Supermarket Bingo: Grocery shopping in China

超市 chao1shi4 (supermarket) | Pixabay Images, Word Swag.
超市 chao1shi4 (supermarket) | Pixabay Images, Word Swag.

Before living in China, I’d never really geared myself up for a simple trip to the supermarket. For the average person living in their home country, popping out for a pint of milk or grabbing a chocolate bar at the shops rarely gets the adrenaline pumping, apart from that hair-raising few seconds between dropping the box of eggs and opening the lid to inspect the damage. However, picture trying to find your favourite snack if most of your everyday brands were suddenly removed from the shelves, and the labels on the products switched from your native language to thousands of intricate and (perhaps for you) unintelligible symbols. What you are imagining is pretty close to what I like to call ‘Supermarket Bingo’ – otherwise known as grocery shopping as a foreigner with limited Mandarin in China.

On the surface, Supermarket Bingo seems simple: Try to buy what you actually want to buy. However, without the ability to read Mandarin, are you certain that that shower gel you hold in your hands isn’t a litre of anti-bacterial dog shampoo? Can you absolutely confirm that the packet of crumpets you’re eagerly popping into the toaster isn’t actually a packet of bathroom sponges? And come on now, that beauty tool you hold in your hands could be anything between a razor and a Swiss Army knife.

With these dilemmas in mind, welcome to the sweat-soaked trials of Supermarket Bingo.

My first tussle with Supermarket Bingo was swift and unforgiving. As an exchange student with limited Mandarin in 2013 Beijing, I spent over an hour browsing the shelves, poking bags of vacuum-sealed chicken feet and admiring household accessories I didn’t even know existed. Nevertheless what started out as innocent fun and games soon turned into harsh reality, as I brought back a bar of soap for the bathroom sink. Sure, it was a little green. And large. And clinical-looking. However, it lathered, and it smelt nice, so surely it had to be soap?

Over time as my hands slowly became a little more pruned and weathered, then sore, the doubts started to creep in. Closer inspection revealed it was soap alright. Soap for laundry. And now my hands were coated in detergent. Darn it, Supermarket Bingo. You win this round.

Further perils followed: Where is the aerosol version of hairspray? Can I actually put this mosquito repellent on my skin? What do you mean I was supposed to peel the skin off this before eating it? Wait, I can’t eat it?

One important factor to remember is to know your enemy. Supermarket Bingo will have you encountering regular foes, and out of all of them, none is as devious as the shape-shifting sweet treat known as red bean (红豆), simultaneously able to disguise itself as anything from chocolate to meat. Red bean is actually a really tasty addition to Chinese desserts, but it sure does like to show up when you least expect it. Known for hiding in croissants, laying in wait inside ice creams, and being dotted onto loaves of bread, it’s worth maintaining a level of respect and caution for this worthy opponent.

There is only one solution to all this risk-taking – learning Mandarin. Supermarket Bingo will be one of your best motivations for learning Chinese in both spoken and character form. After you’ve mistaken salt for sugar for the seventh time, you really will appreciate the ability to scan a box or packet for key words. After all, those items aren’t going to translate themselves!

One simple piece of advice would be to take along a dictionary app that allows you to look up your desired vocabulary, or looking up and noting down key words (including flavours!) in advance. Sometimes even seeing the word written on various items and in different fonts will help you remember it for next time. Next, if you fancy trying out your speaking skills, there is sometimes the possibility of asking a shop assistant for their help. Miming is it for my hair? by pretending to put the product on your head may seem silly, but this can really help to clarify things, and you may learn some other important vocabulary in the process. Even now as my Mandarin has become more fluent, I’m still keen to check how to use cleaning products correctly. Finally, if all else fails, there are some well-known and fancy apps that can scan writing and translate it, however, considering the wild and wacky fonts on some products, bear in mind it won’t always be reliable.

Lastly, don’t always shy away from Supermarket Bingo – sometimes some of the greatest culinary discoveries happen through picking up mystery treats in the isles. It was this method that had me hooked on dry mango, and fall in love with sesame-seed crackers. And if it looks like cake, smells like cake, and has fruit on top, it probably is cake!

With that being said, I’m planning to compile a list of groceries that it’s imperative to get right, such as shampoo, skin products, detergents and other house-cleaning substances. If you have any requests or ideas, or if you have your own experience with ‘Supermarket Bingo’, don’t hesitate to let me know either via Twitter or the comment box below! Happy shopping!

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