NIGHTMARE ON RETAIL STREET
By Andrew Biggs
Just got back from a clothes shopping trip in Los Angeles. Hardly justification for a column, I know, but bear with me. Things get a little more deep and meaningful as we progress.
Buffalo Exchange is a popular clothing shop for hip American teens so I went there today with my American niece Sabrina.
Fourteen-year-old Sabrina and thirty-something-Andrew have so much in common. She’s ultra-cool (that’s not one of them) and loves second-hand vintage clothes shops. I asked her along because I wanted her to cast her modern youthful eye over my selection of shirts I thought to be very suitable for a man of the 21st century like myself. It came as a surprise when Sabrina eyed each of my six choices with youthful revulsion.
“Slanty stripes,” she spat out upon seeing my first selection. “I … don’t … think … so.”
Next. “Oh no. That goes. Look at the two front pockets – are you on safari or something? Not a good look.” Her index finger slashed through my selection of six shirts so deftly it reminded me of Freddy Kruger.
At a loud vertical-striped blue number: “That’s goes for sure.” At the gaily-multi-colored dress shirt, the reincarnation of Mr Blackwell announced: “You want to look like a rainbow?” At a dirty pink long-sleeve: “There are some parts of Los Angeles they’ll assault you for wearing that.” As for the Billabong jeans (on sale for $8!) she rolled her eyes and announced: “You’ll forget the price soon enough – but nobody will forget how bad your butt looks in them.”
Out of the mouths of babes. The worst thing was she was right on all of ‘em. I wasn’t really upset; how liberating to be clothes shopping where I could actually choose things … where there was a selection of items in my size… give me Sabrina and her scythe-like finger any day over the horrors of Bangkok clothes shopping.
“Hello sirrrr, what you want to buy sirrrr, you want to buy shirt sirrrrr, what color sirrrrr?”
See how happy she is when I walk into her little shop? In Thailand, sales staff are so full of youthful exuberance you almost believe they are genuinely happy to see you. Sometimes there is more than one, and I am set upon like office girls attacking a plate of lunchtime somtam.
The relationship I have with Thai clothing staff is similar to the relationship western fly-by-night tourists have with their temporary Thai, er, friends. Everything starts out fantastic but soon degenerates as the local realizes there’s no money in them there hills.
”You like this one sirrrr? Very nice sirrrrr, new fashion sirrrrr”
Before I know it I am being shown five shirts in five appalling colors but the sheer velocity of her verbal barrage muffles out those little voices in my head screaming: “I’ve seen better shirts on Thai Parliamentarians!” In no time I am selecting one of them, a dull-grey workshirt to try on. How did I get here? Why is there an Arrow shirt in my hand? Her sheer charisma has blinded me, and I am reminded of Jim Jones and purple Kool-Aid.
I mumble that it looks too small but size, to a Thai clothing shop assistant, isn’t everything.
“I have big size for you sirrrrr, please just a moment sirrrrrr.”
Now she has disappeared out the back. The crazy thing is, it’s my perfect chance to duck out and make my getaway, tearing through the mall, knocking over hapless shoppers on my way, jumping over shopping carts, until I am safely at least three moo bahns and two towns whose names end in buri away from her.
But I don’t. Move over, Stockholm Syndrome. Here is the Bangkok Syndrome in full force –the inability to walk away from buying something you have absolutely no need for.
Now she’s back with a bigger size wrapped in cellophane. Now she’s unwrapping it with that “make an honest woman out of me” smile.
“You can try sirrrr, over there sirrrr, follow me sirrrrr”
Suddenly I’m in a tiny room with a stark mirror and bright neon lights. As soon as I undo the first button of my shirt she’s at it again:
“Good sirrrr? Look good? Okay sirrrr you buy? I wrap for you sirrrr”
The shirt is way too small for me; just doing up the front buttons is a chore. I bulge and billow like a water-filled balloon and wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to set fire to that 2,000 Baht I pay every month for my Fitness First membership.
Not that Super Sales Lady thinks so.
I exit the changing room. Her eyebrows rise, she clasps her hands in front of her chest and breaks into an irresistible Thai smile.
“Oh sirrrrrr … SIRRRRR … so handsome! Number one sirrrr!! NUMBER ONE NA!”
I would like to grab her and shake her by the shoulders screaming: “Wake up girl! It’s four sizes too small!” But alas, I can neither raise my arms out in front to grab her nor can I say a word, since the material is so tight it is restricting my inhalation.
I’m not buying the damn thing.
The moment she realizes that, a mammoth change engulfs her. In a split second I am no longer her soul mate. With a jerky finger movement she points to the changing rooms, ordering me to return the shirt while she moodily picks at her fingernails. Crazily, I feel as though I have to make excuses. Any attempt at that is met with a curt ”kha” and soon she is muttering in Thai. I hear the occasional ”farang khi nok” and ”oo-an” and ”kin maak gern pai”.
So you can see I gave up buying clothes in Thailand a long time ago. It was never a happy experience, even with a quick sedative and vodka and tonic before setting off. Sabrina’s terse judgments on my clothes sense are far more welcome than over-exuberance clashing head on with a lack of product.
And I’m not making fun of that sales lady’s English either. How could anybody speak well when her alphabet lacks two important letters – XL?