Mrs. ShÇ 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 chÇŽo bÇng at a time.
Mrs. ShÇ is my favourite kind of Tianjiner. Sheâ€™s warm and engaging, ready for conversation, and patient with language studentsâ€™ pathetic Mandarin. If youâ€™ve got the time and the ear, sheâ€™s willing to share all kinds of stories from her experiences growing up in Tianjin during Chinaâ€™s tumultuous last 50 years. Plus, she makes great chÇŽo bÇng (ç‚’é¥¼) and dÃ bÇng jÄ«dÃ n (å¤§é¥¼é¸¡è›‹), able to warm both the stomach and the heart.
Mrs. ShÇ, whose given name evokes images of mountains with colourful clouds, sells breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional midnight snack from her xiÇŽomÃ ibÃ¹ (å°å–éƒ¨), the little shop sheâ€™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.
Iâ€™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 thereâ€™s just enough room to take three steps to the cooking area, where she single-handledly produces dozens of meals every day.
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 sheâ€™ll rest her head in her arms over the freezer and take a nap. She finally closes shop at 11pm, but that doesnâ€™t always stop customers.
At 12:30am they knock on my door and I have to sell: “Ayi! Ayi! I want dÃ bÇng jÄ«dÃ n!” I havenâ€™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 donâ€™t know what time, maybe 1am or 2am. For twelve years Iâ€™ve managed like this.
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 Tianjinâ€™s â€œSouth City No-Manâ€™s-Landâ€ (å—å¸‚ä¸‰ä¸ç®¡å„¿ / nÃ¡nshÃ¬ sÄnbÃ¹guÇŽnr), which until recently was one of Tianjinâ€™s most well-known historical neighbourhoods, famous for its noisy, packed street markets containing all manner of food and entertainment. Nanshi Food Street (å—å¸‚é£Ÿå“è¡— / nÃ¡nshÃ¬ shÃpÇn jiÄ“) 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 â€˜til night. It was really rÃ¨nao (çƒé—¹ / 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 mÃ¡o ($0.03). When we were small we couldnâ€™t cook; weâ€™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 didnâ€™t have my own room, but I like the old place. It was rÃ¨nao and convenient. Now itâ€™s already gone; itâ€™s all Food Street now. Itâ€™s been more than twenty years, but I still cherish the memories of Nanshi.
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 todayâ€™s market economy. â€œLong live Chairman Maoâ€ is the only thing she can say in English. Sheâ€™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 canâ€™t be too idealistic. I donâ€™t have desire or hope anything for myself. I just hope my sonâ€™s future is able to be good. I donâ€™t hope that in the future he becomes a boss or whatever. Just so long as he doesnâ€™t have to have the kind of difficulties Iâ€™ve had itâ€™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 â€“ a little bit better life. Right now I feel tired, but I canâ€™t stop because life pressures are too great. My son is going to university and working, earning his own tuition.
I canâ€™t resist asking Mrs. ShÇ what she thinks of foreigners:
Iâ€™ve had contact with Japanese, Americans â€“ Iâ€™m in contact with a lot of foreigners. We get along really good. Aside from nationality, weâ€™re all friends, and also all neighbours, right? Itâ€™s just our skin colour is different. I wish foreigners and us would talk and communicate more.