Erika looks over my shoulder. She calls out prices. I make proper change and pack orders in small plastic bags. Her first instruction to me is “Cobra la plata primero, Gringo!” (Evan, take the money first). Meaning, that I should immediately deposit the customer’s money into the cash register then give them their change. Rather than leaving their money on the counter as I count their change.
The Chinito utilizes an unorthodox cash register. Instead of a traditional, centralized cash register, the Chinito has a decentralized one. There are four boxes on three different levels.
On the top level, there is the change bin. This is a tupperware container holding small coins. On the second level, there is the cardboard box housing the $1 bills/coins. To the left of that is another cardboard box housing the $5 & $10 bills. On the ground floor is a large Seco rum cardboard box. It’s the location for bills $20 or larger. Any given transaction could include all four of these boxes.
With Erika helping me, ya vamos bien (we are going good). Customers appear satisfied with the quick service. At the Chinito, good customer service is not about courtesy – it is about competency.
Also, I notice that she says, “Seis cinco” (six five) instead of “Sesenta y cinco” (sixty-five). As it turns out, the English and Spanish speaker’s numbering system is quite irregular. In English, we don’t say “one-teen” and “two-teen”. Numerals from “thirteen” to “nineteen” are irregular as well as those over twenty (“twenty-one”, “thirty-two”, “sixty-four”).
In Chinese, on the other hand, the system is perfectly regular. After 10, the numbers are expressed as “one-ten-one” (11), “one-ten-two” (12), “two-ten-one” (21), “two-ten-two” (22), “three-ten-seven” (37), etc.
Try this exercise: compute thirty-seven plus twenty-two. If you are an English speaker, your brain has to decode that into “three tens and seven” plus “two tens and two”. For a Chinese speaker, the information is right there in the question: “three-ten seven plus two-ten two”. Chinese is more conducive to learning math than English. By the age of five, English speaking children are 1 year behind Chinese children in counting. Fact.
The Chinese numerical approach is a competitive advantage at the Chinito. Product orders are miniscule. The micro sales are often times done without the assistance of a calculator. So, supreme comprehension in math is a must.
A typical order looks like this: a quarter stick of butter (.20c), three slices of cheese (.15c/each), two cigarettes (.35c/each) and a pint of Maracuya juice (.75c). It is customary for customers to add items as change is being given. $2 Mas Movil phone card ($2.14) and a single balloon (.30c). By the end of my internship, my math skills had drastically improved.
A Gringo is waiting by the cash register. Tourists are commonplace at Chinitos. I can tell he is a fellow Gringo because he is wearing board shorts, sandals, and his tee shirt is soaked with sweat. The Gringo patiently waits to order two Balboa beers as locals are cutting in front of him in line. He looks confused. I know what he is thinking, “Why is everyone cutting in front of me?”. I know this feeling well. In a Developing World, relaxed setting like the Chinito, standing in line is rare. The most aggressive customers are served first. I first experienced this when I was in India trying to buy train tickets.
Not everyone is ordering local Balboa beers. Miller Genuine Draft outsold the beer, Balboa. A 12 ounce bottle of Miller cost un palo ($1), while the local Balboa beer cost .45c. This is the Chinito’s equivalent to ordering sushi instead of fried fish.
At the Chinito, referring to a person by their race is commonplace. My name is Gringo. Carlos, Chen, and Erika are exclusively referred to as Chino/a. Customers from African ancestry are referred to as Negro/a. Sometimes Chombo – which is Panama’s equivalent to the N word.
African ancestry customer: “Oye, Chino, dame eso.” (Chinese man, give me this)
Chen: “Aquí está, Chombo.” (Here it is, N word)
African ancestry customer: “Gringo, dame un cartucho.” (White man, give me a plastic bag)
Me: “Here ya go, Chom…. I mean Caballeros. (Caballeros = Gentlemen)
I don’t feel comfortable saying Chombo in public. Even though, given the relaxed racial norms at the Chinito, saying Chombo could be appropriate. To me, it’s too close to saying the N word. The only time I say that is when I‘m alone in the shower rapping the song Juicy by Notorious B.I.G.
I worked 9 hours at the Chinito that day. It was an incredible experience. Besides adding to my street cred in Casco, my Chinito internship left me with a few valuable takeaways.
First, I realized that Chinitos fill a niche in the community. Their business model is based on a high volume of micro sales. Chinito’s customers can purchase individual units of products such as an egg, a slice of cheese, and a single piece of gum. They pay an increased price purchasing individual units, but most of their customers are thrifty. They’re living from quincena a quincena (paycheck to paycheck).
Another Chinito business insight is their inventory. They do a terrific job at identifying the wants and needs of their customers. Chinito’s shelf space are stocked with seemingly strange items like blunt wraps, balloons, and Rambutan fruit. Yet, their inventory moves quickly. Rarely will items sit in the store more than a week. It’s a living example of last minute inventory.
Socially, Chinitos serve an important function. They are egalitarian. Rich and poor people are treated equally in the Chinito. Rules are the same for the rich and the poor.
A person of means can easily dismiss a beggar on the sidewalk as somebody who is “asking for a handout”. The beggars become invisible. This type of denigrating is difficult to do when you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with a poor person and both waiting to buy the same $1 cup of ceviche. The Chinito levels the social-economic playing field. And that is a good thing.
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