posted by Ms. Wu
Today, I brood.
As a loyal patron of Ten Ren* Teahouse in Chinatown for four years, last weekend I had purchased my usual 1 pound of tea for Old Master Chang. Old Master Chang was my mentor during the three years of my political exile. I was hiding in the mountains and earning food and boarding by sweeping floors and doing other menial work in the Taoist temples of a small village. I limited my contact with people and the outside world to a minimum. Deadly afraid I was of being discovered by the Red Guards. I was young, willful and desperate to belong to a political ideology. Old Master Chang understood the demons hunting my soul and taught me how to harness them. The time I spent with this sage is an epic in itself, but for now, I return to the malicious way Ten Ren treated La Me Me.
As soon as I arrived home, I realized that I had accidentally purchased Jasmine Tea instead of Dragon Well Tea. Old Master Chang would have been pleased regardless of which tea I sent him, but because it was important to me that he has the tea he likes, I went back to Ten Ren the following day to ask for an exchange.
An exchange, mind you. Not a refund. Not an upgrade to a more expensive tea. Just a simple exchange. The same saleswoman was there so I approached her.
“I bought the wrong tea yesterday,” I said to her in Mandarin. “I would like to exchange it for the right one. But if your store policy doesn’t allow exchanges, I understand and will get a new one.”
She took the bag of tea, placed it on the scale, and shook her head. “No. We wouldn’t have sold you this bag of tea. Look here,” she pointed to the digital read-out on the scale. “It says 0.9 pounds. We would never sell tea at this amount. We always sell by the pound.”
Surprised, I was. The thought of double-checking whether the salesperson was selling me short has never crossed my mind. When I buy my favorite cheese at Dean & Deluca, I don’t double-check the scale to ensure the weight of my purchase. These are things I take for granted in a culture based on consumerism. These are things one should be able to take for granted especially in a specialty store. Aghast at the sudden realization of who knows how often Ten Ren might have been short-selling me, I looked at the digital display. Indeed it read 0.9 pounds.
I can’t exchange this because look here,” she went on. “It’s all loose on top here. I would have packed the bag tight. And this tape here, anyone could do this.” She lifted the strip of yellow sealer tape with “Ten Ren” printed on it. Another saleswoman, an older one, came over to the counter now. After she inspected the bag of tea, she chimed in. “Ah, no, no. We wouldn’t sell like this. Not at 0.9 pounds. This is not us.”
I didn’t know whether I was feeling more shocked or disgusted at their suspicious behavior. Why would I steal 0.1 pound of tea? What would I do with it? Obviously the golden mantra of all good business “The Customer is Always Right” didn’t apply. Fortunately since I haven’t had my Sunday brunch yet, I was quite sober and was able to control my temper and composure.
“You are the one who sold it to me,” I said. “I come here all the time. Why would I want to cheat you of 0.1 pound of common tea?”
Thus ensued five to ten minutes of verbal volleying. Them saying they didn’t sell the bag to me, and me telling them they did. And all this time, my Kiwi Man quietly watched with hands crossed at his chest. I was on the verge of leaving the damn bag on the counter and go to a Japanese tea store where at least they have mastered the etiquette of business-making when they finally gave in. The older saleswoman was mumbling banal expressions of polite-talk that I listened to with a half-interested ear. Then she gestured to Kiwi Man and said to me, “Make sure you explain to him. Make sure he doesn’t have any misunderstanding.” What about my misunderstanding of the way they treat their customers? And what of the possibility that Ten Ren may be short-selling many of their unwary customers? Did my impression and understanding not count? They seemed more worried that Kiwi Man’s impression of them might be tainted rather than losing a long-time customer like myself.
As I left Ten Ren, I felt a sense of sadness mingled with pity. Part of me was embarrassed that it was true. The illness. The illness that plagues many Chinese companies who wish to break into the American market and business world. Old Master Chang told me of it when I decided to leave Shanghai for America. He had called it: Kissing the white man’s butt but kicking your own.
The present political climate as it is between China and Taiwan and China’s desire to be reckoned as a world power militarily and economically, this type of attitude is not beneficial to anyone. If there is any chance of world peace, global business and trading is the arena in which the idea of “peace” can be first practiced. To alienate certain customers and to acquiesce to others is a stupid way of doing business and a sorry way of treating people especially if one wishes to be recognized internationally. Businesses who want to break out of the glass ceiling should seriously reconsider who they are pulling a Subservient Coolie on. If there is anyone they should gain favor from other than Uncle Sam are hybrid persons who embody elements of both cultures, who can critique the good and bad of both, and who can sucessfully assist them in building a bridge between the East and West.
But alas. This tea house at least has permanently burned its bridge to any kind of heavenly benevelonce with me.
Until next time,
*Ten Ren translates to “heavenly benevolence.”
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