"Excuse me, but do you speak English? You look like you may be an American."
"Good. Can you tell me where I may find cheese? I want to find good American cheese, and I have been told I can find it here. Do you know where I can find the cheese?"
I peered past the aisles at Super Wal-Mart and jogged through my memory of what I had seen. Eighteen-cent toothpaste. An 85-cent basketball. And the big expense I held in my basket -- five dollars per box of something called -- the label is printed in English -- "Black Fungus," the better to fulfill my fellowships' requirement of "bring us back something to eat when you return."
"I'm sorry, I don't remember seeing any," I said. I was sorry to disappoint him. He had come to Super Wal-Mart seeking America, a reasonable enough quest when in Beijing. But no cheese.
"OK." He looked at my basket, eyes widening. "You like the black fungus!"
"Love it," I lied. "I've never seen it in America," I didn't.
"Black fungus is a delicacy in northern China," he said. "I hope our Ministry of Agriculture will let you take it with you."
So do I, so do I.
The project's final days means it's time to start shopping for authentic Chinese gifts to share with friends. And what better place to find those gifts than the company that's done more to jumpstart China's retail trade than any other -- Wal-Mart! I sort of stumbled upon it -- on my way back from the Beijing Aviation Museum, dawdle-watching pickup b-ball at the university Download hoopin.wmv , I saw the sign across from a subway stop. Drawn in with curiosity, I left with about $40 worth of stuff -- great bargains guaranteed to please my friends from next week through Christmas.
The cheese shopper was well-traveled. He said this Wal-Mart was larger than ones he had seen in American visits, which as far as I could tell were limited to the East Coast. The store was on three levels, making it hard to tell if Beijing Super Wal-Mart is bigger than, say, west Wichita Super Wal-Mart. But it seemed comparable, if not larger.
Wal-Mart's low-price reputation is global. But the visit also showed that not everything in China is less expensive than in the U.S. Shaving cream is sold in smaller, more expensive bottles. A can of Barbasol might cost a dollar in America, but at Beijing Wal-Mart you only have Gillette, and it costs a little over two.
Some differences are dramatic. The 85-cent basketball, or the $3.50 knapsack (all numbers converted from yuan). Bar of soap? 37 cents. Big box o' Oreos? 75 cents. Liter of vodka? (Hard liquor is sold in Chinese grocery stores.) Buck and a half.
Of course, much of what Wal-Mart sells is made in China anyway, so I suppose they don't have to worry about transit costs or taxes. The store's doing well, packed at 2 p.m. Outside, charter buses shuttled shoppers back and forth.
Aside from some product differences (or maybe not. Maybe Black Fungus is all the rage in America now. I've been gone a month.), an American consumer would feel at home in Beijing Wal-Mart. It's not, however, an advertisement for America. It's interesting to see how different companies treat their foreignness in China. McDonald's, for example, is all about the U-S-A. Hip-hop plays at the entrance, and its menu is almost identical to America's. KFC, on the other hand, has tried to tailor itself to China. Its Chinese chicken is not like American chicken. Trust me, I've tried.
Wal-Mart is just Wal-Mart, minus all the American flag-waving. Globalization, united worldwide by everyday low prices. And whatever you think about that, it's packin' 'em in in Beijing.
So, should I tell my friends where I bought their gifts?