When in a western country, finding table salt is no big deal. Any grocery store carries it, and usually in several varieties and brands. Easy to find.
However, today I went looking for some table salt in Jinghong, China. In my pocket was a packet from the airline meal that was served to me a week ago. Arriving at our beer and bottled water store, I showed the owner of the store the sealed packet, with English on one side, and Thai written on the other. The thin young man shakes his head no. I open the packet, and pour some in my palm to show him. Again this cautious store owner says no. I taste it, and he still looks at me suspiciously. I put some in his hand and he is very reluctant about it, after all it is a white powder, we are in a communist country and I am a foreigner. In total distaste and with a bit of drama, he throws it on the floor.
Walking around the store there are packages of items everywhere. Are any of them salt? I see a wall full of shelves with white powdered substances, all labeled neatly, but they are in Chinese. I don’t read Chinese very well. Actually, I don't read it at all!
Choosing my bottle of beer, and 2 bottles of water, I put them on the counter, and point to my salt packet again, motioning around the store. This seemingly shy man says something vehemently in Chinese, of which I have no clue. I wander around some more, and he finally shows me a clear plastic bag of granulated sugar. At least I think it’s sugar. I say, “I don’t think so…” and I take my tiny ripped packet of airline salt and put it to some packages of peanuts, sunflower seeds, and miscellaneous items that look like they would taste good with salt. The idea dawns on him. He shows me a huge bag of what looks like MSG, ground fine like talcum powder.
We are making progress, I think. Do you realize how many bags of powdered white stuff there are? Finding Morton’s “When it rains it pours” isn’t easy in a foreign country.
Shaking my head no at the MSG, I say “don’t want any of that, thanks anyway.” However, the business man in him keeps shoving sugar and MSG at me. I say “no” politely, and point to the peanuts again, demonstrating the salt over them and touching my tongue. Bravely now, his hand is held out again, and I put a little salt into it. His tongue is brought to the tiny grains. Ptui! Ptui! He spits it out. Gosh. It could be American poison for all he knew.
I go back to my beer and water, and resign myself to getting no table salt here… While aggressively grunting noises the man places the bag of sugar on top of the bag of candy. Yes!! We have finally made a connection here mentally. Yes, sugar and candy go together, salt and nuts go together…
Allowing me to put a little salt into his palm once more, this time he actually tastes it. SALT! Adding up my items, I pay for them. Trying to make a sale he again points to the wall, but I say “no… too big, that’s ok… whatever…”
He then takes a corner of an empty plastic bag and twists it into a triangle as if to show me the amount I am searching for, looks at me eagerly, now wanting to please. I say, “ok.” I mean, how much is something that big gonna cost me, even if it’s the wrong white powdered substance? Leaving the store with me in it, and all his cash and items unprotected, I wait. And wait another minute. I try to look innocent and well behaved. I mean, I‘m in a Communist country here, and they have police everywhere, even when you can‘t see them, right?
The man returns shortly with a blue plastic bag seeming very proud of himself. I make a motion as to “how much?” and he thinks I want to taste it. I say ok. I taste it, and it is SALT!!! Amazing. Again, I ask in sign language how much is it?, and he waves his hand, generously, “it’s nothing” and is so gratified with himself for solving the riddle… and now I have some table salt to take home. Success!!
Even the most common searches can become an adventure in China.
Editor's Note: Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their popular website RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the popular books, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.