“Your Personal Store.” That’s the tagline for Watson’s, the most popular pharmacy/drugstore shop in Asia and my go-to in China for so many health and beauty items I need. But after my experience this summer, I began to wonder if Watson’s wasn’t becoming “Your A Little Too Personal Store.”
Last summer, I lived mostly with my in-laws and visited Hangzhou or Shanghai only a few times. For me, that meant no Watson’s conveniently just around the corner or a short bus, subway or taxi ride away. So when I saw a Watson’s, I would sometimes kick into “storage mode.” That meant buying some extra peppermint hand wipes, another bottle of Johnson’s Baby Wash (for my sensitive skin), and, say, some more Durex condoms.
I’m a married woman, and yes, I wanted to replenish my condom stash. I sure couldn’t do it in my Chinese husband’s rural village, which probably sold those dodgy ones with what always looked like adult movie stills printed on the package. On this day in question, I still stayed with him in his rented room in Shanghai for a few more days, we’d have a few weeks or so together at the end of the summer before returning to the US, and what we didn’t use, we could always take home. Yes, condoms would definitely come in handy.
But I’d have to go alone on this one. “It’s easier for you,” John said. “They expect foreigners to buy these things.”
I couldn’t deny the truth in what he said — that many Chinese believed foreigners, especially foreign women, were so much more “open” about sex. Sure, I liked sleeping with my husband, and wasn’t afraid to say so. But that didn’t make me some foreign Jezebel ready to screw on the spot. Besides, I couldn’t hide in China — people noticed me everywhere as a foreigner, and that meant they might even notice my purchase even more.
“But people will stare at me, it will be so embarrassing,” I said.
He flashed me one of those “go-get-’em” smiles, and said, “You have self-efficacy, you can do this.” Then he patted me on the shoulder. That was all his way of saying, there’s no way in hell I will buy the condoms.
While John stayed with our shopping bags, I marched through the mall until I found that Watson’s logo lit up in white lights over that teal signage, the bright pastel lights around the periphery, and the pink tags in the aisles. Well, if his objections had to do with the store itself — which looked like it could emasculate any man who dared to shop alone in its borders — I could understand.
I darted through the aisles, to the back of the store, and sure enough, I found an entire wall of shelves stuffed with every kind of Durex condom imaginable. I saw all of these varieties they didn’t even sell in the US — all sorts of flavors, colors, textures. I reached for two, three boxes of them. Maybe I should buy more, maybe eight for good luck?
But then I saw a woman standing nearby who looked as old as my mother-in-law, smiling right at me and wearing a Watson’s name tag.
If you’ve never shopped at Watson’s, you should know that the store crawls with these assistants who help you find anything you’re looking for. I’ve always been an “I’m just looking” kind of shopper. I’d rather find it on my own than have someone tell me what to buy, and then wonder why I chose something else or decided not to buy after all. But these assistants seemed to have “lady laowai” magnets, because every time I went into a Watson’s I couldn’t avoid them — certainly not today.
“Here, you should try this one,” the woman said as she pulled a large red box of condoms off the shelf.
It was called “Pleasure Pack,” and it even had a flame on the packaging — not the sort of thing I imagined getting from a woman with the same dyed black hair and polyester pants like my mother-in-law. She’s not my mother-in-law, she’s not my mother-in-law. At least, that’s what I told myself.
I nodded at her, put the box in my basket, and tried hard to keep my gaze on the merchandise, instead of her curious eyes.
But she pulled another box of condoms off the shelf, something called “Jeans.” Then she said, “This one, it’s good.”
At least she kept her comments simple. I’d have hated for her to tell me, “That one has nice latex,” or, “The apple tastes better than the strawberry.”
She hovered over me the entire time I stood there choosing my condoms, so I picked the rest of my boxes fast (which came to eight), grabbed that extra toothbrush I needed, and dashed over to the register to pay.
I pushed my basket over to the girl behind the cash register. She swiped each box one after another and loaded them quickly into a Watson’s plastic bag. Maybe too quickly? She looked at the register again, wrinkled her brow, and said, “Sorry, I have to recount these.”
So she dumped the condoms out and tried swiping them again. But she still wasn’t satisfied, and tossed them on the counter, and swiped them a third time.
By then, two or three other store assistants migrated over to the register and hovered around to see what was going on — including my condom-pushing mother-in-law lookalike. With every moment, my face started to resemble all the red on that “Pleasure Pack,” with none of the fun.
Finally, the store manager, a young thirtysomething man in a shirt and tie, walked over and shooed the girl away from the register. He then emptied the bag on the counter for everyone to see again. Well, thank god he swiped them right the first time. He took my cash and then handed my receipt and change with my bag.
As for me, I never walked out of a Watson’s faster.
“What a scene,” I said to my husband long after we left that mall. “Recounting the condoms, all the people staring at me. It’s like they kept messing up on purpose.”
“I think they were so embarrassed, they couldn’t focus, so they had to count the condoms over.”
“So it’s not because they were curious about the foreign woman buying so many condoms?”
“No, not really.”
Well, good to know I wasn’t the only embarrassed one.
Have you ever bought condoms at Watson’s or somewhere in China? What’s been your experience?