I’m not much of a shopper, most definitely a weak bargainer. And that put me at a severe disadvantage for today’s mission: to shop. Since uncle was gracious enough to spend his Saturday taking us to a few choice malls and markets, we started the day with some mild hustling at the Chinese sabzi mandi. Once again the sad, cute strays, trudging amidst heaps of beautiful looking vegetables: bright purple eggplant, perfectly crafted Chinese cabbage (which looks like fancy lettuce) and gigantic squash type green vegetables that weighed as much as a baby whale. Or at least a baby human.
We bought enough vegetables to set up a small mandi of our own and as we drove off, I saw a lady holding her adorable baby in her lap, his butt exposed to the world, and almost as disturbingly, to the vegetables all around her. I hoped she was just airing his baby behind and not mistaking the middle of her cabbage stall for a bathroom cubicle.
We passed more crumbling walls, dusty, potholed roads and bare shops on our way downtown but then the landscape changed. It was as sudden as erasing an untidy drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch and replacing it with a lovely, completely different picture. Beautiful architecture, shimmering skyscrapers we couldn’t see the tops of without craning our necks, clean highways, brighter colors everywhere. Even the sun came out from behind clouds and we finally saw that the sky in Beijing too could be blue. ‘If only Pakistan could be this developed too,’ my dad said wistfully. I countered with my definition of development, reminded him of the neighborhood we walked into just yesterday, the pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the overworked labor class. I’d rather have a better education system than a skyline of shiny buildings, I told him. Not that we have that either but we have to get our priorities right. China’s bullet train we do not need; Kerala’s literacy rate, a much better goal to aspire towards.
I heard my first English words from the Chinese in the four-storey shopping center we went to. From pearls to sneakers to more iPhone covers than the mind can comprehend – and the only words the salespeople can speak are to goad you into buying their wares.
There is insane bargaining here, we had been forewarned in Pakistan and reminded by uncle. You can get whatever you want, just let me negotiate the price, my dad said and I reluctantly agreed.
But then we walked into the bag section and Abu went somewhere else …
If you so much as looked at something for longer than two seconds, the overzealous shopkeepers would wave it in your face, ‘you like?’ and if God forbid you asked how much, they would whip out their calculators, write down an arbitrary figure and then when I dutifully made the incredulous face of a diehard bargainer, they would slash it by 20% and if the incredulity increased, cut it down further. The trouble with me is I start to feel bad. At one of the stalls in the bag section, I asked the price of an impeccable Gucci copy. ‘RNB1,230 but for you, RNB640!” the sweet looking salesgirl told me, automatically cutting the price down because she felt an instant, hard-to-deny kindred connection with me. Follow the incredulous face and two reductions, then like everyone else, she handed me the calculator and asked me to name a price. I consulted with mom who told me I should write down RNB50 but I was horrified. The asking price had been like 13 times more than that (I had to use a calculator to figure this out and even now I’m not sure I did the math right)! “I can’t mom, that’s just shameful,” and I typed 80 and showed it to mom and then the lady. Her eyes nearly fell out in theatrical amazement. Since we didn’t actually have any money with us and had to wait for dad to dish out the dough, we walked off. But the lady actually followed us with the bag in her hand, shouted louder when we tried to ignore her and then took us by the arm and back to the shop. ‘You take it, 80!’ she said.
I was incredibly proud of my feat till mom showed the bag to uncle and he confirmed her suspicions. ‘I would have gotten it for you for 40,’ he said and my joy deflated, but only a little bit, because I knew I was incapable of this high level skill. My dad made it up on the second bag purchase which I happily told him to handle. This was just too difficult. The salespeople were almost violent in their zeal to sell your something for an unethical profit and I could see too many amazing knockoffs to put my wallet in.
‘I can’t do this, I’m really stressed out,’ I told my parents, my mom agreed and my dad did too – at least then. We went to two more shopping centers and by the end of it, my dad felt he had perfected the skill of striking the right deal.
‘You just have to write down the lowest number possible and start from there,’ he told us and I patted him on the back because I was extremely pleased with the black teapot I got.
We have decided, however, to not go shopping tomorrow. Maybe some other day this week – I do want to get more deliciously cheap, great-looking, fake-branded bags.
Helpful fact: One Yuan is roughly equal to 18.5 rupees.