On my List of Fun Saturday Afternoon Activities, shopping usually ranks a little below scooping dog poo. But here it’s not really shopping; it’s language practice. Taking home groceries is sort of a bonus.
Yesterday, after doing homework for an hour or two, I headed out on foot because I had the time and wanted to look around the neighbourhood. We needed groceries and extension cords. The road in front of our building was busy with bikes and cars, and the sidewalks had the usual car mechanics and bike repair guys working on vehicles dissembled to various degrees. I bought a late lunch from a window shop – three hot biscuit sandwiches with grilled chicken slices inside called 烧斌鸡肉 for about 60 cents – and then walked down and around the corner in search of an alleged electronics store. On the way I found another window shop advertising light bulbs, and poked my head in.
What I’m calling window shops are where people that have turned a room in their 1st floor apartment that has a window facing the street into a shop. They sell from the window, occasionally jumping in and out to run quick errands as if it were a door.
It took about 45 minutes to buy extension cords from Mr. Zheng, who considers himself a chef and doesn’t appear intimidated by foreigners. First we had to argue about the price, and then his teenage nephew wanted to come see the foreigner, followed a few minutes later by his teenage niece. The nephew, Chen, was older, tall, and I wondered if he was trying to remember phrases from an English lesson. The niece, Han, stood back and stared. Her face especially seemed to betray a conflict between shyness and curiosity, her already wide eyes getting even wider when her uncle stepped out leaving just the three of us and I started asking her and her 哥哥 (older brother) about their names and family. (Sometimes the expressions on people’s faces here are priceless! I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I bet it’s really funny. I don’t remember us getting this kind of reaction in Taipei, where they’re more used to foreigners.) After getting over the shock of having a 老外 speak to them, their curiosity won out and they laughed and smiled as we tested the limits of what two weeks of conversational Mandarin lessons can communicate. Other customers came and went during this time, and every few minutes we’d come back to the price of the extension cords. Eventually he knocked a few kuai off the price, but I suspect it was just to make me feel good. He was cooking shrimp and let me try some.
After declining their polite gesture to come inside and sit for bit, I headed to the 菜市场 (vegetable market). I didn’t get better prices than last week, but this time the numbers all came to me quickly and I didn’t have to take so long translating in my head, and I could make a little conversation with the market ladies. Many of them originally are from the countryside. They seemed to laugh easily and enjoy the diversion, which is something I loved about Yonghe and I’m also discovering here: people here still take time to talk and still have some general willingness to chat with random foreigners. Of course, the additional general curiousness here can really get on your nerves, too, but I love being able to go for a walk and easily find people to chat with.