Walmart broke my brain. Our second night in country, Erin and I went shopping. Our list was eclectic: non-holey socks, a few groceries, personal grooming supplies, and a new notebook. We could have gone to a couple different stores, but we were in America now, land of one-stop shopping. So we headed for the closest Walmart. This was not our best decision, but I'm going to blame it on the jet-lag.
We pulled into a parking lot larger than our entire neighborhood in Saigon and spent an awed moment staring at the monolithic storefront.
"I don't remember them being this big," Erin mumbled.
I quietly agreed. Then we foolishly went inside.
Just walking that one aisle end to end, I could buy paint and party supplies, sweatpants and bedding - even steaks, way down on the far wall. ONE. AISLE. The breadth of it was punishing, the visual equivalent of standing six inches from the speakers at a rock concert. We quickly became shell-shocked, physically ill from the sheer madness of choice. It took hours to find everything, and by the time we made it outside, we felt like soldiers fleeing a battlefield.
I fumbled for the car keys. Erin stood beside me, clutching purchases against her chest like a desperate flood victim.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"Home?" I wondered.
She just shook her head.
Spending time away from the United States means forgetting a lot of things. We got used to walking to corner stores, doing our shopping in tiny increments. Go here for coffee, they only have one brand. Go here for detergent. Over here is a stationary store... tiny notebooks and a little display of cheap pens. Everywhere we went, the scale was small - stores the size of postage stamps, with cramped aisles and tidy shelves.
After that, Walmart felt like Dresden after the bombs. Of all the culture shocks I've experienced coming home, retail is by far the worst.
Just look at this photo from the grocery store around the corner.
That is an entire aisle of soft drinks. To anyone else, that's normal. But to me? I cannot begin to describe how baffling it feels to round a corner and find more Pepsi products than I could drink in my lifetime. It's just... wrong.
I realize my perspective is skewed. My friends don't break down in existential angst every time they visit a supermarket. But ever since coming home, shopping feels strange and big and unnecessary. It's all vaguely familiar and at the same time, profoundly alien.
So I decided it was time to get something comforting.
I briefly considered buying some ramen, but I knew I'd be disappointed. Then I searched around for tropical fruits, some nice mangoes or dragonfruit. I found them, sickly and small and wildly overpriced. I wasn't that desperate... yet.
Then I decided to go in search of soju. Soju is Korean liquor, made from rice and barley. It's clear, smooth, and one of the best selling alcohols in the world. Erin and I developed a taste when we were living in Chungju, and it was still widely available in Việt Nam. I figured Milwaukee had to have a bottle or two lying around somewhere.
But my local liquor stores weren't much help. Whiskey? Dear lord yes. Gin? Enough to drown a dozen Beefeaters. But the Asian sections only had sake and a few plum wines. This was unacceptable. Then I found my salvation.
At first, the Discount Liquor was like every other store I had visited. The aisles were crammed with a dizzying array of booze - tequila, rum, whiskey, brandy, liqueurs, and wine. The beer selection alone was an assault on the senses. I have never seen that many brands in a single location, ever.
But on a dusty, forgotten shelf, I found my Korean soju. They even had two different types! It wasn't till I got it all the way home that I realized my prize was actually from Japan. I wondered what a Korean would think of their national alcohol, represented in America by a Japanese company. Then I wondered how a white kid from Milwaukee's South Side had come to see soju as a "taste of home."
Then I decided I didn't care. I had gone shopping and survived the experience. And if I was still unsettled by the whole thing, I knew it would get better. I just had to readapt to home.