One of the things I love about living abroad is how the tiniest experiences become impactful or informative, one such as buying fruit, something I recently touched upon. Even the simplest of expectations are not met. When I first moved to China, this was not the easiest process to navigate.
I have always been in the habit of eating fruit several times a day. It’s a decent breakfast with its simple sugars and makes for a decent enough dessert later in the day. When I got to China, I wanted to continue this, but was hesitant to do so for concerns with the water. I had finally gotten over my concerns with it, and discovered the world of Chinese fruit which is probably (slightly) more interesting than you might think.
The first way is definitely interesting from an American perspective. Having lived in Europe for a few months before, I was reasonably familiar with this particular system of buying fruit in supermarkets. In the US, if you want to buy fruit, you throw it in the bag, bring it to the cashier and he or she both weighs and charges you for it.
This laziness may be going by the wayside, however, as we have self-checkout. Thus, we must identify the type of fruit and charge it ourselves. This is easy enough in English with a screen telling you what to do in your mother tongue. This is also easy enough in French for a non-francophone as we can guess what we’re buying without toooo much trouble. Pommes are apples. Done.
But in southern China, if you have average Mandarin, no Cantonese and a passing understanding of fruit vocabulary, it can be daunting. The fruit was all listed by colloquial names in a giant book with codes. This meant after trying to bring a sticker-less bag of apples to the counter, I had to return to the wilderness of a Chinese supermarket in search of the name of the particular type of apple on the shelves
This took a while, then I had to find the Chinese name in the booklet, find the code, figure out how to punch that into the scale, then print a sticker and attach it to the fruit. It isn’t so daunting in your own language; it is in another with a line of strangers visibly agitated as you fumble with a simple machine.
So it took a few tries but I finally managed to familiarize myself with this system, and it became normal. Onto the next thing to become normal. This was to learn a plethora of new fruits and new names for old ones.
Near my subway stop in Foshan, China was a row of vendors, some selling fruit, others selling knockoff electronics. I’m not sure which had a longer shelf life.
By the time I finally got used to the water in China – at least ingesting trace amounts – I figured I could start buying fruit nightly on my commute home. So after getting the cheapest fruits every night (apples) the vendor tried to get me to buy more expensive ones.
To do this, he just started throwing me some freebies, teaching me the vocab for any given fruit, and then smiling heartily. The next day as I walked passed his shop, he would try and get me near in order to buy yesterday’s loot full price. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was dependent on how good the fruit was, and I suppose this is precisely the point.
But I began to learn the names of fruits I had never seen or eaten. Some of the new ones, such as longan (longyan) or the lychee (lizhi), are pretty similar and belong to the soapberry family of fruits. The size of a grape, they have a somewhat tough, but flaky skin that is fairly easily peeled, and a white, juicy pulp inside. It’s not a particularly tasty treat for most foreigners, but I got to like them quite a bit.
Then there’s the lizi and the lizi. “Huh?” you say. Exactly. They are pronounced in different tones, and so are different in the native tongue, and sound identical to us laowai. The first is a 李子 which is a type of plum, and the other is a 梨子 which is a type of pear. Neither is not exactly like the western equivalent. Their pears are spherical and remarkable juicy, while the pear is very similar.
After that he just starting throwing random fruits in every day, and my god they were all delicious. Save one. It was like a banana but smaller and less tasty. It was 80% of the form of a normal banana, with about 20% of the functionality of one. Not good.
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In any case, travel is always about stretching your boundaries, reshaping what it is new or different no matter how small. If various peoples can even buy fruit differently, what else do we do differently?
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