I keep planning on posting about my multiple grocery stores, but each actual trip to the grocery store leaves me too exhausted to write anything. Today I even made a feeble attempt at a few illustrative photos before I was rendered unable to push the shutter button by the flying Chinese elbows in the vegetable section of Carrefour. Before I get ahead of myself, I should let you know that there are varying levels of shopping here in Shanghai. I am an uninformed American expat, and I am newly arrived in the city, so I get taken at pretty much every turn when it comes to buying food for my family. I have mentioned before that I have a bunch of different stores that I frequent to find the things we are used to buying. I had imagined myself taking to the local culture and heading to the markets to find fresh, locally grown produce to feed my family, but that bubble has been burst. I have yet to make it to the wet market, apparently called “wet” because they get hosed down at night, and I have been frightened to the point of paralyzation about going to the wrong one. I have also heard them called “hepatitis markets” which is very helpful if you like to avoid food poisoning at all costs and think that more serious afflictions would be best avoided as well. One of my new friends went to the wet market with another Chinese friend as her guide and came away thinking that the experience was perhaps not worth repeating. Apparently, there was plenty of yelling in Mandarin which resulted in great vegetables but subpar fruit and left her pining for the local supermarket. This is saying quite a bit, actually, because a trip to the local supermarket here leaves me wishing I could take a nap on the couch with a bottle of wine. There are some more upscale places, of course, but they have the prices to prove it, so I always end up at the supermarket with the low prices and the most aggravation. Today that was Carrefour, the French market that originally tricked me into thinking that Shanghai shopping would be all unicorns and rainbows once we moved here.
When we were looking at housing in September, one of the agents thought I might like to have a look at the Carrefour in Jinqiao. We were considering an apartment right across the street so this would be one of my most easily accessible places for food and everything else. I should preface this by saying that the agent was Chinese. Very Chinese. We ate lunch together, and when I wanted to get a cold drink afterward, she kept insisting that I wouldn’t be so thirsty if I had just finished my soup. Because the Chinese don’t really drink cold drinks she couldn’t fathom why I would want one or why the soup wasn’t just as thirst quenching as an iced tea. Like that Abbott and Costello routine, she kept insisting that I should have finished my soup and I kept reiterating that I needed a drink. Over and over and over again. She was, perhaps, not the best person to introduce me to Carrefour.
Carrefour is French. And I went into the store ready for a French grocery store experience. I am used to how shopping happens in Paris, but this was Shanghai. Imagine my surprise when the first thing we encountered was much more like Walmart than some French grocery store. They have bicycles, and dishes, and clothing. They have sheets, and cosmetics, and everything else you could want. Well, sort of. It is an enormous place with lots and lots of stuff. My local store is smaller, but still fairly packed with things. You need an iron? Carrefour has that! You want shoes? They have that, too! You want imported food at a reasonable price? Ok, they have some of that, but I can’t leave there without spending $100 and not in the satisfying $100 at Target kind of way.
My local store is two floors. The top floor is the household stuff. When I need an iron or an electric kettle, someone comes over to help me work out what I want. Sometimes they speak a little English, but usually they don’t. My years of English teaching have given me the superpower of being able to understand any language when it is in a specific context so I usually do ok, but I do occasionally leave with the exact opposite of what I intended to buy. This is usually the most painless part of the trip. Yes, people stare at me. Yes, they point and talk about me while I choose which toilet paper to buy. But this is nothing. The real fun begins downstairs with the food.
The Chinese have perfected the awesome belt system for moving you and your cart from one floor to the next. The carts have hollow wheels with a flat section to stop them from rolling, and to head downstairs I just position myself and the cart on the belt and ride on down. Brilliant, actually. Carrefour has plenty of imported items so I hit up the imported foods section first. They have conveniently put it right after the belt contraption. I assume this is so expats can hit this part of the store and run as fast as their little legs will carry them to the registers. When we moved here in December, this section didn’t even exist and I had memorized all of the secret spots where I might find the things I needed. One day, I arrived at the store to find it completely rearranged. I have gotten used to this on a small scale. Usually I will figure out that a certain store has a particular item that we absolutely cannot live without and will return time and time again only to be surprised one day that they no longer carry it. The space where it was once shelved will show no indication that the thing was ever there. Maybe in a few days it will reappear, like magic, in the old spot, or maybe I will never see it again. There is no way of knowing. Today I found the Carrefour brand of pate brisse and contemplated buying the 20 or so packages that were sitting in the refrigerated section just in case this was a one time thing. I settled on two, telling myself that if they were delicious for chicken pot pie I would return tomorrow to buy the rest of them before anyone else noticed they were there. Desperation. It isn’t pretty.
I am usually fine until I hit the meat and vegetable sections. Until this point, there are plenty of things that make me remember that this is Carrefour. It is Chinese, yes, but they have those granola bars that the kids like! Made in France! They have Korean and Japanese imported foods, too, but this never throws me as much as the meat and vegetable parts of the store. That first visit will be forever etched in my mind as the day I realized grocery shopping could have a smell. Not a fragrance, but a smell. Carrefour in Shanghai has a smell. There are stores that smell worse, but Carrefour has enough of a smell to make the illusion of shopping in France somewhat impossible. But it isn’t just the smell. Once you pass the freezers, you are smacked in the face with China. Chinese vegetable shopping here is a contact sport, and if you can’t take it then you should get ready to go home empty handed. People crowd around the bins of fruit and vegetables and it is every man for himself when something special is in season. Today there was some sort of pear being unloaded and the crowd was three deep around the bin and the arriving boxes. As soon as the produce guy would start to unload a box of the coveted pears, the crowd would rush forward snatching and grabbing. There were some lesser pears available, and there was a rowdy crowd around these, but this did not compare to the “special” pears. Each one was individually wrapped and padded, but the sheer force of the handling combined with the chucking of the special fruit into carts so that hands could be freed for more snatching rendered these protective covers ineffective. I can easily get caught up in this madness. When everyone is ravenous for something, even if it is something I cannot identify, I can’t help but join the crowd. Today I left with no pears, but I still have both my eyes so I consider this a win.
Once you have selected your pieces of fruit or vegetables, you have to get them weighed. You bag your own stuff, but then you need to take them to a special counter where someone weighs them for you, puts the price sticker on, and seals the bag. Here is where I have become the most Chinese. There is no lining up, of course, so if you want your stuff weighed you have to commit. Today the crowd was three deep all around which is much trickier when patrons use their carts to try to secure a spot closer to the weighing machine. The women who work there randomly grab bags of produce, sling them on the scale, and tag them without ever making eye contact. When it is less busy I can say “please” and “thank you” like a civilized human being, but these times are few and far between. Carrefour is usually crowded even at 9:30 in the morning. Today, I muscled my way in had my things weighed but only after edging my way to the front and then ignoring the woman to my left who kept repeatedly demanding that I move out of her way.
I avoid the meat section in order to avoid a compulsion for vegetarianism. It isn’t like a butcher shop exactly, but they do hose down the floor and this is enough to make me think that a nice meal of veggies and rice would be great for all of us. There are tanks stuffed full of fish and eels and other wild and wooly water creatures. Today I saw a couple wrangling eels with one of the nets. This surprised me because I had assumed that one of the shop workers would be responsible for this lovely task. Not so! The eels were feisty despite their cramped quarters and we were all treated to a nice fresh water rinse whenever the man managed to get one in the net. There is prepackaged meat, but it is packaged in house, so that doesn’t make it any easier for me to take home. I know it would be cooked and so some of my worries are unnecessary, but sometimes, my mother’s voice jumps in my head and I can see the food safety violations like bright red warning beacons. The meat is out like the vegetables, and unless you need something special, you bag it yourself and have it weighed. People like to examine each individual piece of meat so there are bins of frozen parts as well as fresh ones. I was fine with this until I saw a woman trying to bag her meat unsuccessfully. She was having trouble opening the plastic bag so she placed the hunk of raw meat (beef, maybe?) in the bottom of her cart while she worked on the bag. It dripped onto the floor and mixed with her other groceries until she had wrestled the bag open. Then she placed the meat in the bag and went to have it weighed. I have seen this happen time and time again with split ducks or frozen chicken feet. People need to rearrange things; they need to get organized. They need some place to put down that hunk of raw meat and there isn’t a great place. Dear Carrefour, can you please help these people out? I once commented that my mother can never come to Carrefour. The scene will be too much. Mark suggested that it would be good for her to see that a country that has managed such a large population handles their food in this way. And this is much cleaner than many local markets! Shanghai is a city with 23 million people! But I know what my mother will say. She will tell me to imagine how many people would be living here if the rest of them weren’t all dying from salmonella.