On a couch in Kuala Lumpur

Jalan Petaling Street – Chinatown . That’s where I met the sweet petite lady with auburnish-black hair. She wore a red blouse, black glasses and had a black bag which I assumed was her cash bag. I was first drawn to her stall because of her products – an array of lush looking scarves so neatly folded they spoke to the perfectionist in me.

’85 ringgit’, she says, which is the cost in Malaysian currency. I turn around to look at her. As though deaf to her words, I respond instead with a different question, ‘Where can I find a bin?’ She gestures for me to go behind the table where more of her merchandise has been neatly laid out and she tells me to look underneath.

KL Petaling Markets (with Mango Lassi drink in tow)

She then calls out ‘black plastic bag’, meaning the rubbish bin would be the black plastic bag that’s underneath. My eyes lock quickly on the bag and I pull it open to drop my now empty Mango Lassi juice cup in. This has been one of my favourite drinks so far. It is fresh, rich in taste and above all, it offers a welcome cool down in this hot and humid weather that seems to be the signature of Kuala Lumpur (KL).

I walk back to the woman. Mentally I’m piecing together my haggling strategy. Our Grab driver (the equivalent of Uber) had kindly informed us to be sure to negotiate in the markets so we do not get ripped off. So, with some excitement of engaging in the market culture I ask, ’85 ringgit?’ She nods and responds with a cautious yes.

I remain silent and continue to browse the merch. Within a matter of seconds she makes a counter offer. I smirk a little and turn my attention to what looks like a ‘Louis Vuitton’ scarf, but the colour combo on this does not scream out my name. I lift up my head to lock eyes with the lady, smile and politely I ask, ‘For two – what offer will you give me?’

’80 ringgit each’, she says, without missing a heartbeat. The swiftness of her response is such a giveaway to the fact that this is not that sweet spot where we each walk away having reached a win win position. So, I continue to ‘inspect’ her merch in silence till she makes another offer. I remain silent and eventually give a counter offer. She pauses and ponders and renegotiates. At this point I smile and say the magic words, ‘yes’. She grins and I grab my wallet 😁

I know it was not the best price I could have got it at, but something in me is not too keen to engage in a lengthy negotiation. For the remainder of the day, we wander down the market and eventually venture to a different location in the bustling city that seems never to rest. All the while, something continues to tug at me as I observe the nature and manner of the locals. One thing that stands out is their polite nature and approach to service.

It is only now that I sit back and reflect on the day while soaking in the majestic cool of the aircon that it fully dawns on me why it is I could not bring myself to negotiate any further. I was conflicted for several reasons. The first being how dirt cheap the prices already were once I did the rough exchange rate conversions. The second was the demeanour of the stall owner and the level of service she delivered; and the third was my observations of living conditions in parts of KL we have journeyed through.

A great part of me felt that though I was engaging in the ‘market culture’, I too was perhaps perpetuating the economic injustices most locals seem to be subject to. The conversations with cab and Grab drivers, and strolls after dark when the busy junctions closed down had given me a more accurate picture of how most locals , particularly in KL, are striving to make ends meet.

There surely is glitz and glamour in this place. However, much like the Sydney I have sought a temporary escape from, there is in this place another all too familiar face to the famous city. It makes for interesting comparisons, but on each facet I have prematurely assessed there is more that is wanting in KL for obvious economic and socio-political reasons.

Perhaps some day I will get the opportunity to learn a bit more about it. I’m coming to terms with the idea that I cannot save the world but I can do things that make the experiences of individuals and communities better. So, while there is a lot that I could allow to disturb me I have chosen to savour the good side. I will observe everything up close and from a distance, including the not so good.

My goal? To be morally and ethically conscious of my engagements with the locals and their culture. Whatever I do, it may be small, but I hope there are more people thinking along the same lines as I, and not just in KL. Many small good and right deeds will perhaps make a bigger difference.

So I guess in signing off for now all I’m saying is wherever you get to go, do good and be kind. Even when negotiating for a deal – remember to keep the people at heart, they still need a roof above their heads, a meal and their dignity in tact.

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