inside thoughts on China and beyond

Milk Rush

It’s been awhile since I last was in Holland. One year to be precise, or, as my assistant puts it: 12 boxes of Nutricia baby milk powder ago. She measures time by what is dear to her, and don’t we all?  My daily drive to work used to take me 4 songs, but after we moved to our new home it only takes one song. Sometimes even less than that and then I drive around the block just to hear the end of a Mozart cantata or Sting’s ‘Mr. President’. 

But now I am back in Holland and I don’t have to drive to work for a while. Instead, I spend a rather significant amount of time queuing up for the pay-counters of supermarkets and drugstores. According to my assistant, I had exactly one more box to stay in China and if  my work wasn’t providing for my trip back to Holland, she would. “No milk today, my boss has to go away” seems to be her song. Ever since China-made baby milk became one more item on the already long list of poisoned food around a year ago, Chinese mums will do everything they can to get what they need from overseas. And thus I was sent on a special mission -call it my home-assignment: collect infant formula and ship it to China. The first down payment was transferred to my offshore account and the rest will follow upon delivery. Lives are at stake, or so it seems. I did ask her once why a 4-year old still needed baby milk powder, but that was rhetorical and culturally quite  insensitive. The answer is predictable: what other food in China could she trust for her one-and-only son?

This is my last shop -for today. I’m the next in line. The older lady in front of me is a regular customer and overloads the counter with her gain. I’m holding 2 boxes of Nutricia baby milk powder and I’m nervous. For good measure, I study the different soothers hanging near the counter but decide against it. I will act the strict father. (I’m sure my real kids would find that a very fitting role, but I thought it wiser not to bring them along today.)

Buying milk powder may seem easy to you, but I tell you, even 007 would be struggling. Since Holland has practically closed its borders for milk powder tourism from China, you can only buy one box at the time. I feel the lady behind me staring at my milk boxes.

Goedemiddag meneer,” the cashier smiles to me. It’s my turn.

Hi. Only this.” And I place the 2 boxes of Nutricia on the counter.

“I’m so sorry sir, but we can only allow you to buy one box.” I’m starting to feel hot.

“Ah-no, is that so?” I respond innocently surprised while the warning signs “ONLY ONE BOX PER CUSTOMER” placed over every baby milk shelf are flashing through my mind. I’ve never been a good liar.

“Yes sir, ever since the Chinese are buying our shops empty leaving little for our own people, we have this restriction.”

“Oh? Is that so?” I say again. (I should really think of another response the next time!) “But what should I do? -My wife will kill me if I return with only one box!”

Now the lady behind me moved in. “Well, what if you buy one and I buy the other and you buy that one from me right away after?” She’s really feeling sorry for me.

“Of course, good idea,” the cashier added, “Besides, this gentleman doesn’t seem to me as the person that would buy milk here only to ship it all to China –Haha, can you imagine!”

We all had a good laugh at that -what a ridiculous idea!

Tja, can you imagine,” I added to the fun, “I might just do that!” More laughter followed and when I exited the shop, I left as a longtime well-trusted acquaintance. Back home my wife didn’t kill me and we quickly packed the 12 boxes of baby milk powder in 2 separate mailing boxes. We shipped it the next day. To China, of course.

5 responses

  1. Everybody drinks powder milk in China, from 0 to 99 year old, a box of western made powder milk is a present by excellence, no matter whoever you go to visit: a baby, an elderly, a patient, a stong man …, it’s almost a obsession.

    September 22, 2013 at 2:00 am

  2. Oh, wow. That’s sad that the Chinese can’t trust their own products. And sadder still that there isn’t a way for them to get what they need from other countries! Your story about standing in line and pretending ignorance made me laugh. I think we can all relate to feeling that way and doing something similar at various times.

    Best wishes,

    September 22, 2013 at 8:12 am

  3. Yes: it is sad that the Chinese can’t trust their own food producers even though probably only a few are the ‘evildoers’.

    September 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm

  4. Nz and Australia have been having their own problems with Fortuna milk powder as well and interestingly China was one of the very first to shut their doors to it. So frightened of a repeat I guess.
    Enjoyed the post. What would be like buying really naughty things I wonder?

    September 23, 2013 at 12:45 am

  5. i can understand the chinese moms fears. i know chinese-americans who don’t like to use chinese products either, because of the bad rep those bad companies left for the entire chinese food industry. it’s sad, but it’s potent enough to damage everyone’s perception of chinese food safety (or lack thereof).

    your story was funny. ‘oh is that so?’ especially when all the other customers thought you weren’t the type to export their formula. =)

    September 23, 2013 at 11:24 am