Living in Oberlin, I didn’t really have to worry about grocery shopping. When I needed something, I went to IGA because Wal-Mart was out of the question and because Gibson’s was overpriced and small. Having only one store made all my shopping decisions easy. I didn’t have to do any comparison shopping at all. I wanted grape juice? I bought it. I wanted cheese? I bought it. Of course I looked at prices, but IGA ultimately had my business and that was that.
Now that I live in a city, things are different. My slavish commitment to comparison shopping has kicked back in. This week, I have gone to four different grocery stores, bought a few things at each of them, but mostly just written down prices of things that I may one day wish to buy. I’ve discovered that almost everything is more expensive at Giant except, surprisingly, mugs, which are dirt-cheap. I’ve discovered that the store very close to my apartment actually sells many things at good prices. And I’ve discovered that produce is roughly the same price wherever you go (but only roughly).
This is what pushed me out of the house early on Friday morning to go to the market. I’d been apprehensive about buying anything at a market for a number of reasons. First, I’m bad at bargaining, even in English. Second, I don’t really know how much things should cost, so how can I hope to bargain? Third, I’m a foreigner; I’m going to get charged a higher price no matter what. But, inspired by a recent visit with one of my friends from language school who is able to buy things at the market without a problem, I decided that I could at least try it. And now that I had the prices of all this produce written down, that would only make things easier.
The market is about fifteen minutes from my house, across abridge and near a Chinese temple that I will also be visiting at some point. It was only 6:30 in the morning when I set out, but already the streets were busy with traffic and the places where you can get your laundry done were already open. A man was picking up his laundry from one of them, wearing a sarong and a t-shirt. The market began not long after I saw him. It started with women selling baskets of flowers by the side of the road and then quickly progressed to women selling fruits and vegetables until finally I reached the market proper: rows and rows of stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to fish to plastic kitchen goods.
It was all a bit overwhelming and at first I just looked around, trying to get a feel for things. Then I started asking people how much things cost, just to practice. I couldn’t understand what they said in response, but I just smiled and kept walking. This incomprehension, even of simple things like prices, has become familiar to me. If I’m in a situation where I’m nervous, my language comprehension level tends to rapidly deteriorate. I figure the way to get around this is to just keep going until language comprehension starts coming back.
As I was walking through the kitchen goods section, one woman asked me what I was looking for.
“A thermometer,” I said.
She looked at me, perplexed, not the first time I’ve gotten that reaction. Apparently my pronunciation of thermometer in Indonesian is awful. I’ve settled for rolling the r as much as possible and hoping for the best.
“A thermometer,” I said again.
Still the confused expression.
“It has Celsius,” I said.1
“Oh, you should go to a pharmacy to buy that.”
“Yes, but I want one for cooking. It goes inside an oven.”
She said a sentence, all of which was meaningless to me, except for the word water. I decided to translate it as, “To tell the temperature of water?” and move on.
“Yes,” I said, a little uncertainly.
She pulled out a pitcher.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I want a thermometer, but for cooking.”
She recommended the pharmacy again.
“Yes,” I said, “But that’s not for cooking.”
She laughed and agreed with me.
I asked if she knew if I could buy thermometers anywhere in this market, but she said no, so I thanked her and continued walking.
With thermometers out of the question, the only things left on my list were tomatoes and bananas. The tomatoes were easy. I asked how much they were, was quoted a price lower than the supermarket’s, and bought three.
The bananas were a bit more complicated.
“They’re sweet and tasty,” the woman selling them told me after stating her price.
“Yes,” I said, trying to figure out how she’d already realized I was a foreigner when I’d only said one word. But the price was still cheaper than the supermarket, so I said okay.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“The United States,” I said.
Her face lit up. “Hey!” she said to the people around her. “She’s from America!”2
“Yes,” I said, smiling at them and covering part of my face in an attempt to show my embarrassment.
She was having none of it. She handed me the bananas, shook my hand, and introduced herself in English.
I shook her hand and introduced myself in Indonesian.
1 Not being immediately able to figure out how to say “on it,” this was the closest I got.
2 All translations approximate.