Grocery Shopping in America vs. China and Japan

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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

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Costco. The granddaddy of American grocery shopping.

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.

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Big ass American ice cream

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.

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This huge cart full of plastic bags is a very common sight in the USA.

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.

Plastic Bag

Ahhh!! Plastic bag attack!!

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.

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Yup. Way empty.

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uh, I think this bag can fit a little more

I live in a house with four people, and within the span of six months my cabinets now look like this:

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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)

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Oh Japanese grocery store, I miss you

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?

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The “mamachari,” or mama’s bike in Japan, is perfect for going on errands. See, it has a big, convenient basket attached to the front!

Japan's ice cream looks tiny compared to the USA!

Japan’s ice cream looks tiny compared to the USA!

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.

Why?

Because they like to eat things fresh.

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Fresh milk anyone?

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.

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This is an eco bag that easily folds up to stuff in your purse

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

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Ah, the lovely Tesco

Sure.  China has Wal-Mart.  China even has Tesco (British) and Carrefour (French).

But it’s so, so different.

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May feel somewhat similar, but the offerings are definitely different–like dragonfruit!

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.

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Wow. Do I miss these super, super fresh markets.

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.

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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.

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“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?

18 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in America vs. China and Japan

  1. autumnashbough says:

    Such an informative and interesting post! Thanks! I enjoyed hearing about shopping in Japan and China.

    I think that shopping in beginning to change in the U.S., though — more and more of us carry our eco-friendly bags, and we get a discount at the big supermarkets for not using plastic.

    Farmer’s Markets are also becoming more popular all over the country, as people realize how much of a difference there is in the taste of a mealy supermarket tomato versus a fresh heirloom. In LA, we are ridiculously spoiled by the Farmer’s Markets — we get citrus and berries near year round, plus some sort of veggies are always growing. Foods grown without pesticides have become the norm, as well. Torrance has a Farmer’s Market twice a week, and it’s the only place we buy produce. It’s packed!

    But yes, convenience and instant gratification have become the norm for Americans. The “one-stop, big shop” mentality is hard to break.

    • rubymary says:

      Yeah I think in California people definitely have more options. Having a farmers market twice a week definitely makes things easy, and I noticed more and more people are starting to buy product from the farmers market than from the normal grocery store. Still, the farmerks market feels more like an event to go to rather than a place you go for the sole purpose of buying your groceries (although it maybe different for some, who knows!). I know that farmers markets are becoming more prevelant around the USA and that’s definitely a good thing!

      I salute LA and their efforts to ditch the plastic bag. Even though I’m still somewhat in the LA region, it’s completely different here. I was actually fuming when I wrote this post, because I just went to the store with an eco bag and the woman did a half-ass job of putting items in the bag, and ended up using plastic bags in the end anyway (since everything couldn’t ‘fit’ in the eco bag, but whatever). I feel like I’m pulling teeth when I try to avoid using plastic bags. It’s so awful! I think LA is doing a great job, but if the rest of the country could be like culver city that would be awesome.

      I gotta say, the one stop shop is pretty convenient (haha). In China I always got upset because I had to go to 4 different stores to buy what I needed (i.e. food, shampoo, a light bulb and a phone charger), where as in the USA we can buy everything in one go. It is convenient.

      Thanks Autumn!!! I love your comment. I definitely need to check out this Farmers Market in Torrance…

  2. Kelly says:

    Love this! I credit living in Korea for making me stop eating frozen food. It just wasn’t available (or if it was, I couldn’t read the directions anyway) and I had to make everything fresh. I still do, and sometimes my boyfriend comments on how I’ve changed his eating habits – he was a real frozen/boxed meal kind of guy before. The markets in China were pretty great, but I was too much of a wimp to get freshly killed meat – except at this one night market barbecue, which was just the most delicious stuff I’ve ever had.

    • rubymary says:

      Yes! Frozen meals! In college I lived on Lean Cuisines, but after Asia I was horrified that I ate something with so many preservatives in it. My Chinese friends were really alarmed at just how huge the freezer aisles in America are–we can get almost ANYTHING frozen!

      Actually I never asked for a chicken (I had my friends do it) because I was a wimp and couldn’t see the chicken get decapitated. I was extremely self conscious and shy going into the markets at first, but after a few rounds with my Chinese friends I learned how the market worked and loved it. I even had a stall where the lady knew my name. Good times.

  3. yueni says:

    Grocery stores (or food markets) are probably among the best places in the world to do some anthropological study of humans in their natural habitat!

    I love looking at what is stocked in quantities at grocery stores around the world, that aren’t elsewhere. The chocolate aisle in Swiss grocery stores were pretty impressive. Every single grocery store I went to stocked an entire aisle with chocolate. And even the cheap stuff was amazing. Downside: they close on Saturday and Sunday, so if you didn’t stock up enough for the weekend… sucks to be you!

    One Saturday, while I was still living in Geneva, I realised I literally had. no. food. So I had to dash down to catch the bus to take me to France before the one French grocery store closed at noon. Yes. I literally had to cross a border to get food. French grocery stores have fricking amazing baked goods, btw. The croissants, the pain au chocolat, the baguettes… yummm… (Yes, the ones at the patisseries were way better, but seriously, grocery store pastries in France & Switzerland were pretty decent.)

    When I was a kid and still living in Singapore, I remember going to the wet market for food. They’d kill your chickens in front of you, so you knew you were getting them fresh, and not dead for ages. I love that food is always fresh!

    • rubymary says:

      SWISS CHOCOLAAAATE!! That sounds so amazing!!! I honestly can’t eat American chocolate, it just tastes horrible to me (I know, I’m such a snob). That dark, bitter chocolate from Europe is just the best. (Oh and btw, I had no idea you lived in Switzerland!!! You’re so international).

      That France story is hilarious, haha. You don’t appreciate just how convenient things in America are until you go to Europe, right? Everything closed on Sunday, shops opening and clossing at irregular hours.. I always wondered how people survived since many of the markets closed at 5.

      Oh man, food in Singapore…. *drool*

  4. Lani says:

    I love this post. It’s so perfect because I’m back home for a visit after 6 years away. And you pretty much summed it up. I’m in awe of all of the brands I can’t get back home so I’m in a honeymoon phase, but buying fresh and more frequently is how the rest of the world operates.

  5. Marta says:

    Haha, thanks for the mention, Mary! I love going to the supermarket, after so many years in China it still feels exciting. But well, I have to confess I also enjoy going to the supermarket in Spain…
    In Spanish supermarkets the portions and sizes are similar to the Chinese, we don’t have super big things like in America. But in most products we use less packaging. I hate how in China you buy a box of cookies that has the box outside, a plastic bag inside and then every cookie is individually wrapped… whaaaat.

    In Spain plastic bags were also “outlawed” a few years ago and now you either bring your own reusable bag or you pay to get one… most people use the reusable ones.

    • rubymary says:

      I heard Europe also has smaller portion sizes, which I much prefer! The only downside to Europe is that the supermarkets close super early right? I heard all stores are closed on Sunday and most shops shut their doors at 5 pm. That’s soooo crazy.

      I wish they would stop using plastic bags here, it’s such a waste!

  6. Eileen黃愛玲 says:

    Sadly, I lived in Florida where there was only Hanaford or Publix. I could either get salad or spinach. salad, spinach, salad, salad, salad, spinach. My husband and I were going mad. The options were so limited.

    • rubymary says:

      Wow I never even heard of Hanaford of Publix, haha. Life is so different on the east coast!

      Yeah American supermarkets are pretty blah. Their selections of fruit and vegetables are pretty atrocious. I know Chinese people complain about pesticides and chemicals in their fruits/veggies, but America has just as much if not more in our produce. Plus, our choice for fruits are awful. I would trade it all for those little fruit stands in China any day.

  7. Tea says:

    Love this post! Like you, I love going to the supermarket to see what they offer. And I loved the ‘freshness’ of Japanese supermarkets.

    • rubymary says:

      Japanese supermarkets are the best. I miss all the neat little instant coffees they sold. And the selection of fish. And juices. And drinks. And everything. Oh, Japan!

      I love your blog by the way, it’s so beautiful and useful! When I get a free day I’ll have to read through it.

  8. bunnybuntales says:

    I love the open air markets (well under tents) in Latin America especially Peru and Guatemala. Yummy! I saw them in Central Asia (the Stans) and Europe as well. I remember in Paris a vendor would not sell me his raspberries because they weren’t fresh. He gave them to me for free since it was in the afternoon. Same thing happened in Bari, Italy. The vendor did not like his oranges and just gave them to me.

    I haven’t been to China or Japan but fondly remember the Seoul markets. Seoul is food heaven although Peru and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan are my favorites.

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