29 October 2007


When I was groing up, my conservative Chinese parents stamped the following into my head: Well-bred folk do not make a fuss in public. Do not allow anybody to lose face, they said, and do not show "hard" emotions to people. That means no loud arguing, no vigorous hand motions, no anger.

Well, travelling in Central Asia has been a trial to these tenets my parents hold so dear. It appears that bluster is part and parcel of everyday life.

A few days ago, we were in Bukhara. Tired, weak (from a gastrointestinal malady that struck both us and every other person staying at our guesthouse in Samarkand), and weary, we had booked a hotel in advance. On arrival, the manager showed us our room and disappeared. We had wanted to talk to him about the price, and also to register our passports. When we asked the maid, she shrugged and said that the manager had already left for the day. So we left our bags there and wandered around the Lyabi Hauz square, took in an Uzbek wedding-dress fashion show, and checked out some more hotels. Several things were readily apparent. First, that the quoted internet price (40 USD) for our hotel was exorbitant. Second, that almost all the hotels were empty. Third, that a beautiful new hotel down the street had a gorgeous room with a balcony for 45 dollars. Armed with this information, we went back to our hotel and asked to speak to the manager again. He showed up half an hour later, and we began our negotiations.

Manager: "40 dollars."
Us: "That is too expensive,"
Manager: "This is already the discount price" (a lie—this was what was advertised on the internet). "You stay one night, I can find you cheaper hotel tomorrow."
Us: "No, it's too much. We are leaving."
Manager: "You already walked into the room. You used the refridgerator" (another lie—it was not even plugged in). "You are cheap, three-dollar tourists. I will call the police if you leave."
Us: "We just put our bags down. We are leaving."
Manager: "You pay 70% of the price and I let you leave."

He proceeded to call us names. We walked in the room and picked up our bags. Suddenly, he changed his attitude. "How much do you want to pay? 35 dollars? 30 dollars? You can stay as many days as you want."

At that point we were offended beyond staying. We walked back to the new hotel only to find that they had given the room with the balcony away. Another scene. Mark, who grew up used to this sort of thing, started raising his voice. Asking to speak to the manager.

At the end of the day, we ended up with another room, no balcony but beautiful nonetheless. For the bargain price of 35 dollars. I was beside myself. Were we ugly tourists? Were we being rude? The boy at the front desk who gave away our room had seemed upset. We had violated my parent's cardinal rules of good behavior.

The next morning, however, the boy at the front desk greeted us happily. The hotel was unfailingly courteous to us for the duration of the stay. If not for Mark, I would have bought into the entire act and allowed my conscience to continue chastizing me. And paid a good deal more money.

When it comes to bargaining here, bluster plays an integral part. The pretense of wounded feelings, rules disobeyed, or offense given is employed on the part of the seller in raising prices, or on the part of the buyer in lowering them.

For instance, we had agreed on a price with a cab driver to hire him for a day trip to Shakrisabz. On our return he asked for more money. His face contorted in anger and his voice grew louder. He complained about the wear and tear on his car and his fatigue. Mark simply handed him the agreed upon sum and said, "Do you want this or not?" He tooked the money, and then it was all over. The pantomine stopped. He smiled and waved as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Likewise, there was the proprietess of the two-room museum in Shakrisabz who locked us in while trying to extort more money from us. She stamped her feet and yelled at us. She gave all sorts of reasons why we had to pay over double the going price for museums. However, once she gave up and took the money, the act was dropped and we were friends again. No hard feelings all around.

It's been a particularly difficult lesson for me to learn. My parents aside, I had always prided myself on being open-minded and knowing what distinguishes cultures from each other. I was so sure I knew what was appropriate social behaviour that it took Mark several conversations with me before I understood that this entire business of bluster was used on a daily basis. I suppose that is why different cultures clash because pig-headed people like me on both sides think they know what is going on. Thank goodness for patient Lebanese.

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