I don’t know what comes to your mind when you hear the word “market.” In the US it seems most people just say the name of their destination. “I’ll think I’ll run by Kroger (or Walmart or Trader Joe’s) after work.” For me, in China, it meant “shi chang” (市场)—an open market. A giant one-block-long building filled with stalls each about 9–10 feet wide and filled with everything you could imagine. And I mean everything. Every size of battery, nail polish, towels, pots for plants, phone cases, bins of tea, shoes, school supplies, toys, light bulbs, hammers, and shoelaces—I could go on and on.
There was a stall with a lady or two with a sewing machine ready to take your measurements and later hold up a rug so you could stand behind it to try on what she’d made. A key could be made at another stall, your watch or necklace fixed near the exit, and a lottery ticket could be bought. I found it fascinating to see what items were sold together.
I mentioned the one-block-long dimension to give you an idea of the size but really a shi chang could be larger, even two stories high, or just a little shop. But variety was the common denominator—you just never knew what you might find.
One year when I was teaching in northeast China, I noticed my city had a shi chang with a doll seller who had quite a collection of American Girl dolls. This brand of dolls represented the various eras in US history and came with quite a catalog of expensive accompanying clothes and accessories. Two of my teammates’ little girls knew about the dolls and we decided to go and take a closer look.
The shopkeeper was excited to see three foreign faces and was happy we all spoke some Chinese. The dolls and their clothes came from her sister in Hong Kong who also had a shop. For some reason she didn’t want them and sent them on. The dolls were obviously not the real deal but the clothes, complete with their tiny American Girl tags, were all hung on little hangers—at unbelievable prices. My 10-year-old friends quickly got out their birthday money and bought several things. We asked about the accessories that usually came with these outfits (doll-sized skates, beach towels, umbrellas, and sunglasses) but she shook her head.
“Maybe that’s why they’re so cheap,” one of my little friends concluded. I bought a few things for my niece in the US, and we three happily left with our bargains.
Realizing the gold mine I had stumbled on, I went back a week later with Christmas presents in mind. The same clerk was there and welcomed me into her little space. She asked me about my job, the dolls, if they were popular in the US, and if my young friends would be back. As I browsed, she pulled out a box full of little plastic bags. “Do you know what these are for? What should I do with them? My sister said I could sell them but who wants them?” She pushed some things aside on her small counter and dumped out the contents. Out spilled tiny skates, beach towels, umbrellas, sunglasses, and more. The box was stuffed with all the accessories that were missing from the outfits.
I took out a dress hanging on the rack and showed her how the things went together. “Oh, that’s cute,” she said almost absentmindedly. No questions about matching the appropriate items. “Take what you want,” she smiled and handed me a shopping bag.
Our city had a large expat community with lots of kids. If she had known the value of her merchandise, put the appropriate items together, and doubled her prices—it would have been very lucrative. But she was happy with what she had.
If, if, if. As I have recalled this story—and told it a time or two—it has hit me that I am like that lady. “Far too easily pleased,” as C.S. Lewis writes in “The Weight of Glory.” 1
This little analogy from the retail world breaks down easily. It pales in comparison to the biblical truths Lewis refers to; the “unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels.” But it does make me stop and think. Am I one of the “half-hearted creatures…fooling about when infinite joy is offered?” Am I far too easily pleased?
Later I heard that the shopkeeper had restocked her shelves and somehow got hold of the official catalog, with the Western prices of the dolls and all that was available to go with them. She raised her prices, making me glad I had gone shopping when I had! This was all hearsay because when I walked past her stall months later, the shelves and counter were filled with all shapes and sizes of notebooks (not an American Girl accessory in sight) and a smiling new clerk welcomed me.
Image credit: Piqsels
Barbara Kindschi has been privileged and challenged to teach English in China, Myanmar, Laos, and most recently, Mongolia. Her classes have been filled with undergrads, professors, accountants, hotel employees, monks, government workers, and beauty pageant contestants. They continue to be both her students and teachers as she now tutors online. Barbara …View Full Bio
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