China: The Grand Kingdom of Retail Therapy

Author: Laila Fouad

My first experience in China was during the SIPA China Trip this winter. Before, my only tangible experiences with the country were through work in my home city, Cairo, where we had a handful of Chinese companies as clients. Needless to say - the trip was amazing. China is a vibrant, diverse, and scenic country, which constantly throws surprises and curveballs at you. Each city we visited was so different than the next, from cosmopolitan to rural, capital city to tech hub.

The SIPA China Trip was eye-opening in so many ways. We had the opportunity to witness different policies and systems in action, ranging from economic programs to renewable energy projects to urban planning schemes. We spoke with government officials and entrepreneurs.

I think I can join the majority of SIPA students when I say I’ve travelled a decent amount, and out of all the countries I’ve been to, I can definitely say that China was the most unique and challenging. I couldn’t fall back onto English when I was lost, signs were different than what I was used to, and experimenting with food was an adventure.

That being said, whenever I visit a country, I like connecting with it in two core aspects: food and shopping. I cannot say that China proved different in this respect. As a consumerist millennial on a student’s budget, finding the right place to shop was integral to my experience. On one of the last days of our trip, this led to us heading to “Dong Men Pedestrian Street”, the most popular shopping district in Shenzhen. Dong Men is a crowded, bustling marketplace, selling everything from clothes to bags to makeup to lamps to ceramics. I come from the Middle East, and being in a rowdy marketplace was no new experience. People pouring out of shops and selling clothes on the street were beckoning us over to try on their clothes – it was my own personal heaven. While I often couldn’t understand what the salespeople were saying, I found one fact to be true. The language of retail is universal. As a buyer, you want to find the right piece, and your counterpart wants you to buy as you will allow them to make you.

I have six words words in my Chinese dictionary, which include ding which means yes, boo meaning no, boo ya, which is an aggressive no, and ding ding, an aggressive yes. Thus began a journey of boo’s and ding’s, intense hand gestures, thumbs up and thumbs down, and so beautiful’s between me and the Chinese girls who were trying to sell me their clothes. I have never seen anyone try so hard to find me the right size or insist that I buy something before I leave their store, and generally I feel like I now have a closer connection to the Chinese sales-ladies as a result.  I have also never seen people so good at bouncing off my weak bargaining attempts.

At some point, I also wanted to experience the Chinese nut-culture (which is not a thing), and walked into a fruit and nut shop where the seller used the Chinese version of Google Translate to explain what hawthorn berries were, and illustrate the benefits of some roast pecans I should buy (and I indeed bought both.)

I was both flattered and overwhelmed, but came out of Dong Men ready to dress like a K-Pop queen and with a significantly less amount of yuan to my name. I also had the chance to snack on a chicken roll stuffed with rice, some interesting-looking pastries and old woman sold me, and my new favorite drink and pas-time, bubble tea.

What I learned about Chinese economics and policy during my trip was invaluable and enlightening. However, the people in the shops and restaurants that took the time to explain things to us and make our ordinary day-to-day experiences enjoyable are what I will cherish about my time in China for years to come.