Written by Jun 8, 2005 14:06
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I didn't come to China to go to Walmart. But, I got to Wuhan and visited a strange Chinese electronic mall, then ambled on over to see my first China Walmart.

A day prior to my Three Gorges cruise on the Yangtze, I arrived six hours early at the Wuhan Holiday Inn. Andy, who picked me up on a blistering hot May afternoon at the airport, volunteered to show me an air conditioned electronic gadgets mall. I hadda buy an electronic English-to-Chinese dictionary.
And, I got to see Wuhan's Walmart.

Andy, his Chinese name actually Xiao Jing, gets me to the mall via a taxi. So hot I wanna take off my shirt, we walk into the mall. Air conditioned? Actually, it's a bunch of decrepit shops with a corridor open upward to the sky and outward to the street. That's air conditioned, according to Andy.

Andy, not the best at his English, actually meant 'open air'. Its hot, and the electricity is turned off for one shop we visit. Its pretty dark, they're burning candles to be able to see. Standing by the candles raises the temperature well beyond 90 degrees in this air conditioned mall. Guess they didn't pay their electric bill that month.

Anyway, I never found the electronic dictionary. By now, I'd be speaking perfect Chinese if only I cudda got the dictionary back then. Still haven't found the right one.

I say goodbye to Andy after I met his new woman. I march across the street to Walmart. Yup, it's got a Walmart sign. First thing I notice, no parking lot in front. Walmart is in a three story building, looking new, set back from one of Wuhan's ordinary streets.

In front of the store, I see a plaza with benches, and a guy and gal entertaining on stage, dressed in white t-shirts, black trousers, white tennies, dancing and singing for 73 people. He waves hello to the obvious American taking his picture. I see fans enjoying their music standing in a half-circle, sweltering in sunshine, sporting western garb with multicolors of green, red, white and black. China, not missing a beat, in a decade moved deftly into fresh new togs.

Nearby, passing through the market place, I see a historic figure, stick man. Bare-backed, with black trousers rolled to the knee, wearing gym shoes and gray socks, one of China's low income workers passed me by. He balanced a hardy stick over his shoulders, hung buckets by cords from each end of the stick. On top of one bucket perched the ever-present worker's water bottle, filled at dawn with cleansed boiling hot water, a change in practice that changed a nation's health.

Andy earlier told me there are over a million stick men in China. Most are self-employed able-bodied young men with only one income-producing tool, a stick about six feet in length. Hundreds of stick men can be summoned by an employer in a moment's notice to move large numbers of items from point to point across a busy construction site or throughout the crowded city.

I walk inside Walmart, parched throat, dying for a drink, its so hot. Right by the cash register there is the familiar Coke cabinet, with cold Coke inside. The only familiar drink in China is a Coke. Or, a Pepsi.

Its not that I'm a coke addict. Its just the only familiar drink I can find.

I reach in, pull out a Coke, desperately pay the cashier, and unscrew the cap. So up walks the only Walmart service person who can speak English within a mile and she tells me I cannot drink the Coke in that vicinity. Polite, by the way. I've gotta go over there, by the jewelry counter and drink it there.

Obediently, I walk over there, big swig into my thirsty throat, replace the cap and walk throughout the store, crossed the Do Not Drink Coke line, and surreptitiously snuck a swig every 4.5 minutes. I was sure wunna those young guys with the blue coat wudda caught me swigging and tossed me. But I made it.

Walmart opened about 40 stores in China over the last few years. A Newsweek article says China leaders are glad about the outcome. Walmart influences China retailing toward business-like practices, information management, quality purchasing, stuff like that.

You might say Walmart is the same. But you'd be wrong. Walmart is different. The memorable difference is to see live fish in a tank. Not an aquarium. Big fish. Fish for eating.

They slither out a fish, bonk it on the head, clean it. No guts, but you still get the head. And, they toss it in a plastic bag. Not, by the way, a zip lock bag. China has no zip lock bags. Only the open-top bags with the plastic handles designed to cut your fingers to the bone.

One more thing about Walmart. I'm finally in a true air conditioned building, Andy. Gimme a nice chair and I'd stay a couple hours.

But I'm hungry. I go, half-hearted, to the 'deli'. Roasted chicken-feet poke up at me. And, China's usual, dark chicken meat, legs, thighs. Breaded and deep fried. A bone in every piece of chicken. Chinese tell me they like to suck on the bones. That's one I haven't learned to enjoy yet.

Me? I look for chicken breast strips, deep fried. Natch, China don't have that. No bone.

Surprise of surprises, over on the other table, they have raw chicken breast strips, breaded. A customer guy from Indonesia, so nice, offers help with Chinese, and through his translations I ask if they would deep fry these chicken strips. I knew I'd hear"Mayo" the Chinese response for "We don't have that".
Bingo! Instead, they say "Yes"!

Five minutes later I was eating the best meal I got in China: Deep fried chicken strips, just the way you like 'em. They were the best. I wanna go back to Walmart in Wuhan. I shudda got double the size.

If they'd only had honey-mustard dip.

Of course, I didn't come to China to go to Walmart. But after the air conditioned electronic mall, Walmart's true air conditioning made me a new man.

Yup. New man in China.

C 2005 Paul Tripp

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1. Working and visiting in Wuhan : around the East Lake GRIP from FR Apr 29, 2005 03:04
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