China Observations – “where do I buy…….?”

People here in Minnesota keep asking how my aunt is. I tell them “well, she can’t wait to come back. But I’m glad she’s taking this opportunity. Too many times in our lives do we take things for granted….”

Not just the non-existant language barrier…. but things like Home Depot…. And grocery stores.

Today was a very strange day. Remember the TV show “Candid Camera”? If you’re too young to remember, it was an American television series where hidden cameras played practical jokes on unsuspecting people. And today, I should have been looking everywhere for the camera!


October 1st-7th is the mid-Autumn vacation here, and all of China takes the week off. The school warned us that the police could stop anyone at anytime and demand to see the passports of potentially illegal foreigners. As a detective-mystery lover, I secretly wondered if the police got a bonus for every illegal foreigner they managed to finger.   Visions of 1920s Shanghai, with people being shanghai-ed into Laundromats … but I digress … and must return to reality.


We started the day by scavenging in the local trash heap. Yes, this is true. Just outside our apartment complex is an above ground dump. The pile occasionally gets smaller and sometimes larger. But it never goes away. We were in need of some wood to cover the holes the construction workers left in our kitchen. These holes went directly from the back of our kitchen cabinets (or around gas lines) to the outside world. (Drafty in winter, I’m thinking.)   And since there are NO hardware stores AT ALL —– ANYWHERE, we attempted to make do with the resources we had available. Thank goodness we weren’t caught by the police. Can you imagine: “Those foreigners are stealing our trash!! Stop them!!”


After trash picking, we went grocery shopping. We had to take the #6 bus downtown, and then transfer to the #1 bus across town. I am still too new to the area to recognize signs (who can read them anyway?) or landmarks (who can see out the windows of a crowded bus?).   The bus slowed, and I was nudged, bumped, and shoved by those preparing to get off. Folks evacuated, and I looked around. No Jim. I hopped off the back egress and looked around. No Jim. So, I hopped back onto the bus. This is highly illegal. Once you exit the back door you must re-enter via the front door and pay another fee. As the bus took off, Jim was on the sidewalk and I was inside banging at him on the plastic window. It’s a good thing the police were, once again, otherwise engaged. Can you imagine: “That foreigner banging on the door owes us another thirty five cents!!! Stop her!!”


We were finally back together and approaching the grocery when a very (very) short man approached us wearing an official outfit of some kind: white shirt, tie, dark pants, cap, brass buttons, stripes (everywhere), and white gloves. He made a point of stopping us from going in our desired direction. He was speaking very rapidly and insistently. I was positive he wanted to see our passports, so I started to unzip that pocket of my bag. But I was too late. He got louder and then took the glove off his right hand. WHY did he just do that? Was he going to write a ticket? Was he going to reach for some handcuffs? Was he going to reach for, perhaps, a gun?!!   He did reach out. He took Jim’s hand, and shook it so hard it made Jim jump. Our new acquaintance acted like a man who was trying to make up for lost time. He was smiling. He was talking a blue streak. He was a happy fellow and delighted that we’d bumped into each other. Male arms continued to operate the invisible water pump and (finally) we managed to bring this intersection of strange pleasantry to a conclusion. As we walked on, others who had witnessed our brief encounter looked us in the eyes (something Chinese people RARELY do). They laughed, openly, and shrugged. Too bad that none of us will ever know what just happened. And can you imagine what the police might say? “Our small, giddy, not-so-undercover cop let the foreigners get away! Quick! After them!” … and why not? The coppers have been chasing us all morning.


After that, the rest of the day seemed almost normal. The grocery store was playing the hit American song YMCA over the loud speaker – but it was being sung by a Chinese soprano.   The only words in English were YMCA and “young man”. (I wondered if they knew what this song was really about.)  And then we passed signs indicating handicapped accessible entrances to the toilets – but there were steps you had to go up first. Steps. No kidding. Steps. Alan Funt? I’m channeling you!!! Your ghost can come out of hiding now!!!


The punch line of his show was: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.” Too bad. I wish someone had gotten today on film!

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