In Love & Hate of Chinese Supermarkets

Lost Laowai Group Writing Project
Hey, so I’ve started a new Group Writing Project over at Lost Laowai called China: Love It Hate It.

Essentially I’m asking China bloggers (not at all limited to English-speaking bloggers) to chime in and sound off on what they both love and hate about China. The post can be written in any form or with any unique twist – the only thing I ask is that it be balanced.

The idea for the project comes out of showing that it’s ok to have divided feelings about China. You don’t have to be an extrapohater or an avid apologist – there is an alternative. You can just be. And so, if you list five things you hate, figure out five things you love – or vice versa.

For my part, I’m going to challenge myself to find the good in Chinese supermarkets and the products they contain, but first… the bad.

What I hate about Chinese supermarkets and their evil products

  1. It’s rice, not a Zen rock garden: I understand that there is something soothing about letting stuff slowly flow through your fingers, and this explains (but doesn’t excuse) why every time I go to the supermarket I stare fascinated as an old man or woman sifts through the bulk bins of rice under the pretense of looking for the perfect grain.
  2. Cart Abandoners: To explain to someone whose never been in a Chinese supermarket on the weekend what it’s like is just not possible. The closest analogy I can draw is picturing shopping the week before Christmas and multiply it by about four. To add perspective – my hometown of 45,000 people has about 5-6 large supermarkets, the same as Suzhou (population: 6,000,000).

    So, whereas back home if someone politely curbed their cart and ran up the aisle to get something it was no big deal, here in China it is an f’ing nightmare. Yet people do it all the time, and forget “politely curbed” – carts, baskets, small children, various sporting goods are routinely left in the middle of the aisle, near always (for uncertain reasons) directly in my path.


  3. Crying over spilled milk: By far the most common type of milk to buy in China is UHT milk – basically milk that’s been heated to high temperatures, sealed air tight and keeps for 6+ months on the shelf.

    It’s not enough that UHT milk tastes like what I always imagined cat milk must be like, the cartons have been designed by absolute fucking morons. I’ve yet to have my first pour from one of these boxes not go everywhere but in the glass. After Maggie had laughed at me several times, I challenged her to a successful first pour – we now go the distance (and pay the extra 2 kuai) for the fresh milk.

  4. Do you even know what that is?: When I first started frequenting Chinese supermarkets I found it humorously helpful that the staff always tried to suggest products to me, despite having no clue what I was looking for. Now it’s just god damn annoying. What I had mistaken as general interest in my shopping experience, I now know is the apogee of “looking busy”.
  5. 10 items or mess: For their part, Supermarket Traffic Control Specialists have done a good job of coming up with ways to speed up the checkout process – and when you’ve a few thousand people in your store, that’s well needed. What they need to invest more heavily in is public education on what this means.

    It does not mean that you can bring you mountain of goods to the five items or less line, despite it being shorter. It does not mean that you can cut in front of someone who has eight items, even if you have four items. It does not mean that you can bring your cart into the Baskets Only lane, even if you dump your cart at the narrowly designed check-out entrance.

  6. You didn’t get over-charged, go home: I’ve elbowed my way through the aisles to get my goods. Waved off the up-selling ambitions of the staff, slid deftly across the mucky seafood department, practiced Buddhist-like patience at the check-out, and am finally able to get the hell out of the place – if only your fat, receipt-checking ass wasn’t standing DIRECTLY in my way.

    An uncountable number of times I’m casually following the flow of exiting traffic – content that it’s all over and I’ve survived when suddenly the person in front of me comes to a dead “you all only exist because I exist” stop and proceeds to vigorously examine their receipt – making sure they weren’t cheated out of their hard earned jiǎo and fēn.

  7. Cart Courtesy: I’m always amazed, in that WTF sorta way, how completely ignorant shoppers can be here. This is never so clearly embodied as it is when a shopper gets to the supermarket’s doorway and decides they no longer need their buggy. Rather than scooting it aside and pulling out the bags, they stop (in the doorway) pull out their bags and then leave the cart as some sort of final fuckoff to the rest of the people they’ve just shared their shopping experience with.

What I love about Chinese supermarkets and their nice products

Right, so after that you may be surprised that I can list an equal number of good bits – I know I am.

  1. Big beer: I absolutely love that China seems to rejoice in dispensing as much beer as they can for as cheap as possible. For the price of a six pack back home I can buy 28 bottles of the local brew. And these ain’t no pansy-sized Heinekens, but rather big 620+ ml monster bottles. Sure, it’s got enough formaldehyde in it to pickle the population, but I feel it’s just my way of preserving myself for the discovery of future generations (or to give my cremation a neat green haze).
  2. Fresh meat: Ok, it might sound a bit gross, but I like that the meat departments in Chinese supermarkets are really raw. I was a vegetarian for eight years and made a silent vow to myself upon resuming my carnivorism that I would not forget where meat actual comes from. It’s always annoyed me that the meat industry back home works so hard to disguise what they are – killers. It is quite easy, and common, for people to go their whole lives thinking there’s a difference between ground beef and a living, breathing cow.

    I respect that Chinese supermarkets, for lack of the taboo, just don’t care. Here, a trip to the meat department even in a place like Walmart will show you halved pig carcases, complete chickens with a few remaining feathers still sticking out of them, live fish being gutted and scaled in front of you, and all manner of innards to choose from.

  3. mosquitozapper.jpg

  4. Shocking products: I love these little electric racket things used for killing mosquitoes. Now, I may be mistaken on this one and these little doohickies could be all the rage in Canada – however, when I’ve been home I’ve not seen them. There are few things in this cold, lonely world that afford such instant gratification as the spark and pop of a mosquito.
  5. Cheap Cheap Cheap: Alright, the cheap thing comes with its own set of downsides, but even after nearly three years in this country I still get a kick out of the fact that I can go to the supermarket and buy a week’s worth of groceries for less than $30 CAN – often much less.

    That said, I would sacrifice some of that cheapness if it meant opening more supermarkets to relieve some of the shopper congestion.

  6. Snack roulette: Sadly this one is a dying breed now that I’ve tried most things. However, snack roulette is when you go into the goodies aisle of the supermarket and just randomly buy things – not being able to discern what it is from the flashy, if not a little nondescript, packaging. You occasionally end up with beef-flavoured candies, but there are some gems as well.
  7. Browsability: Though this one just compounds the over-crowding thing, Chinese supermarkets definitely have a more “market” sense about them. For the most part Chinese supermarkets have thus far escaped the eggheads that sit around all day and dream up economic traffic funneling techniques and buying habit hot zones.

    Generally speaking they are a chaotic mess reminiscent of markets from days of yore (or right next door) and they’ll have you looking at live crabs one minute and ladies underwear the next.

    Though they never seem to have what I’m looking for (deodorant, comfortably fitting gitch, hair management products that aren’t gel, chicken breast, etc.), I often find neat little things I didn’t know I needed (see #3).

  8. Volunteer Product Safety Inspection Squads: It fills me with confidence that whatever product I put in my basket is rigorously surveyed by a virtual army of people all concerned for my welfare. Some members of the VPSIS will even go so far as to reach into the basket and shuffle things around to get a better view. Most, however, are content to give a gaze from a distance, sometimes enlisting their companions help in determining what things are.

    I’ve some luck though, as I’ve not yet had a VPSIS member stop me and advise that I put something back. It’s just nice knowing that safety net is there for me should I ever need it.

Love it or hate it?

Well… after examining my Chinese shopping experience I might not be a lot closer to truly understanding the balance between loving and hating China, but I’ve a big long list of things I’ve remembered I need at the shop.

And yeah, that last one was blatant cheating. 😛

18 Responses

  1. Seeing that the meat is so fresh is one thing (I’m a farm girl so no surprises here) but the fact that hundreds of people have poked at your steak that’s been sitting on the counter for who knows how long bothers me! Poking with hands used to bathrooms with no soap or paper towels…. 🙂

  2. I completely concur with you on number three on the positive lists. We brought some of those suckers home to the SF Bay Area, and it’s still completely satisfying to electrocute the mosquitos, even if it occurs less.

    I used to make rounds of my room every night before bed the summer I was in Suzhou, just waving the racket around, and zapping the bloodsuckers. Though inevitably one would still evade my patrol and whine in my ear in the middle of the night. >.

  3. @Emily: Yeah – see my #1 against (same principle).

    @Hek: You live!!!

    @Erin: I love the smell of fried mosquito in the evening. Though to be honest, the only truly effective repellent I’ve used are incense coils.

  4. I always found it disturbing that at the end of the day in the meat department they would unwrap all the meat dump it in a bucket, then wrap its up again the next day with that days date stamped on it. kinda wonder how fresh that fresh meat is.

    and next year for sure i’m buying one of those bug zappers

  5. Hmm … Could I be wrong, or are your pros a little weaker than your cons (one of them even being a con in disguise)? I have a theory — tell me if I’m completely off the mark — that you started out wanting to write a nasty whinge about China, but didn’t want to seem like an extrapohater, and so tried to balance it out a little. You know, there’s nothing wrong with mouthing off every once in a while, despite what some zenophobic Chinese and overly-apologetic westerners might say.

  6. @Chris: Could I be wrong or do you always try to find an angle in my posts?

    I think I made it pretty clear the object of the post (and the Group Writing Project) is to force yourself to write both the loves and the hates.

    Some topics (ie. Chinese supermarkets) will lend themselves to being easily criticized by their very nature.

    To contrast, Jeremy is having trouble coming up with things he hates.

    That’s the point. To challenge yourself to see the side that isn’t always easiest to see, and in so doing also illustrate that (as Rick so correctly stated) Black + White = Fucking Grey.

    You’ve read this blog long enough, and know me well enough to know I have no qualms about tearing China a new one should I see fit to do so. This project is just a way to do something a little different.

  7. ha! Was nodding in empathy/agreement at a lot of this. Cheap beer – Woohooo – and you might like to know that Shenyang’s Beer “Snow” is formaldyhyde free!! I can get it here in Zhejiang.

    Where I am it’s pretty quiet in the supermarket… great…. but it means there are more fuwuyuan (assistants) than shoppers, which means a million of them are on hand to help me, or merely watch me….

  8. Alright, I think I’ve got one I’d like to do. Hopefully I can get it sent by the end of the weekend.
    (this post is mostly a way of reminding myself to do so…)

  9. Hey Chris / Ryan,

    I’ve got plenty of things I hate about China – it’s just trying to avoid gfc backlash and not wanting to be arrested, you know?

    Going the way of Che is not the smartest way of dealing with the craziness this country presents… if you catch my drift. Unless you want to die.

    There are more things that piss me off about China than the average expat blogger, from what I’ve seen.

    Then again, we might all just be watching what we say – self-monitoring, so to speak.

    PS – Good list of love / hates of Chinese supermarkets – the only one I really love is Walmart, which there is only one real one in Shanghai, and it’s still crazy crowded (just not as bad as most Chinese supermarkets)

  10. @Jeremy: Not to push fates or anything, but with the exception of promoting certain “movements”, the chances of anything truly violent happening to an expat in this country for talking shit is pretty limited I think.

    Ironically, going the way of Che would do nothing but lend stability – the guy was essentially a Maoist 😉

    Re: Walmart – like cinemas that play movies in English, Suzhou is notably lacking in this department.

  11. Great lists. I have no comment about the milk as I don’t drink any… I go with soy milk instead. And fortunately, I go to smaller stores near home to avoid the crowds (that’ll change once Carrefour opens). And have you tried the Inca Chips? They’re “Ethnican Flavor.”

  12. @Chris: Could I be wrong or do you always try to find an angle in my posts?

    Haha! Don’t feel bad, I always try to find an angle in everything I read. It’s just that I guess I still don’t get the point of forcing oneself to say something good (or bad) about a topic. Part of the reason, I think, is that whenever I’m talking to a Chinese person, and I find myself saying something bad about China, I feel a powerful urge to follow it up with something like “but of course that’s just one side of the story …” and then say something nice to make them him or her feel better. I really don’t like this urge in myself.

  13. Pingback: Living in China is Easy… | A China Blog on Suzhou Expat Life | The Humanaught

  14. Hi I can relate, however one thing that I love about Chinese Supermarkets is that it is always overcrowded (especially towards Chinese New Year). Down here in Australia it is not very often you see people rushing through aisles and sliding in between one another.

  15. Your post has me crying with laughter. I just moved to Hangzhou a week ago. Haven’t been in many supermarkets yet, but had an experience with our new landlady that has me looking forward to the VPSIS. She barged in on me in her bathroom – after I had been in there long enough to be half naked – in order to show me how to use a roll of toilet paper. Haha! They’re on patrol, making sure you know how to put things in your basket – or wipe your ass.

  16. Hey, you forgot to mention it’s usually about 85 degrees in there. And what about the fact that all the potato chips have some wierd flavor added. Well sort of- the flavor is on the label, not in the product. All the “flavors” in Chinese foods have been cheapened to the point that they pretty much have no flavor. I once bought the Chinese “Oreos”- couldn’t finish them. They just tasted Brown.

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