Thursday, July 26, 2007

Seven Eleven (also known as Chi Shiree)

Like many people, I remember visiting the neighborhood Seven Eleven on my bike as a kid. It was right around the corner, and when I had an extra fifty cents to blow, I’d head there for a box of Nerds or a Caramello bar. Once we moved away from San Diego, I didn’t really patronize Seven Elevens very often, and I never would have guessed that fifteen years later, this convenience store would re-enter my weekly routine.

Our giant apartment complex has a little shopping courtyard adjacent with a few restaurants, some expensive clothing boutiques, a salon, a KTV, a big fountain, cobbled streets and art nouveau style street lamps. In the evenings, after it cools down a bit, the courtyard fills up with people letting off steam, strolling babies around in buggies and sometimes batting around a badminton birdie. The courtyard also sports not one, but two “Chee Shuree” (or Qi Shi Yi for all you Pinyin experts). That’s right, Seven Eleven rhymes in Mandarin too.

Eric and I have become very frequent customers since there isn’t really a grocery store within walking distance. We are there buying diet coke, beer and water at least every other day. (What can I say? We have a fondness for beverages.)

It’s the little things you miss when you are away from home. And food is inevitably one of the big differences from one culture to the next. We don’t all like to eat the same things. For example, there is very little decent bread here. The “bread” they do offer has a lot in common with a tempurpedic mattress; it immediately resumes its predetermined shape despite any amount of squishing. Not really very appetizing. But that’s fine; we’ve been forgoing bread anyway. And to make up for it, there are thousands and thousands of types of rice to choose from. Cheese however is another matter. One guidebook warned that “dairy products haven’t really caught on in China”.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the cheese department. It is woefully under stocked and far more expensive than any of the various chicken/animal parts for sale in every aisle (in every imaginable state of dismemberment). Freeze-dried and cut into little strips meant to be eaten like potato chips? You’ve come to the right place! Nothing but the little claws, meant to be boiled, inserted into the mouth, picked clean of skin and tissue, bones unceremoniously spit back onto the table? Certainly. The necks, strung from little strings like dainty sausages? Without a doubt! But cheese? Not quite so many choices. The various cheeses are cut into pieces the width and thickness of your average chocolate chip cookie. The choices are helpfully labeled in English: “white” and “hard”. Okay, fine, cheese hasn’t exactly caught on here. I can understand that.

Then I stumbled into the freezer aisles. Row upon gleaming row of chrome and glass cases filled to overflowing with every imaginable type of ice cream. There are classic American favorites; chocolate, vanilla, rocky road, cookies and cream, Then, the more exotic fare; ginger, green tea, red bean paste…It is so blasted hot here that ice cream is a real no-brainer. But, I digress. Back to the Seven Eleven.

As I said, we frequent the Seven Eleven to avoid the hassle of the grocery store. And I find myself buying things I would normally never ever buy. Like Oreos. I like Oreos, sure, but not enough to actually purchase them. They are certainly not a staple in our cupboard the way, say, Ferraro Rochers are. But in the Seven Eleven, under the hum of the florescent lights and orange wallpaper, surrounded by weird alien bread, dehydrated fish snacks and drinkable jell-o, I get a little crazy.

I was feeling frustrated today after our first mandarin lesson (it served as a rather painful reminder of my inadequacies as both an English teacher and a second language learner), and no amount of money seemed too great for a little taste of home. That little quarter of a gallon of Dryers buried in the bottom of the Seven Eleven freezer seemed like a good solution, and once I crushed in a few Oreos, it was totally worth the exorbitant $7 I paid for it...

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