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7/1/10 Haggling in the Chinatown Souq

The first time I went to Chinatown, it was in New York City. I felt quickly overwhelmed by the foreign smells, sights (Is that really a carcass hanging in the butcher shop?!?), crowding, noise, bustle, and general feeling of barely controlled mayhem.

I've been to a few other Chinatowns since then - DC's has a special place in my heart - and then I spent two years in Morocco. Which, while not Chinese, has its share of open-air markets (called souq), complete with carcass-y butcher shops and dishonest vendors, adding up to its own style of a haggling, shoving, bustling mayhem.

So when I went to San Francisco's Chinatown a little while ago, instead of feeling out of place, like in my first NYC attempt, I found myself simultaneously homesick and right at home. Homesick for Morocco, where I learned to master the souq, to haggle with the best of them, to sneer at unworthy merchandise in hopes of scoring more worthy products...

Plus, some of the products were similar. Like the scarves. I had a two-year love affair with Moroccan scarves, and brought a few dozen back with me. And here, in San Francisco's Chinatown, I found hundreds more in the styles I've come to love! I looked at the prices, wrinkled my forehead, and quickly converted the prices into dirhams. Then my eyes widened with the delight of a shopper who's found a deal.

I did this a few times, for various products, before really consciously realizing what I was doing. And then I had to laugh at myself.

When I first came to Morocco, I converted prices into US dollars, to make sense of the incomprehensible dirhams and riyals. (Riyals are worth 1/20th of a dirham. It's like giving prices in nickels. I, like so many other Moroccan PCVs, am now capable of remarkable mental math feats as long as they involve multiplying or dividing by 20.)

And now, freshly back in America, I'm coverting prices into dirhams, to know if I'm getting a fair deal. Because I have no idea what scarves are supposed to sell for in America, but I know exactly how much I can get them for in Morocco. (25 dirhams apiece in Essaouira, 20 if you find the right guy in the Fes medina, and 40 in Rabat where they're made of better quality fibers. Tourists typically pay 5 to 10 times these prices, but that's 'cause they don't know what they're doing.)

I was in Chinatown with my sister and a friend, who looked up to see what I was laughing about. I explained it to them. My sister the scientist, always looking to make rational sense of the universe, loftily announced that this was entirely normal, and due to the fact that I'd had more scarf-shopping experience in Morocco than in the US. She's not wrong - I don't think I've ever bought a scarf in America - but that's not the whole answer, either. It's about familiarity. Comfort zones. Associations. Chinatown, with its bright colors and rapidfire negotiations and delicious smells, feels more like souq than anyplace I've been in a long time. So of course I'm going to react like I'm in souq - with a sharp eye for a bargain, a savvy sense of fair prices, and a comfort level in, yes, Moroccan dirhams.

In a related note - America money feels like play money to me now. Much like the multicolored Moroccan money did when I first got there. (20 Dh notes are purple, 50's are green, 100's beige, and 200's blue. These last are sometimes called "Big Blues" instead of "Two hundreds".) While I was away, American money changed color. The 5 turned purple. The 10 turned orange. The faces grew and shifted their locations slightly. The 1's retain their classic appearance, but have the buying power of dandilion fluff. How long have I been gone?!?

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