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The Tout

tout: a person soliciting custom or business, typically in an aggressive or bold manner.

I was really enjoying my walk in Beijing this afternoon because no one was bothering me. It was like being in Japan except instead of vending machines for beverages, there are huge drink stands every 20 yards down Wang Fu Jing (they have no problems with space in this town). But on my way back to the hostel, a Chinese dude asked me if I was French.

"Where are you from?" This is the first tip that someone on the street wants your money (in a hostel, it's the simplest ice-breaker). I've gotten it all over Cuba, Egypt, and India and I expect to hear it a lot throughout the rest of Asia. The routine starts with small talk based on where you're from, sometimes narrowing it down to the exact neighborhood. "Oh, the US? America... good! What part? California... ah! Where? Los Angeles. Oh! Hollywood..." They'll tell you about how they've been there, how they're going there, how their cousin lives there, or how they see it in movies. With me, I get a slew of other questions because I'm not quite American looking. Hence the gentleman's inquiry today as to whether I was French. I've been told that I look Italian, French, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, Latin... and that I sound Canadian (the other night a guy said I sound like I'm from New Zealand... though he was so drunk, I think everyone must have sounded funny to him).

After the tout shows you that you both have something in common, he'll show you to his store. I've been taken to papyrus, carpet, scented oil, and handicrafts shops. Today, it was scroll paintings. They'll tell you just to come in for tea or to chat. If they sense apprehension, they'll insist 'no business'. The Chinese man, who's name was Joe incidentally, told me he wanted to give me his email address because he was showing his work in Los Angeles this October.

I usually go to these shops because my good nature frequently leads me into long conversations where I learn a lot about the person and the local culture. The problem is, at the end of the conversation, there's always a sales pitch and some sort of pressure to buy. If we've swapped life stories, I feel a tinge of guilt for not buying as a few dollars means a lot to the struggling. But I firmly remind myself of my rule: only buy what fits in my stomach... I need my backpack to lose weight, not my body. Plus, I have no income! When I explain that I don't need anything, they quickly ask if I'm married. No. Girlfriend? No. (Why they ask? No money I respond!) Mother? ::sigh:: Yes. Ah, this perfume/carving/carpet/painting would be a lovely gift for your mother. Rather than explain to them that she has too much stuff already, I decline for the dozenth time.

If you tell them that you're traveling for nine months and can't carry anything, they'll show you how they can package it up for easy shipping. I am often tempted as I do run across some nice pieces but I have to stop myself from accumulating more stuff. And I hope some of you understand that I couldn't bring back any cool stuff for you from my trip because, I don't think you really need more 'stuff' in your life either. (Confession: I did end up with the stolen kimono and a Mt. Fuji t-shirt from Japan... I always leave that country with more than I came with)

Today's sales pitch involved Joe showing me different types of paintings that he, his professor, and his students did. He explained that bamboo represented man, cherry blossoms, woman. He walked me through water color and inking techniques adding that they put medicines in their paint so the color doesn't fade. He showed me calligraphy and told me stories. It seemed very rehearsed. In the end, he explained that his students needed to pack up the work today and because it was very expensive to go to the US (apparently they're showing their work at UCLA, Oct. 25), I could pick up one of these paintings for about $12 US. I declined and instead of giving me a hard sell, he insisted on not sending me away empty handed. So he wrote Tony in Chinese calligraphy [photo above]. He said the bottom character means handsome and the top meant wisdom, like that of the waves in the ocean. Someone will have to verify this because I think it probably says, "Cheap tourist".

P.S.- As soon as I left the shop, a guy ran up to me shouting, "Hey, hey!" He pulled out a book of postcards and said 10 Yuan. I say, no, he says, 5. I say no, he says, how much. I walk away, he says two for 10! These guys are the real 'touts'. So aggressive you end up running away and almost getting hit by taxis.


1 Responses to “The Tout”

  1. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Nice to hear it's the same all over the world. In Mexico they all come out of there shops and try to get you to come in with phrases like, "Almost free today" or "Cheaper than K-Mart" We're usually amused. However, if you're carrying a bag from another shop they get really aggressive and insist that "It's my turn now" or they ask you how much you paid for something, and whatever you paid they insist that they would have sold it to you cheaper. That really ticks me off.

    Enjoy your tour. It will be different for you to be on a timetable, with planned hotels, meals, stops, etc. Enjoy the experience and the history, and the culture.  

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Location: United States A 29 yr old filmmaker from California traveled through Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia/NZ over ten months from April 2007 to March 2008.

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