I have been keeping a close eye on cultural differences from the first time I started learning about Afghanistan. Most people would tell you that there are such huge things that set us apart as people. Differences that include religion, language, socio-economics, politics, and more are hard to ignore. But, seeing a small glimpse of familiarity in someone you’ve assumed is so much different than you is enough to put a smile on your face for the rest of the day. I will be talking more about race, culture, and religion in future posts, but for now I have a story. I’ll introduce you to Abdullah.
Abdullah is an Afghan who happens to be the cleaner in our office. I see him almost every morning taking out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom, and doing all the normal things that cleaners do. His English is very limited, but as you can imagine, it is far better than my Dari. Every day when he walks past my desk he says hi and asks the same thing: “How is your family?” It wasn’t long before I was asking him how to say things like hello, good morning, thank you, and more in Dari, and he was very excited to be teaching us small words and phrases every day. These days, we can both say hello and ask each other how our families are in Dari. I’m not quite at the point where I will be having conversations with Afghan generals yet, but maybe some day.
This was my first bit of personal connection with an Afghan. We have spent so many years in Canada watching the same news stories about Afghanistan and the war here that simple every day things don’t come to mind when you meet people from here. Abdullah is just a regular man who has to feed his family(wife and five kids), get to work on time, make sure he has groceries in the kitchen, call his mother once in a while, and live as normal a life as he can. I’m sure he gets mad when he stubs his toe, feels good when he sneezes, and hates waking up too early from a good dream just like everyone else. Except, his dreams are in Dari.
I was walking down the stairs toward my desk one day when Abdullah and a friend of his who was there both called me: “Excuse me, Sir.” In a hurried tone, they were excited to ask me something. The other guy who spoke better English than Abdullah asked me, “what is this?” as he held out a tube of clearly labeled Neutrogena Shave Cream. I’m always happy to talk to them as they’re very kind people, but I smiled a bit and laughed internally at this situation. Both of them looking at me for an answer, Abdullah with a huge black beard and his friend with a very thin but still long enough beard to tell he has never seen a razor before, I said “It’s shaving cream” as I pointed to the label and gestured with my other hand as though I was shaving. “For shaving,” I continued to motion with my hand as though I was passing a razor down my cheek.
With cheer, Abdullah and his friend turned to eachother and yelled “Aaaaahhhhh!”, Abdullah’s friend slapping his shoulder followed by excited words in Dari that to me could only mean “I told you so!” and “I knew it!” Thinking to my self that these guys have no use for shave cream, I wondered who had left it in the bathroom by mistake to enthrall these guys’ curiosity. I laughed and went to my desk, but couldn’t help but to keep this experience on my mind. I was trying to figure out what simple everyday product like shave cream we might be unfamiliar with but is completely normal to Afghans.
That moment when I almost understood perfect Dari. When I could naturally understand the way they laughed at each other and Abdullah’s friend teased him for a bit about the bet that they must have had about the shave cream. This is the closest I’ve felt to having interpersonal barriers vanish between myself and these Afghans, with whom at first glance I couldn’t find much in common with. These guys are just so, normal.
I’m really enjoying finding more common ground with them. The language barrier is usually very strong, but it only makes other forms of communication like gestures and intonation feel more amplified. Have you ever had a special connection with someone who at first seemed so completely different from you in every possible way? Comment below on how race, religion, language, etc didn’t stop you from getting to know someone.
From the first time I attempted to make a purchase in Afghanistan, it was clear to me that this was not a country of price takers. That is, sellers don’t have set prices that give customers the option of “take it or leave it.” In Canada, that’s pretty much how the economy works but for a few things like cars. You don’t go to Walmart expecting to negotiate prices (unless you’re one of thooose people).
In Afghanistan, the price you pay for something depends on a whole bunch of variables, and everyone I’ve talked to seems to be figuring out their own strategy for getting a good deal.
“Please my friend, come look!,” called the Afghan watch seller from behind several dozen Rolexes. Already knowing that I have a watch addiction and I’m at least curious, I decided to look. I said right away that “I don’t really need a watch.” Just to make sure he doesn’t get too excited that he’s going to make an easy sale, I dash his hopes right from the beginning, “I know these are very expensive but thank you anyway.” “NO NO, these are very good quality,” he reassures me while filling both my hands with different watches to look at, ensuring I can’t get away that easily. I’ve come to realize this more and more, but we “westerners” (the average Canadian, at least) are more interested in price right away. The Afghan sellers here are more interested in getting you to like something right away before mentioning price. Whether it’s scarves, carpets, watches, woodwork, or anything else, the negotiation of price comes at the end after you’ve picked what you like.
I’d be naive to go in to this without at least having talked to others about what they paid for watches or at least going with other people and listening to their negotiation first. Having an idea what these two watches were worth and already having researched a bit about the quality of these knockoff brands, I found what I liked. I hit him with it, “What’s your best price for these two?” That’s the most common way of asking for his price and also trying to bring him a bit lower than his already high starting point. It’s normal for the starting price to be at least double or triple what you end up paying in the end. It just takes time and a bit of polite argument. “No, that’s too expensive. I’ll look again next week,” I tell him as my legs start to fall asleep sitting cross-legged on his carpet across from him. There’s no way he’d let me go at this point, “wait, OK…” he rubs his beard as he brings his price a little lower. “I can’t really afford that for these, maybe I’ll just do one today,” I tell him. Still not wanting to miss out on the sale of two watches, he comes down even lower and we get close to a price I’m OK with. Just because I know this price range is still a great profit margin for him and I think I can still get a better deal, I offer something just a bit lower and stand my ground. He says a few different things trying to make me feel guilty and telling me that this is almost the price he pays for them (yeah, right!). But I know since it’s been a short-ish negotiation (some can take a long time) this price is still good for him. I stand my ground until he just goes for it. “Sorry, this is the highest I can pay for these,” I tell him. “OK, Sir. Thank you so much,” he smiles with excitement. “Just, please Sir. Don’t tell anybody the price,”he asks me. “Of course. I won’t. I promise” I tell him.
Going from a disappointed and worried look on his face while we negotiate price to pure happiness with handshakes and full hugs (Yes, Afghans hug a lot!) in a second, I know we both got a good deal. I’m happy, and he’s happy, and the experience of negotiating is priceless. They seem to always ask you at the end, “You happy?” “Yes, Sir. Thank you so much. I’m very happy. Take care!” I tell him. “You too, my friend!” he says.
I hope to post more about these bargains in the future. Our bazaar is always interesting with all kinds of neat things for sale. Do you think you’d be more open to negotiating and bargaining in stores where prices “seem” to be set in stone? What are your experiences with negotiating?
Happy bargain hunting!