Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Last week's column

Beijing Market Adds
Adventure to TV Repair

May 26, 2006

There's a market right around the corner from our housing compound, less than a mile north on busy Jing Shun road and set back a bit from the street. It is widely known as the Kite Market, because of the huge, brightly covered kites that individual vendors sell across the parking lot. It's a dusty, dirty place with a parking lot filled with crater-like potholes and ringed by vendors selling produce, "antique" knickknacks and cooked food like scallion pancakes and noodles.

Anchoring the market is an outlet of the Wu-Mei (I Buy) convenience store chain, which is itself a rather bizarre bazaar, stocked with such staples as rice cookers, blouses, chili peppers, grain alcohol and cigarettes. But the market's real heart lies next door in a huge warehouse-like building, which until recently housed everything from produce to hardware, butcher shops to DVDs.

I won't buy meat there but have made any other purchases. This despite the fact that one friend's driver so disliked the place's filth that she finally asked her employer why she insists on returning to the market, saying, "Even we won't shop here, so why do you?" I have found the place irresistible ever since a young local friend took me there shortly after I arrived in Beijing last summer.
[expat, kite market]
The Kite Market

On one visit I took note of a TV repairman because I knew I needed his services. We bought a little American TV with a built-in VCR from our predecessors. It has proved valuable, as I have never seen a VCR or tape in China and we brought a lot of tapes with us, including many appropriate for young children, fare that is difficult to find among the endless supply of pirated $1 and $2 DVDs. (Legitimately issued products are only available in a handful of downtown stores.) Unfortunately, Anna's nanny plugged the 110-volt TV directly into the 220-volt wall outlet rather than into its voltage transformer. The result was a heavy cloud of smoke. This happens to expats quite regularly here.

The TV then sat in the corner for months, slowly driving my wife, Rebecca, out of her mind. She asked me to move it repeatedly but I wasn't moved to action until I watched Anna precariously tottering atop the TV, trying to reach some upper shelves. I put it into a closet, planning on taking it to the Kite Market to see if it could be fixed. It remained there for weeks on end.

Two weeks ago, I finally asked my Chinese teacher, Dong, if he would go over there with me after our lesson. "Sure," he said. "But you have to talk. I'll step in only when you really need me." I put the TV in the back seat of our old Jeep and set off.

I was excited to go there with Dong because I wanted to get to the bottom of some recent changes I had noticed. The bumpy parking lot was now a construction site. The kite sellers remained but had been squeezed into the middle. I wondered what was being built. I also had noticed several hand-painted banners strung up in front of the market for several days, with a group of elderly people quietly sitting underneath them in folding chairs. I took them to be protesters and wanted to know the story. The only characters I could recognize on the signs were "We" and "eat."

When we arrived, a police car with whirling sirens was parked on the sidewalk and there were no protesters in sight. Dong told me the signs said, "We need to eat too." Inside, we learned that the protesters were farmers from the village behind the market whose fields had been sold to a developer, allegedly for 80 million renminbi ($9.98 million), with very little going to those who had worked the land for years. I was happy to note that by the time we left, the old men and women were back and their banners were flying. The signs vanished a day or two later and within a week the protesters were gone as well. I have not found out what happened to their demands.

I drove past the police car to the back entrance. The main market was closed and empty, with all the vendors in a series of smaller buildings behind it. I wondered how the kite salesmen and other outdoor sellers were faring. Lugging the TV, I entered the first building and found a stall with glass counters covered in electrical components and opened TVs.
[expat, tv repair]
The TV repairman

We had arrived at 12:15 p.m. and the repairman was at lunch, along with many of the other male clerks and most customers. I should have known; 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. is like a holy lunch hour for most Chinese. A couple of women holding down the fort said they would call the laoban (boss) and get him back. Leaving the TV on the counter, we walked around looking at the wares for sale in the many little stalls: pens, notebooks, DVD players, satellite dishes, lingerie, softcore porn DVDs, axes, shovels, pots, pans, woks, watering cans, dishes, cups and virtually everything else you could think of.

We then walked over to a nearby building, which housed the produce sellers. I bought some fruit and vegetables, actually doing most of the talking, much to my surprise and Dong's pleasure. Returning to the TV stand, we found that the repairman had returned and that the women there had been joined by several friends, who had clearly come over to check us out. While the repairman dismantled and examined my TV, Dong and I chatted with the ladies, who were fascinated by me but also by Dong and his ability to speak English. They looked at him like he was a wizard. They were all migrants, mostly from Szechuan and Anhui provinces.

"Ni bu shi Zhong Guo ren," they told Dong ("You are not Chinese.") "Ni shi shen me di fang ren?" ("Where are you from?")

He insisted that he was Chinese. I explained that he was my laoshi (teacher). They were impressed. They asked where I was from. I told them.

"Look how big and strong the American is and how skinny you are," one of the woman told Dong. "That's because in America they eat butter every meal. We only eat rice."

The repairman said he thought he only had to replace a single, burned-out component. But he couldn't check it unless I fetched a step-down transformer from home. I drove Dong out to the street where he could get a taxi, telling him I could handle it from here.

"They're OK," Dong said. "Don't worry." That was high praise because he always warns me to be careful. Dong often seems to think most Chinese people view me as a walking ATM machine. I went home, then returned with the transformer. The TV worked and I paid the requested 100 renminbi (about $12) without haggling, possibly the first such transaction ever at the Kite Market. Before long, old children's videos like "Busy Town" and "The Little Engine That Could" were back in rotation, welcomed like long lost friends.
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Readers Respond


Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on taking a trip to Guizhou province.

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I truly enjoy hearing about your experiences… in such a different culture. This last article about taking the family vacation in a less traveled and thus less structured place was fantastic. You should be proud of yourself that you are exposing your kids to areas outside of their comfort zones. It will surely help them to do the same when they are older.

-Oanh Dang

I think the whole experience of living in China has been great for the kids, though not without its difficulties. I surely hope it continues to be so.

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Having lived in China for going on six years (though just moved to Beijing two weeks ago), I really get a kick out of your Fresh Off the Boat perspective. It helps me to remember what it is about life out here that's so different from back home.

Having spent the last six years in Yunnan, Guizhou's neighbor to the West, I'm all for the off the beaten track tear your hair out experience. But I couldn't imagine doing it with kids; fellow twentysomethings are hard enough to please as it is. You should get a medal.

-- Jeff Crosby

It can be tough with the kids, but at least we don't have to convince them – they still go where we take them.

I think my newcomers' perspective helps me see things that veteran expats look past and I hope to maintain that ability as my stay lengthens.

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Great read, but it does seem to me that you are taking high risk in consuming food in a region where sanitation is 19th century.

-- Roger Brown

19th century is an exaggeration, but that's a valid concern. The rule of thumb is only eat the food that comes out too hot to eat -- high heat kills pretty much everything, which is why it also can be advisable to clean plates and cups with tea. I don't worry about myself much but do sometimes fret about the kids. At times like that we are happy for them to be picky eaters, munching on granola bars.
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I enjoy reading your column, especially after our recent 10-day trip to Beijing and Xi'an, as chaperones, with our local high school band. The experiences of our trip will last the students' lifetime. Although you seem more adventurous, it's easy now to use our background from our trip to picture the experiences that you describe so well. The things that you write about are as important as the business and politics in China that we all hear so much about.

-- Joe Praske

La Canada, California

Don't sell yourself short – it's mighty adventurous to chaperone a high school band anywhere, much less to China. I too think the day-to-day life stuff is important for people to understand.

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I was particularly delighted to read about your tour of my hometown province, Guizhou. I happened to meet a mother from U.S. with 3 kids, roughly 13, 9, 3, in one of the poorest counties in Guizhou, exactly 20 years ago. I truly admire her spirit to explore and experience, often in quite intolerable condition (think of 1986). I still go back to visit my parents every other year. It is always a great joy and relief to escape from the shadows of high rises in Beijing to the green mountains in Guizhou.

-- Frank Yang

I'm sure the woman you met and her kids are still telling tales about their trip there 20 years later and that we will be doing the same. Your province is a most memorable place. .
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I am a Chinese studying and working in U.S. Reading your article of your trip to Guizhou makes me want to visit those beautiful places and meet those hospitable people. Your experience in China is not only fun to read for non-Chinese but to Chinese as well.

--Muzhi Li