Whenever people ask me what I loved best about living in China, I am embarrassed to give the real answer, which is totally the SHOPPING. I usually say something trite, stereotypical, and expected, like "the people are so nice, and happy, and friendly." Gag. I suppose an expat white lady taking full advantage of the exchange rate and the mass quantities of designer look-alike goods to be had in China is a stereotype in itself, but if loving to shop in China is wrong, then I don't want to be right!
I lived in China back in 2001, so I know basically everything has changed since then. The exchange rate isn't as awesome, the black market is probably more under control (??), and I'm sure there are fewer ancient alleys with little stores and stands selling every-and-anything. But here are some things I loved to buy in my glory days:
1. $1 DVDs. We built our entire collection of children's movies when we lived in China, and this was before we even had children. I tried really hard to make sure these were legal DVDs. I never bought any movies that were still out in theaters, for example. But once I accidentally bought a pirated copy of "What Women Want." (I know, my taste level wasn't all that awesome back then.)
2. Pearls and jewelry (and everything else) at the Pearl Market in Beijing. Oh, Pearl Market! I think of you often and miss you when I am away. Once I tried to buy a pair of jeans at the pearl market. When I asked to try them on, two girls produced a thick curtain and held it around my waist. There's a picture of me with a very uncomfortable face in the middle of getting dressed, curtained from the waist down, surrounded by Chinese girls. I know they were thinking about how fat I was, I just KNOW it. Another time (not at the Pearl Market) I tried to buy a swimsuit, and when I went into a back room to try it on (a swimsuit!) the worker at the store followed me right on back. She stood there, hopeful, waiting for me to get undressed, while I stood there staring at her in disbelief. Finally, I had to call Mike in to tell her I wanted privacy. Oh, privacy! I thought of you often and missed you when I was in China.
3. Phone cards. To call home, of course. Next to the phone cards were Ritz crackers and Oreos, so I bought those, too.
4. Planters cheese balls. Better than any Cheeto you're ever going to touch.
5. Sticks of butter and Hamburger Helper at the international grocery store. Oh, and Haagen Dazs. We've discussed this before.
6. Puppies. Men hawked puppies out of cardboard boxes in front of McDonalds and KFC. Once I got in a price war over a puppy and dozens of passersby began crowding around to watch. Although I come across as weakling and a pushover, I was actually surprisingly good at bargaining for a lower price.
7. Pizza from the Pizza Box. They refrained from putting corn on pizza AND delivered.
8. CDs, especially those by STINC.
9. NOT shoes. My feet were considered grotesquely enormous and I was laughed at and thrown out of shoe stores more than once, to my dismay. The shoes there were wicked cool.
10. Kites. I bought a kite from an extremely old man sitting by the side of the road once. It was a huge dragon kite, and the old man held it up in the air, making it dance around, while he did a quiet little roar out of his toothless mouth. "Waahhh" he roared. How could I resist THAT?
This entire post makes me look and sound very superficial, I know. But put yourself in my shoes for a minute: you're 22 years old, newly married, living in a foreign country wherein you do not speak the language; your husband works all night long and sleeps all day, and you are alone most of the time. What are you going to do? Sure, you can teach English. Sure, you can get yourself a Chinese tutor (until you can't stand her making fun of your pronunciation anymore). Sure, you can watch a TON of Olsen twin movies on HBO. But, sometimes you just need to venture out, wallet in hand, and take control of your chaotic world. For better or for worse, shopping did that for me. And, yes, the people I met while shopping were kind, friendly, and very happy. And I may never have known that if I hadn't asked them for a better price on a puppy.