September 20, 2009

RT Mart: The King of Pop and Chocolate Flavored Beef

I enter the RT Mart - which the foreign people I have met pronounce "ArdyMart" - and slow my walk to a near stop, shuffling along and taking in all the sights that I didn't have time for last time I was here with Connie and David. I am in no hurry, so I figure I will spend some time tracing through the isles, making mental lists of desired future purchases, noting the differences in products and packaging from what I am accustomed to seeing back home. The first discrepancy between the RT Mart and a traditional grocery or one-stop-shop in the States is the layout; I have just walked into the entrance of the store, but I am not actually in the RT yet. This area is large and open with white floors and high ceilings, and functions as a welcoming zone before one actually begins shopping. On my right is a Nike Factory Outlet store, inside its employees wearing bright orange baseball-style jerseys and looking bored and ready to leave. Further down on my right are more small shops, each on specializing in everything from women's clothing to women's underwear to massage equipment to bedroom furniture. Directly to my left is a very tiny shop where three middle-aged Taiwanese women huddle around three closely crammed barber chairs and work furiously to cut the hair of three impatient looking men. The sign above the glass barbershop windows says "100" in big white letters, leading me to believe that a haircut here is only $100 NT. Not bad; $3 US for a haircut. However, the prospect of going to this place is a little risky for a number of reasons, the first being that I can't speak Chinese and thus can't tell them HOW I would like my hair to look after they get finished hacking away at it, the second being that almost every Taiwanese man I have seen has had a goofy-looking haircut (I'm not sure if this is a testament to their culture, their type of hair, or the terrible quality of barbershops on the island), and the third being that, I mean come on, how good can the quality of service really be for $3 US? Luckily, I don't need a haircut just yet, so I can put off deciding just where to go and how to avoid getting butchered without knowing proper phrases like "not too short" and "don't make me look like Jackie Chan". I'll cross that bridge when the shagginess becomes unbearable

Looking past the barbershop I see that a path branches off from the entryway and slopes downward and to the left, leading past a Kentucky Fried Chicken and two more clothing stores before disappearing around the corner. A sign informs me first in Chinese, then under it in English, that this is the food court area. Although I am curious to see what other kinds of restaurants are hiding down in the food court, I decide that it will probably be cheaper to buy something in the RT Mart, so I decline exploring (for now) and instead walk straight ahead, toward where I believe the real entrance to the store will be. Thankfully, my guess is correct and I avoid looking like I have no idea how a grocery store works. I walk through the store merchandise detectors and past a security guard and what appears to be some kind of manager, judging by his shined shoes and tie. He smiles at me and I smile back, but have no kind words to offer so just keep walking into the plethora of cheap Asian goods, their brightly colored packaging and strange characters begging for my attention.

The first thing I notice upon entering the RT Mart is a large CD rack on my left covered with an enormous poster of Michael Jackson. A crowd has gathered around a television suspended from the ceiling, and as I get closer I can see the low-qulaity screen is playing a video of Michael Jackson singing "Billy Jean" live in concert. Apparently, even before Michael Jackson had died he was big over here - now he is EVERYWHERE. I walk past the mob and toward the rest of the electronics, noticing the large tables covered in piles with everything from Ramen to baby clothes that line the walkway on my right. Signs hanging above the piles or stacks denote their prices with big yellow letters, and I assume that these items are on some kind of clearance or special. Arriving in the electronics department, I skim quickly over the cameras, not really looking at prices, and then head for the fans. Because my apartment does not have air conditioning and, with my budget being fairly tight I am tempted to forgo the luxury to keep my electric bills low, a fan seems to be a commodity that I cannot live without. The least expensive fans are about $200 NT, but none of these look like they will hold together for more than a few weeks, especially not with me running them all hours of the day and night. Unfortunately, the nicer and more study-looking fans start at around $500 NT, which (even at $15 US) feels a little out of my price range. I resolve to hold out for a few more days, and continue to examine the other small appliances.

One thing that I also desperately need is some way to prepare food, seeing as how my apartment failed to come equipped with either a stove, microwave, or oven. (Most apartments, and even houses in Taiwan do not have ovens - this is why bakeries are so popular here). I peruse through various crock-pots and steamers, eventually coming to the portable electric ranges. These single-burner stovetops would be perfect for everything I wanted to make which, giving my limited cooking ability, is basically just chicken, eggs, hamburgers, and anything that involves boiling water. I look at the prices and find a decent looking one that lists for $2,200 NT, or about $70 US. DONE. This, along with some cooking utensils, a pot and a pan, and something to eat on and with are added to my mental list of things to buy with my October paycheck. I'm not exactly sure what I am going to do about food until then, or if I'll even have enough money to eat at all in September, but I'm not worried. Somehow, these things always manage to work themselves out, even if you end up losing fifteen pounds and eating only the free Nature Valley granola bars at the ski resort to keep from starving to death. (This, unfortunately, is not in any way an exaggeration. By the end of my stay in Colorado last winter I was living off of 75 cents a day and had dropped from 182 pounds to 160-something. When I finally left to come home, I deemed my return "The End of an Error". In retrospect, however, I consider the experience one of best times of my life - funny how I don't remember things like poverty and hunger pains in my memories. I only remember the beauty of the mountains and the rush of the snow beneath my board...the feeling of total freedom. Ultimate escapism).

I move on past the small appliances and stumble upon the "home" section of the store. Here I find everything I would need if I owned a home, and nothing I will need because I do not. This is one of the things I have always found liberating about living a relatively non-materialistic existence; it seems to me that, the more stuff you have, the more stuff you need. Logic would deduce that, by having more things, one would move closer to the goal of having everything they required to live and therefore their list of needed items would be smaller. The reality of this materialistic lifestyle, however, is counterintuitive to reason - by owning more possessions, one must begin to buy more and more things to maintain these possessions until eventually they are no longer satisfying their own needs, but instead satisfying the needs of their possessions, of these THINGS that have cluttered their life and robbed them of their independence. Life is no longer self-serving. They exist to maintain the materials around them but in the process forget to maintain themselves, forget to LIVE. This is why I have always chosen to invest in people and experiences rather than things. To invest in things is to lose oneself in a maelstrom, to get caught in the cyclical spiral of materialism that drags one down until they are no longer ABLE to invest in anything else. I have almost nothing to my name, yet I am no less happy despite all I can call my own fitting in a duffle bag, a backpack, and a few cardboard boxes in my Grandma's basement. I have navigated through the waters without the fancy possessions that the world demands I own to prove my life is meaningful, and have avoided the swirling dangers that threaten to trap me, to enslave ALL of us into a life filled with soulless objects that cannot love and cannot give us true happiness or memories. I am now sailing on the open sea, the sun on my face and the waters calm and beautiful...

Damnit. I have stumbled into the bedding items, which is something I actually DO need. They do not have mattresses here, but do have a wide selection of padded mattress toppers and fold-up cushions. This might be worth considering, but at this point I am still leaning towards an actual mattress over a thin mattress substitute. I also find the pillows, which are pillowy (and fairly inexpensive), and the sheets, which are hideous. RT Mart has neglected to carry any sheets that do not have gaudy floral print or some kind of cartoon characters on them. "Hmmm, so much for my apartment looking cool" I think to myself. Although I have never cared too much what my living quarters have looked like - my friends and past girlfriends can all attest to this - having my own apartment for the first time inspires me to personalize it and try and make it as homey as possible. This is not to say that I want a lot of stuff, I just want the stuff I HAVE to be cool, and preferably match. Apparently, though, this is too much to ask. "Surely they have something resembling a Bed Bath and Beyond in Taiwan" I hope, and choose to delay any sheet buying until a more favorable selection presents itself.

I wander up and down more isles, finding the sports and recreation sections. They have an extensive collection of badminton rackets and lots of basketball and baseball stuff. No soccer balls and no footballs, though, which are the only two sports I can play with any amount of grace or proficiency. Looks like I will not be impressing anyone with my athletic prowess any time soon. The lack of soccer apparel shocks me a little, as I was previously under the impression that soccer (or football everywhere but America) was the most popular sport in every country EXCEPT America. This is not the case on this Asian island nation, as my Lonely Planet (courtesy of my dear sister) informs me that baseball is actually the most popular sport here, followed closely by basketball, then tennis. I am awful at all three, and thus move past the sports section with little hesitation.

My next stop is in the cleaning isle, where absolutely nothing is in English and I therefore have no idea which of the brightly colored bottles contains which cleaning solutions. Although my apartment is not yet dirty, Connie and David have warned me that dust and dirt builds up very fast, so I need to clean at least once a week to avoid this unthinkable and awful outcome. Personally, I have never been big on cleaning, and at the moment I choose to risk the possibility that I may have a massive allergy attack from dust build-up. The next isle down from the cleaning supplies holds the detergents. I have only brought about eight pairs of underwear with me and am getting dangerously close to having to recycle, so the decision is made to make detergent my first purchase at the RT Mart. I scan over the bottles, the only one in English being TIDE brand which, at $400 NT a bottle, is ridiculously expensive. I eventually settle on one of the cheapest selections, a large green bottle that costs $130 NT and resembles the color and font of an ERA brand bottle from back home, though completely in Chinese. I assume this is what it is, and head for a new isle, happy with my choice.

As I walk out of the cleaning section, I come to the "personal care" section, which has things like soap, make-up, shampoo, razors, deodorant, and feminine products. This section seems to divide the non-food part of the store from the food part of the store, as I can see further down the shelves are lined with edible products. I look around a bit, comparing prices and seeing if they have anything that looks even vaguely familiar. To my surprise, the RT Mart carries almost every product that I am used to using, and this comforts me a little knowing that I will not have to experiment with finding a new shampoo or deodorant. (It took me YEARS to find a deodorant that actually works. That's right, I am a sweaty guy - easy ladies, not everyone at once). Also, they have a MASSIVE selection of male soap, face wash, and moisturizer, more so than I have seen at even the Super Centers stateside. I guess Taiwanese men are more vain than I had previously thought. I should fit in wonderfully here!

Finally, onto the food. At this point I am far past hungry, and EVERYTHING looks phenomenal. I cruise up and down the walkways, desperately searching for something that I will not have to prepare and can eat almost immediately. Also, although I really want to try something new and foreign, I find myself seeking out only those products that have english writing on the boxes. I justify this to myself by thinking that, due to my hunger AND lack of funds, if I select something risky and I do not like it I will have suffered a failure nearly too heartbreaking to overcome. In the cookie isle I am tempted by the Oreos and the crackers, but decide against eating cookies for dinner. I skip the ramen and tea isles - yes, they have an entire isle devoted to tea - and eventually end up in the pre-packaged food section, which has everything from candy to beef jerky. For some reason, beef jerky sounds like exactly what I want, so I look over all the packages, trying to find one that I KNOW will be beef, or jerky, or both. Ah HA! I see a bright package full of shredded meat, completely in Chinese except for the words "BEEF" on the front and a picture of a cartoon cow. Perfect. It is also one of the least expensive beef jerky items at $110, and even though I know it is not the most nutritious of purchases, I try to justify it by looking at the protein content in the nutrition facts on the back. Of course, I have forgotten that they are all in Chinese, so I assume that this beef jerky has a LOT of protein. Looks like, unless I learn to read Chinese, I won't be counting any calories in Taiwan. Shucks.

Now clutching detergent in one hand and beef jerky in the other, I emerge from the rows of isles into a large open area that contains the produce on one side and the frozen or refrigerated goods on the other. I walk around aimlessly, looking at the fruits and vegetables, none of which look appealing, and at the dairy products, all of which look confusing. I find the meat sections and marvel at the strange items under the clear plastic wrapping. Thankfully, I discover the chicken breasts which, although I cannot cook until I get a electric range, has been one of my favorite foods for years and I am grateful that RT Mart carries them. I come to a large spread of what appears to be fried foods, all of them glistening under the heat lamps, the man behind the counter staring at me attentively. I look over each item, and see something that resembles a large crab cake. In my current state of abdominal vacancy I know that fried foods are disgusting yet filling, so I shift my items into one hand and point at the crab cake thing with the other, holding up one finger and saying "one" in english, as if this will do any good. The man is perceptive and understands, picking up my item with tongs and placing it in a bag, then printing out a price sticker and placing it on the bad before giving it to me. I say "xiexie" politely, and look at the price as I walk away; $85 NT. Eh, it's a little steep, but I am proud of myself for both trying something new as well as the successful communication with the fried food clerk. I believe it will be worth it.

At this point, my hands are growing tired from holding all of my items, so I elect to bypass the bakery which is located against the far wall. I make my way to the checkout counters that are off to my right, but see a nice yellow box with a picture of a cake filled with custard on the front. The sign above the box says "79", obviously denoting that these items are on clearance. "Well, if they are on sale...." my starving sweet tooth begs persuasively, so I impulsively grab the desserts and head to the checkout. The line is long but the checkout girl is efficient, and I watch each customer's actions before me to see if there is any protocol I must be aware of before my turn is up. I notice that everyone seems to have some sort of "shoppers card", and I vaguely remember Connie having one when I was here with them a few days ago. Suddenly, I am gripped with panic! What if I NEED a card to buy my things?! What if this is like Sam's Club, but crueler, because instead of denying you entrance they allow you to THINK you are going to get to buy your items, then shut you down at the last minute?! It is finally my turn, and I turn and face the lady with a look of apology and terror. She says something in Chinese, and holds her hands in the shape of a rectangle. I hold my breath and shake my head "no", but to my relief she hits a button on the register and begins to scan my few items. I watch the digital numbers add up, the total coming to just under $400. Because sales tax is already figured into the prices of all items, one can figure out EXACTLY how much they will have to pay before coming to check out, so I am not surprised by this number. I hand the checkout girl 4 pink $100's, and she gives me back my change and receipt, but no bag. Hm? Perhaps she thinks I do not need a bag, perhaps she thinks I am just going to my scooter outside instead of walking a mile down the street to my apartment. I don't want to bother her, and I have no idea how to ask for a bag, so I gather my things in my arms and walk back towards the entrance, NOT looking forward to the long walk home.

Before I leave I decide to explore the food court and eat my crab cake thing before the grease congeals and it becomes inedible. I stroll down the walkway and into the food court, which is extensive but otherwise not out of the ordinary. The right-hand wall is lined with small food kiosks, and the middle of the floor is filled with tables and chairs, most of which are empty. I sit down by myself and take my crab cake out of the bag, smelling it first, then taking a bite. It is not exactly like I expected; instead of being bread-like and crumbly, it is chewy and spongy, but still tastes okay so I eat it quickly. I move on to the custard treats, eating three before I realize that they are not very good. I am so hungry I don't even care at this point. After my mini gorge session I gather my things and walk back up towards the door and out into the night air, adjusting my grip on my items as I go.

Walking home I realize that I am still very hungry, so I open the beef jerky and try it. To my surprise, the jerky seems to be covered in something that tastes and resembles baking chocolate. I can't decide if I like this at first, but after eating a few pieces my stomach begins to tell me that beef and chocolate are not a desirable combination. I eat one more custard cake to clear the taste of the choco-jerky from my mouth, and walk the rest of the way home nursing an upset stomach, feeling guilty and a little disappointed that I have splurged on items that have taken away my hunger at the cost of my comfort. "Next time will be different" I think optimistically, and make it home safely, leaving the sound and smell of the city far below.


  1. We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospection. Anais Nin

    way to live life twice, big brother.

  2. Reason you made a good choice to go to Taiwan No. 97: While generally more filling, nothing about the purchasing of Wal-Mart groceries is an adventure.

    Wal-Mart is a good place to go when you're feeling down about your physical desirability, however.