Chinese Puzzle Box

Explorations in and about China

Fox Spirit 4: Nose Products


Sara looked about her. The space was simple – a living room with a kitchen along one wall: a sink, a two burner stove, and a small refrigerator. A door led to a second small room with a bed, another open door revealed a tiny bathroom with a shower stall.          

  “Excuse that the room is so bare,” said Silver Wing. “I thought you would like your own things for decoration. She stole a glance at her husband, then continued. “I have made a small meal for you – so embarrassing, nothing very good. Tomorrow after you have slept we can shop, if you would like.”

            “Wo ganxie ni. I would like that very much. But, Jerry, shouldn’t I go into the office?’

            “Not necessary. Tomorrow is your first day in Beijing. You should rest from your long travel, get used to the time change, find out where to shop, meet neighbors. The next day we’ll welcome you to the office.”

            Silver Wing was showing Sara how to use the cook top, mini-oven, and sink when she noticed Sara leaning against the kitchen counter, her head bobbing with exhaustion. Silver Wing exclaimed, “How foolish I am!  You must be hoping for your bed. We will leave now, and I will come tomorrow at eight thirty to introduce you. Do you have an alarm clock?  Sorry, we could not so quickly get a phone for you.”

            Sara pulled her travel clock from her duffel, conferred with Silver Wing to make sure it was properly set, and bowed the Wangs out the door. She wondered fuzzily about what or who she was to be introduced to the next day as she stripped to her underwear and crawled between the sheets. For a few moments she lay awake on the hard mattress, listening to the whirr of the refrigerator and air conditioner, the sounds of the street. The dial of the clock glowed – 10PM in Beijing. It would be 7AM on Monday in Santa Flora. Mark would be drinking coffee, getting ready for work. Rennie would be feeding little Richie, getting him ready for daycare. A longing to hear her son’s voice swept over her. He had been such a strength for her while John was ill, so stalwart at the inquest, so protective at the funeral, so good at keeping away the curious, the press. For almost a year he had been with her almost every day, in daily touch by phone longer than that. And then the quarrel with Rennie.  Rennie had been so odd about the inquest, asking questions about why Sara had not called 911 when John’s breathing slowed and stopped, why the pills went uneaten. She should have listened, not lost her temper. Just like with Dr. Reiver.  She should have been more tactful.  So stupid to quarrel with her only son’s wife.  She would call Mark tomorrow. No phone in this place. Maybe after her “introduction” tomorrow. Sara pulled the thin blanket closer, and then she was asleep.

            Sara woke jet-lagged, fought past a mild headache, and looked around at her new surroundings. The two-room space was as empty of personality as a cheap hotel room. The linoleum floor of both rooms was yellowed and worn, streaked with red and charcoal in a pattern designed to hide dust or dirt. A faint odor of fresh paint came from the gray walls. The sturdy wooden furniture looked as though it had been through several previous tenants and was expected to last through several more. Skimpy curtains backed with opaque gray plastic blocked the light at each window. The air conditioner whirred valiantly but still the air felt heavy – almost gritty.

            Sara pulled a curtain aside. Dust in the air hazed her view of the interior courtyard. The thin shrubs were also coated with dust, showing only a faint green. There was no sign of life in any other window, but she could hear sounds of traffic. The city was awake beyond the wall.

At 8:30 when Silver Wing knocked at Sara’s door, the August heat was already building in the courtyard. At the compound entrance the security guard in his kiosk pulled to full attention at the sight of a foreigner and gave Sara a formal greeting in English. The ice melted into a genial grin when Sara answered him in equally careful Mandarin.

            “Excuse us, Guard Fu,” Silver Wing interrupted. “We must do our shopping before the heat is too strong.” Sara managed only a quick “Zai jian – see you later” to the guard before she found herself swept into the bustling street market outside the university gates.

            A row of small shops, each with its awning of colorful tarpaulin, displayed the day’s produce on wooden stands in front of each shop door. Meat and vegetable stands alternated with food stalls. Fresh fruit and vegetables shared space with live fish wriggling in basins of murky water and newly plucked chickens hanging by their necks. Sizzling woks offered rows of newly fried filets of unknown origin. The odors of hot fat and spices mingled with the stench of yesterday’s decayed meat, rotting vegetables, and the fumes of passing autos. A crowd of shoppers was already prodding the fruit, hefting the fish, or haggling in rapid-fire exchanges with the vendors.

            “This market is very good,” Silver Wing assured Sara. “Vegetables are fresh, fish are still alive and healthy in water. You must always shop early to get the freshest, healthiest fish.” Sara nodded and followed behind Silver Wing, very aware of the stares and comments of both customers and vendors at the unexpected vision of a tall red-haired foreigner among the usual sights of the market.

            Silver Wing had brought a small folding shopping cart and Sara immediately purchased another for herself. Soon both were overflowing. Two hours later Sara’s shoulder had begun to feel the unaccustomed strain of dragging the cart, and her feet ached from walking on cobblestones from stall to stall. Her brain throbbed from her jet lag. Her clothing was sticking to her skin. She felt grit in her eyes and between her teeth. Sara was trying to remember how to ask for a rest when Silver Wing anticipated her.

            “So, shall we now stop and eat something? Maybe some soup?” Sara nodded with relief. They settled onto two stools in one of the food stalls and waved to the server. Two bowls of steaming noodles materialized quickly, along with a pot of tea and two small handle-less cups.

            “It’s always good to drink hot soup and tea on a warm day,” said Silver Wing comfortably. “It opens your skin and makes you cooler.”  Sara put aside her yearning for a glass of ice water and sipped the tea. It was, in fact, very refreshing. She looked around her. The small open-air tea shop was an oasis of calm in the noisy market. Each table was surrounded by two or three or four customers, mostly women,  seated on sturdy wooden stools and bent forward over their noodle bowls. The floor of the shop was the same cobblestone pavement as the street, only slightly less dusty. Ribbons of paper covered with Chinese characters fluttered from the posts and awning.  Sara guessed that these announced the specials of the day. She cradled the small cup of tea between her hands and realized that she should be making conversation with her hostess.

            “Thank you, Silver Wing, for taking this time. You are missing work so you can spend the day with me?”

            “Mei guanxi. No problem. I have no job, so my husband asked me to help you specially.  He tells me you have no family, no home, and you must come to China to work. We will try to make this a happy time again for you. ”

            “I’m not so badly off as all that.”  Sara felt the sting of Silver Wing’s pity. “I have family. My brother lives in California, in Pasadena. And my son and his wife also live near Los Angeles.”  She remembered her longing to hear Mark’s voice. “And, excuse me, I need to call -”

            Silver Wing’s eyes widened in surprise. “You have a brother? You have a son? And still you come to China?” 

            “My brother is not in charge of me.” Sara replied, bristling at the thought. “And my son and his wife are busy with their own life and their new baby – they don’t need me. But I do need to let them know…”

            Now Silver Wing looked even more shocked. “Your son has a baby? He has not kept you in his home to take care of his child?  Even if the baby is a girl…”

            “It’s not,” Sara said. “It’s a boy – my grandson Richie.”

            “You leave your grandson?”  Silver Wing stopped speaking, as if the enormity was too much for her.

            Little Richie. Sara’s voice was thick as she replied “My daughter-in-law had her own ideas. She didn’t want my advice.”  The thought of phoning Mark at home had lost its appeal.

            “So different,” said Silver Wing “In China a son must take care of his mother and grandmother, or there would be a great loss of face for the family. Three, four, even five generations under one roof – this is our good-luck wish for a family. It seems very strange that you have a son and grandson, and yet no home.”

            Sara flinched.  What’s that Robert Frost poem? “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” She’s right. I have no home.

            She tried to respond without irony. “American traditions are different. Our Bible says ‘A man shall leave his family and cleave only to his wife’. I can see the Chinese way is good, if Grandma is there to take care of the child.  Only after the mother and father come home from work they would want Grandma to disappear, I think.”

            Silver Wing answered as if she has not noticed the sarcasm in Sara’s closing words. “Yes, the Chinese way is good. But Wang’s family lives outside Beijing, very far from our house. We would see our child only on the weekend. And if the child lives outside the city, he cannot attend a good school in Beijing.” She paused a moment. “Now I have no job, no child, so no problem.”

            There was an awkward pause. Sara suddenly realized that she was being stared at. The other customers in the tea shop were making no attempt to hide their interest in the red-haired foreign woman in their midst. She tried to ignore them, sip her tea, and drink her hot soup. The hot spicy liquid made her nose run; without thinking she pulled a tissue from her purse, blew her nose, and replaced the tissue. There was a murmur from the observers, they were pointing, grimacing.

            “Silver Wing, what are they saying?  Did I do something wrong?”

            Silver Wing giggled nervously. “No problem. They are not accustomed to Western ways. In China we do not treasure our nose products like you do. It seems strange to them.”

            “Treasure our nose products?” asked Sara blankly.

            “Yes. In China we do not clear nose in public. We think this is not clean. Instead we try to get nose products into the mouth, then spit them out. But you Westerners blow your nose products into special cloth or paper, wrap them up carefully, put them in your pocket or your purse. I always wonder – what do you do with them later?”  She waited, head tilted like an curious bird, for Sara’s answer.

            Sara looked around at the attentive strangers and the hated flush of embarrassment rush to her cheeks. Her voice rose plaintively. “What should I do when I drink hot soup and my nose drips?  I don’t know how to spit. In America only men spit.”

            Silver Wing broke into a laugh which held a note of relief. “I was afraid you would know so much more than me. Now I must teach you to spit!”   For a horrified moment Sara thought that she was about to be given spitting lessons on the spot. She kept her eyes down, and took a last swallow of soup, ignoring the watchers.

            Silver Wing filled Sara’s empty teacup and tried to make her voice more serious. “May I ask, why did you come to China?” 

            Sara kept her head down, fighting to control the ripple of hysteria. But she could not keep her voice from shaking. “I wanted to go where no one knew me. I thought in China I would be invisible, that I could disappear.” Sara took a furtive glance sideways at the attentive crowd in the teahouse and started to giggle helplessly. “Maybe I thought wrong.”


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