New Castle News

October 8, 2010

Alison McNeal: Shopping in China presents challenges

Alison McNeal
Special to The News

NEW CASTLE — (Alison McNeal and her husband, John Nichols — New Castle residents and retired Slippery Rock University professors — are spending a year teaching in China. They are sharing their adventures with readers of the New Castle News.)

China is forcing me to reconsider my identity.

In the states, I am definitely not a shopper, but here in Nanjing, I find myself devising ways to get to the store as frequently as possible — just for the entertainment.

Suguo and T-Right have been our recent favorites, until we realized we had tapped them out, and for our more esoteric needs — such as a two-slotted toaster — we would have to shop elsewhere.

We hit T-Right after a 23-minute walk in shirt-drenching 90-percent-plus humidity with temperatures in the high 80s. With a long list of items designed to make our lifestyle more comfortable — a shower curtain, a desk lamp, pens, paper clips, soap, a clothes closet rod — our expectations propelled us through the heavy shifting plastic curtain over the entrance to the store.

We encountered some small clothing stores, but picked up the trail to T-Right when we spotted convenient arrowed signs guiding us to our final destination. We headed up the elevator, took a red shopping cart parked at the second opening to the store, and pushed it through the store’s little blue gates that resembled the starting gates used for horse racing.

We found ourselves immediately jockeying for space. If half of Nanjing’s six million people were outside in traffic trying to get here, the other half was here, trying to buy something. I barely had time to admire the extensive high-end plastic products to trick out the apartment.

But one nifty item caught my eye, the computer bed tray with no fewer than 13 moveable parts — from the adjustable legs and tray to the plug-in fan designed to cool down the lap while in use.

Making a snap decision, I threw it into our cart and shoved on to the bathroom section in search of a spring rod that would allow us to have another level of hangers in our small closet. I picked one out that seemed about right by my estimate, and we headed home to discover I had made a serious miscalculation. Instead of a 43-inch bar, we had a 54-inch one, it would never fit, and we had to take it back. Returns should be simple, right?

What happened next involved marching back to the store with a long and obnoxious rod carried rather awkwardly either like a soldier’s firearm over the shoulder or a shepherd’s staff, fending off pesky bikes and motorcycles. Spotting a girl at a tiny desk beside the little starting gates of the store, Jack mutely pointed to the rod, then back to our receipt. Not skipping a beat, the young clerk stamped and signed our receipt.

Good so far. All we had to do was pick up a smaller rod, go to the cashier, and she would reimburse us. But little did we know that we had just gotten permission to bring the rod into the store without paying for it again; the actual return station was all the way down on the street level.

When we got to the cashier, Jack expectantly presented the receipt and the first rod, but the cashier, who obviously could read the Chinese note, merely pushed it aside, and charged us for the new, smaller one. She yelled several things at us, then suddenly ignored us, giving her full attention to the customers piling up behind us.

Rather chagrined, we left the store, marching home soldier style with two bars. Not until we could return with someone who is fluent in Chinese returns did we learn of our mistake. It cost us four yuan (about 65 cents) to get our big bar returned. But for that we got a receipt nearly a yard long as well as a new pact — to never buy something again unless we were really, really sure it was what we wanted.