My time in China was quickly coming to an end of my service contract and mission. But I still had this lingering list of things that I wanted to do that are better done in China than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Of course, getting my Visa and passport so that I could get home was chief among that list. But that was something for which I couldn’t do for another couple of days still.
One of the other items on my to-do list was getting some custom-tailored shirts. I like getting custom tailored clothes when I am in an Asian country because they usually fit me so well and very inexpensive, relatively speaking. I have trouble buying shirts off the rack because I have short arms, and a bulging belly! I need the tails of the shirt to be a little longer to cover that excess. I asked my teaching colleague Joy where I could get this done? When I explained to Joy why she seemed to know exactly what I wanted so we decided to meet the next day. We she came to pick me up she took me to a mall that had a men’s clothing store. Joy chattered with them faster that I could keep up, so I just watched them communicate. As a professor of communication, I love to watch two people talk in another language and culture. Especially, as it was in this case, that I knew what they were talking about. Knowing the subject matter helps me pick up cues of words and body language. Many of my foreign (Chinese) students and colleagues are amazed that I know what they are talking about even though I don’t understand their language. They often talk among themselves thinking I don’t understand (and to be sure, I usually don’t), but then I drop a word or two and it makes then pause and ask if I understood, (as they gave each other they eye, wondering if I knew what they just said about me).
But, I digress… back to buying me some shirts. Joy rattled on to the workers in the store about what I wanted and they started showing me samples or materials, and styles. Then they uttered the price. ¥1,200! WHAT???? That was not what I had in mind. I was thinking more like ¥100, give or take a few Yuan. I soon realized, and told Joy that this is not what I had in mind. She was perplexed, not knowing what I wanted. Joy, asked me to excuse her while she reached for her phone and phoned her aunt. After speaking to her aunt, she turned to the store proprietor and thanked him and said we were leaving. “我们走吧 - Wǒmen zǒu ba, she said to me, which translates to, “Come on, let’s go.”
Joy, Flat, and I left the store. Apparently, Joy’s aunt knew what I wanted. Joy drove a mile or so to an older section of town, and we headed to a small, alley-like row of stores. She parked her car and we walked a few feet to a store front tailor.
This place looked like a hole-in-the-wall seamstress service. There were three women sitting in the corner eating noodles. One of them looked up and made eye contact with us. The surprise of seeing me walk into their little shop put an amusing look on her face. A middle-aged male Caucasian, (OK maybe a little older than that), and a 30-something young Chinese woman was probably not their most common customer demographic description. The three woman looked back at each other eventually landing on who was apparently the shop owner. She wiped her mouth, then her hands, with her apron before taking it off very quickly and headed over our way with a greeting. Joy apparently told her what we were looking for and immediately the shop owner started pointing to a few samples of her tailoring work of men’s shirts. She also started pulling out a few bolts of potential cloth samples to show me. It was all rather quick and between the many samples, language barrier and body language it was a bit overwhelming. I just wanted to look around and get my bearings on what was there and what was being offered. If I smiled, pointed or in any way indicated that I liked something they were ready to start cutting and sewing for me. With Joy’s help I was able to explain what I wanted, and picked out a few cloth samples and negotiated a price. The price of ¥140 per shirt was much more in line with what I was expecting, especially compared to the Men’s store at the mall. I was planning on order more than one shirt so in true Chinese custom I made an offer of two for less. I was met was an emphatic NO! It may have been the only English the woman knew but she said it loud and clear! Then she started in a barrage of Chinese that I had to only look to Joy for help. Joy explained and told me that this was a good price and that unlike many Chinese store owners he does not negotiate, and that I needed to take her price or leave it! Ok, then. I’ll take it. As she commenced with the measuring I asked when these two long-sleeved, buttoned-downed collared shirts would be ready to pick up? “Tomorrow,” she said calmly. I thought, “WOW! Are you kidding me? You’re going to make these two shirts and have them ready for me tomorrow?” All of a sudden, the ¥140 per shirt seemed like a bargain.
As the Chinese seamstresses began to gather what was needed to get started, the store owner saw me with Flat Stanley and had a curious smile on her face. She said something to Joy, and I assume she was asking about my paper companion Flat. When they completed their conversation I asked Joy to ask the tailor if I could get a couple scrap pieces of each of the cloth selections I had made? Why she inquired? I gestured in a kidding and playful manner and said, “I want to make Flat Stanley some matching clothes so that when we went out on the town, we could dress alike!” By now Joy was not surprised at the many directions my imagination was going!
The next day, as promised, I walked out with two custom fit, made to order, casual, buttoned down shirts. I had crafted a couple of matching shirts from the scraps to fit Flat Stanley and off we left to see what they world had next in store for us as we travelled the streets of Hengyang!
Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.