I am at the traffic light, and the sun is in my eyes.
I haven’t owned a pair of sunglasses in over two weeks, because as I climbed out of the car at the airport, the glasses slipped from the top of my head and broke on the concrete. Thus began my journey to China: I forgot my shampoo, I forgot my coat, and I broke my sunglasses at the Raleigh-Durham airport. A small trifecta of disappointment, easily resolved: I bought some shampoo, Lynne loaned me a coat (of course), and I never needed the sunglasses: it was grey skies and some rain for the Entire Week we were in Shanghai.
Which brings me to the traffic light– in Durham– and the sun in my eyes.
“Will,” I say to my son, who is next to me in the front seat and headed to his soccer practice, “I tried to buy some sunglasses this afternoon.” And then I tell him why I still don’t have some: “Target had no sunglasses that didn’t make me look weird, and even for those they wanted fifteen dollars, which is about ten dollars more than I want to pay for a pair of sunglasses that I am going to lose or break within three months.”
“Ah,” he says, with the wisdom of the world traveler, “you should have bought sunglasses at the Farket.”
The Farket. Yes, the Farket. The Farket is our name for the “Fake Market,” that amazing maze of shopping possibility that hides in the basement of the natural history museum in Shanghai. That brightly lit system of store fronts selling identical varieties of Uggs and shoes, scarves and sweaters, t-shirts and watches, jewelry and luggage, where shopkeepers are so positive they have what you want that they actually beckon to you– call, even, in their broken and thickly accented English– to come see what they have for sale. And what they have for sale is beautiful, and plenteous, and (fake) copies of Far More Expensive varieties of above-named items that you might purchase elsewhere.
We were in the Farket a time or two over the course of our visit to Shanghai– a visit from which we are still recovering, because jet-lag shows no mercy, not even to a mother-teacher who must get out of bed “in the fives.” Yes, we descended into the Farket a time or two and made our way through that maze, listening or not to the calls of the sales people, practicing our limited Mandarin: “Boo-yow!” Boo-yow!” (“I don’t want! I don’t want!”) while trying to make it to wherever it was we wanted to go.
Which isn’t to say we didn’t go shopping.
Shopping in the developing world is far different from shopping in a place like one’s local mall, if for no other reason than that harrowing business of bargaining, which some people seem to be born for, and others seem to acquire a skill for, and others (me) have a really hard time with. Because I am not in the market, when I do go shopping, for an argument; I am rarely in the mood for a confrontation. When I do go shopping, when I make the time for shopping, I want to get in and get it and get out. I have no interest in haggling over prices.
And so the labyrinth of store fronts and jewelry counters had a second hazard: it wasn’t only about finding one’s way out again. It was about knowing how to manage the sales people who so clearly knew how to manage you, who were sure of the price they were hoping to get, and also fairly sure that you’d be willing to spend it. I was their perfect target: the naive American who wasn’t (even yet) entirely sure of the exchange rate, who needed more than once to grasp that kwai and ru-an and RMB are the same thing, and (the trifecta, again) who felt Very Unsure of Herself When Bargaining.
It would seem that shopping in Shanghai is a psychological experience.
Enter Lynne, dearest and oldest friend, resident of Shanghai these five years, and — who knew???– resident expert at Bargaining.
On the one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising. She has been living in Shanghai for five years. Five Years. This is a Respectable Amount of Time. And over the course of those years, she has brought many, many of her visitors (all?) to the very same Farket and has done, I am sure, an admirable job of showing them around. She is practiced, by now, in this bargaining business.
But on the other hand, you have to know Lynne, you have to meet her. Because really, on meeting Lynne, what you know in all immediacy is her kindness. She is smooth edges, this one, gentle listening and understanding paired with an excellent sense of humor. She is a homemaker and a bread-baker; she prefers the coziness of carpet to the gleam of wood floors. She croons songs of Jesus over orphans in the healing houses; she tucks her children in. Her gentled spirit is unwilling to take in a scary or suspenseful movie: the images, she explains, stay with her forever; she can’t get them out of her mind. She is quietly committed to her husband, her family. She home-schooled her children for years. I’ve never heard a foul word cross her lips; her graciousness and tact have shamed me. There is, in short, no sign of the calculating or head-strong about her.
One might assume, on meeting her, that she is one to take care of, to maybe protect in the kindest of ways.
And then there she was, driving a hard bargain over scarves, over boots, quibbling in Mandarin about numbers I couldn’t understand. I stood helpless, smiling. I was frank admiration. The sales girl wouldn’t come down in price and Lynne was off, tossing a few words over her shoulder to the protesting woman that maybe we’d come back, but surely we’d find a better deal elsewhere. She laughed at the sales girl at the jewelry counter; she argued my totals down by tens of dollars. I had one good deal. I had another. I came away with more than I had intended on buying but very glad I had done so and all at an excellent price.
All thanks to Lynne.
It wasn’t until later in the car, Shanghai rushing past me, my bags pooled at my ankles, that I realized this wasn’t so surprising. Not really. Lynne is the friend– had I forgotten?– who had talked me down when parenting a newborn was more than I thought I could handle, who had birthed all three of her born-to-her babies without pain medication or pain, who had the strength to return to the cleft-palate orphan babies and sing and sing over them, trusting them to Jesus on her way home. And she– had I forgotten?– had moved with her family halfway around the world five years ago, loving her husband through his hours away and his days and weeks of travel, helping her family do more than adjust in this foreign context, helping her family Thrive.
Bargaining over a pair of boots, I know now, is nothing to my friend Lynne. This is just a new vision for me of the intrepid, the dauntless that I’ve always known to be her.
I don’t remember seeing sunglasses for sale at the Farket, but I’m sure they had them. Ray-bans, probably, or some other expensive– and fake– variety. But sitting at the traffic light in Durham, the afternoon sun in my eyes, it’s Lynne I find I’m missing, and not a pair of sunglasses.
Although I bet she could get me a good deal on some– even at Target.