I'm back in Minnesota now, spending the holidays with my mom and family. The big family Christmas dinner was at my mom's place this year, and as we were getting ready for the gang to arrive, my mom realized that she had no salt in the house. So off I went to Walgreens (for reasons that I cannot fathom there's one on every corner in this country now). It's open all the time, and they have just about everything. Interestingly enough, the store was full of people. As I looked around wondering what they were doing in the store in Christmas morning, I noticed that everyone had that look of "I have been sent." That included me, of course, for I had been sent for salt. Deciding to streamline the process and escape the aisles filled with lost souls as quickly as possible, I found myself in a conversation that could only happen in snowy Minnesota. I asked the clerk where I could find some salt. She asked me what kind. I stared at her blankly but in my mind was wondering what kind of stupid question that was. She snapped me out of my stupor by clarifying—"table salt or sidewalk salt?"
But of course!
Last Friday night I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping with some friends at Wantong Market at Fuchengmen. It's one of the markets in Beijing we lovingly call "Stuff Mart." It's 5 floors of stalls selling every bit of dongxi (stuff) that is made under the sun. You want it, they've got it. Cheap! At one point I spotted a friend at a nearby stall checking out some fun dishware. She was admiring the bowls and I could tell the vendors were a bit bemused by her friendly chatter to them in Chinese. I decided to add to the fun, so sidled up to one of the vendors and said to her (referring to my friend), "Bu guan ta. Ta chi cuo yao le." (Don't mind her, she ate the wrong medicine). At that, the vendor collapsed into a heap on the floor laughing hysterically. This was too much. A foreigner who can speak Chinese is one thing, but one who can crack jokes using local slang and idioms was just too much. Here's the thing–'to eat the wrong medicine' is an expression that means someone is nuts, kind of like "she's off her rocker" in English.
I love to make people laugh, and it's even more satisfying when I can say something funny in Chinese. For a brief moment, I felt like an insider. Don't eat the wrong medicine today.
In order to keep passengers occupied while sitting in long traffic jams, many cab companies have started suppyling an "in-taxi" magazine. It's called "Bai Xing Taxi." A rough translation would be "Taxi for the Common People, but that is really a misnomer since it is full of ads for consumer goods that the common people here would not (could not afford to) buy.
This month there was a bonus in that one article was actually translated into English (or should I say Chinglish). It was an article describing the "Christmas Feast" traditions in various countries. In Denmark they roast pigs and put them on the tables with apples in their mouth–"not for good luck, but because it is beautiful." In Mexico they apparantly eat fruit, so if you are a "highly refined woman wanting to lose weight" you should have a Mexican feast.
Things really fell apart in the section on Christmas Feast traditions of Great Britain, which tries to explain why the British eat turkey at Christmas (which they don't, actually): "At the Christmas of 1620 many immigrants from the Great Britain to the American continent arrived in the Plymouth Mountain, which was poor in resources but turkeys were everywhere. So they caught the turkey as the main dish of Christmas Feast."
I must admit to having a good chuckle at the thought of the Pilgrims getting off the Mayflower and seeing turkeys running around everywhere! And since when is Plymouth a mountain? Everyone knows it's really a rock!! Right?
Over the past few days I have noticed a small rash developing on my legs. By yesterday evening it was a full blown nasty-ugly-splotchy-itchy rash spreading onto my stomach and arms. It's the kind of rash that produces an itch that makes you want to scratch right down to the bone, which is what I spent most of the night doing. At 3AM I was turning my place inside out looking for some anti-itching cream, but alas there was none. By morning, my thighs looked like they were covered in raw hamburger, so I headed to my neighborhood pharmacy in hopes they might have something to help relieve my misery.
Not knowing the word for rash, I had to describe the problem. I had some on my arm, and some on my stomach but I knew that in order for them to really appreciate my predicament it was imperative that they see my legs. I grabbed two female pharmacists, went into a corner behind the counter, and dropped my pants so they could see the rash in all it's glory, so to speak! Keep in mind that this is not the shocking occurrence that it would be in the US, since it's quite common to see people trying on clothes out in the open in markets or wandering the streets in pajamas. Upon seeing my beet-red legs, they gave out a yelp, and pronounced with absolute certainty "guoming" (allergy), and then without missing a beat asked me if I had eaten fish recently. FISH? AGAIN WITH THE FISH?? In China everything always eventually comes back to the fish! I assured them that I had not eaten any fish recently, but I don't think they believed me.
They gave me three remedies: hydro-cortisone cream, an antihistimine, and 12 tiny jars of liquid calcium-gluconate that I'm supposed to drink. Don't worry, they come with their own tiny little straws. I've used the first two, but I'm very hesitant to drink from what look to me like tiny IV bottles.
I paid my $8.00, thanked them, and left the store just as they were convening what sounded to me like a symposium on Foreigners Who Speak Chinese. I was also anxious to leave before they figured out that I was the stupid foreigner who had come in a couple of years ago with a burned finger!!!
Last night, an elderly gentleman and I got on the elevator in my apartment building at the same time. Seeing that his hands were laden with grocery bags I asked him "which floor?" He looked at me, grinned, and then said in English "Five." I pressed 5. I then asked him if he knew English. "Only a little," he replied (in English), He leaned towards me, as if to let me in on a big secret and said (switching back to Chinese) "my five year old son has an English tutor and I like to listen in." Then he threw his head back and laughed just as the door opened on his floor. All smiles, he got off, turned towards me and said (back in English), "bye bye!"
It reminded me of a great Chinese proverb: 活到老，学到老，(huo dao lao, xue dao lao), which means "live til you're old, learn til you're old." I like that.
On May 12, 2008, China's Sichuan Province suffered a devastating earthquake that killed almost 90,000 people and left millions homeless. Six months on from that terrible day we don't hear much about Sichuan anymore, but the suffering goes on even as the rebuilding process has begun. The Boston Globe recently ran a moving series of photographs showing what the area looks like six months later. Please take the time to look at them and offer a prayer for those who continue to suffer and for those who are working to meet their needs.
The weather report for this morning here in Beijing is "SMOKE." Not mist, not haze, not smog, but simply SMOKE! This is one of the few cities in the world where SMOKE has joined the glossary of meteorological descriptors. But here's a thought—in a country where 70% of men smoke, does anybody really notice when the weather is smoke?
Last weekend in Hangzhou, my friend and I spent one afternoon boating on West Lake. It was a gorgeous late fall afternoon with lots of people out and about, so we decided to escape the crowds and get on the lake. Our boatman paddled us lazily along the north side of the lake where we had great views of the changing leaves (more hong ye!) and the activities of the folks along the shore. As we were paddling away (well, the boatman was paddling away–we were drinking tea), we heard the sound of someone singing. Now it’s not an uncommon thing to come across people singing at the top of their lungs in a Chinese park, completely oblivious to the world and the throngs around them. Sometimes they are singing Chinese opera; sometimes “Country Roads.” The voice we heard this day was singing some unfamiliar pop tune. As we got closer to the shore, we spotted him — a youngish fellow pretending to play a guitar, belting out a song at the top of his lungs! Is this Elvis, we wondered! Nobody gave him a second glance.
So here’s the question I was left with: who in this picture is stark raving mad? The air guitar player and the passers-by who pay him no never mind; or the foreigners who think it’s odd? It’s a question I wonder about a lot here because it’s never as obvious as it seems.