I’ve always hoped that one day I can take a friend who’s just arrived in China to my local underground Chaoshifa supermarket just to see the look on their face. There are over twenty one million people in Beijing, so to say things get a little crowded when you go shopping is the understatement of the decade!
Today I’ve stupidly come late morning in a bid to get the shopping out of the way since Saturday is my day off. Omens already do not bode well. There are no spare shopping trolleys/carts anywhere. A couple of hours before lunchtime or early evenings at the weekend are always the worst times as everyone cooks with nothing but fresh produce. No oven chips around here that’s for sure!
Necessity therefore dictates that there are a number of people milling around waiting for someone to come along and unload their trolley. I therefore have to go directly to the checkout then follow someone after they’ve just paid until they unload. It’s heaving in here!
As per usual they are playing ‘Not a Bad Thing’ by Justin Timberlake which isn’t that terrible to be honest. The trouble is it’s on a loop and they’ve been playing it continually seven days a week since I can remember. Blaaagh! It’s driving me nuts, irritatingly circling around my head for hours after I get home every week. Even when trying to get off to sleep.
Past the relative calm of the toiletries section, turn right and enter the arena. I take a breath and mentally prepare myself for the journey ahead. The deli section has its usual interesting selection of dofu (tofu), pre-prepared salads and cold meat. I often get the wifey a pig’s foot from here and surprise her as it’s her favourite, romantic old fool that I am.
The dried fruit serve yourself section is quite something. Large square wooden boxes are brimming with all sorts of different colours including deep red dried hawthorn berries which go well in your breakfast cereal. There’s also a selection of beautiful looking flower tea and rock sugar. The chrysanthemum or pear sugars are the best, formed into big two inch white crystalline pieces in big piles.
The meat and fruit & veg sections are where it really happens. Its pandemonium in here with noise levels drowning out poor old Mr Timberlake. Above it all, sellers use microphones and amplifiers throughout the store to promote their product destroying your ears as you walk by
“DOUJIANG DOUJIANG, SAN KUAI SAN KUAI”
Soya milk 3RMB
Meat sellers in their white blooded butcher’s clothes shout out using every square inch of their lungs. There also are girls promoting milk and yoghurt at the top of their voices all in white; white puffer jackets, cap, tights and boots!
There is a serious gridlock of trolleys in every aisle. It’s an intense feeling of being unable to move and pinned in. To make matters worse, a guy with a floor cleaning machine wearing a green day-glow work coat slowly makes his way through the horde. This is indeed a special test of one’s patients and the only way to get through it is to switch off that part of your brain that creates irritation and see this an incredible phenomenon that requires mindfulness. When there is a small gap, push your trolley into it and widen the space. If there is a stationary trolley in the way, move it to one side and so on.
A small man wearing a red outdoor coat and a rucksack has lost his temper, something you rarely see in China. He angrily smashes his trolley into others that are blocking his way shouting at the top of his voice.
Once you’ve managed to get your veg’ all bagged up it’s time to join the end of the queue to get it weighed. There’s a separate queue nearby for your fruit. Two shop assistants stand side by side at the weighing-in area for this, so there are actually two queues coming in from either side. There are at least fifteen people waiting in each line which at times become broken when people come in from other directions to get though. I always smile and shake my head in disbelief every weekend at this moment. It’s an amorphous chaos of trolleys and people, kids running around and today a tall bald guy in a brown cut off jacket spits loudly on the floor driving me crazy.
And then there’s the elder generation of housewives and grandma’s who are a law unto themselves. Using their age as an excuse, they skilfully pretend to be unaware of the queue and waddle their way directly to the centre. Holding out their bag of whatever vegetable, they are for some reason, able to get away with putting it directly onto the scales in a blatant act of queue jumping. Yes of course we should give way to our seniors but honestly, anyone who is in this supermarket at this time has full mobility and knows exactly what they are doing, including pushing in.
With the winning post in sight, it’s time to take one more deep breath and hit the checkout. Joining one of the long lines of customers, clearly I’m in for a long wait today. Each till is open though the one near the far wall is not in use. Hedging my bets I take the queue next to it in case by some miracle it opens. And so it goes on. It’s a painfully slow process that makes me contort inwardly. To cap it all, the cashier at the top of my line is actually working one handed chatting on her mobile phone. Amazing!
Suddenly I see a couple of cashiers talking on the exit side. One of them points to the empty checkout and I read their body language like hawk. In a huge gamble I break away the back of my line and speedily barge past down the narrow aisle of economy bags of monosodium glutimate. A few others see my move and follow suit and a domino effect takes place with people charging into the empty space. A rattle of trolleys crashing together forming a new line is a sight to see I can tell you, though smugly it’s yours truly that’s being served first!