This morning after church, my mom and I went with a couple of Chinese friends to a funny little “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant down a lane in the heart of old Beijing. These little lanes are called hutongs, and are a unique characteristic of Beijing. As this city undergoes massive upgrading and modernization in preparation for the Olympics in 2008, these old neighborhoods are slowly disappearing. There are, however, a few left, and they are great places to experience some local color.
One such place is a little mianshi guan (noodle shop) that I discovered several years ago. My mom had been there with me on previous trips, and so wanted to go back there today. The proprietor is a colorful character, who, in the style of old Beijing restaurants is given to yelling (in a friendly manner) at his customers when they walk in. HELLO! WELCOME TO MY SHOP! The last time my mom had been there (and everytime I go), he had yelled, HELLO! WELCOME! OKAY!…in English. We wanted to see if he’d remember her today.
So in we walked. I entered first (he recognizes me), and got the HELLO WELCOME OKAY routine first. I told him that my mom had come back from America, and just as she walked in, he hollared (in Chinese) at the top of his lungs, THE OLD REVOLUTIONARY MAMA HAS RETURNED!! Everyone in the tiny place (only 4 tables) cracked up, as did I and my Chinese friends. Of course my mom hadn’t a clue as to what had been said.
I asked my friends why he’d used the term “revolutionary mama” and they reminded me that people my mom’s age in China had taken part in the revolution (1949), and so it was somewhat a term of endearment. There was also a time here when the state sort of deputized the neighborhood grannies to keep watch over the activities in the hoods. They’d sit on the street corners, wearing their little red arm bands, watching the comings and goings of the local folk, reporting anything they noticed that might be harmful or even subsersive, like the presence of a big-nosed foreigner. Who needs secret police when you’ve got revolutionary mamas? These grannies came to be known in English as “Marxist Mamas” Even though it’s not as strict and formal these days there are occasionally still times (like when government meetings are being held in town) when these Marxist Mamas are re-deputized to keep an eye on things. And believe me, you don’t want to mess with them. The power of a Marxist Mama to harangue is fearsome!
Well, I’m not of course suggesting that my mom is a Marxist Mama, or that she’s even fearsome, but it certainly was a riot to hear her called a Marxist Mama,
Now, if we could only find her a red armband!
Update: My niece and two of her friends have been visiting me this past week, and I have of course taken them to the noodle shop. He’s added a few new phrases to his English repertoire, including THANK YOU and SEE YOU TOMORROW. I have tried with no success to teach him “see you next week.” He’s completely given up, and will now yell, as we depart each week, SEE YOU TOMORROW TOMORROW TOMORROW TOMORROW TOMORROW TOMORROW TOMORROW! That just about covers it!