The local 99 Cent Only Store is quite an experience. It’s the only place I go shopping where I get a sense of panic as I mill around.
I don’t care for shopping in general, but I mostly tolerate it. But at the 99 Cent Only Store in my community, I seem to actually suffer psychological stress.
I believe I have pinpointed the cause of this angst. The place is literally a cross cultural meeting zone.
Having lived in a small city in the Midwest the last few years I am encountering some overall culture shock out on the West Coast anyway. The 99 Cent Only Store is just part of my transition from traditional America to a place that seems to be a separate, multicultural nation. My anguish at this shop is just a symptom of the kind of response a cultural transition triggers,
Some of the my uneasiness isn’t due to differences in culture. It is provoked more by the more universal experience of moving from a rural area to the big city. Unlike my fly-over country town, in this Pacific megalopolis there are crowded highways and crowded parking lots. Further, there are heavily populated shopping malls. Even the hiking trails are loaded with people. Back home I am used to isolation and peace and quiet.
The 99 Cents Only Store is just a part of this local phenomenon of commotion. The shop has its own set of noise and clatter caused by its masses. Every aisle and checkout line is full.
As I do when I drive in traffic,I have to stay totally aware to avoid a collision as I cruise around this repository of cheap goods.
Going to buy the elements necessary to living at a 99 Cents Only Store in this locale is not only similar to driving the freeway, but also a bit like shopping abroad. In a recent trip there, I had a list of items and had trouble finding them. The Latino lady I asked for help didn’t understand my English. She didn’t seem to comprehend my question about the location of radishes and green onions. A fellow Anglo, probably a more experienced expat with perfect language skills told me where to look as she passed by and observed my struggles.
After I picked out my treasures, I maneuvered my shopping cart through the herd to the cashier line and waited as the people in front of me checked out. It was there that the event I have dreaded since I have been out West occurred. I had a wreck.
This accident was not my fault and it was only the equivalent of a parking lot fender bender, so it was really no big deal. It was only a nudge from behind.
Although the rear-ender was minor, I still felt as if my personal space had been violated. As a result I began to feel annoyed. Then I turned around and was totally disarmed.
Before me stood a short, wiry Asian fellow. “I need a walking license,” he said smiling. I laughed and replied, “So do I.”
Like an old friend, this man began to talk. He told me his name was Pham.
This senior citizen asked me, “How old do you think I am?” I looked him over and answered,“Oh, I would say early to mid 60s.”
My new Vietnamese pal answered with a look of glee and a sparkle in his eye. “I’m 80.”
I was astonished because he clearly had taken a drink from the Fountain of Youth. Pham was a good-looking guy, slim with an appealing face and a non-descript coloring to his hair.
“That’s incredible. You’re a handsome guy!”, I said. He kept smiling.
A senior Vietnamese lady came to his side and I asked Pham, “Do you know this lady?” He said, “That’s my boss.”
Pham’s wife said without missing a beat, “He’s 80.” I expressed my amazement to her as well.
Pham proceeded to tell me about his life. He told me proudly and with his continued smile that he had been a fighter pilot. “I flew 600 missions,” he said. That seemed like a lot to me. But Pham confirmed to me that he was telling the truth because he rattled off the designations of the planes he had flown. Having been around Navy pilots as a young man, I knew that HE knew what he was talking about.
I wondered how a Vietnamese guy could be a fighter pilot and wanted to ask him about it. Guesses flashed through my mind. I surmised that he had fought for the US in Vietnam or that he had immigrated and joined the service.
I wish I had had time to have a long talk with Pham about his four-score life. But the throngs kept pressing and we had to move through the checkout line.
I also found myself to be disoriented, one of the symptoms of culture shock. As a result, I stopped at an empty cashier station to make sure I had all my purchases and the things that I brought with me.
Sure enough, the cashier who had checked me out saw me and brought over the cell phone I had bought the day before. (I can tell you it was more than 99 cents.) As I went through my backpack and purchases Pham and his wife passed behind me and exited the store.
I was sorry to see him go, for he was a gift from God. My positive meet up with this elderly Asian man has helped me to move on from my cultural fatigue in the Pacific States. It also reminded me of why decided to work cross culturally years ago: I am intrigued and fascinated by the customs, language and people of other nations. I feel re-energized and feel the allure of international life once again.
My last visit to the 99 Cent Only Store was far more valuable than the inexpensive items sold there.