The Magic That Is China

The “Magic That Is China” (MTIC) is an expression I’ve picked up from one of Allison’s Fulbright colleagues. She uses the expression to designate the way things here always seem to either work exceedingly well and efficient, but at other times very badly, and rarely just an even balance of the two. And while I don’t know if this is supposed to involve any elements of karma or anything, I find that for me, and for most people I’ve met here, it’s about a 50/50 ratio.

Here are some examples. One of the places that Allison and I have been frequenting for meals serves a kind of flavored porridge as the primary specialty, with various meat, vegetable and dumpling type items to go with it. The service at the location we normally frequent is pretty good. But this is a chain, and they have a location not more than a block away from my apartment, so we decided to try them out there. And boom, the service was dreck. There was a Chinese couple at the table across from us, and it took them flagging down the waitstaff on our behalf to get them to even notice we were there. That night, the MTIC was working against us.

There’s a place on campus where Allison gets dumplings and these potato pancake things for dinner for real cheap. On Tuesday, we arrived just before 5pm, and they had about every conceivable combination of ingredients of dumplings. We had no problems ordering as many dumplings as we wanted. But on Wednesday, we arrived at about 5:20 pm, and they were already out of everything. So on Tuesday, the MTIC was with us, and yesterday, it was against us. Again, you’d think that rationally, twenty minutes should not make a major difference in what’s available at the cafeteria counter, but that’s just the Magic That Is China.

One final example. I needed to buy a printer/scanner here, because I left mine back in Madison in storage, and I’m finding that I need to print documents and scan them all the time, as well as fax them. There’s this “PC Mall” building, several stories high, where there are smallish stores specializing in a given company’s products – HP, Lenovo, Apple, you name it. I found the model more or less equivalent to the one I purchased at the UW campus store on sale for $80. The people at that stand did not speak English, but with my guidebook and mini-dictionary, we managed to communicate well enough. (Alas, Allison was not with me that day.) I pointed at the printer/scanner I wanted, and asked, in Chinese, for how much were they selling that model? The answer I received was ¥1,200.

Now, I should explain that in US dollars, that’s about $160, $170. The thing to know about these places is that price negotiation is the name of the game. You should not, ever, ever, ever, pay whatever they offer you as the first price. That said, that was a ridiculously high starting point. I tried to explain to them that I could get the same model in the US for $80, and that I wanted them to see if they could beat that. Suddenly, they decided that it just so happened that this was the precise price they could offer me. So this tells me that if they could’ve gotten away with it, they were going to try to fleece me of $160-$170, had I been an ignorant foreigner, either in terms of not knowing about price negotiation or in what these things really cost. I managed to get away from the people working there, muttering something about returning tomorrow, but naturally having no intention to do so. The MTIC was against me there.

But I tried another HP retailer at the PC Mall across the street, and met a sales clerk who knew even less English than the people at the other store. Which is to say, none at all. But he understood completely what I meant. He started out with an offer for ¥650, the same price that a local Wal-Mart-type store called Carrefour was offering that very model. I explained, as best as I could, about Carrefour’s price, and that I could get the same model in the US for ¥580. So that got him to lower the price to ¥560. I was thinking he was just going to match my price, but he came through and beat it. These same machines often sell for $100 (~ ¥715) or more at Best Buy. Now, I might’ve been able to get him even lower, in retrospect, but for someone who speaks virtually no Chinese, I didn’t think this was bad. In short, in the course of only an hour, the MTIC was now fully back on my side.

Now, you may find these examples a wee bit trivial. But hopefully, they at least explain what the MTIC is all about, so when I refer to it in the future, as I undoubtedly will, you’ll know what I’m talking about.


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