(#7 in the Annie series)
Here’s how China has changed, Nikki says, in the four years since she was last here:
—There’s not nearly as much smoking in public as there used to be. Typically, only men smoke and fewer seem to be. Also there are “no smoking” signs in a lot of places, including restaurants and hotels and at elevators.
—Likewise, you don’t see people spitting on the street as much. Or dog poop on the street. Or people (usually men) just taking a piss on the street or in a corner.
—You find more western, pedestal-style toilets, though Nikki prefers to use the squatty potties (my term) that amount to a porcelain hole in the floor, which are more sanitary, she says. Otherwise, women climb on top of the pedestal and squat anyway. TMI, right?
China is still hotter than snot, though, in summer with humidity of the sort that leaves you noodle limp the moment you leave an air conditioned space. And not all public spaces (particularly restaurants) pop for A/C. They have big fans that move around the hot air, and locals seem fine with that. I can’t believe I’m envious of Sacramento, which this week is sporting 105-degree days. We say this as if we know otherwise, but many of us Californians don’t know the difference: But it’s a dry heat. Right now I’d love me some dry heat.
If on this journey I have had Chinese food forever redefined for me, I now also have a new definition of “hot.” In weather and in food. (Hunan loves its chiles!) My privilege as a white, college-educated female professor comes blaring at me here, too. I understand now why so many people in the world think of Americans as “rich.” We are, by comparison. I have a whole house to myself (though I will have a new housemate and a new cat by the time I get home). I own a car and drive myself to work at a college each day. I am beyond fortunate, and while I know this very well because there are plenty of people who have far less than I in my very city, it’s even more obvious in China.
Also, closer to my very city, Nikki’s parents (who live in Camino, a good hour from Sacramento) got to meet Annie today via Skype. She got to hear her new grandparents’ voices and see them in fuzzy images from 7,000 miles away, which continues to seem like a miracle to me. They all sounded delighted to meet each other.
After the chat with her folks, Nikki took Annie and me out to the local street market, not far from the super market, to see the sights. There, down side streets, under apartment buildings with bars on the windows and balconies, the street vendors lay out their wares in a tradition so timeless you can imagine the meat guy’s grandfather hanging parts of animals on hooks for people to peruse and buy.
You can envision earlier generations presenting the live chickens and pigeons, the live frogs and crawdads and fish, ogle the greens and red of new chiles spread on the ground to pick through and take home for dinner.
I loved the doughnut guy, though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t recognize that designation. He was a youngish man standing behind two vats of steaming oil, plunking in hanks of dough and retrieving them, cutting them into smaller pieces and offering them in a paper tray to passersby. We had stopped so Nikki could give Annie some juice on that steamy afternoon (as they all are in summer). I looked behind us, saw the doughnut guy, who gave me a nice smile.
“What’s he making?” I asked Nikki, who looked up from Annie’s juice box.
“Fried dough,” she said. “Doughnuts. They’re usually pretty good. Try some.”
Though I generally avoid sugar, the smell convinced me, and I gestured to the doughnut man that I wanted to buy one of the little paper trays. He smiled again and said something in Chinese. I looked to Nikki.
“Fifteen,” she said.
“Fifteen RMB?” I said. That’s about $2.
“Yep,” she said.
So I withdrew the cash from my shoulder pack and gave it to the man, who gave me a paper tray with a slender pointed stick protruding from a piece of fried dough. I bit into it. Heaven. I don’t know what it was—there was nothing fancy to it—but it was, in that moment, the best version of a doughnut I’d ever eaten. On a blindingly sweaty day amidst hundreds of Chinese in a street market.
I tore off a tiny piece for Annie. “Doughnut?” I said to her now that she was finished with her juice. As if she understood me, she flashed her big Annie grin, opened her mouth. I popped in the bit of fried dough. She had her usual wide-eyed chewy look, and as the piece worked its way to the back of her mouth, she swallowed and then opened her mouth again. I popped in another piece.
“Good stuff, huh?” I said, and Nikki, who didn’t want any doughnut, laughed. We all did as I took bites and gave Annie bites until we continued walking down the street looking for an indoor pharmacy. Nikki wanted more sleep medication, which you can buy over the counter in China (apparently you can buy just about any drug you want over the counter in China). We found it at the second pharmacy we went to, where a kind man behind the counter came out and gave Annie a lavender balloon on a stick, which earned him a big Annie grin of appreciation.
And as we came out of the pharmacy, an older woman with kind eyes came toward us on the street. We’d gotten used to the looks of puzzlement from many people, of shock and disgust from others. I knew that people in China were not used to seeing a physically disabled child in a wheelchair. But this woman came toward Annie and greeted her in Chinese. Annie lit up, and Nikki talked to the woman a bit. She bent down to talk to Annie a bit more. Whatever she said pleased Annie, who chortled. Annie had made a friend.
Nikki said later that the people who approached us, who asked nicely about Annie, were likely to have had experience with people with disabilities before. “Maybe they had a child with a disability, or someone in their family,” she said. “Or a friend.” We saw their interest as one of compassion, of friendliness, unlike the people who would pass by saying things in Chinese that Nikki could understand—things Nikki didn’t want to repeat to me. These things annoyed Nikki to no end, and a couple of times, she’d say things in Chinese to let them know she understood. But mostly—and this must have taken supreme acts of self control—she held her tongue.
This is how life will be now. Some people will be unkind; some will be curious. Others will look away; some will ask questions. It’s gonna be exhausting dealing with all that. And I’m sure there will be times when Nikki is not going to want to have to educate people about cerebral palsy and how it affects her daughter.
But the doughnut man, the nice woman who stopped and chatted—these are our people. As was the noodle guy who runs the small, modest shop behind our hotel. Nikki had gotten noodles from him before—lovely, melt-in-your-mouth noodles and broth that have forever spoiled me for store-bought ramen. And when we came back with Annie, he seemed happy to see Nikki and also said hello to Annie and me. She ordered for us all, and he set to work.
“I’m going to take her back to the room,” Nikki said to me, which was a good idea given the heat.
I knew what to do, though neither of us spoke the other’s language. “I’ll pay him and bring back the food,” I said.
“Perfect,” she said, and she explained this plan to the man before she and Annie wheeled away to our hotel around the corner.
I stood there in the alley looking up at the apartments with the barred windows (is that to keep people in or from falling out?), at the laundry hanging on lines from so many windows. In this all humidity, I wondered, does it ever dry? How long does that take?
And in about ten minutes, the noodle man came and got me, beckoned me inside to load up our noodle bowls with chiles or pickled veggies or onions. I put some of each in Nikki and Annie’s bowl, just the onions in mine. He grinned at me and fastened plastic lids onto the bowls for me.
It struck me again: We are all one in spirit, but we are not all the same. Not all Chinese are unkind about difference, any more than all westerners are compassionate toward it. But a genuine smile reaches beyond language and borders and imagined boundaries. And we, in this small corner of a huge country, have someone traveling with us who has the best smile, who opens doors and hearts in ways she can’t begin to know. Are we lucky or what?