Saturday, May 05, 2007


In Thailand We'd Probably All be Salesmen

(At left - Here's a helpful hint: Always take a Korean with you when you must haggle over prices, especially with cab drivers. Catherine, like all Koreans, is used to negotiation and already knows how much she intends to pay for anything before she even sees it.)

Senior year of college is a very uncertain time for many of us, especially those with liberal arts backgrounds. In addition to trying to graduate, we also have to take time to look for jobs.

As we locate potential possibilities for employment, we should be able to answer yes to at least two of three questions: A) Does the job description sound enjoyable, or at least not make us want to cut our wrists with a plastic knife from Wendy’s during lunch break? B) Will the job place us on the right track for future employment, or at least not give us the kind of résumés that human resources heads will gather in groups to ogle at while guffawing out loud? C) Does the job pay well, or will you have to both carpool and eat spaghetti for every meal?

As I searched for gainful employment in those days, I was approached by several companies who saw my burgeoning credentials on places like, and Invariably, all of these plausible proprietors wanted me to sell things, and usually insurance. I always gave these possibilities at least temporary consideration, but ultimately decided against such avenues of avocation because I only saw two possible outcomes: 1) I would never learn the tools of the trade and would die destitute and malnourished, or 2) I would learn the tricks of the trade would die a more gradual and insidious death by self-loathing.

(At left: 'Takeout pimple' is a luxury too many of us take for granted.)
What about sales is such an anathema to my nature? Well, during my recent trip to Thailand for vacation, a few enlightening things about the profession were made painfully clear. Within Korea, my current country of residence, there is one city district in Seoul named Itaewon where virtually everyone has something to sell, especially to foreigners. It may be a dress suit, it may be pocket knife, or it may be the kind of thing that happens in and, in theory, stays in Las Vegas.

However, Itaewon is a single district of a single city, and Thailand is an entire country with two-and-a-half times the area of Texas, more than three times the population, all 70-or-so-million of which want you to buy something from them. Here are the main problems:

1) You must convince people to buy from you, even though as many as 30 people in your general area are selling the same thing.

On the streets of Bangkok, it is impossible (at least for a foreigner) to take more than two-three steps outdoors without hearing someone tell you they can offer you a taxi, a suit or a massage. Actually, these businesses exist side-by-side, and one after another in virtually every metropolitan area of Thailand, meaning that the vendors have to pitch to everyone who walks by lest they choose a competing masseuse, cab driver, or guy-who-sells-clothes-that-are-too-hot-to-wear-in-Bangkok-anyway.

(At left: Catherine haggles over jewelry. I think she got the price reduced from $4 to $3.25, and who's to say how important that money might be later.)

2) No one needs what you are selling, and no one wants to buy nearly as much as you want to them too.

The trick seems to be the ability to say, “Hey, I have short sleeved shirts!” as if this were the cure for lung cancer. Should such an approach actually work with you, and you actually choose to buy a short-sleeved shirt, you should know that the vendor will actually try to sell you three. Should you decide to take a taxi in Bangkok to whatever sightseeing destination you desire, the driver probably has a deal with some other vendors and will take you against your will to see them on the way.

“Yes, I take you to the Temple of the (insert posture, color or emotional temperament) Buddha,” the cab driver will say, “but first shopping! I take you to shop for tailor-made suits, shirts, scarves, boxer briefs and … hey, come back here!”

3) You have to sell these unnecessary things to survive.

This is especially true in a place like Thailand, where labor is very weak politically. Service professionals gladly accept tips equivalent to 50 cents, and a taxi driver can take you across a city of nearly 8 million people for between $2-$3. As such, whole families chip in ventures like this, hoping that together they can scrape together a living.

Even if I had taken a sales job in America, my early days probably would have been like this, with me begging people to buy enough for me to afford my two or three daily meals of spaghetti. However, the sympathy involved would not change the fact that:

4) Most people really, really don’t like you.

Even if I became a master promoter, the knowledge that those who were turning me away were really enjoying doing so would sting, as would knowing that most of those who bought from me were probably doing so just to make me go away.

Many of the street vendors in Thailand obviously know how they are viewed, and some try to use it advantageously. One shirt I saw on the island of Phuket actually reads “I don’t need a massage, a taxi or &*@$ing suit, thank you very much.”

(At left: 'Western-style toilets on the ground floor' is definitely worthy of an exclamation point!!!)

Also, the vendors vary their pitches every now and then, saying things like a) “Where are you going?” b) “What are you looking for?” and c) “Hey lovely guy, you want suit?” Should you visit, it is best to have some rehearsed responses. The best respective answers to these questions are, of course, a) “Crazy,” b) “Some purpose in this bleak, lackluster life of mine,” and c) “There is not adequate health care in this country to cover what I will do to you if you call me ‘lovely’ ever again.”

Thailand is an interesting place to visit, but I’m glad I was born in America, where people need only enter such ventures by choice. If someone should choose that life and excel at it, who are any of us to criticize?

(If you’ve ever been interrupted during Sunday lunch by someone who tried to sell you an encyclopedia, you are the one to criticize. Salesmen are a pestilence.)

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