• Lijing Cobb

9 Bobbles and a dolphin memory

I'm writing from the comforts of my own home, a big desk, comfy chair, bigger screen, better keyboard. I lit my incense so the room is filled with a familiar musky aroma that I like. My trusty jug of tea is to my right waiting for my sips. I'm surrounded by books and my patient plant friends. But I only have a cascade fountain as a water feature, and my humidifier to add moisture to the air. I miss the waves lapping the beach, ceaselessly, peaceful in its power, and the mystery of the sunrise over the ocean that I recorded through time-lapse every day of the last week.

Home, sweet home. Yesterday as we were packing for our journey home, my son said emphatically that he was homesick. "There's all the space," he said, "and I don't have to share a bed with my sisters. They fart in their sleep!" Well, back home he'd always insinuate his way into my 7yo's bed. In fact, most of the time when an argument breaks out between the two of them, my 7yo would invariably throw out her most threatening threat, "fine, then I'm not sleeping with you tonight!"

My 10yo daughter, on the hand, felt the pull between home and vacation home. At one point of our trip we seriously considered the possibility of extending our stay by a week, and before making our decision we consulted the opinions of the kids. "Well, I want to stay, but I also want to go home," she had said, but couldn't quite find the words to explain exactly what she meant. As we were finishing packing yesterday, she looked relieved that we were coming home, but she also envied those we were leaving behind. "These people are so lucky that they live here, the sun, the beach, the pool, everything."

To balance out her view of the romantic, we reminded her that the locals who work at the resort make $15 a day (the cost of her daily buffet breakfast), and some of them have to take a shuttle for one hour each way to get to and from work every day. On our beach there were always throngs of peddlers trying to sell a thing or two to the newcomers and repeat offenders alike, and while we go to the ocean in skimpy bikinis, thirsting for the sun kisses, they are literally covered up from head to toe, so that it is impossible to distinguish them from each other. To them, the sun's offer is simply too generous to accept completely, so they use their long-sleeve top, long pants, sneakers, hat, and face covering to say no to the insistent rays.

The tourists want what the locals reject. The locals want what the tourists can spare.

On our second day at the resort, the kids were drawn to some bobbly trinkets a woman was selling. When I got there, little bobbly turtles, pigs, Nemos, dragons... spread out on the sand in front of my kids and husband, and my husband, squatting alongside everyone else, was haggling with the woman.

"She said 3 for $10," he caught me up upon my arrival, "and I think it's too much."

I looked at the little creatures on display. They were cute. The kids were fondling them and deciding which ones were their favorites.

I'm from China. Haggling is part of my culture, although over the years I've lost the edge and become soft. When I was in college over two decades ago, my roommates and I used to go to shopping centers filled with hundreds of little shops, where theaters of drama were enacted and performed by both owners and shoppers to the best of their abilities, until either deals were made, or insults exchanged. The unspoken rule I learned at the time was that as a shopper, you had to at least make your first counter offer at 1/4 of the first offer. If they wanted $100 for a blouse, my automatic return should be $25, and then we go from there. Since $25 is not a rounded number, I would simply go down to $20. Much easier for all of us, and bold of me. The rule continued to specify that you MUST walk away from your first store, unless you get what you want at the price you wanted right away. What you want, no matter how singular it seems to you, is waiting for you at a lower price 2 or 10 stalls down, and you won't leave empty-handed.

Every time I came out of those shopping centers weighed down by bags of my loot, I had the satisfaction that I got the better end of the deal, because the owners of the shops I dealt with said that they were giving those things to me at cost, some of them even below cost. Most of them had a scowl on their face like I was an inconvenience to them, the scowl that you would only earn if you really bargain them down to their threshold. Yes, to get a good deal you wanted nothing to do with smiles and courtesy, but you embraced theatrical curses and scowls. However, the rational part of me that got me into one of the best colleges in China also knew that "at cost," "below cost," and the scowl faces were all baloneys, theaters of drama that the shop owners put on for my sake to reach into my pocket and give them the money they need in real life.

These shopping centers created much confusion for me. Because of them, I began to be skeptical about everything that I saw and heard. What is real? I asked. The price was never real. Even after I paid the money and got the goods, I never knew if I should have paid what I paid, or had been made a fool.

That skepticism carried on, lingered, and is reluctant to dissipate. I still don't know what's real when I'm offered a price by these peddlers. But I figured, $10 is something I can easily afford, and since my husband wants to haggle, I'd just say, $10 for 4 instead of 3. The woman agreed readily. Since we had no cash, my husband went back to our room to get some buying power, and when we waited we started chatting with the woman. Her English was limited, our Spanish non-existent, so at one point she called over her 11yo son, who was also peddling the same bobbles in a smaller collection, to be our translator. The son told us that he was selling what he made at home, and his mother made her pile. We discovered that the woman has 6 children in total, ranging in age from 1 to 15. So I thought that buying another $10 worth of bobbles from the son would be a good idea, and we each selected from his collection. When my husband arrived with the cash, I announced the $20 purchase to him, and he firmly said, $20 for 9, because he wants one too. I was annoyed with my cheap husband, but again, the mother agreed readily to the deal. I took a picture of the woman, her son, and a daughter of hers who also crouched down into our circle, and felt happy that we might have made a difference in their day.

When I told my husband what I had learned from the woman and her son, he almost scoffed at my naïveté. "They didn't make these bobbles," he said, "they buy them for a few cents and sell them to you for a few dollars with a story." How did he know? Why was he so sure? Why did he have to ruin the idyllic picture of the Mexican woman and her son making these bobbles at home to peddle on the beach?

The next day we went into town and stopped by a few shops there, greeted by more of these bobbles. They looked more ordinary without the woman and her son and a story. The big ones were $2 each, and the small ones were $1. And those were offering prices.

On our last full day, we graced one of the shopping mazes in the downtown area again, and in our brief stroll down the dark alley filled with hundreds of the selfsame shops, I was transported back to China where haggling wars were waged. Except of course I was not a local and did not know the rules. But I did see more bobbles, everywhere, made by more mothers with their sons to peddle.

My husband is probably right in his assessment of the bobble situation, but that woman still has 6 kids at home (or at least 2), and she has a nice smile and a lot of patience. I still don't feel cheated at all, because I can easily afford the $20 we spent on these 9 bobbles that someone made, one piece of wood at a time, one chisel at a time, one paint stroke at a time, and those two people spent their time in their sun protection gears, selling them to us without pressure, with a story no less. My kids will see them and smile, remembering the day on the beach when we talked to the boy and his mother. We were all squatting together for a long time, and our ankles hurt and our feet went numb.

These days, I figure that the trick to not getting lost and confused in the shopping centers of this world we live in is to follow my own logic for purchase. If I can put a dollar amount to a thing or an experience and feel comfortable with that number, I'll reach into my wallet with certainty. If not, then no thank you. On one of the beautiful days on our vacation we went to the dolphin center, and for half an hour my family was entertained by a capable trainer by the name of J Lo and his dolphin Nakai through I'm sure his formulaic program, which he managed to render somewhat personal through his effort of learning our names, 4 of which are quite difficult for non-Chinese-speaking people to remember. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and our expressions of joy were captured faithfully by a beautiful woman well trained to get the best angles of all the significant moments through our encounter with Nakai. When she unveiled her work to us in the form of about 5 minutes of video and 124 pictures, we were all thrilled and surprised to see ourselves from a different angle.

Then the inevitable haggling started. The package, we were told, was sold for $432. We could have the instant satisfaction of those images on our phones for eternity.

Neither my husband, nor I, knew a precise number to put on that memory. So we just said that it was too much. Our photographer smilingly went back to the hidden office to check on a better price for us. My husband and I had a moment to decide what we wanted to pay for all that we just saw, but the smiling lady came back before our confusion and uncertainty could clear.

She pointed to another number on the chart. Instead of charging us for 5 people for video and photos, they are only charging the price for 2 people and photos only, which is $199. Now they say that memories are priceless, so I felt that we could buy them for maybe $150. The sweet woman went back to the secret office again with our offer, and my husband and I got ready to pay, certain that they would jump on our generous offer. $150 for half an hour of work for a photographer who probably makes a fraction of that money: what do they have to lose?

With a smile and a slip of paper the sweet woman reemerged from a secret conversation, the contents of which we would never know, and turned down our offer. She said that they couldn't give our memories to us for less than $199, but we could think about it, and should we change our mind, we could use the contact info on the slip of paper to email them and get the memory back, at $432 and no less. My husband told her to keep the paper, and we got ready to go.

As we walked out of that dolphin center, I was fully aware that 2 stalls down, 10 stalls down, even 1000 stalls down, we would never find another stall that peddled the same memories this woman had offered for $199. That smiling woman, the secret office, and the memories they proffered, had a lot of power over us. We would have to circle back to her sheepishly to get our memory back at her price if we changed our minds. Was it worth it to lose that memory forever, at a price we could still afford?

We walked further and further away. Nobody stopped us, chased us. No drama. Nothing.

We took a 5 hour plane ride to get back home with our 9 bobbles and no photos of our dolphin encounter, which would definitely qualify as the highlight of our trip. Sometimes we leave the shopping center with a bit of disappointment in our hearts and a bit of regret of "maybe I should have...". Our memories have been deleted on the sweet woman's camera to make room for the next family willing to pay $432 or at least $199 to keep their memories. That seems really final, even a bit cruel.

So I sit here and think about the moment when we huddled over the computer watching the images on the screen. We were the heroes of the images on the screen, but we experienced it differently from what we saw on the screen. When a fresh image populated the screen, the kids invariably responded with "oh my God...", the highest, universal expression of surprise for the human species. But they were there, and the images only captured what we did just a few minutes ago! How is it that we are always so shocked to see ourselves outside of our experiences?

And then I realized that just maybe, buying those memories that shocked us to various degrees would have distorted and cheapened our experience. By a lot, judging by the copious amount of exclamations and the fall from "priceless" to $199. Why is it that I have to rely on photos and videos to capture memories, when none of the nuanced reactions of each of us could ever be translated onto the screen? Why am I afraid of losing these memories, when they are not mine to begin with? How am I ever at risk of losing the memories of what mattered at the moment? Why does it matter whether we looked beautiful as a family on the photo when she told us to jump and throw our hands up in the air shouting dolphin? If I looked "ugly" in a photo but felt beautiful at the moment of the photo, do I delete the photo and say, appearance is everything?

My husband and I agreed that $199 was too much to pay for that particular brand of memory. He didn't say that we could not get it for $199. In fact, as we stood outside the dolphin center discussing whether we made the right decision or not, he said that I could do whatever I wanted. But I looked him in the eye and told him that I agreed with him. I was not comfortable putting a price on that purchase for more than $150, and even that was more than I was willing to pay. So we made the best decision for us, and protected the integrity of our experience by leaving our exclamations of surprises behind.

We had left the dolphin center empty-handed, but with full hearts and sure steps. Outside the dolphin center my husband and I chose what we wanted to keep in our hearts and said goodbye to a memory offered by a smiling stranger who no doubt has her own story behind that unfailing smile. Next time when we venture into an experience where our "memories" are at the mercy of a stranger, smiling or not, I think we will forego that unveiling of the price tag on that memory. In the shopping centers of the world we all want less confusion and more clarity, and I'm happy to buy 9 bobbles from a woman and her son for $20 and believe in their story.

The woman and two of her kids

They survived the trip back in paper towels and plastic containers.

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