At first glance, Chinese supermarkets appear to offer a much-needed oasis of familiarity and order to newly-arrived expats struggling to make sense of their unfamiliar surroundings. The well-lit and neatly arranged displays seem like direct transplants from life back home, and the store itself may even be a Western chain such as Carrefour or Tesco.
But after a few minutes wandering the aisles, it soon becomes clear that a supermarket in China is very different from what most of us are used to, and not only because they sell durian and live turtles. The procedures for buying groceries are not always easy to decipher, and attempting to navigate them for the first time can quickly lead to confusion, frustration and an empty stomach. Here are a few tips to make your first visit to a Chinese supermarket go just a bit more smoothly.
1) Fruits and Vegetables
Simply identifying the wide range of mysterious fruits on sale and matching them with the prices listed can be a struggle by itself. But once you know what you want to buy, there are plenty of additional hurdles left to jump. First, you'll need to get a plastic bag. These are often distributed at the weighing stations scattered across the produce section, though sometimes they are passed out to shoppers by wandering sales assistants or (if the store is feeling particularly lazy) left sitting in a roll atop a random pile of fruit.
Once you've filled your bag, you need to take it to a weighing station to be priced. In some stores, different fruits and vegetables need to be weighed at specific counters, so it's best to use the one nearest the display where you picked out your produce.
2) Specialty Items
Fruits and vegetables are not the only things that need to be priced at a special counter, as opposed to at the checkout line. Some high-end products must not only be priced, but also purchased at particular counters within the store. In addition to items such as kitchen appliances and silverware, this also frequently applies to health and beauty products such as skin cream or deodorant. Once you have decided what you want to buy, notify a sales clerk who will write you a receipt and direct you to the nearest cash register. After paying and receiving a second receipt, go back to the original clerk who will hand over your new purchase, often sealed inside a bag to mark it as already paid for.
As you'll quickly discover, meat is not sold in pre-wrapped and priced packages, but is instead splayed out in anatomically vivid piles within the refrigerated display case. Shoppers specify the cut and the amount to the clerk behind the counter, who chops up the desired amount to order. So if you're planning to buy meat, make sure you know your Chinese numbers. And remember that like most things, meat is measured in units of 500 grams each, called a "jin" in Chinese.
And make sure you're absolutely sure what kind of meat you're actually getting. Just because one section of the freezer is pork doesn't mean the one next to it logically has to be beef. That one could be pork, too, but is displayed separately because it's a different brand. Here again, a little vocabulary helps: pork is "zhu rou" and beef is "niu rou." Chicken tends to be easier to identify.
When you get to the checkout counter and start to put your things down on the belt, the cashier will typically ask if you have a shopper's card – your answer will likely be "mei you" ("No, I don't."). You will quickly notice that the end of the counter is conspicuously lacking in shopping bags. While the cashier may offer one to you if you have a large amount of purchases, you may have to specifically ask for a "dai zi." Bags tend to come in two sizes, and are provided at a price – usually two or three mao each.
But as you walk away with bags and change in hand, your shopping adventure is not over yet. As you head towards the exit, you'll see a greeter sending customers off with a friendly (or at times not-so-friendly) "xiexie guangling!" This person is not only there for politeness' sake. They also have the job of checking and stamping each departing customer's receipt, just to make sure you really have paid for all your purchases. Each shopper usually gets little more than a cursory glance, but the little blue stamp is mandatory nonetheless. So as you leave the checkout counter, make sure to keep your receipt out and have it ready at the door.
Even for well-prepared shoppers, the supermarket experience can still be a little overwhelming, and sometimes you just need a little help. Thankfully, the army of fuwuyuans standing guard at nearly every aisle and counter are there for the express purpose of making things a bit easier for the befuddled customer. While a few may show the familiar reluctance of waiters and desk clerks, most are eager to help, no matter how nonexistent your Chinese may be. You may even run into a few students working at the store part-time who are eager to have the rare chance to practice their English with a real live foreigner. But of course, keep in mind that as employees of the store, their main job is to make a bigger profit, and most of the products they recommend tend to be on the higher end of the price range.
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