Sunday, July 28, 2013

Same-Same - But Different-2013

The T-shirt slogan “Same-Same – But Different” caught my eye in 2011 when we traveled to Bangkok, Thailand and perused the bustling Sukhumvit Street Market there.  Puzzled by the phrase I asked our friend and host Bethe.  She laughed and said it poked fun at Thai vendors who are selling ‘similar’ merchandise also known as “knock-offs.”  The claim that the merchandise they offer is “Same-Same – But Different” is a common one.  We have used the expression ever since as we experience the wonderful world of shopping cheaply in consumer happy Asia.

We frequent street and underground markets wherever we find ourselves.  It is always a fun activity.  These Mom and Pop shops are usually open from 10am-10pm and some disappear in the middle of the night.  Hence, if you see something you want, you better buy it because the entire shop could be gone tomorrow- literally.  Experience indicates that some shops are family-owned businesses hiring young robust help for a very minimal wage and in others, vendors work the shops themselves - 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It doesn’t look like an easy way to earn a living.
I have my favorite vendors.  We all do.  For me, the criterion for being a favored vendor doesn’t have much to do with selection because very often what one stall offers another one nearby will have very similar merchandise.   My favored vendors exchange my smile for their smile.  They exude patience and interest in what I’m looking at and are willing to negotiate with their calculator in hand.  It is very rare to see things marked with a price in these stalls.  This allows the vendor to size up the potential buyer.  I am getting quite adept at spotting someone trying to snag my expected fair-skinned wealth.
Negotiating goes something like this:  
“Zhege duoshao qian?”  - How much is this?
The seller reaches for a hand held calculator and “plinks” in a price, facing the calculator in my direction.   
Now it’s my turn to scoff and shake my head in disgust at the ridiculous price.  (Usually rightfully so.)
“Tai gui le!”, I say indignantly – Too expensive!
Next I counter-offer by clearing their entry and “plinking” in one third of what they just “plinked.” 
They shake their head in disgust (usually rightfully so,) and the negotiating is underway.
They counter with another number which they have now deemed the “friend price,” (because for some reason we’re now friends?)   I counter with a little bit more and they are still disgusted.  They counter with a little less.  Back and forth until eventually they start the, “Okay, Okay.  You give me best price.”  If I raise it and say that this is my best price, they might agree, but most times they still only lower their price a little and now extol the virtues of this very ‘high quality’ piece and why it must be at their price.
Eventually, maybe we’ve settled…maybe not and if not, I begin to walk away.
Depending on their sales hunger that day they either chase me down with “Okay! Okay!” or they don’t. 
The Big Guy advises to pre-determine a bottom line and NEED for the item.  He says there is an acceptable price and a walking away price.  You should know both going in.
This is great fun sometimes and exhausting at other times.
Once the price is determined they slam my purchases into a flimsy plastic sack in disgust. I skip away merrily swinging my bag of treasure that I had to have.  I have won – I think.   If I’ve walked away instead, I can try negotiating again at a nearby stall.   Our negotiating skills are sharpening.   The Big Guy arrived with a slew of them well-honed by his FORD - Purchasing experience but even he admits they have been improved by the frequent market visits. 
In addition, we’ve adopted an aloof demeanor and glide by hawking vendors who bark:
“Hey Lady! “
 or “Hey Boss!”
 “Come Look?”
 “Good Price for You!”
The clothing stall vendors take one look at my non-petite Asian frame and retort with
 “Scarves, Lady?”   [I mean who can’t FIT into a scarf?]
We have witnessed sales of many fake items and knock-offs for more than 2 years.  The list is endless:  bags, watches, DVD’s, I-phone accessories, jewelry, backpacks, luggage and clothing.  We’ve been whisked off to back rooms and watched as walls turned into doors and then into secret compartments of the ‘good stuff.’  We’ve traipsed into seedy apartments stocked with merchandise.  The quality is questionable but 70% of the time it’s passable.  It could be a total knock-off or it could have been manufactured when the shift was over and the line kept running with the end products being heaped into a truck.   “Same-Same – But Different.”
Manufactured goods are not the only things that can be “Same-Same – But Different.”
Last weekend while being driven to a dinner destination, I spotted a large lit sign Hard Rock.” 

My jaw dropped at the sight and I looked back as we zoomed by, determined to check it out as soon as possible.
As luck would have it, we couldn’t find it after dinner but that didn’t squelch my curiosity.   Less than a week later I engaged Stefanie, our Mandarin instructor, in the search.  Yes, she found it on Shanghai Lu.  We planned a Wednesday evening outing to introduce her to this iconic experience that began in London, England in 1971.  
Stefanie is a good sport and a fun one to spoil so we began our adventure with a pedicure.

Once our toe-sies were rose-ied,  we began our exploration to find the Hard Rock in Nanjing.
We found it!
We were welcomed into a cozy wooden floored bar space with wooden booths and TV screens. Taylor Swift wailed away above our heads.   So far, so good!  The Hard Rock logo was emblazoned on much of the décor in its familiar font.
Rock and Roll memorabilia graced each wall.

 Gliding past it all we landed in the Chinese lucky number #8 booth.  
And that is when our luck ran out.
The beverage menu arrived quickly.  Everything was in Chinese characters without pictures.  If restaurant management wants to attract Western patrons, there’d better be an English menu.
This was the Hard Rock, right?
Next the Food Menu – 4 choices:

a Chicken dish
a Pork dish
another Pork dish
a third Pork dish
We smiled sweetly to each other realizing we weren’t going to get any classic or even semi-classic Western fare at this Hard Rock.
That should have been our cue to walk out, like the two groups of patrons that came in right after us.  They sat down, had the menu explained to them and walked out.
Without a car, driver or any other restaurant choices in sight, we didn’t have the option of escaping.  So we politely ordered and paid up front.   That should have been another clue of what was to come.
The meals came in a cafeteria style divided plate with bok choy and rice and included a soft drink for 28rmb/ $5 USD.
The price was reasonable.

The food was not.  I had two bites of mine and two bites of Stefanie’s for comparison and she did the same.  Oh well!
Nonetheless, as evening descended on Nanjing, we had enjoyed ourselves.  Since we were still hungry, I felt justified in walking about the empty restaurant taking photos inside and out.

So let it be known that the Nanjing  Hard Rock-Love All- Serve All “ has left a bad taste in my mouth and some pork bone shards that I hope won’t rip my stomach to shreds.  Sure, I should have known better since the Beijing, China Hard Rock closed in 2012 and the Shanghai, China location closed its doors in 2004. To expect Nanjing to suddenly have one is quite a China stretch. 
* * * * *
Oh!…A friend just told me about a new coffee shop called “MoreBucks.,” which I’m absolutely going to check out this weekend!

What are the chances/percentage that “Same- Same – But Different” will be underscored once more in our China Adventure?   I will “plink” a number into my calculator and let you guess how close Morebucks is to that other Coffee Spot that has a green and white circle logo.

Thanks for Reading,


Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Tale of Two Kings

No surprise to any of us that as life goes forward, body parts lag behind or function less easily.  Let’s just say that it has been happening to us for the past several years.  Most significantly, at the age of 50 we both started to notice changes.  Some subtle, some less.  It was then that the extra weight was harder to lose.  It was then that six month check-ups with laboratory tests and screenings of this and that were offered and attended to.   We are very fortunate to have the luxury of health insurance coverage to offset much of our health costs.  Grateful is a more appropriate word.  
The Big Guy’s back started to flare up while here in China and he placed a phone call to our family practice physician in Michigan.  “Obtain a baseline of tests in China,” was the advice.  And so he did.  
These past two years we have been affiliated with an international English-speaking clinic named SOS.  SOS has served us well.  They handle everything you can think of for all ages, including well visits, immunizations, minor emergencies, pharmaceuticals and referrals.  An appointment was made to start the baseline process. 
After a physical exam and fact-gathering session with the German doctor at the SOS Clinic, the good doctor ordered an MRI scan and X-rays.  Neither test could be done at the clinic. The Big Guy was escorted to the local Nanjing hospital by one of the Chinese/English speaking workers from the clinic.  It was her job to overcome the language barrier and oversee the success of both tests.  So our puzzled driver drove him and the Big Guy’s much younger new found friend off to the hospital. 
Walking in was easy-peasy.
He witnessed a crowd of people, crying babies, whiney children and very patient adults.
But his helper had a better plan. Like a VIP in a golf cart at an international airport terminal, she whisked him to the head of the line in a blink.  No one complained or flinched at this intrusion. They accepted their fate and longer wait because the Lao Wai (stranger) happened in-and a Big one at that.   Now there was something to add to their dinner conversation and yes, some took cell phone photos as documentation.
First up was the x-ray of his back.  He was taken to a room deep in the bowels of the hospital’s third floor where a smiling x-ray technician gestured for him to stand with his back against the machine.  Through a series of even more international charade gestures and some translations from his accompanied new friend, he was told to unbuckle his pants and slide them down.
Now…understand there is little privacy in China.  The country is just too full of people and the hospitals and doctor’s offices, with a socialized medical approach for everyone but the paying foreigners, do not care a wit about ones’ modesty or privacy.

“Parts is Parts – you’ve got ‘em and so do I!”

The Big Guy complied with the directive by sliding his pants down just a little – showing his Calvin Kleins and feeling a bit embarrassed.  Unfortunately, this was not good enough for the male technician.  He shook his head disapprovingly and indicated that the pants needed to be much lower.   Like a first-time strip tease artist the Big Guy revealed even more of himself – slowly….very slowly.  He bashfully inched his pants down to mid-thigh until the technician seemed pleased. 
Final adjustments were made to his standing position in front of the plate and it was time for the x-ray.  As he stood motionless and breathless awaiting the scan his pants began to slide further down his legs. In order to avoid a full drop around the ankles and allowing them to touch the disgusting floor, he shifted a little and bowed his knees creating enough tension to hold them at the desired height.
 [I like to fantasize that he flung them off of one foot ever so saucily, but he says he wasn’t even tempted.  Dang!]
With the ordeal finally over he pulled up his pants and prepared to leave.  He had drawn a very interested crowd even without the saucy finale!
Off to another room for the MRI. 
The Big Guy’s helper never left his side.  She took his wallet, his keys, his Swiss army knife, his watch and glasses ahead of the upcoming tests and placed them in a small shopping bag.  They waited patiently for the monitor on the wall to indicate it was his turn.   After a long twenty minutes it was time. 
Next Up - The Big Guy!
The MRI scanner must be a money maker for the hospital as people were placed in the tube quickly with little guidance or extensive translation of what to expect.  The Big Guy was hurriedly told to lie down and the technician and the helper pushed and pulled him into place.  When all was ready they scattered like chickens in a thunderstorm hiding behind a windowed control booth. 
This ancient noisy tube of claustrophobic white panels buzzed and groaned for an eternal 10 minutes. 
[For the record, you would have to DRUG me to get me to comply with such a test.]
With tests over and X-rays in hand they returned to the SOS Clinic and waited for Dr. Jürgen to take a peek at the film.  The MRI results would not be available for up to a week, but the x-rays could be looked at right away.  The good doctor popped them under the clips of the light panel and peered through his little round spectacles.

 [I wish you could see this guy…he’s a character.  Slight build, crazy ‘stick-‘em-up’ hair and tiny spectacles.  Maybe a caricature is a better description.  Even so he is a wonderful doctor who teaches and explains and isn’t afraid to refer and consult with colleagues in Hong Kong or Germany.  I respect him…he’s kinda adorable in a geeky sorta way. ]
Dr. Jürgen perused the film and said.  “Hmmmmmmmm…seems like you may have a slight curvature of the spine, see right there?”
 The Big Guy did not have the heart to tell him that the slight curvature was most likely caused by his “bow-legged stance of modesty!” 
“We will wait for the MRI results and get back to you,” Dr. Jürgen said. 
Up to the front counter to pay for the mornings medical adventure the Big Guy whipped out his wallet and Bank of China debit card.
Next a credit card
Nothing worked and with good reason because ALL of the cards in his wallet had been de-magnetized by the MRI machinery at the hospital.  This will take weeks to correct.   Ah- China…

That weekend we shopped for a new mattress to ease back pain.
Finding a new mattress ranks right up there in my mind as one of the most awkward and confusing shopping experiences known to the modern world.  [Right up there with coffin shopping.]
It shouldn’t of course because unlike a coffin you get to ‘try out’ a mattress.  
So we were in for another unique Chinese shopping experience – visiting the giant Furniture Mall to find an appropriate replacement for our tired USA mattress.   We entered store after store and under the bright lights flipped and flopped from side to side and closed our eyes as sweet little Chinese sales people touted the features and benefits in Mandarin.  Now you know we did not understand anything they were trying to tell us.  They brought out evidence of sales awards their brand had received and showed us charts that they indeed sell more than the fellow next door.  Not sure why they expected that would impress these two flopping flounder-like fish, (most likely their biggest catch of the day,) but they tried.
Finally, we decided on a mattress which had to be custom made to fit our USA King box spring.  It was ordered and the credit card came out again….Rejected.  This time it wasn’t because the card didn’t work, it was because they didn’t accept credit cards [at a furniture store, really?]  We tried to act shocked and left a paltry deposit with the sales clerk to begin the process.  Our photo was taken by our sales girl of us lying on the mattress of our Future Sweet Dreams.  I’m guessing we were her first English speaking customers. 
Going back two weeks later to pay the balanced owed (in cash), I dragged along our Mandarin instructor.  She’s such a good sport.  I made sure that it was understood that this transaction included the removal & disposal of our old mattress.  She made sure it was written on the invoice and initialed. This was beaten into the sales person’s brain until it hurt, I’m sure.
Mattress delivery day arrived.  Our Ayi (maid) was there that day and I put her in charge of the proceedings. She led the parade up four flights of stairs.  In attendance were two workmen, the happy sales girl, our curious driver (who just happened to be outside our villa enjoying the “Free Wi-Fi “we provide him) and myself.
I don’t know about you, but it would have made sense to ME to take the old mattress out of the room before trying to cram and maneuver the new one in a small space.  But that’s just how I think.
The Mandarin barking began.   Of course I didn’t know what they were barking about but it was intense.
Finally, I left the room because if it’s “fight” or “flight” I always pick “flight!”   As in “Get-me- the- hell-outta-here.” 
The noise continued well into five minutes and became more distressing so I walked back in the room.  Now there are six of us standing around my Future Sweet Dreams mattress.   I surveyed the current situation. The sales girl looked helpless and big-eyed as the Ayi and our driver and the two workmen flailed their arms and pointed to the new mattress and the old mattress.  Finally they ALL looked at me for guidance and direction. 
I pointed to the Future Sweet Dreams mattress and said “Hen hao.”  [very good]
I pointed to the old mattress and said “Bu hao.”  [not good]
Again I pointed to the old mattress standing on edge and with my best hitch-hiker thumb indicated, “Get this outta here!” 
The sales girl became silent.
I became confused because we had made it MORE than clear that the old mattress had to go and I thought she was trying to switch the plan.  I hadn’t a clue why our driver was part of the proceedings or why he was so interested.  Then it dawned on me….
“Ni yao?” I said.  [you want?]
“YES!” he said emphatically in perfect English.
After granting him that wish he said he would come and get it “mingtian” [tomorrow]
Sighing deeply I agreed, half because I didn’t care and half just to end the battle of the bed.
The sales girl took a photo of me next to our new purchase.    
Another ‘feather in her cap’ photo, I’m sure.
The following day our driver and his friend came to take away the mattress.  [It was truly “Laurel and Hardy Move a Mattress!”]
Note the pure happiness evidenced by the following photos.

Hopefully our new mattress will prove worthy of the craziness and expenditure.  At the very least it is well documented by several photos and now this entry in my China blog.
Sure we’ll keep looking for the fountain of youth to ward off the inevitable cricks, cracks and concerns. 
I promise to report back when we find it!   
Until then, Future Sweet Dreams to you All!

Thanks for Reading,