Monday, December 6, 2010

Wednesday Night Stories: Multilingual Christmas Shopping

In honor of the season of shopping and gifts that is in full swing (or if you're like me, you haven't even thought of starting), I am gifting you with a post about the wonders of shopping for Christmas while overseas. (However, if you're interested in a movement to redeem Christmas from consumerism and point it towards blessing others check out the awesome folks at

Two years ago, I was in East Asia for Christmas, but there was still gifts to be bought. In East Asia, almost all shopping is done in a bargaining process. The first price is never the real price, especially for a foreigner with limited language skills, so the customer and the owner will barter back and forth until they can strike some sort of agreement.

Every person should have the honor of seeing a feisty, elderly East Asian woman battle with a shopkeeper over the price of celery. It is amazing. Flurries of words. Angry tones. You would swear they were about to fight . . . then they agree on a price and everyone smiles, money changes hands and she look at the carrots (only to repeat the process 20 seconds later).

I love it.

However, I'm not at all skilled in this art myself and usually got ripped off. But a blind squirrel finds and acorn eventually and once I managed to outsmart the system. And we'll focus on my success here, not my failure.

For my Christmas shopping I went to a large market that sells everything under the sun and is very popular with tourists. Because of the influx of foreigners most all of the shopkeepers here could speak at least marginal English. This, seemingly a blessing, robbed my friend Mandi and I of our greatest weapon, the Secret Language.

Secret Languages are great. When you and your group are the only English speakers within half a mile it creates a tremendous freedom.

But, alas, at the large market I had no secret language. I was looking to buy a stone stamp for my dad with the traditional East Asian character for his name on it (because is there any better way to sign a document than that!?), but I was pretty lost as to what price I should offer.

This is a big moment. If you start too high, you'll only go higher and higher. If you start too low, the owner might refuse to sell to you all together. So this was a crucial moment.

However, this is when Mandi and I realized we had a trick up our sleeves. While the owner would easily understand us if we tried to discuss strategy together in English, this shopkeeper didn't know a word of Spanish. So we stopped and openly discussed the opening price in our flawless 11th grade Spanish and after a few moments the shopkeeper looked up with a disappointed look on his face and said (in East Asian), "Ah, Spanish . . . " (clearly we weren't the first people to use this tactic).

It was a rare moment of language victory for me and oh yes, it was cherished.