Shanghai | Body and Soul | Expat Essentials

Before moving to China, it is important to learn some key Chinese phrases in order to make your stay in Shanghai more comfortable and enjoyable.

Good morning – Zao shang hao
Hello – Ni hao
Thank you – Xie xie
Please – Qing
I’m sorry – Duì bu qi
Good bye – Zai jian

Although the above are important Chinese phrases that will no doubt make your life easier, as a Black woman the vital Chinese phrase you will need to know is not a phrase but an action. Stand up; put your arms down at your sides; bend your elbows so now your arms are at a 90 degree angle; cross your arms to form an ‘X’. This is an action that you will encounter time and time again the very minute you enter a local Chinese clothing store or local Chinese shoe store. So, what does this Chinese action translate to in English?

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The X Gesture

For Black women this action translates to, “You are huge! There is nothing in my store for a gigantic, monstrous, giant woman such as you. Just turn around and leave my store.” Yep. That’s what this action means – really!

When I walk around exploring amazing Shanghai neighbourhood shops, I often encounter The X Gesture. Why? Well, generally speaking Chinese women are tiny – we’re talking US/Canada size 0–6/UK size 4–8. So, in all fairness a size 12 Black female walking into their store would seem to be giant size, but please. Must storekeepers flash the infamous X Gesture in front of your face?

Black women, you will have two choices: 1. Bring all clothing, underwear and shoes with you and never shop in Shanghai, or 2. Grow thicker skins and venture into the highs and lows of clothing and shoe shopping in Shanghai.

Highs – Having clothes and shoes custom made.
Lows – Having clothes and shoes custom made.

Although you would think sizing issues could be overcome if your clothing was custom made, you would be mistaken. When getting clothing made, I always encounter a variation of the following conversation:

Linda: I would like the pants you have displayed made in my size. How much would it cost?
Tailor: Oh, the normal price would be 150 RMB; however, since you are so big, we need to use a lot more fabric so for you the pants are 250 RMB.

Seriously. Right. To. My. Face. After explaining that clothing sizes in stores do not differ in price according to size, tailors usually relent and lower the price. However, prepare to hear, “You are so big,” “ You are too big,” “You are very big,” whenever getting clothing made. What I always keep in mind is this: in the rest of the world (dare I say universe) I am normal. The same conversation also occurs when having shoes made since Canada/US size 8.5/UK size 6/25 cm/39 are considered clown feet.

With the above being said, I have had very nice pieces of clothing made in Shanghai. The biggest successes have always been when I had existing pieces of clothing copied. Therefore, I would recommend taking your favourite dress, blouse, jacket, suit, coat or pair of pants and having it copied. There are two major fabric markets in Shanghai, the South Bund Fabric Market and Shi Liu Pu Cloth Market. I prefer Shi Liu Pu since it is a bit more local and I find vendors are more willing to bargain.

I have a simple strategy I use to ensure I’m not paying too much for a garment – I eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, especially local Chinese people as they bargain with a vendor. Once the Chinese or foreign person has finished bargaining, I say that I would like the same price – easypeasy lemon squeasy! Another strategy I use is to ask someone who is picking up a garment if they have used the vendor before, if they are happy with the quality of the garment, and how much they paid. In my experience I have found that foreigners like to share information and local Chinese people are usually happy to share their hard-fought bargaining successes with you. In this dog eat dog experience, also known as shopping in Shanghai, you cannot be shy and reticent. Remember, if you don’t ask, you may be overspending!

Normal Stores

As mentioned earlier, I absolutely love wandering in and out of stores in various Shanghai neighbourhoods. The more junky and dishevelled the store looks inside, the more likely I am to enter – despite the dreaded X Gesture. In stores like these, brand name and/or designer clothing can be found at ridiculously low prices. Why? Well, clothing could have ‘fallen off a truck’ or be seconds or overruns from clothing factories. In the past, I have found clothing with labels attached initially bound for Macy’s, Marks and Spencer, Victoria’a Secret, Lord and Taylor, TJ Max, Debenhams, Jones of New York, Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan to name just a few tables and designers. These types of stores are always hit and miss but since clothing items are destined for the overseas market, you will be able to find normal sizes. Although I love rummaging through these types of stores, I have many friends who would rather have a root canal rather than dig for bargains in a frenzied store. These friends prefer their stores nice and orderly.

For those of you who also prefer order over chaos, normal sizes can be found in stores in Shanghai such as Marks and Spencer, The Gap, H&M and Zara. However, I have found the concept of ‘large’ or ‘extra large’ in the last three stores to be suspect. In my world, size 12 is not extra, extra large. However, in China get used to it: XXL (US12/UK14), XXXL (US 14/UK16) and XXXXL (US16/UK18)! Yes, it’s not pretty but TIC (This is China)…

Shanghai is a fashion mecca and as a Black woman you can choose to be in shopping heaven or shopping hell. A thick skin, a sense of humour and the phrase “I am normal” playing an endless loop in your head will allow you to experience the endless wonders of shopping in Shanghai – so enjoy and get your shop on!

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