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.

    uhtmilk.jpg

  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 jiÇŽo and fÄ“n.

  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. 😛

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

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