Wednesday Afternoon With Sophie

I confess, Sophie may be my favorite thing about Guangzhou.  We meet almost every Wednesday and explore the city together.  We have similar temperaments I think, and we enjoy being with each other, even though there is a huge difference in life circumstance.  She practices English, I practice Mandarin.  While she is quite familiar with Guangzhou, I think she enjoys seeing it through my eyes, to see what I’m interested in, what I enjoy, and what I am shocked by.  We both learn from each other.  After passing some derelict beggars one day, I asked Sophie what was her reaction to them, was she touched or impressed, did she ever give money to them?  Many Chinese believe that almost every beggar, even the ones who are horribly maimed, are "fake."  There are, indeed, cases of fake beggars, even peasants who have paid people to maim them so that they can beg in a city rather than farm in a land where poverty level is below $80 U.S. per year.  But Sophie did not dismiss all beggars into that category of denial.  Instead, she replied with a story.  "I walk across this bridge every day, twice per day.  If I give money to one beggar, there will still be another one, and another one, and another one.  I would have no way to distinguish, I would give away all that I have and have nothing left."  Sophie’s story helped me to accept my own limitations in changing the world, as well.  Her reasoning helps me as I pass by the beggars, as I must.  I consciously remind myself that I alone cannot cure the world’s suffering.  For in China, there is truly always one more. 
Just the other night, at about 8:00 PM, David and I left a Chinese restaurant carrying our take out bag.  We do this often, when our children don’t have time to go out but they ask us to bring them home some supper.  A small beggar child targeted us and followed us.  He was very persistent, following us for more than a block.  We are told that children are kidnapped by organized crime rings for the purpose of using them as beggars.  They are trained very early and become adept at begging and pickpocketing.   But this child was well taken care of.   I noticed that he had on nice shoes and was warmly dressed.  When he gave up on money, after an interminable period of time, he started begging for our children’s supper that we were carrying in the takeout bags.  Finally our compassion got the best of us.  If he is hungry, he can have the food.  Our children had stuff at home to make sandwiches, so we gave him the takeout bag.  But then fifty feet further was a real case.  A homeless woman sitting on a blanket with a blank stare, suckling a child from an empty breast.  Immediately I regretted giving food to the child.  This woman was the person who needed the food, and I had none left to give.   But, I digress. 
I won’t divulge details, but Sophie’s job in real life is not a high profile, high powered profession.  She and her husband both work hard to supply daily needs, and she is keenly aware that she might always struggle to retain middle class status.  Yet, in spite of the economic chasm between us — me being a relatively "rich" expat wife —  we are good friends.  While Sophie feels limited by her high school education, I am in awe of a woman who has taught herself English, who can bridge across the cultural gap to relate in a western way with me even when it is slightly uncomfortable for her, and who displays so much intelligence and initiative in her every day life.  Through our friendship, candid conversation, and mutual respect, we both gain insight into the other’s world view and culture. 
This Wednesday, Sophie’s niece was visiting from another village.  This village is near the airport, so for me it would be about a 45 minute drive in the car.  For her niece, coming to visit her aunt involves a two hour trek each way by bus, subway, and again by bus.  Children here have three weeks off for the Chinese New Year, so Sophie’s niece is able to visit for several days at a time.  Sophie’s son has gone to visit his grandmother.  In fact, New Year is a time dedicated for the most part to quiet celebration and enjoyment of family.  When I called Sophie to see if she were free, she was already at LiWan Plaza shopping with her niece, a favorite pedestrian shopping street in the older part of the city.  I said I would join them there, so I hopped on a bus. 
The pictures begin after I get off the bus, with my walk to Li Wan Plaza, some pictures of "Up Down Nine Street," which is closed to cars and decorated with red lanterns.  If you think it looks crowded, it is!  To experience China is, I think, to experience population density unlike anything I had ever seen before.  SES gets so claustrophobic that she would not have enjoyed this trip! 
J needed a traditional Chinese outfit for her school’s new year celebration.  I was trying to get a shot of the tiny cubby hole where I purchased the outfit, but instead I got a shot of the petite lady who sold it to me (a very typical size person indeed)!  Another shot is the guy who sold me some cute boxers, 4 pr for 35 RMB (a bit more than $1 U.S. per pair).  He started off asking 40 RMB, I knew I should haggle him down but I started thinking about his need to make a livelihood too.  (Okay softie Yank!)  One photo of shoppers at a bin of clothing lets you know the market economy is alive and well! 
Yes, I was in the middle of an intersection when I took the shot looking down the middle of a street!  Just past here, in the next block, there were several stands selling street snacks.  At one stall, the line was so long to get the snack that we decided it must be really good.  And, it appeared safe.  The food was cooked right in front of us and (the ones we ate) did not sit around and get cold.  Sophie paid three RMB for a little plate of six of these dumplings.  But the first set was all spoken for!  We had to wait for the second set to be cooked!  Lucky me, during the wait I took a picture of the cooking process.  Then a picture of the final product! 
Next, there’s a picture of a street market selling tangerine trees for New Years.  After we crossed through there, we cut through some ancient streets much too narrow for cars.  These are quiet enclaves where only locals go, I keep peering in these alleys looking for the gem of old Canton.  This city is almost as old as Rome!  Suddenly, we were at a famous street that I haven’t learned the Chinese name for, but it is popular with teenagers. 
Wow!  They were all out of school for vacation and every single one of them must have come to this street today!  At one point, it was so crowded it was like a river where you couldn’t do anything but walk slowly along with the flow.  I saw a small shop and made my way across the flow of the human stream to it, only to find it was not just one shop but a whole enclosed alley filled with individual vendors.  I found myself swept along with the stream that was entering the alley.  Individual vendors were selling scarves, sweaters, pet supplies, jewelry, hats, watches.  The only way to stop and look at something was to step into the tiny, perhaps two square feet, of free space each vendor had alloted for "shoppers" in her stall.  The alley itself was only about four feet wide, the overhead was enclosed with roofing, and I began to think about what would happen if there were a fire.  I suddenly felt very claustrophobic.  Sophie was already feeling that way.  After sampling the alley for about 40 feet, the three of us agreed to leave.  To keep from getting separated, we walked arm in arm or touching.  In crowds like this we are most vulnerable to pickpockets and thieves.  I kept one hand on my fanny pack most of the time, and I kept my camera put away. 
We got back to the street that was just shoulder to shoulder (rather than crammed like sardines) and then took an exit through another back alley through another quiet block of residences.  As quaint as these old places might be, Sophie told me the people don’t like them because they seem dirty and old.  Thinking about it, and peering inside one, I think I agree.  They seem vulnerable to vermin, difficult to heat or cool.  Inside one open door I could see a bed and a TV with not much room in the dwelling for anything else.  I once toured the old prison called CCI (Central Correctional Institute) in old Columbia, before it was torn down.  The room was the same size and vintage of one of the prison cells I had seen in that pre-USA civil war era building.   It’s one thing to live in an old place if you have resources and ability to fix it up, something entirely different if you don’t.  I took a picture of one doorway along the alley.  Nothing special.  Some people make a hobby of taking pictures of doors.  These were the first ones I’ve seen that began to feel as if they had some character, some hint of mystery about the owners from generations past who had dwelt behind them.  I felt it would be too intrusive to take photos of some of the dwellings where people were sitting inside or on the porch. 
Anyway, when we stepped out from the shaded alley back into the sunlight we were on Yi De Lu, right at the section of thee street where there is a wholesale market for stationary.  Sophie knew I needed some red envelopes to use for giving lucky money to children of friends, maybe she orchestrated our location on purpose.  She helped me find some quickly.  3 RMB for a pack of six; I bought four packs.  Then we headed south toward the river. 
On the way to the river, we passed a shop selling a specialty that Sophie tells me you can only find in Guangzhou.  Something like crepe batter (except with no eggs) is made with rice flour, then some meat and veggie is spread on, the thing is wrapped up like a crepe and steamed.  The resulting gooey dumpling is then covered with a sauce similar to soy sauce.  I think I saw some sauce being made in a wok, with soy and onion and garlic.  We also put some red pepper sauce on that’s not too spicy.  Sophie paid 2 RMB apiece for two of these as well as 2 RMB each for a cup of congee (rice porridge with meat and vegetables) for each of us.  While she did this, I went next door and got some bottles of cold Jasmine tea. 
Then we ended up right down at the Pearl River, right beside my very own bus stop to get back to my apartment!  The last photo is of my quiet, low density street.  An oasis of calm and peacefulness after a most fun and interesting day. 

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