Existential Conundrums in a Chinese Supermarket


Trinket town

This is the Buddha head selection station. The Buddha head buying station is around the block.

I clutch the most boyish thermos I could find amongst the sea of shiny pink and purple aluminum. A Chinese mall thrums around me on all sides, and this one particular sector is dedicated only to mugs and coffee containers. A young saleswoman hovers around a laptop, scowling every time I turn her way, knowing our interaction will involve a lot of pantomime, frustration, and tedium. She awaits my dull, Mandarin-less grunts with dutiful stoicism.

When I move towards her and indicate that I have found my desired item, she asks me a few questions, to which I answer yes, as it is one of the few words I have learned thus far. She taps away at the laptop and then begins scribing an enormous, hand-written scroll of instructions and numbers and arcane glyphs, which I assume I will need as incantations to summon Pazuzu. She hands me the slip of paper, clutches my thermos loosely and waves me away with my desired possessions gripped possessively in her talons.

I stare around my surroundings, pondering my next step. Everywhere there are desks, laptops, angry and tired-looking staff waiting at the ready, taking things away from shoppers. I am more than a little dazed. I wonder if I need to go on some sort of scavenger hunt, if I am being summoned into a hero’s quest and will need to bring this woman back the Golden Fleece. Perhaps I will need to answer a troll’s riddle? Or slay a dragon. Or maybe this is an Ikea situation, and my theoretical thermos was only a floor model, and my little slip of paper was actually a map, a guide, a thorough set of instructions on how to spelunk the depths of the storehouse below us to find the shrink-wrapped and ready version of my cup.

In the distance I hear the sound of commerce, see similarly dressed women primping and plucking at red currency. They hold it skyward, peer into the security measures, tug at it gently to check for tears and lack of quality. People are exchanging receipts, and I slowly approach, holding my own slip before me like a talisman, hoping it will soon transport me from this place.

The woman takes my paper, motions to the price, and thinks, “Come on.” I pay, am given another slip, and return to my previous station, where my shiny new chalice is wrapped in paper and ready to be taken home with me.

Were things this difficult in Korea, I ponder? No, of course not. I knew how to take care of myself there: I knew how to order food at restaurants, how to shuffle my way onto a subway train, how to pay my electricity bill. I could order things off of G-Market, type in my address in Korean, and tell the delivery man where to put this or that if I was not home at the time. I was a grown-up in Korea, as grown-up as I had been in Canada. People everywhere often passed by me and whispered comments to their loved ones and significant others: “There goes a grown-up.” They marvelled briefly at my maturity, attempted to record my visage by surreptitious photographs or hand-drawn sketches of my face. Shrines were erected in my honour.

If I peel back only slightly further, I can recall the early days of my time in Korea: the flop sweat, the heart palpitations, the barely-contained neediness and lack of preparation. My desperation, my lack of understanding, my pitiful control of the local language. It is easy now to forget these early days and these baby steps, those forlorn meanderings into independence, the times of triumph regularly interspersed with hilarious, abject failures. The times I would come home with two dozen dumplings and a bucket of bleach when I had been attempting to buy a pen; those excursions to a restaurant that ended with me simply slamming a fat, wanton finger atop the menu and hoping whatever I received would be edible.

There was a time in each country when I was a child, a babe in the woods, mewling and unsure and terrified. I didn’t lack for bravery—I wandered willingly into the darkness and tried, with all of my stupid, ignorant might, to grab hold of the reins of my life, but often came up short and without a clue of how not to. With time, it is easy to forget the age of incompetence, the long winter of cluelessness and terror. Where exactly is the cash register, and how much does everything cost, and will everyone stop talking to me and maybe just show me with their hands?

With time and experience comes amnesia; with maturity comes a loss of innocence and years of childhood sent down the well of time. It’s hard to recall your early failings, those forays into the world where you didn’t know what you’re doing, especially here by the finish line where it all seems so simple.

It is strange, then, to experience this all again, to have gotten such a grasp on life (twice!) and for that grasp to slip away. Is my ability to live, to eat and drink and walk and talk and work and meet people, so entirely context specific? Am I so well-trained by each culture I drop into that I eventually forget that the training happened in the first place?

The sudden adriftness is exhilarating and frightening all the same. With each new country I must relearn simple basics, as though every time I pass through an airport someone pops open the hood on my skull, scoops out most of my functional life skills, and sends me off into the wilderness, shorn ganglia and myelin seeping from my ears.

With each new country I must relearn how to buy groceries, or how to take a taxi, or how to line-up. I must relearn how to speak and how to eat and how to walk. I relearn politeness and when to bow or when to smile or when to say hello. I am reborn, I grow old once more, and I leave a dozen childhoods in my wake.

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22 thoughts on “Existential Conundrums in a Chinese Supermarket

  1. Fantastic post! This is why I keep coming back to this blog.

    “I am reborn, I grow old once more, and I leave a dozen childhoods in my wake.” – Loved this.

  2. This is a feeling I have often found difficult to put into words. Next time someone wonders to me why moving to a new country isn’t all adventure and excitement, I shall point them to this post. (And man, China was one of the most utterly confusing places to figure out of all!)

    • Yeah, it’s a weird thing to explain to people back home… because moving abroad is so much opportunity and excitement and such a rare chance, a lot of people are bemused by the harder, wobblier parts of it.

  3. Gorgeous post. Please swing through Vancouver on your way home to To. (whenever that may be) and I’ll arrange a couple of readings here. You could be writing travel books. I’d read them. 🙂

  4. And then at some point, you pick up those sweet tax and bill paying plano glasses right? Because that is forever how I envision you as a real adult.

  5. Great post! I have just discovered you, but am thoroughly enjoying reading what you write.
    As I sit a my boring desk job, thinking of the day when I can jump in with both feet this reminds me of why I love the journey, why I feel so at home when i am away. it is because I get to grow up anew over and over again. maybe one of these times I will get it right.

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