We started our adoption process back in 2006, which obviously gave us lots and lots of time to dream/plan/fantasize about every aspect of the actual trip to China. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent scouring the interwebz for every piece of information about tourist destinations, food, shopping, and basic daily life. My mother would be the first one to tell you that I get all Julie the Cruise Director when it comes to travel planning (in my defense, though, I my system totally WORKS. You may be exhausted after I’ve dragged your butt all over kingdom come–sorry, Kevin, but there was a lot to see in London–, but you will definitely have seen everything you wanted to). So in between picking out baby names and painting the nursery (twice, because, hey! It’s a boy!), I obsessed about the stuff I wanted to experience.
Now, five years is a LOT of time to dig up information. The more I read, the more I was determined to see as much of China as I possibly could. I dreamed of the Great Wall. I yearned for the Temple of Heaven. The Forbidden City? Not so forbidden anymore, because, dude, I was GOING TO SEE IT IN PERSON. My research wasn’t limited to the tourist hotspots, though. I subscribed to random news feeds that covered all aspects of Chinese life. I freaked myself out about the food–I don’t like American Chinese food– (which was pointless, as it was all delicious. Well, except for those noodles. Those? Not so much) and the bathrooms (again, pointless. AND xenophobic). I devoured every little thing I could get my hands on. And then, one day, I saw this article on Buzzfeed. Chinese Wal Mart??? Oh, yes please. 1000 times YES. I knew *immediately* that I had to move heaven and earth to experience Chinese Wal Mart for myself.
Once we had our Travel Call (that’s the call with your agency that prepares you for what to expect, what to pack, what you’ll do in-country, etc.), a couple of things became abundantly clear. One, we were actually going to CHINA, which, after the wait we’d had, didn’t quite seem possible, and B), we weren’t going to have a whole lot of free time. Those agencies do a damn fine job of making sure you’re well-occupied, which now that I think about it, is not unlike my whole Julie the Cruise Director approach to travel. If I wanted to see Chinese Wal Mart, I had to be crafty and strategic. I pored over our itinerary. I knew Beijing was out of the question; we were simply WAY too over-scheduled as it was. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the pearl market, the jade market, Olympic Village, a Hutong tour…And that was only 48 hours. Definitely no time there.
Next, I looked at the time we had in Guangzhou. It was a possibility. We had quite a bit of down-time, and we were spending almost an entire week there. The problem was, however, that there just wasn’t one anywhere close to where we were staying. Also, although we didn’t realize this until we got there, there was another family to contend with in Guangzhou. Ah, yes. The Kirbys. For now, let’s just say that if we never see them again, it will be too soon. And worry not, I’ll be covering that particular story in the near future. So that left Changsha. Logistically, I wasn’t too sure how it would work out, but I KNEW that there was a Wal Mart about 20 minutes from Civil Affairs.
Once again, let me say that Ashley is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. From the moment we introduced ourselves, he was a friend. He was so completely accommodating of every single request we had, almost before we’d voiced it. He was a scheduling magician. So on the ride into the city from the airport, after having set eyes on each other only minutes before, I was (almost) comfortable enough to tell him my deep secret wish to see Wal Mart. He told us to let him know if there was anything special we wanted to see or do, but at that moment, I realized how completely ridiculous it sounded to say “Hey, I came all the way to China so I could go to Wal Mart.” Luckily, Kevin loves me, and he knows me better than anyone, so he stepped up and put it out there. Thank God for Kevin.
Ashley didn’t make any promises that day, but he DID say he would try to work it out. The next morning (as a guy with a canvas bag full of thousands of dollars in currency sat in our hotel room counting out bills—again, part of a future installment), he worked out a schedule. That Thursday looked promising, and as fate would have it, it was right after we finalized everything at Civil Affairs AND we could even fit in lunch at McDonald’s (the food was awesome, but we’d been in the country for awhile, and we were ready for a taste of home, not unlike the time I hunted down a Wendy’s in Venice because I was dying for a burger after two weeks of the best Italian food I’d ever had. Yes, you read that right. Wendy’s. In VENICE. Operation Ugly American was a go.
So there we were. Finally a family, and the first thing we do was head to Wal Mart, and it was everything I’d dreamed it could be. First, let me say that Chinese Wal Mart is an upscale affair. Not like Prada or Vuitton, but definitely upper-middle class. The one we went to was also GINORMOUS. Two stories of awesome. I made Kevin stop out front so I could take his picture.
Speaking of pictures, Ashley smoothed things over (in his typical Ashely way), so I was able to snap as many pictures in there as I wanted. Sure, I got some nasty looks from the guy pawing the bin of raw chicken feet, but it’s not like I took a picture of HIM—just of the chicken feet. I was so completely enamored of Chinese Wal Mart from the minute I stepped foot inside. I spent 20 minutes in the seafood department alone (hey, I’d never seen fish with price tags shot through their fins before, not to mention a bin full of fat croaking frogs). I took my time checking out the large open bins of chicken parts (not just feet) exposed for anybody to sift through looking for just the right thigh. I wandered up and down aisles full of blueberry flavored Lay’s chips, Red Bull, and even Budweiser. I got a little bit lost in the snack foods and beverages.
And then, there it was. I swear it was like a moment out of a movie complete with a ray of light shining right down on it. THE CANDY DEPARTMENT. I have to admit, I went a little bit crazy. I realize that I am, deep down, a three-year-old, but I totally couldn’t help myself. Everything is sold in bulk, and I grabbed a couple of bags and started stuffing with wild abandon. I didn’t care what I grabbed, I just tried to get a little of everything. It was like a bad episode of Supermarket Sweep. I was a madwoman. Kevin finally had to stop me, since we didn’t have enough room in our luggage to account for the amount of sugar I’d just acquired.
Eventually, we headed upstairs so we could get a few baby essentials. The baby store in Changsha had most of what we needed, but we were on a quest for a sippy cup that the boy would actually drink from. It had been a problem up to this point. I’d packed every single kind of cup imaginable, even baby bottles, but he just. Wouldn’t. DRINK. It turns out that I had underestimated my little man (wouldn’t be the last time), and he needed something a bit more advanced and needed something with a straw. New cup in hand, we headed back down to the checkout. Surprisingly, we made it out of there for a hair under $20. A miracle.
As luck would have it, McDonald’s was right across the street, and it was lunch time. Ashley ordered for us, and a few minutes later, there it was. The Chinese Happy Meal. Oh, and a Big Mac and a Spicy Chicken Sandwich.
Jack, as usual, was in food heaven. He INHALED those McNuggets. Kevin and I had our first experience with Chinese ketchup, and we fervently wished it would be our last. Yikes. Kev enjoyed his Big Mac, but I realized I’d made a fatal error with the chicken sandwich. I’m pretty sure that chicken was about 1000 years old when they killed it, because it was stringy and weird. Still, though, I’m glad we had the experience, even if it wasn’t the best idea in the world.
That, my friends, is a lesson: No matter how homesick you are for the familiar, sometimes it’s just better to stick with the local flavor. Trust me on this. At least until you get to a Chinese Pizza Hut, and then it’s on like Donkey Kong.