I’m sure the woman shopping for oranges thought I was crazy for laughing at a display of apples at the grocery store yesterday, but I couldn’t help myself: the sight of a pyramid of shining Red Delicious apples imported from America was so strange to me that all I could do was laugh. These imported apples were significantly more expensive than their domestically-raised counterparts, even though I remembered avoiding them at school lunches as a kid. Seeing them, I was reminded that I was very, very far from home.
I like to go to the grocery store as soon as possible after arriving in a new country. The trip serves both practical and exploratory purposes: as a newly-arrived traveler I am always lacking in shampoo, snacks, and whatever other necessities were too heavy or too miscellaneous to fly with me. Foreign grocery stores also provide a good window into life in any given country. For example, the grocery store I visited yesterday, like all stores in China at the moment, has cleared out a section for specialty door tags and decorative banners to celebrate Spring Festival, or the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is coming up in a couple of weeks. The aisles were crowded with decorative tins of chocolate, cookies, tea, and baijiu, the Chinese spirit of choice. I pondered a ten-dollar tin of Dove chocolates bearing the likeness of a cute panda, weighing it next to a box of oreo cookies emblazoned with a New Year’s dragon, before settling for a small packet of Hershey’s kisses, this one featuring the traditional characters for luck and prosperity in the new year.
At Chinese grocery stores, you will find familiar (and usually more expensive) imported items: boxes of Western cereal, cookies, or chocolates. Some of these snacks have been adapted to suit Chinese tastes. I happened upon several strange chip flavors, among them cucumber, shrimp, cherry blossom, matcha, and yogurt. Whenever possible, I shy away from familiar brands in favor of local offerings. I’ve happened upon some real treats in this way, including some oat-and-chocolate confections and some corn-flavored puffs that are both sweet and savory in a way that is strange, but not unpleasant, to foreign palettes. When I am feeling homesick or craving the comforts of home, I can always shell out a few extra renminbi for a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of white bread. If I am really tired of Chinese food, I can spend five dollars on a package of imported cheese and fry myself up a grilled cheese at home. Mostly, I turn to Chinese brands when I am doing my shopping; it’s cheaper, and more adventurous, this way.
A final note of advice for those hoping to get to know their temporary homes at the nearest grocery store: beware of any dietary restrictions you might have, and plan in advance. As a vegetarian myself, I’ve realized how hard it is to find things, even seemingly unrelated foodstuffs, like chips, without meat by-products in them. If you speak the local language, read the ingredients list before you buy. If you’re not familiar with the country’s word or words for the ingredients you are avoiding, look them up before you leave and watch out for them as you shop. You don’t want to accidentally cause an allergic reaction!
I left the grocery store yesterday with a box of Oreos (better in China because of the addition of milk), a package of yogurts—which the Chinese drink, inexplicably, through a straw—and a package of salted peanuts and dried chiles. Food is much cheaper in China. In total, I paid less than five dollars for the trip.