Mad Respect for Mis Chinos
In Panama, the local nomenclature refers to small grocery stores as “Chinos”. The exact translation of chino is a male of Chinese decent. An overwhelming majority of small super markets are owned by people of Chinese descent. Over time, all small grocery stores have become known as “Chinos”. Strangely, this overt racial categorizing is not considered offensive. Thus, as I immerse myself in the local culture, I partake too, in native colloquialism and refer to small stores Chinos.
The Chino I frequent most, and the one that has provided me with the most entertainment, is located on Avienda Central and Calle 5 in Casco. I take daily jaunts there to buy basic necessities, break large bills, and search for cures to morning hangovers.
During the many hours spent at the Chino, I’ve observed their behavior extensively. It has fascinated me. I’ve grown to admire some of their values and virtues. Here are some of my most memorable observations.
Computing Dexterity. The family operating at my local corner store (Mis Chinos) have incredible mental computing power. I’ve witnessed clerks simultaneously compute multiple transactions.
What is happening in the photo below would be considered a light customer traffic moment. You can see only 3 transactions going on (I’ve seen as many as 6). Unlike the common super market, Chinos rarely have formal lines. As a result, customers gather around the counter and place their purchase items at the most visible point of the counter. The most purchased items include phone cards, gum, cigarettes, soda, and beer.
It’s amazing to watch. A single cigarette is sold for .25c with change needed for a dollar. Next the clerk moves on to the order of a 6 pack of beers, $2 phone card, and a slice of pineapple. The clerk is seemingly able to compute the sum with sales tax correctly, and return perfect change for a $10 bill within seconds. No assistance from a calculator necessary. They make it look too easy.
From there, the clerk quickly moves on to the next small transaction. But, first, out of the corner of his eye, he/she spots an outgoing customer accidentally exiting the store with a empty soda bottle. Not returning the soda bottle increases the price (bottling companies pay people to recycle their used bottles). The clerk directs the outgoing customer to pay the difference or return the bottle. The clerk-to-customer exchange is not cordial, but direct. Within seconds, he/she smoothly proceeds to the next transaction.
The speed at which the transactions are processed is sooo fast that a Las Vegas card dealer would be impressed. It’s lighting fast. Personally, I can’t even hold a conversation with someone and chat on my blackberry without being totally void in both. That’s mere double-tasking. However, Mis Chinos can sell a pack of gum, mentally compute the sum of a phone card, banana, and a piece of bread. At the same time they are popping the tops off two soda bottles and lighting a cigarette. That’s like ninja accounting, or something.
Patience. The sheer number of simultaneous mental computations is NOT the most amazing part. The fact that they are max multi-tasking while having pushy customers bark orders elevates them to an otro nivel (another level). It is not unusual to see someone loudly yelling “Oye, Chino, dame esto” (Hey, China-man, give me this). Typically, this is the person who is unable to secure their own counter space. If the Chinese clerk doesn’t immediately drop what he/she is doing to service that person, they’ll continue to yell “Oye, Chino, DAME esto” until they clerk behind the counter recognizes them.
As I’ve listened to these commands on countless occasions. A couple thoughts have popped into my head: First and foremost, the person who is demanding immediate service is typically cutting in front of the line. Second, someone should tell the pushy customer that interrupting the clerk while they are mentally computing will only slow EVERYONE down — including the pushy customer himself. Lastly, a lesson in basic manners would be productive. Politely asking the clerk, rather than commanding him, might be more successful in getting their order processed. Utilizing the usted form of Spanish or adding a “por favor” at the beginning or the end of the sentence could go a long way toward getting prompt service.
Even in this hostile work environment, Mis Chinos operate with a unmatched calm and collective demeanor. The average person becomes flustered when put under pressure while multi-tasking. The pressure is further amplified when outside forces (pushy customers) are applying pressure on top of your multi-tasking. Yet, Mis Chinos always smile and even toss in a hint of sarcasm in the form of a joke or an eye wink. That’s a cool operator!
On top of the their incredible transactional speed they have Zen-like patience. Their work environment is swelteringly hot and vaguely smells of sewage. To stay that focused under all those conditions requires SERIOUS talent!
Work Ethnic. Chinos are the closest thing to a 24/7 store in Panama. They’re open late almost every day. That, by itself doesn’t sound too impressive. However, Chinos are mom-n-pop shops in every sense of the word. Their employees are strictly limited to family. Mis Chinos are no different.
A big company like Wal-Mart can be open daily because they have hundreds of employees at a single store. Worker #039 takes over for worker #087. Simple. On the other hand, Mis Chinos live, work, and sleep at their store. They raise families in the store. Their memories and livelyhood are tied to that particular store. Most people complain that they have to work overtime. Try working ALL THE TIME! Now that’s work ethic!
Next time you visit your local Chino take notice of a few of these values and virtues. Even add some of your own observations to the comment section of this article.