My first experience with a supermarket in China was shocking. I had been advised to gently ease myself into the process by first shopping at the French food chain Carrefour before venturing to the local food markets. And this was good advice.
Before even entering the hypermarket, and as I struggled to extract a shopping cart from a mess at the entrance, I felt a bit of shuffling behind me. I turned to see an elderly woman holding a child over the garbage can. The child was peeing into the garbage can. I repeat, peeing into the garbage can at the entrance of the supermarket. The child finished and the grandmother pulled up her pants, failing to shake or wipe away the remaining and lingering droplets.
I ventured into the shop ambitiously but then paused, and then paused, ever so carefully. Inside the shop, a burst of decaying fish smell overwhelmed me. As I passed the bins covering my mouth, I could see that the fish had been refrozen. Covering my mouth, I plowed forward but there was little room to weave through the dozens of trolleys pushing against one another in each aisle. The aisles were dirty, crowded, and almost all the cheese products had passed their expiration date. The meat section was more atrocious that the fish section and frozen chicken feet overflowed from their bins, none in any packaging. There were heads, tails, feet and everything in between on sale and butchers tossed about meat without any gloves or obvious sanitary precautions. One man paused to blow his nose - pressing one nostril while blowing the contents of the other to the floor. I did not know whether the smells or the visuals were more nauseating. Music blasted through the main sound system, competing with women distributing samples of new products that heralded blonds - men, women and children - as models on the packaging. While distributing they shouted through their microphones, their words echoing through the doctor’s facemasks they are all wore.
The smells emanating from the supermarket melted together with the smells emanating from the sweaty shoppers and the overall effect was dizzying. The Western section was small and the products were atrociously expensive (a box of cereal costing between $12-18). The supermarket had recently launched a wine section and there were a number of young French men cajoling shoppers to purchase their wares. The government taxes wine as if it were a luxury; I suppose they did not get the memo from Europeans who deem it necessary for their wellbeing. The vegetable section was the most enchanting since the stalls were flowing with dozens of types of mushrooms and greens, all lovely vegetables for my stir-fry. Unfortunately, everything was labeled in Chinese.
When I finally paid for my purchases I felt drained and complained of an echo for hours to come.