Up close and personal (aka TMI)

When you are moving to Beijing, those in the know will tell you, “Don’t worry too much about packing. You can get anything there.” And that’s basically true: whatever your weird little foreign heart desires, somebody in Beijing is selling it. The issue is how far you will need to go– and how much trouble and money it will cost– to get your hands on it.

Things not much appreciated or needed by Chinese people themselves can sometimes be found at the local Carrefour (家乐福) or the insidious Wal-Mart(沃尔玛), or at smaller specialty shops catering to foreign tastes, such as the one around the corner from us called simply My Shop (no Chinese name). My Shop is the place to go for American breakfast cereal and cheesy comestibles of all sorts. But My Shop provides the thrill of a luxury, an occasional indulgence in microwave popcorn or hot chocolate. It is no help at all when it comes to everyday necessities that you didn’t realize weren’t universally considered necessities. Such as underarm deodorant.

Recently, one of us ran out of deodorant, and that one was was reluctant to use the deodorant that the other one of us had brought along (it was, after all, a relatively girly Avon product). So we went to our local supermarket in search of men’s deodorant. We passed through the personal grooming aisle several times without seeing it, so I asked the small clique of surly employees standing by the lotions where we might find such a thing. They had exactly one item fitting the description, a small white bottle of something called “Pure Beauty” and labeled “perfume roll-on for men.” Perhaps to counteract the dubious masculinity of its name, the label also bore an image of a guy wearing a cowboy hat. Suddenly Avon was looking a lot better.

We bought Pure Beauty and headed to another supermarket to see whether we could find something that had an anti-perspirant function as well as a perfuming one. This time, when we asked about anti-perspirant/deodorant, the clerk told us, “Oh, we only carry that in the summer.” Who knew deodorant had a season? Trips to several more area shops, including Watson’s, an English chain of drugstores, yielded the same result.

Puzzled, I asked a Chinese friend about this, and he seemed equally puzzled that I should be surprised. “I hardly ever use that kind of thing,” he shrugged.
“So, um, don’t Chinese people sweat?” I asked sheepishly.
“Sure, but our sweat doesn’t have that bad smell like yours.”
So there you go. I’d never thought about this, because China certainly has its share of bad body smells, but I guess the problem areas are slightly different. Breath and feet are the sources of some pretty intense odor here in China, but armpits not so much, apparently.

In case you’re not already too grossed out to read further, here’s another personal item that is ubiquitous in America but hard to get here: tampons. Pads and pantiliners are everywhere, but apparently Chinese women don’t buy so many tampons. I have asked a friend about this, too, and according to her it has to do with fears about safety and sanitation (sure, we all know about toxic shock, but how many Americans actually pay any attention to those warnings inserted in the tampon box?), as well as concerns about maintaining one’s purity (or maybe sexual health in the case of married women).

And then there’s the shower curtain, that exotic object. This one is quite understandable, since most of the showers in Chinese homes are not partitioned off from the rest of the bathroom. In our apartment, for example, the bathroom IS the shower: no glass doors or basin separates the shower space from the rest of the bathroom. Last spring I stayed in a hotel in a different part of Beijing in which the rooms actually did have a bathtub, with a curtain rod and everything, but no curtain. So I went out to the local has-everything store to buy myself a
curtain. A conversation sth like this ensued:
“Do you have curtains for the shower?”
“Do we have what?”
“You know, when you’re showering and there’s this thing, this curtain, that
hangs beside you and keeps water from spilling out on the floor?”

The salesgirl looks at me in complete non-comprehension and then calls over another salesgirl, with whom I go through the same dialogue. She thinks for a minute and then leads me over to a remote corner where miscellaneous foreign items are stored, and pulls out a plastic shower curtain so thin it looks like it’s not meant for more than a single use. Everything on the package is written in French– no Chinese at all– so you know it’s not something your average Chinese customer goes in there to buy.

And finally: dental floss, my persistent aggravation. I am a flosser; Chinese people, by and large, are toothpickers. So when you go to the local supermarket and ask for dental floss, you are invariably led to the toothpicks. In my mind, these two objects do not occupy the same niche. Toothpicking is a social habit– it’s how you get unsightly things out of your teeth after eating dinner with company. Flossing is a private habit meant to stave off tooth decay for those of us without dental insurance. You can imagine what avid interest this observation inspires in supermarket employees.

So while it’s true that pretty much anything can be had for a price in Beijing, some of the things we’ve come to regard as personal necessities are surprisingly hard to get.