Cross-Cultural Commerce

“How much for two books?” a guy says, after spending a few minutes reading the blurbs of the books stacked on our sales table.

“The books are $3 each, so two would be $6,” Darling Man replies. The books retail for $30-plus here in Singapore — and they’re great reads. The books are a bargain.

“I’ll give you a dollar,” the guy says.

I am fed up with the Singaporean lowballing, the need to get things for the absolute cheapest price. I say no and the guy shrugs and walks off.

“THESE PEOPLE,” I think to myself. “What is WRONG with them?”

The garage sale was supposed to be our last Singapore selling hurrah. Most of our big stuff was sold by posting individual ads on Craigslist and Gumtree. Now, Darling Man, Miss M, me and our neighbours are sitting behind an enormous table covered in books and baby clothes, casserole dishes, a toaster, baby toys and yoga clothes.

I’ve been dealing with such a variety of annoyances as we slowly sold off our Singapore stuff — a Japanese lady who spent an hour combing through our house, agreeing to buy two cabinets and some shelving. All purchases canceled, one by one, over the course of two weeks. The Irish lady who said she wanted to buy the bookcase and toys. But then didn’t want any toys. And then didn’t want the bookcase. And then asked for her deposit back. Then said she’d take the bookcase if we could arrange transportation. Then, after we arranged transportation,  texted at 11.45pm to say she’d gone to Ikea that day and bought a bookcase so didn’t want ours after all.

But it’s the lowballing and haggling which is really ticking me off. Two shelving units for $5 each — an absolute steal. “I’ll give you $2 each for them.” Darling Man haggles the price up to $3 each – and the woman finally says she’ll buy. But only one. (Her husband pulled up to collect the shelving unit in an $80,000 car. I was so glad there was gecko poo on the back of the shelves.)

An as-new bike that we bought 10 months ago for $400, selling for $250 – “I’ll give you $150.” This from a guy who doesn’t want to test-ride the bike. He stood in front of our house for 20 minutes checking the retail price of the bike on his smartphone. He doesn’t want a bike. He just wants to flip something, anything.

The lady who asked for a “bulk discount” on baby clothes, offered at $5 a piece. She wanted TWO dresses.

The emails that arrive, 15 minutes after I post an ad, offering exactly half the asking price of each item. Just one line for each ad – “I’ll take it for $50.” “I’ll take it for $100.” No hello, no name, no manners.

To me it’s rude, hair-tearingly frustratingly rude. It makes me want to stamp and swear and scream at people for being tight-arses. To Darling Man, it’s perfectly normal. “It’s just bargaining,” he says with a pleasant shrug. If we weren’t so stressed out he’d probably find my reaction amusing.

To me, it’s not about the money. We are selling things we don’t need, things we don’t want to carry to Thailand. We’d give it all to charity but the charities in Singapore are so picky that they don’t accept certain things. (I’m worried we wouldn’t make the cut.) You have to pay $60 to donate “bulky items” and the local charity bin has mysteriously disappeared, making a trip to drop off clothes and shoes a half-day expedition.

So we’re offering things for sale. The prices are low. You want something, just pay the damn price. If you don’t want it, shove off – don’t waste my time.

I realise this is another “cultural experience”. I came to Asia seeking cultural experiences. But I only want to have good ones. These annoying cultural experiences are really annoying.

Even Darling Man has gotten a little narky about things. The Singaporean customer behaviour is similar to Vietnamese customer behaviour, but it’s not the same. And those differences can get up his nose too. But he’s so much calmer than me, and we have so much else to deal with, so he doesn’t complain.

I am so lucky to have him. And so lucky to have an outlet for my complaints. (That’s you, dear reader!)

12 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. tanya says:

    When we moved house in May we had the exact same experience! I’d post an ad on Craigslist asking what (to me) seemed like very reasonable prices for the furniture we didn’t want to take to the new apartment.

    After receiving dozens of (nameless, “thank you!”-less) SMSes offering me 10 – 50% of my asking price, I took to replying “I’d rather give it away”. The one that took the cake was a lady offering $30 for the couch and asking if I had the original receipt (obviously planning to resell it, this is a country of middle men)!!

    Of course, then I discovered that giving away furniture is even harder than dealing with Singaporeans!
    tanya recently posted..Photo Friday – the Big Buddha of Bago

  2. Maybe it’s just as well I’m a lousy haggler. Sounds infuriating.

  3. Erin says:

    I’ve also had issues with Craigslist. I’m moving this weekend and had to get rid of a bunch of stuff. I didn’t experience too much outright rudeness, but there are a bunch of flakes trolling around on there! It took me two months to get rid of most of my stuff. The things I couldn’t sell for what I believe they are worth will be put up on ebay. Buyers on ebay seem to be a bit more serious.
    Erin recently posted..Dear Mom & Dad, You Were Right. Love, Daughter

    • The Dropout says:

      I think the different selling websites have different markets in different parts of the world. (How repetitive is that sentence?)
      There is a local website here called Singaporeexpats, which has a classified section. We used that and Craigslist to buy a house-full of furniture when we arrived in Singapore. The ads used to be free but now are $8 per ad. I didn’t want to pay, and I saw that the listings were all from dealers. I figured it’s not my market.
      I used Facebook marketplace too, but I don’t think Craigslist is very popular here in Singapore.
      Ahhh, the world is a funny place, isn’t it?

  4. oh my goodness. i can’t even imagine. i’d just donate it all if i could – how amazing that they are so picky!! UGH!!
    wandering educators recently posted..Belgium Pictures: Images of Belgium’s Beauty

  5. Andrea says:

    I can completely empathize with you – we encountered similar frustrations selling our things before taking off to travel at the end of last year. As we were living in Australia we had a few Asian “customers” but quite a few were just haggling Aussies or Europeans. These days everyone is looking for a bargain!
    Andrea recently posted..Four Great Hungarian Restaurants In Budapest

  6. Sally says:

    I simply love the line about cultural experiences. I also moved to Asia for cultural experiences — but good ones ONLY, so if all the annoying ones could stuff it already, I’d be really happy. 🙂
    Good luck with selling off the rest of your stuff!
    Sally recently posted..Dreaming Big, Aiming Low & Figuring Out What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

  7. Jeff Watkins says:

    It’s ALL about the price point with Singaporeans.

    It reminds me of when Singapore banned oyster (the kind you find in hawker dishes) imports from neighboring countries because they were contaminated “over the limits” with ‘fecal’ matter – for those who don’t know that is ‘human sh*t’. Several importers were later caught smuggling and their defense was that their customers didn’t want to pay the higher prices for the non fecal oysters from other countries.

    Enough said.
    Jeff Watkins recently posted..Montana Family Adventure: Beasts, Mountains, July Snow, & More

  8. Lisa McKay says:

    I head back to laos with my seven week old baby in two weeks. this line made me laugh out loud,,, “I realise this is another “cultural experience”. I came to Asia seeking cultural experiences. But I only want to have good ones. These annoying cultural experiences are really annoying.” 🙁 thanks

    • The Dropout says:

      Congratulations on your new bundle of joy, Lisa! Ours flew from Brisbane to Ho Chi Minh City at nine weeks and she slept nearly the whole way.

      Yes, the “cultural experience”. I know that people are probably not being rude or difficult, it’s just the way things are done here. But in this case I found it so frustrating. And look — four days later and I’m no longer stressed about it!

  9. Maria says:

    Hey hang in there. Selling in the US goes the same way.

    If you can’t find a buyer can you at least donate to charity?
    If you’re also paying taxes in another country, maybe you can put it towards a deduction?
    Maria recently posted..Lost and Found

    • The Dropout says:

      Hey Maria, we would have loved to donate things to charities here in Singapore but it was just too hard. In hindsight we should have paid the charity’s “collection fee”. It would have been far less stressful. But I was just sick of paying through the nose for EVERYTHING — even donating to charity.

  10. Unfortunately, just having ‘good cultural experiences’ isn’t an option. By your standards these folks are absolutely rude, but in their cultures they are probably not looked at twice, expecially if bargaining is a competitive sport. Then again, when you try to hold a garage sale in the US that starts at 9 am (as stated in the newspaper or on signs posted in the neighborhood), you get the charmers who think nothing of arriving at 7:30 am and wandering around your driveway/front yard offering half or less for various pieces as you’re trying to set up. It’s all relative. And I’m sure you are glad that the haggling is over with, items are donated or given away, and you’re done with it. You can exhale, take a look around in CM and start life anew! recently posted..When a Friend Fulfills a Widely-Shared Dream

  11. Amila says:

    This post reminds me some of our experiences in moving from one place to another after rental period.Selling unwanted stuff and even wanted stuff is better than paying huge for transport.I have lot of experiences in selling such items on Gumtree,but this post makes me smiling.At least it is not only me faced such cultural shock! 🙂 🙂
    BTW I am residing in Singapore.
    Amila recently posted..Spectacular Sunset Moments

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