shopping conundrums in the south of china

Tuesday, September 9:  I need shampoo and conditioner, body lotion and toilet paper, a scrub brush and cleaning solution.  I go with my list in hand to NanBai SuperMarket outside the main gate of the university.  Foolishly, I figure I’ll be able to find these things easily.  I’m wrong.  Have you ever noticed that shampoo and conditioner bottles, as well as body lotion and body wash, all look alike?  We can tell them apart in our home countries, but only because we can read the labels.

NanBai Supermarket

NanBai Supermarket

The array of products in the supermarket is overwhelming. Of course most products don’t have English labels, so you have to figure out what you’re looking at by scoping out similar products in the same aisle, or by looking at pictures on the package, or by asking for help.  Asking for help isn’t easy either, as most of the staff in the supermarket speaks no English.

I do recognize one thing.  Chinese kisses, of the Hershey’s variety.

Chinese kisses

Chinese kisses

The Chinese people seem to love their snacks.  There are hundreds of choices, and I don’t know what half of them are.

Lots of mini-snacks of some kind

Lots of mini-snacks of some kind

It’s common knowledge that the Chinese language is especially difficult because Chinese characters do not constitute an alphabet.   Each character generally represents one syllable of spoken Chinese and may be a word on its own or a part of a polysyllabic word. The characters themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects, abstract notions, or pronunciation.  Educated and literate Chinese people must memorize about 4,000 symbols.

I’d think English would be easy in comparison.

I’d love to buy some beer, but I have no idea what kind to get.  I pick a couple randomly: Tsingtao and Xiaomaiwang.

Even the beer is confusing

Even the beer is confusing

I pull out my phone and look at my Chinese translation app, Pleco.  This app will save my life in China.  Either that or I need to seriously learn some Chinese.  The app allows you to spell out an English word, and then a drop-down list of Chinese words pops up.  You can look through the definitions and find the one closest to your meaning.  When I put in “shampoo,” I find seven different words for shampoo: xifaji, xiangbo or xifaru are a few of them.  These are the Pinyin spellings, and they also have marks on them like stress marks, short vowel sound marks, etc, but I don’t know how to type them in, so you can just imagine.  Pinyin is the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in the People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), and Singapore.

Besides Pinyin, which helps us Westerners to approximate the word by sounding out the Latin letters, the word is also in Chinese characters, and if you push a speaker button, a Chinese voice pronounces the word.  I look carefully at the Chinese characters on the app and try to recognize the characters on the bottles.  None of them seem to match, but then again there are seven different Chinese words for shampoo in my Pleco translation app.  Finally, I have to resort to asking for help.

The Chinese salesgirl knows no English at all, but she’s eager to help.  I show her the word for shampoo, xifagi, along with the Chinese characters, and I press the button to play the voice saying the word, which actually sounds like “see-fah’-tee.”  She pulls me over to a shelf and points out the shelves with shampoos.  I pick Dove because I know that brand.

Pleco translation: shampoo

Pleco translation: shampoo

Then on to conditioner.  The first words that come up have to do with air conditioners.  Finally, down the list, I find hufasu, for hair conditioner.  At first she is showing me body washes because she motions as if she’s washing her arms and her body.  I make motions indicating I’m looking for something for my hair.  I pick up another Dove product.

For the body lotion, two words pop up.  One is runfuru which means both body lotion and body shampoo.  These are two different things and I don’t want to get one, thinking it’s the other.  The other is runfulu, which is just body lotion.  The girl picks bottles off the shelves and has me sniff them.  I take the one called Rose Body Essence.

Toilet paper is easy because I know I’ll recognize it.  The problem is I don’t know where it is in the store.  Since the girl is so helpful, I ask her where it is after looking it up: shouzhi, pronounced like sho-jay, and she takes me to it.

I have already looked around and around for a scrub brush and have been unable to find one.  When I type in “scrub brush,” there are no results.  I type in “brush” and get a lot of brushes, for hair, for brush-off, for writing, for painting, for cleaning pots and pans.  I want one for the floor, and there doesn’t seem to be such a thing.  While making motions and showing her the word xishua, pronounced see-schwah, several shoppers and other salesgirls gather around us and are trying to figure out what I’m looking for.  Everyone seems baffled, even the girls who speak a little English.  Finally, something clicks, and the salesgirl pulls me to the aisle with mops and brooms.  Voila! There is one, although it seems a flimsier version of what we use for scrub brushes in America.

We go through the same rigmarole with cleaning solution.

Cleaning solutions

Cleaning solutions

I find the word qingjieji, which sounds like tsching-tia-ti.

cleaning solution

cleaning solution

The problem is the sales girl is showing me cleaning solutions for kitchen sinks and countertops and I need it for floors.  I motion as if I’m cleaning the floor and she points out a bottle that says Floor Cleaner on it. I would have seen it if I’d had my glasses on.

Floor cleaner, not to be mistaken for body wash

Floor cleaner, not to be mistaken for body wash

When all is said and done and my shopping basket is neatly filled with all the items on my list, I want to tell the girl how nice she has been to help me.  I look up “you,” and find “Nǐ.”  Then I look up “nice” and I find “hǎo.”  I say to her “Nǐ hǎo?” but I’m confused because “Nǐ hǎo” means “hello” in Chinese!  She looks at me quizzically and I laugh and she laughs because we both understand that Nǐ hǎo is not what I’m trying to say at all.

There is definitely a limit to these translation apps. 🙂

Later, Caleb, my friend and colleague who speaks fluent Chinese gets a laugh out of my story.  He says I needed to say: “Nǐ hěn bùcuò,” meaning “You ARE nice.”

At the checkout stand, I either have to provide my own bag, which I don’t have with me today, or I need to ask for the number of bags I want to buy.  Caleb taught me a handy sentence for this.  “Wo yao yi ge dai zi,” meaning “I would like one bag.” The Google Translator has it as:  Wǒ xiǎng yīgè dàizi.  Before Caleb taught me this, I would indicate with my fingers how many bags I wanted. This is now the only complete sentence I can say in Chinese. 🙂

When I get home, I put all my groceries away.  I put the floor cleaner in my bathroom with my shampoo and conditioner as if it’s body wash.  I momentarily forget I didn’t buy any body wash!  Then I’m looking all over for the Floor Cleaner and decide the checker must have forgotten to put it in my bag.  Finally, when I put my glasses on, I go back to inspect the “body wash” and find that it’s in fact my floor cleaner.  I’m sure glad I didn’t use it to wash my face and body when I took my next shower. 

This is what I get for going around without glasses. 🙂 

Friday, September 26:  I want to buy index cards to use in my classes.  I go to my favorite stationery store and I look all over.  I can’t find any, so I put “index cards” in my app.  No results found.  Then I try to explain to the shopkeeper what I want. I take some lined Post-it® notes and I take some postcards, and I point to the Post-it® notes and then to the postcard to show I want the Post-it® Notes in cardboard form.  She doesn’t understand.  I look up “cardboard” and show her, but she still doesn’t understand.  A Chinese girl who speaks some English overhears and comes to help.  I explain to her what I want, and it slowly dawns on her what I want.  She asks the shopkeeper, who says they don’t carry these kinds of cards.  The Chinese girls tells me she doesn’t think I can find them in China.

I end up buying 3 boxes of postcards which can serve the same purpose but are a lot more expensive.

Saturday, September 27:  I go to the open market at the university hoping to find a cheap ironing board.  The university provided one in my apartment, but it was so filthy and disgusting that I threw it in the trash a day after I arrived.  Later I got chewed out when I told them I threw it away because they said it belonged to the university and I had no right to throw it away.  I said I would have asked for a new one anyway because it was disgusting, but they would have none of that.  They insisted that I pay for the one I threw away.  I told them I would replace it because I need one anyway, and I don’t want them to simply provide me with another filthy one.

I can’t find an ironing board at this market, so I wander around looking at the fruits and vegetables.  Vendors try to sell me various foods, but honestly I don’t know what they are and I don’t want to buy something when I have no idea what it is.  One man points to a pomelo, which I’ve never tasted, and I agree to buy it.  I’ve heard they’re good, and I want to try new foods while I’m here.  The vendor has a sharp curved knife in his hand and makes a move like he will cut the top of the pomelo off if I like.  I shake my head “No,” because why on earth would I want him to cut into that huge thing right at the market?  I’ll wait till I get home to do that.   Of course I’m curious as to why he wants to do that, but I have no way of knowing.  Was he only going to sell me a part of it?  Or was he expecting me to taste it or eat it right there?

Another vendor points to these hairy small fruits (see below), and pulls one from the stem.  He hands it to me; I presume he wants me to taste it.  I stick it in my mouth, but it’s like eating a kiwi without peeling it.  I spit it out in pieces, confused.

What ARE these fruits?

What ARE these fruits?

Without even a smirk at my foolishness, the vendor patiently demonstrates how to peel it, exposing a white fleshy fruit inside.  “Oh!” I say, continuing to spit out the peeling and fruit that I’ve mushed together in my mouth.  He hands me small plastic bag in which to put my regurgitated fruit.

I want to burst out laughing at how ridiculous I must look to him, but he is still not cracking a smile.  He must have been laughing it up inside, and I bet he had a good story to tell his family when he got home. 🙂

Oh, shopping conundrums!


Categories: Asia, China, Chinese food, Chinese language, Chinese markets, Expat life, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Language barrier, NanBai Supermarket, Nanning, Pinyin, Pleco app, Translation, Xiaomaiwang beer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “shopping conundrums in the south of china

  1. Whoever thought that shopping for basic items could be so difficult? Perhaps you need to take Caleb along with you if you need anything out of the ordinary. 🙂 I wonder if floor cleaner is good for the skin? You never know, it might be extremely anti-aging. 😀


    • I might have to try the floor cleaner as an anti-aging remedy, Sylvia! Now that’s an idea I didn’t consider. 🙂

      It’s always been a challenge every time I’ve lived abroad to figure out what products are what, where to go for special items, etc. These are things you don’t need to think about when traveling, because you usually bring everything you need and you eat out in restaurants. When you have to live everyday life in a different culture, you realize how hard it is to navigate even the simplest things! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chuckled at anotherday2paradise’s comment – perhaps floor cleaner will remove any wrinkles that might be enhancing your face! As to beer, I’ve had TsingTao in Chinese restaurants in this country, so I would feel safe with it. Kathryn has shared some of her shopping adventures in Korea, but I think their language might be a bit easier to learn – or at least she has learned just enough to survive so far.


    • Sylvia’s floor cleaner as wrinkle remedy suggestion was a cute one, Carol. I got a laugh out of that one too. 🙂 I’ve tried TsingTao and it’s good, but I think I’m becoming more enamored of Xiaomaiwang. I’ve never had it before now, but I like the taste better than TsingTao.

      I don’t know if Korean is easier to learn than Chinese. When I was there for a year, I managed to pick up just enough to get by. Maybe Kathryn has a facility for language, or she works harder at it than I did. It’s easier to learn the written language of Korean because they have an alphabet (Hangeul) and it’s very logical. I’m sure Chinese has a logic to it too, but it just eludes me! 🙂


  3. This made me smile, but it must have been soooo frustrating for you. Lucky you spotted the ‘body wash’ was actually the floor cleaner!


  4. Woohoo every need is an adventure 🙂


  5. Indeed – what are those fruit?



    You sure do seem to have a few trials! I am laughing as I read these posts! I am sure that later they are funny, but frustrating at the time! Take care friend! thanks for sharing! Theresa


    • It’s always a trial living abroad, Theresa, but it’s part of the fun. It’s a challenge to push the outer edges of the envelope and be immersed in a new culture. I think I’m kind of addicted to this kind of challenge. I do know things will become more familiar with time. 🙂


  7. Good job you weren’t in a hurry, Cathy 🙂 Somehow I don’t think it’s going to be crystal clear any time soon. 🙂 But it’s fun learning Chinese with you. At least I can buy shampoo now.


    • You’re right, Jo, who knows when it will become “crystal clear,” if ever! I’d really like to take a Chinese class while here. It would be fun, although I’m sure way over my head. I’m going to have to check on it. 🙂


  8. That red thing is a dragon fruit with white flesh and black seeds. The thing you put in your mouth looks like a kind of leechee, which you peel to find a perfumed white fleshy centre with a stone. Normally they are the colour of the background of this blog! I think the vendor wanted to be helpful by peeling the pomelo for you with his knife. Of course his possibly filthy hands when doing this would not occur to him as being distasteful. What an adventure! At least you are always okay with Tsingtao beer, it is delicious. As for snacks, which ESL craving country does not seem to have students which crave all kinds of really processed garbage snacks? Japan was the same, Oman was the same…. !!! Clearly China is the same, too! Food is an obsession in China in any form I think. Unfortunately for everything that flies, swims, crawls, waddles or walks. A vegan house of horrors the whole country I’m afraid. 😦


    • I know about the dragon fruit; it’s one of my favorite fruits in China so far. The first one I bought had white flesh with black seeds, but the next couple had beet red flesh with the black seeds. They both taste the same, except maybe the red fleshed one is slightly sweeter. I’m glad you identified the lychee; you’re right for sure! I’m not crazy about those, but they’re an interesting novelty.

      Maybe the was going to peel the pomelo. I bought it, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. Now I’ll have to wait till I return from my trip; hope it will still be good by then.

      These kids really do love their snacks; in the campus supermarket, the entire first floor is filled with snack foods! I rarely see any fat people in China, but if they keep eating this processed food, I’m sure there will be more in the next generation!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Kat, that fruit looks to me like longan. We used to eat that in Thailand. It is very similar to lychee. This blog is brilliant and amusing too. Loved reading it, Kat


  10. Sure Kat, we’re both weirdos


    • 🙂 I think we’re certainly unusual in that we’ve chosen to live part of our lives in these exotic lands. That’s for sure. Not everyone is that adventurous. 🙂


      • That’s right, Kat. I have cousins who were totally disinterested in where I’d been to and I don’t think they’ve ever left the UK. But one of my cousins has joined me for backpacking in many countries and he’s now married to a Thai, living in the far north of Thailand and loving his life.


      • I have some family like your cousins, Dai. But my husband is planning to join me in China in February, when I have a long break. He’s planning to come for 2 weeks and we’ll travel together mostly around China. After he leaves, I’ll head off on my own, hopefully to Burma, Laos, and Sapa, Vietnam, as well as maybe another place or two in China. 🙂


      • I’ve been to Burma, Laos and Sapa, Kat. Sapa is really amazing. I went by night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then by shared taxi up to Sapa. Great trip but really touristy in Sapa town. I’ve never been to Yangon but always to the east of Burma, crossing from Thailand


      • So what do you recommend in Burma, Dai, besides Yangon? Sapa sounds great. I’m sure the town is touristy, but I have to say I don’t mind these touristy towns as they’re more spruced up than the normal towns. I hope I’ll have time and money to do all the things I dream of doing while I’m here. 🙂


      • Hi Kat, today is Saturday. Are you having it off ? I’ve been outside enjoying the sunshine with Flocky. Now I’m smelling lunch cooking and feeling real hungry. I haven’t seen much of Burma and everybody wants to see Yangon, Mandalay, Pagan etc. It’s not so far from here but we’ve no flights at all to Burma. We used to have a UBA flight until the generals came along and closed the country. Now it’s open but still no flights there from Kathmandu. I don’t mind touristy towns either Kat. Lijiang is touristy but one of my favourite places to visit. Kathmandu’s Thamel is mega touristy but I love it. Sapa is very near Nanning so I hope you’ll see it before long. I’m getting the urge to grab my backpack and go somewhere, Kat. Better I get off this subject hehe.


      • Yes, Dai, I finally should have weekends off for the rest of my time here. We only had to work Sunday before the long holiday and Saturday after the long holiday to make up days missed. From now on we have weekends off. I made a trek today to the Guangxi Medicinal Plant Garden, way on the east of the city. It was a kind of shabby version of a botanical garden.

        Too bad about you not having any flights to Burma. I hope we have direct ones from Nanning, but I think not. I think I have to fly to Kunming then to Burma. I haven’t checked into it yet, because I don’t have a break until February.

        I know you told me about Lijiang, and I think I’m going to take my husband there when he comes to visit. Thamel is very touristy, you’re right, but I also loved it. All of Pokhara is touristy, but it’s so charming, how can anyone care? People in these parts tell me Sapa is too far for a weekend, so I think I’ll have to save it for February too, unless I find out otherwise.

        I want to go somewhere too, Dai, but I only have weekends now so I’ll sadly have to stay within a reasonable distance of Nanning. I need to save a lot of money for my 5 weeks off for spring festival and the semester break. 🙂


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