An Expats Guide to Survive Grocery Shopping

 Accepting and adapting to your host country’s perspective of food is the true key to mastering the art of grocery shopping as an expat.By Kelly Lapiana

Lemons are yellow and limes are green.

This is a fact I learned from an early age while standing on my little blue kitchen stool eagerly watching my mom prepare lemon chicken.

Naturally, when I decided to make the dish in my new Taiwanese home, I went looking for yellow lemons in the grocery store. At first, I blamed my struggle to find them on being unfamiliar with the store. After scouring the produce aisle and then searching the entire store inside out, I finally mustered up the courage to ask a sales clerk where to find them.

To my surprise, she pointed at the limes. Through my broken Chinese and fumbling with translation apps, I tried to explain that I was not looking for limes, but lemons. She seemed very confused, so I wistfully gave up and decided to make lemonless chicken for dinner.

It wasn’t until later that night amid my online search for “where to find lemons in Taiwan” that I realized they were right under my nose all along. The sales clerk tried her best, but I didn’t believe her. It turns out, in Taiwan the variety of lemons commonly sold are bright green!

I had to change the way I thought about lemons.

In fact, I realized I had to change the way I thought about food in general! Since then, there have been countless times in which I’ve had to adjust my expectations of food – certain meats are hard to come by, fruits and veggies may look very different, some sauces and meals are naturally sweeter.

Accepting and adapting to your host country’s perspective of food is the true key to mastering the art of grocery shopping as an expat.

However, since food is such an integral part of every culture, this means going through varying levels of culture shock and growth. To ease the transition, read on to learn some helpful tips to survive market, store, and online grocery shopping as an expat!

Market Shopping

  • Buy fresh market food as often as you can!
    • Not only will you experience a wealth of your host country’s culture, but you will also get the chance to build relationships with locals. One strategy that we were taught upon arriving in Taiwan was to find a different fruit and veggie seller for each item we need and consistently buy it from that seller. Get to know as many people as possible and visit them weekly!
  • Try new food.
    • Markets are a great place to try new food. There is usually a variety of fresh seasonal fruits, veggies, and popular snacks. You can buy as little or as much as you want, and some sellers may even let you sample for free!

Grocery Store Shopping

  • Visit the large and small.
    • You may find there to be large chain supermarkets (Carrefour, Costco, etc.) and smaller local grocery stores in your host country. The large chains prove helpful when searching for imported goods and the local stores offer more of the traditional food items. I try to support the local stores often, and save trips to the large chains for a few specific ingredients.
  • Learn simple words and phrases.
    • Depending on how fluent you are in the local language, you may need to learn some words and phrases in order to skillfully navigate your trip to the store. I’ve found the most useful words to recognize are common meats, fruits, and veggies, as these sometimes vary in appearance and can be tricky to locate – hence my lime/lemon dilemma.
  • You’ll also want to make a note of typical phrases store associates may ask you in the checkout line – “Do you want a bag?” “Do you have a membership card?” “Do you need a receipt?” – and learn appropriate responses. Don’t rely on the chance that the cashier will speak your language. Stretch yourself, and practice the local language, even if that means getting a little embarrassed!
  • When in doubt, Google translate!
    • This app has saved me endless time at the grocery store. It’s not always accurate, but it generally gives a good idea of what flavor chip bag you’re holding or how many apples you need to buy to get the discount price.
  • Bring a bag and a coin.
    • Many countries around the world are “going green” and no longer offer free plastic bags to take home your groceries. Be prepared with your own canvas bag! Bring a coin to the store as well, as it is common for shopping carts to require a small coin to be inserted to use them.
  • Ask veteran expats.
    • You are not alone! There have often been many brave explorers who have gone before you in the venture of finding that specific spice or baking ingredient you’re looking for. Join that expat Facebook group or ask the veterans in your community where to look – you’ll be surprised at the abundance of knowledge they possess!

Online Shopping & Substituting

  • If all else fails, buy online or substitute.
    • For those few and far between items that you may be unable to find, try looking online at websites like Amazon or iHerb that ship food to your host country. This can be a very convenient way to get what you need, but beware of import taxes! Find out about any cost limits to stay within in order to avoid them!
  • In the end, you may have to accept that you will no longer be indulging in those chocolate chip granola bars you used to eat every day. Don’t be afraid to grieve the loss of that special food item – change hurts. But do try to find a similar substitute snack or ingredient to satisfy that “comfort food” craving.

Make Lemonade

Before moving to Taiwan, I never thought that a simple task like grocery shopping could provoke such doubt and anxiety. These tips have all helped ease those feelings while living abroad.

 However, above all else, please give yourself grace.

It’s not easy settling into a new culture. Take your time and ask lots of questions. Embrace the awkward situations. Seek out the best in every circumstance. Laugh at your mistakes.

As you adjust to your host country’s food norm you might find that when Taiwan gives you limes, you can make lemon chicken!

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