At the beginning of this trip, Andrew asked if I wanted to do any travel to tourist places (other than the Great Wall, which we'll go to a week from today). I told him I mainly wanted to see what living in China, in his city, was really like. Well, today I found out to a new level what authentic life in China really means.
Today was shopping day. In the morning I ventured out ALONE for the first time. Here I am, in my fifties, and I felt very successful for walking to the edge of the campus, crossing the street, and buying two bottles of water.
Lady on the street
The scene is a riot of colorful sights and sounds. There are people everywhere. Taxis and scooters and cars everywhere. Honking sounds and boom boxes and children crying everywhere. Street vendors, selling fruit and and cell phones and clothing and all kinds of cooked food, everywhere. Trash and mud everywhere. Smells of food and old grease and garbage, everywhere. It is an assault on the senses. Everywhere.
I've learned to fix a continuous smile on every person I pass. They don't quite know what to make of it. Most give me a passing glance, and then, when they see I'm still smiling, give hesitant smiles in return. Not all, but some. I've tried to say "Ni hao" (hello) a few times. Many times it is returned, but a couple of old men looked at me as if I were crazy. Maybe I had the tones wrong and said something really bad without knowing it.
I can only shop alone at places where there is no bartering. The money is the yuan, worth about a sixth of a dollar. I also went to the Memory Bread store and asked for one cookie that looked like it had molasses in it. The man put four in a bag and was reaching for more when I got him to stop. When I got back to the apartment, Andrew said "It probably doesn't taste very good." He was right.
How about this flavor--at the import store
In the afternoon we rode a three-wheeled scooter taxi to the Metro, which is the import store. Only about a fifth of the items were actually imported, but it was SO nice to see bars of cheese and Jif peanut butter and Del Monte spaghetti sauce and Barilla pasta, mixed in among the soya flour and frozen dim sum (dumplings) and hundreds of items that I have no idea what they are because I have no idea what the language on the package is saying.
After checking out (the receipt was printed on a full-size sheet of dot matrix printer paper, complete with the little holes on the side that the clerk had to tear off), we walked out--into a pouring rain--and the only taxi in sight refused us. We had to cross a huge street, and still no taxis. The roads are not built with a slight slope like in the States, so all the water pools on the road. We were both soaked; however, my chivalrous son got the worst of it because he gallantly let me use the one small umbrella we had.
After about ten minutes of standing in the pouring rain, we finally hailed a taxi, sharing a fare with somebody else. We were let out at our corner and had to step through about a foot of water to get to the (muddy) sidewalk. And then we walked home, through drizzle and puddles and mud.
Andrew then said to me, "You wanted authentic. This is it."
Fortunately, today the sun is out. My shoes are drying. And this morning I walked, alone, all the way up the hill to the place that is "the closest thing to a grocery store." I bought 106.20 yuan worth of items. Paid my own bill and bagged my own groceries. Walked back, dodging the leftover mud and the piles of trash and the cars parked on the sidewalks, and smiling at the people walking every direction.
I'm starting--just starting--to figure this out. And the experience is definitely authentic.