I’ve been cheated a time or two in my life. I’ve been swindled out of time, money, friendship and love. But fear not my dear reader, for this post is not intended to inventory each time I’ve gotten the short end of the stick. Rather my aim is to recount one specific time I got the short end of the cucumber, the time my heart was broken by the woman I was seeing for over a year—my vegetable lady.
When I got to China, I was amazed by the cheapness of everything. I would often buy two of everything just because it was all so affordable. Thirsty? I’d buy two bottled waters. Hungry? I’d order an extra dish, pick out a few bites, and pack up the rest in a go-box. Veggies? I’d just throw a bunch of everything in a bag and hope I could use it all before they went bad. While I frequented numerous restaurants and other such businesses, I was faithful to my vegetable lady who was located at a small crossroad near my apartment. Across the way was another vegetable vendor and a fruit vendor. For nearly a year, I chose to give my business to the vegetable lady nearest to my apartment, and I went to her religiously, almost every day.
It was with this lady that I first learned my numbers and practiced some of the basics of survival Chinese. When we struggled to communicate, she would just pull out her calculator to communicate with me. She was friendly and always smiled each time I passed, even if I wasn’t going to buy veggies. I was happy. The veggies were good. And even though we couldn’t communicate in any true substance, I felt that there was something special between us. That was until I started learning Chinese.
After about a year in China, language around me started making sense and I could express myself in more than simple one-word sentences and grunts. It was around this time that I went to my veggie lady’s stand to buy stuff for a party I was throwing at my house that evening. She weighed each type of vegetable as I placed them on the table next to her scale. While she was weighing a bunch of cucumbers and I was deciding between purple or white onions for my roux, an older woman that lived next to me inquired (with a face of confusion) as to why the cucumber prices were so high for me. In a very nonchalant manner, without even giving a second thought to whether I understood what was going on, she said, “He doesn’t understand Chinese and he doesn’t know the difference.” My heart sunk deep in my chest. Did I just hear that correctly? Impossible! I was heartbroken, but I pulled myself together quickly when I realized that she had already weighed much of what I needed.
I quickly grabbed a bunch of celery, bell peppers, and green onions, had them weighed, threw some money on the table, and was gone. I needed to make my roux for the gumbo. People were coming in a few hours. I still hadn’t even bought the liquor. There was no time to deal with this.
But chicken-sausage gumbo and a night of heavy drinking was not enough to make me forget about my veggie lady. The next day I walked back to that intersection to get more veggies. I was still a dozen meters away when my veggie lady saw me. She smiled and waved as she often did. I looked through her with a face of irritation as I walked directly toward her stand.
Just as I arrived, I shook my head with a face of disgust, zigged to the right, and went straight to her competition across the way. I had often thought about the old couple across the way. They sold almost the same thing that my veggie lady had, except they had a smaller inventory and were just 25 feet further from my home. Every day they watched me go to their competition. But on this day, I arrived at their stand. The old man welcomed me as I walked under the awning of their stand. Ni weishenme bu qu ta jia?, he asked. (Why don’t you go to her stand?) Ta shige pianzi!, I said with a face bordering on anger and humor. (She is a cheater)
Nothing else was said afterwards. I am convinced that he understood. From that day onwards, until a few months later when I left the university job to study Chinese full-time, the old couple across the way became my new vegetable people, and I think I saved a few kuai a week on vegetables. But to be honest, I was never keeping track because it wasn’t about the money. I don’t think I ever bounced back from that incident. But in the months afterwards as my Chinese went from nearly non-existent to conversational, this incident served as a form of motivation and a game changer in several ways. For example, until this very day:
- I always ask the price per jin of anything I buy. I do this to gauge both the veracity of the vendor and the expressions of nearby people.
- I am one of the most fearsome bargainers at markets to the point that sellers become angry. I once had a lady throw a pair of fake Levi’s at me at the Silk Market in Beijing as she took my 70 kuai for what was 5 minutes previously a 1000 kuai pair of jeans.
- I despise calculator bargaining. Sometimes, even after speaking solid Chinese to sellers, they pull out calculators. When this happens, I usually question their IQ as their neighboring vendors look on in astonishment.
- I am suspicious of any vendor or taxi driver who is excited to see me. I almost always walk to their complacent competition.
- I learned the power of pianzi. While this word shouldn’t be used in excess, when used properly, it is quite powerful.