I have forgotten… oh, how many times I will say that in the coming months! I have forgotten that bartering, in Thailand, is social interaction a la Facebook. Nothing sells for its face value in this culture without deep disappointment on all sides, for the challenge, the respect, the testing, the drama, the joy, and the understanding of culture is all embedded in the exchange between two people as they barter over goods and services in this culture. So, where was my first missed opportunity and how did I learn that I had made a mistake? Thai Customs.
When our five young men collected our seventeen boxes on one very large cart (two young men) and two small carts (two more young men) and took Mom in her wheelchair (one more young man) and me to Customs, there was a lively debate among the young men, in Thai, regarding the need to report anything to the authorities in Customs. The boxes, after all, were primarily filled with used clothing and used books, with boxes bursting from the seams in proof. However, there was serious doubt among the young men that seventeen bags and boxes would go through the “Nothing to Declare” line without a serious challenge from the authorities, so questions were asked and we found ourselves in the Red Line, not the Green Line.
I was questioned by the authorities and confirmed that, indeed, much of what was in the boxes was as the young men had stated. But there was a box that contained Mom’s new magnifying viewer – and there I made my first mistake. Yes, I told the officials, it was new medical equipment and necessary for her well-being. How much had it cost and did I have the invoice? Well, no, I did not have the invoice, but I did share the exact cost of the equipment. That was my second mistake, for it was expensive – far above what most Thai people could afford. (The exchange rate is now 32 Thai baht to the US dollar, so multiply the cost of anything by 32 for the Thai price and you get more zeros in the number than most of us have seen!) That box had to be opened and examined. Then, there was a lively debate, again in Thai, among the Thai officials who were present about what should be charged as “Duty” on that item. Knowing the exact cost allowed them to determine that 10% was the appropriate duty and the fee conveyed to me was enormous – more than Mom and I both had in Thai money!
Now, the third mistake: Did I challenge the assessment? No! Consummate US citizen that I am, I simply asked where I could find an ATM machine to withdraw the cash that was needed for this transaction and went, accompanied by three of the young men, to the ATM machine. On the way, one young man walking beside me turned to me and told me, point blank, that I needed to challenge the official, for the price he was charging me was exorbitant. Really? I could challenge the official? Oh, yes. I MUST challenge the official! I then went to the ATM machine and withdrew sufficient cash to pay the fee, thinking furiously about how I might, with my broken and very limited Thai, challenge the official. Well, of course: This was my poor, blind mother who could not see to read without this machine in which she had invested her life’s savings.
Returning to the officials with the cash safely stored out of sight, I humbly approached the official who had assessed the fee and asked whether he might be lenient. This was my poor, blind mother who needed this equipment and she did not have the cash that he was requesting. Could he help us a little? Well, yes, of course, was the immediate response. And then, to my surprise, he asked me what I thought an appropriate fee might be. She should only pay what was appropriate and she could determine for herself what that fee might be!
Well, we were not prepared for this. We knew that we needed to pay something or he would lose face. The fee had to be sufficiently large that he would register a coup for having assessed it, but it also needed to be something we could afford. In the end, we settled for half of the fee that he originally assessed and Mom paid it, thanking him for his leniency and generosity toward us. He took the cash and went back to his office, generating a receipt for the fee paid and giving it to me. I, also, then thanked him for his generosity.
Released from Customs with no additional boxes opened and no further challenges, we walked toward the exit. Once out of the official’s earshot, the young man who had told me to challenge the official spoke with me again about what had just transpired. The next time I come to Thailand, he said, I must remember three things: 1. Never tell the officials that something is new – even if it has never been out of the box; 2. Never, ever, reveal the true cost of anything; and 3. Always challenge the initial assessment. He approved of what I had done, for I had demonstrated respect to the official and had given him something significant to report to his authorities, while making him feel as if he had helped us as well. I thanked the young man several times for his help and, yes, gave him a larger tip when all those boxes and bags had been loaded into the waiting van. All five young men stood at the exit together, wishing us well and waving “Goodbye” to us as we pulled away.
Was that the last lesson on this subject? No. In fact, it was only 24 hours later that the opportunity presented itself again – and, again, I failed the test. This time, it was with a street vendor. We had been invited to dinner at the Fucella’s home. We left early to purchase some flowers for them on the way. When we found a man selling flowers on the street, we stopped to look at several different arrangements (mostly done in the typical artistic fashion for worship at a Buddhist temple). We asked the price of several and, while surprise at the price, we accepted his stated price and paid for the flowers. I saw a flash of something cross his face. It was gone in a heartbeat. Continuing on our way, it suddenly hit me that I had done the same thing again: I had relinquished the opportunity for dialog and a demonstration of respect for him and his work by not entering into a discussion about the price of his art and its worth to me. He had overcharged me and I knew it, but I had not challenged it. The look on his face that disappeared so quickly was disappointment and dismissal. The foreigner who could speak his language did not understand his culture. It will take some time and many more lessons, I suspect, before I remember all the embedded rituals of this culture and the need to express, in ways I have almost forgotten, my respect for those rituals and my growing understanding of this culture.