When Grandma lets you live in her house rent-free for two months, you go grocery shopping with her. No questions asked.
Yesterday we went to Costco, which is probably the most quintessentially Asian thing one can do in Asia. Given how much Asians love Costco in the States, it would be reasonable to assume that Costco in Asia would make American Costcos look like a joke.
Which, if you like your jokes to be as annoyingly profound as I do, it did.
I’ve gone grocery shopping with my mom for as long as I can remember, and for as long as I can remember, there were two different types of grocery shopping in my family. There was “normal” grocery shopping at places like Stop & Shop and Walmart and Costco where we would get milk and bread and toilet paper and Ziploc bags; and then there was “Asian” grocery shopping, where we would go to the one big Asian supermarket an hour away from home (if you’re an Asian living in Connecticut, you know exactly which supermarket I’m talking about) and stock up on things like canned fish and pork floss and various green vegetables that don’t have English names.
Having shopped at American Stop & Shops and American Costcos my whole life, my idea of “normal” is one where fish come in filets and the dairy section is large enough to cover one whole wall. But our refrigerator at home, filled with pickled vegetables and fish with the heads still on, insists otherwise. At American Costco, only 10% of what is on the shelves is actually useful to us. But we still shop there religiously, gold membership card and all, pretending like American Costco would have everything we needed.
It was packed at Costco yesterday. Which is strange to think about, considering that it was a random Wednesday afternoon in July with no major holidays in sight — meaning no big family dinners to cook for, no real reason to be buying wholesale portions of presliced hotpot meat or dried seaweed. Under any other circumstance, the prospect of wading through a jillion people and their oversized shopping carts would have been a good enough reason to go home and try again later. But not today.
“They have all the things we use!” Mom whispered excitedly, with a tinge of melancholy awe in her voice — the kind you have when you’re at Disney World and you know you won’t be back for a very long time.
It was hard to disagree. Everything looked like American Costco, from the bold red signs hanging overhead to the grey concrete warehouse floor. The only telltale sign that this wasn’t American Costco was, well, everything else. Soymilk by the gallon. A freezer section full of fresh sashimi. A whole aisle dedicated to dried instant noodles, none of which were Top Ramen. Free samples of Japanese white yam. A wall of rice, all in quantities of 10 kilograms or more. (Haagen Dazs ice cream was also present in unusually large volumes…but let’s also not forget Taiwan’s preexisting obsession with Haagen Dazs.)
Being able to go shopping in a place where almost everything on the shelves fits your culture and lifestyle ought to be a normal thing. But while my mom and I were at Costco, it felt like a short-lived luxury. It’s not as if we had felt consciously deprived when we shopped back home in American Costco and were accustomed to Taiwan Costco being the status quo, but rather that we had finally realized what it felt like to have our culture, our lifestyle, our eating habits being branded and sold as “normal” — while also knowing that this was something that we would never truly be able to experience at home.
…At the same time, though, I can’t pretend as if growing up with American Costco hasn’t changed my tastes, either. We were in the frozen foods section, waiting for my grandma as she picked out bananas one aisle over.
“This place is awesome,” said my mom to no one in particular.
A pause. “Yeah, but you know what would make it more awesome?”
She looked at me suspiciously, as if bracing herself for the bad punchline that was sure to come.