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The Guitar Story:
I remember my 30th birthday, a lonely time spent wandering around in Manzanio, Mexico, on a very beautiful evening with all the Mexican families promenading the town square and swallows fighting for space on the wires overhead. Lonely because I was alone and far from home, but magical enough to be memorable. I don't remember my twentieth, fortieth, or fiftieth, all of which should have been milestones etched indelibly in my memory bank. Since this is also a milestone birthday, I decided to buy myself a birthday present I would never forget.
Actually, this story begins back in Canada. I was visiting my friend Mike Clarke at his home in Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, and he mentioned that he would celebrate his birthday on October 15th. in Katmandu, Nepal.
I decided on the spot to join him there for a joint birthday party. But when I got back to China I realized that this was easier to plan than to accomplish. We've just had a week off for the National Day holiday, so asking for more time off seems a bit pushy. Flights to Katmandu from Shanghai are inconveniently infrequent and expensive. It was time for a change of plans. I decided to buy myself something else. Something that would last for many years. Something really special. Something I've always wanted. I decided to buy myself a Martin D-28 guitar.
The Search for the Perfect Guitar
So I started looking, but none of the music stores would ship to China and the list price is $2,800, which is a bit steep. That lead me to Ebay. There were 48 Martin D-28 guitars listed. They ranged from a 1946 classic, for which the asking price was $14,800, to brand new or nearly new instruments which were selling for $1200 to $2800.
The way Ebay works is that you place a bid and a maximum bid, which nobody gets to see. Ebay will automatically increase your bid as people bid against you, until you either win the item or reach your maximum and get outbid. The idea is that you just might get the item for less than you are actually willing to pay for it. I experienced this process with a guitar which, on close inspection of the pictures, I decided had unattractive grain on its top. I had placed a bid at $910, and was quite happy to see myself outbid. That one went for $1220.
I immediately sent this note off to the seller.
The money I wanted to pay with is in a bank in Canada. That's when things started to go sour.
Darn. Why does there always have to be a complication.
The seller's response to this seemed to be unfriendly to the point of hostility.
I told him not to worry, I would get the money to him one way or another, and I asked him if he could pick up some extra Martin strings for me. At this point I was getting nervous. I wasn't sure I liked this guy. I asked him to assure me that his guitar was in playable condition, with a straight neck and no buzzing.
I'm not going to put all our messages up here, because that would just bore you. Suffice it to say that the communications from his side were cold, suspicious, and unfriendly. Finally I sent him this message. By this time I hated him, didn't trust him to ship the guitar carefully, and didn't want to buy it.
He replied with this:
The phrase "My advice to you is..." sounded to me like a threat and really put my hackles up. I was very close to telling him to put the guitar someplace where the sun doesn't shine. The other guitar was about to close, and I really wanted to bid on that one.
But I talked it over with Ruth and decided that my integrity is worth more than $1400. To quote my wonderful girlfriend: "Integrity isn't good for much if you only have it when you feel like having it." I let the other guitar close ($1450, and who knows how much higher if I had gone back into the bidding.), gritted my teeth and went to my bank to withdraw 16,000 yuan, then set off for Western Union to send him the money. I also sent him this message:
The Western Union in Wuxi
As soon as we could get away after my class on Thursday afternoon I called Ms. Chen, one of my favourite drivers, and we set off to find a Western Union office . Jin Bo, my liaison here, came along to help with the translation and inevitable formalities. All the addresses and phone numbers I got from the Internet were out of date and I still don't know how Jin Bo managed to find a China Post office that also was an agent for Western Union. In any event, find one he did. But the Western Union agent told us that they wouldn't take RMB. I had to get my Chinese money exchanged into U.S. dollars. Off we trotted to the bank, took a number from the number dispenser, and we waited, seemingly forever, until it was our turn at the wicket. Surprisingly there was no problem changing 16,000 RMB into $2,124 U.S.. A done deal just as the bank was closing. We ran back to Western Union with the money, but the wire had shut down for the day.
I sent the seller a message saying I'd go back the next day to complete the transaction, and apologizing again for the delay. His response was:
What? This sounds human, understanding, and friendly. And he's going to give me the strings I asked him to buy for me, without charging me? Wow. Maybe he's not a complete jerk after all.
I went back alone to Western Union
on Friday morning, right after my morning class. After about an hour of
standing around while forms were filled out, my passport photocopied,
and computer entries made, they sent off the money. Only to get back:
ERROR MAXIMUM AMOUNT EXCEEDED. Turns out you can only send $450 at a
time to Scottsdale, Arizona. No problem, say I. Send it in four
shipments. I'll pay the extra money, which was $25/wire. No, they
said. $450 maximum PER WEEK. So that killed that idea.
It's an interesting feeling, finding something so familiar here. It's very comforting. So the money went off. I sent $1400 for the guitar and $200 for shipping, I'd been quoted $115 for shipping to China, so I figured $200 would be more than enough. I conveyed this news to the seller and got this reply:
What a turn around. Okay, maybe he's actually a nice guy. I'm starting to be really glad I didn't jump ship on the sale. This feels like the classic character arc of every B movie ever written. My life as a clichť.
And finally, a mystery explained. I had been asking him all along to contact me through my regular email:
To which he replied:
Ah, that explains it then. If he had been just a little more communicative, I might not have been forced into a moral dilemma.
So that is almost the end of this long story. My guitar was shipped air freight through UPS. The bad news was that shipping came to, not the $115 as I had been told, but $500 and I had to send another $300 by Western Union. I had been tracking it on the Internet obsessively. At first the tracking information said nobody was answering the phone in Shanghai. I sought help from Ms. Liu and Cherry in our Foreign Affairs office here, and several phone calls later we had contact with an actual person. Then it was time to get forms faxed to the office, and to fax back my passport scan and signature. All of this took us through Friday.
A long wait through Saturday and Sunday, and
then it was morning, Monday, my birthday. I watched the
tracking information. Nothing had changed.
It still insisted that the documentation hadn't been supplied by the
recipient, which was either a conscious lie or a failure to update
because the documentation went to them on Thursday afternoon. I
didn't know whether to be mad at China or at UPS. I went
to the office to see Cherry Cai and to try phoning again. Prospects for
getting it that day seemed dim. But at least I knew where it was,
and could be fairly confident that it would arrive eventually.
So a guitar that cost me $1400 on Ebay cost $500 to ship to China by UPS plus $30 in FedEx charges and $15 in Western Union charges plus $160 in import duties, not to mention taxi costs and time, and I was still waiting to see if it would sound like a Martin D-28 should sound.
I was still checking in on the tracking site for UPS every few minutes. Finally it stated that my guitar had been cleared through customs and was in transit to Wuxi. UPS said "Your item has experienced an exception", but I wonder just how exceptional this was. China may be eager to join the global economy, but this is still China.
Tuesday morning I spoke to Cherry Cai in the Foreign Affairs office. She told me that she had to send another fax to the UPS Shanghai office because of a typo in the address, and that the guitar would not arrive until Wednesday afternoon. Sheesh. I don't think UPS in China was trying very hard.
I really hate China bashing, and try to avoid it. But when something like this develops I can really understand why China gets a bad reputation in the business community. It's such a country of contradictions and contrasts. On the one hand China is all business. On the other they allow this kind of inefficiency to exist and poison their business relationships. My hope is that this will change as the "opening" proceeds.
October 24, 2007, 11:00am and It's Here. Time for the Happy Ending
And the good news is: this guitar seems to be worth every penny. I simply love it. Fantastic clarity. Beautiful high end. Nice solid bass. Easy action all the way up the neck. And just generally a feeling of quality from the beautiful tuning keys to the tactile friendly, unvarnished neck. It has a couple of slight scratches on the pick guard, but as Ruth says, that's what a pick guard is for. And it has a tiny bit of finish cracking near the base of the neck, but that will only improve the sound. I can tell that this is the beginning of a long and happy friendship.
What a ride. Happy Birthday to Me.
And a Final Irony:
I have my problems with PayPal sorted out now, so I could pay with PayPal and avoid all the hassles of FedEx and Western Union. To late, but maybe important for next time.