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China, Food, Mythologies

“Welcome to Chinese Walmart”: Emailing Oriental Curiosities

“This is Chinese Walmart”

Over the past few years a number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances have forwarded an interesting email to me. The email, usually titled “Welcome to Chinese Walmart” features a series of images taken at Walmart stores in China. Judging from the number of times the email is indented—indicating that it has been quoted and forwarded–each of the emails circulated many dozens of times. Folks send it to me with good intentions because they know that I have spent some time studying Walmart in China. (The full version of the most recent version of this email is pasted at the end of this post.)

The first time I received the email message, I briefly scanned its contents and noted that most of the images seemed well within the limits of the kinds of things I have seen for sale in Chinese Walmart stores. I then thanked the sender, moved the email to my mail folder marked “Walmart China” and forgot about it. Whenever I have subsequently received a copy of the message I simply send a thank you and delete it—after all, I already have one saved original.

After quite a few months of silence, earlier this month I received another copy of the “Welcome to Chinese Walmart” email from someone that had already sent it to me over a year ago. Apparently the message is making another round. Perhaps it was because it arrived on a Monday morning and I needed a distraction, I didn’t simply delete it—but briefly considered its surprising return.

What is it about this message that is so fascinating that continues to circulate so widely?

“I am not an American Walmart.”

Clearly on the most superficial level, the email is predicated on sharing the sensational images of an “exotic orient” where Chinese consume unusual foods with unusual names in unusual ways—a fact anticipated by the title written in broken English—”Welcome to Chinese Walmart.” In this sense, the email is the latest in a long line of examples of curiosities intended to titillate and entertain—with a lineage, no doubt, that stretches back to the exhibitions of the colonial era of the 19th century.

A brief web search found that the contents of this email are posted on a number of sites. Buzzfeed, for example, posts the list of 16 Items They Only Sell At Chinese Walmarts. There is also a discussion of it at Snopes. Many of the comments express open surprise that such kinds of things are for sale—with implied or overt Orientalist commentaries. A number of other comments point out that many Asian markets in the US sell many similar things. Certainly at play are assumptions about what constitutes “normal” food, cleanliness and sanitation.

“disgusting! all the meat looks terrible and there {sic} all touching it! also frogs and turtles! 😮 this is disgraceful.”

“The majority of those items you can buy in a fully-stocked 99 Ranch Market, which are American stores.”

It seems to me, however, that there is something else about the the email. The interest in its contents isn’t just the exotic foods and objects, but the fact that they are from a Walmart. The store that markets itself as the most American of stores—or in the age of cheap Chinese sourcing as providing cheap prices so American consumers can “Save money. Live better.”—becomes something barely recognizable. It is an expression of alienation at the way something local has been transformed into something different—not entirely different, but hybridized in an unfamiliar sociocultural context.

“North American Walmarts”—with, as the email says at the end, “only the crazily dressed people”—become the normal Walmart to which a Chinese Walmart is just an inaccurate reproduction, a fake, a mimicry. The first photo in the email establishes that this is a Walmart, but the subsequent images become the photographic proof of anomalies that indicate the forgery. “You are a Walmart, but not quite.”  Rather than taking difference seriously, it is contained by a mocking humor. (“Yum, Yum!!” “Rib cages from what or who?”)

"Unbelievable"

“Unbelievable”

The reality of actual social and cultural difference is stretched to the breaking point of believability. In fact, the most recent email I received does exactly this. Compared to earlier versions it has added three additional images which are completely fabricated. The Meat Water is a beverage satire, the image of the pickles with the frog is discussed in a post on Snopes, and the Golden Horde Brand powdered horse milk (with no ponies!) is a fake brand apparently sold at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles. Since the email semiotically argues that a Chinese Walmart isn’t a real Walmart then the inclusion of fake products is just a natural extension of the underlying logic of the message.

The email is not about a Chinese Walmart, but a Chinese Walmart. It is not saying, “Can you believe this is a Walmart?  It is saying, “Can you believe the Chinese?” I find it interesting how the Chinese part of Chinese Walmart becomes the subject of attention rather than the Walmart part. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

To me the fascinating thing about the images isn’t that they are different—its that they can be radically different and yet still be a Walmart. An image of a crocodile on ice with an orange in its mouth in Dongguan, China (or wherever the image was taken)—something that would be alien at a Walmart in Ankeney, Iowa—could challenge the very idea of a Walmart might be: “What is a Walmart that can be so different in a different social and cultural context?”  “What is a Walmart when local Chinese employees sell local Chinese products to local Chinese?” In this way “the crocodile with the orange in its mouth” could open up an opportunity for a much more interesting conversation or critique of global corporations and globalization—something that would open up a conversation between versions of Walmart, or between places and communities on the subject of Walmart.

This would be anthropology.


———- Forwarded message ———-
From:
Date: Mon, Apr 8, 2013 at 9:41 AM
Subject: Welcome to Wal-Mart in China
To:

Welcome to Chinese Walmart

WM_Welcome_3

We thought our Wal-Marts had it all.

WM_Welcome_2
Crocodiles.

WM_Welcome_4
Bulk Rice.

WM_Welcome_5
Mixed meat for the choosing.
(I’m sure they all washed their hands first!!!)


WM_Welcome_17
Turtles and frogs.
Yum, Yum!!

WM_Welcome_18
You guess!
(It looks familiar, but definitely not something that I’ve eaten,)
(or going to!!! Those are bull penises.)

WM_Welcome_19
Walmart Brand
Spirits

WM_Welcome_20
Rib Cages.
(From what?) (or who?)

WM_Welcome_1
Assorted Dried
Reptiles.


WM_Welcome_9
Beautiful Boxes
Of Liquor.

WM_Welcome_6
Frogs.

WM_Welcome_10
A Large Selection Of
Chopsticks.

WM_Welcome_11
Ducks on a rack

WM_Welcome_12
Great Value Brand Beef Granules.

WM_Welcome_13
Pig Faces.
(I’m drooling all over my shirt!!!)

WM_Welcome_14
Antibacterial
Bikini Underwear For Men.

WM_Welcome_15
 Diet Water.

WM_Welcome_16
Meat Water.
(Notice the flavors on the bottles)

WM_Welcome_7
Specialty Pickles.
(Just like “Cracker Jacks” a prize in every jar!)

WM_Welcome_8
100% Powdered Horse Milk
(no ponies!).

Gosh . . . And North American Wal-Marts only
Have crazily dressed people ! 

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