A day in the life of a foreign supermarket shopper

Updated: 2013-03-14 07:44

By Ray Kuka in Shanghai (China Daily)

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Before moving to China, my fiancee and I had been warned: Don't forget to pack muesli, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste and anything we may have taken for granted. But isn't everything made in China?

Their advice, as I predicted, was misguided because most things are available. Even Vegemite, an essential spread for an Australian living abroad that we have on toast for breakfast, could be bought.

But that's not to say the shopping experience was "normal".

On our first full day in Shanghai, we were taken shopping by a non-English speaking Chinese colleague.

After heeding the warnings, where else would we be taken? Only by chance I should add, but to a British-owned Tesco supermarket.

But we quickly noticed something different here compared to the Tesco experience in Britain. The Chinese are very hands on.

A day in the life of a foreign supermarket shopper

Tongs in the meat section are left idle, with bare hands being the clear choice for Chinese customers when it comes to choosing what was going to be dinner.

Yep, raw chicken and pork, picked up with unwashed fingers. Poked and prodded. Touched and tested. Discarded back into display cabinets or bagged up to take home.

How could this be? And how could using one's bare hands be deemed sanitary and OK?

Our colleague started laughing at us after realizing we thought something was unusual. He took control, and, also using his bare hands, began to bag up chicken breasts for us while we watched in horror.

He continued laughing at our distain, along with about 10 other people now gathered to watch how we chose our meat.

Apparently it's normal to touch raw chicken's feet and chicken's necks, before moving on to the vegetable section to also handpick your greens that will go with the meat. It also means raw chicken has the potential to end up on trolley handles and baskets, and therefore the next customer's hands.

Our Chinese friends laugh when I tell this story. Most genuinely can't see that we'd be shocked by such consumer behavior saying, "How else would you make sure the product is up to scratch?"

I had a few health concerns and still don't purchase meat that's on display and uncovered unless it's only in the reach of a butcher.

Paranoid? Perhaps. Offended by the Chinese? No. If that's how things are done, then that's how things are done.

But I still wanted to ask Tesco whether they knew about this, and if they were OK with it.

A spokesperson from the company's corporate affairs based in Hong Kong said: "The layout of our stores does vary around the world, in response to the needs and desires of local customers.

"As you point out, in China our customers like to get closer to the product, we believe as a means of checking freshness. However, with certificates of quality clearly on display around the meat counters, food safety remains our highest priority."

I wanted to check again whether the above response included the fact that people handle meat with unprotected hands, before continuing on to the dairy section or tea aisle.

The spokesperson reiterated that, "We (Tesco) accept that this (handling of meat) is important to our customers in China.But I would add that we don't allow food safety/quality to be compromised."

I'm still a little surprised that Tesco seems OK with it. It's a cultural difference many Westerners will struggle to accept. But that's one of the joys of living in a country like China: Things are done differently here.

People it seems are also hands on when it comes to what others have been shopping for. As the star attractions at Tesco that day, what we were buying made some of the lovely people we met laugh out loud.

Customers and staff continually sifted through our trolley to see what the new residents were buying. Some even called their friends over to have a look, thinking we were strange. I didn't think we had anything too crazy, but it was funny and warming to know that people are very comfortable with each other.

Our colleague told most of our sightseers politely to leave us alone, although we could only laugh with them. We weren't offended, we felt welcomed if anything. It's funny how you adjust. If they don't spot-search us now, that's when we become worried. As long as they haven't been to the meat section first though.


(China Daily 03/14/2013 page20)