I saw this coming, but naively I kept my fingers crossed that finding clothes and shoes in China wouldn’t be too challenging. Of course, it’s not exactly easy for me to find things that fit in the United States either, so I’m not sure what I was thinking now that I exist in a world of short, slim men. I was hopefully optimistic, I suppose.
Even by U.S. standards, I am very tall. Not “whoa, look at him!” tall, but at 6’4” I am usually the tallest person in a room. In addition to being tall I am not fat/wide (a concept most clothing companies do not grasp). I have broad shoulders and a narrow waist, which I suppose is a blessing, however it makes the search for clothing difficult at times. I also wear a size 14 shoe. Usually when I go into a Foot Locker they bring out 3-5 boxes from the back, the hideous pairs no one wanted. There are some options. For years I have mostly ordered my sneakers directly from Nike.com. But now I’m in China.
My first hurdle came when I needed to replace my beat-up Nikes. I asked my translator where I could find the largest selection of sneakers in Nanjing and he promptly suggested Xinjiekou, a shopaholic mega-center. Xinjiekou is in the heart of downtown Nanjing where the two metro lines intersect (think Metro Center, Washington D.C., or Penn Station, NYC). Jenny and I spotted a mall with an entire floor dedicated to selling sneakers. There had to be one pair of 14’s inside.
Without speaking Chinese I proceeded to search every sneaker store on the floor (about two dozen) which included Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and many other Chinese brands such as Anta and Li Ning. The process was simple – I would walk into the store, take off my sneaker and point to the European size inside the shoe. But, without fail, I got an immediate expression of shock with a head-shaking “No”. Either that, or the saleswoman sent somebody else to the back of the store who would return a minute later with a size 11, as if that was remotely close to a 14. More often than not they called over additional employees to repeatedly point at my feet while giggling uncontrollably. I mumbled, “Xie xie” (thank you) and walked away feeling like a giant.
The entire process grew more frustrating with each successive store. I thought for sure I would find one pair of unwanted sneakers in a dusty box in the back of some closet. No luck. Although I did not search every sneaker store in Nanjing, I can say with confidence, there are NO size 14 sneakers in this city.
As comical as the situation was, it wasn’t terribly different from my experience in the U.S. (minus the pointing and giggling). At home, however, I can easily go online and order sneakers in my size within minutes. Determined to replace my worn-out Nikes, I managed to navigate the Nike China website, only to discover they did not offer my size online either. (Although even if they did, I have no idea how I would have ordered a pair since I can’t read Chinese.)
Why can’t I find shoes that fit in China? I am surrounded by Chinese basketball players who are taller than me and aren’t walking around barefoot. There had to be “giant” shoes somewhere. So, I dug deeper. I found out that all of the players’ sneakers are provided by the CBA sponsor Anta… for free. Perks of being a pro athlete! The second, and more shocking, discovery I found is that I have the biggest feet on the team. Even the guys who are 6’10” and the assistant coach who is just shy of 7 feet all wear size 12 or 13. The moment I discovered this is when I was certain that I am too big for China.
Convinced I would never find sneakers, I was prepared to accept the steep international shipping fees it would cost to have them mailed from the U.S. But, it was my lucky day. An older player, Meng Da (pronounced Moon Dah), presented me with a box containing brand new Anta sneakers, size 13.5. That’ll do. He called Anta and kindly asked them to mail a pair of sneakers for me. Simple solution, and they were free. In preparation for the season Anta sweetened the deal and supplied all the players and coaches with new gear. I now have a new sports wardrobe which consists of 3 more pairs of sneakers. Cha-ching! (I have no idea how I’ll get all these clothes back to the U.S., but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.)
After solving my sneaker problem, and being given a year’s worth of sneakers, I figured my over-sized dilemma was over. Unfortunately, it was not the end of my “too big for China” problems.
On Wednesday, I casually showed up to morning practice to find dozens of cameras in the gym. It was the official photo shoot for the season (an event I was uninformed about in advance and, of course, I had an unshaven scruffy beard). The shoot was for team pictures and profile pictures along with cheesy poses that the players had to do for the media guide. I was wearing an outfit you’d expect to see a strength and conditioning coach wearing (a matching pair of sweats). Thankfully I didn’t look like a bum. The other coaches, however, were wearing suits and looked surprised to see me in casual gear. They told me I would need to wear a suit for games. Great. Guess what I didn’t pack? I had contemplated bringing my suit to China but decided it was overkill and instead packed khakis, dress shirts, ties, and leather shoes. And so, the following day, I journeyed downtown to buy a suit. (At this point you can probably guess where this is going.)
Jenny and I went suit shopping in the same building we searched for sneakers, on the next floor up, which is dedicated entirely to men’s dresswear. Knowing what I was getting myself into I quickly went to a sales lady, picked up a suit, and made a hand motion indicating I needed a bigger size for my shoulders. She immediately went to the very back of the rack and pulled off the last one. Miraculously, the jacket fit. (I’m slightly slimmer since being in China.) I checked the size on the jacket and began my search. In most stores they had jackets that fit, however, they were always at the very back of the rack. Hey, at least I had options.
Since Chinese suits are slightly different, sometimes shimmery (think of a suit a gangster might wear), sometimes glittery, and slightly feminine (thin collars give the jackets this appearance) I did not want to spend a lot of money on a suit I wasn’t fond of. I managed to find one in the major discount section of the mall. Being in the center of the shopping floor, there was no dressing room so I asked the sales lady to measure my leg length and waist. I did the super accurate “hold the pants up to your body” assessment and the pair of slacks appeared to be ideal. I purchased them and was happy to have found an inexpensive suit that fit with minimal effort.
When I got back to the apartment I tried the suit on for good measure. At first glance the suit fit well, while standing. Then Jenny, staring at my quizzically, asked if I could move well in the outfit. We realized that I could not sit down in the pants. The waist and leg length fit perfectly, however my thighs/hips/butt must be larger than the average Chinese man because any minimal movement made the pants look like they were painted onto my skin. (If big feet are not Chinese, neither are beefy thighs.) I carefully tried doing some lunges and squats to see if the pants would loosen up a bit, but it was clear that if I moved too fast I would rip the pants right down the middle!
Feeling like a giant again, and before panic-mode set in, we decided to venture across the street to a clothing super center called Huanbei in hopes of find anything that fit. This was our first time in Huanbei, so we weren’t sure what to expect. An entire blog post could probably be dedicated to pictures of the inside of this shopping mania. It appears to be a very inexpensive collection of clothing wholesalers with hundreds of (mostly) women roaming the place and buying in bulk to resell elsewhere (at least this is Jenny’s and my guess). The place is infested with people, most “stores” are tiny and haphazardly organized, and it feels like you are walking around a maze.
Amazingly enough, we turned a corner to discover a small suit shop. The store owners were so thrilled to see me walk in that they instantly began pulling suits off the walls for me to try on. One of the women kept making the shape of an upside down triangle, indicating my shoulders and waist were hard to fit. (The average Chinese man has shoulders not much wider then his hips.) Despite this challenge, they found both a jacket and pants that fit (and were not shiny – BONUS !). Just to be sure, I tried the pants on over my jeans, did a few squats, and felt confident that they fit properly. I bargained with them (in true Chinese custom) and walked out, shopping bag in hand.
Of course, fifteen minutes later while trying the suit in our apartment, one of the buttons on the jacket flew off. I just about lost it, but Jenny stayed calm and sewed it back on flawlessly.
Now that I own 4 pairs of size 13.5 sneakers, a suit, and a bunch of free Anta athletic gear, I’m hoping I NEVER have to go clothes shopping in China ever again.