Whenever I travel abroad, the first thing I usually do is pop into the local supermarket. While it may sound strange to pass up temples and ruins for a run to the market, the seemingly average grocery store is a gigantic window into the country itself. What people buy in a store–and the food that is offered in the market itself–speaks volumes about a country and its culture.
When I returned to the United States last year, it was no surprise that going to the giant sized American market was one of the big toppers on my lists of reverse culture shock. Even after a year here, stepping into the grocery store still feels like I’m treading into foreign territory.
Not only are the items different from grocery stores in Asia, but the way in which we shop couldn’t be more different.
Grabbin Groceries in the States
First of all, many tourists are alarmed at the size of food in the United States. We sell stuff, and we sell it big. There’s no denying that.
Even if you want a small size, you will be hard pressed to find one. I remember asking the clerk where I could buy one bottle of beer instead of a six-pack, and he looked at me like I was speaking Chinese.
America makes it large because we can:
1. Get a better deal when we buy in bulk
2. Carry large amounts of stuff because we all drive cars and
3. Have gigantic refrigerators and freezers that will allow us to horde more stuff, and longer.
Because of this, Americans tend not to buy things fresh. Even I have succumbed to the freezer treatment for my food, putting meat, fish, and (god help me) vegetables in for weeks at a time. Americans do this because going to the grocery store is a hassle and we want to go as infrequently as possible. There is also no way we could finish 50 lb. of chicken before it rots (and trust me, that’s the smallest size they sell).
However, the biggest shock by far is the ridiculous amounts of plastic bags that grocery stores in the USA use.
I’m absolutely floored when I go to the grocery store in the United States. They will sometimes put one item (like a banana) in a plastic bag, wrap it, and then repeat. It is very common to see people buy 10-20 items and walk out of the store with 20 plastic bags. It’s almost a 1:1 bag to food ratio. Even when I tell the cashier to try and fit all of my groceries in one plastic bag, they usually ignore my request and I still end up walking away with 20 bags of groceries.
I live in a house with four people, and within the span of six months my cabinets now look like this:
To prevent the growth of the plastic bag monster, I try to use reusable bags (or eco bags, as they are called in Japan) as much as possible. Usually when I tell the clerk I’m using an eco bag, they’ll do their best to shove everything into one bag.
Many cities in America are (thankfully) getting rid of plastic bags entirely. Culver City is one of the few cities in Los Angeles to completely outlaw them. The only way to get a plastic bag in Culver City is to pay an extra 10 cents.
Kaimono in Nippon (Shoppin’ in Japan)
In Japan, most people don’t have cars so they tend to shop on the lighter side. Instead of buying a carton of lettuce, they’ll just buy one head. While they could buy a bag of potatoes, it’s usually too heavy to carry and they opt for buying just three of four. Even with ice cream, the Japanese like it tiny–I mean, why would need more? And how would they be able to carry more?
They shop light in Japan because they usually bike or walk to the store, but even if they do have cars they still tend to buy items in smaller volume.
Because they like to eat things fresh.
Japanese people like to eat food fresh–like, raw fish type fresh. Freezing fish for weeks or months at a time is incomprehensible to a Japanese person. This standard applies to all of their food. They won’t eat fruit unless it’s beautiful enough to display in a window. If it’s not fresh, it’s not worth eating. Period. They have high standards for their food.
In Japan, it’s very hip to have an eco-bag. In fact, many moms carry around travel eco bags that fold up into keychain size. Japanese people love to think they’re doing their part in helping the planet, and nothing says ‘green’ like an eco bag.
What if you don’t bring your eco bag? Well, the plastic bag does exist in Japan. Unless you state otherwise at the checkout counter, they will usually provide you with one plastic bag.
I repeat. They provide you with ONE plastic bag. Maybe two, if you bought a lot of food.
In Japan, you bag your own groceries (they have a separate aisle at the exit of the store just for the sake of bagging groceries); and since you’re given only one plastic bag (which is heavy-duty), you have to get REALLY creative with how to fit all your stuff in there. Let’s just say, those with mad tetris skills will be able to carry a lot home in one little bag.
The plastic bag is also free.
Want Something Really Different? Go Grocery Shopping in China
Sure. China has Wal-Mart. China even has Tesco (British) and Carrefour (French).
But it’s so, so different.
Fresh nuts, barrels of rice, vegetables, pork buns, fried chicken, congee–you name it, and Wal-Mart (or any other large name grocery store) has it. The grocery store in China is chaotic, but it’s an intriguing mesh of east meets west. You can read more about it here on Marta’s blog.
Like Japan, Chinese people usually walk or bike to the store and are thus forced to buy less. The Chinese are also very picky with their food and only want the freshest of the fresh. They don’t like to freeze their food; in fact, many of my friends and family in China believe the microwave is an evil device that will poison your food, and abstain from using it at all. Despite the pollution and food scares that we see in the media, Chinese people really value the quality of their food.
When I lived in China I went food shopping everyday–and I didn’t go to the supermarket. Oh no. I went to the REAL market.
Most Chinese moms get up ass early (sometimes 5 AM) to get the freshest goods at these street market vendors when they wheel into town. Although America and Japan (not counting Farmer’s Markets) have done away with these open market/bazaars, they are still very prevalent in China. In fact, vegetables and meat at the market is much more fresh and delicious than what you could ever hope to find in Tesco or Wal-Mart. The chicken sold at the open market is so fresh, when you order a pound of chicken breast they literally kill the chicken right in front of you. When I told the butcher I had to buy pork for Hong Shao Rou (braised pork), he not only chose the best cut of meat to make this particular dish–he also kindly cut it into cubes for the recipe. Awesome service.
At brand name grocery stores Chinese people also tend to bring eco bags–but not for the green factor. Plastic bags cost about 10 cents per bag and trust me, the Chinese like to save every penny they can. They also stuff as much as they possibly can into one, plastic bag.
The open market doesn’t charge for plastic bags, but they will throw as many vegetables as possible into tiny plastic bags (like mini zip lock bags), making it easier for you to carry home.
“Mary, I could never live in Shanghai like you do,” my aunt said to me when she was visiting me in Shanghai from Los Angeles. “Walking to the market everyday, carrying your groceries by hand and dragging them all the way home–it’s so much work. I love how in America, I can just hop in my car, go to the store, buy anything and everything I want, throw it in my car with ease and head back home. I could never live here like you here.”
If only my aunt knew that I, on the other hand, can’t stand battling traffic, finding parking, buying too much food I can’t finish on my own(due to large portion sizes), agonizing over my excessive plastic bags (and the environmental effects because of it) and dislike freezing my food.
While no shopping method is better than the other, it just goes to show how different life can be around the world–even just with shopping.
How do you shop in your country? What differences are there? What do you like/dislike?