Diet Coke and a Rice Cooker

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Antonia and I knew the route. I needed food, gluten free, food with ingredient lists. I wanted a rice a cooker, vegetables, and something– anything— other than dan chao fan. We had gone to Walmart just a few days before, but my stomach obliged me to return. It was just Antonia and I that afternoon, because the rest of the team stayed behind and napped.  They had no desire to make the trek to the four-story, barely air-conditioned shopping center. I would have enjoyed a nap too, but my stomach gave me no choice. The prospect of Diet Coke was enough to compel Antonia to tag along. “I just love the taste of aspartame,” she said in a voice that made me think she was almost serious. Our walk to Walmart took us about half an hour. And although I later found a bus route that cut that time in half, Antonia and I enjoyed the walk. We discussed our observations of China, shared ideas about our theses, worked to narrow our research topics, and prattled about old schoolmates.

Walmart greeted us with a pair of over-intergetic sliding doors, an escalator, and a woman who tagged our belongings in blue tape before we were granted a cart (which, by the way, has wheels that allow it to be pushed in any direction.) The familiar smells brought back the memories from my visit to Walmart a few days earlier. Hopefully no one other than me remembered that I was the one who accidentally pulled the railing from a sloping shelf, which caused a whole section of bedding to avalanche down into the isle. “Duìbùqǐ!” (“I am so sorry!”) is a phrase I learned very quickly. 

Antonia pushed the cart, and headed toward the moving sidewalk that sloped upwards and ramped us to level three.  “Yǒu méiyǒu zhège?” I asked to an employee in the kitchen appliance isle. I was pointing to a rice cooker on display and wanted to know if it was stock. It was a good a price, 88元 or about $14. “Méiyǒu,” she said it was out of stock, but pointed at the more expensive model next to it. Feeling desperate, I caved and put the pricier option in the cart. By the time Antonia and I made it back to the first floor of Walmart, I had found enough supplies to meagerly stock a kitchen. There was just enough to cook a gluten-free meal, and that’s all that mattered. Antonia had found diet coke, and could not help but continually voice her satisfaction about it.

Like much of Shanghai, I think, the first floor of the Walmart was a hybrid between Western hegemony and rapidly changing Chinese culture. If traditional Chinese markets and modern American grocery stores had a child, I think the first floor of Walmart would be it. The space had the flow and familiarity of a corporate operation, but the half dead fish; live frogs in baby pools; dried seaweed, piled high in crates; and vats of rice the size of small cars gave it a different character. In the open air, chicken parts lay on ice. Flies buzzed. And a crowd of shoppers huddled around an overwhelmed employee and vied for the durian he was cutting and packaging. The whole first floor was chaotic but had an organizing rhythm. Inclined shelves, all organized and labeled, displayed fruits and nuts from all corners of the world; Walmart employees sifted through the floor and picked up stray produce; and women in well-fitting blue dresses spoke into portable speakers systems soliciting shoppers to try new yogurts and name-brand milks. It was the quintessence of modernity, truly a globalized shopping experience. Bananas were imported. Fruits were hybridized. And dry foodstuffs appeared in wholesale and subsidized prices. International labels like Danon sat alongside Chinese companies and local flavors. Walking around the first floor, it was as if I was experiencing the world pressed into a few thousand square feet.