For the past few months, I’ve been slowly adopting zero waste habits into my daily life. One of my favorites is the beeswax wraps because I never feel guiltier than when I buy baked goods AND contribute to plastic waste. I already feel physically guilty for eating daily dessert and now I have the added guilt of not being environmentally friendly too. It’s just too much! The beeswax pouch allowed me to ditch the environmental guilt and put all my focus on guilty indulgences instead. A slight win.
But it didn’t always work out that way. In China, single-use plastic is almost a way of life. There is no easy alternative and the idea of one is so alien to local culture that it just doesn’t mesh well with the fast-paced lifestyle and tradition of using plastic like if it grows on trees. There were plenty of times where I’d go to a shop and give them my reusable bag to put the goods in and they’d look me in the eye while choosing to stuff the goods in a plastic bag instead of in my pouch. I thought the customer was always right? Apparently not when it comes to plastic.
Alas, today I explored the open market near my new apartment in the heart of downtown Nanjing, 3 blocks south of the Xinjiekou metro station on Zhongshan Road. Not knowing what to expect and having woken up on the right side of the bed, I prepared my shopping gear to include everything I could think of I’d need. A cotton tote to house all the items, an empty carton of eggs in the hopes of finding free-packaged ones, and a handful of cotton & mesh bags for produce. I was set out to be fully prepared for all the fun stuff I was hoping to find.
…and I’ve never felt my age more than I do now.
I set foot into the rain with my rain boots, rain jacket, umbrella, and cozy loungewear; a completely prepared goddess. Nothing was wrong, everything was in place.
As I scurried through the road where I knew had the entrance to the open market, I found myself at a loss of doors. The entry to the market was locked, and next to it was the entrance to a small mart. Not wanting to look like a fool and head back home empty-handed while people were walking along with bags full of produce, I found the entry and stepped in.
You know when you step into somewhere completely unfamiliar and your eyes get drunk on sensory overload and you find yourself aimlessly walking simply due to the fear of looking and feeling lost. It’s almost like my feet are in a race to catch up with my mind as they try to make sense of the new environment. That’s what this was. I noticed immediately that I was very much out of place. No foreigner insight and to top it off no shopper under the age of fifty, or maybe sixty.
Immediately I found an older man digging through a cardboard box filled with unpackaged eggs. I stepped no further and took out my empty carton, if all else failed I at least would walk out with some eggs. Already a winner. I couldn’t afford to not take this win. Even if I’d discover an oasis of free-packaged eggs beyond this mart, I couldn’t take the chance. Today was a big day, and I was determined to not let disappointment get the best of it.
As that journey prolonged due to the older man’s turtle-like movements, I scanned my surroundings and discovered an entrance to the open market. Locating my next step after paying for these eggs. I also took this chance to get some loose red rice packed in my cotton bag because, why not – the mart was now my friend. I was in a frenzy. A choice I would later come to regret as I discovered little bugs in the mix. A small loss I would come to afford.
My eyes widened like a kid in a candy store as I walked into non-packaged produce galore. I even saw fresh noodles being sold, unpackaged. I was in heaven.
I continued my trip walking through the isles while mentally jotting down what items I was going to take home that day. My first choice was tomato and broccoli. I knew what I wanted to cook that day for breakfast and tomato was an essential ingredient. Broccoli was simply for aesthetics, I’m not the biggest fan of that green tree.
As the vendor got out her plastic bag ready to house whichever items I chose, I immediately said méishì, a horribly butchered Chinese word for “don’t want” and pointed to my own produce bag. She smiled the biggest smile I’d seen that day, said something in Chinese and I smiled in return pretending I knew exactly what she said. An everyday occurrence in the land of “shénme’s”
Penny for your thoughts: If I stop to imagine how much money I or any other foreigner would collect if we had a penny for every time we pretended to understand what was spoken to them at every jianbing and baozi stand we would all be millionaires. Millionaires!
The trip continued like that. Waving away at vendors’ bags and catching smiles as responses as they saw me suggesting my own. It felt good to demonstrate what conscious shopping looked like in a sea of normal plastic bag use. Especially to the elders who have been doing it this way for decades. Every smile and nod were like reassurances that “I did it”, although I have a feeling it wasn’t interpreted that way to others. But to me, it felt like a congratulatory handshake at the end of receiving your diploma on stage after years of studying. Only this time, I didn’t win a paper, I lost plastic. And that’s a big win.
As I walked home with my shoulder weighing down, heavy with produce, I couldn’t help but smile. Not a piece of plastic was in my bag. I finally graduated.
1 méishì is chinese for “fine” or “i’m fine”.
2 shénme is chinese for “what”
3 jianbing is a savory chinese crepe. Very popular in China as a common and affordable street food quick & filling bite. Perfect for grabbing on your way to or from work.
4 baozi is a chinese steamed stuffed bun usually filled with a tofu, vegetables or meat mix. They are commonly found at your local street food vendor or convenience store. A popular choice.