Cabbage and Pork and Miao

The Bierocks are fresh from the oven and her words are still fresh on my mind.

A short trip to the market on a rainy morning, hints of fall in the air. Always busy and bustling, the center of our little village is only remarkable to us in the fact that it is now unremarkable. Who would have thought that two transplanted Americans would grow accustomed to buying their meat and fresh produce off the backs of bikes in the dusty street where carts are shifted to make room for cars and one crouches on the ground to sort through piles of potatoes while the traffic moves past.

It was novel for a time, an annoyance for another, and now it just is…

A craving for something new sent us to the market this morning, armed with a blissfully short list. A jin of ground beef and a jin of ground pork; a head of cabbage, and a fresh bag of flour. I bought the flour while Jacob bought the meat. We walked together to the vegetable vendor where we had seen fresh heads of cabbage.

I looked around, and the Vegetable Lady wasn’t to be seen. With produce arranged on her cart so that a sampling of all her offerings could be displayed, I knew she couldn’t have gone far. A glance to her neighboring vendors communicated my question — with a smile and a wave, they pointed down the street to where the vendor must have wandered. Unsure of which woman they were indicating, I walked up to who I thought was the most likely Vegetable Lady and quietly asked if I could buy something from her. She laughed and said it wasn’t her cart.

I looked back quizzically at the friendly face of the Meat Vendor who had motioned down the street. With a smile, she hopped up from her cart and motioned me her way. Each day, the vendors claim the same section of road, spending their days chatting about children and weather between sales. I knew they were probably friends. She took the head of cabbage from Jacob and dropped it on her friend’s scale. With a few adjustments and a quick calculation she announced, “2.7 kuai.” 40 cents. Jacob dug out the correct change and we watched her drop it in her friend’s money box. Then she walked back to her cart and we wandered off for home.

Halfway home, I remembered I’d forgotten to buy more yeast. I’d use up my last packet with the day’s project. We made a quick turnaround and bought the yeast from a friendly vendor who peddles sesame oil, flour, and spices. Someone said hello, eliciting laughter from their friends who good-naturedly teased about practicing English with the laowai (foreigners). With that, we were off. And as we picked up speed on our scooter and headed past the last of the carts towards home, we passed the Meat and Veg table vendors. I turned my head to smile at the Procurer-of-Pork-Who-Happened-to-Sell-Cabbage, and when she caught my eye she shouted, “Hey! Hey!”

We slowed and pulled to the side of the road. She’d already made it back to her friend’s cart, where she was digging in the money box. She pulled out a single kuai. “Give me .3 miao and I’ll give you this one kuai,” she said before I could even get off the scooter. Not ones to worry about a few cents (4 cents, to be exact), we tried to tell her it was no problem. After all, she’d gone out of her way to help us.

But she insisted. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I accidentally overcharged you. I didn’t realize until you had left, but then I saw you again! Please, take the money.” She thrust the crumpled bill into my hand. The Vegetable Lady, who was now back at her cart, nodded with a smile. Not wanting to offend, we complied and made the exchange.

These ladies, who deal in pocket change and small bills, wanted to make it right with the foreigners. It is no secret that we’re often thought to be wealthy by the locals, and to be honest, we are. Sometimes we get charged the “laowai tax,” as we jokingly call it, but it doesn’t happen often and we accept it with understanding (for the most part) when it does.

And so I was struck with her utter honesty. Would I have done the same? Maybe? Maybe not? I might have thought it too difficult to try and communicate with the foreigner for a few miao. I might have thought it easier to let them speed past, and simply chock it up as an accidental oversight that no one would notice and that gave my friend, who certainly needs it more, a few more miao.

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