There are only a handful of occasions which cause me to intentionally take a deep breath when I'm out & about in China:
1) When I get stuck behind a bus while out on my bike. Said deep breath is usually held until traffic clears up and I'm able to get around the bus and its accompanying fumes.
2) When I walk past the corner outside the east gate of our apartment complex where the fruit seller always pees. This breath is also held for an elongated period of time.
3) When I pass by the kao di gua sellers on the street.
Kao di gua? What is this marvelous delight and why would it bring me olfactory bliss instead of scorn?
Imagine a huge, insulated oil drum that is filled with hot coals. Next, add dozens of sweet potatoes inside the drum on top of the coals. Allow sweet potatoes to bake all day until they result in gooey, delightful yumminess. Place your oil drum on the back of a three-wheeled bicycle and position yourself on a busy street corner on a cold day. Charge an amazingly small amount of money for this tuberous treat, and prepare to make this little foreigner's day.
This is what I had in mind to track down when I set out the other week around dinner time. Since Beans had pretty much been doing this all day, I decided to take her with me.
The thing about street vendors, however, is that they are mobile, ie-rather unreliable. So the first corner we hit up after about a ten minute walk had nary a di gua seller to be found. But our mission couldn't be deterred! We headed east for another 20 minutes to another major intersection. Lo and behold...the holy grail of the vitamin A powerhouse had at last been discovered!
Beans & I happily made our purchase and then turned south toward home. About five minutes into our homeward voyage, a woman on a three-wheeled trash bike* rode by and struck up a conversation with me.
(*For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the "three-wheeled trash bike," please see below.)
"I know you," she said in Chinese.
"Oh. Really? How?" I asked. These are the moments my minor celebrity status as the resident foreigner can be a little annoying--most everyone recognizes me! Oh for the long lost days of anonymity!
"You bought vegetables from me one time, and you knew how to say eggplant," she replied with confidence.
I appreciated this woman's friendliness, but, not having expected a trek this long to get my di gua, I hadn't worn my scarf or socks. A cold nose and blistered toes don't always get me in the mood for conversation. But nonetheless, we chatted for a while about her Spring Festival and Beans, who was happily sniffing about and eating trash at my feet.
"I'm leaving," I said finally. This might sound rude to some of you, but it's one of the beauties of Chinese conversation. Things get awkward, you're out of things to say, or you've got somewhere to be...it doesn't really matter. Just announce you're leaving, be on your way, and no one thinks anything strange of it.
We resumed our journey home only to be interrupted once more by a cheerful call behind us:
"Dou Dou! Dou Dou!" The trash bike lady had caught up with us again and was greeting Beans using her Chinese name. (Yes, my dog has Chinese name. Kevin has one. I have one. The boys will have one. So Beans has one too.)
A friendly wave and we were off again. This time we ran into a friend of mine in the alley outside the east gate of our apartment (but don't you worry--we were far enough from the fruit seller's pee spot that I could talk with her without having to hold my breath). My friend had just given birth to a baby a few months ago, so that was an easy enough topic of conversation to start with.
"How is your son?" I asked in Chinese.
"He's great. Very fat. And you? Do you have a situation?" she inquired.
Situation? What does she mean by that? Am I an international spy whose cover has been blow? Do I finally have an excuse to meet Jack Bauer in the "situation room?" Or is my Chinese failing me at the moment because I have no clue what she wants to know?
And this is the moment that the "once-over" became my savior & interpreter. You know--the "once-over." It's the look you get at college parties from the sorority girls that starts at your running shoes, makes its way up to your sweat shirt, and ends with a disapproving glare at your pony tail. (True story for me unfortunately.) But this once-over's purpose was not to judge my outfit but to evaluate the size of my belly.
Ooooohhhhh...I get it! She wants to know if I'm pregnant. A kind denial and again we're headed toward home.
So one hour, one mile, one di gua seller, one three-wheeled-trash-bike-riding friend, and one pregnancy denial later, Beans and I make it home with this bounty of a dinner:
And it was most certainly a good dinner to end a good day.
*For educational purposes: a three-wheeled trash bike