back the following morning when they will have a new computer for me.

“You come tomorrow and we will have a new one that is just off the assembly line from the factory.”

Right.

Though I did return the next day and the same sales kid told me to wait a moment while he goes and gets the computer. He returned and put a completely different computer in my hands as though I wouldn’t notice or something.

“I want the one I wanted last night,” I said.

“This is the one you wanted.”

“No it isn’t, I want the same small Asus with the metal cover, the computer that I bought, gave you the money for, and then he broke,” I said as I pointed to the culprit who did the damage the day before.

“I can’t give you that computer,” the sales boy said.

I kept looking at the other stalls. As I walked by one I was chased down by a sales guy that I had dealings with the day before. He was trying to dump a weak HP laptop on me. His price was low, but the computer was pretty crap. I said I didn’t want it. He lowered the price even more. I liked how he was dealing with me, lowering prices to keep me from walking away. I may be able to get somewhere here.

I then saw a nice looking computer on the display that I previously looked at. It was a Dell V131. It had 700g of hard drive space, a quad set up of i5 2.5GHz processors, and 4g of RAM. It looked good. I read a few reviews for it on my phone, and started negotiating a price.

He started at 4,000, then dropped to 3,800. I didn’t have that much on me so I walked away. He called me back. “How much do you want to spend?”

“I will pay 3,200 RMB.”

“Hold on a minute, I will call my boss.”

He made a phone call, got off, and said that his boss accepted my offer. I paid the money to the cashier.

The deal was a little too good to believe. I knew that it would more than likely fall through,the only question was how. But the prospect that it might not kept the bit in my mouth. An ominous sort of feeling then arose that usurped all nativity. In China, no deal ever stops being negotiable. Just because we agreed on 3,200 RMB for this computer didn’t mean that I would get it for that much money or even get it at all. Paying was simply an action taking the transaction to the next level, not its finalization. This deal would keep churning until I walked out the door.

I was now waiting for my purchase to be brought over from the warehouse/ another shop/ some place nearby that computers are stockpiled before sale. I waited and waited. I chatted with the sales guy. He was in his mid-twenties. He studied accounting in college but could not find a job. He worked from 9AM to 7PM six days per week. He made between $500 and $1,000 per month. He didn’t like the long hours and the glare from computer screens. He was from Putian. He lives in Xiamen with his older sister. His dream is to make a lot of money, buy an apartment, and own a car. He was absolutely typical. He asked me questions about myself, and I felt that we were both becoming a little more human to each other.

Then the owner arrived with two computers in boxes. I was told that I would have a choice between a red and silver model. I chose silver. It was handed over. I took it out of the box and said that I wanted to start it up and have a look at it. I fired it up and looked at its specs. It wasn’t the computer I bought. The brand and line were the same, but the processor was an Intel i3 and the hard drive was 500 gigs rather than the i5 processor and 700 gig hard drive of the floor model.

They tried the bait and switch.

“It’s not the same,” I said.

“Yes, yes, it is the same,” the sales guy said. “See, 500 gig hard drive, i3 2.3 processor.”

“The computer I bought has a 700 gig hard drive and an i3 2.5 processor.”

“Nooooo!” he exclaimed with a laugh that basically called me a silly little foreigner, “no, they are the same.”

I stood up, went  over to the floor model, and showed him.

“Ohhh!” he feigned surprise.

His tune then suddenly changed. “Oh, you misunderstand, 3,200 RMB is for that computer, not this one. This one is 4,000.”

“But this is the one I agreed to buy, and  it’s the one you said I could have for 3,200.”

“My boss says you can have that one for 3,200, not this one.”

I was being bullshat. I sat down again and began looking over the computer they brought me. The sales guy sat down next to me. I knew better than to show that I was upset. Nobody likes or respects a screaming foreign buffoon. I also knew that just walking out may not be to my best advantage. In point, I now had some leverage. Pride is important here, but it’s also a very fragile bridge to walk across. You want to bend pride, not break it. Offending someone is the surest way to get the door slammed in your face. The Chinese slam doors by ignoring you until you go away.

Perhaps I could twist this scenario to my advantage. So I laid it on thick. I tried to look sad and I explained to the salesman that we had a deal and he broke it, that I was upset that he brought me a different computer. “I thought we were friends.” I was trying to set the stage for a new deal. A deal in China is never done.

Basically, all the crap talk that Chinese business people often try to use to manipulate others can be used back on them. The way things work here is very abstract, making a deal is like playing a board game — one where logic, sense, and reality often have little to do with anything. It’s all a matter of using the right words to put someone in a corner from which they have no other moves that they can make and still save face. From what I can tell, business in China isn’t about forming mutually beneficial partnerships, it’s about who can stalemate who.

The sales guy was trying to back me into a corner, I was trying to do the same to him.

“i3 and i5 processors are the same,” he actually said,”there is no difference. They are the same.”

So I did a quick internet search for “What’s the difference between Intel i3 and i5,” and showed him the results.

Then the owner and sales guy began trying to sell me a different computer. They shoved some shit one in my face that nobody in the entire mall seemed to be able to get rid whose initial price was 3,000 RMB. It had an i5 processor, but it was a 1.6GHz rather than 2.5.

“1.6 and 2.5 are the same,” the sales guy tried going down that road again.

He was just outright lying to me now with neither fetters nor pretense.

“What’s the difference between i5 1.6 and 2.5” I typed into the search box. Again, I showed him a page that said otherwise.

This was a move I learned from a Canadian supply chain manager: arguing with people here and telling them that they’re wrong doesn’t work nearly as well as creating a situation where they can find that they’re wrong for themselves or at least be given space to come up with a different angle. The supply chain manager would have the techs from the factories whose samples he would inspect do the measurements/ tests themselves in front of him rather than doing them himself, so any “mistakes” would be discovered rather than pointed out — a big difference here. Things just go smother this way. So each time the sales guy started feeding me bullshit I would look it up on the internet and allow him to read over my shoulder. Then it wasn’t me telling him that he was wrong and creating a conflict, it was him appearing to find it out for himself.

This went on for nearly an hour. The owner kept shoving computers that I didn’t want in my face — including an older model of the one that I’d purchase which he shamelessly tried to tell me was the newer model — and I kept reasserting that I wanted to buy the one that I had already paid for. We all were getting annoyed with each other, and just when it became clear that they were to the point that they just wanted to be rid of me I presented my offer:

“I will take this other computer even though it is different from the one I wanted to buy. I will pay you 3,000 RMB. And I want a mouse.” (My wife needed the mouse.)

They agreed. I took 200 RMB back from the cashier, seized a mouse off the shelf, and thought we’d come upon an arrangement that we both could leave feeling semi-victorious. They would have succeeded in baiting and switching me and I would have knocked the price down a little and gotten something extra thrown in.

Then I went to grab the computer but I was stopped short. The sales guy grabbed it first and made to stick a flash drive into it. I asked him what he was doing, and he said something about waiting to install some kind of set-up program or something. I told him I didn’t want him to do that and pushed him away. He insisted. I refused. I still have no idea what it was he wanted to install, but when I didn’t let him do it things again got a little weird.

“My boss said that you can’t buy this computer.”

“What!?! Why?”

“He says that there it has some mechanical problem.”

“What mechanical problem?”

“He says the motherboard is bad.”

“How does he know?”

“He says this line of computer has bad motherboards and that he doesn’t want to sell you a bad computer.”

“Why didn’t he tell me this before?”

“He just doesn’t want to sell you a bad computer. So you can’t buy this one.”

It was bullshit. Everything was set for me to take the computer away until I didn’t let them install some program on it. I can speculate as to what it may have been and how they could potentially receive a cut of future profits from it, but I have no solid ground for making such accusations. I initially held my ground, scooped up my purchase, and demanded the box. They refused to give it to me. They were refusing to sell me what I’d already paid for. No deal in China is ever final.

“We can’t sell this computer to you,” the sales guy said.

“But you already sold it,” I countered. “I gave you the money, I paid, it’s mine.”

He gave me the stone face. They still didn’t give me the box so I began digging through the piles of them on the floor looking for the right one. The sales guy and the owner stood motionless, seemingly not knowing what to do. I’d certainly never had to fight to give people $500 before. Then I noticed that the factory sticker on the bottom of the computer had been peeled up a little. It was not a sticker placed across the bottom panel to prevent against tampering, and I highly doubted that it was an indication of any maliciousness, but it did plant a seed of indecision. The pause in my mania was enough to allow reason to overtake my pride and drive to win a petty battle. There was no way I wanted to deal with these scoundrels, and I wasn’t going to be sucked into the pitfall of wanting something more just because I’m being told I can’t have it. I’d rather lose and walk away than lose than lose and give money to these people. I really didn’t want to go back to square one in this computer search that has extended over three days, but it became apparent that this probably was the best option.

“Alright, give me my money.”

The owner quickly reached into the inside pocket of his blazer and returned my wad. I counted it twice, then turned to leave. But I stopped short. I didn’t feel complete, I really wanted to say something nasty to them. So I turned around and found myself yelling, “You embarrass yourself, you embarrass China. I bought one computer and you tried to give me a different one.” Their eyes widened a little and a look of anger simultaneously rolled over their faces. It seemed to have worked, so I said it again a little louder so the people around could hear: “You embarrass China!  You should be embarrassed.”

It was an overtly ineffective move, but it made me feel a little better.

“They are so sneaky,” a Bangladeshi civil engineer working on a giant elevator in Wulingyuan park once responded when I asked him what the biggest cultural challenge of leading teams of Chinese workers is. This was a good choice of words. This culture doesn’t tend to be bad, they’re not really evil, they’re sometimes just a little sneaky — if they think they can get away with something they often try. Fooling people seems to be some kind of game here, something that some people seem to be proud of.

This one cultural attribute alone has sparked a virtual exodus of smaller foreign businesses leaving China for the less difficult terrains of Turkey, Eastern Europe, and SE Asia. In the end, this “We can always fool a foreigner mentality” proves too irritating an obstacle to continuously climb over when other alternatives are becoming ever more readily available. They may fool us dumb foreigners once or twice, but we eventually wise up and figure out how to operate without being scammed or leave. The family factory, which was once an incredible force in the 90s and early 2000s, is going extinct. Smaller and mid-size foreign investors and manufacturers who were once firmly entrenched within China are now beginning to look elsewhere, while the large companies either take control of a huge chunk of their supply and production chain — like Home Depot — or they hire Taiwanese firms to do their dirty work. The most successful Western companies in China are run by Taiwanese, who have an ability to do business in China that goes far beyond mere language.

I recently interviewed a Taiwanese business man about a situation where an American pharmaceutical research team was railroaded by the Chinese government, and he just laughed. “You Americans can’t do business in China” he said. “You just can’t understand how it works.” I don’t belive his statement is completely true: it’s not that we can’t understand how it works, we just think it’s fucked up.

Whatever the case, China’s title as the undisputed factory of the world is showing signs of being shared, if not lost.

The only thing that I lost in that computer mall so far was time. But that’s just China; TIC. At that point I was pretty worn out, discouraged. I spent the past three days shopping for a computer, dealing with dozens and dozens of salespeople and navigating endless amounts of nonsense, and had actually paid for computers twice, but I was still empty-handed. I returned to the second floor of the Buy Now. The people in this place were beginning to get used to the sight of me, and I was beginning to get the impression that I was becoming some kind of amusement. But I wasn’t browsing anymore, I wanted a computer right then — there was no way that I was going to stretch this experience out for another day. The mall was going to close in an hour, so I had to move fast.

buy-now-mall

I showed a group of sales people the photo of the computer I wanted — the one that I’d just tried to buy. I didn’t bother with trying to get them to come down on the price for the i5 700 gig hard drive model, I just wanted a machine that would do the job I need for the amount of money I had in my pocket. “Please wait a moment,” a sales lady spoke as one of her coworkers made a phone call. They gave me a plastic cup of water. I may have looked as worn as I felt, or maybe they heard about what happened on the first floor. They were nicer and calmer than usual. They let me hang out without being heckled.

Eventually the computer arrived. I felt it’s shell. It was cold. Good, this meant that it came from some store-room somewhere, and wasn’t the same one that I’d just tried to buy on the first floor. But I still flipped it over and looked at the factory label to make sure. It wasn’t pulled up; it wasn’t the same machine. I fired it up and looked over the specs, and starting reading a little more about it online. Then I became aware of something strange: the salespeople were leaving me alone. The dude was sitting in proximity of me playing on his cell phone, the girl was behind the payment desk playing with her phone. Whenever I asked a question they answered it. They found no need to point out this feature or that tool. I hung out there longer than I had to, sort of enjoying the falling action of this tale.

I bought the computer for 3,300 RMB. They wouldn’t budge on the price, but I was done kicking. As a final twitch of life I had them throw in a mouse for my wife. They did, and I quickly put the computer in my bag and made fast for the door, knowing well that the deal wouldn’t be done until I was out in the streets.

I will probably never understand how a society can take even the simplest of things and make them so impossibly complicated, but unweaving the riddles of culture is ultimately part of the fun of travel. What kind of story would this have been otherwise?

Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Electronics

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3611 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

8 comments… add one

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  • André Vieira January 23, 2014, 5:06 am

    Amazing article in my perspective. Although I didn’t go through that experience I feel as if I’ve learned something new about the chinese culture.

    In the end of the article when you write: “I will probably never understand how a society …”, I started to think how was that cultural trait developed? What originated the chinese to work and think the way they do.

    The contrast with the western culture amazes me.

    Cheers!

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    • Wade Shepard January 23, 2014, 5:27 am

      Yes, that’s for sure, it’s the little things in cultures that you truly cannot comprehend that are often the most interesting. I really can’t understand how anything works in China, but somehow it does.

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  • Frankr January 25, 2014, 1:49 am

    If anyone should understand China, it’s Americans. The get-rich-quick mentality. Boomtowns. Scamming the people who just got off the boat. China today is what the United States was in the 19th century, except worse. Europeans and Latin Americans were appalled by the money-grubbing mentality of the typical American in the 19th century. No one could compete with Americans in the 19th century. An American sea captain, for example, thought nothing of sailing into the teeth of a hurricane if he thought he could save some time and money that way. Damn the risk of dying. Ditto for the gold miners. They thought nothing of wrecking the environment and risking their lives, all to get rich quick. The United States today vis-à-vis China is like Europe in the 19th century vis-à-vis the United States. The US has mellowed out a lot in the past 150 years.

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    • Wade Shepard January 25, 2014, 1:53 am

      Good comment. Very true.

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    • Bob L January 26, 2014, 2:57 pm

      Well said. I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere that the “current” history of China reminds me of the history of the US, just in hyperdrive.

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  • Steve57 January 30, 2014, 7:35 am

    I think you are not the only one frustrated with buying a computer being like buying a used car, or worse — taking loads of time with trickery and deception at every turn. There are consumers in China who love to haggle endlessly in hope of saving a couple RMB, but for more and more people, time is money these days. Purchases of electronics have mostly moved online to B2C websites, and transactions are fast and frustration-free. Amazon, 360buy, have everything one could possibly need at fixed prices, and even do cash on delivery. And for all else there’s still C2C i.e. Taobao individual sellers, but even that is a breeze compared a Buy Now electronics mall.

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    • Wade Shepard January 30, 2014, 8:28 pm

      Very true. I probably didn’t employ the best strategy here. I needed a computer fast, and for some strange reason I thought I could just browse the Best Buy and the electronics mall that surrounds it for a couple of hours and come home with one. I’ve battled in Best Buys before, and knew that it would be irritating, but, man, I wasn’t expecting that. Yes, next time I will find another option. This is sort of sad, as their is a big advantage to being able to go into a computer shop and browse and really check things out. Unfortunately, the goons there don’t seem to get that if they give their potential customers a hard time they’re just going to buy online from then on out. It’s funny how Best Buys are packed full of vendors but there are hardly any customers. Yes, I suppose there’s a reason for this.

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  • Ghost_Machine April 1, 2017, 6:51 am

    That’s so messed up. I would have lost my sh*t. You sir, are a patient man.

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