Monday, October 30, 2006
Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?
Well, technically it didn' was dead and lying face down in a bucket, so it really didn't have much of a choice.

Sorry everyone - I know I'm running out of cutesy phrases and creative pop culture references to use in my titles. But that is a pretty accurate description of my Sunday. Our tale today begins with my meeting on Saturday with the daughter of my colleague's neighbor. She and her friend came to Laiwu to visit family, but work for an airline on the route between Shanghai and New Zealand. My colleague, Dang Jia invited me to lunch with the girls, whose English names were Sarah and Ella (apparently for international flying, every flight attendant must also have an English name for their name tag). They were very sweet and spoke considerably good English. They even invited me to stay with them in Shanghai sometime and if I do decide to move there, to help me acclimatize. As a special treat for the end of our meal, Dang Jie ordered a gigantic fruit platter that had watermelon, grapes, banana, pear, and even tangerine slices - a welcome change from the usual. This prompted me to ask if there was a good place to buy fruit nearby. There was one place that had a pretty good selection - a kind of supermart for the area - but it was expensive, about an hour's walk away, and the store stopped carrying some of the types of fruits I like even though they were not yet out of season. I suppose this is where the story really begins. From out the window next to our table, Dang Jie pointed out a place down the street that I could go to. I saw a sign that read "超市" (chaoshi = small supermarket). Great, I thought. After lunch I returned home planning the next day to return and check it out. I was also looking forward to having a place right around the corner to buy all the other types of food I buy including, my favorite, 粥 (zhou = congee). Don't worry, it's not the stuff with eel and squid in it or anything, just plain old sweet bean congee.

So the next day I ventured over to the chaoshi, walked inside and took a look around. The first aisle I walked down had twelve packs of canned congee, which is perfect. I figured I'd grab the zhou on the way out because the twelve pack is heavy - heavy enough to be in a box with its own handle. Great, one down one to go. Next, the fruit. The one fruit I was particularly searching for is called 苹果梨 (pingguoli = asian pear). It's sweet like a pear but has the consistency and fibrousness of an apple. I started walking around the shop looking for it, but saw only meats, and canned goods. No fruit. So I asked the cashier where the place to buy fruit was. She pointed out the store and said, "down the street." I walked outside and down the street looking for any sign of a store with fruit, but I only saw electronics and cell phone stores. Then, I saw a vendor with a truck full of apples. As my eyes continued to scan down the street, it slowly dawned on me what my friends were actually pointing to the day before. Their comments had not been quite specific enough. It wasn't just "a place to buy fruit," it was a whole outdoor market. This will work fine, I thought. I began walking along the stalls, noting two vendors I had already seen who sold pingguoli. But shopping would happen later - for now I was just plain curious. From the way the vendors were speaking they were definitely native Laiwu - their Shandong accents were thick and if I hadn't already known what they were calling out (prices, offers, names of fruits and vegetables), I would've been utterly confused. Elderly women and men crouched on small stools with towels draped over their heads. It was chilly out (about 55 degrees), but the sun was bright and harsh in some places along the avenue. They sold fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts, breads, and grains. Tofu was on heated plates, ready to be sold fresh and soft. I even saw one woman selling popcorn, popped in a small metal cylinder that she spun around and around. She had different seasonings - some sweet, some salty.

And then it hit me. A smell. I can barely describe it except that I remember it made my nostrils flare up. Just then, sight connected with smell and there they were. Meat carcasses hanging on hooks. Chickens lying dead in buckets with their clawed feet sticking up into the air. Fresh fish still alive. And not-so-fresh fish dead, laying on paper, drying in the sun. This is not the first time I've been to a market like this. It certainly wasn't the shock of seeing dead slabs of meat and poultry that threw me. But I had never seen such aggressive salespeople. I was nearly assaulted by a woman with a dead chicken. She had it by the throat in one hand and was shaking it far too close to the vicintiy of my face and yelling prices at me. And let me tell you, did that dead chicken in my face smell great. That seemed to be their notion of "salesmanship." And it was a direct result of this interesting form of "sales pitch" that I wisely decided to turn back. I went to the woman with the best selection of pingguoli, picked out five that looked good, and paid a pretty low price for them too. I left feeling satisfied. I had my fruit. And no dead chickens. And I was okay with that.

On the way back I picked up the zhou and started back to my place. I passed an open market of women selling winter coats and children's clothing and outside of it all, a group of kids waiting in line at a vendor making, of all things, cotton candy. I heard children whisper "waiguoren" as I continued walking and had to laugh. And then I saw the strangest sight I had yet seen in Laiwu. A sign that had a picture of hamburgers and french fries on it. I stopped for a moment to check it out. It was for real. Tom's Food Club is literally the first "international cuisine" (and by that I mean anything remotely non-Chinese) I've seen in all of Laiwu. It reminded me of a Johnny Rockets. Maybe one day I'll try Tom's Food Club, but I think I'll wait until my stomach has hardened a bit more.

As I continued walking, the handle on the box of zhou suddenly broke off. With a bag of pingguoli in one hand, I was trying to balance the box of zhou on my foot and lift it back into my other hand. And just as quickly as it had fallen, a teenage girl with a large shopping bag came out, lifted the box of zhou, put it in the bag and gently cautioned me with, "慢走吧" (man zou ba - literally meaning walk slowly, its translation really comes out to something like "be careful"). And there's the moral for today. This steel town may be primitive sometimes, they may thrust dead poultry at you, and they may only have one very sketchy "international" eatery, but these are truly good people.
posted by Rachel @ 10:12 AM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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