Sunday, January 8, 2012

Over the Wall, a Whole New World

Nobody could ever accuse me of being industrious and hardworking. While I am certainly capable of hard work when the occasion calls for it, I assure you that I am in fact a lazy person. But, being lazy has its merits. For example: a lazy person will find the quickest way to complete a task. Tada! Thus is born the concept of efficiency. At least, that’s what my good friend Ron says. I agree.

For a long time after moving into my new apartment I used the excuse that I had nothing to cook on to get out of cooking my own meals. In fact I’ve had the same cooking equipment I had in the Concrete Bunker all along; I just didn’t want to walk all the way across campus and up The Street to the farmer’s market, and then carry everything back. Ditto with getting on a bus, going to a major store and then carrying everything home again. I did do it occasionally, OK! Twice! But I didn’t enjoy it. That is why I kept eating out (see Dogfood and Dry Noodles entry).

Once I got tired of eating dog food and noticed the noodles were making me fat and sluggish, I realized I had to change my ways, while still maintaining my lazy lifestyle.

As this housing area populates, people are going to need to buy food. Do they walk several kilometers to the outlets I know about? Will they continue to do so?

Looking through my kitchen window I keep seeing people with sacks of vegetables, coming from the path that I usually take to get to the internet café. They have to be getting those veggies from somewhere, but there was nothing there! Just the abandoned construction area, the small garden patches I cut through to get to the little courtyard that houses the café and a wall segregating an older residential area from the campus and construction zone. It is a long wall, going as far as the eye can see.

Wait! There is a break in the wall! Beyond this wall is an older community. I could see that by looking over the wall which is only about 7’ tall. And, hidden behind an abandoned shed is a narrow walkway leading into it. Surely the people in that community had to have some place to buy food, right?

Righto, Sophia! Now backtrack and tell everyone how you learned that this is so!

You should know that in China, only major stores sell produce. In neighborhood shops it is like it was 50 years ago in the States: the butcher sells meat, the baker sells bread, the milliner sells hats and the farmers sell produce. Another distinction: whereas the term ‘produce’ defines all agricultural products including dairy, in China there is a distinction between fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Here, dairy products are mostly defined in terms of yogurt. Milk is the chemically protected, vacuum packed type that is sold on shelves rather than in dairy cases, butter is generally not used and the Chinese consider cheese the grossest substance under the sun. Therefore cheese is virtually non-existent. Eggs are sold at the farmer’s market.

Fruits and vegetables are further subdivided. Fruit stands are plentiful, especially around campus because the kids like to snack on bananas and oranges, and they have an extraordinary love affair going with apples. Veggies can only be bought at the farmer’s market. Even at the farmer’s market there is a distinct separation between fruits (sold out front) and veggies (sold within the building).

On the menu for the Piggie’s party was the tomato and egg soup, remember? From a previous shopping expedition I had the eggs but not the tomatoes. No problem I reason, I can just go to the fruit stand in the courtyard where the internet café is. She sells tomatoes… except that day, she was out of tomatoes.

Now I have to either go across campus, up The Street and to the farmer’s market or I have to find out where all those people are getting their veggies from. I asked Fruit Stand Woman if there was a place close by that I could buy tomatoes from. She gestured vaguely toward that ‘behind the wall’ community.

No more putting it off. I have to put myself out there, possibly get pointed at and ostracized and surrounded by a bunch of people who were going to ask me a lot of questions I don’t understand.

I eased through that narrow walkway and into another world.

The Street is pure glitz. It is a college community street: all the shops and restaurants target students. While there are grandparents on The Street tending their progeny’s progeny, or quietly ambling around, one doesn’t get much sense of community. Not like the over-the-wall community, anyway.

Here, old folks can be seen sitting in the least dappling of sunshine, talking and listening to traditional Chinese music. Nary a car navigates these narrow lanes. Children are safe playing in these streets; their mothers look on while washing clothes by hand, in plastic tubs. Women meet to gossip while men linger on street corners, smoking and bantering. No air conditioners hang from the buildings but the air is rife with a smell of smoldering coal. There are not too many restaurants and only one street vendor. A few small shops offer minimal goods. It is life in a small town in America, circa 1940… except we’re in China and everyone is Chinese.

Two streets over is the vegetable market. By far not as regal as the one on the other side of campus, it still offers pretty much everything one needs to cook a satisfying meal: an assortment of ‘in season’ vegetables along with a small butcher’s stand. Next to the butcher is the egg vendor. At the entrance is a small fruit stand on one side and a ‘prepared foods’ vendor on the other side. She has a lot of tofu and roast meat. Across the lane is the dry goods store where one can buy rice by the kilo or a large jug of oil.

The first time I went there no one even pointed or stared. In fact, I had to ask two different people how to find the veggie vendor. With no fuss whatsoever they gestured toward which alley I should walk and told me how to get there. I did not hear any whispers of ‘waiguoren’ and I was not treated in any way badly.

That was a nice reflection on how much my Chinese has improved.

The second time I shopped this community was with Summer (see Twelve Days of Christmas – What Happened Next entry). As always happens when in company of one of my Chinese friends all conversation is directed toward them and I get to just stand by, even though I am the one actually transacting. The third time I did hear some ‘waiguoren’ talk, mostly from children. At the market everyone, shoppers and farmers alike gathered ‘round to quiz me. Not a problem, as long as they speak Standard Chinese and not the Wuhan dialect. They were as delighted with me as was I when I felt their acceptance.

Since that walk with Summer I have used this route to get to the main road. Especially now that the main road construction is complete and all the bus stops have moved – more on that later.

Today was an exceptionally beautiful day, weather wise. Although chilly the sun beat down and the wind was minimal. I decided to head out, see what there was to see and do what there was to do. Of course I followed the by now familiar path through the over-the-wall community. Since that last shopping venture when the farmers and citizens grilled me I have felt at ease ambling through.

At ease! My friends, you should see how ‘at ease’ things are now! A pair of seniors from the community was sunning themselves just outside the wall. As I passed by I smiled and said Ni Hao! They invited me to sit and join them! They even had a low stool I could perch on. How cool is that!?!

Their invitation set the tone for the rest of the walk through the neighborhood. A young mother washing clothes smiled her greeting and introduced me to her young son. He and I conversed for a few minutes, after which I congratulated her on how cute her baby is. On the corner, in the street… anywhere there was a patch of sunshine people were in it, enjoying the day. A group of old mothers smiled and nodded, I waved back and wished them a good day. The lone street vendor cast his greeting; I returned in kind.

Since living here I have never experienced this level of acceptance from the older community residents. As one said: “Look, there goes our foreigner!”

Our foreigner. I belong to them. I am a part of their community. I love it.

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