Imagine 3pm on December 23rd in Asda, and there you have every day in every supermarket in China. Imagine 3pm on Christmas eve and you have every weekend in China. The day was Saturday. I’ll just pop down to the basement-floor supermarket, I thought. I’ll just see if they have any Chamomile tea so I can lighten my hair naturally in the absence of Sun In, I thought. I was already in the mall doing work in Starbucks (I’m one of them) and waiting for some others to celebrate one of my co-workers’ birthday. How easy one forgets, after a frappuccino and two hours of uninvaded personal space, how easy one forgets that one is in China, such is the uniformity of comfy chairs and Ray Lamontagne compilations in Starbucks establishments the world over.
Regret. As soon as I opened the door I regretted it. But I’d packed up my books and put on my coat so there was no turning back now. I ploughed through the crowds and reached the escalator, and slowly descended down into belly of the beast. People here walk noticeably slower than in the West. In shops, there is no etiquette. No omnipresent, unspoken rules. Customers don’t mind stopping right in the middle of their stride, scant regard for the streams of people behind them. They push trolleys blindly in front of them whilst their head cranes 180 degrees to look at some flashing gimmick or microphone clad salesman flogging rice cookers. Ten different tannoys bleat out incoherent messages on repeat, the only clue to the message being the tanks of live fish or slabs of meat on tables next to the speakers. It’s like a nightmarish, nighttime fairground. You spin wildly on the waltzers as blurred faces and neon lights flash past and then you get off, vomit up your candyfloss and find you’ve lost your parents. That’s how supermarkets feel.
Shop workers are worse than the customers. I was trawling around the aisles and meandering around the pallets and boxes of stock randomly dispersed in the gaps between aisles, often making you walk the length of the store to get to the next aisle. I spied a gap between two pellets in what I’m sure the architect intended to be a wide and public walkway, and was about to nip through to reach the face wipes when a staff member pushing a cart appeared the other side wanting to come through. Despite being the customer, I stood aside and let her through first. Tannoys blasting, deafening commotion, stuff everywhere, people everywhere, she looked at me dead in the eyes and parked her cart right in the middle of the space, then walked away. Every man for himself. By this point I was enraged, and felt minor satisfaction in my audible exclamation of ‘really???’ despite knowing she wouldn’t understand, but also knowing that I would have never vocally expressed my displeasure had I been at home. At home, that wouldn’t happen.
As evidenced by this rant, supermarket shopping brings out the worst in me. It makes me homesick for a world in which the customer is always right. It makes me homesick for the general British sense of quietude, for not being harassed into spending money by commission-fueled instant noodle vendors, for not having to strain my facial muscles to hide my frustration as a hundred unknown faces watch me navigate this mess. Once in Asda with my mum and sister, we spied an Emmerdale/Heartbeat actor with a trolley doing his shopping. We had fun nudging each other and speculating as to why he should be in Queensferry, why he was wearing glasses when his on-screen characters never seem to be blighted with visual impairment, and why he was being such a skinflint as to be price-checking boxed wine. It’s a human thing to be interested in things that seem out of the ordinary, but our subtle method of glancing over the conveniently eye-level bakery aisles, to me, is far preferable to the out-and-out staring that you often receive as a foreigner here.
Sometimes when you’re on this wild adventure and you’re supposed to be embracing new worlds and new cultures and loving every single second and immersing yourself one hundred percent, you feel guilty for not having a hoot every single moment of your life. Having just finished Al Humphreys’ second book about cycling around the world, I’m interested in the varying perspectives of culture we experienced (I’m sure his restraining order will reach me any day now so I’ll have to stop mentioning him soon). Humphreys was usually warmly welcomed into communities as a fleeting visitor breaking the norm of their daily lives. Around the globe, to a large extent, people seemed to have been happy to see him, and he was reassured of the general goodness in humanity. However, there were times of frustration during travels in some parts where he found the people to be cold, annoying or even aggressive. Despite travelling 46,000 miles pretty much alone, there were still times, in far off lands with stories and legends and histories to explore, when hiding inside his tent in a small ditch was preferable to the stares, to the smalltalk, to tolerating the people he found himself around. This preference was down to his own need for space, for the need to not be a stranger for a while, for the need to be immersed in his own normality instead of being a total fish out of water. It wasn’t that the people were hideous, it’s just that sometimes you need to be in your own zone. I try to remember this when shopping has made me doubt why I’m even here. It’s not so terrible, it’s certainly not that the people are bad people, it’s just that, for that moment, my own frustrations have washed the whole scene in a horrible grey colour. Obviously, external influences do shape our view, but at the end of the day it’s our own filter that absorbs the world we find ourselves in.
I went for a walk in the woods yesterday, and in the spirit of early morning gaiety, made an effort to smile at the old people I walked past as they threw themselves against trees (that’s for another time). The initial perception is that their faces are set in a disapproving frown, and omg they hate foreigners because of the history and I’m on their turf. But if you smile and say hello, almost without fail their faces greet you with a wide grin, their eyes sparkle with warmth and amusement, and they’ll call out ‘ni hao’. In a second, all of the evils of the Carrefour are washed away.