In the Market

Perusing through unpublished drafts, I found this post written while we still lived overseas. Its strange to think these markets are cut off from me right now in our current reality of a global pandemic. I still miss many aspects of our life overseas and this ranks up there–the fresh (or wet) markets.

I grew up accompanying my mother to the Piggly Wiggly to buy our food.  The shrink wrapped packages of meat beckoned me to poke them. Poke them I did! The vegetables in the frozen section came in neatly packaged bags. Milk sloshed around in large plastic gallon containers.

The checkout line tempted one with magazines, gum, candy, and a fun conveyor belt with a cashier and a whole person dedicated to placing items in bags for you. Sometimes…often…the cashier called you by name and actually thanked my mom for shopping in the store. Then the bagger pushed the cart to your car and loaded them up for free!

Fast forward several years and I find myself slipping around in the mud at the open vegetable market buying my family’s food in a foreign land. Yes, I chose this. I can drive or walk to the grocery store, but recently the parking garage is always full because it is free. So now I walk or bike to the fresh market across the street.

Biking gets tricky when I have to buy eggs because eggs are packaged loose in plastic shopping bags. I find it takes special skills to hang the bag over the handle bars and arrive home with all eggs intact. 

At the vegetable market I bump into neighbors, hear multiple invitations to come shop at different stalls, and all is accompanied by the occasional cluck of a chicken back in the live animal section. Unrefrigerated meat hangs on hooks all day and vegetables are so fresh they still have mud on them. Tofu comes in a hundred different varieties.

Tofu is kinda pretty!

It’s a social gathering place where any number of opportunities beckon the curious shopper. You can get a spare key made that may or may not work.  You can buy really expensive Tupperware or a really delicious and cheap breakfast. 

I love the excitement and the challenge and the people. I love the fruit vendor who always asks me to give up a kid for adoption because three is just too many and she would like to take one home. When I refuse, she concedes and gives me a few bananas with a smile. My kids always stand far from her.

Then there’s my preferred vegetable vendor whose produce isn’t the greatest but she has three kids too. We share a connection. Families with three kids are very rare and I support her in her choice to support lives by buying her slightly older vegetables.

Sometimes I surprise even myself. Last week I took a risk and bought unrefrigerated beef off a wooden slab from the Muslim butcher. I heard many years ago Muslim beef was the best. I am finally ready to try it.  It is not wrapped in plastic. I’m not tempted to poke it. 

The butcher speaks English much to the astonishment of her neighboring vendor. He gapes at her in surprise and she smiles and hangs her head, chagrined to reveal this special skill. I imagine this gossip will spread like wildfire later that day and her prestige will grow. I smile too.

It all now seems more normal to me than the Piggly Wiggly. I still enjoy the order, cleanliness, and service at the stores of my youth like one enjoys Disneyworld. When I visit, I indulge in being thanked and smile wide when baggers take my purchases to my car.

The Piggly Wiggly model often seems like the answer to the messes of life. Shouldn’t life be more orderly? I often think I’m missing out somehow when life is messy. But in striving for neatness, there’s often sacrifice too. 

I think the fray and disorder of the marketplace may be more like real life than the pristine order of the Piggly Wiggly. Real life is dirty and slippery and involves compromise and risk but also standing firm and knowing when to do which one.

And grace for ourselves and others because there’s just going to be some broken eggs on the way home in life.

Escape to Ikea

ikeaI go to Ikea for a cultural break.  The blue and yellow bastion of  order speaks my language in the midst of a chaotic culture.  At Ikea I know how life works.  I understand the products that sit on the shelves.  The model apartments reflect the dream I dream of one day achieving order in my own home.  The prices allow me to take home a little piece of Swedish brilliance.  And, they take care of some of my kids for an hour so I can browse in self-centered silence!  What’s not to love?

Ikea surrounds me in western-conceived orderliness.  I understand the world for the time I walk their halls.  I relish the way I know how things work for once and it’s not just a knowledge gained over time but a deep-seated knowing rooted in the basics of my identity and western upbringing.  For an hour or two I retreat from Eastern thought and indulge the part of myself that will never quite be put to rest overseas.  I vacate in the walls of a store where I need no passport or expensive ticket to feel more at home.

Now that my daughter exceeds the play area age limit, Ikea means mother daughter time.  She finally appreciates shopping and she understands that our family mostly looks.  We laugh at the 5 aunties chatting it up on a model king-sized bed while the baby in the middle sleeps.  We exchange ideas about style–good style, not-our-style, bad style.  We notice some furniture is very, very inexpensive and some quite expensive.  We define quality.

We pick up the few things we came to buy and try our hardest to resist the intriguing but unnecessary items.  We fail…often.  The arrows on the floor herd us along.  We note the items we might purchase next time if they receive approval when discussed at home.  We never miss the “as is” section.  I still wonder who buys the mattresses no one wanted after their 90 day trial period!  We purchase and pick up the boys and follow the path to get hot dogs and an ice cream cones that are too cheap to refuse.  Everyone wins at Ikea.

At Ikea I embrace a part of myself that I can never put aside completely no matter how long I live in a foreign land.  I speak the language, grasp some of the mindsets, eat the food, survive, and often thrive but I am foreign and always will be a foreigner.  Escaping to Ikea for a few hours a month used to feel like a personal weakness.  Now I just enjoy Ikea for what it is…a break and an acknowledgement of my identity.

What escapes exist within your host culture?  Do you take advantage of them?  Why or why not?