It all started with the frock.
I was informed the theme for the event I would be hosting was “Hollywood”….. and yes, I realise Xi’an is about as far removed from the bright lights of tinsel town as you can possibly imagine, but who am I to shun a red carpet!
Sequins and a long dress were the order of the day, both of which my closet sadly no longer possesses (bar that lone dress hiding in the back that quite possibly won’t do up any more…sshhh!)
So, the quest was on to find a red carpet-worthy gown in downtown Xi’an. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be an easy task. Turns out (surprise, surprise) shops selling ‘ball gowns’ are few and far between.
I’m told, ’Rent a dress’ is how it’s done.
So, mad school drop off done, one smoggy morning; with my gorgeous Chinese friend in tow, we hit the city …
A towering, rather majestic looking building is our first stop. Step inside and it’s like stepping into a chic palace, swathed in velvet…chandeliers glisten above lush carpets and more attendants than you might see on a first class flight, are hovering – fairy godmothers ready to turn you into Cinderella with a swoosh of their wands.
Ushered upstairs, it is quite possibly every girl’s dream. Beautiful gowns in every shape, size and colour drape themselves exquisitely around the plush room.
As we excitedly flick through the decadent options, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. There are plenty of “Oooohhs and aaahhhs, look at this! How about this?”
First up, as all sensible girls do, we check the price…no – make that double check and triple check! This is China, after all – where misunderstandings rule the world. Now my Chinese is clearly not good enough to carry on a conversation as detailed as this, so with the help of my friend, we establish it is to be 300 yuan…full stop! Thats to try the dress on and take it home for the week. And, even if we don’t rent one, it’s still 300 yuan. Got it? Got it!
That all seems fairly reasonable to me at around US$50, if not a little on the cheap side. But again this is Xi’an…for the most part, things are not expensive.
So we get busy choosing possible candidates fit for a glamorous affair. The process not unlike trying on wedding dresses! Behind the velvet curtains, the shop assistant helps me into each dress…(wait did she just hoist my boobs up/ I think she did!…Reassure myself this is all part of her daily job).
Dress on, some diamonte heels thrust at me, I’m told to stand on a boxed platform and voila the curtains are whisked open for me to display er… myself.
Retails assistants snap away, jabbering excitedly in Mandarin.
We try on about six dresses for size – why stop at one?!… Of course we are strictly told we are not allowed to take photos but my trusty sidekick snaps a few blurred shots for good measure.
The assistant is clearly enjoying this as much as we are and starts bringing in crowns and jewels to wear… of which I politely tell her there will be no need for a crown.
The service is second to none…they even tell us they will hem the dress to my requirements….we smile, chuffed with our find.
Dress chosen, smugly happy with ourselves, we get organised and I reach for my purse.
Suddenly I see my friend out of the corner of my eye looking slightly more animated, her previously relaxed poise stiffening …. I spot the calculator.
(Here in China, many shops and stalls, no matter how big or small (unless they’re a global brand name with fixed prices) have a calculator close to hand – usually for bargaining). However knowing we’ve set our price at 300, when I hear the numbers 3500 I try not to let my eyes boggle, right out of my head. Remain calm I whisper under my breath.
Just a deposit perhaps?? Extremely hefty.. but I guess….. it’s possible. They are nice frocks.
But nope this is no deposit, there’s been a “misunderstanding!” As soon as I hear this, I know it’s time to throw in the towel. Misunderstanding is possibly the most frequently used word in China. Both in English and Mandarin! There are MANY many misunderstandings…constant misunderstandings on every level (just ask the hotelier whose days are filled with misunderstandings). I am still to work out if this is cultural or simply the fact that Mandarin as a language is open to much interpretation.
In this case, it seems, the lovely retail assistant has (conveniently?!) failed to mention that each dress has a specific price, all ranging in the thousands on TOP of the 300!
To ‘buy’ I question? Surely!
No. This is not to buy. With a lucky discount of 20 per cent we may hire our chosen dress for 3400yuan. That’s more than US$500.
Now clearly that obviously seems a little ludicrous… when you don’t get to keep that beauty in your closet and wear it again and again….and again.
By now, my Chinese friend has raised her voice several decibels and is on the verge of tears, while the manager is brought in to appease us. But she nonchalantly points to the price on the price tag which is clearly no help to us……
All I can do is stand there with my hands on my hips and try to show my extremely forlorn, disappointed face. The fact that I am a Waigouren (White face) and therefore automatically deemed loaded is perhaps my downfall here.
As we huff and puff and woefully get up to leave….dismayed and annoyed at half the day wasted….the banter continues between my friend and the sheepish assistant.
I manage a ‘Bu Gaoxing’ (Not Happy) at her as we walk towards the door. One foot over the threshold and a calculator is again whipped out and suddenly thrust in our faces.
It seems I am now allowed the dress for….wait for it…. 800yuan!!
But I am only allowed it for 24 hours.
Hmmm, ok, I nod…. well it’s still expensive and probably almost as much as what I’m being paid for the tinsel town gig, but with only a few days until the event, I decide it’s a much better option than turning up naked… and dam! I really like that dress!
So, it seems the bitter sweet saga is over and the deal is done. We leave with our receipt and many apologies from the retail assistant.
Unclear on what my friend said to get them to dramatically reduce the price, she tells me she mentioned something about them not paying tax and calling the bureau(?) and that clearly had them running for cover (or more importantly my dress). Clearly these prices are not fixed at all. Some research later tells me, they call this place the ‘Dream Factory’ in China. It’s the place many young ‘brides to be’ come for their dream photo shoot. You can read more about how that works in this post here.
Deep breaths, we leave and I quietly hope they have the dress ready for me on Saturday morning as promised and don’t decide they’ll pay the difficult white lady back for being so picky with the price and tell me it’s not available!
A week passes and I arrive (nervously) to get my dress… all is ok but I’m told it needs to be taken downstairs for 15 minutes to be hemmed up. (Ahh you don’t think you could’ve done this before I picked it up.) I can’t say this in Mandarin, so I wait, fidgeting. Finally my dress is presented to me….not hanging gracefully as you might expect in such a glamorous shop for such an extravagant price, but rolled up, in a creased ball, in the bottom of a bag.
Now if you don’t live in China you probably just think well, that’s a bit rude or unprofessional, or maybe they just think “$#*@ you lady!” Which is highly possible…. but in actual fact it is a small but very representative symbol of China itself.
On the outside things often look extremely impressive, together….polished. But lurking beneath the surface it’s more often than not, a case of quantity not quality.
It’s all about that little thing called “Face” which is probably the single most important thing in China. We all know ‘first impressions’ count, but China takes it to a whole new level. What comes after doesn’t matter (so much).
The event I MC for that night is not too different….
A beautiful grand ball room in a 5-Star hotel is presented to an excited crowd.
Four (yes four – which is rather customary in China) glamorous (if I do say so myself, at this point!) Master of Ceremonies of different nationalities take to the stage….
Two of us are blonde with little Mandarin up our sleeves and it’s about now I (rather naively) realise we are (whilst at an ‘expat’ event) standing in front of a largely Chinese audience.
But this clearly does not matter because we are here for show! I’m told, Western faces automatically give every event that added ‘face value’ if you like.
A small red carpet peeling off the floor the only evidence we are in Hollywood….but determined to embrace the glitz, I teeter up it in my shiny heels (secretly waiting for Channing Tatum to make his appearance, but alas, we are in China….he’s not coming.)
A program listing stellar performances promises an entertaining evening, but I watch on in horror as the lectern nearly wobbles off the stage…..performers lug their own gear on stage and the agenda is hastily thrown out the window.
Acts don’t turn up, some turn up twice. Wait, where’s the organiser? MIA.
The audience doesn’t seem to mind the ‘Shamozal’ that ensues…. they swarm the buffet like it is possibly the last meal on earth and glug the jugs of red wine.
Santa makes it into town and is literally crushed as the local kids pounce on him, almost swiping his sack from underneath him! My meek calls for them to line up sensibly, rather futile.
The table is set but within the first hour looks like a mini tornado has swept through it (did I really just see a small child offered wine)?!
I guess I fit in well… I have the fancy frock, but who knows I am only wearing one contact lens!
My designated MC partner (who’s an English teacher and never MC’d before) is politely both astounded and amused.
I tell him, “Don’t worry, it’s all about Face!”
This is China.