Back when Anita started working for us, I was in the kitchen with her one morning when she started enumerating the various things that were wrong with her life: bills not paid, the flooring in her house not finished. I began to sympathize with her the way I would with anyone in the US – yes, sometimes it’s hard, money can be tight, we all fight these battles some time or another. But then she boldly asserted, “Just give me three months advance salary, and I can get all these things done.”
I was taken aback. Just like that? She had only started working for me the day before. She didn’t even know me. I was completely thrown off and the only way I could think to diffuse the situation was to pretend I couldn’t understand her.
But this isn’t uncommon in India. Though this was definitely one of the more affronting situations, general monetary assertiveness is a big part of any interaction with India’s working class. Almost every time I leave the house, several negotiated transactions occur. To step into a rickshaw to go anywhere beyond my regular neighborhood, I have to argue with the rickshaw driver to get a fair price. To buy food or clothes at the market, I have to haggle with the vendor.
In the US, everything is assigned a price, and all you have to do is figure out which products you can afford, and budget correctly. Except in a few rare cases, there is rarely room for negotiations for the price of goods and services. Coming into a culture like this from the US can be overwhelming because all of a sudden, you are forced to determine what you think something is worth and ask another person for that price, if not argue with them for it.
So many human interactions here are a game of sizing one another up.
I flag down a rickshaw driver on the road, and he looks at me: What am I wearing? What language am I speaking, and what is my accent? What words do I use, and how authoritatively do I speak to him? Do I look desperate for a rickshaw? How many other competitors does he have for my service? All these cues help him guess how much he thinks I will be willing to pay. He quotes me a price.
At the same time, I think: What impression am I giving him, and therefore, how far is the price he’s quoting me from what he will ultimately accept? What prices have I paid in the past to get to other places close by? How much do I think an Indian would pay, and how low can I go with my initial counter offer before he realizes I’m not from Delhi, and then flatly refuses to drop his price by even one rupee? Or on the other hand, does he mistake me for a local, therefore quoting me exactly what he wants and expecting me not to bargain? And if I do bargain, what are the Hindi words for every multiple of five in between the price he quoted and the price I want to pay (because speaking in English will raise the price considerably)? Or if I choose to walk away, and if he doesn’t call me back for further haggling, will I be able to find another rickshaw for less in a reasonable amount of time?
In addition, these interactions have a certain tone to them: The rickshaw driver will try to guilt me into paying more money: He is going so far. He will run into traffic. What’s it to me to pay a little more? Obviously I can afford ten more rupees without a thought, but it’s so much to him. And when I’m with my white colleagues, and he knows before we even open our mouths that we are American, he brings up the unavoidable truth: It’s only 20 cents in the US. Which is very hard to argue with.
But then, I must consequently guilt him into agreeing to drive me for less: I went to this place yesterday, and the driver quoted me ten rupees less than you did. Why are you trying to cheat me when I know what the fair price is (which I often don’t)? Is this how you treat people in your country?
In one way, these interactions can be completely exhausting. In the first few weeks I lived here, I confess that even the thought of bargaining with a rickshaw driver or a fruit vendor would sometimes be enough to prevent me from leaving the house. While I can always be enticed into a lively intellectual debate, I am not so fond of the monetary ones. I would rather overpay at a restaurant than accuse someone else of not paying their share. I would rather starve than ask someone to loan me money. It’s not that these are necessarily admirable qualities, but for whatever reason, I’m wired that way.
But as these transactions have become part of my daily life in India, it has forced me to reconsider my hard wired patterns.
The prices we pay for items in the US are just as arbitrary as the prices that rickshaw drivers are quoting me. They’re based on the same laws of supply and demand, but all the bargaining and negotiating is done between companies as part of their marketing strategy: that process is sealed away under the table and out of our sight. As a consumer in the US, I have no control over what I pay for a good or service. If I jump in a cab in New York City, it will be whatever price the meter says. It’s probably unreasonably high, but I don’t even think about that, because there’s no option for me to assert any authority or influence that price. As savvy and seasoned a New Yorker as I might be, I’m still paying the same rate as a tourist.
On the other hand, I’m forced to think about every decision I make here. Is this price really fair? Is it worth the money I’m spending on it? If I get a good deal, I should remember that vendor and go back for future purchases, and if I feel I’m being taken for a ride, I can always walk away and find another vendor with whom I can bargain more successfully. These are valuable skills to build, and our culture in the States doesn’t allow us much opportunity to exercise them. Yes, we can scour the internet for sales, and we can do comparative shopping, but even for the small percent of the population that has the time and makes the effort to find the cheapest apples in town, it is still passive acceptance on the level of human interaction. Our brief meeting with the checkout clerk at the supermarket is still one of mutual resignation.
When I started thinking about the situation with Anita, I realized: What is the harm in her asking for three months advance payment? She’s just trying to see what my upper limit is, and there is nothing wrong with her asking, or me refusing. Which I ultimately did without any remorse, and by which, it seemed, she was unfazed and also not dissuaded at all. She continually asks us for money when it suits her. We give it to her when we think it’s reasonable, and we simply refuse when we think it will change our relationship in a way we’re not comfortable with. And there’s no harm in any of this.
Many years ago, a humanities teacher I studied with made an interesting analogy: When we look at a ballet dancer balancing on pointe, we see stillness as her shoe makes contact with the floor. But in reality, her foot is alert, making miniscule movements in all directions, renegotiating that relationship so as to appear outwardly still. While actual stillness would result in immediate collapse, it is the strength, flexibility and control that comes from years of training that allows her foot to give the illusion of stillness.
It is eye-opening to be allowed into that process, and I can already see the ramifications of these constant negotiations and evaluations in my own life. Whether it’s negotiating my own pay or taking the extra time to evaluate the worth of a product, cultivating this mindset ultimately allows me to feel greater empowerment in the decisions I make.