September 12, 2017
I was at the supermarket today. I can’t even tell you which, because I can’t read the characters over the door. It wasn’t my first visit, and I’m starting to learn my way around, but today more than my previous visits, I started to flag. The newness is beginning to wear thin and my curiosity is lessening. I wanted to buy a few ingredients to make a simple meal back at my flat. I found the pasta alright, but there’s no such thing as pasta sauce. I found a rice cooker, but only the showcase on the shelf, not the one you can actually purchase. I couldn’t understand any of the food labels and I didn’t want to buy more ramen. I didn’t even have enough language to really ask for help. My frustration rising, I ended up buying a lot of sauces (not pasta sauce) so that the plain vegetables I intended to buy wouldn’t taste so plain.
In a Chinese supermarket, you put the produce you want into a bag, then hand it to an attendant at a special counter, who weighs your goods, puts a price sticker on it, and staples the bag shut. I had four potatoes in my bag. That’s all. When I arrived at the produce scale, there was a long line of several grocery carts. The older man who was currently monopolizing the attendant’s time had about ten thousand bags of produce still in his cart, waiting to be counted. The woman behind him looked to have a cart filled for a family of twenty.
Now, in China, cutting in line isn’t really considered rude like it is in the West. Half the time, there aren’t really lines to cut into, just crowds pressing in trying to get the staff’s attention. I was tired and impatient, and so I felt fully justified in trying to take advantage of the culture’s slackened line etiquette, despite the presence of a line in this instance. I planted myself near the attendant, grumpily holding my four potatoes.
The man with the ten thousand bags of greens put his hand out and stopped the attendant from grabbing his next bag, and then he gestured to me with a smile.
I warmed, and smiled, and felt a little less lonely. But the face of the attendant, as well, broke into a smile to witness his small kindness. She weighed my potatoes and handed them to me. I thanked her (and made eye contact!). She said no problem (in Chinese), still smiling, despite her mundane, tedious task.
I’m not saying that man’s a hero (though maybe he is, I don’t know anything about him), but his one simple, thoughtful gesture had a greater effect than just getting me through the line faster. Let’s all remember to be gracious, even to the impatient foreigner standing there like they hate the place.
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“The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.... I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do... This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.” David Foster Wallace