Heard of the Way of the Dao? Let me teach you the Way of the Supermarket.
How do you get an instant adrenalin rush in Beijing? Cross the road with your eyes closed? There’s an easier way: try shopping at a Chinese supermarket during the Saturday morning rush hour.
On my second day in Beijing, I made such a voyage with my host family. Afterwards, I went home and had a lie down.
For me, ‘supermarket’ evokes images of clean, well-lit aisles, perhaps some gentle music playing in the background, a predictable selection of products. Generally quite a serene if mind-numbingly dull excursion. I’ve never been confronted with such a massive choice of food stuffs I’ve never seen before, the thumping music and the massive crowds. It truly was packed or RénShānRénHǎi 人山人海（literally: ‘people mountain, people sea’) as the Chinese saying goes.
When is a grape not a grape?
So. Much. Choice. After shopping at CostCo and Walmart in the US, I thought I was ready for anything: flavours, colours, sizes. Boy, was I wrong.
In Beijing, a grape is never just a grape. There are different types of grape, different types of spinach, radish, you name it, they’ve got it. I’ve learnt at least four words for different types of sweet potato and yet in all my unsatisfactory dictionaries they all translate as ‘sweet potato’.
Love and Care
On the fruit and vegetable floor, you’ll see a couple filling up a plastic bag with green beans, picking up each bean and inspecting it from all sides before accepting or rejecting it.The amount of care I’ve seen spent on selecting a suitable carrot you’d probably only see at an organic heirloom root vegetable market back home in England.
Perhaps though, it’s only natural to see people putting more care into choosing their food given the number of food contamination scares (pesticides, chemicals, imitation food) China has had over the last few years. My host family washes their grapes in salt water and their fruit and vegetables with cleaning spray and a scrubbing brush.
But even after you’ve selected a satisfactory bunch of lotus roots, you still need to navigate the aisles, shoving other carts out of the way in a friendly yet firm manner. A British, ‘Uh, excuse me, could I just…’ simply doesn’t cut it.
Never Judge A Book By Its Cover
There’s no end to the fun you can have trying to guess why someone has had a go putting English on their packaging. Most of the time, it’s not dodgy grammar that’s amusing.
Below are some of my favourite hotpot 火锅 (HuǒGuō: a type of Chinese stew) seasoning sachets. My favourite flavour is exhibit A: Wilful Uncle/Rolf Harris.
Some packaging gives you a taste of China’s ethnic diversity.
After a month in Beijing, I still don’t know what half the ingredients on supermarket shelves are and I can spend a happy afternoon wondering around a Carrefour playing ‘Guess What This Food Is and See How Wrong I’ve Got It When I Look It Up In The Dictionary’. This is only the beginning.