A Chinito Internship
A Chinito Internship – Calle 4 in Casco Viejo, Panama.
It has been my dream to work at a Chinito. Since I arrived in Panama 5 years ago, I’ve had a hard to explain fascination with these small corner stores. Maybe it’s because Chinitos are owner-operated. We share a small business man’s mindset. Maybe it’s because I’m curious about China and its culture. I’m itching to travel to Asia more. Or maybe it’s because I admire Chinito’s dedication. They are open everyday, and almost all day. Whatever it is, Chinitos fascinate me.
Chen is the owner of my local Chinito. I approached him about the possibility of working for him for a single day, without pay. Panamanian politicians refer to this as, “caminar en los zapatos del pueblo” (walking in the shoes of Joe the Plumber). I just call it an internship.
Chen: “No te voy a pagar, Gringo.” (I am not going to pay you, Evan)
Me: “I know. That is the beauty of an internship. Business owners don’t have to pay money. My compensation is the experience.”
Chen: “Está bien, loco!” (Alrighty then! You crazy man, you)
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. I got busy with other things. Things included writing my first book as well as operating our rad colonial apartments. The idea of the Chinito internship was placed on the back-burner. Said another way, I procrastinated.
Ten days ago a sense of urgency came over me. My time in Panama was limited. Soon I would be back on the road. This time backpacking around Europe. My plan was to travel until my money ran out. If I was going to intern at the Chinito, it had to be now.
The following morning, I walked into the Chinito. Chen was re-stocking sacks of sliced pineapples. He was dressed casually in a white tank top, Umbro shorts, and pair of knock-off Crocs. I made a bee line straight for him. I stood behind him until he felt my presence. I spoke slowly.
Me: “Listo.” (Ready)
Chen turned around. His head cocked to the side as he looked at me confused. Chen had forgotten about our internship discussion months earlier. Instead of reminding him about it, I stayed silent. I proceeded on as if he remembered. My eyes were focused, and my face was serious.
Suddenly, Chen remembered. He, too, did not blink his eyes.
Chen: “Dale pues…” (Do it)
My internship was set. Tomorrow would be the day.
There was one small problem. While Chen and I’s stare off made for great T.V. drama, it left my internship clouded with a tremendous amount of ambiguity. What time do I start? What will be my responsibilities? I asked myself questions like these.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling searching for answers. Finally, an answer came to me in the form of a Chinese Proverb, “He who wakes up before dawn 360 days a year will make his family rich”. It became clear. I must rise before the sun.
The next morning, I arrive at the Chinito before dawn. As Chen rolls up his store front steel gate, I’m waiting there on the sidewalk. I have a cup of freshly brewed Boquete coffee in my hand. It’s my second. I’m ready to work.
Chen seems surprised to see me. Nonetheless, he immediately put me to work. My first duty is to be the front door watchman. This person sits on a beer grate at the entrance of the store and looks out for shoplifters. It’s an unglamourous position at the Chinito. However, I keep a good attitude. I’ve no problem starting from the bottom of the Chinito’s company ladder.
I ask Chen to demonstrate some of the tell-tale signs of a shoplifter.
Chen: “Busca el Ciclón. El Ciclón es carro, loco!” (Look out for the Ciclon. It is expensive! You crazy man, you)
Chen is referring to the energy drink, Ciclon. The price is $2 for a small can. $2 puts the price near the top of Chinito’s product list. Also, the small can makes it’s easy to conceal under a shirt or pair of shorts. Shoplifters take the Ciclon from his store and re-sell it to the Chinito on Calle 8. This is just one of the reasons Chen and Chinito on Calle 8 are not on speaking terms.
Chen asks me to focus my efforts on securing his energy drink section. I run into an unexpected problem. Most of the shoppers in this Chinito know me. They’re fellow Casqueños (residence of Casco Viejo). My attempts to search them are not taken seriously. Everybody thinks that I am being playful. “Oye, que te pasa, Gringo?!” (Cut it out, Evan!)
Chen realizes my efforts are being counter-productive. So he moves me to the candy section. Specifically, to restocking the Peanut M&Ms. After 30 minutes of restocking items, Chen needs to attend to a situation in the back of the store. He has to accept a beer delivery.
Chen: “Gringo, maneja la caja.” (Evan, take over the cash register)
Just like that I’m operating the cash register. The cash register is the epicenter of the Chinito. Me being summoned to take control of it is like a rookie backup NFL quarterback being thrust into the game after the starting veteran QB goes down with an injury. I had no time to think. Much less time to be nervous. Adrenaline raced through my veins – baptism by fire.
As Chen attends to the situation in the back, I am holding down the cash register just fine. I already know the price of most of the items being ordered. I order them frequently. They include bananas, yogurts, and calling cards.
All of a sudden, a rush of 20 MOP construction workers take their mid morning break. They all jam into the Chinito at once. The cash register is being overcrowded. (MOP = El Ministro de Obras Públicas aka The Ministry of Public Works)
MOP Construction worker: “Oye, Gringo, cuanto vale eso?” (Evan, how much does this cost?)
He holds up a mini liter of Coke-a-Cola. His bright yellow uniform is filthy. It’s covered with mud and bits of dried concrete from the extensive digging they are doing in Casco Viejo.
MOP Construction worker: “Chuleta! Ya el priceo subió!” (Pork Chop! The price has risen!)
Me: “Don’t blame me, papá. I am just the intern.”
Meanwhile, more and more MOP workers are surrounding the cash register.
#2 MOP Construction worker: “Gringo, dame una hoja.” (Evan, give me ‘X?’).
Me: “What is a ‘hoja’?”
Through hand motions, #2 mimics the rolling and puffing on a joint. I learn that “oja” is a slang term for blunt papers.
MOP workers have now engulfed the cash register. From all directions, everyone is demanding that I hurry up. “Muévete, Gringo!”(Move it, Evan)
A nervous sweat begins to drip off my face. My hands are shaky. Anxiety from the demands of impatient MOP construction workers has made me unable to do basic math. The pressure is mounting. I’m falling apart like a cheap suit. Chen is nowhere to be found.
By the grace of God, Carlos comes through the entrance. He is the skinny 20-year-old part-time worker at this Chinito. Carlos is Chinese, but was born in Panama. He is one of the growing number of first generation Chinese born and raised in Panama.
Immediately, Carlos sees me struggling and steps right in. He scoots me to the side as he takes the lead on the cash register. I slowly retreat to the beer crate a few feet away. He has essentially tagged me out.
Carlos is good. His movements are smooth and quick. He charms customers as he multi-tasks. With one hand, he lights a cigarette for a MOP worker. The lighter has been tied to the table to make sure it is not stolen. With the other hand, Carlos returns change to another customer. At the same time, another MOP worker asks the price of the small pack Ritz crackers.
Carlos: “20 centavos, nada má(s)!” (Only 20 cents. What a deal!)
Multi-tasking at the cash register like this continues. It’s an artform. Carlos has an entrepeneur-type of energy about him. I predict he will operate his own Chinito someday soon.
In the meantime, I’m taking notes on a small notebook I purchased right there from the Chinito. Writing information down helps me absorb it more efficiently. I discovered this during college. Hopefully, there will be another opportunity for me to “manejar la caja”.
MOP construction workers stay fraternizing in the Chinito during their break. They drink .25c Malta (a carbonated malt beverage) and nibble on .15c pancito (bread). Some of them cat-call girls ranging in age from 14 to 40. Other fight for bragging rights over who has the latest and greatest smartphone. The atmosphere is urban masculine and blue-collar.
Casco’s white-collar workers are also congregating. They hang out at Super G, a few blocks away. They sip on skim-milk cappuccinos as they discuss the advantages of vegan diets and Macintosh computers. The two groups are in relatively close proximity to each other, yet their cultures are worlds apart. But, I digress…
After a couple hours behind the cash register, Carlos is summoned to stock beers. Chen’s wife, Erika, has taken over. She sits next to me as she eats a bowl of sticky rice with chopsticks.
Erika: “Tu eres millonario, verdad?” (You are a millionaire.)
Me: “No, no, no… I’m just a small time hotelier who moonlights as an indie writer.”
Erika: “Mentira! Los gringos siempre tiene plata!” (Lie! Gringos always have money!)
Me: “Well, not this one. I’m still paying off student loan debts!”
We chit chat for a while. Then, she asks me if I want to take over the cash register. This time she will stay near just in case. I’m back in the game!
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’s 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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Originally posted on EyeOnPanama.com