Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Things One Might See in China

Yesterday evening Jeri and I went to China. She needed to go to the tailor and pick up her dress for Ben's wedding which will be in Charlotte, NC in May. We decided after the stop at the tailor to go and eat at an Indonesian Restaurant in Shenzhen before heading back to Hong Kong. This would be a maneuver, as it required a change in buses half way there. We rode the first bus, got off and waited for the second. Nearby, on the crowded sidewalk stood a man selling puffed rice and puffed wheat. We had stepped out into the street so that we would not be easy prey to pick pockets which roam the sidewalks at leisure and look for victims that they can filch goodies off of. I was attracted to the puffed grains, however. Memories came back from a farm house kitchen in Iowa, where I would pour cold milk over puffed rice, or sometimes wheat before cresting the meal with sugar. The sugar, heavier than puff or milk, would wait at the bottom of the bowl for me to finish off the cereal and milk before scooping it out with my eager spoon.

The salesman, dirty hands and clothes, had two large bags full of this cereal. By large, I mean the 20 gallon size that one uses for collecting leaves in the autumn. These were clear plastic bags, and the contents beckoned. But I realized that I was not enough of a magician to know how to cleanse either rice or wheat enough to enjoy even the sugar that had passed over it. I would have to just remember the experience and not relive it. I was contemplating a picture to help my memory when 3 thugs came running up and terrorized the poor man who was trying to make a living. The grabbed both bags and took off down the street. He was stunned, and pretty helpless. I had seen it all before on the bus; at a cross walk; in the market; in the train. A bold thief would come and take what he wanted and the crowds would just stand and watch. I remember the day someone said to me, "I just saw someone steal your cell phone when you weren't looking." I took off on a run after the three. Forty gallons of puffed grain might be light, but also bulky. Within a few giant paces, I had grabbed both bags from the surprised thugs. They held on, but so did I. They told me let go. I told them I would not, because the salesman and I were friends. This was not a lie. Even though I did not know him from Ho Chi Min, I did know that he had revived wonderful ancient memories, and I had felt a kinship. They had robbed him of his livelihood, and me of my memories. Another bond between him and myself.

The crowded sidewalks can produce a very large group of onlookers and curiosity seekers in China in the space of about 4 seconds. This was an exception in that the group was extremely large, and it took about 1.5 seconds. A shouting match began. They shouted things to me which I could not understand with my limited comprehension of thug Chinese vocabulary. I shouted a few short sentences at them, owing to my limited functional use of thug Chinese vocabulary. They refused to let go, as I also refused. I wanted to shout for someone to call the police, but I don't know the word for police. Just the sounds of a siren and twirling my hand over my head like the cherry on top of a police car that goes round and round when the siren goes up and down in its decibels. And I couldn't let go of the bags for sign language. Then, almost in in answer to an unspoken request, a police van pulled up. Two policemen jumped out and rushed towards our mob-in-the-making.

My first inkling of something-gone-wrong, was the seeming familiarity between the thugs and the police. They conversed easily back and forth obviously about me. I, having a smattering of police Chinese vocabulary, asked the officer, "are these pick-pockets and thugs?" The answer came very kindly and even with some degree of mirth that indeed they were not, but what are commonly known as plain cloths men. The crowd, which had grown larger by far more than just two, with the arrival of the two policemen, enjoyed with great gusto, the answer of the officer. A happy roar went up from all. The thugs-turned-cops, told their reinforcements that I was a friend of the law-breaking puffed rice-selling peasant. I watched as they turned to my protectee and asked him how it was that we knew one another. Uneducated he may have been, but he was no fool, and realized immediately that his safest recourse was to deny any relationship with myself whatsoever. This he promptly accomplished. I glanced down and realized that the puffed rice and wheat were probably no longer requiring my grip. I released the bags and told the former thugs that they did have an appearance not unlike some pick pockets I had recently seen plying their trade along the street called Dongmun. They nodded proud assent to the facts and began loading the contraband cereal (a real stash of maybe 2 kilos) into the waiting van. I bade them a farewell and went with Jeri back to the bus stop. The crowd, diminished only slightly in number and curiosity, followed to gaze longer upon the vigilante from the west and his blushing bride.

About half-way through our dinner, Jeri whispered across the table to me that she promised to tell this story at my funeral. I hope she can wait.

As we were leaving China, and passed through immigration, the officer studied my photograph in the passport, then stared long at me. "Have I seen you on TV?" Flattered by my movie-star appearance, I assured him that he had not. Then, after a moment's thought said, "Maybe this evening you did. The news perhaps?"


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