168: More than shopping
What a challenge it’s been trying to plan out November schedules when you have young children, what with all the holidays. If you haven’t been informed, we have an Asean week that will have more days off than Holy Week.
Sometimes though, it helps to just go with the flow, which was what happened last Tuesday. Without any household help that day, I was thinking of what food to order out when it occurred to me, why not just take the whole brood down to Chinatown, which I hadn’t done in months. More specifically, it was a trip to what people call “168” but is actually now a network of shops (from the airconditioned Lucky Chinatown, to Divisoria-type 168 and 999 malls, and, spilling out into the streets, hundreds of stalls.
I knew they’d love all the cheap made-in-China stuff but 168 can be educational too, starting with the shopping. A trip to 168 is like a military exercise to get the kids, the girls especially, to be more street smart. The vendors, I explain, will price their items based on how you dress. I also remind them about what to do, clothes-wise and bags-wise, to avoid pickpockets and, worse, sexual predators.
The area also exposes the kids to the xinqiao (pronounced “sinchiao”) or “new overseas Chinese,” the ones who have streamed in the last few years to put up businesses, selling everything from food to jewelry and electronics. They come from all over China but most are from Fujian, the southern province from where most of the earlier Chinese-Filipinos’ ancestors first migrated.
A few years ago, you could easily spot the xinqiao by the way they dressed (white socks, black leather shoes on the men and heels on the women were always a give-away), their hair-dos, the way they speak, even the way they walked. (Filipinos, including younger generations of Chinese-Filipinos, don’t walk; we strut.)
These days, many of the xinqiao, especially the younger ones, have so assimilated they could pass as local Tsinoys and Tsinays. Many of them have picked up an impressive command of Filipino, with almost no Chinese accent.
I still try to pick up on their conversations, especially among themselves, to learn new Chinese words, my favorite being purutut. If you use an English-Chinese dictionary, you’ll find the “right” Chinese word is lanya, but it seems purutut works better in 168. I’m referring to Bluetooth.
For the kids, the trip to 168 is a chance for them to see the value of having some Chinese language skills, if at least for bargaining. They’re studying Chinese and not liking it, in part because their teachers are from mainland China and can’t quite cross the cultural barriers. A trip to 168 makes language learning more fun.
It’s not just learning to ask “how much” and getting the numbers right for bargaining. I pick up an item and ask them “yaobuyao” (Want or don’t want?) and that impresses the mainland Chinese sellers, because they want to see more Filipinos learning Chinese. (You should answer: yao if you want it, buyao if you don’t.)
The kids love the foodtripping. Most Chinese restaurants in the Philippines serve southern Chinese (Cantonese and Fujian) food but the xinqiao are now introducing a more varied cuisine. We had lunch at a mainland Chinese restaurant called Lan Zhou Lamien and I explained Lan Zhou is the capital of Ganzu province in China and that it should be pronounced “lan joe” (with a bit harder “j” than in English) and not “lan show” and never as “lan jiao” which refers to male anatomy.
The menu is in Chinese and English and becomes an impromptu lesson in Chinese characters. We got to all the lamien dishes and I explained its meaning: pulled noodles. Lamien in China became ramen in Japan. The menu also has several mysterious meals described as “knife” (e.g. spicy beef knife). I explain the full Chinese name is actually “dao xiao mien”, which means “knife-shaved noodles,” broader in shape than lamien.
The kids were intrigued by knife-shaped noodles and I told them to see for themselves: In the restaurant itself, you could watch the cooks producing lamien and daoxiao mien.
With the menu, they got to review the words for fried and steamed. I asked them if there was anything I can eat and they shook their heads because it was a terribly carnivorous restaurant.
When the kids are older, I’ll teach them more of linguistic analysis to “decode” social relationships as you build them.
I wrote some time back about how important it is, among the Japanese and the Chinese, for store owners and staff to use two hands to give a customer an item, or money. In 168, I was reminded that in the streets and small shops of China, as they do here in the Philippines, vendors snap at you and “bato” (throw, like a rock) things at you, in part because they see most customers as people wasting their time. Especially at 168, they’re after customers who will buy “ho-say” (pronounce it like Americans do Jose). That’s “wholesale,” and since Christmas is around the corner, you may as well ask when in 168, “how much Jose?”
I’ve found just being kind to the harassed owners and their even more harassed Filipino sales staff can go a long way. If you worry about pickpockets, they worry too about fake customers who will run off with items.
I apologize for interrupting a meal for example, which they have to gobble down, sometimes standing, because of so many customers. With the Filipino staff, who have picked up mainland brusqueness, soften them up with a bit of teasing.
There are all kinds of linguistic signals to suggest you’re not just looking for cheap stuff. Deal with the other customer first, I always tell them, which suggests that I might be buying “jose.”
At electronics stores, I will look at a power bank’s rating — sometimes as high as 20,000 mAH — and I will smile and ask, “Jen de?” — is that real?
Last year, in a small xinqiao-dominated shopping center in front of the Quiapo church, a storekeeper beat me to the question once, maybe because my eyebrows were reaching the heavens as I looked at the power bank. He laughed: “jenjen jiajia” (real real, fake fake). Insist on jen de, adding you’re willing to pay, and they’ll bring out the ones that are correctly rated.
Trust is two-way of course and it’s still caveat emptor, consumer beware of the seller, even as you keep checking if a pickpocket hasn’t run off with your wallet or bag. If you do find honest and reliable sellers — they do exist — ask for a calling card. Most won’t have one, and will write out their contact information for you.
The mainland Chinese are stingy with smiles, so keep smiling and when they finally reciprocate, you know you’re moving toward a suki relationship, the word suki insinuating itself into Filipino from the minnan juke, a special, a primary customer.
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