Come hail or high water
Saturday, another expat, Kaz, and I were supposed to meet several other expats to tour a popular and very large shopping area, Dongmen. Alas, monsoon season hit and it was rescheduled. However, she still wanted to have a day to herself as a day without kids was her mother’s day present from her husband, and since I was already on my way we decided to go shopping. I think she had a well-deserved day off; it was a very sweet gift.
So we met at a place called Lao Jie. It was in the morning so we started with some costume shopping for the comic con this summer. We went around to several costume & clothing places but couldn’t find anything that matched what her and her family wanted. At one of the shops I asked in very broken Chinese if they had an item but in specific color; after the man and I went back and forth he told us they didn’t have the color we wanted. Kaz was a little impressed that I could use a combination of Chinese, the dictionary, and some miming to have conversations about costumes. To be honest I was quite impressed too!
After, several costume shops we decided to stop the search and find the costumes online later. So we walked to an area a few blocks away that is full of wholesale stores. There were a couple of shops filled with toothbrushes, and another couple for light bulbs and several more for personal care items (such as shampoo, combs, toothpaste, soap, facial cleaners etc). So as you can imagine they don’t really get many foreigners around that area. We were quite the surprise.
A Maze of Shops and Food
We walked around the whole place a while and found a very nice area on the bottom floor of one building filled with various types of street food. There were noodles, soups, noodle soups, barbeque, breads, Chinese wraps, Chinese pancakes, and even tea eggs.
Kaz hasn’t really experienced much street food, because she was weary about the children eating it (completely understandably). Though, I was able to share one of my favorites with her, tea eggs. Now tea eggs are very simple snacks. I first had them in Guilin and ate them all the time. Tea eggs are simply hard boiled eggs that are boiled in tea instead of plain water. Often they are cracked partway through or after they are done resulting in a different flavor and some very nice marbling on the egg under the shell. Usually they are quite cheap ranging from $0.15 to $0.30(1-3 RMB), so they make excellent cheap snacks!
After we let them cool then we cracked them and took a bite. I think she quite liked the tea egg! Later I even showed her where she could buy them closer to her home. There were so many other foods that I both recognized and didn’t, but we didn’t try any because we wanted to eat at a café later.
Walking through the buildings and their floors was a fun experience. We never knew what each turn, each floor and even the next shop would have or what we would encounter. We passed a store of stationary, next to a book store, then light fixtures, followed by a shop over flowing with fake plants and vines as if the Jolly Green Giant exploded or a very angry Druid was attacked (video game joke). There was a store dedicated to writing utensils providing several options for both the pens and brushes of calligraphy along with pens, pencils, and markers of every type and color. The type of stores we encountered seemed almost endless. We came across toy stores spilling out into the hallway with boxes stacked precariously on tables or chairs, clothing stores with avalanches of clothes on either side of the doors, and shoe stores with wracks and hooks that lined every inch of the 7 foot high walls. At an office supply store I was able to find scotch tape and a dispenser for less then a $1.
While meandering the maze of stores and escalators to the next floor, there was always a store or two with twinkling lights, strobing lamps, or bright LED running lights and I was both amazed and joyful when Kaz took it upon herself to help me safely navigate these areas because of my seizures. (If you are curious about what it’s like to have seizures or epilepsy in China please check out an article I wrote about that.)
An Open Book, a Candid Conversation in Chinese
We stopped at a random book store to find Kaz some more books to read to her children. We found several wonderful English books that we remembered from our own childhoods. We had a lot of fun spotting these precious books and comparing what we knew and didn’t know from our childhoods—I am an American and she is Irish. When we were checking out, the owner and his wife began to ask the usual questions such where we were from and how long we’ve been in China. I answered for the both of us. They continued the conversation by asking about why we were in China, how old her children were and if I had any children. After I responded, I told him about my love for reading, this only prompted him to try to tell me something about his shop but I couldn’t understand a specific word he kept using. So I looked it up in my dictionary on my phone. They both leaned over the counter to see what I was doing and were amazed to see Chinese characters.
At once they asked me if I could read Chinese, so of course I told them I could read a little. I supplemented it by saying I think my reading and writing skills are much better than my speech production and most definitely better than my listening comprehension skills. They were amazed that I could read at all. Their amazement shown even more as the man and his wife grabbed my phone and through quiet chattering back and forth began to type out something on my phone. When they were done, I read them the sentence. They responded with smiles and cheers. Then they wrote another sentence with the same excited responses or some encouragement if I didn’t know a particular character. Soon enough clerks from a nearby shop came over to see what was going on.
These two new arrivals were surprised to see foreigners and then even more so to see a bag full of books. Quickly one woman grabbed the bag and emptied all the books onto the counter to see what we had bought. Kaz and I both were amused and surprised with this woman’s curiosity. The man and his wife told the women that I could read and speak Chinese and prompted me to read a sentence again to show them. I couldn’t help but chuckle and share in their excitement. It was contagious!
The wife pulled out a notepad and pen so that they could hand write characters to further test if I could read them. Again I felt like I was in grade school learning to read with my parents and grandparents who would cheer me on when I read a new sentence correctly.
Eventually we had to leave the shop to continue on with our day, but before we left the man made sure to give us his cards and told us that to save money we should shop at his store and not the big city stores. I told him that it was true the big city stores were expensive and he and his wife just laughed with huge smiles. They told me many times to come back and see them.
It was obvious we made their day coming in to chat with them and in return they made my day too. My Chinese is not very good so it’s difficult sometimes to find shop owners that will stop and listen to you, in their defense many small shop owners are very busy.
We ended the day by eating a late lunch at a very nice tree themed café. I had some hot chocolate with some very tasty spaghetti Bolognese.