Internet shopping was never something that occured to me in China until I moved to Beijing. Back in the States I had a brief run-in with e-bay somewhere in the late 90s after I graduated from high school and due to a soul-sucking job at a call center, had more disposable income than any 18 year old has business having. If I remember correctly, I spent much more money than I should have buying Japanese kimonos, which is kind of odd looking back, because what did I think I was going to do with those kimonos, living in Texas? My younger brother and I also tried to set ourselves up as internet
con-artists entrepreneurs, selling “dirt from Britney Spears’ back yard” complete with a certificate of authenticity (remember, this was 1998). Unfortunately, we didn’t have any takers. Our affair with internet shopping lasted until I went off to college, and my brother even bought a car on e-bay, which didn’t turn out nearly as awful as it could have. Eventually I sort of forgot about e-bay and internet shopping, although I used amazon to purchase books in college, like any normal person would do.
And then I moved to China, had no access to credit cards, and figured it was probably just as well that such sites as e-bay and amazon had no interest in my Chinese bank cards, since shopping on American sites using your Chinese paycheck could probably lead to financial ruin. But then I discovered taobao, which, when I got internet banking with my new Beijing bank card, was suddenly available to me. After one trial run I was hooked. For an expat with a working knowledge of Chinese, or barring that, rudimentary deductive reasoning skills, taobao is like a gift from heaven. It started off innocently enough, with baby clothes. Buying baby clothes in China is not as fun as it sounds, and in Beijing I have always hated how aggresively I have to bargain to get a good deal at the sort of outlet stores that sell the factory reject stuff I love. Taobao was great for this, and suddenly my son was looking pretty smooth in his 30RMB Gymboree outfits, which I had purchased without having to even raise my voice.
I soon discovered that if there are goods to be had in the world, they can be found on taobao. English language books, which previously required a hefty trek out to the big English language bookstore in Chaoyang, could now be purchased, both new and secondhand, on taobao. Current American magazines, stuff like Newsweek or People or Parenting, I could stock up on each month. Even food — comfort food like Macaroni and cheese or Mexican salsa — were only a click away. I even got ambitious with my taobao purchases, buying a pair of shoes, a walker for my son, and finally, a new computer. And while a lot of people are, perhaps rightfully, wary of shopping on the internet, I can truly say that I’ve never been ripped off, and that everything I’ve purchased has come in basically the condition it was promised. I have never had reason to give a bad review to any seller.
I’m grateful for this, because the sellers are often brutal in response to people who give a “poor” or even a “fair,” often “outing” them publicly by posting their home phone number and address and advising other sellers to never do business with these idiots who would dare express their displeasure over an internet transaction gone wrong. Sometimes, just for kicks, I’ll check out the seller reviews and deliberately click on the “poor” reviews just for the drama of it all. These people are worse than parenting boards, and that’s saying a lot. While I don’t really begrudge people the right to complain if they think they’ve been ripped off, a lot of buyers on taobao do seem to have unrealistic expectations about what they’re going to be getting for their 50RMB. And some people are just plain stupid. I’d be legitimately cheesed off if I was a seller and I got a “fair” with the accompanying comment saying “great seller, I’d shop here next time!”
Suffice to say, online shopping has become a major vice of mine, but one that has made living in a country like China a lot more manageable. One of my main complaints previously was being cut off from things like good books and salsa con queso, and now that complaint is no longer valid. Now if only the internet could deliver say, my little brother directly to my doorstep, I’d probably be happy to stay here forever.