The Perils of Shopping

By: Cecilia Haynes - Also see author's expat blog listing

Supermarkets are daunting. No matter where you live in the world, they are a necessary evil that all expats must battle through. Language barriers, lines, and missing brands are all part and parcel of the food shopping experience. Figuring out the routines of which days the new shipments of fresh produce arrive and making friends with the butcher in order to get away with the best cuts of meat becomes your lifeline. The measurement system is different and you resort to awkwardly gesturing the amount that you want. You learn numbers, or at least fake understanding while craning your neck towards the register, and try not to fumble while counting exact change. Even though you have signed up for a membership card, you have no idea what the reward points mean or what the purpose of the membership even is. You hope that if you feign fitting in long enough, eventually it will come true.

As much as you can try to swaddle yourself in a community that reminds you of home, navigating the tricky waters of the frustration of not finding exactly what you were looking for brings the foreign right to the surface. You are not a diplomat and you do not have access to a well-stocked commissary chock full of foods from home. Because of this, even locating the nearest, most well-stocked supermarket can become an extravagant affair. The more so if you have your heart set on a very specific ingredient that requires venturing to more than one seller. All of your hard won self-assurance flies right out the window as you attempt to mime the product that you so desperately need. Even dictionaries will only go so far because detailed directions devolve into vague wrist flapping and uncertain gestures. Your world narrows as you stare fixedly at a set of fingers and desperately try to memorize the number of turns. The minute you start off on your own you think to yourself, "It was definitely two right turns and then a left before another right. Or was it another left?"

The next person you ask seems to speak a bit of your language. You smile in relief and with renewed determination. Then your smile starts to sag as you realize that their shaky command of your language is limited to a few quips and phrases. You realize this as they smile, shaking their heads at your words, trying to stay polite in the face of incomprehension. They too resort to vague gestures, adding in a confident, if incorrect, verbal instruction. Their hands tilt to the right while their lips say left. You ignore the incongruence, thank them profusely for their help, and then desperately search for the next person who might be able to communicate with you.

At this point it is customary to attempt drawing a crude map. Having, hopefully, figured out the local word for the item that you so desperately need, you thrust a crumpled piece of paper and a sweaty pen at your next victim. Cautiously optimistic at their understanding of what you need, you peer over their shoulder as they start to sketch out the route. Your scrap of victory in hand, you realize that you know more words for food in the local language than niceties, courtesy of similar trips. Resolving to remedy this oversight, again, you gaze at the path to your heart's desire.

You realize immediately that the scale is off. The box representing the tiny kiosk that you are standing next to is two times bigger than the giant department store across the street. The 30 minute distance that you have walked has been reduced to a mere centimeter when it should have been at least five centimeters. Your destination appears a heartbreakingly close one centimeter further but you cannot trust the beacon of hope that this faulty map has provided. You continue on in the potentially misplaced belief that even if the dimensions are incorrect, perhaps the directions are sound.

Trudging along, you reflect that this one, potentially futile, adventure has forced you to interact more with the local population than you have since arriving in this foreign country. In spite of their dubious ability to help, each of these strangers has been friendlier and more willing to engage with you than many people back home. You begin to try to number the local friends that you have, only to come up blank. Shame settles in as you realize how little an effort you have made to engage with the community that you live in. You are a guest in this strange land and so you have tried to pretend otherwise, like you are in control. This has led you to abscond situations that allow you to feel out of your depth. Adults never like to feel like ignorant children, clumsy in their uncertainty.

You begin to raise your head higher, taking in the surrounding environment rather than just glancing around to make sure you haven't missed your destination. Old men sit on the street chatting, drinking tea, and playing board games. Children shriek with delighted laughter as groups of them barrel past you in their exuberance. Young mothers wheel toddlers straining out of their strollers and smile with maternal pride. Other foreigners, tourists, sit out with beers, content to watch life from a distance. You, you are in the midst of all of this and you begin to shift your thinking to us, locals and them, foreigners. You begin to understand what it means to actually live in a foreign country and not merely survive it.

Reaching your destination, noting that it took at least 3 centimeters, you find your single, missing ingredient. You recognize the foreign names of other nearby goods, realizing with a start that you understand this formerly impregnable language. As you bring your success to the checkout counter, you look the cashier right in eye and smile, attempting a mumbled local greeting. She brightens and compliments your pronunciation. She offers you a quick lesson in a polite way to say goodbye. After you exit, you stop at a nearby cafe for a cup of deserved coffee. This feeling of accomplishment is one that you feel on a daily basis here and rarely in the place you formerly considered home. Taking a deep breath, you prepare yourself for the next hurdle, the next potential defeat, the possible success.

About the author:

Cecilia Haynes is an expat kid who continued the lifestyle after college. She grew up in China, India, the U.S., and the Philippines, and she currently lives in Turkey. She blogs, absorbs Mediterranean sun, and eats her way through life.
Blog address: Twitter: @unsettledtck
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Contest Comments » There are 3 comments

Richard Haynes wrote 11 years ago:

Very nice! I was reminded of the French butcher who would not sell me a cut unless I pronounced correctly - and the time he took to ensure that I did. This is a guidebook to how to be a community member, not just a customer.

Lourdes Fernandez wrote 11 years ago:

This is great! Shopping in a foreign country is truly the best way to learn about the culture and face your fears, or apprehension, of this new adventure. I've faced it many times myself and have been the better for it in the end! Great job at explaining it!

Lourdes Fernandez wrote 11 years ago:

This is great! Shopping in a foreign country is truly the best way to learn about the culture and face your fears, or apprehension, of this new adventure. I\'ve faced it many times myself and have been the better for it in the end! Great job at explaining it!

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