My indignance will keep me warm

Seattle is not scarf country; people here wear scarves purely as an accessory.  It doesn’t usually get cold enough here to require the thermal protection your neck needs, but even when it does, we seattleteca are never out for that long.

Once it a while someone will put on a scarf just to go with their outfit (not me, of course), or maybe they will travel into scarf territory, and they’ll tie their scarf into that jaunty fashion parisian knot, like you see president Beckham wearing here, on the right.  Look at him, his neck can see daylight, and it seems that his shirt is unbuttoned… that scarf is form, not function. Jerk.

Almost never will you see a Seattlite with a scarf in proper Level 5 Blizzard Protection Mode, the kind where you start wrapping your scarf tightly around your neck before you put your coat on, and then you don’t expose the slightest part of your neck for fear that your skin will freeze, crack, fall into an artery, and drift into your aorta and kill you.

That’s the way I wear a scarf; Level 5 Blizzard protocol.  I think I became a neck wimp in France when I was studying there; when I flew back afterward, my mama noticed that my scarf was not terribly attractively wrapped but that there were three tight layers of it between my skin and the deadly atmosphere.  Later when I was in grad school in Ann Arbor they would have weather advisories where they’d tell you that if you exposed any skin for a certain number of seconds, you would get frost bite and die.

So I don’t screw around with fashion scarves or jaunty knots, I do not give the slightest crap about that.  I wear a scarf to keep the cold off my neck, and when it’s really cold, I’ve got it wrapped around my face and ears as well. To this day, I look at people who tie their scarves over their coats instead of under them, and pity those poor fools… fashion victims.

One particularly cold winter in Shanghai, it was so deadly cold that the wind seemed to blow right through my scarf.  I remember not wanting to go outside.  Meanwhile Kiwi J kept proposing to walk to a different bar or a different restaurant and I of course followed him into the cold, but cursed him the entire time.  One time though, we got to a bar and I saw his secret: double scarf.

Hey, that’s my friend’s photo!

DOUBLE SCARF.  How had I not thought of that?  The entire time that dude was double scarfing.  I expressed my wonder and amazement and genuine admiration for my friend and this brilliant winter coping strategy.  I think he thought I might have been making fun of him because he didn’t seem to be too impressed with my amazement; either that. or he had double scarfed unintentionally due to absent mindedness or alcohol impairment.  Both of those explanations are likely.  Regardless, I thought it was brilliant, and I cannot overemphasize what an important winter revelation that was to me.

Ok, if you’ve made it through all the boring rambling, here’s the China story…

So every Sunday I had dinner out in Pudong with my Seattle friends; it was a lovely weekly tradition we had.  It was quite a long trek out there, and it was actually better to take the subway, as taking a cab was often slower.  So it happened that I wasn’t wearing a scarf; I don’t think at that point I even owned a scarf.  I had been deceived by a warm afternoon, but once the sun went down, the cold air on my wimpy neck started to feel like death.

Luckily for me, my destination subway station was Science & Technology museum, a stop which had an extensive market built underground, right in the station.  I would be able to pick up a nice scarf right there.

So I walked off the train and in to the market and I thought, I hate bargaining, so I will just decide now to pay 40 kuai for a scarf and get on with my life.  That’s about $6 USD and it’s expensive.  But who cares, right?  I need a scarf, I don’t want to sit there and haggle… I was in a hurry to a) get out of the cold and b) get to dinner.  So 40 kuai, I told myself.  In the fabric market, they are listed as 35 kuai, no bargaining, so I know that 40 kuai was probably double what they were worth.

So I walked through the market to look for some scarves; I was a little surprised that there weren’t more available.  Maybe it was still too early in the fall.

Finally I found a scarf shop, and I walked up to the scarves and started picking one out.  A moment later the shop owner came out and said “these are scarves” because Chinese shop owners have this custom of talking to like you’re blind, or you’re an idiot, and I know it’s a scarf, dammit, that’s why I’m looking at it. Keep up, pengyou, I’m way ahead of you.

So I’m ignoring him, and he’s pointing out all the stupid colors of scarves he has, as if I was blind.  In the mean time, I’m ignoring him, and pawing through to find the one I want.  I found one that was a cool blue, and nice and wide, like a blanket.  So I pull the packet out and drop it on the glass counter.  I want to pay 40 kuai, but I’m a sucker,right?  So at that moment I reconcile with myself that I’ll probably pay as much as 60 kuai, three times what I think it’s worth, just to get a scarf and move on with my life.  It would be way more expensive in the US anyway.

So I drop it on the glass case and in my dead serious, I’m in a hurry-voice, I said, 这条多少钱? This one, how much?  My wallet is open in my hand, and I’m leafing through the bills, ready to pull out 80 kuai, because dammit I just want to get out of there.

The shop owner looks me straight in the eye.  一百八十块, he says.

I look at him and do a double take.  And then I repeat what he said, just to see if I was hearing right.  一百八十块钱。  I didn’t say it like a question, I said it like, this is a joke right?

Yes, he says.  And then in English “one hundred eighty yuan.”

I gave him a quick look of hatred, picked up the scarf off the counter and threw it back down and it one motion turned and walked out of there.  It’s one thing to play the bartering game, but this guy looked me in the eye and quoted me a price like I was some kind of idiot.  I was personally insulted.  How am I supposed to get down to 40 from 180?  What a pile of shit.  I walked down the long hallway toward the exit, and I walked hard; marching band hard, angry hard walking so that he would have to run to catch up with me.

Go to hell, I thought, but could not say. Go to hell.

I think he waited a while to see if I would turn and come back, or if I’d look for a scarf in another shop.  In any case, I was pretty far down when I heard him call, in Chinese.  “Ok, 100 kuai!”

What am I supposed to do?  Am I supposed to turn around?  I was not playing a game, I was ANGRY.  If he wanted to play the game, he should have started at 70.  I kept walking.

I kept walking, and he kept calling, “90!  80!  70! 60!” was already way down the hall when I heard him call after me.

“50!” he called, “40!  30 ok!”

What a dick.  I kept walking.

“20 ok!  10 ok!”

So we all know that a vendor will never lose money; he’ll never quote a price lower than what he paid himself.  This pile of crap paid less than 10 kuai for that scarf, and then looked me in the eye like I was some kind of idiot and had the gall to say 180.

I kept walking, and he called out “10 kuai ok!” a few more times.  No, dude, eat dirt.   My indignance will keep me warm.

I turned the corner, went up the escalator, and emerged on the grand plaza and walked briskly toward the taxi line.  My neck was cold but I was too angry to care.

Of course, from my point of view, I’m the hero of this story and the scarf-jerk is the villain.  You must know, though, that the scarf-jerk tells the same story to his friends, and in his version, he’s the hero and I’m the uptight foreigner, who doesn’t know how things work, and has no sense of humor.

Here’s how things work in Mainland China:  people won’t steal from you or shake you down.  However they will look you in the eye lie to your face, and if you are stupid enough to go along with it, then they deserve your money; they earned it.  You gave up your money freely, and you’re probably rolling in cash anyway, so why wouldn’t they try to take you.

A few weeks later I bought that scarf at the fabric market for 35 kuai, under a sign that said “35 kuai, no haggling, the price is already low.”  I know now that I could have got them for less than half of that, but I was happy to save myself the aggravation.

A few weeks after that, when it really started to get cold, I bought another scarf; thinner, longer, same color scheme though, so I could double scarf like my scarf mentor Kiwi J.   It’s a good thing, too; I double scarfed through most of the Snowpocalypse of 2010 in Manhattan.

I’m back in Seattle and it’s not scarf country here, but occasionally I get cold and throw one on.  When I was back in Shanghai this summer I went to the fabric market and pawed through all the 35 kuai/no haggle scarves; there was even a lady there who wanted to explain all the colors to me, like I was blind or something.  In the end, though, I left without one; the colors were all too boring.

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