11.11

My Chinese teacher was swept up in the excitement of Singles Day, 11/11, a day for treating your single self that has been injected with steroids by online shopping powerhouses. It’s the biggest online shopping day of the year, proudly beating out Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Amazon Prime Day.

But she didn’t want us to take her word for it. She interrupted our asking for directions unit to give us interview questions about online shopping habits, which we were then sent out into the world with. The goal was to interview 10 Chinese speakers each.

There’s a lot to not like in this assignment, so of course I put it off. On the last day before it was due, I ventured out into our apartment building. With no cheerful cleaning crew around, I went down to the front desk, needing to reserve the service elevator for the delivery of 6,000 lbs. of stuff on Monday anyway. While I waited for them to be free, a Chinese teenager turned to me.

“Excuse me?” She was so quiet, she had to say it twice before I realized she was trying to get my attention with her English. “Would you be my friend? My name in Ling. My English name is Ling.”

She certainly couldn’t have expected me to not only agree but also then have questions about her favorite online stores. Ling answered my questions, put herself into my phone contacts, and then hovered alarmingly close while I repeated the questions to the unfailingly helpful woman at the front desk.

Two down, eight to go, 30 minutes before I needed to be somewhere else. Our building is shared with a department store, which I walk through almost daily to get to the metro station or the supermarket or any of the hundreds of underground eateries. The department store would be recognizable to anyone old enough to remember them, down to the bored shop girls manning their posts. I skulked around, looking for groups to get it over with more quickly. I channeled Ling: if she can approach a stranger twice her age expecting to get a friend out of it, I can find people to answer these stupid questions.

“Excuse me, can you two help me?” I asked. But I couldn’t understand what they responded. “Excuse me, can you two help me?” I tried again, trying the emphasis on different words. “Help you with what?” one said, evidently having to repeat herself more slowly and with exaggeration for the simpleton blushing in front of her. I managed out my questions and got in some good practice of pretending to understand what is being said to me while really just getting the gist. The awkward encounter repeated with two bored shop boys, one translating my attempts at Chinese to the other.

Takeaways from the interviews: people earning more money are more likely to spend more money online; women are less impressed with the quality of items purchased online than men are; interviewing 6 people is really just as good as interviewing 10; and 15-year-olds who get themselves into your phone contacts will enthusiastically text you to make plans to get dumplings together.

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