Revisiting the Meat Section of Carrefour (Or Why We Don’t Buy Much Meat in China)

Remember when I described the meat section of Carrefour? How the meat is in these big open bins and you choose the pieces you want? Here is more proof that I am not crazy and that Chinese shoppers value “creative” solutions to problems. Enjoy!

Hang Loose (Otherwise Known as Six)

Along with the language, there have been a few other things that cause miscommunication here for me in China.  I do an obscene amount of shopping here.  Sometimes, I am in a nice Western style store with set prices, English speaking staff, and blasting air conditioning in the summer.  Sometimes, however, I am in a market or a warehouse, or on the street with vendors who might know a little bit of English, but not enough for me to get by with my extremely imperfect Chinese.  I am getting better at communicating, of course, and I am frequently amazed by how much I understand.  But the important thing to remember here is that these things are in context.  No one ever calls me on the phone to randomly start talking about prices and no one in the markets ever tries to start a conversation with me about things outside the realm of buying and selling.  This makes it easier.  There is no scrambling around in my brain searching for the few words I know in a sentence to try to guess at meanings.  When I am in a restaurant, people talk to me about what I want to order almost as if we were following a lesson in a textbook.  When I am buying clothes at the fabric market, people talk prices and quality.  I don’t always get it, but I can get by.  One thing I didn’t anticipate (an unfortunate theme thus far here in Shanghai for me) is the differences in hand signals and symbols.

I should have seen this coming, of course.  As an English teacher I have taught this lesson myself a million times.  I choose to focus on all of the vulgar symbols and gestures because those tend to be the ones my students need to know.  In Sydney the foreign students were always amazed that gestures they thought were harmless were actually the reason they were getting into so many fist fights.  Who knew?  Luckily, I have managed to steer clear of accidentally offending anyone (as far as I know!), but I have discovered that my ability to communicate with my Chinese salespeople and taxi drivers has been less than successful because of the way I count on my fingers.  I don’t know how to count correctly!

The first time it happened, I was at the flower market and arguing over prices with one of the vendors.  I was having trouble understanding her, and she didn’t have a calculator or pen and paper to help clarify things.  She kept putting her two pointer fingers together in the shape of a cross as she repeated the same information over and over.  Fingers in a cross?  What did that mean?  The same thing happened a few minutes later when a vendor gave me what I thought was the symbol for  “hang loose.”  It seemed a little out of place for what we were talking about. Hang loose?!  Sure, but how much were the flowers?

Later, my Chinese teacher cleared things up for me.  Apparently the Chinese use specific hand symbols for numbers.  Symbols that I was seeing, but not understanding.  One through five were the same, but I could start with the pointer or the pinky.  Once we got to six, things got crazy.  There was the hang loose.  Seven was like a shadow puppet.  Eight was what I would think was air guns.  Nine was scrunched fingers that I had a hard time replicating.  And ten?  There were three possibilities for ten, one of which was the crossing fingers using the pointers from both hands.  Or you could cross your first two fingers on one hand.  Or you could make a fist.  Which one was more common?   It depends, apparently.  So you might see any of them.   Three lukewarm cheers for variety!

So you want to know how to count like a pro in Mandarin?  Want to add those quirky hand signals?


You are welcome.

Wet Market!

Have I mentioned the wet market?  Have I mentioned my fear of dying due to some ailment that I might catch there?  Surely I have!   Since moving to Shanghai, I have been given many, many lectures about food safety in relation to the wet market and anything one might decide to buy there.  Henry’s school even gives a tour of the place that I have been told mainly consists of scaring people to death.  Of course, I have been making judgments based on what I have been told because I have never actually ventured out to the wet market myself.  Ahem.  Up until now, I have confined myself to the supermarket and the occasional fruit truck parked on my street in order to feed Team Erickson.  I must admit that the things I buy from the fruit truck are far superior to the things from the supermarket.  The cute little lady at the fruit truck helps me pick the best watermelon and gives me free stuff because I am a good customer.  The supermarket could never compete with that!  To top it off everything I buy at the supermarket is more expensive than the fruit truck.   And it frequently tastes like sawdust.

When we returned from our Bali trip, there was absolutely nothing edible in the house, not even of the sawdust variety.  Faced with the prospect of spending the day going to multiple supermarkets only to arrive home with nothing I decided to put off the inevitable by staying in bed as long as possible.  This only made the natives restless and more dangerous.  By the time I drug myself out of bed they were all “starving”.  A neighbor friend called to see if Lucas wanted to come over.  They had just arrived home as well and the mom invited me to come with her to do some food shopping.  Her driver was working (yeah!) so we could hit a few places and have it be relatively pain free.  She knew I hadn’t yet made it to the wet market.  She apparently goes twice a week and, in her words, “hasn’t died yet” so we decided that would be our first stop.

You know what?  It was awesome.  And not in the sarcastic way, it was really genuinely awesome.

In Baltimore, I love the farmers market.  Thirty minutes after Henry was born I was calling a friend, not to announce the happy news, but to tell him to make sure he went to the market to pick up our CSA share since I was going to be busy for the rest of the day.  I famously risked public scorn by packing up my two week old and heading to the Waverly farmers market.  My mother insisted on coming and sitting with him in the car, but the next Saturday I was there with him in the stroller so great is my love of the fresh veggies and fruit.  My children have been known, particularly in the summer, to turn up their noses at something “from the supermarket” when they suspect there is the possibility of really fresh stuff from the farmers market or our garden.

So why, oh why, did I not check out the wet market?  I have spent the past few years loving a farmers market that takes place under an overpass, but I was sure there was nothing for me at some urban veggie market in Shanghai?  For shame.  The wet market was actually very similar to the Baltimore market downtown only with fewer homeless people.  No one was selling designer dog treats, but there was pretty much everything else.    There was a slight smell as we walked in, but it wasn’t anything worse than Carrefour, and, let’s be honest, the underpass farmers market has its own odor at times, if you get my drift.  Would I buy meat there?  No.  But I never bought meat at the Baltimore farmers market, either.

I was surprised that the produce was really gorgeous and so cheap!  I bought bags and bags of stuff for what I would normally have paid for a few apples in the supermarket.  They had great tomatoes and all sorts of mystery items that I had never seen before.  I was able to walk around thinking about what looked the freshest and then decide what I could make rather than glumly considering whatever was available at the supermarket.  My friend showed me the places she normally frequents and I wandered around the aisles a bit.  Was it organic?  I have no clue because shopping there required using Mandarin and sometimes I had no idea what people were saying to me.  But all in all, it was a positive experience.  Can I make it there in a taxi once a week?  Not sure.  But I will have to find a way to make a trip or two to the wet market happen because so far, even in my tiny kitchen, cooking with nice vegetables is really making a difference.   Score one point for Shanghai, finally.

Not Really A Bargain

When we used to travel before kids, I loved going to the markets and bargaining for souvenirs.  It was fun to be able to spar with someone over the price of an item, especially if I walked away thinking I was getting a good deal.  Most of the places we were visiting had a very favorable exchange rate when we were running around with US dollars so, let’s be honest here, even if someone was charging me way above market value for something I was still spending very little money.  It wasn’t about my budget anyway; it was about the experience.

Mark was the worst at bargaining.  He didn’t like to haggle with people and he didn’t like to feel as if he was taking advantage.  When someone offered him a handmade item or some local treasure, he couldn’t stand to argue about the worth of the thing.  This used to infuriate me because he would make it that much more difficult for me to convince people to sell me things for cheap.  Traveling in Vietnam, he made friends with some of the local girls who sold all sorts of trinkets.  Once he knew their names there was no way he could bargain with them anymore.  Since I was laid up with a horrible case of food poisoning, he spent an entire afternoon paying full price for everything.  When I recovered enough to be back at the market for our last shopping trip before heading home, there was not a soul who would give me a deal on anything.  “Your husband bought these same things yesterday,” they all told me, “and he paid full price.”  Curse you, Mark!

Here in China things have changed dramatically.  Now that we have been here a little while I have come to dislike bargaining.  It really does lose something when you need to haggle over everything.  I was expecting it in the markets, but I have since learned that in China everything is negotiable.  When we were looking for housing the real estate agent told us that he would negotiate the price and any extra things we wanted.  You ask for the moon and then you settle for a little less.  The same goes for all sorts of other things as well.  When I signed up for my language course, they presented me with the paperwork and it didn’t occur to me to bargain.  When I got home Mark told me that it was expected.  At the language school?!  Yep.  I could have gotten a better deal if I had asked for one.

Mark has become a champion negotiator after his time in China.  When we go to the fakes market, he is all business.  The key, apparently, is walking away.  This works well when he is alone, but if the kids are with us this is less effective.  They haven’t figured out that they should at least pretend not to care.  When they see something that they like they beg and plead.  This does not help negotiations.  You are supposed to start ridiculously low, but the children find this unfair and will frequently side with the seller and help to drive the price up.  When shopping on their own they will often pull out all their money so that the seller can see exactly how much they have to spend.  These things drive Mark crazy but we have begun to use it to our advantage with a sort of good cop/bad cop routine.  While the kids beg for some horrible plastic toy, Mark will walk away, disgusted.  I shrug and defer to him.  Who am I to cross my domineering husband?  Everyone knows Mark wears the pants.  Well, that’s what they think in the market anyway.  Surprisingly, people will chase after us and give us our final price.  Score!  I know you will all be jealous when you find out how little we paid for all our fancy laser pointers and spinning plastic light up tops.  I have a house full of chopstick sets, off brand Nerf guns, and remote control helicopters all purchased at rock bottom prices.  You should all be very jealous indeed.