Bargaining is a fact of life in Malaysia. Many Asians consider it a financial necessity and it also serves as part of their entertainment – I think. They are good at it. I hate it.
In the first few months in Malaya, I didn’t understand why my friends were always asking “what did you pay for that?’ or “how much did that cost?” Seldom could I say anything but “I don’t remember.” I wanted to say, “my, but that is nosey” but didn’t. Eventually I came to understand that they were trying to build up their data base and hone their bargaining skills for the first rule of bargaining. That is, to know the worth of the item you want to buy. This was one of the many reasons that I was never good at bargaining because I did not have a “worth” database.
However, that is not the only reason I’m not good at it. Other reasons: I don’t have the patience for it and resented the time that it took. I just hated going to the market where I had to bargain for everything. One vendor for the potatoes, another for green beans, etc. Another reason is that I don’t like to infer that what I want is not worth what is being asked. It somehow seems belittling. Also, often the people you are buying from are poorer than you and are just trying to make an honest living.
I know that the worst that can happen is that the vendors say “no.” I also have a fear of appearing foolish even if I know that the vendor sets his prices, fully expecting that people are going to haggle and when they don’t, the vendor makes more profit. I went into the Indian shop across street from where I lived and struck another kind of a bargain with him: I would shop with him for all of my groceries if he would give me a fair price without haggling. Done.
While I may have had bargaining successes, I don’t recall any. However, knowing that an “orang puteh” (white man) could never get the good prices that the locals could, I asked by friend Baradas Gopal if he would help me buy a tape recorder. I needed one so that I could tape Malay folk songs. I needed to transcribe them and arrange them for the choirs that I was directing. For a person with my near empty pockets it would be a sizeable investment. With me in tow, Baradas took me to the shop where I observed this transaction. It was a verbal boxing match where both sides laughed, they cried, they pleaded, they used coercion, they retreated, they attacked, they withdrew – all was completely friendly. In the first five minutes, the price came down from $100 to $90. I was ready to pay and go home, but no, Baradas had only begun. We all had drinks, the boxing match continued, interspersed with talk about the weather, the restaurant next door and anything else that would delay the process. Thirty minutes later the price was down two more dollars. I was tired of this transaction and was fit to be tied. Finally, Baradas signaled that I should pay the $88 and we could go – tape recorder in hand.
I do recall several wonderful failures that I can now laugh at.
On my December 1963 trip to Bangkok, I was looking around at many souvenir shops. I was mostly looking, for I didn’t have a great deal of money to waste. At one of the shops I saw some very nice bronze candlesticks – ones that came in parts that you screwed together to make them tall. I thought that they were very nice, but as a strategy, I didn’t focus on them at first. I thought that it would show too much interest, so I saw some small teak elephants in which I had no interest, but just to open our conversation, I asked about them and their price. The price was cheap. My strategy then was to change the subject and talk about the candlesticks in which I was interested. We bargained back and forth. Note, that in order to get a lower price, I have trouble saying how ugly things that I want are. We came to an agreement that I was pleased with even though it probably was too high. In bargaining one always thinks that it could have been bought for less. Nevertheless, I was pleased and asked him to ship them to my sister, Emmalu, in Vernon, Texas. The shopkeeper asked me if I wanted the elephants. I said “No, I only want the candlesticks.” Everyone was happy.
Two months later, my sister wrote asking what she was to do with fifty little teak elephants. She had not received any bronze candlesticks!
When my friend Alice Lage went to Bangkok, at my request, she went to the shop and asked about the mistake. The shopkeeper was surprised but said “Yes, yes, I will send the brass candlestick without delay” and “no, no, we should not return the elephants.”
The candlesticks never arrived and my sister gave the elephants to delighted neighborhood children.
In another Bangkok shop I was looking in a window and saw a group of nice looking “cat’s eye” rings. The source countries for cat’s-eyes are India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Brazil. The shop keeper picked up one to show it to me, whereupon I said “I don’t wear rings.” He responded “nice gentleman like you should have ring” and placed it on my finger. Being called a gentleman was new to me. The ring fitted perfectly but I still didn’t want it. In bargaining, an agreed upon price is a verbal contract and one that one should never be broken – especially by a gentleman. One strategy is to ask the price, offer far less, and walk away. When I asked the price he said 50 baht. I replied “I wouldn’t give you over 20 baht for it.” I was flabbergasted when he said “OK.” I walked out of the shop 20 baht poorer.
I gave it to Perry Daroesman, the son of Ruth, a friend of mine. I later found that this inexpensive chrysoberyl stone is famous for warding off evil. It can profitably be worn by politicians, who aspire for higher positions and authority. However, the malefic effect is to cause loss of reputation and to increase jealousies and rivalries. I think that I am glad that I gave it away and hope that Perry has not been affected by its malicious qualities.
Next, at the end of the first year in Malaysia, the Peace Corps gave us volunteers $50 for a new wardrobe. It helped but was not adequate. I had many needs: my most urgent needs however were for new pants and new boxer underwear. I had lost over 20 pounds and could take my pants off without unzipping. I decided to drill a new hole in my belt and tighten it around my waist rather than new pants, but boxers had to be replaced. I went to the open air pasar mingu (night market) at which most of Malaysia shopped. I bargained and bargained and was successful, so I thought, in getting a good price. I was pleased as one can get over new underwear.
A separate memoir is to be written about my wash amah but I now need to give you a brief peek preview. A friend had located for me a wash amah who would pickup all of my dirty laundry once a week and return it clean for the unbelievable cheap price of 21 ringget (US $7 a month). When my shorts came back from the amah’s after the first washing, there was no elastic left in them. The only thing that stopped them from coming down was the crotch in my pants.
After buying a supply of safety pins, I felt secure for the rest of my Peace Corps tenure.
I suppose that you get what you pay for.