Alternate Title: You Have to Play with Them
This story is about a valuable lesson I learned from Christopher Kavanagh, a.k.a. “The Mick.” But first the story.
On this morning wife and I took two of our children to the pre-school / daycare where the boy has gone for the last two years. We just started taking daughter #1 last week. Like the boy, they accepted her before she turned two years old because she’s huge and advanced.
The school charges 400 soles for the matricula (admission fee) and then 400 soles per month. But we’re already mid-year, so it’s not clear if we pay matricula or not.
In fact, it is clear. We should pay it. But I was holding out hope that I might get away with not paying matricula for the daughter. The directora of the school and I get along well, and I’m a good customer. Why am I good?
I am now a repeat customer with two children students (in a socioeconomic environment where one is the new two), and she knows there is a third child coming down the pike.
I always pay on time (which, in Latin America …).
Most importantly, having little gringo children in her school is excellent marketing for the middle- and upper-middle-class parents of our Lima neighborhood. The school has a little blond-haired Argentine boy, but face it. His value before aspirational parents evaluating whether the school’s right for their own children is far below my two little gringos running around speaking English words.
On this morning I had brought money to pay for the newly enrolled daughter, and I was hoping to get the matricula waived.
“What are you paying?” the directora asked.
“Daughter,” I replied. “400.”
She nods. I know how to play.
Then wife blurts out from behind, “What about the matricula? Do we have to pay the matricula? How much is the matricula?”
It reverberated in my ears, “MATRICULA MATRICULA MATRICULA!!!”
Cornered, the directora said the matricula is 400 soles and then there’s the monthly fee of 400 soles.
I smiled on the outside.
After we left, I told wife she should have been quiet. And I explained that she needs to be a little more Latin. She needs to learn how to “play with them.”
I explained that it was possible if not likely that the directora wasn’t going to charge matricula for our gorgeous gringa daughter. I just had to play along and go through the motions as the directora conveniently forgot about it. But bringing the issue up directly was a deal-breaker. The directora simply couldn’t say out loud that she’d waive the admissions fee, and once the issue was out in the open, unable to be ignored, she had to charge.
Christopher taught me about how “to play with them” when we would have to bribe the cops after getting busted smoking weed on the streets of Bogota. I saw it enough times to do it on my own later on.
You have to go back and forth a little. Listen to what they say, evade a little, shoot the shit. But above all “you have to play with them” means you have to be comfortable with ambiguity as you go with the flow, aloof.
One time I was with two Scandinavian tourists and we’d been busted with coke. I knew how to play stupid and drag the process out a little in order to get the price down. The last thing you want to do is demand to know your fate — tell me now please, I just have to know! — and that you’re willing to do whatever it takes not to go to jail. That is how you pay the highest price possible.
The Scandinavian tourists didn’t want to play with the cops. They wanted to know if they were going to jail … in English over my shoulder the whole time so the cops clearly knew the score. That cost about twice what it should have, but it was their money so no sweat off my sac.
I combined Christopher’s lesson with something I heard from my Brazilian friend in college. He was the president of the International Business Club while I was the vice president, so we had to organize school events and even field trips to other cities. Being the International Business Club, we always talked about cultural differences.
I’ll never forget how he told me gringos sometimes get on his nerves by always asking what “the plan” is. What’s the plan? Where are we going? What time does it start? How much does it cost? They want all the relevant information upfront, when in reality there was no plan with him. He’s Brazilian.
I tried to understand then, but it only came together after years in Latin America. You need to be a little comfortable with ambiguity. Embrace it. Let the other people show their position first. Go with the flow.
I don’t think comfort with ambiguity is a good value in the macro sense, for an entire nation to be that way. That’s how you get inefficient and incompetent institutions, and trains that don’t run on time. Basically Latin America, as opposed to Scandinavia or Germany.
But in the micro sense, in your personal life, being able to embrace ambiguity is very rewarding. Especially if you’re down here. Otherwise you’ll be that Kraut annoying all the cool kids.
You have to play with them.
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