REVENGE OF THE BEAN PASTE
The closest I ever came to culture shock in China was the first time I went to the supermarket. Or, I should specify, the animal section of the supermarket. There are pig trotters, chicken feet, all sorts of internal guts and sacks, knuckles, heads, legs, wings…and those are just from the animals that are already dead. In what we affectionately call “the aquarium section,” there are live clams, fish, turtles, frogs, eels, crawdads, sea cucumbers, conches, etc. All of this, of course, emanates a certain aroma…
The grocery store we shop at most frequently is Carrefour, located right across the street from our school. The supermarket has two stories: on the ground level, there are the household appliances, clothes, dishes, soaps, toilet paper, etc. The food is downstairs. But there are no stairs. Instead, there is a moving ramp, like an escalator, but with no steps, so that people can easily take their shopping carts from one level to the next. The ramp is magnetic so it holds the wheels of the shopping cart in place. At the end of the moving ramp, a store employee helps customers detach their carts from the ramp. One time the employee was slacking off, and a cart got stuck. The ramp full of people kept moving forward of course, causing a dangerous pile-up. Luckily, after a second or two, the cart was freed and disaster averted.
The best part about the ramps is that as you are riding the ramp down to the lower level, you can experience the ultimate thrill in impulse shopping. Beside the ramp, there are some shelves with the latest sale items displayed, so as the ramp moves, you have only a second or two to make a decision and then grab something. As you ride the ramp, the smell of the animal section wafts up, and soon the sausages come into view. I often wonder what they put into sausages in China, since they seem to eat every conceivable part of the animals. We avoid the sausages.
Next to the animal section, there is the fruit and vegetable section—an oasis of normality and pleasant smells to counter the carnage. The vegetables consist mostly of leafy or stalky green things. The Chinese love chives and cabbages and lettuces. You put whatever you want into a bag, and then take it to be weighed and priced. This is one of my favorite sports in the supermarket. There is one kiosk with three weighers for the entire produce section, and nobody queues. To get your fruits weighed, you have to jostle your way to the front, then, two seconds after someone else’s produce has been put on the scale, you add yours. By that time the price has already been calculated, and it ensures that yours will be the next one weighed. Otherwise, you will stand there all day.
Beyond the meats and vegetables, there are bins full of mysterious nuts and dried fruits and little wrapped candies, jars full of tea leaves and mushrooms, and vats full of pre-made salads. Then you enter the bakery section, or “home of the bean paste.” I remember during our first trip to the supermarket, I was thrilled by the endless pastries and breads and rolls and buns, until I learned that lurking inside all of them was the dreaded sweet bean paste. Even the most innocent, French-looking loaf has been known to harbor bean paste. After yet another fatal purchase, Zac lamented, “Why can’t they just put bread inside of bread?!” We eventually learned to thwart the bean paste by only buying sliced bread.
Next to the bean paste abode is the dairy section, consisting mostly of yogurt and milk. Most of the milk and some of the yogurt is the long-life kind that doesn’t need to be refrigerated until it is opened. The yogurt comes in small Yoplait style containers, but with straws, since the yogurt is liquidy. The yogurt flavors are usually pretty normal, but we have tried rose-hip and aloe flavors. The milk comes in cartons or bags. In addition to the standard white and chocolate flavors, there’s also walnut, peanut, coconut, coffee, strawberry and a few mysterious ones. The nearby frozen food area consists almost entirely of frozen dumplings and ice cream.
Then there are the eggs. The Chinese love eggs. But not just normal chicken eggs, oh no. They eat quail eggs and duck eggs and who knows what else (we’re illiterate here, remember). And even these eggs they don’t simply eat. Nope. They pickle them. They soak them in salty strange water that gives them the taste of, to quote Zac who ventured to try one once, “a petting zoo.” They also seem to be in complete denial of the fact that eggs are fragile and break easily. When you buy eggs here, you just buy eggs. No carton. You choose the eggs you want, put them in a bag, and get them weighed and priced. The first time we bought eggs, I broke at least half of them. Zac was put in charge of egg transportation after that.
Next we have the staple foods section. There a gallons of cooking oil and enormous bags of rice and flour. There are also bins of different kinds of rice and flour. Nearby is an entire aisle of soy sauce. Beyond that is the spice row. In the spice row, you can mainly find black pepper, white pepper, chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, mixed pepper, and jars of spicy pepper concoctions. And of course, giant bags of monosodium glutamate (MSG), smaller bags of salt, and many bags of chicken boullion which is really just chicken-flavored MSG. It’s funny because my Chinese students always say Chinese food is very “nutritious and delicious.” While the delicious part may be true, I wonder about the nutritious part since every dish is cooked with copious amounts of oil and a good dose of MSG.
Heading back across the store, you will encounter the promotion area. This is where girls in plastic outfits hand you Dixie cups of whatever product they are currently promoting. Nearby a TV, surrounded by the product, runs a constant advertisement. Carrefour is one of the quieter supermarkets, but in most of them, there will also be many people with bullhorns shouting promotional slogans to attract your interest in the product. In nearly every aisle of the supermarket, there is a sort of salesperson, or shopping assistant, or shoplifting patroller, I’m not sure. But when I spend too long staring at something (trying to decipher what I’m going to buy) one of these people will come over and point at a particular product (usually expensive) and try to convince me to buy it. Luckily my complete incomprehension of Chinese makes me impervious to these suggestions. Then there is the man who zips around the store on roller skates. Maybe he is the manager?
Near this area is the cookie aisle and snack food section. We were originally delighted with this section as well, until we discovered that most of the food, while looking normal, contains a mysterious ingredient that is imitation butter flavored and makes everything taste really gross. We can, however, buy unadulterated Ritz crackers, Oreos, and Snickers bars. We were a bit addicted to the Oreos and Snickers there in the beginning, but I’m happy to say we’ve been clean for two months now (we were getting fat). Then there’s the jello. Jello does not come as a powder in a box here, where you add boiling water and put it in your fridge for a while. It comes in little cups, with a lid and straw. That’s right, we are forced to slurp our jello. And slurp we do, since they managed to not mess up jello, despite trying their best by putting weird little mystery fruit balls in it.
Right in the center of the store, in its very heart, are the ramen noodle aisles: package upon package of ramen noodles, as far as the eye can see. Ramen noodles in China are quite fancy. Instead of just one flavor satchel, they come with three. One is flavor powder, one is dried green vegetable-ish things, and one is a spicy red pepper paste. The different flavors are quite mysterious to me, although I swear (judging from the picture) that one of them is fish-eye flavor.
So what do we buy? Mostly, we buy: jello, yogurt, milk, chicken, beef, peanut butter, bread, and cereal. (We buy the fruits and vegetables on our street.) So what on earth do we cook? What have we been eating for the past four months? Well, we only have five things that we cook: chicken-broccoli stir-fry, chicken noodle soup, chicken tomato pasta, spaghetti with ground beef, and beef stew. Of course, I’m sure there are more things we could cook, but we are easily deterred by not having the right equipment, right ingredients, a stove with more than one burner or an oven.
However, in recent weeks, with the warmer weather, our diet has been greatly diversified with the addition of Ice Cream. We can eat cookies and cream ice cream, vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, etc. I recently bought some delicious looking strawberry popsicles. I started eating one while waiting for the trolley to take us home from the store. Zac said, “Mm, that looks good. What’s inside?” I said, “I’m not sure what it is, but it tastes a bit odd.” I ate some more. “Zac, I think I know what it is. It’s frozen bean paste. It’s even infiltrated the ice cream!”