Every Monday and Friday morning I head out with my three-wheeled scooter and stash of grocery bags to pick up fresh goods from the market and other weekly necessities from the large grocery around the corner. The side streets are a throng of other morning shoppers. The three-wheeled bikes and scooters piled high in the back with whatever is in season are dotted along the roadside, surrounded by people from the neighborhood looking for the best bargains for their evening meal. I am a bit of an oddity, buying vegetables to sustain me for the next 4 days of meals. Everyone else is looking for one chive, a head of greens, maybe a potato or handful of green beans. The red peppers are a must have.
Grandmas are pushing little trikes with their fat grandbabies who stare at the morning melee with big, curious brown eyes, the young women xiaojie's carefully pick through the crowd and stalls with their high heels and short, colorful dresses, old men shuffle by with pipes or a cane or both. Some sit listlessly in wheelchairs, simply gazing, out for their morning air. The house helper baomus are there, looking for the bargains. They talk and haggle with one another, laughing and pointing out the best prices, the greens or melon that will best be suited to this day and this type of weather.
It is not sterile. It is not well lit. Something about it though reminds me of the small town we visited this summer, where in the span of one day I saw the same 5 people at the post office, the antique shop, the grocery store, on a walk in front of our house, and in a newspaper article. It's close. It's a neighborhood.
I think too, on the streets here the realities of life seem so smack dab in your face. There are no pretensions. This is not a row of clean, well manicured lawns type of place. The store fronts are open, the shop lady is there, cooking her lunch on a hot plate and wok beside the steps. The dirty laundry is literally hanging up all around you, outside apartment windows, in the back of a store, along an alley. We all air our dirty laundry for everyone to see around here. The blind masseuse stands just inside his shop doorway, shuffling in his manner that betrays a lifetime of getting along without seeing. He is there, living his daily routine out in front of you.
I am not entirely sure what it is about all this that endears itself to me. I like cleanliness and manicured lawns and a good Wegmans as much as the next girl. I don't think you need China specifically to make this happen, but I do like that it forces me not to take my life as the status quo. I have to think about my surroundings, I have to take it in and digest it and most of the time it points to a way of life so different than my own, in a way that challenges my own assumptions about what is necessary, what is worth my time, what is important, what is missing, what is the good I am aiming for and the the purposes I am striving for.
And some days, when I find I am taking myself too seriously, I just buy my fruit and go home.