Sunday, July 11, 2010

Three Shops/Twin Peaks

Every now and again, god or Yahweh or whoever decides to give up the reigns, and invites David Lynch to guest direct a scene or two of my life.

There are three shops in my neighborhood, all on the same street. The street is lined with garages on both sides, and the garages that aren't already occupied by Volkswagen Santanas have been rented out to shopkeepers. There are three shops. They sell the exact same stuff - smokes and booze, Sprite and Coca-Cola, yogurt and ramen noodles - and they sell that stuff for the exact same government-mandated prices. One bottle of Yanjing: three kuai. One tube of yogurt: two kuai, five mao. One pack of Hongtashans: seven kuai, five mao. These prices are Chinese universals. I know them by heart. The prices don't change from place to place, do not rise or fall with plenitude or scarcity. A bottle of Yanjing is three kuai, is three kuai, is three kuai. Here, everyone knows the going rate for everything. In China, it is not prices, but guanxi that matters. If you have guanxi, the prices drop. If you don't, they don't. As a foreigner, the guanxi system doesn't really apply to me, which suits me just fine, as I enjoy my three shops, and their shopkeepers, equally.

The First Shop is owned by a young couple. The wife is a beautiful and astonishingly curvy woman with wide brown eyes that must be the envy of Nanchong. Her daughter is the single cutest child in all of China - and Chinese children are, well, cute. Every so often, one of the owner's cousins drops in to run the shop. She, too, is astonishingly curvy, with wide brown eyes. "Good genes" are the words that come to mind when I swing by the First Shop to purchase my nightly bottle of yogurt. The husband doesn't seem to like me none too much, but whenever I buy three bottles of Yanjing on a Saturday night, he launches into a seemingly improvised tune that goes San piiing/Yanjiiing.

The Third Shop is owned by another young couple. The wife is cute, but a bit rough around the edges. Tough. No-nonsense. "Sturdy" is the word that comes to mind when I swing by for my morning pack of Shuangxis. She keeps the money in a black fanny pack strapped to her left hip. Her husband likes me quite a bit. Once, he let me use his phone to track down a lost care package. So I owe him some guanxi and try to patronize the Third Shop whenever I can. But the First Shop, with its wide-eyed females, beckons.

The Second Shop is owned by an impossibly old man and his impossibly old wife. The man owns an impossibly old bicycle with an impossibly old trailer hitched to the back. On the rare occasion that I wake up before noon, I often run into the old man pedaling his bike uphill with a trailer full of recyclables. I smile and wave. He smiles and waves. I tingle all over. Sometimes, I find him rummaging through the garbage for spare bottles and cans. He smiles and waves. I smile and wave. And I tingle all over. These kinds of interactions, free of nuance, free of judgment, are hard to come by in Nanchong, and I am eternally grateful for them. So I try to patronize the Second Shop whenever I can. But I owe the Third Shop a couple of favors, and the First Shop, with its wide-eyed females, beckons. In the end, the three shops wind up getting an even 33.3 percent cut of my Peace Corps stipend.

Tonight I walked past the First Shop because the owners were hosting some sort of family reunion, and I was intimidated by all the buxom, wide-eyed females in attendance. I had already bought several bottles of faux-Gatorade from the Third Shop after my morning run, so I decided to stop by the Second Shop. The impossibly old man was waiting for me there, shirtless, smoking, and loading recyclables into his impossibly old trailer.

"Do you have Shancheng?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"Three bottles, please."
"Yes," he said.

While he fetched the beers from the meat freezer, I looked around the shop. Cardboard boxes piled high with stunted potatoes. Stacks of yellowed newspaper. Garbage bags full of plastic bottles. And there on the counter, a copy of Great Expectations, in English, splayed open to page 468.

"Is this yours?" I asked in Chinese.
"Yes," he said.
"Are you reading it?" I asked.
"Do you speak English?"
"Can you understand the book?"

I blinked furiously and scratched my head.

"This is one of my favorite books," I said. "Most of my English students couldn't even read it."
"Yes," said the impossibly old man.
"I didn't know you could speak English."
"Yes," he said.
"Can you speak English?"

The impossibly old man loaded the beers into my backpack. I stood there watching him. Could this impossibly old man really be reading Charles Dickens in the original English, or was he just saying yes to everything for the sake of getting me out of his garage as soon as possible? I began to suspect, and not for the first time, that David Lynch was pulling the strings. And that was when I came across the cigarettes on the counter: a pack of Newport Menthol 100s.

"My God," I said, "these are American cigarettes!"
"Yes," he said.
"You can't get these in China," I said. "American pimps smoke these. Where did you buy them?"
He said nothing, but gave me one.
"Thanks," I said, "but where did you get the Newports?"
He laughed and lit one for himself. Then he shut the garage door, hopped on his bike, and with a wave, pedaled off into the night.

I walked home. The setting sun spewed a radioactive smear across the horizon. I lit my Newport and, for the first time in over a year, achieved a legitimate nicotine buzz. I had been planning on writing about something else tonight - hence the beers - but I have long since come to accept the fact that I am not the author of this story.


alison said...

50 mao? 5 mao?

Keith Petit said...

Good eye, pardner!

How did I miss that? Five mao is all I have left to my name!

ELP said...

Might be my favorite one you have written in awhile... might be because I am back in the States for about 24 hours now and just sit around thinking about things like this and am in complete astonishment that they aren't just outside my door anymore. *sigh....

ELP said...

Oops, on my mom's computer... this is Caitlin... tall girl with glasses... we met at IST... maybe you remember... I believe we were in China at the time.