Asian Girl Problem #21: The Shopping Tourist

I spent over two hours at Costco this morning, which was a lot even for my family.  I was thoroughly entertained the whole time, because I was there with my dad’s colleagues who are visiting from China, who have never been to the American mecca.

I love going to Costco with first-timers, but today’s shoppers were extra special. You know that TV game show where contestants have ten minutes to fill their shopping carts with as much as they can? It was like that, plus free food samples. Three men. Three women. Too much money and too little time–the exact opposite of my life.

When I first learned that they were coming to visit, and we would be their guides, I imagined tedious trips to Fisherman’s Wharf, Land’s End and the Golden Gate Bridge. But once they arrived, I realized their real interests: Louis Vuitton, outlets, Costco, Walmart and gift shops. Big slabs of Texan steak. We changed gears accordingly.

It didn’t really matter to me since I’m not accompanying them on most of their days, but as a barely-employed writer with a window-shopping only policy, I’m getting a kick out of their sheer hunger for consumerism. Their enthusiasm for everything from baby medicine to toolkits. I’ve always liked shopping with people who can actually spend money. Shopping lite–all the fun, zero the calories.

Ten years ago, I used to travel back to China armed with shopping lists. Mostly clothes, trinkets and snacks for me and my friends. But since then, along with everything else in China, shopping’s taken a 180. The last couple times I went, everything I liked was made abroad, and cost three times as much as in America. The locally-made goods were affordable, but cheap and outdated.

So you have two routes: averagely-priced squalor or grossly-priced decency. As one of the ladies told me while we strolled around Costco, it was okay if a recent grad didn’t carry a LV bag, but anyone in management needs at least a few to mix it up during the workweek. It’s not really about the fashion, or even the status symbol. I can imagine how it’s literally insulting to your company and colleagues if you don’t have a fancy bag to show for your work.

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And, as the lady said, the bags in America were so cheap–just a few thousand dollars–it’s surprising most locals don’t carry them. I nodded my head agreeing with her, before realizing that buying a luxury would not only leave me with no rent money, but no friends.

As we were getting ready to check out, one of the women asked if I could help her buy some necklaces. I admired her LV bag which was actually tasteful, but couldn’t say the same for her blinged-out Burberry shirt. (Fake? I can never be sure.) After navigating around blockades of ground beef and TVs, we finally found the small jewelry display case.

“Those are the necklaces I want,” she told me, pointing to the14K gold chains with emerald pendants. “I need at least two. There are so many people I have to bring gifts for,” she sighed.

To be fair, they were some of the cheaper options in the case, at $260 each. I asked an employee for some help, and in less than five minutes, or the time it takes me to buy an impulse candy bar, we were done. Before we could finally wheel the three carts of stuff to the car, a couple of them bought their own Costco membership, signing over their names the the bulk goods gods. Since they live in China I can only assume they’ll be making this a frequent vacation landmark.

Now, they’re en route to Union Square for the real shopping, and I almost wish there was room in the car for me to join. But I’ll get to see what they come back with tonight, probably while feeling both amazed and relieved.

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