Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, April 10, 2009

Is it real? 

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the home of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?" Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off, --that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and by some magic wealth and standing followed, he had said to himself; I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. --Walden

I hiked down into the Botanical Gardens from the back this morning. When I got there, I was a little tired, so I climbed up on a rock bench near the entrance to Cherry Valley, and dozed off. A couple ladies walked up and saw me hunched over sitting on the rock ledge. I heard them talking about me,

"Do you think it's real?"
"No, it's not real."
"Oh, but it looks so real!"

I listened to them for awhile talking about whether this "statue" was real, then I opened my eyes. Needless to say, they disappeared rather quickly.

Is it real? This is always the question in China. The incessant marketing of products which are obviously not what they are purported to be can be wearying at times. The most profound example, of course, is the recent milk scandal. But there are many other examples. The current craze is bone combs. I had one once a few years ago, so I know what a real one looks like. The Tibetan peddlers in Wudaokou are hawking cheap imitations. They sell them for 20 kuai, which is your first clue. They would be worth more than that if they were real. They come down pretty quickly to 15, but they really balk at going any further. Sometimes they will say 10 when you walk away. The other day, I stopped to talk to a Tibetan peddler who had her stuff spread on a blanket on the sidewalk. I said, "You know and I know that this is not a real bone comb. But it is a real comb, so I'll give you 5 kuai." She refused, but her neighbor heard our conversation and immediately sold me one.

Hucksters breed cynicism. One of my friends said, "Those people are not real Tibetans." I said, "Yes they are. The Tibetans are real. But the stuff they sell is not."

Belts are difficult. It's tough to find a good quality belt in China. And if it says "REAL LEATHER" in big gold letters, don't buy it. Food is another issue. Ever had duck blood soup? One of the farmers in rural Beijing was quoted as saying, "People are so used to pig blood now that if we gave them real duck blood, they wouldn't eat it."

I asked one of my friends if he thought the sesame sauce dip that comes with a Mongolian hot pot was fattening. He said, "Yes. Definitely." I told him I didn't think sesame sauce would be fattening. He said, "Well, most of it is actually made from peanut oil."

So there is a constant need to distinguish between the real and the fake. China is a very image conscious society. Image is everything. If the national sin of America is immorality, the national sin of China is dishonesty.

When it comes to marketing to foreigners, though, I think the problem comes down to basic market research. I have become weary of aggressive salesmen badgering me to buy something I have absolutely no use for, and thinking that mere persistence will induce me to make the purchase. The businesses that are successful are the ones that take the time and trouble to find out what foreigners need and/or want, and provide that for them at a reasonable price. But that is easier said than done. The ones who are really good at it usually have some American or other foreign partnership.

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