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My 345th fail while living in China: Buying a basketball

I’ve lived here since 2002 and I’m not generally given to rants…at least in this space.  But what the hell, seeing as I haven’t done a good “Dear China, WTF?” post in quite some time, sit back and let me tell you about the Adventure of Buying a Basketball.

One of the luxuries of living in the United States is the relative ease of consumer transactions.  You identify an item you wish to buy in a store, you select the brand of that item, you carry the item to a cashier who charges you a fixed price which you then hand over in currency or credit before walking out of the store to enjoy your new purchase.

Now, I’ve been in China long enough to not have any unrealistic expectations when it comes to simple purchases.  First of all, basketballs fall into that malleable category of ‘sundries.’ These require you to wait for somebody to write a ticket for the item and to take that ticket to a separate cashier stand.  You pay the money, the ticket gets stamped, you take the ticket back to the original “salesperson”[1] and claim your purchase.  I’ve never really understood it, but it’s just one of those things you get used to after awhile.

What happens however when the clerk refuses to write out a ticket?

I  wanted to buy two light bulbs, a small hand pump for the basketball, and the ball itself.   No problem until we got to the ball.  They didn’t want to write a ticket for this ball.  I asked “Why not?” and they showed me another ball.

“一样” (the same)

“No,” I replied in Chinese, “It’s not the same. That ball is half the size, it is basically a child’s beach ball, and, besides…it’s pink.”

The salesperson walked away in a huff only to return and tell me that I can pay for the ball downstairs at the usual checkout line.

Not having just fallen off of the back of a Huairou miandi, I knew that such an outcome was improbable at best.  First of all, the ball lacked a bar code.  Supermarket cashiers, not China’s best and brightest to begin with, are seriously flummoxed to the point of aggression when confronted with an unbarcoded item.  If I slabbed a rotted poodle carcass onto their check-out kiosk, and then piled on top of that the baby seal pups which I had just stunned with a Louisville slugger, the moral outrage of my actions would pale before the incalculable horror of my presenting them with an unscannable item.

There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to be able to pay for the basketball downstairs.

Thus begins our little comedy play.

“Are you sure I can pay for this downstairs?”


“100% sure.”


“Okay. But if it doesn’t work then I’m going to come back.”

“Um, pretty sure.”

You can probably guess how this ended up.  The cashier girl downstairs absolutely lit into me for bringing down the basketball and when I somewhat meekly replied that I was told to do that, she got even angrier.

“Who told you do that? They are wrong. Nobody said that.”


I reverse my shopping cart out of line, trailed by the hard stares of Beijing middle class shoppers who would never be so rude as to try and purchase a BASKETBALL at the regular cashier’s line.

Back upstairs to find the trio of salesgirls who had originally assured me that this would all work out fine.

“What are you doing back? You should pay downstairs!!”

“They said to pay upstairs. In fact, they were quite angry about it.”

“Pei! I’ll go tell them myself.”

So, downstairs we went, led into battle by my 80-lb champion who seemed frighteningly eager to do mayhem.  When she got to the cashier she didn’t so much explain the procedure as starting to hurl all manner of abuse at her opposite number.  It was at this point her frequency of pitch exceeded my non-canine ears ability to hear distinctly what was being said, but I could see from their faces that this was quite a scrum.  At any moment, I expected the crowd to roar and…oh my GOD…is that the Dairy Department’s music!?!?…Oh Nooo….how can this be happening? It’s chairs in the ring, total mayhem…[2]

As far as I know they’re still at it, so if anyone has a basketball can I borrow it to shoot hoops this afternoon?

[1] I use this term loosely.  In the 32 years of the “Reform and Opening Era” not one of these ‘salespeople’ has ever actually made a sale in the sense of “helpfully informing a consumer of a particular product’s qualities in order to facilitate a successful commercial transaction.”

[2] I watched a lot of wrestling as a kid. Sue me.