Way back when our daughter was in preschool, we decided to get a princess dress made as a Christmas present for her. This was long before Taobao or ToysRUs, so a seamstress was basically our only option.
I asked around for recommendations. This was also way before WeChat, so I had to ask my friends individually when I saw them in person. (I know, right? How did we even function?) Another American couple told me there was a lady they’d used downtown. She was inside the multi-story, sensory overload pifa building that housed everything and a bucket of chicken. One entire floor was devoted to tailors and seamstresses, who were hidden by an overwhelming amount of bolts of cloth. As in, you probably wouldn’t even see the human beings sitting there at their little sewing machines tucked inside the cloth jungle if you didn’t know to look for them.
So downtown I went. I had the seamstress’ number and called her from my dumb phone after I hiked up the concrete stairs to the correct level of the building. (Call, not text. No translation help from a smart phone or app. Wow, I’m seriously getting impressed by these memories of life in China before technology.) Anyway, after a few minutes, she appeared and led me through the maze back to her little stall.
Then it was time to get down to business. I was hoping for a blue satin princess dress. I had printed out a simple illustration. Something akin to Cinderella’s dress in the old animated Disney movie, since that was one of the only princess movies my daughter had seen. (Again, dark ages. No streaming. Just DVDs that relatives sent in care packages. We were so lihai back then!)
Nope, no blue satin. “She wants pink anyway,” the seamstress told me. At first I was a little like, “And how would you know what my daughter likes?” But then I realized she was right. Nearly every article of clothing in my daughter’s small wardrobe was pink, so a pink dress would fit right in.
We settled on a pink – there were several choices – but I asked the seamstress to make the skirt of the dress white so we had something non-pink. My daughter might like all pink, but I needed something to cut the saccharine. Sure, she could do that. The seamstress also suggested a sheer white fabric to make little pouf sleeves. Perfect. I paid the deposit and settled on a date to come pick up the dress. It would be very close to Christmas, but I could check this gift off my shopping list.
The day arrived, and back to the downtown market I went. I had to call the seamstress again because I knew I’d end up wandering the aisles for an hour trying to find her. She came to get me, and we hurried back through the fabric labyrinth to her stall. She wasted no time pulling out the dress, obviously very proud of her creation. She presented it, beaming.
I had to do a double take. I remembered picking out the pink satin, the white satin, and the sheer white fabric on my previous visit. I remember her nodding over the illustration I gave her. The SIMPLE dress illustration. I thought that was the plan. But she had apparently decided that plan was not frilly or girlie enough. It made me feel like that scene in Cars – “You don’t know what you want. Luigi know what you want.”
She had decided to embellish. She stuck an enormous bow on the dress, but not on the back. Right on the front. And then she added lace. Off-white lace with gaudy gold thread – on a pink and bright white dress. My black wall tires had been upgraded to white walls.
I stood there with my mouth half open, trying to decide between my options:
1. Save this woman’s face by agreeing with her that oh yeah, she did a great job on the dress.
2. Politely tell her how I really felt and ask her to redo the dress with only the elements we had agreed upon.
I went with option 1.
Before you yell at me, let me remind you that it was only a few days before Christmas. There wouldn’t be time to remake the dress. Plus, my daughter was in preschool. That’s the height of a child’s love for gaudy, obnoxious, lace-covered atrocities. The seamstress probably could’ve added a strand of blinking lights and a long train covered in neon flowers and my daughter would’ve swooned. Final argument for the jury: My Chinese was alright at this point, but it wasn’t stellar. You wanna try delicately arguing with a seamstress with Intermediate Low Mandarin?
So, I nodded and smiled and paid for the dress. I went home and ranted/cried/laughed to my husband about the whole thing, and chalked it up as another “This is China” moment.
And you know what? On Christmas morning, my daughter was delighted with the dress. Maybe Luigi DO know what I want.
More China moments
No Such Thing as a Simple Errand
The 10 Craziest Questions I’ve Been Asked about China
March 25, 2018 at 10:53 pm
Ouch – why am I NOT surprised???!!
March 27, 2018 at 7:12 pm
I love this. It’s so China! And you were TAI lihai back then. I only came to China at the cusp of the smart phone era. I had one after living here for a year. It wasn’t that long of survival without it.
It also reminds me just a little of having a plumber come to fix my leaky sink only to have him push the handle back and tell me it’s fine and doesn’t need to be fixed (it still drips, and when water is turned on elsewhere in the house, water just pours out of it), or when I take my bike to have it fixed, and the guy glances at it and says it’s fine… It really makes me reevaluate how much I NEED to get something done. My husband gives me lists of things I could get a Chinese repair guy to come and fix and I just look at him in disbelief.
What I really wish is that you’d included a picture of the dress!
March 28, 2018 at 9:05 am
I’m sure in 10 or 20 years, you’ll look back in awe of how lihai you were with “only” a smartphone, ‘cuz they’ll have instant speech translators and hoverboards by then. 🙂
Sometimes it feels like half of the repair job is convincing the person of the problem (and/or that they haven’t actually fixed the problem). It was always a relief to find “the guy” for things like that. Someone who simply understood the problem and fixed it. Done and done!
I actually went back through our old photos because I KNOW I took pictures of the dress. But, my current stash of digital photos doesn’t go back that far! I know we had a digital camera back then (it wasn’t THAT long ago) so I’ll have to do more digging to figure out where those pictures are archived.
March 28, 2018 at 1:01 pm
Reminds me of the (very) early days in China (1980’s), when we had to take film to a shop to be developed. I’d drop off a roll, and when I returned to pick it up, only half of the pictures were printed. When I asked them why they had only printed SOME of the photos, they replied, “because you weren’t in the other ones.”
March 28, 2018 at 2:29 pm
HA! That is classic! Yeah, why would anyone want photos they’re not in? They certainly saved you a lot of mafan by editing out the “bad” pictures for you. 😉