I had this vision in my mind of what the Beijing Walmart would look like.
Elderly person at the front door welcoming you to the store. Wide aisles. Bright lighting. A little bit of Middle America in the middle of China’s capital.
My local Haidan district Walmart, just one subway stop south of Tsinghua University’s Wudaokou subway station, is a strange sort of American-Chinese hybrid. The Egg Foo Young of Chinese retailing.
First of all, there is no greeter. There isn’t even a front door, just those semi-transparent plastic flaps that substitute for doors all over China.
The store itself doesn’t resemble any Walmart in the USA. It looks more like your local dollar store. On steroids. Three floors of crowded bargains, from washing machines and treadmills to live turtles (not to bring home as pets).
What’s completely different is the product selection. You can buy Crest and Colgate and Laughing Cow cheese, but not much else that you’d buy in the American big box.
When’s the last time you saw the Walmart “Great Value” brand bag of Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus in the USA? Or Marinated Duck Gizzard? Or Prickly Ash Powder? Or Purple Sweet Potato snacks? Or Pineapple-flavored Beer? Or Apple Vinegar Drink?
The list goes on — check it out in my slide show.
I ended up on a shopping spree that cost me more than $40 in yuan. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, think of it this way: That’s the cost of about 25 meals on campus. Or three months of cell phone service. I think I’ve stocked my apartment for a month with everything from loose Chinese tea and two kinds of tofu to, yes, purple sweet potato snacking pieces.
My most expensive purchase was a living room rug for the equivalent of $13. The second most costly purchases was imported almonds (for hiking, of course), at about $4.
My shopping journey took four hours, most of it pure entertainment. After all, how many of you can say that you carried a rug in a backpack while you rode a bicycle home from the subway while balancing two bags of groceries?
The eagle has landed. I’ve been in Beijing for four days now — long enough to hike a remote section of the Great Wall, sample the best Peking Duck (Beijing Duck? Just plain roast duck?) of my life and explore every nook and cranny of one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world — but not quite long enough to get over jet lag.
Rather than write the traditional “first impressions” story, I’m going to share five of my pleasant discoveries in Beijing and an equal number of things that will take some time to get used to.
1. Tsinghua University is one of the most beautiful in the world. It’s made one of those top ten lists for beautiful campuses, and I can see why. From the magnificent gates to the marvelous and varied sculpture, from the breath-taking canals and lily ponds to the impressive architecture and ivy-covered walls, this is a fine environment for teaching and for learning.
2. The high quality of the faculty. They don’t call it the MIT of China for nothing. The professors here are among the best in the world. The journalism faculty is uniformly excellent. I hope to live up to their very high standards.
3. The high quality of the students. I could tell from the moment I began my new student orientation session last Friday morning. These students are the best and the brightest, not just from China but from around the world. They are smart and they are motivated.
4. I can get around town without too much problem. It is a problem that I don’t speak Chinese. (Yet.) But the Beijing subway — most of which was built for the 2008 Olympics — is modern, efficient, inexpensive and very easy to navigate. Crowded? That’s a given. There are more than 20 million people here in the capital.
5. I can communicate with the outside world. Yes, I heard all of the warnings about the Great Firewall of China. And all the blocked sites. The good news, at least at this point, is that I have been able to communicate with all of my old and new friends with only minor problems.
Things that might take some getting used to
1. A fifth-floor walk-up apartment. On the bright side, I’m getting a lot of aerobic exercise every day.
2. Cold showers for four days. Well, I finally have hot water. Actually, I’ve had it all along but haven’t known how to turn it on. You see, the instruction guide to my apartment is in Chinese and I’m linguistically challenged. It means I also couldn’t figure out how to use the satellite TV. Or the apartment internet. The take-away lesson: Keep taking those Mandarin lessons on the Mango app.
3. Can you believe the way people drive around here? Washington drivers are awful. Drivers in Rome are maniacs. Drivers in Naples view traffic signals as suggestions. Drivers in Beijing are all of that and more. U-turns in the middle of traffic. Left turns from the right lane. Turning right on red without stopping or even looking for pedestrians or bike riders.
And while you’re at it, watch out for the bikes coming at you every which way. And the pedestrians darting across highways and major thoroughfares in the middle of traffic.
4. The parking situation. People park any place they can find a space. Not a parking space. Any old space. They park on sidewalks. They park on pedestrian malls. They park where they want, when they want. Just get out of the way when the car is coming at you.
5. Peanut butter is hard to find. I love Chinese food. I could eat it almost every meal. But I am going through peanut butter withdrawal now. Yes, yes, I’ve been told that you can get peanut butter at Walmart and in European grocery stores in Beijing. But I haven’t gone on a scouting mission yet.