I have decided to write a series of post about my adventure at Canadian supermarkets.
As a newcomer to Canada, the only place where I would need to visit the Mandarin-English dictionary on my phone is a supermarket. Margarine. Provolone cheese. Whipping cream. Shoehorn. I would happily pick up these words from my screen, tuck my phone back into my pocket like I’m a Mission Impossible spy, wander around, and cry out to my parents with surprise when I finally spot the item.
I find the vocabulary of supermarkets fascinating. Not just the literal names of all the stuff on the shelves, but also the people, the ways different supermarkets unfold themselves- Loblaws, Costco, Metro, T&T (a magical place that offers more Asian things than actual supermarkets in China).
Back in China I was not too keen on grocery shopping. When I was little, I did go to a supermarket called Auchan with my parents from time to time, but only for the benefit thereof- Oreo, popsicles, fruit jello, beef jerkies and just the joy of having my dad urging me to always “take more” “take more”. Other than that, supermarkets in my mind was just free air-conditioning, and the distinct smell of sea food, vegetables and laundry detergent all mixed together. And shopping carts that don’t work that well.
I guess you could say supermarkets are palaces of mundaneness, the Hall of Fame for a sport called life. But here in Canada, living a new mélangée life of North American culture and the Chinese culture of my family, I started exploring supermarkets again, and found many interesting things in this mundaneness.
If words, breath, sneezes and scents are solid things that take up space, Costco would be too dense to even squish into. This Sunday we went to Costco. Weird as it may sound, this is my first time to this wholesale paradise. Since it was Sunday, it was crazily hard to basically just navigate in any direction, since all of our fellow shoppers were trying to harness a cart just like us.
When I walked in, I naïvely suggested my mom not to use one of those gigantic trolleys. “We’ll only need a basket.” After 30 seconds of observing and realizing that there are no baskets, I had to stand behind the huge mountain of discounted Ritz breadsticks, jumbo Rice Crispies Squares, party size M&Ms and Fruit-O-Long, while my mom scurried to get a trolley.
That was when I was finally aware that I was standing in the palace of mega consumerism.
Costco is the place where you see middle-aged women in plump old-fashioned jumpsuits, venturing through the aisles like heroins faster than anyone else. Costco is the place where you see two people yelling and swearing at each other just because one was walking, quote, “too slowly”, and the other just bumped into him/her with a cart. Costco is the place where you look around and marvel at the ridiculous size of everything, but still just open the cooler door, and grab a huge box of yogurt as quickly as possible, pretending you are a veteran shopper like everyone else
It is interesting how in the most mundane of places you see life, and you see a bit through life, and philosophical questions struck you like a giant cereal box falling off a shelf.
I came across on Facebook this wonderful college application essay that got a girl into multiple Ivy League schools, and in the essay she talked about how Costco gave birth to her pondering upon life and her sense of exploration. (It is awesome and I recommend you read it too) There was this awesome question that I kept regurgitating upon when I was at Costco,- If there exists a thirty-three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will?
Since I’m not sure if I have free will here, I am not going to further explore this question. Nor do I want to start ranting or praising modern consumerism, or put a label on Costco, like it does its items. An economist may condemn the “Costco effect” (when you walk in planning to just grab some Kleenex, but end up spending hundreds of dollars). A poet may whine about how Costco makes everything overflow and thus takes away the essence of life.
But for me, Costco isn’t good or bad.
I guess you could say it somehow makes one feel very “North-American”. And on top of that, for me there is that particular joy of just strolling around and learning the names of all the things that there are.
Then there is the ultimate perk of walking in Costco (although I’ve only been there once). It is that moment when you’re almost walled in by tall shelves full of huge boxes, or when you watch your fellow shoppers dig through pools of infant-size clothing. You can’t help but try to think of the story behind all these items, this inventory of life. Who invented Nutella? When was that magical point in history when people started needing gigantic boxes of palmiers? What about gargantuan tubs of sour cream? Who was the first person to buy that jumbo size rice Crispies Squares, actually sit down every morning at the breakfast table, and feel good about himself/herself for having so much that it doesn’t seem to run out?
Oh Costco, you are so much more complicated than just the “all beef” excellence of your cheap fat hotdogs.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.