The Best Advertisement Ever
And why it worked.
It was a gorgeous day on the island of Lombok, Indonesia. I had arrived a few days earlier on a ferry from Bali, just one island to the west. I was staying in a small town that was known as a tourist spot for europeans during the summer months. But it was February and I was lucky to have the beach virtually to myself. That is except for the few local people who walked the beach to offer massages and trinkets at a ‘special discount for you’ price.
Something you learn quickly as a foreigner in Asia: someone is always trying to sell you something, and everyone gets the ‘special discount’. It practically became second nature to politely refuse— not because I didn’t like what they were offering, but because someone had already suckered me into buying the same thing 10 minutes before.
As I sat on a stone wall that overlooked the sea and the island of Bali, a young man, age 20, walked up to me and asked me if I’d like to buy a bracelet. I saw him earlier out of the corner of my eye approaching two friends of mine down the beach a little. He made his way toward me after they didn’t buy anything from him.
I mentally prepared myself to sound resolute when I told him I was uninterested.
So after he asked, I politely said I didn’t need anything. He didn’t even bother to ask again. Instead sat down on the stone wall next to me with an exasperated sigh. For a moment we both just looked out to sea.
“Where are you from?” he then asked me.
“The United States.”
He instantly chanted “Obama Obama” twice, as most Indonesians did when I revealed my nationality. The “Leader of the Free Word” went to school in Jakarta for 4 years as a child and thus holds a special place in all Indonesians’ hearts. I chuckled. Their automated response never stopped amusing me.
I began to make light hearted conversation with him, because for the moment he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. If you travel the world but refuse to converse with locals you are denying yourself some of the richest cultural insight you can get.
His english was really quite good, so I began to ask him where he learned it. He said he learned his english the way most locals did— from the tourists. But his english seemed a level above most of the other sellers I had talked with before. I told him this, but he didn’t seem to believe me.
“It is, really! I’m an English teacher in Thailand” I told him.
(As a teacher I heard the English language massacred every which way possible, so I was confident in my assessment.) His eyes immediately widened with excitement.
“I have some questions!” he replied.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out an English dictionary, not a translations dictionary, just a plain old Webster’s dictionary.
He quickly flipped to a page.
“What does this word mean?” as he sounded out the word ‘com-pro-mise.’
Clearly tourist had used tried to use this word with him before.
“It says here: to make mutual concessions.” he continued “What is mutual concessions?”
I couldn’t blame him. An English word with no easy root was being defined by another two words with no easy roots.
I explained to him the meaning and he immediately understood. He flipped to a few more pages he had marked off with words that would send him on a wild goose chase throughout his dictionary. I was secretly wishing that my students in Bangkok were this interested in English as he was.
A question had been gnawing at me for a little bit by this point.
“Why are you out here selling bracelets when your English is so good? Can’t you find a job in a hotel or restaurant?“ I asked.
His face lost the previously held excitement and looked at me and said it was because he didn’t have a college degree. And that was why he was out selling on the beach.
He had already attended a year of college, but had to return to selling because he was out of money and needed to save up more before he could go back.
Normally if this was the story he broke out immediately after I refused to buy anything, I would’ve been a bit skeptical. But I was the one who brought up the subject and I could tell he was being genuine.
He told me that even if he walked into a hotel or restaurant and spoke better English than most of the employees (which he did) they would automatically turn him down because he did not have a college degree.
It was nothing more than that. If you wanted to work in a tourist establishment, you had to have a degree. What kind of degree?
My heart suddenly sank. I became frustrated and tried to ask him if that was the case everywhere. He just nodded yes with a look of ‘You seem surprised.’ To him it was just the way his country worked.
We just sat there again for a few minutes looking out at the crystal clear water and the green mountains of Bali in the distance. He then began to stand up as to go. But before he did,
“Are you sure you don’t want to buy a bracelet?” as he flipped open is cardboard bracelet display.
I suddenly became conflicted with myself. I had told myself to be resolute in my decision, but throughout our conversation I had become emotionally affected by him. He had a voice and a story. I identified with him on some sort of level. He had become more than just another seller with just the same product.
I bought two bracelets, but not after some obligatory haggling. We finalized a price.
“A compromise!” he exclaimed with a grin.
He wandered off as I sat there and felt genuinely good about buying those two bracelets.
Even if, by some chance, it was all just a brilliant ad.