Yantai has a new attraction — a Wal-Mart! It opened on June 15th. Normally I wouldn’t shop at a Wal-Mart (and by “normally” I mean back in my old life when I was too good for KFC too), but the possibility of American products and my curiousity about Chinese Wal-Mart employees was too much for me, so I went with Will on Friday.
There’s usually a strange employees-to-work ratio in Chinese stores. Most shops have a few greeters to stand at the door saying “Welcome!” loudly and “That foreigner is very fat,” quietly. They also have people standing in each aisle to… well, I’m not really sure what they’re doing. Maybe they’re watching to make sure I don’t shoplift. Maybe they’re there to help me find things. Maybe there’s a union regulation that requires a certain number of employees per square foot.
At any rate, there are always a lot of people standing around in a shop or restaurant, in uniforms but not actually working. (It’s a little like working in the UStore again!) I was in the Jiajiayue few weeks ago when a kid knocked some boxes over. A few stockboys and some sales girls stoond and looked at the mess until a janitor arrived to pick up the boxes.
Yantai’s Wal-Mart was surreal. First of all, Wal-Mart is the classy place to shop, full of rare imported goods. It’s like the Greek grocer in Key To Rebecca, only with smiley icons all over and crowds of uniformed employees.
We ran around Wal-Mart like crazed hunter-gatherers, exclaiming over things like olives and Snickers bars and throwing them into our cart.
“I don’t like potato chips, or any chips for that matter.” I told Will. “Raised by hippies, remember?”
“Do you want soda?” He asked, pointing down an aisle.
“No, I don’t like that garbage either, it’s so unhealthy — OOH! Look! M&Ms! Coffee!”
I noticed that the locals, who presumably aren’t brought into a frenzy by seeing Western brandnames, were elbowing each other out of the way to fill their carts. I was going to make a snarky comment (or ten) when Will pointed out that the consumerism, exactly what we don’t like about Wal-Mart, is like a dream in China. The array of food, clothes and other products in the supermarkets simply didn’t exist a generation ago. In my parents’ lifetime, the average Chinese person wore the same gray uniforms and ate rationed food.
When we got in line to pay, there was more staring. I knew there were places on Earth where the locals had never seen a white person, but I expected them to be beating their tribal drums or something, not buying Coke and Crest in a Wal-Mart.
Of course, this was no ordinary Wal-Mart. The cashier gave me the correct change on the first try.