Once a week or so, I go to a magical area in northern Beijing called Wudaokou (五道口). Also known as ‘The Centre of The Universe’ (宇宙中心), Wudaokou has an overwhelming population of foreign students, especially Koreans. So whether you need to stock up on your Italian cheese or Korean stationery, it’s the place to go.
For me, one of the highlights of a trip to Wudaokou is a look-in on an international supermarket. Gone are the days of my first and (ever so slightly) dated Chinese language textbook which, in 2014, was still insisting that Beijing’s Friendship Store was the place to pick up foreign goods. In fact, I now have better access to international foods in Wudaokou than in London in terms of both variety and price.
In walking distance from my university, and not in walking distance from where I live in the middle of nowhere, the bright lights of Wudaokou offer an overwhelming choice of everything. Although I rarely find myself craving anything foreign (apart from clean air, which you can’t even buy in Wudaokou), it can be reassuring to walk into a shop and see goods you’re familiar with from home and childhood. More than that, it’s interesting to see what other nationalities are craving.
Here’s a little tour of my favourite exhibit items.
The White Stuff
Milk seems to be an international obsession. To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to the stuff, even after spending a week working on a Turkish dairy farm where I administered so many drug cocktails to grotesquely bloated American-bred cows that I made a (short-lived) promise to myself to buy nothing but organic dairy products from then on. But since coming to China I’ve heard many people, from Koreans to Americans to Brits, saying the milk here ‘tastes strange’ and that they go out of their way to buy their home brand. I once had a Chinese friend ask me if I’d yet adjusted to life in China, in particular to the taste of the milk.
Where the Chinese obsession with milk comes from, I don’t yet understand. Despite having a high rate of lactose intolerance, two of the nation’s most ubiquitous snacks – milk and drinking yoghurt – are both dairy products. I’ve never in my life seen such an overwhelming selection of flavoured milks: from walnut, papaya, strawberry, or red bean. And don’t get me started on the ‘cheese’ which can be found in all sorts of inappropriate places like boiled sweets, breads and, most objectionably, bottled drinks.
When Food Is Art
A trip to an international supermarket is also a feast for the eyes: some of the packaging I’ve seen in international supermarkets might even be called art, with Russia winning the prize for giving their food the most personality. If you need to make canned sprats look sexy, get the Russians in. The same goes for adorable chocolate.
I couldn’t write a post without putting in a patriotic good word for Great Britain, so I am proud to report that the United Kingdom absolutely dominates the field of mini-bottles of spirits. Given that mini spirit bottles take up about a quarter of the average hotel minibar, if the world were a minibar, Britain would have as much power as it did during the height of the British Empire. As we enter an age of political change and uncertainty, and we young people must consider what we want our world to look like, I feel this is an important to bear in mind. In terms of British interests, it should be minibar-shaped.
Because the food aisles are organised by type rather than country, you get to see some great juxtapositions. One of my favourite aisles is the tomato-based condiment aisle which aside from predictable contributions from Italy and the US, also features more rogue products from New Zealand and Sweden, for example.
Other interesting products placed together include Turkish Halal pasta shapes and Japanese udon, or dried Canadian cranberries nestled alongside Vietnamese jackfruit chips. Then there’s the inexplicably large, and seemingly unnecessary, selection of imported frozen peas from the US. But who am I to insist that capitalist legumes and their socialist cousins are much of a muchness?
On the one hand, this little corner of Beijing is a heart-warming example of racial diversity and internationalisation in a racially homogenous city. On the other hand, everyone who lives there feels a bit like they’re being scammed by their landlords.The area is innacessible to most Chinese because of the high rents, although some parents pay through the nose to live close to the great schools in the area. If you’re an international, you’re paying for convenience (aside from shops, it has several universities in walking distance) and company. Whatever you’re paying for, it’s certainly not luxury.
After a few trips to Wudaokou, I realised I was missing something from home: cafe culture. Craving a peaceful environment to work in with overpriced hot drinks and other people around, I was determined to find a coffee shop in my part of the middle of nowhere. Using a Chinese app, I discovered there was a cafe a mere 200 metres from my door, in the neighbouring apartment complex. ‘What an idiot!’ I thought. ‘How could I be so prejudiced as to think that only international areas of Beijing did cafes?’ After following the map carefully into a few dead ends, I finally ended up somewhere that may once, indeed, have been a cafe but now looks more like an abattoir.
After backing away slowly and quietly from the slaughterhouse coffee shop, I gave up on my hunt for a local cafe and made my way meekly back to Wudaokou. Living in a ‘proper Chinese’ residential neighbourhood such as mine, complete with dancing grannies and old couples playing badminton outside, also means you have to make some sacrifices. Walking 40 minutes to get to the nearest restaurant is a sacrifice I can accept, but I stop short at entering coffee shops which trigger the Psycho theme tune to start playing in my head.