Meet Mrs. Shǐ – Striving Hard for a Stable Future

Mrs. Shǐ is December’s Regular Zhou. The magazine seems to share similar feelings with one other critic who doesn’t appreciate having China’s blue collar folks telling their stories in foreigners’ magazines. So I guess from now on they’ll be “above-average Joe’s,” or at least for the next few months while we’re in Canada and I have to interview over e-mail.

As usual, the blog version below has better photos and includes the more interesting content. But I still haven’t included any of the horrific Cultural Revolution stories she told, or her complaints about the Olympics.

Striving Hard for a Stable Future

How one Tianjiner works daily to give her son a better life, one plate of chǎo bǐng at a time.

Mrs. Shǐ is my favourite kind of Tianjiner. She’s warm and engaging, ready for conversation, and patient with language students’ pathetic Mandarin. If you’ve got the time and the ear, she’s willing to share all kinds of stories from her experiences growing up in Tianjin during China’s tumultuous last 50 years. Plus, she makes great chǎo bǐng (炒饼) and dàbǐng jīdàn (大饼鸡蛋), able to warm both the stomach and the heart.

Mrs. Shǐ, whose given name evokes images of mountains with colourful clouds, sells breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional midnight snack from her xiǎomàibù (小卖部), the little shop she’s carved out of a first floor apartment that she shares with her 25-year-old son. She used to sell food from an outdoor stall in a bustling street market for eleven years before the market was cleared away in a nationwide sanitation campaign.

I’m often there at lunchtime, when the tables and stools out on the sidewalk are filled with hungry college students, vegetable market shoppers, and workmen. Inside the walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves that overflow with snack food, cigarettes, alcohol, and seemingly random items like a large bag full of beer bottle caps. In between the newly-acquired fridge and a small low table with plastic stools there’s just enough room to take three steps to the cooking area, where she single-handledly produces dozens of meals every day.

Daily Routine
She gets up at 5:30 every morning, arranges the displays, tables, and chairs on the sidewalk, and prepares to start serving breakfast at 6am. After breakfast she makes some purchases, cuts up cabbage and cucumber, and gets ready for the lunch rush. After lunch she’ll rest her head in her arms over the freezer and take a nap. She finally closes shop at 11pm, but that doesn’t always stop customers.

At 12:30am they knock on my door and I have to sell: “Ayi! Ayi! I want dàbǐng jÄ«dàn!” I haven’t counted how much I sleep at night. I close shop, eat dinner, shower, drink some water, watch a little TV, then go to sleep at I don’t know what time, maybe 1am or 2am. For twelve years I’ve managed like this.

Growing Up
Her living situation today is better than it was in past decades, when she remembers food rationing and being unable to buy things, even if you had the money. Still, some of her favourite memories are of her childhood in Tianjin’s “South City No-Man’s-Land” (南市三不管儿 / nánshì sānbùguǎnr), which until recently was one of Tianjin’s most well-known historical neighbourhoods, famous for its noisy, packed street markets containing all manner of food and entertainment. Nanshi Food Street (南市食品街 / nánshì shípǐn jiē) now sits near where she grew up as the middle child of seven.

When I was little I was pretty mischievious, even though I was a girl. I was a tomboy. Growing up in Nanshi was good. I could talk about Nanshi from morning ‘til night. It was really rènao (热闹 / loud, bustling, lively), especially in the evenings. There were wrestlers, storytellers, hot rice vendors, soup vendors, all crying out, it was fun to hear. You could buy big snails, five or six for two máo ($0.03). When we were small we couldn’t cook; we’d just go to the food vendors.

I had my son in Nanshi. When he was one-and-a-half, in 1983 on May 26, I moved to our current place. That was when they built Food Street and assigned us housing according to the number of people in our family. Now I have my own house to live in. In the old place I didn’t have my own room, but I like the old place. It was rènao and convenient. Now it’s already gone; it’s all Food Street now. It’s been more than twenty years, but I still cherish the memories of Nanshi.

Future Hopes
The turbulance of the past still impacts her life today, as it does for millions of Mainlanders from her generation. When the Cultural Revolution broke out she was just starting middle school. That means she essentially never had a chance for a real, normal education, but still has to make do in today’s market economy. “Long live Chairman Mao” is the only thing she can say in English. She’s come through hard times, and those life experiences shape her hopes for the future:

I wish my son was able to go abroad, like the way you came to our country. But I can’t be too idealistic. I don’t have desire or hope anything for myself. I just hope my son’s future is able to be good. I don’t hope that in the future he becomes a boss or whatever. Just so long as he doesn’t have to have the kind of difficulties I’ve had it’s fine.

My most important desire is to hurry and make money so my son can buy his own place and get a wife, and have a stable life – a little bit better life. Right now I feel tired, but I can’t stop because life pressures are too great. My son is going to university and working, earning his own tuition.

I can’t resist asking Mrs. Shǐ what she thinks of foreigners:

I’ve had contact with Japanese, Americans – I’m in contact with a lot of foreigners. We get along really good. Aside from nationality, we’re all friends, and also all neighbours, right? It’s just our skin colour is different. I wish foreigners and us would talk and communicate more.

5 thoughts on “Meet Mrs. Shǐ – Striving Hard for a Stable Future”

  1. Say hello to Mrs. Shi from your mom in Canada. She sounds pretty special! I hope I can meet her when we come to Tianjin one day.

  2. Joel,
    I really like this piece. I’ve not read everything on your site, however, I’ve read enough to know that this is, in my opinion, your best effort to date. A great human interest story with photos. You will be hard pressed with your future posts to equal or surpass this one. Good work.

  3. Good job, to me china is a big secret, there are some things that I really wish I could know, but never will because of the language barrier, especially with the older crowd.

    Pretty much the young generation (21-29yrs/ whom I hang around with mostly) it seems to me is very laid back and care free, besides going studying, they really don’t explore the city, and just huddle within their social confines.

    I asked so many of them some simple questions about tianjin, like “Where do I buy a warm jacket?” and everyone’s answer is always go to Bing Yan Dao (the big shopping street) …. …. man even I know to avoid that street, since you can find much better deals in some underground tent somewhere.

    I actually know more of Tianjin now than most of them, and I don’t know anything.

  4. Thanks, guys. These interviews are among my favourite projects, even if the requirements imposed on the magazine mean that some of the more interesting content has to be left out. It’s so nice to finally start meeting the people who’ve lived the history I’ve read about, and hear their stories.

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