I was gift shopping for my husband for Christmas.
Shoes. Chuck Taylor All Star shoes. That’s what I was trying to find for him. Not the fake ones.
I remember buying a genuine pair of Chuck Taylor two years ago at the Shanghai First Department Store by People’s Square. That’s where I headed out this year. To my disappointment, the store didn’t have the cream color I wanted. Between the available black and white colors, I wasn’t sure which one to get, so I asked the clerk for advice: which color she prefers.
Instead of giving me a direct answer to the question, she told me the black one sells well, or sell better than the white one. “A lot of shoppers buy that, so maybe that one is doable,” she said.
I eventually bought the black one, not because of what she told me, but because I personally like the black one better – it’s clean looking, and sort of trendy, not that I care about trend that much.
When I was leaving the store, the clerk emphasized that I made the right choice because “Not many people buy the white shoes”. That’s her way of saying it is probably not doable.
Even though she was happy with my choice, I left the store with a bad taste in my mouth. I was irritated by the fact that like a lot of sales staff here, she couldn’t give a direct answer or recommendation with more determination.
That is a big problem for someone like me who habitually ask vendors for recommendations. In restaurants, for example, I always ask waiters which dish is the best they recommend for. I know for a fact that in the U.S., the answers I get would be more straightforward and personal, answers such as “I really like this one” or “That one is great!” or “This one is my all time favorite!” You can hear the enthusiasm without any doubt.
In Shanghai, however, that kind of whole-hearted recommendation is non-existent. The most likely answer is zhe ge hai ke yi, literally meaning “This one is doable”, or sometimes “Many customers order this”. The lukewarm recommendation is always based on how many customers order a certain dish rather than on the waiter’s personal opinions.
Being personal and direct myself, I was never a fan of this kind of “tactical” answer. As a matter of fact, I have been bothered by this inability to answer a simple question, until a recent event that made me see things differently.
I was having dinner in our favorite Italian restaurant the other day when a western lady next to our table asked for a recommendation.
“Madam, I’ve never eaten here, so I can’t tell you.” The waiter said in a matter-of-fact way.
Even though the lady didn’t get the answer she wished for, I could tell she was totally fine with the waiter’s reply. I would be, too.
That kind of directness is very rare in China. I had a lot of respect for that waiter, who was honest and had the guts to put the most precious “face” aside. His gutsy reply also shed light on why waiters can’t give enthusiastic recommendations. While American waiters have the opportunity to evaluate the food based on their own experiences, a Chinese waiter is usually not a customer of the same restaurant he works in, therefore he can only rely on customers’ feedback.
As for my shoe sales lady, maybe she is just reserved about her own personal opinions. A lot of older Chinese are like that, especially in front of strangers, maybe for fear of being held responsible for what they said, an unshakable shadow of the Cultural Revolution.
The shoes I bought? My husband loved the new color! Maybe I subconsciously benefited from the sales lady’s consumer reports on the Chuck Taylor! I just didn’t know it back then.