My little dorm room came with a kettle and a cup and a few towels but not much else besides the furniture and some simple bedding. To get through three months, I knew that I’d need a few simple household items. For instance, I didn’t have a bowl or a scrub brush for dishes, nor did I have any dish towels or a good pair of scissors for cutting open packages. I also needed some self-loading pencils for the numerous Chinese characters I’m writing in school, the kinds with built-in erasers for the likewise numerous mistakes that I’ll make writing those very same characters.
Anyway, this is all to say that I needed to go shopping.
The other part of the truth (which may or may not be the bigger part!) is that I had been avoiding doing my laundry and I was completely out of underwear. Rather than hand wash a few pairs to get me through, I decided that I could probably afford to buy a few more pairs. Lazy, I know. I’m such a stereotypic bachelor right now!
With all this in mind, I grabbed my reusable shopping bags and headed to the heart of Wudaokou.
It is really hard to gauge the size and scope of a building’s interior in this city. For instance, the university has a huge canteen. The first time I explored it, I saw a large room and a lot of food being offered, cafeteria-style. The second time I went in, I noticed an upstairs and there I found another large room with separate kiosks of food like at a North American mall. The third time I went in there, I was with fellow students who led me upstairs again but this time we went through a rear door of that same upstairs room. This door looked like a service entrance, so I hadn’t questioned it, but it brought us into a hallway that led to restaurant after restaurant offering various international fare. I was amazed at my terrible sleuthing skills the two times previous.
I feel a little like Alice walking through the looking glass. I have no idea what I’ll find around every corner and I am constantly in awe at the density of sights, smells, sounds and activity here.
So, en route to aforementioned room supplies, I went into the Lotus Center for the second time since arriving. As I was walking around, I suddenly noticed an escalator at the far end of the small, main-floor, shopping complex that I had mistakenly understood to be the entirety of the “Lotus Center.” I went up this escalator and found myself in a giant mall with three levels that offered everything from DVDs to housewares, new shoes to fresh vegetables, cigarettes to shampoo.
Okay then. How did I miss that the first time?
I stood at the top of the first escalator looking around, dumbfounded, and became a bit like a rock in the riverbed of a flowing public. People flowed around and past me as I turned and waited for a relatively quiet moment to photograph the escalator.
Because I have never seen items for sale on an escalator before. The items don’t move but you do. How does that work?
Picture this: you’re the shopper and you think, “hey, maybe I’ll buy that item but I’d like to check out the ingredients first.” Then, after picking it up and realizing that you’d probably be better off without all those unpronounceable contents in your body, you’ve been carried up and away from where it belongs! Stranded at the top or stranded at the bottom with a box of cheap cookies in your hand, what do you do?
Maybe it’s a brilliant idea. Perhaps you’d look at the effort it would take to put it back — You’d have to do the up/down loop in order to be the conscientious shopper who returns an unwanted item to whence it came, after all — and then just throw it in your basket and consider buying it as your penance for being lazy? Go back into the flowing public just to put back a box of cookies? I think not. Besides, at that point in the consideration, you’d likely have talked yourself into wanting them after all! Maybe they’ll be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted, you wonder.
Oh how the mind justifies. This is how advertising gets us.
As you can imagine, with these ideas running through my head and so much to take in, I sometimes walk around a bit like I’m in a daze. China makes me move slowly and I get jostled around and bumped into by people left and right — people who are less in a state of wonder and with more of an agenda. This was how it was for me for the remainder of my time in the Lotus Center. My little basket and I wandered wide-eyed through aisle after aisle and my little basket slowly got heavier.
I admit to being tempted by the incredibly low prices of stuff here. I bought my underwear. The women’s version was terrible and came with bows! I ended up buying a four-pack of men’s cotton briefs with some cool designs on them for a whopping 4 kuai (or almost $0.59 a pack — That makes it $0.15 a pair!) Note to self: I am bigger than a men’s medium in China; they’re kinda tight!
And what else did I buy? Well, 96 kuai later and I must admit that I’m not quite sure! I got my school supplies and some letter-writing supplies, some slippers for my cold dorm floor, tea towels, some food products, some water. All in all, it’s easy to say that things are cheap here, but those cheap things eventually cost a lot of money! I know that 80 kuai is only $14 Canadian, but I am aiming to keep this journey within budget and so I found myself scratching my head.
Did I really need the beer shampoo just because it was made of beer?
Maybe I can blame it on the televisions? At the end of every second aisle, a television set with non-stop advertising easily catches a shopper’s gaze. At least, it caught mine! I watched a few ads just for entertainment’s sake, but didn’t buy the products being advertised. Still, perhaps I was subliminally affected into believing that “buying is good” and “shopping is healthy” and “I need more stuff.”
Those discounts are alluring. I couldn’t resist.
At the checkout counter, I dutifully waited my turn and have become quite good at saying “wo bu yao daizi, xie xie,” which means: “I don’t want a plastic bag, thank you.” Everything is put in plastic here unless actively requested otherwise. They look at me strangely but accept my weird “foreign” request without much dispute. Lately, I’ve also starting following up my request with: “shijie you tai duo de daizi.” This means: “The world has too many plastic bags.”
The last time I said that, I actually got a smile.
This is a picture of my checkout line among about twenty others. If only my little camera could capture the panoramic of these views to show the whole scale of such experiences. You’ll just have to take my word for it!