Possibly the most iconic American shop known across Europe, experiencing Walmart for the first time as a jet-lagged and slightly bewildered Brit lives up to the hype. A building of pure Americanism, the lit up letters standing tall over the shop seem to blare out the national anthem as I drive up to the store. A rectangular slab of consumerism, the car park littered with oversized trolleys large enough to fit the standard pre-diabetic supersize family’s dinner in, Walmart only needs an American flag outside to have peaked the image of America.
I step in with expectations. I’m expecting frat boys in their bro tanks to be yelling ‘Dude!’ down the aisles. From what I’ve seen so far, some awwwesome NAU clothing should occupy a corner somewhere. And most definitely, there'll be an aisle or two of the most calorie high chemically seasoned ‘food’ you can imagine. Walmart does not disappoint.
The first thing I’m drawn to at the shop is the array of NAU clothing. Whereas only a few hoodies and t-shirts were available at my home university’s on-campus shop, American colleges get represented by every store looking to sell to proud college students. Going beyond expectations, in addition to the standard apparel are hats, leggings, even socks, and most surprisingly, NAU Mom and NAU Dad clothes. Because in America, when their child goes to college, the whole family has to represent them. Part of me is amused by just how much a walking advertisement for NAU some families appear to be, whilst part of me is saddened that going to college is something to be celebrated so much. Sure, getting good grades and having strong ambition should be celebrated, but I wonder if part of the reason they are so proud is because of the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished, with so many Americans dropping out of high school and the lack of interest-free government loan for college that would help so many go to schools where you have to pay thousands of tuition fees upfront. I later meet Americans who have to juggle up to four part time jobs in order to support their school life, and I start to understand this obsession with being so, so proud about your college. If I had to work 30 plus hours a week just so I could go to university, I’d cover myself head to toe in NAU gear too.
I go past the clothing section and reach the food. A delicious mountain of brands screaming out of cardboard boxes, walking through the aisles is like being on the ultimate shopping cart road trip. Marconi cheese in a box, pop tarts, frozen pizza rolls, and an overwhelming array of Oreo flavours. ‘None of them even taste good’ my flatmate tells me. I buy a massive box of birthday cake flavoured ones just to try them. But now I want some proper food. Some fruit and vegetables. I’m informed they’re down the front and I make my way with my sights set on leafy greens and rosy apples.
It’s a bit weird having not seen the fruit and veg yet. But maybe the shop is just so massive we haven’t gone past it yet. Maybe it’s tucked away in its own special corner, separated from the junk food. Maybe Americans only dedicate a few aisles to fruit and veg unlike a third of the shop like most UK supermarkets.
I see it at last. Some browning bananas and squished apples wink at me from where they’re piled up in boxes. Speeding up, my trolley and I look up and down for the freshest stuff they have. This involves going down the aisle to look at other food beginning to enter the decaying stage of life, and some overpriced salads in plastic boxes. It’s a little disappointing so I go past this aisle and onto the next one.
The next aisle doesn’t have any fruit and veg. It’s completely bare of apples, oranges, aubergines and potatoes. In fact, the shelving hasn’t even been built yet. The rest of the fruit and veg don’t exist. An overweight family of five waddle past me and the equation for the obesity crisis of the richest country on earth suddenly all makes sense.
Driving to the supermarket, we had passed a shop called Sprouts, my roommate informing me it was full of fruit and veg, a proper farmer's market, but that it was very expensive.
In an introductory talk to living in the US, we had healthcare explained to us, and every international gawped at the cost of survival in the US.
Walmart’s one aisle of past-its-best fruit and veg for prices more expensive than unhealthy, sugar laden food, is a symbol of good health being for the privileged rich in America. Those who can’t afford it buy the unhealthy stuff, and those who buy the unhealthy stuff are going to get ill. And in America, illness is a literal business. With a little sadness, I put several bags of frozen vegetables into my trolley and schedule a trip to Sprouts the next morning, courtesy of my government-sponsored student loan.
But before the standard American can get too sad about malnutrition (and I say standard because Trump won the election), Walmart does attempt to lift their spirits with a fantastic display of America’s favourite hobby. Guns!
I am not sure why a supermarket sells guns. Walmart is open 24/7, implying it is a shop selling the stuff you run out of or have a sudden need for in the middle of the night. It will maybe take the whole year of my residency here to fully comprehend the need to access a new gun 24/7. After all, even Republican-loving, fellow-student-hating, angry white boy Cody knows high school is only in session 8am-4pm.
It is a little of a relief to see you have to be 21 to buy a gun. And then I remember the drinking age is this age too. I just hope Americans pace themselves when trying new things. America’s gun culture will continue to baffle me and the rest of the world until—and if—it is ever resolved. At a party the following week I’m informed there are more guns than people in America, and the nice group of people I’ve just been talking to all have guns and voted for Donald Trump. As an outsider, loving guns just seem like an irrational, slightly crazy attachment issue that needs to be grown out of.
After reaching the gun kiosk, I decide to call it a night on my great Walmart adventure. It’s all over my Snapchat story, and seeing the food and guns especially has made the reality of America sink in. Tonight I’ll find out my roommate was right about birthday cake Oreos tasting gross, and tomorrow I’ll realise the food in Sprouts is my own definition of awesome. The only thing missing from my shopping trip was finding a nice big American flag to wear and shout ‘MERICA!’