On to shopping. At times it feels like that’s the major form of entertainment in this city – the streets are constantly full of people who are out either window shopping or buying. Given what we heard in the US about how cheap everything here is, I was curious to see how that played out.
Four options: super glamourous high end malls (which frequently have a similarly expensive but lovely food supermarket in the basement,) more ordinary department stores (ie, with locally made goods rather than designer and imported goods,) lots of little individual stores where you’re actually in a store (as opposed to someones’ “front parlor”) and then the many, many little mom and pop places which seem to specialize in soft drinks/ice-cream or plastic products (buckets and tubs) or small towels, or vegetables/fruit or paper/stationary goods.
For food buying we have a few options. There is a small “city supermarket” in our “compound.” (Right next to the Starbuck, of course – Incidentally, Steve says it’s not a compound because there’s no gate and no one salutes when you drive in, let’s call it an “urban living/working center.”) The store has all the basics of life plus comfort food appealing to about 8 – 10 nationalities. This is where I get breakfast cereal (US or british imported) cheese (which doesn’t exist in the Chinese diet) vegetable and fruits (these, because they aren’t imported, are reasonably priced) and occasional splurge items for the guys. While I have been very excited about cooking Asian for dinner – I haven’t convinced the family (or my own stomach) to do the Chinese thing and eat dumplings for breakfast. Then there’s a little local grocery about three blocks away where we get the basics like milk, yogurt, local snacks for the guys (somehow I can justify Chinese junkfood more easily than American) laundry detergent, tofu and all the important cooking sauces and spices. Finally, once a month I try to get to one of the big markets like Carrefour which sell about everything you can imagine for really low prices. As my language skills improve, I’m able to get some fruits and veggies from the little market places. Since all of this is done while walking, I shop almost everyday for something and bribe the guys with root beer to come with me to help lug water back to the house. Yes, water lugging is a fact of life because apparently the water is not just “other bacteria laden” as in many countries, but out and out “not potable” with hepatitis being one of the main issues. Shanghai hopes to have a potable water system in place for hosting the World’s Fair in 2010, but that’s a ways off. So all fruits and veggies get washed in a soap solution and then rinsed with bottled water which I’m finally sort of used to – and bottled water is advised even for cooking rice and pasta so we go through a lot of it. I think most people probably get water delivery but it seemed like one more transaction to deal with. While credit cards are not unknown – they are unusual, so all of this gets paid for in cash. And certain big things, (like airplane tickets) always get paid for in cash so frequently we are scheming to make megawithdrawals from the ATM in advance of payment days. We are trying to make do without a bank account (more bureaucracy) and check don’t get used much either because it seems the Chinese have little faith in their banks, so there’s not a ‘check” mentality. This is why when someone is moving a large amount of money, they hire two guys with submachine guns to walk flanking them. Crime is not generally a problem, so generally I don’t feel too worried carrying the big wad. (With the largest bill being about $12 – the pile ‘o cash accumulates pretty fast.
Getting around: Taxi’s are really cheap – but language is a problem. I remember the sinking feeling last year when we were planning the trip when I realized that we couldn’t even WRITE down an address much less speak it. And with the city being as huge as it is, we walk a lot but that only gets you to about a 20th of where we want to go. The metro is great (though jam packed during rush hours) but it is a new system and only covers a small bit of the city. Thus, one of the considerations when we moved into this “compound” is that it is associated with a hotel where we would be able to tell a concierge our destination in English and he/she would translate it into something useful to the cab driver. A major shift in the last two to three weeks has been the fact that we can now rely enough on our pronunciation of street names and numbers (and thank heaven for the Chinese unit on intersections and “taxi talk”) and so we are liberated from the concierge. Yahoo! Another small step. Steve talks about getting a bicycle, but I think I won’t. It’s pretty intimidating out there.