Wednesday, May 12, 2010

China Rising, Part III: The Six Trillion Dollar Rug

When I was 15 and had a paper route, every six months or so the folks who ran the circulation office would take us “canvassing,” forcing us to go door-to-door selling subscriptions to old ladies on welfare and dull-witted teenagers who’s parents weren’t around.

I was an unscrupulous salesman. If a babysitter opened the door, I would convince her that she should sign her employers up for a copy of the Milwaukee Journal. “Really,” I would say, “just fill out the form. Then if they come home and don’t want the subscription, all they have to do is call this number”—and I’d rattle off seven digits so quickly it sounded like I was speaking Russian.

“Even if they do cancel,” I’d say, “the newspaper usually doesn’t remember to cross off my sale, so I still get credit for it.”

More often than not, the kid would sign, pulling an awkward grin over her braces as I thanked her.

Then I’d move on to the next house, the next porch, the next doorbell, the next sucker waiting to be parted from his money.

I’ll be frank with you: I didn’t really like selling things. Despite an otherwise friendly relationship with the deadly sins, I’m just not the wheeling-dealing type. This is true of almost everyone in my extended family: most Hanstedts I know couldn’t sell ice cream in hell.

But the pitch? The patter? The telling jokes you’ve told a million times as you build a relationship, the—dare I say it—rhetoric?

Well, yeah. I kind of liked that. In case you hadn’t noticed.

Looking back now, I feel a little guilty about putting all of those babysitters and dope-smoking teenagers into such a bad position. At the time, though, I have to admit, my 15-year-old heart seemed maybe two sizes too small. “Geez,” I didn’t as much say as think to myself, “if someone’s dumb enough to subscribe to a newspaper for a house they don’t even live in, then there’s not a whole lot I can do to help them.”

I thought of this a few weeks back when we were in Beijing at a rug factory. I want to preface this part of the narrative by saying that I had no intention of buying a rug. Indeed, Ellen and I already have a number of very beautiful rugs in our house—two from Iran, one from China—purchased from a wholesale warehouse in Farmville, Virginia. In addition, of course, we also have some really lame, Walmarty-type rugs, including one really piece of crap rug—bought because it matched the Chinese rug—that started to grow threadbare the day we got it home.

But even so, I was not at this factory to buy I rug. Indeed, since our debacle in Vietnam wherein we purchased 6,245 souvenirs in 14 days (See, “In Which Ellen and I Compensate . . .” Jan. 2010), Ellen and I had begun to practice a bit more self-control when it came to the many many many beautiful things you can buy in Asia. Sure, we’d purchased the occasional Tibetan prayer bowl, captivated by its golden tone; and sure, we’d picked up an antique needlepoint wall hanging featuring a phoenix and dragon in intricate but faded detail. But we’d also walked away from some very lovely handmade copper bowls, and all sorts of painted carvings, paper cuttings, and calligraphies. We were behaving. Really we were.

Even so, the factory was awesome: we got to see silk worms and cocoons and the items that are used to dye the silk—tree bark, saffron, Sara Palin’s unused brain tissue. After that, our guide—a plain, slightly overwhelmed woman named Cindy, who talked as though having memorized a script—led us over to several huge looms where women were tying silk threads to the warp and slicing them with small razors. Their hands moved so quickly we could barely see them. Even so, we were told, an 8 x 6 rug could take up to 6 months to make, depending on the density of the weave. I loved the intricate detail, the complexity of the process, all those different colored threads hanging above, the blue-sheet patterns showing Xs and Os so small they looked like pin-holes.




But buy a rug? Not on my agenda.

The kids were invited to give the knotting a try, and all of them did. Will had a blast. He made half a dozen knots on one rug before moving to another and tying another 5 or 6 there. He even asked me to use his camera to videotape himself as he did it.



Once in a lifetime, even.

But still: I was not there to buy a rug. The thought never entered my mind.

Ten minutes of that, though, and the show was over. We were escorted into a room roughly the size of the USS Nimitz, every wall of which was hung with the most beautiful oriental rugs I’d ever seen in my life.





Ummmm . . .

But no, it didn’t matter. We already had rugs. We already had souvenirs. A rug souvenir? Out of the question.

Cindy led us to the middle of the room, where she finished her spiel, showing us three small rugs with different weave counts and explaining how you could tell by looking at the underside: the more detail you saw, the denser the weave, the more expensive the rug.

And then she held up the finest of the three rugs and said, “How much do you think this rug costs?”

I have to admit, I wasn’t really listening when she asked this. I’d been glancing toward the back door, wondering if the rumor about a mid-morning snack of popsicles was true, and if so, if it’d be possible to sneak out and get an early start on the action. Nonetheless, when Cindy spoke, I glanced down at the carpet she was holding, and, like an idiot, said, “20,000 RMB.” 3,000 dollars, US, more or less.

She stared at me. And then laughed. “I like your price.” Then she named a price one fifth of that.

My theory, of course, is that that’s why she honed in on me: I named a high price for a small rug, revealing that at least one of the following was true:

a) I was a very rich person for whom money was no object.

b) I was so stupid I thought almost 3,000 US was an appropriate asking price for a rug the size of a bathmat.

c) I was very rich and very stupid.

Regardless, hone in on me she did. Heading for the popsicles, I paused, my eye caught by one particular rug: at its center was a rose-colored cross, embroidered with intricate flowers. The bulk of the body was different shades of tans and whites and pale pale pinks woven into a delicate kaleidoscope of patterns. I’m not generally one for Valentine colors, but there was something about this that was engaging, understated but beautiful.

“This is my favorite one,” Cindy said.

I jumped. I hadn’t even noticed her coming. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“And very reasonably priced.”

“Oh well,” I said. “It’s way too big for our house.”

“Oh,” she said, and before I knew it, she’d called two of her colleagues over and was having them roll back six or eight rugs from the top of a nearby pile. Nine down, and there it was: the same pattern as the rug on the wall, only 3 feet shorter and not quite as wide.

It was, in short, exactly the right size for replacing old baldy, the piece of crap rug in our foyer.

“Huh,” I said, my inner idiot rising to the surface.

Cindy gave me a sharp look. “Let me put it in the light.” Then her assistants dragged it out into the walkway that cut through the piles of rugs.

Ellen came over, Jamie on her hip sucking a cherry popsicle. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve been thinking,” I said, “that we should get rid of that cheap rug in our foyer.”

“Oh you have, have you?”

I knew that tone of voice. My hackles rose slightly. “But this is the factory,” I said. “They make the rugs here. They have to be cheap.”

Ellen gave something that was three-quarters groan, three-quarters grin. “You just run with that.”

So I did. Cindy was in full swing now. Her men had dragged three more rugs out into the walkway and were rolling them out so that the weave went the same direction for all of them. Because of the way they’re made, rugs of this sort look darker from one side than from the other.

“They’re very beautiful,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything better to say.

Cindy nodded, watching me carefully. She seemed different than she had in the other room: less mousy, more assured.

“How much are they?” I asked.

She told me.

I stared at her. “Get the &^%(& out!”

She didn’t even flinch. I’m sure this isn’t the first time she’d heard those words.

“For one lousy rug?” I said.

She nodded.

“Jesus Christ!”

She shrugged. “It is handmade. 100% silk. It will last forever.”

“So will my house,” I said, “but I’ll be damned if I paid that much for it!”

“Your house is made of silk?”

“You know what I’m saying.”

She gave a slightly wistful sigh, then glanced at the rug. “But it’s very beautiful.”

I followed her gaze and my heart sank. It was very beautiful. Very beautiful.

“Is that price the best you can do?” I asked.

She named a marginally lower figure. It wasn’t actually the price of a house. More like the price of a car—a used car, with rusty fenders and the smell of cat pee in the trunk—but an actual car nonetheless.

“Really?” I said. “That’s the best you can do?”

She gave an ambiguous shrug, then looked at the rug, sighing. “But it’s very beautiful.”

And I followed her gaze—again—and sighed as well. It was very—

Aww, to hell with it. I stalked off to find Ellen. She and the kids were in the other room, finishing off the last of the popsicles.

“She’s trying to sell me a rug,” I said.

“I’m sure she is,” Ellen replied.

“What do you think?”

“How much are they?”

I told her. She didn’t blink. “It’s up to you.”

Now I blinked. “What did you just say?”

Ellen looked at me. “It’s up to you.”

“’Up to me?’ Are you insane?”

She frowned.

I sputtered. “Since when have I had even an ounce of common sense?”

She shrugged. “The minute we walked in here, I knew you’d buy one.”


“Of course.”


“It’s just the sort of thing you do.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s who you are. You’re a guy who buys overpriced rugs in a factory in Beijing.”

“Since when?”

“Since about two minutes from now.”


She nodded. I paused for a minute. I needed to take this all in. Glancing over at Cindy, I caught her looking my way. Very quickly, her eyes dropped to the rug. I saw her chest rise and fall with a sigh.

“It’s a beautiful rug,” Ellen said beside me.

I stared at her face, trying to see if she was winding me up. “You really think so?”


“But don’t you think it cost too much?”

“It’s up to you.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said, “what kind of a wife are you, saying a thing like that?”

But she just shrugged, and ran to pull Jamie off a stack of 6 billion dollar floor runners, over which he was running his popsicle-sticky hands.

I wandered back to Cindy.

“So?” she said.

I gazed at the rug, the kaleidoscope of grays and tans and browns and whites surrounding the rose-colored cross. “Apparently,” I said, “I was fated to buy this rug.”

Cindy sighed. “It’s very beauty—“

“Oh shut up,” I said. “Where do I pay?”

In the end, I got the rug for almost a third off. Shipping was included, as was insurance. What Cindy didn’t mention, or forgot to mention, or didn’t know, of course, was that once the rug got to the States, the US Customs Office would be all over it like lice at a survivalists’ convention. It took nearly a half-dozen calls via skype to clear up all the questions and fill out all the forms and make sure this particular hand-made mass of warp and weft didn’t end up back on poor Cindy’s doorstep, where I’m sure, when she saw it, she’d sigh and—well, laugh uproariously. I still don’t know how much I’m going to have to pay in taxes on the damn thing.

But lest you think I’m picking on the Chinese, or accusing them—or even just Cindy—of being scheming, manipulative, or otherwise unethical, let me just say that that’s not the case. I’m not some fifteen-year-old babysitter. I’m not a bong-hit saturated teenager. I’m a grown up who knew what he was doing when he was standing in that room talking a very experienced sales woman who was making her pitch. I am responsible for having spent most of my childrens’ college funds on a piece of fabric people will wipe their feet on when they enter my house. You want to know why China’s rising? Just go to Walmart, and look at all the stupid people buying crap that will fall apart in six days. You can’t sell unless some moron is buying.

And China is rising. In the last decade, its GDP has grown nearly 10% each year. Since 2008, while the financial crisis crippled most of Europe and the US, China has coasted along, relatively untouched. There’s a lot of talk about how the 21st century will be China’s century, much as the 1900s belonged to the US, and the 1800s to the UK. I see no reason to doubt this. While China most certainly has issues it must address—a possible housing bubble; massive, endemic graft; a rising upper and upper-middle class who will soon test the idea that political repression is fine as long as it’s accompanied by nearly unlimited economic growth—while China needs to cope with these potential problems, its centralized government and draconian legal system make these tasks a bit easier. The US can’t, after all, just execute a business leader we don’t like (which is a good thing, I guess, or there’d be, like, 6 CEOs left in the country).

I was talking to a friend recently about how manufacturing seems to shift from country to country, lifting a region out of poverty. When we were kids, all of our toys came with “Made in Hong Kong,” stamped on the bottom. Now there’s nearly zero manufacturing in this city. After Hong Kong, it was “Made in Taiwan.” And then, “Made in China.”

But that’s shifting, too. More and more, businesses are moving to places like Vietnam and Malaysia, where labor is even cheaper, and a growing infrastructure is making shipping and managing goods that much easier. “Pretty soon,” I said to my friend, “manufacturing will leave China as well.”

“Never,” was his reply. “There’s just too many people here. Too much labor. China will always be the workshop for the world.”

And he’s probably right. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve been struck by the attitude of the Chinese: this country is full of people who are hardworking and smart and focused, and willing to make sacrifices to gain an edge in this new economy. While the US has bickered back and forth about global warming and whether it exists and what to do about it, China is building high-speed commuter rails and solar fields. And now they’re looking to sell their technology to us. They’re knocking on our door, just waiting for us to answer.

Which is fair enough, I guess. I can live with this. I might even sign up for a subscription to the Beijing Journal. Just as long as whoever’s selling it stays the hell off my new rug.

1 comment:

michaelg said...

Paul, let's go shopping.