DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece and not intended to begin an argument about race. So, save the drama!
“Are you looking for anything particular?”
“Can I help you find something?”
These are all phrases that I expect to hear when shopping. But in Bangkok, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.
I love shopping and I really love shopping in Bangkok.
I’m not alone — you see locals donning their best fashion to simply roam about EmQuartier. My excuse to spend is that I’m forced to shop as there’s a mall at almost every BTS station.
Where I’m from, you visit one mall; you’ve visited them all. But not in Bangkok! Each mall has different stores that offer different selections.
However, what I have noticed to be pretty similar across the different malls is the style of customer service offered by the sales reps.
I am an extremely handsome guy, which I understand can be intimidating.
I’m just kidding! I’ll settle for being cute.
Whatever the view, I am not so breathtaking in appearance, however, to render one speechless. So I can’t understand why some of the sales reps are afraid to say “Hello” to me. It’s part of the job, so do it.
(It’s almost as infuriating as when taxi drivers refuse to take you. “Your light’s on asshole!” or “What do you mean you don’t go that far?”)
I try not to take it personally but I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’m black.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t play the race card. It’s not my style.
And again, this lack of greeting doesn’t happen in every store. I just wonder why it does happen sometimes.
It isn’t as if they’re afraid of me: upon my entry, they converge. Flocking to me, as if there is some magnetic pull that draws them close. Do they think that I’m planning to steal? I’m well clothed and don’t appear sketchy. It seems ridiculous how they stand guard just for lil’ ol’ me; like when cops unnecessarily call for a three car backup during a routine traffic stop.
Again, I’m cute but not for all of that.
No greeting and now watched. It can be really uncomfortable. They’re not pretending to fold a shirt or aligning hangers to perfectly face out; they’re just standing there looking at me.
If I’m underwear shopping, you don’t need to watch me to see if I am buying size S, M, L, or XL (insert naughty statement here)!
In America, we complain if a sales rep doesn’t acknowledge us or make themselves completely available to us when shopping.
However, my experience in Thailand is the opposite. I can hardly go to management and say “I’d like to report this woman for watching me and waiting for me to pick something.” I just wish I knew what they were thinking. Maybe if I had an idea, I wouldn’t get so enraged.
Once, I got really annoyed with a sales assistant who was following me from aisle to aisle. She’d stop when I stopped and stood next to me; so close that I was thinking, “Miss, if you get any closer, I’m gonna need an EPT test. And I’m a guy!”
She was stood so close that my only option was to get even closer to her. Noticeably uncomfortable, she then backed off slightly, as now her space had been invaded. The further away she moved, the more I began to follow her — to the point that she safely moved behind the counter, guaranteeing that I would not follow.
I needed answers. I couldn’t stop shopping. So I consulted a Thai friend for insight. She assured me that it wasn’t done out of racism.
The true acts of racism that I’ve come across while shopping before have generally been via shocking marketing campaigns and ridiculous branding such as “Darlie, Seoul Bleaching” and the highly disturbing “Black Man” brand of cleaning products. But, I’m not going there. And of course, no offense, but Thai people are ‘brown people’ too! Just sayin’!
My friend encouraged me to accept it as their readiness to help me; that it was was just standard Thai customer service. But I’m not sure that I can fully accept that.
In customer service, it’s standard to at least greet the potential patron upon entry. I know that there’s an assumed language barrier, but if I say “hello”, in Thai, upon entering, you should do so too.
For me, the lack of greeting isn’t as bad as the watching, however. Why are they watching? What’s truly behind it? Maybe it is simply their way? I’ve worked in retail at many places for many years, and this shadowing or stop-and-stare approach was never a part of the training.
I may never unlock the mystery, but here’s how I choose to handle it going forward:
When I begin to feel uncomfortable, I send the sales reps on errands. Have them start a fitting room for you. Run a random garment to the register or have them check the time.
I’ll politely ask them not to stand and watch me; advising them that if I need something, I will ask. I sometimes gesture to them to back up a bit and give me some space.
I don’t always do this as I feel super obnoxious doing it. In America, I would no doubt be cussed out by a sales rep at this point.
Begin coughing violently. It’ll freak em’ out, and they’re certain to back off!
You be the judge. Racism or simply Thai customer service?
Featured image is by w a n t o i i and used under a CC BY 2.0 licence