From the New York Times:
By SUSAN CONLEY
Published: December 30th, 2010.
Autumn in Beijing, where we had gone to live, and my husband and I were surrounded by Chinese “antiques” at the biggest flea market in town — detritus of a country embracing free-market enterprise. There were rows of vintage Mao wristwatches, red and black feng-shui meters, brightly embroidered Tibetan booties and slim, early-Communist-era cigarette cases. We could buy tea-stained calligraphy scrolls and vintage Cultural Revolution posters. We could bargain over the earliest Chinese radios and glass mirrors with etchings of the Imperial family. We could bargain over just about anything.
Because Tony and I and our two boys had recently made it through the circus that was my cancer treatment, it somehow seemed natural to be in this crazy place with Beijing’s castoffs. We were in need of some help — a statue of an animal god or a torn Tibetan prayer flag to take back to our apartment and help keep watch. That’s what we were doing every day without having to say it: keeping watch, knocking on wood. And that’s why I motioned impulsively to a man in a black polyester sport coat who looked as if he might own the giant Buddha head in Aisle 5. The guy in the sport coat said in English that this Buddha was old. Very old. Four thousand Chinese yuan old, to be exact.
Most things at this market were “very old” and priced at double their value. The market’s name was Panjiayuan, but locals called it the Ghost Market. Long before free markets were legal in China, vendors would set up in the dark to sell. Then they’d disappear like ghosts when the police came round to shut them down.
Soon 10 men circled us while we stared at the Buddha head. He was made of plaster of paris, with rosebud lips. “I’m not prepared for a crowd,” Tony whispered. “And we’re not buying a fake Buddha for 600 dollars.”
“I’m with you,” I said. “I’ll admit I know next to nothing about prices of Buddha heads.”
“Big Buddha heads.” Tony took my hand. “Too big. We don’t need that Buddha. What we need is a starter Buddha we can afford.”
We turned down the next aisle toward a cluster of Tibetan teenagers selling wooden altar boxes, next to a spate of Han Chinese women selling Christmas-tree ornaments. “O.K.,” I repeated. “A starter Buddha.”
Then I took one more look back at our Buddha — the one with the odalisque eyes. I must have gazed too longingly, because Tony said, “No. 1 purchasing rule in China: do not stare at the object you’re hoping to buy or show emotional interest of any kind.”
The Buddha head I wanted (because I did want it now) was still sitting on its metal cart when we walked past again an hour later. But we had resolve. We appeared to be leaving the flea market without buying any religious iconography. “Who ever heard of paying 4,000 yuan for something made to look old in a Beijing factory yesterday?” Tony asked.
That’s when I squeezed his hand and said: “Wait. Let’s phone the black sport coat and just make an offer.”
Tony smiled his biggest smile — a grin that let me know that he was willing, that said he’d play the fool, but only for me. Then he dug in his pocket for the man’s business card.
“Don’t insult him,” I whispered while Tony dialed. “Don’t go too low and blow the whole thing up.”
I was now officially having an emotional relationship with the Buddha head. I’d convinced myself that the Buddha head was going to change things for me. Going to slow things down for starters — because life had been moving way too fast. The Buddha head was going to remind me of things — I wasn’t sure of what exactly, but important things I’d forgotten, because the cancer wiped out a lot of my short-term memory drive.
So I was now a sucker. Tony said, “Ni hao,” and I held my breath. “Fifteen hundred.” What happened next is that the man agreed to Tony’s price far too quickly, without one moment of hesitation — without one counteroffer. And this was how we knew for sure that our Buddha head was a fake, and that we, as they say in our home country, had been played.
But once you’ve agreed to a verbal price in China, there’s no backing out. The black sport jacket jogged to the front gates almost before Tony put his cellphone away, the Buddha head trailing right behind on the metal cart. And I clapped my hands. The Buddha was a fake, but he was our fake now, and I was going to love him.
Susan Conley has written a memoir, “The Foremost Good Fortune,” which is being published next month. This essay is adapted from the book.
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