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.”

“Add a vine, sprinkle some petals around you in the snow… Perfect!”

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.


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