Recently I trotted across the street to the sprawling Carrefour supermarket/ department store in our Shanghai suburb. Maybe “sprawling” doesn’t exactly convey just how massive this megastore is—I mean, people actually ride bikes inside. And Shanghai has 22 of these French superstores, which are sort of like a less skeevy Walmart. Seriously, here at Carrefour I haven’t seen a single mullet, butt crack, or mauve elastic pants worn as both a top and bottom.
Megastore shopping is a big change for us, having spent the past three years in megastore-less Bamako, Mali. Not that we felt we were missing anything in Bamako–we actually enjoyed shopping at quaint markets, hole-in-the-wall bakeries, and roadside produce stands where the food was local and fresh and there wasn’t a Pop Tart or Hot Pocket in sight. But there are 25 million people here in Shanghai–that’s three times larger than NYC, six times larger than LA, eight times bigger than Chicago, and 625 times grander than my hometown of Quincy, Illinois. So the stores really have to be jumbo-sized to handle the approximately gazillion shoppers. Go at the wrong time—the weekend, around 5PM any day—and you will play Chinese bumper carts whether you want to or not.
It’s strange—you’d think that in a nation of so many damn people that they would be keenly aware of their personal space, you know, like “Gee, let me not stop in the middle of the narrow, crowded store aisle to check the WeChat on my iPhone,” or “I definitely shouldn’t ram my shopping cart into someone else’s upper thigh and act like it didn’t happen,” or “It’s just common knowledge that when one shopper is looking at something on the store shelf I should never stand directly in front of him as if he doesn’t exist,” or “I’d never think of butting right in front of someone at the checkout lane even if they already had their items on the belt in front of the checkout person,” or “I realize that not everyone comes to Carrefour to take a leisurely stroll so I’ll make sure to move aside when someone behind me is in a hurry, especially that Westerner whose face is currently turning red.” But the local folks seem to be quite clueless about these sorts of things, so Jamey and I just follow the “When in Rome…” adage and behave like clueless people too. It’s actually sort of fun pretending you are the only one in a store full of a million people, kind of the King of Carrefour with a million subjects you can ignore and bump into without regret.
You’d also think a store of over 100,000 square feet would have everything ever manufactured worldwide since 1973, but there are some noticeable omissions. We recently searched 20 minutes for deodorant, only to discover just seven roll-ons tubes (for women) tucked near the face whitening creams. And yet the face creams take up one entire aisle. I mean, obviously they have flawless complexions here, but don’t they want to “raise their hand if they’re Sure?” Then I did a bit of online research and found out that Chinese people rarely use deodorant mainly because they don’t have to! What? Due to genetic factors, their bodies do not emit the same odors that the rest of us have to try to mask with scents like Brazil, Paris, and Hawaii, which are Secret deodorant’s new flavors (strong enough for a man, but made for a jet-setting woman), or from Axe, Anarchy for Him. Anarchy? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want a “state of disorder due to absence of authority” going on under my arms.
I think a good quarter of the population actually work at the Carrefour too. They have dozens of check-out lanes, a lady driving a massive floor cleaner the size of a Zamboni (driven, of course, during peak store hours), multiple sales ladies in front of various products (e.g. a lady in front of the toothpastes, another in front of the crackers, one by the eggs, etc. and I’m not sure what they do besides eye us and straighten up any product we touch), young guys and gals in a row in different brightly-colored costumes shouting on loud speakers (seriously) to buy some random product (a mop, butter, some sort of machine that makes either ice cream or spackling paste), a lady that weighs your wrapped candy, others that weigh your produce, nervous-looking middle aged managerial types with stern looks pacing the aisles (maybe wondering if the Zamboni floor cleaner ran anyone over), people cooking all sorts of things like little dough packets filled with some greenish mixture, the sample ladies doling out free chocolate chip cookies (I could walk to this booth in my sleep) and tea in tiny paper cups and pound cake cubes on paper doilies, guys wrangling the live creatures that I wish were enjoying life back in the swamp they came from like turtles, bullfrogs, eels, crayfish, and giant fish, and bakery ladies who spend a lot of time arranging sassy-looking baked goods in glass display cases.
It was the bakery ladies that I visited on this particular trip as I needed to quickly pick up a birthday treat for a colleague’s birthday the following day. As mentioned earlier, a number of the bakery ladies were busy organizing 3-packs of muffins (13 RMB, or about $2.00) in a glass display case with the intensity of a Tiffany’s sales clerk arranging diamond necklaces in a 5th Avenue window display. Unlike the tens of thousands of shoppers around me, I was in a hurry so I quickly chose what I assumed would be the simplest item for them to grab and put in a box—6 mini carrot cakes about the size of cupcakes.
When I finally managed to get the attention of one of the product-arranging bakery clerks I pointed to the mini cakes and, using my best elementary school Chinese said, “Liù” which means six, and sort of sounds like you’re saying “Leo” in a deep Southern accent while having a mouth full of cheese grits. The clerk looked at me like I had said, “This is a stick up! Give me all your carefully-arranged muffins!” Which I might have actually said since one tonal change in Chinese can create a whole new word. So I did the “five fingers, one thumb” sign and she nodded, still with a look of surprise though.
At this point I expected them to pick up the six mini cakes—which were already housed on cute little plastic plates with a clear bubble cover–and place them in one of the boxes I saw behind the counter. But this is what two of them did: Placed each mini cake (still in its
plastic bubble) in an individual cellophane bag that they folded over and taped; then placed two of these wrapped cakes each into a larger cellophane bag that they folded over and taped, then placed the three larger bags (containing two smaller bags of already bubble encased mini cakes) into a large plastic bag that they—you guessed it—folded over and taped. I was sure that I could put these into a time capsule and they would still be fresh in 2115. At school the next day it took three of us, with scissors and Exacto knives, 10 minutes just to open up these nesting doll-like treats and put them on a plate.
I was thinking a lot about this whole packaging thing during the 27 minutes it took the two bakery clerks to wrap these mini cakes. I recalled that my disdain of over-packaging isn’t new. Back in Grade 5 at Webster School I was in the “Advanced Reading Group” (clever name, and so thoughtful toward those unfortunate students in the “Primitive Reading Group” or “Just Plain Old Average Readers Who Won’t Amount to Much” or whatever they called the ones beneath me). Our teacher Mrs. Morgan had us create a book of poems called Poetry by Advanced Readers (obviously the clever title shows just how advanced we were), and my contribution was a poem called “Open It.” It went like this:
by Jeff Fessler, Grade 5
It makes me mad about the store,
The way they wrap things up,
I dig and tear and grip and bite,
to find just a coffee cup!
I use a hammer and an axe,
to open a cardboard box,
I chop and chop and chop again,
I would rather be an ox!
And in the end I use my teeth,
to open that pesky package,
But then my teeth turn out to be,
a great big pile of wreckage.
Well, despite the fact that I tried to slip in a near rhyme rather than a real rhyme in that last stanza, I still made my point. Over-packaging is definitely a thing here. When you open a box of Cheerios you’ll find not one, but two impossible-to-open silver packets of cereal, because apparently after eating half of the contents I need to be reminded how much I hate over packaging. We recently went to a bakery and bought a baguette that the clerk slipped into a long skinny paper bag. I was having visions of strolling down a Paris avenue, baguette under my arm, beret cocked to one side on my head. Then the clerk took a plastic bag, slipped it over the open end where a few inches of the baguette was peaking out, and taped it on with enough scotch tape to make it waterproof. I looked like I was carrying a giant penis encased in a condom, something I could not envision carrying down Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
I suppose, like every country we’ve visited/lived in, there are customs that we just have to embrace. And for the most part, I feel like we’ve done that. Here in China it’s polite to use two hands when giving someone something, like presenting cash to the checkout person. We always do that, and I like that one a lot because it turns a simple action into a fancy, polite one that makes me feel I’m on Downton Abbey. Years ago Jamey worked at a magazine shop in Palm Beach while he was in college. I happened to be visiting him there when a privileged sort of woman (with a fair amount of work done on her face), grabbed a water from the case and threw a dollar bill on the counter in Jamey’s direction. Before she exited the door he said, “You’re a quarter short,” and she took the coin from her baby eagle skin clutch and threw it—THREW IT—across the room toward his counter. Jamey just shook his head as he was numb from this sort of behavior. I, however, followed this skin-encased turd outside as she got her into her villain car and in less than 30 seconds reminded her how sailors talk.
There are other Chinese customs I’m finding it hard to embrace, such as drivers honking their horns all the time for every little thing at all hours of the night. And I’m not talking about one of those quick taps on the horn where it makes a little squeak like the Roadrunner that says, “Hey my friend, just a casual reminder that the light turned green. By the way, I hope you’re having an awesome day!” No, it’s a full-on, trumpet blast/supertanker in the ocean honk that says, “MOVE!!! Can’t you see that the light turned green .0036 seconds ago!?!?! I’ve got to get to Carrefour so I can leisurely walk around blocking the aisles!!!”
It’s weird because the honking drivers are weirdly dead-faced and very still as they do this—no obscene hand gestures or screaming out of the window or brandishing a gun (with a few exceptions, private citizens in China are not allowed to have firearms). They just totally let the horn do the dirty work while they remain emotionally unattached to the situation. Even funnier is that it’s illegal to honk a car horn in Shanghai! But according to a recent study, car horns are used 40 times more often here than in Europe, so go figure.
There is a Chinese custom that I fully embrace, even though I find it challenging. The
Chinese don’t lose their temper, even in a very frustrating situation. They don’t yell at people. They don’t show anger. If anything they giggle when they are mad or embarrassed, like after running their shopping cart into my upper thigh at Carrefour. This is interesting because sometimes a normal Chinese conversation sounds like one of the arguments on the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
One day the bus drivers outside of school sounded like they were ready to rip each other’s throats out. Their voices were raised and they were talking over each other. It made me a little nervous. But then my Chinese colleague said they were just talking about gardening. I tried to imagine how this would sound in English:
BUS DRIVER 1: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “YOU SPACE THE SEEDS ABOUT 5 INCHES APART!!!”
BUS DRIVER 2: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “YOU’RE RIGHT!! AND COVER THEM WITH ABOUT A HALF-INCH OF LOOSE TOP SOIL!!!!
BUS DRIVER 1: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “THEN JUST LET MOTHER NATURE GO TO WORK, THOUGH I HEARD MIRACLE GRO HELPS!!!”
BUS DRIVER 2: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “OH WELL, ENOUGH GARDENING TALK!!! LET’S GO TO CARREFOUR AND BUMP INTO PEOPLE!!!!!