As I stepped outside this morning, I noticed it was the sort of day to open your eyes wide, tilt your head back, and be immersed in the blue of the sky and the gold of the leaves. Autumn at its finest. But I was on a mission—autumn leaves would have to wait. It was time to shop.
Faded yellow plastic strips cover the doorway to the little store on the corner. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, only a low building with red paper tacked behind the small, four-paned windows.
I step inside and nearly spill a bowl of soup sitting on a counter. It’s breakfast time, and what better way to eat than to sell things at the same time? Every Chinese woman sitting behind a counter has a bowlful, and I’m not sure what’s in it. It looks brown and full of vegetables, just like the soup my mom always eats for breakfast. They’re talking loudly to each other, and seem unconcerned with my presence in their conversation—I’m a foreigner, so it’s unlikely I can say or understand much more than “ni hao.”
The woman behind the vegetable counter doesn’t even pause the rhythmic flow of her speech as she hands me a small, blue plastic basket to put my vegetables in. I choose from the piles—red tomatoes, fresh broccoli, green beans that aren’t yet tough and full of giant seeds, onions, some spinach. China has so many vegetables that the choice is hard.
Veggies chosen, she weighs them for me, tells me the price. Today it was “er shi si,” or 24 yuan, which comes to about 4 dollars. In America, that amount of fresh vegetables would cost at least $20, maybe more.
The meat counter’s the next stop for me. I ask for beef (the lady behind the counter knows the English words used in her business, though she seems to know no other English words), and she pulls out a large chunk. She takes it over to the counter and gestures with a knife. I nod and point to the ground meat in the case, and she points to the meat grinder. Several nods later, my ground beef is handed over for the price of 80 yuan, or roughly $13.00.
Before I leave, I make a few more purchases, going through the same motions of pointing and drawing on my limited (extremely limited!) Chinese vocabulary. Everyone nods and smiles, helping me out and offering other products for me to buy.
Shopping for things like these is easy in China—fruit and vegetables look the same all over the world. It’s when you start buying packaged food, like milk and flour and salt, that the questions begin. Is this white stuff in a bag salt, sugar, or MSG (yes, they sell it right next to the salt, and it looks exactly the same)? Is this shampoo or conditioner? And what is the weird slimy stuff in the bag that resembles chicken feet? It most likely is chicken feet; they may even be pickled!
So while shopping in China may not be comfortable or “safe,” it is very much an adventure. And we’re enjoying every moment of it.