Very recently I went shopping with an Afghani family: their first shopping experience in New Zealand. It was a reminder that what we may think of as normal or usual is not always so in others eyes. I was grateful to the supermarket staff who were patient and understanding – some of my fellow shoppers were not quite the same. I managed to stop myself in giving them a lesson about racism, intolerance, and ethnocentricity. Biting my tongue is useful behaviour sometimes.
This shopping, and kiwi-language, trip led my mind to wandering –yet again – thinking of my own experiences in other cultures supermarkets. It’s not always in the really different countries that the most difficulties are encountered. I know if I go to Timbuktu (yes there really is such a place- it’s not just in a song) I will not be able to eat as I do at home and that’s fine. However in western countries somehow the food and supermarket culture shock can be greater. For some weird reason I think it should be familiar to me. Not so.
American bread and cheese caused me great consternation: the cheese was bright orange and the bread cake-like. Up and down the chilled cabinets I walked, trying to decide what was the best option – or rather the least objectionable. On a low budget to ensure I could travel for a year without working, my purse dictated the local cheese, my palate, and eyes, demanded the imported variety.
Dye is added to many American cheeses: some years ago when it was removed, cheese sales plummeted to such a degree that it was immediately put back into the recipe – this is not real cheese consumers said when confronted with the paler version. For me the exact opposite was true.
I also hated the toast being slathered with butter when eating out and a packet of crisps on my plate instead of the chips I thought I’d ordered. Recently in Picton (NZ) with a group of Americans they were upset that their toast was delivered dry: the butter to be added by them. “Normal” is what we are used to. I love sweet honey on crumpets; my son in law likes savoury additions on them. We both think our taste the normal one, just as the Americans did with the buttered toast.
So with our kiwifruit being called’ kiwis’,(a kiwi is either a bird or a person, not a piece of fruit) bright orange cheese, waxed fruit and vegetables, along with the strangely textured bread, I found American supermarket trips a slow and surreal.
When I arrived in The Netherlands after that trip I was in heaven. Wonderful bread, fantastic cheeses: the difficulty then became one of which to choose so once again I was walking up and down the aisle trying to decide!
Conversely Americans here find many of our habits and food strange too. Vegemite is absolutely, unbelievably, unfathomable to all the Americans I know.
“You should be sealing your roads with it darling” said one friend.
An ex-Chicago woman told me of her first supermarket expedition in Christchurch.
She started in the vegetable section. – where most entrances seem to be placed – but within a few minutes she was back out to the car and her waiting husband.
“Honey this must be the bad side of town; they only have dirty potatoes. We have to go somewhere else”
They duly drove to the next supermarket. Still the bad part of town! Only dirty potatoes again. Off to yet a third supermarket on the far side of town – dreading the weekly trip this would entail and worrying about the locality of the rented house-and knowing when they finally bought the house would be in the good part of town.
She boldly walks into this final supermarket, this must be on the best side of town; at last she will be safe. Wrong: dirty potatoes displayed there too for all to see.
She slowly realised it had nothing to do with the part of town she was in. that it was all about fresh food, not contaminated by the waxy finishes she had become used to. Now she hates to shop in Chicago with all the fruit looking very unreal with its ‘perfect’ appearance and is constantly nagging her friends into buying fresh, to make meals from scratch. I think she has become a kiwi.
Unlike our new New Zealanders, the Americans and I understood the language we were talking in. Well no, that’s not really so: our common language separates us too – but that’s another column.