U.S. and China: A difference in choices

A man in the bread aisle of a supermarket.


Tess Vigeland: We just were talking about ways to keep yourself from going bananas with your credit card. Cut yourself off from all those consumer choices. Well, another way to do that is by moving to China. A lot of what the world consumes is made there, but that doesn't mean it's actually for sale there.

Marketplace's Scott Tong just returned stateside after three and a half years in our China bureau. And he wonders if consumers here have too many choices.

Scott Tong: My first trip back to the grocery store in suburban Virginia began promising enough. My wife and I ditched the kids with relatives. We got everything -- the milk, the bread, the blueberries. A spritely clerk even asked if we "found everything OK."

Then, on the way to the checkout, Cathy goes, "Grab some ranch dressing, quick." That's when I encountered the 36. As in, ranch dressing choices. A block-long wall of options: national brands; store brand; the small, medium, and supersize bottles. And of course, low-fat versions of all of them. Choice can be paralyzing.

In our time overseas, I somehow forgot about all the availability here. Compared to China, which has a billion people and no ranch dressing. When we lived there, we would fly back to the States in the summer, and stock up on packets of dressing powder. And sneak it into China for special occasions.

Just before moving back to the States, my advice-giving friends warned it would be an adjustment. Yes, I knew all about "reverse culture shock" and now it's upon me. Shock at so-much-of-everything: Paint colors, cell phone plans, paper towels, ranch dressing. It's a screaming reminder that our economy is still powered mostly by us. We have endless choices, and credit cards to swipe and not even have to sign any more.

Don't get me wrong, Chinese consumers are on their way: Every day in Shanghai another phone hits the market, or car or junk food chain. But for every middle-class Chinese person developing our "habits," there's at least one Chinese saver who consumes zero. Like our nanny back in Shanghai. She would reuse every ziplock bag -- rinse it out, hang it on the faucet to dry. And you know what, the other day I caught myself reusing this itty-bitty square of tin foil.

Even though Virginia reports no apparent shortage of tin foil. And so I've changed, a little. I don't consume as much, I don't throw as much, and my shopping efficiency's gone down. The day I found myself in the ranch dressing forest, I was so slow picking one, my wife had to pull out of the checkout line and wait for me. So much for grabbing something quickly.

Vigeland: Our former China correspondent Scott Tong, now back in our D.C. bureau... pondering his choices.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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You took the words right out of my mouth! Arriving back in the US the end of June after living in South Africa for 4 years, I still can't go into large grocery stores. The stimulation is too much besides making me ache inside thinking about our OVER consumption. Even when going to a smaller market the other day, I counted 32 kinds of popcorn! And, I know of families who want for one loaf of bread.

I'm so glad Marketplace has addressed this issue. I've been living off the beaten path in China for a year and I'm looking forward to another year of EFFICIENT shopping... mostly. Navigating Chinese slows the process.

Describing the re-using ziplocks in China as an example of culture-shock returning to the US reminded me again of the difference between Washington, DC and my town of 55,000 in Oregon. I can hardly remember when I did not wash and re-use ziplocks or re-use aluminum foil. It's been maybe 25 years now! I should add that I am far from the bleeding edge of green lifestyle in these parts. Maybe folks in urban Washington, DC have some catching up to do. It is a common source of amusement here in the Pacific NW when these examples of Eastern, urban lifestyles form the frame of reference for NPR stories.

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