Shanghai: Meat, Butchers, and Fitness in China

On my last day in Shanghai I did what any normal tourist would do….

I went grocery shopping.

Again!

Well first I had an job interview with a gym for a personal trainer position which went extremely well and then I went grocery shopping. Jenny was kind enough to take me to my interview and help translate. Did I get the job? Yes! However I am a bit apprehensive about taking the job. Starting a new career in a foreign country working for a foreign company without speaking the language is daunting to say the least. But I want to experience working at a gym before becoming an independent trainer. I know I have a lot to learn. We shall see what I decide.

After the interview, Jenny had to get groceries so I decide to join her to kill time and get some shopping instruction. Jenny knows how to shop. She also knows Chinese cuisine.

Of course we go to Carrefour. In case you missed it, I discuss Carrefour as Walmart on steriods in a previous post. I quickly find the aisle of bagged nuts and dried fruit. Obviously my favorite aisle. I buy some sesame glazed walnuts for a snack.

Next up are the massive containers of dried fruit, nuts, mushrooms, and other goods. You bag the amount you want then wait in a huge line to have it weighed and priced. The same goes for the produce section. You must do this before checking out while bumping elbows with fellow shoppers all around.

Finally, we reach the cured meat section. After jokingly posing with a package of strange looking meat chops, Jenny laughs and says “Hey! Those are good!” Hahaha. I think I’ll pass. Read my discussion here on why packaged food is considered “healthy” in China. It is an interesting perception that food sealed in packaging is clean and safe from external pollutants.

This makes some sense in a warped way until arriving at the butcher immediately outside Carrefour. Various animal parts hang from metal rods along the display window. Exposed to the open air and eager customer stares, the meat is selected without hesitation and promptly grabbed by mostly bare-handed butchers who gingerly slice the meat into manageable slabs.

Duck heads stare at me with open eyes and I wonder how people actually consume these. But then again the Chinese somehow eat and enjoy chicken feet so I guess anything is possible.

While I happily snap away on my camera, Jenny buys some seasoned duck meat that is actually very good. Ignoring the glove-free hands of the butchers, I watch them slice away with ease.

However my voyeurism is suddenly noticed through the window. The butchers start waving enthusiastically and posing for my pictures with peace signs and OK signs.  I wave back and give a thumbs up while slowly retreating. At least they are having fun!

Afterwards, Jenny treats me to ice cream and we discuss my motivation to become a personal trainer. Talking to her is extremely enlightening. I have never really put my desire to be a personal trainer into words. I explain to Jenny that I see so many young girls and women struggling with body image, weight, and food. There seems to be a general lack of education when it comes to exercise and nutrition.

My personal struggle with food and my body was resolved by rediscovering exercise. I believe that teaching women how to build muscle and lose fat through exercise gives them the power to look better, feel better, and be better. I want to motivate people to live their best lives possible by adopting healthy behaviors that can be easily maintained for life.

But the question is, can I do this in China?

The answer will come soon.

Day 64: Got Spam? Why packaged food is considered “healthy” in China.

Just another day in a Chinese hypermarket, this time on a mission.

Among the giant bottles of cooking oil, fish parts chilled on ice, and duck heads drying on racks, I search for food I recognize, food I understand, and food I can make into dishes I know and love.

There are items I recognize and then there are items that are absolutely dumfounding. Like many of the massive vegetables that are bigger than my face. At least I know they are edible. I think.

But I notice something else. Something very… American. But with an obvious Chinese flair.

Packaged food!

A growing trend in Chinese supermarkets and hypermarkets is the prevalence of packaged food ranging from instant oatmeal and rice to pickled eggs and meat. It is an interesting phenomenon common in big cities where fresh food is more difficult to procure and urban individuals cook less and less.

The HKTDC, or Hong Kong Trade Development Council, conducted a study on China’s Packaged Food Market in 2009 that I believe is still applicable today. They found that from 2000 to 2008, the annual growth of packaged food sales grew by 10.8% on the mainland, compared to only 4.2% growth in all of Asia.

What is interesting is that they also found Chinese consumers to be increasingly “health-conscious” with 73% of respondents preferring individually packaged food.

Wait.. say what? 

Yes that’s right. Chinese consumers believe that clean and securely packaged food is more hygienic and of higher quality than bulk food. Wow. That is definitely a twist on the American health craze that promotes juicing, eating clean, and buying local.

With recent concern about pollution in China, packaged food represents protection from the hazardous environment. Consumers are willing to pay a premium on imported food because they believe that food quality management is better outside of the mainland.

This goes completely against my idea of “health-consciousness” which advocates for fresh, wholesome food and if necessary, packaged food with few ingredients. Packaged food often contains preservatives and unknown ingredients that adversely affect our health. However with the terrible pollution in China, it is no wonder people do not trust fresh food.

But sealing unhealthy food in a clear wrapper does not make it healthy.

I only wonder when the Chinese will begin to focus on the ingredients of packaged food and how it affects their bodies. Stripping food of its natural form is often more harmful than the polluted environment from which it originates. Until then, it is only a matter of time till they catch up to Americans and have their own obesity epidemic.

Now excuse me while I go drink a green smoothie.

Shanghai: Initial Explorations

Recap of China numero uno. Get excited.

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After almost 24 hours of travel, I arrived in Shanghai, exhausted from the absurdly long flight. I watched 3 movies, chugged bottles of water, and was inspired by Oprah. Let’s just say it was a “productive” trip. Thankfully I didn’t miss my connecting flight and arrived in Shanghai at about 3pm Saturday (3am EST). Peter and his roommate Pat picked me up and we took a long subway ride to their apartment.

Their apartment is actually very nice with great wood floors and a lot of space. However, the heater is a little wonky and the shower never gets quite hot enough. Both are problematic because it was FREEZING in Shanghai. Like Maine weather cold. Like out at night I wore 3 layers with a hat, scarf, and gloves, and was still cold!

I immediately crashed for a little evening nap then headed over to Rodrigo and Lydia’s apartment. I met Rodrigo, Peter’s co-worker, and his wife Lydia during my last visit. They are from Brazil and invited us over for a Carnival pre-party. Also invited were their other co-workers Nester and Peter. Nester and his girlfriend are from Mexico, Peter is from England, and Peter’s girlfriend is Chinese. It was quite the international crowd! A mix of English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese filled the air which was fascinating!

We drank some alcoholic Brazilian coconut milk, ate a delicious homemade chicken pie, and devoured pure cane sugar for dessert! All Brazilian dishes in honor of Carnival. We then arrived at club Mao for a Carnival party. There was a live Brazilian band with dancers and some insane Carnival parades projected in the back. You can get an idea of the insane parades here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Kllu0lc_h8

The club was filled mostly with expats which was very strange to see in China. I met a girl from Toronto and guy from San Francisco. It was so fun! We danced to authentic Brazilian music all night long before heading home to crash… hard.

After 9 hours of sleep, Peter, Pat, and I walked down to lunch at the Hong Mei Lu Pedestrian Street which is filled with international restaurants and bars. Yes, my second meal in China was an omelette.

Along the way we said hello to Buddha bunny:

I called him Buddha bunny because he was huge! Like a sleeping giant. Look at how big he is in relation to Peter’s head:

We decided to walk 20 minutes to Carrefour for some shopping and sightseeing. It was a slightly overcast but fairly warm day and I relished the opportunity to stretch out my legs and become immersed in the city.

After walking for almost 30 minutes we decided that we were most definitely lost. Carrefour was nowhere in sight. However, a park off the highway caught our eye and we decided to explore. Then we ran into Ghandi.

And Charlie Chaplin. Or was it Mark Twain? No idea.

But we hit it off.

We circled the park, watching families frolic on the grass, next to signs that clearly said “Keep Off Grass”. I love it how the Chinese have a blatant disregard for the rules, but nobody really cares. For example, cars, scooters, and bikes pay no attention whatsoever to lanes, traffic lights, and turn signals. But amazingly, there are few accidents. People are actually really good bad drivers. Make sense?

After an hour of wandering, we end up grabbing a cab that took us in a completely different direction. Yeah, we missed the turn a long time ago. The long walk was nice and exhausting though.

We arrive at Carrefour which, like I mentioned before, is a huge “hypermarket” full of expat food (yay fiber!), clothes, and so much more. We picked up a few things for the apartment as well as a cheap fleece jacket for me. I definitely did not pack enough warm clothes.

Next up was the massive grocery section. I love grocery shopping and can spend hours perusing the aisles. Grocery stores are also a great way to explore a culture through their food choices and traditions. In China, you begin to see that people are not wasteful and value meat, which was not readily available until recently. Also, they have the largest carrots I have ever seen. Just saying.

After Carrefour we went to Peter’s gym for a workout. Because of jetlag I felt very wobbly and disoriented, like my body was still sleeping. It felt weird. Despite the dizziness I got in a pretty good strength workout and finished off with intervals on the treadmill.

For dinner I believe we ordered in and watched… JUSTIFIED. So so good.

More Shanghai adventures coming soon!

Day 57: Walmart on steroids

If you thought supermarkets were big in the United States, go to China.

Carrefour, known affectionately as a French based “hypermarket”, is like Walmart on steroids. Most people fondly call Shanghai New York City on steroids so it must be a cultural thing. Bigger is well… bigger.

Carrefour is 4 stories tall with magnetic escalators that glue your shopping cart to the ground as you ascend floors of consumerism. It has everything, from cheap ceramic kitchenware to sweaters and cooking oil. You never really know what you are actually buying but you hope it is like the American version you know and love. Activia yogurt? Looks the same but tastes tangy with a water-like consistency. After a few cups it starts to taste normal.

They also carry foreign brands for expats who prefer good old fashioned muesli over chicken feet for breakfast (kidding… sort of). However, foreign brands are much more expensive due to import tax. I found a lovely little container of Plantar’s peanut butter for almost $10. Really??? I would probably buy that. I love peanut butter.

Next time I’ll buy a wok.