Beyond Borders

'How may I help you?'

2010-11-26 07:40
Jean Barker is currently studying in the US.

Jean Barker is currently studying in the US.

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"Welcome! How may I help you?" May have been some of the first words I heard after I crossed the border into the USA.

As a South African, I was so unaccustomed to routinely great customer service that the next question was usually "Cash or credit, Ma'am?"

It was like I was accustomed to meeting guys who looked like Woody Allen and suddenly there in front of me was a young and passionate (and not dead) Patrick Swayze. I couldn't say no.

But, I've had to learn to say no, or I'd have been broke in a week. Americans invent seasons and events only in order to keep people shopping. When I arrived, it was "summer" in Southern California, and about 75 Fahrenheit.

A day or two later, it was "fall" in California - and it was about 70 Fahrenheit. And suddenly: "Fall" coffee blends, "Fall" food (read, it's got more oil than summer food), Fall festivals (Read: more alcohol than Summer festivals).

Now it's Thanksgiving. After that, it's Christmas. I presume we'll make do with "Winter" for January and February. Brrr... 55 Fahrenheit. Brr!

Then it's Spring. Then it's Valentine's. Then it's Spring Break (I think this is when you can get laid in Florida). Then it's Mother's and Father's days...and I'm sure I've missed a few things. Oh, right, Easter. And Monday.

And you name it, it's for sale.

'No turkeys'

There's a wall covered in German graffiti on Campus somewhere. People kept referring to it as the "Berlin Wall". It took me a while to figure out that it actually was a huge section of the Berlin wall. I can just see the Chapman Liberal Arts Decor Acquisition Party heading out there: "We'll buy your communist wall." Sheckles and awe, folks. This is how it's done here.

And Thanksgiving is many of my new friends' favourite holiday. To many, it trumps Christmas. Although it involves some suspect history and some pilgrims, and Turkey genocide, everyone celebrates it in some way - even two vegan fellow-students of mine. The warmth and friendliness in the air is palpable. People are especially nice, like they are on Eid or Election Day or Christmas in South Africa.

"So, you cooking up a storm for Thanksgiving?" A clerk at Trader Joe's asked me yesterday.
I glanced down at my basket. A pack of salad destined to leave my fridge as liquid fertiliser in a week. A bottle of wine. Toilet paper.
"Uh. I'm South African," I said.
"You don't have thanksgiving there?" She looked appalled.
I smiled sadly. "No turkeys," I replied, rather than having to explain why we also didn't celebrate the 4th of July.

Thanksgiving spirit

But of course, I have been swept up in the Thanksgiving spirit, and as I write this, the whole of Southern California smells deliciously of Turkey Genocide and sweet yams. What's not to like?

And right after Thanksgiving: America's biggest shopping day: Black Friday.

When I first heard the term, I assumed it was a day of mourning in memory of some Wall Street crash I'd forgotten about but no. Today is actually named "Black Friday" because it's the day on which most American stores find themselves "in the black" rather than "in the red" for the first time in the year.

After eating themselves sick, half of America wraps up warmly and goes to camp out outside shops, to wait for them to open. Many stores open as early as 04:00.

The discounts are amazing, and everything good is - I'm told - gone by 06:00. There are sites and blogs devoted to listing the best specials and rumours, weeks in advance. Even companies like Mac, who never offer discounts, give 15% off on that day. It's like if they didn't, they'd be called in for questioning by Jack on suspicion of behaving in an "un-American" way.

I'll be going (because how could I not?) and will post some pics on my blog when I do.

You have to spend

I used to wonder why Americans lived on credit. I now realise that here, to stop buying stuff is to stop living. And there's so much to buy. It's overwhelming and wonderful and sickening all at once. It's the furthest thing imaginable from shopping in Paris, where you go to six specialist stores to do your grocery shopping. Here, every shop is like Game, with good service. It's weird.

But unless we're talking electronics, to have the really good stuff, you really have to spend here. The South African middle class has it so easy when it comes to luxuries - I salivate at the thought of our cheese, our imported chocolate, our wine, our bread and our clothes. A unique designer garment will come cheaper at home, where ready to wear is a place like Long Street's life blood... okay, that and the seven deadly sins. And you don't have to go to a health food store to buy healthy basic foodstuffs back home.

But in SA, one item that shouldn't be a luxury is, bizarrely, a luxury: you have to pay a lot more in SA to get anyone to smile at you from behind the till.

I remembered this when I visited the South African store with a friend from Joburg a couple of weeks back. They have lots of cool products I miss. And I'm as homesick as the average "when we", with less of the when and all of the we. So I wound up at the counter, loaded with three packets of biltong, a Ceres fruit juice, Airwaves gum and two packs of Salticrax (past their sell-by date, but still).

The woman at the counter was about to help me when - what do you know? - her cell phone rang.

"Hang on!" She said, impatiently.

Having lived in America for three months, I assumed she was talking to the friend that was calling - telling them to wait until she'd finished dealing with the people in front of her.

Service with a sneer

I started asking her something... not sure what. Something about whether she had cold Appeltiser, I think.

"Just hang on!" She repeated. And as I realised with shock and awe that she was speaking to me, her only customer, I felt instantly at home. At last! Real South African service! My South African friend and I smiled at one another -without needing to speak, we knew at once what the other was thinking.

So there, America! There are some things money just can't buy. Like Service with a Sneer... Ah, but it makes me homesick for those rare, but more genuine, South African smiles.

- Jean is studying to be a famous screenwriter you've never heard of in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here.

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