Monthly Archives: June 2015

Grocery shopping

There are many places to get groceries.  Wet markets are a favorite, but I must admit that I don’t go to them as much as I might like, partly because they require a minitrek to a neighborhood center, and partly because Xiao Yang cooks for us enough that I don’t need large quantities of veggies (I may well post about them later, though).  Foreign stores (Euromart, Freshmart, and others) that carry difficult to get items like cheese, black beans, tortillas, and Kix are also regular stops for us, although we try to get enough when we go to never go more than twice a month.  Euromart’s on the other side of Jinji Lake, so it’s a trek too, and the fact that they deliver for free makes it possible to buy lots without having to worry about how to drag it home.  Right outside our gate is Chun Store, where we do most of our day to day shopping.  It’s a Taiwanese store, with basics for people from all over the world (peanut butter, Japanese curry powder, and kaffir lime leaves are all available) and has fresh milk, basic fruit, butter, pasta, basically most of the everyday stuff.  Nearby is O’Best Bakery, with “toast” bread ready for pb&j or toasted cheese. But today I’m going to give you a glimpse of going to the supermarket, in our case the Vanguard store that is the anchor of the mall down on the corner.



It’s a two-story store, on the second and third stories of the mall.  The ideal shopper goes in on the upper floor, past electronics and clothing, then through toys, housewares, and other sorts of dry goods.  They always have seasonal things in the center of the aisles.


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Right before New Years, they were full of sheep; just after that was replaced by back to school supplies for kids going back after the long break.


Once you’ve made it through with your batteries, dishes, and shampoo, and hopefully not too many toys, you go down an escalator into food.  You begin with the bakery and prepared foods, go through fruit, veggies, and meat, and end up in the foods in boxes, bulk staples, etc.

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It’s very loud in the perishables.  Competing barkers yell out deals for meat and fruit, and recording megaphones set on repeat yell out deals without the need of a person.


The seafood section includes live fish and very smelly and extensive collections of dried seaweed, shrimp, and fish.

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At this time of year, dried meats of all sorts, including duck and sausages, are also available.

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Along the way, big bins of ice hold various specialties, including shark sometimes, and chicken feet.

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The last part of the store is quite familiar to anyone who’s been to a grocery store.  Big wide aisles, promotional items in the most trafficked areas.

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Big coolers full of perishables, including lots of yogurt (all of it sweetened, and some of it aloe flavored).  Boxed milk is quite popular to give to children.  Our ayi gave B a big box full of little boxes of milk at New Year’s (along with lots of candy and treats)


What is in the aisles is a little different than you would find in the US.  There is a larger ramen selection than you have probably ever seen.


And what counts as a tasty snack is a little different.



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Individualism and Conformity

So this last week I’ve been rereading Organization Man and also thinking a bit about the effects of the Chinese educational system (two different, unrelated, bits of my research).  I know this may seem like yet another instance of thinking about China as being in the 1950s, something I’ve posted about before. I recognize that this kind of thinking is potentially reductionist and can lead to completely misunderstanding the real situation, but bear with me nonetheless.  In the 1950s US, part of the anxiety about conformity and the power of the organization was framed in cold war terms: individualism was equated with capitalism, freedom, the American way of life, and there was a fear that the conformity of the suburbs and the grey flannel suit came too close to the conformity of communism, groupthink, and Mao suits. So this got me to thinking about conformity and individualism in my students and the ways that they approach learning.

One of the experiences that we have had, particularly in urban planning, where students do a great deal of group work, is that our students for the most part do not know how to work in groups because this is not a skill that they have lived in school, and of course most of them are only children and thus haven’t learned the skills of compromise and negotiation involved in being a sibling.  Unlike teams of American students, Chinese groups seem to often pick a leader and then assign tasks, turning much of the group work into individual assignments. Chinese students’ lack of training in cooperation became particularly clear to me when I chaperoned Ben’s school trip to the arboretum, where he and his fellow elementary school students went to a series of stations and had to solve various problems, each of which required cooperation.  The most striking of these was a puzzle where five of them stand on a bathrug and need to flip over, but without any of them stepping off of it.  I watched them propose various solutions and convince their teammates to try them.  Then I went into school where students in my class were to work together to measure and draw a section.  One student came to me and said “my team member was really bossy and I can’t take it so Ieft.”  I realized that as far as cooperation skills went, I might as well have been teaching kindergarten.

But we also think of Chinese students as conformist, shaped by group recitation and mass exercise, like this synchronized basketball practice that’s been making the rounds on social media.

Certainly the range of clothing styles worn by Chinese students is much narrower than those worn by their American counterparts, although not without its charms.


In school, Chinese students have been taught that there is one right answer, and that their job is to memorize that answer and repeat it. We have interesting discussions with them in the Student-Staff meetings; they tend to talk about quantifiable “knowledge” while we reply with talk of critical thinking, skills, and frameworks.  Grading exams you sometimes feel as if there is rampant cheating because you get so many identically worded answers.  They have each, however, individually memorized the “correct” answer (probably derived from a combination of handouts, class notes, and a study session led by the student deemed to be the best) and written it down verbatim.  It is not that they are not creative and critical, because they are, but they have been educated in a system that has taught them to minimize their individuality as the independently compete to be the verifiable best at a clearly defined, identical task.

This kind of competitive individualism may be a good fit with Chinese capitalism, capitalism with Chinese characteristics.  Hard work, following a formula, copying perfectly, these are popularly seen as the hallmarks of Chinese business.  But looking at my students through the lens of the organization man, I wonder whether all that suppressed imagination will flower out into their own version of the West’s countercultural revolution of the 1960s.

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