Friday, October 15, 2010
A Test of Character in Asia
Since I’ve been back from Asia, every few days someone asks me what I did there. I tell them about my work with Hong Kong universities and about the peculiar East-West culture of Hong Kong. And I talk about the new Asian cities – places that make New York and Chicago seem dilapidated, quaint, and dangerous. But I know I’m only skimming the surface. The deeper lessons of my travels in Asia are about self-knowledge. Especially in the poorer countries, numerous events tested me, and they usually proved just exactly how soft-headed and self-deluding I am.
In America, my dreamy brain doesn’t harm me much. Here I don’t have to fight hard for the things I need. But in many places in Asia, to get something as simple as a bag of apples or a souvenir refrigerator magnet of the Great Wall of China, you first have to run a gauntlet of competing vendors who look to grab your arm the moment you slow down or make eye contact. Then, once you do choose a booth, you find yourself face to face with a battle-hardened haggler. Although smiling sweetly, this person is apparently as soulless as a champion poker player and has the power to peer into your soul to see the moral weakling in there twiddling his thumbs and humming a song from nursery school.
Always with me, the seller begins by quoting a ridiculously high price. I say, “No, that’s too much.” But the next step is difficult, because she then asks me to name my own price. I’m always influenced by the initial high quote. When I cut the figure by two-thirds, the woman’s face darkens, as if she’s deeply insulted. But when the real haggling begins, I can tell that I’ve set the bottom too high – well above the price she hoped to get from a tourist.
My wife can tell you that I always walk away saying, “I think I got cheated.” I brood over it, my mood sinks, and I begin to be the sort of person you don’t want to be on vacation with. Finally my wife asks, “How much do you think you overpaid?” “Twenty thousand rupiahs,” I tell her. “Joe, that’s only two dollars,” she says. “Forget about it.” She doesn’t understand that it isn’t about the money; it’s the fact that I lost again. In my struggle to get a good price, in the test of my ability to survive on the streets of Asia, I once again got manhandled.
A trip to Asia reminds you that there was a time, even here in America, when businessman and housewife alike, child and servant, regularly tried their mettle in the art of street bargaining. In many other ways, too, people lived by their wits. In places like Indonesia and Cambodia, at every turn you encounter someone whose primary goal is to get money from you. They are not bad people. In fact, you could find yourself walking away from such a situation, saying to your companion, “That was a really nice man back there who cheated us out of ten dollars.”
Whenever I got myself worked up about some over-charging under-qualified tour guide, I’d think, “I should harden myself. I should make myself as tough as they are.” But the fact is that every cent matters much more to them.
And I don’t want to be the sort of person who is a tough haggler. I enjoy the American luxury of being nice. Even so, I did discover that I could rise to a high level of ferocity in a different kind of situation, at the Chengdu airport. Having arrived at night, we had gone to the taxi stand only to have one driver after another ignore us, taking Chinese passengers instead. People began to cut in front of us, working their way up the line of taxis ahead of us. We moved forward, but the drivers continued to pass us by. Finally, because we had to get into town – we were tired and needed to sleep – I rushed out in front of an unclaimed taxi with my bag, forcing the driver to stop, and also risking an accident. But I had won. This isn’t to say that he didn’t overcharge us a little for the ride, but it was worth every penny.