The Lost Art Of Haggling

(This essay was published in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, on 18 February 1984. It is included in An Anthology of Philippine Writing in America, published by the Philippine American Press Club of Los Angeles in 1989.)

Late in the week! do my shopping. I drive to the nearest supermarket, which happens to be Lucky's. For almost an hour I weave up and down the aisles, filling my cart with produce, cans, packages, meats, and household necessities. I stand in line and, while waiting, I pick up People magazine and the National Enquirer to see how Princess Di and Jackie 0 are doing. As the line eases forward, I start plopping my items on the revolving counter. How-are-you-today? the checker says automatically as she rings my items. I whip out my checkbook and stand poised until it's time to write the atrocious amount. Then I push the cart to the car, go home and unload all that stuff. Another weekly shopping done.

The ritual is boring and cannot compete with how my mother shops in the Philippines. Although American-style supermarkets are getting popular, she prefers buying from individual vendors. She loves to shop and along with that loves to haggle. Aside from a genuine desire to strike a good bargain, my mother enjoys the social interaction between seller and buyer. It goes like this.

Suki, lower your price.My mother's voice is low and seductively coaxing. (We have just waded through Azucena flowers in Del Monte cans, colorful buri bags and mats, and hawkers selling Sinudlan and other native delicacies; and are in the back section of the open market where bloody carcasses lie on the meat vendors counters. Our pockmarked vendor is hacking away at a side of beef.) Oh, señora, beef is very expensive, the seller amiably replies.

Meding over there charges less. But you're my suki, so here I am, my mother continues. She pokes the meat. It's not even fresh. Look at this. It's turning brown.

Oh, no, sefiora! Itwasjust slaughtered. Look at the heart over there. See, it's practically beating.

If you don't lower your price, I'll be forced to go someplace else. (Imagine my saying that at Lucky's.) My mother then staris to walk away. The meat vendor calls her back. On and on the haggling goes, interspersed with gossip about their families, government officials, and Vilma San tos. Eventually both meet halfway. Although both grumble about the unfairness of the price-my mother insisting that the price is still too high, and the vendor sighing that she has made no profit at all-inside they are pleased at how well they handled themselves during the transaction.

Once my American husband witnessed Mama in action. The three ofuswere somewhere between Los Bafios and Manila. Itwas raining hard when my mother spotted a woman selling bananas by the roadside.

Hija, tell your husband to pull over. My mother speaks English, but preferred speaking to me in the dialect, so I had to translate her message.

The vendor was on the driver's side. Tell your husband to roll down his window, hija. Rain whipped into the car. Then my mother started. It was like Ravel's Bolero, starting slow and building up into a powerful crescendo.

Manang, good afternoon. Lousy weather we have here, isn't it?

Fit for ducks and fish, the woman replied.

How much does that bunch of bananas cost, Manang? Mama asked, pointing out a solitary bunch.

Eight pesos.

Eight pesos! So expensive! How many bananas are there?

A hundred.

Hmmm, looks like there are only 80 bananas. Four pesos, my mother said.

There are a hundred even if you were to count them yourself. But I'll sell them to you for seven.

Such pathetic-looking bananas. Look at those bruises. And so tiny. They look like a baby's fingers, Mama continued while my husband mopped his wet face and hair.

Mama, buy the bananas, my husband finally said. I knew he had practiced great restraint in withholding any adjective describing the bananas.

Reluctantly Mama closed the deal at seven pesos. My husband waded through puddles to get the bananas and put them in the trunk. All the way home, Mama sighed and muttered that the bananas were too expensive and that there were only 80 bananas in the bunch. When we arrived home, she looked at the bananas with sadness, shook her head and slowly went up to her room.

My husband, for the fun of it, counted the bananas. There were 104 bananas! With great delight he reported the figure to my mother, who didn't cheer up. My husband couldn't understand why Mama continued sulking. I explained that he had aborted her haggling. She wanted those bananas for six pesos. Just once I haggled in this country. I was in a carpet shop and fell in love with a brown and white Belgian woolen rug. It cost $135.

It's pretty but it's more than I'm willing to spend. Can you lower your price? I asked the owner. My American companion's eyebrows shot up in disbelief. The owner said $125. I said I'd buy it for $110 and I got it. I was proud of myself.

Every time I look at the carpet, I remember the encounter and how very pleased I was at the good deal I had struck. But, frankly, I'm losing my touch. Weekly shopping at Lucky's just doesn't provide me with the practice needed to be as skillful in haggling as my mother.