Continuing last week's theme of dear friends from Trinidad visiting us here in the US we will explore the wonderful world of shopping. One thing every single visiting Trini friend wants to do when they come to the States is shop. Things may have changed a little bit in recent years but for a long time things like clothing, shoes, school supplies, linens, toiletries, and electronics were significantly cheaper here in the US than in Trinidad. Any time a friend would visit they'd come armed with a long shopping list of items they wanted to purchase before returning home.
Now let me tell you, I grew up the child of a factory working single mother who knows how to pinch a penny. I have been well-schooled in the art of never paying full price but as you know, you don't generally haggle in a store unless you find a damaged item. Trinis are accustomed to a bit of haggling and they do so boldly and without apology even in department stores. They don't mind going to six different stores to save a little bit of change on a pack of men's briefs. Actually, my first encounter with a shopping Trini was about a year before I ever set foot on the island for the first time. She was an exchange student who needed housing during a holiday break so she came home with me. I took her to the mall and the farmer's market at her request. She wanted to buy underwear for her boyfriend back home. I had no idea shopping for men's underwear could possibly take so long. Every brand, style, size, fabric type, color, and price range had to be fully explored. I was astonished at the level of agonizing over skivvies....and then the haggling...in JC Penney. You haggle at the farmer's market on Saturday night when you're buying cantaloupes, not in JC Penney when you're buying jockeys. I was young and had never been abroad. She was young and this was her first time abroad. It was an "interesting" experience for us both.
When I later lived in Trinidad and saw what it was like to shop there I suddenly understood a lot more about that earlier shopping trip. I still giggled when I saw street vendors with row upon row of either handmade or cheap imported men's underwear and women's panties and the shoppers all lined up tugging and pulling at the elastic to make sure it wasn't going to give way prematurely and leave the wearer...um..hanging.... I realized finding quality underwear on the island did seem to be slightly challenging.
And shoes, don't start me on shoes. When we lived there they were tremendously expensive. Finding children's shoes was worse than looking for panties that wouldn't put the wearer in the position of one of Art Frahm's models. I can recall going to about six different shoe stores to find the only pair of little girl's dress shoes in stock in 3 year old Diana's size so she had a pair to wear for Christmas. At that particular time in her life Diana had a fascination with the garbage can. We'd often find toys and other items "hiding" in the garbage can, not because she didn't like them, just because it was fun to put things in there. About two weeks after I bought the shoes one went missing. I tore the house apart looking for it. It was nowhere. Then Diana admitted it was in the garbage can...the day before we put it out for the trash collector. Insert primal scream here because shoe shopping all over creation to find a pair of shoes for a preschooler is JUST the thing I was hoping to soon repeat...not to mention the bargain shoes cost more than I was accustomed to spending on myself for shoes.
But I digress...this post was intended to be about Trini friends shopping here in the US and I actually have another humorous story. I'm getting there... All that was just setting the stage to understand why they are excited to shop here where relatively good shoes and underwear can be had cheaply. So, the husband of the couple who are our dearest friends back in Trinidad came to visit. He and his wife have three daughters. All the girls needed a pile of school supplies and sneakers for school. He needed some electronic items for the family as well. His sister-in-law, also a good friend of ours, had requested a few items. He had a long list. His wife had only asked for one bottle of perfume because she wanted to make sure the girls had everything for school. Her husband wanted to surprise her with a few extra items like some earrings and a sexy little nightie.
I had taken him to Walmart. Trinis do love Walmart even though the place makes me twitch. We cruised the aisles getting notebooks, pens, pencils, binders, backpacks, and sneakers. We consulted over his list as we compared prices over various items and slowly became very aware of the eyes that were upon us. Understand he is a mix of East Indian and African and has a very dark skin tone. You've seen pictures of me. There's an obvious contrast. I live in an area where there is enough diversity that seeing an interracial couple is not at all uncommon and to my way of thinking, no big deal. We both realized folks were assuming the two of us were a "couple" and many of those folks were less than approving as evidenced by the thinly and not so thinly veiled expressions of disgust on their faces (admittedly because we were behaving like folks in Trinidad do, which is to say there is a smaller margin of personal space considered comfortable and touching is more casual and natural...though I hasten to add there was nothing at all improper occurring that either of our spouses would have been uncomfortable with).
You should know me well enough to know this would only invite me to figuratively poke at the folks who seemed appalled by the sight before them. Understand my friend is of the same ilk. In Trinidad, he used to like to hold my daughters in public just to see the confused looks on people's faces when a very dark man was holding a very pale child. If you are guessing that my friend and I decided to play up the misperception just to see the disapproving looks move right into revulsion, judgment, and horror, you'd be right. Well, he still had to buy perfume, earrings, and a nightie for his wife, you know. So we wheeled right on over to those sections of the store and had a great time irritating the small minded denizens of Wallyworld. I dabbed perfume on my wrists so he could take a whiff, he held up earrings to my lobes to see how they'd look, I draped a filmy negligee across my front so he could envision his wife in it. All the while we exchanged effusive expressions of delight over the possible purchases while barely maintaining straight faces as others around us looked far less than pleased. And yes, we told our respective spouses about the shopping trip and yes, they both found it funny.
All joking aside, it was eye opening. Obviously, I knew what it was like to grow up as a racial majority. In Trinidad I got a taste of what it was to be a minority (though obviously, without the history of oppression behind that experience). It was enlightening to think I lived in an area that was more accepting of couples with a mixed background and to find out that was not really the case at all. Does this post seem kind of meandering and like it started one place and ended up in another? Well, that could be. Or it could be that like a Trini shopping excursion, you go looking at a lot of different places for a bargain on a list full of items and in the process you make some other really interesting finds along the way.