Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
In China one does not so much cross the street, as weave one’s way through it. This is because there is an anything goes attitude as far as traffic is concerned. For example on any given day you will find cars driving in the wrong lane ( and going the wrong direction), a car parked in the street while waiting for someone, bicycles coming at you from every direction, and an animal or two just running loose (Look out! It’s a zebra crossing!). There is a rhythm to the mass of tangled commuters however that cannot be explained, but seems to become part of the foreigner who lives here for at least a year. The other day I was weaving, and at every other step two or three people crisscrossed both in front of and behind me, with two or three people doing the same to them. This was done without any jumpy movement, but in a seamless choreography that would have made George Balanchine turn green with envy. And this was done in one take, with no rehearsals.
Cooking with Old Friends
When I lived in Tianjin, I would often work with the school cook and baker, who always wanted to learn how to make Western recipes. Xiao Shi was the baker and he wanted to know how to make wedding cakes, so I taught him one year. We baked at least two 4-5 tiered wedding cakes from my tiny Chinese kitchen in the smallest oven you ever saw, and they turned out pretty well. The Chinese were not really cake bakers, and so even though you can see many pretty cakes in shop windows, the actual taste of these cakes is usually disappointing. The cake itself is usually dry and flavorless (now I know what a big difference vanilla and real butter make), and the frosting is usually just shortening mixed with a bad tasting powdered sugar. So to have a cake that is both pretty and delicious is rather a novelty here. And now Xia Shi knows how to make one all by himself.
With Shi Liu, the cook, we planned to make bbq pulled pork, bbq sauce, and fajitas. It is difficult to explain what the actual difference in taste between a lemon and a lime is, why lime is what is needed for really good fajitas, and why lemon simply won’t do. Doing it in one’s second and somewhat broken language is almost impossible. So we made steak fajitas with lemon, and we made bbq sauce without Worcestershire sauce or liquid smoke. I would say that the dishes were moderately successful, and will turn out even better the second time. There is a certain kind of fellowship among those who love to cook, and as my friend and I stood and pulled pork together in the school’s kitchen, I felt strangely joyful, even if I was hot and tired. We talked about his recent marriage and baby, and my family, all of this being done as pork juice splashed on us, smiling as we would wipe our faces with any part of our arm that did not have pork juice or plastic gloves on it. It is amazing how many things you can do without language. Of course language fosters relationships, but working together without language ain’t too shabby.
Dinner at Ayi’s House
Even though we had a wonderful roasted duck dinner earlier in the week hosted by Liu Fang, our beloved friend and former housekeeper, and had also met the following Saturday just to hang out (and eat pizza), she wanted us to come to her home and to cook for us. I think it was hard for her to know we were in Tianjin for a few more days without getting together one last time. We felt the same of course, but we felt that way about each of the Chinese friends that we were visiting that week. It is difficult to have friends that you know you may not see again for many years, friends that live on the other side of the world, and who require 24 hours of travel and a lot of money to visit. Every minute is precious.
We drove to her neighborhood in a small taxi that was outnumbered by privately owned cars, which was a big change from the days when we lived there. One driver was approaching us with his tiny daughter standing up on the seat so that her upper half had poked through the sun roof. This Chinese princess in a fluffy white number reminiscent of a First Holy Communion dress looked like she was in some sort of parade, and needed to acknowledge her adoring fans, but really it was just another busy weekday traffic jam in the streets of Tianjin. The cabbie, Joe, and I all laughed at this unusual sight, but that is the thing about a night on the town in China. You will see so many unusual sights that you stop counting them, and forget most of them. That is until a new arrival asks you about them. What’s that? Oh, you mean the lone white chicken walking around on the expressway? Um, not sure–probably fell off someone’s truck (true story). In addition to the chicken, an outing might turn up an old lady talking to herself on a bench, a toilet sitting on the outside steps , a man with his wife beater shirt rolled up to expose his midriff, a toddler bending down to poop in the middle of the walkway (I am ok with them pooping outside now, but still don’t get why it is done in the middle of the sidewalk), an old woman sweeping the streets with a tiny broom, fruit vendors screaming at you as you pass by, trucks with loads of cotton that are three times as large as the actual truck, ladies with polyester see through scarves covering their face to keep out the dirt, but sort of scaring you as they bike past you, and babies sitting in the front basket of their mom’s bike. Just a regular Tuesday night in Tianjin.
That night at dinner we marveled at the tiny but immaculate apartment that was so nicely decorated. This is because we had visited an earlier home of hers where it was crowded by so much stuff that an episode of Hoarders Buried Alive could have been filmed there. To be fair, much of the stuff was from me or other foreigners; we tend to use and toss a lot more stuff than our Chinese friends. Liu Fang had moved to the 4thfloor, and had seemed to change her style. Hers was the most uncluttered Chinese apartment I had ever seen. The bedroom had a wide doorway but no door, and even though it had a curtain rod ready to use, Liu Fang explained that they did not really think about putting a curtain up. The bedroom opened up onto the living room which had low-set comfortable green sofas, a huge screen TV, and very few ornaments on the wall. There were the three large yellow plates with red and blue designs that she had bought when we were together at the Athens, Ga. TJ Maxx last summer when she had come to the U.S. for Jack’s wedding. I smiled because the three small red plates that I had bought on that same shopping trip were hanging on my own wall at home. Next came a section devoted to family photos, and there among all the Chinese faces were my own three kids. Joe and I smiled as we saw how proudly she had displayed her American children on the wall next to her own son’s picture. Not all of our children were that friendly to Liu Fang during their teen years, but Ayi Mama as the kids would later call her, loved all three of them and assured me that one in particular would get nicer when he/she got older. She and I often shared stories and encouragement about our children when we were together in Tianjin. Her son Zhang Yi was the same age as Jack and Pres, and had some interaction with him when they were small. I hoped that they would be able to welcome him to their homes one day if he ever got the opportunity to come to America.
It was just the four of us at dinner and even though Liu Fang’s husband Zhang Min spoke no English, we managed to talk about world news, our kids, our cultures, the changes in China, and their smart little apartment. Zhang Min was a good husband to Liu Fang, and a one of those people who seem to enjoy life and not get too ruffled when things go wrong. He is very hard working, but also very happy, and this was obvious in his face at all times. We had no idea when we would see them again, and so the end of this happy evening came too soon, and was bittersweet for all of us.
On the ride home we talked about how fortunate we were to meet Liu Fang, and how happy we were that she seemed to have done so well at her new job at the school, and had been able to move to a nicer apartment, and how she had so lovingly took care of our family. To think that if we had not come to China, we would never have met this remarkable woman was in our minds on the ride home that night. So nice to have such good friends on the other side of the world. When I was digging to China in our yard on 6 North Street, in Canonsburg, Pa. back in 1960, I could not have imagined this happy night. Weaving, cooking, laughing, digging–they all have their own rhythm. So glad I got to be a part of it.