Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another trip to the grocery store

Just prior to dusk on balmy summer evenings, one sees a lot of young couples out strolling on the street, spending a little public time together before returning to the relative restriction of their family home. I suspect that the “good kids” are constrained to behaving this way before their marriages are arranged and they can move on to the next phase of their lives. Last night they were out in force, and I happened upon a couple of these pairs on my hunting and gathering outing that were quite entertaining.

I was home for about 5 weeks last time around and so before leaving I carefully provisioned my food inventory to about run out before departing. I’d left one block of cheese, two slabs of butter and two jars of jelly in the fridge, hardly enough for dinner unless I was thinking about a Raspberry jam Ritz Cracker quesadilla and so after work last night a trip to the grocery store was on the agenda.

Leaving work it was apparent that cooler clothes were required for the walk to the store so I got out of my professional duds and into jeans and a tee and grabbing my REI shopping bags and I went down into the swelter of Jinma Lu. And it was a swelter. Living in a place like this can only make me imagine what it’s like in Jakarta. You walk slowly and yet you’re in a full body sweat within the first block. And last night wasn’t even that hot, the sun was obscured by a thick, airborne petrochemical stew and there was the slightest breeze coming off of the mudflats holding it in place. But still, for someone accustomed to 14% humidity it was like walking on the bottom of the ocean. A boiling ocean at that.

The first interesting couple I ran into was in the middle of some sort of physical altercation. It seemed more of an angry flirt than an actual fistfight, but he was running away from her and she was trying to hit him over the head with her purse. He dodged and she kept coming until they both saw me whereupon they straightened their course and walked by me about 10 yards apart, both with angry looks on their faces. All of this was happening in silence so whatever the fight was about it didn’t seem to merit the use of words. I continued on past my old home, the Kerren Hotel, noticing a sculpture of a nude man and woman, done in bronze, floating on their sides in the middle of a fountain. I was quite taken aback by the fact that I had never noticed them before - their condition suggesting they’d been there for a while yet somehow I had avoided their blatant assault on the eyes.

Walking past the bus stop, I had a laugh about some enterprising person that had set some plywood planks on the seats in the bus shelter in order to set up a food store. I wondered how that would go over in our neck of the woods but realized that wouldn’t be a concern because our bus shelters have actual benches in them that wouldn’t allow boards to be set out. Here the “seats” are two parallel steel pipes too far apart to be used in unison and two small in diameter to be sat upon singly. A couple of brave souls were doing just that though, all the other riders were standing.

Not much had changed along the road in my absence aside from a re-stocking of the cheap goods inventory on the vendor blankets, a different season’s menu of fruit and the appearance of this confection that seems to be made of pulverized nut meats topped with candied fruit and girdled with walnuts. This stuff is sold off of three-wheeled bicycles with a big metal platform on the front. A saran-wrapped block of it is about a yard on a side and a foot thick and must weigh 200 pounds. It’s sold in 4 or 5 inch slices and it must be popular because there were at least a half-dozen guys selling it. All the blocks were reduced by about a quarter, but I’ve never actually seen anyone buying it.

Walking past the underwear sellers and continuing on to the giant selection of giant neon colored stuffed animals (one outlier here, a big brown bear in a US flag sweater, sort of the giant cousin of the LL Bean bear of 8 Christmases ago) it was time to cross the street to Tesco, my newly crowned favorite grocery store.
I was surprised by the sight of a crazed looking westerner sitting out in front on the curb. He had a Marine style haircut, serious sunburn and was covered in tattoos, the mono-color type, not the multi-colored variety that is so popular today. He was sitting there staring straight ahead with the sort of look that made you think it was probably not the best idea to inquire about his hometown, so I walked on.


The last couple of times I have been to Tesco I have failed to find my way into the store without wandering up and down a couple of escalators. I eventually get into the grocery section, but not without working my way through the bug control department and out and back in via some other main entrance. Walking out, it’s always been simple – you pay, you make a right, loop around and there you are out on the street. In getting lost those times it seemed like the store had more floors than it did, and unless each one sloped indiscernibly towards the exit, I would never be able to explain my continuing failure to get inside in one clean motion. So I entered the store with a new found determination to find the shortest path and I did - walk straight, turn right and there you are.

Tonight’s shopping list was fairly short, a few items required to craft a couple of dinners and so I started out with produce, grabbing some beans, scallions and a package of nasty looking little red peppers that made me wonder if I was supposed to have weighed by the attendant. They had a sticker and they were in a package so I figured “not needed” and so I went on to the meat section.

Being an American I’m used to buying all my meat in foam packages, the days of the butcher shop were largely over by the time I gained control of my food acquisition. Here though it’s different – you can buy meat in foam packages but they tend to be leaky and they often pollute your shopping bag with pork juice. And that’s not to mention that most of the time they’re sitting in a warm case. So I took one look at the warm leaky meat and decided it was time to master the butcher counter. Having already become expert in getting my produce weighed and tagged I figured “how hard could this be?”

I walked up to the section labeled “Beef” (in English no less) and caught the attention of a young butcher-man and asked him for “yi Jin.” A Jin is ½ kilo or 500 grams or about 1 pound. I honestly had no idea what that would mean in terms of bulk meat but I figured it was best to sound like I knew what I wanted. Using a plastic bag he picked up the chunk and tossed it uncovered onto a sticky looking scale. It turned out to be about 25% more than I had stated so he picked it up bare-handed and turned to the butcher block. The woman controlling the pork section started talking to him and to me and to him and he started arguing with her and she went back to talking to me until I told her my Chinese was poor and that I had no idea what she was so incensed about. The man got sullen but nonetheless cut my piece, weighed it, labeled it and handed it over. I moved down to the busybody butcher gal and asked for a piece of pork this time just pointing at a piece in an effort to avoid another confrontation. And this worked which told me that the earlier argument had been about reducing the piece of beef to a size that no one would want and so would go unsold. Now this would never happen on our side of the ocean, the customer gets what they want. And my associated realization was quite profound - not that I had caused them some inconvenience, but rather that no matter how hard I try to sound proficient in doing whatever retail thing I am trying to do, I always manage to screw it up typically by tripping over some completely foreign and opaque cultural rule that I could never have foreseen. The difference now though is that I no longer get flustered by it - I simply plea linguistic ignorance and roll on. If they think I’m a moron, who cares?

I spent some time in the potato chip aisle trying to find some “potato chip flavored” potato chips, the modified versions are far more popular here but I wasn’t interested in beef kabob, roast chicken, lime or what was called “cool” but appeared to be blueberry flavored. I just wanted the simple ones which after much scanning and translation I was able to find. Pringle style chips are quite popular here and those in bags seem limited to only smaller lunch box sizes. I did manage to pick up one bag of what might be Ruffles though I am sure there is a surprise waiting for me in that particular bag. Before leaving I picked up a couple of tubes of Oreos, strawberry and some sort of two-toned chocolate that may pair mocha with a close relative.

The “should have been weighed” bag of peppers hung me up at the checkout and ended up in the cashier’s return pile, no effort was made to solve the problem it was simply tossed in a bin with no discussion. I paid up and headed out behind a European woman in a shiny silver miniskirt outfit that made me think of the Goddess Athena.

There is a second path home that I like to take as it is pretty quiet and lined with trees along the second half. I went that way tonight, past the cobblers who set up their shoe repair stands on the corner and past that China Mobile store where I failed so miserably to buy time for my phone so long ago. I got stuck behind a meandering family here which slowed me down to a real crawl before I was able to get around them and get on with my walk. For some reason a big pile of trash had appeared along the sidewalk since my last pass. It was composed of the most brightly colored food and paper items; pretty enough that I wished I’d had a camera.

A woman was selling sundresses hanging on a clothesline between two Plane trees towards the end of the block and here I ran into my second young couple in the middle of a contretemps. She was standing facing a wrought iron fence, sobbing hard into her hands. He was standing behind her checking text messages on his phone, probably the most classic pair of youngsters doing young people stuff I have encountered in this place.

Arriving home in my second body sweat of the evening I got down to an authentic Chinese meal of Gnocchi with Pesto and Prosciutto. I think it’s important to immerse yourself in whatever culture you find yourself in.

Before coming over I had been told that internet access had changed, and indeed it has - while Gmail was said to be gone, it’s still available. Facebook though has joined Blogger in being blocked from general consumption. To meet this problem I’d purchased a Virtual Private Network from a US firm that more or less guaranteed access to such sites. Now I know that My Lovely Wife would argue that perhaps the authorities are on to something in blocking Facebook, but I’m not quite so averse to wasting my time as she is. I’d done a dry run from the US so I was quite surprised to discover that it did not work as advertised on this side of the world – my IP was coming from Shenyang. A little bit of tinkering deep in the brains of my network configuration did the trick though and so now these blogs are coming to you from my personal computer and I’m back on FB doing a couple of hundred quizzes a day and staying in touch with the nuances of my 138 friends. A little problem that highlights a broader fact – throughout history those in control have sought hard to limit the ability of people to be critical of them. And with each prohibition, the clever oppressed have managed to find a way around it.

Technology can be grand.

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