In the 1950s, my mother delighted at the latest instant food mixes and frozen meals, because it meant she could spend less time in the kitchen and more time relaxing with Dad and me. (Both of my parents worked.) Dad, of course, had different opinions about instant mixes and frozen foods, but that’s another story.
Now, I live in south Seattle, in a neighborhood said to be one of the most diverse in the entire U.S. I like to do some of my shopping at a small Asian grocery store a few blocks from my house. I like to support immigrants and small businesses.
None of the packages of fresh fruits and vegetables are labeled, assuming that the people who shop here know what’s inside. There are at least 6 different kinds of leaves wrapped in plastic, roots and vegetables I’ve never seen before, several different kinds of chili peppers that I could never identify without having to go back to school again. I see packages of large green stems that I suspect might be sugar cane, but I don’t really know. Only the price is marked on the packages. I usually only buy what I recognize. I wonder if the goods are imported from China, from sources rejected by PCC and Whole Foods Market. They do, after all, cost much less here.
I have been taking my own canvas bag when I go shopping at that store, partly to get used to not using plastic bags, and partly to avoid accumulating them. After I’d picked out a variety of fresh vegetables, noodles and miscellaneous spices, I brought my things to the cash register. The woman behind the counter started ringing up my purchases and putting them in a plastic bag. “Oh,” I said, “I brought my own bag.” I handed her the canvas bag I’d brought with me.
She laughed. “Are you practicing having to bring your own bag?”
I nodded yes.
“How silly,” she said, shaking her head. “In the old country, we all brought our own baskets to the market. We never had to do that here. Now we have to go back to doing things the old way!” She laughed again. “I will put your things in the plastic bag, then put it all in your bag.”
She was so insistent that I didn’t argue. Her English wasn’t good enough, and I don’t speak Thai or Vietnamese, so I didn’t know how to explain the ecological impact to her. I recognized in her laughter my mother’s attitudes: in leaving behind the old country, they left behind all of the primitive old country ways, coming to a new land where technology ruled and modern conveniences (like plastic bags in stores) abound. This woman and my mother were so delighted at the time- and energy-saving devices they found here in America. The immigrants, like my mother in the 1950s, enjoy the comforts of American life, even if it means going against the current ecological grain. To them, bringing your own basket or bag to the store is going back to the kind of life they wanted to leave behind.
I will still continue to bring my own canvas bags when I go shopping. I will continue to believe it makes sound ecological sense. But I’ve gained some kind of ironic perspective. It reminds me of the time I first visited my relatives in Latvia, shortly after it regained its independence. “How wonderful that your farmers here don’t use chemicals,” I said. “That’s because we can’t afford them,” my cousin replied.