“Aiyaaaaaa!” the Chinese shopkeeper shrieked, chewing on her toothpick and then spitting on the floor, just inches away from my shoe. “Ni yao bu yao?” (Do you want it or not?)
Before I could answer, she put the box back on the shelf behind her and started walking away. “I just wanted to take a look at the water thermos before I buy it,” I offered in my politest Mandarin. With her back to me, the shopkeeper yelled, “If you want to buy, buy. What’s there to look at anyway? Don’t waste my time.” She then turned up her radio, took a swig out of her glass jar filled with hot water and floating tea leaves, and ignored me with such disdain that my 19-year-old self almost broke down in tears. Shopping in Beijing in 1990 required a thick skin.
Much has changed since then. Shiny, air-conditioned malls, name brands like Gucci and Levi’s, and cheerful shop girls make shopping in China’s major cities no different than the experience in any other global cosmopolitan center. While this change reflects a healthy increase in peoples’ standards of living, I have to admit I’m nostalgic for the era before the forces of the free market completely took over in China.
That is, before McDonald’s created a generation of overweight children, Walmart introduced the idea of yogurt in three dozen flavors to a lactose-intolerant nation, and IKEA became a popular hangout for senior citizens looking for free coffee. The truth is I miss shopping in socialist China, when dreary state-run stores were the only game in town.
Back when I first lived in Beijing, shopping was never referred to as entertainment or a leisure activity. It was a task that elicited trepidation. My fellow foreign exchange student friends and I called the shopkeepers the “Foo” — short for fuwuyuan, the Chinese word for customer service provider.
The Foo had a decidedly non-service-oriented attitude, however. They were typically surly, condescending, and quite adept at chasing customers away. My friends and I exchanged intel on which places had the most benign Foo, and which places required a few shots of bai jiu to strengthen our resolve. Shopping was sort of like a game of strategy back then — we had to figure out how much we really needed something, and the emotional risks we were willing to take to acquire those goods.
Looking back, the Foo were a reflection of the economic policies of the time. They didn’t have to have any skills or interest in what they were doing — they were typically assigned these roles as part of their collective responsibility. Whether or not they sold anything or made shoppers feel good about coming to their store was irrelevant to their job security and pay. They could work really hard at their jobs or they could ignore customers and talk amongst themselves — either way, they could never get fired. That was the essence of China’s “iron rice bowl” policy — no matter what, everyone had the right to work and eat from the collective rice pot. But the privilege of eating out of that one bowl didn’t exactly inspire excellence.
What made things difficult for the shopper was that the state-run stores were designed to give the Foo complete access to all goods, as everything was kept behind the counters or locked away in glass cases. Back then, there were no familiar global brands like Nestle or Levi’s available. What the Foo were in charge of was a hodge-podge collection of shoddily made goods from Eastern Europe or China’s own state-run factories. Yet the Foo guarded their odd assortments of soaps and pens and ashtrays in socialist propaganda packaging as if they were the contents of King Tut’s tomb. Nobody touched anything without the Foo’s help. And if they weren’t in the mood, tough luck. We were met with scowls and complaints that we were wasting their time and would ruin the packaging if we fondled the products. The Foo were the gatekeepers to the world of socialist goods.
There were a few exceptions back in the 1980s and early 1990s. For us expats dying for familiar goods, the Friendship Store was our Mecca. There, we found Pringles and honest-to-goodness Snickers bars, as well as Bayer aspirin and tampons with brands we felt were legit. While the selections were still displayed under glass cases, the Foo at the Friendship Store had clearly received the memo about customer service. And if not, directives aimed at curtailing typical Foo behavior were hung up on the store walls — Be polite to customers, Do not spit in the stairwell, and Let’s show our best face to the world!
Despite its name, however, the Friendship Store was not a friend to all. Only foreign passport holders were allowed in. It was heavily guarded by Chinese who were supposed to, well, keep out the majority of Chinese citizens.
Over the last two decades, China has dramatically transformed its economy. And with increased foreign investment and the shift to a capitalist system, The Chinese themselves are no longer forbidden from entering the stores and five-star hotels in their own country. In fact, Chinese consumers are excelling in just about everything these days. They are now the world’s biggest spenders in terms of luxury products, cars, overseas tourism, and online purchases. The list of superlatives goes on and on.
And so, the dreary state-run stores of the past have had to transform themselves, or give way to the rows of luxury boutiques which now line shopping areas in all of China’s major cities. Gone are the suspect-looking products manufactured in state-run factories. Today’s Chinese consumers have access to Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Porsche. Those who can’t afford these luxuries can participate in the equally strong shadow economy of copycat products. Can’t afford an iPhone? Try a HiPhone.
But in this new China, the Foo have no place. They have been replaced by a new generation of cute, well-groomed, service-oriented shop girls who greet customers with smiles and good naturedly wrap up purchases in pastel colored tissue paper. They help instead of scowl. They encourage instead of ignore. With their flawless makeup, manicured nails, and high heels, they are the proud ambassadors of the New China, the one in which socialist ideology has been replaced by a consumerist ideology.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Chinese people were better off back then. And who am I to begrudge anyone their right to buy gorgeous products in modern places? But shopping in China these days is an utterly forgettable experience. Sure, the stores are pretty, but when I’m in a mall in Beijing or Shanghai, I might as well be in any other hyper-developed Asian city, like Seoul or Singapore or Tokyo. The shop girls are polite and helpful but devoid of any memorable traits. They yell “welcome” as automatically as robots, and bow to customers when they enter and leave — the ultimate sign of subservience, imported from Japan. The Foo of Socialist China would never have stood for such behavior. They would have chewed on their toothpicks while pretending not to understand me, sighed heavily, and simply ignored me.
So why am I nostalgic for the kind of shopping experience the Foo represented? Yes, they made the desire to buy something more of a struggle than a pleasure. Yes, they sometimes left me tongue-tied and on the verge of tears. But at the same time, the Foo made me question — really question — whether I needed something or not. There was no such thing as an impulse buy in Foo-land. Interacting with them required conviction. And quick-witted Chinese language skills. They bullied me, but they stood for sheer honesty. They didn’t try to push products they didn’t believe in. They didn’t try to flatter me into buying ill-fitting outfits in order to make commission. While my Chinese teachers taught me the luminous qualities of ancient poetry, I credit the Foo for teaching me how to be a better, tougher, more discerning consumer.