Foreigners see China: taobao life of an American

He Baoluo (Paul Huebner) came to China to study Chinese language and music after a successful career in Los Angeles teaching piano to mostly Chinese-American students. In 2003, he began studying in the summer at Liaoning University until he and his wife finally decided to move to Shenyang. More recently, he has attended classes at Dalian University of Finance and Economics. In addition to studying Chinese, he now studies guzheng and guqin and was honored to perform at a China 60th Birthday Concert in Dalian.

My Taobao life

If you read the Western press much, you will get a very distorted view of what Chinese life is -really like. The average foreigner will probably assume that there is little freedom in China, that daily life is highly regulated, and that most of what you buy is substandard and fake. You might find it strange that in fact, daily life is much freer and more casual in China than elsewhere, that there is a very large majority of honest workers and business people, that you can purchase thousands of high quality and authentic products here, and that the so-called “American Dream” is actually at the moment more alive and well in China than in America!

A simple way to describe what Taobao would be to say it’s the Chinese equivalent of or better, buying online with “Chinese characteristics”. The “old school of thought” here in China is that it is dangerous to buy online, that the products are all fake, and that you will often lose your money. Based on my experience, this manner of thinking is definitely “guoshi le” or out-of-date. Taobao has a system for reviewing sellers and helping you pick the responsible ones.

In the last few years, I have bought so many things online that I have lost track. I am now a “4 heart” buyer and soon to graduate to “5 hearts” (a scoring system based on how many items you buy and reviews you write). Some of the things I have bought online were expensive and many of my Chinese friends were really shocked that I would use Taobao. I used Taobao to buy a rare and beautiful guzheng made in Xi’an and later discovered that the sound was superior to those fresh from the factory, definitely an authentic Scarlet Bird zheng. I also used Taobao to buy an expensive coffee machine from Germany and although the process took a few weeks, the machine arrived at customs in Dalian triple wrapped and in perfect condition and the seller quickly compensated me for the duty I had to pay, not to mention that the price was very good to begin with. When I traveled to Yunnan, I discovered how wonderful Yunnan coffee is, but paid a hefty price for a bag of beans in a tourist store in Dali. Returning home, I discovered I could buy the beans at a rock bottom price on Taobao and they were quickly shipped absolutely fresh from the factory. And the examples can go on and on…

You might think living in a foreign country means you will be a little lonely at times, but I most enjoy chatting online with the sellers and especially enjoy the casual online language of Taobao. Of course, you have to be able to read and write Chinese, but not on a terribly high level if you have a good dictionary on your computer. I particularly like being called “Qin”亲!

This is an abbreviated form of dear which is a familiar greeting on Taobao. To go to the pay bill page is called “pai qian” 拍钱 or just “pai”. “Kuai di” 快递 is the method most people want used for shipping because it will come to your door just like UPS. Your chats online can be quite elaborate. The seller will spend a lot of time to explain size, color, use, etc. in hopes that you will eventually buy, and always in a very courteous manner. I have a young friend, who like me can be very indecisive in buying something. He will go so far as to ask the seller what color they prefer and how many people are buying what item, etc. You can surely test the seller’s patience with all these questions, which brings me to the heart of the matter and the heart of Taobao.

All over China there are these wonderful people who have a little Taobao business that is often part time. According to my experience, the vast majority are very sincere and honest. When you chat online, you maybe connecting with a computer in someone’s kitchen that is running 16 hours a day on a little table with a few boxes of items stacked in the corner of the kitchen. They are very proud of what they sell and very attentive to good service for their customers. The extra money they make often funds a family vacation or a new car.

I once bought an expensive computer from Taobao and the seller turned out to be living just down the street, so I was invited to pick it up at their home. Yes, there was the computer running in the kitchen while the woman of the house prepared dinner. She carefully loaded the Chinese service pack on to the computer and explained how to use it. I returned to buy some accessories and met her husband, a really friendly young couple who were very interested in what I was doing in Dalian. If I am very clever with my Chinese, sometimes Taobao people will not know I am a foreigner, but she guessed because my Chinese name is not commonly used by Chinese people. We had a wonderful time chatting in person this time, and I also wrote them a great review. By the way, the computer turned out to be the very best computer for studying Chinese I have ever owned!

Is it possible to have a real “Taobao life”? Maybe. You could spend hours online chatting with literally thousands of sellers and basking in their courteous attention. Then you could sit at home and wait for the “kuai di” guys and have a friendly chat with them. Better yet, when you are out they will call you and you can loudly explain that since you are away, please leave your package(s) with the property management office (Wu Ye) 物业 (a very commonly received cellphone call). In this way, others around you will surely know you are prosperous and every day very busy! Also, don’t forget that packages often come with unexpected free gifts that will liven up the day. I just received one that looks like a very wide portable marker that can go in your pocket like a pen. However, pop off the top and inside you find a small fork and spoon as well as a set of collapsible stainless chopsticks!

And isn’t having your own business a cornerstone of what some call the “American Dream”?

Aren’t all these independent entrepreneurs scattered over the country honestly selling products and taking pride in their service and high numbers of good reviews so much like the small business America we are persuaded to think is uniquely American? I hope everyone will stop paying attention to the China bashing Western press. China in so many ways is just like America, a land of independence and self determination and Taobao truly represents a kind of “American Dream” “with Chinese characteristics”!

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