Yesterday, I was standing in my local vegetable shop, listening in to a conversation between two Americans, one of whom had just got back from a trip from Hong Kong and was talking about a yacht that he was affiliated with in one way or another. The owner of the shop, a small Chinese woman known among local expats as the ‘avocado lady’ because she sells avocados and other foreign goods that can be hard to get in China, was trying to push lambchops to them. She knows her vocabulary – all of the English names of the products she sells. They were refusing in bad Chinese. I had just got back from a ten day work trip to Beijing, had spent the entire day inside the apartment editing and was set to anti-social mode, so I put on my headphones and continued browsing around for what I needed to make Egyptian foul. Which, by the way, is the food of gods. You will make it and eat it, Insha’Allah.
In front of me was a was a big guy, Italian, from what I could overhear from the conversation he had with the avocado lady. Fei dan boss, she later said to me laughing – which I first picked up as feichang (very in Mandarin) boss. I took an instant dislike to him, more because of the fact that he was standing in between me and the woman who could answer how much I would have to pay to bring home two packs of rich, creamy yoghurt to go with the foul than because of any factor that actually had anything to do with him – after all I never even saw his face. Fucking suit.
By the time I was checking out my bag full of ruccola salad, pumpkin seeds, red wine, and other foodstuffs of the self-righteous, I had realized what she had told me. I asked the avocado lady – why would the boss of Fei dan come to shop here (Fei dan is a chain of grocery stores specializing in Western food, which has a branch two streets away)? He just came to say hi, she said. She ran the store long before they came around, but back then it was just any other Chinese veggie shop. She told me about how she was able to sell me the yoghurt in my bag for seven kuai because she worked in the store herself from 5.30 am to 11 pm, whereas the Italian boss hired people to do that and thus had to sell it for nine kuai.
Next door, I picked up some cheap, good quality baguettes and ciabatta breads and started walking back home. A little less than five years ago, when I first came to Shanghai, this would have been inconceivable. Of course, back then I was slumming it up in Yangpu in northeastern Shanghai, but even downtown you had to go put some effort and money into it to get a hold of Western high quality food. I was very satisfied, and already feeling kind of proud about the meal that I was going to cook.
Suddenly the legs of my pants, and my feet, where wet – water had splashed on them from nowhere. What the fuck? I looked around and tried to understand what was going on when I spotted a loose tile on the sidewalk where I was walking, and underneath it – a depository of garbage water.
In Shanghai today, it’s easy to forget that China is still a developing country, with all the crazy problems that comes with it (lacking food safety is one of them; when the red wine I bought ended up tasting bad, my first reaction was to question its authenticity). It’s also easy to forget that we’re governed by the obnoxious noisy guy.
Most people who haven’t been to China before seem to except tanks patrolling the streets and the smell of army boots in the air. Of course it’s not like that. A lot of people don’t ever get to experience the boundaries of freedom in China, because of the simple reason that they don’t have the urge to pass them, to whatever is beyond. Unfortunately, for me, the Strawberry festival in Suzhou this weekend has been deemed in the realm of the beyond. Recent “thunderstorms” have damaged the equipment and forced the festival to postpone. Way to to ruin the party…