June 4, 2008

Mei you!

Filed under: China,Dalian,east-west — Kim @ 10:14 am

I remember reading about China in the British papers about 20 years ago and one story that stuck for some reason was about how horrible it was to go shopping in China. It wasn’t really the fact that the choice was so limited, apparently, it was that the shop assistants were surly, unhelpful and almost always answered “mei you!” ( not have/we haven’t got any) when asked where something was. The writer, who had been living in China a good while I remember, said that he had come to hate that word more than any other.

Well, China is changing and China has changed. I find shopping in China to be a pleasurable experience most of the time as there’s somewhere to find anything and the staff are usually helpful, if sometimes a bit thick. But it seems that old habits die hard and that the old enemy “Mei you!” is around more often than it should be.

I was in my local Tescos with my wife a couple of days ago and we wanted to buy a plunger. We were looking around the bathroom section and not having much luck when along comes an attendant and so my (Chinese) wife asks where the plungers are. “Ah, Mei you!” she said confidently and went on about her business. Fine, but as we turned the corner of the next aisle we were faced with a fairly large selection of plungers. So of course I picked one up and used it give a good plunging to Miss Mei You’s silly snout. Anyway, not a big thing of course, and you have to expect idiocy from time to time but “the curious affair of the plunger in Tescos” reminded me of another baffling incident quite recently.

My parents were here for a short visit a few weeks ago and as my mum is an inveterate postcard sender, off we went to Xinhua (the national bookstore) to purchase postcards. My mobile has a handy little dictionary so I looked up the Chinese character for “postcard” and presented it at the help desk. We were told by the lady that postcards were up on the third floor but just as were about to trot off the help desk lady had a thought and asked us whether we wanted postcards of Dalian…yes, we said, that would be nice and she shook her head sadly and gave us a “mei you”. Ah, really, what a shame, so I thought I’d ask her where it would be possible to get postcards of Dalian and was struggling to understand her answer when an English speaking Chinese bystander saw the situation and stepped in to help translate. “She thinks you can get postcards of Dalian at the museum” (miles away) ah, thanks, I said, but there are none here, right? The kind lady checked for me… “mei you!”

In any case, my mum decided that generic postcards of China would do, so off we went to floor 3 and found a postcard rack at least half full of postcards of Dalian.

Odd! Not to mention silly. Especially since that was the only postcard rack in the shop,so it wasn’t as if there were lots of them and this one could have been overlooked.

I’m not sure why on either of the two incidents I got a “mei you” but it could be something to do with the shop staff not wanting to admit ignorance or just not really caring if they sold anything or not. Anyway, if I was dictator of China I would introduce compulsory memorization for all shop staff of the phrase “Sorry, I’m not completely sure, but you might try looking in ….”

gotta go now…off to the shops.

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