Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Results From My Cursory Investigation Into the Availability of Tampons in China

So last week, I read this article, which said Chinese people on social media praised Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui for talking about her period. The article included these statements: "Many [Chinese sports fans] said they had not realised it was possible for a woman to swim during her period" and "Eight decades after tampons first went on sale in the United States, a deep-rooted cultural resistance and inadequate sex education in China are blamed for the fact that only 2% of Chinese women use them, according to one recent study."

So, I was like "hmmm I've never tried to buy tampons in China. I've never noticed if stores here have them or not. I NEED TO GO INVESTIGATE."

I promised twitter I would do it, so off I went.

I mostly use pads, and it's no problem at all to buy them in China. There are tons of different lengths, thicknesses, with or without wings, overnight or day, etc. But I very very rarely use tampons- some months I use 1 or 2, some months I don't use any. [Question for other people with a uterus: uhhh is that normal? How many tampons do people typically use every month?] A year or two ago, when I was in the US, I bought a big box of tampons and ended up bringing them to China- not because I was like "oh I really need them and what if I can't get them in China" but because hey, they're perfectly good, I might as well pack them, they're useless to me if I just leave them at my parents' house, right? And I still have some from that box. So I had never asked the question, is it possible to buy tampons in China?

Anyway, I went out to a bunch of different stores- to do research for y'all- and here is what I found.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am in Shanghai. Shanghai is a very international city- I'm sure whatever I find will be a bigger selection than you see in smaller cities in China. I'm pretty confident you can find ANYTHING in Shanghai. (And if y'all are curious enough, I will totally go and look for tampons next time I travel to a less international Chinese city.)

First: small convenience stores

Lawson 罗森 Image source.
Lawson: This is a little convenience store where you can buy drinks, microwaveable dinners, little snacks, etc. There is also a very very small selection of cleaning products like laundry detergent, and hygiene stuff like pads. Oh and condoms.

Let's take a look at the period supplies in Lawson:

So... that's it? Well it's a tiny convenience store, we weren't expecting a huge, wonderful selection. There are several types of pads, but are there any tampons at all? Oh, what's this?

Look at that, I found 2 [identical] boxes of tampons. (The packaging says they are imported from Germany.) So... Lawson only has 1 option for tampons? We're not off to a good start here. Let's check the next convenience store:

Family Mart 全家 Image source.
Family Mart: Pretty much the same kind of little convenience store as Lawson. At the Family Mart I visited, I found the following selection of pads:

Yeah, that's all. You got your seaweed-flavored snack food (top shelf in the image), you got your pads (2nd and 3rd shelves), and you got your kleenexes and wet wipes (bottom two shelves). There are day pads and night pads, several different lengths, several brands. Pretty good for a convenience store. But no tampons.

7-11 Image source.
7-11: The 7-11 I went to wasn't even like a real store, it was more of a stand inside the subway station. Lots of snacks and drinks you can buy, and a few pads:

That's all for 7-11. Small packages of kleenex, day pads, night pads, pantyliners, no tampons at all.

alldays 好得 Image source.
alldays: Another tiny convenience store. Here's what I found:

Yeah, only one slim little shelf, in a corner, below the packing tape and individually-packaged spoons [???? oh China]. Looks like 4 different options for pads, no tampons.

All right we didn't have high expectations for these little convenience stores anyway, right? Let's move on...

Next category: Chinese grocery store

Lianhua 联华 Image source.
Lianhua: This is a grocery store, but I don't shop there because they just don't have anything remotely like western food. No lunchmeat, no imported section, etc. Anyway, here is the situation for pads:

Lots and lots of pads. Good selection- I bet you could find any length/thickness/whatever of pads you wanted. I did not find any tampons.

(Note: Okay picture me going into these stores, taking pictures of all the pads. I was worried that an employee would come over and ask if they could help me find something- at this point, I hadn't looked up the Chinese word for "tampon" so I would have had to tell them I was looking for "the one that you stuff inside." Fortunately that didn't happen.)

Next category: A store specifically for all kinds of hygiene/beauty products

Watsons 屈臣氏 Image source.
Watsons: This is a store where you can get shampoo, makeup, and all that kind of stuff. Also, condoms.

Pads, pads, pads, so many pads. Really nice selection of pads. Oh, what's this? I found tampons!!!

Fantastic! This is the best store so far. They have 2 brands: o.b. and In-V. o.b. has three different sizes and In-V has two different sizes. (All of them are marked "imported from Germany.") [进口 means imported- you can look for that in my photos.]

However, I later went to a different Watsons and found only o.b.:

So I guess it's kind of hit-and-miss.

Next category: Big grocery store

Carrefour 家乐福 Image source.
Carrefour: This is where I do most of my grocery shopping. And where I buy pads. Take a look at all the pads:

 I really love how they have the sample pads hanging there so you can see exactly how big they are. And on every single product's packaging, it says the exact length in millimeters. Very convenient.

 All right, there are shelves upon shelves upon shelves of pads, disposable underwear, pantyliners, etc. Any tampons?

Oh, what's this? I think I found them!
 Do you see them in that image above? Look on the bottom shelf.
Ha! I found tampons at Carrefour! There is only one brand (o.b.) and only two options available. (Again, the packaging says they're imported from Germany.) And I had to look for a long time to find these. They're down on a bottom shelf, really non-obvious.

All right, that covers all the places that I typically go to. But what about some big, expensive, imported grocery store, the kind of store that makes expats sigh longingly and say to each other "They had cheese. Real cheese. Ohhhh cheese. It was 50 kuai [$7.50], but I bought it... wow cheese." The kind of store I never shop at because everything's so expensive and I might get there and see a can of soup or a muffin mix [oh my god I want a muffin mix] and pay a hundred kuai for it because IT'S JUST LIKE THE ONE FROM HOME.

So here we go...

Next category: Imported grocery store

City Shop 城市超市 Image source.
City Shop: This is one of those international, heavenly grocery stores. Let's see if they have decent options for tampons.

So I walked in to City Shop and the first thing I saw was Mott's applesauce and I WAS SO HAPPY, do you guys know what reverse culture-shock is? OH MY GOODNESS, Mott's applesauce. (Only after moving to China and trying to explain to people what applesauce is did I realize the name is very confusing. It's not sauce. You just eat it by itself.)

Mott's applesauce for 38 kuai [$6]. I managed to control myself and not buy it.

Okay but seriously, do they have tampons? I found the following pads:

Oh hooray, I found tampons:
Only 1 brand of tampons (Wishu) at City Shop, and they are all "mini" size. No other choices. (According to their website, Wishu is a China-based tampon company started by a French couple. I'm not sure if they're importing tampons from Europe or manufacturing them in China. Their site says the tampons are "European quality." The point is, ALL the tampons I've found are imported or at least heavily influenced by Europe. Nothing native to China. Though here's an article that says China will soon launch its first domestic tampon brand. Hooray!)

And then, as I continued my adventure at the international grocery store, I saw chocolate chips- OH MY GOODNESS YOU GUYS, NESTLE CHOCOLATE CHIPS and had another reverse culture-shock moment.
Fun fact: You know how in the US, there's the stereotype that women like to eat chocolate when they have their period? Chinese culture doesn't have that concept at all. I asked a few Chinese female friends about it and they acted like it was the strangest thing they'd ever heard.

Let's sum up. Here is a table showing the results of my field research at different stores in Shanghai:
Store type Store name Number of tampon brands Total tampon choices
Convenience stores
Family Mart
Chinese grocery store Lianhua
Hygiene/beauty store Watsons
Big grocery store Carrefour
Imported grocery store City Shop

Yep. Wow. Watsons is the winner. But wow. That is sparse.

Now, it's tempting to add up that "Total tampon choices" column, but that wouldn't be right, because I saw the exact same products in different stores. So let's make a new table to show the different brands and how many distinct products I actually found:
Brand Available at Number of different products
Bluetex Lawson
Watsons, Carrefour
In-V Watsons
Wishu City Shop
Total 7

Yep. There's the total. In all the stores I went to, I only found 7 different tampon products. Easily found hundreds of types of pads, but only 7 kinds of tampons. And as I said, I'm in Shanghai. If an average person wandering around Shanghai for a day can only find 7 choices for tampons, then there are DEFINITELY small cities in China where you can't find any at all. And if enough readers are interested, I will totally wander around a small Chinese city and tell you what I find. [Note: In China, "small city" means it "only" has 5 million people or so.]

All right that basically covers all the stores- but what about online? It's China, everyone knows you can find anything on Taobao. Let's take a look.

I searched "卫生棉条" (tampon), here's a screenshot of the results:

This is just the first bunch of results. When I scrolled down, there were more and more. Click the image to see a larger version.
Looks like a lot of different brands: Mytex, Tmaxx, o.b., Tampax, Playtex, etc. There are options that ship from Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Wuhan, Nanjing, Dalian- many many cities. Yep, you can find anything on Taobao. (My favorite was this one because it has a [probably NSFW] gif that shows how to use them.)

So probably the best way is to buy them off taobao.

(Also, a quick google search for "where to buy tampons in shanghai" reveals there are TONS of English-speaking women/people with uteruses who are asking this question.)

So. Personally, I have a good thing going with my buy-a-box-in-the-US-every-two-years-and-use-them-rarely strategy. Tampons are really good to have occasionally but I don't use them that much. (Anyone want to talk about purity culture and how it blocked any awareness that my vulva is a real thing that it's possible to stick things in? I'm still getting over that.)

I'd also like to find out more about sex ed in China. I've asked two different Chinese friends about this, and they both said they didn't have sex ed, that it's not really something that exists in China. (One said their parents never talked to them about sex either, so they just kind of figured it out from porn. Ohhhhh dear. Oh by the way, porn is illegal in China. But you can't stop the internet, people will find it anyway. They can block google but they can't stop people from finding porn. Okay.)

On the other hand, until January 2016, China had the one-child policy. (Now it's been changed so Han Chinese couples are allowed to have 2 children. The one-child policy never applied to any minority ethnic groups, only Han Chinese, which make up 92% of the population of China.) Which means the government gives out free condoms. Like, there is a box in our apartment complex where you can just go and get a package of condoms, nobody is watching. In my opinion though, that's not enough- and it seems very backwards to have a one-child policy while not giving people thorough education about contraception. Seems like Chinese society isn't willing to talk about sex though.

ANYWAY the point is, tampons exist in Shanghai. They're not terribly easy to find, but you can find them. You won't have a very big selection though, unless you buy them online. I guess you can debate whether it's more convenient to put in the work of searching for decent tampons here or just bring back a whole bunch whenever you travel internationally. (As for the price: I don't really have a clear idea of how much tampons cost in the US, but it's gotta be more expensive to buy them in China because they're imported and hard to find.) In my opinion, though, this points to a bigger problem: Chinese women aren't given enough education about their own bodies. I'm glad Fu Yuanhui was willing to talk about it.

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