Shopping, I feel is a very interesting way to explore cultures, not just when you are discovering new places, but also when you want to understand people.
Nicky n’ Sue – my friends from university days in Aberdeen, were metro sexual couple who loved to shop! In the two years I had known them, Nicky had gone through eight mobile phones. Both regular deal hunters – Sue could tell you exactly what aisle of the department you would find the deal of the day. While Nicky, a non- smoker, fitness expert once bought a pack of cigar for the flat 50% discount on it! Nicky and other guys I knew later were my revelation to men’s love for shopping.
Male exasperation over the women’s shop ‘itch’ makes for some priceless humor. Harrods’, London is a great place to overhear such grumblings. Harrods’ is a great high street store, where one can buy the best brands from around the world. The first amusing sight I saw on entering was a long line of men and women standing outside the restroom – the reason I discovered was the branded perfumes kept for free trial. Harrods’ is a ‘Vanity’ Fair!!! While goofing around the furniture department I overheard a harrowed husband following his frenzied wife telling her, “Honey, the parking meter must be upwards forty quid, we’ve been here over two hours!” The proper British expression “Good gracious!” and struggle to hide a snigger would sum up my reaction! It was amusing to see that the fashionably dressed wife hadn’t purchased anything! I have observed often, though High street stores are crowded, people generally buy nothing. Once an affluent friend told me that he took pictures of the suits he liked and got them stitched from his local tailor at lesser price.
I like street shopping, especially when travelling. It is an interesting way to explore local cultures. The colours, merchandise, people are exclusive and their indigenous habits get reflected most obviously. I have walked through Colaba Causeway numerous times over the years, and every time I see someone or something interesting. Once I saw a guy selling drums chasing a foreigner making his offer in every foreign language he had picked from people I’m assuming he’d overheard. I was clueless about most languages he spoke though I could make out he was switching languages every time the foreigner shook his head to indicate a ‘no’.
Bargaining is a unique experience of street shopping; even a small discount is a big victory! In some cultures bargaining is an essential part of shopping. My Guajarati friends are priceless gifts with their “nothing wrong in asking” motto. Once a friend asked for a two rupee discount over our thirty two rupees bill for some stationary we purchased at the shop. When I pointed out the “fixed rates” sign in exasperation, she gave me a “What’s the harm in asking?” Amusingly, the shopkeeper gave in! When I visited her in Ahmadabad, she took me to a big souvenir shop and went about the routine of asking a discount on my purchase. It amused me how the shopkeeper put up just enough fight to convince my friend to settle for what I’m guessing was the real price. The incident reminded me of something I’d read about the meaning of bargain in a book – “a price where the buyer and seller both think they outsmarted the other and got a better deal!”
My experience with the Chinese has made me understand why they sell cheap. They have no patience for bargaining! While browsing through a shop in Chinatown with friends at Singapore I picked up an umbrella. When I was about to open it to see the design, I heard a curt “Dhownth open!” Turning around we saw an old Chinese lady with wrinkled eyes and tight lips glaring at us. I told her I wanted to see the design. She transformed into a Chinese dragon roaring “Aeverybody come, aeverybody open, aeverybody see…but no buy! Fust buy, then see!” We stumbled out before she gouged our eyes! We walked into another shop to buy my friend a music player and asked if we could check the player, the poker faced sales boy nodded “After you buy” – swinging between amused and exasperated we just gave into him wondering how the Chinese managed to sell so much to the world!
In Africa, open markets are the easiest places to shop. Onitsha, in Nigeria is the largest open market in Africa. I remember the huge market selling clothes, kitchenware, electronics, African artifacts and just about anything! This market seemed to go on forever. Shopping in Marche Danktopa in Republique du Benin taught me numbers in French. I thought learning numbers in all languages would be good to tide me through language barriers to bargain in new places until a colleague at work, who’d visited Thailand, told me his experience – “He punched a number on the calculator, then I punched another number on the calculator, we went on till I won!” Brilliant, the directions technology can take!
Most of my experiences revolving around places to shop have revealed how similar people are around the world despite being different. The scene at Harrod’s, I have observed in several places. The cunning rigidity of the Chinese seller, however, is unique to them.
There is a lot of this world I am yet to see, to make stronger comments, but I’m sure these amusements will never stop rolling.