One day, the weather was nice and I had some time to kill, so I thought it might be nice to go for a walk. I guess I was feeling particularly adventurous that day because I decided I would turn my walk into a productive outing. You see, I had only recently moved to China at this point and I had foolishly forgotten to haul copious amounts of lip balm. Knowing the tube I carried in my pocket was on its last few clicks of usefulness, I wanted to purchase more before I forgot so I could avoid the annoyance that is an empty tube of lip balm (for some reason, that only happens when your lips feel as if they’ll crack within seconds if you don’t do something about it). Knowing I would be able to find some at the Lotus store near my apartment, I set out on what I thought would be a nice walk and a simple errand run. I had no idea how complicated the process would be.
It’s not that I hadn’t bought things before – I had. Even by this time, I had figured out a rudimentary method of purchasing items by waving my hands around and gesturing for the cashier or random street vender to show me the price rather than tell me. Of course, all of these purchases would have been made so much easier if I was proficient in Mandarin, but I was unfortunately only able to utter a few phrases somehow useful in any situation other than the ones I found myself in. Still, while I knew buying things was a bit tricky when dealing with a language you’re unfamiliar with, I also knew I had overcome those obstacles before and I could do it again. By the end of the day, I had proven myself right, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered giving up on the whole idea of getting more lip balm in the future.
What I hadn’t considered when I headed to the store to make my purchase was that buying small things that are easy to steal might be a more difficult process than buying things like street food and the occasional bottle of mystery drink (the most recent of which had been what I think was an attempt at lime soda). Finding the aisle where the lip balm was located, I knew I was in for what I optimistically thought would be an adventure. I stared at my various options – all secured by webs of rubber bands meant to warn off anyone who might want to steal such a precious item – while the employee assigned to hover in that aisle lurked behind me, slowly inching closer as if her presence was all I needed to suddenly comprehend the characters printed on the tubes in front of me. Feeling that familiar sensation of my Western notions of personal space being violated, I quickly pointed to a random tube of lip balm, hoping it wouldn’t be some weird candy flavor or have glitter in it.
Always eager to help, the employee quickly did her job, stepping forward to retrieve what I thought would be the lip balm I so hastily selected. Imagine my surprise when I was handed a piece of paper instead. Thankfully, the woman could see that I had no idea what to do with the little slip showing the price of the item. Yes, I knew the next logical step in this process was paying for my selection, but I was used to a system where I paid for the items I had in my hands and then I could just carry them away with me. My lip balm wasn’t that simple. No, instead, the woman had to direct me to a cashier located just a few rows away where I could hand over the paper I was given.
I thought I had it figured out at that point. I thought I would just hand over the right amount of cash to the cashier, and the woman who had first helped me would be right back with the lip balm I had pointed to. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Well, not exactly, but I did have to deal with a few more road blocks. The register I originally went to wasn’t working properly, which is a difficult concept to relay when there’s no common language between the two people standing at said register and the taller, decidedly more Western-looking one has no idea what she’s doing in the first place. Eventually, I was shown to another register where I was finally allowed to pay, but the woman who first helped me was no longer in sight and I was suddenly worried I would not get my lip balm and my adventure would have been for naught. I knew that was irrational though, and so I found my way back to the aisle where everything began.
The lip balm lady was there waiting for my return. With all the enthusiasm you never find in a Western supermarket employee, the woman smiled and reached for the receipt I held in my hand. I was just confused – she had seen the events unfold around her, but she still needed to see my receipt. Too flustered by that point to care, and too aware of people staring (I hadn’t quite adjusted to that just yet), I handed over the receipt and hoped I would have my lip balm soon. When the woman began to pluck at the rubber bands guarding the specific tube I had chosen, I felt pride building within me. It was ridiculous, I know, but when she stapled the receipt to the lip balm’s packaging, I felt more accomplished than I had in a few days. I thanked her, and knowing I had achieved my goal, I promptly left the store, not wanting to risk any possible hassle that might come from me wanting to purchase something else that day. On the way back to my apartment, I discovered that my new lip balm was of a standard flavor, and I knew that even if it hadn’t been, I had experienced something new that day – exactly what I had come to China for.