China Series

A version of this story was published as part of monthly series that ran in the Warrensburg, MO The Daily Star Journal from Oct. 2000 through May 2001.

Available In Beijing : Austrian Butter to Chinese Jiaozi

"The history of the world is in the record of man in quest of his daily bread and butter" -- Van Loon

For our first few weeks, beyond Sara's best attempts to make the old, filthy, third-world apartment into something of a home, all of our non-teaching time was spent in shopping. In terms of the housing, we were assured that it would definitely be less than a month before we could move into the yet unfinished, new abode, unless, of course, it was more than a month; then, of course, it would definitely not be as much as two months. Our students introduced us to a common Chinese idiom, "in the near future," that is commonly used here. Roughly, in English, it is equivalent to, "don't call us, we'll call you."

We had lots of fun shopping. The fun was in communicating. We bought soap and bleach to wash clothes and liquid to wash dishes. All that was written on any of that was Chinese. The prices were readable, but were on signs, not products. The many clerks helped us to link price to product, and even made recommendations. Distinguishing between detergent and fabric softeners required me locating a pan and simulating the washing of it. As we were walking away, with the products that did a remarkable job on our clothes and dishes, we heard a clerk telling and showing the others how it had all started by my pointing to a very small, and expensive, box of Tide. They had enjoyed, as much as we, the little game of figuring out what we inarticulate Americans were attempting to say.

Then, another time, I wanted peaches. After one failed attempt to buy some from one vendor in a two-story farmers market, another stopped me, having stacked some (like one of Kenny Carter's boxes) on her scale. She started counting in Chinese to get to the price. I acted as if I did not understand and offered her less than she was asking. Then, she asked another vendor for a calculator to show me the amount. Calculators came from every direction. She wanted 6 yuan (75 cents) for the peaches. I tried to give her 6 mao (7.5 cents); everyone knew that I was joking. The peaches were excellent, organic, white fruit.

Yes, the butter was difficult to find, mostly imported from Austria. We finally found it at the Carrefours, a French enterprise, which has two floors each the size of a super store. Bread is everywhere. Some sliced bread is similar to ours; some has dried fruit in it. Other bread is uniquely Chinese like jiaozi, a stuffed dumpling.

The number and variety of available shops are much greater here than in the States. There are megastores like Walmarts; there are groceries in basements which wind from room to room; there are small stands in huge buildings where you can buy everything fresh, even in winter, and there are paddlers in most of the alleys, hutons. Competition is keen among the sellers. Commerce is very free in communist China.

Our record is in that commerce.