Cheat Sheet


Originally uploaded by ryanocerosk.

The manager walked away. At least we gave them something to talk about for the rest of the evening.

After a day’s adventure out at the Terracotta Warriors, our group of four Middlebury students sat down for dinner at the first respectable place with heat we saw. Marked as “wai-guo-ren” (foreigners), we were given an English menu. As with most places I go, I ask to see a Chinese menu to help practice the names of dishes. After ordering an assortment of dishes from both menus, my friend Sam began comparing the two menus. And, to the surprise of our group, there were a few dishes (not ones we ordered) where the prices for the same dish were different. I can’t say that I was altogether shocked at the practice of price differentiation on the basis of language/skin color/nationality in China. But it felt good to hear my friends put a name to something that I normally would not take notice of: racism.

My friend Mairead put it like this, “if somewhere in America tried to give you different prices on the basis of skin color, there would be a lawsuit waiting.” But in China, one just has to feel satisfied with the fact that there is an explicit law (at least I believe reading somewhere) against this type of price differentiation.

So Sam calmly and coolly explained in perfect Chinese the issue to the manager of the restaurant. The manager listened. Said nothing. And walked away.

Our group used the Chinese verb “pian,” to cheat, as the word of the week. Before I arrived, two taxis tried to pian my friends by pretending to have their meters broken. One restaurant tried to get my friends to eat the most expensive items on the menu. And so the mission of the week was to not get “pianed” anymore. But we almost took this caution to an extreme — not trusting anyone, demanding prices for everything, yelling at people who approach selling things. Perhaps to the extreme of being rude? I don’t know.

But our group came to the conclusion that the Chinese have three major ways of looking at foreigners: 1) curiosity, 2) annoyance, 3) inevitability. Xi’an may fit in between the two latter categories: foreigners will inevitability increase in number but the locals still aren’t used to dealing directly with foreigners. Beijing, for instance, would fit squarely into the “inevitable” category with the Olympics coming up. The Beijing “countryside” (nong cun) would fit into the “curiosity” category.

But ultimately, the difference between being cheated and not being cheated was but a few RMB — cents on the dollar. Nothing to us, but perhaps a lot to a Chinese person. Should foreigners simply resign themselves to being cheated or should the “cheaters” play fair? Most of the time, it’s not even obvious cheating. Thoughts? Comment.

Photo of the day: Whilst climbing Xi Shan, which overlooks Kunming, I snapped this shot of a little girl who was posing for her mother at the bottom of the stairway. Click on the image above to browse through some of the stunning shots of Dragon Gate Grotto on a beautiful mid-day hike.


2 thoughts on “Cheat Sheet”

  1. We’re having the same experience. The cab’s here don’t even have meters and frequently stores don’t have prices listed. It was interesting to meet an American who’s been living in Cairo for 2 years and who’s still getting ripped off despite knowing the correct prices and speaking perfect Arabic.

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