Braving the Supermarket
There’s a certain amount of daring and boldness that comes with grocery shopping abroad. It’s an everyday event, but like everything else in a strange land – it’s full of its own odd quirks, customs and unwritten rules completely foreign to the casual shopper. My first trip to the Chinese supermarket “Centurymart” – a bustling two story with shopping booths on the first floor – was almost enough to dissuade me from grocery shopping in China altogether.
Convinced I was headed to an actual slaughterhouse, I approached the soot and grime stained building, once an “eggshell” stucco that had surely lost its color within two weeks of initial exposure to Chinese air quality. The once marble color steps, littered with KFC and McDonalds wrappers did little to assure me I was in the right place. However, as I watched the steady stream of people enter the building, I rationalized that because there was an equally steady stream of people exiting with plastic bags one block down, my chances of survival were pretty good.
Perhaps what bothered me most about the whole scene were the translucent plastic slats hanging from the doorway – in lieu of a door – a sunflower orange hue emanating from behind them. Strip Doors…these were legitimately the same Strip Doors placed in butcher freezers. Strip Doors instead of real doors.
Slaughterhouse…phased, but not quite deterred, I continued on, the symbolism evading me at the moment.
More than anything else, the smell of a Chinese supermarket hits you first. It’s a sweet, rancid rot mixed with carpenter’s dust, fresh produce and human odor – body odor. “They don’t wear deodorant,” I was warned ahead of time, “so bring your own.” This may explain why the TSA official looked at me knowingly when he examined my bag and one-way ticket bound for China. Why else would I have eight sticks of deodorant in my bag?
Momentarily stunned – and lets face it, a little wierded out after walking through the slaughter doors – I stood transfixed, unable to connect my senses. My nose, accosted by the humid sweet rot of people and food, couldn’t contend with the clean jewelry strip mall sitting in front of me. Two young women stood behind a red-lit counter (explaining the ominous hue puncturing the slaughter doors). Jewelry counters…they were selling gold, silver, jade, engagement rings, trinkets, etc. at the entrance to the stinkiest market I’d set foot in yet. Further on – for something this bizarre meant I was indeed in the right place – I discovered a shoe stall, a purse stall and even a bookstore. Communism is code for veiled or repressed consumerism after all.
Throughout the entire ordeal, I felt several sets of eyes watch me from a manageable distance. Their furrowed brows indicating I was a curious but welcome intrusion to their everyday shopping experience. Unfortunately, this look never really went away in my entire time there – and more often than not I was the ‘unwelcome intruder,’ a foreign body to be avoided at all costs. But, it was perfectly ok to stare…or to stalk me throughout the store in hopes of improving English conversation skills.
For foreigners in Asia, there’s no such thing as being anonymous or blending into a crowd; it’s impossible. Those afflicted by the insurmountable desire to be famous should live in Asia where everyone watches you, your every move scrutinized, photographed without consent. It’s comical, but it gets old.
To this day I still cannot understand how the markets are organized. Alcohol and foreign goods in the front, processed foots followed by produce – the meat and seafood counters hidden behind it all. I suppose they’re a lot like our own wherein we hide the ‘butchered goods,’ placing a freezer between the door and the counter. It almost begs the question, “do you really want butchered meat? Do you really want to know where your food comes from?” Do you really want to know what your food looked like before it was tossed into the meat blender, processed and reshaped into breaded frozen stars?
If Chinese supermarkets smell like sweet rot – which I do particularly enjoy – the French have an unpasteurized dairy smell to them. My first time to the Champion – a word I continually mispronounce as champignon or ‘mushroom’ in French – I was flanked by my best friend. Together, we’d decided to stock our small room and kitchen with some necessities…snacks.
Overtaken by the cleanliness of it all, I immediately found the cheese, she the Nutella. I know, a friendship made in heaven. She, having been to Europe several times before, was not as taken by some of our discoveries that first trip:
- Milk – pasteurized and free of all bacteria in the states, was sold in plastic containers reminiscent of bleach containers. In fact…I thought it was bleach upon first glance. Warm and room temperature, milk was not sold in the refrigerated section, but near the raw goods – toilet paper, toothpaste and tampons. Go figure…I didn’t drink milk for months. The thought of little bacteria – clad in black and white stripped shirts and berets, dining in my gut on cheese, canapés and crudités left me with a queasy feeling.
- Fruit – picked, weighed and priced all before you get to the checkout line. I learned this one the hard way as three pairs of eyes bored into the back of my head while our checker waved someone over to show me how to purchase fruit correctly.
- Two Buck Chuck actually exists and it wasn’t uncommon to find bottles of decent red wine for € 2.80.
- BYOBag – what was this concept?! Thrift? Recycling? You mean I have to pay 10 centimes (ten cents) for a plastic bag? Nonsense, I’ll carry € 25 worth of groceries in my arms all the way back to my apartment.
o Incidentally, it’s the same in many parts of the world – paying for grocery bags – which makes me wonder how and why the US is so slow on the uptake.
In the end, what seemed like a daunting task became ritual, easy and rather like looking at a group of people under a microscope. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read Chinese or French – had I been able to in China I probably wouldn’t have bought and eaten half the stuff I did. I suppose you can tell just as much about people by looking at their trash as you can by browsing the supermarket aisles. It makes me wonder what ours say about us!