Three Tales of Two Cities

During our recent trip to Beijing, conversation naturally turned to comparisons of Shanghai and Beijing. I don’t want to rehash that tired topic (again) here, but there were three particular anecdotes told by Chinese friends which I found amusing. All involved interactions with the locals in which the storytellers’ values clashed with the locals’.

I’ve recreated them below, in spirit, at least, and translated them to English, but I’m not revealing the cities. See if you can identify the city from the story.

Anecdote #1

> I wanted to take the bus to the nearest supermarket, so I asked a middle-aged person on the street. The conversation went something like this:

> Me: Excuse me, which bus can I take to the supermarket?

> Man: Bus? What do you want to take a bus for? It’s not that far, and you’re young! Just walk. The weather is great. Go straight up that way 5 blocks, then turn left.

> Me: Thanks, but I’d like to take a bus, so…

> Man: I’m telling you, it’s a great walk! You don’t need a bus! Just walk up that way 5 blocks…

> Etc.

Anecdote #2

> I wanted to buy a bottle of water in a small store.

> Me: I’ll just take this bottle of water. All I have is a 50.

> Shopkeeper: I can’t change a 50.

> Me: Well, I don’t have change, so…

> Shopkeeper: I told you, I can’t change a 50. Come back when you have change.

Anecdote #3

> I needed to buy a lighter, so I sought out a nearby convenience store.

> Me: I’d like to buy a lighter, please.

> Cashier: A lighter? You don’t want to buy that here.

> Me: What do you mean?

> Cashier: Lighters are way cheaper at the shop down the street. You save 2 RMB!

> Me: Thanks, but I’d like to just buy one here, so….

> Cashier: I’m telling you, they’re cheaper down the street! You don’t want to throw money away, do you??

> Etc.

Can you identify the cities?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I don’t know.. having not spent that much time in China yet.. but it sounds very similar to a lot of places I went to and experiences I had with the locals when asking for assistance etc. Especially the change thing…

  2. 1: Beijing
    2: Shanghai
    3: Beijing

  3. Let me expand on that a little.

    1) First off, there are supermarkets and convenience stores everywhere in Shanghai, and you wouldn’t have to walk 5 blocks to find one. Also, old people in Beijing like to tell young people what to do. In Shanghai, they’d either answer you directly or ignore you completely.

    2) This one could’ve gone either way, but it’s been my experience that shops in Shanghai hate to give more than 10RMB in change…although it seems to be better now than just a few years ago.

    3) Again, I’m just guessing, but I’ve never had a shopkeeper in Shanghai tell me to go somewhere else to buy the same thing cheaper.

  4. I’m with Brad, but I’d say Shanghai for #3 because SHnese are stereotypically stingy and can’t stand to see anybody (except the people they’re fleecing) spend any more than they have to. My wife had a co-worker who would wait at the stop long after Jodi and her friends had taken the public bus so that she could catch the free Carrefour shuttle to her house.

  5. Shanghai, Beijing, Shanghai

  6. Shanghai, Beijing, Beijing?

  7. I’ve only lived in China for 2 years, and only Beijing for 8 months. #2 has happened to me in every city I’ve been to in this country. There seems to be a massive shortage of change in China. However, I’ve never experienced either #1 or #3. So because I’ve only been to Shanghai for a few days, I’d have to just guess: Shanghai, Beijing/Shanghai, Shanghai.

  8. BSB

    1. Beijing, I feel like Beijing people love to do this stuff. Sometimes someone else would join in on the direction giving, and then they would get into an argument.

    2. Anywhere. I feel like this can happen anywhere. My cousin and I went to buy magazines once, and he only had a hundred, the lady refused to change him unless he came back with a smaller bill. She said that once she changed someone for a hundred and the hundred turned out to be fake, she was out 97 RMB at that point. That was in Jilin, I’ve had this happen to me when buying water and other smallish item when using large bills. I either had to buy more or get change some other way. I think there’s just too much counterfeit bills floating around.

    3. Beijing. I don’t know if this is isolated to Beijing, but I’ve had people refuse to sell me stuff because you can get cheaper/better stuff somewhere else at various places. I mainly said Beijing because Beijing people seem to really like to voice their opinions at random things you do and insist that you do what they say.

  9. totally no idea. never heard some sayings like these.
    I’m Chinese with more than 30 years old.

  10. BSB

  11. Beijing,Beijing,Shanghai.

    1.Being subjective and nosy is Beijingnese’s personality.
    2.In Beijing,most time,the storekeepers of convenience shop just consider the convenience of themselves,instead of customers’.
    3.Thinking about the best way to save people’s(whoever) money at any situation is the character of Shanghainese.

    BTW,I like Shanghainese instead of Beijingnese,so I am living in Shanghai!

  12. I experienced the “no change” thing the most in Wuhan but maybe that is because it was the second smaller city I went to after Shanghai, and then I grew used to it for the rest of my trip. I remember in one store I was buying books and the total came to about 18 yuan, so I handed the guy a 20 and it took me fully 2 or 3 minutes to get him to change it. Another instance where I was buying an overpriced 2 yuan bottle of water and I only had a 5.. wouldn’t sell it to me at all! Made me wonder because if she had been selling the water (and snacks) to other people with small notes, where had all those small notes gone… she would have only had to give me 3 yuan in change.

    Yeh.. I remember getting to the point where I would hoard my small notes just so I had them ready for such situations and took every opportunity to use bigger notes as possible. Having said all that, the places I didn’t have this problem was in proper stores and supermarkets, like Starbucks and Carrefour (or however you spell it). However in those other smaller places it was often a battle to get even 20’s changed.. to the point where you have to do the maths with them.. 我给你二十块, 你给我凉快.. 🙂 Was fun though.. not sure how I will feel if it happened on a daily basis after I start living there..

  13. B, S, S,

    1. Older people in Beijing do like to tell others what to o for their own good.

    2. Shanghai merchants are too focused on short term business gains.

    3. The guy in the store is not the owner. He is from outside Shanghai, working in Shanghai, and does not like the store owner.

  14. BSB..

  15. BSB

  16. OK, time to reveal the “answers,” although I’m not sure they really teach us much besides the speaker’s attitudes about their personal experiences.

    The two speakers were Pepe, a guy from Hubei, who spent his university years in Shanghai but now lives and works in Beijing. The other is a female Beijinger who has visited Shanghai.

    Anecdote #1: Told by Pepe about an experience in Beijing. The point of his story was that old Beijingers are funny because they think they always know what’s best for you, even for something as simple as whether to walk or take a bus.

    Anecdote #2: Told by Pepe about an experience in Beijing. The point of his story was that Beijingers do not have a drive to make money or build a successful business. According to him, Beijingers are totally happy sitting in an empty shop all day, making no money, as long as they can get by, day to day. He felt this contrasted strongly with the typical Shanghainese attitude.

    Anecdote #3: Told by a female Beijinger about an experience in Shanghai. The point of her story was that the Shanghainese were nicer to her than she expected, but sometimes their “niceness” got entwined with their “thriftiness,” imposing their will on her.

    Like I said… I’m not sure if these anecdotes are really “instructive” in any way. I think Brad and some other commenters make good points.

  17. When you frame them like that, LOL! Especially #1. It’been my experience since moving to Beijing from SZ that the old folks, and even some not some old folks, of Beijing love to tell you what is best for you and for your kids in particular. Totally out of friendly concern, of course……..

  18. My answer is right!^_^

  19. @Anna: Haha.. You’re too cute.. 🙂

  20. I’ve made quite a few experiences comparable to the first anecdote in Beijing. Interestingly, the first time this happened to me the situation was the complete opposite of the one described above:
    Me: “How do I get to XY Road?” Chinese woman: “Take the bus over there!” Me: “No, it’s too late already, the last bus of that line left 2 hours ago.” CW:”You can’t walk there.” Me:”I want to walk. I’d just like to know the direction.” CW: “Take the bus.” Me: “哎哟,算了吧”

  21. All sound like China to me.

  22. i think it just happens everywhere in china.

    the second story might be a case of avoiding counterfeits though.

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