Shopping for Christmas gifts despite morbid fear of haggling

Shopping for Christmas gifts despite morbid fear of haggling

I'M on my way to the fabric market to do my Christmas shopping. I didn't expect to feel Christmassy in Shanghai, but it turned out I was wrong.Huge, bauble-decked trees have appeared on the main streets. Neon-lit reindeer bear down from the mall at Jing'an Temple. In the coffee shop near my office, the staff have been wearing red Santa hats since October.

While most Chinese people do not actually celebrate Christmas, or Shengdan Jie, it seems they embrace the festive spirit with gusto.

"They're quite right!" I think. "Celebrating other people's festivals is great fun!"

This year I have celebrated China's National Day holiday, the Qingming Festival or Tomb-Sweeping Day and Singles' Day (November 11), as well as France's Bastille Day and a spectacular Thanksgiving, with a dinner hosted by American friends, which only became awkward when I realized I couldn't remember what we were supposed to be giving thanks for.

"What are we giving thanks for?" I whispered to my British friend next to me.

"I don't know," he said in embarrassment. "I think it's something to do with pilgrims. Pass the turkey, will you?"

Dueling traditions

Being away from home also unleashes a degree of competition among the different national communities as to who has the best Christmas traditions. The clear winners, to my mind, are the Germans who have set up a market in a local brewery to rival anything in Bavaria, with the added exoticism of red bean cakes and tofu standing next to Gluhwein and bratwurst. "Ingenious," I think. "They'll be making sauerkraut dumplings next."

This year I have decided to buy my Christmas presents at the fabric market on the basis that even if people don't want more scarves, at least they will be cashmere.

I have a love-hate relationship with the fabric market owing to my morbid fear of haggling, something I am exceptionally bad at.

"I'm British," I think. "I was raised where the price that is set is the price, fair and square. It is improper to think otherwise."

In China, however, nothing has a fixed price, and I have a lot of presents to buy, so I decide to take my friend Matt along for support. Matt is so good at haggling that he even gets discounts in regular stores.

"I never pay more than half price for anything," he says proudly. "And I don't consider it a proper negotiation unless I have walked away three times and they have chased after me."

In contrast, I always pay full price, tip on occasion and sometimes find myself adding in items that I do not need or want. "No one chases after me when I walk away," I tell Matt sadly. "Although once I saw a stall holder laughing as I left."

I watch as Matt deftly bargains down a tablecloth to less than half price, a whirlwind mini-drama of emotion almost Shakespearean in intensity. As he walks away the stall holder gazes after him admiringly.

"I can do that!" I think. My mum has requested silk to make a pair of trousers. "How much is this silk?" I ask a stall holder nonchalantly. "250 kuai (US$40) a meter," she says.

"That sounds reasonable!" I think. "I thought it would be much more than that!"

Then I remember that I am supposed to be haggling. I contort my face into an expression of shocked outrage. I emit a little laugh.

"250 kuai (yuan)!" I say scornfully.

"How about we say 200 a meter and we're good."

"That was great," I think smugly. "Tough, but fair."

I can see Matt in the corner making a cutting motion with his hands.

"I mean, 100 kuai a meter!" I say. "You see, I'm buying Christmas presents for my family. But the flight was a lot so I can't afford to get them anything too expensive."

"We don't celebrate Christmas in China. Spring Festival ... that's when Chinese people celebrate," the silk seller says curtly.

"I see. Well thank you very much, I think my mum is really going to love this," I say, as I hand over the amount in full.

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