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  • Blonde in Beijing

Sales Strategies of Beijing Balloon Men

If you ever date a Chinese man, expect to be lambasted by balloon men (and sometimes women) constantly. What are balloon men? These are people who make their living by selling balloons at inflated prices. They specialize in standing in locations where their balloons will be seen by children (who will subsequently beg their parents for a balloon) or by young women (who will subsequently beg their boyfriends for a balloon as a representation of their love.) The balloons are in the shape of Hello Kitty or big red hearts or a teddy bear, etc.

The richer the man looks, naturally, the more expensive the price of the balloon. In a country where “face” is everything, a man does not want the humiliation of telling the balloon man that he cannot afford the price of the balloon. Many of the balloon men wait outside of nightclubs, selling balloons at 2am. (Normally, after a few drinks, girls are most insistent about their desire for a balloon. Additionally, men’s judgement has been likewise deteriorated by the alcohol, meaning the balloon men can charge even higher prices.) It is like shooting sitting ducks.

However, all balloon men know that they have hit the balloon price jackpot when they see a Chinese man with a western woman. They try every guilt trip in the book. “You have to buy her a balloon. She is never going to stay with a man who doesn’t show her that he loves her. You are going to lose her.” They will follow you down the road, outlining every man’s worst fears about how his relationship could fall apart.

As you can probably guess, I know this from personal experience. I had just started seeing a Chinese guy and we were constantly lambasted by such balloon men. He remained strong, however, until we ran into an old Chinese woman, who was trying to sell us a Scooby Doo balloon. I do not know what she told my then-boyfriend. I was trying to hurry past, but he grabbed my arm and made me stop. He looked deep into my eyes and with desperation, he said, “I must buy you this balloon.”

I looked over at the balloon lady. My Chinese wasn’t too good at the time, but I had heard the phrase 两百, which means that she was about to sell him this balloon for 200 RMB. Looking over at her, I could tell that she thought that she had hit the jackpot. “I don’t want the balloon,” I replied.

Panic spread across his face and he began talking to the balloon lady – back and forth, they talked. He finally turned to me, “Grandma says that you will really like this balloon.”

It was 1am and I was tired and ready to go back to the university; I had lost all patience with this Scooby Doo balloon. On top of the ridiculously exorbitant price, we were going to have to take a car back, and I knew that there wasn’t enough space in the backseat for me, him, and a giant three-foot-tall balloon, “This woman isn’t your grandma!” I exclaimed.

“I know she’s not MY grandma, but she is someone’s grandma. And grandmas know about relationships. She says that this balloon will make you feel special.”

By now, an entire crowd had formed around us and I was mortified beyond all belief. “Tell grandma that American women don’t like balloons.” He delivered the bad news to the balloon woman, who pursed her lips, but could tell by the look in my eyes, that whatever she said was going nowhere.

This is just a little anecdote. But if I were to come up with a moral, it would be: If you don’t want a balloon, be strong. You can walk out of an encounter with a balloon man without a balloon.