Kat Huang Memoji of me making a peace sign

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Grocery hoping


This post is more than 6 months old, so note that it may not be a great representation of my current thoughts or the way I would say things now.

My parents go grocery shopping way more than they need to. It’s their hobby. I know others who, by necessity or by personality, treat grocery shopping as a chore to optimize. Solve the traveling salesman problem on the store layout given your desired items. Compute a monthly budget for your staples, perhaps with a spreadsheet.

Sometimes we start shopping lists like side projects. My mom asks my sister and me if we want anything in particular. This question never crosses my mind during the rest of my life, so I inevitably offer nothing. But sometimes a recipe calls for special items, or someone wants to try new snacks. My mom and sister scrawl a few phrases of Chinese or Google Translate-mediated Chinese (Simplified) on a piece of scrap paper. By request, I text photos of products from Google Images to my mom.

The list quickly ceases to be of value. I suspect that what makes grocery shopping enjoyable for my parents is the novelty. Far from an optimization exercise, it’s a chance to get out of the house and physically exercise. No trip is the same because we open ourselves to whatever comes our way — the antithesis of shopping list-driven pathfinding. My sister and I stroll through aisles musing about plastic packaging, caramel chocolate, and fruit juice. She’s fond of keeping up with the blog What’s Good at Trader Joe’s.

One thing my parents do optimize, though, is getting the best deal. There are two topics I think my dad could write books on: one is the epistemological conflicts of Eastern astrology and herbal medicine in Western culture, especially from the perspective of a disenchanted immigrant scientist; the other is extreme couponing.

It’s a point of pride: he’s picked up twelve bottles of shampoo from CVS for basically nothing, back-to-school notebooks from Staples for one cent each. I’m pretty sure he’s gotten negative costs before, and the dumbfounded cashier pays him. Receipts with eight feet of rebates are no surprise. He carries around a lime green Walmart-esque pencil pouch containing dozens of coupons and a tiny pair of scissors. My parents scan weekly circulars for discounts — the ritual promises something different each week.

I diverge from my parents here. If I wouldn’t buy a grocery item when there’s no sale, why should BOGO (buy one get one) compel me to? Irrational penny-pinching and unfettered extravagance form two ends of a broad, broad spectrum, and I’m at some unknown, messy location on it. I feel bad when I print too many sheets of paper. I often tip service workers at least 20%, perhaps to make up for my parents’ years of stinginess in this department.

My consumer mindset is shaped by the mantra that quality is worth the investment, that capsule wardrobes are the aspirational ideal. It’s growing up comfortable and choosing to attend a Title I school that I was taught to deem “ghetto,” it’s wondering what urban really means. It’s accumulating a suite of five Apple products — my first ones ever — in the last two years and over-wearing my handful of Lululemons, lint and all.

But it’s also the knowledge that excellent, reasonably priced products — especially clothes that actually fit — are exceedingly hard to find in America, compared to my few Taiwan trips and those videos about how Japanese society has sped ahead like a Shinkansen train. And it’s inadequately-informed but palpable worries about sweatshops, fast fashion, and environmental devastation.

Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been living at home. I canceled my Amazon Prime subscription and have bought a dozen books from Bookshop. (My closest indie is half an hour away and my dollars get more mileage than me, it seems.) While I’ve been buying a lot less, the significance of grocery shopping in the household has grown greatly.

I’ve long been frustrated that my parents aren’t as into hiking and traveling to parks as I am — not just that, but they don’t seem to understand why anyone would be interested in parks. But perhaps their favorite hiking trails go by the names of Market Basket, Trader Joe’s, Costco, and HMart.

Originally written for my personal newsletter

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