How to survive a Chinese market
After nearly eight years of living here, it’s rare now that I feel like a fish out of water, but there’s one store left in this town that makes me self-conscious every time I enter it.
I heard that. You, you, and especially you, you dirty-minded little thing—I’ll see you after class. Not everything in my life is about that.
Despite everything that’s said on television and in those alluring ethnic cookbooks with their come-hither-and-eat-me covers, I’ve been wondering if I’m the only gaijin hitting up the pan-Oriental markets this side of the Mason-Dixon line. If the stunned and frankly nosy looks of the shopkeepers are any indication, my hair and eye color are either setting off warning bells or I’ve suddenly started looking like a shoplifter.
There aren’t too many Chinese markets in Huntsville, despite UAH’s propensity to attract non-Americans to its graduate engineering programs, and my guess is that the shopkeepers are always surprised and taken aback to see anyone they don’t know, much less someone that looks like, well, me.
My most humiliating experience at a Chinese market came a couple of years ago at the now-apparently-defunct Shinsegae. I’d worked up the courage to wander through the store, going from item to item scanning hopefully for clear packaging or occasional English inscriptions in the hope of understanding what was inside. I’d only found one item that I needed, but wrote down a few things to look up when I got home. After leaving the shop, I sat in my car and pulled out my omnipresent Small Spiral Notebook to write down some notes, only to be startled by the shopkeeper knocking on the window of my car and demanding to know what I wanted, and was I a health inspector?
I never went back.
Shortly thereafter, I found Choi’s, which was slightly closer to me, and slightly less daunting in that the shopkeeper might stare at me and follow me around the store, but seemed to draw the line at following me out the front door.
Small blessings, I suppose.
Of course, then there was the time that I tried to buy curry at Choi’s, only to learn that Choi’s was apparently one of the last grocery stores on the planet not to take credit or debit cards. While I’ve since encountered a few other ethnic grocery stores like this, they are a mystery to me. How does a business in the age of Visa and MasterCard survive without taking plastic?
I remember putting my curry back on the shelf, embarrassed, and slinking home.
Today, I picked up cat food at the pet store, got cash back at the counter, and headed to Choi’s on a quest for dried mushrooms. Huntsville’s slowly gotten more accepting of foods that aren’t quite White Bread American Pass The Beef Y’all, but dried mushrooms of any kind are still impossible to find anywhere aside from a Chinese market, so it was time to swallow my pride and pop in.
After discovering that Shinsegae appeared to have closed (it was always a pretty dark and forbidding place, so it could’ve just been a scowly Monday for them) I headed to Choi’s and tiptoed in, hoping I could slip in unnoticed.
I was too proud to go to the desk and say, “Hi, I suck and can’t read any of this stuff, so where are the dried mushrooms?” Instead, I wandered the aisles and played a fun little game of “I wonder what that is, and if you can eat it?” with myself.
I did, eventually, find the dried mushrooms.
I’ve apparently learned more about Chinese, Thai, and Korean food in the past few years than I’d given myself credit for. There were far fewer mystery foods, and more things that, while exotic and unusual, were at least familiar to me.
I paid in cash.
I wasn’t followed to my car.