For Cindy and Janet
From a distance, on first glance, Wal-Mart in Guilin looks pretty much like any Wal-Mart in the U.S. But then there’s the Chinese characters underneath the familiar logo. And, instead of a parking lot in front of the building, there’s a square where people gather and music plays and vendors sell dumplings and meats and slices of watermelon and packaged ice cream treats. Since the parking lot is an underground garage, I doubt that people camp in RVs there. Actually, I’ve never seen an RV (or, for that matter, an SUV) in China. Alongside the square is another lot with row upon row of motorbikes, in Guilin apparently the most popular form of transportation, edging out bicycles by at least twenty to one.
Right inside next to the KFC is a sloping electric walkway that takes you to the second floor and the entrance to Wal-Mart. Like in the U.S., greeters stationed at the door come running to slap stickers on any item you bring in with you, but they don’t otherwise proffer greetings.
From a distance, the Wal-Mart shelves look pretty much the same as in the U.S., though shorter, so that you can look from one aisle into the next. While all the labels are in Chinese, color-coded products like Herbal Essences shampoo were easy for Sophie to identify. She picked out some Hello Hydration and None of Your Frizziness, or at least we assumed that’s what the bottles contained. I’m still a little suspicious about whether you can really buy None of Your Frizziness in China, since I appear to be the only person in China with frizziness, particularly in this tropical region where the humidity turns my hair three times its normal size by the end of every day.
The clothing displays with white mannequins and models in the ads painted on the wall, the appliance section that carries many varieties of rice cookers, the toy and toiletry aisles all tend to be relatively deserted. One night, though, there must have been a great deal on hideous rubber punching bag-like toys in the shape of some unfamiliar blobby cartoon character, because everyone was snapping them up. There are always crowds in the entertainment section, people playing with computers and reading books, leaving small children planted in front of TVS that show cartoons. In front of the big screen TVs along the edge, a small theater has been created with rows of benches where sagging husbands and boyfriends watch sports and nap.
Alongside yet another slanted electric walkway, piles of boxes and packages allow shoppers to grab bargain items on the run: candy, batteries, and condoms. At the top of the escalator is the grocery section, with giant-sized bottles of corn oil and labels that we recognized: Great Value, Pringles, Oreos, Cheetos. Then we looked closer.
Great Value products include huge quantities of dried mushrooms and preserved plums, cans of congee, Xinjiang Hetian Jujube, which Sophie described as like big wrinkled sausage balls, Hawthorn Sweetmeat Coil, another snack that looked a little like American dog treats, and preserved fish, four entire fish dangling upside down in each package, watching us.
We’ve spent a lot of time in the snack aisles reading labels: Great Value Microwave Popcorn—creamy sweet flavor. Pringles in cucumber, seaweed, and Hong Kong Fish Ball flavors. Among the shrimp flakes and pea snacks, Cheetos—chicken, steak, and milk-flavored. Near the osmanthus, coconut, and corn-flavored candy, near the coffee, blackberry, and blueberry gum, Oreos, with grape, raspberry, and banana filling.
The meat and deli sections carry mostly dumplings and fried bread, though once we paused before some elegant looking cooked ducks, their necks twisted gracefully to gaze back at us. We’re not used to even acknowledging that our food was once alive, much less celebrating it as these artistically arranged ducks seemed designed to do.
Walking down the street the other day, Sophie said, “That chicken is making me nervous.”
“What chicken?” I asked.
“You seriously do not see the chicken?” Sophie asked.
I’d been studying the packages and purses at the feet of motorbike drivers, and now looked up to see a woman ahead of us carrying a chicken upside down, holding its feet. It hung there limply, then suddenly raised its wings and swung up into the air in a desperate frenzy of activity. The woman tightened her grip and, defeated, the bird dropped down to dangle helplessly again, doomed, presumably, to become the woman’s dinner.
So far we haven’t seen any live chickens in Wal-Mart, though in her book Dreaming in Chinese Deborah Fallows reports duck carcasses hanging from hooks at the Beijing Wal-Mart and tanks in the meat section full of live turtles and carp.
We’re not that disappointed that so little is familiar, since our trips to Wal-Mart are largely anthropological expeditions. There’s not a lot of American stuff that we miss so far. A cook shows up at our apartment at noon and six each day to whip up fabulous dishes involving meat and fish and eggs and fresh vegetables. She also often brings us fruit to snack on: lychee, mangoes, watermelon. Once she cooked a whole fish, head and all, and although Sophie was a little freaked out at food that seemed to be watching her, we turned the eye so it stared at the wall instead of at us and ate every bite.