This weekend I was feeling a little bored, a little restless, mildly depressed, just uneasy in general… So to help keep myself from slipping into a funk, I decided to get off my tush, get out of the house, and do some exploring.
My yearning to investigate new places and try new things has been with me ever since I was a small child. As a kid, I always wanted to sleep over at my friend’s houses (instead of them coming over to my home) simply because I already knew what was at my place – I wanted to see how their space was. When I was old enough to drive, I spent many afternoons touring around old country back roads, getting “lost”, and finding cool scenes and stores along the way.
In fact, it was on one of those ambling trips to nowhere that I stumbled into my first ethnic grocery store. I drove past a small shop that had some interesting signage on the door, so I stopped my car and stepped into the store – and was instantly transported to Europe. The store’s wares were primarily German and Scandinavian, and focused largely on nonperishable food (candies, crackers, some canned meats, etc.). I still remember how remarkable I found the unreadable language, the brands I had never heard of, the products that were completely unfamiliar to me – I was enthralled. My world expanded that day 20 years ago.
From that time to now, I have wandered in a variety of ethnic stores. While in Miami during college I checked out an authentic Cuban market. On vacation in San Francisco I spent time lingering in an Asian market in the Chinatown district. During a business trip to India I poked around a few food stalls. Locally, I have perused a few “Global Market” venues from time to time – but I have never stopped into an authentic ethnic supermarket in this city, even though I drive past several on a semi-regular basis.
So today, I made a point to drive to one of the markets that has been on my radar for a while. Unfortunately, when I arrived at their door, a small sign in the window said, “Closed: Call for hours of operation.” Hmm… that seems like not a very effective way to run a business. Slightly disappointed, I let out a gentle sigh, returned to my car, and drove to a second market that I have had lingering in the back of my mind for a bit.
This shop was open – but as soon as I walked inside, I almost immediately wanted to turn around and walk back out. The store had very dim overhead lighting, to the point where I had to squint my eyes a little bit to actually see things clearly. And this would have been annoying but otherwise okay, were it not for a second factor at play – namely, the space was packed floor-to-ceiling with stuff. The aisles were half the width of a regular shop (as in, when I stood in each aisle, both of my elbows nearly touched products on the shelves next to me), and the feeling of being surrounded by product from all directions made me feel like I was in the home of someone who was on the brink of becoming a hoarder (and I really don’t do well with overwhelming clutter). But. I told myself to relax, forced myself to take a breath, and slowly (and carefully) began walking around the shop.
The store catered to two main ethnic regions: Latin America, and Africa. I was familiar with the South American products (tons of various dried chilis, an astounding variety of mango- and caramel-flavored cookies and candies, cans and cans and cans of beans…), but the African items were new to me. I scanned an entire 3’ section of various flours (I had never even heard of “Fufu flour” before!), and gazed at a whole shelf of various dairy-type beverages (one of which seemed to be a combination of wheat and powdered milk?). While I enjoyed looking at the intriguing-to-me boxes and bottles, I was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable not only by the close proximity of the wares to my body, but also by the dirt I began to notice throughout the shop. Dust rested on top of cracker boxes, on canned goods, on bags of rice, and on the shop’s shelves themselves. I wanted to purchase a few items to take home and try – but not from this store. After ten minutes of walking up and down aisles, the dirty, cramped, dark space got to me, and I had had enough. I made my way to the shop’s exit, released myself from the market, and stepped into the fresh, crisp, November air.
Interestingly, after I left the shop, I remembered that I actually did need to pick up a few basic grocery supplies (milk, cottage cheese, fruit…) – so I drove to a local supermarket. As I stepped through the automatic doors into the hyper-lit, sparkling-clean store, I was struck by the contrast of this space to the one I had just left. I realized – really realized – how “sanitized” my middle-income American life is, compared to so many other people in this city, state, country, and world. I felt simultaneously blessed and guilty, pleased and sad. Most days I simply take for granted what I consider basic facts about my life: that not only will I have enough food to eat, but that I will have access to whatever kind of food I want; that I will have a warm, comfortable, safe space to dwell; that I will be able to acquire any material good I might desire; that basically, my life will be as I want it. I don’t think about resource scarcity, or hunger, or poor weather, or violence, or crime; health, security, and safety are assumed as givens in my daily life view. It’s only when I find myself in situations that don’t conform to my usual mode of operating that I realize I hold very skewed views of the world that I inhabit. Hm. I had no idea such insights would be revealed to me, simply by checking out a store I have driven past hundreds of times before….