Grocery Shopping in China: Pitfalls and Challenges

Grocery Shopping in China: Pitfalls and Challenges

When you move overseas to teach ESL there will be a lot of challenges. Before you leave, you’ll probably worry about what the teaching will be like. You’ll worry about whether you’ll like your students and the other teachers. But it may not occur to you to worry about what it’s like to shop in China. When you’re travelling for fun or on holiday, you probably won’t do any grocery shopping, so you won’t understand just how different grocery shopping can be in another country. It’s definitely something that you’ll have to learn how to do properly when you first move to your new home.

Grocery Shops in China

Depending on where you live, you’ll encounter all sorts of big shopping centers in China. Some of them will be familiar, such as Walmart and Tesco, while others are unique to Asia, such as the Big C. Finding the products you want and need will be a matter of practice and experimentation. Many of the labels you get at home won’t be available or will be rare. Many of these shops will also have a section for westerners, with foods and drinks that seem to be a random assortment of products from western countries. These sections are your best bet if you have a craving for a favourite product you get at home. However, if you live in a smaller city the western section will be quite limited, so get used to shopping in the main part of the shop.

Deciphering Labels

Shopping in China isn’t like shopping at home. Unless you shop somewhere that is aimed at foreign visitors, you will likely have to contend with labels that aren’t in English. This can make things more difficult than you might expect. There’s nothing more annoying than going home with what you think is washing liquid that turns out to be fabric softener. Learning to identify the labels will be a matter of practice. If you can’t read the label, look at the pictures and the shape of the bottle or package carefully. The writing may be different, but often these two elements will be the same across cultures. And when you find a product that works, keep buying it.

Sights and Smells

Food in China can be very fresh. The shop near you may have live fish, crabs, turtles, and other types of seafood that the shop attendant will cut up at your order. If you have a weak stomach, or like animals, try to avoid this section if possible. There also may be large cuts of animal hanging in the butcher section. In some cases, this may mean that the whole animal is there, minus the skin. This may be a good indication that the meat is fresh, but it can be disconcerting to turn a corner and nearly run into hanging pig corpses that are almost as tall as you are.

Another issue about shopping in China will probably be the smell. Grocery shops in western countries tend to smell like floor cleaner and air conditioning if they smell like anything. But in China, you will be able to smell the meat long before you enter that section because the food often isn’t vacuum packed in plastic. Instead, it’s usually displayed in large open fronted fridges in big chunks ready for cutting. That’s why the air in and around the butcher section will smell strongly of raw meat. The fruit section will smell different too, particularly in durian season. Durian is a fruit unique to Asia that smells like rotting flesh. It has a distinctive taste that many people love, but the smell is so bad that it’s banned on many types of public transport. When it’s durian season, you’ll smell the fruit section long before you see it.

Buying Toiletries

For most men, buying toiletries in China probably won’t be a problem. But for women, it can be difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. Everything will be different. Some of the products you usually use may be available, but mostly you will have to learn to navigate Chinese products. This means watching out for whitening products in most facial cleansers and moisturisers. Skin whitening products are very popular in all of Asia at the moment, but they aren’t very good for your skin or your overall health. Finding products without them can be difficult, particularly because all the labels will be in Chinese. Most grocery shops in China will have a large section for cosmetics, and finding a product free of whitener will take some detective work.

Finding shampoo and conditioner that works with your hair may be a problem for you in China as well. Asian hair is often very thick and coarse. If you’re a westerner with fine hair, this means that the hair products will be too heavy and leave your hair feeling thick and greasy. Unfortunately, you can’t bring enough of your normal hair care products to last for a year teaching in China. This means that you will need to experiment a little with the products that are available and find a combination that works for you.

Shopping with Courage

Part of living in a new country is trying new things and that should apply to your grocery shopping as well. Despite the fact that most stores have a section for westerners now, some of the offerings in the other parts of the shop can be even more delicious than the things you get back home. Try everything. Ask other teachers what they recommend and the Chinese staff as well. You will probably find some new favourite foods that you will find yourself missing once you arrive home. And by doing this, you will be making the most of the unique experience of living and teaching in China.

Have you encountered challenges when grocery shopping in China? Share them with us in the comments below.

About the Author

I’m an ESL teacher and a dedicated traveller. I’ve taught in Fuzhou, China and Hanoi and much prefer smaller cities to the larger options. When I’m not on the road, I live in Perth, Australia.  I write about education, ESL teaching specifically, and you can view more examples of my work at