After a long week of eating nothing but xiao long bao and beef soup noodles, my Russian friend and I decided to do something about our Vitamin C deprivation and trudged through the puddle-ridden streets of Shanghai in search of fresh fruit. A few blocks away, on a bustling street corner, a burly, mustached man was chatting with another local in Shanghainese while presiding over a colorful array of produce, all organized into unmarked containers.
“你好，一个苹果都少钱啊?“ (Hello, how much for one apple) I asked the fruit seller on behalf of my friend .
Glancing at my friend’s amber brown hair and hazel eyes, he replied “五块钱” (“5 RMB”).
“五块一斤?“ (“RMB for a pound?”)
“五块一个”(“5 RMB for one”)
Though 5 RMB is not a lot of money, I suspected that we were being overcharged by at least 300% for some ordinary, locally grown apples (usually around 3 RMB a pound). My suspicions were confirmed when he refused to answer any my question of how much for a pound of apples, only repeating in “5 RMB for one” and shoving five fingers in my friend’s face like she needed the clarification. Disgusted at the dishonest prices and treatment, I dragged my friend away as a matter of principle. Though I knew that a few RMB makes a huge difference to a lower class merchant – whose daily reality is 1 RMB bread for breakfast and 5 RMB noodles for dinner- my indignation at being taken as a fool unfortunately far exceeded my sympathy for his situation. Bluntly put, I would rather donate 50 RMB to charity than to be unreasonably overcharged by 10 RMB by a salesperson.
Indeed, it is AHH China! moments like these that make me feel like the relationship between 上海的本地人 (Shanghai natives) and 老外(foreigners) can be most aptly described as one in which natives see expats/foreigners being a source to draw from, particularly when it comes to money and ideas.
In places like the People’s Square and Qipu Lu, salespeople are constantly on the prowl and treat foreigners –particularly non-Asian expats- like they have stickers on their forehead that say “Please rip me off. I have no sense of money’s value.” Even in situations when the relationship between expats and locals appear as less of a predator-prey archetype, expats still serve as a valuable source of western ideas, if not vital innovation.
I hypothesize that though not all relationships between locals and expats are strained by parasitism, an economical aspect of these relationships is inevitably drawn out when the human aspect cannot be fully realized due to linguistic or cultural barriers. In other words, it’s easier to exhibit poor morals toward a stranger with whom you feel you share no bonds with, and more importantly, fail to see them as fellow human being since you don’t really know their story.
Even though the understanding the perspectives of the Shanghainese is an important factor in improving relationships between expats and locals, local viewpoints in are often inaccessible to expats due to the language barrier, among other things. There remains the lingering question of course, is how Shanghai locals really view their expat counterparts – a question that I aim to answer in my series with my fellow SHEX writer Olivia through our 4 part series on cultural differences. Stay tuned!