China Diary - Part 5

Suzhou, has rush hour traffic like most
places in the world, just different vehicles.

August 26, 2006

Sorry I haven't communicated in a good while. I've been looking at apartments and villas, packing, and moving. I looked at several possibilities, including a traditional Chinese home that I absolutely loved (had a little garden and small pond between the foyer and the rest of the house), but I'd be very lonely in that area of town. No one there except Taiwanese people -- a situation that might be OK in a year or so when I know more Chinese. I also looked at Japanese-style apartments that have regular living rooms as well as Japanese living rooms with bamboo mat flooring and a low table to sit around. My knees hurt just looking at it. From Squall Chen, the realtor, I learned that the sinks I'd been seeing on some balconies were "mop sinks for the housekeeper." Also in some apartments, there was a little bathroom near the laundry room. Squall explained, "for the housekeeper." Hmmm. A pot's a pot in my book.

August 15 was a red letter day. After not seeing Chopsticks (the homeless blind-in-one-eye cat I called Cyclops until I saw that he was a she) for several fretful days, I saw her next to our apartment building. I also saw her kittens!!!!! She has five. Chopsticks must trust me because she took me to the kittens. Every day I leave food and cool, fresh water in their hiding place under a crop of cannas. As you may recall from a previous description, Chopsticks has a very loud meow. The kitten who looks the most like her has the same meow. I never knew that meows were hereditary. On a less happy note, I've seen only one of the brother cats lately. They are twins, so I don't know if I saw Bonehead or Catfish. He wouldn't tell me which one he was. I fed him. He appreciated it. The brothers have incredibly loud meows and very skinny bodies like Chopsticks. I'm wondering now if they are Chopsticks's sons. She's obviously older than I'd originially guessed. Anyway, happy to know Chopsticks is well. I've concluded that Chinese cats purposely remain skin-and-bones-thin; it's their way of insuring no one will want to eat them.

Chopsticks, the cat


Mark calls these women, "the mamaws." They pull weeds every day in and around the park next to our apartment building. This photo was taken from our floor. Someday, I reallly want to be able to talk to the mamaws and find out about their lives and ideas.

Judy was along when I visited one apartment. While there, I noticed a lovely lidded basket in a hall closet. Through Judy, I asked what it was for. Judy asked the lady and then looked at me and said, "For crap." I just stared at her. She repeated, "For crap. It's for crap." Mark was standing next to Judy. "Crap?" he asked incredulously. I knew immediately I couldn't live in apartment with toilet problems that big. Then, the lady started making hand gestures that resembled crabs running on the beach. Ah ha! It was a crab basket. Thank goodness? I'd touched that basket.

After looking and looking and looking and taking notes and asking questions, we finally decided to stay where we are but move into a bigger place, which means . . . . I now have room for guests!! Come on over. Planes leave the U.S. every day -- every hour! Qing! ("ching" -- means please)

Night-time view from the living room window of our new apartment. The tallest building you see is the new Shangri La Hotel -- very nice.

Housekeeper Daisy on the left; Housekeeper Jill on the right. Mostly we just laugh and giggle at each other.

Also on August 15, I struck out on my own, traveling by bicycle for the first time without Mark pedaling beside me. My destination was the big street market where I selected Chinese pea pods, tomatoes, lemons, and a pineapple. I wanted chicken but I could find only pork and fish. The street market is a maze of short allies and shack-like booths, so I asked one of the fruit ladies -- in my best Chinese -- where the chicken was. The word for chicken is ji. The word for hurry is ji. The way one pronounces it decides its meaning. I asked where hurry was. I think the fruit lady and her friend were going to direct me to the nearest taxi when I tucked my hands under my armpits and flapped my wings. The friend then walked me to another lady who motioned for me to follow her. I knew I wasn't going to find exactly what I wanted when I saw a couple of pitiful ducks lying in front of the chicken lady's booth. She -- an attractive woman in her 30s -- stepped behind a row of cages, pointing at the live chickens in a manner that asked, "Which one?" Deep within me, some barely existent speck of heathen, earthy self was curious to see a woman pull a chicken out of a cage and whack off its head -- all in one cool stroke. I felt strangely proud of her.

I chickened out and, still standing a good distance from the little shack of horrors, I shook my head no, no, no and told her in plain English, "I want a dead chicken. No, I mean I want one that's been dead a while. Where are the already dead chickens?" She cocked her head, standing there in her little booth with its big chopping block and its noisy chickens. "By the way, have these chickens been tested for bird flu?" I just backed away and headed into an equally tiny booth, one with plastic dish pans, ankle-eye stockings, and mismatched dishes. A woman managed it as well. I guess to her and to everyone in the vicinity of the chickens and ducks, fowl decapitation is normal. Can you imagine being asked where you booth is located and having to say, "Next to the lady who kills and guts chickens."

With my produce stowed in my backpack, I hopped onto my bike and headed home. When I'd manuevered safely through the last frightening intersection, I relaxed, trying to put the images of the chopping block and the death row chickens out of my mind when suddenly I saw a kid around 10 years old walk up to a tree growing alongside the main road, fish around in his pants, and then water the tree's trunk. Mark said it's not uncommon to see people relieve themselves in conspicuous places. "Never a dull moment," I smiled and pedaled home.

The man in the photo is Greg from Neptco RI.
We are at Tiger Hill, at the pagoda

My tutor, Shirley -- Shen Xiou Li is her Chinese full name. Shen is her last name.

Aug. 20 included a couple more firsts. Mark and I went to church and then lunch and then to a large, Sam's Club-like store that everyone (from other countries) says is the place to shop. It was our first trip to the Metro. That's its name. The second first (that doesn't sound right) was picking out fresh, packaged meat inside a giant refrigerator. You run in, look really really fast while slapping your arms and bouncing from one foot to the other, grab your choice(s) and then run out. I watched a family elect the dad to make the frozen run. The rest of his crowd stood outside the doorway and grinned and laughed at him. Mark wasn't grinning or laughing. He was busy being mad that he was grocery shopping and that I was taking so long -- except in the giant refrigerator, which would make a great interrogation room. The cops wear thick coats and drink coffee. The suspects wear shorts and a T-shirt.

The good news is that I finally found packaged beef with "beef" written on it. Actually, it reads, "Well Bright Beef" (as opposed to sick dumb beef). Your guess is as good as mine. The bad news is that I can't tell what cut of beef it is, so, to be safe in case it's tough, it's going to find itself cut up and stir fried among peppers, onions, and garlic -- with a few dashes of oyster sauce -- MMMMMMMM -- at dinner tonight -- August 22. Last night was pork chops from the room. I wish I'd found a chicken to roast. The only available fowl included a package of about 75 chicken feet or a package of about 50 wings. Like I said, the place is a little like Sam's Club. Restaurants buy stuff there.

Elderly woman in Shanghai.

Strangers with whom I had my picture taken in Shanghai.

That's it for now, but any second, something wacky and/or wonderful will happen, and I'll make a note of it.



Mary is a gifted writer and journalist. Were I to copy her missives verbatim here, our provider would need to add server space. In addition, Mary will be authoring her experiences in a book and I certainly don't want to steel her thunder. She has offered to add names to her mailing list of those who would like to receive notes on her observations. If you would like to subscribe, please let me know and I will pass it on.

Derick S. Hartshorn - 2006-present
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