Yep, can you believe it, I’m gonna’ write about the price of eggs in China! 🙂
I was shopping at the local market the other day, and I needed to buy eggs. First of all, when you buy eggs here, you purchase from the egg seller. Yes, there are eggs in supermarkets, and there are supermarkets. In fact, Wal Mart recently purchased the chain store here "Trust Mart," where a lot of Chinese people shop not just for groceries but for cooking pots and cameras. I could shop at Trust Mart, but I usually don’t. One thing I enjoy about China is that I can catch a glimpse of life that’s not controlled by huge conglomerates that own everything. I prefer to shop down in the local market, which most westerners call the "wet market." Each neighborhood area of town has a wet market within walking distance. I’ve read that these free markets were the first enterpreneurial ventures to emerge after the strict regulation of communism gave way to a more free market economy.
In the wet market, you can buy any kind of meat or produce. There are fruit stalls and vegetable stalls. There’s a lady who sells all kinds of tofu products, another lady who sells all kinds of pickled vegetables, there’s the mushroom lady, the fishmonger, there’s the woman who specializes only in frozen fish, the pork seller, the beef seller, the place to purchase various kinds of cooked chicken, another booth that has a different kind of roasted meat (sometimes included roasted dog carcases). You go to the various booths to purchase what is needed for that day’s consumption. Each market usually also has booths where individual shopkeepers each specialize in other types of items: one shop will sells various kinds of nuts, another booth will have sauces, another will sell grains both whole and milled, another will sell various kinds of dried peppers, another will have various kinds of dried fish, another will have dried herbs and "Chinese medicine."
There are a couple of egg ladies. They have many types of eggs and all for different prices. Some eggs are small and black with white speckles, some are duck eggs, some are bigger than chicken eggs but I can’t tell what they are, some are obviously pigeon or quail size eggs, some are pickled. I don’t have language skill to ask what they all are; I’ve only ever purchased chicken eggs. Chicken eggs are layed out in different trays with different prices. They are sold by weight.
The seller hands you a bowl to put your eggs in. You go through the big stack of eggs and pick out exactly which ones you want. To do this, you examine each one for cracks and candle it. Do you know what "candling" is? Having been raised around an egg farm, of course I know what it is. Here’s how it’s done at the egg seller: Around the perimeter of the egg counter, about waist high, there’s a plywood platform with egg-sized holes cut out every foot or so, with a light and a light switch at each hole. You place each egg over the small hole and then turn on the bright light underneath it, so that you can see through the egg. By examining the egg this way, you can tell whether there’s a chick inside or whether the egg appears to be discolored which would indicate that it is rotten. After you have examined each of the eggs and decided which ones to purchase, you hand the basket to the egg lady. She weighs it and tells you the price.
Unless you know and trust a seller, it’s a wise thing to examine the scales to make sure the price quoted is based on actual weight and not inflated, especially if you are a stranger and there’s a chance they’ll think you’re a gullible foreigner! In terms of being a gullible foreigner, just the other night I was at a market near the Garden Hotel where a lot of tourists gather. I need to purchase half a loaf of bread, the going price for which is 3 RMB. I pick up a loaf, ask the girl the price (speaking Mandarin). She mumbles something that sounds like the English word "Ten." It seemed to me, she was testing the waters to see if I would pay her 10 RMB for the half loaf of bread. I hold up three fingers and ask her "Sam?" Which in Cantonese is "three." By speaking Cantonese, I was deliberately letting her know that I’ve been in Canton for awhile and she can’t get by with that. She nods okay, and I give her 3 RMB.
Well, back to eggs.
While I was shopping the other day, I noticed that large, brown eggs were the cheapest among the choices of the various kinds of eggs. The most expensive eggs were the very small, white chicken eggs. When I got home, I told this to Song Ying. I told her that in the USA the large brown eggs are the most expensive, while the small white ones are the cheapest. Song Ying thinks this is stupid. She says that smaller eggs have the best flavor. But also, she explained to me, the brown eggs come from the countryside. She says that Guangzhou chickens lay white eggs. People don’t know the quality or level of chemical contamination of what might come from the countryside, so they pay more for the assurance of getting eggs from what they assume is a local, reliable source.
I don’t know the factual accuracy of whether local Guangzhou chickens really lay white eggs. I don’t know if brown eggs might really be less reliable in terms of quality. Because, in fact, the color of the eggs depends on the breed of the chicken rather than where its laid. Moreover, it’s almost guaranteed that every large farm selling chicken eggs uses large amounts of hormones and antibiotics, no matter what breed of chicken is laying the eggs. The eggs most likely to have least contamination, in fact, are those that come from small households where the chickens are fed some grain and yard scraps. So, I do question the factual accuracy of Song Ying’s belief.
But leave it to me to find even more of a philosophical slant my commentary on the price of eggs in China! I’m talking about the greater causes and ramifications of Song Ying’s assumptions. Why does she think that local eggs are the best eggs? It’s because she knows more about local conditions. Here, you can’t count on honesty or fair dealing in business relationships. You can’t count on the eggs being clean and uncontaminated. You can’t count on anything you can’t see, you can’t trust anyone who hasn’t proven themselves personally reliable to you.
I’ll give some other examples that go beyond eggs. There have been widely publicised examples of plagiarism and cheating in universities recently. Some individuals were dealt with harshly, but a university professor recently told me that this attitude seems to be embedded into the whole system. Students only want a diploma, and they think nothing of cheating to obtain it. Professors routinely tolerate cheating by students. Even a university seeking to raise its status will do the things it takes to look good on paper, but it’s all only on paper. As a result, university diplomas don’t mean a whole lot. We came to this discusson because we were talking about the juxtaposition of our western values as against the value system that we find ourselves functioning in. One always faces the question, "Do I adhere to my cultural standards, or do I adhere to the standards of my host culture?" In this case, the professor had surprised some students by refusing to tolerate the cheating and actually failing some of them.
But, here’s an even worse example than eggs or university diplomas: The N.Y. Times recently ran an article about counterfeit antimalarial drugs that are being marketed in third world countries. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/20/science/20coun.html?ex=1330146000&en=55b6cac22aeb1bff&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink .) The counterfeit drugs are manufactured in China. Some of the counterfeits are so well copied as to even have hand-painted logos and difficult-to-reproduce insignias that were originally designed to prevent copying. But here’s the most shocking thing from this news story: some of the fake pills not only are ineffective against malaria, but they contain tylenol which suppresses some of the malaria fever symptoms, thus lulling the victim into a false sense that the malaria is getting better. Because he thinks he’s getting better, the victim doesn’t catch on that the pill is fake, losing valuable time in treating a life threatening disease.
A USA scientist was quoted as saying he would go so far as to call it manslaughter. Actually, with my background in criminal law, I have no problem calling a spade a spade. Murder is defined, in western law, as the unlawful killing of another human with malice aforethought. Okay, the unlawful is the counterfeit, the killing is the death, and then, there’s the component of "malice aforethought." People don’t really understand this quite as well, but it’s a question of degree of forseeability. If you do something that would forseeably result in the death of a person, then that is malice. When these Chinese companies knowingly and purposely supply victims of a deadly illness with a fake drug, including ingredients to reduce symptoms for the express purpose of forstalling the victim from seeking life saving treatment. It’s a clear cut case of murder.
I’ve pointed before in some of my Blog entries to differences in cultural standards, attitudes, and values. Westerners tend to take certain things for granted. We take for granted that someone selling us a life saving drug won’t deliberately be pursuing a course of action that will, instead, forseeably lead to our death. To make those Western type cultural assumptions in China is stupid. There’s no particular concept of "win-win" solutions. The goal is: "what can I get."
So, what’s the price of eggs in China? Between 1 – 5 RMB per half kilo, depending on what kind of egg you buy. Or, maybe the price could be cancer at a later date. Some people don’t buy hardly any local food. I’m not in that category. I figure, if it were that bad, it would have killed the chicken. But, when there isn’t any effective regulation, no clear communication, no commitment to public disclosure of health hazards, there’s no way to know exactly what the risks are, plus I don’t even know what’s being reported in the newspapers! Just remember: Don’t make any value-based assumptions in cross cultural situations, because what you don’t know CAN hurt you. In this case, I just hope it’s safe enough.