When you’re a foreigner, without the language but more importantly without the cultural knowledge to understand or respond appropriately to sharks, you get skinned. This story is about sharks and dolphins in the same Shanghai waters.
I got off the plane from Chicago yesterday, and right after the document check and picking up my massive 50-pound suitcase (I brought a bunch of materials to market my school), the shark was waiting to carve me up. I didn’t know her, of course. I just saw that a woman, nicely dressed and standing in the arrivals area, had made eye contact with me. I briefly nodded and she came up alongside, offering a taxi. I asked for the name of the railway station to which I wanted to go, and she said, “Yes, yes,” and then, a few steps later, she said, “700 yuan.” That’s about $100 for a one-hour taxi ride. I balked. I tried to consult my Chinese friends online, but they were offline. I’m not good at dividing numbers by 7, so I temporized and hesitated. I asked about the airport shuttle to the train station. She soberly consulted her phone. “All full,” she said. Right. Finally, I just walked away, which was exactly the right thing to do. I rarely do that.
Not 15 steps later, a bald middle-aged man hurried up to me and said, “400 yuan.” I knew exactly what he’s talking about. And here’s where I failed. I should have bargained him down. I could have gotten him to 200, which is where my Chinese friends told me it should be, but I didn’t. My reflexive American inclination to pay full price won out and I ended up taking the taxi for twice the price to the rail station, which was indeed very far away in vast Shanghai.
At the end of the ride, after I had already paid twice the price for the taxi, the driver motioned suggestively to a $20 bill sitting in the tray on the dash and wanted me to pay an extra tip. “Tip, tip,” he said. “Twenty.” I knew he was lying and he knew he was lying. The specter of wrestling with him for my suitcase briefly appeared in my mind. So I gave him $5 and laughed, and he laughed too. We both knew he was sharpening the knife to skin me again. And we both laughed when the blade slipped. The joviality of the skinning was somehow charming.