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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Friday, May 25, 2012

And this not so little lao wai went to the market


Customers queuing to buy egg tarts,a popular treat
Steamed bao zi
One of my true cultural experiences this year has been my weekly or biweekly visit to the local market and shops in my neighborhood. My local cai chang or market is located underground on the corner of the streets Fujian Lu and Tielubiejie. Upstairs and outside on the corner, life is a buzzing and bustling. Different kinds of activity and traffic make up a hierarchy in this intersection. A homeless couple sits silently and shamefully on the ground staring down at the sidewalk and refusing to look up as they hold up a tin cup in which passerbys may throw a few jiao or small amounts of paper money. Typically an older couple, one maybe blind, performs sad mournful music on the erhu, a traditional two-string Chinese violin. Pedestrians saunter by and carry little children with split pants or pampered and dressed up poodle dogs. Small crowds of people wait in line on the sidewalk to buy Portuguese egg tarts, steamed boa zi (steamed buns filled with meat or vegetables or sweet bean paste) or KFC style fried chicken. Bicyclists weave their way through the obstacle course of pulled up cars and loitering pedestrians without being knocked over by the stealthy, quiet and sneaking-up electric motorbikes. The mopeds and electric motorbikes, usually carrying at least two people or a heavy load of timber or twenty heavy boxes that are precariously strapped onto the vehicle, have a special status in the intersection as they only stop briefly for drop-offs or pick-ups or may not even stop at all. Mopeds and motorbikes don’t have to actually stop at red traffic lights and the drivers are extremely skilled at keeping one hand on the horn of their bike while the other hand takes control of steering the vehicle ahead into the middle of the intersection while also maneuvering it around pedestrians and larger vehicles coming from all different directions. Taxis stop and go through the intersection as well, although don’t count on ever getting a cab during the time you need one most. The drivers will likely be switching shifts for a 2 hour time block from around 5:30 to 7:30 pm (or whenever they feel like it). The corner of Fujian Lu and Tielubiejie, like many similar streets in this affluent part of China, has an increasing number of private cars dotting the street, most of which are fairly new and pricey. Black Buicks (which somehow have sold quite well here and some wealthy Chinese might mistake them for German luxury cars), VW Passats, Audis and BMWs with tinted windows outnumber the small Chinese hatchback QQ cars with Hello Kitty or Snoopy stickers on them. Mien bao che- translated literally to “bread vehicles” because of their shape’s resemblance to a loaf of bread, also fit into this hierarchy. These vehicles typically are pretty banged up but are practical, especially for the vendors in the market who may load up remaining goods and boxes at the end of the day into the back end of the little vans. At the top of the hierarchy of the intersection are public and private busses. The bus I take from my campus to the campus where I work crosses and turns into the intersection as well as various public busses that can be caught 100 meters from the intersection. Within a moment, one can hop off the bus and be thrown back into the chaos and hubbub of the world below on the street and be back almost on the bottom of the hierarchy. 

Fresh noodles and jiao zi wrappers
Sometimes I stop by the market after work and make my way through the crowds. When I enter into the front hallway of the market, I enter into another world. Upstairs are various vendors squished into small spaces selling prepared meats; fried flat bread and bing (a savory pancake); grains including different varieties of rice and beans; as well as dried fruits, nuts and herbal teas. Sometimes I stop by the woman selling the nuts and dried fruit to buy 10 quai (RMB) worth of raisins. I’ve struggled in conversation before with this vendor and even attracted a small crowd around who enjoyed the cheap thrill and entertainment of watching a goofy and clumsy lao wai (a somewhat crass but commonly used term for “foreigner”) woman pantomime her order of raisins and walnuts. In the end, we all laugh and enjoy our moment of mutual curiosity. 

The precocious son of one of my vendors (2nd from left) with other kids.  

My other favorite vegetable vendor peeling soy beans.
At the end of the hallway are the steps leading down into the market itself. I truly relish my trips to the market. Now that it is a warmer season, a wider variety of vegetables are available which means I am not required as often to make the long trek to the big Western style supermarket located about a 15- minute walk away. I’ve enjoyed cooking and preparing dishes recently where I can just run and get the ingredients I need from these produce vendors. I have two different vendors I like to go to for my veggies. I don’t go to these vendors because they have the best prices or the freshest selection of organic grade vegetables (to be honest- I have no idea whether the veggies are organic; whether the vendors are connected to the farm; nor whether the produce has travelled from very far). Instead I go out of loyalty. I now have some semblance of a friendly human connection with these vendors. The vendor in the back doesn’t always have a wide selection of produce. She and her husband work the table and depending on the time of day, their little energetic and precocious son may also be behind the table. When I first started buying from their table back in February, their son spotted me, looked up in amazement and screamed, “Wai guo ren!! (Foreigner!), ” to which I pointed back to him in cheekiness and said, “Zhong guo ren! (Chinese person!!)” The connection I made over this silly little child brings me back to their table every once in a while. I enjoy asking his mother where he is and practicing my Chinese to just have small talk about family. I also take pleasure buying veggies from a couple who are in their fifties or sixties. Always patient as I pick up countless vegetables and ask “What’s this called? What about that?”, they always respond back with the name (even if asked it the previous ten times before). The husband always tries to appeal to me to buy some other vegetable or cabbage that may be new for the season. Other customers may stop by and ask, “Ni shi na guo ren? (Where are you from?). Oh- America? Hen hao. Very nice. What are you doing here? How long have you lived in China?” 

Fresh eggs
A fish monger
For some reason, except for a small stand, fruit is not sold in the market. Instead fruit sellers sell their goods on the street level in separate shops. Down in the underground market, though, a shopper can buy a wide range of meat and fish; spices; herbs; tofu and other staples common to Chinese cooking. One fellow sells Chinese herbs and nuts necessary for Chinese traditional medicine. A device on his table grinds up nuts or seeds into powder or a pureed paste. A Chinese grandmother may lecture me on the health benefits of the melon seeds I am buying. I take a stroll to another shop below and find a place where  in different open tubs on a shelf are various cooking oils, pastes and pickled relishes such as pressed sesame paste or oil; pickled white radish or green beans; or soybean paste.  If I can’t find the ingredient while looking in the maze of a Western style supermarket, I will find it for certain below in the cai chang. Continuing on the outer perimeter of the market, I come along to a back corner where during certain times of day and I can see live ducks and chickens in cages that can be bought and “prepared” right there to be taken home and cooked. Continuing along the corner, both saltwater and freshwater fish and creepy crawlers are sold. Live turtles as well as eels swim in shallow tubs waiting to be seized up by the vendor to hand to a customer. 

Friendly butchers who broke out into a chorus of "OKs!"
Continuing along the outer perimeter of the market, I encounter butchers and meat vendors. Unlike in Western supermarkets, the meat is not packaged or frozen. The butchers likely get their meat fresh daily or perhaps even twice or three times a day. No part of the animal will go to waste. Different cuts of the meat can be bought and if chosen by the customer, can be sliced, diced or ground. Like many of the vendors in the market, my meat vendors come from humble backgrounds and are amicable Nanjing folks speaking with a thick Nanjing drawl. Last week while making my order, I inserted unconsciously a few “OKs” into my conversation. The vendors all around all broke out boisterously into a chorus of “OK!!! OK!”

A quiet and tender moment in the market.
From these trips to the market, I am always aware that I stick out like a sore thumb. I know I’m the tall female lao wai customer of the market. But, as I continue to come back time and time again, I have developed a sort of informal and basic friendly rapport with some of the vendors. Although there may be some teasing going on about my strange gait or my “OK!!’s”, I feel that these friendly and harmless jibes  are symbols of my acceptance into this small world below. Some day when I leave Nanjing, I will miss this personal and intimate experience and will have to accept shopping again at an impersonal, sterile and largely-structured big-name supermarket.   

1 comment:

  1. You finally wrote! :-) I've been wondering what you've been up to for the past month.

    It is very interesting to always see that my American friends enjoy the peace and personal touch to places in Asia, whereas I enjoy the peace and space of the Americas whenever I visit there. Is it because everyone needs a change every now and then? Who knows.

    Glad you enjoyed your day at the market! We just got home from ours with some yummy grapes and vegetables.

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