May 26, 2011
My 7-UP of Shame
I had a free day here in Mysore a couple of weeks back. All of our recruitment efforts for the study were done and we were just waiting to get some calls of interested participants. I went out with no particular destination in mind, as I heard this kind of roaming around in a new city (or country) is the best way to learn about the area and meet new people. After about 30 minutes, I came past a rickshaw driver and we exchanged looks and either he liked seeing a wandering foreigner that he could take around or he was just happy to see someone smiling back at him; whatever the case may have been, I gladly approached him and asked him if he could show me around Mysore. I was thrilled when he responded with very decent English and my memorable day officially began.
I’m still very disappointed in myself; after the first and only time he told me his name, I forgot very shortly after and never summed up the courage to ask him later. With our exchange of names and a look into his decal-clad rickshaw, we found we were both Muslim and got to talking a little bit about Muslim life in India, and he thought it would be cool to take me to some historical sites of Tippu Sultan, the last Muslim ruler in the area before the arrival of the British East India Company. My new friend served as my unofficial tour guide, and after about 15 kilometers (an absurd distance to travel in a rickshaw), we arrived at a burial ground for many members of Tippu Sultan’s family. There were several coffins adorned with colorful flowers and the whole site was very impressive. We continued to several other sites around the city, including an entire museum dedicated to Tippu Sultan. When he asked if I was interested in buying some silk or sandstone, two staple goods of the historic city, I gladly agreed and we started driving to one store he told me was particularly fond of.
As he had been doing on our previous stops, my friend/rickshaw driver/tour guide sacrificed other fares and parked the rickshaw to join me in the store, which has both beautiful silk cloths and an adjacent store filled with sandstone items with its own mini-factory. At this point I can’t remember if all the tips my friends and trip advisors gave me about shopping in India were shuffling through my head; what I can clearly remember is that none of those tips were put into practice, and very soon after I would wonder how I could possibly spend so much money.
The silk store was very nice and so were the merchants. They sat me down in front of a mattress they would stand, brought me a cold drink, and began showing me some amazing silk pieces that I wanted to get for my mother. My friend Eman, a Summer in South Asia fellow last June, wisely cautioned me to not show too much enthusiasm when I am presented with any goods, as this would tell the seller that I was overly-interested in buying the item, sacrificing any bargaining power I might have had (to be fair though, I think my bargaining power dropped as soon as they saw me). As I mentioned, this advice was not put into practice and I was beaming with every piece the merchant showed me. He of course assumed these smiles signaled a “yes” to the question of my interest in the item. He had stacked way too many pieces for me to take, and even after I pushed hard for him to cut the pile in half, I was still carrying too much. I bought several other things from the silk store, and when I was done, I handed my debit card with very little hesitation, partially arrogant with my dollar’s purchasing power and partially proud of my ‘bargain hunting.’ They actually had to split my bill in half because it was too large, so they swiped the card twice and my initial worries came but quickly left. The cashier kindly gestured me to the next shop, filled with sandstone items.
There were so many wonderful things here too and I had so many people to get gifts for, so I began plucking off small items like pens and lion figures assuming they would be relatively cheap, and again when I went to the cashier, I was fine with my slight splurge in spending since I took care of all of my gift-shopping. I went to the cashier and when the card wasn’t working, my worry officially set in. My card usually works even when there’s a slight overdraft, but this could only mean I had gone way too far. I was actually semi-relieved because I unabashedly gave them the false promise that I would come back another day perhaps and purchase the items, since I didn’t have cash with me. For some reason or another I told them I had enough cash to pay at the PHRI house to pay for the goods, and instead of trusting me to come back, they sent one of the young clerks in the rickshaw back to the house to get the money on the spot. After I had counted out the rest of my trip’s cash for the young fellow, I returned to my room and was glad my suffering could finally stop.
After a couple hours of working on my project, I logged onto my bank account to make sure there were no problems and my heart sank when I saw my statement showing a large number in parentheses that meant I overspent by a good amount. I didn’t spend THAT much money, I thought, and my clever, soon-to-be-proven silly detective skills pointed out that the card indeed did work on my final purchase and the store inadvertently asked for cash as well, doubling my purchase. I rushed downstairs to speak with the staff and to seek their help, and Dr. Reshma and Lakshman gladly skipped going home on time and accompanied me to the store to help me deal with the miscommunication. At the time, I really wished I could take a picture of the scene. To prove the mistake in the sale, the store managers kindly allowed me to log on to the computer with Internet access near the cashier to show them my bank account. They even brought me a 7-UP to sip while the computer was loading and I was logging in to my account. There were several people crowded around me at the computer, and I was worried that I would either upset these store workers who had helped me earlier or make a fool of myself. It took several minutes of shuffling through the bills and doing the Dollars-to-Rupees math to figure it out, but one smart worker finally discovered our (my) slip in thinking: the statement shown on my bank account was indeed a different purchase than the one I made in cash, I had simply confused the transactions since the amounts were only a few cents in difference. I went through everything I bought, added it up, converted it to dollars, and the clerk was indeed right. I had simply neglected one of the sales and, in hopes of minimizing my damages, tricked myself into thinking I was charged twice for a sale. Dr. Reshma and Lakshman were gladly explaining on my behalf the whole time before the discovery, but I grasped the whole ordeal very quickly and my heart sank even futher. I had dragged two of the PHRI staff from their families and wasted time of several of the workers so they could sort through my messy logic. I was embarrassed and began to get up from my stool but the workers insisted that I relax and enjoy the rest of my 7-UP. They overlooked all my insensitivity in asking them to explain themselves, and were persistent in asking me to relax and finish my drink. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what those last drops of 7-UP tasted like.
I gave myself a couple of weeks to write this blog because I knew anything I think to include in a post immediately would be extremely bitter. I definitely did not like India after contemplating how much I spent and how i got ripped off. My friends at PHRI estimated that I was charged probably four times as much than an Indian would have been charged, or at least have been to able to bargain for. But looking back now, I feel blessed for several reasons. First, my parents trusted me with enough money to cover for a mistake like this, and were only concerned with my safety as opposed to my bank statement. Second, the folks at PHRI were also very warm in reassuring me and showing me support. I was visibly distraught after the entire ordeal and they didn’t hesitate to pick me up. Looking back on how down I was makes me laugh because of how ridiculous it seems now, but I definitely appreciated their support at the time. There are about 25 staff members at PHRI, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I received about 10 different lectures about why I should ask that particular staff member to go with me when I go shopping and that I should have known better. Some were so concerned that the physical toll of shopping spree actually transferred to them; Siddhu, in his limited English, simply pointed to his head and said, “Tension, tension,” to say that he himself was upset and worried for me.
I have made a full recovery and am glad to say that I’m in love with India once again after our brief turmoil. If any other Summer in South Asia Fellows or future travelers to India are reading this, I wanted to quickly offer three suggestions based off my experience to append the advice you’ve gotten from Ms. Zilka Joseph, the Center for South Asian Studies, and other friends you may have spoken to, among other sources:
• The main thing is mindset: shopping in India or anywhere else for that matter is a means, not an end. Have a purpose for when you shop, because having an end goal that you want to reach through shopping will help you remember that you aren’t in the store so you can just say you bought stuff in India. What happens if you make shopping an end as opposed to a means? You will buy everything you like and will not be able to say no. If your purpose is to get gifts for several people, it becomes a cinch to say ‘no’ to that button down shirt, something I couldn’t do embarrassingly enough. Making shopping an end will make you buy that shirt and other equivalent items of better value available in the US that can be bought for the same price or cheaper, since your goal will be to shop in India. If you want to get gifts, write down all your names and just get that many items.
• Before you walk into the door of the store, leave your credit cards in your room and walk in only with the amount of cash that your budget would allow you to spend at that particular store. If you have the discipline to carry the credit cards and not spend them, that’s great. This approach may lead to you not being able to get all the things you want at once, but this will give you time to re-prioritize your goals for shopping (read above!) and check again just how much you have to spend. In terms of saving money, it is always better to spend on separate occasions than all at once.
• If at all possible, take someone you trust well with you to shop, especially for the more fancy stuff like silk. Even if you have some grasp of the language and are confident in your bargaining skills, the merchant will still be able to tell in a heartbeat that you’re a foreigner and most likely don’t know the true value of some goods anyways. There’s no shame in saying you know less than someone who’s lived somewhere his or her whole life when it comes to knowing how much something is worth. Note: this person you trust can’t just be some nice person you met on the street, except in very rare circumstances! Someone like that would see you once then leave, but the people you work with for example care the most about you and won’t get commission off of what you spend!
Sorry if this seems patronizing or redundant, I don’t mean for that. I do assume that everyone probably has better strategies (please share them!) but I really hope no one feels bitter for a couple days like I did. If anything, it’s just a reminder to be focused when you shop, lest you be generously offered a soft drink that you’ll have to drink with shame.
Posted by nhhakim at May 26, 2011 07:11 AM